Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: The interwoven cultural strands tying Britain to Ireland cannot, and will not, be undone by Brexit

England could never be a foreign country to Malachi O'Doherty, even if it is behaving very strangely at the minute

'How did I come to feel more European than British? I had never considered the question before, because circumstances never presented me with a choice.' (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
'How did I come to feel more European than British? I had never considered the question before, because circumstances never presented me with a choice.' (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

By Malachi O'Doherty

How did I come to feel more European than British? I had never considered the question before, because circumstances never presented me with a choice. That I am British to some degree is unquestionable. I said this to a discussion group on the Shankill Road last week. One of the group asked me if this was something I would be happy to declare in front of other people of my own background.

I said I couldn't see why not, though they must not mistake my sense of being British for a reverence for the House of Windsor, or a regard for the imperial tradition. But I am British in the sense that I travel often to England and Scotland and feel as much at home in Edinburgh and London as I do in Derry or Dublin.

London is probably the most wonderful city in the world, with its cultural diversity. Where else would you get a Muslim mayor and a lesbian police chief? It also feels immediately familiar, even to people on a first visit, because it has been the setting of so many films and television programmes.

I have also lived for a time in the north of England, enjoyed the pubs and train journeys across the Pennines. I preferred London. Whether by chance, or by cultural inevitability, I have had more jibes in the north about being a Paddy than I ever heard in London.

That was at a time when British soldiers were being shot in Belfast, so a certain amount of perplexity and wariness was excusable. I think so anyway.

When I was younger, Europe was called "the Continent". Things were done differently on "the Continent". They had what was called the "Continental Sunday" and whether we should have it here was much discussed for a time, until we did have it and then adapted readily to it.

A Continental Sunday was a Sunday on which the shops and bars and restaurants were open all day. We thought Continental people were more liberal than ourselves. French men had mistresses and their wives accepted that. They all drank wine with dinner, even the children.

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Continental men and women kissed each other on the cheek when they met while we shook hands. Further east, Russians and Arab men kissed each other. We now have cheek-kissing between the sexes, but Russian and Arab ways have not flowered among us yet.

Germans were thought austere and blithe about being naked. These traits seemed somehow related. Later, Germans started turning up at Donegal youth hostels and this turned out to be true. While the Irish shuffled into their pyjamas, or changed in the bathroom, the Germans - of both sexes - stripped off in front of each other, and us, with no apparent sense that they oughtn't.

The Europe of my youth was complex and, in places, dangerous. Spain, Portugal and Greece were governed by dictators. Much of it was behind the Iron Curtain.

People of my generation who went to Europe were either Catholics studying theology in Rome, or soldiers serving with the British Army on the Rhine.

The Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s was still wary of all this. It revered Italian Popes and identified with Catholic Europe, which was a wholly different concept from "the Continent".

Contraception was illegal and its Continental association was plain in the common term for the condom, the French Letter. So, the idea that I might draw closer to Europe through Dublin is one that would only have confused my parents and their whole generation.

But that is the choice before us if Brexit goes through and we don't like it. We can go back into the EU by voting for a united Ireland, though it's not certain that enough of us would, or that the rest of Ireland would want us, or, indeed, that our British neighbours wouldn't react badly.

Earlier generations of Irish people would have identified more with the United States than with Europe. More of their forebears had migrated across the Atlantic, though substantial numbers had also gone to England and Scotland.

Numerous - perhaps most - Irish Catholic homes had a picture of John F Kennedy on the wall, perhaps beside a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

But when it came to popular culture, nearly everything was British. American dramas were soppy and corny. British drama, from Coronation Street to the Archers and The Liver Birds, was familiar and realistic. Who didn't know an Elsie Tanner?

And, furthermore, the best of British culture was suffused with Irish influences. The best of the Liverpool sound came from the descendants of Irish migrants.

And, for generations, Irish people have cheered on English and Scottish football teams rooted in that migration. The interweaving of Irish and British cultural strands cannot be undone. And it will not be undone through Brexit.

Being European has a freshness to it for me, but my discovery of Europe was only ever an extension of a journey through life that introduced me to Dublin and London before Paris, Vienna and Geneva.

My journey continued and I laid down further memories of profound personal experiences and relationships in Delhi and Mississippi.

I am going to insist on being global whatever the outcome of Brexit. Indeed, the Leavers have a similar confidence that the wider world will open up to them when they disentangle themselves from Brussels. But I sense that leaving is more about asserting Britishness than discovering a genuine international spirit.

I was never one for insisting that I needed a united Ireland in order for my Irish identity to be fully endorsed, so I don't sympathise with those who need an insular England to reinforce their self-respect.

It was often when I was abroad that I felt more Irish, though, strangely, the further I went, the more the concepts of Britishness and Irishness blended into each other. In India, it is simpler sometimes to agree that you are English than take the trouble to explain.

For now, the concern is not just about identity and the sense of being at home, but about how we will be governed and by whom.

Remaining part of a reduced UK conceived of in the cluttered, erratic and excessively playful mind of Boris Johnson is not attractive.

I will still want to get a buzz out of going to London, but will I want to subscribe to a state that is governed in perpetuity by smug old Etonians?

England could never be foreign to me, but it is behaving very strangely.

Belfast Telegraph


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