In the back of a pub on Monday afternoon Wayne Rooney’s nan was discussing anti-Catholic sectarianism in Liverpool of the 1950s. The Western Approaches pub is at the end of the street where young Rooney first went to school at Our Lady of St Swithin’s Catholic Primary. It is not the most salubrious of gaffs and certainly would be out of place in most Dublin suburbs, where pub “gentrification” has spread like a rash. There’s nothing genteel about the Western. On a bright afternoon, it was filled with noisy, overweight punters in tracksuits, holding betting slips and dragging on Embassies. It might not be pretty, but it and the adjacent Our Lady of the Martyrs Church, are at the heart of this community.
Across the road is St John Boscoe Catholic School for girls where one Miss Colleen Mc Cullough graduated three years ago and within 100 yards, is De La Salle Brothers Catholic Secondary School for Boys, where the man-child Rooney honed his footballing skills and where he was still a pupil when he made his Everton debut at 16.
This is an Irish part of town. All the older people, like Patricia Fitzsimons – Wayne Rooney’s granny – were moved here in the slum clearances of the late1940s and 1950s. They, like thousands of Irish before them, lived in the Catholic area of Scotland Road or Scotty as they call it. Scotty is down by the docks, the first port of call for desperate Irish emigrants who flooded Liverpool for over 100 years after the Famine.
Even today, when only 10% of the population of England is Catholic, 60% of Croxteth’s children are baptised Catholic. They are Irish, Catholic, Evertonians and proud of it. Even before Wayne Rooney exploded onto the scene, Patricia Fitzsimons was famous locally for being born on the 17th of March – thus the name Patricia. She’s a lovely woman, with clear strong blue eyes, whose memories of running away from the King Billys (as she calls them) on the 12th of July, reiterate just how sectarian Liverpool was until recently. If you want to see the influence that the Irish have had on England, Croxteth is a good place to start.
“Could Wayne have played for Ireland?” I ventured with one eye on tonight’s game. “Nah,” replied Patricia, “He’s English on the outside”. She paused and then looked up “but Irish on the inside”. She had another sip and settled in to watch the three thirty from Windsor.
Patricia Fitzsimons and her husband Billy Murray were married in St Dominic’s Church and when the priest, Fr Mc Namee heard Billy’s name, he double checked with Patricia that he wasn’t “Orange”. Once it was established he was a good Catholic, the marriage went ahead. (Not that a priest could have stopped this pair anyway.)
Their story, the story of Rooney’s paternal grandparents and Coleen’s is the tale of the Irish in Britain. While we at home know all about the Irish American experience, the history of the Irish in Britain is much less clear. This is despite the fact that over three quarters of all Irish people living outside the country, live in Britain.
Although numbers declined after the peak in 1971 when there 957,000 Irish-born people in Britain (there were only just over two million here), even in 1991 there were 850,000 Irish born people in the UK. Between 1950 and 1980, eight out of every ten Irish emigrants went to the UK. Even as late as 1988, 70% of all people leaving Ireland, chose to go to Britain. The largest number of Irish people in Britain now are in their later 60s and early 70s and are the remainder of those who left Ireland in the 1950s. There is another “bulge” of 1980s emigrants although it is considerably smaller.
There are now over 1 million second generation Irish in their 30s and 40s – the children of the great exodus in the 1950s – many of whom have strong links to us. For example, if you travel abroad with the football team (not that many will be doing that now) there are always considerably more English accents than you’d expect as the “plastic paddies” follow the team of their fathers in their thousands. The impact of these second generation Irishmen on the national team has always been evident and obviously reached its peak in the 1990s under Jack Charlton.
The second generation Irish have had a huge impact on English popular culture which is not always appreciated. Beginning with John Lennon – whose grandfather came from Dublin and who explored this aspect of his lineage extensively in the mid-1970s – many of England’s most English of rebels were actually second generation Irish. In 1977 Johnny Rotten, the son of Irish immigrants, led the punk movement. In the 1980s, the embodiment of English Indie music was Morrisey – lead singer and lyricist of the Smiths – son of Crumlin parents. Similarly, in the 1990s the leaders of Brit-pop, Noel and Liam Gallagher were from the same stable. Steve Coogan – creator of the quintessential English nerd Alan Partridge – is second generation Irish. These are only the tip of the iceberg.
Every wave of Irish emigration to the UK has enriched English popular culture, whether it is sport like Rooney and Kevin Keegan or in music or the arts. Moreover, the English economy has done extremely well out of Irish labour – much as we are benefiting from immigrant labour at the moment.
However, today the relationship between the two countries has come full circle. In the past, we sent our labour to Britain and they invested their capital here. Today the opposite is the case: the English are by far the biggest immigrant group in Ireland. According to the CSO, 200,000 of the 400,000 new immigrants in the past few years have come from England. And the Irish are by far the biggest investors in English property!
Maybe in fifty years time we will have an English granny getting harassed by an English reporter in a bar in Dublin, asking whether her boy-wonder Irish footballer grandson could qualify to play for England.