Irish in Scotland have mixed feelings about Brexit

In the Lanarkshire town known as ‘Little Ireland’ identity is a complex issue

For Father Eamonn Sweeney and his parishioners, concern about an imposition of a hard border in Ireland is the biggest concern. Photograph: Eoin Wilson

For Father Eamonn Sweeney and his parishioners, concern about an imposition of a hard border in Ireland is the biggest concern. Photograph: Eoin Wilson

 

Fr Eamonn Sweeney (73) came to Scotland from Ballycroy, Co Mayo in 1969. For 23 years, he has been parish priest in Coatbridge, the Lanarkshire town known as “Little Ireland” because it is home to large numbers of people of Irish descent.

“Shortly after I came to the parish, I did a survey on the makeup of the parish. I visited all the homes... about 1,500, and I found that 13 of the top 15 names were Irish names,” he says.

Tracking the precise number of those with Irish heritage across Scotland is difficult. Though problematic, identification as Catholic is sometimes used as a proxy for Irishness. In 2011, the census registered 841,000 Catholics in Scotland, or 15.9 per cent of the population.

Unsurprisingly, in a country where issues of ethnicity, religion and identity often find their most visible expressions through football, Fr Sweeney uses the sport to illustrate the pride his parishioners take in their heritage.

“It’s my experience that if Ireland were playing Scotland at football, most people that I know would support Ireland,” he says.

In Coatbridge, Brexit provokes mixed emotions. Talk of Scottish independence and a united Ireland often accompany grim predictions about the impact the UK’s departure from the EU could have.

For Sweeney and his parishioners, concern about an imposition of a hard border in Ireland is the biggest concern. “We don’t want to go back to the days of checkpoints and searches and garrisons.”

However, the rights of many in the Lanarkshire town to Irish citizenship offers something of an insurance policy. “I have signed a lot of applications. Since Brexit, I would say 50,” Fr Sweeney says.

The number of Irish passport applications from Scotland has multiplied, but from a low base. In 2013 there were just 45. Last year, the number had risen to 800. This year, it has risen again as the Brexit deadline looms ever closer.

However, there are many amongst Scotland’s multigenerational Irish community who now find themselves ineligible for citizenship because their ancestors never needed, never wanted, or were never able to apply for Irish citizenship.

“There [are] an awful lot us who missed out on that opportunity because our parents didn’t avail themselves of it before we were born,” says Jeanette Findlay (58), an economics lecturer at the University of Glasgow and a prominent campaigner on issues affecting Scotland’s Irish community.

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Fears about travel restrictions remain. “If it’s more difficult to travel backwards and forwards to Ireland... that could impact on the community quite a bit.”

On questions of identity, Ms Findlay believes Brexit has not fundamentally altered people’s sense of Irishness. “I don’t think it [Brexit] makes any difference to whether people feel a relationship, or feel part of the multigenerational Irish community.”

‘I just don’t feel it’

Though the vast majority of Scotland’s Irish community are Scottish-born, many have a complicated relationship with Scotland and the concept of Scottishness, due in part perhaps to experiences of anti-Catholic or anti-Irish sentiment and Scotland’s role in the British Empire.

In Ms Findlay’s experience: “I don’t feel any connection to being Scottish. I don’t follow their [football] team. I just don’t feel it. The only Scottish tradition that my family upholds is new year. They love the Hogmanay thing.”

St Patrick’s Hall in Coatbridge: In 2011, the census registered 841,000 Catholics in Scotland, or 15.9 per cent of the population. Photograph: Eoin Wilson
St Patrick’s Hall in Coatbridge: In 2011, the census registered 841,000 Catholics in Scotland, or 15.9 per cent of the population. Photograph: Eoin Wilson

Filmmaker Tomás Sheridan (36) was born and brought up in Italy with an Irish father. His father’s experience of emigrating from Co Cavan in his early 20s, and then Sheridan’s own move to Scotland at the age of 19, have instilled in him a deeply personal sense of being Irish and an acute discomfort with notions of Britishness.

“For me, the word ‘British’ still sounds like a bad word. I associate it with colonialism, imperialism, arrogance and nationalism,” he says. Like many Irish in Scotland, Mr Sheridan has conflicting feelings about Brexit.

“On one level I feel sad to see Britain inflict such ridiculous, pointless damage on itself, through what was essentially a misinformation campaign. On a more selfish level, I see Brexit as an opportunity for an independent Scotland and an opportunity for a unified Ireland,” he says.

Scottish independence found significant support during the 2014 referendum in working-class communities with high Irish Catholic populations, like Coatbridge, while a 2015 study of voting patterns found 58 per cent of Catholics voted for Scottish independence.

Martin Murphy (30), a barber from Edinburgh who works with people with dementia, says Irishness is central to his identity. His grandparents left Foxford, Co Mayo in the 1930s and he takes great pride in the fact that Easter Rising leader James Connolly was born in Edinburgh’s Cowgate.

Like many Irish-Scottish, Mr Murphy feels a strong attachment to Ireland and identifies as part of Scotland’s Irish community, but his attachment is tempered. “Most love to love Ireland, but hesitate to consider a return or indeed a first-time move.

“There is a nostalgia towards Ireland, but an element of realisation in equal measure. The reality of a bankers’ economy, the Blueshirts [Fine Gael] in power, high unemployment, low-earning potential for most and a health system fit for a fictional novel.”

GAA and Celtic

Tom Devine (73), professor emeritus of history at the University of Edinburgh, questions the existence of a contemporary Irish community in Scotland.

He argues that a “splintering” occurred, caused by, among other things, a decrease in religious observance and the emergence of a well-educated Irish Catholic middle class. “You could actually see that from the ’70s and ’80s onwards.

“There’s been a transformation of what used to be called the Irish Catholic community. And there’s even therefore a question mark over whether it is any longer a community.”

Not everyone agrees. While the largest and most visible section of Scotland’s Irish immigrant community are Scottish-born, recent decades have seen many Irish-born students and young professionals move to Scotland.

Among them is Róisín Kelly (31) from Co Sligo, who has lived in Glasgow for five years where she works in the National Library of Scotland. She left Ireland following graduation from university.

While Ms Kelly has Irish-born friends and Scottish-born friends of Irish descent, she sees a difference in her experience of the Irish community in Scotland.

“I think there probably are different Irish communities. And perhaps it’s different for people that are of descent, and they’ve sort of inherited their parents’ identity and their parents’ experiences.

“I think because I don’t have particular interests, such as GAA or supporting Celtic, that I’ve been set aside from certain communities of Irish people here.”

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