This is a book surprisingly without precedent. Not only for its subject matter, documenting the large-scale immigration of Irish women (and, since the heyday of the railway-builders of the Industrial Revolution, there have been substantially more women than men) but also for its format. This combines all that is best in telling testimonies, with background information and strong photographic images of the women interviewed.
In Ireland it is a truism to complain that the country’s greatest export is its people, and that there are more Irish in Liverpool than in Dublin. By investigating this phenomenon from the grassroots of women’s own experience (and the authors are all themselves more or less voluntary exiles, like their subjects) rather than with the neo-colonial tools of British social analysis, far more than simply personal experiences are revealed.
Right from the chronological beginning, with Catherine Ridgeway’s accont of the 1917 Easter Uprising, there are the historical accounts the history books fail to relate. A witness to a ‘minor’ incident in which troops had given permission to a man to walk down the street and attend to his horses, keeping his hands raised, she recalls: ‘A shot rang out and he was shot in the leg. I never saw anything like it. He went spinning round and round and then collapsed … Then Miss Walsh, who used to run this little grocer’s shop, came out and she got some of the men back and they found a shutter and lifted him onto it. Some put out a white flag …’
If the political and economic factors were reasons that forced many Irish women to leave, it was not only reasons of geography that made England an obvious choice. At times of manpower crisis, particularly during the last war and its “aftermath, Irish women were viewed as a cheap pool of labour that could be drawn on to service our national economy. The jobs heavily advertised in the Irish press were those regarded as dirty by those in positions of economic superiority, in the public sector; those for which Irish women, with their experience of large families, were regarded as ideal for in the caring services; and those regarded as old-fashioned by a more career-minded female population, in domestic employment.
It goes without saying that they were all, virtually without exception, exploitative in working-hours and poorly remunerated. Yet if the English government regarded this particular labour pool as expendable, they were sadly wrong. Irish women are here to stay, even unto their succeeding generations. One of the most heartening aspects of this book is how they have survived not only hardship and vicissitude but have created their own new culture which is a blend of their inheritance and their adaptation. A young punk of the 1970s, second-generation Irish, speaks: ‘For them (my parents), there was no separation between being Irish and being Catholic. But to me, being Irish meant much more than going to church and knowing Irish people, so there was that difference…. I don’t think I ever felt I had to be Catholic to be Irish’.
It is in illuminating the cultural developments and interdependencies that Joanne O’Brien’s photographs come into their own. Although, having seen the print quality of her recent touring exhibition ‘Hearts and Minds–Anam agus Intinn’, Virago has (again) served a photographer badly in terms of reproduction, the photographs are a strong and integrated part of the book. Interestingly enough, it was the sitters’ choice ‘to be portrayed quite formally rather than in a workday or domestic setting’. These photographs work best in small-format reproduction: such a format lacks the half-tones to do justice to more panoramic images. Views of cultural and work activities alternate with portraits that also include women’s employment–everything from a close-up of a pair of hands wearing a Celtic ring and peeling a potato, to a seamstress making Irish dancing costumes based on designs from the Book of Kells.
The authors’ introduction modestly affirms: ‘The experiences of women in the book speak for themselves’. Words are, along with music and dance, the communicative currency of the Irish community at home and abroad. Yet without the midwifery skills of Mary Lennon, Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien, we would have known that much less about a few million women living in our midst whose independent existence we largely ignore.
Joanne O’Brien describes the background to this book on p. 9.