Image from the Irish Traditional Music Archive: Irish Emigrant Musicians in London

Image from the Irish Traditional Music Archive: Irish Emigrant Musicians in London

A group of prominent Irish emigrant traditional musicians in The Bedford Arms pub, Arlington Road, Camden Town, London, c. 1956: Tommy Maguire, almost hidden (Leitrim, accordion), Michael Gorman (Sligo, fiddle), Paddy Breen (Clare, flageolet), Margaret Barry (Cork, banjo & vocals), James Quinn (Galway, uilleann pipes), & Tony Martin (Mayo, fiddle), photographer unknown

London has been a magnet for Irish emigrants since at least Tudor times, and they have always included among their numbers professional and semi-professional musicians, from high-status court harpers in the reign of Elizabeth I to street uilleann pipers and ballad-singers in the Victorian period. In areas of high Irish settlement particular musical traditions developed, such as the Irish fyfe & drum and warpipe bands of the East End around 1900.

The years of the Second World War and of post-war reconstruction offered unprecedented employment opportunities in London at a time of economic depression in Ireland, and a large influx of Irish emigrants came to avail of them. Mostly young and unattached and earning high wages, their social centres in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, were the pub and the dance hall. Certain pubs in Irish areas like Kilburn and Acton Town developed as centres for traditional music, and loose group sessions clustering around noted musicians regularly took place in them. The music was often distinctively bright and energetic, and sometimes roughly played in the noisy and crowded conditions. Most of the emigrant musicians seen above, and many others, can be heard on 1950s and 60s recordings now available on CD. Good introductions to this music, with documentation by Reg Hall, are Paddy in the Smoke: Irish Dance Music from a London Pub (Topic Records TSCD603) and The Sligo Champion (Topic Records TSCD525D, 2 CDs).

Photo courtesy Reg Hall, London, 
& Irish Traditional Music Archive

Published on 1 April 2010

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