Being Irish: Norah Casey
Written when I was Editor in Chief, The Irish Post (1999)
I left Ireland at the tender age of 17 swearing I would be back by the end of the year. I remember this friend of the family picking me up from the airport. I knew she had been brought up in Dublin but she spoke with a strong Scottish brogue. I asked her how long she had been away from home. To my shock she replied 15 years and added with a laugh that she only intended staying for a year or so. Funnily enough no warning bells sounded – I just thought how sad it was that she was exiled for such a long time. So here I am having lived more years in Britain than in Ireland. I’ve clocked up 22 years now and I still say on December 31 each year that it will be my last. Oh its not that I don’t enjoy my life here in Britain, in many ways it’s far better than it might have been back home. Its just that unsettled feeling of living in a country that’s not your own – worse in fact, a country that for most of my life has been in conflict with my own.
I was a ‘60s baby, brought up in an Ireland that was almost exclusively Irish. I remember my best friend’s cousins would arrive from England speaking in a strange manner but yet calling themselves Irish. We used to laugh at their posh English accents and claims of Irish roots. But I also remember a feeling of inferiority to these well-dressed and well-spoken boys who lived across the water. Apart from their infrequent visits my early years were spent in the company of Irish people. My infrequent trips home from Scotland as an impoverished student were strange and unsettling. Conversations were stilted and limited. After five years in Scotland I was probably the most exotic visitor to my little corner of Dublin.
Now I find myself at the helm of a “little Ireland” in London. The Irish Post is the flagship publication in Smurfit Media’s stable – a wonderful community newspaper that has been around for 30 years. We employ predominantly Irish people, write about Irish events, review Irish plays and attend most of the many Irish social events in Britain – it’s a wonderful home from home.
The Irish Post
When I came here as Editor of The Irish Post my father and I had something to talk about for the first time in 18 years. I could relate to my brothers and sisters (all but one of whom live in Ireland) – I knew the latest gossip, the tribunal trivia, when Charlie Haughey sneezed. I rediscovered my Irishness through The Irish Post and found opinions I didn’t even know I had. Since then I have seen the same transformation happen to our unsuspecting new recruits – usually second generation Irish people who have vague memories of childhood holidays on an uncle’s farm. The extraordinary thing is that many of our staff speak with English accents, but not only have an enormous knowledge base about Irish history and politics, they are usually more up to date on the Irish music scene than the average Irish man or woman.
Its amazing that a whole generation of young Irish here in Britain are more Irish than the Irish themselves yet were neither born nor brought up in Ireland. To them the jibes about ‘plastic paddies’ are demeaning and hurtful. Why should where you were born dictate who you are? They were born of Irish parents and have retained a strong cultural link with the Ireland of their parent’s generation. In a way I have a stronger affinity with them than I do with the new generation of Irish people who I meet in my frequent business trips back home.
Being Irish, rich and famous
I receive no end of comments about how the Irish are taking over Britain but in reality given the numbers of Irish people here it is hardly surprising. Britain is home to nearly five million people of Irish descent with around one million first generation (the largest number outside of Ireland). My non-Irish friends, however, find the whole notion of Irishness amusing when it comes to actors like Pierce Brosnan and accuse us of laying claim to anyone with even the vaguest of Irish roots. But the fact is that many famous and influential Irish people haven’t always found it beneficial to boast of their heritage as they climbed to the top. Indeed it is only in recent years that Irish people in business here in Britain have felt comfortable in proclaiming their Irishness. Each year The Irish Post awards seek to honour Irish men and women who have excelled here in Britain. Previous winners read like a who’s who of the arts and entertainment industry. Recent award recipients include the actress Kathy Burke, Patrick Bergin, Ralph Fiennes (and his entire family), Caroline Aherne, Niamh Cusack, Fiona Shaw. On the sports front we have no end of heroes – David O’Leary, Roy Keane, Steve Collins. Irish TV and radio personalities are legion – Eamonn Holmes, Dermot O’Leary, Shauna Lowry, Fergus Sweeny, Fergal Keane, Craig Doyle and of course Terry Wogan.
The Irish business leaders
Ireland’s phenomenal economic growth has brought a new confidence to Irish people at home and abroad. In the past decade Ireland has undergone a complete transformation. For the past six years it has been the fastest growing economy in the OECD. Decades of mass emigration has been replaced by net migration and unemployment by virtually full employment. As evidence of its success at the leading edge of technological development the OECD recently declared Ireland as the world’s number one exporter of software products – a tremendous achievement for a country of its size and history. The effects of the Celtic Tiger have been felt the world over but particularly here in Britain where so many Irish people have made their home.
