The Irish in Britain – 1970s

This review by Desmond Greaves of the book “The Irish in Britain” by Kevin O’Connor (Sidgwick and Jackson, 188 pp. £2.95) was carried in the December 1972 issue of the “Irish Democrat”.

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The publication of this book by a young Dublin journalist, Kevin O’Connor, is an important and on the whole happy event for the Irish community in Britain. 

It is not a social survey like Professor Jackson’s book of the same title. Nor is it a history. It is rather a combination of the two which expresses the self-consciousness of the present immigrants.

The first two parts of the book, a matter of 92 pages, are indeed historical. Mr O’Connor has dug up some interesting illustrations of the general thesis that it was England’s colonial activities in Ireland that drove the Irish into exile, where to begin with they did the work the native English disliked doing.

His general outlook reflects the enormous improvement in the status of the Irish in Britain over these past two decades, and he sees this as part of a lengthier process stretching over the centuries.

The remainder of the book is concerned with the Irish now, and is on the whole weaker. Whereas in the historical section it is clear that real research has been done and the sound national outlook reinforces interpretations, in surveying the present scene the journalist takes charge. It is not to carp to say that it is obvious that Mr O’Connor has received a better training in history than sociology. For in this field there is a lack of rigour which is at times disconcerting.

Mind, it does not pretend to be a scholar’s book. To cast against it what it does not profess would be unfair. This generalised picture of the Irish in Britain as a diverse community, to this reviewer at any rate, seems to obscure clear presentation of the class issues raised in the earlier part of the book.

Thus on page 39 we have the pithy and penetrating observation apropos of Daniel O’Connell’s campaigns: “Though the Irish devoted centuries of rebellion towards the demolition of military manifestations of British imperial rule, they heartily absorbed the underlying caste tenets upon which that rule was dependent.” This was part of Connolly’s thesis. And its applicability did not cease with O’Connell. This type of insight contributes to the book’s value.

But in the section on the politics of the present community there are inaccuracies. On page 109 we are told that the Connolly Association held “teach-ins”.  This is incorrect. The Association never held a “teach-in” in its history. The “Irish Democrat” is described as being published “fitfully”.  If “fitfully” means irregularly, then it is worth saying for the record that since January 1939 when the first issue of “Irish Freedom” was published, only one month has been missed, and this was during the blitz at the height of World War 2.

There is moreover a slight bias towards “respectability”. For example, in a section on the Irish in business, the businessmen are treated with due deference to the money in their pockets, and they, at any rate, do not pursue their avocations fitfully at all. From this, and the section on “social problems”, it is hard to escape the impression that Mr O’Connor himself may have had a wee smudge of the “underlying caste tenets” rubbed off on him.

If you must have a full definitive scientific study of the Irish in Britain, then it has not yet been written.  But it will need more than 200 pages. Interviews and anecdotes will have to be ruthlessly excised. And many years will have to be devoted to it.

This is illustrated by Mr O’Connor ‘s omissions. There is no reference to Denvir’s book, also called “The Irish in Britain, and it was he surely, as organiser of the Irish National League, who brought the organisation of the Irish to its highest level in history 1. At that time there were Irish newspapers regularly published in Britain.

It would have been useful to have had a study of the effect of events in Ireland on the community in Britain. It is an interesting fact that Irish organisation in Newcastle was virtually extinguished by the Parnell split and never recovered.

The split in the Irish Self-Determination League also had fateful consequences. In London and Manchester, where the Republicans had it, there was left a progressive tradition on which the Connolly Association built. To some degree this was also true in Birmingham. But Liverpool, with its strong Free State tendency, lost his pre-eminence in the Irish community.

However, we mustn’t be complaining at what Mr O’Connor did not find out and put in. He starts us reminiscing and he engages our appetite. It is in no way ungracious to him to say that the history of the Irish emigration to Britain deserves the undivided attention of some. able professional historian.

The book is competently written, with just an occasional pleonasm or malapropism. Sometimes the index refers to the wrong page. But it is excellently produced. A bit expensive, but still a good buy, to be got into every Public Library. 

  1. John Denvir, 1834-1916, author, journalist, publisher and Fenian, was joint founder and first secretary of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain in 1873. He was chief organiser of the Irish National League in Britain, founded in 1883.  His book, “The Irish in Britain”, was published in 1892. He established a printing and publishing business in Liverpool and published numerous works oriented towards the Irish community in Britain. His memoirs, The life story of an old rebel (1910), recall his lifelong commitment to Irish causes and his personal relations with leading nationalists such as C.S. Parnell, Michael Davitt and Joseph Biggar.