Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England, by Mo Moulton, Cambridge University Press, 378 pp, $42.70, ISBN: 978-1107052680
During the 2010 UK general election, the incumbent Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, had a horribly memorable encounter with a sixty-five-year-old grandmother. The woman chanced upon Brown doing a meet-and-greet in Rotherham, heckled him while he was talking to a television crew, before being invited by his aides to speak with him. To her face, Brown treated the woman courteously, if maladroitly (“Very good to meet you, and you’re wearing the right colour today. Ha, ha, ha. How many grandchildren do you have?”). But disastrously, when he returned to his car, he could be heard describing the unscripted conversation as “a disaster” and labelling his new acquaintance “just a sort of bigoted woman”, not realising that he was still attached to a microphone belonging to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News.
As Brown’s car sped away, the media gleefully pounced upon the prime minister’s private comments, with Murdoch’s newspaper The Sun offering thousands of pounds to the grandmother if she now agreed to endorse the Conservative Party. Brown was widely judged to have committed an appalling “gaffe”, and to have revealed himself duplicitous and utterly tone-deaf to the concerns of “ordinary” voters. Personally, I rather warmed to him for making the comment, which seemed to humanise a figure who, on the election trail, had previously shown all the easy charm of Brezhnev’s propped-up carcass. Who hasn’t, on occasion, been compelled to smile politely to some blowhard’s face only to make a comment along the lines of “you daft bastard” as soon as safely out of earshot? Who, therefore, could have failed to identify with Brown’s predicament? And the comment about bigotry was scarcely unjustified. Television viewers who watched the exchange saw the grandmother desperately swerving away from using the word the word “racist” but declaring her hostility to the number of eastern European people in England, whose presence she connected with abuse of the social welfare system:
[T]here’s too many people now who are vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable can’t get claim, can’t get it […] You can’t say anything about the immigrants because you’re saying that you’re …b ut all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?
At the time, I hoped Brown might make a response along the following lines:
I may have expressed myself in a regrettable way this morning, but that is because I feel very strongly about this particular issue. I do realise that many people are vulnerable in our society at the moment, and I work hard every single day to help them. But you must understand that such vulnerability has little to do with immigration, from eastern Europe or anywhere else. On the contrary, our country is greatly culturally enriched by those who come to live here from overseas. Think about it for a moment: the most vibrant and thriving centres of the entire world – like New York, Paris, or Hong Kong – are those places that function as a magnet for the most talented people from across the globe. And our country has itself been much enriched in economic terms by its new arrivals. Those who arrive on our shores have overwhelmingly come here in order to work, and are, statistically, amongst the brightest and most well-educated people in our society. There are some issues around oversupply of unskilled labour in particular localities, the effects of which I am working to correct, but I must emphasise that, overall, migrants are net contributors rather than a net drain on our resources. I have just chatted about all of this to the woman to whom I was inadvertently rude this morning, and who kindly allowed me into her house. When I visited her, I found that she bore the Irish name of Gillian Duffy, and that her beautiful home was adorned with the “Irish proverb” “May the roof of your house never fall in and those within never fall out.” Thankfully we didn’t fall out, but we did discuss that Irish aspect of her own family history, and I told her of my hope that, in future, people like herself might remain particularly mindful of Rotherham’s debt to its immigrants …
Needless to say, this wasn’t the statement that Brown made. Instead he dashed back to Gillian Duffy’s house in order to make a fawning apology, and to emphasise that “I understood the concerns she was bringing to me.” Worse still, his spokespeople vainly tried to limit the damage by indicating that Brown may have misunderstood the woman’s ungrammatical and self-answering question, “these eastern Europeans … where are they flocking from?” hearing instead “where are they fucking from?”
Yet it was the overall statement, rather than the non-existent swearing, that deserved to be challenged. Duffy’s comments endorsed a caricature of the eastern European in the UK as a freeloading benefits-chaser which is popularly held but statistically wrong. Indeed, such a characterisation was convincingly demolished by a recent academic study issued by UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (http://www.cream-migration.org/files/FiscalEJ.pdf). The report found that European immigrants who arrived in the UK since 2000 have contributed more than £20bn to UK public finances between 2001 and 2011. In this period, migrants from the 15 pre-2004 EU countries (which includes Ireland) paid 64 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits. Those migrants so feared by Gillian Duffy, from the ten post-2004 EU countries, paid 12 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits. And overall, EU migrants who arrived since 2000 were 43 per cent less likely than UK natives to receive state benefits or tax credits.
