Journey to England
My local Irish pub is no more than one hundred yards from my house. It’s perfect in my opinion; bright lights, a faint smell of bleach, football on the telly, a darts board, and a regular crew of first and second generation Irish who light up the place with their jokes. It’s only recently that I’ve become a regular in this pub, due to getting to know the landlady when she agreed to be interviewed for research for my latest book. Now I go whenever I can. I like it there. I like that it’s quiet. I love being able to walk in and hear Irish accents, and to know people and for them to know me. These visits fill me up with a welcome sense of Irishness. Recently, they provide brief reprieve from the gnawing urge to move back home to Ireland.
Home was, and still is in a figurative sense, suburban South Dublin. I was the first baby to be born in our newly built housing estate at the foot of the Dublin mountains. It was the Summer of 1978, and the house was already inhabited by my three older siblings, all under the age of five. I lived in that same pebble dash semi until I was eighteen years old, after which I left for Belfast, and then England. I’ve been out of the Republic of Ireland for twenty six years, way more time than I lived there. This urge has always been there, acting as a safety net underneath every dramatic turn in my London life; I can always go home. But recently it has become harder to ignore.
A lot of things have come together in the last year to help the urge along. My mother walks with a stick now. She will turn 81 this week, and while still physically active, is not as able to nip over to London as easily as she used to. My oldest kid will start secondary school next year. I have changed my work so that for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have to be in London, I can work from anywhere. Behind these practical reasons is something less tangible and hard to express, equal parts restlessness and loneliness, a yearning for adventure and a need for community. My last two years have been spent writing my new novel The Mess We’re In, and I realise now I’m starting to talk about the writing process, that it was a way for me to try and explore this urge. I needed to interrogate my sense of Irishness, and to mine my life experiences to try and find some clarity on who I am and where I should be.
I was aware of being one of millions of Irish abroad. Emigration has been deeply ingrained in Irish culture since the Irish famine back in the mid 1800s, when Ireland's potato crops were infected and Ireland’s indigenous people starved under English rule. A million people died. A quarter of the population was lost in death or emigration. This pattern of movement remained in place. In the twentieth century alone, 1.6 million Irish people left for Britain. The motivations for leaving changed, numbers waning and surging according to the decade, but leaving Ireland was always, in my childhood growing up there, an underlying inevitability.
In researching my book I listened to a lot of Irish folk music and I read books about the Irish who came to London in the fifties, post-war; young men who were part of huge families, being sent to the train stations were they would be labelled like cattle, with the names of the building contractors they would work for on arriving in England. Irishmen had their hands in the railway lines, the bridges, the gas and water pipes, more buildings than you could count in London. The Dubliners song ‘Building up and Tearing London Down’ includes a line detailing a young Limerick man, part of a group of labourers called the Tunnel Tigers, who was ‘built into the new Victoria line’. I think differently now when I use the tube, of these underground tunnels acting as catacombs for the bones of young Irish men. The women came too, slipping into the NHS and the service industries, England affording them a fresh kind of freedom; a place where you could use contraception, a place where you could work and be married, (The marriage bar in Ireland meant that it was illegal for the civil service to employ a married woman up until the 1970s. ), a place where you could be free of the moral suffocation of small town rural Ireland.
My own Father left Ireland for England when I was nine. His job took him there, working for a company that manufactured ID cards. He would leave Dublin airport on a Monday and arrive back on Thursday or Friday evening, with a chocolate bar for each of his four children upon his return. My Father had first left Ireland in the 60s, he went the opposite direction from his two sisters who went to study nursing in England, settling in Vancouver, where he would meet my Mother, also emigrated, from Antrim, Northern Ireland and working as a teacher, at a party. The next day he was waiting for my mother outside the school she taught at. Fifty years later they are still together. This is the stuff of legend in my family. My oldest brother followed directly in his father’s footsteps to Vancouver. My sister went to San Francisco and then New York. My other brother went off to Wales to university, where he joined a band and dropped out of college to move to London when his band got signed. I grew up knowing that it’s part of our lineage to leave Ireland. I looked into it again for this piece, asking my older brother about the percentage of my family tree who left compared to who stayed. On average over sixty per cent of both my grandparents and parents siblings all left. Most went to Canada or England. Some didn’t get there. My great Grandfather was on his way to Walsall in England, on board a mail boat called The Leinster, when it was torpedoed by a first world war German submarine. He and five hundred and fifty others never made it out of sight of Ireland.
