The new Irish rovers

Observations on emigration

The photographs are all the same. Monochrome. Snapped with cheap cameras on building sites or beside newly laid chunks of motorway. Young and not so young men smile at the lens. All Irish. Labourers. Caught in a time warp; it could be any time between the 1950s and the early 1980s. All are emigrants, forced to abandon Ireland before the birth of the Celtic Tiger. Now the tiger has succumbed to the recession, there will, inevitably, be another wave of departures from the Emerald Isle.

But what of those earlier migrants? Some made their fortune and employed their fellow countrymen. Most didn’t achieve that level of success. The Forgotten Irish, as they have been accurately described by Tony O’Reilly’s Ireland Funds, are either dead or living in reduced circumstances.

A large number are ashamed to go home, brought up in a culture obsessed with success – but only among those who left. To stay at home and fail was acceptable. To go to London, Glasgow or New York and not make your fortune was failure of the highest order.

I remember, as a youngster in County Cavan, a classmate who one year returned from Luton for Christmas. He was 19. He had been working on the buildings for nearly a year. Triumphant, he appeared in a cheap Burton suit, stuffing £20 notes into family members’ breast pockets and speaking in an odd new accent punctuated with “mate” and “blimey” and “orl righ’?”. His family was delighted. Years later I learned the sad truth. He had been sharing a squalid rented room in Luton, and had given up the drink in October so that he could save enough to make an impression.

So many Irish replicated this grim fandango. Others feverishly saved in the hope of buying a house back home. I recall meeting a sweet middle-aged couple from County Roscommon in the mid-1970s. They lived in a dank basement in Westbourne Grove, working hard to save money for their return to Ireland. Their nest egg totalled £16,000, hardly a fortune even then. In any event, the Ireland they had left in the 1940s and dreamed of going back to had evaporated. They both died in London.

But in parts of London like Kentish Town and Kilburn, and the green enclaves of other British cities, too many once-proud labourers, excavators and ward sisters still shuffle about, forgotten not only by their own country, but also by the nation that took them in and was enriched by their commitment and energy. With Ireland’s economy near total collapse, emigration has resumed with a vengeance as the brightest and best seek employment abroad. How many of them will end up as the Forgotten Irish of the future?

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue