The author of this article, Yorkshire journalist Sheron Boyle, whose grandfather came to Leeds from Mayo, is writing a book detailing the history of Leeds Irish Centre who has strong family links to the venue and would like to hear from anyone with photos, videos or memories of it they are willing to share in the book or on social media. Sheron can be contacted at [email protected].
One of the most successful venues of its kind in the country, Leeds Irish Centre, starts celebrating its fiftieth birthday this Sunday.
For many, Tommy McLoughlin, 79, is the face of the Irish community in Leeds.
He has managed the York Road venue for 45 of its 50 years and was Master of Ceremonies on its official opening night in June 1970.
He says the anniversary is an opportunity to show how the Irish have shaped the city and region over not just the past five decades – but the last 200 years, and how the centre has helped local people retain their heritage even as they forged new lives in an unfamiliar land.
As many as six million people living in the UK have at least one Irish grandparent (around 10 per cent of the UK population).
The 2011 Census recorded nearly 20,000 Irish-born people in Yorkshire and Humberside. The area has a high concentration of people from Mayo and the west of Ireland.
Says Tommy: “For 50 years we have quietly gone about our business, looking after our own but the committee and I believe now is the right time to reflect on how we and our ancestors have contributed to the city’s culture, commerce and history.
“Our charity work has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds over the decades for local organisations.
“We have brought entertainers from Oasis, to Val Doonican, to the venue. Stars from the sporting world love to visit us. We’ve had bishops, presidents and ambassadors – and all get treated with the same warm welcome as our members.
“Oasis came in 1994 and one of them popped into my office to ask to use the phone. He wanted to ring his mum and said she was only in Manchester. They were lovely lads.”
The centre actually opened for business in January 1970 but was not officially opened until June of that year when the Bishop of Leeds officiated at a ceremony at the three-acre York Road venue.
Brendan Shine headlined at that 1970 opening night. He was 23 years old and a rising star.
Five decades on he will return in June to perform alongside another longstanding friend of the centre, Philomena Begley.
Says Tommy: “That will be a highlight of 10 days of celebrations. We are already getting calls from America and Australia to find out what is happening. It’s come a long way from the original Irish National Club in Lower Briggate, Leeds.
“I used to go to the ‘Old Nash’ when I dated my now wife, Helen,” says Tommy.
“There was no big entrance. You went in a door, up some stairs and along a corridor to a little room with a piano at the back. Up some more stairs was the entertainment room with a small stage – I took to it to sing a few times.
“It was a meeting point for lonely emigrants in a strange city. People found work through word of mouth there, met future spouses and made lifelong pals but the committee realised a bigger centre was needed as emigration increased and people were not returning home.
“Tetley’s Brewery loaned the committee the money to build the centre and Leeds Council charged us a peppercorn rent for the three-acre site where we are on now and which we eventually bought.
“I was working on building sites when the centre opened and would go there socially. I used to do a bit of singing in my parents’, Tom and Winnie’s, pubs, including the famed Garden Gate, and was delighted to be asked to be MC on the official opening evening.”
A short time later, Tommy was asked if he would manage the venue.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it a go until you get someone right.’ Me and my wife, Helen, thought I’d be here a year, 45 years on I’m still here. I’ve tried to retire but they won’t let me.”
Tommy says that in the 1970s, the height of the Troubles, the Irish in Leeds escaped the difficulties and tensions faced by their countrymen and countrywomen in other big UK cities “because we quietly went about our own business and fitted in with the city so we never suffered any real trouble”.
In 2010, the centre was given a blue plaque hailing it as the birthplace of televised darts.
It followed a year-long campaign supported by Stephen Fry, Sebastian Faulks and Jeremy Paxman as well as dozens of past and present players including 15-times World Champion Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.
This Sunday (26 January) as it kicks off its year of celebrations it will have a special darts competition, card games and more traditional activities such as music and dance between noon and 5pm.
Chairman of the centre’s committee Liam Thompson said: “In the past the Irish came to dig the canals, the motorways and construct our buildings.
“Now you find those who come educate our children, look after our health, provide the legal services to the buildings, and provide the finance. Irish DNA runs through the city like the roads and canals our ancestors helped to build.
“We often get three generations of a family in here and we want 2020 to celebrate our past while looking to the future.
“We want the younger generations to be proud of those who paved the way before them. We are and this year is a tribute to our whole community.