The Literature of the Irish in Britain

Edited by Liam Harte

Published by Palgrave Macmillan . ISBN 978-1-4039-4987-5 Price £50.

This is an expensive academic book, yet for anyone interested in immigration and emigration, working-class (as well as more privileged) lives, personal memoir, and just a wonderful chronicle of the way things were, it is one of the most absorbing, and meticulously annotated collections I have encountered.

            Speaking of what I know, let me quote first from Frances Power Cobbe, a journalist and women’s rights campaigner who flourished in the late Victorian period. “Journalism is,” she writes, “a delightful profession, full of interest and promise of ever-extending usefulness.” This Irishwoman brought to her trade a zest for life, a campaigning attitude, curiosity about people, and humanity. Her work takes her into the coroners’ courts and she reports on the conditions of some pitiful deaths: in one case, she arrives as a shabby lodging-house in Drury Lane, in which a woman of “40 or 50” had died. “She had been a governess in very good families, but had remained unemployed till her clothes grew shabby. She walked all day long over London for many weeks, seeking any kind of work or means of support…” Eventually, the governess died of starvation, and alone. In other cases, Miss Cobbe is able to report happier outcomes, and acts of kindness – sometimes from the clergy – which could save an individual from destitution or Newgate prison (to which one could be condemned for a debt of £2).

     Irish lives in England come in all varieties: from the dreamy reminiscences of W.B. Yeats, bullied at school in Hammersmith and  the recollections of  Sean O’Casey, William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen and Bob Geldof, to the memoirs of navvies, beggars, vagrants, servant girls, tailors, nurses.  From the 18th century, the Irish met with hostility – perhaps all migrants did – and whether they were Protestant or Catholic, might still be addressed as “Irish Papist bitch” (to Laetitia Pilkington, Anglican vicar’s wife). It was, one memorialist recalls, just about acceptable to be Irish, and just about acceptable to be Catholic, but to be both was asking for trouble. There are many mournful accounts of the poor Paddies, travelling in that ghastly Mailboat from Dublin, into a life of exile.

     And yet, not all experiences were negative. Donall Mac Amhlaigh’s well-known memoir, An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile  gives a cheerful enough account of working life in England in the 1950s. Elaine Crowley in Technical Virgins writes quite gleefully of the more liberated life she and other Irish nurses enjoyed in Britain in the 1940s. Justin McCarthy, a fine old Home Rule M.P., who died in 1912, paints a pulsatingly glamourous picture of London “the central point in the universe” when he first came to it. Annie M.P. Smithson – who became a hugely successful popular novelist – writes entertainingly about her life as a nurse in London’s Chelsea Hospital in the 1890s, and how she defied the all-powerful Matron to wear her shamrock on St Patrick’s Day.

Those at the bottom of the social pile were not necessarily the most cowed by the immigrant’s life. One of the liveliest personal accounts is that of Ellen O’Neill, and her Confessions of a Female Pickpocket: she provides much detail of where and how she picked pockets  – always looking for a throng  – and in the mid-Victorian period, Ellen cleared about £10 a week. Jim Phelan’s memory of life as a vagrant in the early 20th century is full of beguiling braggadocio: but a little treasure of social history.

The editor Liam Harte has provided us with a superb historical resource, edited with care and clarity, and illuminating the experience of exile – sorrowful, sometimes, and replete with suffering too, yet adventurous, stimulating, rich in experience, and sensitised in so many different ways to compassion for humanity. ENDS.