Author Archives: Sara Goek

About Sara Goek

PhD candidate in History / Digital Arts & Humanities at University College Cork. Research interests: oral history, migration, identity, traditional music, the Irish diaspora. http://saragoek.wordpress.com

Oral History in Ireland: A Status Update

OHNILast weekend (12-13 Sept.) I attended the second conference of the Oral History Network of Ireland, held in Kilkenny. Founded in 2010, OHNI has held a number of events to bring together oral history practitioners and to further develop the field across the nation. One of the unique characteristics of this conference, and indeed of the network, is the encouragement of participation by those working outside third-level education. Though I did hear one complaint that it still feels dominated by academics, it is much less so than most events of this type. The workshops, sessions, and discussions over the course of two days covered a wide range of topics and themes including ethics, interviewing, communities, digital media, heritage, and history (the full programme and abstracts are available here). Lots could be said about all of these, but I will briefly touch on issues of community and access that I heard raised at multiple points during the weekend.

Rob Perks bravely gave both a workshop and a keynote address on Friday afternoon. The former, ‘Archiving oral history recordings’, drew extensively on his work as lead curator of Oral History at the British Library and summarized workflow processes and best practices. After a short break for the wine reception, Rob was back for his keynote, ‘The development of community oral history in the UK: reflecting on the issues and challenges’. It took a broad view of the discipline, beginning with nineteenth-century social investigators, dialect studies, and folklore, and moving on to George Ewart Evans and the BBC Radio Ballads in the post-Second World War period. The main part of his address focused on two waves of community oral history in the UK: the 1970s to ‘80s and from the 1990s on. The first was characterized by local activist groups and publications and through this many of the current generation of oral historians, including Rob himself, immersed themselves in the field. The second wave has been characterized by the availability of Heritage Lottery funding as well as broadening definitions of ‘community’. These trends raise questions and issues that apply beyond the UK context:

  • ‘Celebratory impulse’[1]: Who or what is the community? Asking this question involves taking risks, but is necessary to delve beneath the surface.
  • ‘Shared authority’[2]: This is definitely a laudable goal, but is it achievable?
  • Avoiding ‘one source history’: How can we compare and contrast oral testimony with other forms of primary sources and place local history in a wider context?
  • Re-use of community oral history for purposes not initially foreseen: What documentation is kept? Who has control over the sources? Who will have access?

Overall the trend in the UK has been from community oral history to oral histories of elites, whereas US work has primarily followed the opposite trajectory, but these questions can apply to all projects in different types of ‘communities’.

The issue of who or what constitutes a community also arose in the discussion at the end of the panel ‘working-class communities, trade unions, and politics’ (with presentations from Mary Muldowney, Liam Cullinane, and John Gibbons). How are communities constituted – by geographical area, by the way in which their members speak of them, or by exclusion? Oral histories of working-class communities often focus on social networks, mutual assistance, and a sense of solidarity, and while the reality of these attributes is undoubted, panel attendees also highlighted the existence of people in the same geographical proximity or industry who either chose to separate themselves or were deliberately excluded. The former case included families who felt they had dropped in social status and wanted to maintain an outward ‘respectability’, and the latter case included strikebreakers. In addition, the study of an urban working-class neighbourhood in the 1930s, for example, might include those who had since geographically or economically moved out of that community. But while these types of people should be part of the historical narrative, their experiences can prove difficult to capture, because they themselves may decline to be interviewed and others within the community may avoid mentioning or questioning these divisions.[3]

Presentations in the final panel of the conference ‘the place of oral history in the Irish heritage landscape’ addressed two main issues: funding and the place of oral history within definitions (legal and otherwise) of heritage in Ireland. The latter arguably influences the ability to gain the former. However, overall the panel seemed based on the assumptions that oral histories are collected by local community groups tied to distinct geographical areas that therefore fall under the remit of a county council heritage officer. This evidenced a general failure to acknowledge, reflect on, or respond to the broader definitions of community raised by Rob Perks and others during the course of the conference. What if an oral history project centres on a community at a national or international level? My own work extends across the Irish diaspora, so where does it fit? If funding is seen as coming primarily from local sources, this severely limits projects with a broader scope.

The final point I would like to make relates to preservation and access: one commentator at the end of the panel suggested that OHNI might ensure that individuals or groups applying for or receiving funding adhere to standards and best practices. The network also has a role to play in ensuring that policies exist for archiving and access at local and national level. In a 1997 report on oral archives historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote that ‘haphazard, incomplete and inconsistent are the words that spring to mind concerning attitudes and practices relating to the collection and preservation of oral archival material’ in Ireland.[4] Sadly, this remains the case, as no national institution has taken on a role in collecting or disseminating oral sources equivalent to that of the British Library in the UK. OHNI lists as one of its key objectives, ‘to be actively involved in archiving initiatives by promoting best practice and long term sustainability of voice archives’, but much remains to be done in this area. I have high hopes for the future!

 

[1] Linda Shopes, ‘Oral History and the Study of Communities: Problems, Paradoxes, and Possibilities’, Journal of American History, vol.89, no.2 (Sept. 2002), pp.588-98.

[2] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (SUNY Press, 1990).

[3] An earlier conference panel suggested some possible remedies: Ultan Cowley discussed a group who feel excluded from Ireland – Irishmen who spent their lives working as navvies in England – and the problematic relationship they have with their homeland; while the GAA Oral History Project focused primarily on those who maintained involvement in the organization, Alan Noonan tackled its darker side in examining an event in the 1950s that had a bitter and alienating effect for many local players involved.

[4] Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Oral Archives in Ireland: A Preliminary Report’, Irish Economic & Social History, vol.25 (1998), p.91.

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Filed under Irish History, Social History

Understanding Irish America

'St Patrick' in the 2009 Dublin parade

‘St Patrick’ in the 2009 Dublin parade (photograph by the author)

With the importation of American-style parades, sequined shamrocks, and green beer, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland has come to seem more and more Irish-American. Meanwhile the mass exodus of politicians to the US and other parts of the world for March 17th continues as they court the now-powerful descendents of Irish emigrants. Buried under a landslide of books for my PhD and assailed by news articles and ads on the upcoming holiday, I have realized that few critically question these developments or our assumptions about them – if we say St. Patrick’s Day is Irish-American, then what is Irish America really? Viewed historically this presents less of a problem: successive waves of Irish immigrants settled largely in urban areas where they worked and lived with other Irish people, participated in Irish cultural events, went to the local Catholic Church where there was often an Irish priest, and wrote letters to relatives in Ireland and across the globe. But what about today? Historians speak about ethnic groups in an amorphous sense but few engage with the more ambiguous markers of ethnic identity in the present or only seem to notice those who actively participate in maintenance of that identity, those who take Irish dancing or language classes or, in the case of The Gathering last year, those with enough money to make the trip across the Atlantic to the ‘old country’. What about the rest?

Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Irish America is rooted in history, particularly the Famine of 1845-9. Social anthropologist Reginald Byron’s book, misleadingly titled Irish America (it’s about Albany, New York), attempts to link that history to contemporary identity. While putting the Famine at the centre of the Irish American experience places Byron in good company, his account of Irish history and the history of the Irish in America largely ends with the mid-nineteenth century and he is vague about how many of his informants might actually be descended from famine-era immigrants as opposed to earlier or later generations. After all, while approximately 1 million people left Ireland in the famine decade, emigration had begun before then and 3.5 million left between 1855 and 1921 and in all cases a large proportion ended up in the United States, though sometimes by more circuitous routes. The danger of focusing so intensely on the Famine as to give it a mythic quality is that doing so can ‘obscure the diversity of Irish migration and its changing character over time’.[1] Byron’s repeated emphasis on the ‘famine generation’ belies his otherwise patent goal to ‘dispose’ of ‘pervasive myth’.[2] Irish America was never one homogenous entity, never solely the victims of starvation and oppression; that in itself is a myth. It was and is more akin to a historically grounded, continually negotiated, and multi-faceted idea, aspects of which individuals might choose to accept or reject.[3]

When we say an idea or ethnic identity is rooted in history or a sense of the past, what does that mean exactly? Whose history? What history and where? Byron focused his questions on two areas: Irish history and family history, but found his informants’ knowledge of both lacking when he asked them to name major events in Irish history and why their ancestors left. He concludes, ‘for the great majority of our informants, the links with the past had been broken, and no family traditions of Irish history or stories of the circumstances of their ancestors’ emigration have been passed down to the present generations.’[4] Is it really so surprising that people in the 1990s (when he carried out his research) do not know the exact reasons their ancestors left Ireland a hundred-plus years ago? How many people do know their full family history back five or more generations? Byron seems interested in these ‘links with the past’ only when they pertain to Ireland – why not the experience of the Irish in America?[5] By asking about Irish history and reasons for leaving Ireland he seems to query the authenticity of Irish America in calling itself Irish at all, as opposed to examining what it is in and of itself. Irish immigrants and their descendents worked as everything from miners to mayors, domestic servants to democratic senators, but in the process they often faced discrimination, company exploitation, and poor housing, all of which have shaped the historical narrative.

For me, the more interesting questions are related to why individuals today want to have an ethnic identity and how and why those of mixed ancestry end up emphasizing one branch of the family over another.[6] What does it mean to be Irish-American or ‘of Irish extraction’ today? How does drinking green beer have anything to do with it? Is being ‘ethnic’ in America anything more than a fad, a by-product of embracing multiculturalism? The commonly quoted statistic is that roughly 40 million Americans write ‘Irish’ in the ethnic section of the census form, but what this means may differ between individuals. For some, it may simply be a fact of ancestry. For others, it surfaces in the form of participation in St Patrick’s Day celebrations or a holiday in Ireland. For others, it may be more a part of everyday life.[7] When Humans of New York published this photo and caption, the comments zeroed in on questioning the man’s Irishness, not the central lesson of tolerance.[8] Both Ireland and Irish America may have a lot to learn about each other and about the value of accepting diversity in what it means to be Irish.


[1] Kevin Kenny, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), p.29.

[2] Reginald Byron, Irish America (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999), p.54.

[3] Kathleen Neils Conzen, et al., ‘The Invention of Ethnicity in the United States’, in Jon Gjerde (ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1998), pp.22-9.

[4] Byron, Irish America, p.82.

[5] This is despite the fact that he realizes, ‘by and large, our informants’ recollections of their family histories do not extend back to Ireland, but begin only in America’ (emphasis added). Bryon, Irish America, p.80.

[6] For a more thorough assessment of these issues see: Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (University of California Press, 1990).

[7] Christine Legrand examines the implications of ‘being of Irish extraction’ and argues that it is ‘a matter of personal choice’ influenced by family and the feeling of shared history or values. ‘Nation, Migration, and Identities in Late Twentieth Century Ireland’, Narodna Umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research, vol.42, no.1 (June 2005), p.51.

[8] Sheila Langan, ‘A Black Irishman in New York Gets the Internet Buzzing’, Irish Central, 21 January 2014, http://www.irishcentral.com/news/A-black-Irishman-in-New-York-gets-the-Internet-buzzing.html

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Filed under Irish History, Social History

Revisiting E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

Carr What Is HistoryMy first introduction to historiography came in the shape of E.H. Carr’s 1961 text What Is History? in a European History course in my final year of high school. I had long been interested in history and had the benefit of excellent teachers but had never read anything specifically on what it meant to do or to write history. Carr’s book, based on a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge but aimed at a much wider audience, is clear and thought provoking and its central ideas have stayed with me ever since. (I still have the original essay I wrote about it for the high school class so that provides accurate evidence of my perspective at the time!) I recently bought a newer edition of the book and decided to revisit it, to see if my training as a historian has altered my perspective. The purpose of this piece is not to evaluate him in relation to contemporary thinking but to reflect on his core ideas, many of which have remained the subject of historiographical debate in the subsequent decades, though the language we use to discuss them may have changed.

On the first encounter, at the tender age of sixteen, What Is History? provoked two main reactions in me: First, it reinforced some ideas about history that I had only picked up subconsciously before – that how history is written depends on when it is written and who writes it and that the narratives created are not objective because they involve the selection of facts or evidence. Second, I remember being frustrated by its somewhat theoretical or abstract nature – even though Carr uses examples, they were probably more familiar and current to his audience at the time and left me still wanting to know more about the application of his ideas.

