From an era of daily Mass to ‘Tedfest’: London Irish Centre celebrates its 60th anniversary

Set up by the church to help emigrants, the centre soon had a broader remit

Mon, Sep 1, 2014, 11:29

It is safe to say the 500 young people dressed as nuns, bishops, housekeepers and priests in a celebration of Father Ted were not what the founders of the London Irish Centre envisaged when they opened the doors with a view to maintaining the Catholic faith of emigrants who moved to London.

The summer Tedfest, at the centre on Camden Square in north London, was lauded as one of this year’s most successful events for the oldest and largest Irish community centre in Britain.

Now catering to an increasingly diverse Irish community, the London Irish Centre will this month celebrate its 60th anniversary, with events marking how it has changed since the Catholic church set up a fund to help those moving to London in the 1950s.

“The initial fund was set up, I suppose, primarily to keep people’s Catholic faith strong when they came to London and then they very quickly realised – it is very interesting to read the documents from the early years – that the more pressing frontline need was a bed and a job,” says Gary Dunne, the centre’s director of arts.

Established when there was a large movement of Irish workers to London, many of them labourers seeking opportunities in post-war Britain, the main social outlets at the time were pubs and dance halls, says Mary Allen (84) who moved to London in 1950.

The centre was then paid for by Camden Council as well as fundraisers such as dinner-dances, bazaars and bacon-and-cabbage suppers. Mass was held every night and three times on a Sunday with a priest, typically from the Oblate order, running the place. “I remember one of them washing down the walls in the kitchen,” Ms Allen says.

In the 1950s, a hostel housed some of the men who had travelled from Ireland for work and the centre acted as a place for the Irish to congregate as well as in the pubs, she adds.

In situations which are being echoed today, Dunne says archive records show how some would be unprepared when they arrived in London, with little, if any, money. They often sat outside waiting for the doors to open. “To move from rural Connemara in 1956, coming to Camden Town was a different universe,” he says.

A historical report on immigrants using the centre’s welfare services between 1974 and 1976 showed the majority were men between 18 and 25. “The main motives for leaving Ireland was unemployment, low wages, lack of job prospects; some were attracted to a new and better life in Britain. Some were leaving behind domestic problems or had some trouble with the law or place of employment,” it said.

Financial problems also beset the centre in the 1980s. Andy Rogers, a prominent member of the Irish community in London, worked for Bank of Ireland in Britain; the London Irish Centre’s account was one of the most “challenging”.

Typical banking practice at the time would have been to close the centre down but this was not considered, he says, and a portion of the interest on loans was written off.

With changes in the economy, first through the Celtic Tiger and then the financial downturn, the profile of Irish emigrants to London has also changed and, in turn, the profile of those going to the centre, Dunne adds.

“The history of the centre runs alongside the history of the Irish in London – changing communities, changing centre – and if we don’t change with that community we are not relevant.”

In a similar manner to the 1950s, there is still a “small but significant” proportion of people who arrive in London unprepared, according chief executive David Barlow. One in five people who received welfare services face to face last year had just arrived in London.

“They have no concept of the size of the city, the loneliness of the city if you don’t have a network of friends or family here. They don’t have any idea of basic things like how to get a national insurance number, what parts of London are cheaper than others and probably the most important issue is housing,” he says.

Barlow adds that it is “quite striking” the number of Irish clubs in Britain which are closing down. The London Irish Centre has in recent years made a push for a more diverse range of entertainment to attract the diverse sections of the Irish community in Britain, including events such as Tedfest, comedy nights and concerts. There are plans to have nights run by the centre in areas with large Irish populations such as Clapham and parts of east London.

Mary Allen has lunch at the centre three times a week, paying £5 for three courses.

“The Irish in London are not a homogenous community with the same cultural interests,” Dunne says. “They are as diverse as the Irish in Ireland. You will hear occasionally from the young crowd that ‘the Irish Centre is for older Irish people and it is not for me and I came to London to experience London’. Then you would get the older crowd [saying] that younger Irish people aren’t interested in the stuff we do, so there was a kind of disconnect there.”

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