Placing the displaced: Lessons from researching the Irish community in London

Author: Mary Tilki

Mary Tilki PhD, Chair Federation of Irish Societies, formerly Principal Lecturer, Middlesex University London

Jeff Moore MA, Director of Welfare London Irish Centre

Eugene Waters MRes, County Childcare Coordinator Wicklow, Ireland

Lisa Clarke PhD, Lecturer Middlesex University, London 



The article discusses a community study undertaken by a research team comprised of voluntary sector staff, academics, and community volunteers. The rationale for the project, the mixed methodology, multiple methods, and use of community researchers to collect data from a diverse and often “hard to reach” group afford lessons for academics and students. The data demonstrate the diversity of the Irish community in London, alongside a picture of continuity and change where newer migrants share many of the problems of the older generation, but whose backgrounds and experiences are different. The focus of the article is the research process, and in particular, the use of volunteer community researchers, the value of culturally sensitive research, and what this means for research with the Irish community. The findings and the practicalities of the research process are applicable to investigations outside the social sciences, and although the study was confined to the Irish community in London, it could also be applicable to other cities.   


I. Background to the project

The research, a needs analysis of the Irish community in London, was commissioned by the London Irish Centre (LIC) and the Federation of Irish Societies (FIS) in 2011.[1] LIC is a large voluntary sector organization providing a range of advice, information, care services, and cultural activities to the Irish community in London. FIS is an umbrella body for Irish organizations in Britain and is funded for community development, political representation, research, and service development. Since 1984 the Irish Government has financially supported voluntary sector agencies in the UK to provide culturally sensitive services to Irish emigrants, particularly those vulnerable because of age, mental and physical ill-health, and wider social disadvantage. Although such services have expanded and developed, little was known about how the Irish community engaged with them or whether they were satisfied with what was offered. Recent increases in migration from Ireland generated a need to explore the needs of newer migrants—to what extent they were aware of existing Irish organizations or found them accessible or helpful. Given that the Irish community comprises many whom identify as Irish, despite being born in the UK, it was also necessary to explore how second or subsequent generations perceived, used, or felt about what existing Irish organizations offered. The underlying intention of the project was to provide empirical evidence to inform strategic development, commissioning, and funding decisions which would underpin the day-to-day operation and long-term sustainability of culturally sensitive Irish services. 

Although Irish organizations frequently undertake needs assessments, planning and service development is largely a “top-down” activity, tending to privilege professional and scientific “expert” knowledge. FIS and LIC espouse the principle of involving clients in decisions that affect them, and discussions with Irish organizations in London indicated an appetite for a “bottom-up” approach which privileged the views of clients. The aim was to include current service users, and in order to consider how future services should be developed, the opinions of non-users and those who might avail of services at some point were actively sought.


II. Methodology

The project used a mixed methodology to elicit the views of a wide cross-section of the Irish community in London about health and social support needs, social support networks, current sources of advice, experiences of discrimination, use of and satisfaction with Irish organizations in London. The methods included a survey undertaken by trained community researchers, an online survey, online interviews, and focus groups with older people, second-generation Irish, and recent migrants. 

The study population was anybody living in London who considered themselves Irish regardless of place of birth. The intention, however, was to focus on particular subgroups, such as vulnerable older people and family carers, recent migrants, and second generation Irish. It was not possible to specifically target Travellers or people with memory loss since the study could not do justice to their significant problems and needs. They were not, however, excluded from the broader sample. In total, 790 people completed the survey and 65 individuals participated in the qualitative phases of the project. The full report, which includes further information about methods, ethics, sampling, access and recruitment, and data analysis is available online.


III. The Findings

In gathering the views of 855 individuals, the study encompasses the perceptions and experiences of vulnerable, marginalized older people and family carers. It is the first study to provide data about the needs and opinions of recent migrants and second generation Irish people. Although differences emerged, a number of factors were common to all sections of the community with implications for commissioners, planners, and Irish community organizations.

The data demonstrate a worrying lack of awareness among Irish people about existing Irish organizations in London, what they provide, who they cater to, and who is entitled to use them. Those who use these services, however, are very happy with the friendliness and expertise of staff and this is reflected in better knowledge of entitlements to various statutory benefits and services and their ability to access them fully. The findings also show that mainstream UK organizations have limited or no understanding of the needs of the Irish community, their entitlement to services or benefits, or what cultural sensitivity means for Irish people. Given the old age of many of the participants, it was not surprising to find limited social networks, but the extent of loneliness and isolation throughout the sample was unexpected. It was a shock to note the extent of anxiety and depression reported by all sections of the community. It was encouraging to note that discrimination on ethnicity grounds is no longer perceived as a problem, but new migrants still encountered negative stereotypes about the Irish in wider London society. 


