They went to Britain in vast waves in the 1950s and 1960s to build roads and housing estates. They travelled in their hundreds of thousands to work in offices, factories and hospitals.
ome fell on hard times, but many others quietly prospered. Now, in some of their traditional heartlands in Britain, the Irish seem like a shrinking community.
A rapidly ageing population and the lure of a relatively successful economy back home since Brexit have turned the tide of emigration. Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that in every year since 2016, there were more people coming from the UK to live in Ireland than going in the opposite direction.
At a lunch for members of the Irish community near the Harehills area of Leeds, retired nurse Anne Ferguson explains the changing nature of the Irish emigrant experience in Britain.
Referring to the type of person who comes to England now, a group that is diminishing in numbers, she says: “They’re coming now because they want to come. When we were coming, we had to come.”
Emigrants used to travel to Britain out of necessity and a lack of opportunities at home. There were more women than men, and many worked as nurses in the National Health Service.
As one historian remarked: “Growing up in Ireland meant preparing oneself to leave it.”
Talking to a group of women at the lunch, organised by the community group Leeds Irish Health and Homes, one is struck by how young they were when they left Ireland.
Most were in their teens — and some were children, leaving without their parents.
Vera Mather (96) left her home on Achill Island when she was just 14, travelling first to London, where she lived through the blitz and worked in a munitions factory.
She later moved north to Leeds, a city that became a magnet for Irish workers in the post-war years, many of them working in construction, building houses and motorways.
Frank Gallagher, chairman of the Leeds Hugh O’Neills GAA Club, came from Mayo in 1967 and worked as a machine driver building motorways.
“Many came from small farms with big families. I was the oldest of seven children and I felt that the grass was greener somewhere else,” he tells me at the Leeds Irish Centre.
“Back then if you were working on a site, you would have Irishmen all around you, but now there are no Irish lads working on building sites.”
The history of Ireland in the second half of the 20th century was shaped by emigration to Britain: more than one million people made the journey. Almost every family had someone close to them on the other side of the Irish Sea: will that still be true in 20 years?
The Irish used to be the single largest foreign-born population in Britain. It is a story of chain migration: a friend of a friend or a cousin would know someone else who may have a job somewhere.
Mary Brown, a Donegal woman who arrived in 1965, recalls young people moving over to Leeds, staying with brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles and finding work through ready-made Irish networks.
Brown, who worked as a waitress and shop assistant and ran a café in Leeds, said she never did a job interview until recently.
“Someone just told you there was a job with someone somewhere and you just went along and you got the job,” she says. “That was the way it worked.”
She met her husband, James, on the boat from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead — the traditional route before the days of cheap flights.
Jobs may have been plentiful in the post-war years, but the vast emigrant wave to Britain ebbed away after the 1980s, and earlier generations are now dying out.
The Irish-born population in England and Wales has fallen by a fifth over the last decade, according to the latest British census data.
The UK Office for National Statistics said those who listed Ireland as their country of birth fell from 407,000 in 2011 to 325,000 in 2021, a decrease of 20pc in the decade.
In British cities, many of the earlier generations of emigrants tended to congregate in areas that became identifiably Irish: Harehills in Leeds, Levenshulme in Manchester and Kilburn in London were typical.
There is a much less noticeable Irish presence in these areas now, and in Harehills and Levenshulme, the number of Irish residents has long been surpassed by south Asian communities.
Tommy McLoughlin, manager of the Leeds Irish Centre, said St Augustine’s Catholic Church in Harehills used to be heavily populated with Irish worshippers. “All that has gone, because people have moved out,” he says.
The Irish in these areas are almost a ghostly relic of the past. Many of the once-thriving traditional Irish pubs — an informal labour exchange for new arrivals in the past — have long since closed along with the dance halls, and Irish congregations at the once thriving Catholic churches have dwindled.
In the Fiddlers Green pub in Levenshulme in Manchester, the decor reflects Irish interests: a painting of Manchester United star George Best with his manager Matt Busby, pictures of successful Donegal football teams and the champion horse Istabraq.
When I called, the pub had just a smattering of regular daytime drinkers, all over 70. Landlady Bridie Rodden, originally from Arranmore, took over the pub over 30 years ago, and back in the 1990s it was thriving and packed with regulars.
