Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group

The Irish in Britain Representation group was an Irish community group which campaigned nationally across the UK and had an active branch in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s. The organisation campaigned on a wide range of issues including anti-Irish racism, education , culture, rights of women, history, language, civil rights, miscarriages of justice and the war in the North of Ireland. Membership included both those born in Ireland and those born in Britain.

This is the first of two articles collecting memories of those involved in the Manchester branch of the IBRG.

Anti-Irish “Humour”

The Manchester branch took up a number of examples of anti-Irish “humour”, believing that such “jokes” were racist and attacked the self-confidence of the community. In July 1985 the branch wrote a letter of protest to Granada TV about the programme The Comedians, which routinely featured Irish “jokes”. Writing in response to the complaint John Hamp, Head of Light Entertainment, said that no offence had been intended:

“The Comedians reflects the sort of humour to be heard currently in summer shows, theatres and clubs around the country. No joke is intended to be interpreted seriously, and none are delivered in a malicious manner by the comedians. In fact, it’s usually the impossible or unlikely aspect of a joke which gives it humour, whatever the subject. The series employs several Irish comedians as well as comics from other parts of Great Britain. and they tell gags about themselves, their environment and each other – in a friendly and good humoured atmosphere. We feel The Comedians keeps within the accepted limits of humour and know it is enjoyed by a large audience, but regret that you feel cause to complain, and have taken note of your comments”.

In August 1986 IBRG wrote a letter of protest to the Equal Opportunities Commission over an EOC booklet entitled Do Girls Give Themselves a Fair Chance? It included a cartoon in which a young woman bricklayer on a building site is shown as being smarter and more hardworking than two male operatives who are, of course, Irish and are shown speaking in “Oirish”. In reply, the EOC’s Ann Godwin said that she very much regretted it had caused offence and that it would be revised in a new edition.

Travellers

Just before Christmas 1987 eighty DHSS investigators, accompanied by police with dogs, swamped a travellers’ camp in Salford, demanding to see children’s birth certificates. The “visit” occurred in the wake of a local press campaign which alleged that “tinkers” were flooding into the area and defrauding the benefits system. When they read of the case in the press IBRG members visited the site and offered support and practical help to the travellers as well as writing to DHSS and issuing a press release. IBRG said that it was:

“diabolical that people can be treated in this way. Whole families can be left without money at a time when most people are spending too much and eating too much. It is indicative of the way that in which people who are Irish and travellers can be hounded without any criticism of the methods or motives of organisations such as DHSS”.

Conferences

The branch thought it important to bring together Irish people to consider and discuss the issues affecting their lives, believing that it broke down the isolation many Irish people often felt when it comes to talking about issues of identity, injustice, racism and much else.

The branch’s first major conference took place on Saturday 14th November 1987 at Manchester Town Hall and was entitled “Hearts and Minds – The Irish in Britain Today”. Over 140 delegates attended, both as individuals and also representing organisations such as local authorities and North West Arts. The conference was formally opened by the Chair of Manchester City Council, Councillor Eileen Kelly. She was followed by Desmond Greaves, the noted historian and leading member of the Connolly Association, who illuminated the role that emigration has played in the lives of the Irish. This theme came up constantly during the day in the seminars.

Mary Lennon, author of a book on Irish women in Britain, looked at the pattern of Irish women’s emigration to Britain, highlighting the fact that more women than men have emigrated from Ireland and contradicting the stereotype of the Irish emigrant to Britain as being a male building worker. Moy McCrory used her book of short stories The Water’s Edge to comment on the experience of growing up in an Irish working class background in Liverpool. In her seminar on Irish Dimensions in British Education, Mary Hickman underlined the importance of having Irish studies on the curriculum of all British schools and colleges. Micheal ORiabhaigh also focused on Liverpool and commented on some of the profound obstacles that it faced in realising and expressing an Irish identity.

Pat Reynolds took up the theme of identity and anti-Irish racism. He traced the roots of this racism back to the connected history of Britain and Ireland and in this colonial relationship found the basis of present day anti-Irish racism.

IBRG judged the conference to be a great success with many important discussions in the seminars – and outside in the corridors over cigarettes and tea. It gave the Irish from all over the North West an opportunity to meet and discuss common issues. IBRG ensured that half the speakers were women and provided a creche, which was well-used

IBRG’s next conference was held to coincide with twentieth anniversary of British troops going onto the streets of the six counties and was entitled “Justice for Irish People; 20 Years On” and rook place on Saturday 10th June 1989 at Manchester Town Hall.

Another conference entitled “We Are A River Flowing…..”. took place on Saturday 3rd July 1993 at St Brendan’s Irish Centre. It encompassed a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. The final speaker Mary Nellis (a Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) spoke on Women in the Six Counties: the Struggle Goes On and On, throwing away her prepared speech after a few minutes and speaking off the cuff about her experiences in Derry in a lengthy contribution that gripped and moved the audience.

