Sunday 21 December 2014

How Britain gave generations of Irish room to shake, rattle and roll

Published 09/04/2014 | 02:30

I am writing this from a small cafe just opposite the Old Bailey. For many Irishmen of my vintage, the Old Bailey is synonymous with IRA terrorists as well as innocent Irish people stitched up for crimes they didn't commit. In my head, the Old Bailey reminds me of the 1970s and 1980s, a time when relations between Ireland and England were at their most strained.

Today here in London our President is meeting Queen Elizabeth II. Times have changed.

But what doesn't change is the people. Irish and English and Scottish people have always been intertwined. We are victims of geography as much as history, and our destinies are interdependent.

We Irish are by far the largest ethnic minority in England. A recent study suggests that one in four English people claim to have some Irish background. If this is true, that is some 14 million people. This means that today there are close to three times as many more English people of Irish descent than there are Irish people of Irish descent.

This identity with Ireland is particularly marked among younger people in England. Some 42pc of young English people claim to be part Irish. Irishness is quite hip in England. Young Londoners, never slow to spot the trend, are committed.

Quite apart from the surveys, the Irish footprint in England shows up dramatically in official figures. In the census of 2001, there were six million people of Irish background in England. Over one in 10 of the English population had either an Irish parent or grandparent. That's quite a statistic

Close to three-quarters of the Irish who emigrated in the past 70 years now live in England. By 1971, over 900,000 Irish people lived in England, while the population of Ireland itself was only just over two million.

The vast majority of Irish people in England came over in the 1950s when over 500,000 emigrated to England, mainly moving to Manchester, the Midlands and London. This was the period of the disappearing Ireland, when three out of every four children born in the 1930s and 1940s emigrated.

Their children and grandchildren make up the lion's share of today's Irish population in England.

I refer to the Hiberno-British as Hi-Brits.

There was a later but much smaller bulge in the 1980s ensuring that Hi-Brits are continuing to be born in maternity wards all over England. There has been another wave in the past five years.

The impact of the Hi-Brit on English culture has been enormous.

For example, those whom the 'NME' said were the most influential people in British rock culture in the past 50 years were all either the sons or grandsons of Irish immigrants.

Stephen Morrissey and Johnny Marr were both sons of Irish immigrants in Manchester. The Smiths, the band that defined Englishness in the 1980s and created the English indie scene, didn't actually have any English blood in them at all.

Fast-forward to the 1990s and Noel and Liam Gallagher were the crown princes of Britpop – a term coined by the music press to describe an apparently uniquely English youth phenomenon in the 1990s. Yet again, the Gallaghers, like the Smiths, have no English blood. They're also sons of Irish immigrants to Manchester.

Johnny Lydon aka Johnny Rotten was the son of an Irish immigrant to London. He epitomised the snarling, out-of-control side of English punk adolescence. He was also a hybrid: genetically Irish, environmentally English.

Today's pop theorists say the English excel at music, and youth rebellions and pop culture. There is little doubt that this is where England has been at her most creative over the past 40 years. The same theorists appear on arty late-night chat shows, citing pivotal names to back up their impressive-sounding arguments.

In the course of this serious sociological discussion, they are highly likely to trace what they might describe as an "uninterrupted rebellious arc", from John Lennon to Johnny Rotten, Morrissey, Liam Gallagher, even up to today and Pete Doherty and even Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, whose Irish granny is active in the Sheffield Irish centre.

When we think of comedy, another area where the English excel, the fingerprints of the Hiberno-Brits are everywhere. Could anyone, except the Hi-Brit son of Irish immigrants, comedian Steve Coogan, have had the perspicacity to create the horrible, toe-curling and monstrously middle-English Alan Partridge?

But then think of other Hi-Brit comedians such as Peter Kay, Dave Allen, Spike Milligan, Catherine Tate, Jimmy Carr, Paul Merton, Neil Morrissey and Mrs Merton (Caroline Aherne).

The Irish impact is not only in edgy comedy or rebels with guitars. Smack in the centre of mainstream broadcasting, we have Judy Finnigan, Dec Donnelly and Ant McPartlin (Ant and Dec), Ann Robinson, Sharon Osbourne, Dermot O'Leary, Dermot Murnaghan and Martha Kearney.

The Hi-Brit is a unique fusion that could neither be fully Irish nor fully English, yet they flourished in England, not in Ireland. England's tolerance played a huge part in allowing them to express themselves. Can you imagine Boy George (George O'Dowd) or Julian Clary or Paul O'Grady getting away with cross-dressing in Ireland in the 1980s?

The Hi-Brits are part of the furniture. Many argue that they are now as English as the English themselves. Well, yes and no – but is there a difference?

The 1970s and 1980s Hi-Brits knew the "otherness" as kids when they closed their front doors and entered a very un-English, Irish world of sacred hearts, domestic service, labourers, nurses, spinster Auntie Mary and hairy bacon. They knew it when they made their communion, went to Mass and attended schools called St Dominic's.

This distinction was never black and white and the lines between both tribes – the immigrants and the hosts – were often blurred. Yet there was a difference and for many, keen to get away from the relatively foreignness of Irishness in post-war England, it was the kitchen. And it appears that this difference could have been the catalyst for a creative surge.

As I look out on the Old Bailey and consider these two tribes, us and them, how close yet distinct we are, I realise that seeking to elevate those things which separate us is best described as "the narcissism of small differences".

www.davidmcwilliams.ie

Irish Independent

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