As a result of the 1845 Irish Famine, many of the surviving Irish population were forced to immigrate to countries such as American, Canada and Britain. The situation that British settlers found themselves in is a matter still disputed between historians today, with the idea that the Irish were an outcast group aligned with the prospect that they managed to develop an accommodation in mainland society considerably well.
The investigation of the prospect does require an insight into various aspects of Irish life from the employment issues, social conditions, political activity, religious concerns, the violence and disorder in the country and the position of both the Irish immigrants that arrived before 1845 and settlers in other countries such as America as a form of contrast. Given that first-hand sources from the Irish perspective at the time are very scarce, personal accounts from later dates are very valuable in gaining information on how the Irish settled.
The Dictionary definition of ‘outcast’ is ‘a person who is rejected or cast out, as from home or society’, while ‘society’ it self is defined as ‘an organized group of persons associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes.’ The definitions imply that a group that develops an accommodation with mainland society therefore, is a group characterized by sharing similar ideologies in the areas of religion and politics, as well as having ‘benevolent’ reasons, which suggests the group help and respect other members of their society.
Before 1845, there was already a growing immigration rate from Ireland to Britain, due to reasons such as the search for better employment. The initial response of the British to this was a fairly negative one and the Irish were widely regarded as a burden to their otherwise prosperous economy and society. By 1845 and with the outbreak of the potato famine, the mass immigration of thousands more Irish citizens made the situation become far more intense and this background factor was what made the circumstances for the Irish in Britain different to the circumstances for those who settled in America. Though not all of the Irish were poor, the ‘largest and most visible group of emigrants’ were ‘Poor Irish Catholics’1 which initially created immediate problems in Britain, but problems which potentially could be beaten in hope of creating and developing an accommodation in mainland society.
Employment in Britain, or at least good quality employment, was very difficult to find for the Irish settlers, the majority of whom were ‘largely illiterate and unskilled’2 and despite having made their living vastly from working on the land back in Ireland, they were now challenged by the highly developed Britain, as ‘subsistence agriculture in Ireland did not provide them with skills for commercial agriculture in Britain’.3 As Ireland was nowhere near as industrialized as Britain, Irish workers would have problems adjusting, which inevitably was a cause for divisions between the English and the Irish. The Irish were perceived as being un-skilled immigrants who were pilfering jobs away from the British.
This view can be accounted for by a variety of factors, from anger at the unemployment rates and subsequently English workers taking their anger out on the immigrants in a hostile range, to the media messages and misinformation, with newspapers often pointing the finger at the Irish and the contributing to the general stereotype of Irish being ungrateful, unqualified and under educated, which became a commonplace label and would produce further problems with employment issues for Irish settlers. Nevertheless, regardless of where these divisions arose from, much of the evidence suggests that the Irish could be regarded as an ‘outcast’ group with regards to employment.
First hand accounts published at the time are very sparse, but we can look at later date publications when Irish writers started to become more prominent in order to gain some first-hand views on employment from the period. J. B. Priestley’s ‘English Journey’ captures the conditions of the mass immigration, and tells how Irish Roman Catholics were ‘encouraged… to settle in [Liverpool]… probably to supply cheap labour’.
The majority of Irish, being ‘largely illiterate and unskilled’5 were paid very poor wages and had no option but to live their lives in most destitute of conditions. Despite the negativity of the employment system for the Irish settlers however, Swift argues that it was not a case that could be generalized for all of the immigrants, and that by 1850, ‘there was a small middle-class world of professional men, doctors, lawyers, [etc]’6. Furthermore, Dublin newspaper ‘The Nation’ argued in 1872 that the economic position of the Irish depended ‘less on the structure of the Irish community’ and more on ‘the economic infrastructure of the area where they worked’.
Both arguments suggest that there was a small Irish middle class developing and that often, the employment regarding Irish immigrants depended less on them being of an Irish background and more on where they went in search of work, suggesting that the Irish were not so much an outcast group, as part of a nation in which a majority were struggling for work. This is clearly evident from the growth of Chartism in the mid 19th century, showing a widespread discontent, but the Irish being an equal part of this struggle rather than even victims of it is debateable.
With employment levels being generally poor, it is no surprise that the Irish were also victim of underprivileged social conditions, which serves the point even more that the Irish were outcast and simply pushed aside from the rest of the population upon their arrival. J. B. Priestley describes memories of ‘slum streets, dirty little pubs, and the Irish’8, reminiscing thoughts that it would literally take a miracle ‘before they will be properly cleaned up’.
Similarly, Anthony Burgess, in his novel ‘Little Wilson and the Big God’ of 1987, remembers ‘an ugly world with ram-shackle houses and foul back alleys, not a tree or a flower to be seen’10. The Irish were seemingly thrown aside to the lowliest of slums that Industrialization had created, with little thought or regard from the English. Geroid O’Tauthaigh provides an outlook of the Irish living conditions, depicting ‘open sewers and cesspools… their living conditions were generally the very worst’11, and Thomas Carlyle in the pre-famine period, 1839, tells of ‘crowds of miserable Irish darken[ing] all our towns’.
The situation of Irish immigrants before the famine evidently created social divisions, 1845 being a major catalyst and providing an estimated 300,000 more immigrants, only making matters a lot worse. In Liverpool, statistics show 5239 Irish deaths from a single fever in a single year, 184713, and provides evidence for ‘desperate need for extra space’ and ‘need for extra doctors and nurses’ The conditions were arguably arising from a mixture of factors. Irish immigrants were evidently neglected and outcast socially before 1845, and the mass immigration resulting from the famine created even more disregard with the Irish being perceived as ‘ignorant, dirty and primitive’15 by the English. As well as this apparent ignorance for the Irish welfare however, the sheer number of immigrants alone made providing stable social conditions near impossible, regardless of whether or not people wanted to provide the help.