Recalling The Irish Emigrant Experience In Words and Music

Writers Timothy O'Grady and Patrick McCabe at the Irish Cultural Centre

Timothy O'Grady ( left) and Patrick McCabe (right)Timothy O'Grady ( left) and Patrick McCabe (right)

May 30, 2023

The experience of Irish emigration to London has changed over the decades, from the 1950s when people 'took the boat' to take up jobs on construction sites and as nurses, to the highly-educated young graduates of today. But the experience of leaving home for a new place, still has common themes.

In the 1950s, it's thought that 40,000 people left Ireland every year to emigrate to Britain, where they staffed the hospitals, factories and railways, while the economy had stagnated in Ireland. Some prospered and settled down in England, while others never got used to being away and yet felt they could not return.

Two top-selling writers, who have both been emigrants themselves at one stage, will collaborate in a unique event at the Irish Cultural Centre recalling the experiences of those who left their homeland to come to London.

Patrick McCabe and Timothy O'Grady, will read from their works, backed by music from leading musicians, and images from award-winning photographer Steve Pyke.

In The Smoke, at the Irish Cultural Centre, Black's Road, Hammersmith, will take place on June 3rd 2023, and has been described as "both a lament and a celebration of the history of the Irish in London."

Chicago-born writer Timothy O'Grady, whose award-winning lyric novel I Could Read The Sky was first published 25 years ago, will read from his iconic work, and Monaghan-based Patrick McCabe (Butcher Boy, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992 ) will read from his most recent novel, Poguemahone.

They will be joined on stage by musicians  Michael McGoldrick, Dezi Donnelly and singer Cathy Jordan, along with singer/songwriter and whistler, Larry Beau. The photographs by Steve Pyke, which were an integral part of I Could Read The Sky, will also feature as a backdrop.

The London premiere of the show, follows appearances by both writers at the Hay Festival, and in Manchester.

plaque to the forgotten irish
A plaque to 'the forgotten Irish' in Camden

I Could Read The Sky tells the moving story of an old man who emigrated to London from the West of Ireland. At the end of his life, in the 1950s, he is lying alone, recalling his childhood and the fields of the family farm, the memory juxtaposed with his later life amongst the building sites and factories of England. It explores themes of loss, dislocation, and yearning, with the title referring to the list of things he enumerates in his mind....

Things I Could Do. I could met nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow.Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky.

Timothy O'Grady had been asked by a London publisher to write the text for a sequence of photographs taken by Steve Pyke from his travels in Ireland more than two decades ago. For some time he struggled to find the right balance between image and text , not wanting to merely write captions to the photographs.

He was to turn it a narrative of an old man's memory, inspired himself by two decades of living amongst the Irish community in London and hearing their stories. It won the Encore Award for Best Second Novel of 1997. (His novel Motherland won the David Higham award for the best first novel in 1989.)

Later, Mark Knopfler wrote a song, Mighty Man, inspired by the book and it also became a highly successful touring show.

In London, this included a 2005 performance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, with music by fiddler Martin Hayes, and the late guitarist Dennis Cahill, as well as songs from Iarla O Lionaird and Sinead O'Connor. The book was also adapted in 1990 by Nichola Bruce into a film, with the late writer Dermot Healy playing the role of the immigrant.

Following publication of I Could Read The Sky, Timothy O'Grady received several letters from people who wrote of how emigration had personally touched their lives. Some said it had given them access to the world of a parent or family member who had 'taken the boat' to England.

"People wrote to me who were the children of emigrants and whose parents had died and they'd never learned about their experience of emigration, it wasn't talked about. They said things like 'you've given my father back to me', and for a writer, knowing that something you did makes this connection, it's wonderful."

The 1950s saw the peak in Irish emigration, and by 1971, the Irish-born population in Britain numbered nearly one million people.

While the experience of those now emigrating from Ireland to London has completely changed, Timothy believes the stories of the older generation continues to have resonance.

"It's something that's still in the psyche, it pushes a button, there's some distress in it, and the experience of those who went to the UK is very different to those who went to the US and Australia. Music is also a very important part of the story, emigration to the UK also gave birth to things that still fascinating to people or Irish descent, musicians such as Elvis Costello or Johnny Rotten or Shane McGowan.

"It is true that the experience of those who have emigrated in more recent times is different, they don't have the focal points of the neighbourhoods such as Kilburn and Camden where the Irish community congregated. It was completely saturated by the Irish, I can recall going into various Irish pubs and you might meet a builder, a surgeon , a teacher, nurses, all in one pub. That has all changed."

When O'Grady was aged twenty-two he became part of the emigrant experience himself, travelling to Ireland and living on an island off the north-west coast. Since then he’s lived in Dublin, London, Valencia, Spain and since 2007, in Torun, Poland, the city of Copernicus.

A prolific writer, his novel Light was published in 2004. His non-fiction books are Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished RevolutionOn Golf and Divine Magnetic Lands (2008). His book Children of Las Vegas, based on interviews with people who grew up in the city, was published by Unbound in 2016. He has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the Guardian, Esquire, The Sunday Times,and the TLS.

Patrick McCabe's novel Poguemahone tells the story of Dan Fogarty, an Irishman living in England, who is looking after his sister Una, now seventy and suffering from dementia in a care home in Margate. From Dan’s anarchic account, we gradually piece together the story of the Fogarty family, and how the parents came to be exiled from a small Irish village and end up living the hard immigrant life in England. It's been described as "a wild free verse monologue, steeped in music and folklore" with much of the drama reconstructing the world of 1970s Kilburn and Soho. One reviewer called it a "modern day Ulysses".

McCabe is one of Ireland's best known novelists. His novels The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto were made into films by Neil Jordan, and he is known for his dark and often violent themes, the books are often set in small-town Ireland.

Says Timothy: "It's a kind  of a big revitalising novel for him, to me Poguemahone is an amazing vision, 600 pages of verse, which makes it sounds difficult but it's not hard going at all, its funny, gothic, at times horrifying, there's a lot of pain in it, but also much humour. 

"The show is in two halves, with me reading from I Could Read The Sky in the first half and Patrick reading from Poguemahone, in the second half, with the music and images complementing the readings. In my view he's just the best reader of his own work I have ever seen, I first met Patrick back in 1991 at the Irish Centre in Camden, at an Irish book fair and at that stage The Butcher Boy had not yet been published.

"We met up recently and I thought that that since both of us have written 'Irish in London' books , it would work as a collaboration, with music as well. Aesthetically we are very different, but it's an overlapping subject, just with different approaches."

The audio book of I Could Read The Sky (with music by internationally acclaimed fiddler Martin Hayes) has recently been recorded and will be ready for release soon.

Both novels are published by Unbound and copies will be available to purchase on the night.

Unbound, which specialises in crowdfunding and pre-orders, will also publish McCabe's forthcoming novel, Golden Grove, a dark comedy set in 1970s Dublin.

Timothy O'Grady also has a forthcoming novel, Monaghan:A Letter to My Wife, which tells the psychic costs of love and war.

The team behind In The Smoke are also hoping to take it on tour in Ireland.

Tickets: £20/£18

Doors open 7.30 pm for the start of the show at 8 pm.

Anne Flaherty

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