Leeds Irish Centre at 50 - Meet the man who put the York Road venue on the map

For five decades it has been the first port of call for countless emigrant Irish people who have sought work and prosperity after leaving their homeland.

Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 11:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 3:01 pm
Tommy McLoughlin has managed the York Road venue for 45 of its 50 years.

Leeds Irish Centre is now firmly entrenched in the city’s history and culture, having always opened its doors, heart and arms for people of all religions and backgrounds.

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Now, 2020 sees the centre celebrate its 50th anniversary and it wants people from across the globe with links and happy memories of it to get in touch.

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Tommy McLoughlin has managed the York Road venue for 45 of its 50 years and was master of ceremonies on its official opening night in June 1970.

For many, he is the face of the Irish community in the city.

He says the anniversary is an opportunity to show how the Irish have shaped Leeds and region over the past 200 years and how the centre has nurtured people’s heritage while they forge new lives in an unfamiliar land.

He said: "For 50 years we have quietly gone about our business, looking after our own. But the committee and I believe now is the right time to reflect on how we and our ancestors have contributed to the city’s culture, commerce and history.

"Our charity work alone is staggering - raising hundreds of thousands of pounds over the decades for local organizations. We have brought entertainers from Oasis to Val Doonican to the venue. Stars from the sporting world love to visit us. We’ve had bishops, presidents and ambassadors - and all get treated with the same warm welcome as our members,’ says Tommy.

"Oasis came in 1994 and one of them popped into my office to ask to use the phone. He wanted to ring his mum and said she was only only in Manchester. They were lovely lads!’

The centre opened its doors in January 1970 but it was not officially declared open until June that year when the Bishop of Leeds officiated at a ceremony at the three acre York Road venue.

An array of musical, sporting, cultural events is lined up over the golden year. There cannot be many places celebrating 50 years in operation that can bring back the star of

the original opening night.

Brendan Shine was a 23-year-old singer on the rise when he and his show band took to the stage on the centre’s opening night in 1970.

Five decades on, the now veteran performer he will return to perform in June alongside another Irish showbiz legend, Philomena Begley.

"That will be a highlight of 10 days of celebrations,’ says Tommy. `We are already getting calls from America and Australia to find out what is happening.’

It’s all a long way from the original Irish National Club, based in Lower Briggate, Leeds.

"I used to go to the ‘Old Nash’ when I dated my now wife, Helen,’ recalls Tommy. "There was no big entrance. You went in a door, up some stairs and along a corridor to a little room with a piano at the back. Up some more stairs was the entertainment room with a small stage - I took to it to sing a few times!

"It was a meeting point for lonely emigrants in a strange city. People found work through word of mouth there, met future spouses and made lifelong pals. But the

committee realized a bigger centre was needed when emigration increased and people were not returning home.

"Tetley’s Brewery loaned the committee the money to build the centre and Leeds Council charged us a peppercorn rent for the three acre site where we are on now and

which we eventually bought.

"I was working on building sites when the centre opened and would go there socially. I used to do a bit of singing in my parents Tom and Winnie’s pubs, including the

famed Garden Gate, and was delighted to be asked to be MC on the official opening evening."

A short time later, Tommy was asked if he would be interested in managing the venue.

"I talked about it with Helen and I said, “I’ll give it a go until you get someone right.” We thought I’d be here a year - 45 years on I’m still here. I’ve tried to retire but they wont let me,’ laughs the 79-year-old.

Over the ensuing years, the centre, its entertainment, sports teams and annual St Patrick’s Parade has embedded itself into the framework of Leeds life. Even in the

1970s when the political and warring factions of Northern Ireland spilled into the UK, the Irish in Leeds never suffered as in other major cities.

"I think that is because we quietly went about our own business,’ says Tommy. "We fitted in with the city and we never suffered any real trouble."

FACTFILE

The history of the Leeds Irish Centre will be recorded in a book by journalist Sheron Boyle who has strong family links to the venue.

Many in Leeds came from the West of Ireland, Mayo in particular. Both Tommy McLoughlin’s and Liam Thompson’s mothers hailed from the county.

"Likewise, my grandfather and his brothers left Mayo for West Yorkshire. Several settled in the city and used the centre. I was delighted to be asked to write the book and hope to do the centre’s members and Irish diaspora proud," said Yorkshire-based Sheron.

The book will be out in Summer but despite the community’s rich history, the centre lacks archives so if anyone has photos, videos or memories they want to share in the book or on social media, please email: [email protected]