Feeling isolated in a strange new city
Bairbre Meade overcame loneliness in London by volunteering to collect the stories of other Irish immigrants
Coming over to London didn’t feel like a choice. I distinctly remember looking on a job site and realising that nothing had changed, not one new job was there, so I knew I had to leave.
I came over from the dole in Ireland and took a pay cut to be on the dole in England, but at least I had more of a chance of finding work here. I stayed on my friends’ couch. As welcome as I was in that flat, there was a horrible niggling feeling at the bottom of my stomach that I was one step away from being swallowed whole by this city. Maybe it’s the abundance of Irish literature reiterating the tales of those defeated by London, or the reality that when I chatted to homeless people, they were usually Irish.
I felt completely isolated, in a place that is eternally busy and loud. I had virtually no money, no job, and after months of being out of work at home and the months going by without paid work in London, I was losing hope.
I was becoming lonelier. I was really aware of how poor I was and how expensive everything was, and I had a lot of time to think about how little I had. I had travelled and lived abroad before, but always by choice. This time it felt like I’d been kicked out.
After months on that couch sending out CVs, I found work in a shop. At least with a pay cheque I could get a flat. I got a tiny room like a cell, that had previously been a porch in our basement apartment. There are no words for how much I loved that room, and how much having privacy and my very own shelf made me happy. But I still felt lonely in London.
I can honestly remember the moment everything changed. Well, my perspective changed, but it carried everything else with it. I was on the 243 bus going over Waterloo Bridge and I looked at the top of St Pauls, the National Theatre, the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was a beautiful summer day. I could see from the bus that South Bank was buzzing and thought, “If you’re not happy in this city, you only have yourself to blame”. It was true. I decided to act on it.
I visited a different place in London once a week, every week. Some weeks I would visit a touristy site, another I just walked around Peckham. It didn’t matter where I went, I just took some time to introduce myself to the city. London is filled with lots of boroughs that are entirely varied and interesting. It’s a city filled with markets, kooky cafes and lots of banter.
I also started volunteering with Mind Yourself. A friend of mine worked for the charity and suggested I help one of their volunteers who wanted to collect the stories of the Irish in London at a Create Your Own Myth workshop. Every week, we would meet with a group of people who identified as Irish, of various ages and work on telling each of their stories. It was fascinating, hearing the stories of what it is to feel Irish in London because your parents were Irish and you spent school holidays there, or the stories of working on the building sites in the 70s, or growing up in the North and what it meant to identify as Irish in troubled times.
Different people, different stories, different journeys. It made me see how being in London wasn’t just my story but a continuation of a shared story. That for all the different ways that we came here, the different times we arrived and the different stories we tell, all manage to be both new and old, surprising and familiar.
Since that time six of us have worked on a Door to Door project with Mind Yourself, collecting the stories of the Irish in London. We’ve talked to lots of people, received written stories, had them emailed, recorded them, created a story through art. We’re still continuing, because the journey continues.
There are so many of us over here simultaneously being a Londoner and Irish. There is something truly uplifting about having a week to celebrate being just that.
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.