Born in a stable? - The identity of the Irish diaspora

Peter Berresford Ellis looks at the role of the Irish abroad, and those who claim to be Irish, in the nation's struggle for freredom

ARTHUR WELLESLEY (1769-1852), the first field marshal and first Duke of Wellington who became prime minister of the United Kingdom, is credited with a famous comment. When it was pointed out that he was born in Dublin, the scion of a family who, according to Edward Lysaghtminister of the United Kingdom, is credited with a famous comment. When it was pointed out that he was born in Dublin, the scion of a family who, according to Edward McLysaght, established themselves in Co. Meath in 1174, he is said to have replied: “everything born in a stable is not a horse.”

True, there are asses in every nation. However, his remark has become more pertinent in recent years. The Irish have suffered one of the great diaspora ever inflicted on a nation. Forced to leave their country in the wake of conquests and persecutions, they have spread throughout the world. They have settled new lands but have often retained memories of the homeland. Indeed, often their children and even their grandchildren identify with Ireland.

During the presidency of Mary Robinson, the idea that to be Irish one had to be born in Ireland began to be seriously questioned. Much was done to acknowledge the desires of the diaspora to identify with their ancestral land.

It has, of course, always been easier for those Irish who have migrated to the United States or to Australia or New Zealand to claim and be recognised as part of the Irish diaspora rather than those who migrated to England. You can be Irish–American many generations after your ancestors arrived in the USA. But in England, by the second and third generations, you appear to have become English.

Some might have obvious Irish names but names mean little. It is sadly amusing when one observes spokespeople for the BNP or other English neo–Fascist groups ranting on about Anglo–Saxon purity while bearing Celtic names.

There is not even a collective term for the Irish who settled in England – Irish–English? Certainly not Anglo–Irish! Therefore, unlike the Irish–Americans, the second and third generations either had to call themselves English or Irish and with the latter term be prey to derision from certain quarters.

A few years ago, Kevin Myers’, who writes the cranky and often highly inaccurate ‘Irishman’s Diary’ on the Irish Times, was able to ridicule the Irish soccer team, indicating that members were ‘as English as the Tower of London’. One could play semantics and point out that the Tower was a Norman–French construction built in 1078 following the conquest of England. However… Myers continued his theme by dismissing the Irishness of Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, the London born Volunteers who assassinated Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922. They were executed in Wandsworth and in 1967 their remains were reinterred in Ireland.

What Myers’ point about Dunne and O’Sullivan’s place of birth was suppose to prove, I’m not sure, except that Myers is well known for attacking any form of Irish republicanism, past or present.

Myers’ political attitudes have even caused the more liberal minded to wonder if he is actually working for British intelligence in a propaganda role but it has been pointed out that his proclamations are often so bizarre that even British intelligence would disown him as a very unsubtle and loose cannon.

Myers’ column has even caused Eamon Ó Cuív, the Fianna Fáil culture minister, to refer to his curious attitude to Ireland and its fight for independence. He made the remarks when launching the Aubane Historical Society biography of Seán Moylan recently.

Speaking of Sir Henry Wilson, it might be just as relevant to point out that he was born in Currygrane, Co. Longford, and was a fanatical unionist who was chief of the Imperial General Staff before becoming Member of Parliament for North Down. He was against the Treaty negotiations urging Lloyd George to renew a more ruthless and repressive war against the Irish. After Partition, he helped establish the B Specials.

So if Dunne and O’Sullivan being born in London presents a problem of national identification then so does Wilson. Was he Irish? Was Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the UK’s secretary of state for War, a Kerryman? After all, he was born in Kerry.

If our identity is not shaped by where we were born or where we grew up, how can we identify who is Irish and who is not? Is Irish nationality as simple as an emotional declaration?

Arnold Bax (1883–1953), the great composer inspired by the Celtic Revival, is said to have chosen Irish citizenship even though born in Streatham, London, of a wealth Sussex Quaker family. He was nineteen when he arrived in Dublin and became a friend of Pearse, MacDonagh and Yeats. He chose the pen name ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ and wrote several books and poetry, including patriotic Irish poetry.

In 1916 he was shocked at the English excesses in putting down the uprising, which he felt was justified. He was inspired to write several poems on the subject one of which was regarded by Yeats as the best poem on the Easter Rising. Bax’s younger brother, Clifford Bax (1886–1962) was a famous English poet and playwright.

Bax, of course, is also famous for his musical compositions, his symphonies and tone poems using Celtic mythological themes. He became an external examiner for the music department of Cork University and died in Cork in 1953.

Bax made an emotional declaration to Ireland.

Thirty years ago, one of the most distinguished of the many distinguished Irish writers died in London. Elizabeth Bowen was a foremost novelist and short story writer of the mid–20th Century.

Yet I happened to glance at The Lie of the Land: journeys through Literary Cork, (Mary Leland, Cork University Press, 1999), the following sentence caught my eye:

“It is uncomfortable, and therefore unfashionable, still for us Irish writers or critics to accept the Elizabeth Bowens, the Somervilles and Rosses, the Wildes, Shaws and Yeats as wholly Irish.”

