10 August 2008

Why do England’s charms fail to attract the Irish?

The pretty town of Calne in North Wiltshire is only a short hop from Ireland. But why do England’s charms fail to attract the Irish? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the years, I have been stimulated and excited by my commitment to and involvement in programmes to combat racism in Ireland and internationally. These have included the Discovery programme in the Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough, the publication of Embracing Difference by Church of Ireland Publishing, work on interfaith dialogue, combating anti-Semitism, and, in previous decades, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and work with people engaged in the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism.

But for some time I have had a little problem about racism that worries me. I don’t know whether I’m right about this. But if I am, I wonder how I should deal with it. Because for some years, I have been worried the one form of racism that goes unmentioned and unchallenged – even in polite circles in Ireland – is anti-English racism.

Walk into any bar or pub in your town or city on a night when big name English clubs such as Manchester United or Liverpool are playing, and you will find the place crowded with roaring, shouting full-grown men, dressed in team shirts and colours, all identifying with the team they’re cheering, and speaking in terms life “we” and “us.”

Walk into the same bar or pub when the English rugby or soccer team is playing an international match, and you’ll find that the same men – some still wearing English club shirts – will inevitably cheer any country from any continent that is playing against England. That fact that England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 appears to have brought pleasure to many Irish soccer fans.

Jokes that fall flat

When I hear not just schoolchildren but mature, sophisticated adults talking without qualification about “800 years of English oppression” or “occupation,” I wonder who they think we are descended from. After all, no-one whose family has lived in Ireland since the days of at least their grandparents or great-grandparents can be without English ancestors, even if they came from England over 800 years ago.

I listen with pained embarrassment when I hear people in polite company telling jokes in which English people are the butt of humour. The joke-tellers are often unaware that similar jokes were told in England until the 1970s, with the Irish as the pilloried victims. The same people would cringe if they those jokes were retold with the English characters replaced by Poles, Latvians, Romanians or Nigerians.

How has this sad situation developed? Why haven’t we changed our attitudes to the English in recent years? After all, we Irish are now seen as chic in England, and most of us have countless strains of English ancestry. We can hardly blame it on the situation in Northern Ireland – after all this, was primarily an Irish problem, not an English problem, and we have all grown up a lot in many other ways since 1998.

I don’t want to be put in the same category as some over-zealous, over-conservative newspaper columnists who present their Anglophile views in an extreme fashion that often irritates Irish readers. But why don’t we love England in the same way we love Italy, France, Spain or Greece, even when it comes to holidays? Why don’t we welcome the English in the same way as they welcome us? When will we realise that the Irish are among the most popular tourists and visitors in England today?

Ten thousand welcomes

During my recent working visits to England, I pondered these questions. In the course of events, I normally find myself in England three or four times a year, and I always enjoy tacking on an extra day to those events. Many of my friends enjoy a few days shopping in London, or a night or two in the West End, perhaps taking in some of the tourist sites and trails. But few of them understand why I love staying in small English towns or villages or in small historic cathedral cities.

On my most recent visit to England, as we passed through the pretty village of Hopwas on the way to Lichfield, a taxi driver from Tamworth talked warmly about Waterford, and how pleasant it was to visit south-east Ireland.

In Lichfield, I have always received the warmest welcome imaginable. Once again, there was a warm welcome last month in the cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, in shops, restaurants and on the streets. The Lichfield Festival in July has as attractive and as imaginative a programme as any arts festival in Irish cities and towns, with orchestral concerts, street theatre, art exhibitions, fireworks, debates, Irish dancers and mediaeval mystery plays. But I imagine few Irish people would think of placing the Lichfield Festival in their cultural diary.

Walking in the Wiltshire Downs

A few weeks before that, I was in Bristol for a conference at Trinity College. Both Bristol and Bath met every expectation of this visitor. But I also decided to spend a night in the small market town of Calne, on the edge of the Wiltshire Downs.

The warm welcome I received in Calne in shops, restaurants, hotels, the library and museum, or while I was on an early morning jog through fields and by rivers and millponds, was reminiscent of how Irish hospitality once was once, but which we seem to have forgotten since the rise of the Celtic Tiger. With its yellow cut-stone houses, domestic architecture by Robert Adam, cobbled streets, alleyways and courtyards, canals, pools and ponds, and its pretty almshouses and boutique shops, Calne is a town that oozes character and charm.

The parish church, with its tower by Inigo Jones, traces its history back to a synod in Calne in the year 978, when Archbishop Dunstan sought to reform the clergy and enforce strict celibacy. The earliest parts of the present Saint Mary’s, including the arches and naves, part of the north aisle wall and the transept are Norman in style, and the church had reached almost its present size by 1155. Eight and a half centuries later, it is still by far the largest church in the area, and is known locally with pride as “The Cathedral of North Wiltshire.”

Charm and character

Calne is one of the oldest market towns in Wiltshire. The town’s character has been enhanced by the local stone from which most of the older buildings are built. This soft, honey-coloured limestone was extracted from local quarries, but local conservationists warn that because of the soft texture of this stone the recent fashion for exposing stone could yet have potentially disastrous consequences.

Calne’s famous residents from the past included Saint Edmund, who was Vicar of Calne when he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1234; Dr Jan Ingen-Housz (1730-1799), who is widely credited with inventing the vaccination; Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who “discovered” oxygen in 1774 while carrying out experiments at Doctor’s Pond as he was working for the Marquis of Lansdowne at Bowood House, two miles outside Calne; the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), who designed Bowood House and some of the houses seen to this day in the streets of Calne; and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who stayed in Calne in 1814-1815.

