The Best Are Leaving: Emigration and Post-War Irish Culture, by Clair Wills, Cambridge University Press, 220 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1107680876
Have you heard the Bernard Manning joke about the Irishman with two arseholes? Were you the author of any of the emigrant memoirs and novels studied in Clair Wills’s The Best Are Leaving, the chances are you might have done. These days the Irish joke is as rare as the Irish sixpence dropped in a collection box by Philip Larkin in “Church Going”, and old certainties of Irish exceptionalism have gone the way of Alan Partridge’s oafish musings on the Great Famine. The centenary celebrations for the 1916 Rising passed off for the most part as decorously as an Irish special issue of Granta, and where cross-border bodies might once have referred to the activities of marauding Republicans, Anglo-Irish Agreement today more readily suggests consensus on what a lovely chap the late Terry Wogan was. Yet even as Brexiters keep a weather eye out for the fence-jumpers of Calais, the back roads of Fermanagh and Armagh are now set to become the UK’s land-border with the EU. Enjoyable and comprehensive though it is, Wills’s study of the Irish migrant presence in postwar Britain may already need updating.
Half literary criticism, half cultural anthropology, The Best Are Leaving begins with a telling childhood memory of Sunday drives to family get-togethers in pubs in Shepherd’s Bush, where Wills would be treated to copious packets of Tayto crisps and bottles of red lemonade. Born in Skibbereen, her mother had trained as a nurse in Britain, married an Englishman and seen her life “changed almost beyond recognition”. Her brothers followed a different course, joining a class that worked for cash in hand on London’s building sites and lived in overcrowded digs, “barely associating, let alone integrating” with English society. Even to the young Wills, the difference was palpable. It wasn’t, she explains, that her mother was a snob, but a sense of bitterness and injustice hung in their air: how to acknowledge it “without condescension towards the lives they had made?”
“Why Brownlee left, and where he went, / is a mystery even now”, wrote Paul Muldoon. For many postwar Irish emigrants to Britain, the decision to leave was an impulsive one. In his Irish-language memoir Úll i mBarr an Ghéagáin (Apple on the Treetop), Richard Power describes a young Aran Islander bringing a Britain-bound friend to the quay only to decide to tag along: “He left the horse and cart on the quayside. He left the house door open. He abandoned the dog even, barking after him on the quay.” There is a lot of the Irish language in The Best Are Leaving, and a lot of unaccommodated masculinity too. Someone who speaks for both is Dónal Mac Amhlaigh, author of Dialann Deoraí (translated by Valentin Iremonger as An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile). Trading Connemara via Kilkenny for Northampton, he exhibits strong ambivalence towards his host culture, denouncing the English slang of emigrant Irishwomen (“mate”, “crikey”) and retrenching in the camaraderie of hard-drinking navvies, all the while passing over in silence the wife and children who shared his exile. In Tom Collins’s 2007 bilingual film Kings, based on the mixed fortunes of a group of Connemara men in London, this cliché shows it has drunken legs, or leglessness, in it yet.
The Best Are Leaving marks a new stage in Wills’s work on Ireland. After an early book on Northern Irish poetry and a study of Paul Muldoon, she has inclined more to cultural history in recent years, producing studies of the Easter Rising (Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO ) and of Irish neutrality (That Neutral Island: A History of Ireland During the Second World War ). Her engagement with Irish-language writing by Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Eoghan Ó Tuairisc added depth-perception to that book, and the linguistic diversity continues here, even if some notable immigrant Gaels pass under her radar. Judged the leading sean nós (traditional) singer of his times by no less an authority than Seán Ó Riada, Darach Ó Catháin uprooted his family from the Meath Gaeltacht to Leeds in 1963. Socially isolated, he worked on the roads, laying asphalt made of pulped books, as described in Ian Duhig’s “Róisín Bán” (“little white rose”, Yorkshire pun intended). In the song “Róisín Dubh” (James Clarence Mangan’s “Dark Rosaleen”), a Spanish invasion will relieve old Erin’s sufferings, but in “Róisín Bán” immigrant Gaelic culture is so much landfill alongside those pulped books in oblivious Britain.
For the purposes of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), London is an Irish county, and one that distinguished itself in the 1960s by picking up a clutch of Junior Football League trophies. The more cosmopolitan template of Irish exile would look askance at reconnecting from a distance with such parochial shibboleths, but it isn’t only navvy memoirists who fit Wills’s paradigm. Dramatically failing to acquire a circle of like-minded magazine-editors and fellow writers, as he had recently done in Paris, Beckett tramps round London in the ’30s “in a fearful rage” among the “canaille”, as he describes it in his poem “Serena I”. The abandoned homeland is treated to eugenic sarcasm: “France may commit race suicide, Ireland will never”, he scoffs in his essay on Irish censorship, while “for an Irish girl” Miss Counihan in Murphy is “quite exceptionally anthropoid”. Murphy has his own struggles with racial identity, mocked on the job-path by cackling Cockneys (“’E don’t look rightly human to me”) and swapping the “haemorrhoidal isle” not for Britannic embourgeoisement but the cocoon of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat and chess games with a patient.
