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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Bryan Fanning

Welcome the Stranger: Irish Migrant Welfare in Britain Since 1957, by Patricia Kennedy, Irish Academic Press, 288 pp, €22.45, 978-07165-32934

Welcome the Stranger was commissioned by the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants. It is a history of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme in Britain and covers a fifty-year period from the 1950s onward, when Ireland found itself in the midst of renewed crisis emigration.

Like many an authorised biography or a hagiography it offers a highly selective account of the topic it addresses. However, its value is precisely its sympathy with and empathy with the particular vantage point of the clerics who worked on the ground with Irish emigrants in Britain. As the author, Patricia Kennedy, puts it: “The Catholic Church no longer enjoys the privileged position it once held and priests, nuns and religious have suffered as a result of the many disclosures of clerical abuse in recent decades. It is, therefore, more necessary than ever to recall and record the very important contribution of Irish priests, nuns and religious, for almost six decades, in accompanying Irish emigrants to Britain.”

Welcome the Stranger locates the story of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme set up by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in 1957 mostly within two main contexts. Firstly, the late 1950s witnessed large-scale emigration across the Irish Sea resulting from both the economic and social failings of the Republic of Ireland. This wave of emigration followed earlier ones before, during and since the Famine. The second context emphasised by Kennedy is the history of efforts by the church to minister to Catholic migrants. The Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme followed earlier efforts by the church to ensure that emigrants would retain their faith and, she argues, this is part of a still ongoing story of work with migrants that now includes immigrants living in the Republic of Ireland as well as refugees around the world.

The Catholic Social Welfare Bureau (CSWB) was established by Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid in 1942 at a time when emigration was also running high. Its remit included the religious and moral welfare of emigrants. The CSWB helped migrants to travel to England and helped them get settled there by putting them in contact with an English parish. It gave advice on suitable accommodation and employment to prospective migrants. Much of its work was done through correspondence with parishes and Catholic organisations in England. Members of the Legion of Mary who worked as volunteers for the CSBW interviewed emigrants at the ports they were embarking from and on the boat trains and gave them advice on how best to safeguard their religion. Young emigrants, particularly women, were met off the train in London by members of Catholic groups there. A 1938 report by the Crusade of Rescue, a London body founded in 1859, identified 365 Irish unmarried mothers, eighty of whom had become pregnant before leaving Ireland, the rest after they arrived in Britain. The CSWB, for its part, lobbied for controls on young women seeking to emigrate to Britain and sought to repatriate unmarried pregnant women. The Catholic diocese of Westminster operated three homes for unmarried mothers.

Beyond sharing information with parishes and Catholic organisations in the UK a number of Irish religious orders travelled to Irish communities there to conduct missions. One account in McQuaid’s archives stated that priests conducting such missions needed to be physically fit. They might have to visit six hundred homes during a three-week mission, as well as conduct an intense programme of religious services aimed at reinforcing religious faith and devotion. Another account of a 1956 mission described how two visiting Jesuits traversed the length and breadth of England, travelling some 50,000 miles by car or motorcycle. Outside efforts to shore up religious observance among Irish Catholic emigrants were deemed to be crucial. It was acknowledged that priests in urban parishes could hardly know all their immigrant parishioners and could do little to prevent these drifting away from religious practice. Many Irish Catholics ceased to practise their religion once they left Ireland.

What this had to say about the nature of Irish Catholicism proved to be a thorny subject. “Backsliding” among emigrants became the subject of a number of articles in The Furrow during the 1950s. A 1954 article “The Irish in Britain” noted that some emigrants “seem to be able to shake off their religion as soon as they shake the dust of Ireland off their shoes”. The Irishman at home, Fr Eamon Gaynor wrote, was treated as a child, constantly under supervision and never encouraged to think for himself. When he leaves home he runs amok, and even if he doesn’t, he remains stunted, never maturing into a responsible Christian man. A 1957 article in The Furrow by Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, concluded from an investigation into religious observance among Irish emigrants: “Ten per cent practise worthily, that is, unfailing Mass, frequent Communion. Forty per cent practise unworthily, that is late for Mass, irregular, infrequent Holy Communion. Fifty per cent do not practise and a substantial portion of the latter are alleged to have no faith. At home all these people looked like good Catholic soldiers, yet they were destined to go down in their first encounter with irreligion.” A 1958 article, “A Worker in Birmingham” was even less certain that many emigrants would hang on to their faith: “That the Irish lose faith is without doubt, or to say the most for them, the girls drift and hold on a little but the men drift completely. I will put it this way: a boy and girl of twenty-one may hold on to the Faith, but their children have little hope at all.” Another article in the same issue of The Furrow, “A Letter to an English Priest”, declared: “What is happening today in England cries out for us to cast a critical eye upon our traditional form of Catholicism. What looks so fair at home often shows rent and patch away. The Irish Catholic does not always prove himself an export-quality product.”

