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My last post highlighted the widespread loss of memories and legends amongst the Stafford Irish-descended families whom I interviewed between 2002 and 2005. At that time there were still significant numbers of people who, when they were young, had known relatives born in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. The interviews were therefore a snapshot of evidence from people whose ranks have since been thinned by the passage of time.[i]

One of the issues frequently debated in Irish migrant studies is that of identity. Earlier writers often argued that the ‘Irish’, normally the Catholic Celtic Irish, retained a collective identity as a defence against the hostile society into which they had moved. It was often asserted that this identity was then passed on to succeeding generations. Research over the past thirty years has produced a more nuanced picture but it still tends to focus on some general view of ‘the Irish’ and their leaders rather than on ordinary individuals and their descendants.[ii] The role of the family in the process of identity formation has been almost totally ignored. The family is, however, a key force moulding identity. It has been suggested that the Irish in practice demonstrated ‘mutative ethnicity’ depending on where they settled. Irish identity would only be maintained as an active force when it continued to bring meaningful benefits such as jobs or housing. If these failed to exist because the numbers of Irish were too few and intermarriage diluted ethnic distinctiveness and segregation, then Irish identity would decline as a social force.[iii] The interviews I carried out in the early 2000s threw some useful light on the identities present among the descendants of Stafford’s Irish immigrants

The first issue probed was whether, before I met them, the respondents had actually been aware of their family history. What was their attitude to their Irish background and heritage? Most, but not all, of the respondents were interested in their family history but only four had done much work on their family trees. In three cases other relatives had done some work. In every case I was able to add to their factual knowledge of their Irish ancestors.

How did these people see their identity? The views were somewhat conflicting. When asked at the start how they saw themselves, only one of the respondents said they were significantly – or at all – Irish. Another person saw herself primarily as a Catholic and another mentioned a working class identity. All but one of the rest described themselves as ‘English’ and/or ‘Staffordian’, often with the epithet ‘born and bred’.

When asked more generally about their attitude to their Irish background, the responses were more mixed. The woman mentioned in my last post who was the only one with two Irish parents expressed her Irish pride most forcefully. She commented that it was ‘nothing to be ashamed of – why reject it?’ and went on to say she was ‘proud of it even now’ since ‘Ireland was the land of saints and scholars’. Such poetic views were not to be found amongst the other, ethnically mixed, respondents. In four interviews a sort of defensive pride was expressed in their Irish roots, reflecting a clear feeling that the social environment in Britain could be hostile to the Irish.  In one interview people commented that they were proud to be one quarter Irish, but that ‘people can be derogatory’ about it. At the other extreme, in six interviews the people had never seen an Irish background as being significant in their lives, either in their upbringing or now. ‘Interesting, but so what – it’s nothing to do with me’ was one comment.

There was, nevertheless, a hint in two cases that these attitudes came from people wanting to distance themselves from relatives who conformed to crude stereotypes of Irishness – drink, gambling and so on. In one case the people claimed they hadn’t known about their Irish heritage when young but had developed an increasing awareness of it in later life, partly because of the Troubles. Having an Irish surname name had led to hostile comments at work in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings (1975).

All but one of these interviewees were three or more generations away from their Irish immigrant ancestors and all but one was the product of varying degrees of mixed parentage. They showed evidence of hybrid identities. None had any interest in overt declarations of Irish nationalism or identity, though for some this reflected nervousness about the position of the Irish in a potentially hostile British society, a reaction that Brexit may well stoke up again. The amount of ‘ethnic fade’ amongst these people was very high. One person expressed it very cogently: ‘the first generation immigrant looks to home, the second faces both ways, the third says “forget it”’.[iv]

This fading had been occurring down the generations, and it was worth probing peoples’ knowledge of how their ancestors saw their identity. What was their attitude to their Irish backgrounds, and did their ancestors retain any obvious Irish connections?

