Tapestry of life
David Hennessy was at Brent Museum for the recent launch of a new exhibition which features The Kilburn Tapestries, a specially commissioned artwork detailing Kilburn’s Irish history
The Kilburn Tapestries, a tapestry that conveys Kilburn’s Irish connections, has come home to Brent Museum after being on display at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.
Commissioned by the London Borough of Brent, The Kilburn Tapestries was created by design team 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 untold tales from North West London.
Kilburn has always been well known for its strong Irish connections, even earning itself the nickname ‘Co. Kilburn’.
The tapestry will be on display at Brent Museum as part of the Being Brent exhibition that runs until January 2023.
The focus of the tapestry is on the Irish creative community in particular and its influence on the music and arts scene in London.
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.
The piece has been featured on RTE news when it went on display at NCAD in January this year.
The tapestry is made up of three panels. One is dedicated to music promoter Vince Power and his Mean Fiddler, an iconic venue that saw all the big names play there at one time or another.
Electronic Sheep is made up of Helen Delany, who lives in Kilburn, and Brenda Ahern who is based in Dublin.
Both Helen and Brenda spent time in Kilburn, and at the Mean Fiddler, when they were younger.
Brenda told The Irish World: “When I was in school, we used to come over.
“My sister actually worked in a hospital and she lived in Kilburn so she hung around in the Mean Fiddler a lot of the time.
“My first introduction to London was staying with her.
“I think it’s really friendly and the people are really, really nice.
“I really felt at home immediately when I came to visit where Helen lives.
“It’s like a whole new experience of Kilburn.”
Remembering The Mean Fiddler, Brenda says: “You couldn’t experience it now, it was such a buzz and everybody used to be out on the street drinking and chatting.
“We went to see The Pogues there.
“I think that was the first gig that we went to there, that was absolutely wild.
“It was interesting to meet Vince (Power). He’s got so many interesting stories, there’s so many musicians like Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher that we would be big fans of as well so he had all those stories about them.
“And the good thing about it as well is we’ve become friends with so many people we hadn’t met before.
“A lovely part of our work is that we always seem to come out of it at the end not only with a piece of work but with all these new friends.”
Vince Power said at last week’s launch: “It’s nice to see a little bit of history.
“It gives a memory of what it was like and how Irish this area was.
“There was a lot of Irish in Kilburn.
“I’m back in Kilburn now.
“The Mean Fiddler left its stamp in Harlesden.
“I was just looking at Paul McCartney at Glastonbury a few days ago and I remembered we got him to play The Mean Fiddler.”
The tapestry features Irish icons Shane MacGowan, Rory Gallagher, Sinead O’Connor and Phil Lynott all hanging around The Mean Fiddler.
“Shane (MacGowan) played there regularly.
“Shane was important in the sense that that was the turning point.
“When I opened it, I wanted to turn it into a honky tonk, a spit and sawdust kind of place.
“That was sort of the romantic idea, but I lost a lot of money.
“We changed it, so Shane MacGowan and the Pogues were the first band to play there other than country bands.
“I remember the DJ was a country DJ and he resigned there and then.
“It was about nine o’clock in the evening when the Pogues came on.
“He went to introduce them, he said, ‘That’s it. I’m out of here’.
“He was disgusted, and everybody cheered.
“Phil used to come in with a friend regularly.
“He would go in and have a drink.
“Roy Orbison played there, Johnny Cash played there, everybody really, all the big bands played here, Chili Peppers played there, Eminem played there.
“It had great sound and we looked after the bands well so the place became very popular.
“Because I owned three houses at the back of the Fiddler, I had the garden so you had the garden for the dressing room.
“They loved sitting out there smoking and drinking and taking a little bit of drugs.
“People come up to me and say, ‘You know if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have been here. My mum met my dad at the Fiddler.
“I always say, ‘You’re another Fiddler baby’.
“There’s lots of Fiddler babies.”
Another panel celebrates the work of multi-award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Enda resides in Kilburn and graciously selected words for the Tapestry.
Enda, the playwright of pieces like Disco Pigs, Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce, told The Irish World how it felt to be featured on the tapestry: “I’m really honoured. It’s a very beautiful work.”
On being Irish in Kilburn he said: “It’s tied to Ireland and our history of arriving to the UK – so having that connection to all those immigrants feels very strong. It keeps me closer to ‘back home’. Kilburn is not as Irish-centric as it was of course… but the history is very present still.”
