Britain was no paradise for Irish emigrant women

Half a million Irish women emigrated to England in the mid-20th century

It’s a bleak February morning, and I’m walking across Phibsboro, talking with my mam on the phone. The calving season is at its height down on the farm and she’s been up all night, pulling newborns.

"'Tisn't that bad," she says, when I warn her about overdoing it. "That Teresa May woman must have it worse, the crater."

When I round the corner on Blessington Place I see a flurry of activity at the entrance to the Mater hospital. It’s the nurses, out on strike, circling the wet pavement in bitter cold. As I move closer I see that most of the nurses are women; many are immigrant women.

The sight of them evokes an earlier memory of a story told to me in 2006, while interviewing Irish women in England for my PhD thesis. Margaret had immigrated to Birmingham in 1955 to train as a nurse. Her story was from 1974, when the IRA detonated two bombs in a busy Saturday night street in Birmingham, killing 21 people, many of them teenagers.


“I tell you that was the worst time here. We were on duty. So we all went to our wards. And there was loads of us that were Irish working that night. And that night we heard it on the news what happened. And that it was the IRA. And from midnight, when the news came out, not one English nurse would work with us. That is the Gospel truth, they would not work with us. They were so bitter.

“So that went on for days, nights, but we had to work: the rota was done and you had to work with them. So I got sick of it and I said, ‘I’m going down to the office complaining and I’m going to make an official complaint’.

“But that never disappeared from the hospital. They were bitter for a long, long time after that. I will say, I think the women nurses were worse than the men. The men kind of got over it but the women didn’t. I don’t think people at home would understand that.”

Irish nurses

Margaret was typical of many Irish women who left Ireland to train as nurses in cities like London and Birmingham. At least that was the reason they gave for their departure. A career in nursing responded to the class and gendered biases of 1950s Ireland, because it extended the norm of total female self-sacrifice from the realm of the home into the sphere of women's employment.

A training manual for trainee nurses in mid 1950s England tells us as much:

“There must be a very real love for the sick; a strong sense of obedience; loyalty to authority and to one’s fellow nurses… She must be trustworthy and unselfish. She should have a pleasant manner and be perfectly natural without affectation. She must be prepared to give up many things, even to making sacrifices for the good of her patients.”

As well as compounding gender expectations, nursing in England also exposed Irish women to anti-Irish prejudices, baked in to the British public imagination since Victorian times and articulated in this excerpt from the Catholic Nurses Guild president’s report:

“Although three-fifths of our Catholic nurses are from Ireland, I record it as a fact that they are not popular with the matrons, who find that they do not conform readily to hospital regulations. Their numbers are greatest in the least attractive types of nursing; chronic, fever, sanatorium and mental.”

The lesson Margaret’s story tells us is that, through a terrible episode of concentrated violence, the implicit ethnic prejudices that were casually infused into Margaret’s nursing training since the 1950s were suddenly made explicit.

Work strikes against Irish nurses by their female colleagues in the wake of the 1974 bombings actualised a psychological framing of women as primarily responsible for the production of life.

Complicity with the IRA was not the real reason for the protest against Margaret and the other Irish nurses. At the root of it was a belief that, by bent of their ethnic allegiances, Irish women had inverted their sacred duty as nurturing mothers, and were thus undeserving of a place in a maternally-oriented world.

Half a million

Half a million Irish women emigrated to England in the mid-20th century. 25,000 went to Birmingham, working in transport, or in nursing, like Margaret. 92,000 went to London. Kathy was one of the latter. We met in a social-housing unit for the elderly in rural Co Limerick. Her bungalow was in the corner of the complex, small and dark, neat as a pin.

Kathy had worked for years as a hotel receptionist in London’s West End. When I asked her how she had felt about emigrating she replied frankly, her voice impressive and severe:

“Oh, I was never sorry to go. And when I got there I liked it. ‘Twas a lot more lively than this! You were usually asked out. To a good place for a good meal. We’d go down to Peter’s Bar and you’d know everyone in Peter’s Bar… You’d never go into a pub here in Ireland, you’d be talked about.”

Not being talked about, and having the freedom to socialise as she pleased, was intoxicating to Kathy. She avoided the throngs of Irish immigrants that teamed into Camden’s for the showbands, preferring to seek out her own non-ethnic friendships.

She didn’t marry, and didn’t have children. She scoffed at the Irish missionary priests that haunted the hotels of London’s west end, dispatched from Dublin by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to protect Irish women’s “spiritual sanctity”. But she saw, too, the dangerous ways in which their rules of law re-propagated in England, how Irish priests inserted themselves into the hotel’s hiring processes, deciding who should be hired and how they should be placed. Kathy recalled a priest,

“Fr Conway, who’d go into the hotel and say ‘I tested her, she’s alright, she’d do reception work, or she might be a cashier.’ He had free access to the dining room because he’d get them a receptionist or a cashier.”

Eventually, the gendered expectations of home caught up with Kathy. Not having a family, and working a hotel job, decreased her autonomy in the eyes of the family in Ireland.

“I got a call from my sister to say my mother was sick. ‘You’ll have to come home’, she said, ‘My mother won’t last four or five days.’ I don’t know if that was true or not, because she lasted a while after that. But then my sister got sick…”

Kathy cared for her family until she became too old to return to England. The last memory she shared before I turned off the recorder was of two Irish girls who worked with her in the hotels:

“I think they were sisters. And sometimes, when we were going out somebody would say ‘Should we ask them out as well?’ And you’d go down and ask them and they’d say, ‘I can’t. I’ve no money left. I sent three pounds home.’ And I said, ‘Do you do that every week?’ And I said ‘Well you shouldn’t. There’s a big family of you there. Let the others do it for a while’. But no. I thought ‘twas wrong.”

Kathy and Margaret’s stories share the same function. They work to declare iniquity. They show us too that immigrating to England is precisely what enabled them to resist norms and belief systems they believed were jaundiced and wrong. English workplaces radically reframed these Irishwomen’s sense of autonomy, and gave them the agency to fight for it.

Recalling all of this while walking past the striking Mater nurses, I felt suddenly weary: of the sleepless, futile nights facing my mother on the farm; of the ideology of total self-sacrifice that still pervades women’s workplaces; and weary too, of the perspective consigned to history by Brexit.

Britain in the last half century has been no paradise for Irish immigrants. Rather, it has been their place of protest. We have needed Britain for our counter-narratives as much as it has needed us for its labour. As our directions separate, we are both left walking in circles, in bitter cold.

Dr Sarah O’Brien is professor of linguistics and migration in Trinity College Dublin.