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Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

2011 - For Mary Joyce Larkin and the Manchester Irish

On the cusp of the New Year, my mother Joyce Larkin (baptised as Mary Joyce)  turned 75 and I believe she deserves, to the say the least, her moment of fame in cyberspace. The occasion also gives me a chance to talk about the Manchester Irish as a community and the introduction of the Certificate of Irish Heritage initiative that was launched by the (outgoing) government in the autumn of this year.

Anthony H. Wilson a (slight) digression

I once did a film a for BBC Belfast’s Education Department about gangs in Manchester (yes we were ahead of our time, and I was almost shot by an old "mate"). During filming, I interviewed the late and greatly missed Tony Wilson (he of Factory Records, the Hacienda Club and the film 24 Hour Party People, where his role is played by Steve Coogan); readers can read my obituary for Tony here: - http://www.fadooda.com/index.php?itemid=67

We obviously talked about gang culture in Manchester but when filming was over Tony took me to one side and the following conversation took place (believe me, it has stayed in my memory):

- Now I'm going to ask you a question Paul

Fire away Tony

What the fuck are you doing?

Sorry?

Well by the look and sound of you, you’re obviously a Manchester Irish lad

Yes

(he starts a rant here)

So what the fuck are you doing interviewing me when you should be doing the film that has never been made about your own ethnic group? The most ignored, downtrodden, oppressed, pissed off, pissed up, magically talented, depressing, maverick, mercurial, extraordinary race of people that ever existed but nobody in Ireland ever talks about. (I try to get a word in here but he continues)

Do you realise that your people, and they are my adopted people as well, actually turned Manchester upside down? Before they arrived it was a boring Anglo Saxon mercantile Cottonopolis. It got a blood transfusion of tinkers, writers, thinkers and fighters. (He sweeps his hair back and pauses for a nanobreath).

Have you read Engels' "The condition of the Working Class in England"?

Yes Tony when I was in the Danish merchant navy (not even that threw him, or broke his stride)

Then you already know that you come from the lowest of the low. You are scum. The wretched of the earth – Franz Fanon territory and yet you are God's special people who rose above it all. White slaves who fought back with music and poetry and quite a lot of arby bargy I suppose. What a film!

(End of Tony Wilson rant)

I had no answer to what Tony Wilson said and I still haven’t made the film. Maybe somebody else did and I am not aware of it. But my mother and her family forms a small but important part of the Manchester Irish story and she has been (not always willingly) in the somersault of nearly everything that Tony Wilson talked about. Married to a brilliant but frustrated artist and alcoholic from another Irish immigrant family. Her father being a communist activist who turned his back, first on the Church, and then on public politics and burned all his priceless books, papers and records. My mam's own little brother Lawrence (whom she never saw) buried in a pauper's grave because of coeliac disease - a classic Irish complaint – and a heartless and unchristian Catholic church policy of not burying unbaptized children (Mam's brother Lawrence was never baptised and my grandfather Thomas Larkin couldn’t afford any other option).

Tommy Larkin carried his son in a coffin that he made himself and walked up to what was Weaste cemetery. Well wouldn’t you burn your books, and then your brain, after going through something like that? But my mother's father maintained a quiet dignity and I only saw him break down once about the whole thing.

For all her tumultuous history, my mother fed us well and kept us together when things got rough. In spite of her angelic visage, she has the type of inner toughness and intelligence, which has served the Manchester Irish well. However, it occurs to me that what Tony Wilson says touches on an important lacuna in our story and it has affected all of us. My grandfather’s decision to turn his back on the world reflected a wider aspiration, I believe, that a poverty stricken and often illicit Irish past should be forgotten about. But as writers like Ernest Hemingway have pointed out, one’s racial DNA doesn’t go away.

History’s way of catching up with us.


The "Execution Tower" at Strangeways Prison, Salford

Anyone who knows Salford, will know that the tower in Strangeways prison dominates the skyline looking towards Manchester town centre. As children growing up, the tower inevitably held a morbid fascination for us given that it was a hanging jail and we were told that smoke would come from the tower after a “criminal” was hung. It was the opposite of our Pope being elected.

But imagine my fascination on being told by a priest and subsequently a teacher (all our religious and  teachers were Irish) that one of my relatives had sacrificed his life for Ireland's cause and had been hung in the jail where Strangeways prison now stands. Or, if I wasn’t a direct descendant, I came from the same clan as Michael Larkin who was hung in Salford's New Bailey jail along with William Allen and Michael O'Brien. The word Fenian was breathed into me like a potion from a secret phial. No wonder my other Nana called me an “Irish Sin Feen Bol-Shevik!’ during one of the many eruptions of my volcanic temper.

No wonder that this is what I became - a Manchester Irish Bolshevik.

A lot of  the Manchester Irish, quite understandably wanted to turn their backs on their history but it seeped through the walls into the heart of our subconscious discourse. Inevitably, much of our identity like all Irish people was tied into the Church (forget the denominations for a moment). Given that nearly all Irish political demonstrations in Manchester were effectively banned (including the Saint Patrick's Day Parade) until the 1990s, our Catholic Walks became a prime expression of our ethnicity. It is an incredible feeling to walk down the road as a young boy  under a huge banner of the Sacred Heart - dour Anglo Saxons we were not. And it follows us all the way, on his death bed my devotedly Stalinist grandfather asked for a priest. He knew exactly what he was doing.

I clearly remember growing up thinking that I should have been in Ireland. Or at least, Manchester sometimes felt foreign to me, or that I was displaced. Confusion reigned. A simple thing like a nativity play at our school would end up in a row because a teacher might decide to play the Queen and half the audience would start singing Faith of Our Fathers in response. Some of the families in my school changed their names back to Irish names, from Gorman to O'Gorman or John to Seán for example, whilst others in our community mocked them. The same debate has taken place in the black community in northern America (about retaking native African names) but there is a crucial difference in that they are not ashamed to talk about their past as slaves. It also helps no doubt that they are some shade or other of black. The black  people I have spoken to in America do not have a concept of second generation black.

To put it crudely, if the Irish were black, the racial DNA of the Manchester Irish would be put into stark relief and, I believe we would understand a lot more about what's right and wrong about us and also the wrongs that were done to us.

The Loch Dearg/Loug Derg Larkins

Part of the problem for the Irish in Britain is that we were always very close to the war going on at home and everybody had to take a position. My mother’s grandmother Bridget Larkin (nee Hogan, from Tipperary) is buried very close to the grave of Michael Larkin Manchester Martyr  and yet Bridget was never talked about in our household and we were never taken to her grave. Now, through the wonders of the worldwide web, Larkin cousins in Ireland, America and Canada have established that some kind of split took place in the family over the question of identity. Were we Irish or English?  Bridget’s husband Patrick seems to have gone back to Ireland and then gone to New York and took one of his son’s (Thomas) with him. We may never know for sure what exactly happened.

When the Troubles broke out again, new generations of immigrant Irish had the same acrimonious debate about where their loyalties lay. The Hunger Strikes at the very start of the 1980s were a major turning point in this debate and, I believe, radicalised a huge number of immigrant families in England.

Our lame duck government's initiative in launching an Irish heritage certificate is a much belated but welcome attempt to begin linking the huge Irish diaspora back to the motherland.  But taking Manchester as an example, much more needs to be done both to recognise and commemorate our contribution to, and existence in, Irish life. The repatriation of the Manchester Martyrs would be a significant step in this regard. It doesn’t matter that we cannot be sure about the actual remains that lie in the grave in Manchester's Moston cemetery; for, as a token of esteem for the Manchester Irish coming from the Irish state itself, its effect would be colossal. A cut price transport scheme, meanwhile, for immigrants (including those searching for lost relatives or descendants) would not only boost Irish tourism but also reaffirm the importance of building our world wide community. My own experience of going back to Port Omna/Portumna was a spiritual moment for me, particularly because every other old man I saw seemed to look my mother’s father. (Tommy Larkin also bore an uncanny resemblance to Michael Larkin who was from the same diocese of Clonfert – Galway/Offaly.) The rejuvenation of Irish language and music is also very much a part of Irish life abroad and though some Gaeilgeoirí have typically mocked this development, my prediction is that (just like the revival in the North) it will form part of the process that ensures the survival of the language. Gaeltacht people will save the language but they will have an army behind them.

All of the above will also help educate many Irish born people who express surprise when they hear a person with an English or north American accent claiming an Irish heritage. The Irish American comedian Des Bishop is very funny about this whole scenario - for example with true Dubs, who are often more British in outlook than we are, calling us Plastics (plastic Irish people geddit?); but more seriously, Des Bishop explains that this is the main reason why he learned to speak Irish, so as to assert his identity. It was the same for me.

However, part of the education process about immigrants should also reflect the true complexity of things. For example, Manchester Irish people are proud of being just that – Irish and from Manchester, accent and all. We do not pretend we are Irish born. Why should we when we have given the world Liam Mellows,  Manchester United, Herman's Hermits, The Smiths, Oasis, The Buzzcocks,  Steve Coogan, Caroline Ahern, Terry Eagleton, Paddy Prendiville, Paul Larkin…

If readers want to get a quick, short injection of Manchester Irish they should read this paean to Morrissey and The Smiths by another famous Manchester Irish person - Terry Christian:

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article7023748.ece

The Manchester Irish have their own unique persona – we are the soul of Manchester and mother Ireland should be just as proud of us as we are of it.

As proud as I am of my  Mam.

                     Joyce Larkin and proud son Paul 

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