The untold story of Irish women emigrating to Britain

Screengrab of Moving Histories cover

Both a personal and professional project for historian Dr Jennifer Redmond, having lived in the UK as a child, her Moving Histories book is the only dedicated – and most exhaustive – account of Irish women emigrating to the UK.

“Everybody knows someone who emigrated to the UK in the past seventy or one hundred years,” says Irish historian Dr Jennifer Redmond. “It’s almost like going next door for [Irish people], yet there hadn’t been a lot of scholarly literature on [women emigrating].”

As Dr Redmond alludes to, much has been written about Irish emigration around the time of the Great Famine, which automatically intrigues readers and academics alike due to the weight of history behind it. Yet there is scant work on 20th emigration, especially of women, who left at times in equal, if not greater, numbers than men.

Dr Redmond’s recently-released book, Moving Histories, attempts to fill this gap in the literature. The book – whose full title is ‘Moving Histories: Irish Women’s Emigration to Britain from Independence to Republic’ – sheds a light on emigration to the UK during the first four decades of the Irish state.

She stumbled upon the topic by accident. While she was researching something else entirely, Dr Redmond encountered old newspaper stories in national, regional and Catholic newspapers about the dangers Irish women faced when emigrating.

Of course, her first reaction was: There must’ve been a lot of emigration to allow such stories to exist. But, more importantly, she began pondering what these dangers might have been, questioning whether they were legitimate fears.

“They weren’t talking about any dangers for men,” she recalls from her time digging into the archives. “The odd time it would come up for men it would be that men worked too much on Sundays and missed mass; they’re living in overcrowded conditions and that makes them go to the pub too much.”

The moral panic hinged on sex — an Irish obsession with sex when it came to women and their bodies.

Dr. Jennifer Redmond presenting her book to President Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin

“[Women] are going to leave Ireland because they’re trying to hide unwanted pregnancies,” Dr Redmond says of the prevailing narrative of the time. “And there was an intense amount of shame about unmarried motherhood. Again, men are not mentioned.”

Institutionalised

The alternative for many of these women was mother-and-baby homes or Magdalene laundries. “You would be institutionalised,” Dr Redmond offers, matter-of-factly.

Stereotypes then arose that the majority of Irish women who emigrated were hiding pregnancies, which, Dr Redmond explains, couldn’t be further from the truth.

There also existed some hand-wringing over women’s unreliability to uphold moral values as they ventured into new, uncharted territories. The notion that Irish women, Redmond says, “would abandon all of their morals and principles and go to dances and become pregnant very quickly”.

These revelations sparked Dr Redmond’s imagination, and the idea for the book was born. Unwanted pregnancies happened; women seeking greater autonomy and adventure left for Britain — what intrigued Dr Redmond, however, was the ordinary women whose lives strayed far from dramatic, sensationalist media reports.

“There was so much judgement on these women; there was so much shame; it was all their fault; there was very little compassion. But I also thought: ‘What was everybody else doing?’”

Using this idea as the book’s guiding force, Dr Redmond dived into decades worth of old interviews, archives, government publications and data, and everything in between. Her findings ranged from rare and startling discoveries to more obvious, conventionally accepted wisdom.

Yet practically none of the Irish women’s stories, across generations, had been catalogued so it all felt new, fresh, and revelationary.

“People have different reasons for going and nobody ever asked them at the docks or the airport: Why are you going?” Dr Redmond says.

Nursing

In her research, she found that, during the period after Irish independence, many Irish women worked as domestic servants, picking up jobs British women were now leaving in their droves. Despite their less-than-glamorous title, these positions often provided better pay and conditions than Ireland could offer.

Unlike Ireland, where poverty wages were almost a given and overworking was commonplace, women were usually provided with living quarters, a personal radio, and a general sense of homeliness.

The Second World War later allowed many Irish women to enter new professions. Dr Redmond discovered evidence of women working as chambermaids in hotels who, as a result of labour shortages during wartime, became receptionists and office workers.

These career springboards, Dr Redmond says, segued many Irish women into civil service jobs, where, even after the war ended, secure employment continued.

Training

In Ireland, in the early 20th century, people had no option but to pay to train as a nurse or draper or hairdresser. In the UK, however, a large number of hospitals accepted trainees without a Leaving Cert (you had to have one in Ireland to qualify for training) and they would pay budding nurses during their training. This was a huge attraction to potential workers from Ireland.

Irish women who managed to get decent work sent back money to their families, which Dr Redmond realised can be tracked retroactively by looking at Postal Order figures arriving in from Britain. Because both countries had a shared register of nurses, as is the case today, you could then return to Ireland to work, which many Irish women took advantage of.

From the oral histories she collated and studied, economic turmoil was the main reason that people – women included – left Ireland for the UK.

After all, women were not only the least well-paid members of the Irish workforce, but also the most dispensable; they were likely to be let go if there was economic turbulence, or, say, if a factory was overstaffed or suffering losses.

After Independence in 1922, leading into the 1960s, Ireland struggled economically — that’s a long time for families to struggle, especially since men’s wages were internationally low and most, traditionally, had large numbers of children. It wasn’t just economics causing Irish women to pour into cities across the UK.

