London 1958: a couple of short vignettes. The first from a report of an Irish missionary priest, asked by the family at home in Ireland to check up on a young woman who seemed to have gone astray. The priest found the address, left his bicycle a bit down the road—priests’ bikes apparently being instantly recognisable—rang the doorbell and then flattened himself against the wall of the house so those inside wouldn’t see who was calling:

The stratagem succeeded, for the door was opened by a lovely, young Irish girl. Beside her stood a little mite of perhaps three years, with a ribbon in her hair. The girl admitted that she was married in the registry.
‘Is that little girl yours?’
‘Yes.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Fatima.’
‘That’s a nice Catholic name.’
‘Not at all; it’s the name of the Prophet’s daughter.’

My second scene comes from a BBC radio programme, broadcast a few weeks after the Notting Hill race riots. Much of the debate following the September 1958 riots focused on anger amongst local white youths over West Indian men taking their jobs, their unemployment benefits, and their women. The BBC interview records the conversation of a group of young men from a nearby estate in White City, where seven of the nine rioters convicted of racially aggravated violence lived. The conversation certainly reveals a good deal of insecurity amongst the youths, as it keeps circling around the issue of black men going with white girls, and Jamaican migrants getting more money and better treatment at the dole office. The group interview is full of openly racist comment: the men admit that some of them were involved in the attacks, and that they would get involved again. The following passage leads on from a discussion of the need to stop West Indians from entering the country:

2nd Voice: Who is a British subject? Is a darkie a British subject, correct, an Irishman isn’t, right? Now who would you sooner have in your country an Irishman or a darkie?
Voices: An Irishman definitely.
Interviewer: An Irishman definitely, why?
Voice: Me old man’s Irish isn’t he?
2nd Voice: Well, OK, why would you prefer an Irishman in your country, because, not because your old man’s Irish, but why would you prefer an Irishman in your country to a darkie?
Voice: Why because they’re not so much scandal are they?
2nd Voice: Not so much scandal? Well, I’ll contradict you there, an Irishman can be the worst man out… He can drink (yes), fight (yes), he can run brothels, same as the darkie (yes). He can do anything.
Voice: But they’re not so bad as the darkies are they? Are you running your own country down?
2nd Voice: No I’m not running my own country down, no no, but I’ve seen myself in Shepherd’s Bush, in Acton, in Camden Town, in numerous parts of London, I’ve seen Irishmen in trouble.
Voice: So you condemn all the blacks.
2nd Voice: No, no, I’m not condemning the Irish or the black men. But I do believe this, I’ve met Englishmen that condemned the Irishmen. My name is Danny and they condemn me because I am Irish. They know my name is Danny but they won’t call me Danny, they call me Pat, but when they meet a darkie they call him by his name.

The passage is fascinating because of the way the young, second-generation Irish man articulates more than he understands. His main point seems to be: it’s not fair that the Irish are treated badly since we are better than West Indians, as everybody knows. But he argues this by claiming that the Irish are really just as ‘bad’—‘the worst man out’. Then there’s that slippage between the Irish who cause trouble, and the Irish who are in trouble. The young man’s confusion about where to place himself isn’t edifying—what he wants is to be the same as his white mates, including in their racism, but what he articulates is his own uncertain racial designation, neither one thing nor the other.

Perhaps these two stories just tell us that people are different—that some Irish in Britain identified with other others, and some didn’t, or couldn’t. And there is a difference in migrant generations, of course. The young woman who has married a Muslim may be a similar age to angry, confounded Danny, but she is a new arrival. Like several others in the group of Teds, Danny’s old man may be Irish, but he was born and bred in London and he feels that England is, or should be, ‘my own country’. He lives in Local Authority housing in White City; he feels himself to be a rightful beneficiary of the Welfare State; houses, jobs, benefits, and even women are the wages of belonging. Fatima’s mother, on the other hand, has arrived in London in the 1950s. Not quite an alien but not an insider either, she stakes her claim on the wrong side of the battle for resources. In this she is at one with the other immigrants of the 1950s, whether from the Caribbean, Cyprus, India or Pakistan—and it is an affinity she has recognised.

Urban sociologists of the fifties and sixties liked to talk about ‘zones of transition’, inner city areas of poor or condemned houses which were being abandoned as locals moved to new estates. New Commonwealth migrants, ineligible for the council waiting lists and turned down by mortgage companies, could buy large houses for cash and pay back their loans by letting lodgings to other newcomers, people with nowhere better to go. The Pakistani-Irish household—comprising a Pakistani landlord living alongside a mixed Asian and Irish tenantry is a staple feature of the sociology. Muhammed Anwar, writing about Rochdale in the early sixties, recounted tales of long-standing Irish girlfriends as well as more formal, instrumental relationships between landlord and tenant: ‘I have three Irishmen living in one of my houses and I sometimes go and speak to them for hours as they are all single men. I get a lot of language practice like this.’ John Rex and Robert Moore argued that the multiracial households they encountered in Birmingham’s Sparkbrook in 1964 were parallel rather than integrated ethnic arenas, with the different races segregated within the rooms of the lodging house. There was clearly a good deal of truth to this. Single Irish men, like Irish couples with young children, were not lodging in overcrowded, condemned housing because they wanted to but because they had no choice, in the context of an acute housing shortage. The lodging houses were homes, but ones in which the relationships between inhabitants were driven by the market. One Indian landlord charged an Irish family of five £3 10s to live in one room (at a time when £2 was a lot to pay). He argued with some logic that he was doing them a favour, as they were poor people who would otherwise have to pay £7 for two rooms. Yet the stories gathered by Rex and Moore speak as much of domestic accommodation as of tension and rivalry: an Irish woman who cut through the stand-off over cleaning the communal cooker and was rewarded with chocolates by her Asian co-lodgers; the teasing of the landlord by an Irish woman who spoke to him as though he were a small child, ‘to his great amusement’, or another who insisted on curtseying and addressing her landlord as ‘O Great King’. And then there was love and sex and marriage—accommodations of a different kind.

