Irish in London in 2022: A vibrant new generation amid an ageing population

New arrivals from Ireland are educated high-earners. But the Irish have the oldest average age of any immigrant community in Britain

The milky autumn sun is setting over The Scrubs, 200 acres of rough grassy plains squatting unexpectedly in the middle of west London. To the northwest are the 19-storey edifices of Imperial College London’s student accommodation blocks. Hammersmith Hospital lies to the southeast. The Victorian Wormwood Scrubs men’s prison, where three IRA prisoners staged a rooftop protest over visiting rights in the summer of 1979, dominates the southern skyline. In the twilight a man drives a sulky around the perimeter of what was once an exercise ground for the British military.

There may be more incongruous backdrops for a training session by the Fr Murphy’s Camogie & Ladies Football Club but it’s hard to imagine them. Still, for the women who play here this sprawling scrubland represents a small corner of Ireland in the middle of London. “Coming up here, it’s like being at home. You’re in the centre of London and you’ve got this space to play your own native games,” says chairman of the club Larry O’Leary, who emigrated to the UK when he was seven years old, but still speaks with an accent straight out of Clonakilty.

Being Irish in London in 2022 is “brilliant. Like everywhere you turn, there are Irish people,” says captain and coach of the football team Katie McGuckin.

From Co Derry, she has been in London four years and lived in Liverpool for five years before that. “You come here down to training and there’s 30 girls – everyone is in the same boat; everyone has moved over here and everyone wants to go training to see Irish people and bond with Irish people.”

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The impression that there are Irish people everywhere you turn in London is not quite reinforced by the data. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that on average over the year to June 2021, there were 412,000 people living in the UK who were born in the Republic, and 370,000 “Irish nationals” (this figure does not include people with joint nationality). At the time of the 2011 Census the total Irish-born population of London was 162,581. More recent data on the number of Irish living in London will be available later this year as results of the 2021 Census are published.

Most people expect that number to have fallen. Since Brexit more people have been leaving the UK for Ireland than making the journey in reverse. By 2018, 20,100 people left the UK for Ireland and only 11,400 moved there. As a result of these trends, “the Irish have the oldest average age of any ethnic or immigrant community in Britain”, says Séamus MacCormaic, CEO of the London Irish Centre.

The data is incomplete and limited in what it is able to tell us about who the Irish in London really are or how they feel about their lives and identities today. How do recent waves of emigrants differ from previous generations? What brought them to London? How do they feel about their relationship to the country of their birth and their adopted home? Has Brexit changed their outlook or the perception of Irish people in the UK? And who are the “London Irish”?

O’Leary has noticed a change in the profile of the Fr Murphy’s players. Today’s emigrants are highly educated, hard-working and come armed with good earning potential and high levels of confidence, says O’Leary. “It’s a younger, more vibrant generation now. We have a lot of nurses and we have a lot of teachers. We also have people working in cybersecurity, banking and finance generally.” Others are in tech or pharmaceuticals. “It’s a whole different spectrum.”

Jim O’Hara, the former chair of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, arrived from Belfast at the beginning of the Troubles when “it was not easy to be Irish”. But in recent years “that has dramatically changed”.

“The Irish are well regarded, in my opinion, and well accepted. Most the people that come over now are reasonably well qualified and easily assimilate into British society. I’ve never heard anybody in the last 20 years ever saying to me, ‘oh, I don’t feel comfortable here because I’m Irish’. That just doesn’t exist.”

Many still opt to seek out other Irish, regularly congregating in Irish pubs such as the Claddagh Ring in northwest London, the Swan in Stockwell (”like a London Coppers,” one of the team explains) or going to gigs and cultural events. In post-Brexit Britain they wear their Irishness with a confidence that was impossible to imagine for the generations who emigrated here 50 or even 20 years ago. O’Hara points out that the language classes put on by the Irish Cultural Centre are always overbooked. “It’s mostly people in their 20s and 30s who did Irish in school and want to get it back.”

McGuckin’s team-mate Hannah Corey from Strabane, Co Tyrone, came to London over six years ago in search of “a bit more action in life and better opportunities”.

An account manager with a tech company, she thinks the big change over previous generations is how many young Irish women now end up in London, drawn to the opportunities and lifestyle. “In the past it would have been predominantly men moving for over here for work in construction. But now we’re moving over on our own, making a life for ourselves on our own.”

