‘The chance to be a dad is the greatest gift London has given me’
Having a son reminds me we are immigrants. I long for the familiarity of parenting in Ireland
‘East London is a creative hub, full of people like me. When I moved here it felt as though I’d found my tribe.’
I decided to move to London 11 years ago. It was before the recession, the boom was in full swing. I had graduated from drama school in Ireland, was working as a waiter and lived in a house share. It was my first taste of freedom: three of my school friends had moved to London a few months before. I had the weekend off, which was rare, so I booked a last-minute trip to see them.
Arriving in London I was immediately taken in. It was busy, vibrant and loud, but exhilarating. Finding my way around in the days before iPhones and Google Maps was a challenge, but every time I reached my destination with an A-Z Wayfinder was a victory. This was not how I remembered London from my childhood photo feeding pigeons by the lion statues in Trafalgar Square. I was an adult, and the city seemed magic. I felt as though I knew it already.
The friends I visited were doing exceptionally well. One had a job in a renowned publishing company, one worked in a West End theatre, and one was a budding DJ. They all seemed effortlessly cool in their central London flat share. It was a damp November weekend, the grey sky matched the endless grey buildings, yet London’s melancholy felt warm, and I instantly fell in love with it. Everywhere I went there were references to culture, galleries, theatres, museums and bookshops. It was heaven.
The city took hold of me; I could be myself. At one stage it rained heavily, and I put plastic bags over my shoes. I unselfconsciously walked around like that for hours; nobody knew me. I was free. In a city this big I could be who or whatever I wanted, and the opportunities seemed endless. In Dublin I felt like I bumped into people I knew every time I left the house. The anonymity of London was a welcome relief.
On my last night of that visit, I remember smoking out of the flat window. I was looking at people in the building opposite, listening to the hustle on the street below and thinking: this is it. This is the place I belong.
As soon as I was off my flight home, I handed in my notice at work.
Three weeks later I moved, between Christmas and New Year. It never occurred to me that I would be one of those people now who only spent time with their family at Christmas. Off I went.
I remember telling the cab driver, “Take me to the Lion King!” He was confused. Eventually he took me to the Lyceum Theatre, where I was to collect keys to my friend’s flat. I asked to keep the engine running as I ran backstage. I was in another world; it felt like the money I had in the bank would last forever and tomorrow I’d walk into a job in a theatre with no problems at all.
As I surfed from couch to couch in those first few weeks, reality kicked in. My expat friends worked 15 hour days; no one was free for a pint, and if they were it meant a 45-minute journey across the city to sit in a fluorescent-lit pub with a slot machine and a sticky floor that were nothing like the warm pubs back home with a snug and a smiling barman. The dream was crumbling around me. I couldn’t get a job as a waiter, never mind in arts management. Everyone wanted experience.
I found a basement flat in Archway with a close friend, another Irish expat. We could barely afford the rent by the time the bills came in. We decorated with postcards on the walls and cheap plastic trinkets we found at local markets. We made it our home.
My housemate went away travelling, and suddenly I was alone in a huge city with no job, a pile of bills to pay and two terrapins we bought from the local pet store the weekend we moved in. One night I came home late after walking through London in the rain to save on bus fare, and the flat was flooded. It cut off the power to the tank, resulting in the death of the terrapins. Alone, with a flood and a pair of dead turtles, I began to seriously question my decision to move away from Dublin.
The naivety of the carefree guy with money to burn who said “Take me to the Lion King” was quickly fading. I was becoming resilient, realising that London was a lot more than the West End. I lived in leafy north London, where the mega-wealthy live next to some of the poorest people in Europe. The city is a melting pot, but the class system here means multiculturalism doesn’t always lead to integration.
As an Irish person, I often found anti-Irish sentiment. Not out-and-out racism, but rather a lack of understanding. I’ve been told all Irish people are working class, and asked if the English are still in Ireland sorting out our problems. Among many of the English I have met, history has not been taught to them the way it was taught to us.
