(Main text reading time: 16 mins.)
In September this year, a commemoration was organised to take place in the Irish Embassy in London. As founder-member and Chairperson of the Lewisham Irish Centre for nearly a decade, I was invited to be one of the speakers.
The LIC was founded in the 1980s, difficult years for the Irish in Britain. The seemingly unlikely vision of its founders was rewarded but there were some challenging and even dangerous years experienced by its supporters.
The event opened with an introduction to the proceedings followed by the Ambassador, Martin Fraser, giving a brief welcome to the packed audience and in a modest speech handing out praise for the Centre’s achievements and longevity, who then introduced me to speak next.
SPEECH OF FORMER AND LONGEST-SERVING CHAIRPERSON
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil as an gcuireadh ón Ambasadóir chun a bheith i láthair ar an gcomóradh seo, agus d’fhoireann na hAmbasáide as an t-ullmhúchán don ócáid.
I’d like to thank the Ambassador for the invitation to attend and the Embassy’s team for its preparations for the event. Agus don chomhluadar as a bheith i láthair – and to the general attendance here now in which I include my daughter Sorcha, her husband Irwin and my son Kevin.
The founding of the Lewisham Irish Centre, Lár-Ionad na nGael as it came to be called, was an initiative of the Lewisham branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, a vibrant group formed in 19811.
The IBRG was founded as the Irish community began to shake off the repressive fear of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1974 – a year in which a score of innocent people from our community were jailed in four different cases2 and were to spend decades incarcerated.
I myself didn’t join the IBRG until 1986 which was the same year that its Lewisham branch was founded and I was elected Secretary of the branch. At the same meeting, a number of objectives were set out, which included the obtaining of a centre for our community.
AN IRISH CENTRE IN 1980s BRITAIN
Setting out to win an Irish Centre in 1980s Britain could be viewed as a daunting task. Blatant anti-Irish racism seemed to be everywhere and was considered acceptable in the media and in many quarters of British society3. And of course the war was still going on – very much so.
True, in London we had the Greater London Council4 which had helped the Irish community open centres and projects in a number of places in North and West London — and there was an Irish project in Greenwich – but there was no Irish centre in the whole of South London.
Furthermore, although Lewisham had an Irish ethnic minority population in significant numbers, it was not anecdotally known for such, despite containing for many years the Harp dance hall and many Irish pubs, some with weekly Irish trad music sessions.
The Irish were not then recognised as an ethnic minority by Lewisham Council or by the local Race Equality Forum or, indeed, as a diaspora, by the British Race Relations Board. Nor practically by the first Race Relations Act of 1965, which made it illegal to spread racial hatred — but not racial contempt and ridicule.
The next Race Relations Act, of 1968, made discrimination in employment and housing illegal, arguably the principal areas in which Irish and black people faced discrimination — but it was to be some time before an Irish person succeeded in a case taken under the Act.
The Race Relations Act of 1976 extended the prohibition of discrimination to provision of training and provision of facilities and services.
Throughout, the dissemination of lies, ridicule and contempt continued to be legal and also one could not take a case on behalf of the injured community, only on behalf of an individual.
The first time an ethnicity question was included in the UK Census – as distinct from “place of birth” – was in 1991 and the Irish were excluded, despite being the longest-established and largest ethnic minority within Britain.
The exclusion was also despite lobbying by the IBRG and by a number of Irish community projects.
It wasn’t until 2001 that “Irish” and “Irish Traveller” became available as ethnic categories on the UK census forms, by which time the IBRG had most local authorities in Britain signed up to agreement on ethnic monitoring with an Irish category.
MY PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT
Back in 1986 I had returned to live in the Lewisham borough after an absence of a few years and, after Thatcher’s abolition of the Inner London Education Authority, I was transferred as a part-time youthworker to Lewisham Council’s Education Department5.
I was also active in the local branch of the trade union NALGO, later to become after a number of mergers, UNISON. As I said earlier, that was also the year I joined Lewisham IBRG.
