The 'Start' and the Finished: The Pub and Irish Emigrants to Britain

A short extract from a chapter in my book about the history of the role of the pub in the lives of Irish emigrants. This is a part of  Chapter 7 of 'Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish Pub' and is the start of a larger section on Irish emigrants to Britain and the role played by the pub in their lives. I think it is an interesting subject and particularly relevant this time of the year. The book is available from Amazon etc. All comments are welcome as I am hoping to develop this specific topic into a research project.       

The ‘start’ and the finished:  The Irish pub and the emigrant to 

As far back as 1817 the Select Committee on the Police of the Metropolis debated the issue of the Irish and alcohol in London. An unnamed witness provided his opinion: ‘The effects of liquor upon the Irish in every scene of depredation and murder needs only to be adverted to. It is certain that the abuse of this destructive stimulus foments and keeps alive the most atrocious and appalling crimes.’ It was widely believed alcohol affected the Irish differently than the natives and their predilection for whiskey made them more dangerous again. A Manchester Magistrate spoke on the issue in 1834 to the House of Commons: ‘If there be a company of English men drinking in a beer shop, they are very good friends if they get drunk together, and they can go home with each other and behave with the utmost kindness; but if it be a party of Irish drinking whiskey or spirits, they will quarrel or fight before they get home.’ In the same report a Manchester clergy man referred to this bias and damned the Irish with faint praise. ‘The Irish’, he said, ‘have more a reputation for drunkenness than they deserve because they are so noisy and brawling...they give money to one another when in distress and sickness, and send money to their poor relations in Ireland.’ Similar to Ireland the living conditions of most of these early immigrants were poor. In 1849 the Chief Constable of Wolverhampton commented on the issue: ‘Many are tempted to spend their time and money in these places from the total want of comfort at their own houses; indeed, many of them have told me, after having been turned out of the public house, that the place in which they lived was in such a miserable state that they would rather remain out in the open air if the weather was not so severe.’ According to the report, some migrants brought alcohol with them from Ireland and sold it in lodging houses. The police referred to such places as ‘wabble shops’ and despaired of counteracting the problem because of warning systems in place.

John Healy wrote Death of an Irish Town—later published as No one shouted stop!—about the decline of his native Charlestown in County Mayo. Ireland was in an economic morass and England wanted all types of workers: 'England, hated England, now waved its trident engraved fresh green money under the noses of all the Charlestowns of the West of Ireland, and from those huge overstocked rich spawning streams...the young and the lusty and the eager turned like strong fingerlings and headed downstream and out to sea for the rich feeding grounds of wartime Britain.’ He described the pain felt by the families left behind and the wonder of the young emigrants. His memories as a child are of the returning crowds at holiday periods. The buses heading to the north and west of Mayo passed through Charlestown. As soon as the buses pulled up, he remembered, the men would come lurching out and into the bars on ‘The Square’. Their wallets were full and they wanted drink and ‘they drank until the buses pulled out again and went on to Swinford where they stopped again and drank again.’ They would repeat it again in Foxford and Ballina. They drank their way home, ‘those two hundred miles across the face of Ireland.’ They were a different people to when they had left. Now they could drink in the Hotel with the best: ‘they could buy drinks with the best in the best lounge bars in town. Their money and their earning power was as great, if not greater, than the social hierarchy of the town. They made more than the schoolteachers who could not afford to buy a round of drinks for the house...Drink up, mate-there is plenty where this came from...Come on, mate!- Put them up again, Tom, fill them up: let the last day be the best.’ Healy pondered the reasons why so many of these emigrants developed problems with alcohol. He acknowledged they were lonely and living in an alien environment but these were 'stock' answers. Money was an issue; 'the unfamiliarity with money, the handling of money': 'Young men who lived in and about our town were lucky to have the handling of a pound note in the week; more likely it was ten shillings which kept them in the threepenny packet of Woodbines, gave them half a crown for a Sunday night dance, nine pence for the Thursday night picture and left something for the odd bottle of stout...The social historian will do well to ponder what happened when, overnight, such a young man found himself in Mac Alpines Fusiliers (in the employ of Mac Alpines building company) with as many pounds in his pocket as he had shillings before.’

