Befriending the Irish in need at Christmas in London

The London Irish Centre provides a home away from home for vulnerable emigrants

Caitriona Carney (third from left) with friends at the London Irish Centre in Camden.

Caitriona Carney (third from left) with friends at the London Irish Centre in Camden.

 

Many Irish emigrants like me will be returning home to Ireland for Christmas to celebrate with our family and friends. But for some clients at the London Irish Centre, while Ireland is their home, they no longer feel able to return.

As director of community services, I see first-hand how the centre keeps Irish people of all ages connected to their culture and their community, and creates a sense of belonging for them. With the assistance of funding from the Irish Government, the centre opens its doors every day to ensure we are here to help those that need us most.

Many of our older clients arrived in London in the 1950s to work in the construction and hospitality sectors. Some now live in unsuitable accommodation and are severely impacted as a result of welfare reform here in the UK.

Paul is an older Irish man, who worked in construction for many years. When we met, it was clear that he had severe physical health issues as a result of his trade. His benefits had been stopped as he was deemed fit for work. With nowhere to turn, Paul came to us. This week we won a legal case after three months assisting him. Throughout the tribunal process, we provided food vouchers and referred him to food banks to ensure his basic needs were met.

Our wellbeing centre and social groups operate across London, providing space for the Irish community to come together. Men who previously lived in houses of multiple occupation and socialised in their local pub in the evenings now come to the centre, as these dwellings have long closed, leaving them quite isolated.

On Monday, I spent the day in the centre celebrating a client’s 75th birthday. John, who has being coming to the centre for many years, wanted to celebrate his special day with the friends he has made here. As we danced the congo together at lunchtime, the friendships, support and warmth the service offers to the older community was clear.

Our befriending service provides companionship to clients in their own home, as they may not be able to come to the centre due to frailty or ill-health. Monica is a retired nurse who came to London when she was 15. She enjoyed living in the city and had good friends, who provided an excellent support network. But over the years, Monica’s health has suffered. She has no family support in London and many of her friends have died. She contacted the centre as for support and is now receiving weekly visits from a volunteer is her own home. This service is a lifeline for her.

Christmas is a difficult time of year for many of our clients. In the coming weeks, our staff will be delivering toys and hampers to families, which will include basic necessities such as milk, tea and sugar, which many of us take for granted. This is my second year taking part in these visits, and what is striking is that no matter who is behind each door we knock on, or what story they have to share, we will always be welcomed in that familiar Irish way.

Earlier this week, I received a call from Annie who was deeply distressed. She has five children and was recently widowed. Her fridge freezer was broken, and she was keeping her food cold by placing a basin of cold water in the fridge. She came to meet our case worker and we quickly established that she was entitled to another benefit. We helped to source a new fridge freezer to be delivered to her home. Annie will be one of the recipients of our Christmas food hamper. Her children will also receive a toy hamper, which may not contain the items on their Santa list but at least they will have something to open on Christmas morning.

There is nothing quite like sitting in the day centre on a cold wet Monday afternoon, eating bacon and cabbage enjoying the company of the older Irish in London who have paved the way for the next generation.

No two days are the same at the centre. Nothing prepares you for who will come through our doors. It may be someone experiencing crisis, or it could be someone one who needs help reading a letter. It’s a centre with an open door, which will hopefully provide an Irish welcome for our community for generations to come.

For more information on the London Irish Centre, or to donate to their Christmas appeal, see www.londonirishcentre.org . If you are involved with an Irish community organisation overseas and would like to share the work you do,  send us an email to abroad@irishtimes.com.

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