From the mid-1800s onwards, Irish people left in waves to find employment in the cities and towns of their nearest neighbour. Many were unskilled labourers, or ‘navvies’; others were nurses, plumbers, carpenters, writers and entertainers. Senator and broadcaster Paschal Mooney tells Seán Creedon what life was like for the Irish in Britain.
As down the glen came McAlpine’s men
With their shovels slung behind them
Twas in the pub they drank the sub
And it’s up in the Spike you’ll find them
They sweated blood and they washed down mud
With pints and quarts of beer
And now we’re on the road again
With McAlpine’s fusiliers.
The opening verse of Dominic Behan’s ballad about the Irish navvies who helped to build the motorways, canals and cities in Britain after the second World War. But according to an article in this magazine back in 2018 it was claimed that the man who wrote the original words was Martin Henry from Rooskey.
Dominic spent some time in Liverpool, but I don’t know any Irish person who emigrated to Liverpool; most of my neighbours and relations went to London or Birmingham. However, you cannot argue with statistics and they show that Liverpool is widely known for having the strongest Irish heritage in Britain.
Part of the reason must be the proximity of Liverpool to Dublin, which made it easy to reach for all those escaping the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849. By 1851 more than 20 per cent of Liverpool’s population was Irish.
The numbers of Irish emigrating to England for work has declined in recent years and census figures released in the UK last November confirmed that the number of Irish-born people living in England and Wales in 2021 numbered 324,670, a fall of 80,000 or 20 per cent from a decade ago, when they numbered 407,357.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics said that this is a long-term trend which staRTÉd in 1961, when the Irish-born population peaked at 683,000, more than double the current number. Once the biggest group of those born outside the UK, the Irish are now fifth behind India, Poland, Pakistan and Romania.
Our forefathers left in waves that started in the 19th century and continued through the Great Depression, the post-war boom, the swinging sixties, the Thatcher era and into the 21st century.
There were many reasons that Britain attracted so many Irish emigrants. It’s our nearest neighbour, travel was relatively cheap on the boat, we spoke the same language and sterling was similar to our own Irish currency.
Many were unskilled labourers, or navvies; others were nurses, plumbers, carpenters, writers and entertainers. Really the Irish took any work they could get.
Leitrim-born Paschal Mooney, who moved to London in 1968 and later kept in touch with the Irish abroad via his RTÉ radio programmes and as a Senator, has fond memories of his time spent in England.
Paschal said: ‘‘After secondary school I got a job as a sales rep with Lairds in Drumshanbo, who made a jam called Bo Peep. I travelled all over the country promoting the brand in various supermarkets, but after an accident in Shillelagh, County Wicklow, I decided I had enough of the road and headed for the bright lights of London.
‘‘Initially I stayed with a cousin of my father’s in Kensal Rise in North London. I never worked as a navvy, but through my work in the Emerald Staff Agency and the showband scene I got to know a lot of the Irish men who put in long hours doing the hard manual work.’’
‘‘My family tradition was more office work, but before I got a job with the Emerald Staff agency, I did a year as a bus conductor with London Transport. The money was definitely better with London Transport than office work.
‘‘The showband scene was big back then and most of the Irish bands used to do at least four tours of Britain every year. They also spent a lot of time in Britain during Lent as there was no dancing in Ireland in the 40 days before Easter.’’
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own