The general public may not, however, have fully realised the significance of that UCL report, since television news bulletins generally presented this independent and scholarly assessment as simply one part of a “debate”, on the other side of which were an assortment of rebuttal-proof anecdotes from talking heads as well as comments from people representing, for example, the noxious but well-connected anti-migration pressure-group MigrationWatch UK. An earlier report by academics at Cardiff University had pointed to exactly this journalistic problem (http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/resources/BroadcastNewsCoverageofAsylum.pdf), highlighting the fact that, when the UK’s media outlets discuss asylum:
This anxiety about taking a position seen to be supportive of asylum seems to produce an over-compensation in terms of using easily accessible right-wing sources such as MigrationWatch UK as a ‘balance’. The whole idea of ‘balance’ in these contexts needs to be re-thought and re-imagined […] Journalists do not seem at present to know where else to go with this issue.
Of course, such an alarming drift in the UK’s political and media discourse has meant that in recent years Gillian Duffy is not the only person bearing an Irish name to complain – with neither self-awareness nor irony – about the deleterious impact of migration upon the UK. The outliers in the public debate (who have the important function of making those who are slightly less extreme look like fair-minded philosopher kings) are the members of the English Defence League, a group whose playbook combines elements from the Blackshirts of the 1930s and the football hooligans of the 1980s, and whose bovine supporters congregate on English streets to chant slogans such as “no surrender to Muslim scum”. Yet the English Defence League was itself co-founded in Luton in 2009 by two second-generation Irishmen: Stephen Lennon and Kevin O’Carroll, each of whom can boast at least one parent from Dublin.
In recent weeks, one of the most newsworthy political events in the UK has been the election to the Westminster parliament of Mark Reckless, as the second ever MP for the populist anti-immigration party Ukip. Reckless was repeatedly shown on television, complaining about the UK having a welfare system “where people who haven’t contributed to our system can come and immediately start claiming benefits”. His tone grew progressively harsher during his election campaign: and even the gurning xenophobe Nigel Farage disowned some eve-of-vote comments made by Reckless, when the latter advocated the repatriation of EU migrants. At that point, the Labour Party candidate, Naushabah Khan, asked: “Where would you stop Mark? My family are migrants, are we going to say they need to go back as well?” What Reckless failed to say at this particularly juncture was that he is the grandson of Henry McDevitt, the Fianna Fáil TD for the one-time constituency of Donegal East (1938-43). Thus, if he was seriously to think about implementing his own policies he might well have to consider deporting himself.
Mark Reckless is a longtime friend of another bloviating right-winger, Daniel Hannon. Indeed, they were apparently best man at one another’s weddings. And although they are currently representing different political parties, both are cut from the same cloth. Hannon is Conservative MEP for South East England, and has achieved a kind of fame for praising Enoch Powell as someone who “understood why you need to live in an independent country”, denouncing the NHS on Fox News as a “sixty-year mistake” and – inevitably – praising the Conservative Party for “limiting welfare entitlements for EU migrants, whatever Brussels says”. He also boasts of his “Ulster Catholic” family roots, and has repeatedly discussed Ireland in his own journalistic writings, where he is given to speculative assertions about Irish history. For example, he sees Irish politicians as “initially attracted to the EU partly because the Brits disliked it”; and imagines that, had there been less British army brutality in 1916, “I don’t think it’s fanciful to imagine Ireland having evolved into a self-governing Dominion in the way that, say, New Zealand did”.
Hannon is not alone in trying to combine a little Englander attitude with pride in Irish heritage. Indeed, the current MEP for the East of England is the UKIP representative Patrick James O’Flynn (another dangerous but media-savvy loon who spends his time scaremongering about “the impact of those planning to come here next year just to claim benefits rather than to work”). O’Flynn has also told the Irish Post that, “There is substantial and growing support for UKIP among people of Irish extraction and those who have themselves come from the Republic of Ireland to build a life in Britain.”
O’Flynn’s comments are characteristically Ukip in the complete absence of any statistical support to back them up. But they also reveal a kind of historical blindness. Harvard historian Mo Moulton’s wonderful first book, Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England relies on a number of unfamiliar and fascinating archival sources and reveals a complex set of attitudes towards Ireland and Irishness in England during the 1920s and 1930s. One of the many things the book does well is to highlight how the political concerns outlined by Ukip are nothing new. It would be salutary for figures like Daniel Hannon and Mark Reckless to read this volume, since Moulton points out that, during the 1930s depression era, the benefits-scrounging migrant-bogeyman of the English imagination was often an Irishman.