I finally got a job in a restaurant and met my first close friend: Emma. She was the manager there. She knew her way around London, and she was bolshy and fun, like my friends back home, and always up for a laugh. She showed me the ropes and brought me out with her friends.
When she got a job in the events department of an arts centre in south London, she took me with her as her deputy. Things were looking up. Unbeknown to me at the time, I would eventually meet my future husband - another immigrant - and get married in that very arts centre.
Once I made friends, London opened up for me. Things felt better. I moved to the grittier east London, a place that reminds me a lot of Dublin. Families have lived here for generations, gritting their teeth through gentrification. There was an emerging, evolving arts scene, a queer community, and a population of people my age. On balmy summer evenings the parks fill with the smell of weed; hordes of people flock in swimwear to light barbeques and picnic until the sun goes down. East London is a creative hub, full of people like me. When I moved here it felt as though I’d found my tribe.
Working out whether I liked London or not was one of the biggest challenges. Londoners don’t have the same unwavering pride that New Yorkers have, but we have something else. It’s a more English type of pride, understated with a sharp edge. Undoubtedly proud to be a Londoner and proud to be a part of something bigger, something for all of us. Once I understood that, it was easier to pin down what I liked about the city.
Once I’d got my foot in the door in the arts, I moved fairly quickly up the ladder. I’m a grafter and like a lot of Irish people, I’m personable. We have a penchant for getting along with people and it’s served me well. I think Irish culture lends itself to migration, we are good at it, we’ve had to be. We are known for our outgoing personalities, which means we can have a go at fitting in anywhere. It’s a testament to us all. It’s a part of my culture that I cling onto more and more as time passes.
My husband and I got onto a shared ownership scheme and bought our own place. Last year we adopted a little boy. He is a true east Londoner. Bringing up a child in London reminds me that we are an immigrant family, and I long for the familiarity of parenting in Ireland. There’s a whole new set of rules and protocols that we need to learn here; but we believe that we can do it.
Similar to the first day I jumped into that black cab to take me to the Lion King, I didn’t know what was in store. It’s hard sometimes but I learn on my feet and muddle through. The opportunity to adopt would not have been there had I remained in Dublin. The chance to be a dad is the greatest gift London has given me.
Brexit was a shock. People in London didn’t see it coming; we live in an echo chamber. The morning after the referendum I cried, heartbroken. It was the end of the London I fell in love with, the accepting city I found, the melting pot where there was a place for everyone. In some strange way, it was the moment I realised I was a Londoner. The vote didn’t mean I was going to move back to Ireland. I’d fight to stay here if I had to. Leaving was never an option, and that surprised me.
Since the vote on Brexit, the government feels as though it’s been on the verge of collapse. House prices are dropping. The FTSE has lost more money than the UK has paid into the EU in decades. Hate crime rates are rising across the country. It’s a living nightmare. There is a customer facing aspect to my work and complaints to my team about transphobic and racist comments are up by 100 per cent. The vote was so close, people were lied to and it feels like politicians are clawing their way through, barely keeping their head above water just to save face.
Having said all this, it’s clear that the echo chamber that we were living in was a lie. We had forgotten about the working classes outside of London that were crying out for something, for access to jobs, housing and education. The reporting in the tabloids here is different to Ireland. The anti-EU sentiment was rife. Who else were they going to blame but the EU?
I’m confident the UK will get through this. We have to. Immigrants like me are staying despite feeling unwelcome, despite the rise in anti Irish sentiment, despite the closed minded anti-immigration rhetoric and the inaccurate reporting of the “Irish” backstop. People like me who consider the UK their home will remain living here, as well as remaining part of the EU. Considering Europeans living here and the British who emigrated to Europe, I’m not sure the UK can ever truly Brexit. We are stronger together, and we are still here.
Moving for me was a necessity. I felt like I had to go. Initially, emigrating from Ireland brought more stresses and anxieties than I ever thought possible. I learnt the streets weren’t paved with gold and opportunity wasn’t at every corner. Some of the hardest times in my life have been here, but so have some of the happiest.
I may never consider myself English, but I will always be a Londoner.