An Irishman’s Diary: Migrants at the Channel Tunnel – built by Irish migrants

Pól Ó Muirí on our shared experiences

One hundred years ago my grandfather was an economic migrant. A Donegal man by birth, he spent the Great War years working in Scotland while trying to avoid conscription into the British army.

Family lore has it that my great-grandmother followed him all the way to the pier to try and dissuade him from doing what generations of Donegal men had done before him – take the boat across the water to Scotland and find work wherever he could. (One of his brothers did join the British army and was killed on the Somme.)

That tradition of migration was a tough one.

The Irish-language literature of Donegal gives an idea of what it was like for proud people to have to go looking for work in another country, a country which did not much like Irish Catholics.


But, as the saying has it, “Níl dlí ar an riachtanas”. Necessity knows no law.

You do what you must to survive. You endure bad conditions in the hope that your circumstances – and those of your children – might improve.

Economic migration

Eventually my grandfather moved to Belfast just after Partition, and worked as a labourer.

He raised his family in the city where my father was born. My father, like many of his generation, left school at 14 and, in the parlance of the time, “did his time” and learned a trade.

He was a skilled worker, though that does not mean that he did not endure what his father endured. He is well into his 70s now and spent many of his younger years working across the water in England. He came home to his lodgings one night after work to find his belongings packed and at the front door.

The woman of the house had discovered he was Irish. “But Frank is from Belfast,” the others in the house protested. It made no difference. Frank was Irish and Frank was leaving.

“What did you do?” I asked, thinking he cursed her or threatened her with legal action. No, not at all.

“I found somewhere else to stay,” he said simply.

Yes, that would be my father, a man of great dignity.

What reflection on him was it that the landlady did not like the Irish? He had done nothing wrong. He had found work that the English did not want.

Of course, that economic migration did not end with my grandfather or my father. While learning Irish in Donegal in the 1980s, I noticed that there were very few men of my age around.

“They are away working on the Channel Tunnel,” I was told. (Donegal men like to dig. My God, they know how to work with their hands.)

When the chunnel was finished, some of them ended up working on the Port Tunnel in Dublin too.

How mundane that must have seemed after having dug across the Channel!

Channel Tunnel

And the Channel Tunnel is in the news again. There they are, migrants on the other side, trying to get through.

Of course, I tut tut as you tut tut.

Unlike my grandfather and father, I have never done a day's manual labour in my life. I am a graduate, you know. Yes, here I am, 100 years after my grandfather, writing for The Irish Times. He spent his life working with his hands in fields and on building sites and I spend mine typing. Of course I did not see myself in the faces on the other side of the fence.

Naturally, as a nice person, I feel that “something should be done” but am not sure what. The whole thing is a bit frightening isn’t it, all those people throwing themselves at the fences at the mouth of the tunnel that the Donegal ones helped build?

No, I didn’t see myself in the angry faces being pepper-sprayed.

It was when the camera panned back to show men standing and watching, with all the dignity they could muster, that I suddenly realised I was seeing my grandfather in Scotland, my father in England. There they are. Trying to earn a living. Trying to survive. Do you see your family in their faces too? Look a little closer. Don’t be afraid.

Those people at the fence are from Donegal and Mayo, Leitrim and Galway. They are from little villages in the glens, townlands on the edge of the Atlantic, small holdings in the mountains. Don’t be afraid. Who knows?

Perhaps in 100 years, among the children of their children, there might be a graduate, sitting here writing your children’s children a story about how they crossed the water.

Níl dlí ar an riachtanas.