COMEDIAN Dara Ó Briain was among a select group who enjoyed a private viewing of a new exhibition launched by the Irish in Britain (IIB) organisation this week.
Their heritage exhibition, Look Back to Look Forward: 50 Years of the Irish in Britain launched at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on October 30.
The heritage project, which marks the charity’s 50th anniversary, showcases oral histories and stories from members of the Irish community across Britain.
Speaking at the launch event, Ó Briain, who hails from Bray in Co. Wicklow, highlighted the changing experiences of the Irish community in Britain over the years.
He reminded those gathered that there had been “such a journey” from the days where newly arrived emigrants faced signs reading “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish in the 60s”.
IIB’s project, which was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, saw more than 60 volunteers trained in oral history collection.
Over 100 interviews from members of the Irish community across Britain, were recorded, and many of the interviewees were in attendance for the private viewing event.
Alice Boyle-O'Dowda travelled from Portsmouth for the event.
Having taught Irish dancing for over 50 years, she loaned a dress with a beaded collar that she hand embroidered in 1960s to the exhibition.
Award-winning London Irish poet Laurie Bolger was also in attendance, and recited the poem Home during the event, which was written specially for the project.
Photographers, Joanne O'Brien and Sass Tuffin, who have contributed some key images for the displays also attended.
“It has been humbling to listen to people’s lives, to share in their experiences,” Heritage Project manager Susan Cahill said.
“From the construction worker who stepped onto English soil speaking only Irish, to the daughter of one of the falsely accused Birmingham Six fighting to free her father; to the woman who had no choice but to leave the institutional Ireland she grew up with, and another who helped organise lesbian and gay céilís when she moved to Britain, we’ve seen how emigration has represented loss, conflict, trauma, but also freedom, opportunity, and growth, often all at the same time.”
Irish in Britain’s CEO Brian Dalton added: “This project is a window through which others can see us and understand us.
“It is inspired by our work with member organisations over the last five decades.
“We want to acknowledge the stories of resilience, innovation, activism and kinship that we bear witness to everyday.”
He added: “The public conversation about migrants, particularly over the past decade, makes this project all the more timely.
“It's a story that belongs to everyone from Ireland that's stepped off a boat, train or plane to Britain, it’s a story that belongs to their children and grandchildren.
“Please tell your friends, families, neighbours and networks as we look forward to welcoming you to the exhibitions and as visitors online.”
The exhibition is free to attend and open in the Irish Cultural Centre until Sunday, November 5 at 5pm.
It will then travel to Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham.
Irish in Britain has also launched an online exhibition of the project for those who cannot make the get to the cities where it is touring.
Full details of the tour dates and venues can be found here.