Tracing the history of the Irish in Leicester

Tracing history Leicester Irish

Blog charts the Irish who have left their mark

Just before Christmas, in the café of Leicester’s new, state of the art, Phoenix Cinema, I met up for lunch with Lynda Callaghan who has created a living archive history of the Irish in the city, writes Gerry Molumby.

The Irish have left an indelible mark on the educational, construction, business, political and cultural life in this city of Richard III. Many Irish women trained and worked as nurses in the General Hospital while men worked at Dunlop. If you lived in Highfields, knew someone who went to Sacred Heart School, frequented the Emerald Centre’s St Pat’s Club, made your First Holy Communion at Holy Cross, or knew someone who worked at the Imperial Typewriters Factory, this may be the site for you.

Lynda told me that by interviewing the Irish community in Leicester she realised how few questions she had asked of my own parents. “I don’t recall ever asking ‘How did it feel?’ I never asked her if she was scared, excited, or lonely.

Coddle

“Oh, I knew some details; my Dad came to Leicester because his sister lived here and there was plenty of work. “My sister and I went to a local Catholic school and grew up with other Irish families in Leicester.

Tracing history Leicester Irish
Lynda Callaghan as a young girl

“I later went to grammar school and became increasingly aware of our difference. I’d always been aware that my parents didn’t speak like the neighbours and that no one else on the street had cooked and ate the lovely Dublin stew called coddle on a Saturday night.

“But my working class roots became more obvious to me at grammar school and that feeling of difference was always present.

“In fact when I left grammar school I worked in factories making clothes for a few years because I couldn’t accept that I had the potential to have a different type of future,” she said.

Eventually Lynda went to Leicester University when she was 26 to study French. She lived and worked in France for two years and came back to teach French in Leicester schools. She is now a self–employed Education Consultant working in many of the city’s schools with staff, parents and children to support behaviour and attendance difficulties.

One of my favourite sections of the archive is called ‘Mothers and Daughters’. Lynda explained that during the early days of the blog she came across a request from artist Sarah Strong for women who would like to contribute to her latest artistic work and exhibition. Sarah was looking for women to submit photos of themselves with their mothers for a project called Irish Exile Mothers and Daughters.

Loyalty

The end product was their pictures converted into black and white and printed on pristine handkerchiefs.

Tracing history Leicester Irish
Claddagh Ring

“What a brilliant idea, simple yet profound; when you think handkerchiefs are used not only to dry tears of sadness but also needed in moments of great joy,” Lynda said.

In this Leicester–Irish Archive there is also a whole section on the Claddagh Ring and why so many Irish people wear it. “Big strong men who would never wear jewellery wear their Claddagh Ring with pride,” Lynda explained.

The Claddagh Ring is worn by men and women of Irish heritage right across the world as a symbol of love, friendship and loyalty – and one of the most recognisable Irish images.

Lynda was keen to impress on me that this is a collaborative project and wanted to acknowledge the contributions of Tony Cusack and Kiran Kala from the Emerald Centre in Leicester, Angela Maye from Banbury, as well as Rionach Casey from Sheffield Hallam University and Colin Hyde of East Midlands Oral History Archive at Leicester University who helped in the collating of information, research and creation of the blog library.

• To find out more about the Irish in Leicester, please visit lynda-callaghan.blogspot.co.uk

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