Older People and Family (Informal) Carers

The data show that older Irish people and family carers use Irish organizations most frequently and prefer them to mainstream services that frequently misunderstand or ignore their needs. Irish carers in particular have a low awareness of benefit entitlements and are disadvantaged in terms of social support, housing, and employment. Both like the face-to-face and culturally sensitive services which Irish organizations offer. Furthermore, because they are comfortable with Irish organizations who respect and understand their needs, they feel well-informed and perceive they are getting all their eligible benefits and services.

The health of older people is poor and reflects existing evidence that health declines from around the age of fifty onwards, with increasing levels of cardio-vascular, respiratory, musculo-skeletal illness, anxiety and depression.[2] The physical and mental health of carers is particularly poor, with a prevalence of anxiety and depression. Older people were concerned about becoming more dependent as they aged and expressed that increasing frailty and immobility would in time impact their housing situation as well as their need for services and benefits.

Irish organizations providing social and cultural activities for older people are highly valued.  With high levels of loneliness and isolation, they are the only opportunity for social interaction and emotional support for the vast majority. Those engaging with Irish organizations for social support describe their health as better than those who do not. Unfortunately, the physical accessibility of some Irish organizations, as well as immobility and transport problems, prevent older people from using existing Irish services. This, of course, has implications for Irish organizations.


Second Generation Irish

People born in the UK to Irish parents were proud to identify as Irish but were often unsure as to whether they could avail of the services provided by Irish organizations. Although raised within an Irish tradition, many were offended by their treatment by the wider Irish-born community and some Irish organizations. The research team was struck by the interest of second generation participants in providing data. This group made up just under a quarter of the overall sample, which was surprising as no extra effort was made to target the second generation. We felt that second generation respondents sought out the project as a way of engaging with and confirming their identity, and this is evident in the data. The focus groups with second generation respondents were the most successful, with rich and spirited discussions about cultural differences, identity and discrimination. We were shaken, however, by the discrimination they faced among Irish-born people and some Irish organizations.   They found references to “Plastic Paddies” offensive and upsetting and in some cases made them wary of seeking help within the community.


Recent Migrants

Recent migrants had invariably underestimated the difficulties of finding work, housing, or accessing benefits. Competition for jobs was tight, wages in London were often lower and work conditions much poorer than they had expected.  They found that mainstream UK organizations such as Job Centres did not understand the eligibility for benefits of Irish claimants under the Common Travel Agreement. This was particularly problematic for those who had not been eligible for unemployment benefits in Ireland.

The cost of housing was high, and the competition for flats and the process of finding accommodation were more complex, stressful, and drawn out than they had anticipated. The size, cost, and unfriendliness of London was a culture shock for the majority. Whether working or studying, the time and cost involved in travel made it difficult to have a social life, and isolation, anxiety, and depression were reported amongst the majority of recent migrants. Those who had some friends or had been able to play sport or join the GAA (Gaelic Athletics Association) felt they had been saved from social isolation.

Recent migrants tended to rely on the internet and friends as main sources of information. They either did not know about Irish organizations or, if they did, felt they were for older or disadvantaged Irish people, could not find one locally, or could not easily travel to one.  Those who used Irish services were highly satisfied and found accommodation, benefits, or employment rapidly. Others felt they would use an Irish organization in the future, but for reasons of time or travel would prefer online or telephone helpline Irish-specific services.

Recent migrants found very positive attitudes towards them and towards Irish people in general. However, they found the “paddy “jokes and stereotypical assumptions in social and workplace banter distinctly discomfiting.

The research shows that, like previous waves of Irish migrants to the UK, most recent migrants perceived their settlement to be temporary. The majority aspired to move back to Ireland within five years. Furthermore, the majority were in daily communication with friends and family in Ireland via mobile communications. The data indicate that recent migrants retain significant emotional ties with Ireland but that the majority are unsure about their long term settlement. 


