O, Camden Town; O, Camden Town, you stole my youth away
For I was young and innocent, and you were old and grey
–from Hut 42 by John B. Keane
Shortly before Christmas 2003, at the peak of the economic boom in Ireland, something nudged at the conscience of a newly prosperous nation. A documentary was screened on primetime Irish television about the onerous plight of elderly Irish men in Britain. Their impoverishment was a salutary reminder of the potential consequences of something that appeared to no longer be a feature of Irish society, namely, emigration. Some of the men interviewed had spent the majority of their working lives on the building sites of London. But due to increased mechanisation in the construction industry over the previous two decades and the insecure terms of their employment, these former navvies were now living out their final days in destitution in the very neighbourhoods they helped rebuild after the Second World War.
They were the generation who in the middle decades of the twentieth century had to leave Ireland because it had failed on the social and economic promises of independence. The sense of nationhood envisaged by de Valera as ‘joyous with the sounds of industry’, rather than being realised in the fields and ‘cosy homesteads’ of Ireland had to be reimagined on the building sites and hospital wards of Britain. But whilst a ubiquitous presence on the streets of London for many decades after the Second World War, the Irish navvy, paradoxically left a somewhat anonymous and enigmatic legacy in the social
history of his adopted city. As one of the characters in John B. Keane’s novel, The Contractors, declares: ‘We dig the tunnels, lay the rails and build the roads and buildings. But we leave no other sign behind us. We are unknown and unrecorded.’
As such men are displaced by their latter-day equivalents from Latvia and Bulgaria, we are witnessing the denouement to a particularly resonant chapter in the history of Irish migration. The poignancy of this moment has been captured well in stage-plays like Jimmy Murphy’s Kings of the Kilburn High Road and Owen McCafferty’s The Absence of Women. Fictional accounts about Irish navvies in London have generally, however, had less impact. Novels such as J.M. O’Neill’s Open Cut, Philip Casey’s The Water Star and Peter Woods’s Hard Shoulder explore important dimensions of this experience, but they are not widely known. Perhaps the most familiar example of the genre is indeed The Contractors which reached the bestseller lists on both sides of the Irish Sea in 1994. Like popular ballads such as ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’, it is a rousing and entertaining story which suggests that, during the nineteen-fifties and sixties at least, the lot of the London Irish navvy was a buoyant and optimistic one. What made the TV images screened forty years later so shocking, perhaps, was the fact that the Irish navvy had been regularly presented in this way in popular culture.
Most of the action of The Contractors takes place in the typical surroundings of the building site, dancehall or ‘digs’. Here, within a migrant netherworld of subbies, gangers and ‘the lump’, unspoken rural codes and practices of masculinity are refigured in an urban ethnic context. In a thinly disguised reference to Murphy and McNicholas, the novel’s central plotline is the enmity between two construction firms, one from Kerry and one from Mayo. As the story develops, personal as well as collective rivalries are played out in an impending atmosphere of verbal and physical violence. When a major fight takes place on St Patrick’s Night between the two gangs of navvies, the car park of an Irish dancehall becomes the arena for fiercely held county allegiances. Indeed, it acquires the mythical significance of an ancient battleground as the actions of the participants mirror the heroic deeds of the Celtic sagas. Dick Daly, for instance, plays a critical role in the victory of his gang by facing down the rival Morrican brothers, whose name refers to a figure with whom Cuchulain clashes on his way to the famous Battle Raid of Cooley. Here, the narrator informs us, ‘was a chieftain worth deposing.’ Similarly, Keane draws on a more recent oral tradition where feats of physical prowess, such as picking up a bag of cement by the teeth, were passed down through story, ballad and anecdote in the pubs of post-war London. The Contractors, therefore, is the product of a long tradition of myth and storytelling that helped to sustain the image of the navvy as an object of national and ethnic pride for a community that was often negatively portrayed in the British media.
Some four years later, another novel about Irish navvies in London appeared, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke. I Could Read the Sky is narrated by a retired construction worker living in north London and draws upon interviews conducted by its author with elderly Irish men over a number of years. By orchestrating these accounts through multiple narrative registers into the fictionalised past of its migrant protagonist, it creates a powerful record of a disappearing heritage. Whilst it does rehearse some of the same tales of heroic masculinity found in The Contractors, the novel has an altogether more reflective tone which serves to create an impressionistic and somewhat haunting image of migrant displacement. The borders between fact and fiction appear to be repeatedly transgressed as the story unfolds as a series of dramatic tableaux, some of which relate to the narrator’s childhood in County Clare and others to his time ‘on the buildings’ in post-war London.
I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air. There is some grey light coming in but it hasn’t that cold steely look of the winter sea I could see from the rock. A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads. The paper from home. The black box with the accordion. A bowl, spoonful of soup in it. A wardrobe made by people I’ve never met.
This short pithy sequence paints an archetypal picture of Irish settlement in post-war London. But its mise en scène, with the iconic trappings of national, religious and cultural identity, carry strong traces of the narrator’s place of origin. References to highly specific locations in the west of Ireland—‘a high rock above the house in Labasheeda’ and ‘the Rathangan road taking a turn in under the oaks’—periodically punctuate the text like valedictory incantations. This intensely personalised attachment to place becomes the means by which an Irish navvy, at the end of his working life in London, pays tribute to his rural inheritance and cultural identity. In contrast to The Contractors, this is a text that draws upon deeper traditions in Irish literature, where discourses of exile, loss, and fractured belonging are mediated through the intimate relationship between memory and imagination.
