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Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.


[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.

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Filed under Death, Events, Irish History, Labour History, Nineteenth Century, Social History

The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920

I have done a good deal of running around in America seeking the best place, but all my sorrow I have lost by it. The American country is gone.

– Letter from Patrick Kearney to John Kearney, 21 December 1890[1]

Migration is often perceived as a two-stage journey: departure and arrival. The letter quoted above from Patrick Kearney to his brother reveals that often a migrant’s journey did not end at the first port of call. His pitiable disappointment at having little to show for all his years of “running around” challenges the myth of the American dream. As one historian notes “the emigration movement…is heroic to look back on… but for the individual emigrant it was often a personal tragedy.”[2] Historians have challenged the assumption of destined success, but many continue to focus on either the negative or positive experiences of migration, neglecting the breadth of possible outcomes and opinions for a more limited binary either/or explanation. Different feelings on this movement can be found within the same ethnic group and social class. Irish-born Seamus Ó Muircheartaigh and Kate Flanagan both moved to several countries and states across America in search of work but their views display a certain dissonance. In “Mo chiach mar a thána” (“Alas that I ever came”) Ó Muircheartaigh wrote  “Sin mar a chaitheas-sa tamall dem shaol,/Ó bhaile go baile gan toinnte ar mo thaobh” (That’s how I spent part of my life,/Going from place to place, with no company at my side).[3] Some held a much more positive opinion, like Kate Flanagan who wrote to Mike, her brother-in-law in Ireland, telling him that “I can’t help but think it would be better for all the family in Ireland to come to this country,” humorously adding “if it was only to get away to a more agreeable climate.”[4]  Remembering that we can move beyond a dichotomy of good or bad, or immigration as from origin to destination, would allow for more novel attempts to explore the varied experiences among different ethnic groups, and more importantly, to highlight and explain the importance of transience among immigrants in the Unites States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. How frequently did people move from one place to another? What were the impediments or facilitators of this movement? Was transience purely an economic decision? How were communities affected by the changes over time and place? What were the networks that sustained them and how were these networks in turn sustained?

Of course you can question, why should we focus on immigrants and mobility when looking at American workers? The first response to that question is that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed a huge movement of people to the American continent enabling the industrialisation of the United States. We should keep in mind a notable recent work documenting this process, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America by Aristide R. Zolberg, which reveals that the popular image of uncontrollable waves of people entering the US is a false one and that the American government was capable, when willing, to limit this movement.[5] Another answer to this question lies in the large numbers of people. While only 13 percent of the population of the United States are classed as foreign-born in 1880, 42 percent of those engaged in manufacturing or extraction industries were immigrants.[6] This number grows into an overwhelming majority if we include the children of foreign-born and African Americans. The importance of immigrants in the development of American industry is hard to overstate.

Simultaneously there are problems with categories, as people are often grouped into broad headings based on religion, nationality or ethnic group that might not be particularly useful. If we scratch the surface of these broad communities and we find further important differences; northern and southern Italians, Corkonians and Fardowners, Cornish and English to name a few. Nationally based fraternities (e.g. the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the case of the Irish) tried to foster ethnic cooperation and promote a hyphenated identity reconciling their Old World origins with their lives in the New World, a somewhat paradoxical effort, and again we should try to bear in mind to local complexities when detailing particular groups. Likewise leaders in trade unions also engaged in contradictory efforts to remain loyal to both their own ethnic group while promoting unity with workers from other backgrounds. Immigrants also exhibited similar diversity in their patterns of movement. ‘New immigrants’ from eastern and southern Europe bucked earlier immigration trends, with larger numbers returning ‘home’. Historians estimate that fifty percent of Italians returned home between 1908 and 1923, compared to single-digit repatriation rates for Russian Jews and the Irish.[7] Contemporaries noted this difference at the time with usage of the label ‘sojourners’ rather than ‘immigrants’, but few historians have addressed the question of how this affected their views of movement and migration.[8] A continuing reexamination of immigrants bearing these problems in mind might reveal that immigrants had a more nuanced sense of self and association than historians have previously ascribed to them.

