by Peter Nolan
THE results of a three-year investigation of unstable Irish teenagers in London has persuaded Irish bishops to give £45,000 to set up a special youth centre in the Borough of Camden, planned to be the first of several.
Fr. Co!um McDonnell, a young Servite priest from Co. Tyrone, spent 1969 gathering facts from Irish immigrant chaplains, social workers, court officials and welfare agencies and ran an experimental "Youth Base" near Highgate Village for two years.
The experience gained by him and his helpers convinced them of the extent and seriousness of the problems of Irish young people in London. "Most of them also saw the Church as an institution which repressed them," said Fr. McDonnell.
Two typical cases of teenagers who used the base are given in his report. published this week. Oliver, 18, only a week in London, had been brought up in an institution in Ireland and came to the base seeking work and accommodation.
The caseworker said: "It was difficult to get him to express any ideas on the type of job he wanted. He reacted blankly to any considerations of a future in work." Oliver accepted a job in a hotel, living in.
Oliver was a frequent visitor at the base, which operated as a social centre, and it was usual for him to sit alone. It was noticed he walked away from the company of girls. "I would not know what to say," he told the caseworker.
He could not read or write well, and ran through four voluntary tutors by failing to keep arrangements to meet them. His caseworker concluded he found a one-to-one relationship with a tutor too much for him. Gradually the atmosphere of the base persuaded him to join in dances and other activities. He had six different jobs, not counting casual ones, in the course of II months.
Sacked for bad time-keeping, he told the caseworker: "I used to wake up in time, but I could not face the work." He found it extremely difficult to talk about himself and his feelings and never seemed to mind long silences. He is still going from job to job.
Unable to cope
Fr. McDonnell set up the base in a former factory given to him at a "peppercorn rent" by Camden Council. It was converted into a social centre with the help of local voluntary workers, and of Fr. McDonnell's brother Sean, a ship's radio operator, in London in between voyages.
The centre served meals, had recreation rooms, a library, a chapel and a coffee bar and was visited by 531 young people, 355 of them boys, until it had to be returned to the council last year.
Fr. McDonnell was helped in his project by a team of ten workers, including a nun who was a qualified social worker —Sister Marie Keegan of the Ladies of Mary — Fr. Cyril Farrell, a Servite, and Mary Ward, a social worker.
Fr. McDonnell said : "Irish young people, who made up 88 per cent of those we helped, feel
Britain has a very different culture — especially a different sort of humour. This was true of most of those we helped, the vast majority from urban Irish backgrounds — not, as might be expected, from rural areas."
"What first drew our attention to the problem was the number of reports reaching us in Tyrone of the many Irish young people appearing in English juvenile courts; reports confirmed by court officials I talked to. I learned teenagers were bringing their problems with them from Ireland — it was not so much London, but an inability to cope with life here.
"Most felt a sense of insecurity and inferiority; they lacked a sense of their own worth. Their resentment showed itself in attacks on society. Most of those helped were teenagers, and often very intelligent.
"Though the majority we helped were unstable, I would not say there were disproportionate numbers of unstable youngsters among the young Irish people emigrating here.
"The unstable had heard, perhaps from older brothers or other relatives. that London was 'quite a good place'. They came not so much to find a job, which was not always necessary, but to get away from home.
"The base contacted people through its reputation on the young people's 'grapevine.' We also visited Euston and the Anglican shelter in Soho, Centrepoint, where we met others."
Fr. McDonnell is in no doubt at all that the Church has completely failed to help this group. "They identified authority and lack of freedom with the Church. God meant little or nothing to many of these young people. How could He, when in their personal lives they had experienced none of His care or love?" he writes in his report.
"We need a credible Church," he told me, referring to what he termed "the failure of Christian witness" for unstable young people in Ireland.
At the height of its activities, "Benburb Base" (called after a famous Irish battle) was running dances, inter-club table tennis and darts matches, group discussion sessions, Yoga classes, outings and many other activities. It gave counselling and advice to almost 1,400 young Irish peo ple, financial and accommodation help to 1,000, helped 300 with jobs and repatriated 34.
Fr. McDonnell plans the new Benburb Base to provide such young people with the friendship of their own group and to give them a realisationof their own personal value, which can only be experienced in relationship with others who care.