Settling in London is much easier for our generation
We emigrate for many of the same reasons as our predecessors, but that’s where the similarities end, writes Dylan Haskins
I never thought I would live anywhere but Ireland. Throughout my teenage years and into my early 20s, I developed a network of people upon whom I could rely for support and collaboration with new ideas. It seemed counter-intuitive to then want to go to a bigger city, without any network and minimal contacts. But my gut told me I would regret it if I didn’t, and that now was the only chance I would have to challenge myself on a bigger platform. When you start to have multiple commitments in life, time becomes inflexible, but what’s a couple of years in your 20s?
So in November 2012, like a great many before me I took the boat from Dublin port and eight hours later arrived outside Euston station hauling a massive bag over each shoulder and wheeling my bike. But that’s where the situational similarity with those who came before me ends. In 1985, three-quarters of young Irish people who arrived in London, did so with less than £100 to their name. One third had less than £30. To put that in context, at the time £600 was necessary to secure a bedsit, so unsurprisingly three-quarters of Irish young people who arrived in London also spent their first night homeless on the streets, according to an RTE Archive report.
In 2014, people emigrate for much the same reasons – unemployment, better prospects, adventure – but the experience is a much easier one: most people have somewhere to stay for a start. It’s also true that Ireland feels a lot closer. From my room in Hackney in east London, I can listen to RTE Radio 1, read the Irish Times and chat with my friends and family online. Occasions such as the 2007 Ireland versus England rugby match in Croke Park, the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and the reciprocal State visit to Britain by President Higgins this week are symbolic of the political parity between our two countries and recognition of our economic and cultural co-dependence.
My first project since coming to London has strong ties with Ireland. Soundings is a new arts and culture podcast which I co-host with the musician Lisa Hannigan. We wanted to create an unpretentious culture show that could seriously discuss Colm Toibín’s latest novel in the same breath as the seminal 1990s action movie Point Break (episode #2). Occasionally we have guests, such as Harry Shearer of The Simpsons and This is Spinal Tap (episode #5), and we always try to feature something with an Irish connection in each episode, whether it’s Donal Ryan, The Gloaming or Philomena.
There’s an Irish connection too on the production side as Soundings came about with the backing of broadcaster Dermot O’Leary and his company. The Céiliúradh event at the Royal Albert Hall this week is the most anticipated of the Presidential State visit, and as a second generation Irish man knowledgeable and proud of his family roots in Co Wexford, Dermot will be a fitting Master of Ceremonies. His father’s story is that of thousands of other Irish immigrants who began their life in Britain as construction labourers and worked their way into all corners of British life.
While being Irish in Britain is an established minority identity – it’s a tickable box on government forms – what it means in 2014 is different for every person here. I brought the subject up at dinner with Irish housemates last week and there was no consensus. For me, it’s been a positive experience and I’ve been lucky enough to maintain work that brings me back to Ireland regularly.
Peter Ackroyd, the biographer of London, has written that it’s a city “in a constant state of becoming”, which offers a clue as to why so many people are drawn to it. In a city where things move rapidly, there are always new opportunities opening up. The balance to this is that it’s also very difficult to have any kind of rootedness in a city in flux. If you stop moving, it can run you over, and if you keep running, it’s easy to lose sight of a bigger picture. Perhaps this is why Irish people place such value on our culture and identity, it offers a direct line to our history and gives a rootedness regardless of where we are in the world.
In Soundings #11: John Cleese on creativity, Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, Philip King & Nuala O’ Connor’s music doc about trad super-group The Gloaming …And we strap a heart monitor to Lisa Hannigan and head to Ghost Stories in the West End.
This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.