The future development of the Irish community was the subject of the next conference which was called “Irish Heartbeats” and took place on 16th March 1996 at the Friends Meeting House.

Culture

IBRG members collaborated with Adrian Mealing at Green Room to put on The Hairy Marys on 13th November 1987. The Hairy Marys were a group of talented Irish dancers from London who had tired of some of the traditions that had encrusted Irish traditional dance and used comedy and cabaret in their performance. The programme described them thus: “The HMs are a madcap gang of Irish dancers. These four raucous women dance reels to ragtime and jigs to jazz. For the past five years they have been entertaining audiences up and down the country with their irreverent mixture of traditional Irish dance, music and comedy. They are Maire Clerkin, Hester Goodman, Carmel McAree and Susan Swanton”. On the evening they went down a storm.

IBRG worked with the Green Room again to present Sean O’Neill and Company in a performance entitled Kavanagh of Inniskeen as part of the Irish week on Friday 18th March 1988. The following evening there was live music from The Jacket Potatoes, an Irish trio from London, who played both traditional tunes and a number of political songs about the situation in the North of Ireland.

The next co-promotion with the Green Room was on 16th June 1988 when Trouble & Strife Theatre Company from London performed “Now And At The Hour Of Our Death”, a play written by Sonja Lyndon. The programme notes read as follows: “It is the year 2000 and life has changed dramatically for the people of Northern Ireland. Four Irish women look back twenty years to a time when they each had a dream. Between them there is an unshakeable bond forged from the shared horror of the No Wash protest in Armagh prison in 1980. The vivid performances explore the complex relationship between women and violence and produce a magnificent piece of theatre which will shock, amuse and move.” The play lived up to the pre-publicity, according to those who saw it. Incidentally, the young women performers in the theatre company arrived a day early due to a mix-up and were all accommodated at an IBRG member’s house.

On 16th September 1988 IBRG put on Toss the Feathers at St Brendan’s Irish Centre This was at the height of the TTF mania and hundreds of people turned up. Members recall that the beerstained proceeds from the evening were carried home stuffed into pockets and helped to fund branch activities for many months afterwards.

The Hairy Marys returned to the Green Room on Sunday 19th March 1989 as part of a St Patrick’s Day Celebration, one of the “Family Fundays” being run by the Green Room at this period, running a dance workshop for children who then performed later in the afternoon.

Manchester IBRG initiated the first Irish Film Festival in Manchester in collaboration with the Cornerhouse in 1988. In all there were six seasons at the Cornerhouse between 1988 and 1993. The aim was to celebrate and showcase past and present Irish efforts in this art-form, but also to use it as a way of exploring contemporary social and political issues through the use of associated day-schools and speakers.

IBRG also organised events during the Manchester Festival in 1991 and 1992 under the title Mise Eire. These included history walks, evenings with writers Moy McCrory, Moya Roddy, Clairr O’Connor and Berlie Doherty, music from Banshee, Rattle and Reel, Red Ciel and The Jacket Potatoes, dance by The Hairy Marys, and storytelling.

History

The branch organised a number of events in April 1991 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an anniversary which was virtually ignored by the Irish government, part of the so-called “revisionist” attack on celebrations of past Irish struggle which were supposedly giving aid and sustenance to the armed struggle in the north.

The first event was on Thursday 18th April, an evening entitled Poetry and Songs of the Rising held at St Brendan’s Irish centre. Actor Sean O’Neill, a good friend of Manchester IBRG, read poems by WB Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonough and others, followed by music from local musicians.

On that Friday evening there was a chance to Rock To The Rising at Chorlton Irish Centre. Music was provided by Tradition, one of West Yorkshire’s most popular Irish groups, who brought a coachload of young and enthusiastic supporters over with them and a good time was apparently had by all. Those who had not indulged too heavily the night before joined a history walk at lunchtime around Manchester City Centre.

The final event was on Sunday 21st April at St Brendan’s Irish Centre at which there were videos, music, bookstall, an Irish history quiz and a talk from Kevin Collins, author of The Cultural Conquest of Ireland. To accompany these events Ruth and Edmund Frow of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford put on an Easter Rising exhibition at the library.

There were many celebrations and conferences in 1998 to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising. Manchester IBRG organised its own conference which put the Rising squarely in the context of community history and development. This took place on Saturday 20th June 1998 at the Friends Meeting House

Gaelic Language

On Wednesday 5th June 1991 the branch organised a meeting at St Brendan’s Irish Centre to discuss the attack by the Northern Ireland office on Glor na nGael. The meeting was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London set up by IBRG to highlight the discrimination being exercised by the Northern Ireland Office against the Irish language. Glor na nGael was started in 1982 in response to the growing demand for Irish language nursery schools in the Belfast area to co-ordinate the schools and train their teachers. Patricia Campbell from Glor na nGael spoke at the Manchester meeting, which was followed by a discussion with a number of Irish speakers.

Article by Michael Herbert