The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001

June 11, 2009

One weekday evening in the mid-1880s, a crowd assembled in the Surrey Rooms on Blackfriars Road, South London. One man in attendance was a "tall, slight, dreamy-faced young man", another a "stout, clean-shaven man of about 33, dressed exquisitely". These are Francis Fahy's recollections of W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde, come separately to an unfashionable street to attend a meeting of the Southwark Irish Literary Club.

One of the strengths of Liam Harte's anthology of The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir is the way such entries are complemented by others. Hence, in the next section we get a contrasting perspective. John Sweeney, working undercover for the Special Branch, monitors an Irish Land League meeting in the same rooms. To his surprise it is only his Kerry upbringing that allows him to follow proceedings, for the whole debate is conducted in Irish.

The two accounts - one from a nationalist, the other from a Gaelic-speaking policeman - point to what Harte calls, in a useful introduction, the heterogeneity of the Irish in Britain. His book is a major contribution to understanding this community. Those working in any area of modern Irish history or culture will find things in it to enthrall them.

More than 60 extracts are arranged chronologically from the 18th century to the 1990s, with the earlier selections having little of the emphasis on culture and identity of those mentioned above. Hence, in 1795, with no sense of Irishness, John Binns is concerned with describing French prisoners dancing around a tree of liberty while singing La Marseillaise. By the end of the 19th century, however, what John Denvir describes as a "lull in Irish politics" impels him to found the Emerald Minstrels, a travelling revue of Irish songs. Henceforth, cultural nationalism will assume greater significance.

Yet there is also evidence of other, more subterranean forms of cultural practice. The book valuably demonstrates how popular memory functioned for the Irish in Britain as a means of understanding their own experience. One example occurs in Patrick Gallagher's autobiography, My Story (1945). When given notice by a landlord and subsequently mocked as a "gypsy", Gallagher's uncle retorts: "we are more like the poor people that were out on the roadside during the Gweedore evictions". We also get a clear sense of the forms of life that working-class migrants created, perpetuating community through networks of pubs and rooming houses, hiring practices and the mourning of workmates.

Although such forms of solidarity are important, migration did not necessarily result in a reinforcement of ethnicity. One of the most exhilarating excerpts is the 1934 piece from Tom Barclay, whose notion of the self as an unlimited potential "in tune with the Infinite" is suggestive of Karl Marx's idea of the proletarian as a universal class. At the other end of the social scale, Elizabeth Hamilton also experiences displacement as an evacuation of self that issues in an empathy with all of humanity. In both these accounts, something of the spirit of Binns' egalitarian admiration of the French Revolution survives.

As we approach the present, the enormous contribution of the Irish to British popular culture becomes apparent. Surprisingly, the script for Alfie (1966), that paradigmatic chronicle of Swinging London, turns out to have been adapted from his own novel by a Mayoman, Bill Naughton.

It is somehow apt that Alfie's eponymous lothario was played by Michael Caine, born in Elephant and Castle - not a stone's throw from the Surrey Rooms, where Yeats and Wilde met and Sweeney of Scotland Yard lost himself in his first language.

The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir 1725-2001

By Liam Harte
Palgrave Macmillan
344pp
£55.00
ISBN 9781403949875
Published 12 February 2009

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