Irish Londoners -

Aideen Cowling and her husband Blair with parents Anne and John Gormley

Date of photography:  16th December 2017

Éire has not been governed as part of the United Kingdom for almost a century, but many on this side of the Irish Sea appear to see and treat Ireland as if it were still under British dominion.   This is not perhaps surprising given that, since the Norman Conquest, Britain and Ireland have almost 1,000 years of shared history.  What is sad is that Irish people who’ve settled here have often suffered serious discrimination not unlike that meted out to people of colour.   Working hard and playing hard, most Irish immigrants have never forgotten the roots in their country of origin, though they have been changed by living in London.   In turn, they have helped create in this wonderful city the vibrant, dynamic culture that so many of us enjoy.   Can anyone imagine London without the Irish?   Surely not!   Aideen’s family is typical of the émigré Irish in many ways:  enterprising, hard working and successful, respectful of their host country yet always keeping a place in their hearts for the ‘Emerald Isle’.   Faced with the Brexit conundrum, the ‘London Irish’ hold a range of views and, inevitably, some of them voted, ‘Leave’.   Nevertheless, many second and third generation Irish are reaffirming their Irish heritage and acquiring Irish passports simply because Irish citizenship maintains their European identity.  

The full story:

As a boy, I grew up in continental Europe and, to be quite honest, at that time of my life, I had never met anyone from Ireland.   However, at my grammar school, I did read some fine Irish writers, together with a modest amount of Celtic poetry (translated, of course) and I was intrigued by Freud’s famous claim that the Irish were the only people in the world whom he was unable to psychoanalyse.   I was also vaguely aware of the complex, often fraught, history of the unique relationship between the two Islands of Britain and Ireland, but I never really took the time to explore this further.   Only when I arrived to London as a young man, in the early 70’s, did I become aware that Irish people were such a significant minority in London and that so many of them occupied prominent positions in culture, the media, medicine, music, and the arts - indeed, in practically all walks of life.   When searching for a bedsit in the Notting Hill Gate area, I did occasionally see what are now remembered as the notorious, blatantly racist notices on the front doors of boarding houses: “No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs”, which shocked me profoundly.   While I was painfully aware of the long-established and reprehensible prejudice against all people of colour (flowing from slavery, the European imperial heritage, and so on) I struggled to understand why people who seemed so very much a longstanding part of London life, were subject to such shocking discrimination and perceived as undesirable.  

Almost 50 years later, much effort has been invested into countering discrimination of all kinds and, thankfully, London has largely moved on.   We have all changed and we assure ourselves that, in our world, it would be unimaginable to post such notices outside lodgings for rent.  However, the picture is not quite as rosy as we might be pleased to think:  following the EU Referendum and the subsequent ‘Brexit firestorm’, it is now principally East Europeans who are the new target of a seemingly latent, but quite shocking xenophobia.   On the day I am drafting this piece, I see in the newspaper the photograph of a sign, recently erected in the approaches to a popular, Oxfordshire fishing lake:  “No Vehicle Access - No Polish or Eastern Bloc Fishermen Allowed - No Children or Dogs.”   From this, you might reasonably wonder if very much has changed at all.   But it is not my intention to embark here upon an exploration of the no doubt deep-seated origins of xenophobia, although I do want to examine something of the unique relationship between the English and the Irish.  

With this aim in mind, I was very happy to be invited to meet Aideen Cowling and her husband, Blair, in the home of Aideen’s parents, Anne and John Gormley.   While the Gormleys have deep roots in Ireland, their ‘mother country’, they have lived here most of their lives and see themselves as proud Londoners too - the epitome of the ‘London Irish’ - and I hope to learn something of their personal experience of life in London.   (It is estimated that as many as six million people living in the UK have at least one Irish grandparent and London itself is home to over 900,000 people of Irish descent.)

While much has been written about the chequered history of Anglo-Irish relations, it is fairly evident that there is scant awareness of Irish history amongst the public at large.   Ireland may not have been governed as part of the United Kingdom for almost a century, but many people on this side of the Irish Sea continue to see and treat Ireland as is if were still part of the United Kingdom.   Perhaps this is not very surprising given that, following the Norman Conquest, Britain and Ireland have shared almost 1,000 years of history.   Throughout the Middle Ages, the English crown was always fearful of a ‘back door’ invasion via Ireland, a fear that intensified almost to paranoia following the English Reformation and the break with Rome, when Spain joined France as England’s papist bogeymen in Europe.   In 1541, Henry VIII had himself crowned King of Ireland as a means of exerting full English control of the island.   To reinforce this dominance over a country still loyal to Rome, thousands of Protestant settlers were imported from both Scotland and England, and Catholic landlords were displaced.   Sectarian conflict has blighted Ireland ever since.  

