This essay focuses on experiences of Irish people in Britain. Until recently there has been little academic study on Irish migration and the Irish Diaspora and although the Irish are ‘the largest ethnic minority in Britain’s workforce and have been the most important source of migrant labour for British economy for 200 years’ (Hickman,1998, 288) studies of migration tend to ignore this fact. The first part of my essay will focus on why the Irish have been somewhat of an ‘invisible’ migrant group in Britain.
I will then consider the notion of ‘whiteness’ in Britain/England in relation to race and racism, highlighting the notion of a ‘black white dualism’ in regards to race. In the third part of this essay I will to examine the fact that Irish people in Britain can be subject to the same types of racial discrimination as other ‘non-white’ ethnic minorities in Britain. I will look at ways the Irish have been constructed as an inferior race to the British and present some of the negative stereotypes of Irish culture.
The final part of my essay will focus on experiences of the second generation Irish population living in Britain. I will address the questions of how they challenge the traditional view of Irish culture how they might identify themselves culturally and negotiate their ‘Irishness’ in Britain, creating a new form of Irishness and hybrid identities. The Irish are the largest minority group in Britain, however this is rarely acknowledged in academic studies. The first major influx of Irish migrants to Britain/England was the post-famine migrants in the nineteenth century.
At this time, Irish immigrants were perceived as a different race to British (Mac an Ghaill et al,2003, 387). Anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholicism was clearly present within Britain. ‘The 1830-40s was a time of social and economic transformation in which the Irish were visible as a migrant group whose presence was deemed a threat to the body politic and whose social habits, cultural attributes and political traditions were decreed to be as contagious as a virus and just as damaging to the political life of the nation. ‘. (Hickman, 1998, 291).
The Irish were constructed as the inferior (Catholic) other in the home of the superior (Protestant) British. Religion and national identity distinguished the Irish experience in Britain at the time (Hickman, Walter, 1995, 6). Jokes about Irishmen became popular and ‘punch cartoons in the later nineteenth century regularly portrayed them as apes’ (Walter, 1995, 46). This imagery of the Irish as being animals clearly constructed them as an inferior race to the British. These are early British concepts of Irishness and the Irish for which the British can be held responsible
In the twentieth century Irish migrants have become invisible as a migrant group. This is partly because they are white. Skin colour became the primary marker in determining race and it is rarely considered that Irish people can experience the same type pf racial discrimination as non-white groups can. ‘The Irish are excluded from consideration in these terms because they are white, and the dominant paradigm for understanding racism in Britain has been constructed on the basis of a black-white dichotomy’ (Hickman, 1995, 289).
The post war Irish migrants in the late 1940s were treated as ‘British subjects’. In the 1955 Eden Cabinet reports stated that ‘the Irish are not, whether they like it or not, a different race from the ordinary inhabitants of Great Britain. ‘ (Gray, 2002, 261). Immigration controls continued to increase towards non-white immigrants, however the Irish remained ‘a special case’ (Gray, 2002). The Irish were excluded from immigration controls in 1962. Was this simply due to the fact that the Irish were ‘white’?
Many would argue yes, however Mary Hickman argues that there were a number of political reasons for the Irish to be excluded from these controls. She suggests that this exclusion however, reinforced the notion of the ‘black-white dualism’ that already existed in Britain (Hickman 1995 and Bray, 2002). Hickman also looks at the myth of British homogeneity, which developed in the 1950s. The myth ‘declared that Scotland, Ireland and Wales shared a common culture with England and consequently the peoples of these countries could be considered the same ‘race” (Mac an Ghaill et al,2003, 10).
The construction of this myth along with the fact that the Irish are ‘white’ means that it was assumed that Irish people can easily assimilate in Britain. However, although on an official level, the Irish were treated as British, Irish people at the time were experiencing racial discrimination in Britain/England. Officials assumed that ‘An Irishman looking for lodgings is generally speaking, not likely to have anymore difficulty than an Englishman, whereas the coloured men is often turned away. ‘ (Hickman, 1995, 298).
However, at the time there were numerous ‘No Irish, No Coloured’ signs outside lodgings. The fact that there were ‘No Irish’ signs seems to be forgotten however we are constantly reminded that non-white ethnic groups were subject to this type of discrimination at the time. (Walter, 1995, Hickman, 1995). It was assumed that because the Irish are ‘white’ they could easily assimilate into Britain. Some geographers have argued that what is needed is a ‘deconstruction of ‘whiteness” (Hickman and Walter, 1995) where ‘colour is not taken as the only marker of exclusion/inclusion. (Hickman and Walter, 1995 8).
The black/white dualism does not acknowledge that there is no cultural difference within different ‘white’ groups, when there clearly is. The stereotypes of the Irish that were constructed in the nineteenth century were still present in Britain in the twentieth century. ‘English people continued to associate the Irish with drink, fighting and dirt and some of them blamed the Irish as much as, if not more than, the ‘coloured immigrants’ for the decline of conditions in their area’ (Hickman, 1995, 298).
This shows that while at an official level, the Irish were ‘included’ in Britain, at a social level the Irish were excluded and thought of as troublesome and inferior. It is important to refuse the assumption that ‘racism and discrimination are a function solely of differences in skin colour. ‘ (Hickman, 1995 298) Although the Irish have white skin, it is possible that they feel like ‘racial insiders’ and ‘cultural outsiders’ (Gray, 2006). Geographer Greda Bray has argued that being ‘white’ is not purely based on skin colour. There is a difference in having ‘white’ skin and acting ‘white’.
