AMONG the big Irish emigration stories – from the 19th Century mass exodus to America through to the more recent ‘lost generation’ – one group whose story has largely been left untold in the annuls of history is that of Irish women who came to Britain in the 1980s.
Left untold until now, that is.
Breaking Ground: The Story Of The London Irish Women’s Centre is a new film which documents the 29 year history of the London Irish Women’s Centre (LIWC) through the eyes of the women who founded, worked and visited the Stoke Newington centre in North London.
And it’s a story well overdue a telling. Throughout the ‘80s, Irish women arrived in London in their thousands and, towards the end of the decade, they made up 10 per cent of the capital’s female population.
As well as coming from a vastly different social back drop in Ireland – indeed, it’s easy to forget that divorce only became legal in the country in 1997 – the trials, tribulations and challenges of coming to a new land were significant.
The hour-long documentary honours the London Irish Women’s Centre, which closed in 2012 before being succeeded by Mind Yourself, an organisation based in Islington working to address health inequalities in the Irish community in London.
An all-female cast and crew, led by Michelle Deignan, incorporated art, music and poetry to help vividly breathe life into the political backdrop through personal stories of Irish women involved in the organisation.
They says it is a vital addition to the history books of the Irish emigrant story.
Anne Rossiter is one such woman. An author and contributor to the film, she said: “The film captures the contradictions between radical political movements of the time and the bread and butter issues of daily life. It also captures the diversity of Irish women’s lives and how we mixed together regardless of age or background or education.”
Britain in the 1980s was in a period of perilous social division. Housing issues, gay rights, abortion, and a move away from local authority and social care services – these were the realities facing people at the time as Thatcherism, broadly, led to a removal of society’s safety net.
Claire Barry, director of the charity Mind Yourself, commissioned the documentary.
She highlights the fact that for Irish women in particular problems would have been compounded by their displacement from home.
“Irish people live large social lives and would have large family and social networks lives and so Thatcherism would not have been something they would have bought into.”
But at the same time, Irish women were often extremely dissatisfied with the prevailing patriarchy and oppressions of the Catholic Church in their homeland. A strong feminist agenda – free from political influence – was a key part of the drive to set up at the Women’s Centre to help Irish women cope with the new challenges.
This was, after all, was a decade in which emigrants faced anti-Irish racism in Britain along with poor Anglo-Irish relations generally and, at best, indifference from the mainstream Irish community in London.
Irish women were among the most disenfranchised ethnic and gender groups in terms of housing and employment when they got here.
Cleary, for Irish women, initial optimism brought about by the hope of an alternative life away from a repressive Catholic culture would have given way to some harsh realities of life in London.
“The documentary manages to recount the stories of individual women and the work/ethos of the centre while placing it very firmly in the context of what life was like in Ireland and London during those times,” Ms Barry added.
A limited number of places are available for the private screening of Breaking Ground: the story of the London Irish Women’s Centre showing at the Tricycle Theatre Cinema in Kilburn today (March, 15) at 5pm. The group in particular welcome women who were associated with the centre over the years. If you would like to attend contact Claire Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7354 5248.
See www.breakinggroundfilm.com for more details.
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