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Ryan Tubridy’s London dilemma: what to do with the Irishness?

It would be far too easy to make his nationality central to his shtick, but that’s not how London works

The Irish in London tend to lean heavily on their national identity. This trait comes in many forms: loud declarations about the city’s inadequate Guinness; performative despair about the dearth of Tayto crisps and Barry’s Tea; congregating in areas of the city deemed sufficiently Gaelic (this was once Kilburn and Camden but the migration to Hackney and Clapham is all but complete). The instinct is largely harmless. Though if unchecked it can slip into a kind of self-parodied auto-paddy-whackery.

Nonetheless, I understand the impulse. Nationhood matters to people. Just ask the French: their language watchdog, the Académie Français, is so patriotic that it has at least once suggested that the growing use of English vocabulary in France could disrupt the social fabric of the entire country. Or perhaps think of the Italians and their fiercely dogmatic position on the constituent ingredients of a carbonara (la panna?! non siamo Americani!). And there are, of course, the English football fans. The Irish are hardly unique in their proverbial flag waving.

In a city as vast and anonymising as London, reaching for Irishness can be a quick way to establish an identity. There are nearly nine million people here, and just about 120,000 of them are Irish. Embracing the Irish passport, idiolect and neighbourhoods seems a perfectly expedient way of finding community in an otherwise dissonant place. For the newer recruits to London it is perhaps a means to stave off homesickness too. But for the most successful of the London-Irish, it is a habit they have tended to avoid.

This is on my mind as a new Irish man settles into London. Ryan Tubridy has transcended Montrose and joined Rupert Murdoch’s ranks at Virgin Radio. Broadcasting from the glassy News Building that looms over the Thames, Tubridy is as we expect: cerebral, eager, just on the right side of twee. The bookish enthusiasm seems genuine. On Tuesday he recommended John Boyne’s Water to listeners, establishing a kind of quasi book club.


So far so good. But what to do with the Irishness? It would be easy for Tubridy to rest on stereotype, to make Irishness central to his shtick, to hope UK listeners will be wooed by a mellifluous Celtic lilt. This would be a mistake. I do not speak for every listener of Virgin Radio but I am confident in guessing that Ireland is not central to their midmorning light-listening interests. I would also wager that we can overstate how interesting things like our nationality are to other people. In any case, Tubridy has managed to sit on the right side of the line.

The influence of the late Terry Wogan is hard to miss: a man moulded by his national identity but not obsessed with it. This trait is common to the London-Irish on air stars: Graham Norton, Laura Whitmore, Craig Doyle. They are not successful because they are Irish – this might be, at best, incidental. Great broadcasting is just great broadcasting.

I am reminded of the Irish restaurateur Richard Corrigan, whose restaurant Portrait is the recent recipient of an effusive review by Tim Hayward in the Financial Times. “The most romantic presentation I have ever encountered,” says Hayward of the artichoke and crab dish. The rice pudding, he says, is not just better than your mother’s but perhaps even better than God’s. “I reckon Corrigan has become a national institution,” he concludes. What an embarrassment of riches.

“Corrigan is Irish,” Hayward states matter-of-factly. As with all nationalities this is just a value-neutral descriptor (unless, of course, it is a Brit discussing someone French). Hayward did not find Corrigan’s crab to be “the most visually striking signature dish in London for a decade” because Corrigan is Irish. People don’t go to Portrait – already a leading light in London’s restaurant scene – because the kitchen is blessed with the hands of a Celtic chef. And Hayward does not proselytise about the snails driven to London from Dorset in reverence of “Éire”. Tricolours do not hang from the rafters.

No. Just like Graham Norton, Corrigan is beloved – deemed worthy of such superlatives – because he is great, not because he is Irish. Irishness may hum in the background, influencing the food and restaurant in big or small ways. Of course everyone is a product of where they came from and the various inputs throughout their life. It is not possible to separate someone entirely from their national identity just as it is not possible to dissociate someone entirely from their hair colour. But the distinction matters: Hayward loves Portrait because it is a great restaurant. The chef’s heritage is secondary.

London is a city of immigrants. Having a national identity that isn’t British is not a significant quality; to most Londoners it is not even an interesting one. For all the talk of Britain and its regressive slides into small-minded navel gazing, its ballot-box rejections of cosmopolitan values in 2016, none of this is evident in its capital city.