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Typically Irish workers in Britain have been associated with a narrow range of jobs. The navvy has long been the commonest stereotype. Irish men would be labourers, on the roads, on building sites or in the docks, or soldiers. Irish women would be domestic servants, street traders, factory workers or nurses. How true is this picture?
In 1836, the Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain claimed that unskilled and ill-educated Irish workers had 'possession of all the lowest departments of manual labour', but were an essential part of the workforce in England. Statistically, the 1911 census found that 70% of England's Irish-born males were unskilled labourers, with a further 8% working on the land. Forty years later, nearly a third worked as labourers or in the building trade.
However, the reality of Irish working lives is far more complex. A snapshot of the Irish in Norfolk in 1881 reveals a kaleidoscope of occupations.
London presents a picture of even greater diversity, and has long been a magnet for Irish people in the professions and the arts.
Noted authors, such as Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw; artists, such as William Mulready or Daniel Maclise, whose historical murals adorn Parliament; sculptors such as John Henry Foley, who helped to create the Albert Memorial; lawyers; clergymen; comedians such as Spike Milligan; famous generals from Wellington to Kitchener - all were Irish born or of Irish descent.
Irish seasonal and migrant workers were a highly mobile and flexible workforce, vital to Britain's booming 19th-century economy and economic revival after the Second World War. The traditional perception of the Irish navvy is by no means the whole story, but there were many who made a living in this back-breaking way.
In 1871, Thomas Ryan was a railway navvy living in the shanty town of Jericho, at Batty Green, near the Ribblehead viaduct in Yorkshire, and working on Midland Railway's Settle to Carlisle line. He had his family with him, and the birthplaces of his children, from Gloucestershire to Scotland, show how mobile they had to be. More than 2,000 navvies, mainly Irish and Scots, lived at Jericho between 1869 and 1875.
Newspapers sometimes reported clashes between Irish workers and other groups. For young males, far from the social disciplines of home and in remote areas with little in the way of entertainment other than the public house, violent outbreaks were common and are hardly surprising. In 1846, the huts of Irish workers near Penrith were attacked and troops had to be called out after a riot, said to have been sparked off by an Irish navvy's refusal to use a pick rather than a shovel.
Irish navvies were sometimes blamed for these disorders but Thomas Carlyle, not normally complimentary about the Irish, commented that they were 'the best in point of behaviour. The postman tells me that several of the poor Irish do regularly apply to him for money drafts and send their earnings home. The English, who eat twice as much beef, consume the residue in whiskey and do not trouble the postman.' Many Irish labourers found work at the docks and ship canal around Britain and a large number were employed on the construction of one of the 19th century's engineering wonders, the Manchester Ship Canal.
Many Irish labourers worked on the post-war building boom in the 1950s and 1960s.
Dan Dempsey from County Cork came to England in this period and spent much of the 1960s building Croydon's roads.
We worked on the flyover for about 12 to 18 months, Now they have machines but then it was all manual work. I used to cut the kerbs by hand with a pitching tool, you could take the skin off your hand if you weren't careful. It was good money but it was bloody hard work
Dan Dempsey [Croydon Museum]
Something of the scale of the traffic in the 19th century is shown by a survey carried out for the Irish Census in 1841. This found 57,651 deck passengers travelled to Britain between mid-May and August 1841. It estimated that 40,000 later returned and noted 'the comparatively small cost to Great Britain at which this useful labour is annually purchased at the moment it is required'.
Migrant workers could all too easily become an expendable commodity. Many were seasonal harvesters, who returned to their smallholdings in the winter and spring having saved enough cash to pay the rent and purchase the supplies they needed.
Most itinerant workers were men, although in the 1870s women from Kerry were said to regularly migrate to the iron furnaces of South Wales.
Itinerant harvest labourers, perhaps as many as 100,000 a year in the 1860s, moved around Britain over the summer and autumn months, gathering hay, corn, potatoes, turnips and whatever might earn them the cash needed to pay rent or debts back home in Ireland.
As the historian David Fitzpatrick comments: 'The inelastic supply of native rural labour encouraged employers to dip their buckets into the bottomless well of Irish poverty whenever shortage occurred.'
By the late 19th century, most migrant workers came from Mayo and Donegal. This way of life has now all but disappeared.
A faint echo of what was once a regular pattern of movement survives today in the small numbers of the Irish travelling community who spend part of the year in Ireland and part in England.
Travellers are a small minority within Irish society, with their own language, customs and traditions, based on a nomadic tradition which sets them apart from 'settled' people. In 2000, it was estimated that there were about 25,000 Travellers in Ireland, under 1% of the total population, with a quarter living on unserviced sites or just by the side of the road.
