Interview: Michelle Deignan in Shade

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By Emily Franklin

London is recognised worldwide as a multicultural melting pot, and with over 270 nationalities and 300 different languages, it is undeniably fast becoming the home of ethnic pluralism. The term ‘Londoner’ now applies to people of every race and origin, not solely the typecast for Only Fools and Horses. But how often do we stop to think about how London came to be bursting at the seams with diversity? The prospect of assimilating with modern day London society is achievable – the demographic shows us this – but during a less liberal time, how did people manage when hostility met them at every juncture? The answer to this is not only sheer bravery, but also the notion of community.

A new documentary, Breaking Ground: the story of the London Irish Women’s Centre explores the inner workings and undeniable validity of community centres in London. The London Irish Women’s Centre, formerly based in Stoke Newington, played a crucial role in guiding the lives of Irish women in the ’80s; a time of severe racial and sexual discrimination. The director, Michelle Deignan, met with me to discuss the importance and relevance of the film in a modern setting.


What exactly were the conditions for Irish women at that time?
London saw an influx of Irish people during the ’80s. People were choosing London to escape from the politics in Ireland. The vast majority of the people moving here were women who were dealing with abortion rights day-by-day. They were not just trying to escape Catholicism, not just looking for abortions, but also looking for a new life; they wanted it in a place where they were given a huge amount of freedom.


Why was it important to have a space for Irish women?

London already had many Irish centres at that time, but most of them were too traditional and didn’t gel with the attitudes of these women. These women were politicised; they needed a place to meet regularly to discuss issues. Because of their ethnic background and the fact that they encountered racism day-by-day, their life and politics merged into one; every decision they made could have been interpreted as a political act. The London Irish Women’s Centre provided these women with an identity. It wasn’t so much a centre that people relied on – they never wanted people to rely on them – it was more of a platform for them. The space created an alternative social and political base for women to be Irish.


How would you describe the community spirit within the centre?

These women were extremely active; they held regular meetings and conferences with hundreds of people turning up to discuss topics such as racism, lesbianism, abortion, et cetera. There was such a mixture of women, all ages and educations. I interviewed so many amazing people during the making of this film. Their core beliefs are so rigorous and they’re so generous with them. They had a capacity to share information and resources in a completely selfless way.


In what way is the film relevant to London today?

It is so important that people understand that this film is a UK film. The film is relevant to other cultures; there are still multiple women’s centres specific to different ethnicities. The film makes people aware of discrimination across the board and how building a community gives these people a voice to escape the prejudice. It is only with the existence of communities that change can happen. Organisations are not islands; they reflect the community and politics of the time, Breaking Ground reflects the politics of the ’80s, but still holds so much truth in London society today.


Breaking Ground: the story of the London Irish Women’s Centre
 will not fail to inspire anyone, whether you’re Irish, female or fall into any other category. The activism of these women is enough to impassion any viewer and induce the discussion of these topics, which are certainly still relevant today. Breaking Ground: the story of the London Irish Women’s Centre will be shown at Rio cinema, Dalston at 11am on the 23rd of February.

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