Sixty-three years ago the historian Eric Hobsbawm opened his article “The Tramping Artisan” with the statement “the story of nineteenth-century labor is one of movement and migration.”[9] While his article represents an attempt to explain the personal and social impact of frequent dislocation on skilled journeymen in Britain, the premise applies equally to immigrant workers in America. The development of transnational history has seen a reevaluation of borders as the defining parameters of historical phenomena and the scholarship related to them. Some of the exciting new work on Irish America includes Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the American West 1860-1910, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race and The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900, and they each forcefully challenge traditional historical assumptions on the Irish in the West, Irish identity and organizations.[10]  Transnationalism in turn has led to the reexamination of people’s movement, formerly through the prism of migration, through the more broad term of mobility.[11]

Many questions are waiting to be answered by future projects. Some questions that can be raised about American studies follow, but many other similar questions could be asked of other sub-fields of nineteenth and twentieth century history. What effect did the staggered migration have on working-class ethnic communities? Did it impede or encourage ethnic, fraternal or union organization? How did the immigrant experience in eastern cities differ from the American West? Were there significant similarities or differences in both the experience and perception of mobility between ethnicities, occupations or classes? Some of these questions have been partly answered in relation to specific groups, for example Liping Zhu and Sue Fawn Chung’s pioneering work on the Chinese communities in the American West.[12]

Simultaneous with the advent of these new approaches has been the comparable decline of the study of labor and trade union history and in response historians should try to reengage with the history of workers, offering fresh perspective and utilizing the new historiographical approaches that have emerged in the intervening decades. Craig Calhoun recently presented an important challenge to labor history in The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements, arguing that not all social movements were inherently progressive and that these groups expressed a much broader spectrum of goals and beliefs, often more conservative, than historians have credited to them. It can be hoped that further research will uncover more stories of people’s lives, with their accompanying perceptions and convictions and help us determine whether these are valid assertions. For my part I fully intend to keep digging for answers.

 

 

[1] Séamus De Búrca (ed.), The Soldier’s Song: The Story of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Dublin: P.J. Bourke, 1957), p. 251.

[2] Terry Coleman, Passage to America: A history of emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century (1972: London: Hutchinson & County), p. 248.

[3] Seán Ó Dubhda, Duanaire duibhneach : i bailiú d’amhránaibh agus de phíosaibh eile filidheachta a ceapadh le tuairim céad bliain i gCorca Dhuibhne, agus atá fór i gcuimhne agus i mbéaloideas na ndaoine ann (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1976),132-133. English translation by Dr Bruce D. Boling, Brown University, from Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xiii.

[4] Kate Flanagan to Mike in Ireland was more positive Napa, California to her brother-in-love, Mike 31 March, 1899. Flanagan Family Letters. Private collection generously shared with me by Professor Kerby A. Miller, University of Missouri, Columbia.

[5] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[6] U.S. Tenth Census, 1880, Report on the Manufactures of the United States (Washington, D.C, 1882), pp. 17, 36.

[7] Mark Wyman, Round-trip America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 9-12.

[8] Two important exceptions are the collection of essays in Dirk Hoerder (ed.) Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies. The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Donna R Gabaccia, Italy’s many diasporas (Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2000).

[9] E. J. Hobsbawn, “The Tramping Artisan,” The Economic History Review, New Series 3 (1951): pp. 299-320.

[10] David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), Bruce Nelson, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[11] Transnationalism does not ignore nationalism or the nation-state rather it prompts historians to simultaneous consider “differing geographic scales – the local, the national, and the transnational.” Ian Tyrell, “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review 96 (1991):  p. 1033.

[12]  Liping Zhu, A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997); Sue Fawn Chung, In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchant in the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

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The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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Filed under British History, Irish History, Labour History, Literature, Social History, Socialism, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century

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

‘Any Jobs Going?’ Career Advice in Post-War Ireland

From October 1949 until March 1950, the Irish Press ran a series of articles under the title ‘Any Jobs Going?’ with the aim of giving advice to teenagers about to enter the workforce. A weekly feature that covered over a hundred different trades and professions during its six month run, the articles in it are notable both for their clinical frankness and the research that went into them. Tom Garvin, in his popular history of 1950s Ireland, News from a New Republic, argues that this series of articles represents a rich and untapped source for students of labour history. Indeed, ‘Any Jobs Going?’ represents a unique snapshot, not only of the contemporary labour market, but also of the lives of working people and Irish society more generally in the post-war period.

