My review of “Moving Histories Irish Women’s Emigration to Britain from Independance to Republic” Jennifer Redmond

moving histories


MORE Irish women than Irishmen have over the years emigrated from Ireland. In this new history of Ireland from the 1920s to the 1950s Jennifer Redmond uses an important array of new sources to tell their story. This includes newspapers, archives, oral histories, statistics and personal stories.

The  Irish Constitution of 1922 enshrined for all citizens religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities, but it also lauded the traditional Irish woman as  wife and mother and not the feisty women of the Irish Citizen Army or the suffragettes.  Not a surprise then that after independence women emigrants  outnumbered men  1926-31 and 1945-51. In the 1920s 84% of emigrants went to the USA,  but,  as the latter brought in restrictions,  by  the 1930s 94% went to the UK. In the North of Ireland these figures were reversed,  perhaps  reflecting more job opportunities for women.

Redmond highlights the inadequacy of the new Irish Government to deal with a serious failure of the new state. As Redmond comments. “No elected official emerged as a champion of emigrants in the post-Independance period, and women representatives did not demonstrate an interest in either developing arguments on the necessity for women to work or defending female emigrants from charges of moral wantonness.”

Irish women emigrated primarily for work and for the better wages and conditions in Britain. Irish women (and men)  played  a significant role  in the many battles fought and won in the British  trade union and labour movement for a better world for all workers in this country. For me a major omission  from the book is any reference to this history,  including the role that groups such as  the Connolly Association played in issues such as the role of Irish nurses in the NHS.

Moving Histories is an important contribution to the history of Irish women emigrants  in the UK but the classic is still the 1988 “Across the Water Irish Women’s Lives in Britain” by Lennon, McAdam and O’Brien.  Both of these books, in their own ways, as Redmond comments  “explores these lives interpreting the weight given to loss and tragedy in narratives of emigration in a specifically gendered way.”

Buy it for £24.95 here

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My review of “Across the Water Irish Women’s Lives in Britain” (1988) Mary Lennon Marie McAdam Joanne O’Brien

across the water



This  unique history of the role of Irish women in Britain was published  in  1988: Across the Water Irish Women’s Lives in Britain.  It was produced by three women, none of whom were academics, all of them had been  born and brought up in Dublin, and came to London in the mid-70s.

In the 1980s the Irish community in Britain was about 5  million strong. Strength meant the resurgence of the political nature of that community bolstered by a radical left in the politics of many cities and towns across the country that voted in Left wing, Labour councils.  Irish people were  active in groups such as Irish in Britain Representation Group, Labour Committe on Ireland, Troops Out, the London Irish Women’s Centre and single issue campaigns including equal rights for Irish workers, abortion and strip searching.

The authors were all activists in feminist and socialist movements in both countries and in Irish organisations in London.  They were all working class women whose politics influenced their interest in writing up a history of Irish women.

They said:  Our concern was to highlight women’s part of the story (of emigration) because of its particular significance in immigration to Britain. Also, just as important, we knew that without our experiences the overall picture is inadequate and distorted.

Irish women and FF

Authors speaking at IBRG Irish Film Festival in Manchester in 1988

Not being academics they approached the  Greater London Council for funding for the project. The GLC was one of the first to recognise the Irish as an ethnic community and fund  Irish community activities. The book took five years to research and write: the funding meant they could pay for childcare (two of the women were parents) and typing.

The authors wanted to produce a book that was accessible,  seeing themselves as part of a tradition of oral histories and working class autobiographies.  Crucial to the book is the weaving together of the women’s stories and the photographs by Joanne O’Brien:  Photographs often convey experiences which cannot be expressed in other ways and their immediacy is one of their great strengths.

The book includes women from a wide range of age groups: working class women, lesbians and women who saw their  Irish identity from different viewpoints,  including catholic, protestant, jewish, black and second generation.

The author’s politics are reflected in the way in which the women go about interviewing the women, taking their photographs,  and most importantly spending a lot of time debating how this should be conveyed onto the written page.

It is real democracy in that it  involves  the subjects in the discussions on  how the book will finally be edited. The authors debate the issues around the rhythms of Irish speech, of working class, ethnic and regional accents.

Similar issues were debated by the authors in the use of photography of the women. They agreed from the outset that the individual women would have the final say in how the authors used the material in the book.

Prior to this book very few Irish history books reflected women’s role as emigrants or their experiences in this country,  even though more Irish women have over the centuries emigrated than Irish men.

Women, because of their role in society, face greater pressures in British society than Irish men. It is women who have to deal day-to-day with British institutions,  including schools, local services, shops and playgrounds.  It is Irish women who faced  anti-Irish racism and have to negotiate it as parents and users of services.

For many single Irish women they face different issues such as isolation as they did not fit into a conservative, family orientated Irish community. For some women though emigration meant being able to express themselves as lesbian, or get divorced and remarry.

The authors also took up the issues not often spoken about in the Irish community , including female sexuality, religion and also how political traditions affected their identity.

In this book the authors explore Irish women’s experiences and the resounding silence waiting to be filled.  The women were of all ages and had come from all different parts of Ireland. And whilst some of the women reflect the lives of many Irish women in Britain their circumstances are very different.

Miriam James was a  political activist. She was born in Scotland in 1918 but moved to Ireland as a child. She joined Cumann na mBan (women’s section of the I.R.A.) at the age of 14 and her political activities led to imprisonment. After emigrating to England she became involved in local community politics supporting black people, CND and by 1980 she had joined the Labour Party and their Labour Committee on Ireland. She said of Ireland and the impact of colonialism. Ireland has been drained not only of wealth, but of self respect. They couldn’t prove themselves in Ireland, and you had to go away in order to regain your own self-respect. This is the legacy of colonialism, and you find it in all the other colonised countries too.”

Self respect is an important theme throughout the book as women speak about how they lived in England. Some of the women, like Margaret Collins and Catherine Ridgeway,  became active in their trade unions and fought anti-Irish racism and discrimination in a collective way.

Not all Irish women were so lucky. Noreen Hill, like many Irish people, moved from Cork to England during the Second World War. She married a protestant English man and lived in an area, Leicester, with few Irish activities. It is heartbreaking to read about how she tried, against a sea of anti-Irish racism and prejudice, to give her children an understanding of their Irish background.

Noreen channelled her ideas and thoughts into writing fiction. After living in England for forty years she felt; I’m more politically minded now, and my identity is  stronger than it ever was.

Thirty years ago when this book was published writing about travellers was rare. Nellie Power was one of 15,000 Irish travellers in Britain. Her story reveals the double discrimination that many travellers experienced over here; in mainstream society and from Irish centres and pubs. This changed her view of the Irish community; Really and truly, most of the Irish people over here are more against the travellers than the English are.

Across the Water also included lots of photos of second generation Irish young people and one of the first interviews with a mixed race Irish woman, Jenneba Sie Jalloh. Her mother was from Limerick and her father from Sierra Leone.

Brought up by parents that were proud of their identity this was passed onto Jenneba but it was not easy being part of two oppressed communities. I call myself an African woman with an Irish mother, and a Londoner. I want to pass on whatever I’ve got to my children, so I’ve got to work it out for myself. So, for those people who want to deny me, well, I think it’s them who’ve got the problem, not me.

It is thirty years since this book was published and sadly it is now out of print. The Irish community in Britain has changed dramatically, as has the political and social environment on the island of Ireland. But in many ways this book is still unique and a brilliant example of how to write up the lives and experiences of a community.

For communities to produce their own histories is very difficult because of issues that are highlighted by the authors including paying people and getting a publisher. The GLC was crucial in getting this book produced and fulfilled a genuine socialist belief in giving power back to communities such as the Irish.

But credit must be given to the three women involved in producing such an important book and they certainly achieved their goal. We want this book to contribute to the Irish community’s sense of itself and draw attention to the role that women play in it.


You can buy the book second hand here

Or a copy is in the Irish Collection at the WCML.

