Irish Labor and Immigration

“Relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread” (Gaskell, Page 176).

A Misty Day in Salford Docks

Why the Irish?

During the Industrial nineteenth century, political debates centered around ideas of labor and nationalism, and the role of Irish played significant part in the understanding of these ideas. In the years after the devastating Great Famine of 1845-52, Irish political debate shifted to the question of Home Rule, exacerbated by the emigration of significant portions of the Irish population overseas, including to British industrial cities. The Home Rule movement sought to achieve some kind of political independence for Ireland, in order to address longstanding issues of land reform, poverty, and inequality. At the same time, in the wake of the Land Wars of the 1880s, the government became increasingly active in Ireland to address these issues. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Irish migrated to many regions of the United Kingdom, including large numbers who moved to Manchester seeking employment.

Ancoats

Unknown Artist,  Ancoats, approximately 1900.

Why the Irish?

During the Industrial nineteenth century, political debates centered around ideas of labor and nationalism, and the role of Irish played significant part in the understanding of these ideas. In the years after the devastating Great Famine of 1845-52, Irish political debate shifted to the question of Home Rule, exacerbated by the emigration of significant portions of the Irish population overseas, including to British industrial cities. The Home Rule movement sought to achieve some kind of political independence for Ireland, in order to address longstanding issues of land reform, poverty, and inequality. At the same time, in the wake of the Land Wars of the 1880s, the government became increasingly active in Ireland to address these issues. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Irish migrated to many regions of the United Kingdom, including large numbers who moved to Manchester seeking employment.

 

This Irish immigrant population is thus key to understanding the British working class of Manchester. While the British industrial revolution is understood to be separate from the Irish and the Home Rule movement, they are very intertwined. Irish immigration was viewed as dangerous to the working classes in England, by lowering wages and providing an unattractive example on how to live. Throughout political discussions and literary references, the Irish were depicted as drunk, disorderly, and generally uncultured. Consequently, The Irish began to represent the “undeserving poor” in Manchester due to conceptions of Englishness. This understanding of the Irish, and other members of the "undeserving poor" inspired Thomas Horsfall’s work. It was the intent of Horsfall to create an environment that went beyond class and educated the Irish to make them more “cultured” or more English. 

 

However, modern scholars note that the Irish made up about 14% of the population of the city during the 1940’s, just a small population of the working class.  As the Irish made up a small percentage of the population, they likely did not foster industrialization, rather they did provide a crutch for this process. Due to this, the Irish immigrants did not impact the British inequality in the labor force directly, specifically wages and standard of living, as significantly as understood in historical accounts. The Irish provided a scapegoat of sorts for the hardships which the British were facing. 

 

While they were not the largest population in the city, the Irish were certainly the largest population in the Manchester Ancoats and other low income areas. Their strong presence in this area made the Irish key to Horsfall’s mission, despite limited mention of the Irish directly in Horsfall’s work.

The Irish Famine: Scene at the Gate of the Work-House

English School, The Irish Famine: Scene at the Gate of the Work-House, 1846.

The “Undeserving Poor”

During the 1830’s, British Poor laws saw a significant reform. The Royal Commission of 1834 marked this shift in the poor law, and farmworkers began to use the poor-law relief as a way to subsidize low wages, and factory owners saw the children living in poor houses as a source of cheap labor. The new poor laws relied heavily on the understanding that relief should be at a lower rate than received by the lowest paid independent wage-earner in order to encourage individuals to find other means of work. The relief provided to the working class was incredibly unpleasant in order to encourage the individual to avoid it at all costs.

 

As the nineteenth century moved on, many began to see poverty not entirely at fault of the individual, but often due to factors outside of the individual's control. These individuals should be assisted, and provided with other outlets to support themselves than the cruel workplaces. This understanding fostered ideas of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor were those individuals who were simply victims of the era, and otherwise were considered to be respectable citizens. They were victims of misfortune and not their own character. The undeserving poor were understood to be living in poverty due to a person’s own character or their laziness. The undeserving poor consisted of all types of people, from immigrants to British citizens. 

 

The Irish were considered the least deserving of the undeserving poor largely due to the new ideas of English Nationalism.  Britian struggled with it's new identity as its population and landscape changed. During this time, nationalism was characterized by its reactive nature, and the conservative, hierarchical, and monarchical elements if was founded on. Most importantly, it was protestant, which encouraged xenophobic behavior and deeply anti-Catholic beliefs. This feeling was heightened by the increased Irish immigration and expanded anti-Catholic sentiment. Due to this embedded prejudice, “the Irish were blamed for providing the native working class with an all too attractive example of how to spend a minimal amount of hours in, clothing and furniture, save nothing and dissipate the remanded on alcohol”, thus fostering the idea of the Irish as the least deserving of the “undeserving poor”.

 

Irish Famine

Artist Unknown, The Irish Famine, 1845-1849.

Social Implications

Thomas Horsfall, while not explicitly addressing the Irish population, attempted to address issues which were considered explicitly Irish. In order to do this, he hosted a variety of lectures in order to address what a positive life should look like for the working poor. He saw this as a way to directly handle the growing concerns of the moral well being of the working classes. He believed that “we can only make people rightly know what an evil drunkenness is by making them know how noble the life is which drunkenness prevents them from living.”

 

These social behaviors attributed to the Irish were not instinctively Irish, rather due to the large changes which these immigrants faces. The Irish moved to Manchester due to many unfavorable push and pull factors. One major push factor was the Irish famine, and the large levels of hardship that were endured, pictured in William Balch’s Irish Famine circa 1848. When entering new cities, particularly Manchester, the Irish immigrants had to deal with pressures of an overwhelming hostile environment and the demands of a new form of life. They were often rejected from communities and left on the outside of social circles. This encouraged the Irish to act out in many anti-social ways, including drunkenness and faction fighting.  

 

Irish immigrant women’s role in society had to shift significantly in order to adjust to this new society. Not only did they occupy new labor roles, including factories and mills, but also served new social roles. The Irish women faced these prejudices head on, and focused on holding together families while working in full time positions. Additionally, they had to directly maintain the home life in poor living conditions.

 

Written by Virginia Doherty

 

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Irish Labor and Immigration