I had a title, a slot on BBC Radio 41 and a very definite deadline. What I didn’t really have was any idea of how to make a programme about the Queen’s visit to Ireland that would be distinctive from the news coverage that would surround it.
The wonderful thing about my job as a radio producer is that you can approach extremely talented people and ask them to do all the work for you. After a small amount of persistent persuasion Joseph O’Connor agreed to be involved and we started a discussion about the relationship between Britain and Ireland. (Actually, the discussion went on for quite a while before Joe agreed to present it. I’m not sure he ever formally agreed; I turned up with a microphone one day and that was it.)
In an email to me, Joe said, ‘The book that reveals most about the relationship between Ireland and England is no novel or history textbook or learned tome, but the telephone directory of any major British city, in which hundreds of people bearing my own surname will be found. The Irish and the English are far more mulatto than they ever acknowledge officially, but privately we all know this to be true.’
I knew this to be true, as did Joe. We had a starting point. I had a title which I emailed to Joe, ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’. It crossed over an email he’d sent me, with a link to the Morrissey song of the same title.
The thing is, I have no Irish blood. I’m straight up and down English. I’m married to a Belfast man who has 400 years of Ulster Presbyterianism distilled in him: he once joked that I’d ‘polluted’ his blood line. I think it was a joke, anyway. But between us, an Irishman living in Dublin and an Englishwoman living in Belfast, we made this programme, ‘Irish Blood English Hearts’ which went out on Radio 4 to coincide with the royal visit in 2011.
We recorded it largely without a script, on location in Dublin and London. The exceptions were the letters Joe wrote to Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Both are included in these highlights from the transcript of a programme which took us from London to Dublin, and which the second of these letters brings to a close.
Narrator (reads Irish names from London phone book): Miss A O’Connor, Miss AE O‘Connor, O’Connor C, O’ Connor D, O‘Connor DE, O’Connor F......
Joe: So many literary texts have been written about the relationship between England and Ireland, and then on another level, on the political level, there’s a kind of silence about it. And a series of propagandas, on both sides. But I always feel that the real storybook of the relationship between Ireland and England is not to be found in a novel ... we all know that there are connections of a very intimate and rich kind, to do with culture and intermarriage and sport and business, you know? The guilty fact about the Irish and the English is that secretly, they’re quite fond of each other...
Scene one – London
Music: The Pogues A Rainy Night in Soho
Joe: Well, here we are in Hammersmith on a chilly evening in March. I love London, I lived here as a lad, as did pretty much everyone that I went to college with. That’s the way Ireland was in the 1980s; you got your plane ticket to London at the same time as you got your degree. I mean emigration was such an unquestioned factor in Irish life. I grew up in Dun Laoghaire, a coastal town eight miles south of Dublin city where there was a pier and a waterfront, and the nightly entertainment in the summer when you were a teenager was to walk down the pier and look at the boats and the ferries leaving for London and wonder to yourself would you go to Manchester or Coventry or which English city you would go to. There was no notion that you’d stay in Ireland. Ireland was a joke and we all knew that, it was this funny little failed place on the western shores of Europe that only survived due to the incredible irony that every ten years or so a hundred thousand of its people would go and live in the land of the old enemy.
But my parents would say to us you know, this little rainy sad place on the western shores of Europe where we don’t do many things brilliantly – this is the country of WB Yeats, and Patrick Kavanagh and Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, very interesting figures of course, because many of them felt an allegiance to both countries. Oscar Wilde is included in anthologies of English writers as well as Irish. I mean we used to feel very neurotic about this in Ireland, but I think this is a great thing – Irish blood English heart ... you know?
Interviewee 1: The late Josephine Hart, interviewed shortly before her death. A novelist born in Ireland but who lived in England for many years.
Josephine: Well I came (to England) really full of gratitude that when people would meet me I would have no historical identity i.e. I wasn’t Sheila Hart’s daughter or I wasn’t Dermot Hart’s daughter. I would come without an identity and to be without a recognizable identity I think that is the great gift of exile.
