Learning lessons from emigration play

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I’ve been thinking about my auntie Winnie this week.

She lives in Canada – Toronto, to be precise. It’s the place she made her home back in the late 1960s when she left Belfast as a teenager. I don’t remember her leaving but I know that even though she was going to start an exciting new life it broke her heart and those of the family she left in the Cregagh Estate in Belfast, where she’d grown up just round the corner from her schoolmate, Geordie Best who was preparing to leave home himself, heading for England to play for Manchester United.

The cast of My English Tongue, My Irish Heart

The cast of My English Tongue, My Irish Heart

Two young people among hundreds of thousands who have emigrated to Canada, America or Australia or migrated across to Britain. Some stayed briefly, others have evolved into second and third generations and like auntie Winnie, making those new places their home.

‘My English Tongue, My Irish Heart’ is a new play, written and directed by Martin Lynch. I saw it on Tuesday night at the Waterfront. It follows the story of Dungannon born Susan Hetherington played by the fabulous Kerri Quinn (what a voice that woman has!) and Gary O’Donnell from Ballinasloe, played by Cillian O’Dee. The couple leave Ireland to start afresh in Manchester, England and their tale unfolds.

As they settle in and children are born, the play is interwoven with testimonies of some of those from Ireland, north and south, some of Ulster Scots descent, who have lived in Britain and written about the experience. Stories that can also be found in The Literature of the Irish in Britain by Dr. Liam Harte. Like Bonar Thompson from Carnearney in Co Antrim, illegitimate son of a poor Presbyterian girl.

Thompson moved to Manchester and became a public orator, seeing it as a satisfactory means of ‘getting a living without working’. In the early part of the 19th century, he was one of the best known open air speakers in London.

Or James Dawson Burn, born to Ulster Scots parents around 1806 who, after a spell as a hat maker and trade union activist, fell into poverty in Britain and wrote his story The Autobiography of a Beggar Boy in the course of a year while travelling from Aberdeen to London.

Or Ellen O’Neill, born in 1833, whose exploits as a thief and con artist in towns and cities across the north of England are recorded in her memoirs - Extraordinary Confessions of a Female Pickpocket.

Lynch paints a picture of the vast numbers of people who left Ireland for London in the 20th century too – in Kilburn, for example, where the Catholic church had three masses a day in 1953. In the space of the next few years, three masses had grown to 22 – per day – and the Methodist church opposite was being loaned to cater for the numbers of Irish immigrants, with loudspeakers set up outside for those who couldn’t get into the building.

Over centuries people from Ireland and Northern Ireland have emigrated. Isn’t it ironic that economic migrants are treated shamefully by some people here - subjected to racist attacks and hate crimes? We of all people should have more tolerance and a welcoming attitude to those who have come in search of a better way of life.

See My English Tongue, My Irish Heart by Martin Lynch at the Waterfront Studio tonight and tomorrow night before it moves on.