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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: July 2017

Reassessing the Anti-Irish Riot: Popular Protest and the Irish in South Wales, c. 1826–1882

Summary

The presence of hostility towards the Irish has, to a greater or lesser degree, been of interest to historians engaged in work on a variety of aspects of modern British history, from the development of the British state through to the history of the working classes and the question of post-war multiculturalism and race relations. As well as this wider significance, however, anti-Irish disturbances, which tended to be extensively reported in the press, offer a particularly useful insight into the nature of the Irish immigrant experience. Historians of the Irish in Britain have thus devoted increasing attention in recent years to the study of anti-Irish disturbances and their causes. Despite this level of interest, however, there has been little variety in approach to the study of anti-Irish rioting. To date, our knowledge of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain has been dominated either by broad surveys examining the reception of the Irish in a British-wide context, or by evidence based on studies of the large Irish populations in the big English and Scottish cities. Recent developments in Irish immigrant historiography, however, have seen a move to more local or regionally based studies, which have revealed greater diversity and variety in the Irish immigrant experience in Britain. By applying the same methods to the analysis of anti-Irish hostility, a more accurate and regionally sensitive picture of the different causes and manifestations of anti-Irish disturbances in Britain can be produced.

Until recently, Wales has been largely absent from the study of anti-Irish hostility in Britain. The numbers of the Irish in Welsh industrial towns, with the exception perhaps of mid-nineteenth-century Merthyr, never rivalled those found in the big English and Scottish cities. Among the 20 British towns with the largest Irish populations in 1851, Merthyr was the only Welsh representative, in nineteenth place with a little over 3,000 Irish-born inhabitants. These comparatively small numbers have meant that Wales has not featured prominently in general surveys of the Irish immigrant presence in Britain. Neither has it been seen as an area where anti-Irish tensions were strong, mainly because of the widely held assumption that anti-Irish hostility was more pronounced in areas where the Irish were most numerous.