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.

In the 19th century, assisted migration schemes had focused on sending the Irish poor to the US. More than a million left during the catastrophic mid-century famine, having little choice but to face the appalling journey on the ‘coffin ships’. Transatlantic migration continued, though not on such a scale, until the outbreak of war in 1914. In the same period, Irish politicians travelled back and forth across the Atlantic on fundraising trips; for the poor, though, going to America meant permanent settlement. Nationalists railed against the schemes. Not without reason they saw them as cover for a deliberate policy of depopulation, a determined effort to clear ‘congested districts’ – if not Ireland itself – of the Irish, making the country fit for commerce and agricultural capitalism. In the event, it was Irish Catholic tenant farmers rather than Ascendancy Protestants who capitalised Irish agriculture, thereby forming a new property-owning – though often impoverished – rural class.

The great centres of Irish migration – London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow – were also the great centres of industrialisation, and their hunger for cheap labour kept the Irish coming. Middle-class commentators worried about the moral decline brought about by this influx of the labouring poor, while local workers and the trade unions accused the Irish of undermining class solidarity because they were willing to work for lower wages. As the Irish socialist James Connolly observed in 1914, Irish immigrants would support the Liberals against the Conservative-Unionist Party as long as the national question remained unanswered, thereby inhibiting the growth of the Labour Party. In effect, the Irish ensured that a significant section of the industrial working class was bound by non-class affiliations at a time when class affiliations were coming to supplant Victorian Anglican and nonconformist political identities.

After 1945, when the Irish began to settle in new areas, the idea that Irish workers were undercutting wages emerged again; but in new centres of manufacturing like Coventry and Luton the migrants were making up for severe labour shortages. In Birmingham after the war, the British left jobs on the buses or trams for more lucrative positions in the booming manufacturing industries, and the city authorities were forced to recruit directly in Ireland. By the early 1950s roughly a third of the staff of London Transport were Irish, many of them young women. Among its employees was my grandfather Sean (known in Britain as John), who drove a District Line train until ill-health forced him to retire in the 1970s.

Irish muscle was most useful to the expanding building trade, reviving the clichéd image of the Irish navvy. The Irish were good workers who took pride in the belief that nothing was too tough for them, an attitude employers were happy to exploit. They went from job to job and earned good wages. It was a rough male world. They drank and they fought, but as a sympathetic criminologist observed in the 1950s, ‘Irish roguery is mild and basically honest.’ But the lives of these men were not to be envied. Often unable to sustain stable relationships, dependent on drink, many ended up impoverished, homeless and alone.

As the number of Irish doctors in Britain suggests, this was also a middle-class migration, accounting for perhaps a fifth of the total. Irish professionals bought houses in the suburbs and their children assimilated effortlessly. For the London Irish elite, the National University of Ireland Club in Grosvenor Place and the Irish Club in Eaton Square provided a social focus. In places like these, former army officers and landowners got to know the new wealthy: building contractors, doctors, businessmen and hoteliers. Politicians attended the St Patrick’s Day dinners at the Irish Club; if you were lucky you got invited to a do at the Irish Embassy in Belgravia.

The relative ease of the journey back to Ireland reinforced the expectation, ceaselessly promoted by Irish politicians and churchmen, that the migrants would one day return ‘home’. In the past, the Irish had been in the habit of taking a trip to Britain as seasonal workers once a year. After the war, Irish migrants made an annual trip home for their holidays, the fortnight’s break bookended by the nauseous journey across the Irish Sea. Young men would come back from Britain with tall stories and wads of cash, causing envy among those who had stayed in Ireland. The migrants’ British-born children looked forward to the trips. My dad, cooped up with his sisters and anxious parents in a cramped flat in Clapham, saw Ireland as a place of novel freedoms. His parents seemed more relaxed there and he ran with the local boys, sneaked in, at the age of 11, to see Psycho (greatly impressing his friends back in London), and became infatuated with sharp-tongued, red-haired, green-eyed girls. Young adults, however, had a more complicated time. Having yearned for ‘home’, once there they felt restless and bored; they were often in a hurry to get back to Britain.

Such freedom of movement reflected the peculiar legal position of the Irish in Britain. During the period of the Union (1801-1921), the Irish enjoyed full rights of citizenship. After the Free State was established as a British dominion in 1921, there were few restrictions on movement or on the right to work both in Ireland and Britain. During the Second World War, visas and employment permits became mandatory, but the appetite for Irish workers meant that there were few barriers to emigrants ready to join the war effort. My grandmother, perhaps surprisingly, is proud to have worked as a field cook in Northern Ireland, to have joined the army and done her bit; her father, before joining the IRA, had been in the British army in the First World War, serving in Mesopotamia.

Tensions grew in April 1949, when Ireland withdrew from the Commonwealth and declared itself a republic, but the Labour government drew back from any suggestion that the Irish in Britain would lose their rights as ‘subjects’ and be classed as ‘aliens’. (This was the prospect initially faced by the Poles who had served under British command in Europe.) The privileged status of the Irish was demonstrated again when the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was introduced in 1962. Because they had withdrawn from the Commonwealth, the Irish were exempted from this first attempt to control the level of immigration into Britain; politically, though, their omission from the bill proved difficult. Rab Butler, the Conservative home secretary, noted the difference between Irish and Commonwealth citizens, and had to acknowledge the potential danger in ‘privileging Irish aliens over British subjects’. Irish inclusion in the bill would have made it acceptable to Tory backbenchers resentful at Irish ‘disloyalty’ – Ireland’s wartime neutrality hadn’t been forgotten – and to Labour backbenchers who thought their exclusion represented the imposition of a ‘colour bar’ on British citizenship.