The Lewisham branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, to further its aim of obtaining an Irish Community Centre, set up an Irish Centre Steering Group in which a number of Irish pensioners and younger members took part and I was elected its Chairperson.
Given its origins, the original Steering Group was 100% composed of IBRG members.
Meanwhile, the IBRG branch got on with other work, including getting Lewisham’s Adult Education department to provide classes in Irish culture, including language, dance and history, lobbying the Council on services and other issues.
These included opposing anti-Irish racism (and indeed any other kind of racism) and campaigning for the abolition of the Prevention of Terrorism Act6.
LÁR-IONAD NA NGAEL
Nearly six years later, largely I think through lobbying led by Teresa Burke, an active Labour Party member, a member of the IBRG and of the Lewisham Irish Pensioners’ Association, which the IBRG had founded, the long-disused building of Davenport Hall in Catford was made available by Lewisham Council to the Irish community.
For weeks and months the Steering Group debated a constitution, discussed the facilities, looked at design plans, watched the original budget get cut – twice – and stipulated wire screens on all the windows7, discussed staffing and placed job advertisements.
The Group also processed applications, interviewed applicants, drew up funding applications and agreed a logo — for which I’m proud to say my design was accepted.
Six years after the initial meeting of the Lewisham branch of the IBRG, the Centre had its grand opening to a capacity (some might say over-capacity!) invitation-only crowd in 1992 and among those present were Joseph Small, the Irish Ambassador of the time.
Also there were then Labour MEPs Jim Dowd and Richard Balfe (now Conservative member of the House of Lords) and local labour MP Joan Ruddock. The then Mayor of Lambeth attended and of course a number of Lewisham Councillors, many if not all of Irish descent.
And the Chair and Vice-Chair of Meath Urban District Council in Ireland, birthplace of Jim Connell, author of the lyrics of the Red Flag, who came to present a piece of stone from Connell’s home.
Jim Connell was living in Stondon Park in Lewisham when he composed the lyrics and there’s a plaque on his house commemorating that fact — which we also had a hand in doing8.
After the speeches, the Irish music and Irish dancing exhibition, we got down to managing the centre. The Steering Group had six months to go before an AGM of members of the newly-opened centre would elect a management committee.
That was a democratic stipulation we had set ourselves, seeking as wide a representation as possible from the community.
When the six months were up, the AGM was held and surprise surprise, more or less the same people from the Steering Group were elected on to the new Management Committee. The Committee members in turn, did me the honour of electing me again as Chairperson.
I was elected annually to that position until about 2001 I think when, after two attempts I finally managed to get out of it — but remained on the Management Committee until I returned to Ireland in the summer of 2003 to manage a hostel for street drinkers.
By that time Lewisham IBRG had proposed that the Irish Pensioners’ sub-group become independent, which it did and affiliated to the Lár-Ionad in its own right, as did also the IBRG branch.
Both groups were the original community groups affiliated to the Centre and were followed afterwards by an Irish step-dancing school that held classes in the Lár-Ionad.
For most of those years, those were all the affiliated groups although later and for a short while, a local Irish accordion marching band also affiliated.
OVERVIEW OF EVENTS & SERVICES
The Lár-Ionad held or facilitated a plethora of activities and events: Irish step-dance classes through Tony Tyrel; set-dancing classes9; social functions including céilíthe and the Sth. London St. Patrick’s Day Parade for a number of years, each one with a different theme.
It also founded Lewisham Irish Week and ran activities during it; a weekly advice service; weekly pensioners’ social meetings; conferences on issues affecting the Irish community; meetings; lobbying for an Irish ethnic minority category ….
The IBRG branch organised a weekly Children’s Irish Art & History Group and produced two plays, ran an annual Children’s Irish Hallowe’en Party and also organised historical commemorations and talks.
In addition the hire of the hall was made available for other communities and organisations though quite early on we stipulated there be no religious services of any kind in the hall.