Families are typically large (an average of eight children per family), with fewer older people due to a low life expectancy - according to one estimate, only 1% of Travellers live to be 65 years, compared to 11% of the settled population.
It has been estimated that some 15,000 Irish Travellers live in Britain. Both in England and Ireland, individuals and groups often experience prejudice and exclusion.
Official policy is often to settle families down in permanent sites, but will an end to this itinerant lifestyle, whereby Travellers seek to 'earn a shilling' by any means open to them, sound the death-knell of the traditions associated with it? Listen to Christopher Hallisey's own account of his life to learn more.
The Armed Forces
The Victorian historian, Macaulay, called Ireland 'an inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers'. As early as the 13th century, English kings had recruited Irish soldiers to fight for them in Wales. By 1832, Irishmen formed 42% of the non-commissioned ranks of the British Army and many Protestant Irishmen served as officers. In 1871, nearly a quarter of army officers were Irish. Ireland is still a recruiting ground for the British army but, in 1972, only about 6% of the army was Irish born.
Poverty, rather than an inherent war-like disposition, may have fuelled recruitment.
Many Irishmen, or men of Irish descent, fought in the Boer War, although some thought that in a conflict between the British Empire and a small nation fighting for its independence they should be helping the other side. Mick Gallagher at the Front ed. RA Scott Macfie (Liverpool, 1900) tells the story of one Liverpool Irishman in South Africa.
In the major conflicts of the 20th century, including the Boer War and the First World War, a number of Irish battalions were formed in areas of significant Irish settlement, such as London, Liverpool and Tyneside, although recruitment was not confined to those of Irish birth or descent. On Tyneside in 1914, four battalions of 5,500 men - the 'Tyneside Irish' - were formed within two months as the 24-27th and 30th Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.
The Tyneside Irish Brigade by Joseph Keating, which was published in 1917, lists the names of all the officers and men who joined at the start. Irish Heroes in the War, part of the same volume, includes a short biographical account of servicemen who had been awarded the Victoria Cross in the war - including both Irish born and those born in mainland Britain to Irish parents.
The Tyneside Irish battalion took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, and suffered massive casualties. Among those killed were Pte Joseph Rooney; Pte John McCartney; Pte Pat Quinn; Pte M Hanley and Capt Fred L Vernon.
There is a useful website on the Tyneside Irish.
The Police Force
Joining the police force offered secure, pensionable employment, and many Irishmen, both Catholic and Protestant, joined in Ireland, in London or in one of the county police forces established in England and Wales after 1839.
The Royal Irish Constabulary(RIC) was an armed paramilitary force controlled centrally from Dublin Castle and covering the entire country apart from Dublin, which had its own metropolitan police force. Some RIC men were stationed in mainland Britain to keep an eye on Irish nationalists there. In 1900, there were six in Liverpool, four in Glasgow, two each in London and Holyhead and one each in Manchester, Greenock and Newcastle.
Most serving policemen were highly respected members of the local community, providing the government with vital information on local affairs. This changed during the warfare of 1919-21 when the police became prime targets in many areas for boycotting or even assassination. Newspapers such as the Cork Examiner for 1921 paint a grim picture of the policeman's lot at this time.
In 1922, the Royal Irish Constabulary was disbanded, although many members in Northern Ireland were transferred into the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Some of the men stranded in the newly formed Irish Free State, feared intimidation and fled to England.
Many Irish recruits were attracted to join London's Metropolitan Police Force in the 19th century. One such was Christopher Henry McHugo from Galway who joined the force in 1858.
Christopher Henry McHugo was born at Killeenadeema in Galway in 1836 and migrated to England. He joined the Metropolitan Police in 1858 and, four years later, married Clare Wheeler whose family came from Oxford. They were to have 14 children between 1862 and 1884, one of whom, Alphonsus, also joined the Metropolitan Police. McHugo rose to become a superintendent of police and retired to Hythe, where he died in 1909.
Metropolitan police service records are held by the National Archives. Unfortunately the official 'Register of Joiners' for the Metropolitan Police for 1858 has not survived.
Irishmen continued to join the Metropolitan Police, even after Eire left the British Commonwealth.
Alec Cashin was a community involvement officer for Croydon, a job established in the early 1980s to create better relations between minority groups and the police force.
Many 19th-century Irish migrants were employed in the mill towns of north-west England. As was the case with Asian mill-workers a century later, many were women.
In Preston, the 1871 census shows 26% of Irish males and about 15% of Irish females employed in the mills.
Crude racial stereotypes in appearance and dialogue lie behind this cartoon of Irish women mill-workers asleep on the job as their horrified employer looks on. It is one of a series of five.
