JOE Madden has decided to return to Kerry after almost 50 years in London. He tells Niall O’Sullivan that the disintegration of the Irish community has hastened his departure, and that of those who are left from his generation, many are suffering from loneliness and poverty.
THERE’S not much for Joe Madden to take in as he says goodbye to London.
That’s the problem. These days there isn’t much to keep him in the city at all.
So when his rent and gas bills became unaffordable, the 65-year-old made the easy decision to return to his native Co. Kerry for good.
As he enjoys one of his last pints in North East London, he has no regrets.
Joe says the area’s Irish community is in a sorry state these days. Its successful members have long since moved to more affluent places, he says, while the less successful ones have fallen into poverty, loneliness and, in some cases, alcoholism.
Sipping from his drink, he says it has gotten more and more difficult for those in the middle, like him, to feel at home here.
“I’m extremely disappointed with how things have changed,” he adds. “There just doesn’t seem to be the same comeradeship we had here years ago.”
Reclining on a bar stool, Joe twists to look around the Tottenham pub that has been like a second home to him for 30 years.
He says he’ll always remember it as one of the few places in the city that buzzed with warmth as Irish voices echoed off its walls.
Once upon a time he would be in the Victoria seven nights a week to be with others like him — those who needed an escape from lonely, empty homes.
It was Sundays Joe loved most, when he would make sure he was one of the first in the door to save himself a table seat. That way, he could while away the day playing 25 with friends.
But not anymore.
This Sunday the pub is empty. And while an Irish voice still echoes around the room, it is the cold, unthinking voice of an RTÉ news anchor blaring out from a television.
JOE’S reasons for choosing to return to Ireland after nearly five decades in London are complex.
The 65-year-old, who has no living family, only started to consider a move after realising that the city’s rising cost of living would render him penniless by the time he hits 70.
Yet he says his decision to leave has been made all the more easy by what he sees as the disintegration of the Irish community in his area.
And he is not alone in that.
Irish charity Safe Home, which organised Joe’s move to Tralee this week, is hearing from more and more older people who want to come home because of the death of their local Irish community.
“A lot of the people we work with are living in places, particularly in London, where the Irish community no longer exists,” said the charity’s Mary Ann Fadian.
“You have people who are now living in small bedsits or flats and know nobody because the Irish people they used to associate with have either passed on or moved away.”
Enquiries to Safe Home are up five per cent this year compared with the same stage in 2013.
But worse than the community’s disintegration, Joe says, is the loneliness and poverty he sees friends suffer every day.
“There are older Irish people here who are living very badly, basically hand to mouth,” he says.
“They just barely have enough money to eat. You might see them out for a drink once a week and that’s it. The rest of the time they are at home alone with nothing to do.”
After a long pause, he adds: “It is very hard sometimes to see someone in their situation.
“Some of them are eating very poorly and try to hide it, but you know they could do with a good feed. And you can tell they are in dire straits because they would sooner have a drink than a bit of food.”
That applies to as many as half of the 50 Irish people in the city that Joe knows.
He says most of them have a similar profile to him — retired male labourers who arrived in Britain in the ’60s.
While Joe’s evidence is only anecdotal, it points to a deeper problem.
Some 1.6million pensioners in Britain live in poverty, according to Age UK, and a 2012 study found that more than a fifth of over-65s feel lonely all the time.
Both issues have given Irish charities cause for concern, as the Irish in Britain are far older than any other major ethnic group.
Over-65s account for 43 per cent of Irish-born people living here, according to the 2011 Census, compared with 16 per cent of the general population.
Joe says alcohol is also a problem for many of his friends.
“Most of the people I know in that situation would go to the off license and get a few cans whenever they can,” he says. “Just yesterday there was an Irish fella outside the pub here with a blue bag full of cans and he was steaming. To me that is the lowest of the low.”
BUT why have people ended up in these circumstances?
“That is a very difficult question,” Joe says.
Still alone in the pub, he finishes his drink and pauses before adding: “You have people who go to the pub for company and that really stems back from years ago when people were looking at four walls in a room.
“Take me for example. I have no girlfriend, so I am in the house on my own. So even though I have a laptop and all that, I just get completely bored with nobody to talk to, so I end up going to the pub every night.
“But these days most people cannot even afford to do that, so you can’t meet people as easily.”
Joe explains that the problems many face are a legacy of the culture of those who worked in the construction industry. They would receive their cheque from a subcontractor and cash it in at a pub.
The pub culture was reinforced, he adds, by harsh landlords who banned radios from rooms and stayed up until the early hours “to make sure you never brought anybody back with you”.
But despite his disappointment at the changes in the Irish community, Joe is in no doubt he made the right decision to come to London back in 1966.
“Coming was the only way I could get work and I made so many friends in London,” he says. “But it is just time for me to move on now and I have no fears about going home.
“It will give me the chance to spend more time with my goddaughter, who plays football in Kerry. She will be 16 this year and I was great friends with her mum while she was over here.”
He jokes: “I have been home so often over the past three years that now when I go into the pub there they say ‘welcome home Joe’.”