Speke-born mystery novelist Jack Byrne, has many stories to tell, some true, some fictionalised, all significant to anyone with Irish connections. Although his family first lived ‘under the bridge’ in Garston, his father and his mother’s parents all came from Wicklow. His novel Under The Bridge (Northodox Press, 2021) -the first in the Liverpool Mystery series- was called ‘a love letter to the Liverpool Irish’ by The Irish Times. It’s available online or from News From Nowhere. This article is Jack’s contribution to Being Irish, a collection of 100 articles from the global Irish community to be published by Liffey Press (Dublin) in October 2021.
My Irishness came late. It was delayed by tragedy and a commitment to class. The idea to which we attach our identity is not always chosen freely. It comes -sometimes- from the water we swim in, the road we travel along; the destination is always the same, of course: death. The identity we choose says much about who we think we are, and where and when we are.
In the early and mid-seventies I had chosen. I stood at the bus stop in Speke, briefcase in hand, waiting for the bus to a posh grammar school. My parents had left for work before we got up; two sisters were next to me waiting for the bus to a local factory. I remembered Heath saying “It is us or the miners” and being happy the miners won. My brother -a shop steward- introduced me to Paul Foot (1937-2004) and Tressel’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. I couldn’t decide between Slade and T.Rex, but did decide the Communist Manifesto spoke for me. The working class is still the spectre haunting Europe.
One of the events on my road was the suicide of an older brother, in Ebrington barracks, in Nov 1975; three days before my fifteenth birthday. He used the rifle, issued by Her Majesty’s Government, to kill an Irishman; himself.
Our father left Wicklow, like tens of thousands of other social and economic migrants, after WW2. He moved to Liverpool where he met my mum. As a sailor my mum’s dad, also from Wicklow, was already shipping out of Garston.
My brother wasn’t the first Irishman to die in a British uniform, escaping poverty. In earlier times he would have been from Dublin or Belfast, and later the rest of the UK.
The defining things about Peter were his love of sport, Everton Football Club, and English nationalism. Maybe it was youthful rebellion or the lack of Irish -as opposed to a Catholic- culture, but he became a supporter of Enoch Powell. The army was an escape from factory work, or the dole, but also a mission to serve his queen and country. From the moment of his death, we could not talk about, share, or enquire of anything Irish in fear of raising his ghost. I know our family’s loss is just one of thousands on all sides. There are plenty of ghosts.
I wrote a poem called A Mirror Cracked. It’s long lost, but the central idea was the distorted image Peter must have come to have of himself. In Derry he saw the same terraced streets and houses as Garston. He saw the faces of neighbours, family and friends; the names were as Irish as his own. Whether it was a sudden realisation -or a growing awareness of the disparity between who he was and what he was doing- doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was finally resolved by taking his own humanity.
The tragedy of an English-born son of Irish parents going to die serving in the British Army in Northern Ireland, came to encapsulate -for me- the failure (not just of the Northern Irish state but of the southern state that was torn from the UK, in fire and fury, costing the lives of so many) to see the welfare functions of the new state handed over to the Catholic church and the economy to a new breed of Irish capitalist.
The newly independent Republic failed my father -and the tens of thousands like him- who became migrants. Fleeing Ireland were many of the victims of trauma from the industrial schools, the laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes and women escaping the social constraints imposed by rigid Catholicism.
These past twenty years of the Good Friday Agreement were an opportunity to overcome the sectarian divide -the walls and the barrier of armed struggle- to create a new country. The success has been the absence of war; the failure is the absence of a common experience. The material interests, and the sectarian culture that sees a layer of politicians and criminals making a good living atop the crumbling edifice of the Northern Irish state, means it will not be an easy transition. There is enough blood in Irish soil to incorporate the celebration and commemoration of all traditions. The working class on the Falls and Shankill, in Derry and Garston, have always had their exploitation -and now food banks- in common. The hope of many was that the removal of guns could lead to unity in the recognition of common class interests.
Ireland for my kids is catching crabs off Parnell Bridge, in Wicklow, or dodging the surf in Brittas Bay. Our task in the future is to ensure they are not visited by the ghosts of the past.
Jack will discuss fact and fiction -with historian, author and poet Greg Quiery- in an online event as part of #LIF2021. Jack is represented by The Liverpool Literary Agency who are a partner in this event, along with #2021LiverpoolWrites.
Look for A Revolutionary Century: The Irish in Liverpool in Fact and Fiction; 6pm, Mon 25 Oct. liverpoolirishfestival.com/events
T: @ Jackbyrnewriter
Associated events (please note these may have passed)
Susan McKay – Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground
The Irish History Podcast
Recording of 25 Oct 2021: A Revulotionary Century