Remembering the faithful departed (while they’re still with us)
An Irishman’s Diary about the forgotten Irish in Britain
Around the time that Mayo and Tyrone take to the pitch at Croke Park tomorrow, a team of Irish and British cyclists will be setting out on their own epic feat of athleticism. The scene will be Cornwall – Land’s End, to be exact – from where four Irishmen, two English, and a Scot will begin the 1,039-mile journey to the other end of the island: John o’ Groats.
The trek is, of course, to raise money, in this case for the Forgotten Irish Campaign, an offshoot of the Ireland Fund of Great Britain. But as with most such things, there is personal motivation too. One of the cyclists – all of whom will pay their own way – is Bernard McEvoy, a lawyer, some of whose close relations went to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s.
A series of TV programmes in recent years, detailing the poor conditions in which many emigrants of that generation now live, touched a chord with him. “I believe we, as a nation, owe them something better,” he says. So by way of a personal down-payment, Bernard is getting on his bike.
By coincidence, a few years ago, your diarist was part of a visit to London by the trophy towards which Mayo and Tyrone hope to move a step closer tomorrow. In fact, the Sam Maguire Cup was then the temporary property of Tyrone, whose captain escorted it to the Cricklewood Homeless Concern, along with 500 Christmas presents from Kerry. And happy as the occasion was, it also underlined the tortured experience that emigration to the UK must have been in the middle of the last century.
The elderly Irish getting their dinners in the CHC were all intimately familiar with the Sam Maguire (unlike the other nationalities present, including West Indians and Bangladeshis, who had never seen or heard of the cup before). It was part of their culture – they part-owned it in a way. And yet, in another way, they didn’t.
For many of their generation, to be an Irish emigrant in Britain was to be a cast-off, unsung and maybe unheard of again, once gone. At the very least, their experience carried none of the glamour of US emigration: a success story crowned annually by the swaggering display of ethnic power that shuts down Fifth Avenue every March 17th.
At worst, there was something shameful about having to go to England for work. The historian Ultan Cowley, who has written a definitive book on The Men Who Built Britain and who presents an acclaimed stage show on the experiences of the Irish navvy (see his website ultancowley.com), recalls a once-common practice in Irish courts whereby the judge would present an ultimatum to young men in trouble: “Go to jail, or go to England.”
But you didn’t have to have committed any crime to find England your only option. And to the usual traumas of emigration then were added the baggage of Anglo-Irish history. Or as one of Cowley’s emigrant voices put it: “They taught us to hate England, and then they sent us over here”.
Despite their neglect, the UK Irish were indispensable to the struggling motherland. They sent home billions during hard times. But just one year’s statistics are telling. In her history of the London-Irish, An Unconsidered People, Catherine Dunne records that in 1961, Ireland spent £14 million on its schools. In the same year, emigrant’s “remittances” (almost certainly under-reported) were £13.5 million. Much of that, ironically, came from people whose relationship with the Irish school system ended early.
The emigrants I met in Cricklewood had contrasting emotions about Ireland. One Kerryman in his mid-60s was about to come home, helped by a housing charity, and not at all worried about fitting in. Another man, from Galway, had tried to return, found it a bitter experience, and would not be trying again. Still, they all seemed to enjoy the courtesy call from Sam and, in general, just being remembered occasionally by the old country.
Bernard McEvoy and his team mention a recent visit to the Southwark Irish Pensioners Project, which supplies similar services to older emigrants in that part of central London. The project has in recent years suffered cuts in council grants, but the Ireland Fund has taken up some of the slack. It’s to support this sort of modest but important work that the bikers are traversing Britain. More details of their cycle are at justgiving.com/1039miles.