Plight of emigrants to Britain


Madam, - It is almost a decade since I first drew public attention to the plight of older Irish emigrants when researching my book, The Men who built Britain, published in 2001. I have since brought my multimedia presentation of the same name to many parts of Ireland in a further effort to raise awareness of this issue.

Official Ireland didn't appear to be listening then but happily that has changed in recent times. The newly established Unit for the Irish Abroad, in the Department Foreign Affairs, now provides an official focus and financial dynamic for the efforts of the many dedicated organisations which are working to improve the material welfare of the older Irish abroad.

The National Repatriation Agency and Emigrant Aid Network represent other welcome initiatives. The Episcopal Commission for Emigrants has of course been labouring, often alone, in the service of the Irish abroad for many years.

However, my own work has convinced me that ameliorating the emotional and psychological trauma of long-term emigration (which to some degree affects all of our older emigrants regardless of circumstances) is at least as important as effecting material improvements to the health and welfare of the more marginalised.

Deoraí, the Gaelic for "exile", translates literally as placelessness and banishment and it is this which underlies the terrible sense of loneliness, isolation and, especially, alienation from modern Ireland so vividly described in Roisin Ingle's recent article (December 4th). Teresa Gallagher of Irish Counselling and Psychotherapy put it well: "We are finding deep wells of sadness in ordinary human lives".

Paul Gillespie (December 11th) rightly called for "renewed efforts to reach out" to the older Irish in Britain. Fostering a better understanding, both here and in Britain, of the nature of their experience is the essential starting point. I believe the very act of reaching out would count for much with these forgotten people - especially if it is done by local communities and individuals. But now is the time. . .soon it will be too late. - Yours, etc.,

ULTAN COWLEY, Duncormick, Co Wexford.

Madam, - Roisin Ingle's recent fine and sensitive article (December 4th), together with your editorial, has again highlighted the sad plight of forgotten Irish emigrants in Britain.

Our neglectful attitude to this group of our own people is heartbreaking. The emigration of young Irish people to Britain was a prominent feature of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. It always seemed to be the most popular, the most positive young men and women who were leaving.

Many of them were never to return to live in Ireland again. They saw it as almost a duty to share their new-found prosperity with their families at home. There are many stories throughout the country of younger siblings being educated and becoming successful through the generosity of emigrant family members.

These are our own people and we must not forget them. When I lived in Britain I saw some Irish people in Luton living in poor and undignified circumstances.

Much good work is undoubtedly being done by voluntary organizations such as Dr Jerry Cowley's, the Catholic Church and others.Thankfully, the Department of Foreign Affairs is now also on the case.

The loneliness, relatively poor health,and inadequate provision for old age are big problems.

But perhaps the saddest of all is the feeling of rejection and prejudice which they perceive as pertaining in Ireland. Is it that we are embarrassed by their plight as a reflection of our less prosperous past and by the guilt of our unpaid debt to them? I don't think the reality is as bad as their perception but there is a great ignorance of their situation.

Are we capable of a hearts and minds change to this section of our own people? It is not just the material neglect but the prejudice which, understandably, seems so hurtful to them.

This issue also affects emigrants whose circumstances may be fine but also feel that sense of forgottenness. Can we do something to purge our prejudice generally and kindly acknowledge the contribution of this forgotten generation?

I believe that a weekly Irish radio programme beamed to relevant geographical areas in Britain would help towards more inclusiveness of this section of OUR community.

It would also have the benefit of articulating and developing a reservoir of goodwill here in Ireland towards them.

Surely such a gesture would be within our budgetary and technological capacity.

Let's do all we can before it is too late. - Yours, etc.,

PAUL SHOVLIN, Mount Anville Lawn, Goatstown, Dublin 14.