Becoming less Irish and more Catholic

Becoming less Irish and more Catholic

The Irish in Manchester: 1750-1921
by Mervyn Busteed
Manchester University Press, £75

The mass influx of Irish into Britain in the middle of the 19th century provoked what journalists today would call a “moral panic”. Indeed, the inundation aroused fears that still resonate. Like modern-day Eastern Europeans, the Irish were accused of under-cutting the wages of the indigenous work-force. Like today’s refugees from the Middle East, the Irish were taking flight from catastrophe, in their case the famine of the 1840s. And like Britain’s 21st-century Muslims, they were mistrusted on account of their reputedly violent temperament, backward ways and “foreign” religion – Catholicism – with its implicit inclination for treachery.

The Irish settled mostly in Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester, where their presence achieved notoriety in the ghetto known as “Little Ireland” just south of the Oxford Road railway station. The settlement attained international infamy thanks to the writings first of the physician and social reformer James Philip Kay, and then Friedrich Engels in his landmark The Condition of the Working Class in England. Both documented in grim detail the area’s wretched conditions and the depraved behaviour of its inhabitants. Add to this the Manchester Courier – yesteryear’s equivalent of the Daily Express – issuing lurid stories about Irish fractiousness and licentiousness, whiskey-drinking and fisticuffs.

Yet, as Mervyn Busteed demonstrates in this collection of essays, “Little Ireland” was but a short-lived settlement. The panic it generated was as much allied to the fear of cholera that had recently arrived from Asia. The Irish for the most part settled in the north of the city, in Angel Meadow and in Ancoats.

Anti-Irish sentiment may have been prolific in print but it never really gained a foothold in everyday life. “Popular Protestantism” in England had its last gasp with a riot in Stockport in 1852, while Orange Order marches in Manchester petered out, surviving only in isolation in nearby Liverpool.

The arrival of Eastern European Jews stripped the Irish of their role as the most exotic element in Manchester. As one 70-year-old Irish Mancunian recalled in 1898 of the insults once suffered by Catholics: “Our clergy dared not be seen going about the streets … [nuns] had a very uncomfortable time of it.”

If the Irish were never truly isolated, assimilation also proceeded smoothly. The Irish soon forged tentative allegiances with the Chartists and then more substantially with the emergent Labour movement. Most important of all was the role of the recently emancipated Catholic Church, keen to finally shed the perception that Catholicism was “un-English”.

The Church encouraged the process of these newcomers and their children becoming more Catholic and less Irish. St Patrick’s Day celebrations became less rowdy and nationalistic and more devotional and respectable.

As Busteed writes of the day: “On the public stage events became steadily more structured, elaborate and decorous, an evolution which the Catholic Church warmly endorsed since it dovetailed with its policy of presenting Catholics as sober, upright citizens worthy of equal treatment within the United Kingdom.”

Busteed has long been the foremost authority on the Irish in Manchester. Being a geographer by vocation, he has a keen eye for topography. Yet he also sees the bigger picture, quoting from the popular press of the day, from memoirs and ballads. That the IRA bomb of 1996 failed to arouse anti-Irish sentiment in the city is no surprise: Manchester can be proud of its absence of sectarianism and its history of integration.