'Pluck of the Irish': To mark the 70th anniversary of Stevenage New Town, the Comet investigates the debt it owes to the Irish settlers who built it

PUBLISHED: 14:43 26 November 2016 | UPDATED: 14:49 26 November 2016

Jimmy Virtue on one of the building sites

Jimmy Virtue on one of the building sites

Archant

Not many people in Stevenage would realise it today, but 70 years ago the homes we live in, the shops we use and the streets we drive down were built by a hardy band of Irish settlers, who left their native land behind to find work building the first New Town in the UK.

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To celebrate the official 70th anniversary of Stevenage’s designation as a New Town on November 11, 1946, the Comet has caught up with some of these early settlers who shaped the town we live in and who still play a vital part in the town along with their many offspring.

Luke Donovan is one of them. He first came to Stevenage in 1957 to work on the building sites before becoming a union man who helped run the trade unions which largely controlled the Stevenage building sites.

Today he is chairman of Irish Network Stevenage, a thriving community group which provides a focus for the town’s Irish community and supports a wide range of good causes.

Speaking to the Comet, Luke said: “I worked on all the building sites in Stevenage until I got a union job and became a full time steward for the unions.

Mary Blakeston in 1974Mary Blakeston in 1974

“It was very tough on the building sites, there was no running water or toilets and you had to fight for everything, but all the lads would stick together.

“You would do a 10 or 11 hour day and then it would be to the pub (The Three Foxes or The Poacher were the favourites) for three or four pints.

“Some of the lads who were living in digs and had nowhere else to go would stay for the whole session, but they would still have to work the next day,” he laughs.

“We were tough people, but we were used to it.

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“At the weekends we would go to the Irish Association where there would be dances, and a chance to meet young Irish girls who had just come over,” he muses.

Peggy Lyons, Vice Chair of INS, says: “I came from a beautiful place, I had good parents, good family but we didn’t have a lot, like everybody else we were all quite poor.

“I was just turned 15 and came out to Stevenage because my sister had got me a job and thought it would be a better life.”

INS member Jimmy Virtue adds: “I left Ireland for the simple reason there was no work there. There was nine of us in the family and once you come to 17 or 18 it’s out the door!”

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Once they arrived in Stevenage, the settlers often found accommodation in hostels. Some took lodgings in accommodation offered by residents who set up boarding houses.

Stevenage New Town was built to take up London overspill but those who worked on the construction of the town, were also entitled to a house, so many could look forward to a brand new homes once they had finished the tough work.

Work was so plentiful that settlers recall having four or five different jobs in a week with about 20 homes being finished each week.

Jimmy adds: “The hardest job I did in Stevenage was, we dug a tunnel from the railway bridge in the Old Town to the old railway station, that was about three months, putting in pipes all the way up there underground.”

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Luke says the unions became so strong in the town you had to be a member to get a job.

He says: “It was great because we looked after the people and made sure they got proper pay and holidays.”

But he laments the growth of the town: “In the end it got too large for us to control and sub contractors started coming in in the 1990s and they paid whatever they wanted. It got too big.”

Many Irish settlers were able to improve their lot to become important people in the town which offered a great deal of social mobility.

Mick Cotter became the first Irish mayor of Stevenage after coming to the town to build houses.

The Irish community rejoiced when he was elected mayor.

Peggy says: “Being Irish and part of a community, people wanted to help each other, and I think that’s how Mick Cotter thought.”

He is remembered as a great family man and someone who promoted good housing for local people and a huge sense of equality. He was offered the freedom of the borough the day before he died.

Stevenage Borough Council leader Sharon Taylor pays tribute to the contribution the Irish community has made: “The Irish pioneers that came here played a huge role in developing not just the construction of Stevenage but also the community.

“Developing a town with all its housing and infrastructure was a phenomenal achievement but they also played a major part in developing this wonderful community that is still thriving around us.”

Luke says the Irish Network is more popular than ever with more than 300 members.

It caters for the original Irish settlers and the hundreds of children and grandchildren who still live here.

“When people get to their 50s or 60s they seem to want to rediscover their Irish origins so we keep getting an influx of new members,” he says. The organisation is based in the Together Centre in Exchange Road. Its work is part-funded by donations and crucially it helps support older members of the Irish community who need it most.

Next year it will celebrate its 10th anniversary, with a new book gathering stories from its members.

In 2013 it received a grant from the Irish government to produce a book and video about the Irish contribution to Stevenage.

It is a moving tribute to the pioneers who sweated and grafted to build the town and community we see today.

Watch the video online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWx159Uz0YI.

You can find the Irish Network at www.irishnetworkstevenage.org.uk, or by calling 01438 725400.

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