London Irish Centre chief reflects on 60 years of memories

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London Irish Centre Chief Executive, David Barlow, reflects on the rich history, current challenges and potential for the Charity’s future, as it celebrates 60 years of service to the Irish Community.

For 60 years the London Irish Centre (LIC) has been working to support the needs of the Irish community in London.  It has been a wonderful, colourful and on many occasions challenging six decades.  Originally founded by the Catholic Church, in particular the Diocese of Westminster, it opened its doors to provide shelter, support and advice to the thousands of emigrants arriving, post war to engage in the rebuilding of the capital and beyond.

The first in a line of priests to lead the organisation was Fr Tom McNamara who worked tirelessly to develop the charity and its services.  Tom shared with others an awareness of the many dangers and uncertainties that young Irish people could face in a large city like London.  The LIC welcomed newly arrived emigrants and, importantly, gave them a space to celebrate their heritage and be with others living the emigrant experience.

 Tweets from people wishing the London Irish Centre a happy birthday:

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell
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Whilst six decades does bring many changes,the heart of the charity’s work and the objectives of the organisation have altered very little.  We remain a home from home for all emigrants and a means for second and third generation Irish to remain connected to their heritage.  Our advice and welfare services in the past year has supported over 13,000individual clients, almost three quarters of them under the age of 50.  Of the 2,841 individuals attending our drop in advice surgeries in Camden, West Kensington, Kilburn and Wimbledon, 20% were newly arrived and most in their early twenties.  Commentators and politicians often give the impression that younger people arriving in London today are in a much better position than the generations that have arrived before them and that is true for many. However we still see the very significant number who arrivein desperate need of our help and support and those services remain as important today as they ever were.

Alongside our advice and welfare services we strive to ensure that the original emigrants, who worked with the likes of Fr Tom to build the LIC, and other older members of the Irish community are supported.  Each week 260 Irish pensioners either attend activities – including our luncheon club, tea dance, art and IT classes in Camden – or receive outreach and befriending support in their homes or hospital.   Another 340 pensioners attend our other seven dedicated clubs across West and south West London with or receive outreach support in those areas.That is a total of 600 older individuals each week.

At the London Irish Centre we also have a duty to showcase the finest Irish talent to London audiences and offer a taste of home to the London Irish community. As well as providing traditional Irish cultural and artistic events – such as the Sunday céili, set dancing, the fortnightly tea dance, we provide numerous gigs featuring traditional and contemporary musicians and artists.

As many Irish clubs and organisations will know, the greatest challenge today is connecting with a new generation of Irish immigrants who are diverse, transient and harder to reach. We must do our utmost to engage this community if we are to continue to thrive and remain relevant. That means providing services and activities that are attractive to the widest possible cross section of the Irish community. That means diversifying our offer so that we accommodate everyone’s different needs and priorities. We must evolve with the Irish community in London or be left behind. Without a vision for the future, we face decline.

Pictures from the 60th birthday celebrations:

Ambassador Dan Mulhall, Mary Allen and James McDonnell
Ambassador Dan Mulhall, Mary Allen and James McDonnell
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I am proud that the London Irish Centre is meeting this challenge every day. Our programme of events now caters for a much wider range of ages and it is common to see several hundred Irish people in their 20s and 30s at the centre for events like our successful annual comedy festival or the Father Ted Fest.  The income we make from these packed houses is then used to support our welfare work.

So too must we have a plan for how to ensure we meet the charity’s financial needs so that the London Irish Centre continues to operate into the future. Contrary to what some may think, being the largest Irish community organisation in Britain does not necessarily make you the richest.  Our grant from the Emigrant Support Programme is less than half of the Charity’s overall operating budget to run our welfare and cultural services. The grant is ring-fenced for specific services and we receive no grant aid towards the upkeep and maintenance of our iconic building.

We are enormously grateful to the tax payers of Ireland and the Irish Government for their support and we haven’t been complacent about the real need to diversify and increase our funding, in what is a very difficult financial climate for all UK charities.  In the past three years our ESP grant has been reduced by 24 per cent but we have been able to replace this through new income generation. Our bar and catering and venue management partners for example, taken on three years ago, contribute an additional £150,000 each year towards our welfare work.  In this regard, we are following the approach first adopted by the Church 15 years ago, who originally asked a commercial provider to operate these services to prevent financial drain on the charity.

licWe are working hard to increase our income from donations, sponsorship and corporate support so that we can maintain the quality of service we provide and continue to improve the building itself. During the past three years the London Irish Centre, working with Off to Work, have invested over £300,000 in refurbishments and structural repairs.  All the main public rooms have been completely redecorated, a new heating and air conditional system installed, structural changes to make the building more accessible and major work in the kitchens.  In the coming weeks we are spending £20,000 on roof work, £30,000 on redecorating the front of the building and £40,000 of upgrading the interiors. Of course we would love to do more, but we must operate within the bounds of financial reality.

In our 60th year, we are very aware of the enormous responsibility we shoulder in stewarding the charity towards the future. The Board of Trustees and I are deeply committed to ensuring that the London Irish Centre stays true to its original mission and values whilst evolving to cater for the diverse needs of today’s Irish community in London. Counter to suggestions from some quarters, we have absolutely no intention of selling our existing building or of any part of it.

Our responsibility is to the whole of the Irish community in London, and to ensuring that the LIC remains on a solid financial footing so that it can continue to provide for everyone. We take this responsibility very seriously and is why we seek to maximise any value that we can through leasing parts of the building where appropriate. We are open to all suggestions for the future use of the Kennedy Hall, but financial considerations must play a part in our decision-making.  We are also keen to listen to individuals and organisations and do actively encourage people and groups with ideas and positive vision to share them with us.

The Irish in London are a thriving, successful and integrated community and one which actively shapes the capital – politically, socially and economically. This is down to the hard work of the generations that came before them and I am thrilled that so many have come together to celebrate our 60th year.

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