Sunday 4 March 2012

Report on the Irish in Wales - Identity in Context event

The Irish experience of migration to Wales was the main topic discussed at the Irish in Wales - Identity in Context event held at the Beaches Hotel in Prestatyn, Denbighshire on Friday afternoon.

Dr Paul O'Leary from the University of Aberystwyth opened the discussions with a resumé of 19th and 20th century migration from Ireland to Wales. While early migrants tended to settle in South Wales, especially around Cardiff, Newport and Swansea, later groups went to North Wales, among them many thousands who worked on the Holyhead to Chester railway in the 1840s.

While there were some 20-odd instances of riot or serious public disorder on record in the 19th century, most of these were prompted by job or wage differentials or reductions, rather than rooted hostility towards the Irish.

In general, the Irish received a positive reception in Wales, certainly much better than the open prejudice prevalent in Scotland and England. There was little of the sectarianism and violence that made life so unpleasant for early migrants in those places and still shamefully boils up and scars daily modern life in Glasgow, for example, or Liverpool.

The Irish living in Wales (dubbed the WIrish by Chris Ruane, the local MP who chaired the discussion) did not encounter such bigotry, then or now. Many of the audience were first or second generation Irish and they spoke of their own experiences of migration and ease of integration into the Welsh community.

The reasons for this easier acceptance of the largely Catholic early Irish migrants are complex. Many potential layers of similarity, such as music, and a history of trade between the two nations, were discussed, but the most likely explanation is the slightly different religious emphasis in Wales. While Protestantism was 'the norm' in Wales, just as it was in England and Scotland, it was a non-conformist Protestantism; such non-conformity saw its main enemy as the Church of England/Wales ie the Anglican church, rather than Catholicism. Indeed, Roman Catholics were also non-conformists by the standards of the day.

Bronwen Walter, Professor of Irish Diaspora Studies at Anglia Ruskin University spoke about the scale of the diaspora and how it has always been much mobile than is generally recognised. Irish migration, she said, has never been all one way, nor has it always been from A to B. It is more fluid than that.

She talked about the identity crisis suffered by those who left Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s and by their children. While their emotional and cultural ties to Ireland remain incredibly strong, there is a tendency for Ireland to perceive their expressions of Irish-ness as Plastic Paddy syndrome because they were either not born in Ireland or don't sound Irish.

Studies have shown a negative health differential between those who emigrated to the UK in the mid-20th century and those born-in-UK. Even when all lifestyle factors have been removed, the differential remains, suggesting that the emotional experience of migration, and its attendant losses (perhaps of identity as much as of family, culture or landscape) and of 'being different', negatively impacts on health.

Guest speakers included Murray Morse, the new editor of the Irish Post newspaper (just nine days in post, 'scuse the pun), Jane Connolly, the cultural and community attache of the Embassy of Ireland, who spoke about the ties that bind Wales and Ireland, and Fiona Smith of Irish in Britain/Federation of Irish Societies, which has just launched a new campaign called Ireland Inspires.

The event was sponsored by the Irish Post newspaper and jointly hosted by the Federation of Irish Societies and the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Irish in Britain. Proceedings opened with messages from President Michael D Higgins and the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones.

(By coincidence, Find My Past released a bumper crop of Welsh records just in time for the event! See next post.)

Update: Since posting the above, Colin of Liverpool has contacted me with the following comment:

Regarding the Irish in Wales article and the comparison with Glasgow and Liverpool. Liverpool no longer has sectarian problems. It had problems in the past but the slum clearance programmes done away with those divisions. The only remnants of our troubled past is a small Orange parade each year and one Republican flute band. We don't have the divisions of Glasgow which are kept alive by the football teams there.