Six decades of the Irish in London

The Irish Centre in London’s Camden Town is re-branding as it celebrates its 60th Paddy’s Day, writes Claire Droney.

Six decades of the Irish in London

IT’S SUNDAY night at the London Irish Centre (LIC) in Camden, and the weekly céilí is about to start. One woman collects the entrance fees while a group of eight in the centre of the hall break into peals of laughter as they practise their dance steps ahead of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations next week.

Accordion player Tony Kearney, originally from Cork, first played here in 1976. “It used to be packed on a Sunday morning at 11.30am. Now we get about 30 or 40,” says Kearney, who played at a tea dance yesterday, and will play in a pub on St Patrick’s Day.

While the younger generation form WhatsApp groups, and arrange meet-ups via ever-expanding group emails which read like digital roll calls of young Irish immigrants, the middle-aged and elderly travel to tea dances, céilís, quizzes, raffles and lunches at Irish centres all over London. On St Patrick’s Day, many will come to the LIC to enjoy the traditional bacon and cabbage lunch and an afternoon tea dance, followed by traditional Irish sessions presided over by the ‘Late Late Show’ house band.

Mary Murphy with John Mulligan and John Beirne

Joan Noonan, Kay Rearden and Cathy Hyndman sip drinks after travelling for an hour from Edgware to get here.

“We used to go dancing in the Avoca in Harlesden or the Bamba in Kilburn on a Sunday afternoon,” says Cathy, who moved to London from Westmeath in 1958.

“Ireland is still home,” says Noreen, as she changes into her Irish dancing shoes. She came to London for a summer holiday 25 years ago, and never left. As they dance, these men and women brush past ghosts of members past from a time when the centre was a stop-off on most Irish people’s London itinerary during the 1970s.

“The Irish Centre is not like it used to be. The young people aren’t coming here now, they’re going to the pubs and other places. It’s a different, more educated class of Irish immigrant as well now. It’s very sad to see it,” says compere Anton Coyle, who has been hosting the céilí night here for the past 35 years.

Christine Fahy and Mary Murphy

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the LIC is working hard to re-brand and re-invigorate its image.

‘It’s a very interesting time. Most Irish centres in Britain realise that the community is changing and are faced with a challenge of very different expectations and understanding of Irish culture and community,’ says LIC director of arts, Gary Dunne, who says that LIC services are “booming”.

Anniversary celebrations include gigs by Mick Flannery, John Spillane and Brian Kennedy, as well as seminars. LIC staff are also campaigning for a memorial to Irish immigrants in Euston Station. “The Irish emigrants who came in the 1960s made a massive social and cultural contribution to Britain, and we think it’s important to mark it,” says Dunne.

The LIC has two main goals: to support Irish people in need, and to promote Irish culture in Britain. The welfare office helps with a wide range of issues including access to benefits, housing and outreach services for elderly clients. The service dealt with over 13,000 individuals last year, and is now increasingly helping young Irish people who arrive in London totally unprepared for life here.

Rosanna Harrington and Mary Talbot

“We’re giving a lot of advice on the phone now and the young people we’re dealing with tend to be very vulnerable,” says director of welfare, Jenny Dunne.

“They turn up having left Ireland on a Friday night with a couple of hundred euro, and don’t realise that it can take weeks to get a National Insurance number. They might contact us two weeks or three months after they arrive, and things have fallen through,” she says.

Most recently, they helped to rehouse a 22-year-old Irish man who fled Ireland after experiencing physical violence from a family member after he told them he was gay. Having spent some time in night shelters over the winter, the man is now considering job options with the help of the LIC staff.

Another 28-year-old man with mental health difficulties arrived to the centre late one Friday afternoon. The LIC staff helped him to return to his family in Ireland.

At Day Services, Rosanna Harrington tucks into a roast dinner in a packed room full of pensioners (from ages 55-98) who attend the Luncheon Club up to four times a week, as well as participating in regular day trips.

Mary Simmons and Teresa Lyons

Harrington moved to London in 1946, and returned to Ireland last year on holiday.

“I hadn’t been back for ages and at the time, I did think it’s a shame I’m going back to London. But then I wonder, could I live there now? But you do need to know what’s going on in Ireland. What I miss the most is Irish television, especially the Late Late Show,” she says.

“There’s a need for immigrants to have a certain ‘shillelagh-ness’. The pensioners love listening to old Irish tunes. It’s like the Ireland they knew doesn’t exist anymore, but they believe it does. The island they remember is long gone. You can over-identify with something when you’re away from it,” says Day Centre director, Dane Buckley.

Back at the céilí, one woman cools herself down with a Chinese fan. It’s almost time for the weekly raffle. Regulars welcome new faces, whispering directions as they twirl and whirl and triple-step and clap and slap through myriad dances.

Down the road at Camden tube station, homeless men sit on the pavement and goth-like teenagers smoke outside The World’s End pub. All totally unaware of the joyous dancing happening in the London Irish Centre on a quiet Sunday evening.

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