Genuine asylum seekers or economic migrants?

Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the Great Hunger.
Bridget O’Donnell and her two children during the Great Hunger.

If I were to write about large groups of desperately poor families travelling long distances by unsafe boat or on foot, risking their own and their families’ lives fleeing poverty and disaster in their own land, trying to settle either in the country they first set foot in or using that country as a stepping stone to one that will offer them a new life, a population roundly despised either as spongers or as politically and religiously dangerous and described using language normally reserved for animals, well, you’d think I was talking about this very day.

But as a student of Irish immigration to the UK in the nineteenth century, it’s yet another of those situations where historians end up depressed by the lack of change in attitudes, politics or public opinion. The tragedies that fill our newspapers today (although there’s a subject in itself, when newspapers can in one breath cry outrage! at a photograph of a dead Syrian child, and outrage! in the next that these pesky migrants are still swarming at the gates) bear so much resemblance to the tragedies of, particularly, 170 years ago, that Jonathan Freedland is bound to come knocking soon.

The many Irish families living in poverty in Wolverhampton’s Carribee Island in the mid-nineteenth century were by no means unique. Immigration had been a common feature of Irish life for centuries. Jona Schellekens has described how the patterns of famine and epidemic that ravaged the British Isles (and elsewhere) in the eighteenth century affected the increasingly-overpopulated Ireland particularly – migration has been seen as a ‘safety valve’ against the pressures of land and food shortage. As the nineteenth century progressed, numbers leaving for Liverpool, London and Glasgow in particular grew, these ports acting either as bases for major Irish settlements or as staging posts for an onward trip to America.

Despite the long and troubled history of the Irish rural poor, no-one was prepared for the devastation caused by an Gorta Mór, the sustained failure of the potato crop – the subsistence diet of millions of Irish families – between 1845 and 1852. By this time, Ireland was in full Union with Great Britain, part of which (like in the EU today) meant that the Irish had the right to move around their country, including to the British mainland. And when all your food was gone, if you could move, you did. Better to entertain a slim hope of a new life where there was food and work (as up to 1.5 million Irish did during the period) than to stay and certainly starve (as around 1 million did). And so overcrowded vessels departed Irish ports (it was typically those carrying emigrants from Liverpool to America that were called the “coffin ships”, but the conditions can hardly have been better) full of those gambling all their savings on the uncertain trip to England.

The “coffin ships” – from the Pictorial Times, 1846

After arrival in England, the search for work took the Irish literally all over the country, including major settlements in Manchester, Birmingham and Cumbria, but almost every district, from Wolverhampton to Winchester, saw an influx of Irish immigrants. Those in Carribee Island will most likely have left ports like Westport and Sligo in North-West Ireland and travelled there after arrival at Liverpool. Many of the Irish recorded in censuses were in transit – John Herson has written extensively on Stafford’s transitory Irish population, for example.

Sadly for the Irish, they were not welcomed with open arms and ‘refugees welcome’ signs. Thomas Carlyle, in his pamphlet Chartism wrote that “crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns” (see Roger Swift’s article on the subject). Carlyle visited Ireland at the height of the famine and removed utterly unmoved by the suffering he saw, and wrote that “the wild Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery, and mockery salute you on all highways and byways… He is the sorest evil this country has to strive with. In his rags and laughing savagery, he is there to undertake all work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back – for wages that will purchase him potatoes.” Engels, that pillar of progressiveness, agreed with Carlyle, describing the Irish immigrants to Manchester as crude, facile, bestial and certain to hinder the cause of the English working class. LP Curtis has recorded the fascinating history of illustrative depictions of the Irishman, revealing a thorough and deeply unpleasant racism towards the Irish.

As a majority of Catholics, the Irish were imagined a threat to decent, English, Protestant society. The remaining English Catholics, a vestige of the upper-class Catholicism that had recently been emancipated, must have been either bemused or horrified by the gaunt faces that began to fill their pews. Those of a more militantly anti-Catholic nature preached hate and damnation upon the Papist evil – in Wolverhampton (as Swift also records), as elsewhere, lecturers such as the Baron de Camin and William Murphy threatened to reveal the wickedness of the Vatican and Catholic ritual. They sold out lecture halls and caused riots amongst the offended Irish.

I find the current political rhetoric of ensuring a firm distinction between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrant” a bit disturbing, but mostly so un-nuanced as to be completely useless. Most of Europe seem now happy to embrace those fleeing the awful conflicts in Syria, Libya or Afghanistan, but are less sympathetic towards those fleeing from harsh regimes or unimaginable poverty in sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh. To me the difference seems futile: either way these are human beings in desperate need, risking everything by leaving the country of their birth to who-knows-what beyond the sea. It’s painful seeing how the electioneering talk of ‘aspiration’ is not permitted to be applied to these desperate souls. Would I describe the famine Irish as economic migrants or genuine refugees? Who cares! They had nothing and aspired to something, anything, for themselves or their families, just like the Kurdi’s and the millions of their peers today.

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