Life among the Irish in England


The last time I visited the London Irish Centre in Camden, the walls were adorned with some wonderful photographs of laughing Irish nurses who had come to England during the 1950s and of groups of mirthful Irish emigrants making their way to one of the dance halls in Cricklewood and Kilburn.


The pictures told a story which is sometimes belied by prose accounts of the misery and marginalisation endured by Irish migrants to Britain in times gone by: these nurses were enjoying the adventure of life, learning and expanding their skills and finding a challenge in the newly established British National Health Service.



Emigration is, to be sure, a loss to the mother country, and the Catholic clergy, particularly in rural Ireland, were acutely aware of the hard circumstances which drove emigrants forth. Indeed, as Patricia Kennedy’s account shows, the Irish chaplains serving the emigrant community in Britain did a lot more for the people than Irish Governments, which did very little.

As Ms Kennedy writes: “The Church was present where the State was notably absent.” The oft-maligned John Charles McQuaid took the initiative in establishing an Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy in 1957 – when emigration was at a flood tide – and many individual priests (and nuns) emerge as tireless supporters of Irish working people.

For many a navvy who might have gone straight from Connemara into labouring on the motorways of Britain, the Church was the only link with a real community and the Irish emigrants would have been faithful to their churches (the famous Quex Road church in Kilburn had five Masses every Sunday morning for the Irish congregation, all full to the gunnels).

The Columban priests were particularly dedicated, but the roll-call of the religious orders who served the emigrants is remarkable: Augustinians, Carmelites (of two different kinds), Capuchins, De La Salle Brothers, Dominicans, Franciscans, the Holy Ghost congregation, Jesuits, Marists, Norbertines; and nine other orders of priests and seven orders of nuns.

"Young couples, on the arrival of their first baby, would often be evicted"

Especial honour must go, surely, to the then Fr Eamon Casey who was not only a pastor of great energy and compassion, but an outstanding manager with a fine business brain. His focus was on housing: the chaplaincy had been instrumental in setting up of the excellent Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS) and the Shelter Housing Aid Society (SHAC), and to these endeavours Eamonn Casey applied his considerable energies. As a parish priest he found that Slough, the large industrial town where he ministered, had an acute housing problem.

Young couples, on the arrival of their first baby, would often be evicted (landladies and landlords could be far more hostile to babies than to any ethnic group) from their rented accommodation.

Fr Casey spoke to thousands needing homes and he set up a mortgage system which allowed people to put a deposit on a home for £200. He established a Parish Savings Council and by using his powers of persuasion with the banks, helped countless couples and young families own a home of their own.

In the secular world, Eamon Casey would easily have risen to the top of any corporation, though the secular world would not have fulfilled his Christian vocation to help and support those in need. Incidentally, he was as quick to help a Protestant family as a Catholic one. He was also quite clear that the gun and the bomb were not the way forward for Irish politics.


Touching portraits

There are many touching portraits of the hard work put in by the Irish emigrant community, as well as endearing details: the Queen Mother’s staff was, at one point, mostly Irish.

At one big hotel chain, 80% of the staff were Irish (now most hotel staff in Ireland are EU immigrants). But there are certain austerities of style, common to academic practice, that I do not find comfortable – the confusing lower-case use of ‘mass’, as in “the difficulty of accessing a mass”… a mass what? Mass media, perhaps? Keeping ‘Mass’ in lower case is a way of diminishing the sacrament, but it is also confusing.

And I would like to have, sometime, a reliable source for the claim that England was awash with signs saying: “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. It is often claimed, but never sourced: Ms Kennedy gives as her source Ultan Cowley’s fine The Men Who Built Britain: A History of Irish Labour in British Construction, but that, too, provides no source, other than hearsay.

When I asked in print if anyone had an annotated source (such as a photograph, or a specific date and location), Ms Jacqueline Charles of Paddington in London responded that she recalled seeing bedsit adverts in Bayswater and Earls Court saying “no blacks, no Irish” and sometimes, also, “no Australians” in the 1960s. But there was no mention of dogs. Well, the English always loved dogs!