Adam Shaw meets the Mayor of Enfield, one of many UK Irish to hold civic office
She was born in Enfield, grew up in Enfield, went to school in Enfield and now holds the title of the Mayor of Enfield. As she herself confessed, she is “a Forty Hill girl through and through”.
But Bernadette Lappage is in no doubt about her heritage and, if she was forced to nail her colours to the mast, those colours would be green, white and orange.
“If someone asked me where I’m from, I’d say I’m Irish, classic second-generation Irish,” she said.
Bernadette’s mother, Pauline, hailed from Limerick, while her father, Liam, was a Wexford man. Her sister, Mary, was also born in Ireland and it was a country her family would often return to. Like so many others at the time, the Lappages crossed the Irish Sea out of necessity, with the UK promising greater economic prosperity and, in their case, easier access to medication. With Mary suffering from illness, her parents sought treatment at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.
“no blacks, no dogs, no Irish”
And although they would eventually settle down and raise their family in the city, they also experienced some of the less appealing aspects of 1940s Britain.
“They came over and saw all those horrible signs – no blacks, no dogs, no Irish and so on – and they were forced to spend the first two nights, with a sick child, on a park bench,”
Bernadette explained. These knock-backs didn’t get her parents down, however, and they spent many happy years in Enfield, just as their daughter has.
“My brother, my four sisters and I were all, from an early age, engaged with the social community; something that I think is a very Irish characteristic,” the Mayor said. “My parents would always put others before themselves – they ran a shop and were always looking for ways to help the wider community.
“We didn’t really appreciate it or understand it until we got a bit older. Being part of a big Irish family we have, sadly, had to attend a lot of funerals. And people would tell us of all these things our dad had done for others.
“It got to a stage where we were like ‘surely they don’t mean dad again?’ But they always did.”
Bernadette explained how the concept of looking out for others was passed down to her almost from birth, and she hopes she has continued to uphold it. Her involvement in Enfield politics, culminating in her Mayorship, would suggest that she has.
Her previous roles as chair of social services in Enfield and then chair of social services and health across the whole of London gave her the opportunity to help those who needed it most.
Face of Enfield
In her latest post, Bernadette has been able to utilise her position as the “face” of Enfield to better the lives of its residents.
“We focus on all areas in Enfield and members from all communities, especially those who have a lack of access to services and those who are particularly vulnerable,” she said. “If I’m out and about and people come to me with a problem, I always take these concerns back with me and do my best to sort them out.
“And there are so many good things going on in Enfield, we have an outstanding community and everyone is willing to get involved and work together to constantly improve things.”
The Mayor’s pride and joy is her latest musical charity project, ‘Enfield Sounds Great’. The campaign intends to engage people with musical offerings in the area, while raising money to create opportunities for young musicians.
“Growing up in an Irish household, there was always music around, so it’s something that’s close to my heart,” Bernadette said. “People have really taken an interest and they’ve expressed a real pride in their borough – it’s been a bit of a Cultural Revolution in Enfield.
“And they’re appreciating the amazing venues we have; gorgeous places like Forty Hall and the Dugdale Centre.”
Bernadette gives hope to such a diverse community – as a local girl raised by kind, principled parents who went on to become the Mayor of London’s third-largest borough. She appreciates that tensions and inequalities still exist, and explained how she wanted to play a part in the Enfield Racial Equality Council, given the hate crimes suffered by her parents’ generation. But she also knows that things have come a long way since then and this is typified by her attitude towards the community activities in Enfield.
“A great example of our multiculturalism was on St Patrick’s Day,” she said. “We held a celebration in the parlour and we crammed 90 people from different backgrounds in.
“There were priests and musicians and it was a huge Irish-Nigerian party, because the previous Mayor was Nigerian and St Patrick is their patron saint as well.”
Plans are in place for a St Patrick’s Day parade through the borough next year and, if Bernie has her way, there will be representatives and instruments from all over the world. Like herself, however, it will all be done with an Irish twist.