Work in any community will have its rewards and challenges and any migrant community in the 1980s and 1990s would have those as well as ones related to being an Irish community.
There were tensions with sections of the local Irish community who saw the Irish Centre perhaps as upstarts, or might have felt they should control the Centre. There were at times too of tensions within the management committee itself, which is not surprising.
However twice during the early years I felt obliged to threaten resignation as Chairperson if proposals which I felt went against our Constitution were carried10.
I was of course accused of blackmail but a Chairperson is, above all other committee members, a guardian of the constitution and I was glad the proposals were withdrawn.
Most of the time we got along very well and did an enormous amount of work, really, looking back on it now.
THREATS – ARSON AND FUNDING WITHDRAWAL
The other threats we faced were external. One year the advertised annual 1916 Rising commemoration event held in the Centre11 came to the attention of an individual who had tragically lost a son in the Omagh bombing.
He called the Centre’s Manager to have the event cancelled, which he naturally declined to do, after which the man rang the Council and not getting the response he wished, got on to the media.
I received a phone call from the centre’s Manager at my job, then managing a hostel12 in the Kings Cross area, that we were in the evening newspaper supposedly holding an “IRA commemoration” and had to leave work hurriedly to get back to Lewisham.
The Council spokesperson had by now panicked and was promising the media an investigation of the Centre’s funding13. The band hired to play at the commemoration also exhibited an absence of backbone and pulled out.
However, the event went ahead – albeit under our high security conditions – and everyone in attendance indignantly refused to have their ticket money refunded and organised their own entertainment from musicians in attendance.14
Subsequently we had an arson attack which burned a hole in the building’s front door and I was so glad I had insisted on wire mesh screens for the windows.
We faced a period of our intruder alarm being repeatedly set off, requiring attendance by key-holding members of the Management Committee, and had to lobby the council to install CCTV cameras on the exterior. Which they did and the alarm-setting ceased.
The next external threat was the later and unrelated round of savage council funding cuts throughout the Lewisham NGO sector. The removal of the funding for our Manager – our only full-time member of staff — would have crippled the Centre.
We lobbied the Councillors by letter and by attending Council meetings, also held rallies outside the Town Hall and had Irish step-dancers in attendance in full costume, which of course made interesting photos for the local newspapers.
I am glad that the threat of cuts was finally withdrawn from the Centre, though it certainly could do with — and deserves — more funding. Hopefully it will never be threatened again.
Lewisham Council does now recognise the Irish as an ethnic minority within the borough and collects statistics on its representation in the Council’s employment and service take-up.
In conclusion, I want to put on record my earnest go raibh míle maith agaibh to the Lár-Ionad’s Staff, for their sticking with the Centre, in particular our first and wonderful Centre Manager, Brendan O’Rourke15 and our first caretaker Michael Naughton.
Also our first advice worker Tom Devine and subsequent and current advice worker Kathleen Sheridan(who is somehow these days managing that job at the same time as managing the Centre!). And who did a great job in liaison with the Embassy for this commemoration.
I’d like to pay tribute to the early members of the Irish Lewisham Pensioners’ Association, Irish Centre Steering Group and later Management Committee.
Muriel Perry, Ellen Baczor, Kathleen Henry, Molly Kennedy, Peter Sexton, and especially Teresa Burke, those survivors of Irish emigration to Britain in the 1930s and 40s, all now passed on, who worked hard, often in jobs considered menial.
They paid their taxes in Britain and still sent money home to their families in Ireland. From the 1940s up to the 1960s, those remittances formed a significant portion of the economy of the Irish state.
I remember some of their stories: Kathleen Henry, a Presbyterian by religion, telling me that her forebears “were out” in the 1798 Uprising; Teresa Burke failing to catch a bus in wartime Lewisham and seeing a Nazi bomb blow it up further down the road.
Muriel Perry telling me that Catholics in her Belfast area during the same war were refused dole and encouraged to go to England.
