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The London Irish Centre's response to COVID-19

The London Irish Centre's response to COVID-19

Introduction from LIC Chair, Rosaleen Blair CBE

“When I became Chair of the London Irish Centre in January, nobody could have predicted what lay in store. The Covid-19 crisis has affected communities all over London, the UK and of course, globally. I have been incredibly proud of the way the Centre has pivoted. The team have been able to mobilise to support our communities, without a physical building.

What we have done over the past few months has reinforced my excitement at and commitment to the role. On first visiting the Centre last year, I fell in love with its essence and its spirit. I wish I had known about it when I first came to London from Dublin 25 years ago.

We like to call ourselves the “heart of the Irish in London” and anyone who encounters us comments on our authenticity, vitality and warmth. Whilst delivering a superb cultural offering, we also provide vital services to clients in need. I have been struck by the age range of people we support, showing our relevance to first, second and third gen.

I am delighted that Ellen has joined as CEO. We have an exciting future, drawing on our 66-year history. Together, the Board and the leadership are pursuing a vision of a reimagined and beautifully modern Centre. It will preserve and value heritage and history but also be proudly outward-looking and resilient”.

The London Irish Centre's response to COVID-19

By Ellen Ryan, CEO of the London Irish Centre

A BRIGHT SPRING

Early March at the LIC was a time of great community excitement.  Services were busy, the annual charity gala had been a great success, and everyone was busily preparing for St. Patrick’s Celebrations.

St. Patrick’s is always a major event at the LIC, with celebrations, concerts and community happenings, but this one was to be extra special.

The Centre had been appointed programme partner for the Mayor of London’s St. Patrick’s Festival, and the team had worked for months on a wonderful festival programme for Trafalgar Square.

The LIC’s leadership had been strengthened by the appointment of a new Chair, (Rosaleen Blair CBE) and CEO (Ellen Ryan).

Also, following years of preparation, the Centre’s plans for a major capital development were to be submitted to Camden Council for planning permission on St. Patrick’s Day. The excitement around this milestone was palpable.

CLOUDS GATHERING

In early-March, the word ‘Coronavirus’ moved to front page news, and it was becoming clearer that there would be unprecedented challenges ahead.

Given the unique vulnerability of some of the older Irish people supported by the Centre, the team knew that a strong crisis response was imperative.

Plans would focus on keeping the most vulnerable safe, maintaining community connections, and ensuring financial sustainability.

Entire event seasons and festivals were cancelled, largescale fundraising events were postponed, staff moved to remote working, and the Centre could no longer welcome the public.

Fresh from completing a detailed piece of strategic work on community needs, the Centre had solid insights to inform planning, and from a new remote context, the Centre began to coordinate a new mix of services.

A COMMUNITY RESPONSE

Within days, the Centre created partnerships and mobilised a community response to safely deliver hundreds of nutritious hot lunches to the isolated.

The wellbeing team created a health line for people to check in on health concerns, wellbeing and Covid-related symptoms.

The advice team rolled out a telephone advice service and a new web advice chat on the Centre’s website.

The longstanding befriending service evolved from face-to-face to telephone and tripled in size. Hundreds of phone calls were made every week to maintain social connections.

The Library team created an outreach service, in which staff and volunteers send bespoke book parcels based on personal interests.

Across all these areas, the Centre coordinated an unprecedented community response. Hundreds of people joined the historic effort, from volunteers to donors, artists to community partners,

Although these were difficult times, they were also times of powerful Irish community spirit and generosity. I was humbled to receive so many offers of help, from financial donations to food deliveries and offers of volunteering. Ellen Ryan, CEO

One of the Centre’s client’s family members, Sheila O’Sullivan, wrote about her dad:

 “You don't know how much this support means to me. I have had to isolate myself away from dad as I still need to attend work as a teacher. I also live a good 30-40 mins away from him. I always knew that dad was getting 3 good meals a week going to your lunch club. Plus, more importantly, the social interaction. It breaks my heart dad being at home alone. Thank you. This is just wonderful.”

The Centre’s cultural team also rose to the challenge.

With live events not possible, the LIC created a ground-breaking programme of online Irish culture called ‘Solas’.

The intention was to create high-quality online activity to keep people connected. This meant concerts, classes, talks and new artistic commissions.

It was a huge success, with almost a quarter of a million people participating. 89% rated it very good to excellent and 96% said it helped them feel more connected during Covid lockdown.

A centrepiece was the London Irish Charity Night In, in which celebrities and artists participated in an online cultural fundraiser. Fronted by LIC patron, Dermot O’Leary, the event raised over £100,000.

PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE

By mid-summer, the Centre was moving from crisis to recovery, and on towards a gradual re-opening.

The creativity, community spirit and solidarity which were evident through recent months support a hopeful, exciting path for the future.

‘This challenging time reminded us what the Centre is all about; community, resilience, coming together and looking after each other. We simply could not have done it without the commitment of hundreds of people or the support of the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme and Covid-19 Emergency funding. Both were critical – thank you.’ Ellen Ryan, CEO

The Centre now looks forward to slowly and safely welcoming back friends, old and new, to its historic home. With an almost 70-year history, its roots are strong, and future vision clear.

The Irish heart of London beats strong into the future.

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