By David Hennessy
Well known London-Irish community figure Mary Allen marks her 90th birthday this Wednesday 13 May. Unfortunately her birthday celebrations planned for this Saturday night have had to be called off due to the pandemic.
Mary has served the London-Irish community for 60+ years through her work as a member of both the Waterford Association and the Council of Irish Counties Association, of which she is Life President.
She has also been a successful fundraiser primarily for the welfare department of the London Irish Centre which is very close to her heart.
Mary has also helped celebrate Irish culture through the London Irish Festival of which she was lead festival co-ordinator in its final five years.
Mary told The Irish World: “I left Ireland at 18 to come to England. I came first of all to Bath in Somerset, I was looking after some children, and then went to live in Sussex.
“It came to 1950 I got a little bit fed-up of country life. I was brought up in the country and I think I had had enough. A friend of mine asked me if I would like to go up to London and help in a hotel that she was working in. I said, ‘Yeah why not?’ So I came to London and came to Camden and I’m still here to this day.”
Mary pays credit to the contribution of the Irish who arrived in London at that time.
“The men that came back from the war, the ones that were lucky enough to get back, were not capable of doing anything. They had seen too much and they were traumatised.
“The influx of Irish men and women came to London and Irish men built London with blood, sweat and tears. There was no health and safety, they moved boulders with picks and shovels.
“The Irish girls went to work in the hotels and hospitals, some of them trained as nurses.
“I still worked with a family and then my husband to be arrived. He went over to Euston station. He used to bring the royal train in with the Queen and I remember saying to him, I was always interested in the royals and what they were wearing, ‘What was the Queen wearing yesterday?’ And he looked at me absolutely astonished and said, ‘How should I know? I was there to bring the train in safely not to start gazing at the ladies and what they were wearing’. I said, ‘Oh well, you’re a lot of help then, aren’t you?'”
Mary and her husband Bill married and started a family having four children.
“I really enjoyed my time in England. When my husband retired he said, ‘I think now we will find a little place in Waterford and go back home’.
“I said, ‘Is this meant to be the royal we? I have no intention of going back to Ireland to live. Why would we? Our children are here. They’re happy. Eventually they’ll get jobs and work. And eventually they’ll marry and they’ll have children and grandchildren and if we live long enough we’ll have great-grandchildren. What would we be doing in Ireland? Maybe visiting them once or twice a year like we did our parents if we have the money to do so. No, I’m sorry. I’ve no intention of moving out of Camden’. That was the end of that.”
Mary was also honoured with the Presidential Distinguished Service Award which recognises the contribution of the Irish abroad for her community work in 2014.
“London Irish Centre is very dear to my heart. I’ve been in there since 1950 as a voluntary worker. And I got a Good Neighbour Award from Camden. I didn’t know I was a good neighbour but they seemed to think I was anyway.
“It’s great that people that recognise what you’re doing but you don’t do it for that. You do it because you want to do it. I just like to help people. I’m a people person. I like people. I like people around and I like people to talk to.”
Mary lost her son to cancer fifteen years ago and her husband Bill, who had Alzheimer’s, passed two years later. She has three daughters.
“We had a good life.
“I remember those times when it was pretty dangerous to be Irish and living in London.
“Having said that me and my husband never encountered any anti-Irish sentiment because we actually mixed with the indigenous population and it was great.
“The Irish today are a different breed altogether. We have it so easy now and it’s great for them and I’m delighted for them. They can come over on a Monday morning and go home on a Friday night for the weekend. We couldn’t do that. It’s great for them and I’m glad for them and they’re doing a lot of good.”