Generation Emigration

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President’s visit to the UK strenthened ties between countries

The recent visit of President Michael D Higgins to Liverpool and Manchester is a reminder both of long-established Irish communities in the north-west of England, and of growing numbers of new settlers, writes Declan McSweeney.

Tue, Nov 27, 2012, 11:52

   

The recent visit of President Michael D Higgins to Liverpool and Manchester is a reminder both of long-established Irish communities in the north-west of England, and of growing numbers of new settlers, writes Declan McSweeney.

President Michael D Higgins lays a wreath at the Great Hunger Memorial at St Lukes Gardens in Liverpool last week. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennells

As a former resident of Manchester, last week’s visit was undoubtedly a meaningful one for President Michael D Higgins, but it was also an extremely important one for the Irish communities in both cities.

In Liverpool, I was privileged to be invited to two events last week, a reception on board the LE Eithne to mark the local launch of The Gathering, and another at St Michael’s Irish Centre where the President met groups connected with the Irish community.

There was a striking difference in the two functions – The Gathering launch attracted the movers and shakers of the Irish community, including prominent business people and academics. The St Michael’s event was attended mainly by pensioners who came to Merseyside as far back as the 1950s and 60s, as well as people involved in groups like Irish Community Care Merseyside (ICCM), local GAA clubs and Irish language and music organisations.

What was palpable was that President Higgins showed as much respect to those in St Michael’s as to those on board the naval vessel. He stressed the need to remember those who were vulnerable as well as those who were successful.

It felt, at times, like the Irish were taking over Liverpool, as I saw the tricolour flying and observed the coats of arms of each of the 32 counties. For older people present, there was a huge sense of pride that the President of Ireland had come to meet them, and to pay tribute to the “Emigrants’ Remittances” which long formed part of the Irish economy.

I was part of the delegation from ICCM which met the President, which included people from Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as people of Irish descent born in Britain.

We were Catholic, Protestant and non-religious, with some from the Afro-Irish and Irish Traveller communities, and people who had known hardship on the city’s streets and had been helped back on their feet by Breege McDaid and her team at ICCM, as well as volunteers who help in its work.

President Higgins paid tribute to the memory of the late Tommy Walsh, first chairman of ICCM, and was presented with a copy of his history of the Irish in Liverpool by his sister, Sadie.

He recalled figures from a Liverpool-Irish background as diverse as “Big Jim” Larkin and footballers John Aldridge and Kevin Sheedy. It was surreal to meet members of An Garda Síochána there (in plain clothes, of course) while Merseyside Police were on duty outside. Members of Comhaltas provided traditional music, while Pat Lynch of St Michael’s greeted the President and his wife Sabina, as well as ambassador Bobby McDonagh and his wife Mary, in Irish as well as English.

During various engagements in Liverpool, President Higgins appealed to the more prosperous members of the Irish community to help those less fortunate. In addition to delivering the John Kennedy Lecture at the University of Liverpool, he laid a wreath at the Famine memorial at St Luke’s “bombed-out” Church, an old church shelled by the Nazis in World War II.

The memorial, in both Irish and English, commemorates those who died in Liverpool after fleeing from the Famine, but it is only one of a number of such memorials. Another outside St Patrick’s Church in Toxteth commemorates ten priests, including three from that church, who died in the typhus epidemic of 1847 that spread as the Irish arrived.

In a nutshell, the visit of the President was of great value in strengthening ties between Ireland and its diaspora, including the older generation whose remittances played a vital role in the country’s development.

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