Wages in the mills were low. Sometimes, as pictures and, later, films show, the workforce was dominated by women and young people. The money they earned was often vital to the survival of a working-class family. Such work was monotonous and it could be dangerous. Michael Davitt lost an arm at the age of 12 in a cotton mill.
Some commentators and journalists, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, argued that cheap Irish labour forced down the wages of native English workers and undermined the trade union movement. There is little evidence that this was so.
One of the most bitter industrial disputes of the 19th century was at The Preston Lock-Out in Lancashire.
Over the last 160 years, Irish migration to England has been characterised by far higher levels of female migration, more than in any other migrant group. In some years, there have even been more women than men. Many were single when they arrived.
In English towns of the 19th century, a third of Irish women who were employed were likely to be working as domestic servants. Most married women, whether English or Irish, are recorded in census records as not having an occupation.
An analysis of the occupations of the 181 Irish-born women recorded in the 1851 census of Leigh, Lancashire, shows:
Domestic service remained a major source of employment well into the 20th century. Other unskilled and lowly paid jobs open to women included working as charwomen or laundresses and as street traders, selling anything from fruit and vegetables to artificial flowers.
Irishwomen recorded in census records as heading their own households were often seamstresses or dressmakers.
Even in the 19th century, some Irishwomen held jobs in the professions, particularly as teachers, although opportunities for women only became more widely available in the 20th century.
Many Irish women came to England to work or train as nurses. Some were not able to train in Ireland because fees were charged. Many Irish nurses completed their training at English hospitals, but not everyone who aspired to become a nurse could afford to do this.
Rose Neary, born in 1901, came to England from Cavan in 1923 and trained at Bradford Municipal General Hospital. She joined the TANS (Territorial Army Nursing Service) in the Second World War and then worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Dover as Sister-Tutor until her retirement.
In those days they wanted good workers, not the brainboxes required today ... and English girls wouldn't do it. We had no rights, the discipline was rigid ...but that's the way we had been brought up ...our PTS group was full of Welsh, Indian and African girls as well as Irish.
Exile or Opportunity. Irish Nurses and Midwives in Britain by Mary Daniel (1993)
This quotation is taken from Mary Daniel's study of Irish nurses and midwives in Britain, the text of which is available on the web as a pdf at www.smuc.ac.uk/icba/images/doc.75/doc75
In 1935, Mary Maguire, who was born in County Fermanagh in 1915 and wished to train as a nurse, came to Britain but ended up working as a parlour maid, before marrying and bringing up six children.
The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of recruitment for the National Health Service, which offered women more jobs and better promotion prospects than were to be found in Ireland. By 1971, 12% of Britain's nursing staff were Irish - there were more Irish-born nurses in Britain than in Ireland.
Read more about recruitment of Irish women in the following documents:
Irish workers from Eire played a key role in the British war effort during the Second World War, a role that has never been fully acknowledged.
Before the Second World War there had been no restrictions on movement, despite some resentment during the inter-war Depression that Irish workers were taking jobs from the British unemployed or were coming here to claim unemployment benefit. Official investigations showed such claims were false.
In June 1940, security fears led to the introduction of travel permits between Britain and Ireland. However it became immediately apparent that, without Irish workers, the potato harvest could not be gathered in. A growing scarcity of male workers in Britain made Irish labour essential. British firms sent over representatives to recruit workers in Ireland. A controlled entry scheme was developed with the co-operation of the Irish Government.
By September 1942, there were 55,200 Irish workers registered with the police, of whom 7,300 were employed in agriculture. Of the remaining 47,800 workers, 28,000 were employed in groups of 50, half on constructing airfields and RAF depots, and a third building factories. By September 1945, there were 105,900 workers registered.
John O'Donoghue's In a Strange Land (1958) tells how he was recruited to work on the building of an aerodrome near Ely for six months and then returned to Ireland, before crossing over again to work on the railways. James Cussen came over to work on airfield construction near Northampton and stayed on after the war in Luton, eventually becoming mayor.
The Post-War Boom
There's work for everyone in this country now, thanks be to God and long may it last, even if it is a result of a dreadful war. But God help our own poor country that has nothing in it now but unemployment and despair.
An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile Donall MacAmhlaigh (RKP, 1964)
The availability of work in post-war reconstruction schemes, and the development of light industry in the Midlands and London areas, fuelled the expansion of towns such as Luton and Croydon.
Government agencies, including the National Coal Board and the National Health Service, actively recruited in Ireland in the post-war period. However, most Irish people coming over paid their own way and found their own jobs.
At this time, a wide variety of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs were easy to find for those willing to be mobile and flexible.
Find out more about recruitment during and after the war by reading original sources:
Creators: Aidan Lawes
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