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Máire Leane and Elizabeth Kiely write that Irish society in the 1940s and 1950s was ‘class-divided, patriarchal and repressive in many aspects.’[1] Similarly Diarmuid Ferriter wrote that the same period was characterised by ‘the huge gulf between the rhetoric of aspiration that coloured so many of the supposed advantages of Ireland as an unsullied classless, rural idyll, and the reality of a society that failed hopelessly to live up to such rhetoric.’[2] Ireland’s unequal and class-polarised society is blatantly demonstrated in ‘Any Jobs Going’. Professions such as medicine or law, for example, were far beyond the reach of working class people. The cost of becoming a doctor was estimated to be between £1500 and £2000 at a time when even a relatively good job like glass worker brought in an income of just £8 to £10 per week.[3] Another article noted of barristers that it was a common belief that ‘no young man should come to the bar unless he has a private income of at least £300 a year’.[4]

Any job requiring a university degree meant several years of tuition fees and, especially for those living outside of Dublin, much more to be spent on food, accommodation etc. To become an architect through the course in University College Dublin cost £45 in fees per year over a period of five years though, if your home was not in Dublin, it would take ‘well over £1000 to make an architect of you’.[5] Given that most Irish teenagers left school at 14 in order to contribute to the family income, the likelihood that anyone from outside the ranks of the elite could climb the ladder to a profession was unlikely. Similarly, while it is almost certain that scholarships and the like were a possible means of advancement for the working and lower middle classes, these were rare and not mentioned in ‘Any Jobs Going?’ as a reasonable means of social advancement. In my own oral history research on manufacturing workers in Cork, I found that when narrators were asked what they would have liked to have done after leaving education, most cited either craft jobs or unskilled but relatively well-paid work, demonstrating the limited (and accurate) horizon of expectations held by working-class people in a deeply unequal society.

IT Sep 4 1950 - 1

Job Advertisement in Irish Times, 1950

‘Any Jobs Going?’ also reflected the highly gendered nature of employment in 1950s Ireland. The number of occupations covered that were geared towards women was minimal and concentrated in traditional ‘feminine’ spheres of work such as hairdressing, millinery, dressmaking and waitressing. The series also paints a clear picture of the discriminatory practices that existed in relation to payment. In Cork, in 1949 for example, a waiter earned 55/- compared to the 33/- per week earned by his female counterpart, while, after ten years working as an assistant in a grocers or off-license, a man would have a weekly wage of 105/- compared to the female rate of 75/-.[6] Professions and high-status jobs were almost exclusively male domains, with only a handful of female exceptions, such as hotel manageress. The series also gives an insight into the brevity of women’s working lives. Better paying and high-status jobs for women in state bodies or semi-state companies, such as national school teacher or railway clerk, were inevitably cut short at marriage: ‘But girls, a word of warning, if you want to get married and still hold your job, national school teaching is not for you.’[7]

Even in jobs where there was no formal, legal requirement to quit upon marriage it was still the case that gender ideology ensured that the majority of women usually exited employment once they were married. As one working-class woman from Cork commented in her memoirs: ‘Every husband liked to convey the notion that he could support his wife on his own income and a working wife was tantamount to an admission of failure in that regard. It made him feel less of a man.’[8] For an older generation of women workers, the phrase ‘She got married then’ was also a shorthand way of saying ‘She exited employment’. Though married women gradually began to remain in employment from the 1970s, to the point where it is now the norm, the old notion of a male breadwinner and female caregiver had a long shelf life. Indeed, I recently interviewed one woman who recounted feeling guilty when she returned to work in the mid-1980s because she felt she was betraying her role as a mother.

Even within traditionally working class spheres of employment, many avenues were closed off due to restrictive work practices. As the first article in the series comments, ‘some jobs are easy to enter’ but others are ‘hedged about by all kinds of barriers, fees, waiting-lists, trade union regulations, age limits’.[9] These were not the only restrictions. To be a Garda, one had to be ‘not less than 5’ 9’’ in height (barefooted) with a mean chest measurement of 37 in the event of his being 5’ 11’’ or over, and at least 36’’ if he is less than 5’ 11’’ in height.’[10]

Gardaí in the 1950s. Height restrictions remained in place until the 21st century.

