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.
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.