The Irish in London

The purists may scoff, but the capital's St Patrick's Day festivities are a potent symbol of the Irish community's assimilation into London life

  • The Irish in London

    Londoners of all nationalities turn out in force to celebrate St Patrick's Day © James O Jenkins

  • This Sunday, crowds of Londoners will gather in Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square to consume pints of stout or dyed-green lager, wave Irish flags and dance to ceili bands. Celtic DNA will be optional and Hibernian authenticity will not be high on the agenda – prompting a chorus of sneers from cultural purists and predictable tuts from Little Englanders who will sniff that there won’t be any pipers piping for St George on April 23.

    But perhaps these sceptics ought to check their history: St Patrick’s Day celebrations as we know them today are very much a construct of the Irish abroad, rather than anything homegrown. March 17 didn’t even become a public holiday in Ireland until 1903, yet annual parades have been held in Boston, Massachusetts, since 1737, in New York since 1756 and in Montreal since 1759. Strangely, though, it wasn’t until 2002 – a whole decade after Moscow held its first St Patrick’s Day parade – that Ken Livingstone launched London’s version. Given that, as a city, we don’t normally shirk our responsibilities when it comes to wearing silly hats and getting pissed, this seems like uncharacteristic coyness on our part. But then, the relationship between London and its Irish – the largest minority ethnic population in the capital – has always been a curious one.

    The one thing we all think we know is that London landladies in the 1950s routinely displayed notices saying ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’. Yet according to Bernard Canavan, an academic and writer who is currently working with Nicola McHugh on the launch of a new Irish radio station for west London, the well-known photo showing such a sign was actually mocked up at a later date; any anti-Irish prejudice was more likely to be based on class than nationality. ‘I’m not saying it didn’t ever happen,’ he cautions. ‘But I’m sure most English landladies would accept Irish nurses, say. They might not be so happy about Irish navvies.’

    This distinction is fundamental to the Irish experience in London after World War II. ‘Girls were kept in convents longer than boys,’ says Canavan, ‘not for the best feminist reasons or because eduction was highly regarded but because it kept girls from getting into trouble. But an interesting byproduct of that is that the women often rose to managerial positions, while the men stayed at a basic skill level.’

    Irish labourers had been building London’s infrastructure for centuries: the Gordon Riots of 1736 were a response to cheap Irish workers. But after the war, the ready availability of Irish labour – driven to emigrate by their fledgling nation’s basket-case economy – dovetailed perfectly with the needs of Blitz-flattened, pre-mechanised London. Between 1943 and 1970, about 700,000 Irish came to Britain and a large proportion of them moved into an arch of north-west London boroughs that stretches from Islington, via Camden and Kilburn, to Brent, Acton and Hammersmith. ‘These people would have been mainly rural,’ says Canavan. ‘Unskilled and uneducated in the main, the poorest of the poor.

    But they came to dominate a couple of sectors: the heaviest forms of unskilled building, and – because of their own predilections – the pub trade.’

    By the 1960s, the educational calibre of Irish migrants rose sharply, even if their prospects in London weren’t radically improved; many well-educated Irish men found themselves, as Canavan puts it, still ‘digging holes in British roads’. It’s impossible not to draw parallels with the influx of eastern Europeans currently filling London’s skills gaps; indeed, overqualified Polish plumbers and nannies may well take heart from the ultimate triumph of their Irish predecessors. ‘Emigrants were in a sense the harbingers of Ireland’s economic success,’ Canavan points out.

    He predicts that the kind of ersatz ex-pat identity expressed by the Irish in America – many of whom migrated a century earlier than their London counterparts – will soon be a feature of life here, too. And that’s a good thing. ‘What is really most striking about Irish migration is how many people assimilate,’ he says. ‘But having assimilated, the culture takes on a life of its own. It’s like Caribbean culture. I’ve often been to the Notting Hill Carnival. I’m not West Indian but, for that brief couple of days, I can dip into that culture and enjoy it. I think that’s going to happen much more with St Patrick’s Day.

    ‘In the 1950s, St Patrick’s Day was just a small group of people standing there with a few banners, a sad little group really,’ he says. ‘Now it’s wildly successful; it’s part of the diversity of London. The ghetto, the days of “County Kilburn”, have disappeared.’

    Click here for full details of the St Patrick’s Day festivities this weekend in London

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