Taylor triumphs where Ray and Philomena sang
LONDON LETTER:It was to those lost Irish of impoverished decades that Katie Taylor’s glittering London moment spoke most clearly, writes KEITH DUGGAN
NEIGHBOURHOODS DISAPPEAR. When Paddy Barnes won his bronze medal on Wednesday night, you could still hear the Irish whoops of delight in the pubs along Cricklewood Broadway. But the cheering was so faint that it sounded ghostly.
For 60 years, the famous strip between Kilburn and the Crown pub was unquestionably the one mile of London that could be said to belong to the Irish.
Over 20 years ago, a bunch of us spent a summer there: we were 17 and couldn’t be trusted to cross the road safely, let alone navigate this vast imperious city. And for thousands of young Irish men and women who moved to London not just for summers but for life, Cricklewood made the transition a bit less intimidating and strange.
If you have never seen the Crown bar, then it is worth the visit: a palatial Victorian red-brick vision set back from the Broadway: it looked regal in the heart of the endlessly busy street choc-a-bloc with cafés and fruit stalls and pubs and cafes that advertised bacon and cabbage and roast chicken specials on pink and yellow cardboard, cut into stars and pasted onto the windows.
From dawn until dusk, the Broadway was teeming with Irish accents from every county. It was in the Crown pub that we watched David O’Leary wrap his penalty across Silviu Lung in the 1990 World Cup. The place was heaving and the drinking heavy.
What I most remember about the Crown and McGovern’s of Kilburn were the Thursday evenings when weekly cheques were cashed. The queues to the hatch went on for hours. The drinking was of the most consequential kind: steady and endless. All the pubs used to serve huge meat-and-two-veg dinners at such inexpensive prices that it felt like charity.
In their whirlwind tour of London over the last fortnight, it is unlikely that David Cameron and Boris Johnson found the time to pay a visit to Cricklewood to see how the Olympics are faring there. Beneath all the optimism and sunshine and brilliant stories which have lit these games, there is a bit of a debate going on in England. A few notable commentators have noted their quiet discomfort at the slightly delirious glorying in good old Great Britain’s success.
The most explicit objection came, predictably enough, from Morrissey, another emigrant son of Ireland and former frontman with The Smiths. Old Moz decried England as being “foul with patriotism!” during these Olympics and blasted the “blustering jingoism” that went with it. Maybe it was. But what has been striking about London over the past fortnight are not the Union Jacks, but the sheer happiness and relief that these Olympics have been a success. It is a measure of just how far GB’s confidence and esteem has fallen: from the Empire where the sun never sets to a nation that didn’t truly believe it could successfully run a very big sports tournament.
These have been a dreamlike two weeks for the Brits and when he is old and grey, David Cameron might well reflect that they were as close as he ever got to seeing his Big Society. London has pulsed with goodwill and happiness. It has been friendly. It has been great. So much of English sport is caught up in disappointment and serial blame and retribution that the uncomplicated success of the British athletes have taken the public aback. They can’t get enough of it.
Minutes before Katie Taylor fought in the boxing arena on Thursday afternoon, England’s Nicola Adams become the first ever woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing. Like Taylor, the Leeds woman has a brilliant story and handles herself with class.
The Irish crowd cheered for her in her fight but as soon as if was over they just wanted to see Taylor. They sang The Fields of Athenry as the ring was set up for Adam’s gold-medal ceremony, and for a few minutes, the place was alive with the possibility of God Save Our Queen and the line about Trevelyn’s corn being sung in the same place at the same time. Thankfully, they gave hushed up, but the Brits in the arena were just as enthralled with Katie Taylor as the Irish fans. Everyone was on their feet at the end. By 6pm on Thursday, Taylor must have felt like the most famous woman in London.
Katie Taylor was born in 1986, when the Irish drift towards London and other cities was still thick. Cricklewood Broadway was as crowded that year as it had ever been.
So it was a shock to see just how much had vanished in the space of 20 years. The green neon sign for the Galtymore ballroom, where Ray and Philomena sang, is gone and the ballroom with it. For 60 years, it had been the Saturday night portal: you paid your fee, stepped in and were transported back to the dance halls and night clubs of wherever you came from. The cafés serving the Full Irish all day long have been replaced by sparkling coffee joints and wonderful looking Sri Lankan and Persian restaurants now dominate the long mile walk up to Kilburn.
McGoverns of Kilburn, too, is gone: it has become a stylised American dive bar. The Crown is still there but it has become part of a sleek hotel in whose lobby you could hear accents from all over Europe. It is hard to argue that the strip hasn’t changed for the better.
Still. In London, there are plaques marking the birthplaces of long dead poets and politicians and scientists. It is one of the many charms: the place is an endless museum. But maybe they should put up plaques to mark the existence of places like McGovern’s and the Galtymore too. Yes, many Irish men probably drank themselves into an early grave around Cricklewood and Kilburn. But they would have been lost without the company and the food and familiarity of those places.
The closure of the Galtymore – they bowed out with Big Tom and the Mainliners – and the decline of the Irish influence along the Broadway only happened because over the last two decades, young Irish men and women no longer needed what it had to offer.
The remaining Irish of that era are still to be found around the streets not far from Willesden Green or Kilburn: the lifers who came to London because that was what you did and sent money back home and worked savagely hard for 49 weeks of the year.
And it was to those lost Irish of impoverished decades, rather than those of us fortunate enough to be in the arena, that Katie Taylor’s glittering London moment spoke most clearly. For years, it would have been impossible to imagine any Irish person – let alone an Irish woman – becoming such a figure of hope and heroism in the big city. To behold this young Irish person: the toast of London. They would not have imagined it in the years when the craic was good in Cricklewood and the Galtymore was the only show in town. Not in their wildest dreams.