Friday, 16 March 2012

St Patrick's Day: kiss me, I'm (partly) Irish

There is a large Irish population in London, has been for maybe two hundred years or so: the construction of London as we know it now would not have happened without the labour of Irish workers - generations of Irish people have come to the city for seasonal work, or to settle permanently.

Here in the London Assembly constituency of Barnet and Camden we probably have the largest Irish community, centred around Camden Town, Kilburn, Cricklewood and West Hendon. And many of us in London are of Irish descent: if you live in the city and have had a Catholic upbringing, you are likely to be of Irish origin, somewhere along the line ... including Mrs Angry – a blessing and a curse, in equal proportions, perhaps.

But what does it mean, being of Irish descent, so many generations later, and why does it make you any different from anyone else? Because - it does, whether you like it or not.

Anyone of my generation will have experienced a character forming education at the hands of bad tempered nuns and priests, many with no real vocation, and a rising sense of horror at the lost opportunities denied to them by their choice of occupation. Is it a coincidence that two of the Barnet bloggers are the products of the same Catholic primary school, and were introduced to some of the injustices of life, at the age of six, by being walloped by the same physically and mentally abusive teacher? I don't think so. If you doubt the terrible damage perpetrated on children by some Catholic clergy and teachers, watch this, one of the most eloquent, piercingly articulate accusations you are likely to see:

It would be unfair to ignore the priests and nuns who have and still just about continue to follow their vocations, of course, in absolute commitment to their beliefs. They are disappearing now, and who will replace them?

In my school years, many of the sisters and one or two of the priests we knew left their vows behind, bravely stepping into the real world in advanced middle age. Most of the nuns were Irish, from large rural families who expected daughters who were surplus to requirements to enter a convent, and were proud of sons who became ordained as priests. But even my headmistress decided she had had enough and ran away to get married, to her former boyfriend who had renounced his vows as a Jesuit priest. It was something of a scandal, at the time, as you might imagine.

A Catholic education, however, almost entirely staffed by Irish born clergy, reinforced the Irish identity most of us knew at second or third hand in our own families.

My mother was brought up in a close knit family in Durham, of mostly Irish background: her mother was Irish, though born in England, her father also partly of Irish descent, as well as , uh oh, gypsy and traveller background.

My mother's Irish speaking grandmother lived with the family, and ruled the household. In those days, in the North east, anyway, the division between protestants and catholics was enormous, and it was accepted that catholics were second class citizens, barred from applying from many jobs, looked down on, but this marginalisation also meant that a strong sense of identity was retained by those with Irish roots, generations after the first emigrants began arriving to stay in the area in large numbers.

The music, the parties, the scalding sense of humour, the terrifying wit, the relentless teasing, and the ruthless mocking of any emotion or vulnerability – the first law of the disposessed, the default humour of the immigrant, the way to survival -the refusal to bow to adversity or authority, and cocking a snook at the po faced English model of good behaviour, allied with a weakness for sentimentality, a yearning for the past as perhaps it never was, a romanticised version of a harsh reality: all of these qualities were evident in our family, and probably many other families with an Irish background.

In my family, the stories that came over from the time of emigration were repeated and passed on, leaving a sense of continuity and mythology, but which no one took very seriously.

Generations after the first arrivals from Ireland the same tales were passed down ... the grandfather who was the local scribe, and a poet, the grandmother who arrived in England barefoot, carrying all her possessions in a trunk, still surviving, and now sitting in my cousin’s house in North Carolina. The uncle’s house with seven chimneys: a sign of untold wealth then. The great aunt who had a child by the English landlord, and was sent back to England with a generous pay off. All true, as it turned out.

The best tale was this: handed down through maybe six generations now, mother to daughter.

The first morning in a new house foolishly built on land belonging to the fairies: waking up and going downstairs to find that every pot and pan, every bucket and bowl, every dish and jug, had been filled to the brim with blood, by way of punishment of the little people, for the grave trespass on their land. Irish fairies are not sweet, simpering creatures, they are proud, jealous, vengeful beings, and the message was clear: don’t mess with things you don’t understand. This story was always told with deadly seriousness, not a story, in fact, but absolutely true: although, as my mother and my aunts used to say, it was no doubt a trick of the neighbours, just for the craic. I’ve tried to find this myth elsewhere, to see if it is a common theme, a folk tale, but it would appear not.

A couple of years ago, though, walking into the bogland wilderness of County Clare, finding the farmhouse at the bottom of a mountain - a hill, in truth, but the second highest spot in Clare - which used to be the family home, I finally stood at the side of this house, peering through the broken glass of the windows, seeing the empty grates, and the carefully shut panelled doors, breathing the dusty air. It was a memorable experience. And at the top of the mountain there was once a prehistoric hill fort, these forts being the fairy rings of Celtic mythology so prevalent in the West of Ireland. So, another story, but not so far fetched, perhaps, after all. I wished that my mother and her sisters were still here to tell. How they would have laughed.

