“The organisation was founded by some amazing Irish women, who mostly came to London during the ’80s. They were radical feminists. This idea of people with a particular desire to assess cultural and gender identity in London, at the time, was really interesting to me as a filmmaker and artist,” says the documentary’s director, Michelle Deignan.
Irish women emigrated to London in the early 1980s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland raged, for work; for affordable housing (in digs and in “legalised squatting” quarters); to escape “stifling” Catholic, conservative Ireland; and to claim their reproductive rights. For these reasons, Irish women in London were stereotyped. “The discourse was of the Irish as turbulent if not terrorist, and all sorts of issues to do with sexuality came up,” says Ann Rossiter, author of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora and an interviewee in the documentary. “The fact that we couldn’t control ourselves; we couldn’t control our fertility, and that we reproduced like rabbits, on our backs, and then we expected the British state to rescue us — if we lived in Ireland, coming over for abortions; if we lived here (in the UK), the state would pick up the tab for our very large families.”
The London Irish Women’s Centre was founded in 1982. It was a haven for women who had drifted in the slipstream of men. Previously, the only Irish expatriate hang-out was the London Irish Centre, in Camden Town, which catered for men and their families.
The London Irish Women’s Centre took on two job-sharing staff in 1983, and bought an office in 1986. It became a hothouse for activity and discussion. Prominent guests included Nuala O’Faolain and Nell McCafferty. Poetry groups, cultural festivals and conferences were held. Lesbianism was a topic. “There is no such thing as an Irish lesbian, so the Irish community has insisted. I’m here, today, to tell you that, unlike leprechauns, Irish lesbians do exist,” Rae Dowds told a gathering in 1987.
Counselling was the cornerstone of the centre’s service. The clients ranged in age from 23 to 63, many of them looking for asylum. They had family secrets from Ireland, often of abuse. “There were a lot of secrets when you worked with the Irish,” says Patricia McEntee, a counsellor at the centre from 2003-2006.
“We estimated that over 90% of our clients had domestic violence in their background,” says Tish Collins, a former director of the centre. “Trust was an issue — where they could go to a women’s centre, where they felt safe, where they weren’t being challenged. Some of our clients couldn’t even go on a bus in case there were men on it. It was fearful, the level of it.”
The election of Mary Robinson as president of Ireland, in 1990, was a boon for the centre. She was made their patron in 1992. When she brought Labour Party leader and Tánaiste, Dick Spring, to the centre, he had to wait outside. Men weren’t allowed in.
“It was defined as a ‘women only’ space for a whole variety of reasons,” says Deignan. “It makes perfect sense, and is adequately explained, if you’ve got such a high level of domestic violence. It was not just about being safe, but being inclusive.
“It might not have been quite so easy to be inclusive or tolerant of women with such different ideas about living daily lives, or politics, or ethics, or society, if there had been men in the space. It wasn’t just a domestic-abuse thing. It was about having a space to re-invent yourself.
“We might say it’s ‘OK to have a space that is defined by ethnicity, like an Irish club. So why not have a space defined by gender?’ It was quite a different time. The idea of a women-only space just doesn’t get public funding now... because of the Equality Act in 2010.”
The London Irish Women’s Centre held its closing party in March, 2012. A lot of its battles had been fought and won by then.. Its building was sold, and the funds used to start up Mind Yourself, a health-advice charity for men and women in London.
nBreaking Ground — The Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre will be screened at the Gate Cinema, North Main Street, Cork, 7pm, Monday, Nov 11. Further information: www.corkfilmfest.org.