Blog, Women's History

‘Unfit and untrained, physically and morally, to stand so sudden and violent a change of environment’ : Irish Female Emigration to Britain in the Late Twentieth Century

[i]My life-long fascination with the role of gender in shaping women’s working lives began when, at the age of six, a doctor asked me if I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up. When I answered that I would like to be a doctor, he appeared bemused, leaving me acutely aware that I had not responded appropriately. My enduring interest in this topic is now reflected in my research, which explores the employment landscape encountered by women on the island of Ireland and in Britain between the 1970s and early 1990s – a landscape shaped by the enactment of employment equality legislation, changing social attitudes, and the influence of E.E.C membership. While embarking upon a PhD research project just months before the start of a pandemic felt like an error of timing, challenges in accessing archival materials has prompted me to use a variety of sources that include the incredibly rich range of official reports available: digital collections, legal databases, government legislation websites and online newspaper databases in addition to collections containing accounts of individual women’s experiences.

Large numbers of young female emigrants from Ireland travelled to Britain in the second half of the twentieth century in search of employment. Consideration of the issues they faced, such as the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country coupled with discrimination due to their gender and origins, builds a rich picture of women’s working lives as emigrants.

These women were the subject of ongoing concern about the moral dangers they might be exposed to through paid work. In 1954, the religious publication The Furrow described a sighting ‘in the small hours of the morning’ of a group of ‘chattering young women’. Revealed to be a group of Irish nurses from Tooting hospital attending early-morning mass, this depiction provides a quintessential image of Irish female emigration in the mid-twentieth century. The article’s author, a male member of a religious order, wanted the Irish Government to ‘prohibit’ the emigration of young women such as these, judging them to be ‘unfit and untrained, physically and morally, to stand so sudden and violent a change of environment’.[ii] His views reflected widespread concerns about vulnerable young female emigrants and their moral wellbeing.

Such concerns were also apparent in the policies of Kilburn’s Emerald Employment Agency, which specialised in recruiting Irish emigrants in the 1970s. Lacking a nurse on staff to assess nursing posts, the agency did not recruit for nurses, fearing that ‘girls might be sent into abortion work’. Actresses were not catered for either, with fears that going ‘for a bit part’ might result in a job as ‘a stripper’.[iii] At a 1974 press conference in Clonliffe College, Dublin, that followed a meeting of religious leaders on the subject of emigration, Bishop Eamon Casey expressed the laudable intention to publish ‘a career guidance booklet’ for young women wishing to travel to Britain to train and work as nurses. Moral concerns appeared to be particularly significant, since in addition to practical career advice, potential nurses would be informed of the clause exempting them from procedures ‘concerned with abortion or allied matters’.[iv]

However, women’s own concerns were very different. Margaret Collins emigrated from Northern Ireland in 1945 to train as a nurse in Britain and provided a personal account of her working life as part of a collection of oral histories of Irish women who emigrated to Britain. She enjoyed nursing, viewing it as a superior profession offering ‘comradeship’ and ‘enjoyable work’. A nursing post was clearly a covetable one, with nurses perceived to be ‘above’ factory or shop work. After her marriage, she worked as a home help for fourteen years, during which time she became a shop steward with the NUPE (National Union of Public Employees). In the course of this work she became aware of a lack of female Irish involvement, which she attributed to a lack of consciousness of trade unions, and thus encouraged other women to join. As an active female trade unionist, she became familiar with gender- and racially-based discrimination. Despite working in a branch with a female majority, she observed the tendency amongst male colleagues to ‘talk women down’. She also experienced discrimination from ‘really anti-Irish’ union colleagues. The escalating situation in Northern Ireland troubled her, and she recalled a particular incident where an issue regarding Northern Ireland ‘was shouted down’. Margaret exemplified a resourceful, skilled and successful emigrant, but discrimination based upon both her origins and gender featured significantly throughout her working life.[v]

Irish women emigrants challenge the archetypal image of the young, male Irish emigrant, their relative invisibility as a group evidenced by the ease of their integration into British society. For example, a 1980s newspaper article described their tendency to ‘infiltrate society a lot better’ than their male counterparts.[vi] That means we need to look even more closely to uncover their lives and experiences. Over the past year, as headlines emerged highlighting the impact of the pandemic upon women’s lives and employment, my research seemed increasingly relevant. According to gender historian Gerda Lerner, ‘we ask the questions of the past we want answered in the present’ and the theme of resilience in the face of vulnerability and discrimination that emerges from the stories of female emigrants such as Margaret Collins still resonate today.[vii] At a time when the societal and employment gains made by women over the past fifty years appear increasingly fragile, questioning and understanding the past, is vital to building a more equitable and supportive society in the present.

Suzanne Jobling is a PhD student in History at Queen’s University Belfast. Graduating with a degree in Analytical Science from Dublin City University, she pursued a career in IT consultancy and Business Analysis, working in Dublin, London and Belfast. Suzanne returned to education in 2018, graduating with an MA in History in 2019. As a result of her career and experiences working in IT, Suzanne is fascinated by the history of women in employment. Her research focuses upon the Republic of Ireland and the UK, in the period between 1970 and the early 1990s.

[i] Mathias Bodkin, Edward Holloway, B. Gerald Hodgson, Thomas Lane and Eamonn Gaynor, ’The Irish in Britain [with Comments]’ in The Furrow, v, no.4 (1954), p.209.

[ii] Mathias Bodkin, Edward Holloway, B. Gerald Hodgson, Thomas Lane and Eamonn Gaynor, ’The Irish in Britain [with Comments]’, pp 209-240.

[iii] Irish Times, 10 Dec. 1970.

[iv] IT, 19 Apr. 1974.

[v] Margaret Collins, ‘from “Across the Water: Irish Women’s Lives in Britain”’ in Maria Luddy, Dympna McLoughlin (eds.), Field Day Anthology V (Cork, 2002), pp 584-586.

[vi] IT, 7 Nov 1986.

[vii] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York, 1986), p.15.