Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The invading hordes R' Us

The sudden, overwhelming influx of refugees into Europe recently is causing much heated discussion, not just in Europe but around the world. Images of desperate crowds surging around the port at Calais, or arriving by the boatload in Italy are on our screens daily. Talk of Europe being invaded or over-run by these 'illegals' is common.

Such waves of migration by desperate people is nothing new though. Most people in the world today have ancestors somewhere along the way who were once migrants fleeing from war, famine, poverty or disease. Not all were welcomed by their new countries.

Although I am Australian, I was born in England. My parents were born in England and so were my four grandparents. I’ve always thought of myself as thoroughly English. But go back another generation or two and families of Irish migrants start to appear in the mix.

These were not well-educated Irish people who migrated to England in an orderly way, like the family of C S Lewis in a later era. Nor were they the transient labourers who had always gone back and forth between Ireland and England. My Irish ancestors were most likely part of the mass migration of hungry, unemployed Irish into England in the early 19th century.

They were not illegal immigrants, and didn't require passports, but neither were they well received. (The fact that they didn't require passports and no record was kept of their arrival makes them difficult to trace, which is frustrating from a genealogical point of view.)

Many, though not all, lived in tenements, dozens of them together, in what had once been elegant family homes on the inner edge of cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Angel Meadow in particular had a high concentration of Irish migrants.

Without any kind of welfare payments or social services, they managed to make a life for themselves. Most eventually found work in the building and construction industry, textile mills and other industries, or made a living as hawkers, publicans or lodging house owners.

These Irish migrants were not popular, except among those seeking cheap labour. They were perceived as dirty, ignorant and a cause of disease, violence and crime. This negative image was encouraged by commentators in the popular press and academic reports.

Another Irish strand in my family found its way to England via Australia. An Irish ex-convict named John Mason married a girl who had come to Australia to escape dire poverty in Ireland. They settled in South Australia. Eventually one of their daughters returned to England with her English soldier husband. It seems from newspaper reports at the time that poor Irish immigrants to Australia aroused just as much disapproval and public discussion as those who went to England.

Meanwhile no-one bothered to ask the original local inhabitants, the Aboriginal people, what they thought of any of these unwanted hordes of people who had invaded their land. What went through the minds of those standing on the shores of what is now Botany Bay when eleven ships disgorged over two hundred ragged, malodorous convicts, their soldier guards and the goods they’d brought with them? How did they react when wave after wave of ships appeared, carrying thousands of miserable men and women to their country?

The point is, of course, that while the arrival of boatloads of people seeking refuge and a better life always causes consternation and concern among the people already living in a place, history shows that generally they eventually blend into the population and become part of the heritage. That is, unless the local population go to extreme measures to keep them segregated, or the newcomers far outnumber the locals.

The mass Irish migration to England happened in the relatively recent past. But in more distant times England has seen Danes, Saxons, Normans, French Hugenots and other uninvited migrants absorbed into what was once a purely Celtic population. Some arrivals caused terror, others merely irritation at their ‘foreign’ ways. Their descendants all call themselves English now.

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