- The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725–2001
Liam Harte recounts in the introduction to this fascinating anthology that his own father, like his father before him, worked for many seasons in Britain as a “July barber,” departing every summer from his native County Mayo to work as a migratory harvester in northern England. Harte himself left Ireland to further his education in Britain, and now teaches at the University of Man-chester. The editor of a previous collection of essays about the Irish autobiographical tradition (Modern Irish Autobiography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Harte has here put together an anthology of sixty-three excerpts from life writings by authors of Irish birth or background who lived and worked in Britain between the first quarter of the eighteenth century and the present day, ranging from unskilled laborers and domestic servants to canonical authors like W. B. Yeats and John B. Keane. The collection represents considerable research since many of the texts are out of print, difficult to access, or exist only in manuscript. As the author states in his theoretically informed introduction, the anthology cannot claim to be definitive or comprehensive about the experience of being Irish in Britain, as much material may have been lost, and the majority of emigrants did not have the inclination, ability, or opportunity to express their thoughts on paper. Harte sees the fact that certain categories of emigrants are under-represented in the collection—especially women, and particularly nurses and domestic servants—as silent evidence of the material impediments created by such occupations, which often claimed all of the person’s waking hours, as opposed to the types of labor performed by men.
Harte’s stated purpose is to make visible, through these firsthand accounts, what is often rendered absent about the experience of emigration. He aims to give nuance to generalizations that Irish writers tended to focus on nostalgic memories of the land they had left behind rather than on their lived experience in their new environment; and to dispel the myth that “the [End Page 866] Irish in Britain” were a homogeneous group in a homogeneous place. Rather, their experiences varied widely, depending on gender, geography—London, northern England, Scotland, Wales—religion, education, occupation, social class, and political outlook, although stories of bad housing, poor nutrition, and hard drinking are much in evidence. Among these tales of hardship, Walter Hampson’s account of his 1870s childhood as an assistant chimney sweep or “climbing boy” (a practice that had been made illegal in 1840) stands out as a particularly harrowing example. Francis Fahy, on the other hand, writes of a thriving and civilized culture of Irish revivalism in 1890s Southwark, where he organized language classes and lectures on Irish literary topics by such luminaries as W. B. Yeats, Katharine Tynan, and Justin MacCarthy—whose lecture was attended by Oscar Wilde, another Irish expatriot then at the height of his fame. Nevertheless, all the writers in the collection shared the experience of displacement, even if their responses to that condition varied, and many reflect on the psychology of leaving and returning, and the anguish and camaraderie felt among the often reluctant emigrants they encountered on boats and trains.
Aware of the friction between seeing these texts as “reflecting” lived history, and seeing all knowledge of the past as being discursively mediated, Harte sets out to read the texts as both social history and cultural products. If Yeats’s self-portrait as an unhappy, dislocated Victorian child in Hammersmith is to be read as “a complex amalgam of memory and imagination, forged by an inveterate self-mythologiser” (80), the same is true, to some degree at least, of all self-constructions in this anthology. Harte’s introductions to each excerpt provide background, context, and insight, and manage to be both complex and concise. The passages chosen in each case register or reflect upon aspects of the experience of being Irish in Britain; we therefore frequently see the authors in situations where...