The Celtic Tiger may be dead, but the cubs roam the world, and will leave a very different legacy to the older generations of Irish

I left Ireland nearly three years ago and settled in central London, where I’m surrounded by familiar Irish faces, some who grew up with me in Cork. Young people are once again Ireland’s biggest export. Australia and Canada are the top destinations. But England, Ireland’s nearest neighbour and one-time-foe, is getting its share of Irish immigrants. In 2011, there was a fifty-six percent rise in the number of Irish people seeking UK national insurance numbers. Queuing up in Camden town for an insurance number is worth it; the number allows you to draw an income and be part of the tax system.

The Celtic Tiger breed isn’t extinct – it’s just moved to places like Sydney and Notting Hill. Here in London, the young Celtic Tiger cubs work in English banks, in financial services, in PR and in law practices.  They are Coco Chanel perfumed, well-heeled twenty-somethings who go to the same nightclubs in Marble Arch that Prince Harry frequents. They shop for rings in Harrods and buy shirts in Harvey Nichols and drink champagne at lunch time. Did the Irish ever dream that they would send overseas such sophisticated young people, sometimes characterised by arrogance, but who have, in a short time, reached a high place in English society?

People remark to me that they can’t understand why the ‘new’ Irish coming to London are getting such good jobs so quickly. But the ‘new’ Irish have an advantage: their education is often superior. There are great failings in the British education system where so many leave school without being able to read or write. In 2012, the Irish lads and lassies coming to London have a ‘traditional’ education, but one that equips them for the demands of the work place. The youngest Celtic Tiger cubs working in London’s financial district are reminded by their bosses that their education gives them an advantage. One young Irish banker that I know was told by his boss that it was great he could spell and write letters to the bank’s customers.
The majority of ‘new Irish’ remark that few of their co-workers know what an apostrophe is for. This is a typical conversation;
Colleague at work: You have a mark in your name.
Mark O’Connor: What mark?
Colleague:  The small thing between the O and the C.
Mark O’Connor: The apostrophe?
Colleague: Is it an Irish thing? We don’t have apostrophes in English.
Mark O’Connor: I think apostrophes are part of the English language.
Colleague: Are you sure?  

The well-educated, glossy, Jimmy Choo heeled young Irish are melting very easily into London society. The new Irish snobbishly dismiss the old Irish as peasants.  

But it may surprise them that the older generation of ‘poor’ Irish made a bigger mark on British society than they realize. They had to work, amid a lot of racism, and had a slower climb up the social ladder, but they showed the way for this current generation. Or should I write, they paved the way by every pavestone they laid?

I don’t deny that there are still signs of anti-Irishness. Once someone tried to taunt me with the line, "the irish gave everyone else the faith and kept none for themselves." 

The difference for an Irish professional in 2012 is that anti-Irishness need not stand in our way. The Irish labourers working on building sites in the 50s had to pass offices and boarding houses where the sign, ‘no dogs, no blacks and no Irish’ was posted. Brick by brick, these men from working class areas such as Mayfield in Cork, constructed and built London’s edifices and The Tube. 

It took decades but they proved that the racist stereotypes about Irish people being like apes and monkeys were untrue. Over time, Irish-natives accounted for a third of the British civil service. They also built Catholic communities and shamelessly sought converts to the faith. The Legion of Mary was founded in Dublin, but was brought to London and the world by Irish immigrants.
In contrast, modern Irish immigrants feel that they are independent of the Catholic Church. They need not gather together in church halls to make friends or to feel at home. The nurses who came from Tipperary to London in the 1950s had rosary beads and holy water in their handbags. In 2012, a young Irish asset manager will have a scarf from Harrods and a joint. The new Irish view the Church with poisoned eyes. Invariably, they know of someone from their home county who was a victim of clerical abuse. Many of them argue that they have abandoned Catholicism because they would feel ‘complicit’ in the sex scandals if they still belonged to the institution that ‘allowed’ it.
Stripped of the ‘fear of sin’ and without heed to ‘being a good Catholic’, the young Micks and Mick-chicks are of a secular mindset, which is very similar to that of their British peers.
Today, English and Irish young people even scoff at the way the two island nations argued for centuries about religion. They laugh about the fact that Irish people were so loyal to priests and popes. Neither side wants to convert the other. Nowadays a shamrock means a good luck charm and it's meaning as representing the Trinity is trampled on. It’s not considered fashionable conversation to say that St Patrick was a bishop, instead I hear a lot of young Irish refer to him as ‘a magic man’ or ‘that magician’. If previously, Irishness meant Catholicism, then today there is less to identify as traditionally Irish. Nowadays, the only superficial, noticeable difference between a group of Irish and English people working in the same office is their accents.


  1. Hi there Mary
    Just came across your blog and really enjoyed your above blog. I arrived over here in 1984. The time does fly believe I only came over to work and stay for a couple of years yet here I still am. Good luck with the blog. I go to Mass at Corpus Christi in Maiden Lane. Not close to the Oratory to go there. Take care Sean


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