The recent death and funeral of Shane MacGowan has sparked an outpouring of grief internationally, for a musician and poet who fused the sensibilities of 70s punk with traditional Irish music. MacGowan was born in the UK of Irish parents, like another leading light of punk – John Lydon, or Johnny Rotten, of Sex Pistols fame – who spent summers in rural Ireland and the rest of the year in London. At least one online conversation was sparked when a commentator referred to MacGowan as ‘Anglo-Irish’.
Dr Mary Burke of the University of Connecticut recently shared her excellent article on the ‘nameless cohort’, contrasting the moniker of ‘Irish American’ with the lack of clear identity for those of the Irish diaspora in the UK. The term ‘Anglo-Irish’ is synonymous with the post-17th century British in Ireland and their descendants. This was the aristocratic and landlord class that dominated Irish society; anyone born in the UK of Irish parents with a grasp of history would reject this designation. I have not heard the terms ‘English Irish’ or ‘British Irish’, no doubt because they contain the essential contradiction of clashing nationalisms.
Nature and nurture
I know my story is different from many others even in Liverpool, one of the reddest cities in the UK. From a very young age I was conscious of the class nature of society and determined to change it. A voracious reader, my Mum’s Catherine Cookson romances and trade unionist brother’s socialist literature formed my home library.
There’s a false dichotomy between nature and nurture, individual psyche and social experience. There were eight kids in our Irish Catholic family. My two middle brothers, born a year apart, turned out to be chalk and cheese. The older, a fanatic Everton supporter, footballer, and racist. The younger, a Liverpool supporter, footballer, trade union activist, and socialist. There weren’t many Black families on our council estate, but the younger of the two had a Black school friend. He called at the house, only to be chased by the older brother.
This was the late 60s and early 70s. The time of the fallout from Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the growing civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, the introduction of British troops there, and the miners’ strike that brought down the Ted Heath Conservative government. This social and political ferment was mirrored in our home. One brother joined the British Army, the other became a union convenor in the factory our mum also worked at.
This period also saw my dad survive throat cancer but lose his ‘Irish’ voice. An older sister was regularly beaten by her husband. The soldier brother was taken to court for beating the violent husband. I added to the family turmoil by being convicted of Actual Bodily Harm.
The point of all this is to explain that I never identified with ‘Englishness’. I always saw its markers of monarchism, cricket, and Protestantism as relating to a class I was never a part of. Though at that stage I didn’t identify as Irish either.
The older brother who joined the British Army had a great time in Asia, but was brought back to reality with a bump. The gods of destiny and identity colluded with the British government to place the son of an Irish Catholic family in the British army in Derry, Northern Ireland. It ended as well as you would imagine. After three pints of dark in the NAAFI, he committed suicide in Ebrington barracks, in November 1975. He was 19. I was three days short of 15.
I considered myself an internationalist, and in 1979 saw the revolutions in Grenada, Nicaragua, and Iran as portents of a new international change, instead of the last gasps of independence, as America sought to reimpose itself on the international order after the defeat in Vietnam. At that time I was in England, campaigning for changes in UK government policy, including getting British troops out of Northern Ireland.
I considered myself ‘English’ in that it was my responsibility to help change the policy of ‘my’ government. But I was never a fan of the progressive Englishness of singer Billy Bragg. And I saw it as undoubtedly a good thing that Asian and other minority communities partially reclaimed the George Cross and Union Jack from the far-right English Defence League.
From Anglo-Irish to Irishness
England has had its own share of revolutionaries, from the Diggers and Levellers through Chartists to the Minority Movement syndicalists of the pre-WWI engineering industry in Yorkshire. But none have held governmental power since Cromwell, and we can see how his progressive republicanism in England turned into something barbaric when used in the name of imperial power in Ireland.
Anyway, the result of all this is that most ‘Anglo-Irish’ people I know call themselves London Irish, Liverpool Irish, Birmingham Irish, and so on, to avoid the imperial connotations of ‘English’, or ‘British’. I know others of the diaspora who proudly identify as just Irish. In 2021 I contributed to an anthology, Being Irish, which celebrates the global spread of Irishness.
My novels examine questions of class, nationality, and identity, and through these I found a deepening sense of Irishness, reconnecting with the land from which all my forebears came. My second novel, Across the Water, has the tagline ‘Return of a native son’. Getting my Irish passport was easy enough, and may well end in the reversal of the emigration story as I go from England to Ireland.
In Liverpool, Scouse, not English, has become the banner of choice. For me, conscious that I was not born and bred in Ireland, or immediately of the culture, I will always be one step removed from Irish. I will always be English by birth, but I’m Scouse and Irish in spirit.