IRISH people are famous for many things. One is travelling the world to experience and understand different cultures and peoples. Another is writing. Some are lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do both—and excel at the latter. One such Irishman is Scottish-based investigative journalist Peter Geoghegan, who has written and reported from numerous countries including: Albania, Kosovo, Egypt, Namibia, Zambia, Iceland, Ireland and Scotland. His travels have also seen his work included in a range of publications including: The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Scotsman, The Irish Times, The Times Higher Education, RTE, The London Review of Books, Al Jazeera, the Dublin Review, The Christian Science Monitor and The Irish Independent.
He has made radio documentaries for BBC Radio 4 and others and edits a magazine called Political Insight for the Political Studies Association. He is the co-founder and director of The Ferret—an investigative platform launched in 2015, which was nominated for a British Journalism Prize for its work. In Scotland, he is probably best known for his excellent book about the Scottish independence referendum entitled: The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again, which was nominated for the Saltire Society First Book Prize. His profile will no doubt be enhanced among Scotland’s budding journalists too in years to come, given that he has recently taken up a post as a lecturer in Broadcast Journalism at the University of the West of Scotland.
The story begins
Peter (above) admits that he’s had a less than linear career, which took a while to settle upon his current profession, but having grown up in Longford in a house surrounded by books and having an early love of writing that was nurtured by his mother Mary—a published poet—it’s no surprise that he’s become an accomplished writer himself.
“My mum nurtured my interest in writing from an early age,” Peter explained. “She’s a published poet and teaches poetry in schools. She’s also an avid reader.
“I grew up in a house with a lot of books and when I was younger, Longford Library was always seen as a very important place. Although it became somewhere I’d drink behind in later life, as a kid it was somewhere I went a lot and I would often take out books aimed at adults.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by people and people’s stories,” he added. “There’s some element of an Irish thing in that because stories are such a huge part of our culture. There’s a very strong interest in narrative and the ability to tell a story. When I go home still we talk in stories and I love it. Stories are important especially in rural Ireland. Even small Irish towns still have ‘the bookshop.’ My (maternal) grandfather was born in a thatched cottage in rural Ireland and there, stories are still a big part of how we connect and interact with each other. I think that’s something I’ve always kind of taken with me. Often the stories are true too and the true stories are the best!”
Indeed one such true story comes from Peter’s own family history and concerns an ancestral link with Argentina. The writer’s paternal great grandparents, Mary Mulvey and William Geoghegan met in the country and were married there in 1916, after having gone to there in search of a better life. They had three children: Patrick, who was born in 1917; Edward (Ned), Peter’s grandfather, who arrived three years later; and Kathleen, who was born in 1922. Despite enjoying their new life in Argentina, tragedy struck when William died of pneumonia just 10 days after his daughter was born and the family were forced to move back to Ireland.
Peter has recently returned from a visit to the former family landholding of San Patricio in Rosales—some 500km from Buenos Aires. He documented the visit in an intriguing article for The Irish Times, which saw him try to establish whether or not the Geoghegans still had a claim to the land. The trip gave him the opportunity to explore his family history in a way that most of his family never had the chance to. He was, however, following in his grandfather’s footsteps though, as he had returned to the country in 1986, albeit with tragic consequences.
“I’ve still got a lot of family in Argentina,” he said. “There was a lot of migration from Ireland to Argentina in the 19th century, particularly from Longford, Westmeath and Wexford. There’s even a Longford/ Westmeath Argentina Society! Growing up in school there were a couple of lads who, like me, would have had connections to Argentina. None of us had ever been there. This was the first time I had the opportunity to go. Most of my family have never been there. My grandfather only got to go back once and he actually died while he was visiting the country. In 1986, he went back after always having wanted to do so and he died after three weeks. He had a heart attack in a monastery outside Buenos Aires.”
Settling in Scotland
The story of Peter’s own eventual migration to Scotland and emergence as a writer is interesting too. Having done an arts degree in NUI Galway, he then crossed the Atlantic to study environmental psychology at the City University of New York—which he greatly enjoyed—before undertaking a PhD in human geography at Edinburgh, during which time he met his partner Ealasaid.
“I’ve done the immigrant Irish experience twofold,” Peter laughed. “I went to America and then I came to Scotland, so I’ve fulfilled two of the big Irish diaspora experiences!
“I’ve had a very odd career. I’m not one of those people who is into linear notions of anything really. I did a BA in Galway, then I was offered the opportunity to go and study in New York. I was on a PhD programme and it was really interesting. I really enjoyed it. I worked for an urban sociologist. The next phase of that was to go and do a PhD, which if you do that in America takes a very long time and possibly get you into debt, which I had no desire to do.
“Then I got offered a scholarship in Edinburgh. So I went there, did a PhD there for three years in geography. I did it on Northern Ireland—post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland. That was really interesting and I worked for a few months in the University of Ulster, but all the time I was always freelancing for people and writing. I then was offered a job with a small website in Northern Ireland and about 10 years ago and I just took that. Then I began writing full-time. Now it has come full circle as I’ve started lecturing in journalism in the University of the West of Scotland.
