Subjects or Aliens?

Matthew Kelly

  • The Irish in Postwar Britain by Enda Delaney
    Oxford, 232 pp, £55.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 927667 7

My grandmother lives in sheltered accommodation in the London borough of Lambeth. In the late 1940s she and my grandfather, newly wed, migrated to London from Sligo, a small county town on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard. On her last visit to Sligo in 1995, as the Celtic Tiger was beginning to stir, she was depressed by what she saw. The new realities didn’t fit her sense of the town, an amalgam of memories, some from her childhood, others from the late 1960s, when she would holiday there with my grandfather and their three children. It was only on her final visit that she registered the cumulative effect of the steady drip drip drip of deaths she had followed in the back pages of the Sligo Champion. Now she no longer recognises the names recorded there and disapproves of the ‘vagary’ that otherwise fills the Champion’s pages. When, a few years ago, she read that Sligo was bidding for city status, she wrote to the Irish prime minister demanding that a stop be put to this nonsense. Those blackguards were getting too big for their boots.

Her disenchantment with her home town has not been matched by any new-found love for Britain. She has always claimed that she hates the British ‘for what they did to us’; she is, in her way, a socialist republican, a Fenian of the old school. Her dad was in the IRA in the early 1920s and she believes in the revolution they were fighting for. The Provisional IRA, however, are ‘murderers’. Their bombings used to reduce her to tears, a distress matched only by her loathing of ‘that divil Paisley’. Ten years ago, I lugged a video recorder round to her flat so she could watch Neil Jordan’s biopic about the nationalist politician and guerrilla Michael Collins. In the closing sequence, Collins’s fiancée, Kitty, buys her wedding dress, Michael is assassinated by anti-Treatyites in the wilds of County Cork, and Sinead O’Connor sings ‘She Moves through the Fair’, one of Ireland’s most enduringly popular songs. My grandmother cried. Jordan’s heavy-handed message is that nobility comes from knowing when to compromise, but she was troubled by something more fundamental. ‘None of it was worth it,’ she said. This inheritor of a proud revolutionary tradition was a widowed economic migrant living on state benefits in London. Worse, she had lived much of her life against the backdrop of the squalid sectarian war in ‘the North’, which had run a coach and horses through that tradition.

Enda Delaney’s sensitive study, The Irish in Postwar Britain, tells the story of my grandmother’s generation of migrants. It’s a story of hardship and neglect but also of success, social mobility and integration. The picture on the cover is of three Irish nurses holding certificates and a boxed Complete Works of Shakespeare. This image, in black and white, is superimposed onto a two-tone green map of the British Isles; their three smiles are respectively broad, pensive and mildly ironic. Each has a medal pinned to her apron. They’d taken the top three places in the 1964 British Nurse of the Year awards.

Likely as not, these women had trained in Britain under the government’s assisted immigration scheme, established in response to the labour shortages caused by postwar reconstruction. In the 1940s and 1950s, up to a third of Irish medical graduates were employed abroad, mainly in the UK. Then, as now, the British benefited from having doctors and other medical staff trained at the expense of less affluent foreign taxpayers. The Irish government decided in 1967 to train more doctors than they needed, making an ‘allowance’ for the anticipated exodus.

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