Sunday 25 September 2016

The Irish diaspora no longer feels so exiled

Con Houlihan

Published 30/10/2008 | 07:01

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

I do not know who first spoke about the bowl of bitter tears, nor do I know whether it referred to The Irish Sea or The Atlantic Ocean. All I know is that it is no longer relevant: the Irish are no longer exiles in Britain or America. Communications have banished the pain of the long goodbye.

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Recently a friend of mine asked a big black man in Times Square for a copy of The Kerryman. The man asked: "Do you want the country edition or the late edition?" Incidentally, do you ever hear of small black men? My friend wasn't taken aback or affront -- he was just delighted to discover a piece of home in that urban jungle.

If you are ever feeling lonely in Birmingham, there is a simple remedy. Go down to the Bridge Bar in New Street Station and take a window seat and survey the passing crowd. By the time you have started your second pint, you are almost certain to be joined by someone from home.

If I happened to be lonely in Coventry, I would remind myself that it had the largest percentage of Irish of any city in Britain. Our nurses performed heroically there during the heaviest bombing that any city in Britain suffered during World War Two. Some of my friends are proud of the part they played in building the city's most famous hotel, The Leofric.

Some day in London if you feel overawed, you could remind yourself that The Savoy and Claridges, the two great symbols of the English upper class, are owned by Irish consortiums.

Many mornings, in the run-up to Christmas long ago, I used to meet the good people from the West of Ireland in the early morning pubs in Dublin. They had travelled overnight from Euston, through the sleeping heart of England, to Holyhead and crossed on the overcrowded ferry. They had come in on the train from Dun Laoghaire and here they were in Kennedy's or The White Horse or Martin Regan's for a little rest.

All around me were weary faces -- many of those people had to travel to the most distant parts of Connacht in unlit, unheated trains. Knock Airport was a Godsend and a Horansend. The brown suitcase is a part of the past.

Emigration to Britain in the old days was rarely final: emigration to America often was. My mother was the youngest of a large family; she never knew some of her brothers and sisters.

I discovered a different kind of exile in New Zealand through a taxi man with whom I became friendly. He was born in New Zealand and had a wife and two young children. He looked to Scotland as the motherland -- he had never been there. He hoped that some day he could afford to take his family to Scotland so that his children could see their place of origin. Many people in New Zealand feel much the same way: they feel lonely because they are so far from Scotland.

There is no love lost between themselves and their nearest neighbours, the Australians, a thousand miles away across The Tasman Sea.

The Canadians who look on Scotland as their home feel a deeper sense of exile than the New Zealanders. The latter went into exile voluntarily; the Scots in Canada were forced into exile. Most were crofters, small farmers, who were evicted to make way for sheep. Their sense of exile is expressed in a famous anonymous poem, The Canadian Boat Song:

"From the lone sheiling in the misty island

Waters divide us and a waste of seas,

Yet still the blood is strong,

The heart is Highland

And we in dreams behold The Hebrides."

Many of our songs are about exile and emigration -- but in this context we are not lacking in a sense of humour. There is the oft-told story about the two Kerry engineers who were working for Shell in The Sahara. One Sunday they were driving back to their base when their jeep began to stutter. They got to a small grove of palms and took shade from the burning sun and radioed base.

Paddy said: "It has just dawned on me that we should be in Croke Park today -- Kerry are playing Galway in The Final. Mike uttered a deep sigh and said: "How right you are -- but thanks be to God, they have a fine day for it."

Farranfore Airport may not be as important to the South-West as Knock is to the West but it is good to have it. It took a long time to get off the ground: for years it was just a nice place to have a few late-night drinks. Of course jokes abounded. We were told that when the first plane tried to land, it had to take off again owing to the number of hares on the runway. That could be true: hares love airports, as you can see very clearly at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport and Charles de Gaulle.

Eventually a regular service began. A plane went to Dublin in the morning and came back in the evening. Someone suggested that its name should be changed to Farrantwo Airport. The modest airport is now flourishing, but of course jokes are still doing the rounds. One of those stories is true. It concerns a man not unknown to me.

He was down in Killarney for a few days on business. On Sunday he decided to go back to Dublin. He rang and said: "Is this Farranfore Airport?" A rather stern voice said: "This is Farranfore International Airport." "Could I book a flight to Dublin for this afternoon?" The voice at the other end softened and said: "Mary sees after bookings -- she's at Mass -- ring again in half an hour."

He did. Mary was at her post -- the story had a happy ending. It was a long time ago.

I love Farranfore Airport, or if you like, Farranfore International Airport. And I wouldn't mind if there were so many hares on the runway that the plane would have to wait. It would fly around over Castle Island and Scartaglen and Currow, all for free.

Fogra: Four cheers for all the good people who protested in Dublin last week

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