Moving Histories review: A fresh take on Irish women’s emigration
Dr Jennifer Redmond makes a strong case for a more nuanced understanding of why so many women left Ireland for England
A voluntary worker (right), of the Legion of Mary, comes to the aid of a young Irish immigrant, who has no accommodation in London. Photograph: Frank Pocklington/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Moving Histories, Irish Women’s Emigration to Britain from Independence to Republic
Liverpool University Press
Reading Dr Jennifer Redmond’s Moving Histories, Irish Women’s Emigration to Britain from Independence to Republic against the constant media narrative of borders, walls and checkpoints, seems timely, but this publication is a culmination of years of research that began well before 2016.
It is the first dedicated monograph looking at the emigration of Irish women to Britain. The cover image is well chosen, it shows Nora Larkin and Angela O’Connell of Kilternan, Co Dublin walking hand and hand across a field, smiling and chatting. Featured in the Irish Picture Post in 1955, it was captioned: “before emigrating to Britain to search for employment”. The article ran with the headline: Why do these girls leave home? This book draws together disparate sources to answer that question and reveals a more nuanced picture of emigration during the first four decades of the state, than simply masses of vulnerable women who left our shores ignorant, poor and pregnant.
Our access to the common travel area since 1923 has meant that for almost 100 years people have passed freely between our islands without restriction – all classes, ages and religions. From the 1930s officials recorded the departure of women to Britain as an “excess” over the normal pattern of migration. Pamphlets and articles began to appear to deter would-be travellers, such as a series by Gertrude Gaffney in the Irish Independent. She described “the snares” set up for Irish girls who left Ireland, singling out “the very young girl”, “sub-normal girls” and “giddy girls” attracting the “wrong kind of man” who would bring them “to grief”. The archival evidence shows that young pregnant women going to Britain was constant from the 1920s onwards. By the 1950s there was a shorthand term used by social workers in Britain – PFI – (pregnant from Ireland) but Redmond concludes these women were a minority.
Redmond explores why emigration did not emerge as a major question for political leaders, although both Fianna Fáil and Clann na Poblachta both considered a ban on female emigration such was the “deep public unease” at the numbers leaving. Her work shows that economic opportunities brought Irish women to England but there was no forced emigration because of extreme circumstances. Also she examines the mindset of those who saw their stay as temporary. So many of us will recall those living in Britain who were always going to go home to Ireland – after marriage, after the children were grown up, after their retirement – but it never came to pass.
The imposition of a neo-military travel permit during the second World War and its aftermath was the only time that data was captured. Redmond uses this source to chart and change the narrative. Her work shows that Irish women travelled to be “more than just nurses or skivvies”. There was career mobility and women had access to white-collar jobs which were inaccessible at home. Women listed their occupations as poultry attendants, teachers, cooks, book-keepers and shorthand typists, while there were those who worked (albeit self-described) as antique dealers, art collectors, photographers, hotel owners (also boarding house owners). The Women’s Land Army and the Royal Naval Service were places of employment while women also worked as aircraft workers, carpenters and metal and chemical workers. In the medical field Irish women were employed as ambulance drivers, doctors and dentists.
Redmond uses other methodologies to gather source material from interviews to government memos and reports, and primary documentation in private and public collections to draw her conclusions. Having a personal interest in material culture I was struck by one of the gaps in source material recorded by Redmond, in her search for “letters home” her appeals yielded just one set of correspondence, the Nestor-Corless letters which gave her a “rare glimpse” into the lives of young people in Ireland and Britain in the 1940s. As the time-frame is recent in historic terms one would be hopeful that the author may be contacted with material as a result of this publication. She has shown the importance of recording the actuality of ordinary lives, and how even with such a vast cohort, the collection of data can be problematic. We have had the destruction of too much material culture relating to the lives of Irish women in the 20th century, compared to other countries women’s libraries, archives and museums.
The book shows Irish female emigrants to Britain as more empowered than previously depicted; it is well argued with hard facts and statistical evidence. It is important that this book is read outside academia and the feminisation of Irish history cannot alone be the work of feminist historians.
If we keep moving forward without looking back, bias and misconceptions will continue unchecked in contemporary discourse and politics, which affects all our futures – and makes the title Moving Histories so apt.