I Could Read the Sky, Revisited: an underground map of Irish London
Author Timothy O’Grady on the latest take 25 years on of his and Steve Pyke’s classic
The Crown, Cricklewood Broadway, a famous haunt of the London Irish. Photograph: Steve Pyke
There was an informal network linking Irish London, as if it had its own Tube map with stops named the Galtymore, Corrigan’s butcher’s, the Favourite, the Quex Road Catholic church.
Its inner ring went from the Crown in Cricklewood, down through the string of pubs and Irish specialist shops along Kilburn High Road, over to Shepherds Bush where strongman Butty Sugrue kept the Wellington, and Hammersmith, down to the White Hart and the Hibernian at Fulham Broadway and across the river to the Swan in Stockwell. There were no stops at Chelsea, Belgravia or Mayfair, but a branch line went to Ward’s Irish House in Piccadilly Circus with the trunk passing on to Camden, Kentish Town and up the Holloway Road all the way to the Archway Tavern at the top.
All its citizens knew the pubs and dancehalls, where to buy the Kerryman or the Donegal Democrat or Barry’s Tea or Doherty’s sausages and who kept the cleanest boarding houses. They knew where to hear Big Tom or Bobby Casey or Tommy McCarthy on the pipes and all had tales about the notorious ganger for John Murphy known as Elephant John (“he put a lit cigarette up the arse of a cat”). The Irish Post was their town crier. At last call they sang Amhrán na bhFiann, hands on hearts. They were broadly democratic with regard to age and sex, quietly republican and sometimes beleaguered when a bomb went off.
Their population had a disproportionate representation of lonely virginal men. You could see them with fish and chips spilling from a greasy bed of newspapers heading for their rooms after closing time, a little or a lot drunk. Some from farms in the West disappeared into it and were never heard of again. You’d see heartbreaking personal ads in the Irish Post: “Seeking information on Patrick Carney, 46, of Castleisland, County Kerry, last seen in the Gresham Ballroom, April 1967.
I Could Read The Sky Revisited: A Literary Reading by Timothy O’Grady
So come all ye navvies bold,
Do not think that English gold
Is just waiting to be taken from the sod,
Or that the likes of you and me
Will ever get an OBE
Or a knighthood for service to the hod….
– Building Up and Tearing England Down
Dónall MacAmlaigh and John B Keane wrote of it in prose, as did Dominic Behan (above) and Shane MacGowan in song. And so did many others, myself included, in a novel called I Could Read the Sky I put together with the photographer Steve Pyke. It follows a man born in the West of Ireland who journeyed in a long exile through the potato fields, factories and building sites of England before ending up in a room in Kentish Town with nothing left but to remember it all –
"Francie and me walking up the Kilburn High Road ahead of two men. ‘They’re from Clare,’ said Francie to me out of the corner of his mouth. ‘You can tell by the way they whistle.’ They had ten years on us maybe. ‘You’ll not go home again boys,’ called out the one with the black straw hat on the back of his head, and the two of them laughed. We had digs in Cavendish Road with a landlady named Chandler. I won’t stop to think about her now. She gave us a plateful of eggs and rashers and black pudding that Sunday morning and we went straight up the road to Cricklewood in the sunlight without stopping for Mass and then into the Crown for the opening at noon. It was the day of the All-Ireland and bets were being laid and pints were flying. I left the accordion in the digs but a lad from Kerry gave me the loan of his and I played them ‘The Golden Castle’. We bought bottles of stout over the bar and made for Alexandra Palace with our radios, Francie, Martin and another cousin of theirs, a pale little fellow called Ivan who was never before out of his own parish….When we got there the crest of the hill was crowded with Irishmen tuning their radios to get the signal from home. We drank the stout and listened to the wild calls from the hillside as the points were scored and afterwards with the sun still pouring down on us we played twenty-fives. That was the day of the All-Ireland and I won four pounds at the cards. ‘Did you know they have a statue here of Oliver Cromwell?’ said Francie. ‘I saw it myself.’ We were making for Kilburn in the top of a bus. We had plates of boiled bacon and then pints in the Old Bell and pints in the Volunteer and pints in the Black Lion. That was the day of the All-Ireland and the day I had luck with me for it was the first time I saw Maggie Doyle. She had a dress on the colour of sand and red shoes and she was walking across the room like a cloud was carrying her….I remember not only the way she looked when she came into the bar but the way it felt the moment before, the smoke rising from the cigarettes, the young boy selling papers, the Sligo man in the gray suit with his fiddle case across his knees and his finger tapping at the side of his brow….I have the accordion with me and when I play ‘Come West Along the Road’ the Horse McGurk gets up, takes off his shirt and vest and dances around the tables with a chair between his teeth. ‘That was fine playing,’ she says to me as she goes. She is looking over her shoulder as she walks away. The day of the All-Ireland.”
The book will be 25 next year. It has surprised Steve and myself by becoming many other things since it was published – a film by Nichola Bruce, an album by Iarla O’Lionaird, a poem in Irish by Louis de Paor, a theatre event in the dark by Complicité, a touring show with such musicians as Martin Hayes, Mairtin O’Connor, Karen Casey and Sinead O’Connor, an operatic recital, a song by Padraig Stevens and another called Mighty Man by Mark Knopfler.
Now Rosalind Scanlon of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith has produced a short film by Sé Merry Doyle, with music by James Patrick Gavin, photographs by Steve Pyke and readings by me. Here it is: I Could Read The Sky, Revisited – A Literary Reading by Timothy O’Grady
I Could Read the Sky by Timothy O’Grady and Steve Pyke is published by Vintage