London’s Gaelic football team is on a roll, supported by a new wave of Irish immigrants, most aged 25-30, for whom emigration is a great escape and recession is a thing of the past
FRESH FROM DEFEATING Fermanagh in the All-Ireland Football Championship two weeks ago, London’s GAA team will tonight take the field in Ruislip, west London, against Waterford, perhaps without dreams of September glory, but with dreams nevertheless.
In years past, London exited the All-Ireland early and little noticed. Even home games in Ruislip were away games in reality because the crowd would be made up of Irish emigrants cheering for their home counties, ones that in many cases they had left decades before.
Six weeks ago, London gave Mayo a serious scare before losing out in extra time. In early June London’s hurlers beat Louth, before the footballers returned to the stage on June 25th to beat Fermanagh by six points, though it could easily have been more.
“London now has a fan club of its own. The last time London won a competitive championship game was in 1977,” says one of the team’s selectors, Aiden Thompson, who is from Ballyforan, Co Roscommon, but who has lived in London for more than two decades.
“Once upon a time,” says London GAA’s chairman, Tommy Harrell, “you’d have 26 on a panel and the next time 20 would be gone. That is not happening now; the same volume is not disappearing. A lot of them are staying because there is nothing to go back to.”
London GAA clubs still organise accommodation and jobs for players, but for far fewer of them than in the past, partly because unskilled labouring jobs, due to the influx of cheaper eastern European labour and problems in the construction industry, are harder to come by.
More importantly, the majority of Irish emigrants are not looking for labouring jobs, nor would they take one if offered. The new generation is more likely to be found behind a desk in the City of London rather than on a building site.
Unlike other clubs based well away from the city centre, such as Greenford in west London or Neasden in north London, the Fulham Irish GAA team, formed in 2006, plays on a pitch in Hurlingham Park in leafy SW6, the location for Monty Python’s famous Upper-Class Twit of the Year sketch. Most of Fulham Irish’s players work in the City, which is less than half an hour away on the Tube. The turnover of players is high, not because people are returning to Ireland but, rather, because they head “to New York, or Singapore”, according to club official Liam Barry, originally from Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick.
Fulham does not generally offer accommodation and jobs to attract players. “Nearly all of our players look after themselves,” says Barry. “And that is the way that we like it. It just causes problems if one guy is given a job and another guy is not.”
In recent months, Barry says, he has seen an influx of unskilled Irish. “Some of them say, ‘If you get us a job, we’ll come play for you.’ But even if we did want to do so, we wouldn’t be able, because we haven’t got the links with the construction industry that others do.”
Established just six months ago, Éire Óg, which trains and plays at Finsbury Park in North London, already has a panel of 40 players, including “two actors, tradesmen, a solicitor and an astronomer”, says Conor McGinn, who says the club uses Facebook and Twitter to attract members: “The old structures in the Irish community don’t work with the new arrivals; you have to use new models of getting in touch with people.”
THE LONDON IRISH CENTRE in Camden is currently researching the changes in the Irish community. Preliminary findings show that three out of every four new arrivals in the past year are in full-time or part-time work.
“It appears that the new wave of Irish arriving in London are better equipped: 18 per cent of respondents are in London to pursue educational opportunities, while 13 per cent have found themselves unemployed,” says the centre’s Jeff Moore.
The youngest new emigrant found for the research so far is aged 19, the oldest 44, but the majority, 54 per cent, are aged between 25 and 30. One in five of those surveyed were born in 1986, according to Moore.
Unlike some past waves of emigration, Dublin is heavily represented among the new emigrants. Jonathan Cloonan, originally from Castleknock in Dublin, who has been living in London since September, says: “The old gang in Dublin are not there any more. The reality is that people are in four places: London, New York, Toronto or Sydney.”
Besides being less focused on construction, the latest emigrants are more diverse in other respects too: the GAA is important for some, but not all; the old Irish ghettoes of Kilburn and Cricklewood are no more, though new, less fixed ones are emerging in Clapham and elsewhere. Most importantly, social-media networks, and cheaper flights (even if they have to be booked significantly in advance), have fundamentally changed both the perception and the reality of emigration.
Last year’s Icelandic ash cloud temporarily highlighted the distance.
“That was the first time I felt far from home,” says Dubliner Mary-Clare Connellan, pointing out that she had previously thought little of flying back to Dublin for less than 12 hours for a farewell family dinner before her brother left for Korea.
In London since January, Eamon FitzGerald, from Dalkey, Co Dublin, who left a job with Accenture in Dublin to focus on finding work in the wine trade, says Twitter is having an impact even on the Irish pub scene.
“For our demographic the pub is dying out. Even five years ago your first stop anywhere would have been an Irish pub because you’d find someone who’d help you out. I actively stay away from them, unless there is a rugby game on. There is so much more to do in London.”
Not all the Irish, however, agree, judging by a late-night walk in Clapham, where pubs and clubs such as the Inferno, the Grand, the Alex, and the Clapham Inn echo with Irish voices. Meanwhile, the Swan in nearby Stockwell, a magnet for Irish emigrants during the 1980s, is still filled with GAA jerseys.
