West of England celebrates the Irish diaspora
The West of England, and Bristol in particular, is home to many thousands of Irish immigrants. Many who came here in the post-war era – who built our roads and staffed our hospitals – are quietly living out their lives, but do not enjoy a real sense of Irish identity or community. These immigrants could not wear their identity with pride, as they were demeaned and subjugated by the ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ attitude that welcomed them. Subsequent waves of immigrants, who came in the time of the ‘Troubles’, worried that they were tainted with a terrorist connection and, therefore, did not highlight their nationality or heritage.
It is only with the most recent wave of immigrants – post Irish boy-bands, Riverdance and Ryanair weekends to Temple Bar in Dublin! – that we Irish feel safe and proud to shout out about our culture and heritage. This festival will provide an opportunity to those Irish who have served the City and the region, to share their culture with pride.
When Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled due to Covid, Dublin City Council announced that it lost £73 million in income. While the W.E. IRISH Culture Fest is a lot smaller in its ambition for 2024, there is no reason why it cannot bring in a ‘crock o’ gold’ for the West of England region. A festival in March is just the boost that the economy needs.
In a time when many artists are still struggling post-Covid, we aim to offer work to Fringe performers and to artists to create floats and costumes for the Parade. Our aim for 2024 is to have 10,000 attend the Parade and a full programme of Fringe events every night of the festival.
A focus of this festival will be to bring together people of Irish/black dual-heritage. There are many similarities and cross-overs which have never had the opportunity to be revealed. The festival will also present opportunities for the Irish diaspora to share their experiences with more recent immigrants facing a hostile environment.
WRITTEN BY KAT LYONS
There is no single emerald-coloured thread that you can pull from Bristol’s tapestry, hold up and declare, ‘look, this is what it means to be Irish here’. Instead, there are many, woven into the city’s story so tightly that to tease them out would leave it moth holed.
Poor and hungry, merchants and entrepreneurs alike all heard the call of England’s Second City. Stepped hopefully into its wealth and industry. Some slipped on poverty’s traps. Some found firm footing. Some found fame, their footsteps still echo in our ears.
Go to Broad Quay, pass below the bronze and solemn face of Edmund Burke. Sit in the chapel on Trenchard Street, whisper a greeting to Patrick Cotter O’Brien, who lies beneath the stones. Our Bristol Giant resting now, and free from the weight of a lifetime of curious eyes.
MP or Giant, laborer or nurse- for centuries they came carrying dreams folded pocketsize, ambition carefully rolled in blankets, Sunday best stored in cardboard suitcases in cheap boardinghouses. So many homesick letters written and received, so many wages hoarded and sent back home, or used to drown the insults swallowed in the week.
Some came and left, some stayed. After war bit holes in the cityscape isolated cabins filled with Irish workers, Irish muscles moved brick and mortar, Irish backs bent to rebuild homes, power stations, motorways. Hospital wards echoed to the voices of Irish girls who changed beds and dressings, took temperatures, took charge. Who stretched out steady nurses’ hands and grasped their independence.
So many years. So many nights of queuing by the phone-box, so many promises ‘not long now love, just one more month, just one more job’. So many visits home to find home changed the corset of community laced a little tighter than remembered. And the pipes, the pipes kept calling. Their music still as sweet but growing fainter every year.
Now The Right Honourable Lord Mayor’s gleaming chain of office rests on Irish shoulders. Now Irish brains build South West wealth in tech and aeronautics. Now each March, England wears a leprechaun’s hat and seeks another pot of gold. Sells greenwashed replicas of culture to those who cannot tell the difference.
But immigrants and their children and their children carry cradled in their bones the knowledge of how it is to be a stranger in a strange land, to choose between the villain of the story or the butt of the joke, to speak with a shuttered tongue and sugar the sour edges of your lives to make you easier to swallow.
So this day raise a glass and leave a lantern shining in the window of your lives, for everyone who’s ever been a stranger to these streets. For the communities you’ve built and those you come from. For the green threads running through the patchwork quilt you’ve sewn from all your histories. All of you who’ve chosen for however long to call the South West ‘home’.