Sunday 4 October 2015

October 2015 article - an interview with Gary O'Dea part 1

Photo of Gary O'Dea at The Blue Piano by Mike Prowse

This month we start the first part of an interview with Black Country born singer-songwriter and guitarist, Gary O’Dea. Born into a small local Irish community in Tipton in the early 1960s, Gary talks candidly about his memories of his grand-parents and how his own identity and life-view have been formed by the merger of both English and Irish working class heritage. Thank you to Jonathan Harris for his technical support recording the interview and to Lisa Travers for hosting the interview at the Blue Piano bar in Edgbaston.

Gary O’Dea grew up in Tipton in the industrial Black Country borough of Sandwell, his grandparents were part of the wave of economic migrants from Ireland who arrived in England during the 1930s: 

“My grandparents were both from Ireland, my granddad was from Nenagh in Tipperary and my nan was from across the Shannon in Killaloe, County Clare. These were my dad’s parents but on my mom’s side, my granddad was from Plymouth and it was only my nan on my mother’s side who was from Tipton, all the other three ended up in the area through work”.

“My Irish grandparents came over in the 30s, they were in Liverpool first and then moved to the Black Country drawn by the local industry. My dad’s oldest brother was born in Ireland, but the rest were all born here. There was at that time and even when I was a kid in Tipton, a small Irish community round the Catholic church and there was the Catholic school, Sacred Heart, but it wasn’t such a strong identity as you’d get in Birmingham or Wolverhampton for the Irishness.”

“There is a story that when my grandparents came over here and moved to Tipton, they moved with the kids to just off Bell Street into an old terraced house, sharing the yard and the communal wash-house which in Tipton we called the brewus. The first day there the kids went out to play and this one woman who was living in the yard, seeing a new family had moved in (my nan and granddad and the kids), the woman gets a bucket of water and throws it all over the kids, cursing them for being Irish. It was something which struck me deeply when I heard the story when I was a kid, which is why I always hate and detest racism.”

I agreed with Gary that this sort of prejudice was nasty and unnecessary, though he suggested that Irish people weren’t the only target:

“Well it’s offensive and disgusting, but you know, it’s always gone on. You can imagine in the industrial revolution round here when people came in from the countryside they experienced the same thing. My granddad from Plymouth, when he came up here, he used to get told to bugger off back to where he came from.”

“But my Irish granddad, when the second world war started, he was from Nenagh in Tipperary, which had a reputation for being rebel country in Ireland and he joined the British army and became a Redcap. I don’t really know for certain, but what I’ve heard is that there was a certain pressure to be accepted in England, because in the Republic at the time you’d got De Valera courting the Germans, the Nazis. Anyway he joined the army and became a Redcap and got sent to Singapore where he was captured by the Japanese and was imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp.”

“Granddad survived the POW camp, but he became very bitter after this experiences and I think the consensus was that it was because he had come to England with good intentions, looking for work, he’s treated like a Paddy so joins the British army to fight in a war he feels isn’t his war. He must have experienced some really traumatic things in the camp and then comes back out of the army to more of the same, “alright Paddy, here’s a shovel, get digging and then sweep that up…”

“But he didn’t talk about it. You’d just pick up the stories from within the family. I think people would talk about it in this day and age but back then, Irish people just had to put up with that type of thing”.

I asked Gary about his own sense of Irish identity, growing up in a town with its own distinctive Black Country heritage. He answered my question with some interesting observations about English identity:

“No to be fair, I think the Irish population was certainly well integrated into Tipton and I think because at whatever time they became accepted there was perhaps not the need to be so strong, I think that may have been one of the things, but in saying that I found that as I got older I connected more with Irishness. I think the thing is for me that Englishness has been stolen, we have had a marketing job done on us because to be English you have to be “Rule Britannia, God Save the Queen” and all that kind of thing. Which is a shame because in any other country if they had people like the Chartists and the Suffragettes and Tolpuddle Martyrs and the massacre of reformists at Peterloo, these people would be celebrated and to the fore and although they are ‘known’, I feel the average English person doesn’t know who they are. English people have done some fantastic things, fighting for social and civil rights but it is not celebrated.”

In the next edition we continue the interview with Gary O’Dea, with some personal memories about his musical influences, seeing The Pogues and winning a bet when Jack Charlton’s Irish soccer team beat England.

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