Andrew Lees writes: Liverpool is Glasgow and Belfast rolled into one and a haunted echogenic ancestral diaspora space. Perhaps it is the soft stinging rain on that drive down to the river or the subversive hurrying shared accent that makes the Irish feel at home in this grey threatening chocolate port that clings tenuously to the edge of England like a limpet. This city, closer to Dublin than London, is a devil-may-care rebellious familiar face and a mythical cosmic crossroad linked with the Sargasso Sea and Hy-Brasil.
Liverpool is up to her eyes in it when it comes to the history of the Old Sod, beginning with the innocent trading of horses and cattle between the Irish ports stretching back hundreds of years. In 1649 God’s Executioner dispatched his New Model Army from his trusted Liverpool garrison to leave a Via Dolorosa in Drogheda and Wexford and deport the rebel prisoners to Liverpool, from where they were promptly dispatched to Montserrat to work in the fields as indentured servants. They became known as the Black Irish. The English planters rich on rum and sugar returned from Britain’s dunghill in the Caribbean to be rewarded with farmland in Ulster.
An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) forced more than half the population of Ireland to flee and cross the bowl of tears to the unwelcoming middle ground of Liverpool. Many left on the coffin ships for New York and Boston but thousands stayed behind and settled in grim courts to the north of the Prince’s Landing Stage in a narrow strip of land between Vauxhall and the Scotland Road, or in the South End between the docks and a line running along Park Lane, St James Street and Park Road. The lucky ones found jobs as sailors, navvies and dockers but many were forced to beg. The educated Irish also arrived, seeing Liverpool as a step upwards in the world and a launching pad for the El Dorado of America
Most of those who stayed behind had a shared grievance and a resolute defiance of the king and country Protestant rulers of the city. Their massive presence in some parts of the town led to sectarianism and certain Liverpool constituencies returning nationalist candidates to parliament. The Liverpool Scotland ward councillor Pat Garton allowed his fishing skiff to be used in the daring rescue of the Irish Republican Brotherhood leader James Stephens from a Dublin jail, consolidating the links with Ireland. The international trade unionist Big Jim Larkin, involved in the Dublin lockout, was also a Scouser. By the beginning of the twentieth century a third of Liverpool had Catholic roots.
It was the influx of the Irish that laid the foundations for Scouse, although it is also easy to discern the singsong conciliatory influence of the Welsh and even the sound of the Potteries in some Liverpool accents. Scouse is fast and exclusive, resonating with the world’s great ports, especially New York, and in its vowels you can discern the fraternity and tragedies of friends and the memory of streets. Its phonological peculiarities stem from the raising of the back of the tongue towards the soft palate, something that sounds to outsiders like catarrh. At the end of each sentence there is that rising inflection that to the English gives even formal exchanges a built-in air of Ulster mongrel belligerence that contrasts sharply with the lilting Irish blarney.
Scousers share with the Irish a love for novelty in speech and create a demotic vocabulary of fantastic rotten English. They are never at a loss for a pun or a witty repartee and can talk the hind leg off a donkey. John Lennon’s Merseypropisms and verbal near misses in A Spaniard in the Works stem from the Liverpool Irish subversion of upper class English. When asked why he disrespected standard English Lennon replied: “I change words because I haven’t a clue what a lorra words mean half the time.” In the south docks the Irish invented a characteristic banter called dockology. Between the wars no one on the docks went by their own name. Surnames were abbreviated or lengthened, nicknames recalling a funny incident, a memorable fight or a relationship with a woman abounded and new arrivals on the waterfront that couldn’t “take the Mick” were frozen out of the job market. Jokes tick-tacked through the workforce. Sobriquets included “the drunken caterpillar” for the stevedore seen every night crawling out of The Cabbage pub. Vat 69, a brand of whisky, was referred to as the pope’s phone and a Paddy Kelly was a dock policeman. Sandwiches were “abnabs” and a stick of liquorice “sticky lice”.
Although many Irish families maintained the traditions of the homeland, a few Mary Ellens married black seamen and contributed to the remarkable cosmopolitan mosaic that JB Priestley described during his English Journey. In the early sixties many of the old Irish docker families were shifted out to Huyton, Kirkby and Skelmersdale. Parties of young buckos still arrive on Friday nights on the ferries to have some good crack, take in some footy and perhaps pair up with a pretty Liverpool judy. Many also have a relative or two in town, usually maintaining the old traditions of shamrockery, the ceili band and St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
To be Irish in Liverpool was first to be a despised Catholic then to be a dangerous revolutionary and finally to be trendy and sexy. On Saturday nights Seel, Wood and Hardman are now full of plastic Paddies and despite the credit crunch the Celtic Tiger continues to own more and more of a city which denied it for so long. The Irish ghettoes are gone but those echoes remain in the Vauxhall pockets. To most of England Liverpool is beyond the pale but for the Irish it is their second capital and a bleeding heart.
Andrew Lees author of The Hurricane Port: A Social History of Liverpool, published by Mainstream in 2011.