Posted in book review, Catholicism, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of exhibition “Return to Manchester” Martin Parr

parr return to mcr


In  the 1980s the Left wing Labour council in Manchester flew a banner over the Town Hall proclaiming their determination to defend jobs and  services against the Tory government . In 2018 it is the cranes of property developers that haunt the skyscape while  streets  are  filled with the well heeled with  their  posh flats, expensive restaurants and  exclusive shops. Many Mancunians no longer feel the city is theirs.

Rock Around the Square

Manchester City Council event 1980s

Martin Parr came to Manchester   from leafy Surrey in the 1970s to study photography and  in this new retrospective of his work “Return to Manchester “ he, more than anyone,  has documented the rise and fall of the working class in the city.

Parr began photographing the city and its surrounding areas in black and white which captured a proud if poor community walking the city streets. The black and white community of Moss Side dominates in photographs of streets and pubs and festivals.  He also photographed  the old fashioned and  now extinct Yates Wine Lodges which had their own clientele of older men and women sipping their blobs of hot water, sugar and wine.

Parr was given access to Prestwich Mental Hospital, which probably would not be allowed today.  Over three months he captured the day-to-day life of the hospital. It is the patients’ faces that draw me in,  as they watch Parr and he watches them.

In the 1990s his photos broke into colour: he never  returned to black and white. Bright and vivid colours reflect a changing landscape,  including a  Salford in all its glory of hypermarkets and hairdressers. Reel forward to 2018 and we see the decline of the St.Patrick’s Day procession and the rise of the Pride parade.  Football, the many faces of the Muslim community and the celebration of a Royal Wedding show northerners in their best clothes and with a smile on their faces. One of the few overtly political pictures is of a student holding a copy of the Militant newspaper to the camera in Salford’s Working Class Movement Library.

Parr’s city is in colour; devoid of the everyday homeless who dominate the city’s streets and of the protests against austerity. Maybe colour would not cope with the reality of life in Manchester today; maybe Manchester in 2018  should be in black and white.

Martin Parr: Return to Manchester

Manchester Art Gallery

Friday 16 November 2018–Monday 22 April 2019

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My review of”Why Women have better sex under Socialism” Kristen R. Ghodsee



In 1925 Mary Quaile, Manchester Irish trade unionist and one of the first women to be elected onto the  Trades Union Congress, led a women-only delegation to the Soviet Union to investigate the lives of women and children in the new socialist state.

Mary left school at 12, like most working class girls of that era:  her real education took place in the sweated labour of cafes and on the streets as she took part in organising a  new Cafe Workers Union and became an organiser for the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council.

When Mary  went to the Soviet Union in 1925 all Soviet women had had  the vote for 8 years, while most British working class women were still waiting. In  their journey around the Soviet Union, Mary and her sisters saw much to envy,  including women having equal pay, free workplace nurseries, paid maternity leave, communal canteens, as well as  access to abortion, contraception and divorce.

In this new book, written by American academic Kristen R. Ghodsee, the author’s message is blunt. “Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.” Kristen is living in Trumpland, but has worked and travelled across Europe and has studied the effects of the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the  transition to capitalism.

Kristen blasts her way through the history of state socialism showing the influence of well-known (and less well known) communist women such as Alexandra Kollontai who  pushed through policies that promoted equality for women in all aspects of life. She is not an apologist for the authoritarian regimes:  she shows how  State socialist regimes needed women to work but they were often  carrying the double burden of work and childcare.

Her own research,  including the interviews she recounts with women who grew up in the Soviet era, really bring the book alive for me. It is fascinating to read  Kristen’s interview with octogenarian Elena Lagadinova, the president of Bulgaria’s national women’s organisation. Bulgaria and across the Soviet Union used quotas to get more women in parliament and they did have higher percentages of women in political office than most of the Western democracies during the Cold War. Elena believed it was a combination of a patriarchal culture, and an authoritarian state that discouraged women in pursuing  high office.

But the Soviet tradition of encouraging women into job sectors such as science and engineering has  left a legacy for today. Kristen quotes the Financial Times in 2018  that eight out of the ten European countries with the highest rates of women in the tech sector were in Eastern Europe.