“In the early 1990s we were full every night,” she says. “That was until the beginning of the Celtic Tiger, and then people stopped coming over from Ireland and some were moving back.”
There is still a steady number of emigrants from Ireland to Britain, even though they are outnumbered by those coming in the opposite direction. Central Statistics Office figures for the year until April show that 14,200 people left Ireland to live in the UK.
Historian Enda Delaney says that these numbers are dwarfed by the exodus in the 1950s when up to 60,000 people a year left Ireland for Britain, during the era of the “vanishing Irish”.
He says: “These generations of emigrants from the 1940s and 1950s are now in their 80s and beyond.”
The new arrivals are more likely to have a third-level education than the older generation. Aidan Enright, a university lecturer from Elfin, Co Roscommon, moved to Yorkshire a decade ago with his Mayo wife, Sinéad, a specialist dentist. He lives in Saltaire, a model village 20km from Leeds.
Enright grew up on a small farm as the youngest of nine children and all but one emigrated.
“The Irish community in Leeds and Bradford is not obvious now,” he says. “They don’t live in particular parts of the city. The older generations are spread out, and younger immigrants like me don’t congregate in a certain area like the older people used to. There is no clearly identifiable Irish area any more.”
Like many recent arrivals, Enright said that he shied away from getting involved in overtly “Irish-related stuff”.
“I wanted to get on with my life and integrate,” he says. “But recently I have thought about it and felt the need to re-engage with my heritage and background.”
While the number of Irish-born people in Britain is in sharp decline, Enright senses a growing pride in Irish identity since Brexit — and this extends to the second and third generations of emigrants.
“There has been a change in people’s attitude — a general emotional sense of people engaging with their Irishness.”
This view is shared by Professor Louise Ryan of London Metropolitan University, who is an authority on migration
She notes that while the population of Irish-born people has fallen sharply in recent years, the number of Irish passport holders has fallen only marginally.
She attributes this to the surge in the number of Irish passports issued in Britain following the Brexit vote.
“People are becoming more aware of their Irish identity and prouder of it in the wake of Brexit,” she says. “Irish communities can’t be written off as dying out and you couldn’t say that they will be gone in a few more years, because they are thriving in the second and third generations.”
Joan Smith, a retired teacher whose parents came to Leeds from the Irish midlands in the 1930s, is among those who are proud of their heritage, and she has recently applied for an Irish passport. Although she was born in England, she recalls a cohesive way of life among immigrant families that in some ways replicated life back in Ireland. She saw the waves of emigrants coming to Leeds in the post-war years.
“The church was a big part of life, and people went to mass on Sunday at St Anne’s Cathedral. Many people lived in digs as lodgers at that time and went to the pub afterwards,” she says.
“One of the places that evokes my youth in Leeds was the Shamrock Club. That’s all we talked about in school when we were older, because there was Irish dancing.
“Often there would be a fight on a Saturday night. There was no drinking allowed. In the earlier evening, the men who were Pioneers would be in there, and other people would go into the pub next door and come rolling in at about 11. It was a heady mix.”
As in Ireland at that time, the Catholic Church could keep a beady eye on social life, particularly at the dances at St Francis Church Hall in the inner city district of Holbeck.
“Supervising the dance would be Father O’Shea from Cork — and if he thought you were dancing too close to your partner, he would tap you on the shoulder and tell you to move out a bit,” Smith recalls.
It is hard to generalise about the experience of the Irish in Britain. Jobs in construction could be extremely tough and at times dangerous, with lax safety standards. The story of the emigrant who falls on hard times, turns to alcohol and becomes isolated in old age is a familiar one, but many others prospered and were upwardly mobile, moving out of poorer areas to middle-class suburbs.
Joan Smith credits the Catholic schooling system for ensuring that many children of immigrants were pushed on academically.
“Parents were very conscious of their children getting a good education and encouraged them to do as well as possible,” she says.
Sheron Boyle, a Yorkshire journalist with an Irish background who wrote a history of the Leeds Irish Centre, shares this view.
“I grew up in a council house and my Catholic education was akin to a private school,” she says. “The headmistress was a nun — we were all working-class girls, we all got O-Levels and A-Levels, and most of us were the first in our families to go to university.”
