Me, Auntie Margaret and Mum, 2010
St.Patrick’s Day is on 17 March, a day to celebrate Irishness. Growing up in 70s Manchester, it meant shamrock and family celebrations with our relatives. It was the backdrop to our parents’ definition of Irishness: Dave Allen, John McCormack, Dana and Val Doonican. I grew up on Dad’s stories of building sites and Irish pubs dancehalls in London and Manchester and Mum’s stories of her single life in the 1940s, buying lovely outfits to wear to visit friends and going boating on Platt Fields lake.
By the 80s being Irish had changed. The downturn in the economy of the Irish Republic meant that 40,000 Irish people were coming to England each year while others left the North of Ireland as the conflict there intensified. Second generation Irish young people like me were now redefining what it meant to be Irish, cultural and politically. We listened to Christy Moore, Sinead O’Connor and, above all, the Pogues. I chose to become very active in the Irish in Britain Representation Group, of which I was the first woman chair. Our politics were of being proud to be Irish, proud of a history of rebellion against the occupation of Britain in our country, proud of our parents and their struggle to live a decent life in this country and battle discrimination because of their Irishness.
In Manchester in the 80s the Labour Council had a policy on Ireland which included hosting an Irish week. At that time the Labour party had a progressive policy, opposing Britain’s occupation of the North of Ireland and supporting Irish groups which campaigned on a variety of issues from the Prevention of Terrorism Act to Irish studies in schools.
When it came to deciding the content of the Manchester Irish week in 1988, it came down to the Labour Council stepping in to ensure that IBRG events were included, as we came up against strong opposition from the “traditional” parts of the Irish community, fearful of any mention of what was happening in the North of Ireland.
To us celebrating St. Patrick’s Day meant remembering the bad and the good side of being Irish. So, in the Irish week, I and others organised an Irish Women’s Day, a meeting to highlight the Birmingham Six and various cultural events.
In the 90s thousands of Irish people (including second generation) left Britain and went back to Ireland to take jobs that had not existed when their parents were growing up. By 2012 the downturn in the Irish and global community has meant that “thousands are sailing” again, while Irish Ministers can call emigration a “lifestyle choice” as upwards of 300,000 people are leaving the country. And what has happened to St.Patrick’s Day/Irish Week in Manchester?
In the programme for Manchester Irish Week 2012, it is hard to find anything that reflects the harsh reality for the Irish. Instead we are told “2012 Manchester Irish festival gets ready for the world’s friendliest three day Non Stop St. Patrick weekend party” So the image of the Irish is back to drinking, music and friendliness. In other words we are just a brand to sell alcohol and entertainment.
For me St.Patrick’s Day is a time to remember all those Irish (including my mother and father) who never got to return home to Ireland. And to remember that whatever our background or ethnicity, we need to pursue human rights for all peoples who have to flee their home country.
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