IV. New Insights on the Irish Community in London

The data confirm some of what we already knew through existing research and the experience of community organizations, but it also highlights issues that are new or that require further exploration. We were unaware quite how little was known about Irish organizations in certain sections of the community, and the data highlighted how they were perceived as services for older or vulnerable people, or that they were only for Irish-born and were unfriendly towards second generation Irish. We had not anticipated the extent to which Irish organizations were a lifeline for elders, carers, people with long-term health problems, and those who were socially isolated through illness, poverty, or widowhood. Not only did they ensure access to benefits, they provided opportunities for social interaction and friendship, which for many was the only social contact in their lives.  The findings provide clear examples of how mainstream services lack the knowledge to deal with Irish clients, thus confirming the importance of the Irish voluntary sector.

The findings also confirm the diversity of the Irish community in London. It was evident from the data that newer migrants and second generation Irish would welcome a different type of Irish organization that catered to their youth, good health, and modern taste in Irish music and the arts. Although very satisfied with the help given by Irish organizations, the preference of the younger generations was for online or telephone help rather than for face-to-face services. 

The report makes recommendations to Irish organizations, the Irish government, and UK statutory organizations. They are targeted at those providing services for the Irish community in London but are particularly salient for statutory bodies, policy makers and service commissioners with responsibility for meeting the needs of this minority ethnic community.  


V. Reflections on the Research Process

Although the article focuses on issues pertinent to those researching the Irish community in Britain, many of the research issues are also relevant to policy makers and providers and those who commission services for vulnerable communities. The absence of, or limitations of, data was a major factor driving this research and as shown by the literature review underpinning the study, the Irish tend to be invisible in ethnic minority debates in the UK.   This reflects the tendency in the UK to conceptualize ethnicity in terms of skin color, so the Irish who are not black are not seen as an ethnic minority despite a similar pattern of social and health inequality. Including Irish in the overall White ethnic census category assumes sameness with the majority population and neglects the health disadvantage that has existed for three decades and which, unlike other minority groups, persists into the second and third generation.[3] Skin color notions of ethnicity also mean that the Irish are excluded or at best marginalised in inequalities research, and the absence of data is regularly viewed as an absence of need. The lack of data and the failure to analyze or report on the Irish are barriers to those attempting research or arguing a case for services. 

The research set out to understand how well the statutory sector met the needs of the diversity of Irish people and whether the need for Irish specific services still existed. Given the fact that Irish people speak English and many have lived in the UK for decades, it can be hard to argue a case for culture-specific provision. Combined with the limitations of data, assumptions of assimilation and aggregation of the Irish in the overall White ethnicity category denies the need for culturally sensitive services. While many who migrated decades ago have integrated or assimilated with the majority community, a significant group have remained on the margins. Anti-Irish racism exacerbated by the Troubles in Northern Ireland meant that ordinary people played down their Irishness in public, not speaking, changing their accent and silently tolerating indirect or overt racism.[4] Privately they maintained Irish culture in the home, raising their children within a fairly closed Irish community transmitting culture through Irish music, dancing, and sport and often long school holidays in Ireland. Keeping their heads down in constant fear or exposure to anti-Irish racism has impacted the health of the Irish in London and has made them reluctant to access public services.[5] While many Irish people find mainstream services acceptable and accessible, those with dementia, mental ill-health, and those who are ill, frail or unable to articulate their needs require culturally sensitive services. The evidence of persistent health disadvantage across generations highlights the importance of better Irish data if inequalities are to be addressed.  

The findings demonstrate the value of community organizations in providing information, advice, and opportunities for social interaction to a diverse community, but acknowledge that one size does not fit all. While policy makers rightly argue the need to cut costs, the research demonstrates the value of accessible, culturally sensitive services in empowering people by enabling them to obtain the benefits, housing, and support to which they are entitled. The findings show how the information and social services offered by Irish organizations are a lifeline for vulnerable, older people. The study also confirmed the poor physical and mental health of the older population, especially family carers, and the loneliness and isolation which is widespread across the older population. The study identifies a number of areas for further research as well as potential for partnerships between academic establishments and Irish voluntary sector organizations.


Methodological Lessons – Culturally Sensitive Research

The value of the methodological decisions and practicalities for researchers are important, and the research team learned lessons which are applicable to researching the Irish community in other places and with regard to different issues. The multidisciplinary research team was led by senior staff who worked with different sections of the Irish community and who had research and community development experience. It included academics with expertise in qualitative and quantitative research as well as experience researching “hard to reach” communities and community development. For methodological rigor and practical reasons a mixed methodological approach was undertaken. The survey approach aimed to capture a wide sweep of the Irish community, and potential participants either completed the questionnaire online or were helped to complete it by volunteer community researchers.   Focus groups were planned with older people, newer migrants, and second generation Irish to explore meanings, perceptions, and experiences from the perspective of the participant. The focus group process aimed to explore the rationale for particular perceptions and how opinions were justified and to understand what influenced participants’ judgments.  

