Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Immigrant song

Irish punk-rock band The Vagabonds (who have just changed their name to TV) left Dublin for London last October. They are rock ‘n’ roll immigrants, not as much living the dream as looking for it in the dustbins down the alleys of north London, writes lead singer David Phelan.

Mon, Jan 16, 2012, 11:09


Irish punk-rock band The Vagabonds (who have just changed their name to TV) left Dublin for London last October. They are rock ‘n’ roll immigrants, not as much living the dream as looking for it in the dustbins down the alleys of north London, writes lead singer David Phelan.

“HELLO, we’re The Vagabonds,” is what I find myself telling rooms of 40 or so people on most Friday nights. I like to think of us as rock ‘n’ roll immigrants, not as much living the dream as looking for it in the dustbins down the alleys of north London. I’m the lead singer, therefore I feel an obligation to make us work, to put us on the cover of magazines. . . to have Jim Carroll pester us for an interview. We left because this just wasn’t going to happen in Dublin, it wasn’t going the way we wanted. We had recorded an EP with Stephen Street (he of Blur and Smiths production fame), we had played support to a host of established acts, we had done some touring in the UK and yet, we were nowhere.

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The rock ‘n’ roll immigrant’s reality differs significantly from the notion however. Deal or No DealWho Wants to be a Millionaire?, old episodes of Bulls Eye – this is how my day is spent. If I had a pound for every time I saw a man from Barnsley sporting a horrendous mullet turn down Jim Bowen’s offer of a speed boat for fear of losing a sparkly tumble dryer and a Walkman I’d be the wealthiest Irishman in Golders Green. My name is Dave Phelan, and I’m an emigrant. I’m not a very good one though, in fact I’m pretty rubbish at emigrating. My reasons for leaving Ireland weren’t the usual ones, I had a good job doing what I loved but, as Leo Moran put it, I left her for another.

I still tell people my “proper” job is as a sub-editor – albeit a remarkably unemployed one. I don’t know why, but I feel it commands more respect than ‘singer in relatively obscure punk-rock quartet’. I’ve often read accounts by Irish immigrants that came here in the Fifties, and the near shame they felt for being not only an immigrant in Britain, but an Irish one in Britain. Even now, I think everyone feels it to a certain point. It’s like Britain is the social worker and Ireland the abusive parent, we’ll go back to the parent but only when she gives up the gargle.

Passing the ketchup, I’m sure, would be less tasking in the UN canteen than in my apartment. Along with the four Irish there is a Dutchman, an American and a Swede. This is the biggest difference, and probably the most enjoyable. It often feels a bit like a culture exchange; Swedish schnapps, maple doughnuts with streaky bacon and…whatever the Dutch do. This is an opportunity I’d never have taken advantage of in Dublin. I’d be in with a fella from Foxford or Carlow, unremarkable and much the same as myself.

It’s relatively easy to be Irish and stay within an Irish circle. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, maybe we should all be getting to know our English cousins a bit better but what’s the point really?  They’re much the same as the rest of us only a bit more proper and polite. Walking up and down Kilburn High Road you see the auld boys who left decades ago, you’d recognise an Irish nose a mile away. Some are weary and lonely looking – too much hard living – and some are respectably dapper but, in my experience, the former are more plentiful. Even so, it’s nice to walk into The Kingdom and see a man of at least 70 ask for a Club orange in a near impenetrable Kerry drawl, they’re the lads that never forgot but, rather, were forgotten.

The new-wave of Irish immigrants here have it relatively handy. We have Skype, we have Facebook, we have Ryanair, we have Barry’s tea in the ethnic (ETHNIC!) food section of Morrisson’s. There’s less of a chance of getting lost in the vastness of London, of suffering from anomie. However, there are inherent differences I will never get over, namely credit checks. The Brits love credit checks, if you’re getting a flat – credit check, if you’re getting a phone – credit check. Also, the strike-rate for a decent pub is significant lower. At home, I measure it at around 80 per cent, here it languishes at a lowly 40.

Due to my nationalistic upbringing and tendencies I thought there may be a quarrel with some of the less forgiving people here. Sometimes the baggage that comes with being an Irishman is overbearing, there’s an elephant in the room and it sports a large banner that reads “800 years”, but, thankfully, it is largely ignored. What is immediately apparent though is that our, or at least my own, knowledge of British geography is ten-fold of that which our counterparts have of Ireland. Admittedly, my knowledge of provincial English towns would be significantly lessened if I wasn’t an ardent football fan but I do get more than a pang of small-man syndrome because of it.

Sometimes it’s hard to look back home. To watch Michael D’s inauguration on my laptop was a moment of immense pride and regret for me. I want to be part of the Ireland he talked of but I know, despite Michael’s best intentions, it’s probably too romantic for even me to buy in to. All I can hope for is to prosper, in whatever I end up doing, and take that home with me. If all else fails, I’m going on Bulls Eye.

Download a free copy of The Vagabonds debut EP ‘Another Victory for Hysteria’ at

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