Among Beckett’s love interests in ’30s Dublin was Ethna McCarthy, the Alba of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, who is cited by Wills as the author of a 1948 paper on louse infestation: 85 per cent of Irish applicants to become nurses in Britain, she finds, are “verminous”. In the postwar novella First Love, with its paean to Irish depopulation, Beckett would again tap the language of eugenics, a discourse with much to say on the emigration question. In 1904, Joyce’s Citizen was moved to fury by the intractable haemorrhaging of population: “Where are our missing twenty millions of Irish should be here today instead of four, our lost tribes?” Half a century later the picture was little better, Free State or no Free State: four out of every five children born between 1931 and 1941 would emigrate in the 1950s, and more than half a million young people left the country between 1945 and 1960, tipping the population to below three million. Proponents of the “best are leaving” theory exhibited a dogged contradiction, deploring the brain drain of Ireland’s finest but suspicious of the suggestion that providing a basic standard of living was any business of the Irish state. With neo-Victorian zeal, believers in the anti-materialism of the Gael preached that riches would weaken the racial stock by making life too easy. For MJ Molloy, education was at the root of the matter: seducing generations of young women with dreams of a life beyond the farm, it was “anti-rural”, and “the more there is the worse it will be”. How then to account for the insuperable melancholy of the impoverished West, the tristes tropiques of Synge’s congested districts? Eugenics is an abject business at the best of times, its delusions of völkisch identity convenient distractions from economic failure. This had a gendered dimension too, in the shrill warnings issuing from the Catholic Truth Society and other sectiuncles of the dangers of female materialism, which would first draw young women to England then swallow them up in the horrors of dance-halls, dating, mixed marriage and prostitution.
The eugenic undercurrents to novels of family, breeding, and race are one reason for the ascendancy of naturalism among migrant writers and the high proportion of Irish writers even now who cherish Dubliners as James Joyce’s best work. An English working class novel such as Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning can allow Arthur Seaton a blaze of youthful rage at his lot before absorbing him into the structures of marriage and community but such consolations are thinner on the ground among Irish émigrés. Kate’s drowning at the end of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls cruelly mirrors the drowning of her mother at the start of that novel, while Luke, the bullied son of John McGahern’s Amongst Women, disappears to London, where he can safely ignore the telegram informing him of his father’s death. There is something war-like about the emigrant experience, a point made unmistakably by the muddy site trenches of Philip Donnellan’s 1965 documentary The Irishmen. Yet even here a sense of the exotic was taking root: by the early ’60s observation platforms on building sites had CCTV cameras through which the public could follow the work in progress. In one awkward scene in The Irishmen, the labourers sit in a motorway works canteen while a group of traditional musicians play in the corner, a mixing of work and play that would have never have happened in real life. “If you pride your life, don’t join by Christ / With McAlpine’s Fusiliers”, as Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners sang to newly appreciative folk music audiences in the ’60s. His fellow Dubliner Luke Kelly had apprenticed with Ewan McColl, and would sell the Communist-leaning newspaper Irish Democrat at gigs. When The Dubliners appeared on Top of the Pops in 1967, however, it was with “Seven Drunken Nights” rather than “Tramps and Hawkers” or “Poor Paddy on the Railway”.
The Northern Irish are a special case again, if one peculiarly neglected by Wills. Are they emigrants or not? In an unpublished early poem, Derek Mahon greets the arrival of a group of Irish navvies in a London pub with “These are my people”, but the reader may not be so sure. The lurking sense of difference has affinities with the unease betrayed by Tom Paulin’s “An Ulster Unionist Walks the Streets of London”, whose speaker, stung by the political betrayal of perfidious Albion, feels “like a half-foreigner / among the London Irish”. The Marlborough and Merton College-educated Louis MacNeice is not a writer whose Irishness has traditionally required ethnographic explication, but the MacNeice that features in these pages is that Ulster poet at his greenest. Versions of MacNeice, Sam Hanna Bell and WR (“Bertie”) Rodgers appear in Anthony Cronin’s 1964 comic novel The Life of Riley, where their clique of BBC producers ham up the Irishness of their programming to ensure lucrative repeat fees, and continue their stage Irishry in bouts of heavy drinking.
