Long before Ryanair’s cheap flights took off, it was a train from Euston to Holyhead and a ferry to Dublin that got you from London to the Emerald Isle. And then the Irish community embarked on a shorter trip, down the Holloway Road from Euston.
Filmmaker David Kelly has spent a lifetime fascinated by the Irish in London. His documentary, I Only Came Over for a Couple of Years, was produced in 2005, analysing Irish immigration and featuring interviews with those who emigrated in the ‘30s and ‘60s.
He said: “At St Joseph’s church on Highgate Hill there’s a priest who is 94 called Christopher Kelly. He was telling us that in the 1960s the congregation was full of Irish nurses working at The Whittington. There were a few pubs on Junction Road where a lot of freelance building companies would pick up Irish men and hire them.”
Paul McLoughlin has lived in Archway for over 50 years. His parents moved from Camden Town in 1961, having travelled from Ireland in 1942.
“The Church at Archway had a social club and they had Irish dancing,” he said. Music and dance became a key way for the Irish to keep their culture alive and venues such as The Gresham on Holloway road provided a dance floor and a place to continue drinking.
Tony Bennett, originally from Killaloe, County Clare, came over to London to work as an architect. His band, formed of college classmates played at The Favourite pub in Queensland Road, during the 1970s.
He said: “If there were musicians that were well-known on the traditional circuit, they’d appear in The Favourite on the Sunday morning.”
The Favourite no longer rings to the sound of the fiddle; it was demolished to make way for the Emirates in 2004. Where they once danced all night at The Gresham, they now shop all day at Sainsbury’s.
The area has been modernised and the demographic has changed. When the Celtic Tiger took off many left London and returned to Ireland.
Mr McLoughlin said: “Locally, I know about 30 people who went back to Ireland in the 90s. Many of those who left Islington during that period were able to invest in property.”
But the area’s Irish culture still lives on and Sunday’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations are testament to the fact that Irish traditions are upheld. Paul McLoughlin explains that his four children all grew up learning Irish instruments, such as the tin whistle, and performing Irish dancing. “It felt that you were keeping it alive,” he said.
The Quays, an Irish pub opened in 2001, regularly hosts live music, picking up where The Gresham left off.
James McNally who once played with The Pogues and whose parents ran The Favourite now plays with Afro-Celt Soundsystem combining Irish influences with African beats. Meanwhile Niomi McLean-Daley, better known as R’n’B diva Ms Dynamite and born in Archway cites the Irish influence in her music.
The legacy is not just a cultural one. David Kelly cites the influence of radical thought on local politics and the public sector: “This sort of campaigning culture has really fed into housing, social and health policy within Islington. It’s one of the reasons we have got the most progressive, Liberal and best set of services in the whole of the UK. There’s a positive effect out of immigration which is always worth looking at.”
The numbers may have dwindled – the latest census shows that 3.9% of the borough’s population say they are Irish compared to 5.7% in 2001 – but they remain a vocal and vibrant part of this community.