I’ve always been aware that a lot of my life reads like a novel. Rags to riches type shtick (not exactly riches) and guided very much by the hand of fate. I’ve worked hard and applied myself , yet never had any positive outcome career-wise or life-wise from this quiet determination. All my good fortune has just wafted down from above. In 1981 I was on the dole having been kicked out of Polytechnic. In the wake of that summer’s riots I was invited with 99 other unemployed youth from inner City Manchester to take part in a network TV series based on the findings of the Scarman Report made by ITV’s World In Action team.
By the end of that series I’d been offered my own show on BBC Radio Derby . That show went on to win two national Sony Radio Awards. In 1988 I was working presenting a nightly show at Piccadilly/Key 103 radio in Manchester , I was then sacked by a new boss after a year for playing, as he put it- too much ‘obscure music’ ,. Those obscure bands , The Stone Roses , Happy Mondays, Charlatans, 808 State , Inspiral carpets ended up spearheading the Madchester scene. Again though I was out of a good job and working part time on two smaller Manchester radio stations and writing a page called The Word in the Manchester Evening News covering up and coming bands from the Manchester area when I received a phone call asking if I’d like to audition for a new Channel 4 show. I got the presenters job and even got them to name the show after my page in the Evening News.
It’s almost like some supernatural hand has been interfering along the way rewarding me randomly, although at times I’ve not always appreciated its involvement and I’ve never been able to escape feeling bad and guilty about any success or good things that have come my way because despite all my hard work along the way any breaks I’ve had have come about by being more or less unemployed at the right time . It’s as if no matter how beautiful the spot is where I lay my picnic blanket – there’s always a dog turd on the grass next to it , there’s always a few grains of sand in my sherbert dip.
I was born and grew up one of six kids to Irish parents in what was then a slum ,half a mile south of Manchester City Centre in the Brooks Bar neighbourhood of Old Trafford adjacent to Hulme and Moss Side. An outside loo , no phone , no fridge , free school dinners with my dad’s wage as a labourer our family’s only income. In that area almost everyone was either Irish descent or West Indian. That shared poverty with its rivalries on the streets was how we lived until I was 14, and though I’ve had more years living in privileged comfort , it’s like those years defined me as the person I am. The question I constantly ask myself is why and there’s no doubt in my mind that a lot has to do with the peculiarity of my Irish Catholic upbringing.
Growing up as a first generation Irish back in the day – our view of Ireland , it’s history and culture didn’t even reach the levels of accuracy of the swirly misty Gaelic nonsense of an average River-dance performance – we mainly got it courtesy of Walt Disney, from films like Darby ‘O Gill and The Little People and ‘The Fighting Prince Of Donegal’ , later as we got a bit more sophisticated we worked up to the Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara with its’ winning portrayal of drunkenness, wife beating, fist fights and the happy-go lucky IRA men. Yes we lived in a kind of cultural amnesia – the only real story we understood was a kind of fatalistic stoicism that said ‘Irish and Poor , Irish and emigrated , Irish and dead’.
To be fair my dad, Danny , who grew up in one room of a tenement in Dublin’s famous Liberties , used to throw in the odd mention of Brian Boru and the battle of Vinegar Hill – but his grasp of history wasn’t great and I’m still not certain that he didn’t think Brian Boru fought at Vinegar Hill . My Mother was a great reader and would ensure we had regular trips to the library – but there was no championing of Irish literature – I remember her seeing me reading A Picture of Dorian Gray – “Oscar Wilde – ooh wasn’t he a big puff “ – poor Oscar eh
My father was very proud of his Irishness but it manifested itself only in a very good humoured way – in hoping England would lose at any kind of sport to just about any other nationality and a cunning system of betting on horses with Irish names – I remember he picked up a few quid when “Yer Man” finished third in 1983 Grand National at odds of 80/1 – but for those of you who do like a bet I can assure you that on the whole it was a very poor system.
My mother Margaret was much less of a cheerleader for all things green – she was the second youngest of a surviving 8 of 13 kids– she came over to Manchester age 4 and her youngest brother was born in England – and referred to by her mother ever after as the English bastard . Her father was a professional soldier in the British Army, both the Connaught Rangers and then RMC and had fought in India on the northwest frontier and then for the whole 4 years , during the WW1 before being gassed badly in March 1918 and taken POW by the Germans. On returning to Ireland in 1919 too ill to ever work again he found himself referred to as a West Briton because his socialist beliefs didn’t tally with the right wing nationalistic fervour of De Valera.