When did I know I wouldn’t stay? Initially, I didn’t. In my final year of school I got picked to play Pegeen Mike in the school production of JM Synge’s Playboy Of a Western World and I strutted around the stage with my apron on, and afterwards my boyfriend’s Dad told me that I reminded him of Doris Day. A little light went on in my head then. A pathway coming into view. I would study Drama. I practised my Oscar winning speeches in the mirror and applied to study drama in Trinity College Dublin.
When I failed the entrance exam for the drama course it was my mother who suggested I go to Queens University in Belfast. She had gone there herself, the first person in her family to attend third level education. We took the train there together, where I applied to do English Literature through the clearing process, and so it came to be that in September 1996, I left the South of Ireland for Belfast. And just as my mother had escorted me to Belfast, it was my father who escorted me to Farnborough College of Technology in Hampshire, to accept my place on their MA course in Radio. I left thinking that I lived in a limited Ireland. And in so many ways it very much was. Still institutionally ruled by the Catholic Church, I lived in a place where I couldn’t legally have an abortion and I wasn’t legally permitted to be gay. My world there felt small. Stifling. I didn’t want to be defined by what school I went to, or what religion I was brought up as. I wanted to be able to start again with a clean slate and be whoever I wanted to be.
When the year was over, my brother invited me to live in a house in Forest Gate, East London that he lived in with his band. And that was the start of it all. Those first years in London were a thrilling time, filled with teetering highs and crushing disappointments; lots of different jobs, different flats and house shares, but underpinning it all was a sense of forward motion, of growing up and into the world and into myself. I never thought further than a few months ahead and I never, ever, thought to look back.
My Mum and Dad returned to Ireland to have their first child. One by one over the years, my siblings moved back too. Now I’m the only one left abroad. I’ve changed a lot. My dreams have played out in real time, on stages and in studios. I bought a flat, got married, bought a house, brought a baby there and then another one. Each significant milestone in my adult life has impressed the shape of my identity more on this city. And since I’ve been gone, Ireland has changed too, at a remarkable speed. There are new types of Irish people now; Polish-Irish, Romanian-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Lithuanian-Irish. You can get divorced there, have an abortion, or get married to your same sex partner. The Catholic Church has been exposed for corruption and abuse, but it still runs over ninety per cent of the schools. There’s a housing crisis and an emerging wave of xenophobia and homophobia, but the majority of people I meet whenever I visit, still bowl me over with their big hearts and their humour and their kindness. I’m not sure how I fit into this new incarnation of Ireland. Behind this sort of primal pull to be there, there is a torrent of questions that I am unable to answer. Would I feel dislocated? Would I feel like I’m not Irish enough? So much of the fabric of my existence is there, would I feel reduced to what I was? Or would I be able to tie my adulthood and childhood together, into one neat length of life?
I ring my Irish friends in London and we talk about it. Send hushed voice notes trying to articulate our feelings about home to each other. It feels like now or never because my children are still young enough. That’s what they say. Get them while they’re still young and malleable. Where they’ll waltz into a new school with the confidence of innocence. I start looking through the schools in Dublin. I sign up to property alerts. I try to picture where we would live and but can’t see it clearly enough, this phantom life in Ireland. I think of a lyric in the Christy Moore song ‘Missing You’,
‘And I’ll never go home now because of the shame of a misfit’s reflection in a shop window pane’.
How do you go back when you’re not the same person you were when you left? How do you reconcile this older, world-weary version of yourself with the intense ambitious young thing sprinting off decades before? I’ve only ever been the visitor for so long.
