‘Many in Ireland have forgotten the older generations of migrants’

We often talk of young professionals emigrating, ignoring those who leave with little education

A reminder of the pivotal importance of groups working with Irish immigrants in Britain was provided at "Ceiliúradh airgid agus óir", a celebration of 50 years of Irish Community Care Merseyside, held at Liverpool's Bluecoat arts centre as part of the city's recent Irish Festival.

Joe England, a founder member, described the development of ICCM, from humble beginnings with a voluntary staff, to the highly professional outfit it is today.

I spoke about how ICCM helped me to return to England in 2011 after a few years back home in Co Offaly, and how they provided me with valuable support since all the time since then.

I also focused on how interaction with other Irish in the city had underlined how many had migrated for personal reasons rather than just economic ones. Viewing Irish migration solely in terms of economic performance misses the whole picture.

I also stressed the value of a group specifically aimed at the Irish community, which did not ask for a long-winded explanation from me of why I had left Ireland, unlike some other agencies.

Other speakers included two members of the legal profession who are involved with Friends of Irish Community Care Merseyside, a support group which raises funds and assists with professional services. They were Oonagh Murphy, founder of Emerald Law, Liverpool, and Nicole Kerr of MSB Solicitors. The women, who hail from Armagh and Belfast originally, focused on the responsibility of successful Irish in England to help new arrivals get their feet on the ladder.

Ms Murphy surprised the audience by describing how, when she was a trainee with a firm in Chester, she had been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser because she did not wear a poppy, and how she had to endure anti-Catholic jokes and was told that locals did not like the Irish because of the 1996 Manchester bombing.

She said this was in total contrast to her experience of Liverpool, where there was a tremendous welcome for the Irish.

The Irish ambassador Dan Mulhall was the guest of honour, and spoke of the benefits which Ireland obtained from having millions of people of Irish descent around the world, and the determination of the new Minister of State for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan to build two-way links with Irish in other lands.

The Tommy Walsh Memorial Award, recalling one of the early figures in ICCM, was presented to staff member Mavis O'Connor and, to her utter surprise, to Breege McDaid, director of ICCM. The presentation was made by Professor Marianne Elliott of the University of Liverpool, who echoed Ms Murphy's comments by saying that Chester was the only city in England where she ever encountered any anti-Irish sentiment.

For me, the event was a reminder of the diverse nature of the Irish in Merseyside, including many from Northern Ireland as well as the Republic, and those of Irish descent born in Britain. It also underlined the valuable work done by groups like ICCM, something that is often forgotten by those back in Ireland.

For example, when Minister Deenihan recently announced grants to such groups, I saw comments on social media that the money would be better spent on JobBridge schemes and mortgage subsidies to keep people in Ireland. Such ill-informed comments betray an ignorance of the fact that many of the beneficiaries of groups like ICCM are long resident in England, often elderly, and well beyond thinking of jobs or mortgages.

There is a tendency to think of emigration solely in terms of young professionals and to ignore the many who have left with little education or skills, or who fall by the wayside. It does seem as if many in Ireland have forgotten the older generation of migrants who built the roads and tunnels of England, and the nurses who did so much for the NHS.

However, it was very heartening to see a younger generation of Irish professionals, exemplified by Oonagh Murphy and Nicole Kerr, who are so dedicated to helping both the new arrivals and the older generation.

They represent the Irish tradition of the meitheal at its best.