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The Irish ex-mayor of Ipswich: ‘When you move to the UK the difference in culture, humour and attitudes is obvious’

Mary Blake waved goodbye to her family in Artane when they moved to Ipswich. Little did she know she would join them and eventually become the town’s mayor

A familiar scene in Ireland over the centuries is a young person waving goodbye to their family as they seek a new life abroad. A less-familiar sight is a young person waving goodbye to their family and siblings as their family move abroad for a new life.

That’s what happened to me.

It was December 1971, there was a large removal van for the family and a small van moving me from Artane to my new home, a bedsitter in the Crescent in Fairview. I was 20 and it was my first stint at independent living.

The family were moving to Ipswich in Suffolk, a county in East Anglia in the east of England, a place we had barely heard of before the move, but after a Christmas visit I decided that I was going to live there too.


I was not overwhelmed when I arrived. I had been warned that Ipswich was not an exciting place to live. I regretted my decision immediately. No job, no friends, no social life – they were all things I had left behind in Dublin.

Things changed gradually. I found jobs, friends, relationships and even spent a few months in Germany as an au pair. Back in Ipswich I got married and settled into a life of domesticity that lasted two years.

By 1980 I had remarried and started a family and by the early 1980s this reluctant émigré was the only one in my family remaining in Ipswich.

By the time I’d had my third child I began to regret leaving school after my Inter Cert. I became interested in education and took the role of a governor in my children’s school. That led me to take an interest in policy matters and politics. I joined the British Labour Party and applied to and was accepted into the University of Essex when I was 40 to study sociology as a mature student.

My main interest was in the sociology of education and of health and illness. It was while studying for my third-year final project that I discovered that as an immigrant group the Irish had the highest mortality rate of all immigrant groups in the UK. This misfortune was replicated among second- and third-generation Irish.

I was surprised and my investigation led to the conclusion that a mixture of physical ailments and psychological issues were to blame. Being white and speaking English was no guarantee of an easier assimilation for many Irish people. It is only when you move to the UK that the difference in culture, in humour, lifestyle and attitudes becomes obvious.

Many overcome these differences and assimilate perfectly well, while others – more vulnerable, with more fragile support and with fewer means – struggle and are unable to recreate the lifestyle, the community from “home” with its familiarity, in a different country.

A very small number of immigrants return to Ireland and yet a greater number believe that they will when they first arrive.

I graduated in 1993 and in 1996 I became chair of a national organisation, the Campaign for State Education (Case). As an organisation we were committed to advocating for the best education for all children regardless of their position in life and calling for an end to selection by use of the 11-plus, which led to the categorisation of pupils at age 11 on the basis of an exam.

It was during this time that I got a job with the local education authority as an education welfare officer. Basically, it involved encouraging reluctant young school attendees to do just that – attend school. I didn’t love school myself, but had come to realise the importance of education to a young person’s life chances. I tried to convey that to my reluctant students.

In 1999 I was approached to become a councillor on Ipswich Borough Council. Ipswich had by now become a more vibrant town with a great cultural and sporting offering.

I was proud to be elected and involve myself in policies regarding the town and helping residents in my patch with their issues. After 13 years it was suggested that I become mayor of the town. I was elected to the role in the 2012 Olympic year.

Becoming mayor was a great honour, I was the town’s first Irish mayor and was very proud of that. It was a busy time and great fun.

It is a purely ceremonial, representative role and it involved projecting a positive image of the town on civic occasions. My job was to celebrate those devoted to helping others and generally turn up and smile on any occasion where the mayoral presence is required.

I attended sporting and cultural events, I visited schools, and was asked by one child at an event if a woman could be a mayor.

There is responsibility as well as privilege in the role, but the more tedious engagements were far outweighed by the social and fun events. We raised £21,000 during my year for my chosen charities: Women’s Aid, Crisis, the homelessness charity and Town 102, a children’s trust.

I went on to discover that there is nothing more ex than a past mayor. One minute you are the guest of honour at every event, the next you are making way for the new mayor. It was a lovely ending for my political career, however.

Now retired for 12 years, I read, play tennis, watch too much television and worry about a volatile world. But I continue to be encouraged by those seeking answers to inequality, injustice and inhumanity.

  • Mary Blake was born in Ballymun in 1951. She started school in Larne, Co Antrim when she was five. Both her parents were from Belfast. She moved back to Dublin when she was eight and her family moved to Ipswich in 1971. She joined them in 1972 when she was 20. She is still there.
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