Over fifty years have passed since Carr first delivered his ‘broadside on history’[1] and in any analysis of it we cannot escape the statement he made at the beginning: ‘When we attempt to answer the question, What is History?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.’[2] This principle applies not only to texts on historical subjects, but also his own, which does indeed reflect his position in time – the atmosphere of post-war Britain and the Cold War. Certainly it’s now unacceptable to refer to the historian consistently using the male pronoun, but I’ll excuse Carr on that point given his generation! Many of the examples he uses to illustrate his points also come from the realm of political history, though there are occasional hints at the emergence of social history: ‘People do not cease to be people, or individuals individuals, because we do not know their names,’ even if he only attaches significance to these nameless individuals when they act en masse.[3]

The idea that a historian’s writings reflects his/her own era is related to Carr’s more general ideas about bias and interpretation. The term bias is often taken to have a negative connotation, but in this case it means something closer to perspective that effects interpretation. These ideas largely come through in the first chapter, ‘The Historian and His Facts.’ Carr’s argument gets a bit bogged down by his attempt to define what a ‘fact’ is and how it becomes a ‘historical fact’, but for the purpose of examining his ideas they can be viewed essentially as the raw materials of history or, the term most commonly used today, evidence. History, then, is written through selection of facts/evidence and this process is an act of interpretation. (I have found this idea one of the most difficult to instil in students, who, coming straight out of secondary school still seem to think books equal unquestionable truth.) Based on Collingwood’s ideas, Carr states three main points: ‘history means interpretation’ (historians tend to find what they’re looking for); the historian needs an ‘imaginative understanding’ of the mindset of the people he/she studies; and we can only look at the past ‘through the eyes of the present’ as even the language we use embodies that perspective.[4] However, he recognizes the dangers of complete skepticism, subjectivity, post-modernism, and all the other post-isms that this view might seem to suggest, that we could be left with either with a history that has no meaning or an infinity of meanings.[5] The way he seeks to resolve this apparent contradiction is through the idea of ‘reciprocal action’ on two levels, ‘between the historian and his facts’ and ‘between the present and the past’.[6] And thus we have the idea of historiography! For example, I don’t think any scholar of American immigration history today sees Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted and its narrative of assimilation / Americanization as the definitive text on the subject, and yet they still read it and reference it because of its place in the development of the field and to show the distance between it and contemporary work. We are in the business of constantly revising the past.

Much has changed in the world and in historiography since Carr’s time and from the standpoint of the present we recognize his shortcomings: his somewhat elitist view on the eve of the revolution brought by social history, his focus on the political and on history as a ‘science’, his belief in ‘progress’. Nonetheless, I think his ideas about the working process of the historian, with its subjectivity and continual series of revisions, remain central our discipline at all levels – teaching, research, and writing.

—————

This post is dedicated to Dr. Christian Nøkkentved, affectionately known to generations of students as ‘Doc Nok’, a member of the history faculty at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy who retired this year. I am forever grateful to him and the other members of the department for their time and enthusiasm, which continue to inspire me today. I first read Carr’s book in his class and he is in many ways responsible for my interest in social history.


[1] E.H. Carr letter to Isaac Deutscher, March 1960, in Richard J. Evans, introduction to E.H. Carr, What is History?, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2001), p.xix.

[2] Carr, What is History?, p.2.

[3] Carr, What is History?, p.44.

[4] Carr, What is History?, pp.18-20.

[5] Carr, What is History?, pp.20-21.

[6] Carr, What is History?, p.24.

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Filed under Historiography, Reviews

Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and ‘The Middle Nation’

Galway-born Dónall Mac Amhlaigh (1926-1989) is perhaps best known as the author of Dialann Deoraí, first published in 1960 and translated into English as An Irish Navvy, a record of his experiences working in England in the 1950s. This frequently referenced work established him as a dominant voice of Irishmen in Britain, but he left a much broader legacy.[1] Máirín Nic Eoin has written about his works of fiction, most of which have a strong autobiographical bent, but his extensive body of journalistic prose remains largely unexamined.[2] Unfortunately historians and literary scholars alike have even further marginalized his untranslated Irish works due to lack of familiarity or engagement with the language.[3] These omissions seem particularly grave given that Mac Amhlaigh himself expressed dissatisfaction with Dialann Deoraí, calling it ‘a great lost opportunity’ because he felt he did not take full advantage of the ‘rich, virtually unworked subject’.[4] He viewed his last novel, Deoraithe [Exiles], a fictional (though autobiographically-based) treatment of the same topic, as a way to ‘make good’ this earlier fault.[5]

In the intervening years Mac Amhlaigh continued to write prolifically and his journalism shows the development of his social and political consciousness. Between 1966 and 1988 he wrote roughly 200 articles for the Irish Times in both Irish and English. These presented the experience of the Irish in Britain, from the perspective of a working-class urban Gaeilgeoir, primarily to an Irish audience who had remained in Ireland. This post examines a series of three articles published in October 1970 titled ‘The Middle Nation’, which takes the form of observational, and at times sharply critical, social commentary.[6] Mac Amhlaigh seeks to explain the difficult and ambiguous position of the Irish in Britain and in doing so addresses persistent class divisions among the immigrants and differing levels of attachment, or lack thereof, felt by members of that group to their heritage. Though written in 1970 he focused on his own generation, those who had come to Britain in the post-war years, and while the focus on male labourers in Dialann Deoraí has been perceived as homogenizing the image of this cohort, he clearly recognized its diversity.

As the word ‘middle’ in the title suggests, a primary theme of the series is the feeling of liminality, of belonging fully neither to Ireland nor Britain. In the first article Mac Amhlaigh addresses the issue of adjustment to life in Britain, questioning the nature of ‘assimilation’. He lambasts equally the Irish who ape British ways and those who seem in denial of the fact that they live in Britain. The former he stereotypes as:

People who “muck in” in village or suburban life, who get on committees, on dart teams, pay into divvi-clubs for Christmas and go on coach-outings to the seaside where they do a “Knees Up, Mother Brown” as good as any Cockney; who rarely read an Irish paper, bother their heads about Irish affairs, try to tune into Radio Éireann or sing a bit of an Irish song. Men who talk of foreigners, wogs and – so help me, God! – of Paddies, even![7]

Though he admits ‘they are not all so objectionable as this’, what bothers him about them is their ‘complete and wholehearted apostasy’, their abandonment of their Irishness. Though he hesitates to draw firm conclusions without ‘concrete evidence’ of statistics, he suggests that this type of person tends to be of the ‘professional and business’ class.[8] On the other hand,

There are a great many of our people who have never really come to terms with their exile, people to whom after nearly forty years of residence in England the day-old Irish newspaper is of more interest than the Mirror or the Express… who are, in speech and thought and manner, as uncompromisingly Irish as the day they left home… and these are the real casualties of Emigration, the ones who won’t or can’t integrate.[9]

This latter position seems equally reprehensible. What he criticizes in both extreme cases is the failure to acknowledge or even embrace liminal status, the failure to admit (or even take pride in) Irish heritage while also facing the realities of living abroad.

