A fond Farewell to the UK from an EU27 Citizen? – part I Origins


As regular readers of the Blog will have noticed, I am both Irish and a scientist. As such, I often have a different view on things to the average Brit.

My University College Dublin (UCD) contemporary, Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of England in his acclaimed book Heroic Failure has been said to deliver a few “truth bombs”.

Fintan has a Humanities background. Perhaps a scientific background can provide some further insights? Here and in subsequent pieces I will explore some of the cultural differences between our neighbouring islands. It’s a truism, noted by Leo Varadkar in his latest interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that the Irish understand the UK very well, and that the reverse is not the case.

The piece starts with some whimsical childhood influences, why I ended in England and then looks at various strands which went towards causing Brexit which seem peculiar to England. Everyone will have their own story – hopefully, mine will be of some interest. Subsequent pieces will cover a range of areas:

  • Education – C.P. Snow and the Two Cultures
  • From Industrial Heartland to post-Industrial Wasteland
  • Media – from Agnotology to Propaganda
  • Political Culture and Structures
  • Empire, WWII and Fake History
  • Big vs. Small Country Syndrome
  • The Royal Family, Class and Accents
  • Racism and the Two Tribes of England
  • Stealth Militarisation of UK Culture

Part II discusses the first of the three areas, part III the nest and part IV the final three.

Finally, conclusions will be drawn.

Whimsical Childhood Influences

Do you remember Chris de Burgh’s grandfather? He had so many medals they wouldn’t fit on his chest and had a special metal bar made up? He fought in the Boer War but thought his best job was being Officer in Charge of Elephants in India.”

My brother, reminiscing over Christmas, was referring to General Sir Eric de Burgh (who rose to be Commander in Chief in India and was a serious contender to be the General in charge of the 6th army at D-day rather than Montgomery) was one of the many extraordinary figures who enriched my childhood. This strand was through the Military History Society of Ireland of which our father, Kevin, was a prominent member. “Can you remember the name of the retired FO diplomat who was transferred from Katmandu to Timbuctu?” I replied.

Other stories of family legend was the deep friendship between my Uncle Joe, who was an NHS Chest Physician in Barnsley, and the renowned astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. In particular, their trip around Ireland which led to the acclaimed sci-fi novel Ossian’s Ride.

More sobering perhaps was my father’s tales from Nazi Germany, from his time doing a PhD in Berlin from ’37-’39. He regularly used to bump into Hermann Göring in various pubs in Berlin.

Rocketry was an early passion. This was aided by a beautifully handwritten explosives manual belonging to my grandfather who was a member of the IRB. It would probably have landed him years in jail had the British authorities known of it at the time. He, however, was a well-respected headmaster and even my father had no idea he was in the IRB ’til years later.

This passion moved onto astronomy and I had built not only a 22cm telescope but an entire observatory before I left school. This served me well and I ended up doing Physics, Mathematics and Astrophysics in University College Dublin culminating in a PhD largely done at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Fig. 1 Observatory built by the author

Why England?

When I returned to Dublin in 1980 from the Harvard Smithsonian (Arizona) to write up my Astrophysics PhD, I fully expected to return to the US, but the election of Reagan as President caused the position to disappear.

The UCD postgraduate Physics body, in 1980, was very small, probably less than two dozen in total. There were plenty of job opportunities. Some, for example, got positions in Met Eireann (the Irish meteorological service) and are household names in Ireland.

By chance, the UCD Physics BSc external examiner, at the time, was the distinguished Nuclear Physicist Prof Bill Galbraith (Times obituary here) from Sheffield University (SU). He was struggling to fill a new ‘Physicist-Programmer’ Post-Doctoral position. This required skills not just in Physics, but also computation and networking. The job entailed not only Physics and mathematical ability but the management of the university’s academic packet switching network SERCNet (a precursor to the Internet and very cutting edge at the time). The biggest draw, however, was that the job involved considerable time in CERN and being part of a pan-European group. He was very keen to invite me for an interview.

