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.

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