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Cuimhne team expedition to Irish diaspora archive

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Cuimhne team members paid a visit in July to the Archive of the Irish in Britain to meet with curator Dr Tony Murray and explore its treasures. The collection is home to papers and artefacts which tell the story of the Irish community’s experience in London and Britain.

  • Cuimhne Champion Caroline handing a copy of fellow Champion Richard Lucas's Your Life Through Songs to Tony Murray for the collection.
    Cuimhne Champion Caroline handing a copy of fellow Champion Richard Lucas's Your Life Through Songs to Tony Murray for the collection.

Zibiah Loakthar, our Cuimhne Coordinator, writes:

In July our Cuimhne team browsed and donated new materials, including this year’s Irish in Britain Volunteer Awards programme, to the Archive of the Irish in Britain at London Metropolitan University.

Dr Tony Murray shared a fascinating potted history of the archive. It was set up by a small group in the 1980s during a period when many Irish community, cultural and political organisations emerged. The archive grew slowly until the Greater London Council, which had supported it, was abolished in 1986 and funding dried up.

The Polytechnic of North London (which would become known as the University of North London in 1992 and later still in 2002 after merger with London Guildhall University as London Metropolitan University) provided a home for the archive. At this point, the whole collection could be contained in a four–draw filing cabinet. Irish studies at the institution had started around this time under (now professor) Mary Hickman, so having the archive located at the Polytechnic was a perfect match.

In the mid–1990s the archive acquired funding and consequently gained greater recognition. It moved from its home in Kentish Town to Holloway Road.

Tony Murray joined in 1995 and helped to seek further grant funding. With what he dismisses as “beginner’s luck”, he managed to win substantial funding following Bertie Ahern’s suggestion to try applying for a grant to the Sailors and Soldiers fund. Funding was used to acquire dedicated space with shelving and acid–free boxes. This was very important as papers placed in a normal cardboard box might only last for 100 years whilst an acid–free box will extend the lifetime of the papers for much longer.

At this time, few people beyond London knew about the archive. Tony travelled to different parts of Britain to raise awareness about its existence and encouraged people to donate materials along the way.

Located in London, the capital tends to be the focus of many of its materials. Nevertheless, Murray wants it to reflect a wider experience. Offers of donations of materials relating to Irish communities across Britain are warmly welcomed. Our Cuimhne team encourages Irish in Britain member groups to be proactive in approaching archives to offer materials.

Tony would love to hear from individuals or groups that might have material, be it posters, flyers, pamphlets, letters, booklet or photographs. Anything really! These days it is good archival practice to take into account location and origin. Tony reminds people offering materials to consider also donating to archives in the same location as the origin of the material.

The Irish Studies Centre celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016 and celebrated with a visit to the archive from President Michael D. Higgins. Through the Emigrant Support Programme, the Irish government provided funds to catalogue the material for the first time and digitise items.

Materials from the St. Patrick’s Day Programme Collection, papers of the late nineteeth–century London–Irish writer, Winifred M. Patton, historical records of the London Irish Centre, the Irish County Associations and ephemera of the Gaelic League of London (Conradh na Gaeilge i Londain) have all been digitalised.

Digitisation has raised awareness about the archive’s existence. Making material available online also enables access to the archive for people from outside London or with disabilities who might find it difficult to visit the archive in person. It can be a lengthy process to post material online, as the archive must be mindful to comply with GDPR and copyright legislation.

Before posting digitised archive materials in public online spaces, it is necessary to gather permission from the original owners. This has entailed going back to people who donated materials since the 80s. As original owners are not always easy to trace or accessible, a lot of material has fallen into the category of ‘orphan works’. Such material is still in copyright but without the owner’s permission cannot be shared until the copyright expires seventy years after the owner’s death.

The Archive of the Irish in Britain, like other community archives, has had to fight to survive.

At very short notice, all special archive collections held in Holloway Road were asked to move to a former washhouse in Old Castle Street, Aldgate. Originally used as public baths in the 1850s, the building had been transformed to become a purpose–built home of the Women’s Library. There had been a huge public campaign to save the Women’s Library when London Metropolitan University said they could no longer afford to run it. This eventually resulted in the Women’s Library being offered a new home by the London School of Economics (LSE). Former Irish president and UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson spoke at the March 2014 reopening to the public of The Women’s Library, located in the LSE library reading room.

On reflection, Tony feels that the move into a building purposefully built for archives and with its own team of professionally trained archivists has been a good one for the Archive of the Irish in Britain. As a specially built archive building records can be preserved at an optimal temperature. The current building offers much more space for the archive to grow and be visited. Tony can now invite up to twelve visitors at a time rather than just one. This broadens access significantly!

Nearly all of the material in the archive is accessible in person. Anyone interested in visiting the archive should contact Tony at t.murray@londonmet.ac.uk or write to specialcollections@londonmet.ac.uk or call 0207 320 3516 to book an appointment.

Everyone is welcome to visit. Visiting the archive to look at material might be of special interest to anyone seeking to learn about the past. People experiencing memory loss, families, carers, volunteers and supporting organisations are all very welcome to arrange a visit.

Details of some of the items held in the archive can be found here.

The archive also gives a home to oral history. Irish Elders Now is a project run by the Archive of the Irish in Britain. You may be interested to view the film I Only Came Over For A Couple of Years made up of oral history recordings, online here.

As the Irish saying goes “The seeking for one thing will find another.” There is so much to discover within archives like these. Those who go once will want to return again. Our Cuimhne team certainly do!

Cuimhne team