‘You can be anything in Ireland now, except English’

What is it like to be one of the 114,500 British people living here in the Brexit era?

"Ireland is an unknown place to a lot of British people," says Charlotte Matabaro, who was 15 when she moved from London to rural Co Tipperary, in 1995. "You're taught a very different history in British schools. When you come here and hear the other side, you have to take a step back. You have to re-educate yourself."

Moving here, says Ben Thompson, an estate agent from Sussex, you get a "very quick education in the fact that Britain didn't treat Ireland very well".

Irish affairs only encroach on the British psyche when it's something majorly newsworthy. When something big like Brexit happens, that knowledge gap is revealed

Katie da Gama, a business and executive coach from Southampton, says she knew nothing about Irish history before she arrived here in 2004. "I'm really ashamed of that now. I couldn't have told you one fact about the Famine. I hadn't ever heard of it."

One of the things Brexit has exposed is a yawning gap in the knowledge of many British people concerning the shared history of our two islands. In many respects it's understandable. Irish people are deeply immersed in that history. We don't have much choice about it. We got our legal system, our language and some of our finest buildings from Britain. We watch English soaps, follow English soccer teams, spend money in English shops.


Meanwhile, "Irish affairs only encroach on the British psyche when it's something majorly newsworthy, so there isn't that day-to-day understanding", says Peter Stafford, a barrister who moved here from Northumberland in 2002 after his PhD, initially to lecture in politics at University College Dublin. "When something big like Brexit happens, that knowledge gap is revealed."

Since the Brexit vote, in 2016, longstanding historical trends have been reversed, and more people from Britain are now moving to Ireland than migrating in the opposite direction. In the year to April 2019, 19,700 immigrants arrived to live here from the UK, while 11,600 emigrants went the other way.

So what is it like to be one of the 114,500 British people living in the Republic in 2019? Is it all barbs about 800 years, apologising for historical wrongs, and having to explain Brexit several times a day?

Culture shock: ‘I’ve been to 20 funerals’

On one level, many English people who settle here are surprised by how little culture shock is involved. "You can get BBC and ITV. You can buy all of the British papers, the British soaps. You have a drip-feed of day-to-day British stuff which accumulates in your knowledge, but that doesn't work in reverse," says Stafford.

And yet, despite all the familiarities, Ireland can still occasionally feel like a very foreign place. Thompson, who came here in 2011, is a sales agent with Churches Estate Agents in Blackrock, Co Dublin. He was struck by the way we use language, and the closeness of Irish families. He still remembers the surprise he felt when, a week into his first job in Ireland, his whole company went to the funeral of his boss’s mother. “I’d only been to one funeral in my life before coming here. I’ve been to about 20 since.”

Moving to Ireland at the age of 15 involved a dramatic change of pace for Charlotte Matabaro. “I grew up in Tower Hamlets, in the Docklands, which is about as east London as you can get. There was only one white girl in my class in London, and she was American. And then we moved here. Talk about culture shock.

"We moved to a village on the Tipperary-Limerick border, where my grandad is from. I was the only black girl in the village, and I was definitely the only 6ft-tall, black, English girl in the village."

The family’s move came shortly before the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf, and she remembers friends in London being worried for their safety here. But she “fell in love with Ireland straight away. I had never seen so much space. I was able to walk out my uncle’s front door, walk around to the back of the house, and go in the back door. I couldn’t believe it.”

Matabaro, who now lives in Waterford, where she is chief executive of a start-up male-grooming company, says she still stands out because of her accent and her looks, but it has never made her uncomfortable.

“I don’t remember anybody victimising me or singling me out. I have had quite a bit of ‘You wouldn’t be used to this rain, where you’re from’ from old men. Just two days ago a woman in the post office asked if she could touch my hair. That happens all the time. But there has never been any hostility, just a natural, understandable curiosity.”

