The Irish diaspora in Leeds

By the outbreak of the Northern Ireland conflict at the turn of the 1970s, Leeds was home to some 10,000 Irish emigrants. Traditionally, the community’s focal point was the Irish National Club on Lower Briggate. But when Michael Rooney – a committee member at ‘the Old Nash’ and a Leeds city councillor – acquired land off the York Road, plans for a new centre became a reality. When the Leeds Irish Centre opened to enormous crowds in 1970, it became the first purpose-built Irish centre of its kind in Britain. The spacious site quickly became a hub for community, social, and welfare activities. The centre was home to the Young Ireland’s GAA club, too. In 1982, the centre hosted the annual conference of the Federation of Irish Societies.

The substantial Irish presence in Leeds dates back to the Napoleonic Wars of the early eighteenth century, when many Irish people arrived in the Pennine regions, especially in west Yorkshire. Like so many other towns and cities across Britain and beyond, Leeds experienced a further influx of Irish immigration during the devastating famine of the late 1840s. The Irish population of Leeds more than doubled between 1841 and 1861. Many of the Irish settled around The Bank area in the east end of the city.

However, the slum clearances of the inter-war period saw many of the Irish dispersed around the city. Rising emigration in the middle decades of the twentieth century consolidated large Irish populations in the Sheepscar, Harehills, Chapeltown, and Leylands areas. With a particular preponderance of migrants from the west of Ireland, Leeds represents a rare instance – alongside Manchester – of a provincial city boasting its own Irish county network, with the Mayo Association continuing to meet in the city.


Leeds Irish Centre (Ben Dalton/Flickr)

Leeds Irish Centre, 2008 (Davy Major/Flickr)