COMPARED to other immigrant groups in Britain, the Irish are quite similar to the natives. We’ve published a number of articles on this, giving much greater detail, recently: same language, same TV, same football teams, foods, fondness for a drink. We have much to unite us and only subtleties divide us.
The thought occurred recently that perhaps we should explore some of these subtleties. Otherwise we may as well put up a sign saying “Irish Post: Voice of the Irish in Britain since 1970 – but seeing as we’re all the same there’s not much to see here.”
But there is plenty to see if you dig a little. We could write 10,000 words and barely graze the surface. To start things off, we’ll look at three headings.
How can you tell if an Irish person has been living over here for quite a while? An Anglo-inflection in their speech? And improved sense of style? Believing that a vote for the Tories is a vote for hard-working families? Understanding what the phrase ‘hard-working families’ actually means? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
For me, the sign of somebody for whom home is here, rather than back there, is whether or not they will have a pint at lunchtime.
I remember the first time I saw people drinking like this. It was the summer of 1996. I was working in a warehouse in Brent Cross. At lunch I walked to the shop. Outside the pub on the way up were a few of the lads from the warehouse – having a beer! I thought they were head-the-balls. Then they showed up in the warehouse again at the end of break-time and carried on with their work as usual.
Their going for a drink hadn’t been an act of recklessness, but a demonstration of astonishing self-control (although one of them did drive a forklift and his health and safety training would probably have counselled against his 12.45pm indulgence).
Nobody I knew from the home I’d left a couple of weeks previously would have even considered drinking in the middle of the working day. One pint always leads to two. Two will rarely do. Once you have three then you know that you won’t leave until the taps are dry for the night.
Still, today, I would never drink at lunchtime. Okay, the chances of it turning into a massive session now are thin but the one or two pints would have me fuzzy-headed and in a half-world between sobriety and tipsiness.
When it comes to drink the Irish have two gears: stop and go. We’ll drink nothing for a few days – or weeks when you get older and have kids – but then we’ll eventually give it a lash. The English aren’t so boom and bust. They’ll keep the base levels of toxicity up by tippling away all week, then at the weekend they’ll just drink a bit more.
It would be false to say that they don't binge drink – they are famous for it and probably only second to ourselves in the table. But it’s a distant second. There is something desperate and deep in the soul of Paddy that means that when he’s in, he’s all in.
Even the nations’ respective bar staff have evolved to accommodate their customers. When the Irish arrive in the pub, all at once and all in a hurry, the barman will be like an octopus with an elephant’s memory and nobody will be left waiting.
The English barkeep is generally a far slower moving and less dextrous animal. One order at a time and no need to hurry. To the Irish customer this practice is perverse; it slows the momentum of the evening and interferes horribly with the craic.
For me, it’s like hurling or cricket. One is passionate and frantic, anything can and does happen. In the other, nothing much happens at all to the untrained eye but once you appreciate the intricacies and customs you can at least appreciate the appeal. They have lunch breaks during cricket, and you know what that means.
The Irish love bad news. Without a certain amount of misery and suffering, many an Irish person can’t be happy. The word-of-mouth informing of a death in the parish travels faster than any satellite transmission. Often, texts will be circulated charting the decline beforehand, clearing a path for the ultimate phone call.
“He’s in a bad way now. Can’t have long left.”
“Both of his lungs have stopped working now. Can’t have long left.”
“Heart has stopped beating and neither of the lungs work.”
“He’s no interest in the TV now. At this stage the end will come as a relief to him, poor creature.”
At least the elderly have had a good few years when both their hearts and lungs worked as they should. If you look at Ireland’s local and national media you will read so many stories that would move Frankenstein to tears. Often they are centred on people dying before their time and they are heart-achingly sad.
Log on to Independent.ie now and you won’t have far to scroll far before you see one. They know their market. Go to the bigger British newspaper sites and you will find less of these stories, more political scandal or – just taking a look now – ‘First look at the fighter pilot helmet of the future (Telegraph)’ or ‘How to make a pissaladière for 59p (Guardian of course).
What is Ireland’s – terrible phrase that I apologise for using – unique selling point?
Is it that we’re an English-speaking nation with a young, motivated and highly-educated workforce? Eh, no.
What has set Ireland apart is our attitude towards stupid rules. We ignore them – or at least we did. We were a country big on common sense and discretion and small on petty bureaucracy which only serves to make life harder. We knew when to turn a blind eye – and we’re not talking about the connected and influential getting their penalty points cancelled – that’s corrupt cronyism and totally different to cutting somebody a bit of slack, whether or not they can help you in future. Basically, it’s called being sound.
Example: Your ticket is for the uncovered stand, but it’s raining. I wonder can I get into the covered stand?
Of course you can go into the covered stand, there’s loads of room, just sit somewhere out-of-the-way that won’t have been sold to somebody else.
Example Two: You’ve got a 40 punt fine at the video shop for forgetting to bring back Groundhog Day.
Okay, just give me a tenner and we’ll call it quits.
Example Three: You’re short a few pennies for the bread and milk.
Pay me next day.
This was the Ireland I grew up in. I’m not so sure it’s the Ireland that still exists now. More and more, I’m encountering egotists in yellow bibs at matches and sullen clerks with a ‘computer-says-no’ shrug if you ask them to change a booking or do anything not in the manual.
This example I’ll use without the specific place names in the admittedly unlikely event that the good guy gets into trouble from his horrible boss.
I caught a series of flights to an Irish airport. Then got on an Airport bus looking to get to Town B. The Bus makes stops at Town A and Town C but only passes close to Town B. I ask the driver will he let me out near Town B.
“No,” he says. “You can get out at Town A or Town C.”
Both of these places are 10 miles from where I need to go.
“But there’s a carpark on the motorway you can pull into. It won’t take a minute.”
And that was that. So for a few weeks I asked – every time a different driver – if there was any chance of them helping me out?
Until, defeated and more out or habit than hope I mutter. “Any chance you could let me out at Town B?”
“Just give me a shout when we get near.”
“Just give me a shout when we get near, give us a bit of warning mate.”
I stood in shock for a second before thanking him and walking on, still in shock. I had finally met a bus driver who was copped on and decent. And he was English.
He probably moved to Ireland with an impression that the natives don’t care for officiousness or silly rules. And he was right, though maybe his decency is outdated.
It’s enough to drive you to drink - at lunchtime.