Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

The lost generation

Arlington House, Camden Town, London

Image taken from Hide That Can - A Photographic Dairy of the Men of Arlington House By Deirdre O'Callaghan" >
Image taken from Hide That Can - A Photographic Dairy of the Men of Arlington House By Deirdre O'Callaghan

They were known as the navvies, from the 1930s to the 1980s thousands of them flocked from north and south of the border to Britain's building sites, willing to put up with poor pay and bad conditions as they worked to support families back home. Now many of them are either homeless or living out the rest of their days in hostels like Arlington House in London. Mary Fitzgerald reports on Northern Ireland's lost generation

They were known as the navvies, from the 1930s to the 1980s thousands of them flocked from north and south of the border to Britain's building sites, willing to put up with poor pay and bad conditions as they worked to support families back home. Now many of them are either homeless or living out the rest of their days in hostels like Arlington House in London. Mary Fitzgerald reports on Northern Ireland's lost generation



The residents call it "The Mickey" or "Dracula's Castle", the latter a particularly apt description of the forbidding redbrick building tucked away off Camden High Street.

Located just around the corner from the smart cafe bars and market stalls selling tourist tat, the imposing, yet slightly grubby, Victorian façade of Arlington House seems somewhat at odds with its surroundings.

It wasn't always like this. Not so long ago, before Camden Lock market put the area on the tourist map and regentrification smoothed out some of its rough edges, Camden was well known to those just off the Holyhead boat.

"The Mickey" was often the first stop to get a bed for the night while the area's numerous pubs and dancehalls served pints of stout to workmen whose thick accents betrayed origins ranging from Antrim to Cork.

Men like 80-year-old James from Ballynahinch, who first came to London when he was just 14 to work on the building sites. "It was hard - I was only a young one, a bit wet behind the ears, you know. I arrived in London and I couldn't believe my eyes - the size of it, with all the people rushing around. I thought I would never find my way".

'Camden Town for the rough lie-down' went the refrain in those days. The thousands of men who took the boat from Ireland to find work on the roads or on the famous building sites of McAlpine and Wimpey ended up crowding into hostels and boarding houses in Camden and other parts of north and west London.

One of the better known hostels was Arlington House. Built in 1905, the last in a chain of London hostels built by Victorian philanthropist Lord Rowton, it was immortalised in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Kavanagh, who stayed there in the 1930s. Today it houses around 400 men, around a third of whom are Irish.

These men, from north and south of the border, are mostly in their 50s and 60s. They have spent an average of 30 years in England, around two-thirds have drink problems and 40% suffer from long-term illnesses.

Many are veterans of working 'on the lump' - the no questions asked, no papers required, cash-in-hand culture of casual labour which was the lot of most navvies.

It was a world often characterised by brutality and callousness, where 'subbies' and 'gangers' picked labourers or 'skins' to work long hours in poor conditions.

With no holiday, sickness, pension or unemployment benefits, many navvies fell into the inevitable work-drink-sleep cycle. As one put it: "There was always enough money for drink but never enough to get yourself a proper place of your own or set yourself up properly. You just lived each day as it came".

But as the work dried up and limbs grew too old to dig holes or lug bricks about, many drifted towards life on the streets or ended up in hostels like Arlington House.

The residents spend their days in the hostel's cramped bedrooms, complete with single bed, sink and chair, or in the different common rooms scattered throughout the labyrinthine building. The pastel coloured corridors reek of that unmistakeably institutional smell which is part disinfectant, part urine.

Snatches of maudlin traditional songs playing on tinny stereos can be heard through open doors. It may be only 10am but many have already started on their cans of super-strength lager.

James, a tall, strapping man, sticks to a cup of strong tea. His soft, youthful face belies his 80 years but calloused hands betray decades of hard work. James has spent the last 15 years in Arlington House, moving in after his wife died.

