Irish women thriving in London: Busy lifestyles, Irish pride, freedom and anonymity
Geraldine Carton meets some of the Irish women who are living and working across the pond and hears about how their lifestyles differ from home.
Have you ever toyed about the idea of living in London? Ever dreamed of trading the leisurely LUAS in for the hustle and bustle of the underground tube? Swapping green letter boxes for red letter boxes? Sipping Pimms instead of glugging Guinness?
Whether you’re planning on making the leap, or maybe you’re just feeling a bit nosey, if you want know what it’s really like to live in one of the biggest and fast-paced cities in all the world, then buckle up old chaps, because here we speak to a host of straight-talking Irish women who will tell you a thing or two about the reality of living there.
The good, along with the bad…
For many, the best and worst thing about London is the tube. Stuffy and claustrophobic (especially at peak travel times), many dread using it, although it’s a virtual necessity in a city as big as London. “I’ve never experienced anything quite like the tube at rush hour, it’s pure chaos.” Zoe Palmer,
Nonetheless, few can question the tube’s efficiency and its ability to get you from A to B with impressive speed. As Caroline Kay puts it: “Tubes on most lines come every 2-4 minutes; if you miss one there’s no stress because the next will be along before the song you’re listening to has finished!” What’s more, many find that our transport system here, by comparison, now seems somewhat laughable; “Coming home and having to wait 16 minutes for a DART? It feels like someone is playing a practical joke on me”. Cathy Beirne
“Sometimes you just feel like a drop in the ocean. People are scared to talk to one another and practically avoid communicating at all costs, whether it’s on the bus, in the shop, or on the train”.
Small fish, big pond
The sense of anonymity that London lends is another reason why people simultaneously love and lament the city at times. For Suzie Houlihan, this anonymity served as a major attraction to her making the move; “You can be whoever you want to be here, there is a freedom in it that you just don’t have in Dublin”, whilst for Shaena Keenan, the feeling of irrelevance and lack of day-to-day conversation feels disconcerting; “sometimes you just feel like a drop in the ocean. People are scared to talk to one another and practically avoid communicating at all costs, whether it’s on the bus, in the shop, or on the train”.
“From the first day I arrived in London, I loved the sense of freedom and anonymity – it was liberating. But the mirror image to the liberating anonymity, can be a cold and lonely experience, especially when you’ve come from overseas” says Breda Corish.
Nearly every woman talked enthusiastically about the incredible array of activities and events that London offers throughout the week. From social meet-ups, to exhibitions, markets, gigs and shows of every kind, there is always so much on offer to keep people entertained at every hour of the day – and night, too. It’s just a question of whether you have the time, and money, to enjoy it all… As Zoe Palmer puts it; “I feel like I need to take out a loan after every Saturday night out!”.
For Laoise Casey (development chef for Marks & Spencer), the best thing about London life also happens to be the most delicious thing about London life; it’s the food. “I love having access to a world of food on my doorstep. I sometimes feel like I will never have enough time to visit all the wonderful restaurants here!”. Indeed, when it comes to food, it seems that London truly does has something for everyone. With trendy food markets popping up all over the place, and tastes of every culture (and fad) readily available in every neighbourhood, London is undeniably the epitome of a “foodie haven”.
“There is no work life balance. To be stressed here seems to mean you’re doing the job right. If you’re not stressed, you’re not working hard enough.”
Moreover, the Irish contingency of food innovators seem to be having a real moment right in London right now: ‘There is a serious buzz surrounding a few particular Irish individuals who are standing out in London’s food scene lately; the likes of Laoise Casey, John Nugent from Green & Fortune and Robin and Sarah Gill from The Dairy in Clapham. So influential are these Irish chefs, in fact, that the restaurant website Hot Dinners have nicknamed them “The Murphia”!’ says broadcaster Siobhan Breatnach.