When it comes to the discussion about socialism and sexual satisfaction Kristen uses some fascinating research from Germany about what was dubbed “The Great Orgasm War.”East German researchers, prior to unification, produced evidence that people did have better sex under socialism and that this was because, unlike the West, sex was not commodified in the same way. The researchers Staker and Friedrich claimed that this  was because of women’s “sense of social security, equal educational and professional responsibilities, equal rights and possibilities for participating in and determining the life of society.”

Kristen’s message is that we need to take the best of what came out of the state socialist era and adapt it to creating a better world for women and men. But she is an academic, and not an activist,  and that is one of the failings in the book. Her own life is quite privileged and frankly not very interesting  like those of her friends that she uses to dramatise modern life in American society.

This may be why there is a big gap in her analysis as there is no mention of trade unions in the book, even though they have played a significant role,  even in the Soviet Union. Neither   does she not mention them in her discussion of American politics, even  one of the most dynamic areas of American life at present is  trade unions  who  are the vanguard of the fight for better pay and conditions in female dominated industries such as fast food.

Also the UK experience has shown that, whilst you can elect socialist governments, including the feted 1945 Labour Government who brought in the Welfare State,  it is organisations such as trade unions which will really  promote the needs and desires of working class people.

Like Mary Quaile during her era, in the 1980s it was my experience as a trade union representative that showed how we could and did  improve the lives of women inside and outside work. Women then played a major role in trade unions, ensuring that issues such as job sharing, maternity leave, equal pay and abortion were high on the union agenda.

The so-called austerity has woken up a lot of people as to the increasing inequality and unhappiness that dominates present day life in the UK, as well  as across the world. Unfortunately it has not led to a growth of radical grassroots organisations  who question the nature of society; of relationships between women and men;  and between workers and the state. Kirsten’s book is an important part of that discussion because it reveals a hidden history that is hardly known in the USA and has been forgotten or marginalised in Europe.

Buy it here at £12.99

Posted in anti-cuts, book review, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

IBRG Archive at the WCML. Out of Ireland. Six Irish Film Festivals 1988-93


Out of Ireland was the name given to six Irish Film Festivals that were initiated by the Manchester branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group  and organised  from 1988 to 1993 with the Irish in Manchester History Group and in collaboration with  the  Cornerhouse Film Centre.

Bernadette Hyland, secretary of Manchester IBRG, explained that “The aim of the Festival was to explore the image and experiences of the Irish through film and video and to look at the way in which Irish groups themselves can control this medium.” An important aspect of the Festivals was exploring contemporary social and political issues through the uses of day schools and speakers.

The Festivals were groundbreaking in raising issues that no other Irish group in Manchester were prepared to raise at this time. This included identity, the experiences of Irish women and second generation Irish young people, the conflict in Ireland and media censorship.

Irish Film Festival photo.jpg

In the first Film Festival one of the most controversial documentaries, at this time, about the conflict in Ireland “The Cause of Ireland” was shown.  This was followed by a screening of Pat Murphy’s “Maeve” exploring issues about feminism and Irish identity.

Two day schools took place exploring the history of the Irish in Manchester with socialist  historian Michael  Herbert and Pat Reynolds, IBRG National P.R.O. who explained his involvement in the use of video to document the lives of the Irish in Britain.  Videos by the Irish Video Project were shown.

Manchester IBRG were keen to promote the specific experiences of Irish women at events and the Irish Film Festival was no different. An Irish Women’s Day took place which included speakers Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien authors of the classic history of Irish women’s experiences in Britain “Across the Water.” Afternoon screenings concentrated on women in the North of Ireland and included films on subjects such as poverty and strip searching.

Not unusual for this period of history a free crèche was made available to women taking part. Tickets prices for the films and dayschools  were kept low at £4/2.

Censorship of events relating to the North of Ireland which included indirectly affecting groups such as IBRG who wanted an open debate on the British government’s involvement was a prevailing theme in the Festivals. In 1990, at the third Festival, a session called “Ireland As Not Seen On T.V.” included films that had never been broadcast on British television and which under the Broadcasting Ban, which existed 1988-94, could not be screened under the legislation.


Filmmaker Philip  Donnellan took part showing his iconic “The Irishmen” which celebrated the contribution that the Irish had made to building the UK and became part of an important discussion in the Irish community and the politics of emigration. Philip and his wife Jill went onto play an important role in the miscarriage of justice case of Kate Magee from Derby in 1994. They stood bail for this single parent Irish woman and  Jill produced a beautiful banner which was displayed outside the court during Kate’s trial.

The Irishman

The Festivals gave the opportunity to explore issues of Protestant identity which were often ignored in the mainstream Irish community. In the Fourth IFF writer Christine Reid and journalist Cherry Smthe discussed what it meant to be from Irish protestant backgrounds. The film “Ascendancy” was also shown.

1993 was the sixth and final IFF which marked the 25 anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland  with a speaker from Derry, community activist Mary Neilis.

The IFF also showed many not so controversial films including  “The Commitments”,  hosted a tribute to Irish actor Brenda Fricker, films by acclaimed Irish film maker Thaddeus O’Sullivan, and new adaptations of iconic plays including Brian Desmond Hurst’s take on “Playboy of the Western World.”

Strong support from Sandra Hebron, Screenings Officer, at Cornerhouse,  ensured that the IFF were a success. The Festivals were financially supported by local arts organisations, Manchester City Council, local media and national newspaper “The Irish Post”.

The IBRG archive includes the programmes for the IFF, as well as posters, press cuttings. Some of the videos shown are included in the archive.

Philip Donnellan’s “The Irishmen” is being shown at Home on 27 November.

Posted in Catholicism, drama, education, feminism, films, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, trade unions, TV drama, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Wages for Housework A History of an International Feminist Movement 1972-77” by Louise Toupin (2018)


In this new and fascinating book about the Wages for Housework campaign we are looking back to a period of history when  radical women were redefining  the nature of women’s work and   challenging the role of women in  society.

The author, Louise Toupin, has produced an international history of the Wages for Housework movement which takes us from  Canada to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, USA and  England.

Wages for Housework challenged the overriding view at that time which said that  calling for women’s work in the home to be paid was reactionary and would chain women to the home. Instead they proclaimed that the personal was political,  and in 1972 in the founding manifesto of the International Feminist Collective they  advanced a new definition of class. “This new definition is based on the subordination of the wageless worker to the waged worker behind which is hidden the productivity ie. the exploitation  of the labour of women in the home and the cause of their more intense exploitation out of it.”

Rejecting the traditional definition of Marxism that class equalled productive work,  they reached out to people from the unemployed to peasants, to those caught up in slavery to colonised people.  It was an internationalist approach that challenged the division of labour with the central figure in the analysis being the  houseworker. It brought to the fore issues of domestic violence and  the criminalisation of prostitution and lesbians.  Classic texts such as Sex, Race and Class,  written by Selma James, co-founder of the IFC and Wages for Housework group in London were  circulated and remain popular today.

Through the International Feminist Collective (1972-77) this political analysis was taken forward by a network of groups, mainly Italian, English, American and Canadian women. Innovative for its time,  it was a feminist “International.” Toupin says,   “it was a body for coordination and encounters, for exchanges of information on mobilizations underway in the network, for reflections and discussions on situations of the moment, and for concerted actions.”  

Fascinating is how the movement took part in actions:  either   initiated by a Wages for Housework group,  or  initiated by other women’s groups and supported by Wages for Housework groups. Their campaigns involved mobilising around women’s invisible work, both  inside and outside the home.

Women's army protest in Tameside

Tameside Wages for Housework protest against Govt spending on war.

Activities varied,  depending on the different countries involved. In Italy work was done on issues around women’s health,  including abortion, pregnancy and hospital services.  In Britain it focused on defending universal family allowances which the Conservative government wanted to replace with tax credits.

One of the interesting stories about campaigns around invisible work outside the home was the struggle by waitresses in Canada to end differentiated minimum wage rates in the tourism and restaurant industries   which discriminated against women; women who were often not in a union,  who were often the sole breadwinner and unskilled immigrants.

The Toronto Wages for Housework included women who were waitresses and formed the Waitresses Action Committee.  This was an important struggle which one of them summed up; “Waitressing is the work of serving and satisfying other people, only on a public instead of a private scale. That’s why I call it housework. All women are taught to do this from the day we were born. In fact our very identities are tightly bound up in this work, whether we are secretaries, mothers, nurses, waitresses or full-time housewives.”

The Wages for Housework was a key movement in second wave feminism. It was totally original in its philosophy and  threw light on the unrecognised and invisible forms of labour that are performed mainly  by women. It is  summed up in this comment by Claudia von Werlhof:  “Once we have understood housework, we will understand the economy”.

Wages for Housework is published by Pluto Press and costs £19.99 Buy it here

Posted in book review, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My review of “A Massacre in Mexico” Anabel Hernandez

a massacre

On  26 September 2014 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College went missing in Igula, Guerrero, Mexico. The cries of their parents and supporters reached  out across the world   – even to urban Manchester- as local students protested and called on activists to support their demands for truth about the disappearance of the students.

A Massacre in Mexico  by journalist Anabel Hernandez is a gripping and gruesome insight into the events before and after the student’s disappearance,  but is also a revelation about the corruption of the Mexican state. As Anabel says “This is an investigation conducted not only by a journalist, but by a citizen who was forced out of her country by violence and impunity, and who then returned to Mexico because of the violence and impunity meted out to others.”

The students were travelling to Mexico City to commemorate the Tlateloclo Massacre of 2 October  1968 when Mexican soldiers and police murdered hundreds of innocent protestors.  The  security forces hunted down the unarmed students, killed six  people, injured dozens and then “disappeared” the 43 students.

The students were from a rural training school based on a Marxist-Leninist ideology  on a model of “student governance” with the objective of training teachers who speak Spanish without having to give up their native indigenous languages and could teach in their own communities.  Most of the students come from campesino families and becoming a teacher is the only way of obtaining a professional job.

Politics is at the centre of the school which is  a community. “Along with training in agriculture, the students are training politically and ideologically, reinforcing their attachment to their surroundings, as well as their contentment with what they have,” writes Anabel.

In  her  reconstruction of the event of September 2014 we can see the complicity of the State’s involvement in the disappearance of the 43 students.  Anabel   gets access to government internal documents; she sees video surveillance that the government tried to hide and destroy.  Her bravery in undermining the government’s official version is astounding:  this book  is a superb case study of investigative journalism. As she says, faced with state violence, “The only thing I could do to protect myself was to keep investigating.”

The government’s attempts to create a false story  or,  as they put it,  the “historic truth” about the disappearance of the 43 students is incredible. Anabel proves that the  government were quite prepared,  not just to fabricate a fake case with fake evidence,  but also to  arrest dozens of “suspects” whom they tortured to provide fake confessions that would back up the government’s version.

Apart from Anabel there are many heroes and heroines in the story. Not just the 43 students and their determination to go to the Tlateloclo  Massacre,  but their families and supporters who refused to accept the government’s story of the events of September 2014. The Mexicans who protested on the streets of the country shouting; “jFue el Estado!” “It was the state!” and  those ordinary people  who “during those dark hours of fear and desolation, as the Mexican state hounded, murdered and disappeared young students, …opened their doors to save the lives of a least sixty other students, enabling them to tell the tale of that night.”

The 43 students are still  “disappeared “and the Mexican government can still not provide any credible story as to  what happened to them. Anabel  believes that any Mexican person could find themselves in the same position:  arrested, tortured and  “disappeared”. Her story  interweaves  with that of the students and all Mexicans. “This is not merely a question of justice for the families who continue to search for their loved ones. It also means giving the example of justice to a country that needs to pull itself out of an abyss of corruption, impunity and violence.”


Buy it here


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