At the moment, a particular bugbear of Ukip and the Tory right is that the UK must accept the free movement of people from across the EU, a principle that Angela Merkel views as non-negotiable. Similarly, during the interwar years, there existed unrestricted migration between the Irish Free State and the UK, and such movement caused equivalent upset to some English men and women of the era. Throughout those years the Irish were officially considered imperial subjects from a British dominion, and so were free to enter, work, and live in the UK. However, many of the imperial subjects of Ireland had recently concluded a bloody period of warfare in order to assert independence from the crown, and, as Moulton puts it, “were criticized on economic grounds: that they undercut wages and conditions for native English workers, or that they came to England to take advantage of more generous benefits schemes”.
Thus today’s arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria are not the first white migrants to receive a cold welcome from England’s pressmen and politicians. One correspondent to The Times in 1928 wrote, perhaps in only punning mock-seriousness, that the fact that Catholics did not use artificial contraception meant “we can well conceive an Irish England of the future”; while the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1929 demanded a quota on immigration from the Free State “in order to protect our members’ standard of living”. Moulton observes that:
The question of whether the Irish were unfairly taking advantage of the English benefits system was a vexed one, and it was part of a larger discourse emphasizing the need to deter malingerers from taking advantage of welfare programs. The issue was particularly salient in the context of the economic hard times of the 1930s, which saw divisive debates about the dole, means-testing, and the nature of public assistance.
In 1937, for example, the Manchester Guardian, under the headline “Irish Labour in England: Conservative Alarm”, gave an account of a conference being held by junior imperialist and unionist organisations. As the newspaper reported:
[T]he conference passed a resolution viewing with alarm the influx of Southern Irish labour into the western ports of England and Scotland, “with the resulting direct charge upon the Public Assistance funds”, and calling for legislation to restrict the movement of such labour to the real needs of these ports.
Moving the resolution, Mr. G.R.B. Simmons (Wavertree) said they were faced with the influx of a semi-civilised people who came over with the sole idea of qualifying for our ‘dole’. All Irishmen should be repatriated when they became a charge on Public Assistance and unemployment funds, and they should be treated as aliens. The English working man did not receive a square deal because of the influx of cheap Irish labour.
The meeting took place in Liverpool, where the high rate of Irish-Catholic migration had caused particular concern. As Moulton emphasises, it was here that one councillor led an anti-immigration drive that in 1939 triggered the city’s Public Assistance Committee to investigate the number of Irish immigrants then receiving financial relief. During the previous five years, the local authority had assisted 1,515 Irish people who had sought help but who had not yet lived continuously for a year in Liverpool. However, on investigation, this reasonably small group was revealed to consist of former British army soldiers “who allege victimization in their own country”, as well as sailors who had not been “resident in Ireland for many years”. Either way, this cohort was scarcely the invasion of scroungers that the councillor had hoped to uncover. So the council opted to broaden the search and investigate whether any Irish people were receiving relief who had not lived continuously for five years in Liverpool. It transpired that there were just sixty-seven such cases. As a result, the city was paying out a vanishingly small amount, although the spooked council decided nonetheless to commission a regular report into this situation.
Moulton’s study links such local detail quite brilliantly with broader trends. She points out that in 1939, a cabinet memo examined the number of people receiving relief within four months of arrival from Ireland. The memo reveals that, during 1938, those figures had consisted of just 238 people in Manchester, 227 in Liverpool, and ninety-two in Birmingham. The memo therefore concludes that Irish immigrants came to England “to obtain work” rather than to receive benefits. Nonetheless, politicians of the 1930s were no less willing than their modern counterparts to wade in with more incendiary language: even Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald opined that “We should refuse to be a dumping ground of Dominion refuse”. Yet, as Moulton puts it: “Ultimately, the organizations that opposed Irish immigration in the 1930s failed to achieve any significant policy objective. They did, however, distill the very worst English fears and prejudices about the Irish into a particular interwar essence, one that emphasized the dangers posed by allowing ‘foreign’, disaffected migrants from formerly British territories into the sanctified space of England.”