Ireland’s booming economy has been matched by an impressive growth in the scale and influence of Irish business people in Britain. The Irish in Britain Business Yearbook, which is published annually by Smurfit Media UK, is a reflection of the contribution of Ireland’s most talented business brains to British business. Five years ago when Smurfit Media published the first ‘who’s who’ of the influential Irish in Britain there were some seventy-five people featured, now there are hundreds. Each year this annual initiative has grown and kept pace with the increasing numbers of Irish people driving the business sector in this country. Companies House can provide a database of some 11,000 Irish directors of British-based companies. Research conducted by Smurfit Media two years ago showed Irish highfliers were disproportionately represented at the top of British businesses. This highly skilled and well-educated group of Irish people have bucked the trend and overturned many of the stereotypical images of Irish people as all brawn and no brains. Two years on those highfliers are coming through to the very top tier of business management with many of them featuring in this year’s profile section.
I don’t believe we need make any apology for claiming some of the best of Britain’s business brains and artistic talent as our own – Ireland needs its needs heroes and heroines here in Britain. Young Irish people growing up here in Britain need role models to emulate – they need to be reassured that today’s Irish expat is a far cry from the stereotypical images suffered by their parents and grandparents.
Political power – London’s Lord Mayor elections
Earlier this year The Irish Post hosted the first ever Irish hustings in the run up to the Mayor of London elections. Ken Livingstone, Frank Dobson, Steve Norris and others faced a packed hall at Camden’s Irish centre. London’s largest ethnic community had come of age.
According to the 1991 census, there are over 250,000 Irish-born people living in Greater London. When you include those born into an Irish household, this figure rises to over 640,000 or 9.5 per cent of the population of Greater London, making the Irish vote potentially crucial in that May election.
And there were many items of the agenda that night – not least health, housing, employment and policing. The Irish in America have traditionally been an important and influential lobby. Until recently, The Irish in Britain have been unable to flex their political muscle in Britain but growing self-confidence as a result of the peace process and Anglo-Irish rapprochement coupled with a major election in their heartland had prompted this initiative.
Irish issues had already provoked controversy during the mayoral campaign. Ken Livingstone has been attacked for his support of Irish issues over the years and he clashed with Steve Norris over the proposal (published exclusively in The Irish Post) for a St. Patrick’s Day parade in London to rival New York’s and emulate the success of the Notting Hill carnival.
Ken Livingstone secured 95 per cent of the vote in an Irish Post readers’ poll in the week’s before the election, and this promoted some negative remarks from Labour Headquarters. When an Irish Post journalist asked a Labour press officer for a comment on the outcome of the poll, he asked whether all Irish Post readers were Sinn Féin voters. It was hardly surprising that the vast majority of our readership should support Ken Livingstone. He is widely admired in the Irish community for his work at the GLC, recognising the Irish as an ethnic minority, promoting Irish culture and opposing the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
However, there are some in the Irish community who accuse him of acting out of political self-interest and splitting the traditionally Labour-supporting Irish vote. Nonetheless the importance of this political husting should not be underestimated – even if the election was a foregone conclusion. It was an important milestone for the Irish community and a good forerunner to what we hope will be a nationwide campaign in the run up to the general election. The interesting facet around the Mayor campaign is that we sent a reporter and photographer along to everyone who hinted they might stand – so Trevor Philips, Jeffrey Archer, Glenda Jackson and many others all had to think about what they would do for the Irish community if they got elected. Many of these politicians would not have even known how many Irish people they had in their constituency before we showed up for that interview.
The forgotten Irish
It’s a far cry from those days when those infamous ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ signs graced the doors of British pubs. For one thing the pub is more likely to be managed by an Irish landlord. Its cool to be green at last even if it’s only in the minds of the marketing moguls in the drinks industry. Being Irish in Britain has become easier over time especially for my generation. There are those who live here who will never integrate into the community or feel they are part of British society. It comes from living in a country you believe to be not only foreign but the enemy. And in turn Britain hasn’t treated them well. Many older Irish people suffer appalling health and social problems – the worst of all other ethnic minority groups and the host population. For some, their life expectancy reduced just on leaving Ireland. It is a hard legacy for that generation – those who lived here during the worst of the bombings. They learned to stay with their own, keep their heads down and to distrust officials of any kind (which is why they have the lowest take up of GP services and social benefits). The tragedy is that many of that generation also feel let down by the new, improved Ireland. They got left behind over the decades, they no longer harbour a dream of returning home because today’s Ireland is as foreign to them as Britain was all those years ago.
