Looking Back Across The Water

We held a writing competition this year where we asked Irish people living in England to submit monologues that told the stories of Irish people who had made their homes in the UK since 1921.  We recorded this video in the summer. You will find the historical  or social background to the  pieces underneath the film below.

If you would prefer to look at a specific piece in the compilation, rather than watch the whole film from the beginning, click on the “Watch on Youtube” icon at the bottom left hand side of the screen above and you will be taken to the video’s page on Youtube where you will see a “Table of Contents” in the Description section below the video. From here you can click on the specific piece you are interested in.

The pieces in order are:

1. John Henry Clancy
2. Gold Doesn’t Rust
3. Alone on Victory Day
4. Euston 1954
5. What’s in a Name?
6. Oona
7. What the Feis?
8. The Sea Between
9. Bursting the Bubble
10. Dancing at Digbeth
11. Hurling in the Peak District
12. There’s a Harp on My Passport Too
13. Getting Home

Our first two pieces John Henry Clancy and Gold Doesn’t Rust were set against a background of war.

John Henry Clancy

Clancy is a veteran of World War 1. It is estimated that between 35,000 and 65,000 Irish men died serving in the Crown Forces in First World War 1914-1918 when the  island of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. This number included men who  served in either Irish or non Irish regiments. Those who survived like John Henry Clancy would have witnessed dreadful things and many would have suffered from what we now call ‘post traumatic stress disorder’.

Returning soldiers had to contend with a changed political climate in Ireland . The Easter Rising of 1916 had led to a change in political attitudes, the desire for Home Rule had been replaced by a much more militant nationalism that led to the War of Independence and then to the Irish Civil War.

The reasons why many veterans decided to live outside Ireland after the war were varied. Poverty and high unemployment were certainly factors, but so to was the explicit hostility to those who had served in the war.

Gold Doesn’t Rust

A need to find employment, a desire to do something out of the ordinary and a belief  that ‘Hitler must be stopped’, were some of the many reasons why Irish men and women enlisted to fight with the British forces in the Second World War.

This was done against a background of Irish neutrality. In September 1939 the then Irish Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, announced that his government intended to keep Ireland out of the Second World War.  Eire, the Republic of Ireland would be closed to all belligerent ships and aircraft of the war.

The K-Lines” (No.2 Internment camp) was built in 1939 in the East side of the Curragh Camp in County Kildare.  The main function of the K-Lines was the internment any servicemen of either the axis or allied forces, who were captured on Irish soil during the Second World War. It would prevent their escape and thus prevent them returning to their respective countries and re-joining the war effort.

Between 1940 and 1943, some 40 British and 200 German military personnel were taken to K-Lines, mainly aircrews from the Battle of Britain which was fought in the skies above the British Isles and men from shipwrecked U-boats.

For more information visit http://www.curragh.info/klines.htm  and


‘Alone on Victory Day’ and ‘Euston’

From the 1920s onwards, female Irish migrants were helping to meet a pressing need for nurses in England, exacerbated by the two world wars. After World War II, large numbers of Irish women followed suit and were being actively recruited by the NHS as student nurses.

One of the attractions of nursing was that it enabled young women to train on the job. They could go into a nursing school, attached to a hospital, and be on the ward straight away. They also got paid a modest salary and were provided with accommodation.

By 1951, 11pc of nurses and midwives in Britain were Irish. By 1971, it is estimated up to 12pc of Britain’s nurses were Irish-born.

‘Alone on Victory Day’ and ‘Euston’ tell  the human two stories of two young nurses who arrive in England in the post war years. The first arrives in Liverpool on VE day in 1945 the other nine years later in London. The shock of arriving in a big city from rural Ireland was considerable for  these young women.