The varied backgrounds, expertise, and experience of the research team were invaluable in undertaking the research. Having been planned in detail, and with difficulties anticipated as much as possible, when things went wrong, this experienced research team confidently adapted and adjusted the approach. For example, recent migrants were the most difficult to engage with due to their work or study commitments. Although the team targeted several events to promote the project and recruit new migrants, it was difficult to get focus groups together.  Because there was an interest in participating, the online interview approach was adopted. This proved successful and the quality and quantity of qualitative information was beyond our expectations. This research highlights the importance of flexibility but particularly the value of online research tools when engaging with recent Irish migrants. In addition to being a practical response, the online interviews afforded an opportunity for people who might be embarrassed or ashamed about something or who were critical of Irish organizations to put forth their views. The face-to-face and online survey tools, the focus groups, and the online interviews were invaluable in accessing the diversity of the Irish community and allowed for a range of opinions, which may not have been possible otherwise.

The value of the community researchers cannot be overstated. Volunteer researchers were recruited from Irish organizations and were trained by the voluntary sector staff. Many were already contributing as volunteers in Irish organizations and therefore understood the culture of potential participants. Although Irish people speak English, accent, idiom, and colloquialism can be different and misunderstood by non-Irish people. Community researchers were therefore able to engage with vulnerable or otherwise suspicious people because of their ability to pronounce Irish names and understand Irish accents and turns of phrase. Having an Irish accent, knowing the names of Irish counties, or being able to engage in conversation about Gaelic football, hurling, or other Irish issues enabled trust to be established. More importantly, the community researchers were sensitive to mental health problems, alcohol misuse, alcohol problems, or domestic violence—issues which might have been disclosed or uncomfortable for the informants. In addition to affording access to marginalised people, they were able to establish rapport, gain trust, and obtain rich data which participants might have been reluctant to disclose to non-Irish researchers. 


Access and Recruitment

Irish organizations and community researchers played a significant role in gaining access and recruiting participants to the study. Participants were recruited purposefully using existing networks of Irish organizations in London, such as day services for older people, networking events, UK based Irish media (like the Irish World and Irish Post), and online social media networks. We anticipated that recruitment to the study might be difficult, but that being able to publicize and promote the research through Irish organizations and at community events would enhance the sample. This was particularly the case with older people and carers who might have been reluctant to respond to a newspaper advertisement and who would not be reached by online messages. Recruitment of what tend to be known as “hard to reach” participants was achieved using the community researchers, an outreach approach, and snowball techniques to identify the most marginalized informants. Despite some concerns about bias, snowballing has been very effective in gathering data from the more marginalized parts of the Irish community. 

Online networks, Facebook and Twitter, were used to reach the younger generation who don’t read the Irish media and who don’t know or use Irish organizations. Although we initially anticipated that recruitment would be achieved primarily through Irish networks, nearly half of those who participated were not closely engaged with the Irish community. The majority of the sample had never used an Irish community organization, around one-third used one occasionally, and only one-quarter used one frequently. 

However, access is more than locating people and getting their agreement to participate, as that does not necessarily guarantee sufficient confidence or trust in order to be frank in a survey or interview. Suspicion of authority and fear of being identified for non-payment of taxes are major barriers to researching the Irish community. In any research there is a risk of informants saying what they think the researcher wants to hear, but often as the conversation progresses, participants drop their guard as they begin to trust the researcher. Nevertheless, many marginalized people remain suspicious despite reassurances of anonymity and confidentiality. They feel obliged to agree to be interviewed, but past experiences of mockery or insensitivity may prevent them from being honest. Although it may still take time, a culturally sensitive volunteer will be trusted more readily than an academic researcher.  Having a greater appreciation of the lives and lifestyles of the participants, what (if anything) is lost in research technique is offset by the ability to probe the unspoken and by participant openness.   


Ethic, Risk, and Cultural Considerations

Recruiting people who are homeless or in insecure housing with issues related to alcohol or mental health requires cultural and ethical sensitivity. The safety of volunteer and staff researchers was important and, where possible, surveys were to be completed in an Irish organization or a public place, though volunteers were required to do some outreach to speak with people most difficult to reach. Because they were already trained and covered by insurance, they were unlikely to take unnecessary risk and in many cases were known and trusted by marginalized people. 

