There are many general impressions of the long-term history of Irish immigrants and their descendants in Victorian and Edwardian Britain but there is very little detailed knowledge. My research on Stafford’s Irish families has filled this gap for one small town. Researchers now need to study other places to see whether the fate of the Irish in Stafford was typical or not.
206 Irish families lived in Stafford for at least ten years during the nineteenth century. They were a cross-section of those who left Ireland in that troubled period but what happened to them after they settled in the town? Despite the uniqueness of every family’s history, their paths went broadly in one of three directions. The table shows them.
|Long-term transient families (Settled at least ten years but ultimately left)||72||35.0|
|Terminal families (No roots, little out-migration; just faded away)||39||18.9|
|Integrating families (Intermarried with host society and put down deep roots)||95||46.1|
Rather more than one third of Stafford’s Irish families proved to be long-term transients. In other words, they settled for a time but in the end the initial settlers and/or their descendants left. The long-term transients shaded into a second group, terminal families. These families settled long-term in Stafford but put down no permanent roots. They just faded away and literally became extinct. Just under one fifth of the families proved to be of this type. Had things have gone more favourably, some terminal families might have survived to become integrating families. Approaching half of the 206 families did put down deep roots in Stafford. They intermarried with local people and produced significant numbers of children. Their descendants are still to be found in the town today, although family members also migrated to other places in the Midlands and the wider world.
The challenge is to explain why particular families broadly followed one of these three paths. The evidence shows there was no significant link between family fate and religion, region of origin or whether a family was ethnically-mixed or ‘all-Irish’. Initial jobs did show a weak link in that families from the military and the shoe trade were rather more likely to integrate whereas rather more of the terminal families were labourers. But the date of arrival and the structure of families were more important factors.
The proportion of families who proved to be terminal was relatively constant except for those who settled in the post-Famine decade of the 1850s. They ultimately died out at more than twice the rate of settlers in other periods and this reflected the disruption and social wreckage produced by the Famine. The proportion of families who proved to be long-term transients became smaller the later they settled in Stafford and, conversely, the proportion who integrated was generally larger the later they settled. This increasing tendency to integrate was partly due to support from the reservoir of existing settlers to help newcomers settle successfully. It was also because settlers and their descendants were increasingly likely to be absorbed into the host community because of the relatively small numbers of Irish in the Stafford’s population.
Family structure also influenced fate. Many integrating families were big extended families whereas many terminal families were lone individuals or childless couples whose families died out when they did. Nuclear families diverged equally in all three directions. Lone individuals demonstrably failed to develop new and family-sustaining relationships whereas extended and complex families emerged precisely because their members intermarried with the host population and became more committed to lives in Stafford.
The fates of Stafford’s Irish families therefore reflected complex and dynamic circumstances. Above all it was the character and relationships of family members and how they responded to the opportunities and challenges of Victorian life in Stafford that determined the paths their families took. The book Divergent Paths examines in detail the history of a cross-section of these families to discover what happened to them and why.