‘The Lost Souls of Ireland’ and the Historian’s Conscience

Contributed by Gráinne McEvoy

StatueLast 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.

Tags: , , , , ,

4 Responses to “‘The Lost Souls of Ireland’ and the Historian’s Conscience”

  1. Peter mc Evoy Says:

    It was great to read this Grainne, In our circumstances very sad

  2. ANN BURGESS Says:

    i HOPE HISTORY HAS THE RIGHT STORY, THERE HAS NOT BEEN A MENTION OF WHERE THE FOOD WENT WHICH WAS GIVEN BY THE IRISH GOV., FOR THE CHILDREN… I AND OTHERS KNOW THE TRUTH AND THIS SHOULD BE TOLD

    REGARDS A.B. AUST

  3. ANN BURGESS Says:

    TO MY DEAR FAMILY AND FRIENDS, HAVING READ THE REPORT OF THE VICIOUS ATTACKS ON ALL OF US IN THE SO CALLED SISTERS OF MERCY CARE, CAN NOW UNDERSTAND THE PERSONALITY THAT I AM, NOT BEEN ABLE TO CHAT ABOUT MY CHILDHOOD, AS ONE FRIEND, WE DID NOT THINK YOU WERE STRANGE, JUST THAT YOU DID’NT CALL IN AS MUCH AS WE WOULD HAVE LIKED, BUT FOR ME IT WAS AVOIDING THAT DREADFUL QUESTION,WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD LIKE IN IRELAND, IT’S QUITE A RELIEF NOW THAT THEY KNOW THE TRUTH

    A.B. AUST

  4. ANN BURGESS Says:

    I guess thet there won’t be an invitation for the pope to visit Ireland anywhere in the new future, after he was right in there with the rest of them when serving in Germany, don’t expect an apology from him, he is probably convinced that he has done no wrong A.B. Australia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: