New Catalogue
Site designed and maintained by Novena


Reviews

The Irish in Victorian Britain
The Local Dimension
ROGER SWIFT & SHERIDAN GILLEY, editors


Irish Studies Review

'Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley have now edited a trilogy of essay collections on the Irish in Britain. The first volume, The Irish in the Victorian City (1985), presented the Irish as a victimised minority whose only saving grace was the support of the Catholic church. The second volume, The Irish in Britain, 1815--1914 (1989), ranged more broadly and proposed a number of revisions to this perspective. The Irish in Victorian Britain. The Local Dimension, too, moves beyond what had become the standard responses of historians. We are still a long way from a definitive history of the Irish in Britain, but Swift and Gilley's volumes provide a sensitive indication of how the study of this subject has grown and matured. An exhaustive bibliography emphasises the wider dynamic of which this volume is but a part.
This collection emphasises the diversity of Irish migrants' experiences, laying particular stress upon local and regional factors. Studies of familiar centres of Irish settlement, such as Liverpool and London, are interspersed with essays on less noted destinations such as south Wales, north-east England and Birmingham. Small towns, such as Camborne in Cornwall, Stafford and Hull also get an airing. The spirit of the volume is emphasised most clearly in Paul O’Leary’s study Of three south Wales towns - Cardiff, Newport and Merthyr - at the time of the Famine. He argues that 'the history of the Irish in mid-nineteenth-century Britain can be seen as a patchwork of different experiences refracted through the prism of regional economies'. O'Leary asserts that most studies of the Irish in Britain have focused on towns, whereas he stresses the importance of regions.

Carl Chinn and Frank Neal consider the Irish in two (as yet) under-researched places: the north-east of England (which Neal here compares with the north-west) and Birmingham. Neal demonstrates the range of different occupations of Irish migrants in the two regions, and, as with many recent studies, describes the transitory nature of migrant settlements.Chinn's richly detailed study demonstrates the complex nature of Irish household structure in Birmingham and ex- plains the role played by work in cementing the Irish community of Birmingham-the Irish there worked in more than 760 different trades, although building work predominated. He also shows how their community was internally stratified, not just occupationally, but also geographically. While poorer migrants from western Ireland occupied the archetypal accommodation in the worst areas of the city centre, wealthier arrivals from Dublin chose more peripheral localities.

John Belchem's crisp essay on the middle-class Irish in Liverpool also provides clear evidence of the diversity of the migrant experience. Belchem indicates that there was more to Irish ethnicity in Liverpool than deprivation and alienation. Ale city's large and complex Irish community, like that in Birmingham, was internally stratified: it included Protestant tradesmen and prosperous Catholics as well proletarian dockers. Irish ethnic leaders-publicans, journalists, politicians, clerics and many others--offered viable alternative networks for their fellow migrants. Belchem reconsiders and rejects the notion of complete and unproblematic assimilation, challenging the notion of 'ethnic fade'. But neither does he propose a simplistic, impermeable, ethnic community, unchanged over time.

The question of assimilation is addressed head-long in several chapters, not least in Mary Hick- man's critical reflection on the historiography of the Irish in Britain. Hickman proposes a new approach: she wishes to see historians move away from a dominant assimilation/segregation dichotomy and questions whether it is enough simply to add new empirical knowledge to the body of existing works. For Hickman, the completion of further local studies simply adds quantity (not quality) to what we already know. Hickman prefers 'state' and 'nation' to 'regional' and 'local', which makes her essay something of a cuckoo in the nest. Hickman's central belief (detailed in her book, Religion, Class and Identity, 1994) is that the Irish were (forcibly) incorporated into British society by the twin pressures of the British state and the Catholic church. To explicate the problems of the assimilation/ integration model, Hickman is fiercely critical of the work of David Fitzpatrick and that of Alan O'Day (the latter, like Hickman, is an employee at the University of London). She questions O'Day's stress upon the franchise as a measurement of ethnic political attachment. Fitzpatrick is upbraided for using a defunct Marxist typology (community as an observable reality) during his rejection of the idea of an Irish migrant community. There is nothing wrong with engagement in healthy debate and I am sure Fitzpatrick and O'Day would defend Hickman's right to disagree with them. But it seems bizarre that Hickman should alight on just two examples of what she believes is the key flaw in historical writings on this subject. If the flaw is so serious, it must be widespread; and if it is widespread, then surely discussion of a wider literature should have been undertaken.

John Herson also fails Hickman's assimilation/ integration-versus-incorporation test. Nevertheless, his chapter on Victorian Stafford's Irish population still offers a sophisticated discussion of Irish assimilation. He ascribes no great role to the state. He sees the Irish themselves as decision- making individuals who were faced by three essential choices: migration (to be peripatetic); community (to form independent, defiant communities based on the symbols of their difference, notably Catholicism and nationalism); or 'integration' (to seek assimilation into British society). Herson rejects the notion of community on the grounds that the Irish community was permeable. (Evidence includes high levels of intermarriage and a tradition of Catholic and Protestant migration.) In addition, the town of Stafford harboured no obvious Fenian threat and its Irish formed no branches of the various Home Rule organisations. While this could mean that the Irish in Stafford assimilated, it could also mean that they lacked the critical mass required to maintain such political bodies. Although Herson's research is enviably thorough, the wider application of his findings is offset by the small size of Stafford's Irish community.

Religion, nationality and politics-issues at the heart of Hickman's work-feature prominently in this volume as they did in the previous two. Gerald Moran's study of the National Brother- hood of St Patrick in Lancashire, for example, demonstrates the movement's rise and demise in the face of suspicion and opposition from both the Catholic church and nationalist movements. Despite its failure, Moran contends that the movement laid the foundations for future political movements by raising levels of organisation among the Irish of Lancashire. Marie McCelland's study of Catholic education in Hull also emphasises the importance of grass-roots organisation, particularly the role of the Irish Sisters of Mercy. In an essay that echoes many of the themes discussed in other chapters, John Hutchinson and Alan O'Day offer a lucid discussion of the Gaelic Revival and the London Irish. This chapter focuses on a relatively small Irish Catholic intelligentsia-a group for whom history, language and music could be employed to articulate a political vision. They demonstrate the interplay between various organisations (the Gaelic Revival, Irish National League, Irish Self-determination League, Sinn Féin, Catholic church and others), and their wider arguments, concerning ethnicity and the experiences of migrants, are revealing. 'The Gaelic revival', Hutchinson and O'Day contend, 'offered the ethnic community an avenue to escape incorporation but unable to effectively "colonise" the social institutions most germane to the life of the Irish population-the Catholic Church and trade unions - any revival was likely to be short-lived.' In what might be seen as an act of unwitting revenge, O'Day and his co-author reject Hickman's incorporation thesis because '[h]er tendentious style and political purpose obscure a conclusion essentially consistent with scholars who are impressed by the rate at which Irish Catholics have disappeared into British society'. It is not very often that a single collection of essays is dubbed 'important'-but how many editors can say they have produced three volumes deserving of such approval?' Donald M. Macraild, University of Sunderland, Irish Studies Review.


home  |  contact us  |  information  |  books  | news
info@four-courts-press.ie