I think this and various Irish chancers she met over the years clouded her view of her Irishness . It often makes me chuckle how she ended up with my dad. If you looked up the phrase Irish Chancer in a dictionary , you’d have seen a picture of him
As Children we would get sent a pile of semi-rotting and yellowing shamrock every year in early march by our Aunty Mag in Dublin which we all thought was really exciting , and got sent a Novena of masses every Christmas , which we found less so …..It was a point of honour on St Patrick’s day to wear as much shamrock as you could – the ideal look was a to end up with about the same amount of foliage as a Japanese soldier hiding out in a pacific island.
The whole Catholicism experience had a certain comfort as a youngster. We all believed and everything we had to be grateful for was in many respects provided by the Catholic church. The fear of that first confession , the excitement and trepidation of our first communion , the organisation of our Primary school football team ( in Stretford the catholic primary schools would regularly win both leagues without dropping a point). In later life I would question playing fantasy safe sins in the confessional box – making up sins and basically lying about lying for forgiveness (the sheer futility) and wonder if the level of what amounted to a kind of brainwashing with threats of punishment in purgatory or even hell meant that I’d never really enjoy anything in life while completely sober.
Growing up in England we all felt vaguely proud of being of Irish stock and then when we visited relatives in Dublin we ended up in fights because we were seen as English – It was just one of those thing the blood might be pure Irish the accent was pure English- which was enough for the local kids to try and give us a kicking – but then that’s what happened when your idea of a family holiday in the 1960s/70s was a week with relatives in the Liberties.
What I’m most proud about being Irish is that there is a certain straightforwardness which is also part of being Mancunian , and that I was raised to stick up for myself and what I believed to be right, both in my personal and working life , never give in to the bullies or be swayed by the cheerleaders in life, and there are more and more of that sort around every day.
Call it moral courage or being a bit stupid , but there are some things worth fighting for, it won’t always make you popular , as I can attest , but the people you’re not popular with are the ones that wouldn’t dare be as straight and true as you – and stand for nothing. Over the years I’ve been berated in the national media as thick, inarticulate ,a moron , cerebrally challenged mainly because I had a distinctive northern accent. It was a form of racism , but I grew up witnessing what that was about every day with my black neighbours and heard the stories of the anti- Irish sentiments off my parents , so it was nothing special.
For all their faults the Catholic schools did generally educate working class pupils to higher level than state schools , and the majority of so-called social mobility amongst the working classes in Manchester seemed to benefit those of Irish stock. I went to a Catholic grammar school where I spent 7 years trying to avoid learning Latin, avoid being beaten, and avoid falling into the clutches of the predatory pederast priest – and to do all that whilst wearing flared trousers and platform shoes – a tough ask.
In all aspects of the arts and those left field areas of life it’s those with Irish Catholic backgrounds that loom largest in Manchester from Bands like The Smiths and Oasis , half the Buzzcocks, The Courteeners even Herman’s Hermits in the 1960s , to comedians like Steve Coogan , Caroline Ahern and Peter Kaye, and visionaries like the late Anthony H Wilson and his partner in Factory Records who really built the Hacienda Club Rob Gretton.
The battle for freedom and to express yourself looms large in Manchester’s Irish Diaspora. With my stand up tour , that’s what I’ve found so intoxicating , that freedom, no Ofcom rules , no being ‘balanced’, no upper middle class media Hegemony acting like a condom on my thoughts and words , no euphemising . After what has been a rollercoaster yet successful 30 years in the media , attempting these live shows has reinvigorated me , and the audience reaction has been so positive. It’s strange how that inner city working class experience has been largely over-looked, the throwing stones at kids from other streets , the battle for bungy wood between streets leading up to bonfire night that 100% loyalty to your own and only the lowest of the low would be a snitch.
Our Parents came from an Ireland that was still mentally an English colony and like the Sioux Indians , their race memories of the colonising power meant they’d never really trust the ruling classes of their conquerors and retain a healthy suspicion about their motives. In their stories and the often corny old Irish rebel songs they’d listen to was the age old maxim , ‘ the struggle between people and power , is the struggle between memory and forgetting’ , the Irish , thankfully , have longer memories than most.
The Irish have been possibly the biggest ethnic minority in Britain and culturally our upbringings are different and yet unrecognised. It amazes me that to this day there hasn’t been a book that truly captures that experience of growing up Irish descent in Britain, don’t get me wrong I tried in 1999 with my book Reds In The Hood but had to skew the book towards being about growing up in Old Trafford and following United for commercial reasons ( filthy lucre). I intend to put that right in the next year and use Naked Confessions as a show to draw a spotlight on that unique , sometimes baffling and in hindsight very amusing upbringing .