Review: The Men who built Britain – A History of the Irish Navvy

The Men Who Built Britain, by Ultan Cowley

Originally published in 2001, this definitive history of the Irish labourer in Britain is now out in paperback.

Author Ultan Cowley, who himself ‘took the boat’ at the age of 15, and lived in Britain for many years, spent two years researching the book in Manchester, supporting himself by performing a revue called ‘A Tribute to the Navvies.’

The result is as full an account of the experience of Irish construction workers in Britain as one could wish for, taking their story all the way from the original navigators on the canals and railways which drove the nineteenth century industrial revolution, up to the moment in the 1990s when a booming Ireland actually began to recruit from its own exiled workforce on a large scale.

Cowley has done a thorough survey of what previous literature exists on the subject, but the real value of his book is in the host of interviews. There are valuable perspectives from the management side of the construction trade, including figures such as Sir William McAlpine, who described the Irish contribution to the industry as immeasurable.

Most important, however, are the many recollections from the men themselves, and their families. Their stories will undoubtedly strike a chord with many Irish people in Britain.

So too will the photographs with which the book is richly illustrated throughout. Alongside iconic images of men doing hard and often dangerous work on roads, railways, tunnels, bridges, and much else besides, are pictures of the familiar haunts where their wages were spent and often paid, the pubs and clubs of the Edgware and Holloway Roads, and their counterparts in Manchester and Birmingham.

Cowley succeeds in making a coherent story out of this wealth of material and he is not afraid to examine the issues thrown up by it. He looks at the relationships between the Irish migrant workers and their families, their host society and the society they left. He also addresses the most sensitive question of all, the role of the Irishmen who rose up through the ranks of the construction industry. On all these points, the judgements reached are penetrating but fair-minded.

The book is informed throughout by a profound sympathy for the Irish in Britain, and will stand as an indispensable contribution to their history







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