Irish London: A Cultural History, 1850-1916
It sounds like a simple question, but what is the most Irish place outside of Ireland? Boston, New York or Sydney? Or maybe in London. Since the archives have existed, there has been an Irish presence in this city, a daily reminder to Londoners that “we are here because you were there”, to use the slogan of anti-racist activists.
One of the consequences of the British colonization of Ireland was that the Irish could settle in England without any restrictions until today. And the preference in England has always been to go to London.
The Irish have finally conquered London – the 639th Mayor of the City of London is Vincent Keaveny, a lawyer from Dublin.
This wonderful new book by Richard Kirkland is therefore a very relevant and also timely reminder of London’s Irish heritage. Most of the people whose lives are explored in this story were born and raised in Ireland. The title is important in distinguishing the coverage of the London Irish, the group spanning several generations in dire need of similar academic study.
Irish London opens with a vivid description of St Giles Rookery, an Irish slum in London’s West End. Described by a contemporary in the 1840s as “a disgrace to a civilized country”, poverty and crime were emblematic of all that was considered evil and offensive about the poor Irish.
The number of Irish arriving at St Giles during the famine created terror in the minds of harsh Protestant evangelicals, for it was not just a terrible “Little Ireland”, it was a terrible (and growing) “Little Ireland”. Catholic Ireland “. What is even more disturbing is that the Hibernian residents of St Giles Rookery have entered the affluent middle class neighborhoods nearby, marauding gangs of “street children”.
Moral panic and urban real estate speculation in the 1840s and 1850s brought an end to St Giles Rookery, and poor Irish people spread throughout the city, settling in neighborhoods such as Clerkenwell, North Kensington and Southwark. It was not until the 1950s that Kilburn and Cricklewood became the âIrishâ quarters of London.
The new wave of interest in Irish people in London occurred during the Fenians’ dynamite campaign in the 1880s, when the dark world of radical republicanism arrived in London (an earlier attack on Clerkenwell prison to liberate a Fenian prisoner had killed 12 passers-by in December 1867). Attacks in the metro and train stations injured scores of people in what has been called the “Dynamite War”. Any Irish who lived in or visited London during the most recent unrest will know what that meant: animosity, anti-Irish hostility and knowing that this new form of terrorism made the Irish a suspect community.
Kirkland reminds us of an allusion to these events in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which he describes as “perhaps the greatest 19th century Irish text in London”. Jack Worthing was left by his housekeeper, Miss Prism, in a purse in the locker room at Victoria Station. Most London viewers of Wilde will have recognized that in February 1884 a time bomb had been left in a purse in the same spot, which exploded in the early hours of the morning when the station was empty.
Wilde’s subtle reference is a nice bridge to what is essentially the central focus of the book: the painters, writers, performers, journalists, revolutionaries and cultural nationalists who made up Irish London between the 1890s and the Easter Rising. in 1916. As appropriate for a literary scholar, Kirkland is particularly adept at locating these people in the larger cultural milieu during the Irish revival.
Highlights include the fascinating tale of Bessie Bellwood, a now largely forgotten performer who was a very popular figure on the London music hall scene in the 1880s and 1890s. She was born into a family in Monkstown. , in County Cork, in 1857, grew up in Bermondsey and tragically died young at the age of 39. His funeral in September 1896 was a huge event, with crowds lining the streets to pay their respects as the procession passed through town.
Another well-known figure, Michael Collins, spent his first professional life in London, in the citadel of Irish republicanism abroad: the British Post Office. In all, Collins spent nine years there, from his arrival at the age of 15 in 1906 until his return to Ireland in January 1916, to help prepare for the Easter Rising. Kirkland is right to point out that his biographers paid too little attention to those years in his training as the archetype of the Irish Revolutionary.
Irish London is an important book that reminds us of our deep ties to London long before the great Irish exodus to the city in the 1940s and 1950s.
Enda Delaney is Professor of Modern History at the University of Edinburgh