The second part of the title, ‘nation’, also poses somewhat of a paradox because while the term implies a degree of unity, the Irish in Britain comprise a heterogeneous group. Mac Amhlaigh addresses head-on issues of class divisions in the second article in the series, ‘Social Life and the Emigrant’:

It was Honor Tracy, I think, who remarked upon the almost pathological fear of some of the Irish abroad of coming into contact with each other. One would perhaps need to be Irish to appreciate this fully, to understand the vagaries of class-consciousness based less on real rank or wealth than upon an unshakeable belief in one’s superiority to another – however intangible the basis for the assumption (emphasis added).[10]

If attempting to create a ‘nation’ or sense of cohesion among an immigrant group, clearly these divisions carried over from rural Irish society are problematic whether real or imagined. To this he adds factors of ‘apathy, indifference and the traditional Irish failure to agree on things’.[11] He argues that though social organizations existed and the Irish Post (the newspaper of the Irish in Britain) might cover the functions they organized, these were formal rather than ‘free-and-easy’ affairs. From his own experience he suggests that even people from the same locality in Ireland resist associating with one another outside a close group of relatives: ‘without exception, these people will say of each other: A níl aon nádúr ionntab sín, tá siad coimhthioch – “There’s no nature in them, they’re standoffish.”’[12] He feels no compunction in criticizing them for it, for their unwillingness ‘to take the first step’ or to break out of the ‘world of taboos, of inhibitions,’ of the ‘smothering conformity which forbade them to think as individuals’.[13] Clearly he thought life in Britain offered an opportunity to develop new perspectives and lamented the failure of many to embrace that chance.

However, despite these shortcomings in the final article in the series, ‘Finding Our Feet’, Mac Amhlaigh does offer hope of redemption. He believes that Irish immigrants have made progress and argues that they are (in 1970) more comfortable with their place in British society than even a decade previously:

It is very evident that our exiles are fast shedding that extreme touchiness – well enough justified in the past, no doubt, but which sometimes bordered on paranoia – and are now able to make a more mature appraisal of themselves and of their position in what has come to be known as the host community (emphasis added).[14]

He says he has witnessed changing attitudes both of the Irish towards the English and vice versa. This includes ‘a change in our estimation of ourselves’ from ‘a sense of insecurity’ to a feeling of more ‘assurance’. However, the spectre of the Troubles and its potential impact lurked in his mind and he states that ‘barring a worsening of the Northern situation we will become steadily more identifiable with our hosts’.[15] However, this does not imply forgetting their origins and the article concludes with the hope that ‘emigration may continue to fall off and that once more we may be able to restock the great lonely spaces of Ireland,’ evoking the image of emigrants since the famine as ‘the vanishing Irish’ and on the eve of a (brief) reversal of those trends.[16]

Though he attempts to resolve the issue of being both Irish and living in Britain, arguing that dual identity or loyalty is indeed possible, there is still an ambivalence towards always remaining ‘the middle nation’. In an interview in the 1980s he said that ‘most of us, even though we’ve lived in Britain, and seen our children grow up here, could never give our hearts to this country in the same way we could to Australia or New Zealand or some place like that, because of the history’.[17] He says he has no anti-English feelings but, speaking for the Irish in Britain as a whole, there is a lingering sense of equivocation: ‘We have that feeling, on the one hand, of a certain amount of gratitude, if gratitude isn’t misplaced, that we got work here when we couldn’t have got it at home, and on the whole we’ve lived reasonably well here… On the other hand there’s the fact of finding ourselves in a country we might perhaps rather not be in.’[18] He certainly was not alone in expressing this sentiment and Liam Harte argues that ‘the dialectical tension between adherence to a fixed originary identity and the evolution of a flexible, contingent migrant identity’ is one of the ‘central tropes’ in the literature of the Irish in Britain, though each author gives it an individual colour.[19] Mac Amhlaigh’s ‘The Middle Nation’ series is a perceptive example of how the personal reflections contained in his journalism can contribute to our understanding of the experiences of the post-war emigrant generation and its evolving sense of identity. In the now more widely recognized and growing body of writing by and on the Irish in Britain Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s voice remains unique and deserving of attention in its own right.


[1] On Dialann Deoraí see: Bernard Canavan, ‘Story-tellers and Writers: Irish Identity in Emigrant Labourers’ Autobiographies, 1870-1970’, in Patrick O’Sullivan (ed.), The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity. Vol. 3, The Creative Migrant (Leicester University Press, London, 1994), pp.162-5; Tony Murray, London Irish Fictions (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2012), pp.79-85; Clair Wills, ‘Realism and the Irish Immigrant: Documentary, Fiction, and Postwar Irish Labor’, Modern Language Quarterly, vol.73, no.3 (Sept. 2012), pp.373-94.

[2] Máirín Nic Eoin, ‘An Scríobhneoir agus an Imirce Éigeantach:  Scrúdú ar Shaothar Cruthaitheach Dhónaill Mhic Amhlaigh’, Oghma 2 (1990), pp.92-104.

[3] Though historians and literary scholars frequently quote and cite An Irish Navvy, it is almost always the English translation rather than the original (as is the case in the works listed in footnote 1).

[4] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Documenting the Fifties’, Irish Studies in Britain, no.14 (Spring/Summer 1989), p.9.

[5] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, in Nigel Gray (ed.), Writers Talking (London: Caliban Books, 1989), p.181.

[6] The drawings that accompany these articles are also very interesting, but unfortunately copyright prevents me from reproducing them here. They are worth looking up if you have access to the Irish Times via the ProQuest Historical Newspapers archive.

[7] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘The Middle Nation’, Irish Times, 14 Oct. 1970.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Social Life and the Emigrant’, Irish Times, 15 Oct. 1970.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Finding Our Feet’, Irish Times, 16 Oct. 1970.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, in Gray (ed.), Writers Talking, p.181.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Liam Harte, ‘“You want to be a British Paddy?”: The Anxiety of Identity in Post-war Irish Migrant Writing’, in Dermot Keogh, Finbarr O’Shea & Carmel Quinlan (eds.), The Lost Decade: Ireland in the 1950s (Mercier, Douglas Village, Cork, 2004), p.234, p.236. He also makes the problematic assertion that ‘while migrant writers of the 1950s such as Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and John B. Keane are primarily concerned with chronicling the loneliness and alienation of the Irish in post-war England, Walter Macken and Tom Murphy focus on the dilemmas faced by migrant protagonists who wish to evolve new narratives of belonging’ (p.238). While that may be true of Dialann Deoraí (the only work of Mac Amhlaigh’s that Harte cites in relation to that statement), it does not hold true for all of Mac Amhlaigh’s later work.

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Filed under British History, Irish History, Literature, Twentieth Century

Transnational Ireland?

Last Friday (26 April) I attended a workshop at Trinity College Dublin organised by the Transnational Ireland Network. It brought together members of the network, founded about a year ago, and postgraduate students to discuss definitions of and approaches to transnational history, particularly in an Irish context.

