I was in Brighton last week, just a few days after the death in that Sussex city of Roseanna Davis, formerly Mulpeter who emigrated from Rathangan 75 years ago. Roseanna who was 101 years of age was a founder member of London’s Kildare Association and was the Association’s Secretary from its foundation until 1969. Her work on behalf of Kildare emigrants in London was recognised with the award of the Kildare Overseas Personality of the Year Award just 4 years ago.
Irish emigration to Britain is on the increase and a new wave of young emigrants is adding yet another generation to those Irish men and women who were obliged to leave Ireland in the 1940s and later. Those earlier generations found work during the regeneration of post war Britain and eventually settled down to form part of the most substantial minority group in England, Scotland and Wales. Net emigration level, estimated at 24,000 a year in the immediate post war years, had increased to 40,000 a year in the 1950s.
It was the Catholic clergy in England who first provided assistance for newly arrived Irish emigrants. The Irish Centre in Camden was founded in 1955 with the support of Cardinal Griffin of Westminster and two years later the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme in Britain was founded. Initially its work was centered on construction sites where the mobile Irish work force were concentrated. One of the better known chaplains was the later Bishop of Galway Eamon Casey who in 1963 became director of the Catholic Housing Aid Society. Another was Fr. Owen Sweeney, later Parish Priest of St. Michael’s Athy, who was the Director of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme in the 1960s.
Various county associations emerged over the years and the Kildare Association had members in London and Manchester. However, in more recent years both associations have been less active than before and as I write the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith London is under threat as the local Council signals its intention to sell the building.
The size of the Irish presence in Britain has never been accurately identified but on March 27th the British Census will allow those participating to declare their ethnicity. A campaign is presently underway on the British mainland to encourage not only Irish born but also second and third generation Irish to tick the Irish box on their census returns.
At the same time as the Irishness of the British population becomes a census issue a sad story comes to the forefront, having been ignored for many years. It concerns the last years of those Irish emigrants who left Ireland many years ago to work in a country which was not always welcoming and which in many instances overly discriminated with signs which read ‘no Irish or blacks need apply’. These days are now gone but many of the men and women who suffered the discrimination of the 1940s and later are now amongst those who live lonely lives in sheltered accommodation in British cities. They are many of the same people who have lost contact with their families back in Ireland and who when they die are buried in communal graves by their local Councils. In Camden where there is still a substantial elderly Irish population approximately 100 persons a year are buried in unmarked communal graves. It’s a sad end to any life, but the forgotten Irish is an issue which is being tackled by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, as well as a number of Irish Associations supported by the Irish Government Emigrant Support Programme.
For many elderly emigrants living alone help will not come in time. For others such as Roseanna Davis a lifetime spent helping fellow emigrants was its own reward. Roseanna’s cremation takes place in Brighton on 7th February, after which her ashes will be returned to Ireland and interned in the family plot in Rathangan Cemetery.
John Costello passed away last week just a day or two before his 40th wedding anniversary. John who was from County Galway came to Athy in 1981. He was Assistant Manager of the Bank of Ireland Athy at a time when the late Michael Walsh was the Manager. On my return to Athy a year later I banked with the Bank of Ireland and John oversaw my account at a time when local Bank officials had authority and responsibility for dealing directly with their customers. Nowadays all that is changed and banking business is seemingly controlled by Dublin based computer programmes without any input from local banking officials. John was a huge fan of Gaelic games in Galway, especially the Galway hurlers and I invariably emerged with the winning bet when our respective counties met in a hurling decider. To Siobhan and his family are extended our sympathies.