Such fears about the Irish intrusion into England during the 1930s came to a head in 1939, when the IRA launched a bombing campaign in the country. That August, the IRA left a bicycle laden with explosives in a crowded part of Coventry, killing five people. An angry backlash began immediately. Across the English midlands people took to shouting “Down with the Irish”, or “Come out into the open you Irish bastards”, and when one foolish man in Coventry responded with a cry of “Up the IRA!” a crowd seized him and would have thrown him through a window but for the intervention of police officers, who managed to bundle him into custody. Four days after the bombing, two thousand workers in the Baginton aircraft works downed tools and, joined by another thousan anti-IRA protesters, marched through Coventry as an English Defence League avant la lettre, only being placated when the local police chief constable assured them that he “was not an Irishman and had never been to Ireland”. Local industrial managers now worried about tensions between Irish and English workers, and one MP observed that “[b]ecause of the IRA bomb outrages, employers are prejudiced against men with Irish names who are seeking work”. Five days after the Coventry explosions, a mob almost lynched a man with an Irish accent in Liverpool when he tried to buy a balloon as a gift for his landlady’s child: balloons had been used by the IRA as a container for explosives.
Ultimately, in this feverish atmosphere, the UK authorities arrested, tried, and executed two Irish republicans deemed guilty of the Coventry bombing, hanging thirty-two-year-old Peter Barnes and twenty-nine-year-old Jimmy McCormack in Birmingham’s Winson Green prison on February 7th, 1940. In fact neither of the men had committed the act of which they were convicted. Although McCormack had helped prepare IRA explosives, he had not planted the device in Coventry, while the allegation that Barnes had transported the material for bomb-making was treated with disbelief by those acquaintances who knew him as the husband who had previously nursed a dying wife with great gentleness. In a speech from the dock, Barnes declared: “Later I am sure it will come out that I had neither hand, act, or part in it”, and the real bomber duly made a confession to The Sunday Times in 1969.
Although Mo Moulton’s Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England is less concerned with literary history, that period of tension in the late 1930s did have a lasting impact upon the writings of Brendan Behan. At the time that Barnes and McCormack were hanged, the sixteen-year-old Behan was himself detained in an English jail, having ended up there after a cack-handed attempt at bombing Liverpool. After receiving his borstal term on Ash Wednesday 1940, he heard from a friendly warder about the execution of Barnes and McCormack, which had been carried out on the same day as Behan’s sentencing. Barnes had appeared on the scaffold in a state of collapse and received an embrace of support from McCormack, who attempted to reassure his fellow prisoner right up to their final moments, shouting to Barnes “I’ll see you in a minute” as the hangman sprung the trap. Such details haunted Behan, and he made his literary debut in 1942 with a short autobiographical piece called “I Become a Borstal Boy”, set on the day of the hangings and recounting how, on hearing the news from Winson Green, he called to his fellow jailed Irishmen, “We will recite the De Profundis for the repose of the souls of our countrymen who gave their lives for Ireland this morning in Birmingham Jail.”
Behan subsequently reworked this story, transforming it into his famous 1958 memoir Borstal Boy, in which he again dwells on the fate of Barnes and McCormack:
I knew the man that had planted the bomb and it was neither of the men that had been sentenced. But that would not matter very much to the English. The men that had most to do with it were back home in Ireland […] I could see the logic of saying to any IRA man, ‘You may not be the one that planted the bomb, but you have planted others and anyway you are all in this conspiracy together and if we can’t get the ones that caused this explosion you’ll bloody well do as well the next […].’
In 1947, a group of IRA sympathisers in Dublin arranged a concert to remember McCormack and Barnes, and as part of this commemoration Behan scripted a play called Gretna Green or Ash Wednesday, which was apparently set in an English prison on the eve of a double hanging. The script no longer survives, and the performance in Dublin was a disaster (with heavy snowfall keeping the audience away and Behan too drunk to read the part he had assigned himself). Nevertheless, the play reportedly focused on the reactions of four onstage characters to the plight of two men sentenced to execution, and thus gave Behan the starting point for his play The Quare Fellow, which, like his other well-known play, An Giall (“the hostage”) revolves around an offstage hanging, and offers a forthright condemnation of capital punishment.
Today Behan is often remembered as little more than a drunk. Yet in these works he offered a witty and profound critique of the injustices and unfairnesses of his day. In recent months, the Irish University Review has published a fine special issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of Behan’s death, with John Brannigan writing that “Behan was unquestionably liberal and cosmopolitan in his views and tastes, he was a tireless, witty and articulate critic of … pretentions, snobberies, and hypocrisies … He was a fierce critic in his writings of both nationalism and colonialism.” Today, when we see those of Irish descent expressing support for Ukip and its anti-migrant brand of insular English nationalism (once characterised by even David Cameron as the philosophy of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”) we might wonder what Behan would have made of it all. He might not have been as polite as Gordon Brown.
James Moran is head of drama at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (2013) and Irish Birmingham: A History (2010).