Irish people are in demand in the jobs market, says Sally Farrell, who arrived last summer and joined Fr Murphy’s within a month. “The work ethic is second to none, like. Irish people are known to work really hard. And as a result you get a lot of offers.”

But as this prosperous, self-assured generation becomes the dominant face of the Irish in London, a more traditional way of life is fading, O’Leary says.

“The culture that you’ll see at the [London] Irish Centre is disappearing big time. There used to be county associations. Dinner dances are almost a thing of the past.”

A different universe

The London Irish Centre is located in an impressive 19th century villa on leafy Camden Square, where it was opened in 1954 by a committee of priests to cater for the young Irish men travelling over to work in construction. It was the era of “the signs, ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’, so the Irish had nowhere to go,” says MacCormaic. In the 1980s it added welfare to the services it offered.

These days it is a busy hub of information and advice, as well as a range of events from book clubs to mindfulness sessions to toddler groups. But to many it remains bound up in a more traditional notion of what it means to be Irish in this city.

“Being Irish is completely fine now, especially in London,” says Eve O’Callaghan, an art student in her early 20s who grew up in Dundalk and Manchester, and studied in Dublin before moving to London. She is working behind the bar upstairs in the centre.

She is the only Irish person in her college and now, since Brexit, “the only European person in my year. You can lord over people a bit, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got a European passport’.”

There is a sense, she feels, that “Britain is going backwards, and Ireland isn’t. I don’t know if English people feel that, but I think Irish people do. It’s nice to be from somewhere that isn’t reversing.”

The lunchtime Community Cafe – although it is inclusive and open to anyone who wants to come – remains a place for the generation who emigrated here in the 1950s and 1960s to congregate for food, dancing, mindfulness or a singsong.

Bernard Grealish is a regular. He arrived in London from Leitrim 40 years ago after “all the factories shut up shop and there was no prospect at home”. Landing here at the age of 22, it was like stepping into “a different universe”. Back then you tried not to draw attention to your Irishness.

Now “looking back, I don’t know if I made the right choice because now it’s very hard. There’s no community of Irish now here. That’s all died. It’s all changed. The old working men’s pubs are gone.”

He lists off the vanished landmarks of the Irish scene, the pubs and dance halls that are gone or transformed into something more urban and modern. “They were the temples of the Irish community. The world has moved so far ahead that I sometimes feel isolated.” In the past, “you felt part of something. But then it evaporated . . . It’s very hard to know what it is to be Irish in London any more.”

“There is no one Irish in Britain experience”

There may be as many different answers to the question of what it means to be Irish in London in 2022 as there are Irish people in London.

Catherine Hennessy, chief executive of iCap which provides accessible, culturally-sensitive therapy services to Irish people in the UK, paraphrases something theatre director Garry Hynes said about how “there is no one Ireland”. “There is no one Irish in Britain experience.”

She broadly divides the Irish in London into three or four main communities. “There are the people that came in the 1950s and 60s. They remember the 1970s, the IRA campaign on the mainland and the overt, anti-Irish racism. I remember one woman telling me that she worked in a department store in Birmingham after the pub bombing, and when she went to work the next day her colleagues hid her in a cupboard. And then her manager said, ‘I don’t think you can work here any more’.” The scars of those experiences ran deep.

Then there are those who emigrated in the 1980s and 1990s who may have experienced only a lingering residue of that prejudice, the odd clunky comment or culturally insensitive gaffe. Some are raising children who are British, Irish or a hybrid of both.

Dr Aodhán Breathnach, a consultant microbiologist in St George’s Hospital in London, is part of that generation. Arriving in London, “I didn’t want to be in an Irish ghetto. I still feel Irish living in England. I’ll never feel English . . . But I don’t think you should have to choose. I think it’s good to be comfortable in both. I’m happy to work for the state here. And I have a professional loyalty to the NHS.”

As a result, from some Irish people, “you get, ‘oh you’re a bit of a West Brit now. You’ve gone native.’ Well you have to, to a degree.”

When he refers to “home” he might mean South Wimbledon where he lives with his wife and where his “hybrid” children grew up. But he might also mean Ireland. “If I say I’m going home for the weekend, I’m going back to Dublin. So I’ve two homes in a sense.”

Still, even after all these years, “I go to Dublin and I get an ache in my heart because I miss it.”

