Place to Place: Translocality from Kilmaine to Wednesbury

Lough Corrib viewed from near Cong. © Copyright Joseph Mischyshyn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

One of the things that has linked a lot of my recent work has been the idea of translocality: that is, that when people move they don’t necessarily think of themselves as nationals of a certain nation state moving to another nation state, but as individuals or families from a certain place, moving to another place – often within quite tightly prescribed boundaries. I’m planning my next few posts to be some examples of this, hopefully via France, South Asia, Canada and elsewhere.

“Translocal” (see Simon Peth’s useful explainer here) is a concept that geographers sometimes use as a contrast to “transnational.” That is, people aren’t just “Asians” or “West Indians,” or even “Pakistanis” or “Jamaicans” – they bring with them hyper-local cultural backgrounds that map onto hyperlocal environments here. That means that, for instance, many Bangladeshis in the West Midlands can trace their families back to a handful of villages in Sylhet Division, and maintain ongoing connections through family, friendship networks, financial remittance and political contributions. Although a fairly recently articulated term, it definitely reminds me of the understanding of terms like “diaspora” or “immigration” that you would find in the work of, say, Doreen Massey, the most humane and personal of human geographers. I think it’s of value as a historical idea, and continually changes in practice.

This is an important issue in the present day too. It’s important to understand how and why our communities have come to be the way they are, so that as Black Country people (or wherever!) we can support and look after our neighbours, whatever their background. There’s a pervasive narrative around at the moment which stigmatises “immigrants” in general; but by understanding a little more about individuals and their experiences, we learn that everyone has experiences in life just as specific and complex as our own. The history of migration should, hopefully, help us to be more understanding, more outward-looking, and more understanding towards everyone. This is something I’m continually learning about, and always want to learn more about, so I’m keen to hear more examples – please get in touch! Today’s blog is based on my PhD research into the Irish in the Black Country.

“An Irish Colony In England”

In 1856 A.M. Sullivan, the assistant editor of The Nation, a nationalist newspaper based in Dublin, made a tour of the West Midlands. He had been invited by the campaigning Catholic priest of the town, Rev George Montgomery (who later came up with the scheme to send his flock to Brazil), to witness the abject position of the Irish in his town. In his report, Sullivan characterises these emigrants as “those who at home were most wretched, and emigrated out of necessity” – that is, not the slightly better-off that could scrape together the fare for America, but the absolutely destitute who fled famine, diseased and eviction.

They push their way inland where unskilled labour, of the hardest and most laborious nature, is to be done. Perhaps some pioneer has gone before, and they journey in his track to the promised land, where gold is to be earned, no matter by how much slavery. Arrived at it they pitch their tents, and yoke to the work of beasts.
The Nation
, 16 February 1856

Usually when researching Irish immigrants in England, it’s very difficult to find more information about their origins. Whereas for English-born people, census enumerators were required to record both county and parish of birth, they were not under the same obligation for people born outside of England (and usually Wales). All we can often know is that they were born in Ireland. Occasionally, a diligent enumerator recorded this extra detail, but rarely. Despite Ireland constituting a full third of the UK’s population in 1841, this recording is very much in keeping with wider attitudes of the time, which presumed all Irish people were feckless, lazy, and all of a piece – there was no room in onlookers’ opinions for regional variety.

You could make an educated guess that the Irish in the Black Country were from the counties of Connacht in the West of Ireland, as most in the West Midlands were. Those few references to birth parish in my study of Wolverhampton were mostly from around Galway, Mayo, Sligo or Roscommon; this was corroborated by Col Hogg, superintendent of Wolverhampton police, when he testified that “they come from Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo generally.” Similarly, in John Herson’s comprehensive work on the Irish in Stafford, most came from the area around Castlerea, County Roscommon.

I’ve picked this article about Wednesbury, however, because it has some unusual detail that helps locate the origins of Wednesbury’s Irish:

The Irish located here are, chiefly, peasants from the poorest part of the West of Ireland. They have come from the parishes of Cong, Kilmain, Neale, Shrule and Ross – from a district, which the Rev Mr Brown, once parish priest of Kilmaine, described as, perhaps, one of the most intensely Irish in Ireland.

