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Brexit refuseniks and their Irish passports: ‘The important thing for me was identity and heritage’

Readers tell us about their experiences of getting Irish passports and citizenship since the UK voted to leave the EU

Brexit made the Irish passport something of a luxury item. Steve Coogan has one. So does David Puttnam. The late Hilary Mantel had one too. Bill Nighy is very proud of his. “I became officially Irish when the disaster of Brexit happened. I remain in Europe. Thank you, Ireland,” Nighy said recently.

In all, 1,191 British people were granted Irish citizenship in 2021 – compared with just 54 six years earlier. For some of these, the relationship is purely transactional: an Irish passport means being able to move about the EU freely or just to get through airports more quickly. But for others, it has been an opportunity to tentatively step into their Irish identity. We asked readers to tell us about their experiences of getting an Irish passport since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016. Here are some of their stories.

Simon Lydiard, London

‘I didn’t know what nationality I was until my 50s. Then I found out my grandfather participated in the Easter Rising’

When he was 10 days old, Simon Lydiard went into care and was subsequently adopted. “I was brought up knowing that I was adopted, but it was only when I was in my 30s and got my adoption file that I found out my father’s name,” he says. His birth mother was English, but his father’s name – Louis Marié jnr – led him to assume that his roots lay somewhere in France.

Five years ago, unexpectedly, brought a surprising alternative origin story: to his “amazement and delight”, his DNA matched with Irish cousins whose name was MacGonigal. That discovery quickly led him to three half-brothers, all also Irish. Aged in his mid-50s, he found himself suddenly part of a big, busy Irish family.


Lydiard never met his father, who died in 2013, but they shared an interest in current affairs and politics and are so alike physically that it came as a shock to the family. “My brother said it was like my father walked into the restaurant.”

Lydiard – who had been a member of the British Labour Party at the time it supported Irish unification – was thrilled to find out that his birth grandfather, Comdt Louis Marié, played a pivotal role in the Easter Rising. On Easter Monday 1916, aged just 16, he was one of the party dispatched to blow up the ammunition store in the Phoenix Park, the signal to start the Rising. “He was one of those who carried James Connolly out on a stretcher.”

There were more family treasures to be unearthed: Lydiard’s great-uncle was the influential landscape artist Maurice MacGonigal, who was also a member of Na Fianna Éireann.

Lydiard applied for his Irish passport in 2017 but, with incomplete records, it was an onerous process. “I even consulted someone from the Irish Genealogical Society to see if I could submit DNA evidence but nobody had ever done that before,” he says. And then, out of the blue in 2017, “I had a phone call from the Passport Office telling me they accepted my papers.” That was an emotional moment, he says.

“A lot of people will say they got a passport because it makes them a European citizen. That’s fantastic: after I left the civil service, I campaigned for Remain. I’m not particularly happy with those who voted to leave the EU suddenly discovering they want to be Irish,” he says. “But the important thing for me was identity and heritage.” He has been to Ireland only twice: a trip to Dublin last year to meet his Irish family and a business trip 20 years ago. But his roots feel much deeper. “Although I never met him, I look on [my Irish passport] as a gift from my father.”

Jethro Soutar, Lisbon, Portugal

‘I felt embarrassed by my ignorance about Ireland so I got an Irish for Beginners CD and got into hurling’

“I was born and bred in England, but the Brexit vote found me living in Lisbon. In practical terms, applying for an Irish passport was the best way to make sure I could go on living in the EU. But I’d also made a number of Irish friends and was thinking about my Irish heritage in ways I’d not done before. Applying for the passport was a vote of support for the EU and two fingers to Brexit.