‘The Irish are not – whether they like it or not – a different race from the ordinary inhabitants of Great Britain,’ a government report had stated in the 1950s, and many Irish in Britain bitterly resented being fingered as ‘foreigners’ during the 1962 debates. When in 1955 newspapers reported that the Irish were sharing poor accommodation with non-white migrants, the Irish Embassy, worried about the reaction back home, produced a study refuting the claims. According to Delaney, the idea that the Irish were a special immigrant group wasn’t pushed during the 1962 debates: the pretence was sustained that Ireland and Britain were merely two nation-states reaching agreement on how best to manage the relationship between their peoples. The Labour Party seems to have used the Irish question to make a wider political point without really wanting to change the immigration status of the Irish, not least because the bulk of Irish Catholic immigrants tended to vote Labour, read the Daily Mirror and nurse a wholly justified historic grievance against the Conservative Party.

Delaney discusses two other complications in the Irish position. First, politicians realised that to impose British-Irish border controls would require Ireland to be treated as a whole, as it had been during the war. This would enrage Unionists by curtailing the right to free movement shared by all citizens. Relations with the Irish government would have been soured, and the Irish state, which still couldn’t give its people a decent standard of living, would have suffered badly. Second, in 1962 both Britain and Ireland were applying for membership of the European Economic Community, and to introduce new restrictions on entry for citizens of a potential member state wouldn’t have helped the British cause. In the end, the matter was fudged. The government undertook to look into the numbers of Irish migrants and enacted legislation empowering the state to deport any Irish citizen convicted of a crime in the UK. Though the debate did little to dilute Irish perceptions of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain, the outcome nonetheless confirmed the exceptional nature of the British-Irish relationship.

It would be some time before the British and Irish were entirely at ease with free movement between their two countries. Irish Catholic churchmen, backed by politicians, worried about the moral condition of their people in Britain. A booklet produced by the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland and sold on the boats leaving Dublin in the mid-1950s warned passengers that the average Englishman ‘does not live by fixed principles and beliefs’. The Irish Catholic mission, long established in the UK, was strengthened, and attempts to absorb new arrivals into Catholic communities had some success. Priests and volunteers from the Legion of Mary and the Catholic Women’s League were a common sight at Euston in the 1950s and 1960s, keen to whisk new arrivals – women in particular – off to nearby hostels. Regular attendance at Mass in Ireland peaked in the 1950s, generating a vibrant community life which many tried to re-create in Britain, especially when integrating into non-Irish Catholic communities proved difficult. Irish and British cultural habits and expectations were different, and many British Catholics thought the new arrivals were too working-class, brought too many peculiar practices with them and treated their religious obligations too casually. Processions and other rituals, all underpinned by an intense Mariolatry, were alien to a British community that had worked hard to demonstrate its adherence to English standards of respectability, while during Mass itself the casual comings and goings of Irish communicants caused offence. There was a parallel in the experiences of black Anglicans arriving in Britain in the same period, who were sometimes asked by the established white congregation to worship elsewhere. The Church of England may well have thereby denied itself the new energy it needed to reverse its decline; rejected Irish Catholics simply set about building churches of their own. Delaney notes the ‘piquancy’ of the moment in 1960 when the Catholic community of Tollington Park in London, following ‘a campaign of prayer to Our Lady’, exchanged their small church (capacity 140) and £35,000 for the larger Congregationalist church (capacity 1300) across the road.

Reading Delaney, it’s hard not to think of the Poles in contemporary Britain. The same anxiety about poor housing, wage undercutting and exploitation is evident; and there is the same boost to the Catholic churches. But, in a growing economy, Polish immigrants have been successful whatever their social class, and have put down roots likely to become permanent: they are marrying British citizens, having children and buying houses. Some have become well-off and almost all are valued – more openly than the Irish ever were – as an essential addition to the workforce. Times, of course, are changing, though the signs that Poles were being tempted home by a strengthened Polish economy preceded the financial crisis of the past month. It’s not yet a stampede, but it may be the beginning of that historical rarity, a significant reverse migration.

Change has been slower for the Irish, but at last some are returning ‘home’. Irish towns and cities are now filled with people in their twenties. At first glance, Dublin now looks like an affluent British city, its late 18th-century grandeur finally coming into its own. But the spoils have not been shared. The tax breaks that helped generate inward investment mean that the new entrepreneurial environment hasn’t produced social services of anything like the quality that Ireland’s per capita wealth might suggest; and for the Eastern European immigrants doing the menial work, rents are high, hours long and living conditions often cramped and squalid. But there is no doubt that the historic pattern of Irish population transfer has reversed in the past decade or so. With the seemingly successful conclusion to the peace process, the enmity might have gone away too. In fact, it’s difficult to tell how deep it ever went. As the Kerry-born writer John Keane observed of his time in Northampton in the 1950s: ‘The attitude of the average Englishman towards the Irish is a friendly one. He resents the Welshman and tolerates the Scot but he is prepared to enjoy the Irishman and will always meet him halfway.’