In the burgeoning literature on the Irish in nineteenth-century Britain, little attention has so far been paid to those Irish men and women who subscribed to the mid-Victorian cult of respectability. In some ways, this is a surprising omission. Increasingly it is recognised that hackneyed generalisations about Irish migrants being ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, a group bunched exclusively at the base of society, are inaccurate descriptions of the social composition of the group as a whole. Recent analyses of the census enumerators’ books have revealed that, although the majority of the Irish who settled in British towns in the mid-nineteenth century were poor and endured some of the worst housing available, a substantial minority enjoyed higher-status occupations and were dispersed throughout areas of better quality housing. An acceptance of this view must be accompanied by a consideration of the extent to which some Irish men and women expressed their ethnic identity in terms comparable with a grouping in the host society that has been described as the ‘aristocracy of labour’. Yet, in a 1990 survey of the state of the debate on the history of work in modern Britain, Patrick Joyce argued that the peasant background of Irish immigrants put them ‘at one remove from an ethic of material advancement and individual self-help’. This essay questions the validity of this generalisation and argues that plurality is the key theme of Irish settlement in mid-nineteenth-century Wales.
Research on the socio-economic composition of Irish migrant settlements has been part of a gradual shift in the preoccupations of social historians towards the statistical and quantifiable as opposed to relying on the more impressionistic evidence provided by contemporary observers, whose assumptions about Irishness determined what they saw. However, as Robert Gray has reminded us, the cultural process is not susceptible to precise measurement and it has to be reconstructed from a qualitative analysis of language and social imagery. The principal source for such an analysis is observation of working-class life from above. This raises a number of methodological problems, particularly about the use of literary sources about the Irish in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, because those sources are so deeply influenced by considerations (whether conscious or unconscious) of the moral worth of the Irish.