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Birmingham Irish Through the Lens of Brendan Farrell

By July 6, 2023July 7th, 2023No Comments

Here at Páirc Festival, we love celebrating the strong link between Birmingham and Ireland, and last year we spoke to photojournalist Brendan Farrell to tell us all about his experiences.

Sadly Brendan Farrell passed away in September, so we especially wanted to highlight his amazing story in the run-up to Páirc Festival 2023.

Arriving in Birmingham the year Queen Elizabeth was Coronated, Mr. Farrell captured the spirit of the Irish in Birmingham for over five decades with the Irish Post.

Early Years In Cavan

The Dublin native, who was raised in County Cavan reflected on his life remembering his early years: “I had a major ear operation when I was younger, and we moved to Cavan.  At the time my dad was working away in Birmingham on spitfires.  On a foggy night he appeared out of the mist and told us we were moving to Birmingham”.

Establishing a newspaper aged ten, Mr. Farrell always had a sharp eye for stories and worked on the beat to break local news: “Myself and a school mate used to produce newspapers and print our own neighbourhood news ‘The Virginia Review’ with all the village gossip and scandal.  Every evening after school we would sit by the big bridge over the river and write our stories.

Mr. Farrell was a talented writer and artist and had even been offered a scholarship at the prestigious Dublin College of Art and an entry role at the Anglo Celt newspaper, but his father took their family on a new path: “We moved to start a new life in Birmingham.  We first settled in Alum Rock when it was totally Irish and I went to school at The Rosary Church which was run by The Christian Brothers.”

The Transport Gazette

After a short stint doing wage slips for Irish workers for underground carriages, Mr. Farrell learnt of a new job at Leehall Garage where 98% of the two hundred workers were boys and girls from rural Ireland.  It was here where Mr. Farrell got to work for the Transport Gazette: “There were a couple of dressing rooms, a stage and a canteen.  I asked to set up a dark room and Camera Club.  There I began taking photos and weddings and sent them to papers in Ireland and the Evening Mail.  

“Everyone was single, aged eighteen and upwards.  In-between shifts you met in the canteen, it was a family atmosphere and there was romance left, right and centre.  The girls were known as the clippies.  I covered all the weddings from people meeting on the buses.”

It was through his photography that Mr. Farrell met his wife:  “In the early sixties I headed to Killarney on my scooter via Waterford.  I got off the boat at Rosslare when suddenly there was a big bang on the scooter.  We ran into two girls and I asked one to pose for a photo; she ended up being the woman I married”. 

The Birth of The Irish Post

In the early 1970s, the Irish Post was born and in circulation across the UK, Ireland and further afield: “We heard of a new Irish Paper in the late 1960s in England and I phoned the office at the Four Provinces in Kings Heath.  In 1970, the Irish centre in Leeds said that they needed to set up a newspaper and we needed links to Birmingham and London.  The Irish Post provided a link when there were no phones and only landlines.  Birmingham spread out to Coventry, Coventry spread to Scotland and Channel Islands and every county in Ireland, Spain, France, Brussels and America.”  

Mr. Farrell worked around the clock developing and breaking news stories and covering GAA, Feis’ and Show Bands: “The phone in this house rang for forty years; seven days a week; every day and every night.   I didn’t have to go out and find stories; they came to me”.  

Dark rooms and on the beat news

“I had a dark room in the house for twenty five years where I developed films and printed photographs.  Each film would have thirty six photos on.  I would develop ten films.  This would equate to 360 images over a weekend.   I would have to type out the captions and stick them on the back of the photo.  Then I sent them on a Royal Mail train to Houston where they would be picked up in Hammersmith and printed in the office.  

“If you missed a train, then you had to get on a train manually. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were the busiest; even with colour print.  We would develop the films for St. Patrick’s day in colour and I would sit on an electric typewriter at The Old Crown with a mug of tea typing out the captions before they were taken to London”.  

The Irish at home and away

Mr. Farrell’s work extended all over the country at home and abroad:

“Many Irish returned home to Ireland during the boom in the eighties; some settled and some couldn’t.  The Irish Post was in Ireland and as far as Argentina where many had Irish ancestors who had settled during the famine.  We went to Disney World in Florida and the tropicals in the Bahamas.  The paper had a lot of clout in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.  At its height a quarter of a million copies were in circulation globally”.

Before his passing, Brendan was building an archive in Birmingham and was planning an exhibition on the Irish in Britain.  He also continued his lifelong work archiving material and contributing to the Birmingham Irish.

We will be celebrating decades of Birmingham Irish at Páirc Festival this August Bank Holiday at The New Irish Centre in Kings Heath: get your tickets here.