On first impressions, Edna O’Brien might seem an unlikely candidate to contribute to the genre of the ‘navvy narrative’. Her portrayals of London Irish construction workers in her early novels, such as Girls in Their Married Bliss and
Casualties of Peace, were little more than foils for her female heroines. But as her 2006 novel, The Light of Evening, demonstrated, she is unrivalled by her peers when it comes to capturing the psychological and emotional ramifications of Irish migration. Her recent short story, ‘Shovel Kings’, is another example of this. Here, O’Brien shifts her focus from female to male experience by tracing the life of a retired Irish navvy called Rafferty. While something of the elegiac tone of I Could Read the Sky is apparent in this story, there are also added twists in regards to its protagonist’s failed return to Ireland and his experience of exile in and between different locations of the Irish diaspora in London.
It is set in the late nineteen-nineties and opens in that most iconic location of post-war London Irish life, Biddy Mulligan’s pub in Kilburn. Drinks are flowing and the wistful strains of ‘The Galway Shawl’ can be heard on the jukebox. We gradually get to know Rafferty as he divulges a series of accounts about his life to the unnamed female narrator of the story. For now though, as he tolerates the somewhat artificial St Patrick’s Day revelries taking place in his local watering hole, his private thoughts travel back in time to the country he was forced to leave as a young man. It is not surprising, therefore, when he gets the opportunity later in the story to return to live in Ireland, that he seizes it with both hands. But Rafferty’s repatriation is a disillusioning experience as he discovers the country he had cherished for so long in his memory proves to be a profoundly different place in reality. Having secured a job looking after the elderly relative of a successful building contractor, he discovers he has returned to a place he doesn’t recognise anymore. Likewise, Ireland doesn’t appear to recognise him either. To his dismay, he finds that nobody is interested in listening to his stories about London—stories he had looked forward to telling and had rehearsed in his mind before returning. They simply have no resonance at a time when a centuries-old experience of migration seemed to have finally come to an end with the birth of the Celtic Tiger economy.
The figure of the returnee in Irish culture has long provided the prism through which both the positive and negative aspects of Irish society have been refracted. At the opening of ‘Shovel Kings’, Rafferty is referred to as ‘the quiet man’. In retrospect, an ironic reference, it seems, to the idealised returnee in John Ford’s famous film. But rather than Sean Thornton, Rafferty’s experience might be closer to that of James Bryden in George Moore’s short story ‘Homesickness’, who returns to Ireland after thirteen years in New York. Like Bryden, Rafferty discovers that, far from fulfilling a long-cherished dream, he is now torn between two senses of home—neither of which is entirely satisfactory.
Even before he leaves for Ireland, however, Rafferty already appears to be experiencing a nostalgic longing for place—not for an idealised version of the ‘auld country’ he is about to return to, but rather for a particular London building site where he worked as a navvy. With evident emotion, he recalls an impromptu party that he and his workmates held at the close of a working day.
Tears welled in his eyes as he recalled that revel, a winter evening, the glow of the fire, the leaping flames of red and blue, dancing in that London wasteland, as if in some Roman amphitheatre.
This younger and happier Rafferty might have been a character in John B. Keane’s novel. His anecdotes suggest that he may well have participated in one of the many heroic feats celebrated in its pages. But we soon learn that the seeds of a very particular sense of exile were sown for Rafferty early on. When he was ordered to work on big building projects outside of London, he discovered that Camden Town, where he first arrived as a green fifteen year old, had over the years acquired the status of a surrogate homeland. Camden Town and Kilburn are prime locations in the London Irish migrant imaginary. The former had, however, lost most of the vestiges of this status by the late nineties. Perhaps, this was why Rafferty had retreated to the latter which even a decade ago was still a recognisably Irish neighbourhood.
While Rafferty is relating the final instalment of his story to the narrator, a familiar sense of displacement is once again apparent. En route back from a car-boot sale on the outskirts of London they stop off for a drink at a pub in an unfamiliar part of town. Although it is an Irish pub, it is located in a particularly run-down neighbourhood where the atmosphere is distinctly menacing. Both of them seem ill at ease. Until that is, the music starts:
Tapping one foot, Rafferty listened, listening so intently he seemed to be hearing it there and then, and also hearing it from a great distance, rousing tunes that ushered him back to the neon purlieu of the Galtymore Dance Hall in Cricklewood.
So, on this occasion, it is Cricklewood which is subject to Rafferty’s nostalgic longings. Ironic given that it’s only up the road from Kilburn, the place where he had experienced a similar sense of displacement from Camden Town. Likewise, when Rafferty moves in with his girlfriend, Grania, he describes her flat as being ‘many miles from Camden’. But this is Holloway, another Irish area only a stone’s throw away. In other words, actual physical distance and geography appear to be irrelevant in Rafferty’s experience of exile. He is caught between worlds. Not just Ireland and England, but within London he is also caught between his attachments to different Irish neighbourhoods at different times.
‘The past is a foreign country,’ wrote L.P. Hartley. ‘They do things differently there.’ For many of the navvies portrayed in post-war London Irish fiction, this would appear to be the case. But as ‘Shovel Kings’ closes and Rafferty prepares to leave London again, one is left with the impression that the past may indeed be the only place where he, for one, feels truly at home.