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Sunday 21 July 2013


It's time to learn to love our 'Britishness'

Brand Ireland would not have much oomph without Anglo-Irish creativity, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

So last weekend I was at the ninth Kinsale Arts Festival for a gig which involved watching a movie and talking about it. The weather was glorious, the hospitality was wonderful and my hosts and their guests great company. It didn't feel like work.

"How do you want to be identified?" asked Mareta Doyle – the cultural whirlwind who is the festival's founder and prime mover – before she introduced our panel. "London-Irish," said Paddy Cooney, director of The Raj in the Rain, "Hiberno-English," said the historian and businessman Patrick Guinness, and "British-Irish" said I, which by any reckoning is a fair few identities for three people. And then together and with the audience, we had some free and frank discussion of Paddy's film about what he called the "Anglo-Irish", aka "The Ascendancy".

Identity terminology is a minefield. My late friend Brian Inglis wrote an autobiography called West Briton, for although he felt intensely Irish, he was never accepted as such by most of his compatriots because of his English accent. I was born and educated in Dublin and my accent is still Irish, but after publishing a biography of Patrick Pearse that wasn't hagiographical, I became almost overnight a "West Brit".

In the Nineties, I was on a panel in London wondering if there was a future for the concept of Britishness. "No," said various leftish-liberal celebrities, who included Jon Snow of Channel 4, the cook Prue Leith, and the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

British was so yesterday, apparently, and had nasty connotations of empire, and anyway they were so cosmopolitan they mostly didn't even feel English. They were Londoners. They were Europeans.

The panel's immigrants disagreed. Canadian journalist Janet Daley, Jamaican sociologist Professor Stuart Hall and I explained that the concept of Britishness suited us very well indeed. We couldn't be English because we were born and educated elsewhere, but we felt part of the society in which we lived and worked and were delighted to be able to don the woolly overcoat of Britishness while keeping our original nationalities.

Anyway, back to the film, which looked at a few examples of a group who even now are regarded by the bigoted as foreigners, even though many of them come from families who've been in Ireland for seven or eight centuries.

Of course, some of their forebears were exploitative and contemptuous, but overall these mainly Protestant landed gentry brought to our introverted little island inspiration from a bigger world, and their sense of being outsiders in both Ireland and England helped foster their extraordinary creativity. Brand Ireland wouldn't have much oomph if we removed Shaw, Swift, Synge, Wilde, Yeats and company – not to speak of Burke, Tone, Parnell, and, of course, Guinness – from our tourist literature.

The late Mark Bence Jones, a star of the film, was a distinguished chronicler of the big houses who told Paddy: "I think the term Anglo-Irish is misleading. One has a certain feeling or allegiance to Britain – the two countries are too close not to. I think they've always considered themselves Irish. I'm Irish."

I thought the film engrossing, if rather negative. This tradition is by no means all about decay: There are still plenty of impressive and successful so-called Anglo-Irish about. But when RTE screen it, I'd recommend you watch it – particularly for the thoughtful reflections of Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth as he reflects on his failed struggle to keep Lissadell House in the family.

Although there were many distinguished Gore-Booths, they are remembered mainly for Constance, an uneducated snob with a thirst for adventure who claimed to be of the people while sporting a bogus title. (Before she married him, she knew her husband was not a count, yet she revelled in being called Countess.) Recently given a sex-change in a not-to-be-missed moment on RTE news by Tom D'Arcy of Direct Democracy Ireland (http://www.joe.ie/news/current-affairs/video-tom-darcy-called-constance-markievicz), she glorified bloodshed and was the cause of many unnecessary deaths. Naturally, perverse people that we are, we revere her and ignore the achievements of her more constructive relatives.

Slowly, though, we are becoming more inclusive. We welcome the New Irish and few of us any longer approve of trying to bomb unionists into a united Ireland. We've come to regret the destruction of the big houses and are gradually recognising that the despised landlord class left us a magnificent legacy. Many of us would now, I think, be appalled that a member of the Kinsale audience had been called a "settler".

We fawn on Irish-Americans yet resist any acknowledgement of our shared identity with our nearest neighbour. When "Anglo-Irish" ceases to be a term of abuse, and it's possible to say one is British-Irish (or maybe Irish-British) without being denounced as unpatriotic, we'll have grown up.



Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards