New wave of exiles finds the going is tough in London


IN 1994, three Irishmen were found dead in their local authority flats in London by council workers in the space of a few months. One had lain there unnoticed and unmissed for nine months; one for six, the other for three.

The horrific discovery spurred Irish emigrants Bridie McGowan and Margaret Burke and others to found the Irish Elderly Advice Network, which today with three staff keeps links open to 4,000 elderly Irish throughout the city.

“Things have improved,” McGowan, a native of Lough Brin, deep in Kerry’s Black Valley, said, “I have not heard of similar cases since. People for the most part are a bit more careful to ensure that they don’t end up in a very bad situation.”

The two women were among others long out of Ireland who met Labour’s Michael D Higgins, once an emigrant himself, at the London Irish Centre in Camden, which has had “a busy summer” coping with new arrivals.

Most migrants, complete with college degrees, never need the Camden centre, but, said one of its staff, Jeff Moore, the number who do is rising, particularly young, single males who came to London to escape a drug debt or who have an alcohol problem.

But emigration in 2011 is not homogenous: “We are seeing middle-aged men who were here during the 1980s. They stay in BBs for a month and try to find work in the way that they would have done then, by visiting the sites, or going down the pub. But everything has moved on.”

Following “the worst summer” for years, the centre, he said, is now dealing with “five or 10 cases a week”, where some cannot pay rent, or the case of “two Limerick lads who had fled because they owed money at home for drugs”.

Some are told to go home. “Not all of them would take the advice. We had two other lads who sat outside all night under a windowsill in the rain before coming in to us, who took a long time to persuade to go back.”

On the second day of a two-day visit for meetings with Irish emigrant groups and volunteers, Higgins was briefed by Moore and the centre’s cultural officer, Gary Dunne, on the work of the centre, largely financed by a Government grant.

It houses a host of Irish agencies, including the Catholic Church’s Irish Chaplaincy in London, the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and the London Irish Survivors’ Outreach Service, which helps victims abused in religious institutions.

Noting the changes in service needs over the decades, Higgins said the priority had been alcoholism, whereas it had swung to care for those who fled Ireland after they were abused.

In the 1980s, Higgins was a frequent visitor to north London to stand alongside firebrand Labour MP the late Bernie Grant for the rights of Irish and blacks in the so-called “Black and Green Alliance” campaign.

In a speech last night, he said emigration has become a feature of Irish life again: “A new generation are sadly leaving and I have seen many of my own nieces and nephews begin new lives and careers in the UK, Australia and Canada. I believe that if Irish people are again finding themselves travelling abroad, it is best that they try to do so with as full a heart as possible and high expectations of the world.

“Despite the wrench that emigration can represent for families across Ireland, those who leave must not be allowed to go in defeat, with feelings of regret or loneliness but should instead be equipped with hope, connections and practical supports,” he said.