Irish Communities in the Capital20 minute read


Today, London is a multicultural society where people from all ethnicities, cultures and colours, live work and interact together in the same global city. The Irish are one of the oldest cultural groups in London. This palimpsest project will explore Irish communities in the capital and assess their impact upon the city. As a second generation Irish immigrant living in London, I am keen to explore the history and experiences of the rich Irish community and culture in the capital, as well as the impact the Irish community has had on its adopted home. This project will show how the ‘unique atmosphere’ provided by London combined with the strong diaspora of the Irish migrant population led to the formation of Irish community groups which continue to exist in the city today. Throughout the palimpsest, I will highlight the impact of the Irish community upon the city, from the physical landscape to the synonymising of areas in the capital with the Irish. This project will examine and explore both the impact of the city on the Irish and the impact of the Irish on the city.


Before examining Irish community groups and their impact upon the city of London, it is necessary to make a number distinctions as to who and what is the subject of this palimpsest project. Firstly, the project focuses only upon the experience of first generation migrants from the Republic of Ireland to London. Secondly, I will focus upon the experience of Irish migrants and community groups of the twentieth century and beyond. Finally, ‘community groups’ in this project are not just formalised or structured institutions but also include informal networks, this will be explained further throughout the project.

I will use a combination of academic literature, theoretical concepts and my own primary research in order to develop an augmented and supported conclusion. I have consulted a variety of literature and incorporated theoretical concepts, where appropriate. I have conducted my own primary research by creating an online survey, using ‘Survey Monkey’ that I then posted to the ‘Irish in London’ Facebook Group. I detailed the requirements for participating in the survey i.e. to be an Irish migrant and live in London, and received 127 responses. I have analysed the results of the survey and will use them to provide both quantitative and qualitative evidence throughout the essay. There are a number of limitations to this method including small sample size and problematic distribution method. However, I will use the results to support and contextualise my arguments rather than form and drive them.

I will first examine the experience of Irish migrants in London by exploring reasons for migration, Irish experience of ‘whiteness’ and the social and political context of Irish immigration to Britain and London. Next, I shall analyse London as a ‘unique atmosphere’ in which Irish community formation takes place. I will examine London as a hub of economic activity, multiculturalism and a destination synonymous with Irish communities, with particular reference to the area of Kilburn. I will then analyse the strength of the Irish diaspora in London focussing on Irish national identity and transnationalism. Finally, I will analyse Irish community groups, both formal and informal, and their evolution over time with particular focus on the London Irish Centre and London Irish Pub Networks.

Irish Migrants

Why Migrate?

Irish immigration to Britain can be traced back to early history. The city of London was, and still is, a popular destination for many Irish migrants. There are a number of factors to that explain the reasons behind the high levels of migration to Britain, particularly London. Firstly, the proximity of the nations can explain high levels of migration throughout history and corroborates Ravenstein’s Law; that the majority of migrants only travel a short distance (Ravenstein, 1885). Walter, explains that most Economists see the British recession and need for cheap labour in the mid-1970s as an important factor in fuelling Irish migration during this period and could perhaps explain why the 1980s was the decade of highest Irish immigration to Britain ever recorded (Walter, 2008). In his ‘Push Pull’ theory on migration Lee identifies ‘push’ factors at the point of origin and ‘pull’ factors at the intended destination (Lee, 1966). Factors fuelling Irish migration to London certainly demonstrate this theory. When asked to select their reasons for migrating to London 61% of survey respondents chose ‘Economic Opportunity e.g. employment’, whilst 21% cited ‘Adventure/Curiosity’ clearly demonstrating the ‘pull’ power of the capital. Respondents also demonstrated the presence of ‘push’ factors operating within Ireland as 23% of respondents cited ‘Necessity e.g. poverty’ as a factor in their decision to migrate. These factors are important plot lines in the migration stories behind many Irish migrants in London today, and the previous century, who form the London Irish communities that this project will go on to explore.


