Wednesday 26 June 2019

How the Hiberno-Brits raised the bar

Irish-Brits have helped to reshape popular culture by channelling their innate outsider nature into something creative, writes Brendan O'Neill

HIT: McDonagh's film might be set in Missouri, but is has his Irish instincts.
HIT: McDonagh's film might be set in Missouri, but is has his Irish instincts.

Brendan O'Neill

Those of us who have Irish blood but an English heart, in Morrissey's immortal words, were watching the Oscars ceremony last week with bated breath.

Because one of our brood - one of our tribe, one of us Irish-Brits - was up for some of the big gongs.

In the event Martin McDonagh didn't bag an Oscar for his brilliant Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (though it gave Frances McDormand her second 'Best Actress' award). But it was doubtless a big night for the playwright turned movie-maker. As I watched him sitting there in the Dolby Theatre, I thought not bad for a boy from a London-Irish enclave. For the son of a construction worker from Connemara and a house-cleaner from Sligo. British-born but Irish-made.

Steve Coogan
Steve Coogan

For someone who hails from that strange No Man's Land that is Irish-Britishness, where you're never quite sure if you belong here or there, in the country you were born in or the country your parents had to leave.

I feel a particular connection with McDonagh. Not only are we both London-Irish - we're both London-Connemaran.

Like McDonagh, my father, and also my mother, made the schlep from Connemara to London in search of work.

Johnny Marr and Morrissey
Johnny Marr and Morrissey

In 1969, not yet 20, they left the unforgiving, wind-battered coast of Ballyconneely for the alien concrete jungle of North-West London, not far from the capital of Irish London: County Kilburn.

Like McDonagh, my dad was a construction worker. Like McDonagh, my parents had sons (though they had six rather than the McDonaghs' two) and they tried their damnedest to forge us into respectable young men, via Catholic schooling, Mass on Sundays, summer holidays 'back home', and anything else that might make us landless youths feel anchored.

And like McDonagh I feel Irish. And British. And confused.

I might have been born in Britain, I might live and work here, but it's Connemara that courses through my veins. That place's bleak beauty and contrarianism and scepticism of those who think they know better - politicians, priests, the Irish Times - are probably the main shapers of my personality.

Shane MacGowan
Shane MacGowan

As they seem to be of McDonagh's. Remember that this Camberwell lad, raised in the noisy, high-rise heart of London, set his first plays in the wilds of Connacht.

Britain might have schooled and socialised the young McDonagh, but it was Irish stories he felt most qualified to tell. He had lived his whole life in Britain but when he first spoke publicly, it was in an Irish voice.

McDonagh speaks to the cultural schizophrenia of the Irish-Brit. To the emotional tug-of-war experienced by those of us who really should have been born in Ireland but who through historic, political and economic quirks beyond our control, and our parents' control, ended up being born in Britain. And he speaks to the furious creativity of this torn tribe.

Is there something in the Irish-British experience that nurtures cultural daring? There might be. It isn't only McDonagh. Across pop culture, these accidental Brits, these possessors of Irish blood and English hearts, have made a huge impact.

Kate Bush
Kate Bush

And very often their impact has been heavy on the attitude. There's a cockiness, a bristling at conformism, in a lot of the output of the Irish-Briton.

Consider the aforementioned Morrissey. He's the unofficial author of the Irish-British take on life: "Irish blood, English heart, this I'm made of / There is no one on Earth I'm afraid of."

Currently on tour - he played Dublin a couple of weeks ago - Moz is still the bigmouth who strikes again and again at anyone in authority who pisses him off.

In the 1980s, at the helm of The Smiths, he railed against the old establishment: monarchy, church, Tories. Today he takes aim at the new establishment: he loathes the EU, thinks feminism has gone too far, bamboozles the trendy music press by loving Brexit.

The Smiths, beloved of outsiders everywhere, sprung from the industrial belly of Irish Manchester. Their surnames speak to that: Steven Morrissey, Johnny Marr (real name: Maher), Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce.

Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners
Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners

Moz once described himself as "nine parts Crumlin, nine parts Old Trafford" (his parents went from Crumlin to Manchester). Marr says one of his earliest influences was Big Tom. The "melodies of those sad Irish tunes" sparked his guitar love.

