Recording precious memories of 1950s emigrants to Britain
I never asked my parents about their earlier life, so now I'm recording the stories for others
Liz, Ronnie, Phil, John and Marge had a double wedding in 1960
There are so many stories to be told about why Irish people travelled from Ireland to England in the 1950s, and what it was like for them when they arrived. Some stories are of hardship, but a lot of them are stories of triumph over adversity. It is important to record these stories, as they are precious.
Having now lost both my parents - my mum fairly recently and my dad in 1980 - I am struck by how much I did not think to ask either of them about their earlier life. Questions often pop into my head that I could have asked either of them, but they are not there to answer.
I spent two years sourcing and then interviewing migrants now resident in England and Ireland. Many of the people I have spoken to say that their sons or daughters have told them they should write their memories down. Others have said that they have been meaning to commit their stories to paper for their children and grandchildren, who have no idea what they went through at home in Ireland, or when they came to England.
Often, although these times were tough, they were happy. There is a sentiment common among many of the people I have spoken to - the idea that everyone had the same: no one had anything.
My focus was: the person’s circumstances at the time, including where they came from, their family, their schooling; their reasons for coming to England, whether due to poverty, employment, education, seeking change, having access to a wider range of opportunities or to escape their current situation; what things were like when they arrived; and how things changed for them as a result of their move.
For many, coming over to England was a necessity as there was no work at home. Others had listened to their friends’ stories about the Galtymore, Garryowen, Glocca Morra, Bamba, and Shamrock amongst other dances. Enticed by these tales, they came in search of adventure.
When they arrived in England some were lucky enough to be cushioned by having friends and family to go to, but others found it tough being away from their culture and tradition. However, in many instances kindness and good fortune intervened somewhere along the way.
I was born to Irish parents who came to London in the 1950s and grew up in Irish communities in Harlesden and Wembley in northwest London.
My mother, Mary, was from Kinawley in Co Fermanagh and arrived in London at the age of 21 in 1949, with her two sisters Ellie and Kathleen. My father, Tom, of Killeshandra in Co Cavan, arrived in 1950. They met at Hammersmith’s Emerald Dance Hall in early 1955 and married in that July.
There were six of us, two boys and four girls, born in the period between 1958 and 1974. We all went to Catholic schools where the majority of children in each class had Irish parents.
The lives of our parents seemed so much simpler. There was less food to choose from back then, but their food was always fresh and not processed. As young boys and girls, they were introduced to cooking, skills that were to stand them in good stead in England.
That is what has inspired my book: recollections of life as it once was, and all the little things that make big, bold memories.
The stories in the book, Seanchaí, highlight the plights of the Irish who came to across the Irish sea, but other storytellers I met told very rich tales of their lives in Ireland before they travelled to England.
I was mocked for my accent; no one could understand me and I couldn’t understand the teachers or other pupils, so I just didn’t speak
I have chosen to preserve the storytellers’ words in their accounts, because I believe it is important that their unique voices are heard and their characters come across vividly.
Here are some snippets from the many who told their stories. Their recollections may strike a chord:
“I sailed to England in 1947. I had never seen the sea before and was really looking forward to seeing the deep blue sea, but was very disappointed to set eyes on the grey frothy water of the Irish Sea on the crossing.” - John
“At Euston Station, I saw a black man for the first time in my life. I was rooted to the spot, staring at him and wondering if I touched him how he would feel; would he be soft, would the black come off on my hands?” - Annie
“I was nearly 13 when we came to England. Five of us went to school in Welwyn Garden City and we all hated it. I found it hard to adapt from a girls’ school of two rooms to a building full of 800 mixed pupils.
"Everyone had the same: no one had anything. I was mocked for my accent; no one could understand me and I couldn’t understand the teachers or other pupils, so I just didn’t speak.” - Liz
"At times it felt nearly impossible to get work or accommodation. The words “No Blacks or Irish need apply” were included in the wording of the adverts on the boards in the newsagents or in newspaper adverts. It seemed as if nobody wanted us.” - Josie
“There were country house dances and you heard about these by word-of mouth. Everyone would gather round and there would be music, singing and dancing. They were happy times. Everyone had the same; no one had a lot.” -Tim
Although some of the stories in this book contain accounts of personal tragedy, my hope is that readers will find these tales rich and dilluminating, uplifting and inspiring.
Seanchaí is available to purchase from Amazon for £7.99.