Ireland is a predominately ‘white society’, in 2011 it was estimated that ‘White Irish’ accounted for 84.5% of the population and ‘Other White’ 9.8% of the population totalling a 94.3% ‘white’ population (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016). Irish migrants to London are of ‘White Irish’ ethnic heritage and this impacts upon their experience in the capital. Up until the last few decades, Irish nationals in Britain were often viewed as part of the ‘White British’ population and not as an ethnic group in their own right. Indeed it was not “until 1999 that the Health Survey for England included Irish people as an ethnic group distinguishable from other ‘whites.’” (Kelly and Ciclitira, 2011). Moreover, the Irish migrant’s experience of ‘whiteness’ distinguishes their experience of London from that of many other migrant groups within the capital where skin colour leads to experiences of alienation and discrimination such as that experienced by Ghanaian migrants in London labour markets (Herbert et al, 2008). However, whilst ‘white’ Irish migrants were not acknowledged by others as a distinct ethnic group it is clear that Irish migrants themselves acknowledge and emphasis their distinctions as 58% of survey respondents included ‘Accent’ and 29% ‘Different’ in the top five words they associate with being Irish in the capital. Today, Irish migrants experience greater acknowledgement of their difference and ethnic heritage. However, their ‘whiteness’ sets apart their experience from that of many other migrant groups in the capital.

Political and Social Context

Ireland and Great Britain have a long history marked by conflict, rebellion and nationalist insurrection. In 1922 the Republic of Ireland broke away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and was declared independent. After ‘the troubles’ of the 1950s and 1960s, political reconciliation through the Anglo- Irish Agreement (1985) and the Good Friday Agreement (1998) helped to achieve the civil state of relations that exist today between the nations. Muarry argues “The long entangled history of Britain and Ireland has resulted in a mutually familiar but deeply ambivalent relationship between its peoples” (Muarry, 2014). Of course, this strained history impacted upon the experience of Irish migrants in the English capital during the twentieth century and today. Terrorist attacks targeting London carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) did nothing to improve this relationship. Bielenberg asserts the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act in Britain, used to collect information on the ‘suspected’ Irish community in Britain, is evidence of institutionalised discrimination against Irish in Britain. (Bielenberg, 2014). As political reconciliation has been worked towards throughout the latter end of the twentieth century, the apparent anti-Irish sentiment in London has faded. As one survey respondent, when asked how the city of London has impacted upon their Irish identity, put it; As time has gone on you feel more respected and have more of a voice. Better now than years ago.” However, this history of alienation of Irish migrant community in London has a profound impact upon their experience of the city, their Irish identity and community formation in the capital.

London as a “Unique Atmosphere”

Hub of Economic Opportunity

Today London is a hub of economic activity and opportunity. It is precisely this economic opportunity which has continued to attract Irish migrants throughout the twentieth century until modern day. Gender can be used to distinguish the Irish migrants’ different experiences of London as a hub of economic opportunity. Hamnett found that male Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century filled relatively unskilled and menial jobs e.g. building labourers (Hamnett, 2003). Whilst Walter argues that nursing was a major occupation for Irish- born women in Britain and accounted for almost a quarter of those in paid work (Walter, 2001). Clearly, employment was an important factor driving the influx of both male and female Irish migrant’s, however into different sectors of the London economy. This existence of a small number of occupations popular amongst Irish migrants led to high concentrations of workers these sectors. This is referenced by one female survey respondent who says; “Being a nurse there is a huge Irish population where I work. Love the days we outnumber the brits, but at the same time we are all interlinked both communities, we are one big family.” As a result, over time the Irish became infamously associated with certain sectors and occupations across the capital’s labor market and their work had a significant impact upon the capital. Irish contribution to the physical construction of London, in particularly canal and railway networks, has been documented in a short film by the Irish Architecture Foundation in 2015 and demonstrates the enormous impact of Irish migrants on the physical London landscape. London provided a hub of economic opportunity for many Irish migrants and the employment networks had a significant impact upon community formation.


Mass Irish migration to London over time has led to areas within the capital becoming synonymous with the Irish and resulted in areas of high Irish migrant population density. Swift and Gilley argue that in Victorian London, Irish migrants were a mobile population moving between districts wherever there was demand for unskilled labour (Swift and Gilley, 1989). In the twentieth century however, Irish migrants began to settle and reproduce in certain areas of London so that overtime they have become synonymous with the community. Kilburn, in North London, is perhaps the most infamous of these areas. Ryan argues that over time Kilburn has become more than just an area where lots of Irish migrants live, it has become a symbolic representation of Irish presence in London and this presence has shaped and influenced the area for generations (Ryan, 2009). This is evidenced by the presence of the Kilburn Gaels Hurling Club founded in 1997 in the area as well as references in film and theatre to Irish presence in the area for example Murphy’s ‘The Kings of the High Kilburn Road’ play in 2000. Areas such as Kilburn where there was a high population density of Irish migrants and a clear Irish impact in the shaping of the area helped Irish migrants feel ‘at home’ in the foreign capital. Gray investigates, through a series of interviews, the Irish diaspora of female migrants in London. One interviewee, Jenny, experiences Irish belonging in London through living within a ‘locality that recognises and reproduces Irish belonging.’ Areas throughout London have emerged synonymous with the Irish community, the high population density and cultural implication of this significantly influenced community formation in the capital.

