The Archive of the Irish in Britain
In June 2018, I was recruited by London Metropolitan University to work on a short-term cataloguing project digitizing items from the Archive of the Irish in Britain. The digitization project has been funded by the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme. The archive aims to cover the whole experience of Irish emigrant life in England, Scotland and Wales, although the focus is inevitably on London, which has historically had the largest, most diverse and best documented Irish community in Britain. For various reasons, a high proportion of the material initially selected for digitization also originated from London-based individuals or organisations.
Emigration has been a major feature of Irish history from the nineteenth century onwards, with peaks occurring following the ‘potato famine’ of the 1840s, then in the 1950s and 1980s. Britain (along with America) has been the destination of choice for Irish migrants. Hence the Irish are among the largest minority groups in Britain. Millions of English, Scottish and Welsh people can claim Irish ancestry.
The Irish in Britain came to be associated with certain lines of work: construction, nursing, cleaning and catering – the sorts of jobs often associated with migrants from other parts of the world today. Some came to escape a more socially conservative and devout society in Ireland, including unmarried mothers, women seeking abortions, gays and lesbians. Large Irish communities grew up in big cities including London, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow.
The Irish have historically been discriminated against. They are characterised as stupid and irrational in countless Irish jokes. Irish workers were actively kept in low-level jobs and barred from promotion. Signs outside businesses and rental properties bearing messages such as ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ were widely reported in the 1950s and 1960s. The British view of Ireland and the Irish was coloured for much of the twentieth century by the very powerful and overbearing Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland, also by ‘the troubles’ – the years of terrorism in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s, with terrorist attacks being periodically inflicted on Britain. ‘Irish travellers’ exist on the margins of society.
Against this backdrop, the Irish in Britain formed a wide range of societies and institutions, whose activities form the basis of the archive. The London Irish Centre was founded in 1954. County associations were set up for emigrants from all thirty-two Irish counties. Irish festivals and St Patrick’s Day parades are held in many British towns and cities. Clubs and classes flourished in London and elsewhere for those interested in learning the Irish language, music, dancing and sports. Organisations were also formed for sections within the Irish community, including the London Irish Women’s Centre, Action Group for Irish Youth and Positively Irish Action on AIDS. Political organisations such as the Connolly Association, Anti-Partition League and Irish in Britain Representation Group show that Irish people in Britain remain concerned with the affairs and destiny of their home country.
This rich heritage is represented in a wealth of documents – including minutes of meetings, administrative documents, publicity material, booklets, programmes for events and newsletters – as well as periodicals, photographs, letters, poetry, audio and video. The archive is based at London Metropolitan University’s special collections centre near Aldgate in central London. Collection items are available for inspection by appointment for personal visitors.
Many of these items are now being digitised (subject to copyright, data protection and technical restrictions) in order to open up the archive to a much wider audience. This involves scanning the items to create PDF images, which are then uploaded to the University’s EPrints digital repository system and catalogued. Around 1900 items have so far been digitised, but there is a huge amount of work still to do.
For more information, please follow the link
Note: I have illustrated this essay with a variety of items from the digitized collection, to demonstrate the range of items held, as well as links to other relevant information. All web pages are as accessed on 30 November 2018.