'We Built This City': How the Irish Constructed Today's London

The huge Irish contribution to building today's London has been marked by a short video, 'We Built This City,' a project completed by the Irish Architecture Foundation as part of Irish Design 2015. It is a lovely piece, something we can all be justifiably proud of. So many of us either emigrated ourselves, or had family or friends who left home to seek 'fame and fortune' in Britain, America, Canada, Australia and many, many other places. Many of us did OK, worked hard, made some money, settled down, or maybe even returned. Many others did not fare so well, running afoul of poor working conditions, dangerous workplaces, uncaring employers, or just the perils of emigration, pain, loneliness, alcoholism, and ill-health. Spare a thought for all of those emigrants as you watch this short, inspiring video.

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Tags: Architecture, Design, Emigration, Immigration, London, Navvies, Navvy

Comment by James O'Brien on August 26, 2015 at 8:47pm

Thanks for sharing Brian. “We built this city” is the slogan of the construction union the CFMEU here in Melbourne. Below three short extracts from my memoir Against the Wind.

 From prologue

Fresh from school, many would ‘take the boat’ and cross the sea to what unknown reception might await us in ‘this other Eden’…… And so we arrived in a land where even the most poorly educated called us ‘Paddy’, but where we could be economically independent enough to ignore the jibes as we erstwhile rebels found out how to live in this their sceptred isle’.

 From chapter 10.

The story goes that once when Da was applying for a job, the wages clerk who was taking his details asked, ‘Nationality?’

Bricklayer,’ my father had answered. The reply contained his view of himself and also the recognition of the universal bond that existed between those who used strength and skill to build in every corner of the world. By its very nature, building is an itinerant industry in every country. Men must move on each time a project is completed. Often they must move from their home town or home country to find work. Men like Da knew their trade was their nationality.

 From chapter 25.

After work and even sometimes at weekends it would be common to see men from all parts of Ireland wearing ‘donkey jackets’ displaying on the backs who they worked for: ‘Wimpey’, ‘MacAlpine’, ‘Costain’, ‘Laing or other big construction companies.

Comment by Brian Nolan on August 27, 2015 at 4:08am

James, thanks for sharing the snippets from your book 'Against the wind'. I will look for it in my local library. Meantime, though emigration has slowed and the unemployment rate in Ireland is below 10%, we are still sending our young and talented 'labourers' abroad at a rate of 50,000 annually, an astonishingly high rate for a developed country in Europe. These days our 'navvies' are generally very well educated, at least to high-school level, and many to University degree level. We still emigrate to the UK, but increasingly to Australia, New Zealand and Canada also, as well as to Europe and even China and Taiwan. The USA is closed for legal emigration to a large degree, though many emigrants go there and end up staying illegally with family and friends. We no longer state our nationality as 'Bricklayer' but as 'Web Developer', 'Software Engineer', 'Professional'. We are still building cities and communities, in far off places around the world. No doubt though many emigrants look wistfully back at the island they left and wonder if they made the right decision. The good news is that emigration is no longer a one-way ticket.

Comment by Gerry Regan on August 28, 2015 at 3:02pm

Song and lyric mentioned in this extraordinarily stirring and poignant film. Thanks for sharing this with us, Brian. I deeply appreciate your contributions to helping us better understand the Irish experience worldwide.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on October 14, 2015 at 9:19am

Lovely article . Bought back many memories. Will look  for your book , James O'Brien . 

"Get a shovel if you want to go to work"....... British infrastructure was built on the backs of Irish men ; [my dad ;brother[ being just two of them .. 

I too have written a book  , a biography about my Grandmother - Its called . That's Just the way it was ---- incorporating The Famine; the 1916 Easter Rising and  the War of Independence 1922/ Emigration ; ... So much sorrow- in that era when people emigrated , they were never heard of again .. 


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