Britain and Me: readers respond
Here is a selection of your responses reflecting on your relationship with Britain as part of the ‘Irish Times’ series Neighbours.
Irish in Britain: the subtle message is that you’re allowed to like it, but not too much; you can’t be getting notions about things being better across the Irish Sea. Illustration: Mark Harwood/Getty/ITPM
Honorary Londoner: Maeve Wallace, who’s a clinical psychologist in the NHS
The ‘800 years of oppression’ thing is hard to shake
I emigrated from Dublin in 2010. I work as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and live with my boyfriend and cat in south London. I’ve lived in this pseudo city state, with a population almost twice Ireland’s, for six years. As a self-appointed honorary Londoner I feel pride – a slightly confused pride, but pride all the same. Pride because London is a one-of-a-kind, fascinating city that gets so many things right, and I get to live here.
Like so many Irish in Britain I work for the incomparable National Health Service and have had some of the most diverse and rewarding experiences across a huge range of communities and services, many of which had I not come to London I would likely never have encountered.
The “confused” bit? It turns out the whole “800 years of oppression” thing is quite difficult to shake, at least for me. The subtle message from those at home, and from the voice in my head: you’re allowed to like it, but not too much; you can’t come home sounding like a West Brit or getting notions about things being better across the Irish Sea. You should probably feel some vague eternal shame about taking the queen’s pound – and you should, naturally, support anyone but England in all sporting matters.
Living here, happily, and in a relationship with a Sasanach to boot, has caused me to question these seemingly in-built anti-English sentiments. To reflect on my horror at well-meaning suggestions, post-Brexit, that I obtain British citizenship; on my struggle to cheer for Team GB at the Olympics, despite my adopted home having given me so much.
As much as things have moved on, our difficult history with our nearest (and only) neighbours is far from ancient and, unsurprisingly, looms far larger in our collective consciousness than it does in theirs.
Yes, Britain has its own complicated history, involving vastly more players and international action than our own. I never expected, moving here, that we would feature in their history books the way that they dominate ours.
Still, I’ve been surprised at just how many people I’ve spoken to over the years who have been unaware of the basic fact of Ireland being an independent country at all. In the wake of Brexit, colleagues said things like, “You’ll obviously be fine living here. Ireland doesn’t count as another country, does it?”
I recognise the awful irony in objecting from my position of privilege that the locals don’t think of me as more foreign. Although the assumed sameness doesn’t bother me the way it used to, it has caused me to reflect on the importance of my “Irishness” in my own sense of identity, in a way that I guess I never would have done had I stayed in Dublin.
I feel huge warmth and gratitude towards London. Home it is not, but for somewhere an hour’s flight from home there’s nowhere like it.
I’m ashamed that Éamon de Valera refused to fight
Britain is . . . a sodden day in St Anne’s Park in Dublin, playing over-35s soccer and being pummelled by an irate, out-of-control Dub.
Britain is . . . listening to the polished, urbane accents of BBC Radio Ulster or BBC Radio 5 Live in my Ulster mum’s Oughterard kitchen. It is also decades of debate over several kitchen tables about Ulster politics, sectarian murders, Humphreys or O’Gara, her utter detestation of violence, Norn Iron.
Britain is . . . bringing my seven-year-old son, Matt, to Loftus Road, in west London, to see my Queens Park Rangers entertain his beloved Everton.
Britain is . . . some wonderful memories from my master’s degree in war studies at King’s College London.
Finally, Britain is . . . my annual debate with third and fifth years at Chanel College, in Coolock, where I teach both the history of June 1940 and how Britain stood alone in Europe against the Nazis. I have visited Auschwitz and sites in Europe such as the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, whose inhabitants the Nazis massacred in 1944, and I am always ashamed that Éamon de Valera’s government refused to stand and fight alongside our neighbours.
Most of my pupils always shout me down with ‘What could we have done?’ or ‘We would have got battered!’ They’re probably right, but I always wonder about the thousands of idealistic Irishmen who fought on D-Day or at Arnhem bridge or in El Alamein with their British neighbours. What did they think?
Britain and I have travelled a long, bumpy road, but there’s more road to be travelled.
What’s your favourite soccer team?
As an exercise, here are some questions for the fictional average Irish person and my estimates of the most likely answers.
What is your favourite television comedy? Only Fools and Horses.
What is your favourite soccer team? Manchester United.
What is your favourite discount supermarket? Tesco.
What is your favourite upmarket grocer? Marks & Spencer.
What is your favourite pharmacy? Boots.
What is your favourite clothes store? Topshop.
What is your favourite group? Mumford & Sons.
What is your favourite brand of detergent? Ariel.
What is your favourite brand of chocolate? Cadbury.
Where do you buy your DIY essentials? B&Q.
What is your favourite vacuum cleaner? A Dyson.