“Actually getting the passport came as a shock. It felt so strange to see my photo there – like some film scene, a hero on the run, counterfeit documents, fake ID. I was aware of just how privileged I was – the owner of two of the most coveted passports in the world. And I felt incredibly moved. I’d been given this, no questions asked, simply because my grandma had been Irish. She’d lived her entire adult life in England and suffered the usual prejudices. I’d shown no great interest in where she was from, and yet here I was, one of the tribe. But I also felt like a fraud, because as my girlfriend said when I showed her the passport, ‘Nationality Irish – that’s just a lie, you can’t even pronounce Irish names properly.’ I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, but honoured by my new citizenship and determined to do it justice. Every other book I read was by an Irish author. I reconnected with distant cousins, acquired an Irish for Beginners CD, got into hurling. I loved that I was now Irish.

“My mum also loved that I’d become Irish. She’d struggled to kindle any sense of belonging in me or my sister as kids in Sheffield. And now here I was quizzing her on the family tree. This even inspired her to write a novel, Virgin Ground. I’m not Irish, not really, and that’s part of the appeal. I don’t hear an accent or read a name and instantly make a string of assumptions. I don’t know all Ireland’s faults. Ireland will annoy me eventually – that goes with caring about a place – but I’d like to be able to idealise it for a little while yet.”

Tim Sheridan, Balearic islands, Spain

‘I was called Semtex at school’

“I was born in Ireland in the late 1960s. There was still a lot of stigma for single mothers, so I was shipped off to England quicksticks and adopted by an Irish mum and a dad of Irish descent. Being an Irish child in England in the 1970s wasn’t much fun. I was called ‘Semtex’ at school and would oblige with a temper to match. I got to see very early on what English xenophobia was like, but unlike folks of colour, all I had to do was shut my mouth and learn a new accent and I could pass.

“Later I realised who I was: a citizen of the world. I travelled extensively as a touring DJ and musician and ended up in Ibiza. Brexit changed everything. For the first time, my nationhood was in question. I’d be illegal in Spain. It wasn’t until I actually became embarrassed by the UK that I made a move to finally get my Irish papers. It was an issue of pride rather than need; I couldn’t bear to be associated with Westminster. It was genuinely delightful to gain my Irish papers. I would always say ‘I am Irish and raised in England’. Now I just tell folks I’m Irish, and I say it with pride. I’ll see out my days in the sun, my Irish skin burned to a crisp.”

Christine Coleman, Lot-et-Garonne, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

‘I never met any of my Irish grandparents, as I was an embarrassment to them’

“I was born to an Irish single mother in London in late 1949. I never met any of my grandparents as I was an embarrassment to them. My mother would go home to Mayo to help with harvesting, during which time she would not be allowed to mention me. All of that was normal for the times. I went to Dublin for the weekend in my 40s – my only visit.

“In 2014, my husband and I moved to France. We could not vote in the Brexit election, but felt sure nobody would vote to leave the EU as it had brought so many benefits. The result astounded us. The possibility of being made to return to the UK felt like a death sentence. Being able to obtain an Irish passport has literally saved our lifestyle and probably extended my life. Thank you, Ireland. I may not feel or sound Irish, but I am very grateful to it for recognising my origins.”

Damien Fox, Cook County, Illinois, US

‘My passport was my consolation prize as an anchor baby’

“I was the American-born son to newly minted immigrants ushered into the US via the ‘brain drain’ exodus from 1980s Ireland. Growing up, I had always felt caught in a grey area between two worlds: in America, I was Irish and passionately so; but in Ireland, I was ‘the Yank’. I considered applying for an Irish passport as the final step to take following an American childhood built on The Saw Doctors, bacon and cabbage and the inevitable countdown to our next flight into Shannon. The Irish passport was my birthright, or at least my consolation prize as an anchor baby being reared an ocean away from the country that would ultimately shape my identity. I remember collecting my passport at the Irish consulate in Chicago and opening it up to find the words as clear as day, ‘Nationality: Irish’. This wasn’t going to be a story about enjoying expedited queues in EU airports. It was proof to everyone – to myself – that I hadn’t been putting it on all these years; I hadn’t been lying. Both things could be true: I was a proud American, but I was also Irish. It was written there in black and white – validation that space had been made for me in a country I adored. It was like being welcomed home all over again.”