Once this family was one of the local ancient Clare landowners. Their land, of course, was stolen in Cromwellian times, and given to English settlers, and they were forced to live on and rent and sublet the poorest bogland instead. Once the famine took hold, nothing could sustain life there any more, and over a couple of generations the land was abandoned, and left to revert to semi wilderness.

It is easy to forget the extent of persecution which Irish Catholics suffered in those days - barred from holding property, or receiving a decent education, or from following their faith. That my family were early supporters of the Irish nationalist cause is a source of pride: their signatures. added in nearby Ennis, are on the petition of 1848 which asked for mercy for the rebel William Smith O'Brien, who had been condemned to death for treason, after calling for an uprising. A brave gesture, in those days, unless you had a sympathetic landlord.

Up til the Famine period, the landlord of my three times great grandfather and his brother was a man called Thomas Steele – known as Honest Tom Steele, a fascinating character, the right hand man of nationalist hero Daniel O’Connell, the first Catholic MP to sit in the House of Commons, whose statue now dominates the main street in Ennis, and after whom the most well known street in Dublin is named.

Tom Steele was an eccentric, a protestant passionately committed to the nationalist cause, and to O' Connell. He used to drive around the streets of Ennis dressed as an undertaker, and spent days sitting by the river, staring across at the windows of the house where lived a local beauty with whom he had fallen hopelessly in love. After the famine, and the loss of his income from the land, he was ruined, and the death of O'Connell was a blow from which he never recovered. He went to London, and jumped off Waterloo Bridge, dying some time later. Eventually he was buried next to O'Connell, in Dublin.

Despite a centuries old relationship of close intimacy and mutual dependence, the Irish people have always been held in deep suspicion by the English. Master and servant roles are difficult to reverse.

Here in London, it is not so long ago that Irish people looking for accommodation would see the infamous notice: 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish' - before that, in the nineteenth century, those fleeing the poverty of post famine Ireland were viewed with contempt and a notable lack of charity. Despite this, the Irish community here is well established, and a vital part of the economic well being and ethnic diversity of the city's population. Is this recognised by our politicians?

No. Neither here in Broken Barnet, nor in London as a whole. Here we are, in 2012, and the Etonian educated Mayor of London still views the Irish community from the perspective of the protestant, Anglo Irish ascendency: he has disdainfully rejected any association with the former annual St Patrick's ball, on the basis that it was 'lefty crap' and, incredibly, because he feels it is a dinner for 'Sinn Fein'. With one ill judged comment Boris Johnson has managed to insult every Irish born Londoner, and most of the significant percentage of Londoners who are of Irish descent, and who, yes, as we have said, still identify, with surprising persistence, with their roots. Being of Irish descent, perhaps, makes you naturally inclined to kick against the establishment, thank God. And when the establishment insists on stereotyping you, and keeping you at arms length, there can only be one inevitable result.

Here in Camden and Barnet, with the largest Irish community in London, and the dubious benefit of Brian Coleman to represent us on the London Assembly, and your unfortunate gaffe, Boris, things are not looking too promising for you on May 3rd.

Today is St Patrick's day: so to all Irish citizens of Broken Barnet, and all of us who are, to a greater or lesser degree, Irish by default ... Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh.

Clare is of course the centre of Irish traditional music. Here, then, are some miserable old buggers from County Clare to entertain you: think this might be why the family left, come to think of it. By God, ladies, though, there's some handsome fellas to see. This is for anyone who has spent the night in a bar in Doolin, and had a bit of a headache the next morning.

Or if you prefer: what cannot be cured, must be endured - from the Kilrush Fleadh, 1967. Think that's my granny in the pearl necklace.

Oh: nearly forgot - if you like Irish music, here is a brilliant youtube playlist

put together by a Mr Damian Mc Bride (yes, that one) - watch out for lots of footage of men in terrible jumpers, but some great music ... it's reminded me of this song, sung by John Mc Cormack, a Yeats poem, & which itself reminds me of my lovely aunt:

for you AP x

Right, that's me done, Irished out. Sláinte.


ainelivia said...

A very interesting post Mrs A, and will come back later for a in-depth read.

Happy St Patricks Day to you.

Backing Boris indeed as the local Cons have been asking on the Broadway; the only thing I'd back Boris with, before or after reading you post, would be the sole of my shoe to his derriere!

Mrs Angry said...

Indeed a very Happy St P's day to you too, Ainelivia, and I can only agree with your method of backing Boris.

Changing the subject - can an expert reader, yes you baarnett, probably, do take a good look - advise Mrs Angry as to how one can remove follower icons? Have blocked the lady with the frankly rather unattractively fake breasts, but she won't go away. Thank you.

Mrs Angry said...

ps I see she is keen to engage in group activity in a stadium, which is timely, as I am watching Ireland playing rugby at Twickenham, but so far they have all kept their clothes on.

Mrs Angry said...

s'ok. She took the hint eventually.

Mrs Angry said...

in fact she has gone to visit Citizen Barnet now, if anyone is missing her ...