But I’m a visitor in London too. There’s a comfort in being a tiny part of London's huge diverse population. And the Irish are not hard to find. I get talking to a taxi driver who tells me about his upbringing on the Kilburn High Road being brought up by first generation Irish immigrants. How as a child he would hang around outside the Irish pubs until a fight happened, wherein he would pick up the pennies that dropped out of the drunk men’s pockets. How his Granny back in Carlow in Ireland had nineteen pregnancies of which thirteen lived. How his flat was always full of Uncles and Aunts arriving and staying until they could get on their feet. I ask him if he considers himself Irish. He says he was born in England so he’s English, but he stands for the Irish national anthem. He’s proud that his parents are Irish.
The old generation of Irish in London are dying, and in their wake is a generation of people like my taxi driver. People who were born in London but spent their summers in Ireland running round fields. Who know the songs and stand for the anthem. I think of my sons brought to Ireland every summer on the ferry, travelling back at Easter and Christmas. Face-timing their cousins. I think of how much it means to me that they know they’re half-Irish. That this identity is the most important thing I can gift them. But they are so comfortable in their Englishness, knowing their mammy is Irish. They have their memories of halcyon summers with their cousins, blue lips on the beach, jumping off piers, crisp sandwiches for lunch. Maybe that’s enough?
About six months ago, I decided to make a solo trip to Dublin to see my parents. I booked the flights in advance so they were affordable, arriving on a Thursday lunchtime and leaving on Friday at lunchtime so I could pick up the kids from school on my return. It had been nearly ten years since I had time on my own with my parents. Trips home normally revolved around the kids and seeing as many family members as possible, but the time in this trip moved slower. We went for a walk and then to the pub. I did a jigsaw with my mum. In the morning we drank two cups of coffee and talked without distraction. I landed in London recharged and filled up with love and gratitude, and I booked another trip soon after. I’ve been a good few times now. These trips have become vital in scratching the itch to return home. They are precious, precious time. I’m not sure I would get this type of quality time with my parents if I moved us all to Ireland I think, but I would be able to invite them round for lunch, or make a weekly appointment to bring my mum shopping. And my heart aches all over again.
Steve Reeves, an Irish photographer, has an exhibition forthcoming for the London Irish Centre called ‘May The Road Rise Up To Meet You’, a selection of photographs of older London Irish alongside their stories of emigration and assimilation. I search their stories for clues of what they learnt. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness threading through the stories, but alongside that, a surprisingly consistent sense of peace at their decisions to stay in England. They seem happy with their lot. One woman, Moira, a retired music teacher, says, "I can accept being a foreigner in England, but I couldn't be one in Ireland.” Seamas worked in tarmacking and now has eight grandchildren in England. He says, "I always did well in London and always found a good place to stay. Any trouble I got into was my own fault.” Another, Mary, a 92 year old retired nurse, who now lives in a care home, has started to have vivid dreams about her childhood. Dreams of paddling through the stream and running through the fields of her childhood farm. “The dreams are "splendid", but even though she’s lived in England for over 60 years, they make her terribly homesick.”
At the weekend, I bring my children to the local Irish pub. The Landlady is there, and after I get my drinks at the bar, I sit down at a table with her and a regular - Mick. There is a pleasant murmur of Irish and London accents. We laugh at my six year old son who has taken it upon himself to sit at the bar on a stool with his juice, and mutter to himself like one of the regulars. I tell them all about my recent trip home, where we attended the St Patrick's Day parade, while in the corner of the bar, my oldest son gets shown how to play darts by another regular. I feel a kinship with this older generation of London Irish, comfortable in my role as a misfit with all the other misfits. We know too well the feeling of being pushed and pulled by longing. We exist in the seams. We are what the writer Fintan O’Toole calls; ‘ a hyphenate people’, ‘the truest products of Ireland’s history’. Maybe living with the urge is the price we pay.
Afterwards, the boys and I walk up the hill at dusk. The sky is tinged with pink. I look up when I hear a familiar squawk, to see a flock of London’s green parakeets flying overhead. The boys look up too and we all stand for a second watching them until they disappear out of sight. I think of Mary, flown from Ireland decades before, her dreams of childhood haunting her in old age. I look to my two young sons, whose whole world exists within this square mile of city that we live in. I tell myself that I’ll book another flight to Dublin soon. Then they pull me up the hill, towards home.
My second novel is called 'The Mess We're In' and it's out now.