By Fiona O’Brien
The Irish community in London – and the rest of the UK – is to get a specially dedicated Irish Library and Resource Centre.
It will be housed in Camden at the London Irish Centre’s Kennedy Hall which has come back into Irish community use – after being rented out – for the first time in ten years.
It had been rented out as a centre for London’s Spanish community.
It is the first major revitalisation of the Camden landmark in a longer-term attempt to make the centre a part of the daily or weekly lives of many local Irish people – of all ages.
The Centre’s management has been trying to broaden the centre’s appeal and reach beyond just the elderly Irish, with whom it thinks it has become over-identified in the public mind.
Now ten thousand books and specialist publications are to be made available at the newly created centre from next February, which will also provide more space to expand services for the elderly.
The books have been supplied by the Irish Government, Irish libraries, publishers and also from the personal collections of two deceased friends of the London Irish Centre charity.
The London Irish Centre, which offers cultural events and welfare advice, receives £500,000 a year towards its costs from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Emigrant Support Programme.
David Barlow, who runs the centre, told the Irish World that the new arrangement will “ensure the spiritual heart of the charity is used by the diverse body of Irish citizens in the capital.”
He said he was excited to be involved in creating “a fully functional Irish literary resource to appeal to those from all generations.”
“I am very pleased that ten years on we are in a position, while we still have to balance the books, to take the spiritual heart of the Irish Centre back into the charity’s direct management,” he said.
“Bringing it back into community use has been a long-term aspiration for the charity, and will enable us to significantly expand and enhance our current services.
“By moving our day service activities there, such as tea and lunch clubs, we will make it more accessible for a greater number of people to pop in for teas and coffees and read Irish newspapers and literature.”
“When we first wanted to do this we only had a couple of thousand books but following a visit from a couple of people from the Oireachtas it has become a reality.
“The public imagination and support from Ireland has been phenomenal so we owe it to them and the Irish community to have a decent literary resource and we are looking forward to opening it early in the new year.
“And we have already recruited six dedicated volunteers, a couple of whom are qualified librarians, to do just that.
“It’s very important to us to be relevant to all sections of the Irish community. We particularly want to continue to look after the Irish elderly but looking at the figures of the last year, 65 per cent of our clients are under the age of 50 and a very large proportion of those are newly arrived.
“About 20 per cent of the 13,000 people we helped last year are newly arrived. A lot of them are in their 20s and 30s so we also have to be relevant to them.
The Centre will work with a number of Irish organisations in the capital to get the most out of its new plans, having consulted with many of them to come up with the initial idea.
“We listened to and heard the very large, diverse number of Irish people in the community who didn’t want this hall to be rented out again. They said they wanted it to be brought back to the centre as an Irish resource so we are very happy to work with organisations to make that a growing reality.”
Mr Barlow confirmed the aim is to have the 300 square metre Kennedy Hall open for February 2015 subject to several structural alterations being completed to make it as accessible as possible.
The hall will become home to the LIC Camden Wellbeing Services, which will create increased capacity for the lunch club and other elderly focused activities and will provide a new opportunity to host a wider range of Irish cultural, welfare and other community services.
On the other side of the 300 square metre hall there will be a new reading room, learning centre and community lounge to provide visitors with enhanced ‘drop-in’ spaces.
The Centre states that the plans will enable the LIC to support a significantly higher number of visitors as well as diversifying its range of services and will serve the needs of the community, both young and old.
The Irish postal service, An Post, transported the books to the Centre and the Irish governments’s Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltachtorganised the donation of over 6,000 books, 1,000 recordings and free subscriptions to over 30 Irish newspapers and magazines.
The Joint Committee’s chairman TD Michael McCarthy said: “Congratulations to the London Irish Centre on the opening of its library. This library, holding in excess of 10,000 books and many other publications, will be a wonderful resource for the Irish community in London.
“This library represents a solid connection between the people of Ireland at home and the Irish community in London and I hope that it grows into a centre for Irish studies and a resource for the people of London, both Irish and non-Irish alike.”
Councillor Sally Mulready, who had campaigned for the Hall to be used as a national centre for older Irish people, said she was disappointed the proposal had been turned down by the Centre’s trustees but she was pleased to see the centre return to the Irish community. This probably wouldn’t have happened without their campaign, she said.
Get this week’s edition of the Irish World – out Wednesday November 5 – to see the full list of contributors to the new LIC library