The four discussion sessions took as their starting point the following topics: transnational history so far, the futures of transnational history, doing transnational history, and transnational history in the Irish context. (As a side note, it’s going to be impossible for me to write this blog post without being incredibly repetitive and saying ‘transnational history’ far too many times, so apologies in advance.) Some of the central questions raised in the course of discussions were:

  • How do we differentiate transnational history from global, international, or comparative histories? (And related to this, a question that wasn’t discussed – what is the difference between transnational and diasporic approaches?)
  • Can you employ transnationalism in the pre-national era?
  • If part of the goal is to move beyond grand narratives of the nation state, to what extent do narratives of globalization replace them and is this not an equal danger?
  • Who has a right to call the world borderless? Is this not somewhat self-indulgent on the part of academics?
  • Can transnationalism be about more than just ‘crossing borders’? How is it experienced ‘at home’ and is it possible to do a transnational micro-history?
  • Is transnationalism simply new terminology for the same methods employed before, such as in Atlantic history and imperial history?
  • Why do transnational history and are there certain subjects for which it is particularly suited?
  • Is transnational history a challenge to Irish (or any other nation’s) exceptionalism?
  • To what extent does transnational history address issues of connection vs. disconnection and inclusion vs. exclusion?

I am now realising that in my notes on the discussions I wrote down far more questions than answers! Nonetheless, without even having direct answers, the act of thinking and talking about these topics was itself very worthwhile.

Much of the first half of the workshop was devoted to defining transnationalism and its key questions, issues raised in numerous academic articles, which despite their length do not always provide decisive conclusions and when they are particularly abstract they also tend to leave questions of application. While I do think it worthwhile to define the terms we use for clarity, sometimes debates over exact distinctions can eclipse their usefulness and become somewhat pedantic. A useful short definition suggested by Enda Delaney is the movement of people, goods, and ideas across national boundaries and the effects of that movement. This is broad enough to encompass different methodological approaches: political, economic, intellectual, social, or cultural history can all be transnational and it becomes instead a ‘way of seeing’.[1] Its intention is not completely rewriting the canon of history, but revisiting familiar sources and retelling the story.[2]

The push towards transnational history began in the US in the early 1990s, but it has continued to retain currency. A brief search for ‘transnational’ in Perspectives on History (a publication of the American Historical Association) turns up four articles in the last six months, suggesting the approach has, if anything, gained popularity and prevalence in historiography.[3] However, it is only relatively recently that Irish historians have begun to heed this call. Despite the large and widespread diaspora, Irish history largely developed a hegemonic ‘island story’ focused national political issues and events. As Delaney writes, ‘what has emerged over time are two separate fields of historical writing: one covering the “homeland”, or domestic history, the other concerned with the “diaspora”, or migrant communities, and only rarely do these historiographies collide’.[4] Transnational history offers the potential to integrate these and give them more equal weight and by doing so it opens new areas of research and creates new historical knowledge. This is particularly relevant to my research, which focuses on oral histories of migration from Ireland to the United States and Great Britain between 1945 and 1970. Doing transnational history enables me to follow the life stories of migrants, connecting their point of departure with that of arrival (and sometimes with return), while offering an element of comparison between Irish communities across the diaspora. This also challenges the issue raised during the workshop that elites were somehow ‘more transnational’ than ordinary people, which is an incorrect assumption, particularly in the Irish context. Likewise, the focus on political aspects of transnationalism during the latter two sessions of the workshop also in some way suggests elitism. Many different people, from the working class up, lived transnational lives. This approach to history offers the potential to reconstruct their worldviews and the complexities of their experiences and in doing so to create a fresh perspective.


[1] ‘Ideally, transnational history is a “way of seeing”’, writes Sven Beckert, by which he means it can include a variety of methodologies and questions. He elaborates on this by saying, ‘it takes as its starting point the interconnectedness of human history as a whole, and while it acknowledges the extraordinary importance of states, empires, and the like, it pays attention to networks, processes, beliefs, and institutions that transcend these politically defined spaces.’ ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review, vol.111, no.5 (Dec. 2006), p.1454, p.1459.

[2] Matthew Pratt Guterl, ‘AHR Forum: Comment: The Futures of Transnational History’, American Historical Review, vol.118, no.1 (Feb. 2013), pp.130-9.

[3] The increasing popularity of transnational history has been referred to as the ‘transnational turn’. Luke Clossey & Nicholas Guyatt, ‘It’s a Small World After All: The Wider World in Historians’ Peripheral Vision’, Perspectives on History (May 2013); Lisa A. Lindsay, ‘The Appeal of Transnational History’, Perspectives on History (Dec. 2012); Mae M. Ngai, ‘Promises and Perils of Transnational History’, Perspectives on History (Dec. 2012); Mart A. Stewart, ‘Teaching Transnational American History in a Study Abroad Program: America and Vietnam’, Perspectives on History (Mar. 2013).

[4] Enda Delaney, ‘Directions in Historiography: Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, vol.37, no.148 (Nov. 2011), p.86.

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The Irish Famine in Historical Memory: A Comparison of Four Monuments

Though without doubt a seminal event in Irish history, the meaning and memory of the Great Famine of 1845-9 remains contested. It is estimated that over 1 million people died and 2 million emigrated and it catalyzed emigration for the rest of the century. While historians debate exact figures and the evolution of the historiography of the event, its complex legacy in historical memory, especially across the vast diaspora, remains underemphasized. A comparison of four memorials, one in Canada, two in the United States, and one in Dublin, offers some insights. As Ian McBride writes, ‘we need to scrutinize collective myths and memories, not just for evidence of their historical accuracy, but as objects of study in their own right’.[1] These monuments are a physical manifestation of those ‘myths and memories’ and can be read as visual, cultural sources. First, an introduction to each monument, then some reflections on them.

Grosse Île, Canada

Opening ceremony in 1909 for the monument on Grosse Île. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

A 46-foot high Celtic cross stands at the highest point of this three by one mile island in the St. Lawrence River, thirty miles downriver from Quebec. Grosse Île served as a quarantine station for incoming immigrant ships from 1832 and witnessed the terrible devastation wrought by famine and disease on the ‘coffin ships’ that brought Ireland’s destitute to the New World in the late 1840s. Michael Quigley estimates that between 12,000 and 15,000 from the Famine era are buried here.[2] This monument, the first of its kind, was paid for by public subscription raised by the Catholic, nationalist organization the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).[3] It was unveiled on 15 August 1909 in a ceremony attended by 9,000 people, including the last surviving priest who had attended the sick and a woman who had been orphaned there as a young child and adopted by a local family. Now, the whole island is a National Historic Site and many other commemorations have taken place there.

The inscription on the cross reads:

Cailleadh Clann na nGaedheal ina míltibh ar an Oileán so ar dteicheadh dhóibh ó dlíghthibh na dtíoránach ngallda agus ó ghorta tréarach isna bliadhantaibh 1847-48. Beannacht dílis Dé orra. Bíodh an leacht so i gcomhartha garma agus onóra dhóibh ó Ghaedhealaibh Ameriocá. Go saoraigh Dia Éire.

Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s blessing on them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.

Famine Memorial, Washington Street, Boston

Famine Memorial, Boston. Photographs: Sara Goek.

Famine Memorial, Boston. Photographs: Sara Goek.

This memorial by Robert Shure was unveiled in June 1998 as part of the 150th anniversary of the Famine. It consists of a small round plaza with eight plaques describing the historical context and in the middle of the space are two groups each with three bronze figures, a man, a woman, and a child. In the first group, the man sits, head hanging limp and bones showing through his skin, while the woman kneels looking upward with one arm raised, with the child beside her. They are clothed in rags and emaciated. In the second group, all three figures are standing and they appear in motion, as if striding forward, healthy and well-clothed, but the woman has her face turned back, looking at the first group.

Irish Hunger Memorial, New York City

Irish Hunger Memorial, New York City. Photograph: Downtown Magazine NYC.

Irish Hunger Memorial, New York City. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Designed by artist Brian Tolle and opened in 2002 this is perhaps the most ambitious and diverse of the four memorials here. The structure looks like an Irish hillside. A passage under it is reminiscent of ancient tombs like Newgrange. Above, the landscape incorporates the ruins of a nineteenth-century stone cottage from transported over from Mayo, surrounded by native Irish plants and inscribed stones from every county. From the top visitors look out over the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. The sculpture sits on an valuable piece of real estate, to south is the New York Mercantile Exchange, and the artist says that seen from this context it’s ‘an extraordinary thing’ that visitors ‘look out on an abandoned Irish field that’s here to commemorate a traumatic event in terms of world hunger’.[4]

Famine Memorial, Custom House Quay, Dublin, Ireland

Famine Memorial, Dublin. Photograph: Sara Goek.

Famine Memorial, Dublin. Photograph: Sara Goek.

Erected in 1997, this monument designed by sculptor Rowan Gillespie marks the site of departure of many emigrant ships. It takes the form of bronze figures, all emaciated and ragged, grasping bundles in their arms and walking towards some unknown future. On a wet, gray day, these figures appear eerie and unnerving. I am told that a sound instalation on the site used to play looped recordings of a voice reading lists of the food exported from Ireland during the Famine (though I don’t believe this was the the case when I visited). Nearby is the World Poverty Stone, expressing solidarity with people living in poverty across the globe, its proximity situating the Irish Famine as a lesson for understanding human rights today.

Why compare these? What can we learn from them? They commemorate the same event, but in quite different ways and in doing so I think they reveal much about how and why the Famine is remembered in Ireland and the Americas and why its meaning remains contentious. The first, the monument at Grosse Île evokes the ethos of its era, both in standing and inscription: the imagery of the Celtic Cross is one of a grave marker but in a form that brings to mind a Gaelic, Catholic golden age, while the plaque on it ties into the idea of Famine emigration as forced exile and the nationalist interpretation of the event and conditions that produced it as the work of ‘foreign tyrants’. Kerby Miller writes that in the aftermath of the Famine, Catholic clerics and nationalist politicians (both opinions represented in the AOH), ‘generalized the people’s individual grievances into a powerful political and cultural weapon against the traditional antagonist’.[5] In America they did so particularly effectively, not only because of memories of terrible suffering in Ireland and with no choice but emigration, but perhaps also because in the New World they faced prejudice and discrimination, which kept them as a group largely disadvantaged and left them bitter and disillusioned.[6] Nationalist readings of the Famine, represented by the opinions of John Mitchel and the AOH cross at Grosse Île, offered an explanation for their suffering as well as a ‘redemptive solution’ by calling on them to unite in recognition of their proud heritage, made mockery of by both the British government and American nativists.[7] The first memorial thus is both commemorative, marking the last resting place of thousands, and a strong signal of the strength of Irish nationalist sentiments in Canada and the United States.

The monuments in Boston and New York convey similar messages, albeit in slightly different ways. In the Boston memorial, the two groups of figures seem to be of the same people, a ‘before and after’ portrait of emigration. The first group, foresaken and emaciated leaving their native land, the second, healthy and successful in their new lives, though the female figure glances over her shoulder at the former. However, this sort of progress in the New World often took multiple generations and those who succeeded did not always choose to look back at where they had come from, viewing the Famine with shame or as part of the baggage of a past best left behind. Nonetheless, that story of ‘rags to riches’, of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ to the election of John F. Kennedy, has proven powerful regardless of its truth or complications. Not all immigrants found prosperity in America, but the enduring mythology is of those who did. As Kevin O’Neill writes, ‘The Famine provides Irish Americans with a “charter myth” – a creation story that both explains our presence in the new land and connects us to the old via a powerful sense of grievance.’[8] The Irish Hunger Memorial in New York emphasizes this point: the sense of grievance encapsulated in the abandoned, ruined cottage on an overgrown and rocky hillside, and the presence and success in the new land in the surrounding skyscrapers and view of the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American opportunity.

The Famine Memorial in Dublin, in contrast, conveys an image of starvation, hopelessness, and tragedy. Who are these people? Where are they from? Where are they going? Will they even make it there? Their bodies are emaciated, their faces vacant. They show no signs of anger or resistance. It is a representation of the starving poor of Ireland leaving their country while food is also exported from along the same quays. Though it draws on nationalist sentiments similar to those found in North America, unlike its counterparts this memorial contains no suggestion of positive opportunity or triumphalist vision for these people. However, its proximity to the ‘World Poverty Stone’ does relate to the message emphasized by Mary Robinson during her presidency and in her speech at Grosse Île in 1994, that we should recognize the connection between human suffering in the past and that in the present. She said we must choose between being ‘spectators’ or ‘participants’, between separating ourselves or being compassionate and involved.[9] She rejected any moral distancing or dispassionate analysis, instead choosing to see the human element of the past and to understand it in contemporary terms.

These physical memorials each in a sense embody the ethos of the time and place that produced them and its historical memory of the event. Overall they suggest that for those in Ireland, the Famine continues to evoke memories of shame, hopelessness, and suffering, and while people such as Mary Robinson have, after 150 years, come to use it as a lesson for the present, that has not changed the persistent image in national consciousness. The memorials in Canada and America suggest a very different type of historical memory: for members of the Irish diaspora the Famine was not just a tragedy to be commemorated, but one from which they rose despite hardships, their creation story. These latter memorials contain a greater sense of optimism, a reminder of how far they had come. While the Irish nationalist historical narrative on both sides of the Atlantic used the Famine as proof of British misrule, the story of its casualties has gone down divergent paths.


[1] Ian McBride, ‘Memory and National Identity in Modern Ireland’, in I. McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001), p.41.

[2] Michael Quigley, ‘Grosse Île: Canada’s Famine Memorial’, in A. Gribben (ed.), The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1999), p.150.

[3] Ruth-Ann M. Harris, ‘Introduction’, in Gribben (ed.), The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America, p.12.

[4] RTÉ, Blighted Nation [radio programme], Episode Four, January 2013. For a longer discussion and interpretation of the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York see: Marion Casey, ‘Exhibition Reviews: The Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City, New York’, Journal of American History, vol.98, no.3 (2011), pp.779-782.

[5] Kerby Miller, ‘“Revenge for Skibbereen”: Irish Emigration and the Meaning of the Great Famine’, in Gribben (ed.), The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America, p.185.

[6] Ibid., pp.189-90.

[7] Ibid., pp.189-90

[8] Kevin O’Neill, ‘The Star-Spangled Shamrock: Meaning and Memory in Irish America’, in McBride, History and Memory in Modern Ireland, p.118.

[9] In: Peter Gray, The Irish Famine (Thames & Hudson, London, 1995), pp.182-3.

Update 19 June 2014: for further reading also see Emily Mark Fitzgerald, Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument (Liverpool University Press, 2013) and Margaret Kelleher’s lecture ‘Hunger in History: Monuments to the Great Famine‘ and article of the same name in Textual Practice, vol.16, no.2 (2002).

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Na Spailpíní: Irish Seasonal Labourers in Britain in the 20th Century

Go deó deó rís ní raghad go Caiseal
Ag díol ná reic mo shláinte;
Ná ar mhargadh na faoire am shuighe cois balla,
Um sgaoinsi ar leath-taoibh sráide:-
Bodairídh, na tire ag tígheacht ar a g-capaill
Dá fhiafraidhe an bh-fuilim h-írálta,
Téanamh chum siubhail, tá’n cúrsa fada
Seo ar siubhal an Spailpín Fánach!

No more – no more in Cashel town
I’ll sell my health a-raking,
Nor on days of fairs rove up and down,
Nor join in the merry-making.
There, mounted farmers came in throng
To try and hire me over,
But now I’m hired, and my journey’s long
The journey of the Rover![1]

This song from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century tells the story of ‘an spailpín fánach’, ‘the wandering labourer’, who hires himself out to farmers to make his living, though in this case he has chosen to forsake that life and all its hardships. Seasonal migration, both within Ireland and across the Irish Sea to Britain, formed an important part of the life cycle of many rural communities over the centuries, probably peaking in the decades immediately after the Great Famine. An estimated 38,000 migratory agricultural labourers went to Britain in 1880, and 27,000 in 1896, but numbers dropped to 13,000 in 1915, after which the government stopped collecting the statistics.[2] Despite evidence that it did continue (though in smaller numbers) even until the 1980s, little work has been done specifically on the twentieth century.[3] The event that garnered the most notice was a tragedy in September 1937 when ten workers from Achill Island died in a fire in a bothy in Kirkintilloch, Scotland. This prompted the establishment of the Irish government’s ‘Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938’, which produced a report describing the categories of labourers, primary places they came from, and recommendations, but little consideration has been given to the persistence of seasonal migration after that time.[4]

The voices of a few former migrants can be heard on the RTÉ radio documentary, ‘The Tattie Hokers: The Migrant Workers of North Mayo’. As one man says on the programme, seasonal migration was ‘a way of life’ for many, though it seems one relatively neglected in scholarly works on migration and the Irish diaspora. The most comprehensive work on the subject is Anne O’Dowd’s Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain. However, it is organized thematically rather than chronologically, thus integrating oral testimonies and answers from folklore questionnaires related to twentieth-century movement with other similar material from earlier periods. This emphasizes continuity over change, minimizing consideration of questions such as: Did mechanization of farm work have a significant effect and how? Did seasonal migration continue but in other lines of work (outside agriculture)? How did the changing political context (Ireland’s independence, the two world wars) affect workers’ experiences? What were significant regional differences? Did certain localities continue to have greater seasonal movement and why?

I can’t claim to answer all those questions, but my interest in them was prompted by anecdotes in two oral history interviews. Fiddle player Vincent Campbell was born in 1938 in An tSeanga Mheáin near Glenties, Co. Donegal. The county has a long history of ties to Scotland and Vincent describes workers going for the ‘tattie hoking’: ‘There was an awful lot of potatoes grown in Scotland that time and when it would come to, say, around the month of October, the spuds would be, the potatoes would be raked down to be packed and there used to be gangs would leave Donegal here and go over to Scotland to gather the potatoes.’[5] He recalled gangs still engaging in this type of work in his youth:

Sara Goek: Did you know many people that went over to work in Scotland in your time?
Vincent Campbell: Of course I did know them. The last of the crowds that I heard of going over when I was young they came from Glenfin country, that’s up near, that’s just about, I suppose it would be about eight miles from here [Glenties]. They were the last that took gangs with them going over to Scotland. There was other places then down Gaoth Dobhair and places like that, they used to have a gang. They had to try to have a ganger man or a gaffer of some kind as well, but a lot of them they enjoyed going over because there was great dances on the Friday night always, they would have great dances. So it was entertaining as well. If a fiddle player would hear or a musician would hear that they were going to go on such a day, he would make sure to land at their house the night before to tell them, ‘give me a promise – bring back a good tune or a few tunes or a few good songs’ and that was a part of the bargain, that they would have to bring something like that back.[6]

The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration specifically mentions this region around Glenties as one of the principal places from which migration took place, with 1,352 agricultural workers leaving in 1937.[7] Vincent’s interest in the subject is also closely connected to the cultural exchange promoted by this type of back-and-forth movement and to this day the Donegal fiddle repertoire retains its influence. Vincent himself worked on a hydroelectric scheme in Scotland when he first emigrated in 1956, following the same route as those before him, and he describes a similar social life with music and dancing on the weekends. However, despite his drawing parallels between the experiences of earlier migrants and his own, the fact that he engaged in industrial rather than agricultural labour shows the declining importance the latter as the twentieth century wore on.

