Jodie Clark’s involvement in the Irish in Britain Representation Group reflected the way in which the organisation drew in Irish working class people who were prepared to get stuck into grassroots organising. Women and men who experienced anti-Irish racism of the everyday variety, but also the more corrosive institutional racism endemic in British society. It is an inspiring story and an important part of the radical Irish history of this country.
Here is her story.
Jodie was born in Lambeth in 1949, her parents were from Cork . The family split up and her father kidnapped the children and took them back to Cork to be looked after by their aunt. The children were told that their Mum was dead: Jodie did not see her again until she was 10 years old.
After returning to England to live with her Mum, new partner and two step sisters, her father kidnapped her again and returned with her to Cork.
When she was 11 Jodie was sent by her gran to work in a glove factory and then a knitwear factory where she learned sign language in order to communicate with two other workers who were deaf and dumb. Her gran kept her wages, just giving her the occasional sixpence.
Jodie’s Mum found her when she was 15 and brought her back to London. She then worked with her Mum in catering and was the first woman manager at Joe Lyons cafe. After that Jodie went to work at Woolworths and in the evening at a Wimpey bar.
It was here she experienced racism for the first time. She says “I was told Paddy go home. Unbelievable but I gave as good as I got.” Her manager would not do anything. Jodie, was worried about being attacked going home, so she got her older brother to escort her.
Jodie married an English man, Peter, and had a daughter in 1972. She decided to bring her younger sister to live with them but needed a bigger flat. She went to the local housing office at Southwark and was told by the officer that “We only give to our own” and “go back to where you come from”. This upset her, but next day she went back with her birth certificate and those of her family and they were allowed to go on the housing list.
She ended up in temporary housing for the homeless, but its condition was poor with no heating, damp and only a mobile toilet. Through a contact at the Tenants Housing Group she managed to get a better house. This spurred Jodie on to get active in the Tenants Association in Peckham. She says: “one of the first things I did was to make sure that anti-racism was in the constitution of the organisation.”
In the 1980s she found out about IBRG at a local Council meeting. There was a full-time Lambeth Irish in Britain Representation Group office at that time. She also met Irish activist Nina Hutchinson who became a close friend and encouraged Jodie in grassroots activity.
Jodie joined IBRG and also took part in the Southwark Irish Forum which was a network of people who wanted to promote the needs of Irish people in the borough.
A consultative conference was organised with the Irish community, out of which a report was produced called the “Failte Report,” documenting the needs of the community.
“My own experience of housing and racism made me get involved because I felt I could get things changed.”
She worked alongside John Carty, Ann Mathews, Nina Hutchinson, Steve Brennan and Diarmuid Breatnach of Lewisham IBRG.
In 1990 she became a Labour Councillor and was a member for Irish Affairs on the Council. She was involved in the first free Southwark Irish Festival in July that year. Housing was a big issue for her and in particular recognising the needs of the Irish locally. “I established local housing offices, with training for staff on Irish Awareness, and with space for tenants groups to meet.”
Other initiatives that Jodie was involved with included a St.Patrick’s Day and a free Xmas lunch for Irish pensioners. Morley College ran an oral history project there called “Now We’re Talking.”
Anti-Irish racism was still rampant. Jodie experienced this personally and she felt she was also targeted because she had two mixed race children. “They sent me letters threatening the lives of my children. My front door was daubed with racist graffiti.”
One of her most frightening experiences happened outside her front door. “Someone shouted my name from a car. I leaned inside and my head was grabbed and I was threatened with a shotgun. I was then thrown out of the car and they drove off. A black man in a car asked me what had happened and when I told him he told me to get in his car so we could follow them. We did, I got the registration, but the police did nothing about it. It was the fascist group Combat 18.”
Southwark Council decided to appoint an Irish Policy Officer but she was not invited onto the panel until she told them she would be in the room anyway so they changed their minds.
Jodie made sure that Pat Reynolds (IBRG) was appointed so as to ensure that the needs of the local Irish were treated seriously. He was in the job from 1992-1996 and then continued as Manager in Community Development. .
Pat reflects on his time at Southwark . “I was able to set up an Irish Staff Group in the borough which had over 80 members across the Council and Irish Teachers Groups along with Nina Hutchinson. During this time we managed to open up a new Travellers site in Southwark, had a Travellers Working party, had an Irish Forum, Irish Festival, an Irish Pensioners group, started Irish Language classes in Southwark schools, agreed mutual housing transfer to Ireland, got a quota for Irish staff of 10%, got the Irish recognised as suffering from racial harassment in housing. We also had the McSwiney Mass each year in Southwark, held a 1916 commemoration on the 75th anniversary, had Curragh racing on the Thames, held a regional Irish health conference. Jodie was the driving light behind most of this”
Jodie went on to support the family of the traveller Richard O’Brien who was killed by two police officers on the streets of Walworth one night. His campaign led to the first unlawful killing verdict at an inquest.
She highlighted the suicides of young Irish men in Brixton, took part in pickets and vigils for campaigns for the Birmingham 6, Guildford 4 and Danny McNamee, campaigned against the Prevention of Terrorism Act and went on the Troops Out Movement delegation to the North of Ireland.
Looking back Jodie says her own experience of racism influenced her grassroots activity. “It was the right thing to do. Proud to be Irish, see myself as Cork woman, and you know what they say, ‘they don’t give up’. I knew I could get change – little by little – but I would go the whole hog.“
You can read more about Jodie and IBRG’s history here