The Ryanair generation

Catherine Hennessy identifies a third demographic, “the Ryanair generation”, those for whom cheap flights meant emigration did not have to represent nearly such a traumatic severance with home. “If you came in 2008, you’re probably working in a company that has employees from all across the world. You’ve probably got colleagues now who are saying to you, ‘oh, actually, I’m getting an Irish passport, because my granny was Irish’. So it is a very different experience.”

Tara Hopkins from Co Wicklow moved to Brussels at 23 and spent a few years there before moving to London in 2003, where she now works for Instagram. Like other members of the Ryanair generation, “I’ve always been coming and going, coming and going. Most of the school holidays are in Ireland.”

For herself, “as much as I love living in London, as much as I love having British-Irish children, I don’t feel like it’s my country”. But she has been careful not to raise her children with the view that they’re missing out on anything by growing up in the UK, which she thinks can be a risk for emigrant families. “I’ve never wanted them to feel like Ireland is better than the UK. I’ve always raised them to be proud of where they’re from.”

This has been more difficult since Brexit, when returning emigrants from the UK are often met with a barrage of appalled questions about what is going on in Britain, “between Brexit, the Tory governments, Boris Johnson, how the UK reacted to Covid”.

She thinks “there’s a sense of mainly confusion” on the part of Irish people about what is happening to Britain, and is worried about the impact on her children. “As a mum to British-Irish kids, you don’t want there to be a sense of us and them.”

The Brexit effect

If you ask Irish people in London how Brexit has affected their lives, they’ll will usually say it hasn’t. If anything, many feel there is a prestige to having an Irish passport, especially in multicultural London. “There’s definitely cachet to being Irish now,” in the mostly liberal, pro-European circles Jeanna Gallagher moves in as a continuity announcer with Channel 4.

From Co Roscommon, Gallagher has lived in London since 2010 and has sensed much more positivity towards the Irish. “Ireland is spoken about in very different terms now than it was 12 years ago even. Back then we did have the overhang from the IRA bombing campaigns in the UK – you always felt that was very close to the surface when people spoke about Ireland. But now Ireland is seen as a thriving, very modern country with open perspectives on abortion, divorce, trans rights, and has taken care of many Ukrainians. It really makes me proud.”

But for several interviewed for The Irish Times, Brexit has altered in difficult to define the ways how they feel about their relationship with Britain. “I was devastated. It’s probably the worst thing that’s happened since I’ve been here that’s affected me personally. [I have] found myself thinking, ‘what would I be entitled to if I went back home when I retire’?,” says Hennessy.

Brexit “100 per cent made me feel differently”, says Hopkins. “It was a trauma. We felt it very deeply as a family. It was the first time you had a sense, ‘am I welcome here’? I never had any bad experiences. But you felt this overriding sense that it wasn’t the country you thought it was.”

Brexit has made Irish people more conscious of their differences with Britain than they had been, says O’Hara. “It has increased their sense of being different in that Ireland has clearly opted to be part of Europe and to play an important role in Europe, whereas Britain has retired from that.”

One of the few positive unintended consequences of Brexit is that it has English people more aware of the shared history between the two islands, says Flora Faith-Kelly, who was raised in Co Derry as “a child of the Good Friday Agreement” and emigrated to England seven years ago. “There’s maybe more questioning now and more realisation about the knowledge they didn’t have beforehand.”

Among young people particularly, “there’s a growing understanding of something they didn’t learn, or weren’t taught in school, and suddenly want to know about. People my age have been quite apologetic” about the gaps in their knowledge and have been asking questions for the first time.

Being London Irish

The other very significant – and often forgotten demographic – of Irish people in London, says Nora Mulready, “is the London Irish”. Those who, like herself, were born in London to Irish parents and feel a strong pull to their Irish identity without necessarily ever having lived in Ireland,or even ever wanting to.

Mulready, the chief executive of the Irish Elderly Advice Network, grew up immersed in Irish culture and music. Her mother, Sally Mulready, was heavily involved in the Birmingham Six campaign. For Nora, being London Irish is all about the culture, the causes, the community of people you’re connected to. “It’s not a set of characteristics. It’s like a set of relationships . . . For me, being London Irish is about the connections that you have with other people, and how long you have known them.

“We’re part of that story of emigration that runs through Irish people. We’re the inheritors of the poetry that was made out of that pain. But we don’t have that pain of the separation.”

