By Catherine Dunne
An Unconsidered People is a unique book. For many people it will be a valuable insight into the still underexplored history of Irish emigration to Britain.
For most Irish World readers it will have a different value, the value of reading about one’s own experiences and one’s own heritage through the stories of others.
For this book is an oral history of the Irish in Britain, told in ten chapters by Irish emigrants themselves. Many readers will find that the memories within it resemble their own or those of their parents.
For those outside the Irish community in Britain, the book will perhaps debunk a few myths. The Irish community in Britain has occasionally been seen as stereotypically hostile to its host community.
In fact, the emigrants who spoke to Dunne, were for the most part positive about England and their relationships with English people.
Where there were problems, they were largely a direct result of the Troubles, something which many of Dunne’s collaborators felt was understandable.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from Tony Maher who left Ireland in the mid-1950s.“I used to think everybody at home in Ireland was aware of what was happening, and I’d say isn’t it shocking what’s happening up North. Well, I’d be told: ‘shut up about the North. We don’t want to know what’s happening there.’ So how can you blame the English for not knowing.”
When notes of bitterness do creep into the book, it is largely between the Irish themselves. Several speakers express resentment towards De Valera, blaming his social vision for making emigration a necessary social vision. Others express the often heard conviction that those who exploited the Irish in Britain most were the Irish in Britain.
Many speakers dwell at length on the lifestyle of that now disappearing figure, the Irish Labourer. Forced to take his wages in the pub by his employers and to stay way from his digs by his landlord. Its not surprising that many conformed to the stereotype of the drunken Paddy.
Several speakers insist that alcohol only became a problem for many Irishmen after emigration.
The book also dwells on the experiences of Irish women, who almost uniquely in the world, emigrated independently of their male relatives and in even larger numbers.
Many speakers testify to the importanceof the social network provided by the Irish dancehalls. The book is illustrated throughout with pictures from the collection of the last surviving dance hall, the Galtymore in Cricklewood.
On the whole, the different speakers present a compellingly cohesive picture of the Irish in Britain over the last fifty years.
There are a few issues on which they differ, however. One is on how their English-born children see themselves. Some regard themselves as Irish some as English, some as both. Second generation writer Joe Horgan touches on the issue in a postscript which highlights a subject that will loom larger for the Irish community in future. Does the Irish community in Britain have a future? It certainly has a past, and one which is well worth the telling.
Those who read An Unconsidered People will be able to see for themselves that Catherine Dunne has done full justice to the story.
(Review originally published in the Irish World)