IT’S still a lot. But it’s not much compared to what it was.
The latest UK census figures show the number of Irish-born people living in England and Wales is 324,670.
A decade ago that number was 407,357.
Of course the Irish community in Britain always consisted of more than the Irish born.
Their families, the second and third generation, all contributed to communities that were extraordinarily vibrant.
Yet, the trend is clear. Once the biggest community of those born outside of the UK the Irish are now only the fifth biggest.
That’s the nature of these things, of the global patterns of migration, but it is one hell of a change.
Just three years before I was born there were 683,000 Irish born in the UK.
Add their families to that total and it is clear just what a large community that was.
Put simply, there were a lot of us. And, God, it really felt like it too.
I was born and reared in an Irish community in England that utterly shaped my life. There were other factors too, of course, factors of class and the city I grew up in for instance. I was reared in working-class inner-city Birmingham.
I identified with both of those things.
In the 1980s, under Tory rule, the awareness of your class was unavoidable as Margaret Thatcher’s government was attempting to dismantle that very thing. Having a class consciousness was not a political aspiration but more an unavoidable experience of those times. Likewise, growing up just a few streets away from a football stadium, it was impossible not to become entwined with that identity.
This was simply intensified by the fact that the team weren’t very good but the fans were legendary.
Layers upon layers of identity, then. The streets around you. The city, your specific area within the city, your team, your class.
You reach adulthood with an assortment of identities.
And your family. Your community. Your Irishness.
Our Irishness was profound. It wasn’t a kiss me I’m Irish St. Patrick’s Day thing, although those St. Patrick’s Days in Birmingham, even before they officially came back, were pretty extraordinary too.
I’m sure I still have the hangover from one of them these many decades on. No, our Irishness shaped nearly every aspect of our lives. Where we grew up, where we went to school, where we worked, where we drank, where we went out, who we went out with.
Indeed it was so substantial we took it for granted.
We could not have imagined that it might vanish. Of course, yes, there were the annual extended summers in Ireland itself and the importance of these cannot be underestimated.
They were fundamental in entrenching our connection with Ireland and Irishness. Ireland wasn’t just some looming entity in our parent’s backgrounds. It was real and, in the 70s and 80s in particular, it was a very, very different place from the city streets we were growing up in.
But it was those city streets where our Irishness resided. It was there we were Irish.
Indeed Ireland itself was often the one place where our Irishness was most likely undermined.
That’s where we were the ‘English’ cousins. On the streets of our cities we were the Irish lot, the Irish boys and the Irish girls.
The Irish in Britain made us Irish. The emigrant Irish made us who we were. Those streams of Irish leaving Ireland for Britain brought their Irishness with them and, refusing to give it up, handed it on to us.
So if those communities are declining in number and vivacity it is heartbreaking to the likes of me.
When I left, when I came back here to Ireland to live, I never imagined where I’d come from would disappear.
I never realised time would catch up with it and change it and shrink it.
It was so solid, so embedded in the cities we came from I just, stupidly, thought it would always be so.
I knew it would change, if I thought about it, knew it would alter, but it would always be there, wouldn’t it?
And maybe it will, in ways I can’t quite imagine and it will belong then to other, different, Irish and good luck to them.
But if this is the end of the song for that Ireland in Britain I knew, if this is the last few bars, then I can only say, good God, it was one hell of a tune.