why the world's gone irish
Shamrocks, Guinness, lightning-blasted trees, romance and, yes, even Riverdance...
Sunday 17 March 1996
Meanwhile, in the West End, Waxy O'Connor's, the latest, largest addition to the recent glut of themed Irish pubs in the UK is throbbing. Its decorative features tell a marketeer's story of picturesque Oirishness: a pulpit for storytelling; a lightning- blasted Irish tree; antique veterinary knick-knacks. Tonight both pubs will be jammed. St Patrick's Day, with its shamrocks, tricolours and stout, is upon us once more.
While the celebrations in the UK are small fry compared to those in the US, St Patrick's Day has been steadily growing in significance over here, though the recent resumption of the IRA campaign may this year cause it to be slightly muted. "I believe you can feel the difference in Irish people before and after these events," says Jerry Kivlehan, director of the London Irish Centre in Camden Town. "During the ceasefire, there seemed to be greater freedom: a chance to celebrate the uplifting side of Irish culture. But when bombs go off, many Irish people get wary."
Nevertheless, pubs like Waxy O'Connor's and Filthy McNasty's are at the forefront of a global march that almost matches the Big Mac in scale and breadth. Cities from St Petersburg to Prague all have Irish pubs resplendent with the usual visual cliches: shamrocks, harps, Celtic motifs and Gaelic script. There are 15 in Paris alone; where, incidentally, a France-wide festival of Irish culture called L'Imaginaire Irlandais starts today, running until September. This pub phenomenon is part of a global perception of Ireland which is benevolent, convivial and people-centred. The Irish Tourist Board plays upon this. "It's seen as clean, green and most of all very friendly," says a spokeswoman for the board. The British are increasingly buying into Ireland as a destination. Last year 2,299,000 Brits visited Ireland on holiday -13 per cent up on 1994. In addition, there is a certain British and American celebrity tendency to treat the Irish Republic as a kind of retreat of the soul: Liz Hurley is one of the latest to buy property there, though the most famous is Daniel Day- Lewis, whose well-documented love of the land of saints and scholars led a friend to comment: "I knew him before he was Irish."
Though Irish people enjoy being recipients of that misty, romantic goodwill, there is a twist in the tail. "You hear people say that the Irish passport is the most accepted in the world," says Karen Hand, an Irishwoman working in advertising in the UK. "But part of this is that the Irish have got a worldwide image as oppressed victims."
In Britain, the Irish who benefit from such affirmative reinforcement tend to be white-collar workers, particularly those who work in high-profile liberal-minded professions: they have been tagged "the Murphia" and include people in law, the media, entertainment and publishing. "In my industry the perception of the Irish is, if anything, positive," says Karen Hand, and many Irish admit that playing up their nationality can score points in various milieux. John McNulty, a solicitor from Northern Ireland, says: "There is a classlessness which the Irish have which enables them to blend in. They're difficult to categorise." He has "never experienced a put- down"; rathermore an acceptance. "People expect the Irish to be friendly. They want to like you." Clive King, a London-based scriptwriter from Dublin, says: "I was steeled for discrimination when I came over here, but I've never experienced it; not even after bombs." He adds, however, that positive reactions may depend on there being few enough Irish to be a novelty; more, and they could pose a "threat". Colin, a student at Filthy McNasty's, says that when he arrived three years ago, he was struck by the number of people who claimed to be Irish by dint of a distant relative.
But the goodwill may be construed as paternalism. Karen Hand says: "It's because we're considered laid-back; with our perceived strength in soft rather than hard values. In business terms, no one would ever think a car made in Ireland was as good as a German make." And, affectionate as they may be, assumptions are often made. "Business acquaintances are always saying `let's go for a Guinness'," says Walter Campbell, a Northern Irish Catholic by birth who also works in advertising. "It gets slightly tedious: I don't drink."
Worse can happen. Marie O'Riordan, now editor of Elle magazine, received a call from the anti-terrorist squad while working at a previous job. It transpired that the estate agent with whom her then (Irish) boyfriend was negotiating for a flat had informed the police - on the basis that the couple were Irish and had money. "I might have been fired by less sympathetic employers," she recalls. As it was, her boyfriend still received a grilling from the squad. "You've got to develop a bit of a thick skin," she concludes.
Jerry Kivlehan thinks that the bad old image is breaking down due to the calibre of the Irish coming to Britain to enhance their potential. "There's always been a certain amount of negative stereotyping: rowdiness, drinking," he says. "But it doesn't relate to the reality here anymore, as many of the Irish, are now in well qualified jobs and are highly responsible."
Some of the Irish in Britain exaggerate their ethnicity. "Irish people often tell me that their sense of Irishness gets stronger over the years of expatriation," says Kivlehan. "The diaspora is trying to rediscover its Irish identity, particularly in America." On one hand this can manifest itself in Irish parents, themselves often with straightforward names, calling their children ethnic Irish names; on the other, it can lead to clannishness. "The Irish have a tendency to say they're going to move and change their lives, and then they go to Kilburn which is more Irish than Ireland," says Keith Courtney, a Northern Irish protestant working in advertising. As far as Helen, an Irish journalist in London, is concerned, she has "nothing in common with the ghetto Irish. I can understand why it exists, but to me it exports that claustrophobia which is one of the reasons why I left Ireland."
Some old British attitudes die hard, however. While it has been a few decades since the clause "no Irish" was attached to advertisments for jobs and houses, many of the Irish in Britain are still at the lower echelons of society, and hostility remains. A well of prejudice still exists , according to an imminent study on discrimination against Irish people in mainland Britain. Funded by the Campaign for Racial Equality, the study will provide "evidence of proven disadvantage", says author Dr Mary Hickman, director of the Centre for Irish Studies at the University of North London, who promises it to be "not uncontroversial".
To be published next month, the study has aimed to substantiate claims of discrimination from Irish groups across the UK. "Anti-Irish discrimination is common, and rooted in older patterns of behaviour than the latest round of troubles," says Dr Hickman. "We can rationalise a certain amount of discrimination because of IRA bombs, but a deep prejudice lingers that the Irish are feckless, fraudsters and stupid."
Dr Hickman accepts that there are also positive perceptions of the Irish in the UK. "I think it's perfectly possible for people to be represented by both positive and negative stereotypes. The Irish Tourist Board play on the goodwill, the craic and friendliness because it does have a resonance." But, she says, that doesn't alter the fact that there is a grass-roots discrimination towards the Irish in this country and, as usual, the most vulnerable are the working classes, the unemployed and single parents.
Nor is this helped, thinks Dr Hickman, by a deep gap in British knowledge about Ireland's history and make-up: "Ireland is considered marginal, unimportant, that it doesn't figure." This lack of knowledge emerges at times of strife. After the recent bus bomb Keith Courtney (the Northern Irish Protestant) was told: "You boys have been at it again."
Emigration from Ireland is slowing down, but British cities are likely to remain first port of call for Irish migrants. "There's lots of reasons why we live in Britain that aren't just economic," says Helen. "It's cosmopolitan, cultural, secular and you can be fairly anonymous."
Whatever the complexities of the British-Irish relationship, economic success is the best way to minimise prejudice. It is the new breed of young outward-looking professionals, perhaps now spurred on by the trend for all things Irish, who are most likely to achieve it.
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