Every Irish-Brit will relate to this. Big Tom, Foster & Allen, Philomena Begley: these were the soundtracks to our youths, played in car journeys to Gaelic football matches or in the pubs in which we sat quietly in the corner while dad had a well-deserved pint.

Also in music there's the Gallagher boys, who likewise seem allergic to mainstream thinking.

Noel and Liam Gallagher
Noel and Liam Gallagher

From Manchester via Mayo, Liam and Noel were responsible for possibly the last mass rock band Britain has produced: Oasis.

Noel, famously prickly, given to dishing out hilarious insults, has touched on the torn nature of the Irish-Brit. Recently admitting he could never support the English football team, he ventured: "I don't consider myself to be English. My parents are Irish. But at the same time I don't feel 100pc Irish either because I was born in England."

That's it. The Irish-British predicament. We're not proper Brits, but we're not really Irish.

In Britain we're outsiders because we come from communities that have accents and attitudes and religious habits that mark them out as different. And in Ireland we're outsiders because we have British accents and British citizenship.

In Britain we're Paddies; in Ireland we're Plastic Paddies.

We inhabit a No Man's Land of identity. We're nowhere people. And perhaps that's the spark to the wry way we look at the world.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

Consider Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), the London-born son of a Galway dad and Cork mum. Rotten's tortured Irishness has been key to his punk attitude. His autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, touched upon the difficulties faced by the Irish in Britain. But he also recalls being slagged for his cockney accents on childhood trips to Ireland.

"I didn't ask to move out of Ireland", he would fume at his Irish mockers. Our accidental nature summed up.

His parents were outsiders in Britain, he was an outsider in Ireland. Can punk itself be a byproduct of the agitations of the Irish-Brit? Rotten made the outsiderism of Irish-Britishness into popular culture's most outsider trend.

There's Kate Bush, whose mother was Irish. Bush once said her music was an attempt to "get that Irish blood in me to come through". How fitting that she became the banshee of British music, unlike any other artist.

Boy George (George O'Dowd), the London son of Irish parents, spearheaded the late 1970s' New Romanticism, a search for a subculture of belonging.

And, of course, there's Shane MacGowan, from Kent via Tipperary, the undisputed king of Irish-Britain.

To those of us who came of age in the 1980s, MacGowan's music, London stories to Irish tunes, was wholly ours. It captured better than anything our disputed nature, our need to make our own world given that neither of the ones we straddled - Britain and Ireland - were really ours.

In the world of comedy, there's Steve Coogan and the late, great Caroline Aherne, brought up in Manchester by her Irish railway worker father and Irish mother.

It's hard to imagine any of Britain's notoriously middle-class, Cambridge-educated comedy set - Aherne went to Liverpool Polytechnic - giving the kind of comedic take Aherne gave: sceptical, working-class, unmoved by celebrity or status.

Think of Mrs Merton mocking celebrity after celebrity and even the very idea of TV itself. This really was an Irish-British lens.

The Irish-British influence stretches far. In sport (Kevin Keegan, Tony Adams, Wayne Rooney and many, many more). In journalism. And in politics, too. Let's not forget that Tony Blair (inset), whether we like it or not, is one of us: his mum was from Donegal, where Blair spent his childhood summers.

David McWilliams calls us "Hi-Brits" - Hiberno-Brits - and says our impact on British culture has been colossal. It has been. But more importantly it's been distinctive.

In a sense it isn't surprising so many Irish-Brits have shaken up culture. We're a legion: six million Brits, one in 10, have at least one Irish grandparent.

But what's notable is the kind of cultural noise this tribe makes. We've helped to reshape popular culture by channelling our landless state, our innate outsider nature, into something creative.

McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might be set in Missouri, but it has his Connemaran instincts - that same "Irish blood" that Morrissey and Kate Bush talk about, the punkish attitude of the accidental Brit. Its lead character, grieving mum Mildred Hayes, rages against the police, the media, the church; her showdown with a Catholic priest is priceless.

This might be Irish-Britons' gift to the world: a culture of not fitting in, and a corresponding agitation with those who think everyone must fit in. After all, there's nothing on Earth we're afraid of.

Sunday Independent

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