In 1801, in an Act of Union, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom (as Scotland had done a century earlier) and the Irish Parliament was dissolved, superseded by the UK Parliament at Westminster;  despite the Union, Anglo-Irish relations continued to deteriorate throughout the nineteenth century.   They were hardly enhanced by The Great Potato Famine, of 1845-89, when a million Irish people starved to death and another million were forced into emigration simply in order to survive.   Ostensibly a natural disaster - the epidemic of potato blight was in truth Europe-wide - the blame for the particular catastrophe in Ireland was, for a variety of mostly-sound reasons, laid at the door of the English colonial power and its chronically uncaring, absentee landlords.  

Unsurprisingly, this great, national suffering was grist to the mill of a growing Irish nationalist movement, a movement that reached its crescendo in the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21, fought between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Security Forces that included the notoriously brutal and ill-disciplined, irregular soldiers, commonly known as the ‘Black and Tans’.   This conflict became deeply engraved on the Irish psyche.   Only in 1922 did Ireland achieve the status of an independent republic, although the six northern counties of Ulster, home to the majority of Irish Protestants, remained part of the UK.   Whilst this partition resolved some of the immediate problems attendant upon the creation of the Irish Free State, it also laid the regrettably solid foundations for an internecine, sectarian conflict that was to continue as a harsh reality of Irish politics for over 70 years.   Even in the context of the largely successful Good Friday Agreement, this post-partition conflict remains a source of concern to this very day, and one that may resurface should Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union culminate in a so-called ‘hard border’ between Ulster and Eire.  

Christmas was almost upon us and a beautifully decorated tree had been set up in a prominent position in Aideen’s parents’ home, in south-east London, where I went to photograph all four of them - the recently-married Aideen with her husband, Blair Cowling and her parents, Anne and John Gormley.   This is a handsome, comfortable home, furnished with great attention to detail and redolent of the Gormley family’s considerable, worldly success.   (Like most immigrants, they arrived in the UK with relatively little but, through many years of dedicated, hard work, they can now enjoy their well-deserved retirement in comfort.)

Aideen Cowling and I share a mutual friend so, as she had been my primary contact with the two families, I was keen to interview her first.   In her early thirties, Aideen is a professional woman who radiates confidence and charm.   I asked her to tell me something about herself:  “As you know, both of my parents are Irish.   They married in Ireland, where they lived in Dublin and where my older brother and sister were born.   Then they emigrated to England, to south-east London, where I was born, where we lived as a family, and indeed where we continue to live until today.   My father always worked for himself in the building trade, while my mother stayed at home, managing the household and raising the children.   I had a happy childhood.   I went to a local Roman Catholic primary school and then on to secondary school, where I continued into the Sixth Form to do my ‘A Levels’.   I did quite well but I was keen to gain some work experience instead of going straight up to university, so I decided to have a year out and took up a job with a firm of head-hunters in London.   However, having taken that year out, I never actually bothered to go back into higher education and, while I have moved jobs, I am still in the same line of work;  I find it rewarding and stimulating.”

I asked Aideen if, as a second-generation Irish immigrant, she had ever been subject to discrimination;  she responded briskly:  “The answer is ‘no’, partly, I suppose, because at the Roman Catholic school I went to, I was surrounded by people, most of whom were from Irish families, with backgrounds similar to my own.   We never felt there was any difficulty about living in our neighbourhood either.   Our family maintained contact with the two extended families back home in the ‘mother country’ and we went to Ireland for most of our holidays.  My grandmothers still lived there and we have a second house of our own there too.   It feels almost like going from home to home.   I do love going across to Ireland but I see myself as a Londoner first and foremost.”  

