Monday 26 September 2016

With a life of toil and cans of lager for comfort, Paddy was a stranger in a strange land

John Daly

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

At the height of the industrial revolution, most major construction projects had an Irish majority blasting the tunnels, building the viaducts, and laying rail tracks from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Stock Image
At the height of the industrial revolution, most major construction projects had an Irish majority blasting the tunnels, building the viaducts, and laying rail tracks from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Stock Image

The emigrant's story is always a sad one, and nobody knows it better than the Irish. At a time when Brexit paranoia casts migrants and exiles somewhere between vermin and villains, most Irish will nod a sympathy based on direct hereditary experience.

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We were, in fact, amongst the earliest emigrants to England, with tens of thousands having 'crossed over' many decades even before the Famine. Itinerant Celtic 'spailpins' and 'tattie howkers' migrated with the season's harvesting crops across the UK throughout the 19th century. At the height of the industrial revolution, most major construction projects had an Irish majority blasting the tunnels, building the viaducts, and laying rail tracks from Land's End to John O'Groats. Even up to the 1970s, masses migrated from every parish on the 'beet campaigns' in Suffolk and Lincolnshire.

"The success of the British construction industry owes a great deal to Irish skills in excavation and construction of the country's canal, road and rail network," noted Robert McAlpine, 'Concrete Bob' of his 'fusiliers' from Ireland. "Their contribution to the development of the industry has been immeasurable."

And yet, many a boarding house at the time put notices in the windows: 'No blacks or Irish - and that means you, Paddy.'

In the post-War years, when Britain was being rebuilt, a running joke had Wimpey as an acronym for: 'We Import More Paddies Every Year'.

Dónall Mac Amhlaigh's 'An Irish Navvy: Diary of an Exile', set during the desperate 1950s, recounted the cattle boat to Holyhead and night train to Euston, carrying battered suitcases tied with twine, holding little more than a pair of Wellingtons and a worn donkey jacket.

With an implied geographical flexibility, the navvy went where the work was, be that London, the Midlands or the Scottish Highlands. "Really, it wasn't living at all," a 'tunnel tiger' on the Manchester Ship Canal recalled in the 1972 RTÉ documentary, 'Doohoma'. "You lost a lot, with your wife and then with your family."

Joining McAlpine, Wimpey or Balfour Beatty ensured work of the hardest kind, from the 6am pickup in Cricklewood to the 7pm return to dingy lodgings with the shared two-ring stove in the hallway. McAlpine said the Scots made the best gangers, the Irish the best labourers and the English the best customers.

On his deathbed, Concrete Bob decreed that "all sites might be allowed two minutes' silence, but keep the big mixer going, and Paddy behind it".

As the decades rolled up for many men who knew nothing else but the High Streets of Cricklewood, Kentish Town and Ealing Broadway, the dreams of returning home faded in the alcohol blur of places like the Admiral Rodney, the Shamrock and the Cattle Market Tavern.

Many ended up in the Arlington Hostel, where photojournalist Deirdre O'Callaghan's book, 'Hide That Can', painted the grim picture of forgotten lives.

"They had the faces you'll still find in country areas back home, the faces of your parents' generation. They were all victims of circumstance and found their lives caught in a vicious circle of exploitation, alcohol and loneliness."

With a life of toil behind them and only cans of extra-strength lager for comfort, they came to inhabit the shadowlands of London's dormitory ghettos, strangers in a strange land.

Not all Paddies worked the building sites. Many Cork families had at least one member who took the Innisfallen from Penrose Quay to Fishguard, and onward with the train to Euston.

"Getting a job at Ford's, in Dagenham, was a sign of upward mobility," said one. "People in the working class world would have known the relative affluence that came with a job in Ford's." During the 1940s and 1950s, there were up to 40 telegram boys delivering money orders to homes in the city - an estimated £3bn sent back by absent fathers and sons.

"I was earning £5 a week when the wages for a married man in Cork were £2 a week," one recalled. "I could send my mother £5 every fortnight." Dressed to the nines, the Dagenham Yanks (Corkmen working in Ford's) frequented the city's pubs boasting, in newly acquired English accents, of the 'big money over there' as they bought rounds with abandon.

Amidst the bluster and bravado, tales of money shortages before the holiday ended were commonplace. "You'd think they were coming from a different planet," commented one local. "And, you know, they probably were."

Irish Independent

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