July 9, 2007

HiBrits - Ireland's loss England's gain

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The 7.55 am Ryanair FR442 takes off on time, bound for Liverpool. Out past the suburbs, over the giant steel and chrome motorway slug of commuting morning traffic on the M1 and straight across the Irish Sea. It is only thirty five minutes to John Lennon International which is not enough time for even Ryanair to sell you something.

As you come through security the first sign welcoming you to England tells you that “Blackpool is Brilliant”.

Surely John Lennon’s granddad – the Dublin seaman, Jack Lennon nor his grandmother Mary Maguire – never thought anything would be named after one of their own when they both, like millions of other Irish, made the same trip, never to return home.

The Croxteth orchestra of sirens, shouting kids and screaming mothers is momentarily drowned out by the traffic on the East Lancs. This place is home to the longest continuous Catholic congregation in the North of England. The Blood of the Martyrs Catholic Church – named according to the local priest, Father Inch, because Catholicism in this part of England was maintained by the blood of the martyrs – is where Wayne Rooney was baptised and confirmed a Catholic – an Irish Catholic.

Father Inch is a Toffee true and true. Everton Football Club is the Irish team in Liverpool and it’s no surprise therefore, that Rooney is a Blue.

Bob Pendleton, the Evertonian who scouted Rooney, remembers seeing young Wayne for the first time aged nine. Jeanette, his mother would take him and his two brothers on the bus down to Fazakerly to play for Copplehouse in the Walton and Kirkdale Junior League..Wayne was different class to the rest. Other kids from Irish backgrounds, Jamie Carragher, Danny Murphy and Steve Mc Manaman came from the same schoolboy league in the years before Rooney, but talented as they were, none had the scouts whispering the way Rooney did. Bob remembers that Rooney was so keen to play and get on with the game that when the ball was kicked over the walls into Everton Cemetery it was always Wayne that hurtled over amongst the headstones to get the ball.

The Cemetery itself tells the story of Liverpool’s immigrants – not just the Irish. You can see that Liverpool was multicultural way before most other English cities. There is a huge Jewish part host to Ringo Starr’s people, who arrived in the great Jewish migrations from Eastern Europe of the late 19th century, while today, enormous Chinese mausoleums testify to the changing immigrant aristocracy in modern Liverpool. Quite apart from the other immigrant tribes, the names on the headstones evidence the presence and passing of the biggest minority – O Briens, Forans, O Haras, Mc Cabes and Kellys.

Down the road, past East Derby is the “Western Approaches”, the Rooney family’s local. There’s something about the smashed car windscreen glass, which fragments into thousands of particles, that tells you, you’d better walk in here with a local. It’s early afternoon, school’s just finished and skinny young lads on bikes are doing wheelies, trying to avoid the teenage mothers whose top-of-the- range strollers suggest that, despite the recent Revenue assessment, the Giro isn’t the only income in the house.

There’s a small lad with no neck, poured into an Everton strip, swearing at a William Hill betting slip, while a few women in pink pyjamas are hanging around Cost Cutters, having a smoke and a natter. No-neck steals up behind one of the grans and takes her from behind. Everyone pisses themselves and no-neck makes off bright red from the laughing.

A Citroen Sax weighed down by an enormous subwoofer blasts rap out at the traffic lights. “Slapper” shouts one of the young lads, as he grabs his crotch and thrusts in her direction. The girl in the passenger seat, in pristine white Juicy Couture, hoop de hoop earrings and full Croydon facelift, gives him the licked finger as she pulls off. Older ladies with tartan trolleys wait patiently at the bus stop, oblivious to the pubescent girls from Saint Swithin’s Primary scratching their fellas’ names on the shelter.

Bob the local Everton scout, who met his missus in the Western, points me up to the bar. Gerard Houllier was amazed, he said, when looking for talent that there were no black kids in Croxteth.

Most people here are straight from Scotland Road – the traditional home of the Liverpool Irish. In fact, Scotty Road was so Irish that, in the late 19th century, it returned an Irish Home Rule MP for years. The Western is simply Costigans on Scotty Road forty years on – the same people, same names and the same culture.

The door opens grudgingly. We are in familiar surrounding: red carpets, screwed down barstools, flock wallpaper, posters advertising bingo and tired men and women. Skinny old men with hollow cheeks scan their betting stubs, while local brazzers reveal a bit too much on top, as they shout across the bar for their fourth Smirnoff Ice. We get stuck in, chatting with a few punters on the Irish theme.

