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My research on Stafford’s nineteenth century Irish migrant families has involved extensive contact with their descendants by letter and by digital means. In addition, between 2002 and 2005 I carried out a number of face-to-face interviews with descendants of the Stafford Irish to particularly probe what they knew of family memories, anecdotes, legends and myths concerning their ancestors. The results were revealing but sometimes not in ways that might have been hoped for or expected.[1]

Families are the conduit down which memories, legends and attitudes are transmitted to succeeding generations but research suggests there is a continuous process of decay which severely reduces memories beyond three or four generations back. [2] The potency of specific memories such as the trauma of migration could also be reduced by intermarriage across ethnic, cultural or religious boundaries and by the growth of competing family identities. Nevertheless, memories might be preserved, as in the case of emigrant Irish families, by a history of collective trauma, notably the Famine and its aftermath.

To find out what had happened amongst Stafford’s immigrant Irish twenty-one people were interviewed at thirteen interviews. They were descended from twenty-one different Irish families. Thirteen were women and eight men and the oldest person was born in 1917. She was the only person in the cohort who had 100% Irish ancestry. All the other respondents had some degree of mixed ancestry because of intermarriage down the generations. The people with Victorian Irish ancestry who were available for interview in the early twenty-first century were therefore the product of intermixing over the previous hundred or more years. None of them was motivated by any desire to express and perhaps romanticise their Irish identity.

Almost all the people interviewed were descended from Catholic Irish families originating in the Connacht area. Some of the original immigrants had left Ireland during the Famine or the 1850s and had settled in Stafford immediately or shortly thereafter, but in six cases the Irish ancestors had arrived in Stafford after 1870, having previously lived elsewhere in England. The majority of the original immigrants had worked in unskilled labouring and domestic service after their arrival, though a few had been in more skilled manual trades like joinery and shoemaking. These respondents’ families therefore reflected the majority of Stafford’s Victorian Irish, though the 10-15% of immigrants from Protestant backgrounds were not represented.

Three factors complicated the interviews. The first was that a two-way dialogue inevitably occurred at the start of the interview about the respondents’ family history since in almost all cases I had information previously unknown to the respondents themselves. The reaction to this information was heart-warmingly positive but inevitably cut across a rigorous interviewing process. There was, secondly, the potential problem that my information might itself influence the attitudes and even the identity of the interviewees, though I concluded this was not actually an issue. Finally, some interviews involved more than one person. These arose because a number of people were so interested that they asked if other descendants could be present, a request I could hardly refuse. Some of the results therefore represented a degree of ‘corporate’ rather than individual response.

The first area discussed was what people actually knew about their family history. In most cases their detailed and accurate knowledge stopped in the early 20th century and in only four interviews did information go back as far as the actual immigrants from Ireland. In one of these cases the immigrants had in fact been late-nineteenth century arrivals. Some respondents had little or no perception of their Irish ancestry before contact with me. It was clear, then, that there had been a massive loss of knowledge amongst a majority of families about their origins.

Some researchers have enlightened Irish studies by using letters and similar memorabilia that have survived from the immigrants themselves.[3] It was hoped that some of the Stafford interviewees might have such material from their ancestors. That proved not to be the case. No contemporary letters, diaries or other written materials had survived, and only four respondents had pre-1919 photographs of family members. The struggle for existence, inevitable moves of house together with family conflicts over possessions had resulted in a huge attrition of physical evidence from the past.

I attempted to get a picture of past relationships in the respondents’ families – to see what they saw as the key family dynamics and to place their Irish ancestry within wider family realities. People were asked what legends there were about family relationships, family problems and the marriages that had taken place. In three interviews respondents reported that English ancestors had regarded ethnically Irish marriage partners as socially inferior. This related to marriages from widely spread dates – the 1860s, the 1890s and the 1930s. The hostility clearly reflected a mix of attitudes towards the Irish because of their ethnicity, their Catholic religion and the perceived lower occupational status either of the marriage partners themselves or their families. Although the Stafford Irish intermarried extensively with the host population, it was not necessarily a smooth process of ethnic intermixing.


Bernard Tatton (1896-1971), grandson of Ann Moran (1832-74), Irish immigrant, and James Dale (1825-97) from a Stafford Catholic family. (Picture courtesy of Elizabeth Moncrieff)

Whilst family hostilities had been caused by Irish ethnicity, people also highlighted the significance of conflicts not linked to ethnicity. Half the respondents reported squabbles over inheritance and/or from perceptions within Irish families that certain people or branches were either socially inferior or were (as it was put in one case)  ‘perfect snobs’ trying to hide ‘that they had come up from nothing’. In two cases people said their ancestors had never really talked of their background, suggesting they wanted to obscure or forget it or, in one case, ‘that there was something not quite right’ about it.[4] Drink was mentioned in two interviews. It is important to stress, therefore, that in these families Irish ethnicity was only a subsidiary element in the legends about their family history.

