The Irish in England

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On 23 December 1846 the ship Wanderer left Baltimore, a small port far out on the south-west coast of Ireland near Fastnet. After a five-week voyage in mid-winter, the Wanderer deposited 113 destitute men, women and children, of whom 26 were dying, at Newport in Monmouthshire, deep up the Bristol Chanel and beyond Cardiff. Soon the streets of the little town were crowded with starving Irish, brought there by stories of well-paid work and of public assistance, spread partly by people anxious to be rid of them.

Newspapers today tell of the ‘shock to individual institutions and communities of the sudden impact of a mass of impoverished and disease-ridden immigrants, desperate for survival, in a disaster not of their own making, and of the kinds of resentment, frustration and sheer inhumanity to which this gave rise’, but these words are used by Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (see the Bibliography below) to describe the appearance of the ‘Famine Irish’ in South Wales during and after the potato famine of 1845-9.

Before the Famine[edit | edit source]

Irish beggars had troubled the authorities in England since Tudor times. Poverty and the upheaval caused by English plantations in the late 16th and 17th centuries brought many unskilled Irish labourers to England to settle in Liverpool, Bristol and London. Since the 18th century Irish seasonal migrants or ‘spalpeens’ had come to England to help with the harvest and by the 1820s many were staying permanently. Irish soldiers, who had fought against Napoleon and served some time in England, saw the opportunities which the industrial revolution was bringing, and returned to England with their relatives and friends. By the 1830s the Irish had also established a presence in the major towns of South Wales, as well as in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

In good weather it is only 55 miles from Wexford (or Rosslare) to Fishguard in Pembrokeshire or from Dublin to Holyhead in Anglesey. From Larne, on the coast above Belfast, to Stranraer in Scotland is just 35 miles. The chief means of cheap transport for the seasonal migrants were the empty returning ships which took coal to Ireland, there being no coal there. When the harvest was finished and with money in their pockets the men could return to Ireland on the more expensive packet boats which ran regularly to Donaghadee, Dublin and Waterford.

There were in fact three main streams of migrants to Britain:

  • From the Province of Ulster to Glasgow, Paisley and Kilmarnock on the west coast of Scotland and to Dundee in the east.
  • From the central and western counties of Ireland (Kildare, Mayo and Roscommon), through Dublin and Drogheda, to Liverpool and other Lancashire towns.
  • From the south western counties of Ireland (Cork, Waterford and Limerick), areas badly hit by the famine, into South Wales and Bristol, from whence many then moved on to London.

With the coming of the ‘Hungry Forties’ thousands followed these routes, the stream continuing well into the 1850s. In one report to the General Board of Health in 1850 about the situation in Cardiff the migrants were characterised as bringing nothing with them but ‘pestilence on their backs, famine in their stomachs’.

South Wales[edit | edit source]

There had always been trade and movement between the many small ports in southern Ireland and those of south Wales and Bristol. The deep harbour at Cork, which for trade and commerce, it was said in 1813, ‘far exceeds any other town in Ireland’, saw the export of vast quantities of salt provision (food preserved in salt or brine) and in the season between August and January about 100,000 head of black cattle were slaughtered there. Waterford was also known for its harbour with many ships in the Newfoundland trade. Here every week 3,000 hogs were killed and cured, mainly to supply the Royal Navy. There were mackerel, cod and herring fisheries around the coasts and salmon in the rivers. Dublin’s fish market was said in 1813 to be ‘in greater perfection than in any other capital in Europe’. The men who engaged in all these trades probably had more knowledge of the wider world than one might expect.

Those arriving at Newport in 1847 were initially met with assistance in the Refuge for the Destitute, which provided food and temporary accommodation, from the Poor Law Union and from a local relief fund. However, as numbers outgrew resources, sympathy evaporated and some groups were sent back to Ireland or told to leave town. Anger and resentment set in, made worse when stories circulated that the migrants’ passage money was paid by their landlords and by the poor law authorities in Ireland.

There was unrest at Swansea, Merthyr Tydfil and particularly at Cardiff, small as it was at that time. Wary of the ports, the migrants were set down at every available cove and inlet in Pembrokeshire. One man drowned in the mud at Penarth. Late in 1847 the coal and iron masters at Newport agreed not to send freight in the ships which engaged in this trade but some captains had licences to carry up to ninety passengers and brought many more, landing them on the mudflats outside the harbour. Heavy fines and imprisonment were then introduced for any infringement of the shipping regulations.

