Irish or Not Irish?

This week’s prompt for Reading Ireland Month is – Irish or Not Irish?

The Irish can be a sneaky lot – are there any writers you thought were Irish but turned out not to be, or alternatively, are there any writers you didn’t even realise were Irish? Share your favourites, or the most surprising, during this week.

The Irish identity is one that is claimed the world over but it can be a curious, slippery thing. 11.6% of the US population claim to have at least partial Irish ancestry. That’s five times as many Irish people in the USA claiming to be Irish than there is in Ireland.

Some of our most famous writers have been claimed by other countries. Wilde sometimes seems more British than Irish, Beckett more French and Joyce, for all his links to Dublin, feels like a European writer more than an Irish one. JG Farrell is considered an Irish writer given that he had an Irish mother and lived in Ireland for part of his life, but he was born in Lancashire to a British father and is often described as a British author of ‘Irish descent’.

Ireland, sir, for good or evil, is like no other place under heaven, and no man can touch its sod or breathe its air without becoming better or worse.

George Bernard Shaw

Iris Murdoch was the only child of a middle-class Protestant couple, she was born in Phibsborough on Dublin’s north side. Her father, John Hughes Murdoch, a civil servant, was of a Co Down Presbyterian background and her mother, Irene Richardson, a trained singer, came from a Dublin Church of Ireland family. The family moved to London when Iris was young and she seems to have had a somewhat love/ hate relationship with her birth country. Writing to a close friend in 1978, she said she felt “unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred”, but her friend Paul Levy wrote after her death that she “always felt passionately Irish but she also felt that it was possible at the same time to be British”.  

Murdoch always described herself as Irish and wrote about Ireland in two novels – The Unicorn and The Red and the Green – as also in her only short story Something Special.

Laura at Reading in Bed recently posted about the Irish writers who could also be considered Canadian from Anakana Schofield to Emma Donohue and now, most recently Colin Barrett.

Probably the most famous Irish/ Canadian author is Brian Moore. Moore himself told a story about going into a Dublin bookshop and asking for any novels by the Irish writer, Brian Moore. ‘No’, he was told, ‘but we do have one or two novels by the Canadian writer of the same name.’ Most famous for The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, that novel actually won an award as a best first novel by a Canadian novelist because by that time, Moore had opted for Canadian citizenship.

CS Lewis is often considered to be a quintessential English writer, but he was actually born in Belfast and lived in Northern Ireland until he won a scholarship to Oxford. His move to England was to prove quite the cultural shock to him:

“No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England. The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worst was the English landscape … I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.”

Although Lewis lived most of his life as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar, his dreams were of Ireland as he noted in his diary, and he visited the north or the south of Ireland almost every year. Lewis once described heaven as “Oxford placed in the middle of County Down.” In the Glens of Antrim and around the Antrim coast its possible to see that the landscape became that or Narnia.  

Statue of Aslan in CS Lewis Square in East Belfast

It doesn’t stop with writers either. The British are very fond of commandeering our finest for their television shows – Graham Norton, Eamonn Andrews (for the older audience) and the legendary Terry Wogan have all used their Irish wit for great career success in the UK.

While movie stars like Ben Stiller, Harrison Ford and Martin Sheen all have Irish parents, actors like Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan are very obviously authentic Irish stars in Hollywood. If you’ve only seen Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley in The Good Daughter or I’m Thinking of Ending Things, you might not realise that she is from Killarney. Another Irish surprise is Dominic West who has Irish parents and Michael Fassbender whose mother is from County Antrim. In fact, before Fassbender hit the big time, he was most famous in Ireland for his performance in a Guinness ad.

New Zealand actor Sam Neill was actually born in Northern Ireland. His father was stationed here with the Irish Guards and the family lived in Omagh until they emigrated when Neill was seven. The Irish are never people to miss an opportunity and you have to love the B&B in Mullaghmore which advertises itself on Trip Advisor with the immortal line ‘Sam Neill was born in our kitchen’.

Spike Milligan might have been born in India and raised in the UK but from 1962 onwards he was an Irish citizen and held an Irish passport, convinced that his real name is Ó Maolagáin. 

I had a British passport, but when I went to get it renewed, and said my father was born in Ireland before 1900, they said I couldn’t have a British passport – some bloody law.

So I said, fuck you. I went to the Irish Embassy and I said: “My name’s Spike Milligan, can I have a passport?” And they said, “Oh yes! We’re short of people.”

Quintessential British spy author John le Carré is now listed as an Irish author on the internet, when bitterly disillusioned by Brexit, he embraced his Irish heritage and became an Irish citizen before his death in December 2020.

And finally, spare a thought for poor John Hurt, who was so enamoured with Ireland and believed he had Irish roots that he spent many years living in both Co. Wicklow and Ballintubbert, Co. Laois and often appeared on the Dublin stage. So convinced was he that he had Irish ancestry that he was genuinely gutted when he appeared on the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? and found out that he wasn’t Irish at all.

“I am not who I believed I was. That really upsets me. I’m not going to dance with pleasure to find out that one of the bankers in my life isn’t true, am I? One of the bankers in my life was my Irish identity.”

Ireland Month Irish Literature

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

25 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Such an interesting post Cathy! My Dad was from Dublin so I’ve always considered my self half Irish, but I always find it so weird when people, especially those on the other side of the Atlantic think the same thing even though it’s their ancestors who were originally from Ireland. How do you feel about it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Cathy.

    Sam Neill is actually a New Zealand actor but Australia does make a habit of claiming famous Kiwis as our own… it’s kind of a running joke. See Russell Crowe, Neil Finn, Tim Finn, Keith Urban and Jane Campion.


  3. I’m half Irish, via the US. My mother’s family migrated to New York City in the 1850s, famine refugees. For some reason, when I was growing up, it didn’t seem like an exotic or interesting background to me. I undervalue it.


  4. Interesting, all that determination to claim Oirishness that some go for. On both my mother’s and my father’s side my ancestors were Irish, one lot Catholic, the other Protestant, but being with the army in the late 18th and early 19th century they got stationed in India and stayed there.

    I suppose, nearly two centuries later, their descendants would be considered Anglo-Indian, but I’m happy to be labelled a mongrel! My father looked quite Asian but my mother definitely had a hint of Irish about her, if you can imagine the high cheekbones of Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gábor freely speckled with freckles…


  5. As a Canadian, I was so surprised the first time I saw Emma Donoghue described as an Irish author! Many of these you mention I tend to think of as more vaguely “British”, without really examining what that might mean!


  6. Okay, yes, I’m still debating about my first post, The Paris Network by Siobhan Curham, as I swore Siobhan had to be Irish–but born in London, she would not confirm or deny. Since, however, I’ve seen several more examples of the name–and obviously not Irish. Okay–I could be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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