What washing-up liquid do you use? Fairy.
Where do you buy your electronics? Currys PC World.
What insurance company do you use? Aviva.
What mobile-phone network are you with? Vodafone.
Which TV service do you subscribe to? Sky.
I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface.
My Belfast does not look to the ‘mainland’
I’m not sure whether your columnist Newton Emerson was trying to be controversial when he paraphrased “Maggie” Thatcher, but he was just as wide of the mark as she was in her assessment that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”.
I grew up in west Belfast in the 1950s and lived there until the late 1970s. My experience is totally different from Emerson’s. We were the generation who finally rejected the partitionist statelet; we felt the full terror of British army storm troopers kicking in doors, murdering innocent women and kids, no-jury courts, state collusion and death squads, Long Kesh and hunger strikes. We didn’t need anyone to tell us that it wasn’t our army or state; we fully understood and rejected the failed partitionist basket-case entity – and we definitely weren’t British.
Within our community our Irish identity prevails: Casement Park and Gaelic games; the flag of the Irish Republic flying proudly on Andersonstown Road; Irish-language classes and Gaelscoileanna in every area; schools where Irish, not British, history is taught.
While Emerson looks to “the mainland” (whatever that is) we always looked to Dublin, the capital of Ireland. So the experience of a 15-year-old nationalist in 1970s Belfast was entirely different from the experience of Newton Emerson, post-conflict, around the trendy bars on Lisburn Road.
Belfast is an Irish city, with a nationalist-republican majority, that has been dragged kicking and screaming from a sectarian wasteland into a trendy modern city of equals, still divided but definitely not looking to the “mainland”. Maybe it has looked more to Europe than Dublin in the modern era, but it was never “as British as Finchley”.
I described myself as an Irish Briton
I regularly get dismissed as a West Brit for pointing out all the shared culture and blood ties between Britain and Ireland. I lived in Britain for more than six years and never felt like a foreigner.
I worked in the public sector there and wrote a blog. A British journalist, quoting an article I had written, once described me as a British social commentator. That might irk most Irish people, but I didn’t feel it negated my Irishness in any way. I saw nothing incongruous about describing myself as an Irish Briton when I lived there.
My mother is a nationalist from Northern Ireland, and I don’t think she was too thrilled when I told her that I’m going to use her Northern Irish status to apply for a UK passport, to have along with my Irish one. In the aftermath of Brexit there is a lot of uncertainty about how the common travel area in these islands will be affected, and I don’t want to be shut off from any opportunities that may arise in Britain.
My grandmother said not to marry an Englishman
When I was a child I learned from my grandmother that the Protestant heathens who lived next door had plundered and tortured us, ruined our language and culture and divided our country.
My grandmother’s hatred of the British didn’t extend beyond politics. A few months after the death of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer and my grandmother and I watched the fairy-tale wedding on television. She might have hated the British, but she loved their royalty. I was confused by this dichotomy but came to accept it.
In 1981 my father attached a BBC aerial to our chimney. I am not quite sure why my father, who had absorbed his mother’s political views, allowed British propaganda into his living room, but I became a willing disciple of British propaganda as I watched Blue Peter, Jackanory and, later, Grange Hill and Top of the Pops.
The 1980s and early 1990s were grim in Ireland, and I spent my summers in Germany and France and my Erasmus university-exchange year in Hanover.
My grandmother wrote to me every week. A year later I was going to a job interview in Newbury, to the west of London, and needed to take a train from Paddington. Here I encountered anti-Irish feeling for the first time.
When I asked a woman if I was on the right platform she looked at me with absolute hatred and told me that I and the “rest of my terrorist friends could f**k right off back to the Irish bogs we belonged in”. (It was a week after the Manchester bombing in 1996.) I got the job and found that most people were nice, but I continued to encounter occasional casual racism in Britain.
A few months after the Belfast Agreement was signed, in 1998, a horrific bomb shook Omagh. I was at Stansted Airport, on my way home to visit my grandmother in hospital, when I heard the news. She recovered from the stroke and told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to marry an Englishman. She would prefer if I married a black man than an Englishman. (The idea that a man could be both black and English didn’t occur to her.)
Contrary to her wishes I married an Englishman in 2003. He, despite having no Irish connections, wanted us to move to my native country. My grandmother couldn’t help loving him and told him how happy she was that Charles finally got to marry Camilla.
When we first moved back I thought I’d feel totally at home, but I had underestimated how anglicised I’d become. I missed the BBC, the Guardian and Brighton, where I had lived most recently. So much had changed in Ireland in the Celtic Tiger years. It took me a year to settle in.
Ten years on our Anglo-Irish life is enriched by the presence of the two cultures. Our children are Anglo-Irish. They have visited Kilmainham Gaol and Buckingham Palace. They support Mayo and Manchester United. I feel totally at home at last and love life in the west of Ireland. I even read The Irish Times as regularly as I read the Guardian.
