STRANGELY enough it is usually around the time of St. Patrick’s Day that I get the urge to get out of Ireland.
Believe me, after nineteen years of living here, sometimes you want to see the harbour lights receding. Yeats went over the top with his ‘great hatred, little room’ but it can get a little suffocating. Especially if you’re from the city.
Of course, the irony is, that you go away just to find another Ireland waiting.
So it was that I found myself a couple of days before St. Patrick’s Day wandering in to a pub in south London.
Now I don’t know about you, but to me, amongst other things, London is an Irish city.
I’m not from there, I’m proud Birmingham-Irish, but my wife is and I have lived and worked there so I know it well.
I remember going to Cricklewood in the 1980s when one of my aunts had come over from Cork and was staying in a flat.
I remember The Crown in Cricklewood, I remember drinking around Archway and I remember coming off a night shift one time in the 90s, down in deepest south London, and going to an early house with some lads from Donegal and Mayo.
I remember World Cup games on the television in 1994 in the bar of the Dulwich Tavern, so far down south there’s not even a tube.
The Irish were everywhere.
So down around Clapham, where my wife is from, I walked in to the Bread and Roses pub, Shane and Kirsty posters on the wall, and I walked up the stairs with my pint.
On there that night was a play called the Tragic Carmody by the London Irish painter Brian Whelan. It is about a Galway man, Danny Carmody, who came over to work on the building sites and ended up discovering his own talent at painting.
It is about the wonderful pictures of Irish London that he painted.
The pubs and the old transport cafes.
It is about the tensions between the Irish born and the London-Irish, the second generation.
It is about mental health and the great unspoken truths of the immigrant experience.
It is about class and art and alcohol. It is about England and about Ireland.
About London and about Galway.
The two main characters were played by the London-Irishmen John Glynn and Kieran Moriarty, with a supporting act of Sharon Wymark, second-generation Irish, Terry Iland, a Dubliner, and Meg Bennet from Canada.
Yeh, the Irish are everywhere.
And do you know what it was more than anything?
Sure it was funny and moving and sad and superbly acted and put together. Sure it was a bit of a treat. Sure, as the question and answer session afterwards showed, it was deeply thought provoking.
Sure, it was intelligent.
Sure, it was inspiring to see how much talent is out there, how that talent can transform a room above a pub.
Sure, it was all of those.
But more than anything it was a more generous, a more inclusive, a more thoughtful idea of Ireland.
Yes, there in Clapham, amongst the Irish, the London Irish, the first, second and third generation, I found an Ireland that would challenge Ireland itself.
Not for the beauty of the landscape or the ready warmth of a neighbour. Not for that, no.
Clapham High Street doesn’t really rival Inchydoney.
But in terms of a deeper consideration of what being Irish means.
In talking about drink and mental health and art.
Indeed, most strikingly, in its clever use of what might have been challenged as Irish stereotypes, the labourer, the uneducated, the boozer.
What the play and the actors did with those stereotypes was to show that one of the dangers in the Irish throwing off the strictures of the past, of a labouring, pub haunting migrant, is in throwing those things out as if they weren’t true.
As if all those labourers and all those drinks never existed. Weren’t flesh and blood Irish people. Weren’t real. Weren’t talented and haunted and just a little doomed, like Danny Carmody.
And that’s what I found when I got out of Ireland for a while. Another Ireland waiting.
One I recognised and knew. One I felt warm in. I laughed, I felt sad, I thought about things, things Irish.
And like so many before me I was grateful that coming out of Ireland, coming to see that play.
It helped me see more clearly what Ireland is.