Like many of the 2nd generation Irish in Britain, I have fond memories of the summer holidays in Ireland in the 1970s, when our parents used to take us on their compulsory holidays back to the West. No Costa del Sol for us, instead we had our two weeks in rain-drenched Kerry. While our English friends were getting sunburnt while munching on paella, my brothers and sisters and I were in our wellingtons, chasing our uncle’s cows down the field at milking time.
And do you know — we loved it. We’d count down the days every May and June until we were back in Ireland. Our chance to be away from the tower blocks of Kilburn and get back to the green fields, where we had lots of relations and everyone was Irish.
I recall being amused too, the first time I went to Dublin. It seemed a complete novelty — a city full of Irish people. Coming from London, where there are about half a million Irish-born people, I was more accustomed to Irish people always being a minority, little scattered islands in a sea of English people.
Of course, so much has changed since then — in both the UK and Ireland. Our parents’ generation have become old and many have fallen on hard times. The Irish have mostly moved out of areas like Kilburn and Cricklewood and been replaced by other ethnic communities. Kerry has changed too and many newcomers have arrived in seek of work. Before he passed on, my uncle sold his house to a young Polish family. I felt sad that our link with the past had been broken but I guess we all have to leave childhood behind us sometime.
So when I read about your ideas about energising the Irish Diaspora for the economic benefit of Ireland, I couldn’t help but think that while it is an exciting an idea, it is one that is doomed to failure simply because of some very important obstacles I have noticed during my time in the Republic.
Firstly is the idea of extending Irish citizenship to the 50 million members of the Irish Diaspora on the premise that many will return to Ireland and contribute to the economy. You seem to forget — there are over 2 million Irish citizens on the island of Britain who have always had the right to return. Most are only 2nd generation Irish, as opposed to being 4th or 5th generation that are found in the U.S. Why did they not all return en masse to the land of their parents during the days of the Celtic Tiger?
It is simple – despite having a strong connection to Ireland, most prefer to stay in England or Scotland because the attitude towards the Irish Diaspora in Ireland is very hostile. It is fair to say this hostility is endemic. Only the very determined could live in a country where you are persistently remonstrated in your everyday life for having the arrogance to claim an Irish identity just because you have Irish parents.
Don’t underestimate the seriousness of the effects of the hostility towards the Diaspora because it is the cultural cancer of Ireland. Once Irish-Americans realise how scorned they are as ‘plastic paddies’ in Ireland and it is not some light-hearted ribbing but real, irate anger, they too will lose interest in reconnecting with their roots. And believe me, I’ve already met Irish-Americans who have been to Ireland and discovered this for themselves. Nobody will want to go if word gets out that they might get the same level of welcome as Tom Berenger’s character did in the film ‘The Field.’
The Irish are shooting themselves in the foot. Hardly anyone of I know of Irish descent bothers going back to Ireland because they know they will just routinely get a hard time about being a ‘plastic paddy’ or a ‘tan.’ Think of all those tourist revenues lost simply because of bad manners. If we meet Irish people, especially if they’re under 40 in the UK, we generally give them a wide berth. Why? Because we know through harsh experience that the instant we let slip that we are of Irish descent, it will unleash a Roy Keane-style torrent of scorn.
This is especially sad because so many young Irish now are heading once again to Britain, because Britain is the only English-speaking country that lets the Irish in without any visa restrictions. As much as they like to imagine they will have to head for America because there’s no work in Ireland, the reality is that since the U.S closed its doors in the 1920s, the vast majority Irish have traditionally emigrated to the UK (a fact that is swept under the carpet in the whole ‘Irish’ narrative). And thanks to this ‘plastic paddy’ bashing culture among today’s Irish, there are no established networks waiting to help those newcomers coming to our shores. If the young Irish-born fall on hard times or feel culturally isolated, we cannot help them because they refuse to see any ethnic kinship between us and generally don’t want to be tainted by our plastic paddyness.
The Irish Diaspora in Britain are an part essential of the Ireland narrative. We produced James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Shane McGowan (to name but few) and half the Irish football team when they were actually winning things. The Irish Americans produced JFK, Michael Flatley, James Cagney and many more. We need you and you need us. The synergy of the global Diaspora has produced great things but any attempts of harnessing it to change the flagging fortunes of the Irish economy then the culture of Ireland must change. We must remember that Article 2 of the Irish constitution says “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” I believe if this part of the constitution was enforced and the Roy Keane Diaspora-hating mentality eradicated then Ireland could enjoy a period of cultural and economic prosperity never before seen.