Home Lifestyle Art Kilburn’s Irish history detailed in tapestry

Kilburn’s Irish history detailed in tapestry

Brenda Ahern and Helen Delany of Electronic Sheep.

Two Irish knitwear designers have woven together the history of the Kilburn’s Irish connections, with a tapestry that has been on display at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and is set to come to the Brent Museum.

Commissioned by the London Borough of Brent, The Kilburn Tapestries was created by Electronic Sheep.

Described as a “celebration of creatives in London”, the tapestry focuses on the contribution of music promoter Vince Power, the playwright Enda Walsh and the community and features original and untold tales from West London.

Kilburn has always been well known for its strong Irish connections, even earning itself the nickname ‘Co. Kilburn’.

The focus of the tapestry is on the Irish creative community in particular and its influence on the music and arts scene in London. It also celebrates the opportunities that London presented to so many young Irish people who moved there whilst also recognising how difficult that move was for some. There are so many stories and elements to it including the designers’ own personal experience of Kilburn. All characters, places and objects are hand drawn from Helen and Brenda’s observations, personal photos and/or photos and heirlooms loaned to them by people from the Brent community.

Helen Delany, who makes up Electronic Sheep with Brenda Ahern and is based in Kilburn, told The Irish World: “It started as a small community project, it did end up becoming a bit of a monster drawing for us.

“It took us a long time. It’s literally taken the two years, not constant work, but we’ve invested a lot of time in this piece.

“I think it shows in how much detail is in the work, the stories are in it but also the reaction to it.

“I think because it’s had such a positive response, it’s made it worth it.

“People are actually recognizing how much work is behind this piece, they can see it’s done stitch by stitch.

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“We’ve never done anything of that scale before.

“We touched on the idea of creativity but we were doing a more general kind of historic piece on the Irish in this area.

“As time went on, we started to kind of get closer to the whole creative side of what was creativity looking like in in this area from Irish people.

“Brent introduced us to Vince Power, which was key to the piece in the end.

“I knew him to see from going to his venues but I had never spoken to him really.

“We became friendly and had more and more chats about the piece and beyond so it was great because his passion for music, the way he talks about his work is the same as the way Brenda and myself feel about our work.

“I felt a real connection in terms of ideas. Being in London just happened to be the way it worked for both of us.

“I moved here in ‘92 but we used to come here every summer when we were students and we used to go to the Mean Fiddler.

“We decided to divide the tapestry into three panels and the middle one more or less centered around Vince because there were so many stories.

“We documented part of his history here and he gave us some of his photographs that were pretty much unpublished.

“We got some original photos of his first furniture shop and then collaged it with the Mean Fiddler building, which is still down in Harlesden.

“On the same street scene, we’ve got the Fiddler which is Vince’s venue now, and then we put the butcher shop Harte’s and then Folkie’s which is a lovely music shop on Kilburn High Road, which also, although not Irish owned, have got a lot of Irish stories.”

The tapestries are enriched with hand drawn illustrations and patterns inspired by original photos and heirlooms kindly given to Helen and Brenda by Brent residents past and present.

Phil Lynott and Gus Curtis were hand drawn from a picture of them in London. This photo was given to Brenda by Gus’s granddaughter Willow in Dublin.

“There’s also Phil Lynott. We wanted to tie in as many Irish musicians that we also were big fans of, Phil Lynott being one and Rory Gallagher.

Music promoter Vince Power.

“Vince was telling us all the people that went to the Mean Fiddler to play there and to hang out there.

“Phil Lynott used to hang out there as well, and played for Vince many times in various venues.

“We wanted some female artists, and we’ve got Sinead O’Connor, who was also one of the people Vince connected and Brigid Mae Power, Vince’s daughter, who is a folk singer. She’s in the window of the Fiddler.

“And of course, Shane MacGowan because The Pogues’ early career would have been in the Fiddler.

“It was Vince giving all this opportunity, I suppose, having this great venue for all these Irish musicians and lots of other ones, but they’re the ones we chose to put on.

“You could go on but they were people that we felt were kind of more our kind of generation and so sort of struck with our story.”

From Kilmacthomas in Co. Waterford, Vince Power was a teenager when he left Ireland in the 1960s to labour in England.

He found his home in Kilburn where he established the Mean Fiddler in nearby Harlesden before becoming one of the UK most successful concert promoters.

