In the wake of recent anti-refugee protests, Alexandra Day takes a look at the history of Irish migration and draws parallels with the treatment of asylum seekers in Ireland today.
The news has lately been dominated by reports of protests against the accommodation of refugees in Ireland. These protests have largely been whipped up by far-right agitators spreading malicious, racist rumours in messaging apps like WhatsApp. In particular, this messaging has targeted single men ‘of military age’, and their supposed danger to local communities. Activists across the country have responded swiftly to counter this dangerous misinformation, and to debunk the rumours which have spread like wildfire across social media sites. As the prospect of further protests seems likely, it is useful to reflect on the parallels between the treatment of Irish migrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the way refugees are being received in the country today.
There is not only a rhetorical similarity between these cases, but a strong comparison between the social and economic circumstances which surrounded anti-migrant sentiment then and now. Then, as today, these prejudices reached their peak at times of hardship in the ‘native’ country. When jobs were scarce in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, or the Second World War, working people were pitted against migrant Irish workers to compete for jobs and, ultimately, a means of survival. Those in power benefited from these divisions by diverting rightful working-class anger towards easily-made scapegoats and, ultimately, profited from these divisions.
Push Factors: Why Irish people had to leave
Throughout the 19th century, Irish people were forced to leave the country by a wide array of factors, mostly to America and to Britain. In both instances, their reception was ambivalent, though frequently veering towards hostility. This manifested in widespread discriminatory cartoons and pamphlets, ‘anti-Irish’ policies on housing and certain jobs, and even violence. In the ensuing economic depression following the Napoleonic Wars, wages for farmers across England declined significantly. This came in addition to the high taxes and skyrocketing food prices which emerged due to wartime trade restrictions. Many soldiers returned home to find their work had been replaced by the ever-increasing number of ‘labour-saving’ machines.
In Ireland, the picture was yet more grim. The early 19th century saw major changes in how land was used in Ireland, to combat the sharply decreased cost of grain and corn. The work of many seasonal labourers was replaced by the grazing of livestock, a trend which was to worsen in the period following the later famine of the late 1840s. Wealthy Irish landlords increased the profitability of their land by changing its use and driving off tenants who worked there, often for many generations. Additionally, the prices for pigs and butter decreased while rents remained the same and even increased in some areas. The ‘Summary Ejection Act’ of 1816 capped this situation, allowing courts to evict tenants more swiftly. Many were forced into the dreaded workhouses to survive, contributing to the industrialisation of the country. These conditions meant that Irish people, particularly the young, single men who previously worked as seasonal labourers, were compelled to leave the country to survive. The year 1829 saw a surge in Irish workers going to Britain, precipitating a long-lasting campaign of discrimination against them.
Farm owners took advantage of the dire conditions that forced Irish people abroad in search of survival. They took on Irish labourers at half the cost of their English counterparts, and subsequently drove down wages for all workers. Marx and Engels reflected on this situation in the first volume of Capital, describing these workers as a ‘reserve army’:
“Like a swarm of locusts, come crowding in masses of ragged Irishmen or decayed English agricultural labourers. They are stowed away in cellars and lofts, or the hitherto respectable labourer’s dwelling is transformed into a lodging house whose personnel changes as quickly as the billets in the 30 years’ war”.
However, the anger of English labourers was directed not at their employers but, in the main, towards the influx of Irish migrants. Farms which employed Irish labourers were the subject of attacks. The reforming politician William Cobbett remarked on the severity of the situation in an 1832 letter:
“Instantly the English labourers received notice that they must work at the same price as the Irish… They armed themselves with what they called BATS;[a] they went to the several barns, where the poor Irish fellows were snoozled in among the litter and rubbish, roused them up, and told them that they must march out of the island”.1
Despite the abject conditions faced by the Irish labourers, they were met with violence. Rumours of Catholic farm owners giving preferential treatment to Irish labourers abounded, and the argument that English jobs were ‘stolen’ flourished. In the years following the famine, these trends worsened. In March 1849, the Illustrated London News remarked that “Great Britain cannot continue to throw her hard-won millions into the bottomless pit of Celtic pauperism”. Remarkably, in the face of unprecedented famine, Irish people were accused of living off ‘relief’ from the British government, rather than working to survive.
‘No Irish Need Apply’: Anti-Irish Discrimination
In this period, more Irish people went to America in search of work and survival, with more families migrating at this time. There is significant evidence showing that Irish were both explicitly and informally prevented from working. This was partly why Irish migrants found themselves confined to insular, slumlike conditions, particularly in the cities. Though the extent of anti-Irish discrimination in workplaces has been debated by historians, Rebecca A. Fried has utilised digitised newspaper archives to demonstrate that newspaper advertisements were a hotbed for advertisements declaring ‘no Irish need apply’.2 This created a double bind for recently emigrated Irish people. Those who could work were forced into the most menial and dangerous jobs; digging trenches, laying railway lines, and working for a pittance as domestic labourers. Conversely, prevented from working, many Irish people were compelled into theft or ‘prostitution’ (as it was called) to prevent themselves and their families starving. Irish migrants were accused of being inherently criminal, violent, and ‘drunken’ people, which the so-called ‘Nativist’ movement spurred on to intensify hatred towards Irish migrants.
