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Given a choice, most people prefer a decent life to national or ethnic purity. Given a choice, most people like to get on with their neighbours, to fit in with their communities, to carry on with the business of going to work and raising a family and hoping for the best. 

Fintan O’Toole
20 December 2012

My first memory of being in England is from the hot summer of 1969. I know now that this was the summer that British troops were sent into Northern Ireland, but I don’t remember that at all. We were with my father in London and the thing he was most excited about was that he was going to see the West Indies play cricket against England. I remember certain names – Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd – but I never saw them myself. Neither did I see the Rolling Stones, though my father dutifully asked my older brother and myself (I was 11) if we wanted to go to the free concert they were giving in Hyde Park. We declined the offer because we thought the place would be full of drug-crazed hippies. The memory I do have is much more banal than that but at the time the incident was overwhelming.

My brother and I are sitting on a low wall outside a pub in which my father and his cousin are having a drink. We’ve been given bottles of lemonade and we’re sucking through straws. We’re thrilled with the lemonade but a little scared to be on our own on an English street. In my head, there are nameless fears about England, all of them traceable to the fact that it is known to be full of Protestants and therefore entirely without order or morality. Around the corner, in the blazing sun, comes a huge African man in flowing white robes and a tall leopard-skin hat, followed by a small retinue of attendants. We stare at him. He stops and beams benignly at us. He raises his arm and extends his hand from the sleeve of his robe. He pats me on the head and says ‘Hello, boys. Are you enjoying your pop?’

Pop – the word belongs entirely to the English comics we read. We don’t use it in Ireland – all fizzy drinks are lemonade and we get them so rarely that one word for them is quite enough. It comes to me in a panic that he thinks we are English. He’s some kind of exotic foreigner – a king? a chief? – and in that moment, I decide that he’s visiting London and has deigned, graciously, to say hello to some English kids. But we’re not English, we’re Irish, which is, of course, the opposite.

I open my mouth to try to explain this to him – not, I think, for our sake but for his: this is something he should know. But it’s all too much – the pre-existing tinge of fear, the awe of his regal presence, the strangeness of his black skin, the confusion of this sudden and unprecedented experience. Nothing comes out except a short, high-pitched gabble. He pats my head softly again, turns away and sails majestically down the street.

My father and uncle come out of the pub. They ask us if we’re okay. Did anyone bother us? We don’t have time to confer but instinctively we both say that no, nobody came near us. We both feel that if we tell the truth we might get into some kind of trouble. For the rest of our first visit to England, I feel vaguely ashamed. I’ve somehow let Ireland down by passing as English and this seems to matter. Somewhere out there, there’s an African prince or king or chief who believes he has fulfilled his social duties by patting an English boy on the head and asking him if he’s enjoying his pop. And in fact he has encountered an entirely different brand of humanity. I should have said something. But, I ask myself, how could I ever have anticipated that anyone would know so little about the world that they would confuse Irish and English?

Yet, looking back, I must have known at some level that this whole notion was ridiculous, even for a child. Why shouldn’t a foreigner take us for English? For on that same week-long trip, we stayed with our English first cousins in Maidstone and our other English cousins in Manchester – one set from my father’s side of the family, the other from my mother’s. My Uncle Kevin, a court clerk in Kent, looked so much like my father that we laughed at the way even the backs of their heads, with matching bald patches and a few last wisps of curls, looked indistinguishable. But he was, of all shockingly English things, a Tory. My Uncle Peter, a bus driver in Manchester, had my mother’s soft eyes and gentle manner, but he expressed approval and enthusiasm with words like ‘champion’ and ‘belter’. And seeing us and his own children play happily together, he called us ‘chums’.

That word leapt out at me a few years later when I read Guests of the Nation, Frank O’Connor’s story, written in 1931 and set during the then-recent War of Independence. The story begins with ordinary human friendship – Englishmen and Irishmen calling each other ‘chum’:

“At dusk the big Englishman, Belcher, would shift his long legs out of the ashes and say ‘Well, chums, what about it?’ and Noble and myself would say ‘All right, chum’ (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman, Hawkins, would light the lamp and bring out the cards.”

When I read the story first as a teenager, it struck me as a little strange that O’Connor’s narrator picks up on ‘chums’ as a ‘curious expression’. It is, just like pop, redolent of Englishness and, for that very reason, you’d seldom hear anyone use it in Ireland. But it was hardly ‘curious’: it was there all the time in Enid Blyton stories, in The Beano and The Dandy, in Dickens, in virtually everything we read. And it is, after all, a warm, cosy word, implying a simple human (though especially male) affection, a familiar intimacy. It has a sense of ease about it; it is uncomplicated and unpretentious. It suggests something beyond – or rather below – politics, history, race, religion, identity. That, of course, is why O’Connor inserts it so prominently at the start of his story and draws our attention to it.

