Hard times for Irish in London


Young Irish people who have never known bad times are heading to London in search of work – and finding things are not much better there

SOMETIMES, as he returns home at night to the suburban house he rents with three others in north-west London, Stephen Davis wonders how his world has changed so quickly.

It’s late on Thursday night and, after yet another draining 12-hour day, he’s ready for bed. The hours all add up when you’re working six, sometimes seven, days a week to make ends meet. But he’s not complaining.

“I’m working all the hours that God sends, basically,” says Davis, 29, from Portlaoise. “When I was let go from my job at home before Christmas, I didn’t have much choice. You can’t pay off a mortgage of a quarter of a million by drawing the dole. And I’ve my four-year-old boy at home as well. So emigrating to London was the only option, really.”

A few months ago he was putting the finishing touches on his dream house, just outside Portlaoise; there was a seemingly endless supply of good work as a contract manager in construction; he was enjoying the wonder of seeing his son growing up quickly. Now, everything has changed. But the most difficult adjustment is the loneliness of being displaced from family and friends.

“You miss home, you miss your family, you miss your friends. I was training a soccer team at home. Every time I ring my son, it’s, ‘are you collecting me today, Daddy’, so that’s tough. Any chance I get to go home, I take it to try and see him and the family. With the job here, though, it’s hard to know when you’ll be free.”

These are shuddering changes not just for Davis, but for a generation who was told they had more money, more freedom than any previous generation. For many younger people, the maudlin emigration songs with their tales of yearning and aching loneliness felt like stories from a distant era. Suddenly, they don’t feel so remote anymore. As the shutters are pulled down on job opportunities at home, the harsh prospect of having to find work abroad is all too real for thousands of young people.

Finding a job, though, is no easy feat. The global scale of the downturn means nowhere is immune from the ravages of the recession, not least London. Latest figures released this week show the number of jobless in the UK had exceeded two million and is rising at a rate not seen since the early 1970s.

YET, STILL THEY come in their droves. GAA clubs across London, some of which were struggling to field teams in recent years, are reporting a major surge in the numbers of young Irish men and women joining. National insurance figures compiled by UK authorities indicate that thousands of Irish-born people have registered to work in recent months. And, for the first time in years, support groups such as the London-Irish Centre in Camden are being contacted by young economic migrants in need of emergency assistance.

Brian Corry from Athlone, who works with the Reel Estates letting agency in London, is better placed than most to see the scale of numbers arriving. The 26-year-old “beat the rush” when he arrived here three years ago, for a change of scene more than anything else. Now he’s seeing others from home arriving and looking for places to stay or trying to find whatever work they can.

“I began to see the rush in September and October of last year. But since January, there are literally boatloads arriving everyday,” says Corry. “Some do their homework, but a lot come over with only enough money to keep them going for a week and no deposit to pay a landlord. You find yourself trying to convince a landlord to take them, or else find them a sofa for a few weeks.”

It is, he says, a major wake-up call for younger people, particularly those leaving college or who lived it up during the boom years. “For people my age and younger, we never experienced anything like this. We weren’t prepared for it and were probably living the high life for too long. Lads who used to be able to miss a Monday because of drink and walk into another job – those days are gone. Now, if you have a job, you hold on to it with both hands.”

Over near Pinner, in north-west London, 20-year-old Henry Vaughan from near Killaloe, Co Clare, is just in the door after another long day’s work. Home is a tiny bedroom in a house in north-west London which he shares with six others, mostly English and Irish. The old Victorian house is strewn with clothes, while the rudimentary kitchen with its upturned pots and pans looks like it was last cleaned sometime in the last millennium. On his wall is an iconic black-and-white poster of labourers working on a skyscraper in New York, along with photos of his friends at home, while a towel and T-shirt hang from a makeshift clothes line. He’s about to turn 21 this weekend.

“I never thought I’d be here – I always thought I’d be at home, get a job closer to home,” says Vaughan, who is completing a course in construction management and engineering at the Waterford Institute of Technology. “There was a class of 30 of us, so most of us have had to look further afield to find work.”

