Explaining the British to the Irish. And the Irish to the British. And a bit of Americana. A short primer should tourism ever resume. (It’s actually about culture wars.)

Man Walks into a Bar

An Englishman walks into a bar. A crowded Dublin pub (it was a long time ago). Loads of people are waiting or, mostly, being served. The interior of the pub is immaculate, its exterior is recently painted: it’s clearly well cared for, well run, spotlessly clean, full of happy people of all ages and contains no slot machines. 

Suffering a mild form of culture shock - British pubs are often none of these things - the Englishman approaches the bar. He is asked by the barman, ‘are you ok?’ The Englishman is perplexed when, after answering ‘I’m fine thanks’, the barman moves on to the next punter. The culture shock deepens.

It took me years to get over the reflex answer, ‘I’m fine’, and, instead, to order some drinks. I still have to remind myself that language, despite its apparent Englishness, can be as different as Mandarin is to Polish. English was only introduced (I used the word advisedly) to Ireland in the 12th Century.

The English language that evolved in Ireland can seem, at times, quite foreign to the English visitor. Just as the English spoken by our grandparents can sometimes sound distinctly odd. Of course, the English in Newcastle is often incomprehensible to a Londoner.  English spoken in Cork mystifies someone living in Dublin. The way (south) Dubliners seen to substitute the letter ‘a’ with an ‘o’ when speaking is captured brilliantly in the satirical writings of Paul Howard.

A pub conversation about politics in the UK will usually take about three minutes before the second world war is mentioned. In Ireland, I count the seconds until someone mentions 1798. History isn’t much studied these days in both countries but everyone knows their history. Talking about the past in the wrong accent in either country inevitably leads to lively debate, if not trouble.

I used to employ Britons and Americans. I prided myself on my subtle program of cultural assimilation for new employees from abroad. I recall telling one New Yorker, ‘when you come to live and work in Ireland you probably imagine that you will be living in a country that speaks a common language and, because of history, literature, TV and so on, you think you know the culture. You believe much of it will be both congenial or, at least, familiar. You couldn’t be more wrong. When you live in Dublin, particularly South County Dublin, picture the culture shock as big as if you were emigrating to Istanbul’. 

Before my Irish friends rise up in indignation, interpreting all this as criticism, please be assured that it is not. It is merely observation - based as a British-Canadian who lived for thirty years in Dublin (yes, South County) - of the many beautiful ways seemingly similar countries can be so different. Managing expectations is important in all aspects of life and I was merely trying to explain to prospective employees that their expectations were probably flawed. And if they held on to them too tightly they were likely to be surprised, if not disappointed.

The Centrality of Disappointment

Disappointment is one of those tricky emotions that are best avoided. Disappointed employees (and friends, children or partners) become disgruntled. Taking the time to understand the culture of the place where you are living pays dividends. Relationships are more harmonious, social gaffes avoided and friendships deepened. The role of any country’s diplomatic corps is in no small part to both understand the foreigner and to explain different cultures to the audience back home and to the host country.

Cultural differences can run deep between neighbourhoods in single villages, between next-door neighbours. So we should not be surprised when we turn out to be different to each other. Culture itself is not constant. But we keep expecting people to be similar to us and are perennially disappointed when they turn out to be anything but. Cue culture clashes if not wars. 

Culture can be in the eye of the beholder: as with most accidents, witnesses can have very different versions of the truth. My warning about ‘Istanbul’ to my American friend was not meant to be taken literally. It was intended to dispel certainty and to encourage curiosity. All those decades of living in Ireland left me with a belief that I have only scratched the surface.

A few years ago I walked into a bar (of the private member variety) in Manhattan. I’d arranged a drink with an ex-colleague whose career had been a tad more successful than mine - he was now in charge of the US operations of a large investment bank He told me about his impressions of the US since his arrival from Asia. In his words, he lived in a ‘gated community an hour’s limousine journey from the city, basically a rich, white ghetto. It might as well be a Florida theme park. I’ve no idea, yet, about what the rest of America looks like, apart from everything I see on TV.  Of course, I can’t use that kind of language while having cocktails with my neighbours’. 

My friend was both judgemental and diplomatic: he was aware of - and was uncomfortable with - his rarified existence but didn’t feel the need to remind his fellow bubble dwellers about their privilege. I didn’t tell him that I have travelled around the US extensively and grow ever more conscious that it is made up of a thousand different cultures, with varying degrees of overlap. With each visit the dominant impression of paradox simply grows. That point about paradox is important - I will return to it later. 

Suspending judgement and becoming a neutral - as far as possible - observer is the route to harmony. I wanted to wish my friend, in world-weary ironic fashion, good luck in trying to get to grips with American culture. Instead, I wished him good luck, genuinely, and encouraged him to make the effort.


What we observe is both a matter of choice and our own history. My investment banker friend brought his own, Asian dominated, perspective to US life. What he observed, by definition, can only be seen through that lens. But we can also exercise choice. We can choose to be blinkered - or not. At the very least, wisdom begins by the realisation that we each have our own lens. 

A recent Twitter storm about language has made it to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Some prominent Twitterati have raised objections to the way the British use the word ‘jab’ for what, apparently, Americans call ‘vaccination shot’. Linguists have lamented the ‘importation’ into the US of this ‘British’ word. Except that it is not British at all. It probably began life in the late 19th Century in America: references can be found in an 1889 edition of the Sacramento Bee and other US publications from that time. 