“For a long time I thought I had studied very different subjects, which bore little relation to my writing, but actually my background is in social science, ethnography and trying to understand what’s happening beyond just what’s happening on the surface. I realise now that with my journalism I’ve always been doing that in some respects. A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing has been undergirded by a certain way of working.”
Writing on the referendum
A flair for investigative journalism and a desire to unearth stories that might otherwise not have been told were the catalysts behind Peter’s decision to write his book on the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. This book focusses on how the referendum changed not just Scottish politics, but the nation’s people, its sense of itself and its future. It tells the story of the campaign and its aftermath, giving voice to some of the ordinary—and extraordinary—people involved on both sides of the debate.
“With the book, I was intending to connect what was happening in Scotland with things that were happening elsewhere in the world,” he said. “The main core of the book’s argument—beyond the stories of the people in it—was that we are living in a world that has been defined by the financial crisis. I think people in Scotland missed that when they talked about the referendum. I think we can see that even clearer now.
“I felt quite early on with regards to the referendum that this was a quite interesting story. This is the story of a version of 20th century nationalism in the 21st century. A peaceful story of the potential to break with Britain. A story of an entire country making a really massive decision. I always thought someone was going to write my book, but no-one ever did, so I was quite disappointed because we had an incredible lens to look at the people of the country. You’ve got this momentous vote that’s going to happen, but behind that are all these different people, with all these different interests and I’ve always been interested in that and that style of journalism. I thought journalism failed in the referendum in that respect. I felt a lot of the Scottish press took what was a fascinating story and made it a really boring one and I couldn’t understand why. I loved covering the referendum because it was a global story and a fascinating one.
“Early on I decided that there was a book in this and for me that was always going to be the story of different people and also the international story, which I thought everyone missed. Overall, I wanted to look at it from the people’s point of view, not the politicians. I used it to tell some really interesting stories.
“And the reaction to it was very positive. It was amazing actually. It was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year, which is lovely. As I said, I really enjoyed doing it. It was a great excuse to delve into the country in which you live in. I spent a lot of time in Fife with a guy called Willie Clarke, who was the last Communist councillor in Britain. He’s now since retired. That was interesting and I did a lot of research into the history of the Communist Party in Scotland. That’s what I’m interested in, other histories and views of the world. I’d like to do more stuff like that. There’s loads of stories in Scotland and I think in some ways being an outsider makes it easier to see them.”
Discovering the diaspora
The book also afforded Peter the opportunity to meet with members of Scotland’s Irish diaspora and gain a greater insight into their world. Having admitted that since he and his partner moved to Glasgow from Edinburgh, he became a little more engaged with the diaspora, the book provided a lens to look even more closely at the Irish in Scotland.
“I found meeting the Irish diaspora really interesting,” he explained. “With the book I was trying to interrogate myself a little. I went to Coatbridge for the first time to take in a pre-referendum debate as part of the St Patrick’s Day Festival, with Tom Devine and various others at it. I found the debate from the floor very interesting that night.
“I also spent time in the Orange Lodge, as I was trying to take a slightly different look at the Irish in Scotland. Historically Ireland and Scotland have been close, but for a long time they were quite distant. They’ve become close again in recent years, but there was a long time in the middle where they really weren’t and I was trying to understand a bit more about that. I was going back and reading about that and the more recent past.
“The Irish in Scotland is something that Scotland has historically struggled with definitely and has struggled to figure out. There’s a tendency in Scotland to very narrowly conceive of lots of things. Scotland is quite a diverse country that doesn’t realise it’s quite a diverse country. It isn’t very good at talking about its own diversity.”
Researching the book and having lived in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, Peter developed a greater understanding of not only the Irish diaspora in Scotland, but also the similarities and differences that exist between the two Celtic cousins. Politically, he feels that there is much common ground, whereas in other areas, such as the media, it doesn’t seem to exist to the same extent.
“There’s so many similarities between Irish and Scottish politics,” he said. “It’s also a small country thing. One of the reasons I stayed in Scotland is because I like small countries. I’m from one and I can understand that in a small country who you know is really important. The political system is not that different really, especially in the west of Scotland. You also cannot discount just how much the Irish were involved in the foundation of the Labour Party in Scotland.
“There’s a marked difference in terms of the media in both countries though. In Scotland the problem is that so much of the media we consume doesn’t come from Scotland, it comes from London and that creates problems. There’s barely any newspapers in Scotland where they really seem to care about Scotland. I think from a media point of view, that things are things in Ireland are much better than they are in Scotland.”
Peter also spoke about how the Irish perspective of Scotland is changing, with many people in the Emerald Isle having a greater understanding and appreciation of Edinburgh, where, in the past, the focus would have been Glasgow.
