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Home Thoughts from Abroad on Saint Patrick's Day

Joe Ambrose finds plenty to love and loathe amongst the London Irish, the Irish Irish and assorted Brits on St. Patrick's Day

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2007
I never think of myself as an emigrant. It's a slightly pejorative word, to me it implies economic emigrant, and that one had to leave home to earn a crust. Which was not the case with me.
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2007
I never think of myself as an emigrant. It's a slightly pejorative word, to me it implies economic emigrant, and that one had to leave home to earn a crust. Which was not the case with me.

I live in Islington in London. Islington used to be a substantially Irish ghetto, pretty downmarket, now reinvented as a New Labour ruling elite enclave. A lot of media people, intelligence operatives, City people, and thirtysomething colour supplement couples, homo and hetero.

I moved to London in '86 or '87 because I was managing a punk rock band - The Baby Snakes - and the band transferred operations there. But I really moved because I was bored with Ireland, a place where I had a sense of going around in circles and of being constrained.

A lot of Irish people were washing up in London right then, most of them as a result of the dire economic situation back home but I was doing well as a journalist in Dublin before I jumped ship. I think I made a very calculated decision to leave the place I came from. I didn't calculate on being in London so long, I thought I'd just be passing through.

I never think of myself as an emigrant. It's a slightly pejorative word, to me it implies economic emigrant, and that one had to leave home to earn a crust. Which was not the case with me.

London is a hugely international city full of foreigners. Londoners are people who've lived more than five years in London, I think. I've been here so long that I've been here at least a decade longer than most of the people I come across.

Every two or three months, if there is nothing special going on, I fly back to Ireland. By which I mean: if I'm involved in some project which has an Irish angle - like when I was working on my Dan Breen book last year - I'll inevitable be going back and forth more. When I go I like to go for ten days or something like that, which allows me to meet my family down in Tipperary and also to go hang out in Dublin for a while.

The infrastructure in Ireland is appalling. Intellectual debate is hugely diminished. When I lived there it had a thriving arts underground and counterculture. This is virtually non existent now and the artistic community has largely been bought off. Dublin is a mess and a boring unsophisticated mess at that. A lot of Irish people are so nouveau riche that they've no idea how nouveau riche they are. The onetime lust for arable land has been replaced with an absurd obsession with the buying and selling of houses.

Every day I check the news on the RTE site and every fortnight or so I check the site of the Clonmel Nationalist, my home town paper. And a day never goes by without something to do with Ireland intruding on my day. I remain a very Irish sort of person with very Irish concern, always involved in some sort of an Irish scheme.

Londoners really have seen it all before and they've been seeing the Irish longer than anyone else. That said, there is still some racism and there are still stereotypes. The English play their cards close to their chests and are a profoundly non-committal people. I've become very English in that regard myself. Nobody ever mentions anything about being Irish to me. Nobody says "Are you Irish?" I'm more likely to raise being Irish than others are. But, then, very little that I do brings me into contact with the sort of people who are intrinsically interested in or hostile to the Irish.

Londoners who are not racist would have a reasonably accurate idea of what the Irish are like. In London people get to meet lots of real Irish people. There are Irish-born police, many lower-rung Labour Party activists are Irish, etc etc. We have reputations in liberal circles for being well read, witty, colorful, and astute. These are broad generalizations and no more accurate than the opposite end of the perception spectrum, wherein we're drunken feckless dole-scrounging cowboy builders.

British born Irish people are not, I think, actually Irish people though many of them would love it to be otherwise. When I moved to London first I was forever encountering second generation Irish who clearly felt that they knew a great deal more about Ireland than I did and who had no compunction about lecturing me on the country. At that time these people talked a great deal of shit about how much they loved the "craic" by which they meant getting drunk and listening to Christy Moore, Van Morrison, or the Pogues. I guess Shane McGowan is a prominent London-born Irish man but he has lived so much of his life in Ireland that he is not typical. Bob Geldolf doesn't speak for the Irish in England - most Irish I know despise him - but he is an Irish person who is hugely prominent across all media.

When I was managing The Baby Snakes we were forever encountering embittered Brit rock musicians who couldn't understand the then virtual hegemony which the Irish exercised over the rock business in London. The Mean Fiddler organisation controlled most of the decent prestige venues, U2 and the Pogues were in full effect. That particular phenomenon has been diluted a bit but Irish cultural product is easy enough to sell to the English.

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Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.

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