Sunday 19 November 2017

The Semigrants - the young, mobile London Irish

Confident, young, highly-qualified and extremely ambitious, today's London Irish refuse to see themselves as merely part of another lost generation of emigrants. Instead, they want the best of both worlds and move readily between the two.

Influx: Maeve Staunton and her boyfriend, Clarke Henderson, say London is full of opportunities.
Influx: Maeve Staunton and her boyfriend, Clarke Henderson, say London is full of opportunities.
Letting black cabs alone use bus lanes isn't illegal.
Sisters Aoife and Grainnie McBride

Joe O'Shea

They are young, mobile, have in-demand skills and many are 'Semigrants', with one foot in Ireland and the other planted in London. The New London Irish may have followed the path of previous generations, finding work, a social life and strong networks in Britain's capital, but while the push factors remain the same – a stagnant economy, lack of opportunities at home and a desire to be where the action is – their expectations could not be more different.

While the Irish who came in the post-War years often felt blessed to find work, many of those who have flooded into London recently are graduates going into jobs in the media, IT, banks, Michelin-starred restaurants, fashion and retail.

They are the first wave of Irish to hit London with top qualifications and the confidence to match. Many have already lived and worked in Sydney, New York or Berlin. They graduated as Ireland was still riding an unprecedented wave of confidence and they have high expectations of succeeding in one of the world's great cities.

In the past two to three years, as the economy at home has continued to flatline, many of our best and brightest have made the short hop across the Irish Sea. The number of people born in the Republic but living in England and Wales started to fall towards the end of the noughties – down from 473,000 in 2001 to 407,000 by 2011 –but there was a dramatic increase in emigration at the start of this decade.

The 2011 census in Ireland showed that 20,000 had migrated to the UK in that year, and the Central Statistics Office projected this figure to more than double in 2012.

Those working with the Irish community in London say that since the start of this decade, there has been an new generation of Irish arrivals.

"The numbers arriving are up past the levels of the '80s and comparable to those of the '50s," says Gary Dunne, of the London Irish Centre in Camden.

"You can't walk from A to B in London now without hearing an Irish accent. And the profile has changed. The majority are now graduates, whereas in the '50s and '60s a lot of people didn't have a great education.

"Back then, it was no blacks, no dogs, no Irish. A lot of Irish people were treated like second class citizens. Then in the '70s and '80s it was the Troubles. So it's been a very complicated journey. Now, from talking to people, you get a real sense of gratitude for the opportunities there are here. With the Irish economy so shattered, people seem really excited and motivated by the chance to use the education and the drive they have to build careers and lives for themselves.

"You talk to young people coming here and they'll say, 'Thank God, finally I'm in a place where my skills and drive can be rewarded'."

Gary does point out that the London Irish Centre, a charity celebrating its 60th anniversary, still does a lot of work with Irish people struggling in what can be a very tough city.

Many recent arrivals still depend on informal Irish networks to find accommodation, work, a social life and a way to plug in to one of the fastest moving, most bewilderingly cosmopolitan cities on the planet.

The Irish have once again colonised entire neighbourhoods. They are north and east in Hackney, Clapton and Finsbury Park. And south in Dulwich, Wandsworth, Brixton and Peckham. Hearing the accents on the London Tube, it seems the Irish are everywhere.

"There are so many young Irish people in London now. You keep meeting people from home. There's just been an explosion in the past few years," says Aoife McBride, of Killarney and Notting Hill. "And it's like they are all in cool careers."

Aoife has been in London for two years. A civil engineer by training, she now organises pop-up vintage fashion events and is looking to open her own vintage fashion store. She describes herself as a "true Semigrant". Her mother runs a boutique in Killarney (MacBees) and she acts as her London buyer, making regular trips home to work in the boutique and in her brother's restaurant in Killarney, DYNE, which she is now co-running. "I'm back and forth a lot – thank God for Ryanair," she says.

Her sister Grainne had been working in newspapers in Dublin before moving to work for a national newspaper in London and then on to a senior position with Condé Nast Traveller magazine.

Grainne originally came over five years ago to visit a friend who had already made the move. "I came to visit her for the weekend and I thought, 'Oh my God, London is where it's at'," she says.

