I'm Christian, I'm Irish and I'm proud
Television presenter Terry Christian is the face of a campaign to get people of Irish background in Britain to declare their ethnicity in the UK’s upcoming census, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor
TERRY CHRISTIAN is sitting in an office in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, talking about being Irish. It may not be the likeliest of settings for the life-long Manchester United fan and television and radio presenter, but Christian is here to promote the How Irish Are You? campaign.
Christian grew up under the shadow of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, but the other influences in life – from the schools he attended to clubs and religion – were Irish.
“Basically, Manchester has always been an Irish town. Where I grew up, if you were white you were of Irish descent and if you were mixed race, then the chances were that your Mum or your Dad were Irish.
“You were either Irish or West Indian, so you went to Mass and liked Bob Marley. It was strange in that way. You never had that prejudice against the Irish that you did in cities like Birmingham,” he says.
The campaign is encouraging Irish-born people in Britain to declare themselves as such in the March census, but also urging those with Irish ancestry to give their ethnicity as Irish even if their nationality is British.
A serious point lies behind the campaign, as the Irish – even those among the second and third generation living in Britain – have particular needs and problems that are not shared by other ethnic groups.
Cancer, strokes and heart-attack rates are higher, as are suicides, while issues of cultural sensitivity in the care of the elderly– who are often alone, frightened and vulnerable – mean that official data illustrating the numbers that are there could be crucial in the years ahead.
The 2001 census reported that 691,000 Irish lived in Britain, but that is viewed as grossly under-representating the numbers who have Irish citizenship or who would see themselves as Irish if they were asked in casual company.
The difficulty arose because most did not realise that they could mark their nationality as British while giving their ethnicity – a section that seeks to define a person’s heritage, rather than their passport badge – as Irish.
“I didn’t tick this ethnic box last time because I didn’t know I was allowed to because I was born in Manchester. This time I will be ticking it. And I will be ticking it for my kids as well, and my wife will tick it,” he says.
Some simply did not want to acknowledge Irish ties, Christian acknowledges. “I think there was a legacy of shame with it in the past. It was almost seen as a life to escape from rather than embrace.
“But I think that awareness of being Irish and having that rich heritage did give us a kind of self-confidence that is hard to come by when you are a working-class kid. I am keen to get involved in this campaign.
“We were the poor kids, and if you look around at the people in the council estates where I grew up the only social mobility was among those Irish kids who were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus [exam] and go to a Catholic grammar school.”
Talking at breakneck speed, Christian takes Irish cultural reference points: Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, or the host of bands that have emerged from Manchester’s Irish community.
The first biographer of the Manchester band Oasis, all of whom are of Irish descent, Christian says he was asked by Paul Gallagher to write it “because I understood their background. It is a different kind of upbringing”.
Summer holidays up to the age of 11 were spent in the Liberties in Dublin with his siblings and father, Daniel, and mother, Margaret, though she had a Manchester accent because she had left for the city with her family when she was just six.
“It was never much of a holiday,” he says jokingly. “We’d sit on the steps of pubs with salty crisps and bloody red lemonade with the promise that we were going to Phoenix Park Zoo, or fishing in St Stephen’s Green.”
The sense of Irish heritage, while strong, was not always accurate. “Our view of Ireland and its history didn’t even reach the levels of accuracy of the swirling mists and Gaelic b*****ks of Riverdance. We got it mainly from Disney films, like Darby O’Gill [and the Little People]and The Fighting Prince of Donegal.
“Later, as we got more sophisticated, we worked our way up to The Quiet Man, with its winning portrayals of drunkenness, wife-beating, fist fights and, of course, the happy-go-lucky IRA men,” he said at the official launch of the campaign in the Commons’ Jubilee Room.
“My dad used to throw in the odd mention of Brian Boru and the Battle of Vinegar Hill. His grasp of history wasn’t great, and I am still not certain that he didn’t have Brian Boru fighting at the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
“My father was very proud of his Irishness, but it only manifested itself in a very good-humoured way. For my dad, Irish eyes were smiling when England were losing at football, which used to annoy the hell out of us.”
Christian, the modern face of the Irish in Britain, is reflective of its complexities. In football he supports England, even against Ireland. “Otherwise I support Ireland.”