For the word will come back in a cry of terror. We gradually learn that the Englishmen are captured soldiers – hostages being held by the IRA, to be killed in reprisal for British executions of IRA prisoners. When told that they are indeed to be taken out and shot, one of the soldiers, Hawkins, gives a cry of despairing incomprehension: ‘Why did any of us want to plug him? What had he done to us? Weren’t we all chums? Didn’t we understand him and didn’t he understand us?’

The question turns on that little word – ‘chums’. Chums don’t shoot each other. Hawkins asks his captors if they could imagine, with the situation reversed, that he would shoot them ‘for all the so-and-so officers in the so-and-so British Army?’ The idea, like the word, is supposed to transcend politics and history, to make demands of a different order to those of states and armies and officers. Except, of course, that it can’t. Hawkins and Belcher must be shot and the narrator must help to do it. Historic imperatives are in motion and a little, silly, unpretentious word like ‘chums’ cannot stand in their way. It will be crushed and silenced.

O’Connor’s story is very simple but also very complex. For it entirely depends on something that is not supposed to be the case. Writing just a decade after the bitterness of the Anglo-Irish conflict in which he participated, O’Connor is able to make an ostensibly extraordinary assumption and take it for granted that it will be shared by his readers. What he assumes is this: ordinary readers, both Irish and English, will find it entirely credible that, given some time together, IRA men and British soldiers will become ‘chums’. This process has no drama or romance. It is treated as a normal state of affairs. It may be, in the context of conflict, fragile and disposable. But it is an everyday, unremarkable reality.

When I read O’Connor’s story for the first time – I must have been 15 or 16 – it did what good fiction ought to do – it put words on an unarticulated feeling. It was the first thing I read that captured so directly a deep ambivalence that attached to my Irish feelings about England. In the story, two entirely different attitudes collide. One is political and historic: English oppression and Irish resistance. The other is human and mundane: chums. One is big, powerful, coercive. The other is small, ordinary, natural. One is about ideas and identities. The other is just about living. One demands, even at its most benign, a large-scale language of negotiation, compromise and reconciliation. The other just is. It’s about getting along in both senses – surviving and co-existing. One is a very big deal. The other is a very small deal – but, perhaps, it is in such small deals that humanity endures.

Even as a teenager, I knew that these two realities did not cohere. For me, as for many Irish people, they had to exist in different spheres, one public, the other private, that have to be sealed off from each other. The public aspect consisted of all the stuff of inherited resentments and contemporary turmoil. Certain things just gave me the creeps: Stanley Baldwin’s ‘tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy’; George Orwell’s ‘clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns... old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning’; John Major’s ‘long shadows on the county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs’; imperial delusions and patronising public school voices; the impregnable self-righteousness of a brilliantly self-serving ruling class; a tone, real or imagined, of benign condescension; a blithe assurance that Irish problems were purely Irish and that England was simply there to help. All of these aversions are (to me) perfectly rational, and I can defend them if need be, but in truth they are also pre-rational. They come with the territory – in my case a native terrain that was Irish, Catholic and working class. I can rationalise them all – but even if I couldn’t, I’d still feel them.

Growing up with the Troubles gave all of these instincts a focus and an urgency. British policy – swinging from utter neglect to authoritarian control, from reform to reaction – was, at best, inadequate. Disasters from internment to Bloody Sunday to the mishandling of the H-block hunger strikes seemed, fairly or not, to stem from a deep carelessness. It seemed that Britain had never collectively taken the trouble to really understand Ireland; that the ghastly mistakes came from a kind of laziness. Centuries of control had not been matched by centuries of real engagement. Britain, and especially England, seemed in this light very foreign indeed, so distant that all the nuances and subtleties that define a friendship were entirely absent.

But there was also that other Britain, or in my case, other England. It was barely foreign at all. I grew up reading Just William and Billy Bunter and The Famous Five; Desperate Dan, The Bash Street Kids and Dennis the Menace. I followed Nottingham Forest and adored Brian Clough (still do). The highlights of the cultural week were Monty Python, Top of the Pops and Match of the Day. The Beatles and the Stones formed the soundtrack of adolescence. I was taken captive by Shakespeare and Shelley, Austen and Hardy, Orwell and Huxley, Tom Paine and Christopher Hitchens. The first newspaper I decided to buy for myself was Harold Evans’s Sunday Times. I learned to write journalism from reading Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent in the New Musical Express. I learned about theatre criticism from reading Kenneth Tynan.

There was, in all of this, a kind of freedom. Irishness, in all its complexities and perplexities, is what you inherited. It was given to you and you had to make the best of it. You were stuck with it and, to a degree, responsible for it: the bad bits as well as the good. But English culture came free. It was a bonus offer, not an essential part of your own identity. You could take what you wanted and leave the rest – hang on to the anarchic genius of Just William and ditch the twee world of Enid Blyton; take David Bowie doing Starman and leave Edward Heath; adore the Shakespeare of King Lear and ignore the Shakespeare of Henry V; love the England of Blake, Shelley and Paine and loathe the England of Brideshead Revisited and the Bloomsbury group. You could construct your very own England from the bits that appealed.

The thing about all of the appealing stuff is that the imagined community it conjured didn’t feel like Them. It wasn’t Us either – I always had the sense of being outside of it. But it was entirely interwoven with daily life in Dublin. It didn’t set me apart – on the contrary, not to have read the comics or followed an English football team, not to have seen Top of the Pops or the latest Monty Python, was to be out of it. It wasn’t even glamorous or exotic – it was just there. In truth, it was even more there than most of traditional Irish culture was. It was much easier for me, as a kid on a Dublin housing estate, to connect with English urban culture than with what I later came to know as the majesties of sean-nós singing or Peig Sayers’s stories of island life. Boys from the Blackstuff was a much more pertinent reflection of the life I knew than The Riordans could ever be.

But it wasn’t just this sense that aspects of English popular culture were more resonant in the present. My sense of the past was also shaped in significant ways by English imagery. Thus, for example, Irish neutrality in the Second World War was entirely irrelevant to the mental universe in which I lived as a child and teenager. It was a huge historic fact – the most important single decision an Irish government had made up to that time. But it was completely supplanted at the imaginative level by English comics in which the war was still everywhere. We knew about rationing and the Blitz and the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk. We knew that German soldiers (‘Gerry’) said ‘Achtung! Schweinhund!’ and that the Japanese said ‘Banzai!’ The Emergency – a literal non-event – couldn’t compete with the visceral drama of Britain’s war. And it was a specifically British mythology of the war that shaped my early notion of what happened and what it meant. I remember watching Winston Churchill’s funeral on the television and knowing, at some level, that it was about something much more profound than the passing of another Tory toff – it was about the searing experience of the war.

This made complete sense to me because of another aspect of the private side of my relationship to England. Like almost everyone I knew, I had aunts and uncles – and therefore gangs of cousins – in England. And three of them had fought in the war: two in the army, one as a clerk in the Women’s Royal Air Force. For them, Irish neutrality was a fiction. Poverty at home on the docklands of Dublin and the opportunity of a decent wage and perhaps some vocational training in the forces drew them into that defining conflict.

It strikes me, in retrospect, that there was never the slightest sense of shame about this, or any obvious rupture with their Irish Catholic background. I’d like to think that this was because of the nobility of the fight against fascism, and I’m proud that my Uncle Kevin, who joined the Royal Engineers, helped to get troops through Rommel’s minefields at El-Alamein and to run the railway system in occupied Berlin. But I don’t think there was anything as fine as that going on here. Such grand thoughts are part of the large, public history. This belonged to the other, private history, the mundane normality of life. Joining the British army in wartime was simply much better than being unemployed on the Dublin docks. So far as I could gather, nobody in the flats complex they came from – an area in which nationalist sentiment was strong – thought it at all strange that three of the O’Tooles (and later a fourth) joined the British forces. If someone had asked them in a TV vox pop or an opinion survey, they’d probably have felt a duty to say it was a disgrace. In the private reality, it was unremarkable.

There’s no great mystery in any of this, no large moral or sententious conclusion. It’s just what people do. They do what they think is best for them at the time. Poor people, in particular, can’t afford too many abstract principles. I’m sure my uncles and aunts grew up with all the inherited hatred of England and Englishness – they’d been born in the decade after the Anglo-Irish conflict. But it made no difference to the decisions they had to make – decisions about survival and boredom and adventure and advancement. They made their choices and adapted their lives to the choices they had made.


It strikes me, indeed, as interesting that, of the four who joined the British army, two came home and two stayed in England. And that, in each case, they adapted happily to whichever place they were in. With the two who came home – one uncle, one aunt – you’d never have known that they had been, for a time, officially British. They slipped back easily and naturally into Dublin working-class life – their accents, their attitudes, their way of carrying themselves, all indistinguishable from those who had never left. But the two who stayed in England – one in Maidstone, one in Birmingham – slipped just as easily into English life. They didn’t cease to be Irish, of course, but neither did it particularly bother them that their kids would have English accents.

Why did it not bother them? Because, ultimately they – and many more of my aunts and uncles who left in the 1950s didn’t emigrate to England. They emigrated to social democracy. The place they wanted to be wasn’t Hammersmith or Ealing, Birmingham or Manchester, though they ended up in all those places and more. It was National Health Service Land, Free Education Land, Unionised Workforce Land, Jobs for Women Land, where being female didn’t mean your only choices were whether to be a housewife or a nun. It was a land of basic decency where ordinary working people believed they had a right to a reasonably tolerable present and the hope for a better future.

