Sunday, October 29, 2006

Death of an 'Englishman'

This week in the criminal court a troubled young man from Tallaght was found guilty of the manslaughter of 'Englishman', James Burke, in a drunken argument after a bout of drinking. The Central Criminal Court heard that the two had a row and that the accused’s girlfriend claimed it was because the deceased was English.

James, described by his uncle Michael Sheehan, as ‘happy go-lucky guy,’ who had moved to Ireland ‘to be near family and to make a change in his life. It turns out it was the wrong turn to take.' Uncle Michael wasn't kidding about that.

The thing that struck me most about the tragic and brutal killing of one young man by another was the constant reference to the victim's Englishness. Even the normally PC Irish Times succumbed, captioning a picture of the accused leaving court 'after being found guilty of killing an Englishman'.

Call me paranoid, if you like, but the connotations of killing an Englishman in this country are quite different than say those of killing an Arab or a Frenchman or an African, or almost any other national group you can think of. Connotations of Kevin Barry or Sean South, of the valiant struggle for the emancipation of the four green fields from beneath the Saxon jackboot. They might be our nearest neighbours in the EU, but in our heart of hearts, they are still the Tans and we love to see them bate at soccer or rugby.

Now I don't know how James Burke labelled himself, but I'm guessing like many children of the Irish in Britain, he probably thought of himself as Irish. I expect he supported the Republic of Ireland in soccer and had more than couple of verses of The Fields of Athenry and Whiskey in the Jar in his repetoire. I also suspect that the row which led to his death began with some chance remark about him being English rather than Irish.

I claim to know these things because, like James and I'd guess many other 2nd generation Irish returnees to the motherland, I've been in situations like the one that led to his death.

My first week living here I went for a drink after work with a Polish colleague. We were discussing some recently released Irish film when we were joined by a former student of his, a Dubliner. After about five minutes I noticed him staring at me silently but aggressively. I didn't like it. He kept it up and I could see the aggression in his eyes was turning into outright hatred. Being from Liverpool I decided to make an intervention. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Where I come from, if you look at someone like that it means you want to fuck them or fight them.

Him: Silence and more staring.

Me: Well I've never fancied the strong silent type, so I guess we better step outside and get this over with now.

Him: What gives an Englishman the right to talk about my country like that?

Me: Search me boss, Ní Sasanach mise, is Éireannach, agus tu féin? Cad as duit?

I could see the switch into Irish confused him. It was supposed to. As he struggled to come up with a reply in his own language, I pressed home the psychological advantage.

Me: Are we going to sort this nonsense outside now or are you going to stop sulking like a páiste mor?

At that point my colleague changed the subject to more drinks, and me and yer man began an earnest, if not altogether amicable, discussion of the consequences of emigration on Irish identity.

I had so many encounters like that in my first couple of years here. They ranged from the deeply patronising ("You're not Irish, you poor thing you wouldn't understand"), the mildly patronising ("Ah now, you're from Liverpool, that's almost as good as being one of our own") to the outright aggressive ("Who the fuck do you think are, you Tan bastard?").

Working mainly in the Irish community, I'd had them in England too. One of my favourite moments of the first type came when I was giving the journalist Tim Pat Coogan a guided tour of Irish Liverpool. As we left the Roman Catholic Cathedral he turned to me, quite unprompted, and said "You can tell you're not Irish, Liam. You lowered your voice when we were in that place." At the time and since, I'd never have thought of talking loudly in church as a marker of ethnic or national identity for the Irish or anyone else.

Not being English myself, I have no problem with Irish people giving the Brits a hard time what with 800 years of oppression and all that. What I do object to is the oft jumped to conclusion that everyone with an English accent is just that: English.

A friend of mine once said that the problem with the children of Irish migrants was that they were too Irish for the English and too English for the Irish. He was right.

If you were of my generation, growing up Irish in Britain presented its own set of identity problems. Apart from having to live with the inevitable stereotypes about being mad, or stupid, or both, we also were part of a suspect community. People were regularly disappeared under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which at the time only applied to the Irish) and everytime a bomb went off our community centres and pubs were attacked or vandalised. We were told that we should be ashamed to be Irish and some of us were deeply affected by such things.

Unlike our parents, we couldn't just keep our heads down behind the parapet of the church or the Irish centre. We were part of British society for better or for worse and they had earned the right for us to be there. Equal but different and entitled to the same right to respect as any other citizen.

To be told, then, on your return home by smug little islanders that you aren't Irish goes beyond the merely offensive. It can be positively disabling in some cases and fatal in others as it was for poor James Burke. If we wouldn't lie down and take it over there then there's even more reason why we shouldn't put up with it in our homeland. No one, anywhere, at anytime, has the right to define someone's identity for them and even if they did, the possession of a brogue is not a useful criterion, to be sure, to be sure.

Over my years here I've watched many 2nd generation returnees go through this kind of treatment and I've witnessed it come to blows on a number of occasions. These days, I no longer take it on board. If someone has a problem with my identity, as a social psychologist I know it's because they have more of a problem with their own and unless they're paying 60 Euros an hour for a therapy session, it's not my job to take it on. I know this might be a spoilsport attitude to take but it works for me and saves bruises all round.

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