“Tá mé thuas staighre, i mo shuí in aice le cófra na gcluichí…”
To my surprise, I wasn’t the first person to arrive to the social event I had arranged on a cold Monday night in Nottingham’s city centre. Someone else had beaten me to it; someone I hadn’t met before, but who was now patiently, nervously, waiting for me to join him upstairs, beside the ‘games cabinet’ (which I had yet to discover) in the Malt Cross pub. His message came through on the Meetup app, just as I arrived into the pub with my partner.
“Someone’s already here!” I almost screamed at Boyf (I might as well give him a nickname, instead of being so formal), delighted that it wasn’t just going to be the two of us sitting on our own for the sake of a social event.
“Upstairs, but let’s get the drinks in first.”
“Oh crap”, Boyf blurts out, “so do we have to start speaking Irish now?”
“Well, it is a ciorcal comhrá!”
The social event I had planned was the first ever Ciorcal Comhrá – Irish for ‘conversation circle’ – for the Irish in Nottingham society, a group Boyf and I took charge of when the previous organisers didn’t seem interested in running any events. We had organised a ‘December Drinks’ night in another Nottingham pub just before Christmas, but only one person showed up; a chatty and genuine-acting young woman from Waterford. Despite the low turnout of our first event, however, we told ourselves that the Meetup group’s members would take a while to notice that the Irish in Nottingham group was under new management, and I decided that the group’s first Irish-language event would be the first social event of the new year. We had barely got through the venue’s doors, and we had matched the last event’s turnout. Success.
Within about half an hour, we broke our previous attendance record when a fourth period joined the table; a woman whose boyfriend I had met some months back at my writing group. I distinctly remember him telling me that she’d love the chance to practice her Irish-language skills, so I was hoping she’d come along. As her English boyfriend had previously described her, she was bubbly and chatty, ready to dive into a good chat ‘as Gaeilge‘ despite any reservations she – or anyone else – had about fluency or lack thereof.
We got to know each other, through varying levels of broken Irish. The young woman was a nurse from County Clare, who also played the concertina. Mr. Early Bird was a real genuine and good-humoured character from Cork, who despite not speaking Irish since his Leaving Cert days some fifteen years ago, was impressively proficient and fluid. Boyf tried his hardest to contribute to the conversation, despite nerves getting the better of him at times, although I was glad that he declared that he was able to follow the conversation quite well. I acted as prompter for the conversation at times, and tried to help if anyone got stuck with a word or phrase, without wanting to turn into a teacher.
Once we got over the initial ‘getting to know you’ questions, we got onto other topics before the pub’s Table Quiz started (a great ice-breaker for any budding social group, by the way). One of the topics of conversation as Gaeilge was about Nottingham’s Irish community. We all noticed that the Nottingham Irish Centre, was no longer a community centre, but more of a music venue that retained the old name. I had previously tried to call up the number for the centre to find out what happened to it, but to no avail. The Nottingham Post reported in 2010 that despite an attempt by the centre’s committee to revive the Centre as a music venue, the efforts were in vain.
The fate of the Nottingham Irish Centre made me wonder why the Irish community no longer seems to need such a venue. Did the rest of the Irish leave Nottingham before Boyf and I had arrived? Had they just integrated into the rest of Nottinghamshire life, no longer seeing a reason to identify with one another? I remembered my grandmother telling me about how many people from Ireland, especially from Kilkenny, had moved to Nottingham during the fifties and sixties for work, yet the city isn’t really as famous as London, Manchester, or even Birmingham, as being a go-to destination for Irish emigrants.
Nottingham, once called na Tithe Uaimh (the Cave Houses) by the Gaels, had lost its Irish presence… with the exception of that cold Monday night, where there were a small group speaking Irish to one another in a pub. Maybe all is not lost, after all.