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Irish in Nottingham: 'We created a little Gaeltacht by the games cabinet of an old English pub'

The following is an edited extract taken from The Irish Outlander, the new book by Scott De Buitléir.

Scott De Buitléir Writer and emigrant

THE NOTIFICATION I received on my phone was an unusual one to come from a stranger in England: “Tá mé thuas staighre, i mo shuí in aice le cófra na gcluichí!

The message was from the first attendee for the first ever ciorcal comhrá (literally, a conversation circle) for Irish in Nottingham, an online social group my partner (henceforth nicknamed Boyf!) and I took charge of, after the previous organisers didn’t seem interested in running it anymore.

We had organised a December Drinks night in another pub just before Christmas, and despite the low turnout of our first event, we told ourselves that the group’s members would take a while to notice that it was under new management, and persevered.

Missing Irish 

I enjoyed living in Nottingham, but the one thing I missed the most about home was Irish. Despite being raised with English as my mother tongue, the Irish language was never just a school subject in my home.

My maternal grandfather was a great proponent of the language, and that interest passed down to my mother, and then to me. My father, despite not being fluent in any regard, would replace certain English words with Irish ones – teach for house, gluaisteán for car, leaba for bed, and so on.  

Even though I no longer spent most of my day speaking Irish, I missed the language greatly, so I decided that Irish in Nottingham’s first social event of the new year would be bilingual. Within about half an hour, we broke our previous attendance record when a fourth person joined the table; a woman in her late twenties, whose English boyfriend I had met some months back at a writing group.

As he previously described, she was bubbly and chatty, ready to dive into a good chat as Gaeilge, despite any reservations she – or anyone else – had about lack of fluency.

Getting to know you

We got to know each other through varying levels of broken Irish. Mr Early Bird was a really genuine and good-humoured character from Cork, who despite not speaking Irish since his Leaving Certificate days some fifteen years ago, was impressively proficient.

Boyf tried his hardest to contribute to the conversation, despite nerves getting the better of him at times, although he said he was able to follow the conversation quite well.  

Another man joined us later in the evening – a doctor from Kilkenny, who was working late in one of the local hospitals. I helped if anyone got stuck with a word or phrase, without wanting to assume the role of teacher. 

Once we got over the initial getting to know you questions, the pub’s Table Quiz started, a great ice-breaker for any budding social group. Between the quiz’s rounds, one of our conversation topics as Gaeilge was Nottingham’s own Irish community.

Needing a venue

We had all noticed that the city’s Nottingham Irish Centre was no longer a community centre, merely a dormant building. I had tried to call the centre’s number listed on an outdated website, to find out what happened to it, but to no avail. The Nottingham Post reported in 2010 that despite an attempt by the centre’s committee to revive it as a music venue, the efforts were in vain.

What remained in Nottingham was two Irish pubs, which would have their peaks and troughs, but they both enjoyed the new influx of Irish third-level students who attended Nottingham’s two universities, as well as neighbouring Loughborough and Leicester.

The fate of the Nottingham Irish Centre made me wonder why the Irish community no longer seemed to need such a venue. Did the rest of the Irish leave Nottingham before Boyf and I had arrived? Had they just integrated into the rest of Nottinghamshire life, no longer seeing a reason to identify with one another?

I remembered my grandmother telling me that many people from Ireland, especially from Kilkenny, had moved to Nottingham during the fifties and sixties for work, yet the city isn’t really as famous as London, Manchester, or even Birmingham, as a go-to destination for Irish emigrants. 

Brexit

Inevitably, another strong emigrant topic came up in conversation: Brexit – or Breatimeacht, to use the Irish term. Everyone at the table groaned at the thought, seeing it as a farcical series of events.

It quickly became clear that all of us had been on the Remain side of the argument, clearly having enjoyed the benefits of growing up as EU citizens. It was more interesting, although somewhat unsurprising to Boyf and I, that nobody at the table that night intended to permanently stay in the UK.  

Tá mise ag iarraidh dul abhaile i gceann bliana nó dhó”, said the nurse from Clare; wanting to go back to Ireland in a year or two. Her only issue was convincing her English boyfriend to join her in the move back to the motherland, but if my conversations with him were anything to go by, he was already quite fond of Ireland.  

Rachaidh mé ar ais go hÉirinn nuair atá go leor taithí agam anseo i Sasana”, said the doctor in impressively decent Irish, noting that he wanted to gain experience in England before returning home. 

Losing its Irish presence

Despite several efforts, from those who tried to revive the community centre, to recent online reincarnations, it seemed that Nottingham ‒ which the Gaels called na Tithe Uaimh, the Cave Houses, long ago ‒ was destined to lose its once-vibrant Irish presence. Now, nobody in our little group was prepared to stay too long in England, simply because they didn’t need to.

For generations, the Irish have learned to look to Britain or America for a better life than Ireland could offer, but eventually the motherland became a fertile place to re-plant those roots.  

Instead, for one night only, we had created a little Gaeltacht for ourselves, situated by the games cabinet of an old English pub.  

Scott De Buitléir is a writer and poet from Dublin, now based in Cork. The Irish Outlander is available in paperback and for Kindle from Amazon. He is currently working on a novella, due winter 2018. For more, visit scottdebuitleir.com or follow his Twitter: @scottdebuitleir

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About the author:

Scott De Buitléir  / Writer and emigrant

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