Happy St Patricks Day and may the road rise with you…

Nora Connolly 

© Image Oxyman

They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur

It`s that time of year again, when the Irish Diaspora, is expected to celebrate the land that made us refugees. St Patrick`s day has always conjured up ambivalent feelings for me, long before it was cynically appropriated by a multinational drinks company. The traditional parading in green, the masquerading in shamrocks and Irish harps unsettles me. Nationalism, regardless of its provenance, always makes me uncomfortable. But, despite the bogus nationalist artefacts and sentiment, it`s an important opportunity to pay due deference to the Irish in Britain, for their distinctive contribution to the economic and cultural life of the nation. It`s also a chance to recognise, as Paul Michael Garret does, that a homogenous view of British society founded on a notion of assimilation by virtue of `whiteness’ `helps to mask the internal ethnic, regional and national differences which characterise the UK. ` The Irish as Garret points out didn’t simply assimilate into British life as `the myth of homogeneity requires the denial of differences`. This is important because when we deny differences, there is a danger of misjudging later migration by people `who possesed a different skin colour`and whose entry to the UK is viewed as problematic, while earlier `white` immigration considered smooth and problem free.

Such has been the impact of Irish immigration to Britain that EP Thompson in his seminal work, `The Making Of the English Working Classes` was forced to recognise the role of the Irish Diaspora. Eric Hobsbawm also tipped his hat to the Irish, for their part in shaping the economic and social history of the `workshop of the world`. After all `The Red Flag` was written by an Irishman, Jim Connell, as was the most important book of the British Labour Movement, `The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist` by Robert Noonan. Arguably the most significant political UK song of the modern era (according to a recent  BBC radio 4 documentary) was penned by a member of the Irish Diaspora, Declan MacManus – Elvis Costello – `Shipbuilding`.

The hugely significant nineteenth century Chartist`s were established and led by an Irishman, Fergus O`Connor. Other notable Irish Labour figures include James Connolly born in Edinburgh, a formidable working-class autodidactic, Marxist historian/intellectual, labour activist, executed for his participation in the 1916 Uprising. And James Larkin born in Liverpool – both influenced revolutionary politics. Connolly was condemned for his involvement in the Uprising by the British Labour Movement, although Lenin excused him. Irish labour was of course used to break strikes in the early nineteenth century in the North-West but the role played by the Irish in Labour history is an honourable though largely forgotten one. The institutions associated with the Irish Diaspora have encouraged this amnesia, as Catholic Schools denied students access to Irish history, as a matter of policy. Garrett, citing Doyle argues, `the Church helped denationalise the Irish in Britain.` This certainly resonates with my experience. I recall returning from school with friends while passing pupils from a rival Protestant school who yelled `Fenians` at us (mixed with other expletives).  We were all Irish but none of our party knew what a `Fenian` was leading to heated discussion.

In more recent times leading members of the Labour Movement with Irish connections include Jack Dromey and Clare Short. Denis Healey describes his Irish father in his biography as a `lover of lost causes` who filled the future Chancellor of the Exchequer`s head full of stories of `Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone.` However, it is not just in Labour politics that the Irish have made their mark. All of the following have strong Irish connections, Dusty Springfield, Kevin Rowland’s, The Smiths, Oasis and The Pogues. John Lydon is London/Irish; his parents are from Galway and Cork. He also wrote an important memoir, `No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs`- a title encapsulating the discrimination faced by all the post-war immigrants to Britain. While my musical knowledge is limited it’s clear that these artists/bands had a major influence – although few know that they are Irish.

In the world of comedy there is Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne all from distinctly Irish backgrounds, Billy Connolly has close links to Connemara. The Irish have dominated sports and played a role in construction, education, all three areas of the armed forces and medicine.

Despite this the role played in British society by the Irish has been amalgamated within the white British experience, while the antecedents of the Irish players lost. This could be because Ireland from 1801-1922 was formally part of Britain – Galway and Cork, technically as British as Birmingham and Carlisle. The mass emigration  that marked Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century was migration within Britain. But, Ireland was different from the rest of Britain – the explanation for the famine in 1845 and central government`s response to this catastrophe illustrates this and confirms that the relationship between both countries was an uneven one.

As Garrett point out the Irish in Britain have long experienced discrimination in a host of areas, including health and housing and he quotes Engels (1926) to suggest this was, `historically embedded and related to colonial practices. ` We can perhaps avoid the `Troubles` but there are parallels with the Irish community of the past and the British Muslim community of the present. Arguably, the most articulate political spokesperson for British Muslims is a member of the Irish Diaspora – George Galloway.

Excluding the `Troubles` we can focus on other issues, take for example the Irish navvies who worked on the Woodhead Pass railway line in the nineteenth century in the High Peak of Derbyshire. During the nineteenth century many of these men and women (not exclusively Irish) died in large numbers, through accidents and as a result of cholera (victims buried in secret, without headstones). Living in a shanty-town near the village of Tintwisle, where conditions were so appalling (even by the dreadful standards of the time) that the Manchester Guardian ran a series of articles which prompted Robert Peel to set up a Select Committee to investigate. In an interesting, film about the Irish in Britain, a construction worker described the poverty in Ireland and his subsequent treatment in Britain `It said on the board no Irish need apply`– an emotional and revealing monologue about the immigrant experience from 30 years ago.   

Tony Judt in his outstanding history of Europe from 1945 traces the trajectory of immigration throughout Europe, illustrating that such human movement has been evident within the continent for a very long time. Without this immigration Europe would not have recovered or prospered. It was only when the colour of the immigrants changed that such migration patterns suddenly become problematic, or so the story goes. The experience of the Irish in Britain, illustrates that well before the 1960s an immigrant population of vast proportion was subject to institutional discrimination and blatant widespread hostility in Britain. Recognition of the Irish position has been slow to emerge, helped along by the work of the Runnymede Trust, which as Garret point’s out went some way in establishing the Irish as a racial category for the 2001 British Census. As Garret illustrates with reference to Hickman, this recognised, `the distinctiveness of the Irish component of the British population and diversity within whiteness`. Enjoy the weekend and remember Britain is enhanced by diversity in all its forms and if you’re Irish then congratulate yourself and community for contributing to this.


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