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‘For London’s homeless Irish, Britain is an evil stepmother, Ireland the parent who gave them up’

Being homesick in London is a privilege not afforded to all Irish people, says Emma Dooney

For the past five months, I have volunteered at a street kitchen that serves a large Irish community in north London.

I signed up out of guilt, no longer able to ignore the city’s homeless population, whose vulnerability was highlighted by former British home secretary Suella Braverman when she mooted banning tents for people sleeping rough.

I was also selfishly in need of perspective, a fast track to make me grateful for my cushy life in London. Since moving to an affluent postcode and becoming a Caffè Nero regular, I feared I’d started to ghost my privilege.

In true Catholic fashion, I thought it was high time I reacquainted myself with it.


It was on this mission to “check my privilege” that I uncovered one I didn’t even know I had: homesickness. Like most Irish expats, I’d always believed sentimentalism for Ireland only struck Americans and dead poets. It wasn’t until moving to London that I discovered just how wrong I was.

In my first weeks in Britain, homesickness hit me like a nasty detox. I welled up at the sight of Guinness. I craved the taste of Barry’s Tea. I missed the Angelus.

With returning to Ireland out of the question, due to a global pandemic, I nursed my symptoms with a cocktail of Ireland’s best outputs – Caroline O’Donoghue novels, Blind Boy podcasts and, of course, Toy Show clips.

After a diet rich in Celtic vitamins and a moderate amount of British twee, the fever, mercifully, cooled down. I concluded that this plague was a universal experience; a deserved punishment for living in the land of the coloniser. I have since come to realise that, along with high council tax and £4.50 (€5.25) lattes, homesickness for Ireland is a London hardship that only affects its privileged expats.

On my first shift at the street kitchen, one of the volunteers assured me “they’ll love you here”. Shamefully, I was mildly excited. In the hours before I started, I completed an anglicisation deep-clean. I erased the word “pardon” from my vocabulary, I left my freckles exposed, and I scoured RTÉ News for the latest scandals.

By the time I greeted my first Irish punter, I was salivating for a cultural Eucharist. “How are things?” I gush.,Hearing my words escape, I cringe.

They clock my accent instantly, and judging from their expression, I can already see what was coming next. Our connection is at risk; my insufferable D4 drawl has betrayed me.

“Where are you from in Ireland?” I ask, hoping I’d been there. A map of commuter towns flattens me; Mullingar, Drogheda, Ashbourne. They return the question, and I say Dublin, praying they don’t chase after the area. But they always do.

“Stillorgan,” I say, bracing myself for the reaction.

“The posh part!” Ciaran from Louth announces, leaving the non-Irish people around us bemused.

“When was the last time you were back?” I press. This is almost always met by weariness; an eye roll, a loud sigh. They name a year. Then they boomerang the question. I name a month: “August.”

We grapple for common ground. Their Irelands unfold like a Prime Time bulletin, punctuated by headlines of clerical abuse, drug addiction and abject poverty. One person tells me they were advised by their father to leave Limerick for London, where he assured them they’d be “safer”. I gulp, stunned by the suggestion that the British capital, with its knife crime and terrorism threats, could ever be considered a refuge from the Teletubby hills of Ireland.

“Do you miss it?” I ask.

They shrug, as if I’m asking if they miss a distant relative they’d met once when they were five.

And yet, despite this apathy, I’m always struck by how strong their Irishness is.

There’s Eoghan, who introduces himself by spelling his name as Gaelige. There’s Micheál, who serenades us with Irish folk songs in his husky baritone. There’s Peadar, who has a signature farmer’s cap and speaks with a lyrical Kerry accent. At first, I mistook these Irish expressions as national pride. However, I quickly came to see them as signs of isolation in England, where they once again had been shoved to live on the sidelines.

Since moving to London, I often find myself indulging my Irishness, romanticising the country as an island of rugged cliffs and toasty pubs and a president who resides in the Zoo. And why wouldn’t I; Ireland housed me, it educated me, it built me up to flee its nest and weave a bigger and more notion-y one somewhere else.

Ireland nurtured me when I lived there, it uplifts me when I visit, and it comforts me when I’m abroad. In fact, the latter, oddly enough, is one of the best things about emigrating.

For so many homeless Irish in London, Britain may be the evil stepmother, but Ireland is the biological parent who gave them up. Their indifference to their country might seem strange, even treacherous. But when you look closer, it makes perfect sense.

Home is more than the nation listed on your birth certificate, or the town where you spent your childhood. It is the place that makes you feel safe and welcome; a pair of open arms waiting to hold you on your return, no matter how far you went or how long you’ve been gone. Sadly, for the Irish homeless in London, these same arms that embrace me were used to push them off the island and, now that they’re gone, they remain tightly folded.

So the next time I weep for my country, I will keep in mind all those expats who have been denied the privilege of nostalgia.

Yes, homesickness is painful. But it is also a stark reminder that I was treated well in Ireland, and that no matter what happens to me overseas, I will always have somewhere to call my home. I only wish all of us Irish in London could suffer in the same way.

  • Emma Dooney is from Stillorgan in Dublin. She did a BA in English Studies at Trinity College Dublin, and then an MA in International Journalism at City, University of London in 2019. She is now a showbiz reporter at the Daily Mirror.
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