Home News Community Bid to save Birmingham Irish Quarter

Bid to save Birmingham Irish Quarter

By David Hennessy and Annie Driver in Birmingham 

Changing population trends in Birmingham and its traditional Irish Quarter- which hosts Britain’s biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parade- have meant that the area’s Irish Centre is to close down for good.

The now family-owned private commercial venture will close its doors for the last time next month on 6 January.

For over half a century the centre was a hub for the Irish community in Deritend with Irish dancing, Irish language lessons, St. Patrick’s celebrations and concerts by the likes of Daniel O’Donnell.

Irish people migrated in their masses to Birmingham after World War Two, in the 1940s and ’50s, and often found themselves in Deritend as buses and trains would come into the city from Holyhead and Liverpool ports with little money and no accommodation. Many eventually settled in places like Sparkhill and Sparkbrook.

The original Irish quarter in Deritend was a vital lifeline for working-class Irish immigrants to the West Midlands seeking work as well as for socialising. In June 1957 the Irish Welfare and Information Centre was established, operating out of one room in Moat Row.

Out of it, Fr Joe Taafe, gravely concerned about the homelessness or inadequate accommodation among Irish arrivals sets up the Catholic Housing Aid Society and Family Housing Association. It was Fr Joe Taafe- who worked out of St. Anne’s as chaplain to the Irish community there for more than 20 years- who did so much to shield members members of the blameless local Irish population from the backlash which for many years followed the November 1974 IRA Birmingham Pub Bombings. He also campaigned tirelessly for the release of the wrongly convicted Birmingham Six. Fr Taafe died in 1996 and the city came to a standstill for  his funeral.

The original Irish Centre

In May 1967 the Irish Development Association opened the Irish Community Centre with Dermot O’Riordan managing the establishment.

It was established as a ‘non-political and non-sectarian Irish Community Centre’ and from its inception they were inclusive of different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

In its earliest years they received visits from John Hume, winner of its ‘Man of the North Award’ in 1969 and Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

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Birmingham social historian Carl Chinn MBE said of the role of the centre and the organisation in its early days: “Most people were young and single and relied on volunteers and priests who played an important role meeting and greeting the Irish.

“Young people who got the boat over travelled on the Sister Maude from Dublin to Liverpool and got the bus to Birmingham. They were often disorientated in the big city when they came from the countryside.

“The Irish Centre (of that time) played a vital role aiding them to acclimatise in Birmingham.”

But times have changed: “The Irish community is more dispersed now which is reflected in the demographic changes in Birmingham.

“The older generation who came over in the 30s, 40s and 50s are dying out and there are very few county associations still running.

“The second, third and fourth generation Irish are looking for different forms of entertainment”.

Development and the proposed HS2 high speed railway have dramatically changed the area around Digbeth, where the Irish Centre, now privately owned by the Owens family, is located.

Centre manager Paul Owens, announcing the forthcoming closure last week, said he and the family have plans for a new venture, an Irish Centre and conference centre in Kings Heath.

He said: “Obviously, there is a sense of sadness and nostalgia leaving Digbeth after 50 years and we’ve all got our own special memories of the centre.

“But the area is changing rapidly and despite our best efforts we could not agree a suitable planning permission to regenerate the present site with the City Council. I’m afraid it’s time to move on.”

His new private, commercial venture will offer, he said, “a diverse range of facilities not just of a social nature but also including health, sport, leisure, education, retail and other services required by the greater Birmingham Irish community.”

Others are less willing to make the break from Digbeth and want to retain some kind of an Irish Quarter in the area.

The St. Patrick’s Festival Organisation said it is “absolutely determined to work with the city council, private developers, funding bodies and cultural partners to ensure the future of Digbeth as the city’s Irish Quarter is secured through new investments and new buildings that will draw our community together, while offering services and social benefits for residents and visitors of all ages, cultures and backgrounds.”

John Fitzgerald whose Irish shop, Minstrel Music, operated out of the Irish Centre for the past 40 years, said: “It is very sad that it’s closing down.  I feel a lot of the responsibility should be with Birmingham City Council.  They don’t want the Irish Centre- They just want apartments built.

“I have reservations about Kings Heath- It is too far out.  The Irish need some place they can call their own.  I wish the Irish Centre every success. They have a lot of plans.