I then turn to Aideen’s husband, Blair, a friendly man with a terrific smile, also in his early thirties.   “Milan, I was born not far from here, in Dartford, to parents who are both  Londoners and English by ethnicity, although I recently discovered that there is not only a bit of Scottish in me but a bit of Irish too, on my mother’s side of the family.   My father was a welder and my mother ran her own hairdressing business.   I went to school locally but only to secondary level, not further - I never wanted to go on to university.   What I did want was to get a job and to earn some money of my own, and I never regretted it.   I made good progress professionally and I now work for a medium-sized firm of stockbrokers in London.   Since we got married, Aideen and I live in a house next to her parents and life is very good to us.”

I thought that this was an opportune moment  to ask both of them how they felt about the one topic that has preoccupied the country for months, ‘Brexit’, and Britain’s impending withdrawal from the EU.   After all, several commentators have expressed the opinion that it will be Ireland and the Irish people who will be most seriously affected by this change in Britain’s links with the Continent - the UK is, after all, the second biggest customer for Irish exports, and the border that divides the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland is not only of great economic significance to both South and North but it is also highly sensitive politically, very problematic, and potentially explosive.   On an ordinary, human level, the uncertainties surrounding the status of Irish people living, working or studying in London  has caused lots of people a great deal of anguish.   Many have been distressed to see just how rapidly the rhetoric around curtailing the flow of immigrants into the UK has, almost overnight, become poisonous and deeply nasty.   The Irish might, at one time, have felt themselves privileged to be able to travel, work, study and even vote in the UK but the current swell of anti-immigration rhetoric has been heard and understood by most of the Irish community, and they have surely been affected by it too.  

After some reflection, Aideen responds:  “Well, the Referendum is over, the decision has been taken and the outcome is known:  Brexit is going ahead and I think we just have to get on with it and deal with the consequences as best we can.   Milan, if you had asked me if it was a good result, I would probably have said ‘no’.   I fear that a great many people were not as well-informed as they should have been before casting their votes on what is such an important issue.   I suspect most of them didn’t make an informed decision at all.   I don’t like change, any change really, so I would have preferred to remain within the EU.”

I then asked Aideen if she expected London to change as a result of the vote:  “I am mostly concerned that the world beyond these shores will get the impression that Britain is less welcoming to newcomers and that is definitely not a good thing.   To be honest, although none of our Irish friends seems unduly concerned that they might come to be classed as aliens, the issue of the Irish border is on everyone’s mind.”   For so many years now, people in the north of the island of Ireland have arranged their lives, their work and their leisure without regard to any border between the two communities, yet quite soon there is the prospect of a ‘hard border’ being erected again;  what will happen then?   Aideen adds:  “Both my sister and my brother have Irish citizenship, but I don’t;  of course, I am entitled to apply for an Irish passport, but I fear that if I had one, Blair would be separated from me and from our children whenever we were travelling together in the future, simply because he would not have an EU passport.”  

Aideen is so right:  over 17,000 Brits have applied for the citizenship of another EU country since the Brexit vote.   Applications for Irish citizenship have risen by 70% this year, to the extent that Irish consulates have been asking people to delay their applications for six months, simply because staff have struggled to cope with the demand.   Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, recently observed:  “It is reasonable to assume that there are large numbers of people of Irish descent who now feel that they would like to remain as EU citizens in what is a changing time in relations between Ireland and the UK.”

I put a similar question to Blair, who is English and who might therefore perhaps see Brexit in a different light:  “I voted to leave and I still feel that was the right thing to do.   I know Aideen fears change but, Milan, I welcome it:  I genuinely feel that our change of status will bring new opportunities to this country.   I work in the finance sector and almost all my colleagues were in favour of staying in the EU.   And yes, financial services might be adversely affected, potentially, but I’m basically an optimist and I’m confident that we will see it through.   I don’t believe London will change very much either, if we leave the EU.   Whole generations of foreigners have been firmly woven into the fabric of the City of London and I think it’s unlikely they’ll be asked to leave.”

Up to now, most sitters interviewed for this project have raised and discussed what they saw as the disadvantages of Britain’s leaving the EU;  it was therefore both refreshing and interesting to hear a view from someone who begged to differ, someone who was an optimist (not a ‘remoaner’) and who saw Brexit as a potential opportunity.   I cannot think of anyone better than a practising stockbroker to hold this view, someone whose skill it is to recognise an opportunity when the rest of us are blind to it.