I got the job and move to South Yorkshire in 1981.

Surprisingly, perhaps, in the current environment, my skill set is still in high demand. It seems that both the PM and his special advisor Dominic Cummings are somewhat in awe of Physicists, particularly those with high levels of computational capability. The ‘awe’ is certainly not mutual.

Would I Come to England Now?

For Brexit Britain to do well it has to be able to attract top talent. With Brexit, the climate has changed, though hopefully freedom of movement will continue to exist between the island of Ireland and Britain, as it has done historically. In any event, my skill set was such that a visa would have been easy to obtain if necessary.

I was fortunate in 1981. Jobs were fairly plentiful in Ireland and I moved by choice. I had no intention of staying for more than a few years. Alas, the Irish economy deteriorated very rapidly and went through a rough patch in the 1980s. Politically too, as will explored in later posts, there was a level of corruption not seen in the history of the Irish state and the stifling effect of the Catholic Church was still very evident.

Things improved dramatically in the 1990s, by which time family commitments made it difficult to return. My career was also taking off and England has been very good to me, as it has been historically to many Irish who had no choice but to move in search of work or, in the past, a more liberal society.

To answer the question it is most unlikely I would come now. Brexit Britain is a far less attractive place, and it is very difficult to see the UK economy doing well. There are also worries about EU27 citizens rights, which will be explored in detail in later posts. The Irish may continue to be treated as a special case, but relations could deteriorate during the Brexit negotiations. Returning to Ireland has a great attraction.

Others think so too. As Fig. 2 shows net migration from the UK to Ireland has been positive since the Brexit Referendum and is increasing. The trend will likely continue.

Fig 2. Migration between Ireland and the UK


  1. Richard Walsh -

    Enjoyed that. Just think, Physics Class of 69 had 36 afaicr.

  2. Sean Danaher -

    Physics numbers at UCD are now around 50 I think, but there was a big dip in the ’70s. There were only 15 in my class and 5 in Evelyn Cusack’s class, two years later. Evelyn (current head of forecasting at Met Eireann) will be well known to most Irish readers.

  3. Samuel Johnson -

    Interesting to read just now of EU students opting to study English in Ireland rather than “risk” going to the UK, which is perceived to be hostile or unfriendly. Yet another Brexit dividend.

    Will Johnson’s invitation to mathematicians to move to the UK add up? It seems uncomputable & a nonsensical bit of symbolism. Raising a quota that has never been met is futile even if cheered by the innumerate. Those eligible to apply are not stupid. Who would want to move to a society whose leaders are so riven with hypocrisy that they promise to remember the holocaust but simultaneously turn away child refugees seeking to rejoin their families? The repugnance is immeasurable.

    The UK is in a very dark place. Physicists have been a leading indicator because of their mobility. It will be interesting to see if physics depts in the UK start recruitment drives in the 3rd world, like the NHS, as people with options leave.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Universities have done very well in the UK as they have been able to attract top talent from all around the world.

      Thinking of the offices on my former corridor in Northumbria we had people from China, Vietnam, Nepal, Malaysia, India, Iran, Iraq, Mauritius, Serbia, Italy, France, Germany and Spain. Anecdotally EU citizens are far less likely to apply.

      Top academic talent in Maths, Physics, Engineering etc. has an international choice and, the UK is certainly a lot less attractive. My former UCD colleagues are certainly very bullish and think it will be easier to attract the best people and students.

  4. Iain McKerrow -

    Interesting migration statistics, although, presumably, the UK to Ireland migration figure in Fig 2. includes Irish citizen returning to Ireland having been domiciled in the UK (for more than six months)? (assume as quite a large proportion). Also, assume that this is ROI to GB and excludes NI both as between ROI and GB? Does Irish statistics office differentiate between NI people moving south in terms of whether they are “Irish” or “British” as per the De Sousa case?

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