The Irish who migrated to Britain during the long nineteenth century were by no means a homogeneous group, for their ranks contained both rich and poor, middle class and working class, skilled and unskilled, Catholics and Protestants (and unbelievers), nationalists and loyalists, and men and women from a variety of distinctive provincial rural and urban cultures in Ireland. Nevertheless, the vast majority were poor Roman Catholics, and it was their experience, often presented in monochrome as a heroic struggle against poverty and prejudice, particularly during the early Victorian years, which dominated early historical studies of the Irish in Britain. More recently, however, within a burgeoning historiography of national, regional and local studies, the reductionism of earlier studies has been challenged, and there is now a greater awareness that Irish migration and settlement during the period was a multi-generational phenomenon and that the experiences of the Irish-born and their descendants were more complex and variable in both time and place than earlier studies suggested.
Migration and Settlement
The nature and pattern of Irish migration to Britain, prompted as it was by the interaction of a combination of influences, some ‘pushing’ the Irish out of Ireland, others ‘pulling’ them from Ireland, lacked the permanence of Irish migration to North America and Australasia owing to the short distances involved and the social, economic, political and cultural links between Britain and Ireland. There was a longstanding tradition of seasonal migration from Ireland to Britain which can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and by the early eighteenth century Irish harvesters were a familiar feature of the British rural landscape, variously reaping corn, digging potatoes, collecting turnips, picking hops and draining land in order to supplement the family income and support their domestic holdings in Ireland. This tradition was to continue well into the twentieth century, although as mechanisation advanced the number of Irish harvesters progressively declined. However, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, employment opportunities for sojourning migrants were extended by the demand for casual work in mines, docks and construction industries, and these itinerant labourers and their families put down roots in ports such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow and, more generally, in the emerging industrial towns of south Lancashire and the central lowlands of Scotland.