Ciara Kenny

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Honouring the Irish men who helped to build Britain

Contribution played by Irish construction workers should be acknowledged during the President’s visit

Ultan Cowley: Irish construction workers in Britain were not 'all-brawn, no-brain navvies' of the cliched stereotypes, but hard workers and successful businessmen.

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 17:30


Ultan Cowley

As a chronicler of the Irish in British construction (The Men Who Built Britain, published in 2001), I am often asked acerbically “what about the women?” I am delighted therefore that the President will on his state visit to Britain honour the contribution of Irish women to Britain’s national health service. While Irish women worked in a great many occupations the NHS is probably the one sector which is most readily identified with Irish women emigrants in the second half of the twentieth century – a time when that institution stood for selfless service to the common good.

In the same era the construction industry was the largest single employer of Irish male migrant labour in Britain. The indispensability of the Irish, and their colossal contribution to the building of modern Britain, were warmly acknowledged in Scottish contractor Sir William McAlpine’s 1998 remark to me that “The contribution of the Irish to the success of this industry has been immeasurable.”

The President’s awareness of this achievement has been expressed many times in his UK speeches so further public acknowledgment on this occasion might seem superfluous.

However the very inclusion of the NHS event in this itinerary points up the uniquely symbolic nature of all such gestures made on British soil in the course of a state visit by an Irish president. We cannot know which actions originate with the British and which with the Irish governments but undoubtedly they are agreed by both.

For that reason I very much hope this visit will not be allowed to pass without some gesture or statement from the President acknowledging the contribution of generations of Irish construction workers, past and present, to the material wellbeing of both countries. Such a statement ought to clearly convey not only Irish recognition, but also British acknowledgment, of these men’s worth. They and their families deserve no less.

No one should imagine they were the “all-brawn, no-brain navvies” of the cliched stereotypes. A lot were tradesmen. Many were modestly successful businessmen, some spectacularly so and, in the industry, education, or the lack of it, was considered no indicator of intelligence. Ability was what counted, and still does.

I think Irish construction industry veterans, whatever their status, didn’t and don’t expect any recognition for their life’s work from either the Irish or British establishments, since it hasn’t been forthcoming up to now. By acknowledging Irish nurses’ service in the NHS however, whilst simultaneously withholding equally deserved  recognition from the Irish in British construction, the President risks gratuitously offending them and their families. They won’t complain – they never do. But they will feel hurt.

A simple solution, apropos of “time constraints” excuses, would be for him to reference these men’s achievements in a speech and then quote, as I do, Wren’s (architect of St Paul’s) epitaph:

“If you seek a monument – look around!”

This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.