Ireland: In search of the Irish Birmingham of my childhood

Armchair traveller
4 min readApr 6, 2024


Why?! Why Marianne, why would you do that? And Why does Connell never say “So long, Marianne?” And how do you make a vegan Irish coffee in which the cream sits right?

Being raised a Catholic in 1970–80s Birmingham often meant being the only non-Irish-heritage person in the class, the church or the pub. I has a small cabal of non-Irish friends including a Catholic Scot, a Catholic Swiss, myself, and shockingly a non-Catholic, but other than that, my upbringing was full of Irish dancing, Taytos crisps and Catholic discos. It was with a shock therefore to find just how few Irish places are left… the Irish Centre is gone and while Digbeth still has some old haunts, Sparkhill and Sparkbrook are no longer places to sink a Guinness. Thank goodness I still have Irish friends, one of whom was invited to judge the Irishness of this week’s food… Irish stew for the main, and Gur cake for desert. I started by plying her with Irish mule — whisky, ginger and lime, attempting to get her drunk enough to ignore the bastardisation of their food and it worked! They and their non-Irish partner were kind about the vegan stew and even claimed that Gur cake reminded them of their youth. Back in the 1970s it was apparently the most common desert — basically bread and raisins — a crown which has today been taken by Guinness cake! My wife made a non-vegan version one and, to my mind, it was the highlight of the evening.

Guinness with a Irish Mule Chaser — what could go wrong?

In the background we listened to this week’s playlist — a kind of homage to the punky, folky, indie Irish music I still adore. I was surprised by how few Irish songs I could actually name, but luckily the guests added more to the list as the evening drew on. You too can let me know what else I have missed… Of course as we all know, the main joy of much Irish music is in hearing it played live, in a small bar, with a drunken crowd singing along…

What is a policeman’s favourite meal?

Which is exactly what you get in this week’s peculiar film The Banshees of Inisherin. It’s about as Irish as you could hope for, set on a Father Ted-like Island and telling the story of friends who meet in the pub every day to drink the pint and play the fiddle. So far, so typical, but things take many a turn as an unexplained feud sets in and before you know it, someone cut his own fingers off and fed them to a little horse… we’ve all been there, I guess.

Gur cake — I think you had to live in the 70s to understand why anyone would do that…

One of the many armchair travel joy is in spotting the links between countries, and it’s incredible how often there is a link to Ireland. I guess that’s what happens when you have 70 million people of Irish heritage in the world and only 6 million people in Ireland. This people-spreading isn’t just due to the famed Catholic hatred of contraception… as 82 year-old President Michael D Higgins explains in this week’s first book Speeches for an Ethical Republic, Ireland is a country of migrants. As such there were many similarities in the stories I read about Iraqi’s fleeing war and the Irish fleeing poverty and starvation. As Higgins puts it “destination is rehearsed in the imagination long before the leaving itself.” The city of the imagination becomes a more powerful draw than the familiar environment one knows. This is a wonderful book to read if you want to remind yourself just how thoughtful some politicians can be and that not all octogenarian leaders are untrustworthy swines.

THIS! A triumph, a delicious Guinness-like triumph. Sadly I had nothing to do with its creation.

I also chowed down a few books by Sally Rooney — the most page-turnery writer of modern times. I inhaled both Normal People and Beautiful World Where are You in a few days and was still left wanting more. For those of you who haven’t read her yet, Rooney is a feminist Marxist who writes books in which students talk and think a lot, have sex and sit in silence. They are so addictive that I couldn’t help but follow-up this Rooney-thon by watching the adaptation of her first novel Conversations with Friends. It’s a story of silence, sex, and students talking but somehow it is also supremely relaxing and I would recommend it to all!

I can’t end without mentioning that the Island of Ireland is still split in two, with the North still partly governed by Westminster. I spent the week mulling over whether to do two armchair trips to the Island of Ireland or whether to do it as one. In the end I concluded that although I the split is artificial and unjust it’s also led to a lot of interesting art and culture and so I think I will… but for now I shall bid farewell and head with trepidation to Israel.



Armchair traveller

Near-zero carbon travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.