Older legacy fades by popular demand

There’s no point in denying our troubled history, but culture has constructed a shelter from the storm, bringing people together in remrkable ways

Left to right, back; James Joyce,John Lydon, Jonathan Swift, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, Andy Irvine, Luke Kelly, Elvis Costello;Front: the Gallagher brothers Liam and Noel, Philip Chevron, Boy George,Oscar Wilde and Shane McGowan.

Left to right, back; James Joyce,John Lydon, Jonathan Swift, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, Andy Irvine, Luke Kelly, Elvis Costello;Front: the Gallagher brothers Liam and Noel, Philip Chevron, Boy George,Oscar Wilde and Shane McGowan.


For those of us who were 1980s immigrants to London, The Pogues were more than a band. When they played live in Brixton, the atmosphere was more like a rally of unleashed hopes than a gig. Some of the group’s members were Irish, others English; several considered themselves both. The music drew from punk and the Irish tradition.

Brilliant Dubliner Philip Chevron, formerly of The Radiators, added European cabaret and theatre to the mix. Things were said from the stage that no politician was saying. There’s a country you can belong to. You’re not alone or forgotten. A song can be the passport you’re seeking.

Culture is a way of conducting a conversation without having to talk. Ultimately the book that reveals most about the relationship between Ireland and England is no novel or historical study or scholarly tome, but the telephone directory of any major British city, in which thousands of people bearing my own surname and every other Irish surname will be found.

The Irish and English are more mulatto than we ever acknowledge, but privately we know this to be true. Culture has reflected and amplified that reality, opening spaces rhetoric tried to close down.

I love London. I lived there many years. That’s how Ireland was in the 1980s: you got your plane ticket the day you got your degree. Emigration was so unquestioned that you didn’t think about it much, it befell you, like a national puberty.

I grew up in Dún Laoghaire, where the nightly entertainment was to walk the pier and look at the ferries crossing Dublin Bay and wonder which English city you’d end up in. Ireland was a failed experiment on the western shores of Europe that only survived because of the irony that every decade, a hundred thousand of its people would go to live in the land of the old enemy. If Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus went to Holyhead in search of Tara, most departed for less lofty reasons.

But my parents would point out that this rainy, sad Lilliput where we didn’t do many things brilliantly was also the homeland of Yeats, Kavanagh, Wilde and Bernard Shaw, interesting figures because they had lived in both countries. Swift is included in anthologies of British writers as well as Irish. We used to feel neurotic about this in Ireland but I think it’s the greatest thing about his work. It has what a later Anglo-Irish writer, Stephen Patrick Morrissey of The Smiths, once termed Irish blood, English heart .

Faintly ridiculous
My father, now in his 70s, had a Christian Brothers education in 1940s Dublin and can still quote reams of verse about the treacherous Saxon dogs and how they poisoned Owen Roe O’Neill. But he and the other boys thought it faintly ridiculous. It was rousing stuff, but their fathers and mothers had worked in England and their siblings lived there now.

By the time of my own schooldays, the game was up. Hard to tell kids to hate England when they love Manchester United, Leeds and Chelsea, The Beat, The Specials and The Clash. The closer you looked, the more English seemed Ireland, or the more irremediably Irish seemed England.

Such hugely important figures as Gate Theatre founder Micheál Mac Liammóir and traditional music genius Andy Irvine were born there. Michael Davitt was raised in Lancashire. Luke Kelly began singing in Wolverhampton. Beckett’s funniest novel, Murphy , is set in London, while the early Abbey Theatre was supported financially by a magnificent English woman, Annie Elizabeth Horniman.

My grandmother, Ellen O’Neill, was born in the Dublin Liberties in the year of Queen Victoria’s death. Francis Street was a district of intertwining ideologies, where nationalism’s pieties were complicated by other, more pressing realities into which one’s patriotism had to be resolved.

As a child, she saw the black bunting draped from the tenements – commemoration of those hundreds of her neighbours who had died in Britain’s armies. From Bloemfontein and Spion Kop and Gallipoli and Ypres, many sons of Francis Street had never wended home. Their absence from the Liberties was itself a kind of presence. It suggested allegiance was more complicated than you’d been told.

In such complications lies the kernel of the relationship between the peoples of this archipelago. As Wilde wrote, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

While politicians bayed slogans and banged the tribal drum, artists looked again. It is worth remembering as we mark 50 years since nationalist Brendan Behan’s death that you will search his work and find no hateful remark about English people. Indeed, he shows immense fondness for them, and as one commentator, Anthony Cronin, has pointed out: “London is very much part of Behan’s cultural grid.”

