Refugees, migrants and Ireland

4 Sep 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Sep 2015

A famine victim is given the last rites on arriving in Canada

Scope editor Nick Garbutt reflects on the refugee crisis and looks back at Ireland's history of migration 

Finally the debate about what to do about the refugee crisis has become rational, sensible and compassionate.

Only a few weeks ago David Cameron was talking about “swarms of migrants” storming the UK, presumably hell bent on taking our homes, jobs, places at school and hospital beds.

It has taken one shocking picture to change that discourse to one that recognises the crisis, and is examining, urgently, what should be done about it.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness wants us to take in 2,000. Many individuals have come forward to offer spare rooms and food. There is a growing sense that we can no longer turn our backs to what has been happening.

This is how it should be in Ireland, both north and south, because since the mid 19th centuries our economies have been dependent on emigration.

In 1841, the population of Ireland was estimated at 8,175,124  million, it was probably rather more than that. By 1851 it had fallen to 6,552,385. It is believed that around a million died at home as a result of starvation, typhus or other diseases which means that the balance emigrated.  And over the decades that followed many more left so that today the combined population of Ireland is still less than it was before the Famine.

The parallels to what is happening today are interesting too. Ship owners were very quick to spot the opportunities that the Famine caused: previously they had picked up timber from America and sailed back for more. This gave them the opportunity to fill them going back the other way with human ballast, making vast profits.

Others got in on the act, often using ships which were unfit for the oceans. Humans were crammed into the holds with no sanitation and very little food, disease spread and many died en route.  

More still got the shorter passage to Britain with Liverpool and Glasgow the main ports of entry. Yet there were also many small ships which set off from the east coast and landed in coves in Wales - nobody knows how many but there are contemporary reports of ragged starving people wandering through the Welsh valleys looking for shelter and food. There is also no record of how many died in what can be a treacherous passage at any time of year, especially in small boats not built for the journey.

At the time the reception in Canada, the USA and Britain was not at all welcoming. Especially in the US. In the early days of the Famine the port of New York was closed to emigrant ships altogether. In Canada a typhoid epidemic devastated Quebec and Montreal and in Liverpool the city authorities overwhelmed by the numbers entering the city started to send ships back to Belfast.

Those that did arrive in the USA were often effectively kidnapped at the ports by gang masters who exploited them in return for squalid lodgings and scraps of food.

The arguments about how to respond precisely mirror those of today. The starving immigrants were treated with compassion by some, but many others saw them as a threat, spreading disease, depressing wages by taking on work for very low pay and taking over neighbourhoods by sheer weight of numbers. Even Frederick Engels got in on the act in The Condition of the Working Class in England he was scathing about Irish immigrants because of the impact they had on wages and organised labour.

“These Irishmen who migrate for fourpence to England, on the deck of a steamship on which they are often packed like cattle, insinuate themselves everywhere. The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink. What does such a race want with high wages? The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by Irishmen. Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises at the first glance as different from the Saxon physiognomy of the native, and the singing, aspirate brogue which the true Irishman never loses. I have occasionally heard the Irish-Celtic language spoken in the most thickly populated parts of Manchester. The majority of the families who live in cellars are almost everywhere of Irish origin. The Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are now making the English workers acquainted with it”

This from the co-author of the Communist Manifesto foreshadows a stance we often hear today about other groups of immigrants, they are written about as if they are a sub species, a sort of contamination and a direct threat to our way of life. At best they are “human encumbrances” not deserving of our compassion.

The potato blight was universal in Ireland, the north eastern corner was better able to withstand it but the impact was still devastating: Ulster lost 16% of its population between 1841 and 1851. Bigots and ignoramuses who chant “The Famine Song” as if the tragedy did not affect their ancestors, should take some time, for example to examine the records of the Newtownards workhouse. During this period the building (now the town hospital) was crammed with starving people many of whom died there.

Ever since the 1840s there has been a long standing pattern of young people leaving Ireland to go to work elsewhere: in Scotland, England, Australia, Canada the USA, most of us have friends and relatives who have done precisely that. These people, our friends and family members are “economic migrants” too: because some think that although it is legitimate to tell people to get on their bike to get a job, it’s not legitimate to get on a plane or a boat.

So if any part of the world is to take the lead to offer a welcome to refugees, surely it should be the island of Ireland, a place which was devastated by famine and has a centuries old tradition of emigration, whose people have suffered demonisation and discrimination as immigrants and know from their own personal experience how much the Irish diaspora has contributed to so many economies throughout the world.



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