Although a haven for seekers of anonymity, London is also a place where identity can be important. Many who moved to England’s capital from Ireland over the years strived to keep theirs. But what about those Irish people who moved in the other direction? They are us and yet, to some, they are not. At least that is how some have been made to feel.
It is Friday afternoon and Morag Prunty and I are sitting in the back garden of her family home in north London, where she grew up. We were originally meant to meet on Monday, but she had a fall on the way and injured her arm. No luck of the Irish there. Four days later, her arm in a sling, we’re sipping tea outside in the September sun.
The show must go on. Prunty, a novelist who uses the pen name Kate Kerrigan, has written a one-woman play, Am I Irish Yet?, on her experience of the identity issues carried by Irish people born in Britain. Especially those, like her, who speak with British accents.
Prunty was born in Scotland to Irish parents, raised in London, where she lived until her early 20s, and has since lived in Ireland for the last 35 years. As a child she spent all her holidays in Mayo. She shares the quirks of other Irish people. She mainlines tea. She has always felt Irish. Everything about Prunty is Irish, apart from her accent and place of birth.
“I was brought up in London as an Irish person. I never felt English. I never felt an affinity with England. But there is always this slight remove from other Irish people: ‘You weren’t born in Ireland. You’re not really Irish, are you?’”
“There is kind of a derision in it. I never fought it, never said anything. I always thought it didn’t matter.”
But it did.
“It upset me,” she says. “It is a form of mockery. Nobody is going to take you outside and beat you up, but you get mocked. ‘Ello luv, you over on ‘oliday?’” she says, adopting a mock cockney accent that an Irish person might attempt.
“The otherness between me and someone who was brought up in Ireland is quite small. I know all the subtleties; the ways Irish people communicate. But there is just this one little bit that I don’t know – to be actually brought up there. It’s quite a small difference, really. But for Irish people, that little thing is big.”
“Because it’s England.”
Growing up with an Irish identity in the London of the 1970s and 80s wasn’t easy. This was the era of the bombing Irish. But at least for those who sounded Irish there was no question mark over their identity. It was harder to express an Irish identity when, with an English accent, it would have been so much easier to hide it.
A few years back, Prunty gave a talk on Irish identity in Achill (she now lives in the Mayo village of Killala). She told the story of how she was in the vicinity of Harrod’s in London when the IRA blew it up in December 1983: she had just bought her father a pipe for Christmas. Following her Achill talk, she discussed identity issues with others, including journalist and Bafta-winning film-makers Kevin Toolis. He was born in Edinburgh, where he got his accent, to parents from Achill.
In the US there are Irish-Americans. But what do we call members of the coterie that includes Prunty and Toolis?
“We don’t even have a name, a collective identity. Nobody calls us British-Irish. We’re not Anglo Irish [the moniker for the Protestant ascendancy at home]. We’re not even the London Irish [a tag usually ascribed to Irish-born people who move to the city]. What are we?”
As Prunty dwelled on her craving for Irish acceptance, the idea for Am I Irish Yet? was born. She wrote and performs it under her pen name. It is far from a big whinge. Being Irish, she laces her grievances with humour.
“Sometimes, I’d hear myself on the radio and be like, who’s that uppity little English Tan? Oh it’s me,” she says.
Yet her craving for the acceptance of other Irish people brings raw emotion to the surface. As we’re slurping our tea, Prunty recalls the death in London a few years ago of her brother, Tom.
After his funeral, an Irish writer friend of Prunty’s shared his condolences. She asked him if it was his first English funeral. “No, that was an Irish funeral,” he told her. Then an Irish friend of hers also reached out and touched her brother’s coffin, as many would at an Irish wake. English people “don’t touch the coffin”, according to Prunty.
“That validation in my grief really meant something to me,” she says, her voice cracking. “That a deep element of my grief could be held with an Irish spirit.”
Is Prunty Irish yet? Of course, she always was.
– Am I Irish Yet? runs in the White Bear in Kennington, London, from September 26th to October 8th. It also runs as part of the Westerval festival in Westport’s Clew Bay Hotel on October 29th, as well as the Linenhall in Castlebar on November 8th.