‘Gutted’and ‘beyond sad’ are just a few of the responses from the Irish diaspora in Britain and their relatives after RTÉ announced their decision to axe its longwave radio service in January.
“Irish radio is an anchor for older people, it’s a cultural comfort for people who are already at risk of isolation,” says CEO of Irish in Britain, Jennie McShannon, who has launched an online petition against the move.
Family Carers manager for Irish Community Services in London, Eileen Taylor agrees.
“The radio can be a lifeline. Often the family carer will put it on, because the voices and accents remind them of home. Despite often having some crackling interference, they love it,” she says.
In contrast, the younger emigrants just really aren’t that bothered. And that’s because the emigrant experience has been notably different for the often more educated Irish who left Ireland in the 1990s and noughties and even the 1980s — many of these leaving by choice.
I met with one emigrant who left in 1947 and another in 2009 and saw how different emigration experience has been:
“It’ll be terrible if they stop it. I had a laptop but I couldn’t use it and I can’t go online because of my eyes. I depend on the radio now and there must be lots of people like me. When you’re in a house on your own, you can be isolated,” says Agnes, aged 91.
Registered as blind, Agnes often listens to RTE radio in the kitchen of her house in Greenwich. Just able to discern shapes and blurred outlines, Agnes has arranged her home so that everything has its own particular place. There are black and white family photographs positioned under the glass tops of a nest of coffee tables (“I know these photographs so well that I don’t have to see them to know what’s in them”), a Cork and Kerry teddy bear perched on the sofa, and a bottle of Guinness engraved with Agnes’ name sits in a glass cabinet beside vintage crockery.
“TV is no more use to me now and that’s why I listen to the radio. I like the music and the Marion Finucane show, but it’s very crackly. I suppose the Irish is steeped in me and that’s why I listen,” says Agnes, who remembers dancing to the melodian around the kitchen dresser at home, and on a wooden stage at the crossroads near Kinsale when she was young.
Currently the president of Irish Community Services, as well as volunteering to sing at pensioners’ music groups, Agnes has always been involved in Irish-related activities since moving to London in 1947 after her (Kinsale-born) husband left the army.
“It was a culture shock when I arrived in London. We had an electric cooker and running water. In Kinsale we used to have a pony and trap to go to the well to fill up the water. I didn’t love London at first and used to just wish for someone to talk to,” says Agnes, who joined the Kinsale and London District Associations with her husband.
‘I always got on well with the English people; we used to go dancing with them every Friday. I also met people from every county in Ireland and you wouldn’t meet them unless you were in the associations. We wrote a newsletter called ‘Charlesfort’ and sent it to Kinsale people all over the world, and people wrote back to us with their news,” she says.
After retiring (and with two grown-up sons), Agnes and her husband planned to return to Kinsale to live, but two days before they were due to close the deal on a house in Kinsale, Agnes’ husband died.
‘I had a lot of sadness because my husband died. We only had two years of his retirement. It was then I got involved with Irish Community Services and I steeped my life in it. You just have to get up and get on with it, and make the most of it,” she says.
When Agnes moved to the Greenwich Almshouses, she became part of what she describes as ‘Little Ireland.’ Two of her friends pass by on the way to the shops, and one drops over copies of the Irish Post with photographs of Agnes being recognised in a special tribute by Ireland’s ambassador in London, Daniel Mulhall, for her contribution to Irish Community Services.
“I would listen to RTE radio. I feel very Irish, but I don’t go home as often as I did when my mother was alive,” says Bridie Holmes, 85, who came to London in 1961.
“Once you have grandchildren here in England, you stay,” says Joan Keating, from Tipperary.
“We went to the Embassy to see the Irish president and outside a radio station asked me to describe Ireland in one sentence. I told them I’ve been here for many, many years but Ireland is still home,” says Agnes.
Later today, Agnes may take the bus to nearby Peckham to pick up Clonakilty sausages and black and white pudding in a recently discovered Irish shop there.
“There’s one thing truthfully now that I can’t stand and that’s the English sausages,” she laughs.
“It’s sad about longwave radio. I used to listen to Ray D’Arcy for a long time when I first moved here, but then I changed to podcasts,” says children’s author and illustrator, Sheena Dempsey, 34, who also listens to music, audiobooks or podcasts of American radio shows on her computer, while working from home.
Having moved to London five years ago, Dempsey (originally from Cork) stays connected with her friends in Ireland via Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram.
“It’s not good to lose touch and I always make an effort to round them all up and meet up somewhere a few times a year,” she says.
Dempsey has embraced the diversity and stimulation of London life.
“I love London. Besides the beauty of the city itself and its preserved green spaces and parks, I love the endless interesting things on offer, including shows and exhibitions. There is no such thing as boredom... I’ve never had that feeling of homesickness, This is my home, and Ireland is only across the water,’ says Demspey, who returns to Ireland three times a year.
Dempsey attributes her fluctuating sense of connection to Ireland with the fact there is little of her family left there now. Her siblings live in New York and they spend family holidays there, or in Portugal.
“I have a lot of national pride and love to see Irish people doing well. I’m sure if my siblings and their children were there I’d be back and forth all the time and would miss it much more,” she says.
Dempsey has previously visited a London Irish Centre to support a friend who works there and she has been to the Irish Embassy for work-related reasons. She occasionally goes to watch GAA matches in the local pub with her Irish boyfriend. She has Irish friends there as well as friends of different nationalities.
At times though, she dreams of leaving the hustle and bustle of London.
“Irish people have a natural warmth that you forget about until you go home and go into a shop or something, especially in Cork. I’m always struck by it. I have a slight fantasy of going back to rural Ireland eventually, but who knows,” she says.
She admits to occasional moments of nostalgia.
“Recently, there were four of us in a taxi and we started singing loads of Ger Wolfe songs. Drink was taken, admittedly, but we actually all got a bit maudlin and watery-eyed.”