IBRG was an organisation that reflected the history of the Irish in this country but one that was not frightened off linking up the present with the past – unlike many other Irish organisations in the era of 1981-2003. Branches sprang up in areas that had a long and respectable history of Irish radicalism, including North East Lancashire which covered areas including Accrington, Blackburn and Darwen.
One of the founders Michael Kneafsey explained why they decided to set up a branch; “A number of us living in Lancashire at that time were feeling very frustrated that there was no real outlet in the Irish community to debate those crucial issues. When the Irish Post newspaper began reporting the formation of the IBRG and its founding principles we were very interested indeed. Also the fact that young people from the second and third generation were in leadership roles was inspiring. The focus of campaigning for the Irish to be recognised as an ethnic minority community, and for links to be established with Black and Asian organisations in Britain was a refreshing change from the rather insular, ‘we stand alone’ approach of some of the established Irish organisations.”
Over the years the Branch organised regular meetings from social events to miscarriage of justice campaigns. Links were developed with Trade Union branches which led to a Trade Unionists for Irish Unity Conference.
N.E.Lancs IBRG, with little resources, was neverthess able to produce a report on the needs and aspirations of the “Irish in Lancashire”. Targeting Lancashire County Council, Local Authorities and other statutory bodies it argued strongly that the Irish should be recognised as an ethnic community.
On 13 October 1993 I travelled with two other women to take part in a meeting in Blackburn organised by N.E. Lancs IBRG on “Irish Women in Britain – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The meeting reflected the nature of what it meant to be an Irish woman in Britain in 1993; a second generation Mancunian, an Irish student from the Republic of Ireland, and a single parent from Armagh in the North of Ireland who now lived in Derby.
We arrived in Blackburn to find that the doors of the venue, the Library, were locked. After knocking we were welcomed in but were quickly reminded that the National Front were active in that area. The previous week they had attacked an Anti-Apartheid meeting in the same venue and for our safety and attendees it was a private meeting with invites only.
A small but sympathetic audience listened as we three women discussed some of the major issues affecting our lives in Britain. Eileen Carroll was a social work student in Manchester and a member of Manchester IBRG. She spoke about her experiences on the Women’s Delegation to Belfast in March that year. Living in Britain had woken her up to the discrimination facing Irish people over here, but also gave her an education about what was happening in another part of the island that she lived on.
Kate Magee recounted how she was originally from Armagh in the North of Ireland but had moved herself and her two children to Derby. Following the shooting of an Army Careers Officer in Derby she had been arrested and charged with offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. She spoke about the horror of being arrested at night in her home whilst she was nursing her young son. A local Irish builder, Pat McAndrew, noticing what had happened , alerted Kevin Hayes of the West Midlands Prevention of Terrorism Act Research Association. Pat went onto to found a Derby IBRG branch which became central to a successful campaign that secured Kate’s freedom the following year.
In my speech I reflected on the numbers of women who were active in IBRG at branch, regional and national level. Women were a significant part of the Irish community and research showed that over the years more women than men had emigrated to Britain and that they were active in many campaigns and organisations in the Irish community.
IBRG, unlike many left organisations at that time, did have working class women as members, many of whom were the backbone of their branches.,
Find out more in the IBRG Archive at the WCMLwhere the Minute Books of N.E.Lancs IBRG, the report “The Irish in Lancashire” and Michael Kneafsey’s account of the history of the branch are housed. A comprehensive account of Kate’s campaign is also included in the archive.