Work/ Life balance
According to Bronagh Monaghan (teacher), the work life balance was the hardest thing to adjust to when she came to London. “By that, I mean there is no work life balance. To be stressed here seems to mean you’re doing the job right. If you’re not stressed, you’re not working hard enough.” It seems Clara Duggan (business strategist) would agree on that front, too; “Maintaining perspective can be hard when it sometimes seems like all people care about is work – it’s easy to get swept up in it all.”
Nonetheless, there are others, like Dearbhla Gavin (business journalist), who won’t let a bit of friendly competition and grafting taint their view of the city; “London is the land of opportunity and you really feel you can do anything if you put your mind to it. There’s a spirit of collaboration and enterprise which I love, even though it can get exhausting at times”. Lucinda Kelly (tech start-up CEO) is also attracted to this side of London, “there are so many similar people to me here – it seems to be a pivotal capital for tech start-ups with really driven female founders like myself.”
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be that people in London love going to parks in the summertime.
Free time in London
“Free time” in London largely involves the endless quest to explore more and more areas/ experiences in the city; be it wandering around a flea market in Clapham, trying out a new burger joint in Chelsea, or challenging oneself to a much-hyped fitness class in Hampstead (by all accounts Mairead Bergin’s Spinn Off studio in Hampstead is “incredible”).
When it comes to summer, however, one specific activity reigns strong; chilling in one of London’s many parks. In fact, if you take one thing away from this article, let it be that people in London love going to parks in the summertime (nearly every woman we spoke to gushed about them).
Would you bring up a family here?
Although many people are somewhat open to the idea, the general consensus is that London is simply too expensive to bring up children, and most young families would need to move out of the city just to find affordable housing; “It’s impossible to buy a home in London unless you’re willing to commute from miles outside the city”, says Aoife O’Connor (PR and events manager).
“I think it’s a great place to build a career, but then in terms of bringing up a family, I’d go either outside of London and endure the commute to work, or of course back home to Ireland. For me, fresh air, countryside and general grounding is very important. I’m not convinced London is the place to bring up a family.” – Lucinda Kelly
“My big issue right now is the soaring knife-crime. As a mother of two boys, that utterly terrifies me.”
The NHS’s free healthcare for all system is undoubtedly a significant attraction; “I get the prescription pill for free which blows my mind every time I collect it from the chemist; I always walk out slowly feeling like I’m stealing!” – Caroline Kay. However, in terms of education, Aisling O’Connell reminds us that “third level education is expensive and leaves most young adults starting their working life with a huge student debt hanging over them. I think this is something we should be really grateful to not have in Ireland”.
What’s more, the increasing knife crime (which is currently at its highest level ever recorded) means that many parents are questioning the safety of their children in London. “My big issue right now is the soaring knife-crime. As a mother of two boys, that utterly terrifies me. And I feel the government is not taking it seriously.” – Shelley Spadoni
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that bringing up children in a metropolitan city such as London has its advantages, as Shelley goes on to say “I think in general it’s a really vibrant place to bring up family. My sons have access to some of the most fascinating culture Britain has to offer and they’re growing up streetwise, tolerant and open towards other races and religions.”
Beyond the practical and professional, you have the likes of The London Irish Centre, which hosts social gatherings, gigs and community initiatives all year round (of which Dermot O’Leary and Ed Sheeran are current patrons, thank you very much).
The Irish community in London
Many of the women talk about being “lucky to have known a few Irish people who were already living in London” when they arrived. They speak of the great support, both in terms of helping to launch their careers and indeed their social lives (not to mention providing an antidote to any intermittent homesickness) that these Irish connections provided.
And what about those who don’t necessarily have a network of friends waiting for them when they arrive? Well, by all accounts there’s a support network for practically every cohort of the Irish-in-London population; as Aoife Whitford (co-founder of Property Basecamp) puts it, “the support is there, you just need to go searching.”
For those in need of business support or advice, there’s the likes of the IIBN and the London Irish Business Society; for women there’s the Women’s Irish Network (amongst many others); the LGBT community are represented via the London Irish LGBT Network, and then LIGN (London Irish Graduate Network) is there providing Irish students with some much-needed guidance and introductions. Then beyond the practical and professional, you have the likes of The London Irish Centre, which hosts social gatherings, gigs and community initiatives all year round (of which Dermot O’Leary and Ed Sheeran are current patrons, thank you very much).