“Alright Bob.”
“Couple of lagers please.”
“Rooney’s never,”
says a visiting Geordie whose two loves are Newcastle and Everton.
“He is, you know, just look at the name. No Longshanks were ever called Rooney.”
“Not one English ounce.”
“Not a drop?”
“He’s pure Scotty Road Irish.”
“On both sides?”
“Yep, Holy Cross parish.”
“On the Murray side too?”
“Sure Jeanette’s ma’s name’s Patricia Fitzsimons.”
“Good job Jack Charlton didn’t see him when he was a nipper.”
“Too right.”
“How far back?”
“Four generations.”
“No fucking way.”
“He’s hardly English at all.”
“Just look at him – he looks like a Mick!”
“Two more pints of lager please, a whiskey chaser, a pack of Lamberts and one for yourself.”

At a small table, close to the loo, is Patricia Fitzsimons – Wayne Rooney’s Nan. Even before Wayne exploded onto the scene, Patricia Fitzsimons whose lot are from Derry was famous locally for being born on the 17th of March, St Patrick’s Day – hence the name Patricia. The first thing you notice is the crucifix and her clear, strong blue eyes. Straight off she starts referring to herself as Irish and to me as “one of our own”. Within seconds she’s back in 1960s Liverpool sharing memories of running away from the King Billys (as she calls them) on the 12th of July, reiterating just how sectarian the city was until recently.

The Western is rocking now. A few winners, a few pints and the place is alive. It’s Monday afternoon, late October and Patricia is talking about some German professor who claims to be Wayne’s half brother. Billy’s still reminiscing about sectarian scraps in the 1960s. The Orangies were always causing trouble and throwing bricks at his Patricia when she was looking beautiful in her finest Hibs Irish dancing costume at the top of the St Patrick’s Day Parade.

The Western is the type of pub that works. Located at the end of the street where young Rooney first went to school at Our Lady of St Swithin’s Catholic Primary, it might not be pretty, but it and the adjacent Our Lady of the Martyrs Church, where Father Inch baptised Wayne, are at the heart of this community.

Across the road is St John Bosco Catholic School for girls where one Miss Colleen McLoughin 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.

This is an Irish part of town. All the older people, like Patricia Fitzsimons, were moved here in the slum clearances of the late1940s and 1950s. They, like thousands of Irish before them, lived in Scotty Road, 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.

Like its black community, Liverpool hosts the oldest Irish community in Britain and Irish immigrants and their descendents have been central to the development of the city. As Liverpool’s economic strength declined, so too did new arrivals from Ireland. Yet, 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.

“Could Wayne have played for Ireland?” I whispered, thinking of all those 2nd and 3rd generation Irish – the sons of exiles – who’d worn the Green. From Steve Heighway to Ray Houghton who headed England out of the 1988 Euro Championship and Kevin Sheedy who equalised against England in the 1990 World Cup. There was John Aldridge, Andy Townsend, and John Sheridan. The list goes on and on.

And what about the “Irish” who played the other way – four recent English captains Kevin Keegan, Steve McMahon, Martin Keown and Tony Adams?

“Nah,” replied Patricia, “He’s English on the outside”.
She looked up, “But, pure Irish on the inside”.
She checked her betting slip, looked up again, “He’s a half-breed”.

Rooney is one of the millions of people of Irish decent in England. Sometimes we here forget about this parallel nation, the demographic echo of Ireland’s past economic failures.

Close to three quarters of the Irish who emigrated over the past seventy years, now live in England. By 1971, over 900,000 Irish people lived in England, while the population of our Republic was less than three million. The vast majority of Irish people in England left in the 1950s when over 500,000 emigrated to England mainly moving to Manchester, the Midlands and London. This was the period of the disappearing Ireland when two out of every three children born in the State in the 1930s and 1940s emigrated! Their children make up the lion’s share of today’s Irish in Britain. These are the Hiberno-Brits – people who are genetically Irish but environmentally British. Let’s call them HiBrits for short.

There was a later but much smaller emigrant bulge in the 1980s ensuring that HiBrits are continuing to be born in maternity wards all over England. But as Ireland is transforming itself and absorbing in more immigrants per head than any other country in the world, forced emigration to England has practically dried up. But the existing Irish population in England is still significant. So while 1971 constituted the peak, thirty six years later, there are still over 650,000 people born in Ireland living in England.

Although rarely classed as such explicitly, they are by far the largest ethnic minority in England. A recent study suggests that one in four English people are HiBrits, claiming to have some Irish background. If this is true, that is some fourteen million people. This means that today there are close to three times as many HiBrits as real Irish. This affinity with Irish roots is particularly marked amongst younger people, 42% of whom claim to be part Irish. This implausible figure may reflect the recent phenomenon whereby all things Irish are considered hip in England. Young Londoners, never slow to spot the trend, are committed. Close to eighty percent claim to have Irish ancestry.

