“They crossed the Irish Sea in their millions seeking a new life, and in the process reshaped Britain, building motorways and cities, filling churches, clubs and pubs, and stamping their identity on the landscape and the culture,” reads an article on Irish emigration to the UK published by The Guardian earlier this month.
However, the UK’s Office of National Statistics confirms that the number of Irish-born people in the UK is falling, dropping by 20% in ten years. Indeed, in the last four census taken in the UK, there has been a decline in the number of Irish-born respondents.
The article reminded us of a report LIHH co-authored back in 1997. The project, titled Green, White and Invisible, was prompted by the publication of the Commission for Racial Equality’s 1997 research report on the extend of racial discrimination faced by Irish people in the UK. Green, White and Invisible was one of our organisation’s first serious efforts to highlight the specific disadvantages faced by many Irish people in our city, and to make recommendations for addressing the gaps in services in a culturally sensitive manner.
“At the time, it felt like a struggle to get statutory bodies to even recognise the Irish as a group which faced particular challenges,” admits LIHH Chief Executive Ant Hanlon. “And so we set out with the help of Councillor Patrick Hennigan to write a report which clearly stated the nature and scale of the difficulties faced by some people in our community.”
The report opens with an exploration of the size of the Leeds Irish population - and the tendency to underreport Irishness. In 1991, the Leeds Census identified the Irish as the third largest ethnic minority in the city, with 9,767 Irish-born heads of households. However, the Green, White and Invisible report is clear that this is, at best, a conservative estimate and, at worst, completely misrepresentative.
“All other ethnic minority figures include second and third generation in their numbers, but the Irish figures only included those born in Ireland,” explains Ant. “And there was no allowance for Irish women living with non-Irish partners. Because so many Irish people assimilate and integrate into British society so effectively - and in some cases, feel that they have to - they can run the risk of disappearing. Hence the ‘invisible’ in the report title. We suggested that a revised estimate of the Leeds Irish population at this time would have been closer to 60,000.”
Despite the many achievements, successes and contributions of the Leeds Irish population to the city, the report notes the many issues faced by the community. “We highlighted that the Irish population, unlike many other long-standing immigrant groups, remained concentrated in Urban Priority areas, with above average levels of unemployment, overcrowding, lone pensioner households, households without cars, hospital admissions and mental health issues,” says Ant.
The report also explores racist stereotypes - including an incident where a Radio Aire DJ made an ‘Irish joke’ on air and invited listeners to do the same - and the fact that these stereotypes can have serious, far-reaching implications.
While the report details that the Irish population in Leeds at this time faced specific health challenges - for example, a 145% higher than the national average incidence of tuberculosis - it also highlighted that some diagnoses of Irish people in the UK felt tinged with racist attitudes and cultural ignorance.
“We quoted evidence that Irish men were 10 times more likely than a white British male to be diagnosed with alcohol abuse, while diabetes - which can exhibit similar symptoms to alcohol abuse - was underdiagnosed, suggesting that clinicians were all too ready to accept the stereotype of the ‘Irish Drinker’,” says Ant.
Irish people were also four times more likely to be referred under the Mental Health Act (1983) as White British people and twice as likely to be assessed in a police station. “A consequence of the ‘Mad Fighting Paddy’ stereotype?” asks Ant.
And underlining the socio-economic factors, insecure housing, health challenges and stereotypes faced by Irish people in Leeds was an overall lack of recognition of the Irish community as a distinctive group requiring a culturally sensitive response.
“We made a series of recommendations to Leeds City Council, including more opportunities for Irish people to identify as Irish on official surveys, to be more involved in the planning of local services and an Irish Elderly Outreach Scheme to support older Irish people,” says Ant. “Today, the relationship between LIHH and Leeds City Council is a well-established and productive partnership.”
As an organisation, LIHH continues to explore an evolving mission and what that means for the Leeds Irish community and those who have vulnerabilities. As such, the release of the census data is timely.
“We can see signs of the changes the census has picked up on here in Leeds,” says Ant. “Many of our older members live in areas where newer communities have established themselves and their touchpoints have disappeared. As people become older and more frail, this can create fear and isolation. It’s more important than ever that we continue to offer our Care, Culture and Community services to this group,” explains Ant. “In recent times, we’ve supported these members of our community through the Covid-19 pandemic and we’ve upped our efforts in the area of digital inclusion, too.”
But it’s also important to recognise that the Irish in Britain aren’t one homogenous body, and for LIHH to include others in its remit, too.
“Some Irish people have integrated fully and completely into British society, building businesses, careers and families, and it may or may not be obvious that they have an Irish background. In addition, many of the immigrants coming through now from Ireland don’t feel a need to engage and huddle like they did in the 70s and 80s, mainly due to the impact of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s important for us to be in tune with these changes, and to respond accordingly.”
LIHH’s intergenerational work presents lots of opportunities to focus on the distinctive experience of second and third generation Irish people in the city, and to ensure that Irish people never feel that they have to assimilate at the expense of their own identity.
“As long as there’s an Irish community in Leeds, Leeds Irish Health and Homes will be here to lobby for their needs and support them,” says Ant. “Despite the changes we’ve experienced, that’s as true today as it was 25 years ago when this report was written.”
To read the full Green, White and Invisible report from 1997, click below.