It was important to find out if they knew of any legends about where their ancestors came from in Ireland, why and when they left, why they had settled in Stafford and their experiences in the town after arrival. In asking these questions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I was clearly at or beyond the extreme boundary of communicated memory and people might in fact have been influenced more by media-generated knowledge of Irish migration and settlement. In terms of actual family legends, the results were very limited. In only three cases could people tell any story about their families’ origins in Ireland.  The most complete picture was painted by two respondents whose ancestor had come from Co. Roscommon in the 1880s. The family had had a smallholding in the county that was too small and had been taken over by a relative. The ancestor had then emigrated to Stafford, but a dispute over rights to the smallholding had carried on down the generations. These people reported that their father’s failure to resolve the legal problems ultimately resulted in the evidence being destroyed some decades ago. They could not even identify where in Co. Roscommon their family had originated. There was also a legend that they had been involved in ‘fishing off the coast’, something difficult to square with an origin in land-locked Roscommon.

Family legend was also unclear about why these people had settled in Stafford. Four rather conflicting explanations were offered. The first was that they had come to Liverpool and bought a train ticket to as far as they could afford, which happened to be Stafford. The second was that they came to Stafford because they already knew someone there, which is quite likely. The third was that they worked for a company building an extension to Stafford gasworks and they had then got a job in the retort house, whilst the final suggestion was that the ancestor had married an Irish woman working in the Walsall leather trade and the couple had moved to Stafford because of town’s boot and shoe industry. These ideas all came from two people who were only three generations away from the original immigrants, yet even for them the family legends were extremely vague and unsubstantiated.

In two cases people reported family legends about their specific geographical origin – from  Knock, Co. Mayo and from Co. Tipperary. Here census evidence previously unknown to the respondents proved them to be true. In two other cases vague family legends about the place of origin did not appear to be substantiated by the census. In only three cases did respondents make unprompted reference to the Famine as a factor in their families’ migration, and it seems clear that this was to some degree influenced by general knowledge of the Famine tragedy rather than any specific family legend relating to it. In half the interviews there were no family legends at all about peoples’ Irish origins or why they settled in Stafford.

Curley Mary Rev

Mary Curley (1857-1907), grand-daughter of William and Jane Coleman from Co. Mayo. (Picture courtesy of Kathleen Boult)

In most of the families there had been, therefore, a massive loss of knowledge, memory and legend about their Irish origins. There appeared, in fact, to be a cut-off point of knowledge and legend around the second generation after immigration, almost as though a line had been drawn across the family’s previous history. Apart from the Roscommon case just described, people could offer no specific and plausible reason why their ancestors had settled in Stafford of all places. One person suggested it was ‘as far as they could go’ but she also suggested it might be because they ‘dug the canals’, a clearly false conclusion since the nearest canal to Stafford had been cut in the early 1770s, seventy years before the family in question had settled in the town. Even in the case of the latest family to arrive in Stafford, who settled in 1915, the respondent did not know why her father had moved to the town from Blackburn in Lancashire. It seemed likely he came because of wartime building work at an army camp on Cannock Chase.

There are a number of possible reasons for this poverty of knowledge and legend about the families’ Irish origins and settlement in Stafford. The first is that the Irish element was by the 2000s only a minority proportion of the ancestry of people in eight out of the thirteen interviews. The Irish, in other words, were just not that important in their family history any more. This was undoubtedly a factor in some cases, but the correlation was by no means perfect. Some respondents with a minority of Irish blood had better knowledge of facts and legends than others with stronger ethnic ancestry.  The second factor is obviously the general decay or dilution of family knowledge that is likely to occur after the third generation. The fact is that in most families knowledge and legends are likely to be sketchy beyond the grandparents’ generation – there is superficially no reason why these Stafford families would be any different. Nevertheless, it might have been expected that the trauma of emigration and settlement, especially connected with the Famine, would have offset this – that it would have been a lurking shadow passed down the generations. Although the common collective memory of the emigrant Irish, especially in the North American diaspora, often suggests this, the evidence from Stafford shows it failed to be transmitted down the generations of those families who settled and intermarried here. It was also clear that the Stafford respondents showed no sign of being influenced by – or even aware of – a collective memory of Irish exile or Irishness in the world-wide diaspora.

The loss of family memories or legends about the emigration suggests a further possibility – that family ancestors in the generation after settlement in Stafford actively rejected or eliminated from memory their previous family history in Ireland. Such a view contrasts with the view that the Irish in areas of denser settlement transmitted Irish identity to succeeding generations born in the country of settlement. In a town like Stafford, where the number of Irish was quite small, there was little incentive to maintain an Irish identity in the face of the need to survive in a new environment.

That is not to say that all the Irish who came to the town found it an attractive place to live and quickly abandoned their Irish identity. Many Irish people and their descendants left Stafford for other places in Britain or abroad. Much of this out-migration reflected lack of job opportunities, but one can also speculate that many Irish people – particularly those keen to retain and express their Irish and Catholic identities – found Stafford a claustrophobic and unrewarding place.[5] Those who settled in the town, and their descendants, were a self-selected population who almost certainly decided – implicitly or explicitly – that their future lay in broadly conforming to the norms and values of the Stafford community as they found them. It seems clear that such people sought integration and ultimate assimilation through their social life, working relationships and intermarriage. The descendants who were available for interview in the early 2000s reflected this fact.

