‘Being Irish’ will be published in two weeks, it is a collection of personal reflections on nationality by 101 figures from Ireland and abroad. My contribution is below- Can you support us by joining us for an online chat online on 25th Oct . Click the link to reserve your free ticket
My Irishness came late, it was delayed by tragedy and a commitment to class. The idea to which we attach our identity is not always chosen freely at first. It comes from the water we swim in, the road we travel along, and the events and people we meet. The identity we finally accept is in our hands, we determine who we are, not where and when we are. By the mid-seventies, I had chosen. I stood at the bus stop in Speke council estate, briefcase in hand, waiting for the bus to a posh grammar school. My parents had left for work before we got up, two sisters were next to me waiting for the bus to a local factory. I remembered Heath saying ‘It is the government or the miners’ and being happy the miners won.
A shop steward brother introduced me to Paul Foot and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. I couldn’t decide between Slade and T Rex but did decide the Communist Manifesto spoke for me. The working class is still the spectre haunting Europe. One of the events on my road was the suicide of an older brother in Ebrington barracks in Nov 1975 three days before my fifteenth birthday, he used the rifle issued by Her Majesty’s Government to kill an Irishman, himself.
Our father left Wicklow, like tens of thousands of other social and economic migrants after WW2. He moved to Liverpool where he met my mum. As a seaman, my mum’s dad, also from Wicklow, was already shipping out of Garston. My brother wasn’t the first Irishman to die in the British army, in earlier times he would have been escaping poverty in Dublin or Belfast, and later the rest of the UK. The defining things about Peter were his love of sport, Everton Football Club, and English nationalism.
Maybe it was youthful rebellion or the lack of Irish as opposed to Catholic culture, but he became a supporter of Enoch Powell. The army was an escape from factory work or the dole, but also a mission to serve his queen and country. From the moment of his death, we could not talk about, share, or enquire of anything Irish, in fear of raising his ghost. I know our family’s loss is just one of the thousands on all sides, there are plenty of ghosts.
I wrote a poem called ‘a mirror cracked’, it’s long lost, but the central idea was the distorted image Peter must have come to have, of himself. In Derry he saw the same terraced streets and houses as Garston, he saw the faces of neighbours, family and friends, and the names were as Irish as his own. Whether it was a sudden realisation, or a growing awareness of the disparity between who he was, and what he was doing doesn’t matter, what matters is that it was finally resolved by taking his own humanity. The tragedy of an English born son of Irish parents going to die in the British army in Northern Ireland came to encapsulate for me the failure not just of the Northern Irish state, but of the Southern state that was torn from the UK in fire and fury and cost the lives of so many, only to see the welfare functions of the new state handed over to the Catholic church and the economy to a new breed of Irish capitalist.
The newly independent Republic failed my father and the tens of thousands like him who became migrants. Fleeing Ireland were many of the victims of trauma from the industrial schools, the laundries, the mother and baby homes, or women escaping the social constraints imposed by rigid catholicism. These past twenty years of the Good Friday Agreement were an opportunity to overcome the political divide, the walls, and the barrier of armed struggle, to create a new country. The success has been the absence of war, the failure is the absence of a common experience. The material interests and the sectarian culture that sees a layer of politicians and criminals making a good living atop the crumbling edifice of the northern Irish state means it will not be an easy transition.
There is enough blood in Irish soil to incorporate the celebration and commemoration of all traditions. The working class on the Falls and Shankill, in Derry and Garston have always had their exploitation, and now food banks in common, the hope of many was the removal of guns could lead to unity in the recognition of common class interests. Ireland for my kids is catching crabs off Parnell bridge in Wicklow, or dodging the surf in Brittas Bay. I hope in the future they are not visited by the ghosts of the past.