The infamous caricatures of this period, in both Britain and America, portrayed Irish migrants as animalistic and dangerous to women and children. In a period where class was often portrayed as an ‘embodied’ trait by writers and theorists, portraying Irish migrants as subhuman was common. An 1881 cartoon from the British magazine Judy entitled ‘The Most Recently Discovered Beast’, showed the Irish (specifically those living in America) not only as less ‘developed’, but as wilfully taking advantage of relief provided by the British government. To the right of the image, a sly figure destroys a newspaper documenting apparent Irish “indiscriminate murder”. The message was twofold; not only were Irish migrants posing a threat to native communities, they were deliberately taking advantage of welfare schemes as well. Somehow, the Irish managed to ‘steal’ the work of labourers in America and Britain whilst simultaneously avoiding working and living on governmental relief. Another fear was that large numbers of Irish migrants would interfere with elections. As well, cartoons from the anti-Irish magazine Puck frequently focused on the apparent inability of the Irish to assimilate with native communities. In an 1889 cartoon entitled, ‘The Mortar Of Assimilation – And The One Element That Won’t Mix’, an image shows an ape-like leprechaun refusing to join others in the pot labelled citizenship. He pesters the fair lady dispensing ‘equal rights’ to citizens, seemingly claiming preferential treatment.
Irish communities gradually embedded themselves in American politics, often at the expense of the Black communities they had previously found kinship with. Despite this change, as late as the 1950s, many newly-arrived Irish migrants in America found themselves the victims of exploitation by local gangs or, in some cases, the police. They were compelled to work for one contractor alone, or to work for lesser wages. Nevertheless, the ‘anti-Irish’ sentiment never reached the same heights as it had a century previously.
This development meant that the third wave of anti-Irish migrant sentiment emerged again in Britain following the Second World War. In Ireland, the Catholic Church increased its vice like grip on the social world. As well, facing the economic stagnation of the 1950s, approximately 40,000 Irish people immigrated to Britain each year to find work. Though many settled in areas which had developed a sizeable Irish population in the prior century, for Irish people seeking work in London, the reception was different. Many recounted being met with handwritten signs proclaiming ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’, particularly in accommodation and boarding houses. The same rhetoric used a century before returned. Arguments about ‘stolen jobs’ and the inherent violent nature of Irish migrants were reiterated. Though the right has attempted to reclaim this history to serve their own ends, the reality was different.
Diversity and Solidarity, Then and Now
As the infamous sign demonstrated, Irish people alone were not the victims of this sustained discrimination. Alongside the Irish, greater numbers of Jamaican migrants, Indian migrants, and migrants from Trinidad and Tobago arrived in Britain. They faced an additional level of racism to the employment and housing discrimination experienced by their Irish counterparts. However, there was a powerful solidarity among these communities. In 1968, Mahesh Upadhyaya became the first person to bring a racial discrimination case before the UK courts. Reflecting on his experience, he commented on the shared racism felt by migrant communities; “When I went looking for digs it was standard to see signs saying ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. Despite this discrimination, given work, these migrant communities were the driving force behind the building of mass public housing and the staffing of the National Health Service. Without the arrival of thousands of apparently ‘unvetted, military age’ migrants to Britain, such developments would have been impossible.
The vibrant London Irish community that exists today gives us a glimpse of what could be if we choose welcome and friendship over hatred and discrimination. It is important to recall the discrimination faced by Irish migrants abroad out of solidarity with those facing it today. We remember this history to reiterate why we should not force any others to endure it today. Refugees in Ireland today have fled wars and life-threatening persecution in their home countries. Much like the Irish of the past, they are prevented from working by the Irish government, forced to live in inappropriate accommodation and subsist on a meagre amount. The 19th century portrayal of the Irish as dangerous, and simultaneously ‘stealing’ jobs and houses whilst also existing on welfare, is now being used against refugees arriving in Ireland.
However, it is not enough just to point out examples of where Irish migrants were discriminated against, though there were many. These historical cases allow us to see that wealthy Irish, American and British people alike stood to gain from these divisions and encouraged them. Capitalising on divisions among already impoverished communities, they profited by decreasing wages and worsening conditions for workers. Irish landlords, too, increased their profits while Irish workers suffered at home and abroad. Today, it is troubling that the racist rhetoric against refugees seems to be targeted towards working-class areas, particularly those which have been the greatest victims of austerity. Seeing how those in power have benefitted from divisive rhetoric across the past two centuries allows us to scrutinise why this is the case.
What the story of Irish migrants teaches us is that one of the most vital tasks for socialists is to raise the sights of people, to see how fairer the world could be for all rather than the few. In communities where poverty and deprivation have been suffered for decades, the vision of a better world can be difficult to promote in a way that means something tangible to people. Where the power for a genuine challenge to the system is the strongest, those in power and reactionary forces will use all means necessary to divide and conquer. The areas being targeted by far-right rhetoric today are some of the most diverse and generally welcoming in the country – much like the neighbourhoods and towns where Irish migrants found. This is the history that we want to continue on today.
1William Cobbett (1832). “Letter to George Woodward”. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register. Vol. 75, no. 13 (24 March 1832 ed.). p. 786.
2Rebecca A. Fried, No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in
Enjoyed your article but massive gap in that you did not mention the work of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. Founded in 1981 to challenge the discrimination that the Irish continued to experience we, a grassroots based organisation took on this challenge at all levels of society. We also, unlike the traditional Irish community, linked it to the war in Ireland and a history of colonialism. Our archive is at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford or read more on our site https://lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com/history-of-the-irish-in-britain-representation-group/