"I was going: 'Our lot are rubbish? Your Swindon lot are shit! And he got aggressive and I went berserk." - David Brent in The Office
The most intensely Irish place I’ve ever been to in my life was Kilburn, in north London. It doesn’t exist anymore. Kilburn the place remains, of course: just not the version which I experienced in the molten summer of 1990.
It came most vividly to life on Thursday evenings, pay day in London’s booming building trade, when the local Kilburn kids in hip-hop and rave fashions of the day mingled on the High Road with the legions of Irish site workers who would crowd the small independent cafes along the High Road advertising chicken roasts and actual bacon and cabbage dinners on pink window signs cut into stars from cardboard, all moving in a casual, unkempt small army towards McGovern’s pub.
There was a small booth there at the rear of the pub where men - and it was always men - stood in line to cash their cheques: they charged four quid on every hundred and served up massive and unfussy hot dinners for free and even though the bar staff were dynamos, they were hard pressed to keep up with the demand from six o’clock on those muggy Thursdays.
It was the most undiluted atmosphere of a certain kind of Irishness - the emigrant experience - I’ve ever encountered: McGovern’s was cashing anything between three and five thousand cheques a week then to the value of about a million quid a week.
On one level it made hard business sense and the pace of drinking was well beyond social. But on another, the place was a kind of haven and unofficial social refuge for several generations of Irish men: it meant that men not skilled in cooking got a hot meal and with the music going and the energy of Thursday and the drink and the fun, it was often preferable to whatever home meant. It was a snapshot of the Irish-London that Shane McGowan has managed to immortalise in his ballads.
And it was disappearing even that summer, which was forbiddingly hot and whose local kids in Kilburn included the 10-year-old Stones Roses fan, the yet to be champion cyclist and future knight of the realm, Sir Bradley Wiggins.
The image of Wiggins the Kilburn kid briefly flashed through my mind after he achieved the near-miraculous task this week of supplanting Boris Johnson as public enemy number one in Irish eyes. Wiggins' crime, in case you haven't heard, was to breezily inform Sean Kelly on Eurosport that Ireland's Sam Bennett "could almost be considered British."
Noting Kelly’s expression of withering Waterford bemusement, he added: “I know you lot won’t like that, will you?” And even before Sir Wiggo was through, the howls of outrage were emanating from all 26 counties. The indignation was general all over Ireland - and, indeed, social media.
“You’re not going to claim him,” Kelly said quickly, gallantly trying to stave off what he knew could escalate into a diplomatic incident. And then Sir Wiggo doubled down and said that at least ‘we’ could understand what Bennett said. “We can’t really understand you Sean, can we?”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Was this a Eurosport guest, a bally English hero, lampooning the incomprehensible Irish dialect or had we accidentally flicked over to Punch magazine?
As if the backstop wasn’t complicated enough.
It took just 15 seconds for Wiggo to completely lay waste to any illusion that Ireland may coveted that the Brits truly regard us as an independent, sovereign state. It confirmed the worst fears that deep down, across Albion, there’s a prevailing belief that Ireland and the Irish are just another version of Yorkshire or Cornwall folk: a bit prickly about the regional thing but essentially loveable and the same as them.
Something about Wiggins indifferent air of appropriation touched a deep Irish nerve: the uncomfortable sense that the Brits haven't really noticed the whole we-are-independent thing and that after 800 years of colonisation think that the only thing that makes us different to them is a thick songbook of gorgeously heartbreaking ballads and a headed goal by Ray Houghton (one of the British lads who played on Jack's plucky Eire team. England B. How we laughed!).
But it's all because the Brits just aren't interested in all that angst or Irish identity stuff. When the Irish gleefully claimed Jack Charlton, nobody in England cared and it's the same when the Irish background of Kate Bush or Steve Coogan or any Irish-English cultural gemstone is magnified.
If the English knew that Cecil Day Lewis, the former poet-laureate was born in Laois, then they didn't care. If they know that Ireland fiercely claims his actor son as their own, then it's a matter of grand indifference to them. Terry Wogan, maybe England's most beloved television and radio host of the last century, was a Paddy. The list goes on and on. So they'd be mildly baffled, if they even knew, to hear that anyone in Ireland cared what Wiggo, the poster boy of the London Olympics in 2012, all sideburns and retro mod' cheekily cyclin' around King 'Enry's old pile in Hampton Court and winning gold for Queen and country, had to say about anything.
They’d be confused by the genuine anger because maybe they don’t ever really think about Ireland except as that nice place they keep meaning to visit someday - now that the bombs have stopped. And because the Brits can’t really conceive of the idea of anyone not wanting to be British.
‘The f***ing neck’, declared one offended Irish patriot on twitter after Wiggo planted the Union Jack where he shouldn’t.
‘Sean should have decked him.’
Yes, that would have made them sit up! Had Sean Kelly, the quiet man of Irish sport, suddenly started whaling into Sir Wiggo on national television, it would send a definitive message that Ireland has had quite enough of Britain casually appropriating stuff like land and sea ports and Oscar nominees and green jersey wearers in the Tour De France.
Hands off, you rotters.
It doesn’t matter that Wiggins isn’t even as quintessentially English as the Hogwarts name suggests: born in Belgium (as was Sam Bennett) to an English mother and an Australian father whom he never really knew and who gets short shrift in the Wiggins biography My Time. Wiggins is a fluent French speaker and as a sports star knows fine well the relevance of nationality.
When Wiggins was growing up, his patch of London was fondly called County Kilburn by the resident Irish. If the English along the High Road even knew this, they probably didn’t care. But there’s no way that Wiggins didn’t absorb some sense of what the London Irish experience was like. And it’s almost certain that his remarks to Kelly were just an ill-judged reflection of the persona he has adopted from his time in the sun: the Londoner who thrives on light insolence and cheeky opinion.
The moment was yet another example of bantz gone wrong: poorly executed and always destined to fall flat in front of the Irish county men and women whose ears are ever finely tuned to a slight delivered from across the water - even from a son of Kilburn, or the 33rd county as it was called, back when the Irish used to claim it as their own.
And it is never going to change.
You can imagine Sir Wiggo chuckling amusedly at the Irish ‘avin a go, stroking his hipster’s beard and probably thinking: you lot. What are you like?