IT is 30 years since John Healy wrote his classic “Grass Arena” his autobiography of growing up Irish in London. Published at a time when the Irish in Britain were going through a time of renaissance from politics in groups such as IBRG to culture and bookshops such as Green Ink Books.
John was part of a new group of writers who published books about issues that were not mainstream including; anti-Irish racism, identity and history. He joined authors such as Maude Casey who wrote another classic “Over the Water” and Moy McCrory’s “The Water’s Edge”. Books that spoke to the experience of the Irish over here and an Irish that was overwhelmingly working class.
“The Metal Mountain” is set in 1950s Britain and is about the lives of the Docherty family, Irish immigrants who have survived the Second World War, and are bringing up their children in a bombed out London. The mother, Mary Jane, takes the children to the local Queen’s Coronation party only to be excluded because of her Irishness – even though the children were born in England. Retreating into Catholicism she represses her hurt and anger. Sean, the father, keeps his anger locked up as he takes the only jobs available for him as a navvy.
Nine year old, Michael, tries to understand why his mother has been excluded from the party and then listens to her lying to his father about the reason why. He walks through his local area surrounded by angry signs about him and his family: “Filthy Irish Pigs Go Home.” Maybe that is why he becomes his mother’s right hand, even going down to the train station to meet his auntie Bridget.
Mary Jane’s sister, Bridget, arrives with a handful of school certificates and is not prepared to put up with this discrimination. Unlike Mary Jane she will not try to escape reality through her Catholic faith, instead she starts to agitate about the injustice experienced by her countryfolk. But when she is followed by Special Branch and interrogated at a police station she begins to understand the perimeters of her civil rights as an Irishwoman. Her experience reflects how some Irish people through organisations such as the Connolly Association did take up very unfashionable issues including the ongoing occupation of the North of Ireland as well as the rights of the Irish in this country.
For me the novel really comes alive with Healy’s description of London. The scene in the local washhouse is mesmeric and poetic – a place where the local women of all colours and ethnicities meet .Through Michael’s eyes we watch this weekly ritual and share his fascination with the work and the women’s bodies.
The theme running through the novel is emigration and the price that the Irish have paid to find work in this country. The Dochertys fled the Black and Tans in Ireland for work and a new life in Britain, but their life changes little as they are choked by the ongoing racism and everyday discrimination.
Healy captures the way in which some Irish people were walking down a long dark tunnel during this period of history. Missing though is the way the Irish fought back through humour, poetry and song. “ The Metal Mountain” is an elegy to the past history of the Irish in a world that has been forgotten.
Price £14.95. Published by Etruscan Books. Buy it here