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The Best Are Leaving

Emigration and Post-War Irish Culture
Clair Wills
Cambridge University Press


From the Introduction: The Crying Game

It isn't a case of staying or going. Forced to stay or forced to go. Never the freedom to decide and make the choice for ourselves. And we're half-men here, or half-men away, and how can we hope ever to do anything.
Tom Murphy

One of the last models of 'city and country' is the system we now know as imperialism.
Raymond Williams

When I boarded the train at Listowel that morning it seemed as if everyone was leaving. It was the same at every station along the way. Dun Laoghaire, for the first time, was a heartbreaking experience -the goodbyes to husbands going back after Christmas, chubby-faced boys and girls leaving home for the first time, bewilderment written all over them, hard-faced old-stagers who never let on but who felt it worst of all because they knew only too well what lay before them.
John B. Keane

John B. Keane left Ireland on the 6th of January 1952, when it appeared that 'everyone was leaving'. The protracted post-war Irish economic crisis had created a situation in which the country was unable to provide for vast numbers of the rural poor. During the 1950s more than 400,000 people left independent Ireland, nearly a sixth of the total population recorded in 1951, and a vastly higher proportion of the working population. The majority left for work in Britain, which would be home to one million Irish-born - then the largest migrant population in Britain - by the late 1960s. Among that million were people of all classes, including middle-class professionals - doctors, lawyers, and aspiring college-educated young people for whom advancement had long meant a spell abroad in England -as well as the large army of priests, brothers and nuns whose careers had always involved moving across national borders. But undoubtedly the lar­gest section of the emigrating population stemmed from the poorer rural areas. During the war and in the immediate post-war years young men and women from the labouring and small-farmer classes migrated in large groups to take up work on contract labour schemes building large-scale works, in hospitals, in mines, in factories. Emigration highlighted the div­ision between a traditional Irish small-farming culture in decline and a secular, industrial, modernising, urban British culture which many saw as in part responsible for Irish economic stagnation.

As Keane suggests, the young men and women forced to take the boat were as susceptible as any others to the belief that they were losing all that was valuable by leaving. He goes on to describe the voyage:

All around us as we left Dun Laoghaire, there was drunkenness. The younger
men were drunk — not violently so but tragically so, as I was, to forget the
dreadful loneliness of having to leave home. Underneath it all was the heart-
breaking, frightful anguish of separation______ The whole scene reminded me of the early Christian martyrs going out to face the terrors of the arena. Laugh if you like, but there was an unbelievable spirit of fraternity, a kind of brotherhood, a communal feeling of tragedy which embraced us all.

The metaphor of being fed to the lions seems wildly exaggerated, yet the overwhelming majority of accounts of leaving Ireland in this period focus on the tears — on the consciousness of irreparable loss and separation. It was, as for Stephen Rea's Fergus, the IRA volunteer turned London labourer in Neil Jordan's film, a crying game. Stories of post-war migration from the West Indies stress hopes and expectations - hopes of a prosper­ous new life that for the most part were to be cruelly crushed. By contrast Irish emigration, if we are to believe the written accounts, took place in an atmosphere of dread, fear or resignation.

It would be foolish, and insensitive, to deny that real feelings of anxi­ety and alarm were at play, and that for many of these young emigrants leaving home was, at least initially, experienced as 'tragedy', as Keane suggests. Yet there were also migrants who made the journey in various degrees of excitement and anticipation of adventure. There were parents who accepted without question that emigration meant profit, and that their children would grow up to make their lives elsewhere. The fact that these experiences are marginalised across the range of records of post­war migration deserves explanation. There appears to be a discrepancy between the particular and varied experience of emigration and the way that it appears in the contemporary record. That disjunction lies at the heart of this study.

When I began the research for this book, I hoped and assumed that it would be possible to offer a fuller picture of the social and cultural history of post-war Irish migrants, by drawing on a range of different representa­tions. I was interested in the ways in which emigrants were portrayed in official documents produced in both Ireland and Britain; in contempor­ary sociology; in Catholic advice pamphlets; in articles and letters to the newspapers; in popular literature such as serials in women's magazines and Ireland's Own; in film, drama, and literary fiction. While this range of rep­resentations has certainly illuminated the social history of emigration, and I hope in interesting ways, it has also proved remarkably resistant to histor­ical pressure. However broadly I cast the net, fishing for opinions, images, records and depictions of Irish migrants, I brought up material which seemed to speak more clearly of the persistence of cultural stereotypes, and an ideology, or even fantasy, of Irish migration, than of the experience itself. The implied separation here between representation and reality is a problem, of course. After all, the family history which I outlined in my preface offers a version of experience couched in standard terms - the typ­ical upwardly mobile Irish Catholic nurse, and the typical Irish labourer at the bottom of the pile — which is both 'true' and a product of narrative. Indeed these two cultural stereotypes account for a sizable proportion of the discourse on post-war Irish migrants in both Ireland and Britain. Rather than offering a cultural history of Irish migration, then, the aim of this book is to explore the strange, and mutually reinforcing, relationship between cultural stereotypes and social experience in the post-war years. I trace the evolution of a number of stock formations (including gendered stereotypes of the navvy and nurse) across a range of literatures, at the same time interrogating them for what they may tell us about experience both 'inside' and 'outside' those formations.