Britain's alter ego

Mark Lawson wonders if English people tend to be jealous of other cultures, such as claiming people to be English when in fact they were Irish.

The English have long suffered from propriety towards the Irish. From either colonial nostalgia – or jealousy of the literary instinct and social ease which seems to run in Dublin water – we have always tended towards a bit of patriotic shoplifting when an Emerald celebrity appears in the window.

Most of us will remember English lessons – and numerous mentions in the press – in which Oscar Wilde became an “English wit” and Samuel Beckett “Anglo-French”. Seamus Heaney, born in Northern Ireland but naturalised to the south, has observed that he curiously became a “British poet” at the moment he won the Nobel Prize.

You can go further and observe that the English establishment, though nominally Protestant, has tended to have more cultural affinity with the citizens of Catholic Ireland than with those of Ulster. Those articles which have described Wilde, Beckett, Heaney and Geldof as “British” are not just misprints but Freudian slips.






4 responses to “Britain's alter ego”

  1. Frank McGahon avatar

    I read that piece on saturday, quite interesting, although Lawson typically tends towards glibness and mild anglo-self-deprecation. He also seems in some difficulty describing Heaney’s nationality. What is all that stuff about “naturalised to the south”? Oh, and I’m sure (Protestant, anglo-identified) Wilde would have been bemused to be described as a “citizen of Catholic Ireland”, wasn’t Sam Beckett also protestant?

    btw: Congrats on new site, looks great!

  2. Gavin avatar

    Cheers Frank, let me know if you need help setting up MT. As for Lawson, I think this most be the first time I have read an English journalist discuss this issue, so close to the hearts of many Irish. Remember Bono is one of the 100 greatest Britons, that caused quite a stir back home!

    Much of the stuff in Ireland though amounts to racism againt the British, we still have not thrown the shackles of our colonial past.

  3. Frank McGahon avatar

    U2 is another irony, this quintessential product of “Catholic Ireland” contains only one bona-fide Irish Catholic on drums, Bono is protestant, The Edge is from Dublin’s Welsh protestant community and Adam Clayton isn’t even Irish at all, but….English!

    I agree that we have this strange attitude towards Britain and flinch from acknowledging anything british about Ireland (which is after all one of the “British Isles”). What I would say is that we tend to be functionally anglophile (to judge by tv viewing, food, football teams etc.) but rhetorically anglophobe.

  4. Patrick Loughrey avatar
    Patrick Loughrey

    The English are quick to forget that Shane Macgowan was in fact born in England. But hey, Jesus was born in a stable but it doesn’t make him a donkey.