London's Irish Emigrants: In Their Own Words

By Londonist Last edited 8 months ago
London's Irish Emigrants: In Their Own Words

Before the 'Ryanair Generation', leaving home was often for good. Half a million Irish men and women left Ireland during the 1950s, prompted by economic stagnation — and many ended up in London. Catherine Dunne's book An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London speaks to those who headed for the bright lights of London, some 60-70 years ago.

a train in paddington station with the huge platform clock off to the left
"I remem­ber being there as a child of seven or eight and arriving at Paddington station and looking at the clock and thinking: 'I have never in my life seen a clock so big!'". Image: Christopher Michel in Creative Commons

"I had been to London numerous times before, so I wasn't a complete stranger to the appearance of the place, which is so completely different aesthetically to Ireland. I remem­ber being there as a child of seven or eight and arriving at Paddington station and looking at the clock and thinking: 'I have never in my life seen a clock so big!' But there were other bits which were abso­lutely awful. It takes a long while to get used to the fact that people didn't speak to you in the street. I couldn't understand what was the matter with all these miserable divils who wouldn't bid you the time of day." — Phyllis Izzard, who came to London to live with family, following the unexpected death of her father.

"My first day job was in Schweppes. I was working 'on the belt' as it was called. All the bottles used to go round and round, and we used to have to put labels on them and see that the tops were on correctly.We were working with English girls, who used to say, 'You Irish, you don't know how to do it properly' or 'What are you doing here?' They'd make some nasty comment or other. And so, we found our own way of getting back at them. As the bottles went around, we'd take one where the top wasn't on right and shake it, hard. Then we'd squirt it all over the English girls." — Kathleen Morrissey, who made her own way to London aged 15.

The Schweppes factory in Hendon, where Kathleen Morrissey took out sticky revenge on the English girls. Image: public domain

"Working for London Transport was tough going. I worked shifts — sometimes getting up at four in the morning for one shift, coming in at 2am after another. When I first started on the buses, on one route alone — the 113 — there were over a hundred shifts. You could never get used to the hours because they kept changing. These were difficult times, too, when there were bomb scares in London. They used to vacate the buses, and the driver and myself would be left. Nine times out of ten, there'd be nothing. And there were lots of hoaxes. I remember a station being closed once because of a suspicious parcel. So we all waited until it was safe — and the policeman came out carrying a pound of sausages! That was the suspicious parcel." — Anne 0' Neill, who was brought over to London in 1957, aged 17, by her mother.

"Kilburn and Cricklewood at that time were bursting at the seams with Irish. There were a lot of factories around Cricklewood in those days. There was a big Smith's that made clocks and speedometers, things like that. Another fac­tory manufactured washing machines, Rose Razor, and then there was Frigidaire. They were all around Colindale, all that area. It felt like the whole of London came out of Smith's on a Friday afternoon. You couldn't walk along the footpaths at a quarter past four, when the factories finished." — Mary Walker, who came to London as a 23-year-old in 1959, in search of a career in hairdressing.

"When I first started on the buses, on one route alone — the 113 — there were over a hundred shifts. You could never get used to the hours because they kept changing." — Anne 0' Neill. Image: Murgatroyd49 in Creative Commons

"Often, people blame the English for a lot of problems. But it wasn't a bed of roses among the Irish either. Take the ganger­-men. They had a little bit of power. If your face didn't fit, you weren't picked up in the lorry in Kilburn the following morning. Sometimes, a man would be taken out on a job and the ganger-men took a dislike to him. They'd just dump him in the street and tell him to 'find your own so-and-so way home'. They were often paid in pubs, too. If you didn't buy your drink, you wouldn't be picked up the following day either." — Kevin Casey, who lived and worked in London for over 50 years, and admitted all those years later "every time I leave Ennis, a bit of me dies."

"Sometimes there were unrealistic expectations of what life in London could offer. I know so many fellows who'd go back to Ireland for Christmas and they'd pull a twenty quid note out of their pocket and treat everybody in the pub to a drink. Then they'd take out another one. That was a lot of money in those days, an awful lot of money. Other fellows watching this, earning very little in Ireland, would think that the streets of London were paved with gold. They'd come over to London, get into difficulties and then they were too shy to go back home." — Father Seamus Fullam, from Co. Longford, who worked among the Irish in London for almost five decades.

"That bloody thing was on for a week and it nearly drove me mad. Every time I see it coming on televi­sion now I say 'No, no! Please, no!'" — Joe Dunne on 'Shane'

"I belonged to the Legion of Mary, and we used to meet young Irish girls down at Euston Station. .We'd meet the first train coming in in the morning, the mail-train. We'd watch those girls getting off the train at Euston. They hadn't got a clue where they were going, what they were doing. We'd go up and ask if there was anybody meeting them. There never was. I used to know if they were pregnant just by looking at them. Even at six weeks, I could tell by the shape of the nose. I had an eye for that. Helping those young pregnant girls became my mission in life." — Sheila Dillon (not her real name), who trained as a nurse in Manchester before relocating to London.

"The first job I got when I went back was in Bayswater, in the cinema. I was all togged up, dicky bow and all. On my day off, l used to sit in the back of the cinema. I'd nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, like. I was in a room on my own, in some snobby place, somewhere in Bayswater, I think. So I'd spend my day off in the back of the cinema, watching some film I'd seen all the week before. I remember one of those films - Shane. That bloody thing was on for a week and it nearly drove me mad. Every time I see it coming on televi­sion now I say 'No, no! Please, no!'" — Joe Dunne, who moved to London and met his wife Marie here. They both eventually moved back to Bluebell, Dublin in 1976.

An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London by Catherine Dunn is published by New Island in an updated edition for 2021.

Last Updated 15 March 2022

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