It’s still not home. I miss Dublin, friends and family
I left Dublin after graduating from university; I had no job lined up, had never paid rent and needed Google Maps to navigate anywhere beyond a five-mile radius of my home. In the four years I have been here London has afforded me a great job, a good whack of maturity (granted, from a low base) and a partner from halfway across the world.
I have commiserated with colleagues who have seen a general election followed by a referendum take their country in a direction that they can’t stomach. I’ve become politically active, joining the Green Party and marching on Westminster for action on climate change. I know what a Scotch egg is enough to know not to order it, and I rarely get lost any more.
It’s still not home. I miss Dublin Bay, friends and family, and the happy coincidence of bumping into people. I always stop to give money to homeless people on the streets with Irish accents and have my Christmas flights booked well in advance. I’m never going to love the royals or think slapstick is funny.
It’s still not my country, and I may not even stay here all that much longer, but for now, and for the past four years, London has made for a wonderful home.
Beating England at Twickenham remains a delight
As a 23-year-old student from Cork I have the kind of relationship with Britain that 20 years ago was rare but for my generation is ubiquitous: an open relationship, voluntarily engaged in, whereby British influences in my life can be assimilated by preference.
Channel 4 and the BBC are available and discardable at the brandishing of a remote control, and I can become a Leicester City supporter from February until May. The items of British largesse that have had a more meaningful and lasting effect on my life – PG Wodehouse, George Orwell and Philip Larkin – constitute a kind of niche interest.
Like two quarrelling brothers who grow up to find that they enjoy each other’s company after all, this new arrangement of freer association has probably been integral to the decline of Anglophobia in Ireland.
I don’t know exactly how common different versions of my own mild Anglophilia are, but mine is a product of an ongoing aspect of Irish society: overcoming what Sigmund Freud called the narcissism of minor differences, whereby adjacent communities downplay similarities and emphasise divergences. This development can be expected to outlast the recent termination of what brought it about: the absorption of disparate British and Irish interests into the EU and their resultant neutralisation.
In the meantime beating England at Twickenham remains a peculiar delight.
Baltimore, Co Cork
Britain is our big stepbrother
Over the years I have experienced extremes in my dealing with British people. In the early 1990s, while travelling home from a financially unsuccessful summer working in Germany, a friend and I, miserable and starving, were waiting for our final bus on the last leg of our journey home when we were treated to fish and chips by a British man who recognised how hungry we were. No questions asked, and “Safe home, lads”.
Ten years later my wife and I were on our honeymoon and had the misfortune to be exposed to the most ignorant Irish-targeted racism from a British man whom we happened to be sharing a meal with.
Britain has probably been invaded more times than Ireland, and it has definitely been peacefully invaded by the Irish for centuries. It is our big stepbrother, and it has plenty of big stepbrothers itself. Without it our obsession would just change to another culturally larger country.
Ennis, Co Clare
We are entering uncharted territory
In the blazing hot summer of 1975, aged 19, I had a job in the offices of Blackwell’s, the Oxford bookshop. Every day I cycled down Abingdon Road from my brother’s home to a job made in heaven. I also had a ready-made group of friends, all British.
For me that was the summer of Jude the Obscure, Cider with Rosie and Brideshead Revisited. It was the summer of peering through the gates of colleges that were out of my grasp; punting and falling into the river; drinking in low-ceilinged pubs with gardens backing on to the water; travelling to local fairs and flower shows. I knew that Britain was much more than this privileged world, but it was the beginning of my lifelong affinity with this island while never feeling anything but Irish.
Since then I have returned often, most recently two years ago, when I shared a basement flat in Blackheath, in southeast London, with my husband, who along with many others found work in Britain during the latest crash.
History aside, it is good to have a neighbour who is sufficiently different to be interesting and sufficiently similar to share a language and a love of both sport and culture. I hope it was special for the Irish diaspora in Britain, who were not always made so welcome, to see our President being accorded the respect that is due to that office, to see new connections being forged that celebrate what we share and respect our separate identity. It was a pleasure for many to welcome Queen Elizabeth to Ireland, neighbours doing the neighbourly thing.
We are entering uncharted territory. Let us hope that our relationship with Britain is not put under too much strain as our neighbour disentangles from the EU and deals with the possible breakup of the Union.
It is regrettable that at a time of economic uncertainty, of politics veering ominously to the right, of mass migration and of the threat of terrorism our nearest neighbour considers going it alone to be the best policy. Let us hope that sporting challenges, cultural exchanges and simple day-to-day dialogue will allow our new understanding and friendship to flourish.
Thanks to everybody who shared their thoughts or feelings on this subject. Read all the articles in the series at irishtimes.com/culture/neighbours