An Irishman's Diary
14 July 2007
Tower Hamlets is a borough in London's East End. It includes such historic areas as Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Wapping, Mile End, Stepney, Limehouse, Bromley, Poplar, and the Isle of Dogs.
It has always been an immigrant area. French Huguenots brought silk weaving to Spitalfields after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Irish navvies were a key part of the workforce in the building of London's 19th-century docklands. At the end of the same century, Jews fleeing the pogroms of eastern and central Europe settled there. From the 1960s onwards Asians, especially Bengalis, came in increasing numbers.
Nowadays nearly half of the borough's population belongs to ethnic minorities. In 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields, a dedicated group of volunteers is working to preserve a remarkable house, built by a Hugeunot silk weaver and later used as an industrial school and a synagogue, as a museum of immigration and diversity. Indeed, it seems extraordinary that a city as multi-ethnic, multicultural and global as London does not already have such a place.
Heavily bombed during the war because of its proximity to the docklands, Tower Hamlets is today an area in social, economic, ethnic and cultural transition, combining Asian supermarkets, old churches, council housing, gap-toothed streetscapes awaiting development and the occasional new building. The 2012 Olympics, which will bring with it massive change in the area, will be the next big challenge. No doubt East Londoners will handle it with their usual aplomb.
Meanwhile, although the area is shabby and has a troubled past - one of the racist British National Party's first electoral successes was in the Isle of Dogs in 1993 - it also projects a air of solidarity and inclusion. Teenagers of varied ethnic backgrounds hang out together in the streets. Signs appear in a variety of languages.
A couple of weeks ago we were in the Tower Hamlets Register Office in Bow Road, where a little piece of history was made. The crowd was a mixed one: English, Irish, English-Irish, British-Indian and a lone Peruvian who met his Carlow-born wife at a salsa class in Cork. The largest contingents of relations and friends came from various parts of Cork City and West Cork, and from London; a number had arrived by Ryanair and Aer Lingus that morning or the night before. Everyone wore their best clothes.
Those more used to religious wedding services were unsure of the protocol, but found that there was nothing to worry about. We were shown into a large, elegant and airy room, painted in yellow and white, simply furnished and adorned with flowers and tasteful paintings. The ceremony, conducted with grace and warmth by two registry officials, was simple, informal and emotional. Music by
Vivaldi was followed by the Eurythmics, vows were made in English and Irish. Poems were read in both languages and rings were exchanged.
An audience of all ages, various faiths - Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish - and none, clapped and laughed and joined in wishing the couple happiness. The registry book was signed and the witnesses added their names. Later, in the grounds of the register office, the usual photographs were taken of family and friends.
Afterwards we repaired to a local Indian vegetarian restaurant; one older member of the West Cork contingent confided that it was the first time she had ever set foot in such a place. There were a few additional small differences compared to what we are used to in Ireland. Nobody spoke of losing a daughter and gaining a son and no best man told tired jokes. No parish priest attended, though if there had been one around he would have been made as welcome as anyone else.
Conversation flowed in English and in Irish over glasses of champagne and wine. The speeches were short and personal, though one in particular was typical of any Irish diasporic event, with references to family members in various parts of Ireland and America and a promise that their doors would always be open to the new couple. Dancing went on until the late hours.
The place and the occasion epitomised the best of a tolerant and inclusive society in a country, and an area, which has not always been tolerant and inclusive. That was appropriate, because although the event was in many respects similar to any wedding in Ireland, there was one significant difference: both parties were women. The occasion was not a marriage, but a civil partnership.
The Civil Partnership Act was implemented on December 5th, 2005 in Britain and Northern Ireland and took effect from December 21st, 2005, allowing lesbian and gay couples to register their relationships and to have essentially the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. In an increasingly diverse world people still feel the need to form long-term commitments to each other and to have the same rights and protections as those extended to the traditional family. I think it is a wise and humane piece of legislation.
Will it ever happen in this jurisdiction? I am sure it will. The sky won't fall, nor will marriage as we know it come to an end. Meanwhile, I wish our friends a happy life together in their East London home.© 2007 The Irish Times