It’s St Patrick’s Day this weekend and Irish communities all over the globe will be celebrating their patron saint and what it is to be Irish. Many people in Britain will be joining in with the celebrations whether they’re Irish or not, and it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, Irish people in England faced terrible discrimination, my own family included.
What started Irish immigration to the UK?
After Ireland became a part of the UK following the Act of Union in 1800, Irish people began moving to Britain to look for work. Then with the Irish Famine in the 1840’s and 50’s, came a huge exodus of people, desperate to escape starvation and poverty.
Irish emigrants settled all across the world, particularly in the US and Australia, but many looked no further than Britain. The industrialisation of Britain in the 19th century was a huge pull for immigrants, and they descended in numbers on industrial centres like London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.
What jobs did they do?
Irish people found it easy to get work and this caused resentment. But the reason they got work was that they were willing to take on hard, dangerous, and dirty jobs. Skilled Irish workers got into tailoring, cobbling, carpentry, and bricklaying if they were lucky, but otherwise, most immigrants worked in low-skilled jobs in the iron and steel industries, and in factories, shipbuilding and construction.
How did they live?
As well as working in the most dirty and dangerous jobs, they often lived in properties that were barely fit for human habitation. Because they lived in such poverty and were often uneducated, they were looked down on as people who were unwilling and unable to better themselves.
The anti-Irish sentiment
This is part of the reason why Irish communities in Britain faced increasing discrimination. Irish workers also gained an unfair reputation for being drunks who liked to fight, and as recently as the 1960’s some B&Bs in Britain had signs on their doors which read ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.’ Irish people were considered to be trouble, and they weren’t welcome.
By the end of the 1960’s, the IRA began its campaign against British rule, and this heralded the start of The Troubles.
One of the deadliest acts of Troubles were The Birmingham pub bombings which happened in November 1974. Bombs exploded in two pubs in the city, killing 21 people and injuring 182 others. Six Irishmen, the so-called ‘Birmingham Six,’ were arrested within hours of the attacks and were given life sentences in 1975 (which would be later quashed because their confessions were deemed to have been coerced). The attacks were bad news for the Irish Communities living on British soil. Every Irish person was viewed with suspicion, whether or not they had anything to do with the heinous activities of the IRA.
In Birmingham, Irish people were physically assaulted and verbally abused, and this pattern was repeated across England, where homes, pubs, community centres, and Irish-owned businesses were attacked, sometimes with firebombs.
Airport workers refused to work on flights going to and from Ireland, and Irish people were refused service in shops. This anti-Irish sentiment would go on for many more years.
The end of The Troubles
The Troubles came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and it appeared that things had turned a corner. The Irish economy picked up, people became more interested in Irish culture, and cities like Dublin became a travel destination of choice for people from England and all over the globe. The old prejudices seemed to have disappeared, or did they?
This St. Patrick’s Day think about what’s happening in your organisation. Are your Irish employees subjected to ‘banter’ or ‘Irish jokes’ about being ‘thick?’ Are they playfully referred to as Mick or Paddy? Is it often suggested that they like a drink? Even the seemingly harmless ‘taking the mick’ is a derogatory Irish reference. This is prejudice disguised as something else.
Make a resolution to learn about Irish culture and celebrate the differences in your organisation, not just the similarities.