“It’s sad to see it go but nothing lasts forever.”

Place and belonging have been significant to the Irish diaspora in Birmingham. For many, Deritend should always remain a distinctively Irish space.

But location is not as important as it once was. These days travel is  much easier between Ireland and the UK as well as within the city and across the UK and promises to be even more so with the HS2 link to London.

The Irish community is also connected in a multitude of ways through technology and social media and relish belonging to a diverse city which extends far beyond just the Irish diaspora.

Richard Sinclair of Irish Heritage Birmingham said: “We of the Irish Community have known for a long time that the Irish Centre is not the hub it was in its heyday.

“St Anne’s and the Birmingham Irish Association have taken on the mantle and acts as the authentic ‘Irish Centre’ in all but name.”

Conradh na Gaeilge classes have been held at the centre for decades, originally invited by the centre’s then president Paddy Maxwell.

Conradh’s Gerard Weir has taught Irish language classes for almost forty years.

He told The Irish World: “It leaves us in an awful position because being at the Irish Centre, just a little bit off the centre of Birmingham, meant that people from virtually any of the surrounding areas of Birmingham had access. It made our location quite accessible for everybody. What’s going to happen next, I don’t know. Certainly no one has made any provision for us. We will have to make our own provision which we will eventually do.

“No one informed me personally but I heard the rumours.”

One of the first Irish organisations to move into the centre at the invitation of then President Paddy Maxwell, Cunradh na Gaeilge’s classess have been held at the centre since 1982: “Nothing’s been said to me whatsoever. Nobody has ever told me when the Irish Centre was going to close. For the last two years, there has been different dates thrown up but each time that date has passed and nothing’s happened. This time I’ve just heard rumours from other people using the place but no one’s ever said to me, ‘This will be your last session here’ or anything like that.

“Father Joe Taafe used to run a function once a year for all the people he was working with and all the helpers that were contributing to the Irish welfare in the city which was his main focus. At one time three of the rooms in the Irish Centre were needed to host the amount of people coming. Then after a period of a few years, two rooms would suit. Finally, before he died, it was down to one room.

“I can see the decline of the Irish community.

“It is a shame to see it go.

“It was a focus for the Irish community to come together. It has been through the years. That was the purpose and it’s going to be lost.

“The other thing that has been lost anyway is the generation of Irish people that did like to flock together and did like to operate together in various ways.

“That’s probably another nail in the coffin as well. It’s largely the demise of that generation of Irish people in Birmingham, support for the centre was dwindling anyway.

“I’m really sad to see it and it is going to be a loss to what remains of the Irish community in Birmingham but what can you do?”

Anne Tighe was the Chair of Birmingham St. Patrick’s Organising Committee until last year. She was also the Rose of Tralee winner in 1967.

Anne said: “It will be a loss for the community. I think people have been expecting it for a while.

“I think the community are sad but they knew it was coming. It’s the same all over the world, isn’t it? Back in the day the Irish Centre was really, really important.

“Wherever you went in the world, you would find the Irish Centre. But now people have the internet and everything else, haven’t they?

“I think for older people, it’s going to be more difficult.”

The local band The Father Teds have played regularly at the venue for years.

Mark McCabe from the band said: “It’s no surprise really because it’s been rumoured for about a year.

“It’s a home gig. It’s a great place to gig, great atmosphere. It will definitely leave a hole.

“There’s a lot about building a new centre out near Kings Heath which will be great but the problem is Kings Heath is not in the middle of town so it’s not going to be great for people on the north side of Birmingham. But there needs to be some sort of hub of some sort.”

Kerry-Marie Cruise-Jones commented on the Irish World Facebook page: “So many memories from here when I Irish danced and played musical instruments as a child. A place I’ve taken my boys on St Patrick’s Day to listen to music from Ireland and to meet friends. A sad day for Birmingham but us Irish of Birmingham still stay strong xx.”

Bridget Dolan added: “Nooooo! This is sad news. We used to go up to the centre from Newport in South Wales. I met Fr Joe Taaffe there, and was proud to meet someone who fought for justice and for the Irish. Generations move on I suppose. But centres like this one were hugely important to the Irish in Britain. It’s a pity there couldn’t be something like a museum dedicated to the Irish in Birmingham in it. Sad news.”

The Irish Centre will be remembered as something of its time, whose time has come and gone.













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