In a green-lit building in the well-to-do end of Camden, the ladies toilet says "Cailíní", the gents says "Buachaillí". We're most certainly in the London Irish Centre, and so are most of the contingent's great and good: Dara O'Briain, Roisin Conaty, Aisling Bea, Laura Whitmore, Angela Scanlon, Courtney Cox and Vince Power are among the audience for starters, and that's even without considering who's taking the stage. That's Eoghan McDermott, Sara Cox, Andy Irvine, plus the stars of the night and patrons of the centre, Ed Sheeran and Dermot O'Leary.
We’re all here for two reasons: to enjoy the fruits of Ireland’s cultural contributions, and to raise a shedload of money for the centre, a go-to for arts, culture and a helping hand for the Irish community in London.
"This is a gig, but this isn't a gig," says Ed Sheeran before his first number, and neatly surmises how the anomalous night is to proceed. After a round of canapes by Richard Corrigan (think smoked salmon and seaweed butter on brown bread; Clonakilty black pudding roll with Ballymaloe relish) and warm-up acts like Stephen James Smith and Loah, it's time for Ed to play a few numbers in front a crowd of around 400 - far less than the 360,000 he entertained during his four consecutive nights at Wembley Stadium over the weekend.
Fans and patrons
"We're huge fans," says Emily Mitchell, of Irish descent and here with her Irish husband Thomas, "Seeing Ed in such a small venue is like a dream. He's obviously really proud of his roots; you can hear it in his songs and it shows by doing a night like this too."
Fans - but mostly patrons - paid for the privilege. Some tickets were given in a lottery for those who donated over £10 to the centre before Christmas. Most were bought and sold in via corporate sponsors - Thomas’s father won a pair at a charity auction for £3,500; two other friends bought their tickets for £500.
Over the course of the evening, the multi-award winning star, whose album Divide was the highest selling album of 2017, plays 10 acoustic numbers including ‘Thinking Out Loud’, ‘The Parting Glass’, and ‘Nancy Mulligan’, a tribute to his paternal grandparents, who are from Belfast and Wexford.
“I was near Wexford the other day with my grandmother,” he tells the audience during a sit-down chat with X-Factor host Dermot O’Leary (Ed has just also sold out an extensive Irish tour). “She was like, ‘we’re going to go to a dog christening at the local parish church’. I went there and there was all these people from the local village, and about 60 dogs all shagging each other with a priest right there…”
Between his own songs, he invites his favourite artists to the stage, like Luke Concannon of Nizlopi, Andy Irvine, and old friend Lisa Hannigan; the two reminisce about the CD he sent her aged 12 or 13 featuring the unreleased tracks 'Typical Average Teen' and 'Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women' ("I wrote those songs before my voice broke," he recalls with mock-shame).
There're grown-ups here too; the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and Irish Ambassador Adrian O'Neill pay tribute to the London Irish who remember their heritage and look after their community. These include the benefactors present who spend upwards of £10,000 to become platinum donors, and the brave soul who battled Ed himself to win his guitar, for £20,000. The night earned a grand total of £255,000 in much-needed funds.
"We've been so lucky to have the likes of Ed Sheeran and Dermot O'Leary as patrons, and they're going to be supporting us for the next few years as we're trying to achieve the reimagining of the London Irish Centre as the greatest community centre in the world," explains the centre's chief executive Sean Kennedy afterwards. Open since 1955, he believes it's time to look forward and to "build a centre equipped for fit for the next 50 years".
“That’s a centre which is hi-tech, and one which can support the advice and outreach services we offer, and all the other work we do for the local and Irish communities.
“Many Irish people come to London with a master’s degrees, but there’s a significant amount that come who don’t have the support or skills to cope with a large, lonely city. Last year we worked with over 2,000 people here, giving them support, advice and sometimes just putting an arm around their shoulder.”
The ambitious project means that this evening is only the start of their fundraising activities. Over the next three years, they aim to raise £7 million to refurbish and reposition the centre. With friends like those here tonight, that lofty figure is well within reach.