Only one group of respondents could remember any surviving Irish-born in their families and this was because the family emigrated in the later nineteenth century. In all the other cases time had broken the link with the Famine emigrants and their mid-century successors. It is unfortunate that oral history was not carried out with such people in the earlier twentieth century. A person in one interview had been born the same year (1921) as two key Irish-born family members had died. His comment on one of these people – ‘as Irish as they came – a full-blown Irishman’ – implied a real personal memory, and it illustrates the need to check the veracity of statements against the hard evidence. In this case, he was actually reporting family memories that were current in his childhood.

Although direct knowledge of the immigrant generation was generally lacking, in all but two of the interviews the respondents had known some second generation people born in England in the second half of the nineteenth century. The picture in relation to these people was mixed. The strongest expression of Irish identity was in the lady born in Stafford in 1917 of Irish immigrant parents. She said that ‘it was drilled us into by our father that we were Irish Catholics’. …. ‘Neither of my parents forgot their Irish roots’. The respondent’s father had sung Irish rebel songs, although her mother’s response to this was ‘shurrup, Mick, you’ll get us all hung’.[v] This family had migrated from Blackburn to Stafford in 1915, and their strong Irish identity may have reflected the stronger Irish environment in densely settled Lancashire as compared with Stafford.

The respondents in one interview reported that their father ‘went to Ireland at the drop of a hat’ when they were young, partly because of the continuing dispute over the family’s lost small-holding in Co. Roscommon. They also said he was ‘well spoken’ when sober but ‘as Irish as they came’ after a drink. There was, in other words, clear evidence of transmitted Irish identity to the second generation of this family, but very little from thence into the third. They also had memories of their Irish-born grandfather and his Walsall-born (but Irish) wife. Of the latter they commented that ‘she was as Irish as they came’. The specific memory was that she used to frighten the people in Browning Street Co-op by arriving five minutes before closing and aggressively buying the goods being sold off cheap. They remembered her as having an Irish accent despite being born in Staffordshire. Their grandfather ‘was a real old Irish gentleman – broad Irish’.[vi]

The two families discussed above showed the clearest signs of the survival of Irish identity and perhaps patterns of behaviour into succeeding generations, but the late arrival of these families in Stafford to some extent set them apart from the other families in the interviews. The longer time scale since immigration in the others inevitably tended to produce more ‘ethnic fade’ from a twenty-first century vantage point but, even allowing for this, there is also evidence that in most other families there was greater rejection or obscuring of their Irish origins. Respondents in five interviews suggested that some of their ancestors or people in other branches of their families had done this partly in pursuit of respectability within the local Stafford community. Other peoples’ inability to point to known evidence of Irish identity amongst ancestors is its own commentary. It seems to have waned quite quickly amongst most of the Stafford Irish.

Overall the lack of historical knowledge and legend in the families, as well as the general shift away from Irishness in the second and third generations, suggests a fundamental discontinuity imposed by migration to England or its aftermath. This raises the question of what produced such a result.

One way in which Irishness is commonly held to have faded or been ‘denationalised’ was through its change to an English Catholic identity.[vii] Many of the Stafford Irish families did indeed show evidence that in the second and third generation Irish identity was largely converted into a Catholic identity, in some cases very staunch, in others rather nominal. In one case this identity had clearly been contested and ultimately displaced by class identity through their ancestors’ involvement in trade unionism and Labour politics.

St Pats School Class

The force for ‘denationalisation’? A class at St Patrick’s School, Stafford, c1910. The children look remarkably well-dressed, given the amount of poverty in the school’s catchment area. Something special was obviously going on that day. (Photo courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell; his Aunt Nell, born 1902, is the 2nd from the right in the first girls’ row.)