My personality was so intense that I did have to learn to calm that down. I think in the beginning I approached language in the way that I had in Ireland, that a conversation was like a rugby match – you know you got the ball and you kept running with it.
In Ireland it works because we’re all ready to jump on the ball but in England you would never dream of doing that! So out of good manners I had to say, ‘stop it Josephine, let someone else talk here!’
Joe: Shortly after I met my wife – we both loved opera, and I’d never been to Glyndebourne so we decided we’d go. So we went to the opera, and after the end of the first act there was a break, as is traditional, for people to go outside and have their hampers and their picnic. And we’d slipped up there, we hadn’t brought the hamper. But we stood there watching and I think I was smoking a cigarette, and people had their rugs and their fold out chairs and fold out tables and their fold out waiters, and they sat there having these incredible meals. And about ten minutes in the sunshine disappeared and the sky darkened and a thunderstorm began, probably the worse one I’ve ever been in, in my life, and within about two minutes I was completely soaked to the skin. Nobody moved. Everybody sat there under their umbrellas eating their lobster thermidor and drinking their champagne and saying to God: ‘We are the English at play. You have nothing you can throw at us that is going to put us off. We’re going to sit here for half an hour and eat our picnics. And then we’re going to damn well go back in and see the opera’.
Music: Morissey Irish blood English heart
Josephine: There is the love of narrative in Ireland to shape the story and there is a reticence in English society. And you know, each society changes of course every decade or every 20 years and English society has changed a lot since I came here, but the idea of English self-deprecation, of being hidden behind language, is very definitely in my opinion in their psychology.
Joe: I think that the inculcation of feelings of antagonism towards Britain is something that belonged more to my parents’ generation. I mean my father – who’s in his seventies now, who had a standard issue Christian Brothers education in inner city Dublin growing up – he could still quote you reams of verse about the treacherous Saxon dogs and how they ‘poisoned our hero Owen Roe O’Neill, did they dare to slay him they feared to meet with steel’. But I think, from talking to him, that he and the other little boys didn’t really believe this. They thought it was great poetry; but their fathers and their mothers had worked in England and their uncles and aunts lived there now, and some of their uncles had been in the British army and they knew it was slightly more complicated than those aspects of the culture would lead you to believe. And certainly by my own generation, by the time I went to school there was still a little bit of it, not very much. But it’s hard to tell kids to hate the English when they all love Manchester United and The Beat and The Specials and The Clash. People don’t think in such big terms. The Irish have a great ability to make exceptions, and I think that was often applied when England came up in the conversation.
Interviewee 2 – Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, Irish author and historian.
Diarmaid: There’s no doubt in Ireland that there are people who would proclaim themselves to be proud Irish republicans, who think the monarchy is a ridiculous institution and they have to be very ironic about it and very satirical about it. And yet curiously they are extraordinarily knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the royal family and royal goings on and the various individuals associated with it – I wouldn’t quite call it a forbidden love, but it’s a slightly clandestine indulgence on the Irish part.
When Queen Victoria came to Ireland in 1900 there was a mixed response. There were those who protested and took the opportunity to make their protest against the British Empire. They would have linked their protest to the wider protests against British Imperialism in the context of the Boer War; and they saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate their allegiance to Irish republicanism and Irish nationalism. But you’ve got to distinguish between that reaction and the reaction of ordinary people. There was a sense of it being a popular occasion; people lining the street, people being curious and interested in the royal family and wanting to demonstrate their allegiance to the royal family. There would have been plenty who identified with the British Empire in Ireland at that time as well; nationalism and republicanism were not developed to the extent at that time that they could be representative of mainstream public opinion. So you’ve got to really see two different public attitudes to the British royals, and Queen Victoria herself would have expressed herself as very gratified at the reception she got in Ireland at that time. That reflected the close ties between the two countries in terms of geography and history and personality.
