Little Ireland came about after I’d been researching my family tree in late 2007. I knew I had Irish background but not sure of the exact locations where they lived. The Local Studies Library in South Shields was a great source for information. The filing system with the old press cuttings and the brilliant photographs by Amy Flagg and James Cleet of Tyneside in the 1930’s. The area’s where some of my family lived after travelling from Ireland.
The old maps were really interesting. I could see where my Great Grandfather Dawson Downey from Derry lived. Bell Street, East Jarrow, across the road was the chemical works where he worked, next door was The Alkali pub and just up the road was St Bede’s Church. I thought thousands of families would be exactly the same. Never having to go very far. Living a small life.
I never realised the full impact that the Irish had on the North East and in my case, Jarrow. The population had grown so much around the 1890’s that the village became a small town. I started to jot down a few notes when I read an article in The Shields Gazette in 2008 about Irish immigration written by Tom Kelly (Jarrow born playwright). I got in touch and we met up at The Customs House in South Shields. Quickly, a plan was made, a structure for a documentary and interviews with Jarrovians with Irish ancestry fell into place. It wasn’t forced, it was easy to put together.
We started filming at St Paul’s in East Jarrow. Tripod up, camera ready, Tom reading the opening lines from the script but it didn’t feel right. We stopped and went back to my studio. Had a cup of coffee, talked about it then went out in his car again to Jarrow. I started filming in his car and Tom started talking as he drove. This was more like it. Hand held felt more comfortable, being part of the film. As though an old Irishman had come back and was searching for his town ‘Like driving into the past’.
Over the next few weeks I filmed interviews with people who had Irish relatives. For one interview I arranged to talk to singer Leo Connolly at his home in Jarrow. I turned up, knocked on the door but got no answer. I knocked again and heard someone in the house. I looked through the front window and there they were. Two blokes with acoustic guitars and Leo in the middle singing his heart out. That was Little Ireland right there.
The documentary was successful it was screened for the first time to two sell out audiences at The Customs House on St Patricks Day 2009. The film has been shown at various venues including St Bede’s Church Hall where most of the Irish, and my family, attended when they first came to Jarrow over 100 years ago.
Link to the documentary, to check out other films on You Tube subscribe to the channel.
Gary Alikivi August 2018.