British antipathy to us has gone, apathy is likely to remain
Published 07/04/2014 | 02:30
My earliest childhood memory is being cold, but excited, as we waited for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. As an Irish family living in England, it meant that every year we made the very long journey from England back to our real home for Christmas holidays and sometimes the summer too. The journey was long but the promise of what lay at the other end of it was worth it all.
President Michael D Higgins will make history when he becomes the first Irish head of state to make an official state visit to Britain this week. At home in Ireland we will watch the highlights on the news every evening.
The commentariat will analyse every gesture, every bended knee, every smile, and every cupla focal. Teams of civil servants will work around the clock to ensure that every element of the carefully crafted programme proceeds as planned. Protocol departments in Aras an Uachtarain and Buckingham Palace will resemble a whirling dervish as they make sure that ceremonial gifts are appropriate and proportional.
Incidentally these lists are exchanged weeks in advance to ensure that there are no red faces on either side. This historic visit will lead our national and local news and dominate our newspapers for days. And rightly so, as the visit is the culmination of a long and difficult journey in our shared history.
When Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland in May 2011 we collectively held our breath. Her widely acclaimed and eloquent speech at Dublin Castle did much to carve a new creditability to the delicate political partnership between our two countries.
In particular, she spoke of her personal pain and the pain of others, while acknowledging that with hindsight "some things should have been done differently and others not at all". And whilst there has been much healing, deeply held atavistic tendencies will never be far from the surface for some.
Despite the new maturity in our relationship with Britain this visit will not resonate with the great British public in the way that it will here. For our historic reasons the British are far more ingrained in our psyche than we will ever be in theirs.
The people that this visit will mean the most to are the millions of residents of Britain who are either from the island of Ireland or who have Irish ancestry. Many of whom have lived a nervous Irishness for decades. In particular, the generation of Irish who lived in Britain throughout the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Let us also remember that through many of the most difficult times in our troubled history, there were thousands of Irish people who were embedded in Britain; not to fight or die for Ireland but to live a decent life.
Against a backdrop of terrorism, Irish families and working men and women were trying to carve out lives for themselves and maintain a normal and equal existence in a sometimes very strained climate of political differences, violence and death.
Nightly news bulletins depicting a litany of terror made for compulsory but uncomfortable viewing, British soldiers being shot, sons, brothers, fathers, neighbours. Bombs in Belfast. Bombs in Britain. And it was that constant overhanging fear of bombs in England that lead to a climate of mistrust and sometimes mistreatment for the Irish living there at the time.
During the late '70s and early '80s it was not easy to be Irish in England and we did not make for comfortable neighbours. Although geographically the closest possible destination for our immigrants, there have been times when it has been the most difficult place to live.
John B Keane's 'Many Young Men of Twenty' depicts the palpable longing for home and the harrowing life of the working Irish in Britain. The term "Paddy" was sometimes used by the British without the intent of offence but often used as a reminder of place. It is strange perhaps that our own Taoiseach would ever use this phrase so many years later, when those prejudices have been left behind by many.
Progress on the peace process has at times seemed desperately slow but it is worth remembering that up until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the term President was not even recognised in relation to Ireland. Since Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1952, there have been just over 100 inward state visits to Britain.
There are names that inevitably jump off the page. People such as Mandela, Mitterrand, Mubarak, Obama, King Juan Carlos, Mugabe, Bush and Obama, Mbeki and the list goes on.
The President of Ireland now joins that list. That is significant for many Irish people or people of Irish descent who are living in Britain. Not because it makes an Irish president accepted or acceptable, but because it is this final symbolic gesture that will allow the Irish who live in Britain to have pride in their heritage and not need to hide it. This symbolic frolic will not change our history but it will make the future of the Irish Diaspora in Britain easier.
In at letter written in 1839, Daniel O'Connell's words to describe England's attitude to the Irish are telling. "The apathy that exists respecting Ireland is worse than the national antipathy they bear us," he wrote.
It is fair to say that the antipathy has gone. However, the apathy is likely to always remain. The relationship between this island and our neighbouring island has fundamentally changed for the better, we are intrinsically linked through our past and this visit signals a step change in our future. One can't help but wonder what The Liberator would make of it all.
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