Category: Archive

Going home

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

As time passed, many of the immigrants settled, but some others continued to live transiently, following the work wherever it was available. They frequently did 12-hour shifts and cashed their checks in the pubs. They had tough jobs in a tense and often unwelcoming atmosphere.
The hard life took its toll and by the time these men reached their 40s, many of them had developed alcohol problems and were weakened by years of hard labor. The men seemed to suffer more than the women, possibly due to the hard-drinking culture associated with the construction work.
The remittances that this generation sent home had kept Ireland afloat in dire economic times. When the work dried up, these men found themselves without a family or home and with a sense of shame so great that it prevented them from going back to Ireland. Many of the men ended up living on the streets or in Arlington House, the largest homeless shelter in Europe.
Sprawling and Dickensian, the red brick shelter is located in Camden Town, North London. Built a century ago as cheap accommodation for men working on the canals and railways, it now houses 400 men.
Alex McConnell has been involved with the shelter for years. The 43-year-old Kerryman first came to London in his 20s. He worked on a research project about racism against the Irish community and found himself drawn to helping the people he met.
He got a job as a support worker in the shelter and was amazed to see that up half of the residents were Irish. “I met all these men who hadn’t been home for years,” he said.
McConnell carried out a study of the hostel residents and compiled some startling statistics.
“The average life expectancy for someone in England is 75 years old; the average age in the hostel is 67 and is 59 for the Irish,” he said.
McConnell got to know the men and their subsequent chats revealed some sad stories.
“Most of them came to London planning to stay for a few months, make some money and then go home,” he said. “They were still here 40 years later.”
McConnell was inspired to do something positive. “Otherwise, working in the shelter would be so depressing,” he said. In 1994, he and another social worker, John Glynn, decided to bring some of the men home for a vacation. They received funding from the Camden social services for what was to be a once-off vacation and the Aisling Project was born.
“We brought 30 men back and it was a great success,” McConnell said, adding that they decided to do it on a more regular basis. “After that, we had to raise our own money as statutory agencies sometimes see the holiday as a luxury, rather than the necessity we think it is.”
These days, McConnell heads a team of volunteers who make three trips to Ireland each year. Their headquarters are in the London Irish Center in Camden, but McConnell spends as much time in the shelter as he does in his office.
“We take 24 clients and 6 volunteers,” he said, adding that the volunteers often use their annual leave to make the journey. The Irish government has provided McConnell with a grant to cover his salary for the next two years, but the vacations still need to be funded.
They cost approximately

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