Ireland, the land of scholars…

Left Central interview Professor Louise Ryan

Image © Alegri, Romania.

In the years since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy there has been a significant increase in Irish migration to Britain. However, little is known about the experiences of these ‘post-Celtic tiger’, ‘post-Peace Agreement’ migrants.  How might their experiences differ from earlier waves of Irish migrants to Britain?  There is some anecdotal evidence that more Irish people are arriving in Britain to take up professional occupations.

In an attempt to gain a deeper insight into the experiences of migrants who have arrived since 2008 a study is to be carried out by the Social Policy Research Centre, at Middlesex University, in partnership with the Federation of the Irish Societies. This study will focus on teachers. Irish teachers in Britain are an under-researched group but there is some anecdotal evidence that their numbers are increasing (Irish Post newspaper, 26.02.13).

Through an on-line survey, in-depth interviews and a focus group this project aims:

To examine the needs, attitudes and experiences of this group – in particular their sense of Irishness, connections to Ireland, involvement in Irish networks and/ or organisations in Britain including cultural engagement, their migration trajectories, career aspiration, family strategies and future plans for settlement or return

The findings of the study will be published in a report and other academic papers and will be used to inform the policy initiatives and funding applications of the Federation of Irish Societies.

The project has been given ethical approval by the Middlesex University Ethics Committee.  All participants will be anonymized and all materials will be stored on a password protected computer to safeguard confidentiality. In order to gain further information about this study Professor Ryan kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the forthcoming study.

LC: Negative Stereotypes linked to the Irish nestle deep in the UK – linked to intellectual impairment, hygiene, alcohol and violence. Do you think your study will find that embedded stereotype`s about the Irish, make teaching in Britain difficult – especially, outside the RC education strata?

Prof Ryan: This is one of the things we are keen to find out. In the post-peace agreement era, there is perhaps an assumption that being Irish has become somewhat ‘cool’ in British society (the popularity of Irish pubs, Irish singers and bands – from the Script to U2, Irish actors like Colin Farrell, writers like Marian Keyes and fashion designers like Paul Costello and Philip Tracey). However, 100s of years of anti-Irish stereotyping just does not disappear over night. My research on earlier migrants, such as the work I did on Irish nurses who came to Britain in the period after World War II showed how endemic anti-Irish sentiments are in British society. In this new research we are keen to see if recently arrived migrants, including highly educated professionals like teachers still experience these anti-Irish stereotypes and how they react to these, often unanticipated, experiences.

LC: Hornsby-Smith and Dale (1988) found that the Irish occupied stereotypically blue collar male/female employment roles with social mobility difficult to achieve. The premise of your study appears to take for granted that the Irish are entering professional roles. What evidence (other than the Irish Post article) is there for this?

Prof Ryan: Since the late 1980s and early 1990s the number of Irish graduates coming from Ireland to Britain has increased enormously. We know from sources like the Labour Force Survey that Irish migrants are amongst the most highly educated groups arriving in Britain. There are 37,000 Irish born graduates in Britain (LFS, 2012). The Irish are increasingly well represented in professional jobs and as the work of researchers like Breda Gray has shown, while the generation of Irish migrants coming to Britain since the 1980s has some similarity with previous waves, they also have a more middle class identity.

LC: Clearly, the Celtic Tiger economy encouraged increases in spending on HE and training in Ireland – which it now appears the UK will benefit from (though the host nation may not view it this way). Will your study attempt to measure the impact of this `brain drain` on the Irish economy?

Prof Ryan: This may be a finding we can explore in the study but the main focus will be on the experiences of Irish migrant teachers in this country.

LC: Is there any danger that by focussing on a skilled professional group, as your study does, that we lose sight of problems that are current. In particular problems linked to the ageing population and the lack of provision in this area. Furthermore, there is the widespread discrimination experienced by Irish Travellers, documented but ignored.  Should we not first concentrate on getting this sorted out and then focus on this new professional cohort?

Prof Ryan: This study is not in anyway intended to deny the problems that some groups of Irish people in Britain still experience. There has been a lot of research on older Irish people – including a study we did hear at Middlesex University entitled the Forgotten Irish, led by my colleague Mary Tilki and focusing on that 1950s-1970s generation of migrants. There has also been a lot of work on Irish travellers, including some recent work by my PhD student Tracy Mullen. But the Irish population in Britain is diverse with many different experiences and expectations, and it would be misleading to assume they are all defined by their problems and difficulties. It is important to also consider the ways in which the Irish have been successful.

LC: Have you found UK and Irish Teaching Unions helpful thus far in accessing respondents to this study? Who will surely be the key to communicating with Irish teachers.

Prof Ryan: So far we have not approached the unions – that will be our next step.

LC: How high are expectation levels among Irish teachers coming to Britain? Given cuts in public expenditure in the UK, where employment conditions within the profession are gradually becoming eroded – for example the prevalence of zero-hours contract etc? Problems combined to house and rent prices especially in London etc.

Prof Ryan: One of the reasons we are doing this research is precisely to find out about Irish teachers working conditions, in the questionnaire we have several questions on employment and contractual status, as well as career aspirations and future settlement or return migration plans.

The research project will be managed by Prof Louise Ryan working along with her colleague, Edina Kurdi.  For further information about this study please go to http://sprc.info/irishteacherstudy/

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