A landmark event in modern Irish history took place last month – President Michael D Higgins’ State Visit to Britain. This, the first by an Irish President in the history of the state, was in return for the Queen’s 2011 visit here. Both have been applauded as great successes and important steps in the process of reconciliation between Ireland and Britain. Particular and deserved praise has been given to the President and his wife; the visit was one which instilled a sense of pride. President Higgins will visit Chicago in early May. Get to see him if you can.

Parking the symbolism and diplomatic niceties, the Visit was particularly important in the formal recognition it accorded to the Irish community in Britain, both in terms of social acceptance within Britain and in terms of official recognition from Ireland . To a community which has often been taken for granted, and on occasion faced hostility or indifference, this formal acknowledgement is important in a country where so many have found a home. President Higgins, like many others a onetime Irish emigrant to Britain, could empathise easily with our people there, who enjoy generally excellent relations with the host nation, which has welcomed and given a livelihood to several million Irish over the centuries.

There are no exact figures for the numbers who came or their descendants. The British Ambassador to Ireland, Dominic Chilcott, suggested recently that as many as twenty five percent of the British population could claim some Irish ancestry A rough rule of thumb used by many has been the number of Catholics plus 10% – reflecting the fact that Britain’s Roman Catholic Church , roughly seven million, was overwhelmingly an Irish immigrant church, and adding in a percentage for those who “lapsed.”

This may be a considerable underestimation . The obvious examples aside, there are people of recognisable Irish descent to be found at every level of British society. While it is widely known that Tony Blair’s mother was born in Donegal, making him , incidentally, an Irish citizen by right, it came as a revelation that Mrs Thatcher’s great-grandmother was a Sullivan from Kerry! And that could be just the tip of a very large iceberg. Though not as visible or as talked about as the Irish Americans, the Irish in Britain have made a significant, sometimes unrecognised, contribution to British society.

While there are roughly 34 million persons claiming Irish descent in the USA , reflecting the phenomenal numbers who arrived during the Nineteenth Century, those of Irish birth living in Britain today – at least half a million – constitute by far the largest grouping of Irish-born now living outside Ireland and greatly exceed the number in the USA. The 2010 US Census gave just under 145,000 Irish-born naturalised US residents; throw in those with or awaiting green cards and the undocumented and the total figure is probably around 250,000.

Irish immigrant experiences in the USA and Britain have been markedly different . While the USA has celebrated diversity, acknowledging the contribution of different immigrant groups, including especially the Irish, to developing the country, Britain has until recently historically taken the different path of assimilation. This has changed in recent decades, with the arrival of large numbers of culturally and ethnically different immigrants which has seen British society become more pluralist, diverse and multicultural.

Until the sixties, however, immigrants to England, even from other parts of Britain, were steered towards assimilation and absorption into the dominant culture. There were reasons. Like immigrants everywhere, most arrivals were poor, entering society at or near the bottom. It was a long slow march up the social ladder in a society more closed and class ridden than in the USA. Assimilation helped.

You were here, you worked, you were accepted, on the host’s terms. And, to a large extent, it
worked, certainly on the surface.

There were many exceptions, of course, and it is to their credit that Irish culture, and Irish identity
were preserved and championed among emigrants. Yet within a generation or two many had become
British, with usually just a nod to an Irish or Scottish grandparent. Hence the Thatchers, and many
more like them ( three of the Beatles). Remember some members of the legendary Irish soccer team
of a generation ago – qualifying through a grandparent.

Historically there have always been many Irish in Britain. Irish-born immigrants constituted until
very recently the largest “foreign” community in Britain; Indians and Poles have now passed them
out. ( The same, incidentally, is true in reverse of the British in Ireland ). There was considerable
migration even pre-Famine and steady, increased, flows thereafter, with spikes in the numbers
arriving corresponding to economic downturns at home . During the 1950s the numbers surged, as
the Irish economy hit the bottom, with up to half of each year’s school leavers emigrating, most to
Britain. As an example, in 1960, of my mother’s siblings three of four were living ( and working) in
Britain, while in my father’s case the figure was seven out of fourteen.

It was a time of mixed experience. Generally Irish immigrants were well received and fitted in. But
increased immigration after 1950 included many single men, generating a flurry of “ No Irish” notices
from landlords. While most thrived, indeed prospered , for the few at the margin life was hard, with
alcohol, loneliness and impoverished lifestyles taking a toll. Remnants of these “forgotten Irish”
remain, and one of the main thrusts of official Irish policy towards emigrants in recent years has been
to provide assistance to them. In the 70s also the impact of the Northern Ireland “Troubles” was
overwhelmingly negative, with widespread anti –Irish feeling after numerous people were murdered
in IRA bombings and shootings. The hysteria spilled over into a number of miscarriages of justice,
with ordinary innocent Irish people wrongly convicted of terrorist crimes. It was not a good time to be
Irish and most immigrants kept their heads down.

Rising prosperity at home from the early 1960s on saw emigration gradually reduce, though thousands
continued to move annually in both directions. A further spike in Irish arrivals in Britain followed
Ireland’s economic collapse of the 80s and the meltdown since 2008 has seen yet another surge.
Unlike the earlier emigrants, many of whom were poorly educated and doomed to menial jobs, the
latest arrivals have been better qualified and have slotted in at every level of British society.

The two decades of peace since 1994 have helped enormously. There has been quicker acceptance
of the Irish against a background of heightened awareness generally about ethnicity and cultural
identity. It has been a period which has seen a steady rise in profile of and regard for the Irish in
Britain. Events like Riverdance, groups like U2 , the arrival in Britain of talented and high profile
Irish artists and entertainers, fashion designers and professionals generally, have combined to generate
a welcome change in attitude. Ireland and Irishness have become trendy, almost chic. The State Visit
topped this off nicely. For the Irish in Britain, the Visit was a signal triumph.


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