The contribution of Irish nurses in the National Health Service is well documented in a new book by by Ethel Corduff  “Ireland’s Loss Britain’s Gain”.  To purchase a copy email ecorduff@hotmail.com 

‘What’s In a Name?’ and ‘Oona’

Post war emigration to Great Britain reached its height in the late 1950s when, it is estimated that 50,000 people left each year for a decade.  The effect of this was dramatic on a population of under 3 million people. However the need to find work was not the only reason that people left.

‘What’s In a Name?’ and ‘Oona’ tell the story of two individuals who found the conservatism of  de Valera’s Ireland alongside the prominence of the Roman Catholic church suffocating. Homosexuality was illegal until 1993 leaving gay men living in secrecy and fear of being found out.

IN 1943 the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera  had delivered an over-romanticised vision of an Ireland as: ‘ a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. “ Twenty years later this still held sway, with married women which still to some extent held sway. Women were unable to work once they got married, although they might be allowed part time or temporary jobs.

The Sea Between

In this piece we see the effect that the Birmingham Bombings had on one very ordinary Irishman and his family.

The piece  explains more. It is taken from Birmingham pub bombings – Wikipedia

“In 1973, the Provisional IRA extended its campaign to mainland Britain, attacking military and symbolically important targets to both increase pressure on the British government, via popular British opinion, to withdraw from Northern Ireland, and to maintain morale amongst their supporters. By 1974, mainland Britain saw an average of one attack—successful or otherwise—every three days. These attacks included five explosions which had occurred in Birmingham on 14 July, one of which had occurred at the Rotunda. Prior to any attack upon civilian targets, a code of conduct was followed in which the attacker or attackers would send an anonymous telephone warning to police, with the caller reciting a confidential code word known only to the Provisional IRA and to police, to indicate the authenticity of the threat.

The Birmingham pub bombings were carried out on 21 November 1974, when bombs exploded in two public houses in Birmingham, England, killing 21 people and injuring 182 others. The Provisional Irish Republican Army never officially admitted responsibility for the Birmingham pub bombings, although a former senior officer of the organisation confessed to their involvement in 2014. In 2017, one of the alleged perpetrators, Michael Hayes, also claimed that the intention of the bombings had not been to harm civilians, and that their deaths had been caused by an unintentional delay in delivering an advance telephone warning to security services. Six Irishmen were arrested within hours of the blasts, and in 1975 sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombings. The men—who became known as the Birmingham Six—maintained their innocence and insisted police had coerced them into signing false confessions through severe physical and psychological abuse. After 16 years in prison, and a lengthy campaign, their convictions were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory, and quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1991. The episode is seen as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history. The Birmingham pub bombings were one of the deadliest acts of the Troubles, and the deadliest act of terrorism to occur in England between the Second World War and the 2005 London bombings.”

Bursting the Bubble

Like many immigrant groups, some of whom experienced varying levels of hostility, many Irish people preferred to live in areas where there was a significant Irish community and where they felt supported from the racism which affected their lives.  Many cities and larger towns had  facilities  such as Irish pubs, dancehalls, parish clubs and centres that allowed Irish people to socialise only with their own.  So extensive were these Irish networks which existed in places such as Kilburn, north London that it was not unusual for younger members of the community to be expected to enjoy Irish culture in the same way that their parents had. The arrival of punk in the late 1970s provided new Irish icons on the music scene such as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, The Pogues and Elvis Costello which challenged what exactly was now meant by Irish music.

What the Feis?