If, in the period between 1945 and 1979, you wanted to understand the difference between ideology and human realities, the question to ask was: what’s the difference between England and Ireland? In the realm of rhetoric and abstraction, the answer was to be found in endless discourses about history, religion, victimhood and oppression, the Empire and the Four Green Fields. But for those who grew up on small farms or in the working class ghettoes of Irish towns and cities, the answers were entirely different. You could get a job in England. Your kids could go to secondary school and, if they were smart, they had a good chance of getting to university. You could get your eyes tested and your teeth fixed. You could get some kind of a house. And in Ireland, if you came from those social classes, you couldn’t.

And all of these things trumped nationality and religion. It wasn’t that the hundreds of thousands who left for England felt less Irish – in many ways, they were forced to feel more so, to be suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the way they spoke and moved. Whether they liked it or not, they were Paddies, forced to deal with everything from outright racism to ‘good-natured’ joshing. (‘What’s the matter, Paddy, can’t take a joke?’) In relation to religion, it wasn’t that they hadn’t been force-fed warnings of the dangers of Pagan England to their faith, their chastity, their very souls. Irishness and Catholicism remained immensely important to the bulk of those who went. But ultimately they were less important than wages, houses, schools, prospects.

This is just the way people are. Given a choice, most people prefer a decent life to national or ethnic purity. Given a choice, most people like to get on with their neighbours, to fit in with their communities, to carry on with the business of going to work and raising a family and hoping for the best. They may have and hold an identity that is ethnic and political and religious and historic. But they also have an identity that is contingent, that they make up as they live their lives, that they form out of the daily stuff of coping and hoping. There are grand antagonisms and reconciliations but there are all those things implied in the word ‘chums’ – ordinary acts of getting along.

Here, though, is the big question: could these two kinds of experience be brought together or must they always occupy parallel universes? Must there always be a disjunction between the public and private sides of the relationships that tie Ireland and England together? Is it possible to imagine that the tragic disconnection that O’Connor dramatises in Guests of the Nation might be repaired?

Well, perhaps it is, and perhaps it has actually happened. Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to the Republic didn’t really change anything. But it did dramatise a change that had already happened. It gave a sharp, immediate focus to a process that has been slow and incremental. It had its lovely moments of graceful presence but what it really did was to embody a paradox – making an absence suddenly visible. What we saw were two things that were, astonishingly, not there: Anglophobia and condescension.

This took me by surprise. I was at Dublin Castle, blathering for some TV crew, and when I’d finished I was grabbed by another and put in front of a monitor with a live feed from the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. I was doing the usual stuff: explaining that the garden was primarily built to commemorate the heroes of violent nationalism, and the resonance of a British monarch entering it to pay her respects... I was completely unprepared for the emotion of that simple but extraordinary moment when the queen laid her wreath and bowed her head. That moment appealed to something far beyond the rational. It reached into places where no speech or declaration could, or should, try to go: the irrational, psychological terrain of superiority and inferiority complexes, of inherited insult and thoughtless condescension. It hit all the raw nerves that lie just beneath the surface of this knotty relationship, delivering a shock that was, paradoxically, soothing.

Before the queen did that, the visit was overwhelmingly about us, the Irish. It was about the Irish proving to ourselves that we are mature, that we’re over all that bitterness, that the chip on our shoulders is now a mere mole. The visit seemed like a kind of immersion therapy: you cure yourself of Anglophobia by welcoming the queen in the way you might cure yourself of arachnophobia by walking into a roomful of spiders.

The ceremony in the Garden of Remembrance transformed the visit by making it also about them, the English. It wasn’t just the Irish who were being bravely mature: it was also the English. Generations of English superciliousness towards Ireland (the suave, upper-class, good-natured sort being the worst) was disavowed in that moment. The queen managed a dignified humility and simplicity that were the polar opposites of condescension. Her gesture was not, as some overexcited commentators and headline writers sought to insist, some kind of homage to the rebels who beat the Brits. It was more meaningful than that. It was a simple acknowledgment that Ireland is a different place, with its own history and mythology, its own encoded meanings. Different, that is, but equal.

And perhaps all we needed was that simple gesture of respect to bring the official and unofficial, the public and the private relationships, into alignment. For the trick was never to create an amity that did not previously exist. It was to evolve a politics that is adequate to the simple, mundane intimacy that has been there for generations. The need was not for something grandiose. It was for the possibility of going back to Hawkins’s terrible question: ‘Weren’t we all chums? Didn’t we understand him and didn’t he understand us?’ Only this time with the vivid likelihood that the answer might be ‘yes’. 


This piece was first published in October 2012, in the fourth volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler.  She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.


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