There’s an interesting video doing the rounds online. It’s from a BBC Panorama show first broadcast in 1961. It is a look at the Irish migrant workers who travelled to England to labour on sites and help rebuild Britain as it struggled to find its postwar feet.
The question posed in the programme was whether the Irish immigrants should be freely admitted into Britain. There was no beating about the bush. It was asked why the Irish were needed and couldn’t the English do these jobs. The answer was the Irish will put in the shifts, and they move where the work is. They’re not taking work from British people. They’re plugging a gap that the locals won’t do.
It was a telling piece of social commentary. I’ve long been told that the motorways of England were built on an angry hangover, that thousands of men moved over in the ’50s as the Irish economy stagnated, that they lived in makeshift quarters sending what they could home, all to help England modernise.
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And here, on the BBC, without any need of a ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ sign, was evidence that, regardless of the necessity of the Irish labour force, there was antipathy because they were the outsider, the other, easily cliched as boorish, threatening, rough men who would drink and fight and upset the social order. And steal jobs from natural-born citizens. It doesn’t take a social science degree to see contemporary parallels and how they are manipulated for vested interests.
I’ve grown up with the idea of working away from home, or of having to move wholesale to try and find a better life. Like many of my friends, I have aunts and uncles on the east coast of America, in Australia and beyond. You can add any number of other nations. Due to study, work and now family I’ve lived much more of my life away from the island of my birth than on it. And though, like a good cliche, I’ll sing after a few drinks about how grand it is and there’s nobody like the Irish, I’m unlikely to go back.