“You’d keep your head down,” said Tadhg (Ty) Galvin, a retired electrician from Cork who has lived for 50 years in the south coast city, where he is now a Labour councillor.
“I got into arguments on jobs. There were Irish jokes. It was racist. But it’s all different now. Brighton has turned into a much more open place.”
It is certainly more open for Evan Ferguson, Brighton & Hove Albion’s 18-year old striker sensation from Bettystown in Co Meath, the latest in a rich seam of Irish talent to break through at the club.
He has taken the Premier League by storm, following a hat-trick at the start of this month against Newcastle United. BBC’s Gary Lineker hyped him as one of the best prospects in the game.
Whereas before the Irish community might seemed under the radar, Brighton fans of Irish descent now gather in large numbers to watch Ferguson in the club’s matches, congregating at pubs such as the Fiddler’s Elbow near the seafront
As Brighton prepare to battle Manchester United, all eyes will be on the latest injury news for Ferguson. Reportedly, the club has put a £120 million (€140 million) price tag on the player, who seems destined to become the most valuable player from the Republic should Brighton ever choose to sell him.
Until then, Seagulls fans will be hoping for a bit more of the luck of the Irish, a stark and welcome turnaround from some attitudes of days gone by.
The level of excitement around Ferguson hasn’t quite reached “Evan-mania” proportions in Brighton, where fans of “the Albion” like to think they have their feet on the ground. But you can still feel something bubbling in the city, now a liberal haven that has shed its image as a tired seaside resort.
Whereas before the Irish community might seemed under the radar, Brighton fans of Irish descent now gather in large numbers to watch Ferguson in the club’s matches, congregating at pubs such as the Fiddler’s Elbow near the seafront.
Most Albion players get their hair cut at the trendy Med’s Barbers on Western Road, on the edge of town centre near the residential district of Hove. Autographed and framed jerseys are plastered across the walls. The latest addition, in pride of place at the front door, is number 28 with Ferguson’s name emblazoned on it. The jersey is signed by the young Irishman. “To the man,” it says, presumably a message for Rebin Rob, the Meds owner and a friend of several players.
Ferguson’s image is on a mural near a park on the edge of town. His darkened silhouette, meanwhile, is also on a “who is that player?” banner at the club’s Amex stadium. “This player scored 10 goals for Albion in the 2022/23 season and won Young Player of the Year.” All fans know who it is.
“We’ve got our heads screwed on; he’s not even a regular first choice starter yet,” said Ady Packham, who co-hosts the popular Albion Roar football show on local radio. “But he has got an incredibly bright future. He is absolutely adored here.”
Fans chatter excitedly that Ferguson has bought a new house near the town and he has also just passed his driving test. Locals report sightings of him at the Tesco in Shoreham, a seaside resort just west of Brighton near its training ground.
He left 20kg of explosives with a time lag fuse behind a bath panel. The explosion weeks later brought down a chimney that ripped through the hotel shortly before 3am, including through Thatcher’s bathroom in her suite five floors below
He was also spotted days before his Newcastle hat-trick inside the Churchill Square shopping centre, directly behind the Grand Hotel where the IRA almost killed Thatcher in October 1984.
Five others, including MP Anthony Berry, lost their lives in that attack, known since as the Brighton Bombing. IRA man Patrick Magee checked into room 629 the month before senior Conservatives were due to stay at the hotel during the party’s annual conference. He left 20kg of explosives with a time lag fuse behind a bath panel. The explosion weeks later brought down a chimney that ripped through the hotel shortly before 3am, including through Thatcher’s bathroom in her suite five floors below. Defiantly, she still gave her leader’s speech at the conference later that day.
The Brighton Bombing is remembered as one of the IRA’s most brazen attacks. Locals say there was an Irish club at the seafront near the hotel at the time. It was flooded by detectives questioning its members in the aftermath of the bombing. Many members faded away and the Irish club shut down for good.
These days, the Grand Hotel is owned by Leonardo Hotels, which also owns the properties of the old Jurys Inn chain. Magee’s room 629, facing the seafront, is now numbered 621 in the Grand after a hotel revamp. The only reminder in the hotel of the atrocity is a tiny plaque high on one wall in the lobby. It commemorates “those injured and who lost their lives on 12th October 1984 during the Conservative Party Conference”. It doesn’t mention that it was an IRA bombing.
Earlier this week, the lamp that is meant to illuminate the plaque wasn’t even working. It is as if the memory of the bombing, shrouded in darkness, has been allowed to fade away.
Ferguson, who celebrates his 19th birthday next month, was born exactly one week after the bomb’s 20th anniversary. One wonders if he even knows about it.
He rejected Liverpool to come to Brighton, where he first arrived as a 14-year old for a week’s trial. He stayed in digs at the home of local woman Jillie Edwards, whose family has been involved with the Albion for decades.
“I couldn’t believe the size of him. I’m only five foot, four inches, but he was already almost six foot by then. Such a lovely lad, and so grounded. He really liked my spaghetti bolognese. He sent me a lovely bunch of flowers after he finished his trials,” she says.
Edwards says she knew Ferguson was viewed by the club as a “real prospect” because his father, former League of Ireland footballer Barry Ferguson, was put up in a “posh hotel” in nearby Worthing.
“They only do that for the best ones,” she says.
Other young Irish players then at the club, including Jayson Molumby (now at West Brom) and Aaron Connolly (now at Hull), arrived at Edwards’s door one morning to take Ferguson out to breakfast. Teasing the woman who was wary of letting the young prospect out of her sight, they joked they were taking him to the pub.
‘Quite a connection’
Other young Irish players highly thought of at Brighton include Mark O’Mahony, captain of the under-21s, and midfield prospect Andrew Moran, currently on loan at Blackburn. Brighton’s strong links to young Irish talent has its origins in the club’s former academy director, John Morling. He used to work in a development role at the Football Association of Ireland.
“[Ireland goalkeeper] Gavin Bazunu was another who stayed with me for his trials, but he eventually went to Manchester City,” said Edwards. “There’s quite a connection here with these Irish lads.”
Retired electrician Galvin, a long-time club fan, says Ferguson reminds him of a “young Jimmy Greaves”.
I remember thinking that I never thought I’d see the Tricolour flying over the Grand, as it was that day— Tadhg Galvin, retired electrician and Labour Party councillor
Galvin, whose grand-uncle Tadhg Barry was an imprisoned republican who was shot dead during the War of Independence, was elected in May as a councillor for the first time, at the age of 83. A former chairman of the now-dormant Brighton Irish Society, he revels in the Irish talent flowing through the club.
“Brighton fans love their players. There is a lot of excitement about Evan,” he says.
Before becoming a councillor in the area, a traditional stronghold of the Green Party, Galvin was a long-time Labour activist. He proudly recalls attending a meeting of Irish and UK politicians involved in implementing the Belfast Agreement. It too place in the Grand Hotel several years ago.
“I remember thinking that I never thought I’d see the Tricolour flying over the Grand, as it was that day,” he said.
Galvin is quick to point out that he always got on well with his neighbours, even if he can recall general anti-Irish feeling during the Troubles. Does he think traces of it remain in post-Brexit Britain?
“I’d better say no. If it does exist, then it resides only in those people who probably hate everybody from abroad. Those people probably even hate each other,” he says.
Edwards, meanwhile, texted Ferguson to congratulate him on the day of his recent hat-trick, but he appears to have changed his number since she had it.
Never mind, she says. In addition to cheering on the recent Irish-fuelled Brighton victory over Newcastle, Edwards had another reason to celebrate that day: the birth of her granddaughter.