In the 1960s, Irish music was taken up by English singers like June Tabor, Maddy Pryor and Anne Briggs. Later, Christy Moore recorded a glorious version of Sweet Thames Flow Softly . Shane McGowan’s Rainy Night in Soho , another luminous paean to a city long central to Irish culture, borrowed from Christy Brown. “I’ve been loving you a long time, down all the years, down all the days”.

Some of those years and days were hard. Paul Brady’s 1981 masterpiece Nothing but the Same Old Story tells of a young Irishman who goes to England with “eyes wide as headlights, like the thousands who’ve gone before”. It’s about experiencing the anti-Irish feeling that has been a seam of English life since the 19th century and previously. The song’s refrain – “in their eyes we’re nothing but a bunch of murderers” – is brilliantly counterpointed with a knowing critique of the kind of English liberal who loves Irish culture.

“There’s a crowd says I’m all right, they like my turn of phrase, take me round to their parties like some dressed up monkey in a cage, and I play my accordion, but when the wine seeps through the facade it’s nothing but the same old story.”

Irish novelists of the era (and later ones) would do well to reflect on the tension, but that song is deeply truthful. Even as the politicians of both islands finally acknowledge a space discovered by the rest of us decades ago, there’s no point in pretending the relationship has been untroubled. But culture constructed a shelter from the storm, bringing people together in remarkable ways.

When artists leave their tribe they become radically interesting. Elvis Costello, John Lydon, Oasis, Kevin Rowland, Boy George and several Beatles were children of Irish England. Kate Bush’s reworking of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is one of the most beautiful records ever made. What these storytellers share is a sort of passion and braggadocio, a notion that language is a means of performance.

The most important of those links though is the common citizenship of affection, the song that sings quieter than any national anthem, always trickling subtly, like underground water, but no less real for its tact. John McGahern contended that Ireland is not a country but a collection of thousands of little republics called “families”, each with its own finely calibrated laws.

Built the motorways
He spent time in England, as did legions of Irish writers, and he wrote of Irish England with grace and acuity: the men who built the motorways, the women who nursed the sick, who met everything England had to offer and sent their wages back to the place they called “home”, despite living in Kilburn or Birmingham.

Shamefully, those heroes were forgotten by Official Ireland and Official Britain, but they haunt our songs, our novels and stories, inconvenient to the fantasies of a republic that betrayed its own citizens, as much to a kingdom that thought itself the capital of the world, so profoundly that it decided the central meridian would run through a town called Greenwich, every other position on the face of the earth to be measured from southeast London.

Joyce wrote that the reason why the sun never set on the British empire was that God wouldn’t trust an English man in the dark. Remarkable, how we have joked about one another, the English and Irish, like spouses in a marital sitcom.

Walking Dublin now, the traces are visible. My local park is Victoria Hill, named for the unamusable queen. Mailboxes still bear the commemorative initials V.R, semi-legible through history’s multiple layers of emerald green paint, where once they were imperial red.

We have not painted out England – how could we? That would be to obliterate a part of us, the language our greatest authors wrote in, the island across the water to which Irish multitudes had to flee in search of work or freedom. Many will recognise the truth of Frank O’Connor’s remark: “An Irishman’s private life begins at Holyhead.”

The nexus of paradoxes binds us. Morrissey’s wryly ironic song The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get might be read as the best comment on the relationship between the two islands.

We’ve been represented as poles apart, but that is not the case, and culture knows it. Nowadays the Other Voices festival in Dingle teams with Derry and London, bringing artists like Richard Hawley and The National to millions via the web. The Gloaming fill venues in London, as plays by Irish dramatists conquer the West End. In truth, we are a Venn diagram whose shared space sometimes shifts, altering to the realities of simple human fellowship and that most beautiful of all the mercies, forgiveness.

The notion of an Ireland Abroad has been consigned to the miserable past it belongs to. These days, there’s an Ireland Offshore. The Pogues knew it long ago, as did Aungier Street native Thomas Moore in his time. That’s where the peacemakers came from. A place of better hope and belonging. The songland of reconciliation.

Joseph O’Connor’s novel The Thrill of it All , a bout a London-Irish rock band, is published next month. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick and is one of the artists who will participate in Ceiliúradh at the Royal Albert Hall as part of President Michael D Higgins’s state visit to Britain

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