COMING BACK TO London after Christmas was one the hardest times, he says. But the work quickly takes over. He’s also playing hurling for Kilburn Gaels and is on the panel for the London hurling team, which takes up most of his spare time.

“It was tough at the start. You’ve to find your own work, do your own cooking, cleaning. No one is watching your back anymore, or there to give you £15 or £20 if you need it. I can’t see things changing for a few years at least. Most of my friends are in a similar situation to me. I live in rural Clare, so there aren’t many options now. You hear most talking about going to Australia, so maybe that’s an option.”

Across town, under the floodlights of Tir Conaill Gael’s GAA pitches in Greenwood, many of the new arrivals are in evidence. The 30 or so clubs across the capital tend to be the first port of call for many seeking work or accommodation, and the officials are only too happy to help. Until recently, many smaller clubs were struggling to field teams, but there have been an estimated 200 new players in the first few months of the year, including top-class inter-county players looking for work.

“We can’t guarantee work, but we’ll do our damnedest and we have a large network of contacts to draw on,” says Steve McGloughlin, secretary of Tir Conaill Gaels, one of the biggest clubs in the capital, established in the early 1960s. “We’re not just a GAA club, we’re a social club too and we’ll help whoever we can.”

Tom Mohan, the club’s chairman, warns against people arriving over “blind” without researching the job prospects in the capital.

“It’s not just lads – we’ve had a lot of young girls coming over as well,” says Mohan. “What many don’t realise is how difficult it can be over here. You can’t live on fresh air. Some people are coming and they just have the shirt on their back. You need contacts. The truth is that anyone who plays football or hurling to a good standard has a better chance of finding work through us.”

NOT EVERYONE ARRIVING here is relying on the GAA to help. Some are in desperate circumstances and in need of emergency assistance. Over at the London-Irish Centre in Camden, staff are coming across economic migrants for the first time in years. The numbers aren’t big, says the centre’s director Peter Hammond, but they are increasing.

“We’re getting around four or five a week who need assistance or support,” he says. “In the old days you could just turn up at a construction site looking for ‘the start’. Those days are gone. You need accreditation, training, national insurance numbers.

“We always had a trickle of vulnerable people with drink or drug problems here during the boom. But now there are jobless people ending up homeless or in need of emergency support. We have a fund for repatriations. I’d say we’re putting someone on a Ryanair flight back to Ireland on a weekly basis.”

Yet, as a new generation learns the old grammar of emigration, important differences remain. Young people heading to London are, for the most part, better educated than their predecessors and more confident. There is not the rush to the refuges of Kilburn, Cricklewood or Camden which, in any case, have been taken over by Eastern Europeans in more recent times. But even though the old social infrastructure of the Irish communities is being slowly dismantled, it’s something which Danny Maher, the chief executive of the Cricklewood Homeless Concern, is glad to see.

“I think this is a totally different group of people,” says Maher. “This generation is better able to adapt and they’re more globally-minded. If someone is in a vulnerable position, through drink or drugs or whatever, this is the last place they should be . . . These days, the Irish are more likely to be in the wealthier suburbs – they don’t need safety in numbers anymore. That can only be a positive thing.”

London calling: What you need to know

Like many other parts of the globe, the UK is struggling to cope with the effects of the recession. But there is work out there for people who are willing to research job opportunities, according to groups working with newly arrived emigrants.

“The most important thing is not to arrive over here blind,” says Tom Mohan of Tir Conaill Gaels GAA club. “You need to sort out accommodation and try to line up a job before arriving. You need a minimum of £2,000 up front for a deposit, another £1,000 for rent, maybe more. It’s not cheap.”

There is a widespread perception that Olympic construction sites will be a major source of employment. However, a spokesman for the Olympic preparations says locally-sourced recruitment policies mean that just 300 of the 3,000 people working on the sites are Irish.

Taking a hit in income levels is also something to be prepared for, says Peter Hammond of the London-Irish Centre in Camden.

“A lot are having to compromise their expectations on income. It’s not the promised land that it was when people were really suffering at home in the past. But there are job opportunities here. The London economy is incredibly resilient, even in the midst of the recession.”