For publican Gerry O’Boyle, a Sligo man who owns the Boogaloo in Islington, the size of the crowds attending his Sunday-night trad session is evidence that the Irish still need to congregate. “But they are very different from years ago,” he says. “The siege mentality is gone. They are very independent but very conscious that they are Irish. The recent Feis in Finsbury in mid-June was a big pull. We had a ticket competition and we were swamped with applications.”
The official and unofficial ties that bind the Irish community are crucial, according to Martina O’Sullivan, from Clogheen, Co Tipperary.
“There is definitely a really strong Irish network in London – that’s how I found my first flat and my break into publishing. I’ve got loads of Irish friends from all around the country, and it really helps with the homesickness to have that connection (and a bit of banter about the hurling). Most of my Irish friends live in the Elephant and Castle/Kennington area, but I think that’s just because I used to live there.
“I don’t get the sense that people are moving to one particular area any more, like they might have to somewhere like Kilburn before. It feels much more like we’re part of the whole city rather than just concentrated in one bit.”
Judging by the growing success of the Irish International Business Network, the London Irish Business Society and other similar organisations, it would appear that carefully planned networking, rather than more casual contacts made elsewhere, is now increasingly important for the Irish.
“You don’t feel bad saying ‘I want to get to know you, I want to network you, I want to see if there is something that I can do at some point in our lives to help each other out’,” says Jill Tully from Clontarf, Dublin, who works with the London division of IHS business analysts. “Now we are starting to understand that we should be giving praise to everybody if they achieve success, if they set up a business or set up a wine blog. Give credit when credit is due, rather than trying to get the better of each other.”
Besides being a place to socialise, Clapham is home to large numbers of recently arrived Irish. “It is often joked about as Little Ireland, or there is Angel , so it is very much about whether you want to go north or south of the river,” Tully says.
Another Dubliner, Claire O’Reilly, who moved to London last year after two years in Birmingham, started off in Clapham because it would be “a nice, comfortable place” before moving to Borough. “Once you’re here for more than a year you get to know the city a bit better,” she says.
Others, particularly those involved in creative industries such as advertising and publishing, have moved to Dalston, in Hackney. “It has a different vibe to it. I was very surprised to find so many Irish accents around there,” says Cloonan.
If there is a desire to network furiously, there is no desire to live in ghettoes. Instead, the new wave declares its desire to absorb all that London has to offer, says Mary-Clare Connellan, who recently founded glaslondon.com, a website for new arrivals.
Fresh from covering Shubbak, London’s Arab summer festival, Connellan says her website, which proclaims that “far from crying into our (badly poured) Guinness and reminiscing about home, we’re excited to be here”, is getting 200 hits a day and counting.
“Every day the numbers are building, though the part of the site that offers advice to people who are thinking of coming here is the busiest bit. But our focus is on telling the Irish community what it can do outside of the Irish community,” she says.
For the majority of the new London Irish, the Troubles are history. Relations with Britain are viewed through the prism of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland rather than through Bloody Sunday or other such memories. “I came straight from New York, where being Irish is an incredible asset,” says Cloonan. “Coming from there, I was very conscious that the same welcome might not be here for me. I have been really pleasantly surprised. I have been welcomed everywhere, even by English people in the street who have been excited to talk to someone from Ireland about their perceptions of what is going on at home and about the Irish that they have met.”
During the days of the royal visit and afterwards, Tully, like others, was struck by the British surprise at the welcome given to the queen, and by the impact of her visit on Irish public opinion. “They had always just assumed that it wouldn’t mean anything to us,” she says.
However, as The Irish Times sits in an office in the City with Tully and others, history intrudes as they become animated while discussing the bomb scares that occurred in London on the eve of the queen’s visit.
“I got the e-mails saying to stay off the Tube. Getting on the Tube that day – I had to go from London Bridge to Angel – was really scary,” says FitzGerald. “That was a glimpse of what our previous generation had to put up with every day.”
“It was horrible sitting in an office, and you did suddenly feel that you were getting stared at, even though we didn’t get any negative comment,” Tully says. “All of the Irish were going, ‘Are you serious? We didn’t want anything to happen.’ So were the British.”
Echoes of the past are visible, though, for those Irish who want to look. Living in West Hampstead, on the edge of Kilburn, Eamon FitzGerald is now wine-development manager for the online retailer Naked Wines. “A walk down Kilburn High Street is quite upsetting,” he says. “At any point in the day where you see the pubs open early, you’ll see old people standing outside, lonely, with cans or pints in their hands. It is a real stark reminder about the community that did come before us.
“It serves as a reminder that we do like a drink but that these people have gone too far and that many are gone beyond saving. Kilburn is predominantly black and Asian, so anyone who is old and white is Irish.”
Many of those now lost in a Kilburn netherworld of alcohol came in the 1950s and 1960s to do labouring jobs. They lacked education or prospects, and now face an old age of poverty, having never made national-insurance payments, let alone saved for a private pension.