She got a full-time job with the Daily Telegraph newspaper, working on the news desk, but when a chance came up to apply for a temporary job with Condé Nast – something of a dream job for her – Grainne didn't hesitate "It might have seemed strange, giving up a very good, full-time job to go and cover for somebody on maternity leave, and it's maybe something I would never have done in Dublin," she says.

"But in London, you just think, 'Here's a great opportunity to do something I would absolutely love to do', so you don't think about how risky it is – you just go for it."

The sisters have now established strong social networks in London. "The Irish here stick together, they help each other out," says Grainne. "I came over first, got the job, and then, through my friend's Irish flatmate, I got a sub-let, so I was in straight away and we were slotted straight into their social circles, and five years on I still see them all around the place."

When her sister followed three years later, Aoife joined the network. "Grainne was in a book club, with around 10 Irish girls," she says.

"There were a couple of other nationalities as well at the time but they kind of drifted away. They were probably sick of being surrounded by all these Irish girls."

Both of them love the London experience, but they are not blind to the downsides. "It's an incredibly expensive city to live in – it can be very hard to get yourself set up at first. Even setting up a bank account is a real pain," says Grainne.

"It's a very big city, and there is the chance that you could start to feel isolated and a little lost, that's why it's so important to be able to rely on friends, on a support group around you to help out," adds Aoife.

Neither sister sees themselves spending the rest of their lives in London, but that could change. "I think the plan for a lot of Irish here in their twenties or thirties is to move back home when they want to buy a house and have kids," says Grainne.

"They might not know how they will make that work. I think a lot of them look at the economy and property market in Ireland and wonder if they will ever be able to go back."

For the moment, home for the sisters is Hackney ("absolutely heaving with Irish," they say) and Notting Hill.

Like the many thousands of other twenty and thirty-something Irish people who have landed in London, they can choose between watching the GAA or rugby in their local pub or hanging with their English, Scottish, Spanish, French or wherever friends when they like.

There is a strong sense that the Irish here now are not as insular or tribal as they were in the 1980s.

And there is always something to do in London – the museums and art galleries alone would take months, if not years, to explore. After all, the British ruled half the world for 300 years and they have lots of souvenirs.

The city that has been welcoming waves of Irish since the days of the famine has a new generation now. And while they are very open to the possibilities of one of the world's great cities, they still realise the importance of sticking together.

‘I had a five-year plan tomove home, but it’s much more open-ended now'

Architect Maeve Staunton (34) is originally from Longford but has been living in London and working at Brady Mallalieu (which is run by Irish woman Angela Brady) since 2011 after spells in New York and Cambodia.

She says she found it tough when she first moved but adds: "I did have a lot of friends from home living here – some of my best. They helped me out a lot.

"I went home for a bit after working in a pretty demanding job and when I came back, I decided to go for it on my own for a bit. I rented a room, started looking for another job, and it was a bit of a lonely time.

"London is not a golden ticket. You have to work hard and really put yourself out there, but there are lots of opportunities. The thing about London is it is so big and there is so much going on, you can kind of be what you want to be and do what you want to do.

"My boyfriend Clarke is Scottish, but he's started playing hurling with Cú Chulainns here in London. He was a hockey player but he loves hurling now.

"The Celtic Tiger made a generation of Irish people think that they could travel and have careers abroad – that they could value their skills and go where it was best for them.

"I did have a five-year plan to move back to Ireland when I first came here, but it is much more open-ended now. I can fly back to Dublin– it's cheap, just an hour away, and I still do a lot of my socialising there.

"London is a very expensive city to live in and it's very hard to get started, but once you settle in, it's a fantastic city and there are great Irish networks."

‘Most of the young Irish here are now completely assimilated into London life’

Gary Dunne, the artistic director of the London Irish Centre, is originally from Portlaoise. He now has an incredibly busy life in the UK capital.

"I cover a lot of bases," he says. "I'm involved in everything from organising social events to running book and film clubs, working with the London Irish Comedy Festival in October and also organising the St Patrick's Day festival in Trafalgar Square.

"There's been a huge rise in the number of young Irish here in the last three years.

"The Irish Centre has been going for 60 years and we cater for all shades of the Irish in London, now a lot of our contact and work is on social media.

"Most of the young Irish here now are completely assimilated into London life, but they still look to or depend on social networks for a lot. And what we are here to do in the centre is to provide that soft community connection – when people want information, a blast of Irish culture, or just to make connections, we can help them with that."

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