A Feis is a traditional Gaelic arts and culture festival. The term feis is commonly used to refer to Irish dance competitions.
When competitors begin to dance in these competitions, they traditionally wear a dance costume decided on by their dance school. When these students reach a competition level decided on by the dance school, they have can design or choose a costume of their own. Girls wear ornate dresses with long sleeves and short skirt. The skirt panels are sometimes stiffened with cardboard inserts, but ballet-like “soft-skirts” have become the norm. They usually wear their hair curled, in a wig, in a bun wig or just down. Boys usually wear a dress shirt, tie and/or waistcoat, and dress trousers or a kilt.
The commonly competed dances are reel, slip jig, light jig and single jig, in soft shoe, and heavy/treble jig and hornpipe in hard shoe

Hurling in the Peak District

Hurling is a stick and ball game played by teams of 15 on a rectangular grass pitch with H-shaped goals at each end. The primary object is to score by driving the ball through the goals or putting the ball over the bar and thereby scoring a point. Three points is the equivalent of a goal. The team with the highest score at the end of the match wins. It is over three thousand years old, and is said to be the world’s fastest field game, combining skills from lacrosse, field hockey, and baseball in a hard-hitting, highly skilled game. The female version of the game is known as camogie and is very similar to hurling with a few minor rule changes.

The vast majority of men who emigrated to Great Britain during the middle to late part of the 20th century would have played the Gaelic games of hurling and Gaelic football at school or with their friends in the fields. For many the hurling games organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and broadcast on RTE were an important part of their lives. This weekly matches provided a connection to the home that they had left even though they had to make great efforts to pick up the radio signal broadcast from over the water.

Dancing at Digbeth

Maintaining an Irish identity in Great Britain has been problematic for many Irish people who have spent longer living in England particularly those who have ‘lost their accents’. This is also the case for their ‘second generation Irish’ children.

Many from the Irish community have worked hard to maintain and promote Irish culture- one of the most visible example of this is the St Patrick’s Day parade which take place in towns and cities all over the world on or near to St Patrick’s Day.

The term “plastic Paddy” came into use in the 1980s when it was used as a slur by newly arrived Irish people who wished to distinguish themselves as ‘authentic Irish’ as opposed to the longer established communities. The term ‘plastic paddy’ can be deeply offensive.

There’s a Harp on My Passport Too

Black and African people  have lived in Ireland in small numbers since the 18th century but it  is only in this century that Ireland has changed from being an almost excusive monocultural country  in to one which embraces multiculturalism. This mono culture was hardly surprising as Ireland had never been an  imperial power and was a country were ’emigration from’ rather than ‘immigration to’ was the norm.

Irish children with a mixed African Irish heritage, growing up in the Ireland of the twentieth century were often the only such children in their communities. This could lead to experiences of casual racism, negative stereo typing along with discrimination.  As the monologue explains this is now changing and in the 2011 Census 1.42% of the population self identified as Black.

George NChenko

In 30 December 2020, the Garda Armed Support Unit shot 27-year-old George Nkencho in Clonee on the Dublin–Meath border, after graduated attempts to detain him failed. He had allegedly assaulted a shop staff member and threatened others with a knife. Nkencho had been suffering from mental health issues in the preceding months and according to Gardaí, he did not have any criminal convictions.  Protests were held after his death and his killing is now under investigation  by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), as is customary when a member of the public is injured or killed by the Gardaí.

Getting Home

The involvement of the Irish workers in the British construction industry began in the eighteenth century when poverty and lack of work in Ireland saw many come over to help build the canals, railways and other early large-scale civil engineering projects. However it was after the end of the Second World War, when soaring levels of unemployment in Ireland and a boom in British construction led to the industry being the largest single employer of Irish migrant labour.

In this almost completely male industry the Irish lived for long periods in digs, onsite in camps and other types of temporary accommodation. They were not always welcome and notices such as “No Blacks, No rish, No Dogs’ appeared in windows.

This lack of a permanent home meant that many faced real problems when they were unable to work meaning that many became rough sleepers. Although unspoken, many felt a sense of shame at their lifetsyle and lack of success in England. This led to reluctance on their part to visit home and loss connections with their family.
The Irish community has responded to this need with support from organisations such as the London Irish Centre in Camden who provide welfare advice and referrals for Irish people in need, whilst organisations such as Aisling Return to Ireland provide outreach services and trips homes for these people. The Irish in Britain website lists organisations from all over the country which support the Irish community.