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Images, the Irish and the History of Violence in Scotland Close

Professor Richard McMahon | May 31, 2016

Our histories live and thrive in the gaps between image and reality. We look to and pick at the images in search of tangible, plausible and, at times, reassuring realities. Sometimes the images are imbued with hostility towards the subject, at others times sympathy, at their best they simply reveal the complexity of the past. Realities though remain elusive. We are often forced to create our histories from the hints and glimpses found in the surviving texts and images arising from the dusty records of the state and decaying pages of newspapers and other cultural ephemera. In doing so, we reach for the realities but also confront the distortions of the past and explore their meaning.

Searching for the Irish in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scotland the distortions and exaggerations, often imbued with hostility, are perhaps all too obvious. From the 1820s, the migration of Irish men and women grew with the increased availability of steam ships and cheaper fares and, as numbers grew, so did native hostility. In the 1830s, Glasgow’s Treasurer of the Poor in the Govan parish could declare that the ‘immigration of the Irish to this city and neighbourhood has corrupted everything, moral and divine, and the sooner an end is put to it the better,…’. Crime and violence were also prominent in the list of complaints. George Miller, a manager of a cotton mill, offering his opinion of the Irish workers he encountered, called to attention their ‘reckless conduct, their wasteful habits, … their drunken revels, on Saturday nights and Sundays, in short their general corruption of manners and morals, which has loaded the calendars of the criminal courts of Scotland for the last twenty or thirty years’.

The migration of thousands of often impoverished and disease-carrying, Irish men and women to Scotland during the Great Famine, 1845-1852, did little to ease concerns. The Glasgow Herald, in early 1847, complained of the ‘expense of supporting the lives of perhaps the most improvident, intemperate and unreasonable beings that exist on the face of the earth, who infest us in shoals and beg our charity’. Again, crime and violence were central fears with the Herald declaring that the police were ‘overwrought’ by Irish migrants and that the ordinary people of Scotland were ‘robbed and murdered by them’. With obvious echoes down to the present, deep-seated fear of migration was linked to a deep hostility to the religion of the migrant and a pathetic sectarianism. The anti-Catholic journal, Scottish Protestant, warned, after the Famine, against the influence of Popery and the ‘hordes of her barbarised and enslaved victims’ from Ireland. At perhaps the most extreme point, John Steill railed against the Irish as the ‘vilest specimens of the human animal in the face of the earth’ and warned of the influence of ‘Irish crime, Irish dirt, Irish disease, and Irish degradation’. These accusations of crime, degradation and violence persisted through the century and into the next. They even came to be embedded in the official narratives of church and state. The census in the late nineteenth century contained strong anti-Irish rhetoric and associated Irish migrants in Scotland with a propensity for criminal behaviour. Most famously, and coinciding with perhaps the highpoint of anti-Irish feeling in Scotland, the Church and Nation Committee of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland produced a report entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality. This text was quick to lay the blame for many of Scotland’s ills (including crime) at the foot of the ‘Irish race’ and contributed to the legitimation of sectarianism and racism in Scottish society between the wars. Here, our texts and images offer a history of deep and profound hostilities, borne of conflict and expressed, at times, in crime and violence, between the migrant and the native.

Yet, this is too simple and obvious a narrative. At other times, the surviving texts and images offer a greater complexity. Irish workers in the nineteenth century often joined with their Scottish counterparts in strikes, trade union activities and in wider political movements. Although there were areas of concentration, Irish migrants also lived, in the main, alongside the Scottish working class. On a more intimate level, there was also intermarriage between Irish Catholics and Scottish Protestants. Irish migrant labour also made a considerable contribution to the success of the economy in the west of Scotland in the nineteenth century. Even some of the good of Glasgow occasionally commented on the better habits of the Irish. For Henry Houldsworth, who employed large numbers of Irish migrants in his spinning mill in the 1830s, migrants, were, on their arrival, ‘in general very decent and respectable in their appearance and manner’. This was diminished somewhat by their encounters with the ‘lowest dregs’ of Glasgow’s working class population but still the Irish remained ‘equal to the standard of the population employed in factories’ in the city. Houldsworth was also by no means alone in praising, albeit in often highly patronising tones, the work and habits of Irish migrants.

On the question of crime and violence, there is certainly evidence that the Irish could be over-represented in the criminal courts and prisons but the picture is again a complex one. Prison and court records are crude indicators of criminality and need to be treated with great caution. Crime reports are fraught with bias in both the collection and analysis of data and this is particularly so when dealing with migrant populations that are often dominated by young men and women experiencing harsh economic circumstances, discrimination from the native population and the difficulties of adapting to a different cultural circumstance. Such statistical data on crime is generally shaped by the underlying prejudices and priorities of those in positions of power. Where more reliable evidence can be found - say in the case of homicide, where prejudice although by no means absent is more constrained - the picture that emerges of the Irish is of relatively low homicide rates compared to experiences elsewhere. The Irish in a city like Glasgow were certainly safer from acts of lethal violence than their counterparts in New York, Philadelphia or San Francisco. Indeed, an Ulster migrant to the coal mines of Pennsylvania might have been twenty times more likely to be caught up in an act of homicidal violence than a northern Irish migrant to the coal producing areas of western Scotland in the late nineteenth century.

Group, and in particular, sectarian violence was also relatively rare in a city like Glasgow which contained a strong Irish Catholic presence. Although it shared similar ingredients of sectarianism and high levels of migration by rural Catholics seeking work, Glasgow never became a second Belfast. While the Irish city was marred by serious and oft-times lethal sectarian rioting throughout the mid to late nineteenth century, Glasgow was relatively successful in containing sectarian animosity. The Catholic Irish were absorbed in to the city as different but not as a real threat to the city’s place in the wider United Kingdom. In Belfast, by contrast, the place of the city within the Union was less secure and questioned in a way that was simply alien to the Scottish experience. Here, our image of the Irish in Scotland becomes more one of stability amidst hostility rather than one of overt and open conflict and violence.

What history then can be gleaned from our images of the Irish in Scotland and what part did violence come to play in their story? Relatively comfortable within the union and empire, some in Scotland embraced the imperial rhetoric of racial superiority and used it to marginalise and ultimately diminish the prospects of Irish migrants. Anti-Irish feeling, may have gained momentum later but it certainly lingered longer in Scotland than in either England or the United States of America. This was not a particularly violent story compared to experiences elsewhere. If anything, the Irish story in Scotland is a relatively stable one but it was also one of attempted exclusion, relative deprivation and, at times, overt racism.

Dr. Richard Mc Mahon is Assistant Professor of History amd a member of the Centre for Irish Scottish and Comparative Studies. Trinity College Dublin. The above article is based on his research on the Irish, crime and violence in Scotland which was funded by the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation and also draws on important research on the Irish in Scotland by, amongst others, T.M. Devine, Mark Doyle and Martin Mitchell. The opinions expressed are his own.