Ciara Kenny

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

Helping emigrants not so fortunate

Kasia Murphy’s move to London was easy, but her father’s stories about previous generations inspired her to volunteer

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 11:05


Kasia Murphy

In practical terms my move to London was reasonably painless. One Ryanair flight later and I was on the streets of Kilburn, dragging a suitcase to the open arms of my two, grown-up university friends – a patient couple who adopted and cared for me like a lost and repentant stray. I stayed with them for a month, ate all their food, and when I got my first pay cheque I moved out. Without them I would have been lost.

Looking back, emotionally I was a bit shell-shocked. In May 2012, a recruitment agent in London had finally picked up my CV and decided to run with me. Following an intense month of interviewing for jobs I got offered a position in a PR agency. As my nerves dissolved I was overcome with relief and excitement.

But I also distinctly remember the disconcerting sense that I was being swept along on a weird wave of inevitability; my own father emigrated to London for work in the mid-60s, to return in the 1990s with me, my sister, a dog and a wife in tow. Now, here I was in similar circumstances, moving because of economic necessity. The difference was, I had two degrees, a smartphone and a credit-card limit programmed according to Celtic Tiger times under my arm.

I’ve grown up listening to my father’s stories of living in England. I know about being an Irishman here in the height of the Troubles, about the building trade and Brixton riots, about travelling by cattle boat with a brown leather suitcase at Christmas or having to pay two months’ salary for an airline ticket to get home for a funeral. It is the echo of these stories that have made London feel familiar to me, like I have roots in this place, but more importantly, they have inspired me to get involved in supporting the Irish community living here.

I read before Christmas that according to the World Giving Index 2013, Ireland remains one of the most generous nations in Europe and the fifth most giving in the world, even in the throes of austerity. The survey stats were gathered across three categories of direct donations to charity, volunteering and helping strangers – the last category made me smile most and further encouraged me to do something.

As someone who essentially had a set of stabilisers attached when I came over, I decided I wanted to help, in whatever small way I could, a fellow Irish person who wasn’t as fortunate as I was to have a safe place to sleep the minute I landed, or someone who had it tough somewhere along the line in this wonderful but demanding city.

I came across Mind Yourself, a charity working to improve the mental and physical well-being and address the health inequalities of the Irish community in London, after attending a film screening recounting the history of the London Irish Women’s Centre from the 1980s and decided to get involved in promoting its work. Mind Yourself is one of those alternative organisations that is aimed at offering services to all those who call themselves ‘Irish’ – regardless of the passport they carry, the religion they adhere to, the occupation they have or their sexual preference. It doesn’t dance at the crossroads; it helps people along their path.

With the visit of President Michael D Higgins to these shores earlier this month, I have thought about how my move to the UK came about and what it means to be Irish in Britain today. Reflecting on the two years I’ve been here, I see I have a sprawling network of wonderful friends in this city; I have a stable, challenging job; access to incredible, free services like the NHS and institutions like the National Gallery. Above all, however, I am most fortunate to be able to refer to both North London and Kildare as “home” in equal measure. I know I’ve been lucky – very lucky. But, I also know that other people have not.

While the feelings of loss and guilt and homesickness are part and parcel of living in a foreign country, I accept with comfort that my story of emigration is one that is shared by scores of others.

For more about the work of Mind Yourself, read director Claire Barry’s article about the mental health of Irish immigrants in London for Generation Emigration, and Bairbre Meade’s piece about how volunteering with the organisation helped her ovecome loneliness on arriving in the city.