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Home Uncategorized Door Into The Dark

Door Into The Dark

David Wheatley
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…



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