The excessive drinking was a cry for help with many Irish rekindling their love of home through drink, songs and tears
By James Treacy
Since retiring to south Kilkenny over twelve years ago, my life in the beautiful village of Kilmacow has been one of peace and tranquillity.
Having spent over thirty years in the Kilburn area of London, working mainly in social services, I never realised what a stressful life I was living. It was a life of hustle and bustle as I dealt with crisis after crisis.
Therefore, intrigue set in, when, on my once monthly visit to the Thomastown farmers market, I saw a poster for the play ‘The Kings of The Kilburn High Road’.
I purchased a ticket and headed to the Community Hall to see what this play was about.
It was ironic in a way that the night I choose to view this production was on St Patrick’s Day.
During my working life in London, I often frequented establishments on the great feast day where many of my clients not only wet the Shamrock but drowned it.
While many saw the excess of drinking as sinful, there was, in my opinion, a deeper side to the day and the people.
The excessive drinking was a cry for help with many Irish rekindling their love of home through drink, songs and tears.
Those, who at a young age couldn’t wait to depart the Emerald Isle, now drank, cried and sang songs of missing their land and yearning to return.
EMMIGRATION AND LONELINESS WENT HAND IN HAND
In the decade following 1955, tens of thousands of Irish men and women left their homes in Ireland and set sail for London in search of work. Their experiences were not always happy ones. Often, there was loneliness. Poverty. Depression. Alcoholism. This was the reality of enforced emigration for many Irish men and women
When the curtain opened, it was like being brought back in time to my days visiting pubs (as part of my work) such as The Lion, The Duke, The Coopers Arms and The Crown.
I couldn’t believe how authentic the set was. The seating, the dart board, the wallpaper.
But pride of place was the real jukebox on stage. Surely a collector’s item?
In its day, it belted out all the Irish ballads to a generation of lost Irish. It was, in a way, their facebook of the day as it reminded them of ‘The four green fields’ and ‘Paddy’s dear shamrock shore’.
DREAMS OF MAKING A FORTUNE
The storyline tells the tale of a group of middle aged Irishmen who had moved over to England, dreaming of making their fortune.
Now as older men, they toast the death of an old friend. They rethink their decisions that brought them to England as they talk of home. Secrets unfold and consequences ensue as the day goes on.
During the play, one of the actors sings a few lines from a song which sums up the show.
‘Far away from the land of the shamrock and heather, in search of a living in exile we roam. But whenever we chance to assemble together, we think of a country, we once called our home’.
For the cast, and the thousands of Irishmen like them, disappearing was easier, and the constant working and drinking, helped take their minds of things.
This was the harsh reality for many Irishmen who moved over to England in search of work in the ‘70’s.
Many arrived in London in the post-war years with only a few pence in their pocket and a suitcase holding no more than a couple of pairs of socks. They soon found out the streets weren’t paved with gold; in fact they weren’t even paved. Even worse: they were expected to pave them.
Despite working hard, the Irish in Britain regularly suffered blatant discrimination. The sign outside boarding houses proclaiming “No dogs, no Blacks, no Irish” is no folk myth.
For many, their lives were spent in an endless drudge of backbreaking work, decrepit lodgings, and in the evening, if not too dog-tired, going to the pub. This was the only chance for some diversion, and also a crucial way to preserve the link with home. Indeed, the traditional music session — ubiquitous in Ireland and branded now as a tourist attraction — was a direct product of these times. The session was a spontaneous response to alienation in a strange country. During the 1940s, dance halls in Britain and Ireland had become ever more showband-orientated, and the céilí bands virtually disbanded in the face of this opposition from a more popular dancing form. Immigrants were now deprived of an important connection with home.
HARD WORKING, HARD LIVING HARD DRINKING
My work in London in the 70’s and 80’s brought me into contact with men just like those characters in the play.
Hard working, hard living and hard drinking.
If the truth be told I was blown away by the performance.
Each of the five actors brought a great individuality to the table.
The roguery, the cheating, the lying, the alcoholism.
In all such groups there was always one who accepted his lot and at times, though feeling trapped in a foreign country, it proved the lesser of two evils.
Indeed the bad language and gruffness epitomised all that was real in these situations.
A glance through the pen pics of the cast showed a very experienced team of players with an abundance of experience racked up in the world of theatre. And just as well. This play would be a disaster if played by a less experienced crew.
This all male cast got every inch possible from this Jimmy Murphy play. The jokes, the male chauvinistic comments, the false bravado and the silences. As a team of players they got all the nuances from the script. We as an audience laughed with them at their sometimes cruel language and sexist jokes. We also empathised with them in their loneliness and sadness.
However when you peel back the text, what comes out most strongly is the loneliness endured by these men.
A SENSE OF BITTERNESS
In her programme note for Lake Productions, Catherine Dunne spoke about the home-sickness, displacement and hand to ‘mouthness’. Author Dunne informed us that many of the Irish who worked on construction were cheated out of their entitlements by unscrupulous employers-some of whom were Irish.
Men who worked all their lives believing they were paying their stamps.
The money was deducted from their wages but no contribution was made on their behalf.
She recounted that the sense of bitterness that these men felt and the sense of injustice that dogged them at the end of their lives.
Alienation, culture shock and loneliness – these were the staples of the reluctant emigrant’s diet in the fifties and sixties.
EXCELLENT PORTRAYAL OF LOST IRISH
I offer huge congratulations to the cast and crew for an excellent production.
Well done to Jimmy Murphy who told a story exactly how it was and the cast portrayal gave voice to the many lost Irish.
I thoroughly enjoyed the production- warts and all. I would recommend a visit.
Continues until Saturday 26.
Cast includes Michael Hayes, Eoghan Fingleton, Alan Grant, Declan Taylor and Derek Dooley.
Stage Manager was Clare Gibbs with lights and sound controlled and designed by Brendan Maguire. The very realistic set was the work of Siobhán Hegarty, while the productions was directed by Gerry Cody.
*James Treacy worked in Social Services in the Greater London area and now resides in South Kilkenny