All were bound by the confidentiality policies of their own organizations but other ethical issues needed to be considered. Given the likelihood that even completing a survey form might be painful or reveal past or present abuses, volunteers were prepared to deal with potential disclosures. They were provided with a list of services to which people could be signposted for professional help and advice. They were advised to discourage disclosure that they were not equipped to handle, but if, for example, past abuse emerged, they were to be clear to the participant that they were unequipped to deal with it. They were advised to empathize with the informant but to close the topic sensitively and discuss it at the end of the data collection, signposting them towards sources of help. Staff who undertook focus groups were aware of the potential to uncover painful, or “buried,” experiences but were professionally equipped to handle distressing situations.

Having culturally sensitive researchers was important in minimizing the pain and distress that participants might experience. Understanding the background of their informants meant that the probing of painful issues could be avoided or anticipated so that they could be handled sensitively. If a participant said they had “been with the nuns” (or priests or brothers), the community researcher understood that the person had been raised in an orphanage and might have experienced some form of abuse. Unless this was pertinent to the study, the researcher could empathise and move on. Equally, a culturally sensitive researcher would understand that when somebody said “I’m grand” it did not necessarily mean all was well. They would understand that a man who worked “in the lump” might be fearful of being found out for not having paid taxes during years of casual employment in the construction industry. The richness and frankness of the qualitative data is a measure of the cultural sensitivity of the community researchers and the training and supervision provided by research team. 


VI. Recommendations for Further Research

The research, while illuminating, only touched the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned before, the research did not include Travellers, people with dementia, or those who care for them, and there is a crying need to investigate these unresearched groups in the Irish community. This study needs to be replicated in other UK cities and also in rural areas or places with small Irish populations who may be more marginalized than their peers in bigger cities. 

While there is a need for evidence about the Irish community, it is critical that comparative research is undertaken to investigate the Irish in comparison with other black and minority ethnic groups groups, as part of local communities and/or longitudinally over time. There is particularly a need for participatory research, involving the community in identifying what they perceive as their problems and what their solutions might be. There are opportunities to build research capacity within the community, recruiting, training, and employing community members in various research roles. 

Given the relative ease with which newer migrants can keep in touch with home and maintain social networks in Ireland, it is  important to investigate whether or how the intention to return to Ireland impacts settling down and belonging. Feelings of belonging, a sense of place, and the meaning of home are closely related to health, and maintaining strong social networks in Ireland are clearly important psychologically and emotionally. It would be useful, however, to explore whether keeping strong links with home creates “pull” factors away from the new society and whether over time this might impact on health.  

While it is always tempting to focus on the problems of the Irish in Britain and their deficits, there is a great need to explore the strengths and resilience of this community, how they cope, and why some do and others do not. The knowledge gained might help prevent some of the disadvantage of the older Irish and improve the experience of newer migrants and subsequent generations and inform the strategic development of Irish community organizations. The Irish voluntary sector exists primarily to serve the Irish community, but the larger organizations in particular have contact with especially “hard to reach” groups. We need partnerships to advise, undertake, or assist in research, predominantly but not exclusively for strategic purposes. Equally, many of us are able and willing to collaborate with academic establishments wishing to understand Irish culture, health, or community issues, or to assist with research projects which are of benefit to the Irish community.

[1] Jeff Moore, Eugene Waters, Mary Tilki, and Lisa Clarke, Fresh Perspectives: A Needs Analysis of the Irish Community in London (London: London Irish Centre / Federation of Irish Societies, 2012),

[2] Mary Tilki, Louise Ryan, Alessio D'Angelo, and Rosemary A. Sales, The Forgotten Irish: Report of a Research Project Commissioned by Ireland Fund of Great Britain (London: Ireland Fund of Great Britain, 2009),

[3] See S. Harding and R. Balarajan, “Patterns of Mortality in Second Generation Irish People Living in English and Wales: Longitudinal Study,” British Medical Journal 312, no. 7043 (1996): 1389-1392; see also S. Harding and R. Balarajan, “Mortality of Third Generation Irish People Living in England and Wales: Longitudinal Study,” British Medical Journal 322, no. 7284 (2001): 466-467.

[4] See M. Hickman and B. Walter, Discrimination and the Irish community in Britain (London: Commission for Racial Equality, 1997); see also Bronwen Walter, Outsiders Inside: Whiteness, Place and Irish Women (London: Routledge, 2000).

[5] Mary Tilki, “A Study of the Health of the Irish-Born People in London: The Relevance of Social and Socio-Economic Factors, Health Beliefs and Behaviour” (PhD diss., Middlesex University, 2003),