“Historically the Irish came to Glasgow, but in Ireland now, when people think of Scotland, they think of Edinburgh, especially among students,” Peter said. “My sense is that Edinburgh is perhaps more popular with students from the Republic of Ireland, which is interesting because it’s the inverse of what it used to be. The diaspora in Edinburgh seems to be more of a first generation thing, whereas in Glasgow it’s more multi-generational.”
He also added that within that multi-generational diaspora in Scotland—and perhaps outside of it too—there exists a view of Ireland that finds its genesis in romanticism, as opposed to reality.
“My experience of an Irishman living in Scotland has been largely positive and in the main people, I find the people to be really friendly,” he said. “But sometimes there’s a vision of Ireland that exists here that’s not reflective of the Ireland of today. Ireland has changed phenomenally since I was young. I remember it in the 1980s when there was rampant unemployment. Since then we’ve had the rise and the fall of the Celtic Tiger. Where I’m from in Longford is similar to some towns in central Scotland. The main the infrastructure and society in Ireland has changed on so many levels. Longford used to be a small, close-knit town, but now everyone drives everywhere and it’s kind of disparate. We’re quite an Americanised society, moreso even than here. A lot of small towns have become quite soulless, with high streets looking like any other high street.”
While romanticism may play a part in how many among the Irish diaspora views its ancestral homeland, the Irish people are looking at the UK in its entirety through an altogether more cynical lens after the decision taken by Britain to leave the European Union. It was a decision that many Irish people—including Peter—greeted with disbelief, especially those living and working in the UK. An inflammatory speech by Home Secretary in the wake of the Brexit vote where she remarked that she wanted to make it harder for British companies to employ migrants and to ensure foreign workers ‘were not taking jobs British workers could do,’ did little to calm their anxieties. As a result, Peter sought signatories on an open letter calling on UK Prime Minister Theresa May to ‘rein in’ her government’s divisive and ‘xenophobic’ language over the proposals to make firms disclose the number of non-British workers they employ. Around 300 academics, writers, lawyers, academics and musicians signed it.
“In some ways I think Ireland is more worried about Brexit than anywhere else and rightly so,” he said. “On the right of the Conservative Party there’s a kind of lazy, colonial mind-set, that seems to think that Ireland will come back home and it’s nonsense. That’s the failure of UK Unionism to understand the realities of people in the UK and Ireland.
“I know for definite that people from Ireland are looking at the UK and thinking that it has lost its mind. I think a lot of people in Scotland are thinking the same thing. I wrote a piece for The Irish Times about foreign workers and it was a slight cri du coeur, because I did wake up in the morning and think I don’t know if I want to live like this. I think in Ireland, it’s definitely affecting how people perceive the UK. For some people who aren’t following it that closely that includes Scotland, for other who are, there is a certain sympathy.”
Personal anxieties, though, are not the only concerns Peter has with regards to Brexit. He is also fearful about the political situation in the North of Ireland, albeit he doesn’t think there will be any return to the conflict of the past.
“I struggle to see a full-scale reversal to what it was before, but I also worry about the future for Northern Ireland because it is a kind of Balkanised society.” he explained. “In some ways it’s more split than it ever was because it’s now split along conservative and liberal lines, which is often forgotten. Northern Ireland is reaching the limits of what it can do with the government system it has. I worry profoundly about the future of Northern Ireland. I worry about it becoming a failed statelet. The issue of the border is a massive one. How that works or doesn’t will be crucial.”
While admitting that the Unionist community would have been the one most in favour of a vote to leave the European Union—something which he feels find its origins, much like those who voted for Donald Trump as US President, from a feeling of ‘anger, displacement and disenfranchisement’—Peter feels that many within that community, including the DUP, have erred in not considering the possible long-term consequences of Brexit, including a greater push towards Irish reunification.
“A lot of unknowns have now been unleashed,” he said. “I don’t know where we’re going to go. The problem is politicians and the public have a tendency to see things as they are now as the settled way and politicians in particular do that. They’re not very good at seeing beyond the short-term. The DUP have been very foolish in not considering the unintended consequences of a Brexit vote and their support for it.
“I was recently chatting to the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood [about the prospect of a united Ireland] and he said that it’s something they’re having to think about as an actual reality for the first ever time. It’s interesting too that some people in the south have started talking about it in a way that they never would have before. Polite society would have shied away from talking about Northern Irish politics. That’s changed now. In the longer run there are possibilities, but it’s probably still too early to see what’s going to happen.”
Peter Geoghegan’s book on the Scottish independence referendum, The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again is published by Luath Press and is available online and from bookshops priced at £9.99
The writer’s excellent feature on the visit to his ancestral homeland can be read on The Irish Times website by clicking on the following link: www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/an-irish-man-s-extraordinary-search-for-his-argentinian-land-1.2921496
Very Irish People will return in April as it makes way for our St Patrick’s Day Festival coverage in March