"She died too soon, God bless her, and I was left alone. I tried to get digs but it's very hard now. Things aren't the same as they used to be so I came here.

"I would go elsewhere if I could. It's not the same as being in your own house, is it? But I know that at this stage, I'll stay here till my dying day. I'm 80 years old now - I've not long to go".

He shrugs when asked about going home to Ballynahinch and shifts uncomfortably when his family is mentioned. "I wouldn't go back, I've been away too long now. I've lost contact with everybody over there.

"I have 12 children living in different parts of England but they don't visit. They wouldn't like it here," he says, shaking his head.

Most of the Northern Ireland residents feel the same ambivalence about going home. Many admit to nursing thoughts of returning but dismiss such dreams as impossible.

For some it's the lack of money, for others it's the fact that time has eroded family contact and led to estranged relationships. But for many, according to Alex McDonnell of the London Irish Centre, it's a matter of pride.

"Because of the proximity to Ireland, a lot of these men considered their work in England to be a short-term thing. They didn't put down roots because they always thought they would go home once they had 'made it'.

"There is a lot of pride involved. Some guys have told me that they can't go home without at least £2,000 in their pockets. They don't want to return home after all these years and be seen to have failed," he says.

Alex helps run the Aisling Project, a scheme which sends such men and women back home to Northern Ireland or the Republic for a week's holiday. Previous visits have included trips to Co Down. A visit to Antrim is in the pipeline.

For some the experience, which often involves family reunions, is painful. For others, like Antrim man Joe McGarry, it is life-changing.

Joe, who spent 25 years working on building sites, sleeping rough and drinking heavily, entered a treatment centre for alcoholics after a trip to Donegal made him realise something had to change. Joe now lives in the Republic and hasn't had a drink in years.

Others haven't been so lucky. Sammy, a small, rangy man from Ballycastle, spent a year sleeping in parks and fields before arriving at Arlington House almost three years ago. Despite 30 years living in England, his north Antrim burr hasn't softened one bit.

Another veteran of the building sites, he jokes that he came to London to "get his leg over". Years of hard work and harder drinking have made him look much older than he is - 47.

"I miss so much about home," he admits. "The people, the friendliness, the fishing I used to do around the coast - it's just not the same here. But how can I go back? I have nothing. I couldn't even afford the ticket over".

Sixty-one-year-old David (not his real name), from Newry, is more defiant. He came over after joining the Army but left to spend years drifting between odd jobs in factories and on construction sites.

"I wouldn't go back," he says. "England's my home now. I could never go back anyway. I had a rough time before I came to the hostel and I like it here. This is my home".

They were known as the navvies. From the 1930s to the 1980s thousands of them flocked from north and south of the border to Britain's building sites, willing to put up with poor pay and bad conditions as they worked to support families back home. Now many of them are either homeless or living out the rest of their days in hostels like Arlington House in London. Mary Fitzgerald reports on Northern Ireland's lost generation



His younger brother Kevin, also a resident at the hostel, is resigned to living out the rest of his days at Arlington House. "I'm on the wrong side of the tracks now, aren't I?" he says, his eyes filling with tears.

On the way out Sally, a Tyrone woman who has worked in Arlington House for five years, introduces me to Desmond from Castlewellan. He talks animatedly about his childhood and the time he worked as a delivery boy for the Belfast Telegraph.

Now 68, Desmond became homeless soon after his marriage fell apart. A motorbike accident 20 years ago has left him unable to walk without his crutch.

"My key worker says I'll never get out of here because of my drinking but I hardly touch the stuff these days," he insists. "I'd like to go back home but I don't think I could make it now. At least this place is a roof over your head and it's the best I can get at this stage.

"There is a lot of camaraderie among us here. Everybody looks after each other but still, it's not a real home, is it?"



-To donate to the Aisling Project contact: Aisling Project, c/o London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Sq., London NW1 9XB. Telephone: 0207 813 1478 or email: info@aisling.org.uk

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