Somers day done for the Irish in King's Cross

Somers day done for the Irish in King's Cross

IT’S a Friday afternoon and Martin Kerley is standing outside The Cock Tavern pub in Somers Town.

Half a mile away, Black Cabs snake through central London towards Kings Cross and the pavements on Euston Road double as pedestrian highways for commuters hurrying to St Pancras station.

Martin Kerley outside the Cock Tavern Pub in Somers Town
Martin Kerley outside the Cock Tavern Pub in Somers Town

Set back from the city’s coalface, Somers Town is a place of slower step.

At first glance the post code is a typical portrait of inner-city housing.

But a rich story of Irish emigration runs thick like cement through the bricks and mortar.

Now, the community’s ageing emigrants say they’re under siege from developers who have landed on their doorstep.

Kerley looks across the street and waves his arm in the direction of flats soon to be demolished to make way for the high-speed rail connection between London and Birmingham.

“The HS2 is coming in there,” he says. “Sure, it’s going to take out half of Camden!” Turning, he nods in the direction of King’s Cross and points at a dense cluster of new buildings that appear creeping ever nearer.

“The old Irish community here is all but gone,” he says, “I’m here 50 years and farthest I’ve moved is Somers Town and the Cali. [the Caledonian Road]. There’s not a lot of Irish left now but what’s here are hanging on.

“If this pub here goes the whole community is gone.”

O’Connor arrived to London from Limerick in 1967 so he’s spent a long time just a short walk from the station.

“The train arrived into Euston, I turned left for Somers Town and I never turned right again,” he laughs.

Places like King’s Cross, Euston and nearby Camden are synonymous with this generation of Irish. Emigrants settled where they stopped when they grew tired carrying their suitcases. On such decisions new lives were built.

The now quiet laneways and alleyways used to be a finishing school for old arrivals and a playschool for the new.

“Regeneration! Sure it’s all regeneration now isn’t it,” says Kerley. “You see people being sent away now up to places like Milton Keynes. We used to be all together.

“Years ago you’d get tons of pubs where we used to meet. Now you’d be lucky to get one pub on the walk up to Camden.”

This Irish way of life is in spectacular retreat and the community feels smothered by development projects threatening to suck the remaining air from their atmosphere.

In the centre of Somers Town, The Cock Tavern pub stands beaten and worn but a sturdy symbol of resistance all the same.

Greetings tumble like dominos when landlady Sheila Gavighan walks into the bar.

Robert Mulhern with landlady Sheila Gavighan.
Robert Mulhern with landlady Sheila Gavighan.

Behind the counter and beyond the pub walls the Sligo woman has become something of a community guardian. Trips to the doctors, home visits, holidays booked to Ireland for punters who left long before air travel became something sorted online.

Even funeral arrangements form part of her growing brief.

“I’d say 70% of my customers are Irish,” she says. “A lot of them came over 50 years ago. Some of them don’t have any family.

“You see what has happened in the last five years. They feel they are being pushed out and they take it personally.” Gavighan has been involved in a David and Goliath legal battle with developers keen for her to vacate the pub.

Backed by a binding lease agreement and community support - which was boosted by a Celtic Supporters Club and previously, by the late union kingpin Bob Crow — she remains.

“Sixteen years ago this was a back-end place,” she says. “Now there are blocks everywhere. They bought left and right. The Irish don’t recognise the King’s Cross they came to.”

This green-tinted view of the emigrant experience in King’s Cross is countered by the reality of inner-city life. Not too long ago it was a black spot for prostitution and street crime.

Paul Armstrong from Ardoyne used to walk these postcodes as part of his beat with the MET. It was a tough place to cut your teeth and the kind of place you might lose a few.

“They prefer it the old way as they knew it better,” says Sheila. “There were shops and football teams and bingo - a visible community.

“You would have the older generation with their grandkids and St Patrick’s Day here was a big meeting for them all. It wasn’t closed. They embraced the area. They never forgot their own and the older generation who wanted to go home.” A local man with an English accent, who asked not to be named, moved to Somers Town from Ireland as a child.

He explains the retreat of the Irish experience: “People feel let down because they were told there would be social housing for younger people here. When the second generation grew up they moved out and their parents were given the right to buy. A lot of them sold properties when the opportunity came. They weren’t sold to people in Somers Town.”

The planning department of Camden Council told us they have firm social housing commitments as part of future development demands.

Somers Town Development Plan.
Somers Town Development Plan.

However, the extent of that provision has been challenged by local publications like the Camden New Journal and on this day, pub goers.

Ray from Mayo is stood outside the Cock Tavern smoking a cigarette.

Anecdotally, he believes the council’s commitment to social housing is significantly less than stated.

“If someone passes away in a flat over there it might be boarded up and it won’t be let out ever again until some speculator comes in, even though it’s a social house.” he says. “It’s like speculator’s paradise here — you’ve got the Crick Institute and Eurostar. Everything now is built for tourists.”

For the Irish that remain, the future feels like a battle to hold onto the past. Those that endure feel ownership over a postcode they no longer recognise and for some there’s an acute fear of feeling displaced again.

“I’d say it started about 20 years ago to be quite honest,” says Ray. “And now I see the likes of Camden with nothing in it now for the Irish, no meeting places apart from this place here in Somers Town.

“You need to be a banker to live around here. This pub is the last symbol of Irish community in this area.”

More in this section

Click and connect: 100 places in Munster to shop locally this Christmas


We want to help you to connect with the people you love, but may not see, this Christmas.  Every Saturday, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we will publish your messages in print and online, starting November 28.

Say it here, in the Irish Examiner.