Over the past year I have been working closely with Arlington House in Camden – the single, biggest group of homeless Irish men in Europe. There are 130 men in Arlington with an average length of stay of around 35 years. They came to Camden during the construction boom, played hard, worked hard, lost touch with relatives and friends from back home and got trapped in a time warp. They are part of a huge forgotten army of Irish men who worked the roads and railways to keep bread on the table back home. Every year a group of these men go back to Ireland, often for the first time since they left. In last year’s group there was an 86 year old man who had left Donegal at 16 – he was returning for the first time (in the end he decided not to go through with it and who could blame him). Many feel embarrassed that distant cousins and long lost brothers would find out that they ended up, in their words, ‘in a doss house in London’. When we launched an appeal to raise funds for Arlington we got letters and donations from many who had been through its doors over the years – some wrote long poignant stories about their time there.
So being Irish is all of those things to me – the rich and famous who give us our heroes and heroines, the business brains who pave the way for the next generation and the residents of Arlington House, long forgotten heroes in their own way. I had a secretary once who was Afro-Caribbean, she lived in Peckham in South East London an area rich in multi-cultural inhabitants. She told me once that she rarely ventured into the more affluent areas of London because she felt so exposed being the only black face walking down the street. I have never felt that sense of difference where the colour of your skin immediately sets you apart from those around you. For me it is the moment I open my mouth that my difference is exposed. In Britain it sets me apart as being Irish and all that brings with it, yet in Ireland I am deemed to have a British hint to my brogue which brings with it a whole different set of negative perceptions. I no longer live in that twilight zone between Britain and Ireland. I still promise myself that I will once again live on Irish soil but for now I am an Irish woman who lives in London, comfortable and confident in that label. It has taken nearly two decades, however, for me to come to terms with that.
Norah Casey is a qualified print and broadcast journalist. She lectures internationally on the media and communication skills, does weekly radio and regular television slot on NI affairs and has published widely in national newspaper and publications. She registered for a PhD at the University of Wales in 199, is a founder member of the Womens Irish Network and an active participant in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Irish Affairs
Useful statistical Information
Statistical profile of the Irish in Britain
There are various estimates of the number of first generation Irish people in Britain. The Irish Embassy quotes a figure of close to one million Irish born resident in Britain while the 1991 Census of Great Britain (1) recorded 837,464 people of Irish birth (72.7% from the Irish Republic and 27.3% from Northern Ireland). The Irish community in Britain also includes the ‘second generation’ generally considered to be the children of the existing Irish born population. This figure is difficult to estimate as only one survey, the British Census in 1971 (2) asked a question about parent’s birthplace. The findings from that research shows that there were 1.3 million second generation in Britain at that time. The 1991 census identified 1.95 million people in total who lived in households where one parent was Irish born, however this is considered to be a significant underestimation of the true picture (3). The CRE estimates that the figure for ‘second generation’ Irish people is closer to 2.5 millions or 4.6% of the population as a whole. The population remains strongly clustered in Britain’s main cities – London, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Leeds and mainly third and fourth generation in Scotland (3). Although there has been some geographical shifts particularly from inner to outer London and to the wider South East and West region of England. Since the early 90s a new form of Irish migrant, younger Irish professionals, have been attracted (66%) to the South East, predominantly London. Well over a third (36%) of people born in the Irish republic live in London. West Midlands accounts for 9% and the majority of Irish born people in Scotland (57%) live in the Strathclyde region (3).
Migration between Britain and Ireland
In the last five years the migratory trend from Ireland to Britain has reversed, there is now a net migration of 20,000 people per annum. The majority of returners are reported to be in their 20s or 30s and more likely to be first generation than second generation Irish people. With the rise in employment opportunities in Ireland (the number of people at work has grown by 32% since 1993) more young Irish professionals are set to return in coming years. In fact 19% of people who returned to Ireland last year were British (The Economist, August 28, 1999). Despite net migration there are still significant numbers of Irish people arriving in Britain every year, some 20,000 young Irish graduates and professionals.
- Census of Population of Great Britain 1991, HMSO, 1992
- Census of Population of Great Britain 1971, HMSO, 1972
- Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain; Commission for Racial Equality, 1997