An official church research project led by AECW Spencer, director of the Newman Demographic Survey, undertaken in advance of the 1960 congress of The International Catholic Migration Commission, amplified such anxieties. However, Spencer’s “Arrangements for the Integration of Irish Immigrants in England and Wales” was not made public until 2005. The CSWB objected to the publication of what it described as “tendentious criticism of religious, moral and general education in Ireland” and “unjustified slander of the Irish Catholic community, both clergy and laity”. Publication of the study would, it argued, “do incalculable harm” to the objective of protecting the welfare of the migrant and the development of the church in Britain. The report was duly buried. It has since been published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission (in 2011) with a foreword by the historian Mary Daly. It is not however cited in Welcome the Stranger. Nor are the aforementioned articles from The Furrow or other insider analyses that addressed the religious practices of emigrants, concerns about these and debates with the church about what might be done.

Welcome the Stranger instead focuses entirely on efforts on the ground by Irish priests in England and upon the work of organisations they founded to improve the welfare of emigrants. What was most pressing, according to a number of Irish priests working in the UK, was the need to provide pastoral care to the large population of recent emigrants living in trailers and camps. One estimated that there 150,000 Irish workers in construction and reported problems of loneliness and depression, drunkenness, bad company, irresponsibility and spiritual laxity. He drew attention to the many families living in trailers and caravans who were “in dire spiritual need, invalid marriages, unbaptised children and no religious instruction”. A camp and hotel scheme was approved by the Westminster diocese in 1957, to be run by priests who were not attached to any particular parish. Six priests were to minister to the “floating population” of Irish, to make contact with them in dance halls, at GAA matches and other social events not just in London but also in Nottingham, Northampton and Birmingham.

The Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme came about when in June 1957 the Irish hierarchy pledged nine priests to minister to the needs of Irish workers on large construction sites in remote areas and hotel and catering workers in the West End of London. Camps of Irish labourers worked on projects such as atomic power stations near Nottingham and in Somerset. Fr Domhnall Ó Scanaill, for example, was appointed to the Spadeadam rocket establishment near Carlisle, which had been a missile testing site, where three hundred of the workers were Catholic and one hundred and thirty lived on site. Ó Scanaill reported that 106 of the men attended Mass and his chaplaincy seems to have been one of the more successful ones. By 1958 there were four hundred and fifty Catholics in the camp and the men built a church on their days off work. There were many such camps. Some men had their families with them and lived in caravans. Others lived for months separated from families at home in Ireland. Many had left the countryside with no hope of earning a living in Ireland.

By 1956 there were about fifteen thousand Irish working in hotels, cafes and clubs in the West End of London. Many of these were young women. Fr Teddy Collins, one of the chaplains to the West End interviewed by Kennedy, served in this role from 1972 to 1979. The Irish he ministered to worked in ninety-six clubs and hotels. Kennedy records the daily routine of another hotel chaplain: Meet the 6.15 boat train and take newly arrived emigrants to the Irish Centre in Camden for breakfast; 8.30 am breakfast; 9 am deal with letters; 10am visit hotels to make contact with Irish workers; 1 pm lunch followed by more hotel visits; 5.30pm meeting; 7pm supper; 9pm begin tour of clubs and pubs. Chaplains interviewed by Kennedy explained to her that their work often involved late nights, as many Irish became talkative after a few drinks, and it was then they would choose to confide in or seek help from the chaplains. The context of such welfare and pastoral work was described by Spencer in 1960 in the following terms:

The new immigrant is often careless about his diet and accommodation. Having not been used in the past to paying for either he grudges expenditure on them. Lack of a regular balanced diet often results in gastric trouble. Economy over lodging frequently leads him to share a room with half-a-dozen other Irishmen in a lodging house run by a landlord on the make, often a fellow Irishman. Sometimes beds are occupied in shifts. It is not surprising that such conditions undermine the immigrant’s health. But they also lead to other social evils. When lodging house-keepers overcrowd their rooms the immigrant Irish are forced to spend their leisure hours elsewhere, which usually means the pub. They go out together and each stands his round of beer. In these circumstances drunkenness and disorder soon follows.

The most famous chaplain to Irish emigrants in England was Fr Eamon Casey, who later became bishop of Kerry and then Galway. Casey is now mostly remembered for his public fall from grace in 1992 when it became known that he had fathered a child. He had been much respected for his work in England. In 1960 he became a chaplain in Slough, where there were about twelve thousand Irish Catholics out of a total population of more than a hundred thousand. Before moving to England he had served in a Limerick parish from which four-fifths of the men had emigrated and he knew that many of the children to whom he gave religious instruction would also have to emigrate. He made contact with emigrant Irish chaplains in England and with another priest he set up an emigrant centre in Limerick. Using an inheritance he received, Casey set up a saving scheme to help Irish migrants buy houses. By 1963 forty-five families had purchased houses, eight families were renting flats in a converted house he purchased; a portion of their rents were banked in the tenant’s name to enable them to save deposits to purchase houses of their own. Other such housing association schemes followed.

In 1963 Casey moved to London as national director of the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS) and pioneered housing advice services for the homeless that were widely copied. Branches of CHAS were set up around England. He became director of Shelter, which provided services to homeless people and funded housing associations and other social housing projects. By the time Casey left England in 1969 to become bishop of Kerry Shelter had two hundred and twenty branches in England and Wales. Kennedy also charts the involvement of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme in a host of other housing projects and welfare services for emigrants up until the 1990s. Some of the priests involved at its inception were also behind the establishment of the London Irish Centre, which opened in 1955.