Today’s unskilled Irish workers can hope to escape the alcohol, but Tom Kelly of the GMB trade union warns that “day rates have fallen, and it is not unusual to find them on the minimum wage, or near it, when four years ago they would have been on £10 an hour”. Craftsmen’s rates have fallen by 50 per cent, while surveyors, whether British or not, are struggling in an industry where fees have dropped sharply and the time given to complete projects has halved.
In recent years British and Irish labourers have lost out to competition from cheaper eastern European workers. Many of these have “now gone home”, according to Kelly, but rates have remained the same. “If you get wages down so low, then it makes sense – for language reasons, if nothing else – to hire English speakers.” However, he adds, “there don’t appear to be the same numbers coming from Ireland for the buildings that I would have expected, to be honest. It is not like the massive emigration of the 1950s, though Irish companies will hire Irish craftsmen if they can.”
Construction workers who have got jobs want to stay in work, he says. “People are keeping their heads down. There are less disciplinary cases, less inquiries to the union. People are knuckling down, not challenging things.”
Another union official, Jerry Swain, London regional secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (Ucatt), agrees that there is no mass influx. “Construction in London remains stagnant, so there has not been an opportunity for any large increase of any nationality into the industry,” he says.
However, despite the fact that most of the work for the 2012 Olympics is finished, or nearly finished, Swain believes that construction will pick up. “The industry in the capital is likely to see expansion in the next 12 months and this may well lead to a noticeable increase in Irish workers,” he says.
The Unite trade union is already seeing evidence of a greater Irish presence in construction, particularly among contractors. “Often these contractors are bidding low to undercut local contractors, which is causing an issue for London employers,” says an official. Some British companies are struggling as a result.“This is, and has been, having a knock-on effect in terms of redundancy situations. In saying this, it would be totally unfair to apportion all the blame to Irish contractors. There are foreign and even UK contractors that cause concern with regard to their employment practices, which is an ongoing challenge for trade unions.”
Such problems are hard to deal with at the moment because “workers at difficult times tend to accept less”. However, Unite is at pains to emphasise that it has not noticed “any ill-feeling towards our brothers and sisters from the Emerald Isle” among British building workers. Nevertheless, competition is competition.Conor Connelly, from Renvyle, Co Galway
Having joined Tir Chonaill Gaels shortly after his arrival three years ago, Connelly says the association’s network has helped to get many accommodation in their first weeks in the city, and jobs for some.
“You’ll find Irish engineers, quantity surveyors on every building site in London. Carpenters, too, even some labourers,” he says. However, many do not stay long, with many drifting off to Australia and Canada.
The old gang in Dublin are not there any more. The reality is that people are in four places: London, New York, Toronto or Sydney
Martina O’Sullivan, 28, from Clogheen, Co Tipperary
In London since March 2007, O’Sullivan says: “I’ve definitely been the happiest I’ve ever been since I moved here. It can be a bit stressful but I think most of the stress has been about commuting.
“It certainly can be hard to make friends but I think the key to settling in here is just being as active as possible and being willing to try new things.
Working in publishing, O’Sullivan intends to return to Ireland but, “the time frame for this seems to be getting longer and longer. I’d say most of my Irish friends here plan to move home within the next five years.
“The general consensus is that it’s fantastic when you’re young but no place to grow old. This really is the greatest city on earth and I don’t believe that the opportunities we’ve had here both career- and lifestyle-wise could be beaten anywhere else.”
Claire O’Reilly, 25, from Dublin
O’Reilly moved to London last year after two years in Birmingham. She started off in Clapham because it wou ld be “a nice, comfortable place” before moving to Borough.
“Once you’re here for more than a year you get to know the city a bit better,” she says.
Eamon FitzGerald, 26, from Dalkey, Dublin
In London since January, Fitzgerald left a job with Accenture to follow his interest in wine, but life outside Ireland also means that everyday conversation is not consumed by talk of the Irish economic collapse.
“I think you are allowed to escape that over here. It is not on everybody’s lips like it is at home, so you are not forced to have an opinion it. It doesn’t really come up at all.”
Jill Tully, 28, from Clontarf, Dublin
A four-year veteran, Tully says: “There are so many Irish people over here at the moment that it would be easy to stay in the Irish network and just be living in a little Dublin within London.
“If you make a very conscious effort to get to know other people then you’ll quickly find that you have 50 per cent Irish friends and 50 per cent internationals. You’ll have a much broader base and it helps you to feel much more settled.”
Jonathan Cloonan, 25, From Castleknock in Dublin
Cloonan is one of the transient Irish. In London since September working with advertising giant WPP for a year, he moves to one of its Chinese offices next year, before a later transfer to the United States.
Like others, he travels home frequently, but says: “The old gang in Dublin are not there anymore. I went home a few months ago and the reality is that people are in four places: London, New York, Toronto or they have gone to Sydney.
“There are some in Dublin, but the majority are gone – with the intention of coming back, but as you build relationships and become part of the fabric, you never know.”