Have you heard the one about the Irishman? Irish people have
been the butt of jokes for years, leaving us with an unjust
stereotype of men with little intelligence and a large capacity for
drink. For the Irish men who came here from the 1940s, these labels
have damaged their social integration and welfare.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, large numbers of Irish people
emigrated to Britain because the Irish economy could not sustain
the population and the second world war had left Britain desperate
for manual workers, particularly on building sites.
Often, one sibling stayed at home with their parents, while the
rest emigrated, the plan being to send some money back and save
enough to return, buy some land and start afresh. It was always
intended as a temporary move but, with no work to go back to, few
The typical scenario was for men to work from dawn to dusk,
followed by the pub and then back to their lodgings. The Irish pub
became the community centre, where people were paid, hired and
fired. Irish men went where the work was and this transient
lifestyle was not conducive to forming partnerships and settling
While the lifestyle may have been an adventure for men in their
20s, the “work hard, play hard” mentality has left many with little
to show for their lives. Their lifestyle has also left its mark.
When support organisations talk about “older” Irish men, they mean
anyone above 40. Irish men in Britain have higher mortality rates
than the host population and the Irish population living in
Ireland. Long hours, hard manual labour and a lack of health and
safety on construction sites have contributed to poor physical and
mental health. Common problems include arthritis, skin cancer from
working with no sun protection and lung cancer from smoking
“When they stopped working they became broken spirits with nothing
to live for,” says Anthony Hanlon, director of voluntary
organisation Leeds Irish Health and Homes. In many cases, this
leads to depression. Difficulties around cultural identity, a lack
of family and friends and anti-Irish racism are also factors.
In the 1950s it was common to see “No Irish” signs on lodgings
because of the stereotype that they were aggressive, unreliable and
heavy drinkers. This made many shrink away from other Irish people,
says Helena Duignan, research and resources administrator at the
Coventry Irish Society. But it also prevented them integrating with
the local community, so they became doubly isolated. And if life
proved difficult in Britain, many men lost contact with their
social network in Ireland because of embarrassment and pride.
Drinking heavily is often associated with depression, but few Irish
men seek medical or social care help because the first thing they
are asked is how much they drink. It is seen as synonymous with
being Irish, says Hanlon.
But alcohol is a problem among older Irish men. The pub’s role as a
social centre could lead to alcohol abuse. And anecdotally, among
those who use Hanlon’s service there is a disproportionate number
who abuse alcohol. In the past four months, Hanlon has seen hard
work and alcohol kill five of her clients aged between 31 and
The transient lifestyle of some has resulted in a
disproportionately large percentage of older Irish men ending up
homeless in the UK. But, despite their obvious need, services are
limited. A large part of the problem is the lack of monitoring of
the Irish community. When the results of the 2001 UK census are
known, it will be the first time that Britain’s Irish community has
been fully counted.
“A lot of information is hidden and that allows service planners
and providers not to do anything for them because they can say
there’s no evidence,” says Hanlon. “People think of ethnicity and
racial discrimination in a black and white sense. Because of that
dichotomy, there is a reticence in pushing forward any of the Irish
Hanlon has never worked with a client group with such low
expectations. “When we find people in horrendous situations they
think they have to put up with it.”
Part of this he puts down to the dominant Catholic psyche in their
upbringing: if you accept poor things on earth, you will be
rewarded in heaven. There is also the cultural attitude in Ireland
that men have to be strong, so they are proud and reluctant to
complain, says Duignan. They don’t know which benefits they are
entitled to and are fearful about approaching authorities in case
they are held responsible for taxes they did not pay 40 years ago
when they were paid cash in hand.
Hanlon’s organisation is the only provider of support services to
the Irish community in Leeds, even though this is estimated to
stand at between 35,000 and 50,000 people.
Leeds Irish Health and Homes provides culturally appropriate
services by acknowledging Irish traditions. It is run by members of
the the Irish community and manages 62 housing units. It also runs
an outreach service to help older Irish people maintain
independence in their own homes. There is a day club, a health
outreach project and an information service.
In Coventry there are no such services for the Irish community,
even though they account for more than 10 per cent of the
population. The Coventry Irish Society, where Duignan works, is
purely an information service to assist with pensions, housing and
benefit queries and there is also a survivors service for those
abused in Ireland’s industrial schools.
“There’s no commitment to run a proper service, unlike other ethnic
minority groups,” says Duignan. “The problem is that they have
never been seen as an ethnic minority group, but there is a huge
amount of need there.”
Birmingham at forefront
Birminghan has made more progress than most in providing
services for older Irish men. As well as providing its own
services, the Irish Welfare and Information Centre in Birmingham
also has strong links with health, housing and social services.
Loraine O’Rourke’s post as outreach worker with older Irish
adults at the centre is funded by Birmingham social services
department. Where a social worker might have difficulty gaining
access, O’Rourke can “get through with my Irish connection, talk to
the person and from that we can bring in a social worker and the
GP, look at things such as benefits – it widens things out”.
Further co-operation comes from a local GP who holds a surgery
for older Irish people. And a joint project with a local housing
association will open 45 flats in February 2003 with support for
Irish men aged 50 and over.
O’Rourke’s role is to help older Irish adults access mainstream
services, including social services, Benefits Agency, primary care
services, neighbourhood offices and housing “because as a group of
people they are very reluctant and wary of accessing the services
She helps older Irish men move from lodgings into tenancies,
which can involve shopping for cheap furniture and helping them
live with limited resources.
“With no support these tenancies can fail and men can find
themselves homeless or in poor accommodation again,” O’Rourke says.
“We are the nearest they have to a relative.”
The problem, she says, is that the Irish community is not
obvious. “There’s an assumption that they have integrated well and
their needs are the same, but they are distinctly