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PROUD TO BE IRISH


I'd met many like him - he was part of the Irish generation that headed for England in the 50s, 60s and 70s in search of employment, usually labouring or factory work.


I'd met many like him - he was part of the Irish generation that headed for England in the 50s, 60s and 70s in search of employment, usually labouring or factory work.

originally published: August, 2010

PROUD TO BE IRISH

The Holyhead Ferry waiting room is not a friendly spot. I arrived on a boat from Dublin and had four hours to kill before the London train departed. The tea ladies closed their cafe and the authorities turned off the heating. Soon it was too cold to snooze or read but sometimes talking can relieve the tedium.

Eddie looked a bit like a character from a Johnny Cash song or a John Wayne movie - the strong silent type. He seemed somehow to be a decent sort and, typical of me, what I interpreted as his "decency" was the lilt of his rather old fashioned Tipperary accent.

But Eddie was a decent man. Clearly decked out in his best suit and what I would class as his cleanest dirty shirt, he was in his late sixties, clutching a shabby overstuffed overnight bag. I'd met many like him - he was part of the Irish generation that headed for England in the 50s, 60s and 70s in search of employment, usually labouring or factory work. When I first moved to London in the late 80s they were already a dying breed. I got to see them from time to time when I visited, in search of light amusement, the Galtymore Ballroom in Cricklewood or the National Ballroom in Kilburn. They were poles apart from the more urban and educated emigrant generation that I was part of. We didn't socialise exclusively with Irish people in Irish venues and we didn't anxiously seek out The Kerryman every week in search of news from home. Unlike Eddie's contemporaries, we had lots of options and the world was our oyster. We'd not be growing old in England unless we really wanted to do so.

Eddie was waiting to board the boat I'd just arrived on. 'First I'm going down to Tipperary to stay with my sister there for a few days.' he explained. 'I won't be hanging around there too long, mind you. She has her own life and her own family. I'm going just to visit the grave, my mother and father's grave. The whole visit will be worth it just to go there and say a little prayer.'

He said he'd then proceed to Listowel where he'd another sister – this one widowed and clearly expected to give him a somewhat warmer welcome. We talked about how we both liked visiting Ireland to see family and friends but we agreed that it would be very difficult to move back. He said that in his case it was impossible; he'd had a heart attack when he was sixty and found, like me, that the British NHS was second to none. Also he liked life in Birmingham and thought, like many an Irish citizen before him, that "the English are alright once you get to know them."

'I'll be 70 in two years time and, Christ, that shocks me;' he said emphatically after a moment's silence. I could see why it would shock him - he didn't look particularly young but he looked vigorous and as if he could still do a hard day's work. He said his biggest fear was ending up incapacitated; dying didn't particularly frighten him. I got the impression that he was either unmarried or widowed.

After that our chat ran out of steam - we really didn't have that much in common. I asked him if he'd seen last year's All Ireland hurling final between Tipperary and Kilkenny. 'I did see it. I dropped into a pub where they had it on the satellite. I watched it in Birmingham with a friend from Tramore who's not particularly interested in sport. I said to him at the end of the match that it made me proud to be from Tipperary. He said to me, "Not only that; it'd make you proud to be Irish."'

With that his boat was called and he headed off in the general direction of a grave in Tipperary. I was joined shortly afterwards by a Dublin teenager who was travelling by train to the south of Spain where his family have an apartment. We talked away the cold until our train was announced and we made for London.

Joe Ambrose

Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.

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