Full Speech:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Siobhan, in the fantastic debate that we have had so far. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Dame Karen Bradley) on securing it. There have been some excellent comments and speeches so far about the immeasurable impact of the Irish diaspora across the whole of the UK.

I will focus my remarks on the enormous contribution that our Irish diaspora has made to Luton over many decades. In fact, I said to my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles when I came in that I have been asked many times where I am from. I say, “Luton”, and people say, “But where are you really from?” I will come on to that a little later in my speech.

Luton has benefited immensely over the years from Irish immigration, post-world war two in particular, and the generations of settled Irish diaspora. The 2021 census found that 3% of Luton identifies as white Irish, which is more than three times the average for England and Wales. There has been a positive impact across all aspects of life in Luton, with, I might suggest, a “work hard, play hard” approach to life.

I reflect on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles about many trade union leaders being of Irish descent. I pay tribute to the many local trade union representatives in Luton who are of Irish descent. Maybe that understanding of community and solidarity plays out in the work that they do as representatives. Growing up in Luton, I feel that I benefited immensely from having friends from the Irish diaspora, many of whom I met at Luton Sixth Form College, who joined from Cardinal Newman Catholic School. Their parents came over to England from Ireland to work, and to work hard, with many building roads and houses or working at Luton’s Vauxhall plant. Some met at the Galtymore and wanted to settle down and move out to Luton.

My friends from the second-generation Irish community also worked hard. Many were the first to go to university, and others became skilled tradesmen, electricians and carpenters running their own businesses. However, everyone worked hard, which led to everyone playing hard once the end of the week arrived and being up for the craic. I first experienced and learned what the craic was in the summer after my A-levels, during the Italia ’90 World cup, which was the first football World cup championships that Ireland reached. I watched Ireland play Italy in the quarter finals in the Painters Arms and, even though Ireland lost, the party carried on, including at the Mad Hatter nightclub, with Irish tricolours flying high, and singing and dancing into the small hours. Understanding the craic means that, even when we lose, we still have a party.

Although sport is just one of the cultural influences of the Irish diaspora in Luton, whether it was some of my friends playing football for St Josephs back in the day or the next generation of young women playing for the Claddagh Gaels Gaelic football team today in Luton, the musical influence of the Irish community in Luton has enriched our town immensely. In preparing this speech, I was reminded by my good friends Mick and Trish about their talents on the fiddle and piano accordion respectively as teenagers. However, they had to admit that they were not a patch on their younger sister Clare, who won the All-Ireland Championship for under-12s on the banjo and mandolin back in 1985.

Irish music and watching bands have been a staple of our cultural offering and nightlife in Luton. Back in the ’90s, we would be sure to go if Poison the Poteen was playing, and many more bands over the years, be it the Whiskey Preachers, Kell or, more recently, Missing the Ferry have had songs of humour and sorrow. It is a commentary of life, building on the storytelling of traditional Irish folk songs passed down the generations. Music and singing are not just confined to Sundays at Our Lady, the Holy Ghost, Sacred Heart or St Margaret’s; they are more often heard at many of our fantastic pubs with close links to our Irish community: O’Sheas, the Phoenix, the Sugar Loaf, the Globe, the Baillie, the Wheelies, the Painters, my friend Marie’s pub the Gardeners Call and, for some of us of a certain age, the long-ago Club Erin and Eddie’s Bar. They are a real focus of community and solidarity, and we still frequent them often now.

Where music and a pub are involved, there is usually a dance to be had. It is right that I celebrate the success of many Irish dancers and Irish dancing clubs in Luton, particularly Finbarr Conway and his academy of Irish dancing, which has produced many Irish dancing champions in Great Britain, as well as representatives who have made it to the world championships on a regular basis.

A key institution in Luton that must be celebrated in this debate is Luton Irish Forum. I particularly want to thank everyone there for its outstanding work on behalf of the Irish diaspora: Noelette, the chief executive, and Tom Scanlan, the chair, and of course the executive team, all the staff, and the regular volunteers, who do a brilliant job, as part of the charity, of promoting Irish identity, culture and heritage, and also improving the quality of life of the Irish community and all in Luton. That means supporting people in need, poverty or distress—particularly, but not exclusively, those of Irish descent—and working in partnership with Luton Council and other voluntary and community sector groups to support our Luton community.

Of course, Luton Irish Forum also advances education in Irish music, drama, arts and language. A key part of that is the annual Luton St Patrick’s festival, which is a leading part of Luton’s cultural calendar, whether people are Irish or not. It has brought Irish music, dance and drama to the streets and entertainment venues of Luton, and it has grown from strength to strength across the years. Given the way in which Luton celebrates, it was no coincidence that the previous Irish ambassador’s final engagement, in September 2022, was to attend the launch of “Paint the Town Green”, a documentary about the creation of Luton’s St Patrick’s day festival.

Just six or so months later, the incoming and now current ambassador came to Luton and was sure to visit Luton Irish Forum, where he said he received the best welcome he had ever had. I was there, and I would say it was the most rousing welcome, with the Emerald Pipe Band piping him in. The St Patrick’s festival is already under way, with many events taking place, and I cannot wait to join everyone on Sunday for the 25th Luton St Patrick’s parade.

Finally, we make much of St Patrick, but in Luton and through the Luton Irish Forum, we celebrate St Brigid. She is Ireland’s female patron saint and, for a number of years, Luton Irish Forum has hosted an annual afternoon tea and celebrated Irish women, such as those in sport and fashion. I particularly enjoyed last year’s event because it celebrated the achievements of Irish women in the NHS. As of June 2023, over 13,500 members of the NHS staff in England reported their nationality as Irish, including over 2,000 doctors and over 4,000 nurses. Luton’s St Brigid’s day event highlighted the stories of three women from our local Irish community: Betty Halfpenny and Roseanna Anderson, who came to the UK to be nurses, and Rosaleen Burke, a radiographer who worked at the Luton and Dunstable hospital for over 50 years.

To conclude, I want to say that Luton and our country have benefited enormously from our Irish community and the Irish diaspora. We are proud of all the work they have done to enrich and empower our community, and I am so proud that I am able to represent everybody as a Member of Parliament for Luton South. I cannot wait for the party on St Patrick’s Day on Sunday. Sláinte!

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