Self-appointed language police always complain about falling linguistic standards and the ‘Americanisation’ of English. They should try living in Dublin for a while. One of the few proper linguists out there, Oliver Kamm, rightly points out that language crosses the Atlantic in both directions, it’s nothing to worry about - and yes, there are many instances of increasing divergence. A warning to take care. All of this applies as much to the Irish Sea as it does to the Atlantic.

An early revelation for me about culture gaps was the subtlety of attitudes of people living the Republic of Ireland to their fellow island dwellers in the North. I’ve met many die-hard Republicans, too many people who quietly supported campaigns of violence. But many people I knew were typified by my co-workers one Monday morning, years ago, who expressed astonishment about my weekend activities. 

Newly arrived in Ireland, I wanted to see what the North looked like, to experience the Checkpoint Charlie nature of the border at Aughnacloy (it was many years before the Good Friday Agreement), and to spend a day or two in Belfast, 100 miles up the road. The looks of astonishment on my colleagues’ faces told the story. ‘What did you do that for? Why would you ever go up there?’ I asked them how many times they had been ‘up north’. My turn to be astonished: none had. 

The Brexit Culture Wars

Brexit is often talked about in terms of a culture war. It is: but that is only a partial explanation, as is all the others. That makes it near to impossible for the outside observer to understand. It’s hard enough for the British themselves to comprehend it all. We argue about who voted which way and, in particular, why. Brexit is often described in terms of an elitist English project, driven by bored, rich old men who lament the loss of Empire. But plenty of working class Northerners voted to leave. As did a small majority, mostly working class, Welsh people. Working class Scots voted emphatically to remain.

The data is sliced and diced but the arguments still rage. We look at the regions, cities and towns, that voted one way or the other; we look at the age-profile of voters - if you were old you were more likely to leave. Graduates were more likely, but by no means exclusively, to have voted Remain. A good marker was prosperity: those with plenty of it, typically wanted to remain. But what about those hedge fund and newspaper owning billionaire backers of Brexit? What do the swivel-eyed loons, the toffs of the Tory back benches, have in common with Brexit voting towns such as Corby? Some people say nothing at all: Nigel Farage and his fellow travelling Conservative MPs just sold snake-oil to gullible voters. Plenty disagree. 

The arguments have moved on and are even louder and probably more irrational. But not pointless. The Remain camp perform post-mortems over whether or not this or that tactic would have worked better. Brexit enthusiasts lament the difficulties at various border crossings and blame everyone but themselves. The Irish peace process is under threat, as plenty of people predicted.

I mention all this only to note another aspect of Trans-Atlanticism. Trump may be gone (for now at least) but his spirit lives on in the current feral British government. The Trumpian populist tactics - particularly routine lying that doesn’t pretend to have even a nodding acquaintance with the truth -  look very un-British to people like me, but - and this is the key point here - that just means I have lost the culture war. Britain is a very different place to the one that I grew up in. And the lies, lack of personal responsibility and cavalier treatment of peace in Northern Ireland were foretold by at least one great Englishman, George Orwell. Maybe Boris Johnson isn’t  so un-English as I think.

 A tale of Two Cities  

Paradox abounds even where there are obvious similarities. Corby and Cardiff are ex-steel towns, seriously impacted by the decline - disappearance - of a key industry. It’s a tale of one firm: British Steel. 

When Margaret Thatcher first became Prime Minister, British Steel was in deep trouble. Its Corby operations had been facing the axe for years. Originally a plant set up by a firm called Stewarts  & Lloyds in the 1930s, it attracted workers from all over the UK, particularly Scotland. Corby, a town in the East Midlands, 73 miles from London, hosts an annual ‘Highland Gathering’.  The firm that Stewarts took over had a long history, as does steel in Corby - iron works are mentioned in the Domesday book of the 11th century

It was (and in some ways still is) as different to London as is Manhattan to Gary, Indiana. It eventually managed to get over the inevitable closure of its steel works and has seen a steady increase in population this century and a current unemployment rate close to the UK national average, although absolute numbers of unemployed have risen steadily since the closure of the steel works in 1979. In some ways it has recovered, in others it hasn’t. 

Cardiff, once a city famous for one of the busiest ports in the world also has a long association with steel. Like Corby, mostly (but not entirely) in the past tense. 150 miles from London, the giant East Moors steel works finally closed in 1978, after years of troubled industrial relations and losses. Like Corby, Cardiff has at least partially reinvented itself and is home now to a host of mostly service-based industries. 

The simple story is of two once heavily industrialised, ‘smokestack’ cities that declined. Economic pain that lingers to this day, but also a story of regeneration. Full of people that potentially represent the ‘left behind’ so beloved of Brexiteers in particular but also populists. 

60% of Cardiff voters opted for Remain. 64.2% of the Corby electorate voted Leave. Another paradox.

It’s impossible to tell a simple story about Brexit. Yes, it’s a culture war that rages to the present day, but one that defies even that complex label. My own view is that Brexit was about many things, some obvious, others less so. In part it was rage against change: one of the great lies we tell ourselves is that we embrace and welcome change.

So, beware generalisations. About anything at all but particularly about culture. If we choose to wage culture wars we can find, in a heartbeat, much to fight over. Difference is everywhere, some of it obvious, much of it surprising. Choose to look at in a particular way and we are in trouble. Be aware of it, respect it, be open and curious: that way lies the tolerance for which the British are so renowned.  At least when they describe themselves, looking through their own lens.