James Williams writes: In the years after World War Two, hundreds of thousands of Irish people migrated to Britain. In all, almost one in six of the population quit the country in the 1950s as Ireland shared with East Germany the unenviable distinction of being the only countries in Europe whose population declined over the decade. The huddled masses of poor and tired yearning to be free who packed the boats to England in these years came predominantly from the small farms of the countryside and the working class of Ireland’s towns and cities. The push for their exodus came from the poverty, stagnation and coercive clerical control that characterised post-Independence Ireland. The pull came from the job opportunities presented by Britain’s postwar reconstruction, the benefits offered by its new welfare state and the greater freedoms possible in an urban and more secular society. Frank O’Connor’s claim that ‘every Irishman’s private life begins in Holyhead’ was even more true for Irish women. Exceptionally among European migration flows, more women than men emigrated from Ireland in the late 1940s.
As the Irish flocked to the country against whose rule they had rebelled a quarter of a century earlier, a select band of British patricians were returning to the country that had risen up against their rule. In one of history’s odder ironies, Ireland’s revolution had ended up creating a congenial refuge for Britain’s reactionaries. The economic underdevelopment, social conservatism and scant welfare state that drove women and men of no property or prospects out of Ireland in these years drew in a disaffected segment of the British squirearchy. As Sally Phipps wrote in her biography of her mother, Molly Keane:
The election of a Labour Government [in 1945] created a new form of refugee. The Conservative hunting English flooded to Ireland to escape Attlee’s taxes, a possibly revolutionary regime and food rationing. They needed cream and beef and Georgian houses to rent or buy.
Those seeking asylum in Ireland from high taxes, foreign exchange controls and what they saw as the hostile social and political order of postwar Britain included Sir Alfred Chester Beatty and Sir Alfred Beit. Beatty was accorded favourable exchange control facilities to relocate here, and he and Beit were later granted honorary Irish citizenship. As we will see in Part 2 of this blog, the writer Evelyn Waugh, who referred to the postwar Labour administration as the ‘Attlee terror’ and the ‘occupying army of English socialist government’, also came close to joining this British flight of the earls. For this disgruntled troop of malcontents, the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s remained unspoiled by economic and social change and offered sanctuary from the pernicious forces that had laid waste to England’s once green and pleasant land.
In John Betjeman’s view, Ireland was a country that ‘was never subjected to a nineteenth century’ and which had ‘fortunately escaped the industrialism which changed the face of England’. Should ‘a man wish to live in the 18th century, let him take with him what capital he has left, and buy one of those hundreds of empty Georgian mansions in the remote parts of Ireland’. According to Harold Macmillan, a regular visitor to the Lismore estate of his sister-in-law, the duchess of Devonshire, Ireland was ‘the only happy country left in Europe’, one where ‘nothing seems to have changed’, and which was ‘just like England when I was young’. For Oswald Mosley, who bought Clonfert Palace in Galway in 1951 and was also a frequent visitor to the Lismore estate of his Devonshire sister-in-law, Ireland was a free country while England had become ‘an Island Prison’. For Edward Sackville West, brother of the more famous Vita, who set up home in Tipperary in the 1950s, Ireland shared with Portugal ‘the same backwaters quality & the same equally warm, intensely religious peasantry’. Nancy Mitford’s inventory of Ireland’s attractions for Evelyn Waugh struck similar notes:
Never have I seen a country so much made for somebody as it is for you. The terribly silly politeness of lower classes so miserable that they long for any sort of menial task at £1 a week, the emptiness, the uncompromising Roman Catholicism, the pretty houses of the date you like best … the neighbours all low brow and armigerous & all 100 miles away, the cold wetness, the low income tax, really I could go on for ever.
A quarter of a century after the War of Independence and the Civil War had seen the destruction of hundreds of the houses of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and a decade after an ‘Economic War’ between the two states, Ireland had become a haven for the more backward-looking elements of Britain’s elite. In 1947, just two years after his public spat with de Valera over Irish neutrality, Churchill gave a sanguine appraisal of the state of affairs in his country’s nearest neighbour:
… they are much more friendly to us than they used to be. They have built up a cultured Roman Catholic system in the South. There has been no anarchy or confusion. They are getting more happy and prosperous. The bitter past is fading.