To look at this in more detail we need to look at peoples’ experiences. In eleven out of the thirteen interviews the respondents had been brought up in Stafford, and in ten cases they have lived most or all of their lives there. What did they think were the most influential factors in their upbringing? The answer was very clear. Although parental influence was mentioned, the impact of schooling and the Church was paramount. Twelve of the twenty-one respondents had been to one or other of the three Catholic schools in Stafford, and half had been to St Patrick’s in the town’s traditionally poorer north end.[viii]  These people emphasised the importance of the schools, churches and their linked social activities – youth clubs, scouts/guides, soirées – in their lives when they were young. They were also clear that Irish issues were almost totally marginalised, particularly at school. They normally celebrated St Patrick’s Day, but no other side of Irish culture, history or current affairs was ever raised at school or church. The school was, however, strong on saluting the (British) flag and other symbols of British nationalism.

Herson Figure 10.3

The development of the Catholic community: St Patrick’s ‘tin church’, erected in 1895. (courtesy of Mary and the late Roy Mitchell)

Although the first priest at St Patrick’s, James O’Hanlon (1893-99), came from an Irish background and had shown some interest in Irish affairs, almost all the succeeding priests were English. The priest most remembered by respondents, Fr. Bernard Kelly, was described as ‘very English’ despite (or perhaps because of) his name. Opinions of him were mixed but one respondent described him as a snob who looked down on poor (often Irish-descended) families in the parish. Despite this the Church and school, both at St Patrick’s and at the other church, St Austin’s, were clearly seen as the focus of a very strong Catholic community in Stafford. Until these interviews, none of the respondents had been conscious that the basis for that community was partly an Irish Catholic heritage. Stafford had a significant English working class Catholic population due to the long tradition of Catholic recusancy in the area. This gave English Catholic influences greater strength than in many other places.[ix] Nevertheless, about half St Patrick’s congregation in the 1900s and beyond came from ethnically Irish backgrounds.[x]

To what extent was the creation of this ‘Catholic community’ a reaction to anti-Irish or anti-Catholic hostility? This issue was probed through peoples’ own experiences and views of the extent of anti-Irishness and anti-Catholicism in Stafford. All but one of the interviewees had lived through the period of renewed Irish immigration during and after the Second World War. None of them argued there had been strong and widespread anti-Irishness or anti-Catholicism in Stafford, though some cited individual incidents. They found it difficult to distinguish between incidents of anti-Irishness and anti-Catholicism, but two people were clear they had experienced anti-Catholicism rather than anti-Irishness. The fact that they had Stafford accents they felt removed any threat of the latter.

The oldest person did, however, express strong, though rather contradictory views. She said that ‘people used to call the Irish everything – but not me. People could be hostile to the Irish in Stafford – they thought you were below them.’[xi] She said that Staffordians ‘resented the Irish’ in the generation that grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, but her niece, born in 1940, claimed not have experienced such reactions during her life. This lady grew up, however, with a local surname and a local accent, both of which would have shielded her. Thirteen of the respondents had grown up with an ‘Irish’ surname and four referred to problems they had experienced with that. The nine others claimed to have had no difficulties.

In day-to-day life these people and their immediate ancestors were indistinguishable from totally ‘English’ native Staffordians. Their general view was that Stafford was a tolerant town, but in one case it was described as ‘cliquey’. This was linked to class attitudes – that the middle and upper classes tended to belittle poorer working class people. The majority of respondents who still lived in Stafford were nevertheless generally positive about their experience of the town and they emphasised that in the past it was a community and that ‘everyone knew everyone’. One person emphasised the social significance of Roman Catholics amongst the town’s professional and commercial classes.

The Church had made, therefore, strong and partially successful efforts to build a Catholic community in Stafford. One reason was that the Church’s strength was undermined even in the second half of the nineteenth century by wider social interaction, intermarriage and ‘leakage’.  All my Stafford Irish interviewees were descended from Catholic families, but there was a complex picture of the strength of Catholicism amongst both them and their ancestors.  Six of the families had retained Catholicism in the generations from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, though in two cases adherence became nominal on the male side. Respondents from five of these families remained active Catholics in the early 2000s. In six cases interviewees came from earlier mixed marriage families and the Church’s historic concern about ‘leakage’ was borne out by these families’ behaviour. In four cases the Catholic partner’s adherence to the Church had weakened and none of the people descended from these marriages was still Catholic.

