By Toni Topanou
Irish emigration to Britain is nothing new. Even before the famine crisis of 1845-1849, Britain was the main destination for Irish migrants due to many pull and push factors such as the attraction of comparatively well-paid jobs, and word of mouth from family members who had already moved to Britain. However, the most important factor explaining Irish migration to the UK was seasonal.
Most Irish in the UK has crossed the Irish Sea for casual labour after arduous and sometimes expensive journeys. They didn’t expect to settle but it would be the case for most of them, even though their hope was to return to their homeland one day.
From 1951 to 2001, the Irish were the largest foreign-born group in Britain, reason being the hundreds of thousands who moved in the 1950s. The 2011 UK Census recorded 407,357 people who identified themselves as Irish-born, down 40 per cent from a peak of 683,000 in 1961.
Among the cities that became a new home for Irish immigrants in Britain was Coventry, where the Irish have a history over centuries. They were labourers, factories or motor industry workers. Areas like Caldicotts Yard, Gosford Street and Jordan Well, in Foleshill and Spon End among others, were the most popular areas Irish immigrants settled in. Nowadays, the community is spread throughout the city in areas such as Coundon, Radford and Earlsdon.
‘We hadn’t got running water’
Fred McCann, who left Ireland when he was a teenager more than 60 years ago to settle in Coventry, was among those who tried to escape the rampant unemployment at the time. Fred emigrated to England in search of work. Unlike many other immigrants, he was lucky, with relatives already established over the Irish Sea.
Now retired, Fred only goes back to Dublin for visits or holidays. “I left college when I was 17 with the desire to spread my wings instead of staying,” he says. “I moved to England to look for job. I will never go back to Ireland to live. I have made my home in England. Besides, I have no relatives [back home].”
Just like Fred, Eileen moved to Coventry because there was no work in the small village where she grew up. When asked what she thinks of the country she left behind, her eyes say it all.
“I don’t know … They are so prosperous. They got everything. We hadn’t got running water or anything like that. We use to carry a bucket of water from the well.”
Like Fred, Eileen would not go back to Ireland. “My life is here, my family is here, and I don’t fit in there. The village where I am from, everybody left.”
For Eileen, if the Irish Government had provided work for its citizens, “nobody would have left. I am sure 99.9 per cent of people who left did so because of work. There were no work.”
‘This is my home now’
In other cases, it was life circumstances that forced people to make the move to England.
“I didn’t choose to move over here,” says Bernice (not her real name). “My mum brought me over her because I was adopted by my aunt when I was young. It didn’t work because there was a lot of abuse from her husband, so my mum brought me here. It didn’t work either and I ended up in a care house where I stayed all my [childhood].
Bernice says Ireland is her country “and I love it but growing up there was hard. I wouldn’t go back to live there. This is my home now. I’ve got my son, my grandsons and my great grandsons here.”
Like Bernice’s first years, many Irish moving to Britain did not find it easy to settle. Harsh environments, hard working conditions, low skilled and sometimes poorly paid, dirty, unhealthy and dangerous jobs – in so many words, settling in Coventry was not always a bed of roses.
Kay Forrest, now retired and living in Coventry, followed her family from Cork to Coventry against her wishes, and had to combine a night-shift job with long hours with caring for her children. It was 12 hours a night at work, home in the morning to get the children ready for school, sleep for a few hours, get back up and back to work again.
“These were hard days, but I love Coventry,” says Kay. “I gave everything to Coventry I helped people in Coventry. I do love Cork, where I am from, but I cannot go back to live there.”
Sadness broke Kay’s voice when she recalled one terrible memory: “When I was looking after an elderly man after a bombing in Coventry … he spat into my face and told me to go back to where I come from.”
Gone now thankfully are the days of ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. Coventry, like every British city, has progressed – and the Irish community has had a profound influence. They have made England their home, such that there is nothing for them in Ireland to go back to.