London’s Multi-culture

Today London is very much a global city. Ethnicities and cultures from all around the world exist next door to each other. This has impacted both physically and culturally upon the city of London. Mass migration and multi- culturalism has transformed the façade of the city. Hall exemplifies this in her study of the Walworth Road in Southwark London, an area of considerable ethnic integration. She finds that of the 227 units on the street there were 128 independent retail units representing 20 countries of origin (Hall, 2012). In some cases, increasing multiculturalism in England’s capital has been seen as problematic, especially with increasing political attention on immigration. London’s development into a global city has impacted upon the Irish community, who existed in London long before the dawn of the multicultural era. Areas such as Kilburn, historically associated with the Irish, have been somewhat transformed through the presence of multiple ethnic groups. However, Hickman and Mai argue that in places where people are aware of the important role of migration in the formation of where they live it is viewed as an asset and use Kilburn as an example (Hickman and Mai, 2015). Perhaps, it is Kilburn’s long association with the migrant Irish community, who have influenced the area for generations that creates an atmosphere welcoming of other cultural groups.

Irish Diaspora

Irish National Identity

In its simplest form ‘Diaspora’ refers to the dispersion of people across the globe. However, the term has expanded and is now used to refer to communities that live outside their shared country of origin. National identity is a significant diasporic feature of the Irish community in London. Maintaining their Irish national identity is important to migrants, in particularly when they first arrive in London and are in new surroundings (Leavey et al, 2006). Irish migrants have several ways of maintaining their Irish identity in the capital. Community groups were one important method that I will explore further in the next section. When asked how they celebrated/preserved their identity 76% of survey respondent answered through ‘National Holidays e.g. St Patricks Day’, 55% through ‘Music’ and 64% through ‘Sport e.g. following national teams.’ One respondent said living in London has; “…made me more patriotic… In Ireland our behaviors are innate and we don’t realize how different we are until we are no longer surrounded by Irish people.” Thus national identity is strengthened when they are removed from their country of origin and forced to become aware of their innate cultural behaviors. This is the experience of Irish migrants in London.


Most academic work on migrants has focussed upon the ways they adapt to or are excluded from their place of immigration. However, new approaches study migration through the familial connections, communities and traditions migrants maintain outside their nation state. In essence migration is becoming increasingly approached through the lens of transnationalism (Vertovec, 2001). Irish migrants in London have long embodied this sense of transnationalism and ‘living across borders.’ The large Irish community and the identity that Irish migrants form through living in the capital has coined the phrase; the ‘London Irish.’ The term is so popularized it was given in 1898 to the ‘London Irish RFC’ a rugby club for Irish men in London. The term can be used to refer to the shared identity of Irish migrants in the capital as they attempt to negotiate their lives back in Ireland with their lives in London. In a way, ‘London Irish’ is a separate identity that collectivises a community who share these similar transnational lives. Leavey finds familial ties to be significant in formalising life in London, especially amongst older generations of Irish migrants. These give Irish migrants an important future in England and many say the presence of children and grandchildren cement their lives in London. Indeed when asked for the top phrases and words they associated with being Irish in London 31% of survey respondents chose ‘Home from home’ and ‘Family.’

Irish Communities

What is ‘community’?

The nature of the city of London and the strong sense of Irish pride felt by migrants in the city provided an atmosphere for Irish community formation and preservation. However, ‘community groups’ are not just overtly formalised and structured ‘groups’ or ‘centres.’ Instead, Irish community groups exist both formally and informally. Formal groups, e.g. the London Irish Centre, have ordered structures and origins. In contrast, informal communities or groups have no clear origin or structure but instead exist as shared interactions and networks e.g. the London Irish Pubs Network. Therefore, the term ‘community’ within this project refers to a set of overlapping interactions, shared experiences and sense of belonging amongst Irish migrants in London that are demonstrated through both formal and informal ‘community groups.’ Similar to Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ used to describe nationalism, Irish communities can too be imagined as a shared sense of belonging and experiences exist without face to face interaction (Anderson, 1991). Each of these community types exist within the population of Irish migrants in the capital and originate due to the ‘unique’ economic and multi- cultural atmosphere of London that has been a popular destination for Irish migrants. This atmosphere combined with strong pride in Irish national identity allowed for formal and informal Irish community groups to develop throughout time in the capital.

