Sally Mulready, a lifelong campaigner for the Irish in Britain and the director of The Irish Elderly Advice Network, attended Buckingham Palace on Wednesday to receive an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award for her services to the community.
“What would my mother have said?” is the first thing Mulready (72) thought upon hearing the news in 2019, before the ceremony was postponed due to Covid restrictions, she recalled.
While her mother is not around to witness the achievement, Mulready was accompanied to the palace – where Prince Edward and Kate Middleton awaited the guests – by her husband Séamus, son Seamie, and grandson Benji.
“I wouldn’t say I’m proud of it, but I’m pleased it’s happened,” she said.
But, she added, “you know, there’s nothing special about me. There’s loads of people doing this kind of work in the Irish voluntary sector across Britain.
“I see it as an honour for the whole of the Irish community, particularly those in the Irish community that work to support others that struggle. It might sound very corny, but that’s how I feel.”
Mulready, who arrived in Britain aged 16 in 1966, recalls that “when I first started working with older Irish people, I was astonished by how timid they were – how reluctant they were to assert [themselves] even when they were patently entitled to whatever service it was”.
She noticed that everything from healthcare to welfare and pension payments were going unclaimed by – often elderly or isolated – Irish who either did not know how to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles to such support, or were simply disinclined to do so.
“It’s taken us years to get older Irish people and isolated people to assert in their own right to what they’re entitled to,” she said.
As a regular guest at the Irish embassy in London and a former member of President Michael D Higgins’s Council of State, one could mistake Mulready for an establishment figure well accustomed to palatial settings. But for many years she was operating at the margins of both the Irish and British establishments.
“We weren’t embraced by the establishment, we definitely weren’t,” she said of her early advocacy work.
Mulready, who was raised in a mother and baby home on the Navan Road in Dublin until she was four, and went on to an orphanage and an industrial school, remains unafraid to depart from the consensus.
She said of her upbringing: “Looking back, I know that many people say it was often terrible, as it was for those who were victims of [not only] abuse but the violence that sometimes accompanied it – the whack of a ruler, for example, was really, really awful. But that wasn’t my life.
“That definitely happened and I definitely experienced it,” but, she said, she retained fond memories from the years she spent in the institutions.
She added the Irish were not always friendly when she first arrived in the UK and that her grandmother used to say “strangers are better to you than your own”.
As for the future, she welcomed the fact that the voluntary sector was now “more structured”.
“I think if I want to see anything change,” she said, “I’d like to see a much greater level of funding for the Irish voluntary sector because we proved that we can assist.”