Hamish McPherson: Irish immigrants changed Glasgow and surrounding towns


In last week’s column, I showed how the large number of Irish immigrants to Glasgow in the mid-19th century began to completely change the city and its surrounding towns.

As WW Knox wrote in his History of the Scottish People: “The Irish-born population in Scotland was 126,321 out of a total of 2,620,184 in 1841, or 4.8%. Ten years later it stood at 207,367, or 7.2%, out of a total of 2,888,742. ”This figure does not include the children of Irish immigrants born here in Scotland.

What brought them here? In the days of the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor, the Irish – mostly from the historic nine counties of Ulster – came here just to survive, to stay alive, as their main staple had succumbed to the potato blight all over the island. Irish immigration was already a well-established phenomenon during the famine days, however, and the reason they came to Glasgow and places like Airdrie, pictured, and Coatbridge, Denny and Dumbarton, was simple : work.

It was not expensive to come to Glasgow.

Fares were cheap and ships plied the Irish Sea daily. The growing shipbuilding and mining industries needed workers, and Ireland provided a steady supply. Many young Irish people came here as ‘navigators’ – the name applied to the unskilled laborers who built roads, railways and bridges.

We know them as navvies.

There were also many skilled workers, both men and women, who found work in the cotton mills and in the hand-weaving industry in which they played a leading role when the work began to s ‘to organise.

There was undoubtedly religious tensions, although they were often between the Irish themselves – Billy and Dan, Orange and Green, often fought in many places in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire.

As a proudly Presbyterian country, the Scottish people should have vehemently opposed Catholic immigration, but the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was actually only opposed by the Glasgow Rectory and the city’s University.

There were, however, mixed feelings towards Irish immigrants. A major criticism was the lack of education among Irish Catholics, but then there were no proper Catholic schools and the right to education was not guaranteed until the end of the 19th century.

Irish labor, which was plentiful, was therefore cheaper and a constant refrain was that Irish miners in particular were used as scabs or to reduce the overall income of mining communities. An 1830 Glasgow Courier editorial summed up a positive point: for the same reason. Let’s no longer hear complaints about the influx of Irish people having a detrimental effect on Scotland, unless it’s to do something to tackle the problems that caused emigration. ”

The point is that for most of the 1830s and 1840s the Church of Scotland was torn apart by its own civil war which culminated in the disruption of 1843, and the Irish Catholics were largely left behind. .

As quoted by Professor Sir Tom Devine, right, in his book The Scottish Nation: A Modern History, Henry Cockburn in his Journal commented in 1835: “The whole country was being invaded by Irish workers, so the Presbyterian population learned from experience that a man could be a Catholic without having the passions or visible horns of the devil. New chapels have been raised peacefully everywhere; and aside from their more pronounced taste for combat from time to time, the Irish have in many places behaved perfectly as well as our own people.

“The recent extinction of civil incapacity on account of religion has removed the legal encouragement of intolerance and has given common sense a chance; and the mere habit of hating and thinking it is a duty to act on this sentiment being outdated, Catholics and rational Protestants are friendlier than the various sects of Protestants.

Professor Devine has long disputed the prevailing view that the Irish Catholics were an isolated community in Scotland at this time, and has conclusively proven to me and many others that although they clearly are deeply concerned about Irish politics, they were much more involved in union and radical activity here in Scotland than had previously been recognized.

Devine writes: “The common experience of migration, urbanization and industrialization helped to merge the aspirations of many Irish and Scottish workers before the 1840s towards those common political goals which were seen as the real key to social and economic improvement.

So even before the Great Famine caused an influx of some 1,000 Irish immigrants per week, Irish people – Catholics and Protestants – were an integral part of life in Glasgow and its surroundings.

But it was the Great Famine of 1847 that changed the situation.

As Dr Martin Mitchell of the University of Strathclyde wrote: “Throughout this year, city officials and the general middle class have viewed newcomers with fear, horror and concern. This immigration coincided with high unemployment rates in Glasgow, as well as the arrival of refugees fleeing the potato famine in the Western Highlands and the Isles of Scotland. The poor Irish were therefore an additional burden on the town’s resources.

Various councils were dismayed at the number of Irish living on the streets and began a repatriation process. As Dr Mitchell noted: “Thousands of poor people have been sent back to Ireland by municipal authorities. Indeed, between 1847 and 1852, 41,275 people were repatriated to Ireland from Scotland – the overwhelming majority from Glasgow and the surrounding area. The influx of so many Catholics in such a short time had alarmed the Scottish Presbyterians, and organizations and publications were springing up that were sectarian and fanatical against Catholics, with preachers of fire and brimstone railing against the advance of “papism. “.

Fortunately, this wave of anti-Catholic sentiment barely lasted after 1860, when Irish workers established themselves in the heavy industries that came to dominate Glasgow’s economy.

I will show next week how this domination has become an international force.


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