A largely unconsidered, uncelebrated people

A largely unconsidered, uncelebrated people

The second generation Irish in Britain are scarcely represented in any artform. Michael Flavin’s book helps to redress that balance a little

MICHAEL Flavin has written a quite extraordinary book called One Small Step. I guarantee you won’t have read many books like it. You won’t have felt the sense of recognition that you will with this book with many other books you have read. You won’t because the amount of books describing or exploring second generation Irish life in Britain are very, very few.

Of course, there is far more to this book than us, the readers, recognising ourselves. It is wonderfully written and is a very moving, very heartfelt story. It is a novel about a boy growing up in Birmingham, who is ten in 1974 when the Birmingham Pub Bombings occur, whose parents are from Ireland, and whose life is a mixture of the Irish Centre, going to school, tormenting ants in the back garden, and supporting the Blues.

I’ve never identified with a fictional character more but I truly believe that anyone who experienced that second-generation life will find a mirror in this book. As will those many who didn’t and want to understand the realities of being Irish. I read a lot, an awful lot, and I have read, for instance, Irish novels that were on this year’s high profile Booker shortlist and I’m not denigrating those books by saying this book is the equal of, or better than, or easily in the company of, those books.

It also got me thinking about how little our second generation lives have been represented in the various art forms. There was, of course, the late, great, Shane McGowan but The Pogues stand out on their own. There is the painter, Brian Whelan, a painter of Shane McGowan himself, and a great chronicler of Irish life in London. And that’s about it, isn’t it? Much has been made over the years, in some excellent books, about the Irishness of second generation figures like Kate Bush, The Smiths, or Oasis but, The Pogues aside, how many set out to tell the second generation story? Indeed, was their Irishness even visible until revealed?

Isn’t that just a little odd? Thousands and thousands of people experienced growing up in Irish families in Britain but there are astronomically more literary accounts of the brave, self-obsessed few, who experienced private education. Now, I would presume there are far more privately educated sitting in publishing houses than there are second generation Irish but still. The silence is deafening. There are powerful nonfiction accounts of second generation Irish experiences, Brian Dooley’s Choosing the Green about the Rising or I Wouldn’t Start From Here by The Wild Geese Press, and those works are invaluable and enlightening. But where are the works of pure imagination?

Writers and artists are not, obviously, duty bound to write directly from their own experiences or anything apart from what their mind wants to but that does not mean the lack of accounts isn’t strange? Is there some self censorship going on? Is there a recurring lack of belief in the authenticity of our own experiences? How, after all, do you describe a vacuum? A not really Irish, not really English? A not being something is harder to put into words than a something.

Which takes me away from and brings me back to Michael Flavin’s excellent book, for one way of challenging the silence, of supporting those who offer an account of our experience is by acknowledging them when they do. Of course the overriding reason for reading a book is that it is a good read and I can assure you that this book is.

But if we’d like to see books, or any kind of artistic expression, that appear to make sense of our own lives then we can at least support those who do so. There is nothing too complicated about buying a book.

The common assumption is that the Irish, with our incredible four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, have an innate grá for the written word. I’m not so convinced by that and tend more to believe our writing culture exists despite the experience of being Irish rather than because of it. Whatever the case the fundamental experience of Ireland, emigration and the families who live it, is barely a footnote. But it doesn’t have to be. Michael Flavin. One Small Step. You will not regret buying it.

Joe Horgan posts on X @JoeHorganwriter