Overlooked voices of the London Irish


London Irish fictionTony Murray, director of the Irish Studies Centre at London Metropolitan University, speaks to Fiona O’Brien about his book London Irish Fictions: Narrative, Diaspora and Identity

Tony Murray has collected over thirty pieces of London Irish literature to produce the first analysis of its kind, dedicated to the stories of people from Ireland living in the English capital.

The tales focus on many different London experiences, from Edna O’Brien’s flowing tales of Cricklewood and Kilburn to John Healy’s gritty descriptions of the working class ‘scum’ he was brought up by in Notting Hill.

Murray, London-born to Irish parents himself, felt there was little representation of the Irish experience in London by way of literature compared to other ethnic groups and dismisses previous claims of why there is no ‘go-to’ novel for this generation.

“People say because the Irish are disproportionately represented in unskilled and semi-skilled sectors of employment means that they are not as educated, but that does not really wash because that’s true for Afro-Carribean as well from which there are a plethora of literary studies,” he says.

“Perhaps for political reasons the Irish wanted to keep their heads down and disappear into society, but what I wanted the book to show is ok, there’s no big iconic novel that you can point to but there are a number of texts which throw up many different experiences.”

It’s these voices that Murray feels have been overlooked over the past seventy years or so, stating that although there is a massive London Irish population ‘for the most part they are ignored unless they have a guitar’.

“In some ways, I think that the Pogues were that iconic Irish cultural moment. They were able to capture something in the 80s about being London Irish that is more synonymous with our culture than what has been published in literature,” he says.

“In a way, my book is an attempt to look at the experience of being an Irish migrant through both fiction and autobiography.”

Three different generations of the London Irish

The memoirs and fiction featured in the book are exclusive to the Irish experience of London, starting back at the mass migration to the city after WW2, and covering three Irish generational ‘types’ in London.

“The first section covers the immediate post-war generation, people like my parents who came over in the 1950s that I’ve named the ‘Mail-Boat Generation’ who worked primarily in nursing or construction.

“The second section is what I call the ‘Ryanair Generation’ of the 1980s where there was a new wave of migration caused by Ireland’s recession and a boom in London – a bit like the pattern we are seeing in recent years.

“The final section is about the second generation experience, people of Irish backgrounds, people growing up with Irish parents in London.

“I focus mainly on autobiography and memoir in that section, so I look at a number of books written by middle-aged Irish men who look back at their lives growing up in London in the 1950s and 60s in Irish families.

“It takes it to the next stage, describing what it is like to grow up as the son or daughter of a migrant rather than experiencing migration first hand.”

Elastic Paddies

It is this third section that sees the biggest conflict in identity, and Murray coins a sub-chapter as ‘Elastic Paddies’ in a play-on ‘plastic paddy’ he read in the Irish Times.

“The term Elastic Paddy was invented by Fintan O’Toole in an article. I picked it up as I thought it was a very good way of capturing the sense of identity that is continually accommodating two extremes of Irishness and Britishness.

“That term elastic is what it feels like sometimes being pulled in two directions. It can be a positive or a negative thing depending on the individual concerned, and their story. I tried to capture both sides of that.”

One of the pieces heavily featured in this chapter is Healy’s unflinchingly honest autobiography The Grass Arena, which describes his experience of addiction but also pays tribute to the support he found from his grandparents in Ireland.

“John’s autobiography is, in some ways, one of the more negative, or sadder examples of that conflict of identity, he’s caught between two worlds.

“He ends up on the street, although there are some real positive elements to that autobiography as well. He talks of his love of the Irish countryside and how important the support he got from his grandparents was to him as a child.

“It gave him a sense of purpose I think which fed through to him later in life in what he went on to achieve. He recovered by playing chess, and then he went on to write the book which was an incredible achievement.”

Readable for all

Although a literary analysis, the book is not an endless stream of footnotes and cross references, and is very much the ideal vantage point for one who wants to delve deep within the Irish experience of London.

With an affordable paperback edition on the shelves as well, it works perfectly as a sort-of launch pad for those seeking out new authors to read.

“I tried to make it as readable as possible as I was aware I wanted it to reach not just students and academics. I wanted to reach general readers, and so that was very important.

“I was trying to give voice to the lesson on writers and text. There are some well-known names in there, but there is a lot of work that will be completely new to people which I think is really important that it’s brought to people’s attention. They’re historical documents that can fade quite quickly now.

“I tried to go for quite a wide range to convey the variety of experiences because that post-war era right up to the present has been so various and complex to different generations. It’s like a kaleidoscope of different experiences which I try to filter through the literature.

“It has been a real journey as well, because I’ve found I’ve learnt so much about but I had many of those typical experiences you know. What I loved about reading these texts was the different perspectives and peculiarities of migration.

“I want to give that to my readers, to offer them a number of different itching points into the experience, so they have a text to go to that will bring them on a little journey they’ve never seen before.”

For the full interview see this week’s edition of the Irish World


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