A safe haven at 18 Alexander Road

Fr Jason Murphy is as eloquent as ever in his column 'Let the Busy World Be Hushed' remember one Cavan family in London who helped so many young Irish emigrants and the Celt played a crucial role in keeping ties with home...

The address of 18 Alexander Road, Tollington Park, written in neat hand writing on the back of a brown envelope or on blue velvet notepaper was all that many’s the young boy or girl had by way of direction as they bade farewell to those they loved at the bus station in Cavan Town, bound for the streets of London. It was a piece of paper that was folded carefully and shoved deep down inside their coat pocket for fear of losing it, as with heavy hearts they caught the last sight of Boylan’s shop as the CIE bus careered along College Street and up the Broad Road bound for Dublin Port.

Their hearts thumped within, as unaccustomed with travel, they thought on the night crossing that lay before them on the cattle boat athwart the Irish Sea and the epic journey thereafter from the port of Holyhead down the M6 on a bus that would carry them into Euston station, to then navigate the web of the underground to Holloway Road.

For any young boy or girl in their late teen years from the heart of Cavan, used only to fair days and hey days, this was an odious journey to make on their own, their hearts full of fear.

But after all the hours of anxious travelling, to have reached the front door of this three-storey, Edwardian, mid-terrace house brought a great sense of relief. For there as the front door opened, a smile as broad as the road that took them out of Cavan greeted the weary soul from the hallway within. Suitcases were set beneath the stairs and the young immigrant was taken to the living room and put sitting at the head of the table in the midst of five little girls with cockney accents and their father Jim who sat reading the Celt at the other end of the table. This was the home of Bridie and Jim McGahern, young emigrants themselves to London, who had settled in this house halfways along the road that led from Archway tube station to the infamous Holloway Road. Bridie nee Clancy from Swellan had come here with her friend Madeline O’Connor to follow a boy she had met in the townhall of Cavan and, after some years, she married her young love who hailed from Lavey and settled in this Irish enclave of North London, a place that was to be their home from home for 55 years.

‘Come here till I ask you, who’s place that is for sale, in the Celt, at the butt of Ardkill mountain?’ as the broad sheets of the paper was folded over and handed across the table before ever an introduction was made for the young fella to examine the black and white photograph of the neatly kept dwelling house along the Kilnaleck road. If he was able to make a stab at who was selling the dwelling house on 20 acres of rocky ground or at least be able to relate the vendor to someone the far side of the Boston Road, he had passed an important test with Jim, that of being able to make connections. The next day Jim would take him around the building sites of Camden Town and Finsbury Park to see if he could get a start for him, all the while putting the young lad up in their spare room until he got on his feet and found a more permanent place to stay.

Cavanman’s bible

Many’s the young person came each in their turn with suitcases in hand to 18 Alexander Road, a place of refuge for the weary pilgrim, a place where they could call home for however long they needed to. Always, there on the table, alongside a dinner for all who called, was that which was as familiar as the spuds on their plate, the Cavanman’s bible, The Anglo-Celt. Every week without fail Eugene Heavey brought the Celt to 18 Alexander Road on his way from Dick Sawyer’s newsagent near the Holloway tube station as Bridie sat herself down and donned her reading glasses and read aloud the articles to Jim who sat in his chair, dreaming of one day returning to his native Aughadreenagh.

Before the days of instant messaging or social media, the Celt was a lifeline to those who lived abroad to keep them up to speed with the news of births, deaths and marriages, who had in for planning or who got a fine for no tax displayed on the car. All was discussed on the steps of St Mellitus’ Church in Tollington Park of a Sunday morning, where it was that I first met Bridie, one summer while serving in the parish as a deacon. She walked up after mass and introduced herself to me and handed me a rolled up copy of The Anglo-Celt, ‘I’m sure you’ll want to be reading that’.

The Celt, like Bridie, brought people together and created within them a sense of belonging, a sense of a community, a sense of identity that they carried with them where e’er they went, that of being a proud Cavanman or woman. May we always know people like Bridie to give rest to the weary soul and the Celt to continue on building within us a sense of belonging as a proud people from Cavan.


The track of Sean - prayer soothes the weary soul