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Pól Ó Lorcáin
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

County Manchester

Most people in Ireland identify with their county of origin, first of all, and then with the country itself. Or put another way, when Irish people are questioned by their compatriots as to their origins they will invariably say - I am a Galway man, or a Mayo women, a Kerry man and so on. Further enquiries then elicit more information about their place of birth in the relevant county.
This fierce regionalism is on a par with certain parts of Italy and Spain where certain dialects or cultures set a region apart from its near neighbours. Napoli is a good example in Italy. Napoli is a beautiful and vibrant harbour city which possesses a distinct regional loyalty and culture. Likewise, the province of Andalusia in Spain has always had a somewhat separate identity from the rest of Spain, although this is being literally smothered, year by year, in a vast outpouring of concrete for the benefit of tourists who are usually seeking anything but a separate culture from the one they left at home.

Now, Irish counties, in my opinion, do not boast fundamental differences in terms of dialect, mode of dress, music, or skin tone (although it has been argued that the people of Connemara bear more than a hint of tar brush in their genetic make-up) but, nonetheless, being born into a particular county places a mark of identity on each Irish person, which he or she will proudly carry with them wherever they go in the world. The GAA, of course, is organised on a county basis for that reason and its “Ask Not What Your County Can Do For You” advertising campaign for the All Ireland series is a perfect expression of the importance of the county, not only for the GAA, but also for all the inhabitants of Ireland’s 32 counties. I hardly need to say that the corollary, or second part, of the above slogan is But What You Can Do For Your County.
All this leaves an immigrant like myself in a bit of a quandary. What do immigrants say when their county of origin is enquired of? Well, in my case it is easy. I just say “County Manchester”. This response very often raises a laugh and it is certainly a good introduction into the way I experience my sense of being Irish. Some people express surprise, however, that I should refer back to a very English town like Manchester, home of Coronation St., the Industrial Revolution and chip butties. Some Irish born people have expressed the view to me that you cannot hark back to a place like England for your Irish identity. That is, that you either opt wholesale to call yourself Irish, or you don’t. This view, it seems to me, is a very blinkered one, and one that ignores Ireland’s incredible international journey with millions and millions of its citizens having settled outside of Ireland - a process which began as far back as the Flight of The Earls in September 1607.
As a very young boy growing up amongst a very settled (post famine) Irish community in Salford, I was not aware of our own family's Irish antecedents but I did notice that people with Irish accents were all about me and that all the Priests and nuns at our school were Irish, as were many of the teachers. Then there was the role call at school which on Monday morning included a question as to whether you had been to mass. As I grew older, I realised that nearly all the names were Irish: Tierney, Fogarty, Heffernan, Lynch, O’Malley, O’Gorman to name but a few. Of course my own name Larkin has its own famous Irish vintage.
However, the really potent factor in my nascent sense of Irishness was the Catholic Church. As a small Catholic parish (St Sebastians), we immediately signalled our difference by all the beautiful rites and feast days which mark out each phase of the Roman Catholic yearly cycle. I understood very early on that Protestants didn’t go to mass. In fact, they didn’t seem to attend any kind of church. Nor did they believe in saints and in the divine powers of Our Lady to intervene on our behalf. Miraculous medals, stained glass, rosary beads, burning incense, prayer cards, and all the other holy accoutrements were also alien to them. Then of course, there were the angels which is where things got really metaphysical.
Children do what adults very rarely do. They talk about the cosmos, and their place within it, in the same way they talk about buying sweets at the corner shop – very often in the same sentence. Then, the teenage years kick in and philosophy is kicked out. Teenagers, copying adults, stop looking at the skies and begin studying their pimples. As a young child, I clearly remember discussing my guardian angel with my best mate Craig who came from a staunchly Glaswegian and staunchly Protestant family. He went back home after one such conversation to check with his Mam as to whether he had a guardian angel, as I had insisted that there was indeed such a wondrous thing hovering around him. I was devastated the next day when he came back to tell me that his family had told him that only Catholics had angels. As I recall, what had upset me was the thought that Craig had no special being to look after him; no one to “up there” to whom he could turn when he was scared or troubled. Does anyone doubt that children “do be” pondering these issues? The angel crisis passed, for me anyway, when I asked one of our Priests in the playground about it and he told me that everybody had an angel whether they wanted one or not. Angels were only one of God’s many gifts to us.
My point about the discussion regarding angels is to show how different you were, and felt, being raised in what was effectively an Irish Catholic cocoon. I will be forever grateful for that upbringing because from the start it raises the most fundamental questions in the mind of a child – what is my conscience saying?, why am I here?, what am I to do? Add to this, the rhythm of the mass and its gospels throughout the year, the pantheon of saints, the veneration of the Madonna and most importantly the communal celebration of these things and you have not just the world, but the very universe unfolding before you. This potent mix was then spiced by questions of politics and bigotry. I remember Catholic halls in Salford, where I grew up, being attacked after certain high profile incidents relating to the Troubles in Ireland. Questions were raised by politicians as to why our schools did not show a picture of the English monarch but rather pictures of the Pope, may God guide him, and the Last Supper. Our anthem at school was not ‘The Queen’ but “Faith of Our Fathers” – the holy faith, which still lived “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword” and made our hearts beat high with joy. All in all, this is quite a package for a child to take in and almost a replica of the upbringing that most children had back in the mother country. And yet it is different in some crucial regards and the mother country and its citizens needs to listen carefully to its first cousins abroad so we can all move on from the Plastic Paddy syndrome which lumps all Irish émigrés, and indeed, amazingly, evenly people from “Northern Ireland”, as wannabe Irish people who can never quite make the grade.
First of all, we have no “grade” to make; no qualification level to pass. For generation after generation, the Irish Diaspora has supported the mother country, in terms of money, politics, weapons, music, dance, poetry, the list is endless. This fact is recognised in our national anthem –
Buíon dár slua thar toinn do ráinig chughainn
A host of our tribe came across the waves to join us

James Connolly was from Edinburgh, Pádraig Pearse’s family was from London, Liam Mellowes and Harry Boland's antecedents were in Manchester and so on.
The second point is that, over the centuries, millions of Irish left these shores, very often involuntarily, and have then been simply abandoned by the country which ought to have been cherishing and nurturing them. This, of course, is particularly true of the vast numbers of poor and marginalised Irish who went to England and America to work as labourers in the mines, in tunnel and canal building, on building sites and the great road networks which grew as the industrial age progressed. For them, there was no hope of returning home; the cost was too great and it was often the case that different siblings had taken different boats to different countries as seems to be the case with my own family. Families were literally torn apart. Now it is payback time and people at home need to do more to acknowledge the Irish abroad and, in particular, the great importance of Irish Centres (and the rise of Irish Studies as an academic subject across the world ) in reaffirming the dignity of those millions of previously abandoned people and their right to claim a proud heritage. The Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester is a very successful example in this regard and I think the introduction on its website describes its role very well and is worth quoting at some length:

The Irish World Heritage Centre is the main venue for the Irish community of Manchester to socialise in a welcoming and friendly environment and pursue Irish cultural activities and celebrate the rich heritage of Ireland.
Over the centuries Irish people who emigrated have contributed to world progress. The Irish World Heritage Centre is dedicated to the achievements of those men and women, largely forgotten.
It is a celebration of their success, a recognition of their achievements and of the positive contribution they made in the countries which they settled and will be a continuity of Ireland's story embracing the Irish global family of over 70 million
Please see -

From a time, right up until the 1990s, when we were not even allowed a St. Patrick’s day parade in Manchester, there is now a very vibrant and far more visible Irish community in Manchester. They at least understand that there is a place called County Manchester and it is about time more people at home understood that too.

1 comment:

Slainte Pol!
I hope all is well with you and yours.
Great article and reminded me of three constant phrases when meeting with people.
'You are Irish? From the North or the South?' I always reply, 'From the West'
'You are Irish? Where are you from?'
'From London'.
And the final phrase that my Mom always advised as people rebuked 'You are not Irish. You were not born in Ireland' 'If you are born in a stable you are not necessarily a donkey'
God Bless and enjoy the spring!!!
by: Finn Anson (contact) - 14 May '07 - 09:04


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Title: County Manchester
Date posted: 10 May '07 - 14:51
Filed under: General
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