No blacks, some dogs, lots of Irish:
Review of An Irish Navvy, Donall MacAhmlaigh, translated by Valentin Iremonger
In the preface to The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson apologizes to the Scots and the Welsh for limiting his book to the English, but includes Irish immigrants, devoting twelve pages of the book to `The Irish’, and noting Irish immigration throughout the book. Thompson claims that it is `arguable’ that France lost Europe when it failed to invade Britain in 1797 when Ireland was on the point of rebellion: `the invasion, when it came, was of a different order; it was the invasion of England and Scotland by the Irish poor.’
Donall MacAmhlaigh’s 1964 book, originally published in Irish as Dialann Deorai(Diary of an exile), is one of the minor classics of a later phase of this invasion. MacAmlaigh (`MacOULig’) came from County Galway, a largely Irish speaking county in the West of Ireland, moved to Kilkenny in the South East at fourteen, and later joined the First Battalion of the Irish Army, the Irish-speaking unit stationed in County Galway. After three years of the army, he emigrated to England. An Irish Navvy is his account of six years labouring in the South and midlands. He later settled in Northampton, where he died in 1989 after a lifetime writing and working the sites.
The Irish labour which came to help rebuild Britain after the war was absorbed into, and expanded, an existing culture (take a look at the Guardian’s ethnic map of London to see what I mean), mainly in the areas where the A5, the main road from Holyhead, hits North London. Even now, as you leave Camden Town tube station, you will see a sign for the Irish Centre. The workers brought their regional loyalties with them. Early in the book, MacAmhlaigh describes a fight between a Leitrim man and one Ginger Folan from the Gaelteacht (Irish speaking area) which had been transplanted into County Meath. The Meath man was nervous about the resentment borne by the natives of the county towards the Irish speakers who had been awarded land there.
At the time, MacAmhlaigh was a hospital orderly in Northampton, in the early days of the NHS. On arrival, he learns to get on with Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Italians, discovering that they also have their regional rivalries, finds ale unimpressive, it not standing up well in comparison to porter and considers `devilish stuff called spam’ little better. He is assigned his National Insurance number and a ration book, noting how `wonderfully pleasant’ the staff were, unlike their Irish equivalents.
Eventually, MacAmhlaigh leaves the hospital to take up navvying with Mike Ned, a Curran from Cornomona. They mount the wagon of the contractor and go to Towcester in search of a start. The work is got and our men set to breaking the ground with picks. Things go as well as could be expected until the ganger puts them on the mixer (`Come all you pincher laddies and you long distance men//Don’t ever work for Wimpey, for McAlpine or John Laing.//For they’ll chain you to the mixer and they’ll set you shovelling sand,//And they’ll say good on you Paddy, with your passport in your hand.’). Tricked into carrying the bags of cement, MacAmhlaigh cannot straighten his back the next morning, but fortunately finds himself digging a hole for the day for his three shillings an hour plus bonus.
The book is a collection of stories of work sought and found in hotels, in fields, and on building sites for railways and a US Air Force base at Brize Norton, where our man is sorry to learn that the Texan with whom he has a chat behind a hangar `knows nothing at all about Cowboys or Red Indians’. The work, hard as it is, is still better than staying in Ireland (for comparison, an Irish labourer digging a Tube line in the fifties could make about as much in a night as he would make in a week in Ireland) and MacAmhlaigh and many of his compatriots stay in their huts on remote sites, saving money for a return to Ireland which most of them never make.
Much of the money ends up on the outside walls of the pubs and dancehalls in provincial towns or in the Irish areas of London, Kilburn and Camden, where the youth of whole villages have been transplanted and Irish is as widely spoken as English. The world is that of Patrick Hamilton seen through the bleary gaze of Brendan Behan. Men lodge with, and labour under, gangers by the name of the Bruiser Joyce or Horse Face Toole, sending money home to a small town or a village in rural Ireland. The only Dubliners in the book are those MacAmhlaigh meets on his way through Dublin ferry port: the Irish world in London is a rural one, dependent, like many emigrant communities, on the remittances of migrants. For the children of farms or small towns, London is as far away as Dublin, for practical purposes, and the chances of well-paid work are better. The life, in so far as people can manage it, is small-town life. They attend Mass on a Sunday (even if it means rising early to make work in the railway tunnel), and make a point of fasting on Good Friday. Pleasure is a few pints in the evening and, for MacAmhlaigh, the library: Goodbye, Mr Chips is a favorite.
MacAmhlaigh has an acute eye for detail: compressors in a railway tunnel near Rugby are `as big as ass-carts back home’; when a Teddy Boy singer pours a bottle of milk (yes, milk, not only Ireland has changed in the last fifty years) over his own head, he remembers a woman nearby saying `’e ain’t half being sent’ and records the contempt of his compatriot for the latchico on stage. He finds the English well-dressed compared to the people `back home’; they are tall `and you’d never think from them that they hadn’t had enough to eat for years’, but he will never agree with their view that the drink is an excuse for darts and cribbage where the Irish know `that the drink and the conversation’ were the point.
The worlds MacAmhlaigh describes are long gone for the Irish: even the youngest people he worked with are old now and the Ryanair flight to Knock resembles the Holyhead cattle boat only in its consideration for the comfort of passengers. Where emigrants, Irish or Polish, can now fly home for a weekend, they would once have spent years in England without knowing their younger siblings. The world of the start and the ganger is now the world of the Portugese agricultural labourer, the Chinese cocklepicker and the Filipino nurse. The Irish will soon be back to join them. The signs no longer say `No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, but they might as well in some places.
- MacAmhlaigh, Donall, An Irish navvy, 978-1-903464-36-6