Book review: The Irish Are Coming - Ryan Tubridy
Paddy the Englishman
Non fiction The Irish Are Coming Ryan Tubridy William Collins, €17.35, tpbk, 248 pages. Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
In case you hadn't noticed, Ryan Tubridy presents the Late Late Show every Friday night and a radio show five mornings a week. It's a schedule that would floor most ordinary mortals. Even when he's off from RTÉ on his summer break, he turns up on BBC Radio to keep his hand in. He also writes books – his new one was published this week. As the old saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy man to do it.
Tubridy's first book, published in 2010, was a meticulous account of the Kennedy visit to Ireland in 1963, titled JFK in Ireland: Four Days that Changed a President. It was particularly good on the negotiations that preceded the visit and on how the Anglophile Kennedy family, before the visit, were less enraptured by their Irish roots than we were here. That changed after the visit, of course, and the book is an engaging description of the extraordinary emotion released during the visit and of its lasting impact not only on us, but on the president and the Kennedys.
The JFK book was a substantial piece of work. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Tubridy's new one. If his JFK book was a main course, this new one is a light dessert. Not that there's anything wrong with a fluffy dessert now and then, and the book is entertaining in its own light-hearted way. But there's little depth and the shift in level, given what went before, is surprising and a little disappointing.
Given Tubridy's fascination with Kennedy and the rumours that his new book was about the diaspora, most people had been expecting that it would be a follow-up which would explore Irish America. But the rumours were wrong. The Irish Are Coming, which was published in Ireland and Britain this week, is about the Irish in the UK, not the US.
The book profiles around 40 prominent Irish people in Britain whoTubridy, in his introduction, says "really did help to make Britain Great".
The chapters in the book are thematic – The Hellraisers (Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole), The Comedians (from Dave Allen to Dara Ó Briain), The Chat Show Hosts (from Eamonn Andrews to Graham Norton) and so on. There are chapters on Artists, Writers, Thespians (more actors), Musicians and Businessmen and a chapter on Politicians, Soldiers and Reporters. There are even chapters on The Boy Bands, The Harry Potter Bunch (more actors), and The James Bond Franchise.
The concentration on entertainment produces readable material, although a lot of it is second hand (in fairness, the notes at the back of the book give all the sources). That, coupled with the fact that most of the 40 or so profiles are just four or five pages long, makes it a perfect book for the bedside table.
So it's an entertainment more than an analysis, although each chapter has a foreword by Tubridy which frequently hints at a higher purpose. He seems to be aiming to explore why so many of Britain's best-loved entertainers have come from Ireland and what that says about them and about us, given our painful history.
That could be interesting and even revealing. But he never quite gets round to it. What we get instead are vaguely jokey profiles that rehash a lot of material we have read elsewhere.
There will be particular interest in his chapter on The Chat Show Hosts,. Why did Andrews, Wogan and these days Graham Norton turn into national British treasures?
The question is not really answered, although Tubridy, echoing Norton, says that "when someone from Ireland comes on television in the UK, the accent is classless. You can't tell how many bedrooms there were in their childhood home or whether their family employed servants or worked below stairs themselves. The fact that we don't fall neatly into the British class system helps the Irish..."
We knew that already. What we don't know and what he does not tell us is what Tubridy thinks of Wogan's or Norton's chat show technique and how they differ from his own? That would have been far more interesting.
Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of questioning about the state of relations between the British and the Irish today, something that Tubridy's introduction raises explicitly. He gives us a potted history (presumably for UK readers) and refers to the "800 years of hurt" and how we have all moved on in recent years, particularly since the peace deal and the Queen's visit.
Implicit in the book is the idea that the British have been good to us over recent decades, continuing to give us free access and jobs, even when the IRA were bombing British cities during the Troubles. Tubridy does not explore this, although he does emphasise what an important escape Britain was from the miserable Ireland of the 1950s and during various downturns right up to the present.
Speaking before the launch of the book this week, Tubridy mused about how his own family story illustrates how much the British-Irish relationship has changed.
"I remember during the Queen's visit I was in the Gravity Bar on top of the Guinness Storehouse for RTÉ when she was up there. My job was to point out the various landmarks you can see. Looking across the city I realised I was seeing places where my grandfather Todd Andrews was shooting at British soldiers during the War of Independence. My other grandfather, Sean Tubridy, was doing the same thing over in the West. And here I was talking to the Queen. I had a sudden realisation of the enormity of the moment."
More of that in the book would have been fascinating. He does discuss what he calls "the omerta" on the thousands of Irish who fought with the British in the First and Second World Wars and how we were never taught any of this in history in school. One of the most interesting profiles in the book is that of Brendan 'Paddy' Finucane, who was one of the great RAF fighter pilot aces of the Second World War. His father, Thomas, had fought alongside de Valera in Boland's Mill in 1916 before the family emigrated to the UK in the 1930s.
Tubridy is clearly of the view that it is way past time for us in this country to see people like Paddy as heroes, fighting a noble war for the defeat of the Nazis. Equally, where the First World War is concerned, one senses that he believes there should be an equality of respect whether one died in the GPO or in Flanders.
Unfortunately, the frothy nature of this book – and it is a very entertaining read – did not lend itself to any serious discussion of the fundamental issues that still underlie attitudes on both sides of the Irish Sea and the pace at which they are changing.
Or maybe the author was just too busy after all.