Jack Byrne is a Liverpool-Irish writer living abroad. Below he tells the stories of what drove him to write books on the subject of his ancestry and birthplace.
A robbery, a watch and an old man’s death tie Speke in the 1970s, and Allerton in the 2000s, to the War of Independence in Ireland. This is all part of the plot of Before The Storm, the last book in the Liverpool Mysteries trilogy.
The three books together chart 100 years of Liverpool-Irish connection. The books -like the Irish sea- ebb and flow between Liverpool and Ireland. Three books, three bodies and three deaths, all investigated to reveal the history of Irish emigration to the UK, starting after the Second World War and going right on through ‘The Troubles’ to the 2000s.
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 at first. It comes from the water we swim in, the roads we travel along and the events and people we meet. The identity we finally accept is in our hands. We determine who we are, not where and when we are.
By the mid seventies, I had chosen. I stood at the bus stop in Speke council estate, briefcase in hand, waiting for the bus to a 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 the government or the miners” and being happy the miners won. A shop steward brother introduced me to Paul Mackintosh Foot and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. I couldn’t decide between Sladeand T-Rex, but did decide The Communist Manifestospoke 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, Derry, 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 seaman, my mum’s dad (also from Wicklow) was already shipping out of Garston.
My brother wasn’t the first Irishman to die in the British army. In earlier times he would have been escaping poverty in 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, with names 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 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. Torn from the UK in fire and fury, it cost the lives of so many; only 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. They fled from the industrial schools, the laundries, the mother and baby homes, or were women escaping the social constraints imposed by rigid Catholicism.
These past twenty years of The Good Friday Agreement were an opportunity to overcome the political 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 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. I hope in the future they are not visited by ghosts of the past. My three novels in The Liverpool Mystery trilogy are not the story of my family, but of families like mine, who have crossed the Irish sea to build new lives and families.
See Jack’s 2021 interview with Liverpool-Belfastian historian, author and poet Greg Quiery. Click here.