Friday, November 03, 2006


The Irish abroad - why we're loved and hated

I was born in Ireland, an island that does not match the size of many counties in the USA, never mind states! In he middle of the nineteenth century, Ireland was home to approximately 8 million people - following the disastrous potato failure in 1848 that number quickly reduced through death and emigration. There were two countries to which Irish people emigrated: Britain and the USA.

The arrival of tens of thousands of Irish workers, plus their families, in various British cities could not have been more fortuitous to some British people. We assume that the Irish in Britain were deeply resented; such resentment was most felt by the British working classes who were competing for jobs. The arrival of the Irish coincided with the industrial revolution which needed manpower and large and cheap quantity. The construction of the railways, canals, steel, coal and clothing industries emerge during this period and the Irish provided cheap labour. While the railways frequently employed a transient population (often creating huge temporary camps in the back of beyond), the Irish population gradually acquired more permanent work. Since men could get the best jobs at this time, it was crucial for the Irish family in Britain to have a healthy and strong man as head of their household - it was an added bonus if the family had boys. Women worked in the lighter industrial units such as the great cotton mills of Lancashire; they also found employment in the service of the upper classes.

Daily life for the British working class was extremely difficult. Rent was high and families often shared rooms with relatives. Health and sanitation were poor; the provision of fresh water and sewage was often non-existent. One of the reasons for the large alcoholic population was due to poor water – beer was the best and most safe liquid to drink. Many people died of the results of such poor living conditions through cholera, dysentery and smallpox (amongst others).

The family spirit of the Irish was to be their greatest strength, combined with their unwavering faith in the church. Last time I mentioned I would compare Irish and Muslim communities in Britain — here we have our first similarities. The ‘church’ of the Irish was different to the majority of British people since it was the Roman Catholic church, itself the subject of centuries of censure in Britain. The ‘church’ of most British people was the Anglican Church, which is still the official church of the country.

To summarize, there are many parallels between the arrival of the Irish during the middle of the eighteenth century and that of various Muslims from the middle of the twentieth century. I acknowledge that I compare a nationality with a religion but defend myself because this is how British people perceive(d) them. Next time I will discuss how the Irish managed to incorporate themselves into British society.

Thanks for reading this far — you are most welcome to leave comments.

All the best,


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