The story of the Irish in Britain comes ‘home home’

A new exhibition at the Irish Emigration Museum EPIC tells stories of many who left Ireland for Britain from early 70s onwards

The story of Ireland is a story of emigration and one that needs to be better understood in the Ireland of today, a leading Irish emigrants’ leader has declared at the launch of a major exhibition in Dublin on the history of the Irish in Britain.

The exhibition at EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum tells the stories of many of those who left Ireland for Britain from the early seventies onwards, often suffering from discrimination provoked by IRA attacks in Britain.

The oral histories partly funded by United Kingdom National Lottery grant that form the exhibition are “a mirror to ourselves”, Brian Dalton, the chief executive of the Irish in Britain organisation, which brings together 130 Irish community bodies spread across Britain.

The testimonies of “joy and a sense of resilience” shown by generation of Irish emigrants can help Ireland today understand its own story at a time when Ireland has become a place where people seek to move to, rather than flee from.


“We are a nation steeped in emigration,” Mr Dalton declared as he opened the “Look Back to Look Forward – Fifty Years of the Irish in Britain” exhibition on Thursday night: “We should embrace this portrait of ourselves now”.

Two billion people today live in countries other than those where they were born: “The world is on the move and has always been on the move. (The Irish) know what it means to cross borders and build new lives in other cities.

“Irish migration is central to the story of modern Britain, and it is a story that’s shared with our friends and neighbours from the Commonwealth and the development of postwar Britain,” he declared, pointing to the solidarity shown over generations between Irish and Caribbean neighbours across Britain.

The Irish living abroad are “further down the road of that change journey” in understanding how the world is changing than some of the Irish who never left the country and who have never experienced what it is like to be a foreigner in another’s land, the Irish in Britain chief executive declared.

“Maybe that’s because ever since we’ve left, we have been adapting, we’ve been building partnerships and innovating. That is the way of emigrants. Irishness has changed, is changing and will change in the future,” he went on.

Noting the change in attitudes towards immigrants from other countries in Britain over the last decade, Mr Dalton said their stories today are not always represented, or “worse, and worse again, they are misrepresented”.

The exhibition, which has previously been displayed in London and other major British cities where there are large numbers of Irish emigrants and their families, has been brought to Dublin with the help of a grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The story of the Irish diaspora in Britain “deserved to be told” to the Ireland of today, the chief executive of EPIC, Aileesh Carew: “We just knew that this was really, really special and had so many stories that needed to be brought back.”

Meanwhile Breeda Power, a long-time campaigner for Irish prisoners overseas and the daughter of one of the Birmingham Six, Billy Power, said growing up as Irish during The Troubles challenging and difficult.

Often, the Irish were stereotyped as “drunks, or terrorists and it led people “to hide their identity, or where often only felt safe to express their culture, identities, or Irishness in Irish centres and pubs nicknamed ‘Paddy Bars’”, she declared.

Often those born in Britain to Irish parents felt that neither English or Irish, but ‘plastic’, where integration was difficult not because they had an Irish accent but because they saw the prejudice and discrimination that affected their parents, she said.

Because communications were difficult, Irish emigrants rarely told their families of the difficulties that they faced: “Many were reluctant to share too much or speak to openly about their treatment for fear of needlessly worrying their loved ones at home.”

Today, however, her daughter born in 1999 is “integrated and openly and proudly celebrates her Irishness with friends, colleagues and acquaintances from all walks of life without inhibition or self-consciousness”.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times