While finishing off my last post which featured London’s new buses, I tuned in to TG4 and watched a programme about the story of Irish emigrants in London. At one point I spotted the banner of the County Monaghan Association being carried at one of the Irish summer festivals. However the pictures did not last long enough for me to identify any of the people involved. My uncle the late Fr Reggie Smyth (St Patrick’s Kiltegan) was President of the Monaghan Association in London for many years and his friend the Bishop of Clogher Patrick Mulligan (succeeded by Bishop Joseph Duffy) used to travel over from Monaghan for their annual dinners.
Fr Reggie was based at Ilford and also at one stage in Slough. I was thinking about him earlier today when I was talking to a former colleague and neighbour, who mentioned that she had taken a relative for treatment recently to Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar. Fr Reggie died there in January 1991. Ordained in 1949, he served on the missions in Nigeria where he was education secretary in the Diocese of Calabar for many years, and later in Grenada. He had been chaplain at the Mother of the Church Convent in Newport, Co Mayo and also served at Cregg House in Sligo and the convent in Loughglynn, Co. Roscommon. But it was his work with the Irish community in England which I think gave him most satisfaction.
In the TG4 programme “An Taithí i Sasana”, a Galway priest An tAthair Gearóid Ó Gríofa reflected on his work as an emigrant chaplain with particular responsibility for emigrants in London from Gaeltacht areas in the 1980’s. The documentary, one of four in a (repeated) series “Séiplinigh na nImirceach” produced by Esras Films examined how today’s chaplains in London are working with the elderly and often lonely Irish emigrants, the same generation which the original chaplains were sent to help 50 years ago. In his current role as PP in the suburbs of Galway An tAthair Ó Gríofa also commented on the challenges of multicultural Ireland with examples of cooperation with local NGOs and foreign chaplains.
Using archive footage of chaplains and emigration in the 1960’s and the 1980’s the series revisited an Irish experience of faith and of life away from home. A few of the emigrants interviewed recalled seeing the signs “No Irish Need Apply” when they were seeking accommodation in London in the 1950s and 60s. Black people received similar treatment. Although they worked in areas such as the construction industry for many years, many of the Irish emigrants of that generation remained single and never returned home. Now there are groups such as the Innisfree Housing Association providing accommodation for them in 500 properties throughout London. A similar group is Irish Centre Housing (ICH) which runs a number of schemes including Conway House in Kilburn, which I wrote about in February.
As chaplains the priests sent from Ireland were there to provide pastoral care to the emigrants but more often found themselves much more deeply involved in the lives of the emigrants than they could possibly have imagined. For many emigrants the chaplain was seen as a first port of call, to sort accommodation, and employment and to deal with the difficulties many young Irish found themselves in in a strange land. In recent years, we have become very aware of our ‘Diaspora’ and their role in the development of today’s Ireland.
Just as historically we had a culture of emigration, today as a country we are learning to cope with immigration. People from other countries and cultures now emigrate to Ireland just as the Irish once emigrated across the world. Séiplinigh na nImirceach explores our national relationship with both sides of the migration experience. Examining the wealth of experience we have gained through Emigrant Chaplains, the series explored the contemporary parallels with the new immigrant communities in Ireland. One of the interviewees was Tríona Nic Giolla Choille, Director of the Galway Refugee Support Group. I studied German with her at UCD and her brother is the well-known broadcaster Cathal.