About 40 per cent of the Irish in Newport had some sort of fever and two ministering priests there died of typhus that year. It was suggested that all vessels be put in quarantine but although this was done at Quebec, Boston and New York it was never done in England. Categorised as vagrants the migrants were generally not eligible to be received into the local workhouses though great numbers were given some assistance from the Poor Law Unions through which they passed. As today, the few refuges in which they were able to sleep were seen as a magnet for other vagrants.

Some had a little money, a few shillings perhaps the proceeds of the sale of their possessions at home, but persisted in begging. One family at Newport which was found to have £3 was sent home at its own expense. In fact, however, there were not many complete families amongst the migrants assisted in the area, many being widows and women with young children and older decrepit men and women, the young men either preceding them or leaving them at the port of entry to go and search for work.

Over 300 Irish navvies got work on the South Wales Railway, earning 2s 6d a day, and in May 1848 some of those working near Swansea murdered two local men in a beer house. In June the houses of the Irish community at Llantrissant near Cardiff were attacked in the night. In November there were serious riots and destruction of property in Cardiff following the stabbing of a Welsh man and a mob attacked the Catholic church and the priest fled for his life. Many other clashes and incidents evinced bitter hostility to the presence of the Irish in an area where the advent of the railways was already causing great disruption.

Amongst these early migrants in 1846 was John Garoghan, a weaver, who walked down from Kealkill, six miles north-west of Bantry in county Cork. His grandson James changed his name to Callaghan and joined the Royal Navy and eventually became the father of the M.P. for Cardiff the English Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

On to North America[edit | edit source]

Passage from Cork to Newport cost two shillings and six pence or, to London, five shillings and so the Irish with few means came to England but the small farmers with some money went to America and Australia. Many emigrants from the north sailed from Londonderry where a passage to Quebec or one of the other Canadian ports in the 1830s cost about £2. To America it cost twice as much. There were concessions for children and, when families went, the cost to Canada might be only a third of that to America. A fortunate few went to Liverpool and caught the packet boat to Philadelphia, a weekly service having started in 1829.

In the late 1840s Michael O’Regan or Reagan, the son of a farm labourer at Ballyporeen in south Tipperary, born there in 1829, found his way to one of the ports on the southern coast (perhaps to Dungarvan which was only twenty-five miles away). He, like many others, made his way to London and married in the Catholic church in Southwark in 1852. The couple lived at Peckham were a son, John Michael, was born in 1854, and they went to America in 1858.

Many other Irish families similarly remained in England for a few years, or even for a generation, and then, having saved sufficient money, moved to North America, perhaps joining other family members and friends there. John Michael Reagan was the grandfather of American President Ronald Reagan.

London[edit | edit source]

The largest number of Irish immigrants came to London with its great variety of trades and perceived opportunities. The number of Irish street traders, selling nuts and oranges (which kept well and could be obtained in small quantities), had been noticeable in London since the 1820s. These ‘street Irish’, with their ‘networks of place or origin, family, work and church’, are described by Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor (1851-62). Many were from county Cork and other parts of the province of Munster and were Gaelic speaking, the women often with little or no English. They walked from south Wales or Bristol relying on charity and the casual wards of local workhouses along the way. About a hundred thousand had arrived in London by 1851.

In London their first port of call was often a cheap lodging house or the Asylum for the Houseless Poor near the docks in Whitechapel where high concentrations of Irish developed, often in appalling conditions. Others settled around Drury Lane, convenient for work in Covent Garden, at Saffron Hill and in Southwark. The second generation remained in these areas but mobility within them was high. Some continued to do seasonal harvest work walking in and out of London.

Without references the men could only do casual work, labouring, rubbish-carting, costering and crossing sweeping. In the docks, where available work fluctuated according to season, those who did the hiring were often publicans who coerced the labourers into spending their hard earned money in their public houses else they got no further work.

Most Irish Catholics in London were illiterate. They identified with their church to such an extent that ‘Catholic’ became equated with ‘Irish’. They were proud of their religion, but they were not good church goers (though more devout than the despised English ‘Protistints’ of the same class). However, about twenty per cent lived in areas where there was no Catholic church and there was not the hostility between Catholics and Protestants that was found in Lancashire. Where hostility existed it was because some sympathised with Home Rule (for Ireland) and most were prepared to live more cheaply and thus work for less. In the second and third generation with ‘ethnic fade’ they were frequently absorbed without problem into the host community.

The Midlands and the North[edit | edit source]

The industrial towns of Lancashire attracted a greater number of Irish settlers in the late eighteenth century than any other county. Already by 1835 in Manchester a sixth of the family heads were Irish and migration was stimulated and fed by the development of the cotton mills, though many here and in Stockport worked as bricklayers’ labourers.

