Sunday, 4 February 2018

Is Ireland becoming more modern than England?

While I loved my travelling years I carried much more of a burden than the weight of Blue Bag on my shoulder. At the tender age of 17 I discovered that an Englishman abroad has much to prove to the world. 

The drivers who helped me on my way as I hitched around France uniformly imagined I was German, because I spoke French.

“Non, je suis Anglais.”

As a student of history at school I knew we had plenty of it with the French, but naively imagined that because we’d liberated their country 30 years before, they might show some generosity of spirit to the English.

Silly me.

Gladly I did share much love and generosity with the French, but that was as an individual, after I’d found out how to shrug off my Englishness.

As the decades and continents went by I grew weary of that process. Time after time I was charged with the slaughter of however many thousands or millions the British Empire took from that particular part of the globe.

Yes I know, it was appalling, but you see: I wasn’t there. 

Over and over again I said it, car after bus after plane; town after village after city; relentless, just about anywhere and everywhere in the world.

Gradually my response reduced to an aggressive tone of voice delivering a defensive reaction:

“Not me mate. Wasn’t there.”

As is the way with the human condition, the more people accused me of evildoings by spurious historical proxy, the more I dug my heels in.

I wouldn’t apologise to them for being English. Of course there’s no excuse for what happened with the Empire, but as I said umpteen times, not me mate, wasn’t there.

Secretly, I felt a perverted and wholly immoral pride. This itsy bitsy country took over a third of the entire world? Coal, steel and misguided ambition, allied to the fact that English soldiers could thrive in any weather conditions and live without sex for months, while any food they ate would be better than what they’d get back home.

Cracking jokes about the British Empire to Irish readers?

You might be forgiven for seeing no humour in it, yet in the same way that I have tried to rise above my native country’s history, the Irish are now emerging from their historical hatreds and latent loathings.

Tragically I probably now suffer less historical abuse from the locals, because those of a racist bent have in Ireland these days others more different in appearance to vent their vile spleens upon.

I remember the farmer leaning on the gate a few years ago, trying to bond with me in exactly the wrong way.

“Ah but y’see, Charlie, they’re not the same as you and me.”

This from the man who’d spent the previous three years endlessly haranguing me in the pub about my nationality, now hoping to bond because we were both white.

I’d never apologise for being British. I’m proud to be British. I’m proud of a country that has given the world constitutional democracy, football, the internet and Strictly.

How can I not feel pride when I think of England’s stand against the nazis? While ye lads were euphemising about an emergency and your enemy’s enemy being your friend, our grandfathers fought fascism.

What’s not to be proud of in that?

My heart pumps when I think of July 5 1948, the day the National Health Service was born.

Aneurin Bevan launched the manifestation of a unique and wondrous dream: to give the British people one organisation that included hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists, to provide services free to all.

Civilisation should be determined by what we can do for those able to do less. With the launch of the world’s first Welfare State and the NHS, England proved to be a most compassionate country, whose government genuinely hoped to improve the lives of the masses.

As Irish people anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of England!) you will be received with joy and comradeship. 

As an Englishman, I feel there’s much to be proud of, but also I fear that while Ireland is emerging from history, shaking off those hair shirts and miserable chains of bondage, England is rapidly descending into its past.

When I moved in 1992 to the West of Ireland I saw England as the modern world, and this place a beautiful anachronistic backwater.

Now there are 2,000 food banks in England. The country which created welfare is relying on the compassion of the general public to feed their poor.

When there’s a rise in Social Welfare payments in this country, the compassionate people of Ireland make no noise, save to celebrate what they see as a sign that things are improving.

A surefire way to win votes in England is to promise to cut the dole. Universal Credit is not only the disgrace of this Tory government. It’s also an indictment of everyone who voted them in.

As Ireland finally to clambers into the modern world with the legalisation of divorce, marriage equality and soon a woman’s right to choose, England shrinks back behind its borders, dreaming of the glory left scattered on those Normandy beaches.

While the older English decide that all their ills are the fault of others from outside, young people overwhelmingly voted against Brexit, so there is hope for the future.

Here in Ireland, youth counts for a massive third of the population. For the first time in 25 years it feels to me as if I might now be living in the more modern country.

©Charlie Adley

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