From the Archives: October 31st, 1959

A writer with the initials A S described the lives of many of the thousands of Irish people who emigrated to London for jobs and a freer life during the 1950s

 

‘O, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight,” sings the well-known citizen of Co. Down who, however, still would far rather be where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

To-day his nostalgic longings are shared by hundreds of thousands of Irish exiles, from all of the 32 Counties – clustered in colonies; in too many cases herded like cattle– in the teeming London area, notably in Kilburn and Camden Town, two Metropolitan near-central districts which vie and tie for the proud title, “London’s Little Ireland.”

I was able to study the London Irishman – or the Irishman in exile in London – during a recent eight weeks, when I stayed in the Regent’s Park district, bordering on Camden town. The picture presented to me seemed to possess much more shade than light.

Week-ends provided the most advantageous times for first-hand observation. During week-days the great cross-roads at Camden Town, where the new, modernist underground station stands, presents a spectacle no different from similar nodal points in the Metropolis, such as Clapham Junction or Elephant and Castle. Except, perhaps, that if you speak to the loungers at the five corners caused by the intersection of six busy thoroughfares you will be answered nine times out of ten in some Irish accent, emanating from anywhere between Derry and Baltimore, Dublin and Galway.

But any evening from Thursday to Sunday, and all day Sunday, from 11 a.m. to near midnight, you could without much imagination regard yourself as transported momentarily into any Irish city or larger town.

The pubs are packed – the Black Cap, the Camden Stores, the Elephant in particular – with 90% Irish patrons. Cockney ears are assailed by Irish songs and ceilidhe music, Guinness ousts the Englishman’s mild and bitter.

On Sunday morning’s the 50-yard stretch of Arlington road outside the Catholic church is so packed with the Irish in their Sunday best that a stranger, seated on the top of a passing bus, could be pardoned for believing that he was looking down on a mustering for a procession, or a mass demonstration. Parkway, the broad thoroughfare which connects Camden Town and Regent’s Park itself, for the rest of these sunny autumn Sundays was as impassable as O’Connell street after a typical Croke Park final.

During my visit I shared drinks and had after-Mass chats with uncounted dozens of these young expatriates, and on the whole their reports were quite unimpressive – in the vital sense that they were now prospering, and happy, and content to settle down for ever in London. Too many of the men I met work in casual labouring or similar ground-floor, dead-end jobs. Too many of the girls were waitresses in cafés or barmaids in pubs. Or being maintained by men – not all Irishmen!

Their brand-new, good quality clothes– which impress the folks at home so much when they return on holiday– I found almost uniformly to be instalment-purchased. Their lavish week-end spending on drink, the best cigarettes, the cinema and the ceilidhe dance-halls which abound in the neighbourhood, I discovered to be easily explained – it was their only “blow-out” of the week.

It was the old, old story of “a hunger and a burst,” with one saddening, sobering difference from the same situation at home: even though you are broke during the week in Drogheda, or Kilcock, or Listowel, or even Dublin and Belfast, you are among friends and in a familiar scene. But in the vast London area being broke means long, lonely hours in the digs. Hence the gradual concentration of the Irish in such districts as Kilburn and Camden Town -- for mutual heart-warming. […]

It is easy to see that for these working-class exiles scrupulous budgeting is every bit as necessary and painful as at home. And having “a bit put by for a rainy day” is even more essential for the stranger in a strange land. The problem is how to amass it !

Small wonder that, despite the gay outer appearances and the genuine exhilaration of new-found personal freedom, I found basic disillusion, sadness and nostalgia among the majority.

For many it was dearly bought freedom from the frustrating surveillance of family and the narrowness of a village community. For them a return to Ireland was the ideal, conditioned by only two factors: having “something to go home with,” and a job to go to.

Read the original at http://bit.ly/1N5ngXe

Selected by Joe Joyce; email from the archives@irishtimes.com