If it is uncomfortable and unfashionable to question the Irishness of such people as Elizabeth Bowen or Oscar Wilde, or G.B. Shaw or W.B.Yeats – where does it leave us? Should we not question the Irishness of Pádraic Pearse whose father was an English monumental sculptor who settled in Ireland? Perhaps we should raise a question about Eamon de Valéra who was, after all, born in Manhattan, New York, the son of a Spaniard? Or what of Tom Clarke, born in Hurst Castle on the Isle of Wight, or James Connolly, born in Edinburgh? Should we not question the Irishness of Cathal Ó Sándair (1922–1996) the most prolific novelist in the Irish language with 160 books published? His father was English and, moreover, Cathal was born in England.

How should we define Desmond Ryan (1893–1946) who was secretary to Pearse and in 1916 fought at the GPO and produced a number of first class studies on the history of the period? But he, too, was born in London. And remember Seán Mac Stiofáin (1928–2001) who was born in Leytonstone, London, with an Irish mother but an English father? Or, indeed, Liam Mellows was born in Ashton under Lyme, Lancashire.

I am reminded of Robert Erskine Childers (1870–1922), whose son (1905–1975) became the fourth president of Ireland. He was called a ‘damned Englishman’ by his former colleagues Arthur Griffith and Kevin O’Higgins. And Winston Churchill, from the English perspective, called him "the mischief making murderous renegade … actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth".

True that Childers was born in London but his mother was a Barton of Annamore, Co. Wicklow, and he regarded Annamore as his only real home, where he spent his school holidays. He spent long periods there until he was 34 years old when he married an American from Boston. A former supporter of the Irish Party, he risked his life and limb running guns in his private yacht to the fledging Irish Volunteers in 1914, Childers declared his support for the republic in 1918 and won a seat for Co Wicklow in the first Dáil, becoming minister of propaganda.

I remember reading an account of R.M. Fox’s meeting with Childers just before the outbreak of the civil war on June 28 which was to lead to his arrest and execution by the Free State for possession of a revolver which had been a present from Michael Collins. Richard Fox was also an Englishman who married the Irish writer Patricia Lynch of Cork (1898–1972) one of the world’s finest children’s writer. Fox settled in Ireland in 1923 and became an Irish citizen. In his memoirs, Smoky Crusade (Hogarth Press, 1937) Fox wrote of Childers:

“… He was a slight, pale–face man, with a shy manner. I found it difficult to connect this reserved, soft–spoken man with the stories I had heard of him as a revolutionary swashbuckler.

'I took the oath of allegiance to the Republic,' he said, in his grave way. 'I meant it then, I am keeping it now. Whether others meant it or not is for them to say.

'England has won a moral victory by the Treaty. For the first time Ireland has been induced to abandon her claim to complete independence. Ireland can only remain united on the basis of this demand for independence; anything short of this is bound to create internal strife.

'It is the old story, some have wavered and given up the struggle. The rest of us are going on.' He seemed very much alone as he came down from his study to show me out of the house.

'Make it clear that I am Irish, if you are writing about me," he said in parting. "I had an Irish mother. I spent my childhood in Ireland, and I have chosen Irish citizenship.'"

A few months later Childers was shot by a Free State firing squad.

Was he an Irish patriot or an English traitor? What is the definition of being Irish? Perhaps, Kevin Myers thinks only those with Gaelic names should qualify? At least, in spite of a questionable sounding name, he appears safe in that Myers in Ireland usually comes from Ó Midhir, a Co. Clare family. The name actually means ‘mirth’ which is appropriate reaction in dealing with some of his bizarre denunciations.

On a personal note, even though branches of the Ellis family (the name being a Brythonic Celtic form from Elys) have lived in Ireland since the 13th Century, Irish genealogists or historians never regard them as ‘Irish’.

The Irish nation, like many other nations, has been composed of many different peoples coming together since the beginning of its recorded history – Celts, Danes, Normans, English, French Huguenots and many other. Until the start of the 18th Century, the Gaelic culture of Ireland absorbed them all.

And I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the American poet and philosopher, who said: "A nation, like a tree, does not thrive well till it is engrafted with a foreign stock."

A great mentor of mine was Pádraig Ó Conchúir (1928–1997) who was born in London and went to study at Galway. People told me that when he spoke Irish, in which he was absolutely fluent, he spoke with a London accent. But woe betide anyone who told him he was not Irish.

He often spoke of another O’Connor – Johnny O’Connor, a second generation Irish Londoner who had such a pronounced Cockney accent that his Irish born comrades called him ‘Blimey’. ‘Blimey’ O’Connor was one of the Volunteers who fought in the GPO in 1916 and later fought for the Republic in west of Ireland flying column. An English or an Irishman? What is comfortable and what is fashionable?

Surely, the children of the diaspora have as much right to decide their allegiance without being the butt of derision? After all, there are, unfortunately, many Irish who accept citizenship and honours from Ireland’s neighbour and use their positions to criticise their own people in support of a power that is inimical to Ireland. The Germans used to have a term for a German who was not born in Germany but was recognised as German nevertheless — Auslands Deutscher. Certainly I have heard some Irish speakers refer to fuil Éireannach (Irish descent) and others to Éireannach thar farraige (overseas Irish). With Ireland’s vast diaspora perhaps it is high time we started contemplate definitions?

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-04-02 08:47:16.
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