Wednesday 21 August 2019

John Daly: 'When 'Paddy' slept with his shovel'

Notebook

'It’s hard not to recall a bygone age when the Irish emigrant to London faced a much different career prescription than today’s high flyers.' Stock image
'It’s hard not to recall a bygone age when the Irish emigrant to London faced a much different career prescription than today’s high flyers.' Stock image

John Daly

How times have changed for the Irish in London.

On a recent theatre weekend to see 'The Book of Mormon' - mad tickets, but a great show - we found ourselves sharing a row with a Dublin couple who'd just celebrated their 10th year in the city. Both working in finance around the Square Mile, their innate modesty couldn't hide obvious six-figure careers plus a million pound home in Battersea Park.

But it was their descriptions of how second and third-generation Irish have become so firmly established across the cultural, medical and financial worlds of London that struck such a note of national pride with us - especially in these delicate Brexit days.

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It's hard not to recall a bygone age when the Irish emigrant to London faced a much different career prescription than today's high flyers.

We were amongst the earliest emigrants to England with tens of thousands having "crossed over" many decades even before the Famine - itinerant Celtic "spailpins" who migrated with the seasons harvesting crops across the country throughout the 19th century.

Right up to the 1970s, masses migrated from every parish, including my own, working on the "beet campaigns" in Suffolk and Lincolnshire.

"The success of the British construction industry owes a great debt to Irish skills in excavation and construction of the country's canal, road and rail network," noted Robert McAlpine - "Concrete Bob" - of his trusty Irish "fusiliers".

But while their contribution to the UK's industrial development was "immeasurable", these were the same exiles who confronted many a boarding house notice declaring: "No blacks or Irish" and that means you, Paddy.

In the post-war years, when Britain was being rebuilt, a running joke had Wimpey as an acronym for "We Import More Paddies Every Year".

Studying Donall Mac Amhlaigh's 'An Irish Navvy: Diary of an Exile' in my primary school years held a light to the darkness of those grim 1950s - the cattle boat to Holyhead and night train to Euston, carrying battered suitcases tied with twine, holding little more than a pair of Wellingtons and a worn donkey jacket.

"It wasn't living at all," a tunnel tiger on the Manchester ship canal recalled. "You lost everything, first your wife and then your family."

As the decades rolled on, the dreams of home faded in the alcohol blur of taverns like the Admiral Rodney, Shamrock and Cattle Market Tavern.

Many would end up in the Arlington Hostel, worn down faces from Ireland's rural heartland, nurturing a longed-for homeland they would never return to.

Victims of exploitation and loneliness, with a life of toil behind them and only cans of extra-strength lager for comfort, they came to inhabit the shadowlands of London's dormitory ghettos - strangers in a strange land. Whatever happens with Brexit, that sad age of "the Paddy" is happily no more.

Fassbender's dark arts

Expect Killarney-born actor Michael Fassbender to join the movie action man ranks shortly, having just signed on to play super spy Malko, based on author Gerard de Villiers' best-selling action series. Fassbender's character is "the ultimate agent without an agency - a gentleman warrior without a country". He's also credited with "a wicked wit and a lust for life". Sounds like perfect casting.

Erin go bragh

"What a paradise Ireland would be if it had as much affection and respect for the living as it has for the dead." Micheál MacLiammóir

Irish Independent

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