Elderly Irish living in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London, interviewed in the Irish Centres in these cities, tell stories of being forced to emigrate during the 1950s, of the hardships they endured before and after their departure, of feeling abandoned by their own country. At a time when the Irish state couldn’t have cared less about these emigrants the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy stood up for, according to Kennedy, the casualties of emigration: “men killed on building sites, young single mothers in exile, disenfranchised prisoners, those suffering from HIV and Aids, homeless men dying alone and Ireland’s own ethnic community, Travellers”. In 1985 the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy became involved in the establishment of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO). One of the founders was Mary McAleese. At any given time there are about a thousand Irish in prisons abroad. However, there had been several high-profile miscarriage of justice cases, including the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six, the Guilford Four, the Winchester Three and Judith Ward. The ICPO campaigned on behalf of and provided support to those imprisoned and their families in a number of these cases.

Kennedy is particularly interesting on the contribution of Irish priests to the development of British social policy. Welcome the Stranger does not scratch far below the surface of good works and good intentions in its account of the Catholic Irish in Britain. It does not, for example, reflect much on how or why “young mothers in exile” felt compelled to leave Ireland. Kennedy mentions in passing efforts by the CWSB to control the movements of such women but does not, for the most part, examine the wider contexts of post-1950s emigration. Her account of debates within the Irish Catholic Church and international church debates on migration does not reflect frank contemporary insider accounts of the stakes involved. For example Anthony Spencer’s quashed 1960 report argued that many Irish practising Catholics were such only because their lives were under such a degree of scrutiny that they saw no possible alternative. The strong social compulsion to attend Mass in Ireland was absent in England and Wales. In the absence of enforced conformity many Catholic emigrants melted into the large non-religious population of Britain.

Why this might be the case was addressed throughout the report. Not only was the Irish church, as Spencer put it, “authoritarian”, so also did the strictures placed on the lives of Irish people in their families and communities deny them choices about how to behave to the extent that once these restrictions had been removed, they lacked religious and other forms of discipline. Social pressures in Ireland shored up the appearance of religious devotion but did not prepare young men and women for a more autonomous kind of life. Having to conform without the opportunity to do otherwise, the report argued, resulted in “a lack of self-discipline, and self-control, an underdeveloped sense of responsibility towards work-mates, employers and non-Catholics, a social inferiority complex, a lack of articulateness about religion, a sense of ignorance about sex, and a view of clergy-laity relationships that polarises at either complete acceptance of priestly authority in all matters, or equally complete rejection of any priestly authority”. In essence, much of the blame for the decline in religious observance among emigrants was placed on the system that the Irish church had developed to incubate Catholicism there. Authoritarianism – Spenser’s use of the term can hardly have endeared his report to the Irish church ‑ ceased to work for some once the strictures were lifted. Irish emigrants therefore required Irish priests, not English ones who confused them with their more liberal tone, to keep them spiritually in line:

As well as accepting his authority in all matters the Irish, especially the women, have a great love for the priest. He is a father-figure to be obeyed and revered, not a personal friend, well-known and to be consulted as an informed and valued counsellor. So long as he is in Ireland the pressure of group conformity maintains this attitude, but once out of Ireland a significant minority reacts strongly against it. This reaction takes several forms which priests have observed with concern. In extreme cases it leads to violent anti-clericalism, joining the Communists or the Connolly Association and bitter public criticism of the priests. But usually the reaction is milder – attempts to avoid the priests, shyness with priests, and a general lack of co-operation. It also leads to embarrassing compliments about English priests. The majority response to transplantation in England appears to be a carryover of the authoritarian relationship so long as the priest in question has the same Irish ethos.

According to Spencer, some of those who practised under pressure in Ireland came to the UK with the intention “of taking a holiday from religion”. Others, he suggested, suffered from a latent anti-clericalism which burst into flame once they reached England. This suggestion was angrily dismissed by McQuaid’s Catholic Social Welfare Bureau as “unjustified slander”. The group of emigrants that most concerned Spencer were those who had no deliberate intention of lapsing once in England but then did so because they did not feel compelled to attend Mass there.

The Irish church invested in an Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme in the UK to shore up its spiritual authority over migrants but Kennedy’s emphasis is on the material support given to and solidarity with the Irish in Britain by those who served Irish communities there. The scale of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Scheme was never sufficient to reach more than a fraction of Irish emigrants in Britain but its influence extended beyond pastoral work. Non-practising emigrants also benefited from the infrastructure of support that was built up by members of the chaplaincy and by the organisations and campaigns they helped set up. For all that it tells only part of the story, the one that is addressed deserves to be told.

1/7/2015

Bryan Fanning is a professor in the School of Applied Social Science at UCD. He is the author of Histories of the Irish Future (Bloomsbury, 2014) and, with Tom Garvin, co-author of The Books that Define Ireland (Merrion, 2014).

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