The London Irish Women’s Centre (LIWC) was unique across the country. The Centre in Stoke Newington was opened in 1986 at the tail end of Greater London Council funding as any committment by local and national government to funding such centres was fading away. In this documentary the story of the centre and the women who made it possible is told. An important story – of radicalism and feminism – with at its heart the determination to create a place for generations of Irish women to find a safe space (it was women only) and to enjoy companionship, comradeship and craic.
London in the 1980s had the biggest Irish community in the country, and within that a sizeable number of them were women of all generations. Irish women left Ireland for many reasons: just to live a different life from small town Ireland, to come out as gay, to find a job, to have an abortion and maybe stay… Over the years more Irish women than men came to this country. At the same time second generation Irish women were exploring what being Irish meant to them and were looking for organisations in which to express that identity.
Irish women have over the centuries been activists in all kinds of organisations : trade unions, suffrage, republican organisations and so on. In the 1980s there were plenty of organisations that had women involved in radical politics. In the history of IBRG women were at the meetings nationally and locally from the early days, following in the footsteps of earlier activists in organisations such as the Connolly Association and Sinn Fein.
The LIWC was set up originally as a cooperative that paid all workers the same rate for the job. At a time when many Irish women felt unwelcome at the traditional Irish centres it welcomed in women and provided the services they needed. When groups like the Travelling community were not using the Centre but obviously needed their services they went out to them. They made the Centre open to all different groups of women from pensioners to groups taking up issues including strip searching, abortion and sexuality.
Unlike many other radical groups of the era the LIWC recorded and photographed many of the events that took place. In the film Joanne O’Brien, who photographed many of the events in the Irish Community which included the LIWC, talks about her work. Angie Birtill, one of the key members of the LIWC, reflects on her own experience as a second generation Irish woman and the contradictions involved. Brid Boland, Rita Dowds and Ann Rossitor, founding members recount their stories of setting up and running the Centre.
The Centre continued until 2012 but during the 90s the radical edge was blunted by the changing political environment. They were lucky, they owned the building, but funding was now more difficult to get and the idea of it being a community centre retreated as it became more of an agency for women to access who had specific needs.
This film records not just an important chapter in the history of Irish women in London, it allows the women themselves to tell their story. It will hopefully encourage other women to hope and believe that they too can make history.
You can buy the DVD here
Read about women in IBRG here