Home and family; faith and culture

It was St Patrick's Day and I was spending a few hours in the company of some older Irish immigrants in London, enjoying a chat and some Irish music while waiting for our bacon and cabbage dinner to arrive! Each was proudly wearing their piece of shamrock. As the conversation unfolded it became all too apparent that for these men and women who had left Ireland as young people several decades ago, St Patrick’s Day was much more than an excuse for a party.


It was a reminder of home and family, of a faith and a culture that was deep within them and crucial to their identity.


London Irish communities are fragmenting

Older Irish people, part of that generation that emigrated to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s and who created strong bonds of solidarity when here, can however now find themselves increasingly alone and vulnerable. The Irish communities in London, of which they were once a part, have begun to fragment and disappear, and with it their links and connections with Ireland.  
The Irish Chaplaincy Seniors Project provides a culturally sensitive listening and visiting service, providing emotional, spiritual and practical support for older Irish people, and being alongside them to help and encourage them through any issues they may face. This can be anything from advocating on people’s behalf in relation to their health, housing or financial needs, linking people back with their friends and families in Ireland again, or supporting them as they are dying. Time and time again, the older Irish we support also tell us they want to be buried back in Ireland, in their former home towns and villages. We help to sensitively support and arrange these requests. 


The pull of “home” is very strong, even though they may have lived in London for decades.

Cultural and spiritual needs are overlooked

However we find that the particular cultural and spiritual needs of these older Irish can be overlooked by health and social care providers in the services on offer to them.

To begin with white Irish are too often not seen as a BME group at all, given that ethnicity has traditionally been seen in terms of skin colour and therefore their distinctive cultural traditions may not be taken into account in their care and support. 


But as with any other ethnic group, the Irish have their own distinctive culture, traditions and religious faith, as well as language.


This can be especially important for those with dementia and as someone approaches the end of their life.

It is comforting and reassuring as their memory fails for people to hear the Irish accent, to share stories and songs from the Ireland of their childhood, and to have the space to explore good and bad times in their experience of emigration. As a client told us, this gives them “a bit of home… I see other people but none of them are Irish; they don’t understand.”


There needs be more understanding and recognition of Irish cultural needs. This also applies in the area of faith and spirituality, which is a part of Irish identity for many older Irish people. 


Seeing people as individuals

As one social worker told us, “cultural and faith services and support create safety and understanding for the client, and also promote social inclusion for those who may already feel oppressed or isolated.” Good to hear but in general, more needs to be done to make sure people are really seen as individuals and their care and support is holistic in approach.

Final moments of comfort

I always remember Tommy. During his final illness in hospital when unconscious, the sound of one of our volunteers praying some old Irish prayers in Gaelic, brought a response and he joined in – some of the final words he spoke.

I will always remember William too. He was buried back in Ireland this week, having died a few weeks ago. The highlight of his week would be a visit from the Chaplaincy to his care home, where he could play his mouth organ and share his love of music, especially Irish music. Here he was with Alan, an Irish Chaplaincy volunteer and fellow immigrant, who William shared his love of music with, and who in this video shares something of the experience of being a stranger in a foreign land.

Irish Chaplaincy Seniors: Stories and Songs

By Paul Raymond from the Irish Chaplaincy Seniors in London  


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.