Contributed by Gráinne McEvoy
Last Thursday morning I tuned in to BBC Radio 4 to hear a report by Ruth McDonald on victims of Irish clerical and institutional abuse now living in Great Britain. ‘The Lost Souls of Ireland’ dealt with the response of an estimated 10,000 emigrant survivors to the release of the Ryan Report last May. Numerous voices in the national dialogue following the report have asserted its historical significance. Patsy McGarry, Irish Times religious affairs correspondent, has described it as ‘a milestone’ which casts a ‘complete new light on Irish history in the twentieth century’.
These assertions of the report’s historical importance have given me pause for thought, particularly in regards to my own field of interest – Irish migration history. The recent prominence of survivor action groups in Britain appears to confirm anecdotal evidence that many of the children who suffered neglect and abuse in Irish institutions left the country as soon as they were old enough and had the means to do so. In listening to McDonald’s interviews with survivors of clerical abuse and their English-born children, I also found that elements of their stories resonated with themes and problems familiar to those of us interested in the recent history of the Irish in Britain.
According to ‘The Lost Souls of Ireland’, the Ryan Report has galvanised a previously silent and disparate minority of emigrant survivors into emerging from the margins of the Irish community in Britain. Phyllis Morgan, of the London Irish Survivors Outreach Centre, claims that, in the days following the report’s release, she was ‘inundated’ with calls from Irish immigrants affected by its findings. Most of these survivors were previously unknown within her local Irish community in Camden where she is also director of the Irish Cultural Centre. Morgan believes that many have deliberately avoided Ireland and ‘Irishness’ for most of their adult lives. Circumstances have also made it difficult for emigrant survivors to maintain their connection with the homeland. Many have never obtained an Irish passport, owing to the difficulty, not to mention trauma, of tracking down birth certificates and evidence of family in Ireland. In numerous cases, the children of emigrant survivors, unlike those of other Irish emigrants, have not been brought up with a strong consciousness of their Irish heritage. Summer breaks to Ireland to visit grandparents, aunts, and uncles simply did not happen because these relations could rarely be located.
So how does the emergence of this previously silent immigrant group affect how we approach the recent history of the Irish in Britain? Enda Delaney’s The Irish in Post-War Britain (2007) is by far the most important recent work in the field. One of his central themes is that many Irish immigrants continue to occupy the status of in-between, ‘displaced’ people. While actively choosing to live in Britain, they still see themselves as Irish and distinctive. By avoiding Ireland and ‘Irishness’, survivor emigrants complicate this paradigm. Furthermore, if we are to follow Delaney’s advice and turn our attention to analysis of subaltern voices and ‘the inner history of immigration’, then the tragic and immediate predicament of emigrant survivors in Britain makes his call even more acute. Of course, this new dimension of Irish migration history will require definition and rigorous historical analysis, and the themes and problems reflected in ‘The Lost Souls of Ireland’ will have to be tested.
Historians also have a responsibility to make sure that the experiences of this increasingly prominent minority do not skew interpretations of the already complex broader story of Irish life in Britain. Nonetheless, emigrant survivors deserve our attention. Perhaps this is one contribution that the historical profession can make to the collective attempt to address our national guilt.
Photo by Crux Taw.