The worldwide Irish AGM – St Paddy’s day

by Kevin Meagher

I have a picture above my desk; a copy of a Punch cartoon from the 1840s. It depicts a monkey-like figure, in ragged clothes, a crumpled hat on its head, long arms thrashing around in the air. The creature smokes a small pipe, a menacing grimace for a face. Underneath, the caption reads: “The Irish hod-carrier. Lower than a Negro”.

It may not be pleasant. And, indeed, it may be a work of its time; but as the son of a bricklayer – and erstwhile hod-carrier myself – that picture is a constant reminder of who I am and where I come from. The struggles and insults that Irish people have endured for generations; depicted, as we were, as sub-human creatures of uncertain temperament.

It helps explain the indifference of a British ruling class to the Irish famine of the late 1840s, where a million people starved to death and a million more were forced to flee the country. But similar views were fashionable on the left too. Check out Friedrich Engels’ The Conditions of the Working Class in England. This otherwise estimable tome sees poor Irish immigrants to Britain blamed for the “filth and drunkenness they have brought with them”. Engels adds: “The lack of cleanliness…is the Irishman’s second nature”.

March 17 – St. Patrick’s day –  is another reminder of who I am, though a happier one.

It may have become popularised in recent years by Guinness’s tawdry marketing – those ridiculous drinking hats a throwback to depictions of the Irish in those wretched Victorian political cartoons – but St. Patrick’s day still means something more significant to the Irish wherever we are scattered.

It is nothing less than the AGM of the worldwide Irish diaspora. A day to touch base. To pay our subs and reaffirm our ethnic and cultural identity. Yes, a day to share the craic; but in a way that raises a glass to the Irish in Britain and in so many other places who have struggled to overcome prejudice, poverty and persecution.

Once fit for digging canals and railway tunnels, we then graduated to houses and roads – immortalised in The Dubliners’ song “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”. But the Irish have been Labour’s light infantry too; trade unionists, organisers, orators – and thrown up two leaders in the shape of second generation Irishman Joseph Clynes and James Callaghan.

Once the butt of jokes, we now seem to make them all. Frank Skinner, Jimmy Carr, Johnny Vegas, Dara O’Briain, Steve Coogan, Caroline Ahern, Peter Kay, Paddy McGuinness; the television schedules would be empty without Irish cultural talent.

They may have done alright for themselves, but their parents will all remember the infamous boarding house signs that read: “No Blacks. No dogs. No Irish”. For Irish travellers these memories remain fresh, faced, as they are, with overt discrimination still. The recent Channel Four hit, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” ought to have been called “My Big Sad Gypsy Funeral”. One in four Irish travellers are dead by the age of 25. 80 per cent die before they reach 65, victims of positively medieval health inequalities emanating, in part, from their utter marginalisation from mainstream society.

The rest of the Irish community does not fare markedly better. The highest cancer rates of any ethnic minority and a heightened risk of certain genetic illnesses like coeliac disease. The forthcoming census offers the chance to record the true scale of the Irish in Britain in order to force the pace on these and other issues and a campaign is underway to do just that, backed by the new all-party Parliamentary group on the Irish in Britain.

So St. Patrick’s day is time of celebration, yes, but also of reflection.

On Tuesday evening, former Labour minister, Sir Patrick Duffy, gave a talk as part of Sheffield Irish festival, recounting his long life in Labour politics and his abiding interest in Irish affairs.

A veteran of the fleet air arm in world war two, former minister for the navy in the late 70s and later president of NATO’s parliamentary assembly, Patrick found himself among a hardy few – a very few – championing Irish causes during the dark years of the troubles. Why so few?

That’s a good question. Many Labour politicians down the years have shown a strange aversion from taking much interest in Northern Ireland or the Irish in Britain. Too few have shown any concern in tackling the discrimination and bigotry faced by a marginalised community within the British state.

Patrick recounted being unable to even table questions on the scandalous discrimination of Stormont’s sectarian state when first elected to the Commons in 1963. By the end of that decade Parliamentary democracy itself had failed there.

Now aged 91, Patrick, like many of us, bestrides the Irish Sea; a foot in both camps. Proud of Irish and British identities and clear about the indivisibility of relations between our countries; but with a knowledge that this painful history could, and should, have been less egregious.

But in case I stand accused of melancholy on this day of festivities, let me finish with a joke. It is, in fact, the only acceptable Irish joke – one that we illiterate simian building workers are particularly fond of.

Paddy goes for a job on a building site. The foreman tells him he can have the job only if he can answer this question: “What’s the difference between a joist and a girder”? Paddy looks nonplussed. “Ah, come on, that’s easy sir”, he replies, “the difference is that Joyce wrote Ulysses and Goethe wrote Faust”.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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One Response to “The worldwide Irish AGM – St Paddy’s day”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Kevin, you are right it is a good time for all Irish to reflect. Sadly, an awful lot of younger Irish will be reflecting on life away from their homeland as they are forced to make a new life.

    Oh that Irish Labour had been allowed to have held the helm a few years ago

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