The HiBrit impact on English popular culture has been phenomenal and sometimes overlooked. The three men who the NME acclaimed as having the biggest influence on English pop music John Lennon, Morrissey and Johnny Rotten are HiBrits. All three of them have spoken fondly of their Irish roots and suggested that this was one of the factors which drove them creatively.

John Lennon in his 1974 album Walls and Bridges included a booklet with a history of the Lennon name taken from the rather academic-sounding Irish Families, their Names, Arms and Origins. Lennon is the anglicised version of the Irish original “Ó Leannáin” which originated in Galway. Under “Lennon”, the official entry concluded that no person with the name Lennon has ever distinguished himself in the field of culture or politics, beside which Lennon wrote, in his own handwriting, “Oh yeah? John Lennon!”

Morrissey’s 2005 single “Irish blood, English heart” speaks for itself and, when introducing him at a home-coming gig in Manchester last year, he described himself as “ten parts Crumlin, ten parts Old Trafford”.

Johnny Rotten’s autobiography “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish” sums up his sense of being an outsider growing up in Islington in the 1970s.

The Gallaghers, who won this year’s “Outstanding contribution to British Music” at the Grammys, articulated their Irishness early on in their careers. In 1995, on the eve of England’s hosting Euro ’96 and at the height of the Britpop movement, Noel Gallagher was asked to pen the official England Three Lions football anthem, to which he responded: “Over my dead body mate, we’re Irish”.

In terms of comedy, the influence of other HiBrits such as Peter Kay, Dave Allen, Spike Milligan, Catherine Tate, Jimmy Carr, Paul Merton, Neil Morrissey, Caroline Aherne and, of course, Billy Connolly is again, notable.

Their fingerprints are not just in edgy comedy or rebels with guitars. Smack in the centre of mainstream English broadcasting we have Judy Finnigan, Dec Donnelly and Ant Mc Partlin (Ant and Dec), Ann Robinson, Sharon Osbourne, Dermot O Leary, Dermot Murnighan and Martha Kearney.

The impact of Irish emigration on English culture has been enormous.

Last Thursday, boarding EI 127 Aer Lingus A320 from Vilnius bound for Dublin which was full of Lithuanian immigrants heading back to Dublin, I was wondering what the impact of these people and their children will have on us and on our culture. Mass immigration changes societies and in the same way as the HiBrits changed England, our new immigrants will change us as much as we will change them.


  1. “the millions of people of Irish decent in England.”

    missing an ‘s’ there dave – descent?

    seriously though, there is a point about culture that you have skipped a bit. Patricia states “He’s English on the outside”. And that’s the point – where does the ‘native’ culture end and the ‘immigrant’ culture begin? You are saying that Irish people have had a massive influence on English culture – but they did so for the most part as coming from english society – they grew up in england, watched english telly, went to english schools etc. They are massively successfull in english culture but they are also products of that culture – even if they are Irish ‘on the inside’. To a certain extent credit is due to english culture for accepting these people and allowing their talents to flourish, although at the same time there was and still is plenty of discrimination going around.

    I’m making this point as it seems to me that you imply that the effect of the ‘new irish’ will be to influence or change irish culture whereas from the english example it is clear that the ‘new irish’ will take advantage of the freedoms and prosperity to flourish within irish culture. Ultimately this is to the benefit of both, and this si the magic of immigration.

    So, it is up to Ireland and the ‘old irish’ to create an environment where the new irish are free to develop and flourish according to their talents. Apparently there is a bangladeshi kid in blanchardstown who is one of the most talented hurlers ever seen. In this case it is surely irish culture that is giving this kid a platform to develop and display his skills rather than bangladeshi culture changing hurling. Sean Og o hAlpin is another case in point.

    How can you tell the dancer from the dance?

  2. Bernie O'Keeffe

    Sharon Osbourne is more Yiddish than Irish.

    Nil Satis Nisi Optimum!

  3. Observer

    That kid will be gone in the next several years, Donal.

    I doubt his family plan on staying here when the going get’s very tough economically and when their jobs are lost.

    What he fails to realise is that he is turning his own back on his own culture and that Bangladesh has a past-time of Cricket like their neighbours in India and Pakistan, not GAA.

    You can tell the dance from the dancer by knowing what foot he starts with instead of supposing to start with.

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