Tag Archives: Ireland

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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Irish History, Social History

‘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.

hairdresserdfg

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.

8 Comments

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

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).

7 Comments

Filed under Irish History, Memory, Nineteenth Century

Fists ‘n’ Chips

This post owes something of a debt to another history blog, Come Here To Me! It has provided inspiration with their line in blog posts on pizzerias, Chinese restaurants and the like in recent times.

During the course of my PhD research, one of the most remarkable books I have read is John K. Walton’s Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. Ostensibly, it has less than nothing to do with my research on sport in Munster between 1880-1930. But when I read the book, it opened up previously unimaginable vistas and themes for exploration to me as a historian. By taking such an ephemeral part of  life, and examining it from a huge range of viewpoints – from those of the fishfriers and their trade, as part of the burgeoning seaside holiday resorts of Britain, as an indicator of class and status and so on, Walton showed in the best way, that from something so small, so much could be learned. In an interview last year, Walton describing it as one his most fulfilling academic projects, said:

…I enjoyed some of the reactions even more: appearing in Pseuds’ Corner for impeccable reasons (such as suggesting that fish and chips had a politics), and provoking a colleague’s wife to exclaim in outrage, ‘But surely even you can’t spin out fish and chips into a whole book’. Oh yes I could; and the sustained hostility from unimaginative historians who had not read the book provided endless further entertainment.

Such an imaginative power, to be able to ‘spin out’ of fish and chips something much more substantial is one of the books, and Walton’s, achievements. My own resulting interests in Fish ‘n’ Chips for my own research, tangential though it is, arises from considering whether this humblest of humble luxury items was relatively expensive in 1920s Ireland. Whether it might be that in a tossup between fish ‘n’ chips by the seaside, entry to a match, or a few hours in the warmth of the cinema, there could only be one winner. And so I went trawling through the papers in search of early signs that fish ‘n’ chips had a similar presence in Irish life to that of Britain. One thing which I found, which I wasn’t expecting to was that fish ‘n’ chips was frequently mentioned in the preambles of witnesses giving testimony in courts about various fights and rows that took place throughout the country.

Take for instance, the case of the father-and-son pair, Frederick and Laurence Coppolla and their associates Angelo Santi and Rauche Eteglio all of whom were brought before court on charges of siphoning off oil that belonged to the British Margarine Company located in Dublin’s North Wall, to the tune of £250 in 1910. One of their customers, who gave witness in court, was another Italian Anthony Rabbaiotti, of 4 Wexford Street where he kept a fish ‘n’ chip shop. He got barrels of oil for his business through the Coppollas, but as far as can be figured from the report wasn’t implicated in the illegal means of procuring it![1]

Fish ‘n’ chips even make some appearances in the Bureau of Military History Archives. In the testimony of Frank Thornton of Booterstown, Dublin he tells a story of how British secret service men, in this case an Irish plant by the name of Dave Neligan, would meet with touts for information – and the occasion that Thornton relates in his testimony to the Bureau is of an amusing meeting with some of these English touts in Rabbiatti’s on Marlboro’ Street, having a supper of fish ‘n’ chips, where the English touts are amazed at the quality of the Irish accents Thornton and his friends have when they couldn’t imitate it after a year in the country.[2]

Derry Boy

Irish Times report of boy who spent stolen money on fish ‘n’ chips

In the Irish Independent in July 1924, a small story appeared about another Italian fishfrier, Carl Morelli on Talbot Street, who was in Police Court and fined ten shillings and put on personal bail for 12 months after assaulting a customer by the name of Stone with hammer when Stone entered the premises looking to hand out other customers’ fish ‘n’ chips so that he could get his own for free. From the Irish Times, many years later in 1938, we get a report of a young boy in Derry who is sentenced to a term in an Industrial school charged with stealing twenty four shillings from several apartments – we are informed that the boy ‘went to the cinema with the money and bought sweets there and after the pictures bought more sweets and fish and chips.’[3]

In Waterford, in August 1931, a sitting of the District Court heard of another fight between someone serving behind the counter and a customer. On this occasion the row occurred in July of that year when some customers, two of them drunk, one sober we’re told, got into a row with James Jackson over the price of the fish ‘n’ chips. The row was caused by some considerable confusion about the difference in value due to the introduction of new Irish coinage – indeed the row continued, much to the amusement of those present, in the courtroom – with the Justice intervening between the men saying ‘Don’t turn this into a Fish-and-Chip shop’ to roars of laughter from the people there to witness the proceedings.[4]

A similar incident also occurred in Tramore, Co. Waterford in 1937 when another Italian fish ‘n’ chip shop owner, Stephen Casoni this time, where again drink and high spirits caused trouble when some customers, the defendants, insisted on being served first above everyone else in the chipper during a peak period.[5]

These are just a small few stories that revolve in some way around fish ‘n’ chips and help to give us a little insight into the social world of Ireland in the early twentieth century through them. We encountered in that handful of examples the spy network of British intelligence in Ireland, the criminal activities of immigrants, the spending habits of young delinquents over which hung the oppressive air of the dreaded industrial school and lastly, we saw the day-to-day problems faced by those, often Italian, businessmen who ran the fish ‘n’ chip shops –we’ve seen life being lived, through food served up on newspaper.


[1] Irish Times, 17 November 1910

[2] WS Ref #: 615 , Witness: Frank Thorton, Member IRB & IV Dublin, 1913-16; Deputy Assistant Director of Intelligence, IRA 1919-21: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0615.pdf

[3] Irish Times, 9 February 1938

[4] Munster Express, 14 August 1931

[5] Munster Express, 12 November 1931

6 Comments

Filed under Irish History, Social History, Twentieth Century