Gardaí in the 1950s. Height restrictions remained in place until the 21st century.

Leaving aside the barrel-chested giants of the constabulary, the most significant barriers to employment were in the trades. Many skilled jobs in this period were dominated by a guild mentality that owed more to early skilled trades societies than modern trade unionism. Carpentry for example, a well-paid and high-status craft, was effectively closed to those without relatives in the occupation: ‘If you are not a carpenter’s son or do not have relatives who are engaged in the industry, your chances are not so bright.’[11]  Similarly, the majority of those involved in the confectionery business were ‘closely connected to the trade by family ties and preference is given to those who have relations in the trade.’[12]  These practices tended to prevail much more in the older, more traditional trades such as those mentioned above. Other were less restrictive. To become an electrician, a profession whose ranks were being rapidly expanded by rural electrification, was a more reasonable prospect for a young worker. While the sons of electricians ‘naturally get some preference’, nominations of apprenticeship were shared equally by trade unions and engineering firms, meaning that there were a number of avenues available to those seeking an apprenticeship.[13]

While craftsmen had higher status, pay, conditions and bargaining power than other workers, to become a tradesman also required a lengthy apprenticeship. As Garvin notes: ‘Apprenticeship periods were far longer than in other countries . . . the international norm was three or four years for most trades, but Irish apprenticeship periods amounted to six or seven years of essentially underpaid labour.’[14] Indeed, one of the most striking things about the series as whole is the sheer number of jobs that required an apprenticeship. Even bartending, which is today an unskilled job that doesn’t require a qualification, required a four year apprenticeship in 1949/1950, while to be a grocer’s assistant necessitated a training period of three years.[15]

INNISFALLEN-A

The Inisfallen, which carried thousands of emigrants from Cork to England

Ultimately, ‘Any Jobs Going’ paints a picture of a highly closed and stratified labour market. After the miniature industrial revolution that coincided with Fianna Fáil interventionism in the 1930s, the limits of protectionism had been reached by 1950. The Irish economy was stagnating and, as a result, there were not enough new jobs and industries to provide fresh opportunities for the young. Beyond the jobs described in the Irish Press, the single most common occupation in the country was that of the unskilled worker, whether factory hand, docker or agricultural labourer, not to mention the thousands of unemployed.

The restrictive practices of many craft unions, which sought to maintain exclusivity within their trades, are understandable in this regard. With a vast reserve army of unskilled workers and the unemployed waiting beyond the factory or the workshop, lowering the barriers to entry would have meant that the industrial power of the craftsmen would have been decreased and the importance of their skills diluted rapidly. For most ordinary people in this period, who lacked the wealth of the elite, or the connections and trade protections of the craft workers, employment prospects were bleak. It is no surprise then that during the decade that followed the publication of ‘Any Jobs Going?’ more than half a million people left the country, seeking a life that the declining and stagnating emerald isle simply could not provide.


[1] Máire Leane and Elizabeth Kiely, Irish Women at Work, 1930-1960: An Oral History (Sallins: Irish Academic Press, 2012), pp.6-7.

[2] Diarmuid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000 (London: Profile, 2005), p.506.

[3] Irish Press, 9 December 1949 and 23 February 1950

[4] Irish Press, 7 November 1949.

[5] Irish Press, 26 October 1949.

[6] Irish Press, 20 October 1949 and 26 December 1949

[7] Irish Press, 8 November 1949.

[8] Eibhlís de Barra, Bless ‘em All: The Lanes of Cork (Cork: Mercier Press, 1997), p.139.

[9] Irish Press, 15 October 1949.

[10] Irish Press, 19 November 1949.

[11] Irish Press, 17 October 1949.

[12] Irish Press, 25 October 1949.

[13] Irish Press, 27 October 1949.

[14] Tom Garvin, News from a New Republic: Ireland in the 1950s (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 2010), p.149.

[15] Irish Press, 21 November 1949 and 26 December 1949.

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Filed under Irish History, Labour History, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized