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Local History


Republic of Ireland flag

Against the odds?

By Katie Binns
Did you know that in 1851, Bradford had the highest proportion of Irish-born people in Yorkshire - around 10% of the city's population? Katie from Bradford,has been finding out more!


As J B Hammond said: "It was easier to reach Yorkshire from Ireland than from Norfolk or Dorset…Labourers who were sent to Lancashire were taken to London, put on a boat of Pickfords…carried to Manchester in four or five days at a cost of fourteen shillings. But an Irishman could cross to Liverpool in fourteen hours for two shillings and sixpence"

lake in County Mayo, Ireland
Mayo: 'Home' for many Bradford Irish

Many of them would have heard reports of the prosperity of life in Britain. Tales of large towns and cities with their brightly-lit streets, music halls, shops, theatres and public houses would have inspired wonder in the minds of many poor families struggling to make ends meet with a meagre allotment in Ireland's rural isolation.

A flood of newcomers continued to be attracted to the industrial towns and cities of the north, despite the appalling morbidity and mortality rates. However, the Irish experience was characterised by isolation, frustration and despair of families and individuals, uprooted from the disintegrating rural society in Ireland. They had to develop an ethnic shield in the face of bigotry, prejudice and appalling poverty.

Irish quarters, the working conditions and religion

A large proportion came from rural Mayo and Sligo. 75% of those coming from these areas could not read or write English and on top of that one-third of those could not speak English. They had difficulties in fitting into the industrial urban environment of 19th Century Bradford, and sought companionship and security with their relatives and former neighbours from Ireland.

Ethnic concentrations like those in Nelson Court and Bedford Street were recognisable in the 1840s and they persisted until the end of the century. Incomes were low and rents were relatively high. The Irish settlers overcame this difficulty by choosing to live in houses with low rents, and by sharing the cost of houseroom with others. The Irish quarters were distinguished by appalling health conditions, revealed in high specific disease mortality from fevers and tuberculosis, high infant death rates, absence of clean water, a lack of facilities for disposing human and household waste and a high crime rate. There was gross over-crowding where large families occupied single rooms. Very often they shared these with adult lodgers who were not members of the same family. In Cannon street it was necessary to sub-let beds on a 'shift basis' because so many people occupied the house.

St Mary's Church, Bradford
A first: St Mary's Church, Bradford

The Catholic Church played a dominant role, providing political and social leadership. The Catholics built their first place of worship in 1824-25 in Bradford, St. Mary's Church. Later came St. Patrick's. Canon Harrison put a lot of energy and effort into securing fundamental legal rights for the Irish catholic inmates of the Union Workhouse. He was obstructed at all levels by bigotry and prejudice. Father John Motler from Wigan was the leader of the local Catholic community. He was appointed a chaplain to the Pope and later created a monsignor. Father Motler was famous also as a church builder being responsible for the building of the school chapel of St Joseph's in Grafton St and St Peter's in Leeds Road as well as transforming the old parish of St Mary's into three separate parishes: St Mary's, St Joseph's and St Ann's.

Hostility and Prejudice

The deep-rooted prejudice against the Irish Catholics should not be underestimated. At the beginning of the 19th century Bradford was a Protestant town. Into this industrial urban society was intruded a peasant culture whose basis was mainly Catholic. This culture maintained its connection with Ireland through its kinship ties, and political and social clubs. The anti-Irish, anti-Catholic attitudes of the non-Irish protestant Bradfordian discouraged assimilation. The Irish were considered to be a financial burden on the ratepayers and feared as disease carriers. This led to efforts to repatriate them.

Mill operatives often displayed racist antipathy towards employing immigrant labour. One young Irish navvy was told, "…that I ought to consider myself a fortunate kind of Irish animal, because I had not been driven from the place with sticks and stones, as many of my countrymen had, for no other reason than being Irish"

"It was their ethnicity - their very Irishness - that continually rebounded against them..."
Katie Binns on the Irish in Bradford

The tradition of fighting and disorderly conduct made the Irish less acceptable to the non-Irish. During the midyears of the century there were almost weekly references in the Bradford Observer to assaults on the Police, common assault, brawling, drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. The hostile tone of the following extract from Bradford Observer reflects public opinion at the time: "We understand that the low Irish resident in this town manifests at the present time unusual symptoms of pugnacity. There is a disposition to indulge in 'faction fights'. Newspapers regularly seized upon court cases, which involved such stereotype defendants, reporting with utmost relish any instances of immigrant brogue and naivety. As a consequence 'Paddy' became the frequent butt of English humour. The Bradford Observer used Irish jokes as space fillers in the 1830s!

A Doctor Arnold referred to "the tremendous influx of Irish labourers...tainting the whole population with a worse than barbarian element". Cultural inferiority was taken as a fact. The degradation and squalor in which they lived (which undoubtedly contributed to the rates of drunkenness and violence) was completely ignored.

Victorian gravestones
Disease and death were ever-present...

Moreover, the Irish generally earned much less than the English in the same work and the Irish proved useful to the employers in keeping down the level of wages. The Irish worker's willingness to work for less than his English counterpart did not make him any more acceptable as a workmate.

The extent of local anti-Catholic feeling may be further illustrated by the circumstances surrounding the purchase of land for St Patrick's church. The Catholic purchasers considered it necessary to conduct the transaction in the greatest secrecy employing two intermediaries to disguise their intention from the sellers. The sellers, Misses Mary and Elizabeth Rawson, were later furious when they discovered the land was to be used for a Catholic church.

In November 1848 the Bradford Observer reported a serious riot between English and Irish railway workers at Cleckheaton. Apparently English workers drinking at the Commercial Hotel had been ejected by Irish navvies, who were themselves attacked when the English returned with re-enforcements and clubs. An equally ugly disturbance in Manchester Road in August of that same year occurred where a large body of English navvies confronted Irish reapers returning from seasonal work in Lincolnshire. Were these the original race riots?

What remains today?

The churches are still standing and Bradford's Catholic community has certainly come a long way since the dark days of the 19th century. Some of the Irish residential quarters of that time disappeared in the urban renewal and clearance schemes of the 1860s and later. Mill Bank, for example, was swept away with the construction of Sunbridge Road.

It is very sad to think that of all the factors that tended to obstruct the integration of the Irish it was their ethnicity - their very Irishness - that continually rebounded against them...

This is the latest in a series of articles written by Katie for bbc.co.uk/westyorkshire looking at Bradford's incomers - and how they helped shape today's city.

last updated: 17/05/06
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