A new story I heard about the Irish coming over to England in the post-war years shed light on a question my parents often asked me.
It was Day 2 of our Walk with Hope week and we were having the unveiling and blessing of a memorial bench that we had placed in Camden Square in memory of all those supported by the Irish Chaplaincy since its founding in 1957. A group of us were to walk to the square from Euston station, following in the footsteps of many of those who would have made their way to the newly-founded Irish Centre in Camden to seek advice and help and even, in those early days, accommodation.
As we assembled outside the station I mentioned that lots of the Irish coming over would have got the ferry from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead, then the train to London via Crewe. I explained as well that the reason an Irish Centre was established in Camden Square was because it was about as far as someone could walk from Euston whilst carrying heavy suitcases and possibly with young children in tow as well. Sadly I never asked my own parents how exactly they arrived in the country, and now it’s too late, but I assume they would have taken that route; although each would have got off that train in Coventry where they settled and where they met. Karrinna, one of the walkers, told us how the boat train would pull into Euston at 6 a.m. and some of the homeless Irish in the area would be allowed to sleep for a few hours in the carriages. She also pointed out that all of the shops on Eversholt Street, which runs adjacent to the station, would have been cafes where people could get their first breakfast in a strange land: that is, if they didn’t have one of those notorious signs in the window ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, or the equally abhorrent ‘No Jews, no dogs, no Irish.’ I’d been chatting the day before to Aisling on our Walk with Hope to the Irish Embassy and told her how touched I’d been to be part of my first St Patrick’s parade in London in 2017 and to see the centre of the city taken over by Ireland. “And,” I went on, “the Lord Mayor of the City of London is now a Dubliner!” How things have moved on.
Just before we set off from Euston station Karinna told us as well how the boat train from Holyhead would terminate at Crewe in the middle of the night and everyone would have to get out and wait on the platform for two hours, in all weathers and with few facilities, until they could get on the train that was coming South from Glasgow. As I walked with Karinna I shared with her how, whenever I was catching a train anywhere, my mum and dad would often ask me, “Have you got to change at Crewe?” I used to think, ‘why are they always asking me if I have to change at Crewe?’ but that event during their arrival in a new country must, I can see now, have been deeply imprinted on their psyches.
I’d known about having to change at Crewe from an incident on a family holiday. We were going over to Ireland via Holyhead and were on a jam-packed train from Coventry. As we were coming into Crewe the train came to a halt for a couple of minutes and then began to move again. My mum thought the train had already stopped in Crewe and was now on its way to Scotland and she panicked. “JESUS!” she called out, “stop the train,” and she had the four of us clambering over people and luggage to reach the door, just as the train rolled onto the platform at Crewe. It was possibly the most embarrassing moment of my life until that point. Crewe left its scars on me as well!
En route from Euston we passed the Cock Tavern in Somers Town which is run by Sheila, a Sligo woman, who is said to have fed many an Irish person in need over the years. Breda was telling us that when she’d stared work for the Irish Chaplaincy back in the 2000s, following a long period as a stay-at-home mum, Sheila had given her five bags of work clothes. Just at that moment, who should pull up in a car but Sheila. She told us that a lot of the older Irish in the area had died but some of those who still came into the pub were living in pretty desperate circumstances. We promised that our Seniors Project would be in touch.
The unveiling and blessing of the bench was a lovely occasion. Both Bishop Paul McAleenan and Councillor Nasim Ali, Mayor of Camden, spoke of their experiences of first arriving in London. For Nasim it had been as a seven-year-old child of an immigrant family. They both expressed their gratitude to the Irish Chaplaincy for continuing to reach out to those in need.
I came away with an even greater appreciation of my parents and their generation who came over and helped to rebuild cities like London and Coventry following the destruction of the war. What sacrifices they made, in the hope of a better life for themselves and their children, and to support their families back in Ireland. I’m so proud of them.