Teresa Burke again, arguing with me that I should vote Labour and, at her husband’s funeral, bursting out laughing to see me in a suit for the first time in all the years she had known me.
As we say back home, I lift a stone to place on each of their cairns.
I want to acknowledge also later management committee members — and hopefully all surviving — Patrick Codd, Raymond Barnes, Brian Fitzgerald and Tony Urquhart16.
Also to raise a symbolic glass to the broad Irish community, with all its exasperations but also its persistence and in many ways, heroism, to activists of the now-defunct Irish in Britain Representation Group, both nationally and in Lewisham.
Also to my part-time Lewisham youth-work boss Malcolm Ball, recently taken well before his time, who understood my commitment to the Irish community and accommodated it.
This is only the second time I have attended an event at the Embassy …. I was indeed more often outside it, protesting actions or inaction of the Irish Government17.
I was inside the Embassy once another time getting emergency help with a temporary passport18 when the Embassy official kindly attended on a weekend to sort me out. A thousand thanks to him too, wherever he may be now.
Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil arísleis an Ambasadóir, an t-Uasal Martin Fraser agus le foireann na hAmbasáide as an t-ullmhúchán don ócáid.
Finally, I’d like to thank again the Ambassador for the invitation to attend and the Embassy’s team for its preparations for the event. And to you all for listening.
Sin a bhfuil uaimse anois – that’s all from me now, you’ll no doubt be glad to hear.
CHAIR OF THE TRUSTEES
Colum Mackey gave a report on the financial situation of the Centre and its services, in terms of donations and grants received. He also reported on activities and organisations with which the Centre is now connected and also thanked staff and the membership of centre’s Board of Trustees (the management committee as trustees of its charity status).
CEO (CURRENT MANAGER AND ADVICE WORKER)
Kathleen Sheridan began her talk with an Irish-language proverb: Ní neart go cur le chéile (meaning that strength comes from united effort) and continued in a warm acknowledgement of the work of employees and volunteers, naming so many of them, and also the Meals on Wheels voluntary service in the area and the Southwark Irish groups with which they had relations.
HARPIST AND SINGERS
Jean Kelly gave a warm and interesting address relating how during the Covid lockdown she had found a Friday morning Zoom session with people in the Centre so very rewarding. She then went on to perform Jimmy a Stór and The Last Rose of Summer on the harp.
Three pensioners – Denis Costello, Eileen Doyle & Larry Bruce — succeeded one another on to the stage to render a song: The Bold Thady O’Quill, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and Dublin In the Rare Aul’ Times.
My family members were impressed by the whole event and I received some compliments on my speech, including from the Ambassador; the latter’s wife Deirdre was most gracious.
Some decades ago I am sure that in the unlikely event of my having received a similar invitation, the reception would have been a good deal frostier.
It was curious how many people, including those who had been members or even in management of the Centre in succeeding years, said that they had been unaware of the events to which I referred in my speech.
This was of course sufficient reason on its own for relating them but it is sad how communities can lose their history or have it obscured.
It was great to briefly catch up with people I knew but eventually had to tear myself away and depart with my family members.
1 I didn’t relate this but it was fairly well known at the time that the Federation of Irish Societies, a bourgeois and conservative Irish association (and the one with which the Embassy of the time preferred to have dealings) had their AGM in May 1981, during which the death of Volunteer (and MP) Bobby Sands became known. An attempt to have the meeting record a vote of sympathy for Sands’ family was ruled out of order by the Chair. Subsequently, Breandán Mac Alua, then Editor of the Irish community newspaper The Irish Post, wrote in his Dolan column that perhaps there was a need in Britain for a different and more assertive type of Irish community organisation. Subsequently community activists got together and formed the Irish in Britain Representation Group which, at its height, had a number of branches in London and individual branches in Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester and NE Lancs. The Irish Post was very supportive of the IBRG during Mac Alua’s editorship.
