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Give Britain a break after decades of Irish emigration to the UK

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Ryan Tubridy.
Ryan Tubridy.

“It’s time we got over our history with the Brits,” says Ireland’s top chat show host Ryan Tubridy.

This columnist (wearing his books editor hat) had a fascinating chat with Ireland’s leading broadcaster last week, Ryan Tubridy.  Tubs, as he is jokingly known in the business since he is as skinny as a rake, is the young fogey who took over as the "Late Late Show" host a few years back, the hottest seat in the media in Ireland.

He also presents a morning radio show here, five days a week.  And he writes books.  As the old saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy man to do it.

You may remember Tubridy’s first book, published in the U.S. in 2011 and recently out in paperback there, a superbly researched and beautifully written account of the Kennedy visit to Ireland in 1963 titled "JFK in Ireland: Four Days that Changed a President."  Tubs was over on your side of the pond a few weeks back doing "CBS This Morning" to plug it.

He has now written another book which is why we were talking last week.  Given his fascination with Kennedy and rumors recently that he was writing about the diaspora, most people had been expecting his new book to be about Irish America.

But the rumors were wrong.  Tubridy’s new book, "The Irish Are Coming," which is published in Ireland and the U.K. this week, is about the Irish in the U.K., not the U.S.

It’s not nearly as substantial as his JFK book.  But it’s an interesting read for particular reasons I will come to in a minute.

"The Irish Are Coming" is a book which profiles around 40 prominent Irish people in the U.K. who Tubridy in his introduction says “really did help to make Britain Great.” So it’s all about the contribution so many Irish people who went to live in Britain have made there over the years.

The book covers the Irish in Britain in various walks of life, the chat show hosts from Eamonn Andrews to Graham Norton, the comedians from Dave Allen to Dara O Briain, the actors from Peter O’Toole to Chris O’Dowd and lots of writers, politicians, builders and businessmen, as well as some Irish who served with distinction in the British armed forces.

All of them prospered in Britain, and Tubridy thinks it’s time we woke up to how welcoming the British have been to us for decades. “The book is a bit of fun, but there’s a serious message underlying it,” he told me, which is when our conversation really got interesting.

“We all know about the 800 years of oppression, but it’s time we got over our history and our traditional attitude to the Brits.  Most of us have moved on, but you still detect a reservation among some people,” he said.

“The fact is that the British have been very good to us over the years, giving us free access there and jobs. No visas or work permits needed, come and go as you please.  It was an important escape route from the miserable Ireland of the 1950s.  And they continued to do that over the years, even when the IRA were bombing British cities during the Troubles.”

Now with emigration high again, especially among the young Irish, Britain is still providing us with a way out, a chance to find work and build a life, Tubridy pointed out.  He feels strongly that we should be aware of that, instead of just taking it for granted.
He knows as well, of course, that at street level in some British cities there were sometimes difficult patches even though British government policy always kept the door open to us.

“We traveled in our droves there looking for work (in the 1950s and ‘60s) and plenty of doors opened for us on our arrival.  It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t without occasional borderline racism, but for plenty of Irish people it was Britain, not America or Australia, that proved to be their land of opportunity.  They helped us but we certainly made our contribution in return.”

Tubridy says his own family story kind of sums how much the British-Irish relationship has changed in just 90 years.  He is the grandson of Todd Andrews, who fought in the War of Independence, became a leading figure in the Irish business world and was the father of the former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews.

“I remember during the Queen’s visit to Ireland two years ago,” Tubridy told me.  “I was in the Gravity Bar on top of the Guinness Storehouse for RTE (Irish television) when she came up there.  Because it has glass walls and it’s so high up it’s one of the best places to see the city from.  My job was to point out the various landmarks you can see to the Queen.

“Looking across the city I realized I was seeing places where my grandfather Todd Andrews was shooting at British soldiers during the War of Independence.  My other grandfather, Sean Tubridy, was doing the same thing at the same time over in the West.  And here I was talking to the Queen. I had a sudden realization of the enormity of the moment.”

Tubridy is an avid amateur historian.  “I adore history,” he says. “I’m not that old, but even my generation were never taught about all the Irish who fought with the British in the First and Second World Wars. It was a taboo subject.  That is changing, thanks to Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

“One of my favorite stories in the book is about Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane who was one of the great RAF fighter pilot aces of the Second World War.  His father, Thomas, was in Boland’s Mill in 1916, fighting with de Valera.  But most Irish people have never heard of Paddy.

“We have to get to the stage where we see people like Paddy as heroes, fighting a noble war for the defeat of the Nazis.  There should be an equality of respect whether one died in the GPO or in Flanders,” Tubridy said.

“I think the Queen’s visit was a very significant moment in history for everyone.  It had a huge impact and I think it was very revealing as well.”

Tubridy says that his own children and their generation cannot comprehend what had been going on just a few miles up the road in the North during the Troubles.

“The hatred and the tit-for tat killings, it’s beyond their understanding,” he says.  “The old hatred or even dislike for all things British is also something they just do not get.”

Tubridy says he enjoyed his time working in Britain on BBC Radio 2 during the summer when he was on his annual break from his RTE shows.  He particularly liked being able to stroll around London and not be recognized by anyone, something he can no longer do in Ireland.

His time in Britain seems to have clarified his thinking about the close ties between Ireland and the U.K.  He set out to write this new book to pay tribute to the Irish who have done so well in Britain.

But it became more than that as he reflected on the unique bond between the two countries despite the long unhappy history.  His thoughts on all that are well worth reading.  

"The Irish Are Coming" is being published here this Thursday, November 7, and if you can’t wait for it to come out over there, you can always get it now via Amazon.

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