“The attitude of our parents was that they wanted us to do better and we only got where we are through a Catholic education.”
With mass attendance falling away dramatically at home, new Irish emigrants are much less likely to have a strong connection with the church when they go to England. But the GAA continues to be a popular outlet for young emigrants hoping to settle in and meet new friends.
Louise Ryan says: “Many newer immigrants would not really engage with traditional Irish culture centres, but the GAA [club] is a place where you would find new arrivals.”
The former motorway worker Frank Gallagher introduced me to a group of Irish-born members of the Hugh O’Neill GAA club.
In contrast to previous waves of emigrants, who might have had barely any education beyond primary level, all of them were graduates — including engineers, a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, a physiotherapist and a food technologist. They come from Northern Ireland as well as the republic.
Family solicitor Tara Kearns from Monaghan plays for the Hugh O’Neills Ladies’ Gaelic Football team, who proudly boast the title All-Britain Junior Champions. Her engineer husband John is also a member of the club.
“Joining a GAA club is a good way of meeting people,” she says. “It’s like a support network.”
Many of the well-qualified new immigrants in the GAA club are uncertain about their future in England, and some are already planning to move back home or onwards to another country.
There is uncertainty about the opportunities available in Britain, because of the faltering economy. David Durkan, a physiotherapist from Ballina, Co Mayo, travelled to England to receive his training and found a job in a GP surgery. One of the attractions was that his university course in physiotherapy was free.
He said he knew only one person in Leeds when he arrived, but being in the GAA helped him to find his first job and accommodation. Having trained in England, he hopes to return to live in Ireland, mostly for family reasons.
Most of the more recent immigrants said they had been warmly welcomed since they arrived in the north of England.
Sarah Carberry, a player on the Hugh O’Neill’s Ladies’ team from Co Tyrone, said: “People really love the Irish over here.”
The Irish in Britain have not always been so warmly received. Just as more recent migrants from other countries were blamed for driving down wages in the run-up to Brexit, Karl Marx wrote in the 19th century: “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life.”
More recently, during the Troubles, Irish communities faced difficulties and at times tried to hide their Irish identities even when they went to Catholic schools.
In her research on the Irish in Leeds, historian Anna Walsh found that even in a school with numerous Irish names, pupils might have chosen to keep quiet about their distinctly Irish past-times.
She interviewed Tim, who said that the Troubles was not a good time to be Irish, with “low-grade comedians” on television telling Irish jokes. Tim said he chose to keep the fact that he played traditional Irish music a secret from his friends.
Walsh said that in the past, Irish women in Britain were more likely to tone down their accents than men because they tended to work in public-facing roles.
Ant Hanlon, who manages the Leeds Irish Health and Homes community group and oversees another organisation, Irish Community Care in Manchester, said there were many different accounts from the community about how they were treated — some positive and some negative.
Hanlon says: “The Troubles were a challenging time, and you hear stories [from an earlier period] about signs saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’, but it’s cool to be Irish now.”
Rena Cosgrove, a former schoolteacher who is secretary of the Leeds Irish Centre, arrived from Co Galway in 1956. She said there was a lot of prejudice against the Irish in the 1950s.
“I didn’t experience that, because my attitude was that I was the guest in this country and they were giving me a job,” she says. “I would just slot in, keep my identity, go along with their way of life and not criticise it, because I had chosen to live here.
“Only once did someone make a comment to me and that was during the Troubles, but I put him back in his corner and he never said another word to me.”
The historian Enda Delaney believes that Brexit, with its huge consequences for British-Irish relations, did not help the image of the UK as a “welcoming” destination for Irish emigrants, even though the Irish-born are excluded from immigration restrictions.
He believes that Britain leaving the EU has affected the perceived opportunities for Irish people.
The main reason for the spectacular decline in the Irish-born population, he says, is the positive state of the Irish economy in recent years.
“Traditionally Britain was a safety valve for tensions associated with unemployment and economic recession in Ireland, and the buoyant Irish economy means that has become far less relevant in the past few years.”
The hundreds of thousands of emigrants who took the boat to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s are simply not being replaced.
Delaney says: “For the Irish-born population in England and Wales to remain at stable levels, that would need a huge influx of Irish people, and this hasn’t happened in recent times.”
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