Another musician, Tommy Healy, a flute player from Montiagh, Co. Sligo then living in London, was interviewed by Reg Hall in 1987-88 for his research on Irish music and musicians in London. This area near Tobercurry is also mentioned specifically in the Report as one of those sending large numbers of seasonal workers to Britain, 352 in 1937.[8] Tommy’s narrative of migration is especially interesting because it is multi-generational: his maternal grandfather worked as a seasonal agricultural labourer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the late nineteenth century, his paternal grandfather worked as a hired labourer within Ireland, his father went to Scotland once picking potatoes but then immigrated to Boston (where Tommy was born) around the turn of the twentieth century, the family returned to Sligo in 1928 where they took over his mother’s parents’ farm, and Tommy went to England in 1943, first doing seasonal agricultural work and eventually settling in London after the Second World War, working on railways and in construction. He thus situates his own migration intimately within that of his family and local community, highlighting the normalcy of this type of global transiency, saying of seasonal employment, ‘that was the only employment those people used to have outside their own little farms’ and of going to America and back, to Reg’s astonishment, ‘it was the usual procedure’ and several other families in his parish had done the same.[9]

Tommy Healy & Johnny Duffy

Tommy’s story differs from those who went before him because he emigrated during the Second World War. He describes the process of getting work in England at that time (listen to part 1 of the interview online, this portion is at 1:14:30):

Reg Hall: Did you do farming work?
Tommy Healy: Oh I did in the early part. That was the only way we could get over here, as a migratory agricultural worker.
Reg: Can you explain that system? This was at the end of the war?
Tommy: No, no middle way in the war really or even 1941 or ’42. In the area that we come from, we were given employment on this piece production and they didn’t want anybody to leave. They wouldn’t give you a permit at the Labour Exchange to leave – you had to get permission, but when it come to harvest time and that if you could prove that you were a migratory agricultural worker, then you got your permission.
Reg: You could prove that in Ireland?
Tommy: Yeah.
Reg: How did you prove that then?
Tommy: Forgery.
Reg: [Laughs] prove that you’d done it regularly, you mean?
Tommy: Yes, that I was there the year before and that this farmer wanted the same men as he had the year before. Somebody that was working in Lincolnshire, that was the principle part of the agricultural work, one of our own mates sent a letter to this one and that one and so on, 4 or 5 letters, such a one wants the same gang, you, you, and mention the names that he had last year. We were never there before, but the bloke in the Labour Exchange or the guard’s barracks didn’t know that. He had to do his own part before you could apply for the passport. The application for the passport had to be done in the guard barracks. He had to sign his name to it and all.[10]

He says ‘forgery’ in a perfectly straight tone of voice, again suggesting it was nothing unusual. During the war the Irish government placed a ban on the migration of men with experience in agricultural or turf work; ‘they didn’t want anybody to leave’.[11] However, despite the complexities of the regulations it seems loopholes existed and the workers proved particularly adept at finding them:

Complicated as the rules for travel and employment may have appeared at first sight, they do not appear to have hindered migration by reason of their incomprehensibility. On the contrary, Irish workers were found to display so considerable a familiarity with the finer points of official requirements, and so ingenious a knowledge of the limits of tolerance which official routine was accustomed to observe, that a constant watch was needed to prevent the evasion of rules.[12]

In the end, Tommy did not migrate with the permit he received through ‘forgery’ because of other circumstances at home, but about a year later he got work through an agent and went over to Gloucestershire:

The next best thing, I had got the passport this time, the next best thing was to sign on with an agent to do agricultural work here. You couldn’t get the work yourself because in wintertime you see it’s thrashing, hedging, all that type of thing, so I signed on and I come over here in the month of February in the middle of a blizzard. But like we got here today and we went off to the food, somebody took us to the food office, the labour exchange and everything, all the paperwork was cleared up that day, and we were out on our glory at seven o’clock the next morning into some farmer’s yard.[13]

He went on to describe conditions in wartime England: working hours (54 hours per week plus overtime), wages (£3 5s. plus a lodging allowance), blackouts (‘no lights whatsoever’), shortages (‘razor blades were hard to find’) and rationing.[14] He did that work seasonally for about three years, going back home to Sligo at Christmas, went back to stay from 1947 to 1949, but then returned to settle in London, where he still lived at the time of the interview.

These two individuals offer only a brief glimpse of patterns and circumstances of seasonal agricultural migration from Ireland to Britain in the twentieth century. They both suggest continuity of geographical patterns, but changes in the type of work and circumstances from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Much more work remains to be done to understand these migrants’ varied experiences and contexts.


[1] Traditional song, in Anne O’Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1991), p.313-6.

[2] Enda Delaney, Demography, State and Society: Irish Migration to Britain, 1921-1971 (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2000), p.28; Appendix II, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938 (Stationary Office, Dublin), p.59. The report estimates that 9,500 seasonal labourers went to Britain in 1937. The 1954 report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems mentions seasonal migration only in passing in four separate paragraphs.

[3] O’Dowd in Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers provides snippets of evidence of seasonal agricultural labour in the twentieth century: in Connaught ‘‘the tradition continued right up to the 1940s and 1950s’ (p.82), ‘men and women from Ballina and Mulraney, Co. Mayo, still work as tattie hokers in the 1980s’ (p.199), and resentment of Irish migratory workers because of they had not fought in either world war (p.267), but she provides little further detail apart from citation of her own interviews. Many folklore sources were collected in the twentieth century, but it is difficult to pinpoint the time period in which they originated.

[4] The report itself does not actually say the committee was established in response to the Kirkintilloch tragedy, but the letter at the beginning states the committee was appointed on 23 September 1937, exactly one week after the event. For a more detailed description of that particular event see: http://www.theirishstory.com/2012/09/24/the-kirkintilloch-tragedy-1937

[5] Vincent Campbell, interview with Sara Goek, 12 June 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 9,783 agricultural workers migrated from certain areas of Clare, Connaught, and Donegal in 1937 and Glenties had the 3rd highest total of all the areas enumerated. These areas tended to be in the ‘Congested Districts’, with high population density on poor land and generally small landholdings. Appendix V, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938, p.62.

[8] Appendix V, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938, p.62.

[9] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 3, 6 April 1988, British Library. He talks about the work his grandfather would have done as a hired labourer from 04:30.

[10] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 1, 28 Oct. 1987, British Library.

[11] A.V. Judges noted in his report, Irish Labour in Great Britain, 1939-1945 (1949), that this ban did not extend to the ‘Congested Districts’ in the western part of the country and though maintained, it had little effect until restrictions were tightened further in 1944 (p.13). There were three ways of securing labour in Britain during the war: through a liaison officer, through direct contact with the employer, or through the employer’s agent. Tommy’s story falls under the second category, of which Judges writes, ‘an employer who was actually in contact with a potential employee could furnish him with a letter… through the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Industry and Commerce and the worker would then secure the necessary travel documents on producing the letter’ (p.14).

[12] Judges, Irish Labour in Great Britain, p.15.

[13] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 1, 28 Oct. 1987, British Library.

[14] Ibid.

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