I REALISED as I looked around my Essex classroom 40-odd years ago that pretty much all of us came from somewhere else. The name were Jewish, Welsh, Scots or Irish: even digging back a couple of generations, my own provenance was a good mongrel mix of Lowland Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cheshire and Norfolk. And of course most of us Essex people – from Romford, Ongar and Brentwood – had come from London a generation or so back. East Enders escaping the dirt and bombs of Charlton, Poplar and Tottenham for decent indoor plumbing and a front and back garden in Basildon or a suburban semi in Upminster.
But by far the biggest group was the Irish. Not surprising when you consider that that the occupants of the Emerald Isle had largely decamped during the mid-nineteenth century, seeking escape from poverty and famine and finding work in building the roads, railways and housing estates of a mushrooming London. Our city was built by the Irish (and they’d been coming for centuries before of course) but the English have always had an ambivalent, at times violently hostile attitude … no matter how much Irish blood runs in our veins. Dip into the DNA of most Londoners and you’ll find a bit of Cork, Kerry or Cavan in there. St Patrick’s Day is an excuse for Londoners to drink too much Guinness and paint the
town green. But let’s take a look at ten historic London-Irish connections that go beyond the blarney.
- In 1736 there are violent riots in Spitalfields, as locals turn on the Irish incomers, who differ in dress and culture and speak Gaelic.
- 1780: The Gordon Riots. The Irish had been settling in the East End for generations and there was a substantial population at the East End of Cable Street, which became known as Knockfergus. The eccentric MP, Lord George Gordon, instigated anti-Catholic riots in 1780, and it led to violent attacks on the homes of Irish Londoners there. By the time the smoke cleared on the Gordon Riots, 700 were dead.
- Huguenots would also settle in Spitalfields and, like the Irish, would be feared and attacked by some of the locals. In their case it was because they brought superior silk weaving skills which put the locals out of work. The Huguenots were Protestants of course, who would left the Low Countries to flee persecution after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But many of their number would be encouraged to settle in the Irish ‘colonies’, in an echo fo the Scots Planters, who took looted Irish land. The roots of religious conflict between England and Ireland go deep, and are often very tangled.
- In the late 19th century, hysteria about revolution was running high in London, with genuine fear that the the overthrown of Crown and State was being plotted. The fears weren’t entirely without foundation of course. Most of the hysteria was directed at immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were bringing new socialist ideas with them, and from Ireland – from where Popish plotting against the Crown was suspected.
- Edmund Spenser, born in 1582 in West Smithfield. Spenser was a man of his time, combining a political role with his genius as a poet – he gave us The Fairie Queene of course. But the sublime beauty of his writing was matched by a brutally pragmatic approach to ‘The Irish Problem’. In his time as an administrator in Ireland, Spenser advocated a de facto genocide against the Irish people, in his pamphlet A View of the Present State of Ireland.
- In 1822, Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary and proposed a new Metropolitan police force for London, basing it on the Royal Irish Constabulary he had founded eight years before (the first force to bear the nickname ‘Peelers’).
- 1912: A year of mass strikes in the East End and around Britain. For the first time, there was a union between the garment workers (largely Jewish) and the dockers (largely Irish) though the strike would peter out with little solid achieved.
- 1936: For Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years after the above dispute, the union of disparate groups there had its roots in that 1912 linkup, saying: “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.” Some stories, it seems, take decades to play out.
- 19 Princelet Street, the East End’s Museum of Diversity. The Irish take their place alongside the Jews, Huguenots and others. And with the first-ever Jesuit Pope now being enthroned, it’s interesting to reflect just how dangerous it was for the followers of Ignatius Loyola (and Catholics generally) during certain periods of the East End’s past.
- No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. London-Irishman John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) famously took this as the title of his memoir, citing this as a sign commonly seen in guesthouses in London in the 1950s. Debate than raged about how common (if at all) such signs actually were, but certainly Irish labourers arriving from Cork and looking for board would find some doors slammed in their faces. And if you were black…