In the 1980s when IBRG branches were being set up across the country one of the biggest problems was finding somewhere to meet. There were many Irish Centres, but most of them did not want an Irish group with a political agenda meeting there. Most of them were attached to Catholic churches who promoted a reactionary agenda or they were commercial venues who worried about their alcohol licence as well as police surveillance and threats to their future.
Manchester IBRG found a home at St. Brendan’s Irish Centre in Stretford. Originally the Lyceum Cinema, it opened as an Irish Centre on 25th April 1961. Surrounded by streets of Victorian houses it became the home for many of the Irish who emigrated to the Manchester district in the 1960s.
St.Lawrence’s Church which was located next to the Centre organised an Irish community care organisation which met Irish people off the train in central Manchester, brought them to St. Brendan’s and arranged accommodation and support for the new emigrants. Father Leo Heakin, a past priest, explained. “In times when tastes were simple and teetotal the order of the day St.Brendan’s dispensed tea and coffee along with its famous welcome. How many matches were made over the brim of those teacups. How many jobs offered …digs arranged.. news given of home.”
Tea was the preferred drink and it was not until the late 1970s that the Centre got its license which reflected a change in people’s attitudes to entertainment and also the changes that were happening to the Irish community. Changes were also happening in the area around the Centre as the Victorian terraces were flattened and replaced by the now infamous Hulme and Moss Side development of system-built flats which dominated the landscape. The Irish were also on the move, the more affluent were vacating the inner city for the suburbs.
By 1988 the Centre was in danger of closing down and the parish priest, Leo Heakin, called in Liam Bradshaw to manage the Centre. A Tipperary man, Liam had much experience in working in pubs and clubs in Britain and Ireland. As Liam explained. “I went down two roads, firstly the commercial one, putting on dearer bands and increasing door prices and bringing in professional bar staff. The other road was a cultural one encouraging the Gaelic Athletics Association to get involved in the club, the IBRG started to use it, county associations, the Manchester Players and many other cultural groups. This gave the club a buzz and people started to talk about it and use it.”
Liam understood how the Irish community was changing as more younger people were emigrating to England, and a new second generation who identified as Irish wanted a broader agenda of what it meant to be Irish. St. Brendan’s was the only Irish Centre in the northwest that offered a meeting place for the local IBRG branch and most importantly to the North West branch of the Birmingham Six Campaign. In 1991 when the men were released it was fitting that the celebration took place at St. Brendan’s.
It was not just the Irish who were welcomed in the Centre. It was located in a area that now had a sizeable Afro Caribbean community who used the Centre for Rastafarian socials, fundraising socials eg for a West Indian man facing deportation and the local Hulme Festival. Liam saw this as a positive step for both communities. “It will help them understand the Irish and get to grips with what the Irish community is like.”
As well as branch meetings IBRG held many cultural events at St. Brendan’s, from singer Sean Brady to Manchester Irish band “Toss the Feathers.” It was the height of their popularity and hundreds of people turned up. The proceeds helped fund branch activities for many months.
In 1991 IBRG organised a series of events to celebrate the 75 anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an anniversary ignored by the Irish Government. Events held at St. Brendan’s included an evening of “Poetry and Songs of the Rising” by actor and friend of IBRG Sean O’Neill. Later that year a meeting about the attack by the Northern Ireland Office on Glor na nGael an Irish language group in west Belfast took place at the Centre. It was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London organised by IBRG to highlight the discrimination against the Irish language.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act was like a black curtain that hung over the Irish community. In the 1980s the number of raids on the homes of Irish people were diminishing, but there were still thousands of people being detained and questioned at airports and ferry ports. Liam’s son was one of those detained and was, unlike most other Irish Centres, happy to host a meeting to call for the repeal of the PTA.
In October 1990 IBRG, with the West Midlands PTA Research Association, held three meetings across the northwest to call for its repeal. Manchester IBRG held its meeting at St. Brendan’s. The speakers were Fr. Bobby Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy in London and Kevin Hayes from the West Midlands PTA Research Association. In 2020 it is hard to explain how brave Liam was in allowing the meeting to go ahead, but it did reflect the massive changes that were taking place and most importantly the way in which IBRG were not prepared to stay silent about such discriminatory legislation and its effect on the community.
St.Brendan’s was the venue on Saturday 3rd July 1993 for Manchester IBRG’s third conference, entitled “We are a River Flowing”. It was a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. Speakers included historians Michael Herbert and Steve Fielding, IBRG officers Pat Reynolds and Virginia Moyles, and writer Ann Rossiter. The day was dominated by speaker Mary Nelis (Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) who threw away her prepared speech and instead gave a moving talk about her experiences in Derry.
Manchester IBRG used many venues for its events including the radical bookshop Grassroots, Manchester Town Hall, Green Room Theatre and eventually even reactionary Irish Centres such as Chorlton which allowed the branch to host some socials. St. Brendan’s became the home for Manchester IBRG which was important in providing that essential and organic link between the generations of Irish people that have come to the city and the radical nature of that community.
The IBRG archive can be viewed at the WCML