A Letter from Ireland:

An Irish Song in London Town

Generations of Irish have crossed the Irish Sea in search of better jobs and opportunities in England. This migration, and separation from home, has inspired some beautiful music to be written by those homesick for Ireland.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are very welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things in your part of the world today? We’ve left Christmas well behind us here in County Cork and are heading into the promise of an early Spring. I’m having a cup of Lyon’s Tea as I write, and I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.

Later this week, Carina and myself are heading off to London to visit the places associated with Irish immigration and to meet up with some of our Green Room members. Now, to say that Ireland and England have had a “complicated” relationship down through the years would be an understatement! However, it’s also amazing to realise that over six million Britons have at least one Irish Grandmother or Grandfather – and sizeable percentage of those are found in the City of London. Are you of Irish descent and living in the U.K.? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

In my own family, my father and two of his siblings traveled to London to help rebuild the city after the Second World War – while my mother and five of her siblings traveled there to work in the hospitals and on the building sites.

An Irish Songwriter in London Town.

Let’s chat about two specific Irish surnames – many of which made their way to Britain over the years.

The surname Cahill comes from the Irish O’Cathail meaning “descendant of Cathal or Charles”. It is found in many parts of Ireland, but especially in Counties Clare, Tipperary and Kerry where the name was associated with leading families of local clans.

The second surname is McGowan – which comes from the Irish “Mac Gabhainn” meaning “son of the Smith”. The name came from the old Irish Kingdom of Breifne – in an area that is known as County Cavan today. However, the surname in Cavan was mostly anglicised as “Smith” in Cavan – whereas is remained McGowan further west around Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo and Donegal. Do you have any McGowans, Cahills or Smiths in your Irish family tree?

Therese Cahill traveled to England from the northwest of County Tipperary in the 1950s. She settled down and married a man by the name of Maurice McGowan who had arrived earlier from the city of Dublin. Like so many Irish arriving in the south-east of England at that time, they traveled for the work and adventure – and brought over many of their own family and friends from back home for a ready-made social circle in a new land.

On Christmas Day, 1957, Therese and Maurice had their first child and named him Shane. Shane spent many of his early years in Tipperary on his mother’s family farm – and then went on to school in the City of London. He was steeped in the Irish stories and music that came through his own family as well as the extended Irish communities all over the south east of England. From this perspective, he was uniquely placed to understand the life of the Irish immigrant in a place like England – and the complicated relationship they had with their own homeland. Their children spoke with English accents, and many of them were becoming resolved to the fact that they may never “return home” to the place they spoke of in their stories and songs.

Shane was sucked into the Punk Rock scene in London in the late 1970s, and joined a number of bands – but he really found his stride when he formed a band called “Pogue Mahone” (from the Irish “Pog mo Thoin” meaning “kiss my a$$$”) in the early 1980s. The Pogues were quickly noticed as an energetic band that defied description. They wrote their own modern Irish songs of emigration and everyday life in a new land and played them with an energy and urgency that seemed to reinvent Irish folk music.

Shane McGowan just turned 60 on Christmas Day last – and has defied the expectation of many people by living so long! However, one thing for sure is that his unique songs and music will remain popular long after he moves on.

So, let’s now share just some of those wonderful songs that Shane McGowan – an Irishman born in England – has given for us all to enjoy. For my part, I would also like to dedicate them to all my own London-Irish aunts and uncles – Norah, Bridie, Pauline, Andy, Josie, Paddy and Mick – as well as my parents, Jack and Philomena. They headed to London in the 1950s and injected “plenty of Irish” into the roads, buildings, hospitals and communities that make the city just what it is today.

We’ll start it off slow with “A Rainy Night in Soho”:


Click here to Listen to A Rainy Night in Soho.


Now, how about that wonderful ballad “A Pair of Brown Eyes”:


Click here to listen to A Pair of Brown Eyes.


The next song seems to be custom-made for an Irish Wake – it was featured on TV a number of times in such scenes:


Click here for The Body of an American.


Probably the most famous Pogues sing is a Fairytale of New York – sung here with Kristy McColl:


Click here to listen to Fairytale of New York.


Finally, one of my own favourites. Here, The Pogues join The Dubliners for a rendition of The Irish Rover:


Click here to listen to The Irish Rover.


I do hope you enjoyed those wonderful pieces of music – do you have a personal favourite? Do leave your comments below and let us know. In the meantime, a very happy 60th birthday to Shane McGowan!

That’s it for this week – If you would like to share your ancestral story – or the surnames in your family tree – do feel free to leave your comments below and connect.

We do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.