Bartholomew Quarter Inch Map of Ireland, c.1940 (available via NLS maps)

This puts the origins of (most of) Wednesbury’s Irish population within an area of about 100 square miles (coincidentally, not far off the size of the Black Country) on the shores of Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. As the map shows, the area straddles counties Mayo and Roscommon – this can make statistics complicated but shows how people don’t really live according to borders. Cong (see Logainm for the two parts of the parish), for instance, straddles the two – it’s best known as the birthplace of Oscar Wilde’s father, and the filming location for The Quiet Man. Kilmaine (from Cill Mhéain in Irish, middle church), Neale (An Éill) and Shrule (Sruthair) are small, scattered parishes on the East side of the loughs, while Ross (An Ros) is a sprawling, hilly area extending into Joyce Country and the Partry Mountains. The whole area is sparsely populated – it would have been quite different on the eve of the famine, when the hills and fields would have been covered with small farms, hovels and gardens, probably overcrowded compared to the productivity of the land.

It’s not clear what Rev Mr Brown meant by “most intensely Irish” – given the viewpoint of the newspaper this was published in, this probably wasn’t meant as derogatory, so it might well be referring to the dominance of the Irish language in this area (despite the best efforts of English missionaries and administrators to push English as the lingua franca). Parts of this area still fall within the Galway gaeltacht, and would have fallen with the Galway/Connacht dialect family, although Irish is no longer the dominant language it was then. Sullivan himself was probably not a strong Irish speaker – it was only later that the language became an essential part of the nationalist movement – but did know enough to note it on the streets of Wednesbury, a fact he re-iterated in several later articles:

Next morning I set out on my exploration through the Irish quarters of the town. In that space of time I heard more of the Irish language spoken, than if I had traversed Dublin, Cork, or Waterford. In very many of the houses not one of the women could speak English, and I doubt that within a single house, the Irish was not the more prevalent language.
The Nation, 7 June 1856

Sullivan was probably not incorrect in this assessment. Already by this point, Irish was a language of the West of the country, and not in common use in the major towns.

Map of the decline of Irish language from Reddit.

It’s very unlikely that many of those Irish that ended up in Wednesbury in the 1850s ever made it back to Galway or Roscommon. Sullivan speculated that many would have been orphans by this time, “whose parents perished in ’47” – but some certainly remitted some of their income home.

…in many of their cases, a widowed mother remains, in some wretched hamlet in Connaught, supported by the pittance which the son or daughter sends out of the wages so hardly earned.

This is a recurring theme amongst emigrants to England. I don’t know much about the mechanics of sending money back like that, but it was a key means in which a translocal relationship was created, rather than simply a move from one place to another. Letters would have gone back and forth too, perhaps via the priests, and failing that newspapers were available in diaspora communities: Irish people in the Black Country certainly had access to The Nation, The Irishman, the Freeman’s Journal and other papers with classified and correspondence sections.

The final interesting point in this article is the visibility of translocality. Most English people would have imagined they could point out an Irish peasant in their town because stage and cartoon renditions of “Paddy” and “Bridget” were a comedy staple (see LP Curtis on this). Sullivan, however, points out a more specific visual identifier:

In other instances, mothers have followed their children, and the blue cloak and red petticoat of the Connemara peasant woman are common on the streets and byeways of Wednesbury.

The typical dress of a working-class woman in England by this time was the shawl, maybe plaid or coloured – popular in Ireland too, but only after it replaced the older cloak – sometimes called a Kinsale or West Cork Cloak – which was ubiquitous in some parts until the twentieth century. Sullivan calls it a Connemara outfit, and it’s obviously associated with rurality and peasant women in his mind. Farrell and McKee argue that these were ubiquitous, clothing individuality being a pretty recent phenomenon. I like the thought that amidst the gloom and poverty of the Victorian Black Country, rich blues and bright reds were signs of community, kinship and shared experience, and a reminder of family and friends wearing the same outfits back home.

In an age before mass communication, the Irish in Britain still formed distinctively translocal communities, with established and ongoing place-to-place links. They were not the homogenous mass that the media, politicians and other observers made them out to be. Instead, they brought regional distinctiveness to their new homes that, sometimes, only other Irish people would have understood or observed. Their dress was distinctive to their home land. Their dialect would be recognisable to other Irish speakers, who would know they were not from the South or North of Ireland. Money and knowledge flowed back and forth between scattered rural parishes and cramped urban courts. If you can put aside the generalisations and assumptions made in most primary sources (written by the wealthy, elite and/or English), this is a more useful way of understanding actual lived experiences than presuming that all Irish experiences in all parts of the diaspora are/were the same.

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