Many of those living in the Ireland of the time would not have shared Churchill’s view that they were becoming happier and more prosperous. For some, the scale of the flight to Britain called the very achievement of independence into question. Sean O’Faolain, an IRA combatant in the War of Independence, wrote:
We always maintained in Ireland that this national loss of blood … was entirely due to foreign misrule. We promised ourselves and the world that once we got a native government we would soon put a stop to all that … We had to face the bitter truth that something more than foreign misrule is involved. We had to pick rock salt out of our sores when we discovered simultaneously that while our own people were vanishing from Ireland the English were coming back to it in droves: in full flight from the austerities of socialist England, they were buying up houses and farms in every part of the country.
In Amongst Women, John McGahern would give forceful expression to this view of the futility of the fight for independence in the figure of the one-time freedom fighter Michael Moran:
What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half of my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.
Speaking in Belfast in 1984, the veteran republican socialist Peadar O’Donnell recounted a telephone conversation he had had with Éamon De Valera during the latter’s presidency. ‘You’ve got to remember Dev,’ said O’Donnell, ‘that damn nearly a million Irish people left there while you were Taoiseach.’ ‘Ah, be fair now,’ replied de Valera, ‘if you’d been in my place there’d have been emigration too.’ ‘That’s quite true,’ O’Donnell claims to have countered, ‘if I had been in your place there’d have been a great many people who would have left the country. But they would not have been the same people!’
Given the scale of emigration and population decline in the 1940s and 1950s, it is little surprise that the spectre of the ‘vanishing Irish’ was much discussed and fretted over. With characteristic crabbiness, Patrick Kavanagh greeted the prospect of national extinction with equanimity. When the American writer Nelson Algren commented to him that it was sad to think that the Irish were vanishing, Kavanagh replied that ‘it was too good to be true’. Fr. Patrick Noonan, a contributor to a widely debated collection of essays on the phenomenon, took a less contrarian and more alarmist view:
Unless immediate and drastic measures are taken, the Irish race will either disappear altogether or continue to survive only as an enervated minority in a planted country. Already, Ireland has become the land of promise for many adventurous or tax-fleeing foreigners who eagerly purchase the lands and property vacated by the emigrant.
The Inter-Party overnment that took office in February 1948 responded to the twin trends of outward migration to, and inward migration from, Britain by establishing a Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems and imposing a 25 per cent stamp duty on property purchases by foreigners. The commission sat from 1948 to 1954. Its report was long on analysis but short on solutions. In the second half of the 1950s, emigration hit even higher levels than in the first half of the decade. The Catholic church responded with a call to prayer. A ‘prayer for emigrants’ issued by the hierarchy in the 1950s sought divine assistance to keep emigrants ‘loyal to their faith, free from sin and faithful to all their family ties’. Ireland might have gained independence and declared itself a republic, but what the historian Thomas Bartlett has called the post-Famine order of ‘faith, farm, family and farewell’ would stay in place for some time to come.
A further instalment of this blog will follow shortly.
Sources for quotations
Huw Wheldon (ed). 1962. ‘Frank O’Connor’ in Monitor: An Anthology (London: Macdonald & Co.).
Sally Phipps. 2017. Molly Keane: A Life (London: Virago).
John Betjeman. 1934. Ghastly Good Taste (London: Chapman & Hall).
Charles Lysaght. ‘Dear Brendan and Master Harold’, in Richard Aldous and Sabine Lee (eds). 1999. Macmillan: Aspects of a Political Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan).
Maurice Walsh. ‘Mosley in Ireland’. The Dublin Review No. 26, Spring 2007.
Charlotte Mosley (ed). 2010. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (London: Penguin Classics).
Winston Churchill. ‘The Dream’ in John Gross (ed). 1991. The Oxford Book of Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Sean O’Faolain, ‘Love Among the Irish’ and Patrick B Noonan CSSp, ‘Why Few Irish Marry’, in JA O’Brien (ed) 1953. The Vanishing Irish (London: Allen).Richard English. ‘Green on red: two case studies in early twentieth century Irish republican thought’ in D. George Boyce et al (eds). 1993. Political Thought in Ireland since the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge).
Nelson Algren. 2011. ‘The Banjaxed Land: You Have Your People and I Have Mine’ in Algren at Sea: Travel Writings (New York: Seven Stories Press).
Thomas Bartlett. Ireland: A History, 2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)