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Kilburn High road is the original Roman road that ran from the northeast corner of Hyde Park and continued as the Edgware road through northwest London up to St Albans, which was an important Roman settlement. The first wave of Irish immigrants came in the mid 19th century after the great potato famine and the development of the railways and there was a second wave in the 1950s and 1960s. Family member often followed family member and whole villages were said to be represented down some streets.
A friend of mine once described Kilburn as similar to walking down a street in the west of Ireland. Even if you don't personally know a lot of people there is an ambience and a gait that registers the figure as Irish. This point is proven continually for at a second's notice they will huddle together in the middle of the pavement and discuss important subjects like the new priest in Quex Road or the chances of Cork against Kerry in the football on Sunday. They are totally oblivious to the throngs of frustrated shoppers surging round them on the mundane tasks of shopping. Company is important to the Irish and contact is the lifeblood of the Celt.
I have always been aware of the variety of Irish pub down the high road, none very large or intimidating but all having a particular character and charm. They all appear to be frequented by their own brand of locals and after a somewhat severe assessment look you are allowed to get into the beer with the occasional furtive glance to see that you are not eating the furniture. The old Biddy Mulligans had some good music sessions and down the road the Old Bell was a bit more basic but had some traditional Irish and folk music. If you did not stand for the Irish national anthem at the end of the night your health stood a good chance of getting a nasty and sudden jolt.
When I was working for Oxfam down in Marylebone High Street any surplus stock would often be sent to Kilburn, which was classified as 'third world'. This decision always mystified me for the Kilburn High Road has a rakish if worn down charm and adjoining roads are pleasantly tree lined with well-built Victorian houses. West Hampstead to the east and Queens Park and Willesden to the west are sought after areas with Cricklewood to the north quite suburban and also very popular with the Irish. There are pockets of heavy street drinking along the high road with some unemployment and the accompanying crime. It is only recently that Cafe Nero has opened there and I wonder is this a sign that the trendies are moving in and beginning to make inroads into the pub culture. I now sit in the coffee house with the best of them and observe the life struggle on the high road.
It was only the other week that I was up in the Goose and Granite and there was this chap well in his cups and going round the bar shaking hands with all and sundry. Not having been told off for his little journey round the tables his confidence grew and he gave quite a reasonable rendition of an old Irish ballad and even had some of the patrons joining in. He declared that he was an Irish traveller and proud of his stock and flashed his gold rings as he waved time to his own singing. A Kilburn clientele would never complain - he was one of their own just blowing off a bit of steam and having a rush of sentiment for the old days.
The national ballroom is now closed but the building is still there and a stark reminder of some lively nights enjoyed by many. I went there on a number of occasions and was disappointed to find that only a few others and myself were propping up the bar shortly after the doors opened. The clientele of the National then believed in what would be termed a good drink and would descend in hurried numbers only as soon as the pubs closed ready to hit the gleaming wood of the ballroom floor and attempt to gain the attention of some fine Irish girl.
The Irish papers are displayed in many of the shops and stalls and these are the local papers from many counties in Ireland. The connection with home is very important and it's essential to keep in touch with the results of the hurling and Gaelic football games and the farming news and all that was happening round the home farms and towns. The news and contact with home appears to sustain many Irish and if the loneliness and isolation strikes down it can be a supportive balm. The Irish like a good chat and the news from home is a continuation of the chats once enjoyed over pub counter and cross roads meet all those years ago.
Oh come along and hold my hand
And take me to the promised land
Where mountain lake and tranquil stream
Are waiting in the night's sweet dream
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