Irish in Britain's 50th anniversary heritage project
Irish in Britain celebrated its 50th anniversary with an ambitious heritage project that captured the history of its member organisations and the communities they serve, made possible thanks to generous funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
We launched our oral history exhibition, Look Back to Look Forward: 50 Years of the Irish in Britain on 30 October and we exhibited in London, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham, with a final ten days added in London in January 2024.
Thousands of visitors came to see the exhibition, and it was a privilege to have so many of them share their own stories with us.
Look Back to Look Forward: 50 Years of the Irish in Britain
We have created an online version of the exhibition, which includes all the oral history clips of the 50 people featured in the touring exhibition, plus some new ones!
The stories within the exhibition are as inspirational as they are heart-breaking, and most importantly, will never be forgotten.
From the construction worker who stepped onto English soil speaking only Irish, to the daughter of one of the falsely accused Birmingham Six fighting to free her father; to the woman who had no choice but to leave the institutional Ireland she grew up with, and another who helped organise lesbian and gay ceilidhs when she moved to Britain.
The exhibition also features contributions from notable Irish cultural figures, actors Siobhán McSweeney, Adrian Dunbar and Aisling Bea, broadcaster Terry Christian, musician Jah Wobble and Moth Poetry Prize Winner Laurie Bolger, who has composed a bespoke poem.
Irish in Britain trained volunteers from the Irish community in heritage skills so they could record the community's own history, capturing at-risk testimonies from the last half century which speak of the sacrifice, joy, challenges, and crucial role the Irish have played in modern Britain.
Jacqueline O’Donovan OBE – O’Donovan Waste Disposal
Frank O'Hare and Family
John Hayes, Constantine Law
Innisfree Housing Association
Con O'Sullivan of Access International Security Limited
Noel Byrne at Ardent Tide Ltd
Michael Doolin FCIPD, B.Comm, MBS (HR) Clover HR
Labour Party Irish Society
Paul Byrne - Fitzwilliam Sports
The Kerry Association
Séamus MacCormaic – London Irish Centre
Kevin Craig – PLMR
Stan Kaznowski - NBS Underwriting
Cormac Conway (Conway landscapes)
The Irish World
And our thanks to all those who have sponsored anonymously
Aisling Bea, Irish actor, comedian and writer, on the project:
"For all of our shared histories, good and bad, there is no denying the almost cousin-like cultural link between Britain and Ireland.
"I, and so many others, moved permanently to Britain, maybe unknowingly permanently on that first trip.
"As an Irish person in Britain, you always keep an ear and an eye on home, and an ear and an eye out for the other Irish people who made the jump and are here.
"Not everyone has had it easy, not everyone moved because of hope or a bright future but often out of escape or necessity to survive, not everyone got to walk the streets paved with gold, but their stories are worth telling too.
"Irish people have helped build Britain; its communities, cultures, roads, music, arts, health services, entertainment.
"I am over the moon to know that these stories are getting acknowledged."
Clips from some of our interviews recorded by our volunteer oral historians
Maureen Heaney, Patsy Jordan and Alice Delahunty reminisce about travelling from Ireland to settle in Newcastle, and what the Tara Club meant to them.
Pat Salmon was born in rural Co Leitrim and moved to London in the 1960s, going on to manage the bar at the Portsmouth Irish Club, she recalls nights out at the Galtymore in Cricklewood.
John Giltenan, from the Council of Irish Counties (CICA), London describes the send off his neighbours gave him when he left Limerick 35 years ago.
About the project
By telling the story of 50 Years of the Irish in Britain, this project will help to educate the public in migration and the modern history of Britain and Ireland.
We will document and preserve the life stories of people of Irish heritage in Britain and the valuable contribution they have made through the recording and archiving of oral history interviews. In doing so, we will enable future generations to learn about the experience of the Irish in Britain and the remarkable community work, social engagement and political activism that takes place day in day out.
We want to ensure that the full diversity of the Irish community in Britain is represented in this project. We have been reaching out to underrepresented groups including those of GRT, mixed heritage and LGBTQ+ identities, and those affected by the residential home legacy in Ireland.
Our roadshow exhibition in November 2023 will showcase 50 of the oral histories we capture and ensure that the voices of the Irish community are heard far and wide.
The success of this project is dependent upon the involvement of Irish in Britain’s member organisations and our volunteer historians. We will provide training in heritage skills, oral history recording equipment and give logistical support, and work to remove any barriers to participation.
Our volunteer historians will carry out interviews with a range of subjects across the country, recording experiences relating to work and education, community and culture, family and society, politics and religion.
The history of Irish in Britain – formerly known as the Federation of Irish Societies – provides fascinating insights into political and social developments in Britain and Ireland, Anglo-Irish relations and changing attitudes towards Irish immigrants in Britain.
Upon its inauguration in June 1973, the Federation provided a collective national voice for local Irish clubs and welfare centres at a time when many faced anti-Irish sentiment in Britain. The Federation campaigned on a range of issues including the Prevention of Terrorism Act and internment in Northern Ireland and championed the role of welfare organisations for community development and cohesion.
Amid a new wave of youth emigration in the 1980s, the Federation represented community interests to both Irish and British governments on behalf of Irish youth in Britain, many of whom faced housing shortages, social security issues and poor employment opportunities.
In recent decades, as the demographics of the Irish diaspora evolved, the organisation has campaigned on issues pertaining to health, ethnic representation, and discrimination, whilst continuing its political policy work and community engagement.
As a national umbrella organisation, Irish in Britain’s members include Irish centres and social clubs, welfare support groups, Traveller organisations, GAA clubs, language and heritage groups, LGBTQ+ rights groups amongst many others.
It is an example of the use of collective organising to give a greater voice to marginalised communities.
This project aims to tell the history of Irish in Britain, its member organisations, and the contribution they have made in areas of social and welfare support, music, arts and culture, politics and representation. In doing so, it will provide education and broaden understanding about Irish-led organisations, the Irish experience in Britain and migration more broadly.
Why oral history?
Oral history gives visibility to people often overlooked by traditional accounts of the past. In academic work on migration, demographic data can obscure the nuances of individuals’ life stories.
Oral history can help too in going beyond “what happened” to understand people’s feelings, thoughts and attitudes. This is particularly pertinent to issues of migration and identity, and understanding how people responded to major events, political shifts and personal experiences during such a fast-changing environment.
The role of oral history, according to Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli, is “precisely to connect life to times, uniqueness to representativeness”.
Oral history also provides opportunities for people not otherwise involved in the heritage sector or historical research to gain relevant skills and participate in the collection of historical artefacts.