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Fintan O’Toole: Irish blood, English heart – and white skin?

Morrissey was once an Anglo-Irish critic of Britishness, but he is now a far-right icon

On either side of the accession to power of Margaret Thatcher, two great songs acted as harbingers of the long, slow death of the British state. Both used the Queen to personify it. In God Save the Queen, Johnny Rotten/John Lydon snarled the prophetic lines: "There is no future/ In England's dreaming".

In The Queen is Dead, Morrissey wailed “The Queen is dead, boys/And it’s so lonely on a limb”. Both Lydon and Morrissey were children of the new Anglo-Irish, the hybrid people who were, for most of us in Ireland, our first cousins barely removed. Lydon spent his childhood summers on a farm in Co Cork. Both of Morrissey’s parents are from my own patch of Crumlin in Dublin and his siblings were actually born in Dublin.

Perhaps there was something in this outsider/insider position, this hovering between London and Cork, Manchester and Crumlin, that made them so acutely aware of the fragility of British identity. They were divided kids. Lydon claimed that “My Irish half provided my sense of devilry”, but he had an English half too. Morrissey sang “Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of”. These divisions were politically and creatively fruitful – if you have more than one identity, you know that no identity is fixed or sacred.

Morrissey's transformation from critic of Britishness to icon of far-right British nationalism tells us something important about both identity politics and Irishness

And they’re both Brexiteers now. Lydon supports Brexit in a vaguely populist way – he’s a man of the people, so if the people are for it, he’s for it too. But Morrissey has been sporting, for his recent TV and stage performances, the badge of the far-right For Britain party. Its website trumpets his support: “We’ve had another clear endorsement from Morrissey… he has thrown his weight behind our party... Morrissey is on board, join him!”


We should not draw too many broad conclusions from Morrissey's outré gestures. But it is striking that For Britain itself was founded and is led by a woman with Irish blood and an English heart, Anne Marie Waters. She is an anti-immigrant immigrant, born and raised in Stoneybatter in Dublin. Her associate "Tommy Robinson" (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) is half-Irish, one of a small but significant cluster of Irish or Anglo-Irish figures on the far right of English politics.

What is going on here? A perfectly good answer is: who cares? These people may be vile, but they are (for the moment) on the lunatic fringe. (Robinson got two per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections.) But Morrissey is a figure of real cultural power and his transformation from critic of Britishness to icon of far-right British nationalism does tell us something important about both identity politics and Irishness.

If the far right's non-negotiable core value is fear and loathing of immigrants, how can the son of Irish immigrants be its poster boy? The great solvent is whiteness

The Irish experience, shaped equally by the sectarian divide at home and by mass emigration, is an experience of divided identity. And, crudely, there are two ways you can deal with this condition. One is both/and, the other either/or. You can embrace the richness of a dual (or indeed multiple) heritage and use the insider/outsider position creatively. Generations of Irish artists in England did this – and Morrissey used to be one of them. The Queen is Dead is a provocation in the great tradition of Wilde and Shaw.

But dual identity can also lead to cognitive dissonance, the unbearable state of having attitudes and beliefs fundamentally incompatible with each other. If you can't hack both/and – if, in this case, the Irish blood is not flowing easily through the English heart – you go for either/or. You overcome the cognitive dissonance by adopting an exaggerated version of one or other identity. There's a very powerful strain of this in modern Irish history. Without figures with dual British/Irish identities (from Patrick Pearse to Maud Gonne to James Connolly to Erskine Childers) deciding to be hyper-Irish, that history would probably look very different. But the traffic has also gone the other way – think (as Thomas Kilroy does in his brilliant play Double Cross) of ultra-English Irishmen like Brendan Bracken and William Joyce.

Unfortunately, one of the obvious ways of transitioning into hyper-Englishness for Irish people is racism. There is, on the face of it, a crippling contradiction in the far-right politics now embraced by Morrissey. If its non-negotiable core value is fear and loathing of immigrants, how can the son of Irish immigrants be its poster boy? The great solvent is whiteness. What does not need to be stated openly is that what is really at stake is neither your Irish blood nor your English heart. It is your white skin. This may be the last resort of those who can’t hack a dual identity, but it’s also the first resort. As one of the characters in Tom Murphy’s great play of 1961, A Whistle in the Dark, set among Irish immigrants in Coventry, puts it: if it wasn’t for the Muslims, our skins would look a lot darker to the English.

We need to remember that this is one way Irishness can go in an age of multiple identities. It takes some courage and some creativity to be comfortably more than one thing, which is what we have to be. If those qualities sour into either/or identity politics, we will be left with no heart and a great deal of blood.