The Irish Diaspora

How successive waves of emigrants from Ireland have affected the world, especially Birmingham

Wicklow mountains
Although the landscape is beautiful, economic and social pressures drove waves of people to leave Ireland

The story goes that if you scratch a Brit, you discover an Irishman. The reality is probably not too far from this. The movement of the Irish into Britain was certainly established by the time of the Roman Invasion, and the Romans even recruited the Irish into their Army where they served mainly in Germany. There was a steady movement throughout history, which started to expand exponentially when the potato famine struck Ireland. What had been a gentle trickle of people became a torrent.

As well as moving to Britain, Irish people moved all over the world. An excellent example of this is Hercules Mulligan. Born in Coleraine in County Londonderry in 1740, his family emigrated to North America in 1746. Opening a haberdashery and tailoring business, he served British officers and passed along information to the Revolutionary Army. He was recommended to Washington by Alexander Hamilton, and is currently a main character in the Broadway musical based on the latter man’s life.

Military-minded Irishmen serving other European countries was a common occurrence, particularly France. A notable result of this was Patrice de MacMahon, duc de Magenta. His ancestors moved from Limerick to settle in France during the reign of King William III because of their support for the deposed King James II. They applied for French citizenship in 1749 and in 1875 their descendant Patrice was elected President of France.

So the Irish in Britain are part of a much wider picture. The famine in Ireland in the 1840s boosted emigration to Britain. Birmingham, in common with other British conurbations, saw a large influx; by 1851 4% of Birmingham’s population was born in Ireland. As is usual with migrant communities they tended to congregate in the same areas, normally those with the cheapest housing. There was a large community around Greens Village, described as being decrepit houses with few drains. In the 1841 census there were about 350 residents listed, nearly one third of whom had been born in Ireland and a high proportion of them were unskilled labourers.

By 1851 the proportion born in Ireland was 51%, and if you add in the children born in England, the Irish community in this area grows to over 60%. Even in 1881 there is still a preponderance of households being headed by those born in Ireland, and the children being born in Birmingham. This area was eventually destroyed when John Bright street was cut right through the heart of it in the 1880s.

The Irish Diaspora has had a lasting influence on Birmingham. One of the most influential was John Frederick Feeney. He was born in Boyle, County Roscommon in 1807 and came to Birmingham in the 1830’s. He became owner of the Birmingham Journal in 1844 and launched the Birmingham Post in 1857. Both papers were radical in their political outlook. He was succeeded by his son John Feeney, who was born in Birmingham in 1839. In his will he provided a sum to the Birminghaam Museum and Art Gallery to fund a new gallery. He also set up a Charitable Trust that helps art charities and schemes that helps look after parks and open spaces. One of its successes was in the 1930’s and 1950’s when it helped prevent development on the Clent Hills, and helped in presenting them to the National Trust.

The story of the Irish diaspora is fascinating, and has obvious parallels with many modern groups. Immigration peaked again in the late 40’s and 50’s, and some of my own family arrived at that time. As had been the case in earlier waves of immigration, they weren’t entirely welcomed, but many found jobs in manufacturing and construction and together they helped make Britain what it is.

Do you think you have Irish roots? If you’d like to learn more about them, do get in touch and we can talk about what I could do to help! Knowing more about your past is a great gift – if you think you know someone else who might like to learn about their family then have a look at the gift vouchers I have available: they’re perfect for Christmas and birthdays!

Wicklow Mountains
Although the landscape was beautiful, economic and social pressures pushed people to leave Ireland