She suggests that ‘whiteness’ is a representation, a ‘product of social relation and everyday practices’ (Gray, 2006, 258) and that the Irish do not fit into this ideological version of being ‘white’. She states that ‘The category of ‘white’ in England has become a code word for ‘English’ and, as Britishness is often defined via assumed norms of ‘white’ middle-class Englishness, it too has produced a white identity. ‘ (Gray, 2006, 259). Her research consisted of Irish women living in London and Luton.
Some of the women interviewed were made to feel inferior because of their strong Irish accents. Their Irish accent and manner of speaking are identified as incorrect and inferior to the ‘Queens English” (Gray, 2006, 265). The women felt that because they were Irish, they would never ‘live up to’ the expectations of the British/English norm. Bray suggests that many Irish migrants perform to ‘whitely scripts’ i. e. – play ‘down’ their Irishness in order to ‘fit in’. ‘Sign of Iirshness can potentially be separated from the self’ (Gray, 2006, 266) However, the accounts from the women suggest that there is no choice about being visible as different.
It seems that the Irish population in Britain is now seen as an ethnic minority as in the 2001 British Census, a new ‘Irish’ category was added to the ethnic origin question. This was ‘marking the distinctiveness of the Irish component of the British population and diversity within whiteness. ‘ (Walter et al, 2005, 162). However, how would second-generation Irish living in Britain/England define their ethnicity? It is interesting to look at the research done on Second generation Irish living in Britain. These are people who are born with one or two Irish parents, but have been bought up in Britain.
This research is extremely interesting as it raises all sorts of questions about culture and ethnicity. These people have Irish blood and were bought up in Irish households, however were raised in Britain, went to British schools and have British accents. Are the second generation Irish in Britain fully assimilated into a ‘British way of life’? ‘In the case of second-generation Irish, their white skin, local accents and assumed cultural similarities have been taken to reflect the reality of a population easily assimilated to the ‘white’ English majority.
Consequently most reference to the Irish in England is to the Irish born population, the migrant generation, assumed to be distinguishable by their accent and place of origin. ‘ (Walter et al, 2005161). This quote suggests that although Second-generation Irish are from Irish background and have Irish blood, we would not consider them as Irish as they do not have Irish accents, again raising the issue of ‘whiteness’ in Britain/England. Some of the research done suggests that there are a number of different ways second generation Irish identify themselves culturally.
One man from Banbury stated ‘It is a question that has arisen, because I have been cornered almost, are you English or Irish, well it depends on who’s asking me at the time. ‘ (Walter et al, 2005, 165). This can be related to research done by geographer Gill Valentine who suggests that ‘complex time-space strategies are needed to manage identities to which negativity and inferiority may be attributed. ‘ (Walter, 1995, 40) People can feel comfortable or uncomfortable in disclosing aspects of their identities in different spaces and at different Times.
For example, a second-generation may feel comfortable embracing their ‘Irishness’ around other Irish people, however may not feel comfortable with disclosing it at a job interview due to the negative stereotype that ‘Irish are stupid’. It is not possible to assume that second-generation Irish either identify themselves simply as Irish, British/English, or half Irish- half British/English, the constructions of these peoples identities is much more complex.
One man suggests that he doesn’t feel very Irish and that your nationality depends on where you were bought up: ‘I sometimes feel Irish when it comes to sport but not in everyday life. I think nationality breaks down to your place of birth and where you spend your time. ‘ (Walter et al, 2002, 205). However, some second generation Irish may refer to experiences of Irish culture while growing up to determine their ethnic identity.
‘Yes, I think I am Irish. I don’t know why because it wasn’t taught to me but when I was younger I was always going to Ireland. (Walter et al, 2002, 205). Certain second-generation Irish expressed the feeling of being ‘caught between two cultures’ and having to defend charges of ‘inauthenticity. ‘ They felt pressures to be English in regards to ‘English hostility when faced with the spectre of Irish identities. ‘ (Walter et al, 2005, 174) and also faced rejections from Irish that second-generation Irish in Britain/England were legitimately Irish, being termed ‘plastic paddies’ as they have not been bought up in Ireland and do not have Irish accents thus rendering them British/English.
We not only have to acknowledge negative stereotypes of Irish culture within Britain (e. g. associated with drinking and stupidity) but also positive characteristics associated with the Irish e. g. – Importance of family within the culture and famous Irish hospitality. These attributes are concerned with tradition and family. However, Irish migrants and second-generation Irish living in Britain challenge these views of Irishness. They represent a new form of Irishness, a type of cultural hybridity with components of British/English culture and Irish culture.
But what is Irish culture? What does it mean to be Irish? The Irish diaspora means that Irish culture is spread way beyond the boundaries of the island of Ireland (Popoviciu et al, 2006, 169). Though it is questionable how much of the Irish culture celebrated in countries such as North America and England are actually representative of what it means to be Irish. Is the famous ‘Riverdance’ really at the centre of what it means to ‘be Irish’? Does the consumption of gallons of ‘Guinness’ on St Patrick’s Day really represent Irish culture?
Or are some Irish traditions being commodified in countries of Irish settlement simply to make money and to allow Irish descendants to reaffirm their ‘Irishness’? Ireland and Irish culture is changing, it is becoming a modern, globalised country and so it is impossible to stick to any one opinion of Ireland and Irish culture in Britain. I think that it needs to be understood that ‘Irishness’ cannot be thought of as a static construction. Irish culture is continuously changing and what it is to ‘be Irish’ in Britain/England is a complex issue that can vary either from person to person or over time.