Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Thursday 8 December 2016

From the auld enemy to the best of neighbours

Joe Barry

Published 28/09/2016 | 02:30

Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr
Rod Stewart.

With so much discussion regarding Britain's exit from the EU taking place, it is perhaps timely to, yet again, evaluate our feelings about our nearest neighbours.

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So what do you think of the British? In this day and age, that is perhaps a rather silly question as, let's face it, they are pretty much like us. Despite Brexit, we are all still Europeans and members of the same human race. You cannot say one is better than the other or generalise about a nation.

How many Irish have the genes of the French, Spanish and British in their bodies? More than you might think and when we consider that there are people living in the Burren who have undergone DNA testing which proves their Viking ancestry, it seems rather pointless to quibble about race or denigrate any other nationality. Who cares if someone is of Scottish or English descent?

Asking are they good neighbours and honest citizens is all that matters. The Brits produced some awful despots over the centuries but then so did the French, Belgians and Spanish and all other nations who successfully colonised and robbed the wealth of other countries. Like them, the handful of British who held power in past centuries were as hard on their own people as they were on the natives of the countries they invaded.

"The Making of Modern Britain" is a superb documentary series presented by Andrew Marr and is perhaps the best portrayal I have ever seen of how the British nation evolved.

All six episodes can be viewed on YouTube and Britain's relations with Ireland are presented in a very balanced manner, especially the mistakes the British made during the 1916 rising. It is a brilliant series and Marr excels with his very entertaining narrative which is accompanied by film of the time from 1901 onwards, starting at the point when Queen Victoria died and the political order began to change dramatically..

Popular perceptions about Britain and the English in particular have altered greatly since the late 1950s when I was first aware of adult conversations and what was printed in the daily papers. Ireland was a grim place then and no efforts such as An Tóstal could disguise the fact.

"Burn everything British except their coal" was a statement credited to De Valera but apparently it was first coined by Jonathan Swift in the 1700s. It came back in to common usage during the economic war of the 1930s and reflected the feelings of many of the Irish population at that time. In the 1950s, Protestants went to hell and good Catholics went to heaven.

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As I began to meet people of other religious persuasions including many of our fellow farmers, I quickly realised that, despite what Archbishop McQuaid might have said, there had to be a flaw in this line of thought. When Sean Lemass began to open up our economy in the 1960s, many of us started to travel further abroad and mix with other nationalities.

Most young people in the 60s and early 70s then discovered that, despite the posturing of Northern Unionists, maybe the current crop of Brits weren't so bad. Pop culture helped greatly with the Beatles and umpteen other groups giving us a glimpse of a freedom and a way of thinking that was unimagined a few decades earlier when even jazz was banned as being in some way sinful.

Religious practice then began to decline, which is a shame really as all the great world religions provide an excellent blueprint for living a full and happy life, encouraging us to "Love thy neighbour".

Religion is not the problem, it's the fanatical religious who cause most of the trouble and have done so since the dawn of time. Later on, when I started to travel to Britain and do business there, I learnt how alike we all are and how well we can get on together. English, Irish, Scots and Welsh are just people trying to live in peace, rear families and get by.

Irish people working in Britain these days find that cultural differences are minimal. We have similar tastes in music, fashion, theatre and even food. Most importantly, we all share a love of sport and can now discuss politics without resorting to violence.

But I still like the comment made by that ageing rocker Rod Stewart, a staunch Scotsman who when asked what teams he supported replied "Scotland of course, and after that, whoever is playing England" Old habits die hard.

A giant of literature and an early celebrity

The works of Charles Dickens give us a great insight in to the lives of the average working Englishman and woman in the mid-1800s.

Dickens visited Ireland in August 1858 as part of a book tour and even in his own time, he was a celebrity. In the same way that any reading by J. K. Rowling would have fans pressed against the door, Dickens' fans packed theatres wherever he read in Ireland.

He brought home to the British public the awful conditions that their less well-off fellow citizens were living in and did more than any politician to highlight the plight of the poor.

More recently, British TV programmes have helped us better understand our near neighbours and how similar their lives are to our own.

From a farming perspective, you need do no more than read James Rebanks A Shepherd's Life which I reviewed here some months ago to realise that much of it could have been written by any Connemara or Wicklow hill farmer.

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