The idea that mixed lodgings, and mixed relationships, may have performed an important function in the social integration of immigrants was an oddly contested one during the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The assumption seems to have been that white women in relationships with Asian and Caribbean men were ‘social misfits’ rather than the vanguard of the future, that mixed lodgings were harbingers of disorder rather than crucibles of knowledge and experience about other people. It was at work, so the argument went, that migrants learnt to get on with the English, and vice versa. Once they left the factory, the foundry, the mill, the office or even the school they separated again into ethnic silos. It goes without saying that this theory could only be sustained if love and sex were discounted.

And there is plenty of evidence that racial segregation, as well as racial stereotyping, was rife in the fifties workplace. Aside from drinking and fighting, the principal ‘trouble’ associated with the Irish was of course not their brothel-keeping but their fecklessness as employees. When Pakistani men left their lodgings in Sparkbrook or Smethwick they made their way to work, principally in foundries servicing the quickly expanding car industries, where they did not encounter the Irish with whom they lived. Despite the huge demand for labour in the foundries it was almost axiomatic you would not find Irish men employed there. Or it would be more accurate to say, you would not even find the Irish. When Donall Mac Amhlaigh tried a stint in a Northampton foundry in the early fifties he found he could not bear the heat and dirt, and jacked the job in after a few days. But the reason he had got it in the first place was that no one else wanted it either. ‘You can’t get white people to do the menial tasks that have to be done in any foundry, not even the floating workers like the Irish.‘

Like work in out-of-date mines, or unmodernised textile mills, school-leavers had no interest in the foundries when they could get work in the newer, cleaner manufacturing and light engineering industries. And until the recession of 1956-58 workers could take their pick of jobs—there was simply no need to go into dirty foundry work. Several managers interviewed at the end of the decade recalled the difficulty of hiring anybody at all:

The big influx of immigrant labour began in 1954. At this time you couldn’t get an armless, legless man, let alone an able-bodied one. Any worker could leave the works and get a job literally within three or four minutes simply by going to the factory next door. We tried recruiting Irish labour but this didn’t come off. The Manager went over to Ireland himself and recruited 36 men. Of these, only 8 actually turned up at the works, and only one stayed for any length of time.

The first foreign labour we employed were German and Italian prisoners of war. When these men were repatriated, the firm found itself short of labour. Poles were employed and a number still work here. They were very good workers, but we couldn’t get enough to make up for the labour shortage. The Ministry of Labour had coloured people. We wouldn’t look at them at first, but eventually we succumbed. It was a case of necessity: there was no one else. Well, there was the Irish, but they were dreadful. Only about one in twenty was any good.

It was this kind of foundry which Peter Wright spent six weeks observing for the Institute of Race Relations in 1961, in order to write a report on racial integration in the workplace. The status of foundry work had steadily declined since the high point of the hungry 1930s when, ‘it was almost impossible to get a job here; you practically had to wait for someone to die before you could get in.’ In 1953 the ‘newcomer’ element in the workforce amounted to one Italian (an ex-prisoner-of-war) and one Pakistani. But by 1962, 75% of the workforce were from Asia and the Caribbean, and they were mainly doing unskilled, physically demanding jobs. Knocking out and quenching of castings, for example: ‘Neither job is relished by the white workers. Knocking out is a sledge-hammer job. It’s outside work, so it’s cold in winter and in summer the bits of sand stick to you when you’re sweating.’ Or electrode cleaning: ‘This is the sort of job that if a white man took it, he doesn’t really want a job at all. The West Indians are mainly employed on scrap-crushing. A sledge hammer job. They also do the loading and unloading of pitch. The highest job done by any coloured worker is fork-lift truck operator.’

A gloss, therefore, on the ubiquitous complaints against the Irish for their unreliability. The Irish appear to have been ‘dreadful’ insofar as they insisted they were ‘white’—insofar as they were not prepared to take the jobs that other white workers felt were beneath them, jobs that were so demeaning that to do them meant you didn’t ‘really want a job at all’. Like Mac Amhlaigh they packed their bags, and they were not offered the jobs that the white English (as opposed to Germans, Italians and Poles) thought were theirs. Irish fecklessness and unreliability, then, was partly the flip-side of Irish pride. It was the trouble with being neither one thing nor the other—a trouble which, despite their differences, both Danny and the mother of little Fatima understood.