One of the funniest afternoons I’ve had in years was going on the lash with Wayne Rooney’s granny a few years back in Croxteth, Liverpool.
Croxteth is almost all Irish. These are the Liverpool Irish — the Irish of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison — the people whose people first lived in Scottie Road and then were moved out to new suburbs after the Second World War. Just to get a sense of how Irish ‘Scottie Road’, or Scotland Road in Liverpool, actually was, consider this: the electoral area known as Scotland Road returned an Irish nationalist MP to Westminster in every election from 1885 to 1929.
I sat in the back of a pub with Rooney’s granny, Patricia Fitzsimons, listening to stories about these people — our people — and their love of, and affinity for, Ireland. Rooney’s grandparents went to Bray for their honeymoon and constantly referred to themselves as Irish.
Knocking back gin and bitter and glued to the afternoon racing, she introduced me to all classes of Murphys, Carraghers and McManamens — the Liverpool Irish.
On their terrace of 10 houses, eight went to Mass in the local church and the father of Wayne’s wife Colleen is a minister of the Eucharist at the same church. Rooney and all the other lads in the area went to the De La Salle Brothers across the road.
While chatting, I thought of the name of the pub, the ‘Western Approaches’. Where had I heard this name before?
Somewhere in the back of my mind, this name signified something but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
In fact, the Western Approaches was where my grandfather’s brother had been torpedoed in the Second World War. The British Navy referred to the North Atlantic as the Western Approaches.
He, like many thousands of other Irishmen, fought in the war against the Nazis. He died — hopefully quickly — in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, as did so many of our grandparents, great uncles and relations.
I have no idea what he thought of the new Free State in Ireland — all I know is that he needed a job and got one in the British Navy.
My Dad also told me that most of the money in Dalkey during the war and up to the 1950s came from RAF pay cheques because most of the fathers were working in England, either in the army or in the arms industry in the midlands.
My mum also told me about the ‘Dagenham Yanks’ in Cork during the 1950s. These were local lads who had emigrated to England and worked in the Ford plant in Dagenham.
They came home to Cork with full wallets, swanky shoes, mohair suits and hair slicked back — looking for all the world like members of the Brat Pack. Hence the name Yanks — the Dagenham Yanks.
They — like 500,000 other Irish people — emigrated to England in the 1950s, when England signified opportunity, money and work. Their sons contributed enormously to English popular culture. Think Johnny Rotten, Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths and the Gallagher brothers. And from British comedy, what about the likes of Steve Coogan and Neil Morrissey?
AND of course, their sons also came back to play for Jack Charlton’s Ireland — the likes of Kevin Sheedy, Tony Galvin, Andy Townsend and John Aldridge, creating the most successful Irish soccer team ever.
These people are the demographic echo of the Irish who left and they are part of the story which bonds our countries together.
The number of Irish people in England is startling.
In the last census, six million people in England claimed to have Irish grandparents. This means that there are more English people with Irish grandparents then there are Irish people with Irish grandparents.
According to official sources, 900,000 people in London are described as ‘ethnic Irish” — being born on this island. This means there are more Irish people living in London than there are in the cities of Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny put together.
And while many of us might be aware that the Irish are the biggest ethnic minority in England, did you know that the English are the biggest ethnic minority in Ireland, more than the Poles, Lithuanians or Nigerians — the people the PC brigade refer to as the ‘New Irish’. Well it seems that the real New Irish are actually English.
Economically, after 40 years of economic union with the EU, on a country-by-country basis, Britain is still by far Ireland’s single biggest trading partner.
In the past two years, thousands of Irish people have again emigrated to London, as I did in the early 1990s. In fact, my generation is the first Irish generation to have emigrated twice.
We went in the later 1980s and early 1990s, came home and many have gone again. At an age when we thought we should be settling down properly, we are off (resignedly) again. And in the main, we are going back to London.
On the day of the queen’s visit, I think it is important to remember that what binds Ireland and Britain together is people — our people and their people. We are joined together, prisoners of both history and geography, convulsed by what could be described as the narcissism of small differences.
Don’t get me wrong, like many people I believe the idea of a monarch is bizarre. The notion of a royal family owning large tracts of Cornwall is ludicrous and for all its defects, I would far prefer to be a citizen than a subject.
That said, we have everything to gain — financially, emotionally and psychologically — from a normal official relationship with Britain. No one is asking us to forget our past.
But our past, the past of the average person is not just about flags, symbols and historic dates, its about Patricia Fitzsimons in Croxteth, Stephen Morrissey in Manchester, Johnny Lydon in Finsbury Park and my own great uncle, killed by a U-boat somewhere in the North Atlantic, defending that area known as the Western Approaches.