Co Leitrim to Birmingham: Get the boat, get the start, get on

Tony Downey went from Yeats’s Faeryland to the ferry, but Dromahair will always have a place in his heart

WB Yeats wrote two poems about Dromahair, Co Leitrim where I was born and reared. One was about a fair day, the other about a saintly priest. And he called the first poem, The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland.

That’s it, that’s where I grew up. In Faeryland.

And it was.

Although the general view was of a bleak Ireland in the 1950s – I was born in 1951 – mine was a blissfully happy childhood. But there was always an undertone. Leitrim was losing its people.


It was commonplace, but there was an assumption that leaving was an option. The train from nearby Sligo to Dublin connected fairly seamlessly with the ferry from Dún Laoghaire – always called “the boat”, or “taking the boat”. The commonly held view among the Irish in Britain was that there was nothing for it but the boat. Get the boat, get the start, get on.

I had a few years as a student in Dublin and then Galway. I was absorbed by Dramsoc in UCD and then UCG. I had the Dip (the HDip in Education was always called the Dip); I needed the start. Clarity. No ambiguity. The Dip, the boat, the start. There was no chance of the start in a school in Ireland. Where to? Nothing for it but to take the boat to England.

In 1973, I went to London and later Birmingham as a teacher.

Two London schools, two Birmingham colleges and I retired as a head teacher in a secondary school in Burton in Staffordshire. I loved it. Loved telling stories I suppose.

Naturally, getting a new teaching job meant writing letters of application. I always added: married with three children. Now I can add seven grandchildren. Joy.

We live in Lichfield near Birmingham, a small cathedral city. Family holidays were spent back home in Leitrim. It was and is always going home. Some say I’ve never left. Maybe not.

I began to write stories during lockdown onmy journey, one man’s journey, a journey so many others made, on a road well travelled from Leitrim to Birmingham.

We came looking for the start. And I have a front-row seat after 50 years here. The podcast of my stories are not academic, just stories. Each one is about 30 minutes long. One listener’s compliment was that they help her get to sleep. I hope that itself is a sort of well done, an acknowledgement that this journey needs to be celebrated, that we came here to get on. We did. We got the start.

One story looks at a family of five equine vets, another at one of the girls in green playing soccer in the Women’s Super League. Working on the buildings is key. A song sung by The Dubliners calls it Building up and Tearing England Down. Any chance of the start?

One story is about the building workers. Others show the journey we made, especially that awful boat – everyone who was on those awful ferries has a story to tell. Maybe that’s it: that there is a story to tell. Stories about Gaelic football clubs near Spaghetti Junction and music sessions and the best of musicians here in Birmingham.

Everyone agrees on one thing: that we worked hard to get on.

And then, after a tough day’s shift, the Irish in the English Midlands built communities through football, dancing and other social clubs. Built a home. A Coventry/Irish YouTube video called it right. Irish Heart, Coventry Home. It’s a good watch.

I enjoyed the day President Michael D Higgins came to visit Coventry. He said he got it. He understood. His sisters arrived in Manchester with £10 and a suitcase. The 80-year-old woman beside me commented knowingly, “that much”? He was saying Irish emigrants got on, even though they arrived with little. Some others found the going tough.

If Yeats’s poem, The Ballad of Father Gilligan, had a saintly priest in Dromahair, Birmingham had a colossus of good leadership from Fr Joe Taaffe, a saintly Mayo man. He championed the six so badly wronged in a cruel miscarriage of justice.

For years, Sr Sabina’s remarkable outreach to the homeless in Birmingham galvanised the whole Irish community here. Both deserve a scholarly academic study.

We left. Left to get the start, to get on. Leaving Ireland still feels like yesterday. There was nothing for it but the boat. From that to work, to families. One of my characters says this (for me, of course), “my greatest success is being grandad”.

My grandchildren often ask why we left the lovely scenery of Co Leitrim.

My answer: “You can’t eat scenery.”

  • Tony Downey lives in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He left Dromahair, Co Leitrim in 1973. He recorded 30 stories, Leitrim to Birmingham, about emigration, settling and playing music (available on Spotify and Soundcloud).
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