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Forgotten stories of Britain's Irish migrants told

17 Feb 2009

A book published this month has mounted a challenge to British stereotypes of Irish people living in the UK.

Dr Liam Harte from The University of Manchester discovered obscure autobiographical accounts written by petty criminals, political activists, navvies, nurses, a doctor, a policeman, a chimney sweep, a Protestant street preacher and many others written over a period of 300 years.

The book also examines autobiographical texts of more well known Irish migrants to British shores including Bob Geldof, W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey.

“This book makes it clear that the Irish living in Britain have always been more than mere hod-carriers or anti-British agitators," said Dr Harte, who is based at the School of Arts Histories and Cultures.

"In fact the material shows that the Irish and the British have many shared experiences. We should celebrate how much we have in common and appreciate the diverse contribution of Irish men and women to British culture and society.”

He added: “Second generation voices are often absent from Irish accounts of Irish history and literature. I hope my book will correct that anomaly.”

“Some of the writers cling to their Irishness and are hostile to Britain, while others seek to become more British than the British themselves.

"Perhaps James Joyce has hoovered up all notions of exile. That's a shame as there are plenty of other voices which need to be heard.

"I do hope these accounts will help the Irish understand what happens when their families leave Irish shores. After all, the book is published when the Republic for the first time is now itself experiencing immigration."

Irishman Dr Harte is a living example of what the book is about: both his father and grandfather were migrants to England. They were both agricultural labourers, whereas Dr Harte is the first academic in the family.

The book contains a great variety of autobiographical voices from different times and places.

One account in the book, by Stockport-based Ellen O'Neill in 1850, is called ‘The Extraordinary Confessions of a Female Pickpocket.’

Seventeen-year-old Ellen dictated her life story to a journalist and chaplain in Preston jail before she was deported to an unknown destination – probably Australia.

“The account was published as a warning to other would-be law breakers and reflected a degree of moral panic around criminality in Victorian England.”

“Her account describes how whole families made up networks of petty criminals operating in the North of England,” said Dr Harte.

Another work, written by Mary Davys in 1725, is probably the earliest recorded autobiography of an Irish person living in Britain, according to Dr Harte. Entitled ‘The Merry Wanderer’, it records her travels in England and Wales in the early 1700s.

Closer to modern times, Alice Foley, a lifelong trade union activist who lived and worked in Bolton published ‘A Bolton Childhood’ in 1973.

“Alice campaigned for improved working conditions in the Lancashire cotton mills in the early 1900s, and rose from the factory floor to become President of the Bolton Trades Council in the 1950s – very rare for a woman, let alone a second-generation Irish woman,” explained Dr Harte.

Notes for editors

Dr Harte is available for comment.

'The Literature of the Irish in Britain' is published by Palgrave McMillan.

Review copies are available.

An image of Dr Harte is available

For media enquiries contact

Mike Addelman

Media Relations Officer

Faculty of Humanities

The University of Manchester

0161 275 0790

07717 881 567

michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk