‘Irish heart, Coventry home” is how barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher evoked identity for her clients, the Keane family, during a landmark case in Britain this week about the Irish language.
Twenty-three years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the notion of hybridity is non-controversial here. But some Irish people living in Britain, or those with Irish heritage, are experiencing hostility.
Recently, Republic of Ireland football international James McClean and his wife spoke out about enduring a nine-year torrent – from racial abuse to graphic threats of violence.
Erin McClean said someone threatened to burn down their home in England, while an online message was sent to another family member saying her husband would be tied to a chair, set on fire and she and their three young children forced to watch.
Mr McClean told RTÉ radio it was “mind-blowing” and “baffling” such hatred was generated against him.
“The abuse isn’t a once-off,” said the Derry-born footballer.
“We can take the name-calling and the rest but what we cannot accept is threatening our family home and our children’s lives. They don’t deserve this,” said Ms McClean.
Other Irish sportspeople have experienced some racial abuse in Britain, but the Stoke City winger has been singled out for refusing to wear a poppy, interpreted as an anti-British stance.
FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill condemned the abuse. “Unfortunately, such behaviour is all too common now on social media,” he said.
McClean’s description of his experience coincides with the Keane case, where a Coventry family were obliged to fight for almost three years, going to Britain’s top ecclesiastical court to overturn a lower court’s prejudicial decision. It had banned them from using an Irish phrase without an English translation on their mother Margaret’s headstone.
The original judge ruled the phrase – “in ár gcroíthe go deo”, or ‘in our hearts forever’ – would be read as a political slogan. In effect, this was conflating the language with terrorism.
But the Church of England appeals court, the Court of Arches, struck out that judgment on Wednesday, in an important decision for the Irish community in Britain. It represents acceptance of the idea it’s possible to hold British and Irish loyalties simultaneously.
The case made headlines, with widespread realisation that such discrimination couldn’t be left unchallenged. Other headstones had Welsh, Latin and Hebrew without translations.
Politicians lent their voices to the Keanes’ campaign, including SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Armagh-born British Labour Party MP Conor McGinn, who spoke a cúpla focal into the record when he raised it in Westminster.
And Irish organisations, from Conradh na Gaeilge to the Labour Party Irish Society to Irish PEN (an association of writers) rallied to their support – Irish PEN joined for the first time in combined action with English, Scottish and Welsh PEN centres and PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights committee.
The experiences of the Keanes and McCleans beg the question whether there is an upsurge in anti-Irish bias in some sections of British society. If so, what might be causing it?
The headstone ban demonised Irish heritage by demonising the language. But generations of Irish people have made a home in Britain and contributed to society there. Margaret Keane’s daughter Bez Martin told the Irish Independent: “Mum screamed equally as loud for Coventry City FC as she did for Meath or Mayo GAA. The ruling made it seem that people couldn’t live that way – that the language, rituals, markers of the indigenous culture would naturally assume a position of dominance, which in turn equalled oppression. The ruling perpetuated that.
“But we are living examples of the possibility of, and indeed benefits of, embracing both traditions. The six children in our family were all born and raised in England, but the sense of other was never a prominent feature. There was a natural, almost organic, pride in our Irish heritage coupled with an acknowledgment of life in England.”
She said the ruling was like the darkest days of the Troubles in the 1970s, and some of the social media commentary had been “anti-Irish rhetoric”. Ms Martin warned: “We could be sleepwalking into cultural ghettos.”
She attributes the abuse to Brexit plus social media plus the Trump effect: “The Brexit debate is so toxic still to this day, and populist politics hasn’t garnered reasoned debate. But I fear the racist abuse, particularly in football grounds, bubbled long before Brexit.” McClean’s experience bears this out.
It’s important to stress how generations of Irish people were welcomed in Britain after being chased out of Ireland, either as unmarried mothers or because they had fallen from grace. Generations of economic migrants, too, had the opportunity to earn a living and make their homes in Britain – they thrived there. Before the peace process, I lived in Britain for a decade, and on only one occasion received face-to-face anti-Irish abuse – although IRA bombs were exploding and people were dying.
English people are tolerant on the whole, and a number of their cities are multicultural places. Granted, not every immigrant experience is positive, and abuse may be more prevalent in some occupations than others. But during my time there I found the British warm, non-judgmental and generally well disposed towards Irish people. However, they were hazy on Irish matters, particularly Irish history and the part Britain played there. As for ourselves, unfortunately we Irish have a racist streak – ask any person of colour. Or take a look at the conditions people in direct provision have been kept in.
And I doubt if English people living in Ireland were made anywhere near as welcome as we were, especially during the frustrations of Brexit when anti-Britishness emerged in social discourse here.
That said, today in Britain there is evidence of an unhealthy empire nostalgia in certain circles, with some British people nursing an unreal view of their place in the world. It’s been said Britain lost an empire but has not yet found a role.
But it must be acknowledged it was a useful ally to Ireland in the EU, and we are interconnected socially and culturally, as well as economically still; consequently it’s in our interests to maintain positive connections. It’s possible to be anti-empire without being anti-British.
Speaking of which, President Michael D Higgins has been addressing these matters in his measured and thought-provoking Machnamh 100 series of lectures. He wrote a recent article for The Guardian newspaper in which he put forward a roadmap to understanding our shared past – not to blame but prevent recurrence.
“A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together,” said President Higgins, urging recognition for different perspectives.
That judgment from the Court of Arches acknowledges and supports the right to a different perspective.
Irish heart, Coventry home.