The comedy of Cronin’s novel leans heavily on the indignity of Riley’s decline into destitution, even as West Indians and other Commonwealth immigrants make their way in newly swinging ’60s London. Rodgers, or “Billy Boddells” as he becomes, spouts pseudo-Celtic guff while poor Riley confronts the melancholy reality of immigrant life. Before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, Caribbean migrants had enjoyed (relatively) free entry into the UK, competing with the Irish and instilling the anxieties felt by Riley of being overtaken by ethnic groups he considers beneath him. Postwar economic need meant that Windrush Caribbeans were broadly welcomed in 1948, though a denial that this was ever the case was central to the Powellite racism of the ’70s. Subject to no special government acts (with the singular exception of the Prevention of Terrorism Act), the Irish inhabited a less clear-cut category – a grey zone that is Wills’s true subject. She does not mention Don McCullin’s photography, but the Lear-like visage of his “Homeless Irishman, Aldgate” is a haunting record of disappearance into this twilight zone. The temptation is to describe it as Beckettian too, which on one level it is, but the tragic gap between Irishness as economic reality and artistic raw material is the dark centre of Wills’s book. Literary criticism traditionally aspires to elevate its subject from subculture to culture “proper”, but The Best Are Leaving is a rare and thoughtful example of the benefits to be reaped from moving in the opposite direction. Wills’s sociological readings cut through narratives of “bucklepping” Irishry as surely as its cinematic perspective skewers life on the farm in Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”, a key text for Wills despite its author’s migration taking him ultimately no further from Monaghan than McDaid’s bar in Dublin (one disastrous five-month stint in London aside). Yet Kavanagh worries that to externalise and estrange (“The world looks on / And talks of the peasant”) is to lose touch with the “apocalypse of clay” from which, Antaeus-like, the poem derives its strength. Wills’s cultural materialism forms a subsoil she is reluctant to trade for the airier pleasures of Vendlerite close reading; but while a reading of “Lake Isle of Innisfree” informed by rates of TB infection among Irish immigrants in the 1880s is conceivable, just about, even if it’s difficult to see the plays of MJ Molloy swapping the shelf for a living presence on the stage any time soon.
It all comes down to questions of framing, as in the “repeated images of four-square cells” Wills identifies in The Irishmen – doorways, holes, frames, tunnels. The Best Are Leaving opens a door into the dark but also a trench in the ground, and represents a powerful act of reconnection with its underground culture. Though “most were lost by ‘Róisín Dubh’”, Ian Duhig writes of Darach Ó Catháin’s singing, “all knew his art was rich and strange / in a pub soon drowned by our black stuff / when we laid the Sheepscar Interchange”. As for the joke about the Irishman with two arseholes, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that, despite its provenance in the sweaty crucible of one of Bernard Manning’s northern club sets, the Irishman comes out of it surprisingly well.
David Wheatley’s The President of Planet Earth will be published by Carcanet in 2017.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is David Blake Knox’s essay, “Missing”, on World War Two’s unremembered dead. Here is a short extract:
Not all Irishmen in Germany during the war were treated as badly as the merchant seamen [those serving in foreign-registered vessels interned and subjected to forced labour]. While they were held in Farge, the novelist Francis Stuart was employed as a lecturer in English literature at Berlin University. This was, of course, the kind of academic post from which all Jews had been excluded since 1938 by the Nuremberg racial laws. Stuart had come to Nazi Germany in 1940 as an emissary of the IRA. Soon after he arrived in Berlin, [Irish diplomat] William Warnock helped him to organise a party to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. By 1943, he was making weekly propaganda programmes for Irland-Redaktion – a radio service aimed at Irish listeners. In his broadcasts, Stuart spoke with open admiration of Hitler, whom he compared favourably with Gandhi, and considered to be “a kind of contemporary Samson”. He praised the “vision and courage” with which the Führer had defied international “financiers and bankers” – clearly identifiable in this context as Jews and he expressed his belief that a victory for Germany would lead quickly to the reunification of Ireland.
Stuart came home after the war and resumed his writing career. In the years that followed he became a respected figure in Irish literary circles. In 1982 he was chosen to be one of the first members of Aosdána (the Irish arts academy), and was granted a yearly stipend from our national Arts Council. Then, in 1996, he was elected a saoi ‑ the highest accolade in the Irish arts world – joining such luminaries as Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, who had been a friend of Paul Léon [Joyce’s friend who was executed at Auschwitz] and who worked with the French Resistance during the war. The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, presented him with a gold-plated torc – a symbol of the ancient Celtic bards ‑ as a mark of the state’s recognition and esteem.
Only one of Aosdána’s two hundred members resigned in protest at Stuart’s election. That was the Irish-language poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi.