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Born in London, guaranteed Irish

Author Kate Kerrigan told David Hennessy about her show which deals with growing up second generation Irish in the 70s and 80s when you were the ‘bombing Irish’ in London and ‘the English cousins’ in Ireland, and why so called ‘Plastic Paddies’ should not be met with such derision in Ireland.

Author Kate Kerrigan (real name Morag Prunty) was brought up in Hendon by parents from Ballina, Co. Mayo and Killoe, Co. Longford never in any doubt about her Irishness.

She has now lived in Ireland for 35 years, is married to an Irish man and has two Irish children.

But in her show, which has its UK premiere at the London Irish Centre in Camden this week, she still asks, Am I Irish Yet?

Am I Irish Yet? deals with the challenges of growing up second generation Irish in the 70s and 80s, when they were the ‘bombing Irish’ in London and ‘the English cousins’ when they returned to Ireland.

Usually a writer of fiction whose Ellis Island trilogy has been a New York Times bestseller, Kate was ‘pushed’ to tell this story, which she performs herself, to highlight what it is like for those called things such as ‘Plastic Paddy’.

“I’m really excited,” Kate told us ahead of bringing the show to London.

“The whole theme of the show for me is the London Irish part of me, is that part of me that grew up second generation Irish and always felt a little distant from my own identity.

“I’m excited about bringing it back to London because I’ve performed it over in Ireland and I’ve had a great response from Irish audiences. They were very open to listening to my story of being second generation Irish because that’s really what the theme of the whole thing is, this attitude towards the ‘Plastic Paddy’.

“In England we were ‘the bombing Irish’ and in Ireland, we were ‘the English cousins’.

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“We were ‘the tans’.

“I think that’s why it was very important for me to tell my story.

“I was encouraged. Really, really encouraged to the point of, I’d say, pushed by a lot of my friends who are in the creative industries to talk about this stuff because nobody ever does.

“There’s a lot of shame and confusion about being ‘the bombing Irish’ and ‘the tan’ English. It’s a situation that is still very raw for an awful lot of people and it’s very much an unspoken thing.

“There’s part of the show where I kind of say the Irish have everything: We’ve got landscape, we’ve got craic, we’ve got Guinness, we’ve got gay marriage, but the best thing about the Irish is that we hate the English.

“If you’re English and Irish at the same time, it’s kind of a problem.

“I don’t think I could have written it when I was younger.

“I think I can write it now because I’m 60 next year, so I literally don’t give a sh*t.

“If people don’t like to say, I just don’t care anymore.

“It used to matter to me but now it doesn’t.

“So what I’ve really tried to bring out is the last taboo which is that actually, I’m not a plastic Paddy. I’m not a fake.

“I really shouldn’t be addressed with derision or have my identity kind of belittled in that way.

“Because at the end of the day- and this is something that I feel very strongly about- Ireland’s greatest export is Irishness.

“That’s what we sell everything on: We’re the Irish, everyone loves the Irish, Paddy’s Day and all of that.

“And what is keeping that alive in the world today is not Ireland, which is progressing, which is wonderful and becoming very multicultural and all of those things are really important, but they’re not keeping Paddy’s Day alive in New York, Manchester or Edinburgh.

“The people that are keeping those Irish traditions alive- Irish culture, Irish dancing, Irish news- The diaspora is not being fed from Ireland, the diaspora is being fed from second generation Irish people, third generation Irish people who identify as Irish and when they come home to Ireland, they deserve a little more than being asked to spend 150 quid on an aran geansaí and then go home.

“We are Irish because we are keeping Irishness alive. We are some kind of Irish. People in Ireland need us. They don’t need me because I’m over there in Ireland annoying them but they need you. They need the people who are keeping Irishness alive.

“I think there’s very complex and interesting reasons why if you have an English accent or if you have an American accent, you are treated with a kind of a snarky derision- usually behind your back- by the native Irish who were basically just the people who were able to be born there and stay there because the rest of us had to go.

“I think people from my background are responding very well because I have been very authentic about my experience.

“I feel strongly that ‘the plastic Paddy’ should be acknowledged.

“I have friends in Scotland whose whole lives are caught up with Irish culture, Irish sport, Irish community and when they go to Ireland and say, ‘Well, I’m an Irish person who is working for Irishness in Scotland’, People are like, ‘Well, you’re not Irish, are you?’

“Or, ‘Keep doing it but f**k off back home, please’.

“I don’t think that’s right.

“I would like to make a change in how people perceive us.”

Kate grew up in the 70s and 80s when it was not easy to be Irish in London due to the IRA bombing campaign and the resulting anti- Irish sentiment.

“It was a difficult time and I think it caused a lot of confusion amongst my generation of second generation Irish growing up in London.

“We had allegiances at home.

“My parents were very political and we were all on the side of the IRA but at the same time, we were under threat and so that was difficult.

“One of the reasons why I think it’s very unspoken is because we were just thinking it was so much worse for other people.

“Like it was so much worse for people in the North so we don’t really have a right to talk about it.

“I would argue that it was a lot worse if you were Irish in London growing up in the 80s than it was if you were Irish in Dublin growing up in the 80s because they weren’t in the centre of anything.

“And yet if you go with an English accent and you mention to someone in Dublin, ‘I grew up in London in the 80s, during the bombs…’, they’re just like, ‘Big deal’.

