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Fintan O’Toole: The British and Irish are no big deal to each other, which itself is a very big deal

The Irish culture of my childhood defined Ireland as whatever England was not

London that summer had a sort of heat I'd never experienced in Ireland, the dense, closed-in kind you get only in very big cities. It was 1969, I was 11 years old and this was my first day in England.

I’d come over on the boat from Dublin to Liverpool with my father and my brother, who was 13. We’d come through the English midlands on the bus, a deeply foreign landscape of motorways and service stations and giant power plants.

My father’s first cousin Vincent had met us at the terminus and we’d taken another bus across to the East End, where we’d be staying with my mother’s sister Brigid. Brigid was a nun, so we were actually going to be staying in a Catholic convent.

Between the heat and the prospect of three days behind the convent walls, my dad decided he could do with a pint. So my brother and myself were left sitting on a low wall with bottles of Fanta, while Vincent and my father disappeared into the pub.


I remember sitting on that wall and sucking on the straw to try to suppress the panic. We were alone in England, abandoned in an alien place. England, as an idea, terrified me.

One true faith

I knew from history lessons in school that the English only ever did bad things to Irish people. And I knew that the heart of that badness was Protestant. There was one true faith, which was of course Catholic, so England of its very nature was deviant. You wouldn’t know what to expect of such people – except that it would not be nice. My older brother was playing it cool. I was sweating with heat and inherited anxiety.

Then, along the road, came an enormous man in flowing white robes, his height accentuated by a tall leopard skin hat. He had an entourage of five or six men, also dressed in white but far less flamboyant. He was surely some kind of dignitary, a minor king perhaps or a tribal chief. I couldn’t help staring at him.

He held my gaze and his face lit up with a huge smile. He patted me on the head in a gesture of blessing and benevolence and said something to his sidekicks in a language I did not recognise.

He looked down at me and asked, "Are you enjoying your pop?" Pop wasn't a word we used in Ireland for sugary drinks but I knew what it meant. I knew from the British comics we devoured, the Beano and the Dandy, that it was something English kids said.

And it struck me that he thought my brother and myself were natives, that we were English. I was quite indignant. I wanted to explain to him that he had it all wrong, that we were visitors at least as foreign as himself. But I was too awestruck to say anything and in any case, he was sailing majestically onwards down the street, trailed by the brilliant white wake of his entourage.

I’ve sometimes wondered what my 11 year-old self might have said to that regal personage if I could have articulated any of my feelings. What if he had heard my protests and dismissed them: “Well, you look English to me, so why all the fuss?” What if he’d asked what we were doing here anyway? I’d have had to tell him that my uncle Vincent who was in the pub behind us had left working-class Dublin and been able to get a great education in England, ending up at Oxford University. And that we were going to stay with my auntie, the nun, who was working as a nurse in the East End. And after that we’d be going to stay in Maidstone with my father’s brother Kevin, who had been a quartermaster sergeant in the Royal Engineers and voted Tory. And then we were going to stay with my mother’s brother Peter and his wife Cilla in Manchester: he was a bus-driver and she worked in a sewing factory and they were Labour people.

Same games

And that all their kids – the cousins who spoke with a Kentish burr or a Manchester drawl – were the same as me really, that we played the same games and watched the same TV programmes and listened to the same pop songs and got on together immediately we met because we were family.

I’m not sure he’d have been convinced my Irishness was anything more than a tiny local variation of Englishness.

It was much more, of course – and it still is. Being Irish isn’t something you have to prove – it’s just a matter of fact. But it’s also not simple and in particular it is not what my 11-year-old self thought it was – the opposite of being English.

Relationships within what we now call "these islands" are fluid, ambiguous and complex. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland form some kind of matrix, but it is always shifting and never stable. And the people who belong within these entities are no more simple or stable either.

We let identities go and we bring them back from the dead. Sometimes, the network of relationships matters a lot and sometimes we forget about it because we are too busy looking inwards. Most of the time, we are quite comfortable holding at least two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time.

I grew up with those contradictions. The official Irish culture of my childhood and youth was one that defined Ireland as whatever England was not.

England was Protestant; so Catholicism had to be the essence of Irish identity. England was industrial; so Ireland had to make a virtue of its underdeveloped and deindustrialised economy. England was urban; so Ireland had to create an image of itself that was exclusively rustic.

The English were scientific rationalists; so we Irish had to be the mystical dreamers of dreams. They were Anglo-Saxons; we were Celts. They had a monarchy, so we had to have a republic. They developed a welfare state; so we relied on the tender mercies of charity.

