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Who do you think you are? Irish nurses encountering ethnicity and constructing identity in Britain- Louise Ryan

This article is written based on interviews with Irish nurses in Britain, who mostly migrated in the 1950s–1970s and demonstrates the ways in which Irish migrants were insiders in terms of being white and European but outsiders with regards to culture, identity and their position in society.

Ryan highlights how the Irish migrant had already by this period been characterised by stereotypes of bestiality and racial inferiority and regularly related with images of ‘Mick’ and ‘Paddy’, hard drinking and angry labourers. However, despite the prominent image of such male, working-class stereotypes, it is noted that women make up the majority of the Irish population in Britain, with a significant amount of them being in skilled jobs. In the article, Ryan therefore observes some of the ways in which a group of skilled migrant women encountered and actively altered their Irish ethnic identity in the 1950s-1970s in order to be successful in British society.

For the article, the author interviewed 26 Irish nurses and their responses were analysed and put into five categories; The ‘Irish community abroad’ and the Holloway Road, ‘Irish people don’t do that’: Constructing Irishness in a hospital environment, Bombs and the bloody Irish: Negotiating hostility, Religion and otherness and Englishness, whiteness and otherness.

In the first section the author describes how some nurses in London in the late 1950s attended the dance halls of the Holloway Road that were often described to them as being rough social spaces. Ryan highlights that these were not social areas where Irishness was expressed and constructed but these spaces became constructed as specific kinds of ethnic spaces and were viewed by some people as too rough and in some cases too Irish. It then goes on to describe how some Irish nurses would want to avoid these areas and Ryan notes that this could be associated with new migrants in London wanting to construct their self-definition of ethnicity by avoiding what they see as ‘ghettoised collective formations of Irishness’. For some of the migrants the expression of Irish identity could be seen as ‘excessive’, particularly for those who wanted to become part of a middle-class identity in the host society.

The article goes on to describe how for many of these women their relationship to Irish ethnic identity was reconciled through their gender and professional status. For instance, it is noted that Irish nurses had a ‘positive stereotype in strong contrast to almost all other Irish people’ in Britain particularly in the 1950s-1970s. However, although nurses were seen in this sense in a positive light and as hard-working professionals in a caring role, Ryan demonstrates how this positive image was centred around these women playing highly gendered roles and avoiding rough expressions of Irishness such as ‘down the Holloway Road’. Moreover, it is shown that even nurses in a hospital setting could not always avoid negative stereotyping and discrimination, as by examining many of the women’s narratives Ryan notes that there were blatant forms of stereotyping and prejudice. She suggests that the fact that most of the women did not perceive any of it as anti-Irish racism indicates that as Irish migrants in Britain, they had accepted that this type of behaviour from British people was normal. For instance, ‘The racialisation of the Irish is so ingrained in British culture as to be barely recognisable for what it is’ and in the British popular press the Irish were frequently characterised as being dirty with a ‘notorious apathy to soap and water’. As well as this, Irish migrants were characterised as poor, ignorant and backward, with Irish women lacking domestic skills. Ryan therefore highlights that in some hospitals Irish nurses had to construct their identities and prove their professionalism whilst dealing with negative gender, class and ethnic stereotypes.

The third point looks at how the Irish had historically been stereotyped as irrational, hot-tempered and violent and such stereotypes were re-used in the 1970s-80s to explain the IRA campaign and also to describe Irish people generally as being viewed as a suspicious community. Ryan highlights that in the context of IRA bombings, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and anti-Irish hostility and stereotypes in the popular press, many Irish people may have practised a form of self-censorship in Britain. For instance, it is described how one of the nurses decided not to wear a shamrock on St Patricks Day as a way of almost concealing her identity and avoiding confrontation.

The fourth part looks at Religion and how many of the nurses were seen as an inconvenience due to requesting that they were granted permission to attend church. Many were refused authorisation and Ryan explains that this shows while features of ethnic identity may be internally defined, the extent to which they were allowed to make their own choices were restricted and were affected by external forces. For example, the hostile environment that many of the nurses encountered did not allow them to express aspects of their Irish identity.

Lastly, the need to recruit a significant amount of overseas care workers to the National Health Service illustrates the fact that many British women at the time saw nursing as a poorly paid and unattractive occupation. However, Ryan argues that it is also possible that some English nurses felt resentful of Irish nurses taking over particular hospitals and turning them into Irish working environments. To summarise, the author explains how Irish migrant nurses occupied an ambiguous position in Britain as white insiders but as cultural outsiders.

Ryan concludes by emphasising that while the Irish in Britain historically have been represented as stupid, backward, lazy, violent and drunken, Irish women were depicted as unreliable, unkempt, sloppy and undomesticated. Being workers in a skilled profession that required cleanliness, accuracy and attention to detail, Irish nurses had to deal with these stereotypes in a variety of ways in order to avoid confrontation and also be successful in their jobs. Taking everything into account, the author demonstrates how the twenty-six Irish nurses who were interviewed portrayed the uncertain positioning of Irish migrants in Britain as white, European insiders as well as foreigners, outsiders and migrant workers.

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