Telling stories about the Irish experience in London
In today’s Doc on One, Robert Mulhern travels the London Underground to capture the voices of the ‘mammy’ away from home, the retired drinkers and the ‘boys’ from Connemara still finding their feet
I arrived in London in April 2008. Before I left home my mother asked me had I organised somewhere to live? Of course I hadn’t. “Sure have you not seen the size of the place? There’ll be loads”.
So I spent the first two weeks living out of a hostel near Ravenscourt Park, walking to work at The Irish Post in a new brown suit. I must have been the best dressed backpacker in West London.
It took a while to get going but networking through friends in Kildare I got out of the hostel and into a room over a pub.
That first Saturday night I asked the landlord could he put on TG4 – he had an Irish Sky box down the back – much sought after contraband for the overseas sports fan. The Kildare under-21s were playing and I was homesick. I sat down and smiled at strangers little knowing they’d soon become firm friends.
I wondered how things were going to work out. I still wonder.
Those early days were full of the kind of confusion you feel when you’re out of your comfort zone. I was out of mine.
I was 30 when I arrived in London, I followed a job, “a short term contract,” they said, “ Just three months,” they said…and now, five years later…
London was the last place on my mind. My perception of the city wasn’t good. Growing up, I’d watch RTE’s Brian O’Connell file his news reports from outside Westminster and none of them were cheery.
It felt like Irish people fell through the gaps in London. The Troubles in the north of Ireland and the IRA bombing campaign further widened those gaps. Later I learned that it wasn’t just people who fell through them, but all their stories, shouted down by the noise of explosions, the weight of sad tales, the unbalanced reporting.
My Uncle Jimmy would come back from St Albans and my Uncle Martin would return from West Ham, both on holidays. I loved their sceals: the ducking, the weaving, the drinking, the characters. I’d always go with my Da when he was bringing them to the plane. On the way home I’d ask: “Will they ever come back?” Only Jimmy made it. But when he did it felt like he wasn’t back where he belonged. He was gone too long.
It skewed my perspective of the place.
But then all my family had done “their time” here and got out. My Da met my ma here, my sister never used the tube here; imagine, got taxis everywhere.
Some of my relations were among the “Men who built Britain”, others nursed the National Health Service (NHS) through its early years. Two massive social achievements that more should be made of.
After a couple of years in London pennies like these achievements started dropping like pounds. Because contrary to the Pogues song, it didn’t rain every night in Soho and Barry McGuigan’s World Title success in Loftus Road in 1985 wasn’t our only cause for celebration: There were thousands of “ordinary” people in London leading extraordinary lives, doing well, some really well.
I’m impressed by their stories, always, fascinated by what they did and how they did it? But being Irish in Britain never got the same billing as being Irish in America.
And always the enduring question: “Will you go back?”
Because while there’s often discomfort in living away, there’s comfort in sharing that experience with others. And they say there’s no community in London? Another myth.
As long as I’m in London I’ll be asking Irish people how long they’ve been in England and whether they plan on staying? We all do it, search for some kind of insight. If that’s a small quirk of living away, then the big one is how well disposed the English are to us.
So five years later, Liam O’Brien from the RTE Doc on One series asks me: “What’s London like?”
I still don’t know how to answer that question. When I return home I just say it’s “grand” leave it at that then try and join back in on the conversations which didn’t stop when I left. It can take a couple of days but then I don’t share the same kind of life anymore.
So what’s the easiest way to sum up London, well, you do more and sleep less.
I got used to it, have been hardened by it. I go home now and acts of friendliness from strangers check my step then slow it when it comes to flying back… just when I’ve gotten used to it again.
But I’ll never get used to that bit – leaving.
Yet these things are not enough to bring me back. Not yet
London is addictive, the opportunity, the everything about the place and the absence of any pressure to conform to anything.
Then there’s the people, more than eight million and 200,000 of them Irish and I’m tasked with trying to tell their story. It’s liked being asked to tell the story of the Irish in Cork because the Irish experience in London is so rich and so varied.
Still, the experience has changed and no matter how well anyone is doing some feelings will always remain the same – you become more Irish by virtue of the fact that identity sets you apart and the ones that stand in London pubs during Amhrain na bhFiann, more again.
I could write another 1,000 words about what London is like and what’s it like to be Irish here but these people I was fortunate enough to meet and interview for today’s Doc on One are worthy of a listen.
In the movie, In the Name of the Father, Giuseppe Conlon walks his son Gerry to the boat in Belfast and just before he leaves he tells him to “go and live”.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time here will tell you advice like that is impossible to ignore.
Robert Mulhern is a print and broadcast journalist working in London. His Doc on One documentary Over There: The Green Line about the Irish in London airs today on RTÉ Radio 1 at 6.05pm, or can be listened to online here.