Irish people have been migrating to England since the 12th century. By 1900 there were over 100,000 Irish in London and many thousands more of Irish descent. Communities had grown in the poorer parts of London, notably Southwark and the East End. There, men often worked as labourers or dock-hands; women as domestic servants or sweated labour in the garment trade. Amongst London's small Irish middle class, interest in Irish and Celtic culture was flourishing, following similar movements in Ireland. Organisations to promote Irish arts, heritage and language appeared and by the 1930s London had an annual St Patrick's Day concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
The creation of a separate state in southern Ireland in 1922 did not stem migration. New waves of people came to London in the 1920s and 30s, as the whole of Ireland suffered economic depression. Camden became a focus for settlement and many men found work on the Underground extensions in north London. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, in which the Irish Free State remained neutral, many Irish found work in the munitions factories around London. Some, particularly from the northern provinces, signed up to Irish regiments in the British army. Despite this some anti-Irish feeling surfaced.
Irish migration to London peaked in the years after the war. In the labour shortage of the 1950s, several organisations, including London Transport and the National Health Service, conducted recruitment campaigns in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Graduates came to fill vacancies in professions such as teaching, law and advertising. The Irish Club, founded in 1950, reflected the growth of the Irish middle class in London. In 1954, the London Irish Centre in Camden was founded providing services for new migrants.
Large Irish communities developed in north-west London, particularly Cricklewood and Kilburn. Catholic churches were an early focus for social life, alongside more lively venues. Dancehalls were hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s, many hosting touring dance bands from Ireland. The Shamrock Club in Elephant & Castle, the Bamba Club in Kilburn and the Galtymore in Cricklewood attracted hundreds each weekend and provided a vital link withhome. As communities settled, so cultural activities grew. Places like the Sugawn Folk Kitchen in Hackney hosted traditional music, ceiles, theatre and literary evenings. Classes teaching Irish dance and instruments sprang up to cater to the new generation of London Irish born in the city.
By the 1960s, Irish migrants in London were educated, cultured and increasingly political, due to the worsening situation in Northern Ireland. The Cumann na-h-eireann Aontuighte (United Ireland Association) was actively campaigning in London. In 1966 a parade commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Easter rising in Dublin. The 1970s saw the London Irish community face a degree of suspicion and hostility as I.R.A. terrorist attacks in the capital created an anti-Irish backlash. The same period also saw the dispersal of the Irish community from the inner-city to the suburbs, such as Brent and Harrow. Despite these changes Irish culture and community activities continued to flourish, thanks in part to funding support from the G.L.C. which in 1981 recognised the Irish as an ethnic minority. The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, founded in 1980, was a significant supporter of new London Irish writers and community events. In 1989 the first London Fleadh was held.
Migration from Ireland slowed towards the end of the century because of the booming economy at home. By this time the Irish presence in London was clearly visible on London's high-streets through Irish-themed pubs and bars. The capital continued to attract new Irish migrants. According to the 2001 census, the Irish community in London numbered more than 220,000.
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