Did you know that at least one in ten people in Britain have an Irish heritage.
The 2001 British census recorded 674,786 people living in Britain as Irish born, and around six million Britons today have an Irish grandfather or grandmother making up approximately 10% of the UK population. It is also thought there are millions more from earlier generations, many of whom won’t actually be aware of their own Irish ancestry – Britain from above is probably greener than you think.
History has a habit of fading, and Irish presence in Britain over the ages often gets lost in the mist of time. There are records for example of an Irish tailor being a victim of murder in Fleet Street in 1288, and notes that there were Irish names among Liverpudlian citizens as early as 1378. In 1485 Londons Mayor was Sir Hugh Bryce, goldsmith and son of Richard Bryce from Dublin. He also held position as Governor of the Mint in the Tower, and Keeper of the Kings Exchange – now there was an opportunity!
The Irish in England
Irish people have been crossing the water since the 12th century and the Irish population in England increased rapidly between 1841 and 1851, largely due to the Great Famine (an Gorta Mor). In 1846 alone 280,000 people entered Liverpool from Ireland of whom 106,000 subsequently moved abroad. In Manchester Irish presence was so strong that it heralded the establishment of ‘Little Ireland’ south of the city centre, and ‘Irish Town’ north east of the city.
Irish men often found work building the canals, roads, railways and the East London docks, and Irish women were mostly employed in domestic service or at the harsh end of the garment trade. Life was extremely hard, and books can and have been written about the difficulties the Irish had to overcome in these times.
By 1900 there were over 100,000 in London, plus many thousands more of Irish descent. Southwark and the East End in particular had very strong communities.
Southern Irelands independence in 1922 didn’t slow migration as many more crossed the Irish sea whilst Ireland itself suffered economic depression. Irish culture in England flourished, and by the 1930s London had its own annual St Patrick’s Day concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Camden, for example, became one of the focal points for settlement and is still home to the London Irish Centre today.
Irish migration to Britain reached a peak after the 2nd world war as a result of the labour shortage in the UK, and attracted large numbers of Irish to expanding towns such as London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Luton. British organisations were carrying out recruitment campaigns in Ireland and this lead to Irish graduates also filling vacancies in areas such as teaching, law and advertising. The Irish Club, founded in 1950 in London, reflected the subsequent growth of the Irish middle class.
By the 1960s, Irish migrants were educated, cultured and increasingly political. The United Ireland Association was actively campaigning in London, and in 1966 a parade commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Easter rising in Dublin. The 1970s saw the Irish communities in Britain facing difficulties given the situation in Northern Ireland, and the same period also saw the dispersal of the Irish community from the inner-city London areas to the suburbs.
Despite these changes Irish culture and community activities continued to flourish, and the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, founded in 1980, was known as a significant supporter of new London Irish writers and community events. Irish culture was further protected thanks in part to funding support from the G.L.C, which in 1981 recognised the Irish as an ethnic minority.
Throughout the 80s, when Ireland was in the throes of a another deep recession and high unemployment, the then minister for foreign affairs (the late Brian Lenihan), famously observed: “We can’t all live on a small island” – people again left in droves, and in 1989 the first London Fleadh was held. According to the 2001 census, the Irish community in London was more than 220,000.
Recent years saw the advent of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ and emigration slowed, and to some extent went into reverse as many Irish returned home. As of today though, it is expected that 50,000 people will leave Ireland in 2009, and some of those will again be heading to Britain to find work on projects such as the 2012 Olympics event.
Whichever way you look at it the Irish seem destined to be eternal travellers, whether through choice or need, and Guinness and the craic will likely remain some of Irelands best known and favourite exports! ;)
Here’s the London Irish partying again a week after St Patricks Day, 2009…!
and here’s a little known fact to muse on:
The Liverpool ‘scouse’ accent is specific to Liverpool city and language experts have identified it as a hybrid of Lancashire and Irish. The dialect is a relic of the great influx of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, and shows that the new settlers were so numerous that they changed the very accent of the local people. No wonder ‘de shawlies wuz janglin’!
The Irish in Scotland
There is a long history of migration between Scotland and Ireland going back to the early middle ages, and it is difficult to determine how many Scots have genetic ancestry from Ireland and how many were Picts who took on Irish lifestyles. The Irish immigrated to Scotland in the tens of thousands, especially from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, and in 2001 around 55,000 people were recorded as having been born in Ireland. It is thought that people of Irish heritage make up 20% of the Scottish population.
The Irish in Wales
Starting in the 4th century Irish raiders settled Wales extensively, their impact being so great that numerous Gaelic words were introduced into the Welsh language. Many more Irish emigrants came to Wales as a result of the great famine and over time acquired a notable presence – in the thousands, particularly in the coal mining towns around Swansea and Newport. In 2001 there were 20,569 Irish born people in Wales making up 0.7% of the total population.
Being Irish in the UK definitely isn’t a once a year thing, but maybe i’ll finish off with a familys’ record of their day out on March 15th. It sort of captures ordinary life in contemporary ‘Irish Britain’, and I just like it…