History: ‘The 800-years jokes are constant’

Katie da Gama recalls being taken aback in the beginning by “the occasional joke around ‘800 years of oppression’. It was always done in a lovely, jokey way, but I felt that they were blaming me for the misdemeanours of the past. I was genuinely baffled and had to ask my husband, in private, ‘Exactly what am I being blamed for here?’”

The "jokes about 800 years" also took Isobel Phillips, a leadership consultant who moved here in 2001, aback. "It's all well meant but fairly constant. For a while I was in a job where I was dealing with people from all around the country, and having an English accent was a little bit challenging at times." Sometimes the jokes came with "a bit of an edge".

Born in England to an Irish father and English mother, Yvonne Murray moved to Ireland at the age of six. In the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s she was acutely conscious of her accent. "When you speak with an English accent in Ireland it feels like a scene from a western when the saloon falls silent, the music stops and everyone turns to stare." She compensated for it by becoming "quite the fervent Irish patriot".

After she moved to London in the 1990s, “I began to change my view of the British-Irish relationship. While I’d long been adamant that Britain had come along and oppressed our culture and language, forced starvation on us and occupied our territory, I also began to understand that ‘Britain’ had also, in a way, done the same to its own people. It wasn’t about one nation of people oppressing another; it was more about the effects of power being concentrated in the hands of the ruling classes.”

Later, when English friends would visit her in Ireland, she observed what she considered “open hostility from Irish people, the eye-rolling, the mickey-taking... the references to a history that we live and breathe but English people aren’t taught. And I’ve felt embarrassed and sort of stuck in the middle: a half-English, half-Irish person who identifies with both.”

So, she asks, “Should every English person be made to feel responsible for 800 years of history?”

John Champion moved to Ireland from his native Leicester in 2006, straight out of college, with a backpack and little else. He began working in bars before switching to a career in marketing. He found everyone "hugely welcoming", although he did have to suffer "lectures from really drunk old people – jokes about 800 years and all that kind of stuff. A lot of it was actual history, the history that you don't really get taught in England. It was fair enough. It was directed at me, but I never felt that it was properly aggressive."

The nastiest abuse he suffered, he says, was “from Irish-Americans. You’d get, ‘Do you know what your grandaddy did to my grandaddy? My grandfather is Irish.”

Although Matabaro never suffered any negative reaction, she concedes that other people might not so readily laugh off the hair touching and jokes about "being tanned". Her brother's experience was quite different from hers. "He is a huge guy. He was a Jehovah's Witness at the time, and one of the least menacing people on the planet, but he would regularly get stopped in Clonmel or Tipperary town by the guards." He was very private and "couldn't bear Irish people's curiosity. He hated it." He returned to London after a year.

Knowledge: ‘I always felt at a disadvantage’

Most of those interviewed describe quickly becoming aware of the chasm in their knowledge of Irish history. "I always felt that I was at a disadvantage," admits Stafford. Despite having studied politics and history, "I knew Irish affairs when it came to the Troubles, or what the legacy of it was in Northern Ireland, but the legacy in the Republic of Ireland I was ignorant of.

“It took me a long time to work out how everything fit together – like who Parnell was, and how he was connected to Connolly, and how they fit into 1916.”

Phillips says there is no understanding in the south of England, where she is from, "of the history of the two countries, and the way that Britain acted". She made a point of educating herself, and now brings visitors from England to Kilmainham Gaol.

In England in the 1990s Murray was struck by that same knowledge gap. Apart from “the rare ignorant remark about pigs on strings and paedophile priests... I was quite astounded by how little English people knew about Ireland and the history of the two countries.” One friend asked her whether Ireland “had the queen”.

Friendliness: ‘Do you know my cousins?’

When he first moved to Ireland, Stafford says, he was struck by the friendliness of Irish people and their desire to form a connection. “My accent isn’t particularly strong, so there is often kind of a desperation to work out exactly where it is I’m from. I say that I’m from the northeast of England and somebody will say they’ve cousins in Newcastle, or they’ll ask do I know Bristol, and I have to say, well, that’s actually the southwest of England.