In The men who built Britain Ultan Cowley provides a history of the life of Irish labourers or ‘Navvies’. The term 'navvy' came to be used as a catch all for any labouring job, particularly in relation to construction but its origins were more specific. The commercial canal system laid out in the British Isles in the nineteenth century was known as the Inland Navigation System. The diggers of these canals became known colloquially as navigators which became shortened to ‘navvy.’ Cowley quotes from a book by David Fitzpatrick published by the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland entitled Irish Emigration 1801- 1921 which described the tensions sometimes created when groups of Irish labourers came to small villages:

They lived for the present; they cared not for any past; they were indifferent to the future. Their pay nights were a Saturnalia of riot and disorder, dreaded by the villagers along the line of works. The irruption of such men into the quiet hamlet of Kilsby... produced a very startling effect on the reclusive inhabitants of the place...the navvies were little better than heathens.....For their lodgings, a hut of turf would content them; and in their hours of leisure, the meanest public house would serve for their parlour. Unburdened as they usually were, by domestic ties, softened by family affection, and without much moral or religious training, the navvies came to be distinguished by a sort of savage manners, which contrasted strangely with those of the surrounding population.

The pub was often the first port of call. In England you could get 'the start' in a pub frequented by the Irish. ‘In every urban centre there were Irish pubs, albeit perhaps called The George, The Crown or The King's Head’ as Crowley wrote. Here they could network, meet old friends, get news from home, establish locate contacts, find lodgings or be given a job. Loneliness and culture shock drove men to the pub. They desperately sought a sense of community and it was in the pub they often found it.

Kevin Casey was interviewed by Catherine Dunne's in her book An unconsidered people, the story of some Irish emigrants in London. He had an unusual job for an Irishman, working as a valet for a Lord Beatty near Banbury. He recalled his visit to a local pub: 'I remember going to a pub one night in King's Sutton and it was full of people. In the crowd was this chap wearing a little shamrock badge. It was what was known as an Aer Lingus badge. I went over to him and asked him if he was Irish. 'I am' he said 'from Tipperary'. He was a groom from one of the other estates, and we became great pals. It's not that the people weren't sociable-they were and they made us very welcome. But there's something about looking for your own identity, your own language, your own accent. It's something to home in on, something familiar.’

Drinking numbed the pain of loneliness, acting as an anaesthetic for many. Another man described the lack of a home life as the reason he gravitated to the pub: ‘When you come over here you have no home, you pay for your week's lodgings, get a bed, your meals don't fit in, your culture is different, you go out at night and spend your money in the pub because there's nowhere else much to go to, because there's camaraderie there, and there's people, it's a social kind of life.’

In his research Cowley received a letter from a man called ‘Callahan’ who told him  the Irish were not wanted by the landladies and were forced into the pub by loneliness, lack of identity and culture shock. Bill Brennan who lived in Arlington House, an iconic homeless hostel in Camden Town, London, recalled a typical day 'jumpin' out of a van in the evenin', soakin' wet, into the pub-no such thing as goin' home to change and the rain soakin' into you...that's why you see all the old men goin' around with sticks and crutches, When you were young it didn't seem to affect you, but now it's got into their bones, dried into them.’ One traffic Island in Camden town, close to a popular pub, was known as Penguin Island. So many Irish men gathered there waiting for the pub to open on a Sunday morning dressed in black suits and white shirts they looked like a group of penguins. Dancehalls were the place to go after the pubs. They were alcohol free which often led to binge drinking in the pubs beforehand. Bill Brennan elaborated on the theme:

I needed the alcohol to be able to ask a woman to dance....I had to have a massive amount of alcohol drunk over there in The Good Mixer pub before crossing the road to the Buffalo... I was goin' across and no one would dance with me, because I was mad drunk, and I was saying 'What the fuck is wrong with me?' I'm young and I've a three piece suit on, and I've got a few bob in my pocket- what the fuck's goin on?' And, of course the answer was I was totally drunk.....I'd come away totally frustrated. I wasn't socially able to make any of these moves towards a normal life, which a normal human being should have without alcohol.

Phyllis Izzard was the first person interviewed in Catherine Dunne's book. She confirmed Bill's account; ‘some of the dancehalls could be rough, and these fellas would be well inebriated. They wouldn't come into the dancehall until late in the night; all of us girls would have been sitting around the wall all evening like wallflowers, and then they'd come in, last knockin's.’

Ultan Cowley sought information from women of their experience of the construction industry in Britain and how it affected relationships with men. In a public appeal he received only four replies, two of them from the same person. This correspondence is from a lady identified as ‘K. Hamilton’:

I have a limited recollection of my father's life as a navvy. I remember he would get a draw [an advance] on his wages early in the week- having spent a great portion of his pay check the previous weekend in the pubs.....I'm afraid my father wasn't very articulate on his return home at the end of the day. After his meal he fell asleep. However had I been able to follow him after work to 'Ward's House', 'The Queen's Elm', or 'The Lord Packenham' I'm convinced I would have found out a lot more about his day on the today's standard mine and many other Irish families in England would be classified as dysfunctional- so be it.

