LOOKBACK 2020: How Irish community heroes across Britain shone in the war on Covid
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LOOKBACK 2020: How Irish community heroes across Britain shone in the war on Covid

THE year 2020 brought with it grief, pain, suffering, worry and economic hardship on an unprecedented scale.

Many people, from frontline medical staff to supermarket employees and van couriers, helped see us through the worst of the pandemic.

We paid particular tribute throughout the year to the National Health Service, staffed by huge numbers of Irish people and other foreign nationals.

From the frontline staff to research workers, huge efforts were made in fighting the disease.

Members of our community were at the forefront of research into producing a vaccine.

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The University of Oxford conducted valuable research into this vital work under the leadership of Irish professor Adrian Hill.

Oxford University Professor Adrian Hill, who had led the coronavirus vaccine research

If there was one silver lining to the pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns, it was that the situation engendered a new spirit of neighbourliness, a can-do attitude of helping those in a worse position than ourselves, of looking after the vulnerable, the lonely, the elderly.

Meals have been prepared, online concerts have been organised, quizzes convened, personal protection equipment (PPE) provided, and communication with those at risk stepped up.

When the pandemic first hit, one Irish firm in London quickly turned its attention from supplying materials to the construction industry to supporting the under-pressure NHS.

Headquartered in Kilburn, north-west London, MP Moran and Sons delivered thousands of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals across the city to help as they battle Covid-19 on the frontline.

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The Irish-founded firm, which is a leading supplier to the capital’s building and plumbing trades, also launched an online fundraising campaign to allow them to purchase even more equipment to donate to the health service, with organiser, MP Morans’ Operations Director Bart Murphy and his family calling for the people of Britain to “Support our NHS Heros”.

Mp Moran and Sons' Bart Murphy with his family of fundraisers

Another Irish contractor urged construction firms across the sector to donate their spare personal protective equipment to the NHS’s frontline workers as they battled the coronavirus.

The HR Group Contractors firm in north London donated all of its spare protective equipment to local hospitals, a process that continued throughout the year.

Group Director Joe Fay, with roots in Co. Cavan and Connemara, told The Irish Post: “Doctors and nurses are currently working around the clock to ensure patients who have coronavirus receive the best of care.

“Like a lot of construction companies, we do a big bulk order of PPE at one time and often have a lot of stock left in our storeroom.

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“We have given what we had in stock and when we can get more PPE we will be donating it to local hospitals.”

Irish voluntary organisations across the north west of England came together in the early days of the crisis to launch a dedicated coronavirus response service for the most vulnerable members of the community.

The Cara – Irish Communities Together Through Covid-19 Programme continues to offer assistance with practical tasks and emotional support for Irish people who are in need during the battle against the virus.

Breege McDaid, Director of the Irish Community Care organisation and one of the founding members of the project, told The Irish Post: “The idea behind Cara is that we are coming together as a collective group of Irish community organisations and groups in the north west to support our community through Covid-19 with very practical tasks and emotional support while people are isolated and on lockdown.”

She explained: “That’s largely directed at people who can’t get out to the shops, older people and those in poor health and those people who are disconnected and far from family and friends.”

Patron Dermot O'Leary helps out with the London Irish Centre's food parcel deliveries at the height of the pandemic
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In London, earlier this year, as confirmed coronavirus cases began increasing and daily life looked destined to change, staff at the London Irish Centre (LIC) began devising a plan.

The Camden-based charity provides vital services for Irish people across London.

Many of their clients are elderly, vulnerable, suffering from social isolation or health issues.

With that demographic firmly within the categories most at-risk from the virus, the LIC team had to act.

After consulting with the Irish in Britain organisation and the Irish Embassy in London the LIC devised a huge overhaul of their services – which was ready to spring into action just as Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the entire country under lockdown.

Much of the staff began telephone befriending — a vital service to vulnerable people who might see very few people in a week – while the centre launched a twice-weekly food parcel delivery service and a telephone helpline for those concerned about the pandemic.