But life just wasn’t like that. My aunts and uncles were very happy to work in factories and services in English cities. They emigrated, not so much to Britain, as to the welfare state.

The Irish helped to build the National Health Service and enjoyed its benefits. They relished the educational opportunities opened up by British social democracy. And, though they were certainly capable of racism, many also relished life in a multiethnic society. Many of my cousins are half-Irish and half Afro-Caribbean or half-Irish and half-Asian.

Sexual prejudice

And, though Catholicism was an important point of distinction, it is also true that many Irish people preferred to live in England because they could be more free from sexual prejudice and repression.

Six years after that first visit to London, when I was 17, I spent the summer working in a huge cinema in Piccadilly Circus.

It was the first place I was ever asked a particular question: “Are you gay or straight?” I murmured almost apologetically that I was straight – apologetically because I had quickly realised that almost everyone who worked there was gay.

The manager was gay and he hired gay men, so that the place was a kind of safe haven. I had been given a job on a mistaken assumption. But that was okay – I was tolerated. And it was an important, if rather ironic, experience, a tiny taste of what it’s like to belong to a sexual minority.

I think in different ways England did this for a lot of Irish people – it taught us how “majority” and “minority” are moveable feasts. In Ireland, most of us were part of a powerful majority culture; in England we had to learn what it was like to belong to the few rather than the many.

So we had these two very different ways of thinking about England: as the opposite of Us and as a place where Us could mean something much more fluid and open. And the interesting thing about the present moment is not that one of these ways of thinking has banished the other. It’s that they’ve both been banished.

The first one – the notion that Ireland and England are opposites – is long gone. No Irish kid today would experience the sense of strangeness in moving through a built-up English landscape that I felt in 1969: most Irish people now live in the same kind of urban or suburban places as their English counterparts do.

Collective identity

Ireland is a lot less Catholic and England a lot less Protestant – and in any case religion matters much less to either nation’s collective identity. The historical antagonisms have been replaced by intense co-operation and a mutual interest in peace.

Perhaps most importantly, England and Ireland are no longer the two opposite poles of nationality on these islands – Wales, and in particular an unsettled Scotland, are much more assertive parts of the matrix.

The loss of this simplistic opposition is all to the good. But I think the other, more positive, side of the old contradiction is also on the way out. It’s going in part simply because Ireland has changed.

The time is long gone, for example, when Irish people had to cross the sea to experience life in a multicultural and multiethnic society – rapid inward migration since the 1990s has brought that experience home.

The time is also gone when LGBT people felt they had to leave Ireland for a more accepting culture in Britain. Irish women do still go to England for abortions they can’t get at home but that time, too, may be gradually passing as Ireland moves to change its very restrictive abortion laws.

If England is less of an escape for Irish people it is partly because there is less to escape from.

But things may be changing for less benign reasons too. The image of an open, tolerant England, a place of opportunity and acceptance, is not gone but it is diminishing.

It is harder to know what to make of England because it is harder to guess what England makes of itself. It sometimes seems that there must be a fixed amount of anxiety about nationhood and identity in these islands – when it diminishes on one side of the Irish Sea, as it has done in Ireland, it rises equally on the other side.

If the contradictions we used to live with are gone, we are left with a paradox: the Irish Sea has never seemed so narrow or its two sides so alike. Yet Ireland and Britain may be about to become more separate than they have ever been, divided as they may be by a European Union border.

There was a time, of course, when many Irish people would have dreamed of this state of affairs, when nationalists would have loved nothing better than to have the strongest possible barriers between Ireland and Britain.

But now it is hard to find an Irish person who would not deeply regret it. That, in itself, says something. Underneath the politics, things have settled down into an ordinary decency, a largely contented neighbourliness. After so many centuries of bitterness, that is no mean feat.

The delight of British-Irish relations in the decades after the Belfast Agreement is that they had finally evolved to be kind of boring. The sharing of a small space in a big world had become as normal as it should be. To each other, the British and the Irish are no big deal.

Hard won

But the fact of it all being no big deal is a very big deal indeed. Just because it is undramatic, we should not let this state of affairs be taken for granted. It is hard won and it should not be lost sight of in all the larger political upheavals.

And there is hope in the ordinary. Even when times were bitter and national relations were complicated, Irish and British people just got on with the business of being beside each other.

We have both been very good at thinking one thing and doing another, creating political barriers and ignoring them in real life. If the times call for a revival of those skills, we have plenty of practice to call on.