“I like the idea that you try really hard to find some sort of common ground,” he says, laughing.

Matabaro felt the same about the desire to make a connection. “When people hear my accent they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re a Londoner.’ Often it’s because they’ve got a cousin in Kilburn or they know London. They want to make a connection.”

Citizenship: ‘You’re not really Irish’

But it's not all about gentle slagging and questions about cousins, particularly when dealing with Irish bureaucracy. During the six-month-long process of transferring his driving licence – made more complex because he also had a New Zealand licence – John Champion had an uncomfortable encounter with a woman "who had a cartoon taped to her window showing a car driving off a cliff, and a pun around Brexit. I'm pro-Remain, but [as an English person] you see that and you know it's going to go badly."

During the registration appointment for his public services card, he mentioned that he was applying for Irish citizenship “just to basically say, look, I’m not just applying for this willy-nilly”.

The woman on the other side of the window’s response was a “tirade about people doing it for all the wrong reasons, that being Irish is something in the blood”.

Champion responded that he had an Irish grandfather, but “I don’t consider myself Irish for those reasons. I consider myself Irish because I’ve lived here for so long, because my life is in Ireland, my wife is Irish, my son is Irish, and my best friends are all Irish.” In fact, he told her, the only connection he still has with his home city of Leicester is that he supports Leicester City Football Club.

You see, she said triumphantly, "you're not really Irish".

Brexit: ‘It’s quite sad’

One of the byproducts of being English in Ireland is that everyone wants to talk about Brexit. “I’ve become an informal expert on it,” says Thompson. “I’ve been through all the stages of grief watching it. I’m trying to tell myself to stop following it, stop watching, move on and focus on the fact that I’m lucky I got out.”

A student Conservative Party member, and an erstwhile Boris Johnson supporter who backed Remain, he is saddened to see how, "in three years, Britain has gone from a very proud country to a very embarrassed and degraded country, economically, socially, culturally".

During the London Olympics, in 2012, “culturally, it was on such a high. It has completely ruined its international standing.”

“I had been just happily staying in Ireland and never really giving it much thought. And then Brexit happened, and that absolute ignorance of Irish affairs really started to show itself, especially amongst ordinary British people – not knowing, and celebrating not wanting to know. It’s quite sad seeing the ignorance being happily displayed,” says Stafford.

There's anger too, he says, at the political elite. He cites "Dominic Raab saying that he hadn't read the Good Friday agreement. And other people just not understanding the nature of [the] Border. I feel very annoyed that [the] British political elite has allowed that ignorance to happen."

Identity: ‘I support the Irish rugby team’

Brexit has left many of the people we spoke to grappling with questions of identity. What does it mean to be British now, and at what point does their Irishness become the defining part of their identity?

Phillips says that although she has “the citizenship forms on my desk, an Irish husband, two Irish children and an Irish mortgage, I don’t want to be a Plastic Paddy. I am English, and I’ll always be English, but Ireland is where I want to be.”

Thompson would feel presumptuous describing himself as Irish, despite having an Irish wife and children. “I will always be British. I don’t think I’d ever call myself Irish, because I think I would be offending Irish people.

“That said, my eldest is playing GAA, I support the Irish rugby team and sing Ireland’s Call to them [his children] to get them to sleep.” The great thing about the Republic, he says, is that “it’s a country that welcomes you in and allows you to do that”.

For Murray, the question of identity is as complex as ever. “Ireland is still my home, and I’ve long harboured a desire to return there and even raise my children there. But I feel now that they are too English. Their accents would put them firmly in the English camp as soon as they walked through the door of a new school. And I worry about the historical crimes they might be blamed for.” She is concerned about how that would shape their identity, as it has hers.

“I often quip you can be anything in Ireland now, as long as it’s not English.”

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times