Letter to Queen Victoria, from Joseph O’Connor, Dublin, 2011
Dear Queen Victoria,
Properly, by the rules of etiquette, I should address you as ‘Your Majesty’, and for that reason I am willing to do so. But since stating a willingness is also to state a form of reluctance, let me add that my reluctance is not to intend the slightest disrespect to your shade – people are entitled to be called what they wish, and a head of state has a whole nexus of particular entitlements, most of which are embodied in language. But it’s hard for any Irish person to use the words ‘Your Majesty’ and mean them. And thereby hangs a tale.
For me to address you using those words – for me to call you ‘Your Majesty’ – feels as strange and as foreign as it would feel for you to be invited to call me ‘Joseph’ or ‘Joe’. You would do it, I know, if absolutely required; but let’s face it, you would not be amused.
What we call each other has so often become a matter of great importance in the history of these neighbouring islands. People have killed and died over matters of naming, because Shakespeare was wrong when he said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Call a rose a noxious weed and it would cease to be a rose. Soon, it would lead the garden into war.
As Shaw, a man who was both Irish and English, pointed out, the Irish and the English are two peoples divided by a common language. But there have been one or two other divisions along the way. And there have been interesting affinities also.
My grandmother, Eleanor O’Neill, was born in the year of your death, in the city of Dublin, the capital of Ireland, a country that gave you and your ministers many troubles and sleepless nights all through the years of your reign. She was born in a district called ‘The Liberties’, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, an enclave of fierce autonomies, as all poor places are, near the stern, black cathedral in which Swift had thundered the gospel, near the slums of O’Casey, those rookeries of the broken, near the house on Usher’s Island in which the family in James Joyce’s The Dead are gathered in the hope of epiphany. Dublin Castle, bastion of colonial power down all the long centuries, was a mule’s bawl from Francis Street, her childhood home and habitat. The Liffey flowed adjacently, by Wood Quay and the Four Courts, by the steeples of Christchurch and Adam-and-Eve’s, a dirty, eddying watercourse serenaded by the seagulls and the calls of the barge- men through its mizzle and stench. Twenty years after her birth it would bear into history the last British garrison ever to guard Ireland’s capital. The river that once brought them would take them away, under the conquering gaze of Michael Collins.
Francis Street was a district of intertwining ideologies, where nationalism’s pieties, if often acknowledged, would be complicated by other, more pressing realities into which one’s patriotism, if one possessed any, had to be resolved. ‘Pray and Save’ would be the dictum of newly independent Ireland, slogan of a regime that favoured obedience above all other modes, as perhaps all post-revolutionary societies will – but Francis Street said more than its prayers. The Liberties, aptly named, a kind of independent republic, had its own web of fealties and ethics. It was a place of trade and commerce of one kind and another: small shops, dairies, rent-collectors, corner-boys, people who kept animals, survivors, adapters, with as many sceptics as true believers. My grandmother, as a child, had seen the black bunting draped from the tenements – commemoration of those hundreds of her neighbours who had died in Britain’s armies. From Bloemfontein and Spion Kop and Gallipoli and Ypres, from countless unpronounceable battlegrounds of empire and its desires, many sons of Francis Street had never wended home. Their absence from the Liberties was itself a kind of presence. It suggested allegiance was more complicated than you’d been told.
Perhaps, in these complications, and in others we know about, lies the true nature of the relationship between my people and yours. As Oscar Wilde wrote in one of the most immensely popular plays of your era ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple..’ How true that is. Your Majesty.