St Pat's Church 1991

The Catholic Community triumphant? The second St Patrick’s Church, opened 1953, with the presbytery and parish hall alongside. (From a photo by John Beswick, 1991)

One interview was interesting because the parents in a mixed marriage had ‘split’ their children. One interviewee was brought up as a Catholic (and had retained his Catholicism) whereas the other was not and had no connection with the Church. In total, seven of the respondents remained active Catholics, but they were a minority of those interviewed. Eight respondents were never Catholics and six had lapsed from the Church. In one case people had rejected the Church when they were young because of bad experiences at St Austin’s Catholic School. They felt they were picked on because they were the poor children of a religiously-mixed marriage. Their parents took them away from the school and the male child had also joined the Boys’ Brigade connected to the Baptist Church because it was more welcoming than St Austin’s.

The evidence from these interviews suggests, therefore, that the Catholic Church and schools were a force for ‘denationalising’ the descendants of the Irish immigrants but that the immigrants themselves and their children also actively buried their Irish heritage. In the long term a majority of the descendants also lost or rejected their Catholic heritage.

Stafford’s nineteenth century Irish population and its descendants were a numerically small population that was distributed throughout the working and middle class areas of the town. It increasingly intermarried with the local population. By 1884 a majority of Catholic marriages in Stafford involving an Irish-descended person were ethnically mixed and by the 1900’s the proportion was over ninety per cent.[xii] This basic fact was reflected in the families of the people I interviewed in the early 2000s. But it must also apply to the majority of descendants of the immigrants from Ireland who came to Britain in the nineteenth century. These people do not form some relict Irish ‘community’ but are a complex ethnic intermixture of people descended from that period.

The evidence from the interviews reflects these circumstances. There has been massive attrition of evidence about their past amongst the descendants of the Irish in Britain. Ethnic dilution, fear of British attitudes and ‘denationalisation’ are three reasons for this but first and second generation immigrants also possibly wanted to make a clean break with their Irish past. Their response to the Famine and the trauma of emigration may have been to blank it out of the family record. This is a finding that contrasts with the common belief that these events left an indelible stain on both individual and collective memory and identity. As ever, more research is needed in other areas amongst other Irish-descended families to explore the truth of this.

[i] 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.

[ii] Reviewed in R. Swift, ‘Identifying the Irish in Victorian Britain: Recent trends in historiography’, Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 27, Nos. 2/3, July/November 2009, pp. 134-51.

[iii] A. O’Day, ‘A conundrum of Irish diasporic identity: mutative ethnicity’, Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 27, Nos. 2/3, July/November 2009, pp. 317-39.

[iv] The late Peter Godwin, interviewed in 2002.

[v] The late Kathleen Cochlin née Crosson, interviewed in 2003.

[vi] The late Daniel Ryan and Patrick Ryan, interviewed in 2003.

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

[viii] St Patrick’s school had been founded in 1868 and was linked to St Patrick’s Church which was established as a separate mission in 1893. St Austin’s school was founded in 1818 linked to its eponymous Catholic church founded in 1791. One person had been to the Convent run by the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny who set up in Stafford in 1903.

[ix] M.W. Greenslade, St Austin’s, Stafford, 1791-1991, (Birmingham, Archdiocese of Birmingham Historical Commission, 1991), pp. 3-9.

[x] John Herson, ‘The Irish, the English & the Catholic Church in Stafford, 1791-1923’, Midland Catholic History, 14 (2007), pp. 23-46.

[xi] The late Kathleen Cochlin née Crosson, interviewed in 2003.

[xii] John Herson, ‘Migration, “community” or integration? Irish families in Victorian Stafford’, in R. Swift and S. Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Victorian Britain: the local dimension, (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1999), p. 173.