I stayed in the White Hart, a small hotel that was once one of the great coaching inns in Calne and an important resting place on the great road from London to Bristol. Parts of the building date from the 16th century. I stayed in a room that dates from the late 16th or early 17th century, looking out onto a cobbled courtyard. Some of the other rooms look out onto the green, once used by the fullers who first made Calne a prosperous town and built many of its charming houses.

From the Middle Ages, the Green was the heart of Calne’s woollen industry. Weaving was essentially a cottage industry, with people expanding their houses as their families and businesses grew. Many of these houses have been adapted and rebuilt over the centuries, giving the Green a particular curious charm. Numbers 10, 12 and 13, continue to reflect the wealth and status of their previous occupants. No 10 was the home of the Baily family, who were wealthy clothiers. No 13, briefly home to the architect Robert Adam, is noted for its “pineapple” finials.

The Priestly House and No 20 The Green, close to the White Hart Hotel, are part of a 16th century building that was subdivided in 1758. Joseph Priestley stayed here from 1772 to 1779, while he was working for the Marquis of Lansdowne at Bowood House.

The Irish connection

The Lansdowne connection has left a number of street names that engage the curiosities of any Irish visitor. They include Fitzmaurice Square, Kerry Crescent, Lansdowne Close, Lansdowne Square, Shelburne Road and Shelburne Terrace. William Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), 2nd Earl of Shelburne, inherited the vast wealth of the Fitzmaurice and Petty families at the age of 24, before becoming Prime Minister and Marquess of Lansdowne. Other titles still in the family include Earl of Kerry and Viscount Calne. And the Lansdowne Strand Hotel, one of the town’s great coaching inns, displays the Lansdowne coat-of-arms, with the emblems of the Fitzmaurice and Petty families. The Irish links continued when the Irish pig trade between Bristol and London gave rise to the Harris bacon factory, which prospered until the 1980s.

Within just one day, the visitor to Calne can have breakfast in the nearby Georgian city of Bath, spend the afternoon visiting the world heritage sites at Stonehenge and Avebury, and see the famous white horses carved into the chalk hillsides, including the White Horse at Cherhill. Close by are Lacock Abbey, the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey. Nearby towns and villages include Chippenham, Pewsey and Devizes, with their many listed buildings, and Marlborough, with its wide street and public school.

Towns with this sort of charm – when they are on the shores of Lake Garda – attract Irish tourists in our thousands every summer to northern Italy. Yet Calne and other towns on the edges of the Wiltshire Downs are just a short hop from Dublin: a 45-minute flight to Bristol, and an hour by train or bus through Bath and Chippenham. It is unlikely that Calne will ever become a popular destination for weekend tourists. Perhaps that’s because of the residual anti-English feelings that many Irish people still retain. Who would ever think of spending a weekend break in Calne and Wiltshire Downs? I would, but I’ll have them all to myself. I don’t know whether to be sad or happy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in The Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in August 2008.


Singapore Dividend Collector said...

Excellent Blog Sir. You have helped dig out some deep feelings that have been bothering me for some time. I have enjoyed immensely my trips to England, and have found some real sparkling peals on her shores, such as Ambleside in the Lake District. Here I was welcomed with open arms by my guests and enjoyed not only felt the warmth of their hospitality, but also had the pleasure of expoloring amazing landscapes.

One can't help recoiling in embarassment when thinking how our people in Ireland sneer and jibe against the English. Fair enough the Irish did get a bum deal for a long time, but those days are gone and its time to move on and grow up. On Saturday a person I was talking to openly said 'I FCking hate the English,' and to be honest I was not shocked as this is not irregular. This type of mindless, non sencicle statement may seem harmless enough, but it has strong undertones of hatred and bigotry. As you quite rightly said if the word English was replaced by any other nationality there would be up roar. The plain and simple fact is that there are many bigots in Ireland and something that we have difficulty in admitting. The hostility to anything 'foreign' in the North is shocking and is born out of pure ignorance. The conflict ended ten years ago and people began flooding into our various towns and cities. The comtempt that many of them are shown is stomach renching and reeks of a underdeveloped intellectual mind. The walls of the parochial cave are caked in hatred for anything not white, and its time that we all opened out minds and hearts and give these people a chance.
The Irish should know what it feels like as the same has happened them in the past on the mainland and in thier own country, therefore this lesson from history must be taken on board in order to drag our culture into the 21 century.



Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your article. I have explored many interesting places in rural and small-town England, and I certainly appreciate their charm.

However, I must question the use of "racism" to describe this popular antipathy. It's like when every little issue becomes a matter of freedom or rights or equality. Better to keep these words for the more serious matters.

I think it's better described as a step that many of us haven't yet taken in normalising relations between our countries. England was where we went when we couldn't find work; it's also the country through which much of the modern world is mediated to us. But these are aspects of urban, institutional England - the metropolis, if you like.

This leaves us out of touch with the England of ordinary people like ourselves - where we stand as equals. We can be ignorant, not just of the country and small towns, but also of fascinating cities which are not commercial centres - York, Bath, etc.

Here's an interesting comparison: lots of English enjoy our folk music and dancing, but what do we know of their English counterparts? Someone remarked when Dublin's morris dance group first started, "this shows that the Irish folk movement has come of age - we can now deal with other countries' folk customs as equals." Interestingly, morris dancing is mainly a rural tradition, and was never imported to Ireland in colonial times.

We should give credit to the world of Irish railway enthusiasts. They are generally fairly well up on small-town England, because this is where their train travels take them.

No, it's not racism, and I don't want to live in a world where every subtlety is given a big bad word. Some people may genuinely hate English architecture! Discrimination can be a positive thing.

I think I heard the word "provincialism" used once - it's where the provinces look to the metropolis, and know little of the other provinces. For many, institutional England is the metropolis, and rural England is another province.

As it happens, I am going on holidays shortly - to the Yorkshire Dales.

Alan French