It is often forgotten that not all the Irish in the UK came just to find work, but for a range of personal reasons. Some came to join a partner, others were on the run from paramilitaries in Northern Ireland or drug gangs in Dublin. Others sought anonymity because of personal issues. Many Scousers have told me their parents came due to issues around one being Catholic and the other Protestant.
Talking to other Irish people here brings home that one’s personal circumstances are often far from unique and that, while we may be frustrated about our own difficulties, there is a great sense of gratitude towards Britain for giving us a fresh start. There is no contradiction between saying that and acknowledging that we are immigrants, as much as our fellow English-speakers from Jamaica.
Those Irish who grasp this, rather than pretending we are no different from the English-born, tend to appreciate the tolerance and diversity of the UK. Indeed there is a history of Irish involvement in fighting fascism in the 1930s when Irish dockers joined with Jewish neighbours in the Battle of Cable Street. The presence of members of the British Union of Fascists on Royal Mint Street in London led by politician Sir Oswald Mosley sparked a riot which became known as the Battle of Cable Street.
It’s more than five years since I returned to live in the UK having spent several years back in Ireland and the variety of experiences among the Irish in Britain is something that has struck me constantly in that time.
First of all, there are the differences between those in London and those in the rest of the UK, as well as those based on economic circumstances and age group.
I have also found that people who have returned to Ireland from the UK often have outdated perspectives. References are made on social media by those based in Ireland to “When I lived in London” as if what applies to London reflects the UK as a whole. If the Brexit referendum has shown anything, it is that this is not the case.
What applies in a bustling city like London, with its abundant job opportunities, is far from reflecting the reality of life in Sunderland, Peterborough or Rochdale. Even cities that returned Remain majorities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, lack the easy availability of work that characterises the capital. Having worked in eight different English local authority areas, I feel I am well qualified to describe such differences.
The second area where returned emigrants are often out of touch is in a lack of awareness of the valuable work being done for the Irish community in many UK cities by Irish welfare organisations. Such organisations are far from new and some of them date back to initiatives by the Catholic Church to aid earlier generations of migrants.
Nowadays most such organisations have no religious dimension and cater for Irish immigrants and their families of varied religious traditions, as well as those, like most of the younger arrivals, who do not practise a religion.
I was struck by comments made on social media by a Belfast-based man who practically boasted that none of his relatives and friends in England were involved in Irish organisations.
It is easy for those who have never known unemployment or precarious employment to boast that they are totally integrated and have never seen themselves as foreigners, but it is a different matter for those living in poorer parts of the UK where work is much scarcer than it is in London or affluent satellites like Oxford.
I agree that one should not "ghettoise" oneself and only socialise with fellow Irish, but it is one thing to say that and another to think that there is no need for organisations specifically catering for the needs of the Irish. Those who do not see the need for them should visit Liverpool or Manchester and see the work of groups like Irish Community Care Merseyside.
The gentleman in question clearly has no idea what such groups do in helping people to receive the benefits they are entitled to, helping newcomers to find accommodation, assisting people to register with doctors and providing facilities to ring Ireland. They also provide a forum to discuss health issues.
History of migration
Valuable work is done with Irish prisoners in the Merseyside jails, as well as with the Irish Traveller community’s particular needs. A further benefit of such organisations is that they are aware of the history of Irish migration to Britain and do not give newcomers the third degree with questions about why they came.
I am grateful to Irish professionals here, such as Liverpool solicitor Oonagh Murphy, who have given time to help ICCM. She has spoken publicly on the contrast between the city, where she was made welcome, and Chester, where as a young lawyer she was conscious of an anti-Irish atmosphere 20 years ago after the IRA bombing of Manchester. She has described how, as a founder of a successful law firm, she sought to help other Irish people here get through the barriers.
The GAA is also doing great work in helping Irish newcomers to find work and with a range of needs. This is something that is not confined to the English-speaking world, as this moving article by Anna-Marie O'Rourke outlines: Now I see that alone at Christmas does not have to mean lonely.
Such organisations are doing incredible work, and rather than hindering integration, they facilitate it.