Monday 19 November 2018

Rebuilding a forgotten generation

Book tells of thousands who fled to UK for work

A group of workers in England in 1958
A group of workers in England in 1958
An Irish driver helping to build the M1 motorway in 1964

Ken Sweeney

MANY of them had never even been on a bus, but they fled the country by train, boat and plane.

A new book has shed light on the hundreds of thousands forced to emigrate between the 1940s and 1980s in search of work, just as a fresh generation of young Irish workers considers leaving in search of jobs today.

In 'McAlpine's Men -- Irish Stories From The Sites', historian Ultan Cowley focuses on the workers who departed for Britain from the Second World War right up to the 1980s.

However, the author claims that Irish emigrants arriving in the UK now appear similar to the British people they are meeting.

"The Irish now shop in the same chain stores as the British. They have the same mobile phones. Because of modern media, they know what to expect of Britain. In fact, the British think the Irish are quite sexy, which would have been unheard of years ago," Mr Cowley told the Irish Independent.

Things were different for their predecessors, many of whom were significantly younger.

"Some of these Irish immigrants were as young as 14 or 15. Many had never been on a bus or a train. They wore old-fashioned clothes, and when they opened their mouths in Britain nobody could understand them, they were so different from the slick, urbanised British they came into contact with," added Mr Cowley.


But they continued to arrive, finding jobs in the building and construction trade, including the legendary building company McAlpine.

The firm's founder, Robert McAlpine, according to the book, on his deathbed said: "If the men wish to honour my death, allow them two minutes' silence; but keep the big mixer going, and keep Paddy behind it."

These thousands of Irish workers were immortalised in The Dubliners' famous song 'McAlpine's Fusiliers' -- which tells of the harsh conditions the migrants endured.

Researching the book, Mr Cowley spoke to retired Irish building workers all over Britain -- from labourers and sub-contractors to senior executives of British construction companies.

"Many of these men and women had never been asked their stories before because academics, by definition, were too soft to go and talk to them. I had an advantage in that I wasn't some fresh-faced kid out of college," said Mr Cowley (64).

The author, who is seeking invitations to give illustrated readings from the book across the country, is donating a percentage of the profits from the sale of the book to support the work of the 'Forgotten Irish Campaign'.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News