“I grew up in an area of North West London which had a very large Irish community so come GAA final time, we would all go out to support our own county teams in the local pubs, and the atmosphere was always fantastic”
And of course, there are the multiple GAA clubs throughout London, which continue to bring people together and provide a vital community network over there, just as they do back home.
“I grew up in an area of North West London which had a very large Irish community so come GAA final time, we would all go out to support our own county teams in the local pubs, and the atmosphere was always fantastic” Shannon Murray (actor and lawyer).
‘I’m not mad into the GAA but I recently watched the All-Ireland hurling final in an Irish pub here with my boyfriend who’s English. When we won, I went around hugging fellow Irish punters because I was so delighted with the result. My boyfriend later asked did I know any of those people and I said “no. But they’re Irish, so yes.”’ Martina Gleeson (illustrator)
Being Irish in London
The general consensus amongst the women we talked to, was that they were proud of their “Irishness”, and prouder still of the reputation that the Irish men and women before them have created in London; “Irish have such a great reputation generally and 9 out of 10 times people recognize the accent immediately and it’s a great ice-breaker.” – Lucinda Kelly
Many referred to how Ireland has become known as a place that produces educated, hardworking people who have serious ambition, with Shaena Keenan (financial services recruiter) adding that “the national camaraderie, warmth and welcoming nature that Irish people have is something I will always be proud of”.
“I miss being able to pop down to the shop and get some Clonakilty pudding. Here you have to google and hunt down a shop that sells it”
“It’s a matter of pride”
There is also an overwhelming sense of pride among the “London Irish” today, in response to the changes that have taken place within Ireland’s society and legislation in recent years.
“For a long time, I just felt more comfortable in my own skin as an Irish person living in London than I did back home in Ireland. But it’s a completely different country to the land I grew up in and I definitely feel more Irish now.” – Breda Corish (working in science & medical information industry)
“I found Ireland really restrictive growing up; the grip of the Catholic church and the weight of others’ opinions on my life really annoyed me. It’s great to see how things have changed now and that the majority of those outdated attitudes are slowly dissolving away. I now just think of Ireland as a beautiful country were the people are so warm and welcoming.” – Suzie Houlihan (actor)
Most people make it home about 3-4 times a year, usually to spend time with with their loved ones at Christmas and to attend weddings, special birthdays, etc. throughout the year. As much as everyone misses their families and friends, many think back wistfully on the more day-to-day aspects of home life, too. Things like “being able to pop down to the shop and get some Clonakilty pudding. Here you have to google and hunt down a shop that sells it.” Aisling O’Connell. “Also, people in London don’t thank the bus driver when they get off the bus – it’s shameful!” says Caroline Kay (singer/songwriter).
Belfast native Shelley Spadoni (magazine showbiz editor) puts it frankly when she says ‘I miss my family and I miss Belfast. It’s a small city but it has a big heart, and at least you’re always guaranteed that somebody will chat to you should you walk into a pub on your own. Here in London all hell could freeze over before someone approached you to strike up a conversation (unless they were drunk and trying it on!)”.
When it comes to Brexit, the words “ticking time bomb” come up again and again, and the threat of the unknown seems to loom large. No one knows what to expect down the line, and anxieties are rising as people remain unsure about whether a Brexitted-London is a viable option for them down the line.
“There are a lot of us. Will we need to get visas? Will travelling to and from home become more difficult / costly? Will working here be as straightforward? I’m naively or maybe ignorantly hoping it won’t directly affect my actual day-to-day activities. But I’m worried” – Caroline Kay
London living in five words
“Hectic, energising, sporadic, eventful, FUN” – Laoise Casey
“Exciting, hustle, exhausting, uncertain, rewarding” – Dearbhla Gavin
“Bustling, diverse, exciting, rushed and fabulous” – Clara Duggan