Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

London: A Tale of Two Cities?

Recent Irish arrivals in London make little effort to engage with the older Irish community, associating Irishness with material items such as tea and crisps instead of the religious, cultural and sporting affiliations that kept previous generations together, writes Macdara Dwyer.

Wed, Jul 4, 2012, 11:13


Recent Irish arrivals in London make little effort to engage with the older Irish community, associating Irishness with material items such as tea and crisps instead of the religious, cultural and sporting affiliations that kept previous generations together, writes Macdara Dwyer.

Macdara with his girlfriend Sophie Smyth outside the British Library

I moved to London with my girlfriend in September 2009, approximately one year after the Irish economy began to implode. Since then, I have started a history PhD in King’s College and found employment with relative ease. I have made friends with Londoners, both English and expatriate, and my girlfriend has managed to get her career in media off to a running start.

It is apparent that our decision was far from unique; while this page hosts the stories of individuals from some very exotic locations, the majority of modern Irish emigrants have terminated their journeys somewhere in the Anglophone world. The overwhelming evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, indicates that the preferred destinations are Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, of course, the UK and the US.

Migration is one of the defining historical themes of Ireland’s interaction with the rest of the world, especially movements to the Antipodes and North America; but it has also been and remains one of the main engines of the Anglo-Irish relationship. From the capture of St Patrick, through the arrival of the Anglo-Normans and the Plantations, English and Scots arrived here in massive numbers in the medieval and early-modern period, making no mean mark on the fabric of Irish social life, culture and institutions.

Likewise, migration to Britain has been a persistent feature of the Irish experience, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before abating in the sunshine of prosperity that marked the period 1994 – 2008. That, however, has all changed and a new generation of migrants are arriving in Britain after the previous twenty year lull; the CSO estimates that 1,000 people left for Britain every month in 2011 and majority of these undoubtedly headed for London.

In this regard, London offers an unparalleled example for analysts of the Irish diaspora; it is a city that has a very large population of recent arrivals co-existing alongside an older group of emigrants. Nowhere in the world, at least from an Irish perspective, offers such a possibility of comparison; Manchester, Boston and Sydney are possible alternative cities, albeit with much smaller numbers than London.

Macdara Dwyer and William Farrell

It has become a cliché at this stage to refer to the new Irish migrants to London as educated, career-driven and ambitious professionals. Even if builders, apprentice tradesmen and shop assistants are usually too jaded after a day’s work to write and counter this image, it is probably largely true. The difference with the older generation is startling; they came mainly to fill manual or manufacturing positions and tended to congregate in clearly demarcated areas such as Camden or Kilburn, Willesden and Cricklewood in North West London.

Today, there is very little concentrated Irish settlement that can foster such communal cohesion, but several areas have absorbed large numbers of recent migrants. Clapham is by far the most popular place to rent, but there are others, particularly around Canary Wharf and Shoreditch. My area, Maida Vale, has seen large numbers of 20-somethings with familiar accents arrive in the last two years, mainly because of its proximity to Paddington Station, which services Central London and the industrial estates of Slough. By and large, however, my generation spurns the traditionally Irish areas of London, preferring to avoid the neighbourhoods that house migrants from before the 1990s.

My local pub, ‘The Eagle’, is a microcosm of these differences – not least as it straddles Maida Vale and Kilburn. Every evening there are groups and solitary individuals with Irish accents, differing only in age. Between our group, representative of careers in publishing, marketing and academia, and the older groups and individuals there is no conversation, no intercourse and barely even recognition.

After our flat flooded on Christmas Eve, myself and my girlfriend had to find accommodation in a nearby hotel. Consequently, there was a dispute with the landlord and I went to the London Irish Centre in Camden for legal advice. Of the eight people in the waiting room, only two were under 60 – me and another Irishman in his 40s, who was there in his capacity as a carer. Myself and the assembled elderly, from north and south, Catholic and Protestant, had very little in common and when they attempted to rag an Ulsterman by singing ‘The Green Glens of Antrim’ (he eventually joined in), I was intensely conscious of a wide culture gap.

It’s a sad and sorry verdict upon the Celtic Tiger generation – age is a factor, clearly, as is cultural distance. But there may be a sneaking superciliousness on our part that views the older migrants as ramshackle remnants from a poorer and hence slightly embarrassing Ireland that is long since extinct. It might be more accurate to say (even if it’s an excuse on our part) that it is illustrative of the vast gulf that exists between the previous Irish migrants and the more recent. Both the pub and the waiting room were probably simple cases of two incompatible diasporas divided along generational and, more insidiously, social and cultural lines.

Perhaps this is too dismal a picture of inter-generational interaction in Irish London. Some spheres, particularly that of sport, remain good forums for fraternity, as both spectators and participants tend to combine on pitch-side and in the pub irrespective of age. The rejuvenated GAA in London is one vibrant arena of such encounters. Yet another are those Ireland-oriented events that take place in universities and other institutions. I gained my only Irish friend outside my age-group through the Irish Studies Seminar in the University of London. Furthermore, continuing English fascination with all things relating to Ireland and the Northern Irish Troubles means there is a steady stream of such events; the well-attended address by Michael D. Higgins at the London School of Economics is one recent example.

And yet, two superficially similar sub-cultures from the same island rub shoulders in this city but rarely meet. The fault, as I see it, lies mainly with my generation. In essence, there is little or no attempt by most to engage with those who beat a path before them. But the issue really inheres in a new self-conception of Irishness; one that doesn’t have the cohesive force of community grounded in national identity, void of associations in church and chapel, disrupted by the absence of concentrated neighbourhoods and lacking any exclusive cultural preferences in music, literature or language.

It is an identity that has come to be expressed solely in terms of a nostalgic hankering after RTÉ children’s television and a love for consumer perishables such as Barry’s Tea, Tayto crisps and the perennially scarce white pudding. We are an outward-looking demographic that get our culture from Los Angeles, our employment from globalized business and its associated industries of advertising, marketing, finance and analysis and who use our Irishness creatively and advantageously as opportunity allows. There is also a very un-Irish trait of adroitness in self-promotion twinned with a self-confidence that serves to suppress status-anxieties which can, occasionally, border on arrogance.

Irish immigrants of a recent vintage retain the usual affability, hard-working attitude, predilection for sociability and the good humour that characterize us at home and which we share with the existing Irish population in Britain. But the attitudes enlisted above still apply in part or in whole to the majority. While many people might regard this as an entirely benign and beneficent outcome and others will be inclined to decry, in many respects it makes my generation more ‘Anglo’ than the English themselves.