The Centre of a London Christmas

For 60 years, the Camden LIC has welcomed, advised and entertained the Irish, and acted as a home from home for those who need reassurance, says Claire Droney.

IT’S COLD outside as a crowd gathers to watch the Christmas tree lights being turned on at the Camden London Irish Centre (LIC). Its CEO, David Barlow, speaks of loneliness, and hope for 2014, before London Irish rugby player, Jamie Hagan, switches on hundreds of multi-coloured lights, which twinkle in the night.

Inside, mulled wine bubbles in silver vats beside hot mince pies, and someone shouts out ‘Fairytale of New York’ as the band plays Christmas carols in the crowded ballroom.

An elderly man looks bemused as he wins a raffle prize of tickets to a Mick Flannery gig, and there are cheers as a woman wins a year’s supply of Barry’s Tea.

Located in Camden, between Amy Winehouse’s former home and a row of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers and cafés, the London Irish Centre will celebrate 60 years in existence next year.

“We’re in a phase of transition at the moment. Most Irish centres in Britain realise that the community is changing and we’re faced with the challenge of a very different expectation and understanding of Irish culture and community. We’re trying to balance two things: roots and relevance,” says the centre’s director of arts and culture, Gary Dunne.

The centre is busy: it has 20,000 followers on social media, and 60 Irish people arrive in Britain every day. Services include welfare and advice, including for pensioners, and the promotion of Irish arts and culture.

“We see ourselves as an Irish community centre. If Irish people need help in London, we’re here,” says Dunne.

Although closed on Christmas Day, the centre has a packed calendar for December, including a trip to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, a cinema outing to see Philomena and a pensioners’ Christmas lunch and quiz night.

“I love the centre, it’s my second home. There’s bingo and quiz nights and lots of entertainment. It’s a big part of my life,” says Mary Allen, 83, who joins her friends for lunch at the day centre three times a week.

The longest-standing member of the centre, Allen moved to London, from Waterford, to work as a nanny for a navy family in 1965. Having planned to stay for three months, she married an Irishman, and still loves London 48 years later.

“People say London was good to me, but I say we were good to London. We were all workers and they needed us,” says Allen.

Now a widow, Allen will travel to Sussex to spend Christmas Day with her daughters. “I couldn’t live at home now, because Ireland has changed. It’s not the Ireland we knew then,” says Allen.

In the foyer, young Irish women are finishing their drinks. Having travelled from west London, these first-time visitors to the centre are impressed.

“Tonight, we sang our hearts out and had good fun,” says Kathyrn, 30. Having moved from Ennis last year, Kathyrn loves London life, but hopes that bad weather won’t prevent her from flying home on Christmas Eve, into Shannon Airport.

“I don’t know of anyone who’s actually staying in London over Christmas,” she says. Julie, 29, is on a work transfer for a year, and Maureen, 28, is looking for a job.

“I feel like I’m still very much in touch with Ireland. I read all the Irish news and have the apps on my phone. I’ve lived in Sydney and it’s a different time zone there. It’s much easier here,” says Tracey, 30, from Co Mayo.

“There seems to be a lot of upcoming events for young people. I’ll definitely be back here to see Mick Flannery,” says Catherine, 30.

The women are emphatic that they will eventually return to Ireland. A week later, the pensioners’ Christmas party is in full swing.

Elderly women in coloured paper hats dance with each other, while dapper gentlemen, in a minority, sit at tables having pints or cups of tea.

“We come to absolutely everything,” says Christine Fahy, who started attending the centre after her husband died aged 55. “I didn’t know what I was going to do when I retired, and my friend told me to come up here,” she says.

Having moved from Co Carlow in 1954, Christine worked in catering, and met her husband a year later in the Blarney dancehall in Kilburn. She will spend Christmas with her daughter, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“It’s really good for elderly people to get out and mix, because so many are on their own, especially over Christmas. It’s great to get out and take part in things,” says Moira, from Donegal, who’s here with her partner, Cliff.

Tomorrow, they will have lunch at the Haringey Irish Centre Christmas party.

Many of the elderly Irish will spend Christmas with family. Others, like James Grey, (the Irish pensioner who placed an ad in a newspaper seeking company on Christmas Day) will spend it alone or in the company of acquaintances at the Irish centres, which will open for a few hours on Christmas Day. Grey has been inundated with invitations for Christmas lunch since he placed the ad. “It is so touching to me, after all these years alone, to see this response from people. I’m so appreciative of the offers. I should have done this years ago,” Grey said last week. Meanwhile, a man playing an accordion sings ‘The Hard Times are Over’ as ladies in Christmas hats and sparkly jewellery waltz, and shriek with laughter as they clink their glasses and pose for photographs of the Christmas celebrations at the London Irish Centre, 2013.


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