2 The Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and Judith Ward were the most prominent of those.
3 Many incidents of anti-Irish racism were recorded and no doubt hundreds of thousands of others went unrecorded during this period and earlier. The Comedians TV series regularly featured ‘comic’ material belittling the Irish, newspapers including dailies did so too, including brutish caricatures, while TV soaps and drama series regularly included a violent Irish character (usually the only Irish character in the episode). And of course the ongoing war was reported with heavy anti-‘Nationalist’ bias and much violence towards that community unreported. The Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act was specifically aimed at terrorising the Irish community to disrupt its activities of solidarity with the Irish struggle.
4 Led by Ken Livingstone with John McDonnell as Deputy, it was abolished by Thatcher in 1986, who then went on to abolish the Inner London Education Authority four years later in 1990.
5 I had already been working as a part-time youthworker in Lewisham but under the ILEA and had also worked in Haringey. As a part-time adult education tutor the ILEA had also employed me in Lewisham, briefly in Haringey and Southwark, while the London Borough of Newham (outside the ILEA) also employed me in that capacity. At times some of those posts were concurrent but not all.
6 It also included asking Councillors to oppose the then strip-searching of Volunteers Ella O’Brien and Martina Anderson and, as part of the overall IBRG, campaigning for Irish solidarity and British withdrawal, against plastic bullets, transfer for Irish political prisoners to Ireland and other issues. However, I left those out of my speech.
7 This was an especially strong recommendation by myself – the windows were tall on one side of the hall of which the floorboards were in wood. We were to have reason to be grateful for those wire screens.
8 For a while the LB of Lewisham employed a decent man as local historian archivist and he proposed the placing of the plaque on the house (with the permission of the owners) and notified Lewisham IBRG of the intention and wording. We responded and asked him to include “Irish Republican and author”, all of which — excluding the words “Republican” — were duly included. On the day of its unveiling a very small group attended to hear Gordon Brown MP give a speech and hear the Tannenbaum air played by trumpet. I jumped up on a nearby low wall and addressed them too, pointing out that as well as being a communist, Jim Connell had been an Irish Republican and would have strongly opposed the war against Irish people being conducted by British governments. I sent an account to the Irish Post which wrote it up in its Dolan column.
9 For those who might not know, Irish set-dancing is a form requiring four (or multiples of) pairs, dancing to different Irish traditional airs and completing patterns, taking a short rest and commencing on the next pattern. Originating with the quadrilles of Napoleonic France, set-dances have reached as far as Cuba, though of course to different bodies of music. Although one would usually encounter perhaps only between five of them, an enthusiast once told me that there are 50 different Irish set dances!
10 At this point I can only remember one of those: Some leading members of a local Irish group had been bad-mouthing the Centre and at least one Management Committee member wanted the organisation’s application for membership of the Centre refused. I did not agree with the action proposed and was also sure our Constitution gave no right to refuse membership of an organisation due to the behaviour of some of its members.
11 Lewisham IBRG had been commemorating that event since 1987 and at Lár-Ionad na nGael, as an affiliated organisation, since 1983, without any difficulties.
12 For active drug-users.
13 The IBRG branch called on Lewisham Council to apologise and retract their remarks; they never replied nor apologised. We also wrote to the Irish Post denouncing the Council’s reaction but I had to use an assumed name so as not to implicate the Management Committee, of which I was not only a member but Chairperson and Trustee.
14 The response of the attendance was heart-warming. There was a sequel to this a few days later when I and Brian Fitzgerald confronted and shamed the band at a gig they were playing in a pub not far away. I have written about this separately.
15 It was wonderful to see Brendan in attendance.
16 The latter three were very much alive and indeed in attendance.
17 For example, extradition of Republicans from the Irish state to the Six Counties colony or to Britain (e.g Dessie Ellis and Róisín McAlliskey).
18 One does not require a passport for entry into Britain from the Irish state, only acceptable forms of ID (as with the EU). Some carriers however, such as Ryanair, insist on a passport for travellers.