Throughout Britain, the Irish community rallied.

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The charity volunteers working in the Irish Network Stevenage (INS) made sure that vulnerable members of their community were looked after during lockdowns in the area.

In London, sporting clubs in general did their bit, but one club in particular should be singled out for mention – the London Irish Rugby Club.

Working in partnership with the Powerday waste management firm, the #PoweringTheNHS initiative delivered close to 100,000 meals, as well as vital equipment, to health care staff at hospitals across London.

London Irish's Blair Cowan delivering food to NHS workers

Within a week of going into the first national lockdown, the Birmingham Irish Association (BIA), alongside Warwickshire GAA and their Birmingham-based clubs, launched a community foodbank appeal to help support the most vulnerable through the crisis.

The unique Clubs Together initiative created a partnership like no other – with the local John Mitchels, Sean McDermott's, Erin Go Bragh and St Brendan's GAA clubs all agreeing to set up and coordinate locally based food donation centres.

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Once the donations were collected, they were then gathered together and sorted at the St Anne's Parish Centre, before being distributed to BIA clients - many of whom are living with serious mental and physical health issues and are particularly isolated as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Nearby in Coventry, St Finbarr’s Gaelic football and hurling club set up weekly food drops at their grounds in Holbrook Lane during lockdown to support those in need during the pandemic.

Food deliveries by St Finbarrs GAA in Coventry

The non-contact distribution service saw the club working with the local branch of the Morrisons supermarket chain, who made a number of donations to support their initiative, as well as The Trussell Trust, a national organisation supporting a network of food banks across the UK.

Food and companionship were also offered through outreach services by Irish clubs throughout the country.

The staff and volunteers at Greyfriars Irish Club in Nottingham kept their kitchen open throughout lockdowns to cater for their elderly and vulnerable members.

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Volunteers used the fully equipped kitchens to prepare, cook and distribute between 80 and 90 hot meals a day across the community.

In August a Birmingham volunteer was named a hero for her work helping the most vulnerable members of her local community during lockdown.

Tara McLean, of the Sean McDermott’s GAA club, became an O’Neills Sideline Heroes finalist for her efforts in helping others in the wider community in Birmingham during the Covid-19 outbreak.

She was nominated by her club when O’Neills put out a call on its social media channels to pay tribute to all those volunteers who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to help others feeling the pressure as a result of the global pandemic.

Award winner Tara McLean, centre, with some of the Sean McDermott's team

In September, Birmingham Irish Association began thinking ahead - and launched a campaign to ensure local children would have a Christmas that is “as normal as possible” despite the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

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Highlighting the “sad truth” that many children “will not have any Christmas presents” the organisation decided to take action by organising a toy appeal so that at least some Christmas cheer was about for the kids.

Musicians, actors, comedians and a whole host of Irish performers have also contributed their skills to help combat loneliness and bring a little joy into the lives of those forced into quarantine this year.

The Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool staged Culture Unconfined during the pandemic.

This presented gigs or events by 17 Irish acts over five days which were freely available for all to view on the centre’s website.

The year 2020 say so many people lose loved ones, but aside from the grief, families had to deal with the practical implications of that too.

Brave Irish woman Margaret Keenan, became the first person in the world to receive an approved Covid-19 vaccination this month
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The London Irish Covid 19 Funeral Bridge group was set up by members of the community to offer support to bereaved families across the Irish community in London.

The group provided the bereaved with logistical and financial support for funeral arrangements and the repatriation of their loved ones who have passed away among London’s Irish community.

As time has passed some light has appeared at the end of the coronavirus tunnel – in the form of a vaccine, which is now being rolled out across Britain.

Even there a member of the Irish community has led the way, with Coventry-based Margaret Keenan receiving the jab this month.

That makes her the first person in the world to receive an approved Covid-19 vaccination and gives us all one more thing we can take pride in as a community.