Yours sincerely, Joseph O’Connor
Music: Paul Brady Nothing But The Same Old Story
Joe: Well, Paul Brady has a very interesting song called Nothing But The Same Old Story, and it tells a story that appears in a lot of Irish literary works about a young man who goes to work in England and he comes down the gangplank of the ship with his eyes wide as headlights like the thousands and thousands who’ve gone before and it’s about experiencing discrimination, about experiencing anti-Irish feeling, which has certainly always existed as a seam of English life, right back to the 19th century and previously. There’s a refrain in the song ‘in their eyes we’re nothing but a bunch of murderers’ and he even says in a very knowing very insightful critique of a kind of English liberal who loves Irish culture, he says, ‘there’s a crowd says I’m alright, they love my turn of phrase, take me round to their parties like some dressed up monkey in a cage, and I play my accordion but when the wine seeps through the facade it’s nothing but the same old story’.
And that song is true, you know? There’s no point in pretending the relationship between the two countries has been untroubled. My own father-in-law, John Casey, was from County Roscommon, he remembered seeing the signs in the boarding house windows saying no Irish could stay there. I think you see it all the way back to the works of James Joyce, in traditional music, in ballads, in stories. But I think even while all of that bitterness and ignorance and fear which has existed on both sides has gone on, there’ve been people who make an exception. And the Song of Heart’s Desire is a very powerful song. It’s stronger than any hatred or prejudice, and that has brought people together in remarkable ways over the years.
Scene two – Dublin
Joe: Well, we’re now on the corner of Marlborough Street and Abbey Street right in the centre of Dublin. There’s the Liffey over there not a hundred yards from us and the GPO on O’Connell Street is just a couple of hundred yards in the opposite direction. We’re standing outside the Abbey Theatre – a modern building that stands on the footprint of the original Abbey – which was founded about a century ago by Yeats and Lady Gregory and John Synge.
It was quite a beautiful building. Some people in Ireland have the impression that it was set up in a garage and was very improvised, but in fact Yeats and Lady Gregory and the people who founded it felt it was very important for the building itself to be beautiful. So the project, I suppose, was to have a place where the stories and the mythologies and the languages of Ireland could be celebrated. From its earliest days, the Abbey featured plays in Irish and English, and it was really a kind of cauldron and laboratory where people experimented with what kind of place this coming country would be. But a very important feature of it is of course that its greatest poets, its greatest playwrights, all wrote in the language of England and perhaps borrowed it and infused it with how English is spoken here in Ireland. But the fact remains, Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge were English language writers: they chose not to write in Gaelic, and it gives their work a richness and reveals a very interesting thing about Irish society at that time; that we decided to take the language of the conqueror and see if we could speak it better than he did, you know? A bit like how people in other countries decided to play cricket better – we decided to speak English better...
Josephine: It is very interesting that there is a certain ambivalence in the English about their identity at the moment but there is none at all in Ireland. If you say you’re Irish, people know what that is. But England itself is in this strange debate – what does it mean to be English? And in many ways what it means to be English is its great cultural heritage as much as it is in Ireland but we make more of ours I think.
Joe: When people leave the tribe is when they begin to become very interesting, creatively. And all the musicians that my friends and myself liked – like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, it was a factor that John Lydon’s parents had been Irish immigrants, and there was a kind of Irishness to his persona and the particular way that he performed, and you see that in music in England all the way up to Oasis and beyond, and in stand up comedians, a kind of storytelling and an Irish attitude, a sort of braggadocio and a notion that language is not just to tell a story. Language itself is performance. When people are very poor all they have to play with is their words and I think there’s something of that in English rock and roll, a sort of mischievousness.
Music: The Sex Pistols God Save the Queen
Letter to Queen Elizabeth from Joseph O’Connor, Dublin, 2011
Dear Queen Elizabeth,
You are soon to visit Ireland, for I think the first occasion, although many of your representatives and employees have spent time with us previously, not always with happy results, either for them or for us. But let’s let bygones be bygones and the past be the past. You will be welcomed by the great majority of the Irish people, whose links to your own people are so many, rich and varied. The most important of those links is the shared citizenship of affection, the one that sings quieter than any national anthem, always trickling along, like underground water, but no less real for its tact.
