Diaspora: The Irish in Britain

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The Irish in Britain

Until the 1970s the Irish-born population was the largest immigrant group in British society. Historically, Ireland's nearest neighbor had been one of the most significant destinations for emigrants since medieval times. Surviving records indicate that even in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, poor Irish immigrants were the cause of concern on the part of municipal authorities in the growing towns and cities of Tudor England. Yet the greatest influx of Irish migrants occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Second only to the United States, Britain was a central destination of the Irish diaspora from the early nineteenth century.

One of the consequences of the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 was the emergence of mass migration, as agricultural depression resulted in declining Irish standards of living, thereby strengthening the imperative for people to leave for North America and Britain. In the period before the Great Famine of the late 1840s, substantial numbers of men and women left Ireland in search of work in the expanding British industrial economy. In the 1830s and early 1840s the large numbers of Irish migrants settling in Britain were perceived as a problem because so many of them were poor, and it was assumed that they would make little positive contribution to the evolving industrial society. Social commentators such as J. P. Kay in his well-known essay on the Irish in Manchester in 1832 underlined the negative effects of large-scale Irish immigration on the living conditions of the poor in that city, especially in the infamous "Little Ireland" district. Sometime later, Friedrich Engels in 1844 described the poverty and squalor of the Irish in Manchester. Social theorists lamented that the abysmal conditions in which the Irish lived would in time lower the living standards of the British working classes. To a large extent this hostility toward the Irish in Britain was a clash of values because Irish customs,

SOURCE: Extracted from U.K. census, 1841–1991.

ways of living, and cultural practices were often considered alien. The stark poverty of many Irish migrants meant that they were a highly visible presence in the poorer slum districts of large British cities. Geographical proximity and the ability of the Irish labor to move freely between the two islands ensured that, notwithstanding deeply engrained anti-Irish prejudice, Britain continued to be a popular destination for Irish migrants throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Two distinct waves of Irish emigration to Britain can be noted, the first lasting from the 1840s until the 1860s, and the second from the 1930s until the 1960s. In the nineteenth century the most sustained inflow of Irish men and women was directly related to the famine crisis of the late 1840s. The Irish-born population in England and Wales nearly doubled between 1841 and 1861. Famine refugees arrived in huge numbers in Liverpool, Glasgow, and in other smaller ports such as Newport in South Wales, prompting a strong sense of panic about the influx of diseased and poverty-stricken migrants from Ireland. This alarm was compounded by the fact that the Irish migrant's arrival coincided with an economic recession in Britain in 1847 to 1848. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century Britain retained its importance as a center of Irish settlement. Estimates suggest that from 1852 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 between one-fifth and one-quarter of all emigrants from Ireland traveled to Britain. This resulted in the Irish-born population of Britain remaining relatively stable during the second half of the nineteenth century, though it declined in numbers in the early decades of the twentieth century (see table). In the mid-1930s, as a result of restrictions imposed on American immigration in the 1920s and its swift economic recovery from the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Britain became the principal destination for the hundreds of thousands of Irish who sought new lives abroad. Approximately four out of every five migrants who left independent Ireland after 1921 traveled to Britain. The 1950s saw the peak in Irish emigration, and by 1971 the Irish-born population of Britain numbered nearly one million people.

The Irish settled where employment was available. In the nineteenth century Lancashire, the west of Scotland, and London were the major regions of Irish settlement, though many Irish migrants were also found outside the large conurbations of Liverpool, Glasgow, and Manchester. From the mid-1930s on, the migrant flow was directed toward the midlands and southeastern England, principally London, reflecting the changes in employment location in twentieth-century Britain. The other obvious trend was the decline in the Irish population of Scotland. In 1841 nearly one-third of the Irish-born population in Britain lived in Scotland, but by 1991 the figure had declined to just 6 percent.

In contrast with most other migrations, men and women left nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland in roughly equal proportions. Until the 1860s more Irish women than men settled in Britain, but thereafter (until 1921) the position was reversed, though the overall differences were slight. From the 1920s to the early twenty-first century, Irish women have outnumbered Irish men in Britain. This is a reflection of the wide range of employment available for female migrants and the obvious shortage of similar jobs for women in Ireland.

Until 1921 Irish migrants could enter Britain without any hindrance, and visas or employment permits were not required. This remained the situation even after the end of the legislative union in 1921 and the foundation of the independent Irish state. Irish citizens, however, were required to have a visa during World War II and for a short period after the end of the war in 1945. In the context of restrictions on the entry of citizens from the "New" Commonwealth in the 1960s, that the Irish were excluded from legislation to control immigration is striking. Irish migrants could enter Britain as often as they wished and take up any form of employment. This special status was justified on the grounds of the long and close historical relationship between the two countries, though it was also perceived that because Irish migrants were white, they were unlikely to provoke racial tension.

The absence of expressions of a hyphenated identity by Irish migrants living in Britain, such as "Irish British" is in sharp contrast to the experience of Irish Americans in the United States. There is no obvious explanation for this, but the tangled and sometimes fraught political relationship between the two countries is one reason. Irish identity in Britain, however, was not monolithic, and it was shaped by religion, class, and the wider social environment. What marked Irish migrants as different from the British population, apart from their accents, cultural practices, and perhaps forms of dress, was adherence of the majority to Catholicism. The degree of attachment to some form of Irish identity varied among individual migrants. The Irish in Britain were mobilized in support of campaigns for Home Rule in the 1870s and 1880s, but they lacked the political focus that existed for Irish Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

SEE ALSO Diaspora: The Irish in Australia; Diaspora: The Irish in North America; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Migration: Emigration and Immigration since 1950; Primary Documents: From Narrative of a Recent Journey (1847); "An Irishman in Coventry" (1960)


Delaney, Enda. Demography, State, and Society: Irish Migration to Britain, 1921–1971. 2000.

Devine, T. M., ed. Irish Immigrants and Scottish Society in the

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 1991.

Fitzpatrick, David. "'A Peculiar Tramping People': The Irish in Britain, 1801–70." In A New History of Ireland, vol. 5, Ireland under the Union (1801–1871), edited by W. E. Vaughan. 1989.

MacRaild, Donald M. Irish Migrants in Modern Britain, 1750–

1922. 1999.

Enda Delaney