Formal Communities; The London Irish Centre

Formal Irish communities are very easy to identify and are an integral part in the experience of Irish migrants in London. From the very beginning of the twentieth century formal Irish communities were established and have continued to operate since. Nagle argues that formal cultural community centres and groups are spaces that have two functions; and inward function to preserve and nourish culture and an external function to promote awareness of the cultural group to the rest of society. He cites the Brent Irish centre (1986) as an example of this as it promoted the social cohesion of the community and aimed for members to use music and song as a medium to express cultural values (Nagle, 2009).

Community groups were an important feature in the migration experiences of the survey respondents as 48% said they used ‘Community e.g. community membership or involvement’ as a method of preserving their Irish identity in London. One of these London Irish community groups is the infamous London Irish Centre. Opened in Camden in 1955, it used funds from the Catholic Church to provide accommodation and employment for Irish immigrants arriving in London. Evidenced here by the availability of employment is the ‘pull factor’ of economic opportunity in the capital that attracted so many Irish migrants. As has already been established economic opportunity led to areas of high Irish migrant populations in London which created an atmosphere suitable for community formation. This is evidenced in the origins of the London Irish Centre as “The Camden Square location was chosen for its proximity to Euston Station, where Irish people disembarked their trains from Holyhead ferry Port” (, 2016) highlighting how high areas of Irish migrant concentration led to the formation of community groups.

Informal Communities; The Irish Pub Networks

Informal Irish communities are less easy to identify but are no less important to the experience of Irish migrants in London. They have existed and characterized the experience of Irish migrants in London throughout history. Putnam argues that for most people community is a sense of belonging to their most intimate social networks, especially friends and family (Putnam, 2000). When asked how they celebrate and preserve their Irish identity in London 74% of survey respondents answered ‘Friendship Networks’ emphasising the importance of informal community groups e.g. friendship on the experience of Irish migrants in the capital.

The London Irish Pubs Network is an example of an informal community group that was integral part of the experience of Irish migrants in London. It is also exemplifies how community groups were produced through the economic opportunities in the capital. The local Irish Pub, was itself an opportunity for employment, but more importantly the connections built and networks established through socialising in Pubs resulted in employment opportunities. Tilki finds the important economic role of the pub and alcohol for men in the construction industry (Tilki, 2006). Informal Irish community groups are often centred on employment opportunities. One survey respondent said “Since being in London I have been overwhelmed by the support and generosity of Irish communities, especially in recent weeks with employment. It makes me proud to be Irish and more inclined to support my Irish brothers and sisters in the future.” This response demonstrates clearly how London’s economic opportunity combined with strong Irish national identity and belonging leads to the formation and preservation of informal community networks.

Community Evolution

Community groups have evolved throughout the twentieth century to cater to the needs of the changing Irish population and London capital. Early community groups like the London Irish Centre provided employment opportunities and accommodation for poor and unprepared migrants. Construction work was popular and helped build the London that we know today. At the latter end of the century increasing number of highly skilled Irish migrants arrived to exploit the rise of the ‘city’ and led to the emergence of new professional societies including the London Irish Business Society in 2009. With the migration of Irish students to the capital, University Societies e.g. LSESU Irish Society are becoming increasingly popular. Second and third generation migrants play a pivotal role in the preservation and evolution of community groups. Their strong Irish identity combined with the legacy of ‘Irish areas’ in London such as Kilburn will preserve Irish communities and identities for generations to come.


On balance, it is the ‘unique atmosphere’ provided by the city of London combined with the strong Irish diaspora of the migrant population that has led to and continues to influence Irish community formation in the capital. These ‘communities’ exist both as formal structures and as informal networks and refer to the shared interactions, experiences and sense of belonging felt by Irish migrants drawing them closer together in London. London provided a ‘unique atmosphere’ for community formation throughout the twentieth century as it was a hub of economic activity and hosted large concentrations of Irish migrants living together in areas such as Kilburn. This, combined with strong the Irish national identity and transnational belonging, in particularly in areas of London synonymous with the Irish, of migrants formed the Irish communities that exist in London until this day. London’s new dawn of multiculturalism reinforces the cultural and ethnic distinctions of the Irish in London. Of course, this palimpsest project does not give complete coverage to the longstanding history of Irish migrants in the capital. Time and word limits constraints means I have had to focus the project specifically on community formation and evolution. A natural extension of this project would be to examine in further depth the Irish impact upon the physical landscape of London; a city which is evolving at a rapid pace. Today London is a truly global city, this project has given an insight into the lives and experiences of one of the city’s longstanding migrant groups; the Irish.


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