Having concluded with the younger generation, I turned to Anne and John Gormley, Aideen’s parents, whose splendid hospitality I was enjoying.   Anne will shortly be 70 but looks wonderfully well;  she’s overflowing with youthful energy and life, and has a first-rate memory that serves her splendidly.  “Milan, I was born in Ireland, in Waterford - yes, the place that’s famous for its fine crystal.   There were seven of us children in our loving home and I was number four in the line.   My father was a butcher, with his own business, but later he became a manager in a local factory.   My mother was, as you might well imagine, almost entirely preoccupied with carrying, giving birth to, and raising children, as well as managing a very busy, crowded home.   When my father died early, at the age of 42, our big family found itself in difficult circumstances financially.   I was only 13 but we all had to pull together and make a great many sacrifices just in order to survive, but survive we did.   Our adverse economic circumstances did not stop us striving for the best, or having a happy home.”

Husband, John, who is just over 70 and thus retired, takes over:  “Though I was actually born in southern Ireland, we moved up north, to county Tyrone, soon after.   We were a family of five and while my father came from a farming background, he had himself trained and worked as a bricklayer and stonemason;  so I suppose you could say that I just followed in my father’s footsteps.   As a young man, I first worked in Dublin but when I was 17, I came to  London.   To me, even after Dublin, London was amazing and, yes, I remember being told about the signs in the doorways of boarding houses, stipulating: ‘No Blacks, No Irish and No Dogs’.   At 18, I went off to Canada, where I stayed for a year but the weather was even worse than it was in Ireland, so I came back home;  and there, at home, I met Anne.   We got married when I was 24.   Initially, we lived in Dublin, where we started a family - we had two children there - and then we returned to London which I had enjoyed so much the first time around.   The weather was better, there was plenty of work, and there were lots of opportunities  too - I’ve always seen London as a city of opportunities, if you are willing and able to work hard, that is.   It’s an exciting city too.”

The Gormley family originally lived in Plumstead and have moved house twice since then, before settling into their present home for their retirement.    At first, Anne found life quite lonely in the great metropolis but slowly, and largely thanks to the Catholic school her children attended, her network of friends grew and she gradually became very much a part of the local London-Irish community.   Anne continues:  “We are Irish, we feel Irish - we have a house in Waterford - but if you asked me if we would be willing to return, to live there, I am not sure how would I answer that.   London, this house, this is where our home is now.”

As John and Anne were both first-generation Irish immigrants, I asked them if they had ever faced serious discrimination or xenophobic attacks.   Anne replies in a moment:  “Not really, I never felt any hostility directed towards me;  on the contrary, many people compliment me on what they call ‘my lovely Irish accent’.   John continues:  “I find English people to be generally fair and compassionate.   Of course, you will find exceptions in every society, but this is not only the case just now, it is something we have always had to live with.   I also have no hesitation in admitting that Irish people can be xenophobic too.”

And he adds to this:  “I do feel that we went too far with the level of immigration.   I’ve met and worked with young Englishmen who could not get a place to live, and they felt excluded.   I think that because of the amount of immigration, the working classes in England have genuinely suffered.”   And Anne adds:  “You can’t get into the US, Canada or Australia without having qualifications and a definite job to go to, but  everyone can just come in here;  this county seems to take everyone in.”

Following a series of potato crop failures in the 1840’s, when over a million people died of hunger and many more emigrated, the Irish population fell from 8 million, in 1841, to 6.5 million, in 1851.   A century later, and the population of Ireland has dropped further, to 4.3 million.   The post-war boom in the British economy attracted a new wave of Irish immigration and British entry into the EU had a similar effect.   Many of the Irish who arrived to London settled initially in the capital’s north-west suburbs, affectionally known as County Kilburn.   Later on, once they’d begun to prosper, a great many dispersed to other parts of London and the Home Counties.   Having arrived to the UK,  they worked hard and played hard, while never quite forgetting their ethnic roots.   Most Irish immigrants have been changed by settling in London and in turn, they have helped change this wonderful city of ours into the vibrant and dynamic place that so many of us enjoy.   Yes, they still have to live with preposterous stereotyping - everyone in Ireland gets drunk, whips out a musical instrument and spends all night singing and dancing in the local pub - but fortunately, the Irish do have a good sense of humour.   They are remarkable people and, having known so little of them as a young man, I am proud to say that I have known a goodly number of them since and have learned something of the history that has made them who they are.   But perhaps Freud was right:  as soon you feel that you understand the Irish people, they surprise you yet again.

Text edited:  22nd February 2018

Page modified: 17th March 2019