New generation of homeless emigrants arrives at the London Irish Centre’s door

The Camden centre provides welfare advice and clothing to Irish migrants

The London Irish Centre in Camden, north London, is a building of many rooms: some host emigrants of earlier decades, others hear the stories of those who have come more recently.

One room, however, is a store for donated clothing for those who have fallen on hard times. "Everything from coats, jackets, even a few dresses," said the centre's director, David Barlow, whose parents moved to Britain from Ireland in the 1960s.

Sixty homeless Irish have had cause to use it in recent months. Before they get fresh clothing they are given toiletries, a hot shower and newly bought underwear.

The low level of preparation for emigration among some who have arrived from Ireland has caused some despair among staff at the centre, which is to embark on a public information campaign in Ireland in coming months.


“Time and time again people will get on the ferry or the plane with €200 in their pockets and a promise of a bed from an acquaintance,” Barlow said.

“Then the acquaintance doesn’t turn up. By the Monday morning the €200 is long gone and the person is on the street, needing emergency accommodation.”

People are sometimes given vouchers to return to Ireland. Others who might be best advised to return to Ireland insist on staying.

"People come thinking it will be a new start, that it will be better for them but the reality is often very different," said welfare director Jenny Dunne.

One man, who fled Ireland because of a troubled family life, built a new life only to see it collapse after he was injured in a mugging.

“He lost his job. Within a few weeks he couldn’t afford the rent,” said Barlow, who spoke to the man one morning when he came in for a change of clothes.

“He just broke down and said if he had known how crap life was going to be then he would never have left Ireland, bad and all as he thought it was.

“He didn’t have the resources to go home. We got him on to the ferry the next morning after checking that he had somewhere to go to,” said Barlow.

Another homeless man, who had been in London for four months, had been brought up in care in Dublin. “His mother lives here. He can’t live with her, because her partner is violent,” said Dunne.

“He is street homeless, hasn’t managed to claim benefits in four months so he has been surviving by getting help from other people.”

The centre sorted out his benefits but housing is a different problem. Changes to welfare rules meant under-25s are expected to share accommodation, frequently with strangers.

“Sometimes people come expecting a one-room flat. We’re saying to him that he should go home, but he doesn’t want to do that, so we are supporting him as well as we can,” said Dunne.

The centre, which was established in 1954, provides more than welfare-related services: increasingly well-attended cultural nights have been boosted by the recent wave of emigration from Ireland.

The centre has had to balance the needs of the different generations who use it, said Gary Dunne, its arts director.

“If we clung hard to the 1950s/1960s identity we might do that well. However, if we did we would probably be closed in 10 years. And if we become ‘too 2013’ then we drive the older ones away,” he said.

During the 1980s, the centre did not adapt: “A lot of the 1980s generation tried to connect here but the 1950s identity was just too impenetrable for them", he added.

Today, some of the new generation of Irish emigrants rely on the centre for assistance in their early days in London, or just a location to meet other Irish people.

'Dipping in'
Some will have a more occasional relationship with it, "dipping in and out" of their Irishness, but otherwise living happily "in the most multicultural city in the world", said Dunne.

“In the past year or two we have been seeing a huge increase in the number of Irish at events and, interestingly, for the first time we are meeting people who don’t want to be here. That is a new thing for me. London is a lonely city. For someone who wants to be in Portlaoise, or Ballina, living in Harlesden is a very different experience.”

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is News Editor of the The Irish Times