Ciara Kenny

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

‘Being Irish in London has opened many doors’

‘Life as a freelance harpist in London is rewarding, lively, precarious and not for the faint-hearted’

Thu, Apr 10, 2014, 00:00


Jean Kelly

On a recent trip to Boston, the friendly waiter asked my mother and I “So, where are you guys from?” “London,” I replied. “No, you’re not,” my mother retorted, “You’re from Ireland”.

I transplanted myself from Cork to London in 1996, at the age of 18, to take up a scholarship to study harp at the Royal College of Music. I have now spent as much time living in the UK as I have in Ireland and feel very comfortable identifying myself as “London Irish”.

Being Irish here in London has opened many doors professionally. Shortly after I moved to London, I was contacted by an amazing lady Ethna Kennedy, who – 40 years ago this year – founded Irish Heritage, a cultural organisation presenting concerts of Anglo-Irish music and literature. Irish Heritage offered me my first professional London concert, introduced me to a whole network of London- based Irish people of all generations, and gave me the confidence to believe I had a chance to make a career for myself in the city of my dreams.

I am still involved with Irish Heritage, now as an artistic advisor, helping to set up concerts and performing opportunities for young Irish musicians recently arrived in London.

Life as a freelance harpist in London is rewarding, lively, precarious and not for the faint-hearted. A classical musician’s existence is full of exhilarating highs and crushing lows, but with imagination and persistence it has been possible for me to carve out a busy and eclectic career here.

Every working day provides a huge amount of variety. This week alone I will record at Abbey Road Studio, play today at Windsor Castle at a reception for the royal family and President Michael D Higgins, and perform concerts in several care-homes for people with dementia.

Irish folk songs resonate hugely in the memory of both Irish and British residents of care-homes in London. Familiar music has an extraordinary power to unlock early memories and stories in people suffering from dementia. Some of the most requested songs at these concerts are Danny Boy, When Irish Eyes are Smiling and Molly Malone. I have witnessed some extraordinary and humbling reactions from dementia patients upon hearing these songs.

I recently visited Southwark Irish Pensioners Project to perform with Dublin-born soprano, Daire Halpin, my cousin and fellow Londoner. We were moved by the tales of hardship endured by the audience members – a generation of Irish emigrants who arrived in London in the 1950s and 60s. The comparison to our own trouble-free, racism-free experience of moving to London was shocking to me, and I came away feeling that I owed a huge debt to this group of people who contributed so much to change the attitude towards Irish people in Britain, and who allowed my transition from Cork to London to be so smooth.

“London is a lovely place if you have money in your pocket but it is a lonely place if you have no money” – William, Southwark-Irish pensioner

Daire and I were inspired to begin work on a collaboration with composer David Wallace, who moved from Kilkenny to London five years ago, and journalist Dan Milmo, whose mother hails from Tullamore, on a musical piece called The Identity Project. The work will be a song-cycle for soprano and harp which weaves together hidden stories from the living memories of Irish people in London.

“I’m as Irish as I ever was. I have no problem with that at all. But I love it here. I love the people here” – Peter, Irish pensioner

I feel there is huge goodwill towards Irish people here in London. In my local pub, regulars shout for Ireland in sporting fixtures, and there is a deep appreciation and respect for Irish musicians and artists. I feel very proud to see Irish people take centre stage in the London arts scene, from Irish sopranos such as Ailish Tynan and Rachel Kelly taking leading roles at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, to Olwen Fouere’s astonishing performance of Riverrun at the National Theatre. I love London and I feel I have assimilated into society here without losing touch with my Irishness.

“I came here on 13th June 1952, from West cork, and I worked in tunnels. All my life underground. Digging the tunnels, making the tunnels, the Victoria Line, the Jubilee Line, the Dartford tunnel, the Blackwall tunnel, the Glasgow Tunnel.” – Dennis, Irish pensioner

The Irish media often focus on stories of Irish people who have become very wealthy in Britain. I would love to see more recognition of the generations who preceeded mine, and the people of my generation whose contributions may not be financial, but who help to change and form communities; by providing mental health, cultural, social and welfare support to Irish people in London.

Let’s hear it for the “tunnel diggers” and their everlasting legacy.

This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.