Neil Cooke, Coventry, England

‘I could sing along to The Fields of Athenry long before Brexit’

“The passport is nice to have, but it’s the citizenship certificate I treasure. Irish culture has never been far away in the communities I’ve lived in. I could sing along to The Fields of Athenry long before Brexit. But this takes it to a deeper level. As a Brit with Irish grandparents on my mother’s side, I applied straight after Brexit. While waiting for approval, I began researching my family tree and exploring Irish history. Becoming an Irish citizen is a journey that has little to do with sailing through passport control or even just being European. It is giving me a richer understanding of who I am, where I come from. It is a source of family honour and pride.”

Stevie Kilgour, West Yorkshire, England

‘When I read the first words, “A chara”, it was a rebirth for me’

“My choice for citizenship and a passport was not influenced by the EU. My grandmother was a proud Dublin woman who moved to England in the 1960s, and it was important to me to continue her line. I grew up with an Irish influence, but when I hit 30, I began to understand where I came from and the difficulties my ancestors faced going back to Meath, Dublin and Galway, all the way back to 1760. For me, it was confirmation of my identity. Not that there is a hatred for the land which gave me life here in England – but there is a disappointment in actions of the past. When the documents arrived and I read the first words ‘A Chara’, it was a rebirth for me. I feel proud to be part of the Irish diaspora.”

Flora Iacoponi, Dublin

‘I will never be considered Irish by the Irish but that’s okay’

“I come from Italy and I have been living in Ireland for 24 years. I would have applied for Irish citizenship eventually, but Brexit accelerated that process. One of the reasons for sending my application was the fear of a future Irexit, or the possibility of a change in attitude towards the EU by the Irish people – encouraged perhaps by the same forces that promoted Brexit. Another reason was access to the UK. How dare they block my right to study, work, retire and live there? In that sense, I am pretty much like the British people who got their Irish passport [and] wanted to keep their access to the EU. But there are also more profound and less opportunistic reasons as well. Living in Ireland and among the Irish and all the other people from around the world that call this island home has been wonderful. I will never be considered Irish by the Irish because I don’t really sound or look Irish. That’s understandable. But to be a little bit more Irish is important for me. If, over time, I become a bit less cynical and argumentative, and more lighthearted, warmer, a better neighbour, then I am more ‘Irish’. My Irish partner says that I have a bit to go yet!”

Michael Walsh, Alberta, Canada

‘British citizens have been poorly served by their political leaders’

“Brexit was the tipping point which led me to replace my British passport with an Irish one. Obviously, it allows me continued easy access to the EU, but it was also a personal statement of protest. The country of my birth decided to look inward and adopt a more insular outlook. At the same time, I felt a growing affinity for Ireland.

“I was born and raised in England, but my four grandparents and my mother were all born in Ireland, and my family always had a close association with the Republic. We spent summer holidays there and I went to UCD. I was extremely disappointed over the Brexit referendum. I got my Irish passport in March 2019. I still appreciate my English upbringing and the potential the country has to offer. But I feel that British citizens have been poorly served by their political leaders.”

Raymond McMenamin, Spain

‘I will forever be thankful for being able to distance myself from the disaster that is Brexit’

“I had long considered getting an Irish passport in the knowledge that my family are part of the Irish diaspora in Scotland. A friend of mine did it about 20 years ago, but I just never got round to it. I since married a Spanish woman. Our son was born in the year of Brexit – that was the clincher. I got a genealogy company in Dublin to get the appropriate certificates for my Derry-born paternal grandfather. I had to get some corrections done to errors in his name in the Scottish records and eventually got my Irish citizenship almost two years after applying.

“My passport arrived two weeks before we emigrated to Spain in 2021. Now living in Spain, I always travel with my Irish passport and hardly use my British one. It’s great to be Irish and Scottish. My European identity has been retained and, whilst not anti-British, I value being Irish and will forever be thankful for being able to distance myself from the disaster that is Brexit.”