Asked if the area informs his writing Enda said: “I think any environment a writer is living in effects how a writer writes. But I can’t say how. I’m too close to it. It’s an incredibly complex neighbourhood. So many nationalities. So much difference. In that sort of environment you’re aware of your place in it. How you fit in.”
Also featured on the tapestry is Noreen (Hanora) Morris, who moved from Killorglin, Co. Kerry to Kilburn in the 1950s and met her husband Francis Morris in The Banba dance hall in Kilburn, which is now a Sainsbury’s.
Sadly Noreen passed away in 2020 but her granddaughter Terri Cash and widower made last week’s launch. For Francis, it was the first time he had been out in two years.
Francis, from Crossmaglen in Armagh, told The Irish World: “I met her in The Banba.
“I always tell them Sainsbury’s because that’s where the dance hall was.
“Like myself, she was just over.
“I always said to her, I could see the bog Irish in her.
“We also danced in the Galtymore.”
Terri adds: “They met in Kilburn, made a family in Kilburn, stayed in Kilburn.
“Grandad actually still lives in Kilburn.
“So my nan is actually the woman in the tapestry who’s outside the Irish meat market doing the Saturday shop. That’s her during the 70s going out for the kids.
“My nan passed away in April 2020 so just at the start of the pandemic.
“We reckon it was COVID.
“But back then they didn’t test.
“So it was really nice to get involved in the project to commemorate her.
“This is the first time (we’ve seen it) and this is the first time he (Francis)’s come out in two years.
“He got Covid himself, he got very ill from it. He was due a hip replacement. Because of the pandemic, it got postponed.”
Francis quips: “Believe it or not, I’ve had three hip replacements. I’ve only got two hips though.”
On Kilburn’s Irish history, Francis says: “I remember you couldn’t get a seat if you were late for mass.
“There was so many Irish.”
Asked how she thinks her nan would react to seeing herself on a piece of art beside Phil Lynott and Shane MacGowan, Terri says: “I think she’d be quite embarrassed. Nan was quite shy.
“I think she’d be shocked.
“She was a very humble woman.
“She didn’t like fuss so if she saw someone do this for her, I think she’d be quite overwhelmed.
“She was very much centred around the family.
“She wouldn’t expect it.
“I think a lot of Irish mums are like that, ‘Don’t make a fuss, get on with it. I think that’s what she’d be like’.”
The tapestry also shows Kevin Talbot, former bassist with underground rock band Pet Lamb, who played several gigs at The Mean Fiddler in the 1990s.
Kevin said: “I’ve been coming to Kilburn since the late 80s, it was very Irish back then.
“There was a completely different atmosphere.
“I’m very honoured, very honoured to be on this piece with legends like Phil Lynott and Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor and then Rory Gallagher.
“Of course they’re all legends, particular fan of Phil Lynott.
“To be in such good company is great.”
The final panel symbolises community and is a portrait of Helen and her daughter Trilby Fox in their current home in Kilburn surrounded by collectables, heirlooms and significant objects that are relevant to the Brent/Irish story.
Lucy Fine donated an art deco piece that was given to her by her Irish father.
Lucy said: “My dad’s from Dublin and his grandfather was an immigrant from Russia that arrived in Dublin in 1913.
“That art deco head was one of his belongings that was left to my dad.
“I always remember it since I was a little girl and my dad always promised me it and he gave it to me around the time Helen started this project actually.
“I’ve lived in Brent for 22 years.
“Actually, what I loved about this area when I first moved here was I felt like having Irish heritage I was really looked after.
“So I just think it was a really nice place to arrive in London in Brent and feel part of the community even though I wasn’t born in Ireland, but just having Irish heritage.”
A photo of Eoin Whelan from Clare’s parents is also featured.
Eoin told The Irish World: “I moved to London in 2005. I moved to this area in 2019.
“My uncle moved here early 70s and lived in Ealing. I had another uncle who lived here as well. He’s no longer with us. He lived in the area over here for a while as well.
“So it’s part of an ongoing story.”
After the London exhibition concludes, the tapestry will go to Paris to be exhibited at the Centre Culturel Irlandais before it returns to the Brent Museum.
The Kilburn Tapestries can be seen at Brent Museum as part of the Being Brent exhibition that runs until 20 January 2023.