He received an embittered letter from a woman who wished to remain unidentified: 'The Irish men, young and old were drunken thugs who disgraced themselves in every city they worked in. They had no respect for their women at home or on the streets...Paddy would not marry, he carried the status of a hard case. He made dirt of his own women in a foreign country...The Irish girls coming from Ireland- most didn't drink, smoke or dope. They worked to get a bit to eat and clothes on their back.’

Joe Mc Garry from Tyrone described the downward spiral that sometimes occurred. The people who had a sense of self became millionaires, while he was ‘standin' down a hole, to get money, to buy a drink, so that I could fit in, belong, be normal, and be one of us.’ If you didn't maintain this togetherness you weren't part of the little group: ’you were one of them, whoever they were.’ If you didn't drink your money at night you were seen as mean, ‘there was something wrong with you.’ After that, he said, men often ended up homeless, working an odd day to get money for alcohol. If there wasn’t any work they often drank for the entire day. He eloquently described the mind set of these broken men: ‘There is a depth of pain that finds its level, amongst a group of men in a pub, in a park, homeless and drunk, who recognise each other's pain....Now I know I'm an island of self, between two places, and I have to identify my own self- what I am, what I can do.’

F.H. Boland, then Ambassador to the court of Saint James notified Eamon De Valera's government in 1951 of the appalling conditions many of the Irish were living in and was critical of the role of the clergy. The church wanted the Irish to live together because they believed the atmosphere in English homes might present a moral hazard. Boland cited an example 'where the local Canon approved of having 150 Irishmen living in three smallish houses because the men were kept together in accommodation run by a man of good character.’

Cavan born painter Brendan Canavan had this to say about De Valera in an interview with journalist Seamus Enright for the Anglo Celt newspaper: 'Mr de Valera came over here to Birmingham and said that wages were as high in Ireland as they were in Birmingham. Well, what can you say? What is the answer to that? Why were there boat loads of people coming over? You’d see them weeping, distraught. Why was that happening if the Irish government was providing a world where people could flourish? That’s an old question. It’s the old, old question. Aristotle asked it, ‘what is the government for?’ It is to allow people to flourish, and we didn’t flourish then, did we?”

The Crown in Cricklewood is the most iconic and celebrated of the Irish pubs in London.  'The Crown in Cricklewood was our Mecca’ according to one of the interviewees in Catherine Dunne’s book. ‘If you wanted a job or wanted to know where work was coming up, if you were known as a worker you could always get drink on the slate or a loan of a few quid until you got back on your feet... if you were stuck for a place to stay you had a word with the Guv'ner and there was always a room upstairs for a couple of nights...The Crown was like Rick's Cafe in Casablanca- everyone went there sooner or later. People who moved around got their letters from home addressed to The Crown.’

The Crown is now The Crown Moran Hotel and bears little relation to the establishment it once was. Established in 1751 it was a coaching tavern, situated on a road notorious for highway robberies. The London General Omnibus Company selected The Crown as a terminus for their horse-drawn double-deckers. From the early nineteenth century seasonal agricultural labourers came to Cricklewood. The Crown pub was built in 1900 on the site of the original much smaller inn which was sold in 1898 for £86,000. Magistrates had imposed a strict limit on licensing in the area even though the population was increasing rapidly. Consequently, The Crown was the only public house in Cricklewood. Between 1940 and 1975 the areas of Cricklewood, Harlesden and Kilburn became a focal point for the rapidly growing Irish community in London and The Crown became famous for being at the heart of it. Early each morning, groups of Irish tradesmen and labourers gathered in the forecourt looking for ‘the start’ or ‘call on’. Building contractors, or sub-contractors, would turn up with trucks and vans to recruit men out of the crowd for a day’s casual labour. If you didn't get work the temptation was to go to the pub. In the early 1960s Irish songwriter, Dominic Behan wrote the ballad ‘Mc Alpine’s Fusiliers’ recorded by The Dubliners:

'Oh, the craic was good in Cricklewood and they wouldn’t leave The Crown,

With glasses flying and Biddy’s crying ‘cause Paddy was going to town

Oh mother dear, I’m over here and I’m never coming back

What keeps me here is the reek o’beer, the ladies and the craic…'

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Tags: Books, Emigration, History of the Pub, Immigration, Publishing, Social History

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on December 8, 2016 at 8:22am

Comment by Colm Herron on December 9, 2016 at 10:06am

Packed to the rafters with nugget after nugget of information - and entertainment. Thanks for all that Kevin,and Cheers!

Comment by Alan on December 19, 2016 at 12:06am

Great song- and I will add another

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on January 9, 2017 at 2:29pm

Great article. I remember the Crown in Cricklewood fondly. We used to cash our checks there also.......


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