Liverpool[edit | edit source]

However, Liverpool was the first port of call for the majority arriving from Dublin and Drogheda, many being able-bodied men who had walked from Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo. They congregated in the northern dockland area where there was already an active Catholic minority. A number went on to Leeds, where there were 10,000 Irish-born in 1871, and ‘the toughest and most determined’ went on to Hull, the majority, from Mayo, to find work in the docks.

Already by 1841 the 50,000 Irish-born in Liverpool formed seventeen per cent of the population (as against two or three per cent in Hull and Leeds), a figure which rose to 70,000 or twenty-seven per cent in 1851 but had fallen to fifteen per cent in 1871. Exceptionally here an important Irish Catholic middle-class developed. Elsewhere in England the Irish generally sought an unassertive incorporation into Society rather than a sharply separatist identity but here a deep sectarian rivalry ensued. Many in the religious and political community which had developed took an active interest in Home Rule which in turn resulted in considerable conflict.

By the 1920s and 1930s some 100,000 Catholics were being served by seventy to seventy-five priests. With loss of industry after the Second World War, however, the population fell and was not replenished by new migrants. Many parishes were obliged to merge and their schools to close. Although many Catholics remain, a search for Liverpool’s ‘Little Ireland’ today has almost become a search for clues on a Heritage Trail.

Birmingham[edit | edit source]

In Birmingham great numbers were attracted in the mid-1820s by the rapid industrial expansion of the city. Many became building workers but many others entered local trades. Large households of Gaelic speakers, with three generations of the family as well as lodgers providing mutual support, often from the same areas of Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Sligo, are characteristic. The poorer migrants crowded into the old city centre in the most terrible conditions, whilst the more affluent from Dublin and Cork lived in the outskirts of the city. Fed by the arrival of New Irish after the Second World War the St Patrick Day’s Parade has become one of the largest in the world, third only after New York and Dublin. Today the 38,000 Irish-born still make up four per cent of the population.

Stafford[edit | edit source]

A genealogical study by John Herson, reconstituting the family histories of the Irish in Stafford, has shown that the community, which first appeared there in the 1830s, was largely based on a core of stable Catholic families, the majority stemming from an area of Roscommon, Galway and Mayo centred on Castlerea. Rather typically in time they married into other local families, to some extent moving up the social scale, whilst others moved away as the town’s prosperity declined. See John Herson, 'Migration, 'community' or integration? Irish families in Victorian Stafford' in The Irish in Victorian Britain (1999).

Northumberland and Durham[edit | edit source]

In the north east of England concentrations of the Irish formed in the dockland areas of Newcastle and Tynemouth and along the south bank of the Tyne, with a wide scattering in the furnace towns and pit villages of county Durham. In these places the Irish were highly mobile, swiftly moving from place to place as pits and iron works grew and declined.

The numbers[edit | edit source]

In 1841 there were about 290,000 Irish-born men, women and children in England and Wales, and 126,000 in Scotland, but they formed only 1.8 per cent of the total population, a figure which rose to three per cent in 1851 and 1861 (but to nearly eight per cent in Scotland). The numbers peaked in England and Wales in 1861 at 601,634, of whom 16 per cent lived in London. They peaked in Scotland in 1881 at 218,745. These figures, of course, take no account of children born to Irish parents in Britain or of the second and third generations.

After 171 the numbers of Irish coming to England declined. Of the newcomers in 1881 some 82 per cent were day labourers but a larger proportion of later migrants were from the professional and commercial classes. Between 1891 and 1921, for the first time, more women than men came over, including many domestic servants and teachers for the growing number of Catholic elementary schools. The entrepreneurial nun has been called ‘one of nineteenth century Ireland’s more successful exports’, intent on building convents, schools and hospitals, often in the face of local opposition from Protestant and Catholic clergy alike.

On many places in England the settlements of Irish resulting from migration in the famine years had disappeared with the clearance of slum areas before the end of the century. The numbers were not replaced by newcomers. By 1911 the total of Irish-born had fallen to 375,325 or about one per cent of the total population. It did not rise again until the 1950s and 1960s when the ‘New Irish’ came from all parts of Ireland to settle in Birmingham and Bristol and at Kilburn in London.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

There is an enormous literature about the Irish in England and many detailed studies of local communities have been carried out. See in particular Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley, The Irish in Victorian Britain: the local dimension (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999) and their earlier works The Irish in the Victorian City (1985) and The Irish in Britain 1815-1939 (1989). See also Patrick O’Sullivan, ed. The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity (6 vols. Leicester University Press, 1992), in particular vol. 1, Patterns of Migration.

Acknowledgment[edit | edit source]

This article is adapted with permission from an article by Anthony Camp, ‘The Irish in England’, inFamily Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 19, no. 9 (July 2003) pages 8-10.