Celebrating role of religious in helping Irish emigrants in Britain

A book detailing the Catholic Church’s work with emigrants was just launched in London

Tony Lambe, an Irishman living in Birmingham at the time of the Birmingham bombings said “those atrocities were horrendous. So you would nearly want to keep out of the way. Maybe not go to work at all.” Photograph: Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images

Tony Lambe, an Irishman living in Birmingham at the time of the Birmingham bombings said “those atrocities were horrendous. So you would nearly want to keep out of the way. Maybe not go to work at all.” Photograph: Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images

 

Every Tuesday and Thursday between 2000 and 2005, Sr Attracta Heneghan, a Presentation Sister from Roscommon, used to walk around the market in Huddersfield in search of people speaking Irish.

They were quickly found, the elderly survivors of the Connemara people who had flocked to the Yorkshire town in the years after the second World War when it was a thriving, if grimy and often harsh, place to live.

Equipped with a list of names given to her by Fr Martin Lang, who had served there during the 1960s, Sr Attracta, who was joined a year later by Sr Catherine O’Connor, went in search of Irish people.

A local Methodist church was hired, where meals were dispensed or a cup of tea offered. Sometimes, just a chat was needed. In time, funerals were organised from there, often reuniting emigrants in death with the families left behind half a century before.

The account of the Huddersfield Irish and the work of Irish religious since 1957 is one of the stories collected by Patricia Kennedy in her history of the Catholic Church’s work with emigrants, Welcoming The Stranger.

Bishop Eamon Casey’s work as a cleric in Britain is remembered. “He’s still getting letters from people whom he helped to get housing in Slough in the 1960s. They write to him every Christmas,” Kennedy told guests at a reception to launch the book in the Irish Embassy in London.

Humility

The research for the book began in 2007 when Kennedy was asked to write a short note on the work of the Irish chaplaincy. “When I interviewed people involved, they all said the same thing: ‘Sure, I did nothing at all.’ The humility came across.”

The scars left on the Irish community in Britain by the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s are highlighted by the experiences of the Huddersfield Irish.

“It’s much easier for me as an academic to find out what’s happening to the Irish in Huddersfield in 1872 rather than 1972 because they just disappear off the radar,” said Prof Jim McCauley.

In Birmingham, the impact was similar. “The Birmingham bombings and things like that, those atrocities were horrendous. So you would nearly want to keep out of the way. Maybe not go to work at all,” said Tony Lambe, an Irishman living in Birmingham at the time.

In both places, the Irish became visible again only after the Belfast Agreement.

Launching the book, the chair of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants, Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby, said he had been “inspired and humbled” by the “selflessness and the commitment of so many lay people, religious sisters, and clergy” to help Irish emigrants.

Welcoming The Stranger carried lessons for today, he said. Often, those who worked with migrants were accused of encouraging the creation of ghettoes, a sin the Irish chaplaincy was never guilty of, he said.

“Whether it is in the work of housing, visiting hotels or celebrating the sacraments, the aim of the emigrant chaplains was always to help Irish emigrants integrate into their new home here in Britain.”

However, it also carried lessons for Ireland when it came to decisions about what should be done to help refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. “We are still keeping them at arm’s length,” he said.

Stigma

Irish emigrants to Britain were “not without stigma”, said Bishop Kirby. “We are fortunate that the Irish who travelled to Britain didn’t have to worry about visas or quotas. They didn’t have to declare as refugees and asylum seekers.

“Many were economic refugees and some may have fled persecution of one form or another. The freedom of movement between our two nations meant that people could concentrate on work, housing, family and security.”

Telling her story of emigration, Kennedy remembered leaving Cork in 1985 with her boyfriend. “His father drove us in a Fiat Bambino to meet the Slattery’s bus. We never saw him again because at the age of 46 he fell off a small wall and died.”

For years, emigrants’ difficulties were ignored. More recently, the Government has funded help, largely for those who came in the 1950s and onwards. However, Kennedy warned the 1980s generation of emigrants must not be ignored.

“They’re growing old, they’re in their 50s. They weren’t all successful. They didn’t all go home. Their needs are going to emerge in the next decade. What’s happened to all those who came then to work on building sites?”

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