Dr Redmond suspects that, although it was never recorded or documented, Ireland has historically had a “very large gay diaspora”. A stifling social atmosphere, where homosexuality was outlawed and anyone who didn’t subscribe to a white Catholic orthodoxy was othered and persecuted, led to many thousands leaving for more liberal cities like London.

“That would not have come to light in our records,” says Dr Redmond, referencing the London-based lesbian relationship between Irish poet and suffragist Eva-Gore Booth (Countess Markievicz’s younger sister) and English social justice campaigner Esther Roper as an example.

Stereotypes

Misconceptions have tainted people’s views of Irish migrants overseas, whether it’s stereotypes of a man or a woman. People in the UK, and even in Ireland, tend to associate Irish men abroad as builders – “the men who built Britain”, as Dr Redmond describes it – as well as Irish women who, many people presume, worked mostly in domestic service and nursing.

Male builders were, in fact, a minority when it came to the overall picture of emigration, such were the sheer numbers that took the boat across the Irish sea.

In her research, Dr Redmond found long-held and prevalent beliefs that Irish female nurses, and equally Irish male builders, were unskilled. This, she argues, is not backed up by evidence. Many Irish workers outperformed and outworked their British colleagues.

When abroad, some Irish migrants behaved differently, finding freedom in big, sprawling cities, a far cry from their rural upbringings. But most, Dr Redmond says, did not reject traditional ideas. Quite to the contrary, many valued and held sacrosanct the values of conservative Ireland, women included.

“The Irish in Britain are the backbone of the Catholic Church in many communities…women had a huge role to play in local communities which is, really, kind of ignored,” Dr Redmond says.

Construction workers high over London with London Bridge in the background. (Photograph: Getty Images)

Dr Redmond’s ocean-deep research mission brings visibility to Irish women’s stories in the UK, but it also showed that they were more likely to blend and willingly disappear into British life.

During the early and middle 20th-century, Irish women here interacted more daily with British culture and institutions than their male husbands or partners.

Gender roles, only beginning to crack now, meant that women “figured out where to shop; then they figured out how to get the kids to school; they figured out the doctors and healthcare.”

Integrating

Moving Histories, Dr Redmond believes, shows how Irish women became more successful at integrating and often “went missing”. This, in spite of women also providing the most connection to the homeland: through bringing children to Irish-focused events, cooking Irish food, bringing them on holidays to Ireland.

Researching this topic was difficult since many Irish women also married into non-Irish names. Dr Redmond encountered people and stories in accidental ways. “That’s often the way with women’s history: there are only bits and pieces here and there, there isn’t a huge volume of material in any one archive and you have to be creative in sourcing information.”

For arguably the first time, Dr Redmond captures in detail the very different experiences Irish men and women of emigration in the UK.

“Ordinary women didn’t typically keep archives of their lives. So we have no way of tracing them. But it’s also to do with the work they did, much of which was indoors. If you were a domestic servant, that wasn’t a very public role,” she adds.

“Whereas there would be much more photographs or newspaper reports on big building projects…there would be some document of [Irish men’s] lives existing in the public realm in a way that didn’t for women.”

To develop a deeper understanding of Irish women’s experiences overseas, Dr Redmond wrote to local newspapers across Ireland pleading for old letters from family members in Britain. Sadly, she received a lukewarm response.

Wary of falling into gender stereotyping, Dr Redmond also found that women often demeaned or devalued their own lived experience.

“Women often said: ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything, I don’t have anything interesting.’” she says. “While men will say: ‘Sit down and I’ll tell ya about, when in 1945, I did this and this’..”

After World War One began, travel permits were required, regulating the flow of people in and out of the UK. Dr Redmond examined over 23,000 during her postgrad studies and used these figures in her book to paint a picture of the diversity of occupation that Irish women had between the 1920s and 1950s. This, she says, produced “pleasantly surprising” results.

Although nursing was the most popular occupation for Irish women in the UK, there was a huge range of occupations – and specialisations – within the profession.

Every job

She found women doing every job imaginable: self-employed business owners, beauticians, masseuses, bartenders, caretakers, commercial travellers, cashiers, chauffeurs, chemist’s assistants, cinema operators — even independently wealthy women who went across the general trend of working-class emigrants.

“They were in all parts of the British economy. They weren’t just segregated into nursing and domestic services,” she says. “And there’s lots more stories to be told.”

The book’s cover, which captures two Irish women walking hand in hand across a field right before their journey to Britain, is strikingly effective. Dr Redmond’s collection of sources and stories are real people’s histories, and this image truly brings it home.

“It was important for me to have women on the cover,” Dr Redmond adds.

“Women’s emigration is fundamental to the Irish emigration story. Women went everywhere. Usually, women emigrated as part of families, but Irish women became known – worldwide – for going by themselves, at very young ages sometimes.”

“Women are a better representation of Irish migrants than men because at times they did go in greater numbers and they also diversified their experiences hugely. What was important to me was focusing on Irish women’s history. Ordinary women who had working-class lives are often not recorded, taught about, or talked about.”

By Colin Gannon


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