25 years ago, Leeds Irish Health and Homes co-authored the Green, White and Invisible Report: an effort to recognise Irish people in Leeds as a distinctive ethnic group which faces specific challenges, and to make recommendations for addressing the gaps in services in a culturally sensitive manner.
We were reminded of the importance of our culturally sensitive support service for Irish people in Leeds recently when Theresa* got in touch to tell us how being part of the Leeds Irish Health and Homes community has helped her in ways she couldn’t have imagined.
*name has been changed
Theresa - not her real name - has cared for her husband for many years.
“I’ve been caring for my husband for years,” Theresa explains. “He has a degenerative condition, and going to the LIHH groups and activities has really helped."
"When I’m there, the staff keep saying to me ‘Will you sit down!’ It gives me an hour or two to relax.”
It was at one of the groups Theresa attends regularly with her husband that she made a disclosure to a member of the LIHH team about her childhood.
“I grew up in Ireland, and the nuns came to our house to tell my parents they should send me to England with them to be educated. My mother thought it was great - we weren’t that well off and she was told I was going to get a great education. I’d just turned 13. ”
But, as Theresa told LIHH, the reality was very different.
“We did an hour or two of lessons and the rest of the day we were working. We worked in a big laundry with no machines soaking linen in these huge bathtubs and washing it all by hand. We polished the floors and worked on the land.”
“We weren’t allowed to talk and there was very little to eat. It was very hard. One girl committed suicide while I was there. I couldn’t speak to my family about it because the nuns read all our letters before sending them.”
Theresa went back to Ireland after falling seriously ill at school, but she never spoke to her parents or siblings about her experience.
“I suppose I didn’t want them to feel bad about sending me. They weren’t to know. They thought they were doing a good thing for me.”
At 18, she came back to England to train as a nurse and ended up meeting and marrying her husband - also of Irish descent - in Leeds. Despite her harrowing experience in the convent, she found joy and satisfaction in her nursing career.
“I was a palliative care nurse for 32 years,” Theresa says. “And I’m still involved with the church. I run the cleaning team and I help people organise funeral masses. I suppose I’ve always wanted to help people; to look after them.”
Over the years, Leeds Irish Health and Homes has supported a number of people who have experienced trauma in an institution set up and run by orders aligned to the Catholic Church, yet derive a great deal of support and satisfaction from being an active member of their own parish.
And, like Theresa, we've supported people who have had to balance family members’ and community reactions and cultural expectations to ‘carry on regardless’ against their trauma. The needs of people like Theresa requires a level of nuanced understanding and, without an Irish-specific support service, would likely be missed.
Since disclosing her experience, Theresa feels like a weight has lifted. “I suppose I didn’t want people to turn around and feel sorry for me. I maybe felt a bit ashamed, or that people wouldn't understand.”
“Deep down, though, I think it came out at a Leeds Irish Health and Homes group because I knew that they would understand, and I knew that they care.”
To help us to continue supporting people like Theresa, please consider donating to our Paypal - every little helps. And if you're able to make a small, regular donation - even as little as £1 a month - we would be so grateful. Thank you.