As the old adage goes, Ireland is the land of a thousand welcomes. However, it seems to be more than a saying – it’s their way of life.
For decades, and either through choice or necessity, the Irish have settled all over the world.
As an important naval port, Portsmouth has drawn its fair share of Irish citizens – some of whom have made the city their home.
And an institution which has stood proudly as a welcoming place, a social hive and a charity hub, is Portsmouth Irish Club – and it’s now celebrating its 70th birthday.
‘I think it’s really super the Irish are still so involved in Portsmouth. We look after one another in a sense,’ says Paddy Burke, president of the club, as we discuss the story of the club over a pint of Guiness in the members bar. ‘It’s a strong society we have here.’
The foundations of the Irish Club go back to the 1880s but it didn't officially form until after the Second World War.
It’s known that towards the end of the 19th century, the Irish community in Portsmouth was organised through Michael Davitt’s Land League campaign for land reform in Ireland.
But it was in the spring of 1948 that Doreen and Oswald Tighe were inspired to form a society which represented Irish people in Portsmouth.
Charlie Brown, the treasurer of the club, says: ‘Inspired by the call for a campaign to end the partition, the Tighes, together with William Halley and Jim Kirby, founded a Portsmouth branch of the anti-partition league – an organisation that sought to publicise what it saw as the unfairness of the partition of Ireland.
‘But although this campaign continued for another two decades, there was also a demand for a more broader-based meeting place for Irish people in the city, a social setting for Irish culture and events.
‘So on December 6, 1949, the Portsmouth Irish Society held its first ceilidhe in the parish hall of St Joseph’s Church, Copnor.
‘This new society, which was to be non-political and non-sectarian, had 200 founder members, increased by the wave of emigration to England following the war,’ adds the 69-year-old, from Southsea.
The fledgling society took as its motto – ‘Do ċum glóire Dé agus onóra na hÉireann’ – to the glory of God and the honour of Ireland.
The aim of the society was to promote Irish culture and to foster good relations with the local community and within the city’s Irish population.
Irish dancing, singing, piping and drama were all pursued within the club and by March 1950, the Irish Club staged its first St Patrick’s Day dance, held at the Rock Gardens Pavilion, Southsea.
It wasn’t long until the club sought more permanent premises and they found their first official home at the Trades Union Hall, Fratton.
‘I joined the club in 1965 because I joined the Royal Navy in 1964,’ says Paddy, 74, who is a Falklands’ veteran of HMS Coventry.
‘When I came over, I was 19. I was in the dockyard and someone asked me if I had been down the club. I met lots of people and then began going to church.
‘Clubs are great meeting places – I am just delighted it’s still surviving.’
In 1965, Portsmouth’s Irish Society took the lead in linking up with other Irish societies to form a national federation.
The first meeting of the Federation of Irish Societies took place with the aim of setting up an organisation that would allow ‘Irish people in Britain to speak with a coordinated voice’. Today, it’s called Irish in Britain.
Charlie adds: ‘The example set by the founders of the Portsmouth Irish Society had been followed by other Irish communities in Bristol, Worthing, Littlehampton, Bournemouth, Slough, Southampton, Brighton, High Wycombe and Liverpool.’
As the society celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1969, the worsening situation in Northern Ireland drew the concern of members. An emergency general meeting agreed to ‘take all possible constitutional means of helping our distressed brethren’ with the promise of £250 to be sent via priests to help those put in distress or made homeless.
Paddy explains: ‘As the society entered the 1970s, the search began for a more permanent home – premises that could be bought rather than rented. The search brought the society to Elm Grove to the former Mikado Buildings, and was bought on June 9, 1973.’
Portsmouth Irish Club has been there ever since and now has 550 members. Although it has retained its Irish values, it is now more multicultural. Paddy continues: ‘If your grandparents were Irish, you would automatically be a member, and if you were Irish yourself – and that still applies today. But we now have associate members from Scotland, Poland, St Helena, Lithuania and Kazakhstan.
‘Portsmouth has lost a lot of clubs – we’ve lost the Conservative Club, the Liberal Club and a Scottish and Welsh Society. We’re welcoming everyone from those. We’re quite diverse.’
And the grand club continues to support the local community and remains a great asset to the city.
‘We’re not just a leisure club, we’re a community space too,’ says Paddy. ‘We try to include everyone. Even today, we have let out the hall for a group of disabled people free of charge,’ he adds, pointing to the main hall where inside many people are smiling and laughing.
‘We have traditional Irish dancing and music every week. We have a bereavement charity within the club to help families who have lost someone. We also host funerals and weddings here – my son got married here,’ he smiles.
‘We also supply Irish passport forms for people who want any help in getting one. All clubs are charitable, but without our volunteers this place wouldn’t keep going.’
And one thing the club prides itself on is its charity links. Dan Davies, vice-chairman of the club, says: ‘Four of five years ago, I wanted a venue for two groups of young people with disabilities. I run a charity called the Bivol Trust and we’ve been running groups for nearly 20 years.
‘I approached them to use the venue and got on to the committee. I represent the charity functions. We do a lot of charity nights and support Solent Mind, DEBRA and Enable Ability.
‘The venue is important because there aren’t many venues like this in Portsmouth. It’s quite unusual.
‘We’re proud of supporting so many charities and it’s important to our role in the community.’
And now the club is looking forward to its annual dinner on November 2. Dan, 69, adds: ‘Promoting Irish culture is really important and we would like to do more of that.
‘The club is known to be a very welcoming place.’
Both Ireland and Britain have changed considerably since the society’s first meeting 70 years ago. But in that time many Irish men and women have found a welcome in Portsmouth, with the hospitality of the community helping those who were many miles away from home.
Here are some of the forthcoming events at the Portsmouth Irish Club in Elm Grove, Southsea, in the next few months:
November 2 – Annual Club Dinner
November 17 – Bacon and Cabbage lunch from 1-6pm. Tickets £5.
November 23 – Charity night supporting Solent Mind from 7pm. Live entertainment by Covered With Cheez. Tickets £15, including food.
December 13 – Christmas raffle from 7pm onwards. Live entertainment by Matt Willis. Non-members £3.
December 15 – Children’s Christmas party from 1-5pm. Entertainment, food and presents. Tickets £5.
December 31 – New Year’s Eve party. Live entertainment by Covered With Cheez and buffet. Tickets £12.
Here is what is also happening at Portsmouth Irish Club during the week:
Monday – traditional Irish dancing in the main hall.
Tuesday – Bingo in the members’ bar from 8pm. Guests welcome.
Wednesday – Salsa dancing in the main hall.
Thursday – Victory Morris dancing in the main hall.
Friday – live entertainment. Non-members welcome, a member will sign non-members in and a small charge applies.
Sunday – Bingo in the members’ bar from 8pm. Guests welcome.
Portsmouth Irish Club is open every day and is available for private hire, weddings, parties and more. Non-members are always welcome.
If you would like more information, call (023) 9282 5152 or go to their Facebook page.
Membership is £12 a year and £6 for those aged over 60.