In the Republic of Ireland we are citizens. Your own people are subjects. Since most of them would appear to find that situation agreeable, it would be churlish of us to ask any questions. It is not for the neighbours to go forming opinions about the people who live next door. But of course, we do. As you do, also. The main thing is for us to greet each other amiably when we pass in the street, not to let private unease interfere.
As for us, recently we have begun to wonder what citizenship really means. We have socialism now in Ireland, but only for millionaire bankers and property speculators. Everyone else has to endure the brutalities of the market. How this has happened to us, we are not quite sure. But as a great Dubliner who was also a great Londoner, George Bernard Shaw, once wrote: ‘If you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always be sure of Paul’s support.’ Thus, life in a republic has turned out to be strange.
Then again, Your Majesty, it was always strange enough. The great Irish novelist, John McGahern, was fond of observing that Ireland is not really a country but a collection of tens of thousands of little republics called ‘families’, each with its own finely calibrated modes and habits and laws, often – you will like this – with a matriarch as monarch. He spent time in your kingdom, as so many of our people did, and he wrote of those people with grace and acuity: the men who built your motorways, the women who nursed your sick, who met everything England had to offer, from hatred to love, and sent their wages back to the place so many of them always called ‘home’, despite living in Kilburn or Birmingham. Too often those heroes were forgotten, by your people and by ours. They live in our songs, in the fragments of our stories, but they were inconvenient to the fantasies of a country that thought itself free, as much as to a country that thought itself the capital of the world so profoundly that it decided the central meridian would run through a little town called Greenwich, every other position on the face of God’s Earth being measured from south east London. James Joyce wrote that the reason why the sun would never set on the British Empire was that God would never trust an Englishman in the dark. Remarkable, how we have joked about one another, my people and yours, like spouses in a marital sitcom.
In some ways – in many – Ireland is indeed like a dysfunctional family. Such families have their troubles – as you will yourself have had cause to reflect – but they are often capable of presenting a clean face to the world. Let us hope that your forthcoming visit is one of those occasions, a moment of new beginnings for us all. I speak as the husband of a beautiful Londoner, as the father of a son born in that greatest city in the world, as someone who has always felt the truth in the writer Frank O’Connor’s remark that an Irishman’s private life begins at Holyhead. Certainly, for this Irishman, it was where happiness began. If I sometimes met prejudice, I more usually met peace. And English prejudice, at any rate, is sometimes little more than gossip, one of the ways a troubled society develops of holding itself together. Pretending not to like the interloper is a remarkably effective means of pretending to like oneself.
You will find the city of Dublin, which your great great grandmother visited, an interesting and welcoming place. My local park is named after her, Victoria Hill, and you will notice, perhaps, as you are driven about the city, that many of the mailboxes still bear the commemorative initials ‘E.R’, still legible through history’s multiple layers of emerald green paint, where once they had been imperial red. But we have not painted out England completely. How could we, ever? That would be to obliterate a part of us, the language our greatest authors wrote in, the culture to which Shaw and Wilde felt an equal sense of belonging, the island across the water to which so many of us had to flee in order to find work or freedom. So many strange paradoxes, and yet they somehow bind us. There is a song by a great Anglo-Irish writer called Stephen Morrissey – you possibly won’t know his work – called The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get. I sometimes think of those words (and that song) as the best comment possible on the relationship between your country and mine.
Often your people and mine have been represented as poles apart. But that is not the case, and we know it. In truth, we are a Venn diagram whose shared space sometimes shifts, altering itself to the realities of simple human fellowship and of that beautiful of all the mercies, forgiveness. There is much to forgive. On both sides, there is much. But there is also much to celebrate and share.
In conclusion, I hope your visit to Ireland is everything you would wish. Happy and glorious. Indeed.
Yours sincerely, Joseph O’Connor
Music: Morissey Irish Blood English Heart
1 The programme presented by Joseph O’Connor, produced by Rachel Hooper was a Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4 broadcast on 13 May 2011.
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.