Vince said: “I came to Kilburn in 1963. My mother sent me over when I was 16.

“I worked in Woolworths for about three months and then I came down here to Kilburn and more or less stayed.

“Kilburn has always been a place that has received immigrants.

“It’s been like a ladder in the economy. The Irish have gone up.

“They’re not just coming to be nurses or builders anymore.

“They are highly educated and wanted all over the world for their technical skills.

“I’m still around here. All my business now is around Kilburn and Camden.”

Vince now has the Fiddler venue on Kilburn High Road and this year marks four decades since The Mean Fiddler first opened its doors.

“This is our 40th anniversary. The Mean Fiddler opened on 9 December 1982, so it’s 40 years this year.

“Johnny Cash played there, Roy Orbison played there, everybody played there.

Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Christy Moore, The Chieftains.

“U2 never did that place for me but they played the Astoria for me.

“I remember one weekend I had The Rolling Stones one day and I had U2 the next day.”

Helen continues: “Once the connection came with Vince, it wasn’t like going through the motions of telling the story.

“It became very real, it became much more connected on a personal level for us, which is how we create all our work.

“We have a story that normally is a little bit personal, and then sort of makes it more of a cultural statement.

“He’s very hands on, passionate about his work.

“I realize it’s coming from the same place as the way Brenda and I would work.

“His story is getting the music out there.

“And then we want to tell the story that we can relate to as well as the bigger picture.

“People in Ireland came up from the countryside to visit the tapestry because they had lived in Kilburn so there’s all these stories coming out.

“It was on the RTE news so you’ll find people coming to see it because they want to see a bit of their past.

“It’s kind of resonated with a lot of people whose grandparents lived here.

“Some people who worked for Vince came up to see it as well.

“Vince has done so much for the music industry that all these people worked for him as well. So there was a double pull: Vince Power, then there’s the Kilburn- Irish story, so there’s all these stories it’s captured, and the community was part of it.”

The tapestry evokes people’s own stories with many people telling Vince that their parents met in The Mean Fiddler.

Vince says: “The amount of people that say that, kids come up to me and say, ‘My mum and dad met in the Fiddler’.

“I say to them, ‘Is that good news or bad news for me? You gonna punch me over it or something?’

“I was flattered (to be featured in the tapestry). It was a nice surprise.”

Helen continues: “Once we started talking, it evolved and it became too interesting, it became the whole panel.”

Vince adds: “It’s a big story, the Irish in London and not just Kilburn, the Irish were everywhere.

“Everybody has got ancestors that came to Kilburn.

“I don’t really know where 40 years have gone to be honest with you. It’s hard to believe it’s 40 years.”

Panel 1 celebrates the work of multi-award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Enda resides in Kilburn and graciously selected these words for the Tapestry.

“Deadly, pitiful places that even the rats have abandoned, the cockroaches have done cockroaching and all that’s left in London people.”


“To sum up in Cork parlance..the place is a hole”.

Vince Power and Gus Curtis pictured with the tapestry.

Helen says: “The first panel is Enda Walsh, the playwright who lived in Kilburn.

“We managed to get in touch. I was aware he lived there. And again, through a friend, we asked, ‘Could you find some pieces that talk about Irish living in London, is there anything in your work?’

“The piece he gave was much more gritty, it was more hard hitting than we had expected.

“But actually, it was really great to capture some of the real stories of immigration.

“And then the third panel, we decided to dedicate that to community.”

The third panel is a portrait of Helen and her daughter Trilby Fox in their current home in Kilburn.

They are surrounded by the collectables, heirlooms and significant objects that are relevant to the Brent/Irish story.

“We made contact through friends and through our own sources of Irish people that are more like the next generation or second generation who’ve given us different like objects from their homes.

“One girl, her granny unfortunately just passed away during the pandemic,  gave us pictures from the home, really nice little heirlooms and there’s just tonnes of stories in the piece.

“I think most of the stories are probably in the last panel but then the powerful message on Enda’s, and then Vince’s is quite a really positive story about music being the life and soul of this area.

“And then the third panel is very much about the bits and bobs that Irish people have now.

“I think nearly everybody who’s Irish would have some connection with some family here.

“I think we captured a bit of Kilburn, a bit of the history, a bit of now.

“And also it will be given back to community.

“This tapestry was created during the pandemic so it just shows how people kept going and kept sharing their stories.”

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