Annie Driver chatted to Angela Moran who presented BBC’s recent Birmingham Irish I Am about the overwhelming reaction to the show as well as Head of TV Commissioning for BBC England Aisling O’Connor about why she related to the show.
Known for being part of local Irish band The Father Teds Angela Moran has been overwhelmed by the reaction to Birmingham Irish I Am which airead on BBC as part of the series A Very British History. Angela presented the documentary that focused on the city’s Irish community talking to important figures such as Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six and using rare archive footage. Angela told The Irish World that although she thought she knew the story of the Birmingham Irish, even she was amazed by some of the things they uncovered.
Angela Moran told The Irish World: “The reactions on social media have been amazing. People have been contacting us saying the programme’s helped them come to terms with their identity, and that it’s bringing back so many memories. Since the documentary has been shown, barely a day has passed without somebody coming up to me sharing their own family story, all of them fascinating and helping still more to develop the full picture of the Birmingham Irish experience.
“It’s great that it resonates with people beyond the community too. Members of the London Irish, Berkshire Irish, Scunthorpe Irish and many more are all celebrating their heritage. Even people from Birmingham’s Sikh and Muslim communities have contacted me saying in so many ways this was their story too. We were choice of the day in a number of national papers and there were some great reviews the day after. I wasn’t expecting any of this.”
Angela, who is Birmingham-Irish herself, told us the BBC were keen to reflect the community authentically: “I know the BBC were desperately keen to make sure that they got things right and so I, and other members of the community, were consulted on a number of issues. We’re not trying to tell the whole story of the Birmingham Irish. That would be impossible. But we did want it to feel authentic and I think we managed that. It’s the same for the other episodes in the series, which look at the British Chinese, Bangladeshi and Vietnamese communities. They’re all presented by people who are from those communities.”
Angela also learned more about Birmingham Irish history during the filming: “Going over to Ireland to interview people who’d been involved with Republicanism in Birmingham, for instance, wasn’t something I had anything to do with and I wasn’t involved in finding all the amazing archive in the film, so seeing the old images of Birmingham and beyond was a real treat. I even saw my aunts marching in some footage of the parade from the 60s.”
The documentary had personal relevance for Angela, whose grandparents moved to Birmingham in the 50s: “It’s hugely personal – it’s my story, and my family’s story weaved in and around the bigger picture. It was funny interviewing my parents but lovely that we’ve been able to document some of those family stories, like my grandfather picking up manure from the milkman’s horses to put on his rhubarb patch: as my dad said in the film ‘he never forgot his agrarian roots and there was a little bit of Mayo in Birmingham’. Meeting musician Paul O’Brien was a big deal too – it was such a treat playing with him on his song Plastic, in which he sings ‘Birmingham Irish I Am’. This line played a huge part in me coming to terms with my own identity. It also gave us the title of the programme.
“In many ways I thought I knew the story of the Irish in Birmingham, but I realised that there are many more versions of events. The ones I’d heard were mostly about making a better life in Britain – about finding work, making friends, starting a family and sustaining traditions from home. What I’d never really heard about, or thought about if I’m honest, was whether there was much Irish political activity in Birmingham in the 50s and 60s, so going to Ireland to meet with a couple of former Birmingham Irishmen who were heavily involved with the Republican movement was eye opening and made me consider for the first time that there was a lot more going on than I’d assumed.”
The documentary was primarily set in Birmingham but also included trips to Dublin, Mayo and even Germany: “The first filming we did was at the Birmingham St Patrick’s Day Parade 2019. I was playing with my band the Father Teds and, after filming some of the Parade, they filmed us on stage – it was great but the weather that day was awful! After that we filmed mainly in April, May and June, probably about 18 days in total. We had a trip to Germany to track down the musician Paul O’Brien.”
Aisling O’Connor, Head of TV Commissioning for BBC England, told The Irish World that it was an easy decision to renew A Very British History for this second series: “A Very British History was a series that BBC Four liked very much and is one we value for its warmth and inclusivity and its insight into communities around the country. It was also popular with the audience. Commissioning a second series was not a difficult decision for BBC England or the channel.
“The BBC is funded by the licence fee and seeks to represent everyone and reflect the lives of people from all backgrounds across the UK. By seeing how others live, where they come from, how they feel about their lives and their place in the UK we better understand them, our society and ourselves.”
Aisling could herself relate to some of the themes in Birmingham Irish I Am: “I was born in the UK but brought up in Dublin from the age of four. I returned to the UK aged 20. My father and mother were Irish immigrants to London in the 1960s who eventually returned home. I certainly related to the story of immigration and emigration – very few Irish families don’t relate to it. Although I have never felt the same sense of being an outsider as some of the interviewees in the archive, I certainly related to the themes of immigration and identity.”
A Very British History: Birmingham Irish I Am is available on BBC iPlayer.