The voice of the London Irish community will be an increasingly important demographic in the relationship between the two countries in the years to come, predicts Jim O’Hara, the former chair of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. “Here is a group of people whose numbers are going to continue to grow whether emigration from Ireland continues. It’s important that there’s government supports, financially, culturally, diplomatically for the Irish community here which take on board that second generation and that third generation – if we want to continue that concept of that Irish diaspora” in Britain.

“I feel very much like a Londoner. But I also really connect with my Irish roots and heritage,” says Bronagh Murphy, who grew up in London to Irish parents and works in marketing for the London Irish Centre. She happily defines herself as London Irish – not English, but not fully Irish either.

“In terms of [the cultural signifiers of] my Irishness, we eat soda bread, we eat bacon and cabbage, we hang out with a lot of Irish people. I also feel like I really connect with the humour and the warmth and friendliness of people. But I also love London. I love how diverse and metropolitan it is.”

Identity is something that is also very fluid for Faith-Kelly. “I see myself as very much Irish and London Irish,” while she also feels very connected to Britain through the education she got in Northern Ireland. “I truly see myself as a mix of everything. It’s interesting that people say that Irishness is dying out in London. Obviously, the numbers [emigrating] are much lower, but there’s still a really strong community of young Irish people who have moved over to England and have made homes here” and are seeking out Irish culture and connections to other Irish people.

What may be dying out is the generation that felt they had to choose one identity or the other. For some, this left them feeling adrift. Catherine Hennessy quotes the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, who said: “I feel most at home when I’m in the middle of the Irish Sea.”

But for the new generation of Irish in London, that sense of having to be one thing or another is fading. Describing what it means to be Irish in London, Breathnach refers to the moment in Derry Girls when Aunt Sarah is trying to explain the complexities of the Belfast Agreement. “She says, ‘you can be Irish, you can be British, or you can be bi’.”

Irish in London: An intergenerational view

Jim O’Hara from Belfast is the former chairman of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. His son Ruairí (27), whose mother is also Irish, works in finance. They meet at the Irish Cultural Centre for a conversation about what the London-Irish identity means in 2022. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define yourself?

Ruairí: Pretty much any moniker other than English. ‘London Irish’ is the perfect way to describe it. I have a very English accent. So I outwardly wouldn’t be assumed to be Irish. I’ve lived in London, like, my entire life. But then going to London Irish, and coming here, and learning traditional Irish music, drummed into me that you’re definitely Irish. There’s a weird kind of conflict there when you say you’re Irish. And then the next question is like, ‘oh, where are you from’? It’s like, ‘well, kind of, London’. It’s the classic second generation thing, where you’re not entirely binary, one or the other.

Jim to Ruairí: Do you feel comfortable in Ireland? Do you feel like an English person in Ireland, or someone coming to a country you’re comfortable in?

Ruairí: I don’t feel like a stranger. I feel very comfortable in Ireland in terms of the culture, and generally the values. But I don’t feel the same way you do, I can’t feel the same way that you would about it. I don’t feel quite at home in the same way.

Jim: No, of course.

Jim, how does it make you feel then to hear your son speaking about that slight conflict about his identity?

Jim: I can see that there is a conflict that if you’re speaking with an English accent, and somebody asks you what you are, and you say you’re Irish. But I think it’s a good thing. I think the London Irish are very lucky. They can move easily between the two countries and cultures. When you go to Ireland and something like politics is being discussed, you can fit in quite easily because you’ve got that background.

Ruairí, if you ever have children do you think it would be important to keep the Irish connection going into the next generation?

Ruairí: I definitely would . . . I would definitely try to kind of keep that connection alive, but it probably will get harder as each generation goes by to try to tap into it as much.

Jim: Americans easily identify as Italian-American or Irish-American. But people here don’t do that the same way. I’ve never heard anybody say I’m English-Irish or I’m British-Irish. But London Irish is something [people identify as]. That’s why I think it does need to be nurtured.

So what does it mean to you to be Irish in London?

Ruairí: It’s a weird, conflicting of two personalities and two approaches to life – the super-friendly and more down-to-earth Irish way, and the slightly stiffer and more rigid English thing.

Jim: Even after 40 years, while I’m very comfortable living in London, and enjoy it very much, I love going back. And although my two sons are born here, I don’t really see London as my home.