“Well, actually, it was a big deal.

“I remember telling a friend of mine from the Falls Road in Belfast, ‘I was in Harrods when the bomb went off’.

“She immediately said, ‘Oh, your bombs are so posh. Your bombs are different from our bombs. Our bombs are real bombs. Your bombs are really posh. Harrods?’.

“So you just feel not entitled to be Irish or call yourself Irish.”

Kate was 18 or 19 when she was caught up in the 1983 bombing of Harrods which killed six people. While she says it was scary and unpleasant, she says it was mostly ‘confusing’.

“It was an unpleasant experience.

“It was just very confusing and shocking to see something like that happen and to be in the middle of something like that happening?

“What was confusing about it was the fact that I was Irish, and it was being done by Irish people.

“And then thinking, ‘But I’m supporting the Bobby Sands hunger strike and my grandfather was in the IRA’.

“The Special Branch are watching our house for no reason, just literally, ‘Are there any Irish people living in your area?’

“Just because they had no idea what was going on so they were just following everyone.

“And then you’re in the middle of this atrocity.

“It was seeing the reality of it to a certain extent.

“But I think it was very confusing generally for people of my generation.

“Look at a lot of the celebrities from that time, like Boy George, Johnny Rotten, even celebrities that have come of age like Jimmy Carr.”

There was also Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama and Shakespeare’s Sister, all four members of The Smiths..

“We never were aware of George O’Dowd’s Irishness.

“They were what I would call the hidden Irish.

“They weren’t openly Irish, but they weren’t hiding it either.

“It was the 80s in London and just before that, it was, ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’.

“We were just savages.

“That was why the Pogues were so huge because they were so unapologetically Irish, the first and only people in that generation that were going ‘up the Irish’ and everyone else was just kind of keeping schtum, keeping quiet about it.

“That was the atmosphere that we had to negotiate.

“It (the Harrods bomb) was scary but it was mostly confusing.

“I think there is a shame inherent in us in calling ourselves Irish with an English accent.

“I feel that my English accent makes Irish people hate me even when they love me.

“If I meet someone exactly like me that I don’t know and they say, ‘I grew up in Wembley’, I kind of go, ‘Are you Irish though?’

“I do it. It’s inherent in us, that kind of resentment towards the English and the jarring of the English accent.

“It’s in our blood.

“I feel it in my blood, but I still have an English accent and that’s kind of really what the piece is about.

“It has required a piece of theatre in order to get the point across.

“I’ve been trying to bring this up in conversation for years with Irish people in Ireland, and they just don’t get it at all.

“They just don’t get it and then they see my show and I get a great response and they do get it.

“That’s why I’m doing it really, so that people will get it.”

Kate and her brother Tom’s school photo, St Josephs School, Watford Way, Hendon circa 1974.

Do you remember when you decided to tell this story?

“I was invited to Achill to give a lecture on the plight of the plastic paddy for the Heinrich Böll  school years ago.

“I met a Scots- Irish journalist called Kevin Toolis.

“Kevin and his wife Dea, but particularly Kevin, was really instrumental in pushing me to tell this story because he just responded so well that night and we became friends.

“I had to step outside of my life as a novelist to write this, so COVID kind of helped with that but it’s a huge departure for me.

“It’s something that I’ve never done before and I really was encouraged and supported and helped in the script by Kevin and also my friend Lou Brennan who’s an incredible textile designer, James McNally (formerly of Afro Celt Sound System).

“So I have this coterie of friends who share my story, who grew up in the UK and became writers and artists and musicians either in Ireland or in an Irish discipline and yet have never been fully accepted as Irish.”

However Kate points out there is one exception to the ‘You’re not Irish’ line.

“When you reach a certain level of success or status, then you’re Irish.

“Shane MacGowan is Irish. Martin McDonagh is Irish.

“It’s complex and it shouldn’t be any more.

“I think there’s an awful lot underpinning the attitude towards the diaspora and the ‘plastic paddy’, a lot more than people admit.

“There’s still that thing of, ‘Well, your family went over to England and had a great time, had loads of sex and earned loads of money and saw all the films and wore miniskirts way before we did, so don’t think you can come back here and just call yourself Irish because my people f**king stayed here’.”

Final question I have to ask is, Does it still bother you the label ‘Plastic Paddy’ or the casual denying of your identity? “No, it’s not something that really bothers me anymore insofar as I think the older you get, the more circumspect you get about your life.

“I’m a foot shorter and a stone heavier than I’d like to be.

“I was born in England and I have this English accent.

“I am who I am, and it’s fine and it doesn’t bother me.

“And also, I think the most important thing is that I have an amazing life and it is in Ireland.

“I have two little Paddy sons who wear geansaís and talk in Irish accents, an Irish husband.

“I live in a really rural area.

“I live in Killala, Co. Mayo.

“I love being part of the community.

“I just absolutely love being here and I still wake up every day after 30 years and look out the window and go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here’.

“It is a fantastic place to be.

“I will never be fully Irish or accepted as fully Irish and I’m absolutely fine with that but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep shouting about it.”

Am I Irish Yet? Has its UK premiere this Thursday 30 March at London Irish Centre, Camden at 2pm and 7pm.

You can book at londonirishcentre.org.

For more information on the show, go to amiirishyet.com.

For more information on Kate Kerrigan, go to katekerrigan.ie.

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