“In the belly of the beast”
It’s been seven series. 43 Episodes. A lot of talk.
And there’s still more to come.
But now is a time to reflect on where we are, some 100 years and two days since the creation of the Irish state.
The latest census figures suggest a decline in the numbers of Irish in Britain. It’s inevitable. As the generation that came across to rebuild Britain and its cities and to drive forward its industries – the brawn drain: the brickies and chippies and tarmacs spreaders and fork-lift drivers and truckers – find themselves now moving beyond the stars, those that describe themselves as Irish in the strict terms of a governmental survey will be on the downturn.
There are many things the Irish can escape from. The Grim Reaper is not one of them.
Even prior to Covid, the first generation of Irish Diaspora were reducing in number, simply because the ease of travel between this island and the island off its west coast mean that working in Britain is no longer the eternal goodbye it once was. There are, reportedly, some companies in London whose contingent of Irish executives is so significant that their last meeting of a Friday is held at one of the city’s airports before the weekend back home.
Then came Covid, and the world didn’t simply pause. It changed. The opening up of the possibilities of long-distance communication and working from home means that there is no longer a need to physically relocate – at least not more than a few times a month. Emigration is no longer a necessity, nor an inevitability.
The notion of space has been transformed.
Yet the Diaspora still seem to be on the rise, if not on the increase. At least, if these last seven series, 43 episodes etc are any indicators. No longer is it simply a white, catholic enclave from across the water. The Diaspora is multicultural. The Diaspora is mixed. The Diaspora contains multitudes.
Multitudes that define themselves by the metropolitan areas they have settled in – Birmingham, Liverpool, London, Luton, – or more broadly: Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Lancashire.
Broader still, they are Welsh Irish.
They are Scots Irish.
But never English.
When Ronan MacManus talks about being in the belly of the beast, and how strange it is to be singing rebel songs in such close proximity to Buckingham Palace, this isn’t simply the language of republicanism (although there’s plenty of that). This is the sense that no matter how integrated the Diaspora becomes, for all a census may claim that those identifying as Irish are fewer than before*, they will never see themselves as being English.
That is a step too far.
That is to be swallowed by the beast.
Is this stubbornness? Holding onto a grudge or some bloody-minded romanticism of the Diaspora’s outsider status?
I don’t think so.
It is impossible to talk about the Irish Diaspora without talking about Britishness (and, I would argue vice versa), but Englishness is another matter. As time has gone on, the definition of Englishness has become both more nebulous and more limited, until finally it now seems to represent a certain portion of the home counties – and only a certain percentage of that portion’s residents. Brexit may not be the cause of this, but it seems to have exacerbated it. As Scotland and Wales pull towards their own independence, and as the disconnect between the south east and the rest of the country grows more, not less, apparent, it seems that in fact that it is Englishness that is on the decline, not Irishness.
Its definitions have narrowed. Ours have broadened. The census has yet to catch up.
And the beast may well yet starve.
*and there’s a lot to be said about the limited terms of definition within the census when it comes to identifying your heritage and ethnicity.