A final factor in this loss of memory may have been the activities of church and state. Mary Hickman has argued that the Catholic Church and schooling acted, in concert with the state, to incorporate the Irish Catholics into English Catholicism, ‘denationalising’ the Irish in the process.[6] There is certainly evidence to substantiate this process in Stafford.

The final element of legend and memory probed was the families’ experiences of life in Stafford up to the end of the Great War. Were they positive or negative? Three respondents were unable to offer opinions on this, although in one case that was because the respondents were not now Staffordians and were descended from a family line that had left the town in the early twentieth century.[7] The perspective amongst most other respondents was that their ancestors’ lives had been hard and poor. In one family a legend was of a grandmother who had a coal business and carried the coal sacks around on her shoulders, but the same person also reported the view that both Irish families from whom she was descended had worked hard, had succeeded and that Stafford had proved a positive place to settle. The oldest person interviewed was able to speak from experience of the hard life her family led in Snow’s Yard in the 1920s, the slum court that has featured so many times in this blog. She described the landlords as cruel people who thought nothing of putting families and children out on the streets. Children from other neighbourhoods looked down on them and would not play with them.

Mannion Jane

Jane (Jinny) Mannion nee Kenny (1882-1964), daughter of Roger and Jane Kenny from Co. Galway. She married into the Galway Mannion family and is shown standing outside her New Street home in the 1950s. (Picture courtesy of Sandra Coghlan-Murray)

People whose Irish ancestors lay farther back in the nineteenth century also emphasised poverty but suggested that memories of them being specifically ‘Irish’ families had probably been obscured by the basic struggle for existence. One person said their families had been ‘typical working class stock’. Three people were descended from Irish families whose members had achieved a modest respectability by the end of the nineteenth century, and in these cases the family memory was more positive about the Stafford experience, emphasising how hard work and steady employment had avoided the extremes of poverty.

One interview was unusual in that it involved descendants of an Irish family in which there had been a well publicised tragic event, one mentioned, in fact, by people in two other interviews. It is perhaps the one significant incident involving an Irish person that has passed into the collective memory of Staffordians. It concerned Edward O’Connor, born in 1879, the son of mixed Irish/English parents. In 1921 he was hanged for the murder of his son Thomas. Evidence suggests there was more to the case than met the eye and that O’Connor’s actions were partly explained by long-term stresses within an ethnically Irish family. He failed to receive a proper legal defence and his appeal against the death penalty was rejected with the apparently flawed logic that ‘he cut the throats of three or four of his children in a brutal and mad (sic) manner and there was no evidence of insanity in law’.[8]

In November and December 1921 over 13,000 Stafford people signed a petition for O’Connor’s reprieve, about half the population of the town at that time. This remarkable response suggests there was a widespread view that he deserved better than he got. Although there is a family legend that Edward O’Connor was abused as ‘a drunken Irishman’, it seems there was little or no antipathy towards him on ethnic grounds when faced with the manifest imperfections of British justice. The memory of the family involved therefore coping with a trauma far more significant than anything caused by emigration. It shows in stark form that a whole range of family relationships and historical incidents can undermine and complicate the survival of ethnic identity in family memories.


[1] This post is a revised and updated extract from John Herson, ‘Family history and memory in Irish immigrant families’ in K. Burnell and P. Panayi (eds.), Histories and Memories: Migrants and their History in Britain, (London, Tauris Academic Studies, 2006) pp. 210-33.

[2] Jan Assmann, ‘Collective memory and cultural identity’, New German Critique, 65 (1995), p. 132

[3] D. Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia, (Cork, 1994); L.W. McBridge (ed.), The Reynolds Letters: an Irish Emigrant Family in Late Victorian Manchester, (Cork, 1999); K. Miller, A. Schrier, B. Boling & D. N. Doyle (eds.), Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815, (New York, 2003)

[4] The historical evidence in this case does not support this perception.

[5] The one clear example of this was the Walsh family. John Walsh was a bricklayer’s labourer who came to Stafford from Co. Galway around 1862 with his wife Mary Mannion and child. They had five more children in Stafford. Walsh was involved in trade union activity, and in 1881 he chaired a ‘numerously attended’ meeting to protest against the Coercion Bill. Resolutions were passed referring to “the Irish electors of Stafford” and it was unanimously agreed to form a branch of the Irish National Land League in the town (Staffordshire Advertiser [SA], 19 February 1881). It is not known whether this was done, but there were no more reports. John Walsh and his family left Stafford shortly afterwards.

[6] M. Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity: State, the Catholic Church and the Education of the Irish in Britain, (Aldershot, 1997), Chaps. 3-5

[7] These respondents did, nevertheless, have one of the best photographic records of their Stafford Irish family.

[8] SA, 19 December 1921