‘An Unconsidered People’ who laid the foundations for The Celtic Tiger

Catherine Dunne (Photo: Noel Hillis)

Catherine Dunne is the author of ten novels, the most recent being The Years That Followed.
She has also published one work of non-fiction: a social history of Irish immigrants in London, called An Unconsidered People.
Her book gives great insight into the forthcoming production of The Kings of The Kilburn High Road being staged at Thomastown community hall.

‘I’m delighted that Lake Productions is reviving the wonderful ‘Kings of the Kilburn High Road’ by Jimmy Murphy. It’s a play that captures the essence of an entire generation – its hopes and dreams, its growing pains and its often bitter, lasting disillusionment.

Stephen Croghan, in his seventies when I first interviewed him, still remembered the scenes at the railway station in Roscommon, some five decades earlier. Day after day, right throughout the fifties, men lined up on the platform, their cardboard cases at their feet.

‘The agent would arrive at the labour exchange,’ Stephen explained, ‘a man called Cuddy. He’d put a tag on their coats, same as you’d tie a parcel. The name of the builder and the fellow’s destination was on the tag. There was hundreds went out of this town like that,’ he says. ‘Hundreds. And Cuddy became a millionaire out of the commissions he got for supplying labour.’±

Stephen Croghan’s story – and others like it – is familiar to all who remember the fifties and the devastation caused by enforced emigration. The numbers are still hard to absorb: the distress behind the statistics harder still.

In 1955, 48,000 people left Ireland. In 1957, it had risen to 58,000. And in 1961 ‘as many were leaving as were born’. I can still remember the sense of shock I felt the first time I read those words. Even conservative estimates would suggest that close to half a million people left this country during that bleak ten-year period.

That’s eight out of every ten children born in the period of 1931-1941. And out of those eight, six went to Britain. No matter what way you cut it, life was hard for both men and women. Alienation, culture shock, loneliness – these were the staples of the reluctant emigrant’s diet in the fifties. Women often fared better in this regard than men: they turned to the church, to community and to friendship for solace; they kept the family ties intact. But for the young men arriving off the boat, looking for ‘a start’, life was often brutal.

Getting ‘the start’ in the first place was difficult. The men would line up, famously, outside the Crown in Cricklewood – now a luxury hotel and bar – or in Camden Town, or at the Elephant and Castle. The ganger would arrive for the day at six in the morning and his word was law. If he liked you, you got taken on. If he didn’t – and the rules seemed to shift and change – you got nothing, or were sent home at the end of the day without pay.

The stories about these ‘hard men’ are legion. One of the most famous, ‘Elephant John’, was a ganger for John Murphy’s construction company. Also from Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry, he arrived in Britain in 1950, aged 16. A huge man – 6’2” and 17 stone, he worked for Murphy for 45 years. He, like all gangers, had absolute power.

Dan Casey from Harrow in Middlesex recalled how this power was exercised, right across the industry: ‘If [the men] could not keep up with the pacemakers and the leading hands, they were sacked on the spot, did not receive any payment and had to make their own way home, quite often many miles away and with no money.

‘These Irish contractors were used to rebuild Britain after the War. They are now competing to be among the richest families in these isles. Where is the generation of Irishmen that worked for them?’

If finding work was difficult in the fifties, finding accommodation was often even more so. ‘No cats, no dogs, no children, no Irish, no blacks.’ Anne O’Neill recalled seeing notices like this all over North London. ± Sometimes, accommodation came with the job for those working on construction sites – at a rate that often cost the worker dearly. But huge numbers of Irish lived in private accommodation that was primitive, by any standards.

As early as 1951, F.H. Boland, then Ireland’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James, notified de Valera’s government about the appalling living conditions of the Irish emigrant which were general and widespread. He cited one example of 150 Irishmen living in ‘three smallish houses’ because ‘the men were kept together in accommodation run by a man of good character.’ ± ‘Digs in English households’, it appears, would have posed untold danger for the souls of all these Irishmen. Nonetheless, stories of kindly, caring and compassionate English landladies abound.

Given the loneliness, the hard physical labour and the less than perfect living conditions, it is easy to see how the pub became a focus for those who felt cut adrift from home. According to Kevin Casey, who managed a group of five pubs, men came to the pub ‘for a community of sorts’.± He, among others, is adamant that the vast majority of young Irish male immigrants did not have a problem with alcohol when they came to London: they developed one while they were living there.

And there was another, more sinister reason why this might be so. Construction workers were often paid by cheque. Deeply mistrustful of banks, they were forced to cash their cheques in the pub. Although the cheque would be handed in to be cashed at six, the money was not handed over until midnight. Kevin Casey recalled that: ‘The men had to drink all night to get their money.’ ± And buy the ganger a drink, of course. Otherwise, you might not work the following day.

Home-sickness. Hand-to-mouthness. Displacement. Not the universal emigrant experience: but close enough for too many. Many of the men who worked in the construction industry in the fifties and sixties ended their lives in poverty. Some were cheated out of their entitlements by unscrupulous employers – some of whom were Irish. Others, who had spent years working ‘on the lump’ were entitled to almost nothing. Catherine Morris, whose MA explores the plight of marginalised construction workers explained: ‘The Irish companies did it to their own. These men worked all their lives in the belief that they were paying their stamps. The money was deducted from their wages, but no contributions were ever paid on their behalf.’ She recounted the sense of bitterness that these men felt and the sense of injustice that dogged them at the end of their lives.

It is a strange irony that many men who emigrated to Britain – a boat-trip away – often suffered most precisely because of that geographical proximity. ‘I’m going home soon,’ was the mantra. ‘I’ll only be here for a while.’ Such a feeling of being ‘temporary’ had serious repercussions. The men did not put down roots or become part of a network that might help to look after them in their declining years. On the other hand, one of their strongest motivations in staying on was looking after those left at home. Ten-shilling notes, pound notes, postal orders, cheques: the money flowed home from emigrants’ pockets, keeping the home fires burning.

In one year alone, 1961, the value of the emigrant remittances that could be recorded reached some £13.5 million. The entire primary and secondary education budget of the State that year was £14 million.

They educated an entire generation from afar. They laid the foundations for the Celtic Tiger.

It’s not their fault we blew it.

A new edition of ‘An Unconsidered People’, with new material and a Foreword by Diarmaid Ferriter is now available. It is published by New Island.

Artwork (copyright) by kind permission of artist Bernard Canavan.

The Kings of The Kilburn High Road runs at Thomastown community hall from March 17th.

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