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The Plastic Podcast - Patrick Gaul, Angela Billing and Niall Gibney

“People elsewhere in the country thought you were a bit odd. They thought you were probably lawless.”

I’d been looking forward to this one for a while.

For one thing, I love Liverpool. It changed my life in ways I am still feeling the reverberations from, 35 years later (wow). And for another, I spent a lot of my youth in social clubs and church halls, so I’m very much at home talking to an Irish Centre. Combine the two and I’m in Plastic Heaven.

It’s always tempting to see Irish Centres as relics of the past. Of being havens for the lads on site back in the 50s and 60s. Somewhere you could get dressed up of a Friday, maybe go for a dance, down a few pints of the black stuff and get a bit weepy to “Spancil Hill.”

A place where all the stereotypes of the diaspora played themselves out, back in the day.

Of course they’re not like that, even if they ever were.

As Angela Billing points out, the centre acts as a hub for food bank collections, co-ordinating with charitable groups across the city. Although Niall Gibney may proudly recite a list of stock from across the water available at his Irish Shop, he knows that the centre isn’t just offering a taste of green for the casual tourist. He believes in the authenticity of the centre: it’s not a theme pub we’re dealing with here.

And yet, the question of “the Irish brand”, as Patrick Gaul puts it, and the conundrum of what defines a “community” raises itself.

As Irishness – whatever that may be – gets sold across the globe in various forms does that strengthen or dilute a heritage? Is Irishness an inheritance or simply a state of mind? And as cities become more diverse, and migrant populations move from city centres into suburbs and reidentify themselves with passing generations, does that mean Irish Centres like Liverpool’s lose their original meaning?*

In which case, what do they become?

Like Leeds, Liverpool Irish Centre is facing these dilemmas in its own way. Ironically, the limitations of lockdown has potentially paved it out a path to the future, to becoming more about the city in general. The challenge, then, is to maintain its character: to be a place where you might still get weepy to “Spancil Hill” of a Friday night and then on Saturday celebrate Diwali in the same hall.

Again, we all come from somewhere else.

Where we end up is another matter entirely.

*That’s leaving aside the changes that have taken place in the city over the last 35 years (again wow).

PS: An apology to The Logues, whom I managed to call “The Rogues” in the intro. Still, lads, if you’re looking for a name for a side-project, I think I‘ve got one for you…

Listen to the podcast by following the link below:

Doug Devaney - The Plastic Podcasts

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