Coming over here, taking our jobs…

The famine memorial in Dublin (Wikimedia commons)

Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns. 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.

So wrote the great crusading reformer Thomas Carlyle in 1839. Heroes of the Left like Friedrich Engels were little better:

True, the Irish character, which under some circumstances, is comfortable only in the dirt…

These sorts of quotes sound almost shocking to our ears. Historians are used to our Tory and Whig politicians and newspapers of the day being unrepentantly racist, but it’s a surprise to see those we might consider forward-thinking and progressive come out with such prejudice. Karl Marx, in a letter of 1870, perhaps came closer to understanding the deep antipathy with which the English working classes were judged to consider their Irish counterparts:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life… This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.

This latter quote was used with great resonance by Gary Younge in his recent article on Brexit – as he notes, change a couple of words and it would ring true with regards to much of the discourse around immigration and immigrants today. This has come to be perhaps the defining political debate of our times. Yet in many ways it’s always been so, from Irish immigrants in the 19th century to antisemitic propaganda in the 1930s to “No Coloureds, No Dogs, No Irish” post-WW2 to the race riots of the 1980s to present-day handwringing over (particularly) Muslim immigrants.

The general disarray following the referendum shows that the ruling classes Marx mentions continue to use antagonism as a weapon. Immigration was, of course, such a major theme that many, many voters were prompted to vote solely on that subject. And it’s easy to see why. In the areas that voted to leave there are often major shortages of jobs – particularly well-paid ones, the sort you can be proud of and stick at for life. It’s “common sense” to attribute a shortage of jobs to an over-supply of people willing to do them (rather than a more systemic failure of the labour market). Reports showing that migrants contribute more to the economy than they take out mean little in these circumstances.

Captain Swing (image featured in History Workshop Journal)

I think you can trace it further. The early industrial era saw major working-class uprisings targeting churches (the Gordon riots in London targeted Catholics so inevitably featured a racial element), machinery (the Luddites targeted stocking frames etc., the Swing rioters threshing machines) and toll-gates (the Rebecca rioters in South Wales). These were tangible evidence of work being taken away from them, or barriers put in place by someone, or something out of control. The riots, just as the racism and prejudice directed towards the Irish in the Victorian city, was an outbreak of frustration and powerlessness. I’m rolling the idea around my head that such riots, racism and even brexit represent a crisis of representation as much as anything. More than just a voting system, I mean: people feel alienated from a system that has left them behind, from politicians that lie and fabricate, from technology that replaces their labour (still), from work and a class that used to be an identity worth maintaining, but just isn’t/wasn’t anymore. Sometimes, change hurts.

I’m hoping to write some posts in the next few weeks about the Irish immigrant populations of various parts of the Black Country, in the 19th century particularly. It’s not something that has received a great deal of academic attention. I hope to rectify that a little with my research into Wolverhampton, but the wider Black Country is a strange and confusing place. But Irish people there were, in each town.


Like most migrant communities in the UK, the Irish have been coming and going for many centuries. The rich and the poor, the noble and ignoble, for reasons as diverse as the migrants themselves. During the 18th century, seasonal migrants were common, with a few ending up stopping here. The West coast of Scotland in particular, with its Gaelic links, saw a large Irish population accumulate, as did Liverpool, the main port. Famines were fairly frequent, driving more people to this country, but it was the Great Famine of the 1840s that really changed the whole picture. The centrality of this event is a pillar of Irish historiography that I’ll grapple with, but there’s little doubt that quantitatively at least, its impact was vast and lasted for decades. Hundreds of thousands arrived in London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol. Many managed to secure a passage to America; many couldn’t afford it and traversed Britain looking for work and a home.

There’s been loads of modern research into Irish immigration to Britain, starting with John Jackson’s The Irish In Britain in 1964. Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley’s edited volumes (1/2/3) (including Roger’s excellent articles on Wolverhampton) and Don MacRaild‘s books are the key texts, and there have been wonderful local studies: Birmingham (Carl Chinn); London (Lynn Hollen Lees); Bath (Graham Davis); Manchester (Melvyn Busteed). Mary Hickman’s sociological and Mary Poovey’s cultural/representational takes are also of great interest, and there are tons more that I could name. One you should definitely check out is John Herson’s great blog accompanying his book on the Irish in Stafford – he deals in great detail with many of the historiographical, methodological and just plain interesting parts of the debate.

If I have time, I’d love to dig a bit in other non-Black Country towns that have some meaning for me. In 1851, for example, 5.93% of the population of Winchester were Irish-born. Winchester! When I grew up there it was pretty much the whitest, most English place you could imagine. Certainly not an industrial powerhouse either – the densest Irish populations tended to be where there was substantial unskilled industrial labour. Settlement is unalterably spatial. John Lanchester puts this more eloquently when he says “geography is destiny” – it’s well worth reading his whole article on the fall-out of Brexit.

It’s easy to quantify people by birthplace, particularly when that’s the main source of information you might have about them (the census). It’s a bit of an abstraction though, and it’s easy to lose personal stories, family histories, culture and local networks which make such history so fascinating. That happens today – migrants or refugees often aren’t depicted as individuals, or families, but as “hordes” or statistics. They’re human beings with stories just like yours and mine, often with tragedy in there. Hopefully we’ll uncover a bit of that and perhaps undermine the prejudices of Engels and Carlyle, and the alienation of a restless nation.

3 thoughts on “Coming over here, taking our jobs…

  1. “The liberation of Europe is dependent on a successful uprising by the French working class. But every French social upheaval necessarily founders on the English bourgeoisie, on the industrial and commercial world-domination of Great Britain. England will only be overthrown by a world war, which is the only thing that could provide the Chartists, the organised party of the English workers, with the conditions for a successful rising against their gigantic oppressors.”

    Karl Marx, New Rhenish Gazette (January, 1849)


  2. “…and perhaps undermine the prejudices of Engles and Carlyle.”

    This should be interesting and perhaps difficult? For a historian to do this would he/she have to set aside their modern prejudices?

    It looks like the Oxford English Dictionary’s first record of the word “racism” was by a man named Richard Henry Pratt in 1902.


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