Emigration has long been a sore spot for the Irish. A favourite lame excuse was the one the late Brian Lenihan came up with in the 1980s: “Sure isn’t it a small island? We can’t all live on it.”
My own moment of shame from that era happened when I was returning from Italy to Ireland for Christmas 1980. I had to pass through London and on the Underground between Gatwick and Euston a grizzled, freckled, oul’ fella with a nearly empty bottle of whiskey came up to me:
“Yer Irish, arnchya? Have a dhrink.”
“No, no, no. You’re mistaken. I’m not Irish at all.”
Peter denying Christ can’t have felt guiltier. Though maybe responding:
“Yes, yes, I am Irish but I don’t want any of your whiskey. That bottle looks dirty” might not have been sensible.
Since then we’ve got much more comfortable with our emigrants and their descendants, celebrating our cousins the Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, Irish-Argentinians, even British-Irish. But there’s one step we still can’t take, any more than I could on that Tube train in 1980.
“English-Irish” still sounds impossible, a logical contradiction, like describing a colour as “Black-White”, even though over the past four centuries more Irish have migrated to England than to any other destination.
A major reason is that we’re far closer than we like to admit, and not just geographically. For more than 1000 years, we’ve been marrying them and fighting them and fighting for them and writing masterpieces in their language. In return, they’ve been marrying us, stealing our land and, above all, misunderstanding us.
But they are our cousins. One thing that 1980s teaching stint in Italy showed me was the extraordinary cultural overlap between the English and the Irish. We understood their sense of humour, their politics, their accents, their class problems (though they still didn’t understand us, which we kind of liked). They were (are) almost us.
What sparked these thoughts was my growing realisation of the importance of English records for Irish research. Now that those records are easily searchable online, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that they hold solutions to many of the gaps created by the gaping holes left by the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922. Quite simply our extended families were there and are listed.
Finding them in English records is another thing. I’ve just put up a video that dips a toe in their censuses. Enjoy.