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‘The white essential subject: race, ethnicity, and the Irish in post-war Britain.’ Gavin Schaffer and Saima Nasar.

The article seeks to challenge the slippage between the Occidental usage of ‘whiteness’ as a unifying, hegemonic, totalizing category, which inevitably serves to essentialise the white subject, and ‘whiteness’ as an explanatory enterprise used to analyse multiple racial and ethnic identities.

Scholars have argued that ‘whiteness’ was the essential racial marker into which immigrants (Jews, Irish, Italians, East Europeans) pulled themselves, securing preferential status in the process, or what Gramsci has referred to as ‘consensual control’. The scholarship premise rests on the idea that ‘whiteness’ was a subjective category, malleable and ultimately lacking in objective meaning, just like the concept of race itself.

The article chooses to analyse Irish immigrants’ experience in Birmingham through two relevant case studies: Maurice Foley and the Birmingham Pub Bombings. Repeatedly, throughout the article, one is reminded that the experience of Irish in Britain, in terms of racial discrimination, was incomparable with those of black and Asian people. However, it existed, and the Irish were viewed as somewhat ‘favourable inferiors’. Foley believed that looking at America would help assimilate immigrants of color, as the challenges posed by colour were already being addressed. He visited the state eight times before taking on his new role, ‘to look at the problem of race relations’. It was clear to Foley that many more Britons were concerned with race than he was led to believe, ‘coloured people stand out as the most obvious newcomers.’ He aimed to help Irish immigrants assimilate as best as possible and erect several schemes to do so. He was largely successful.

Furthermore, the Birmingham Pub Bombings in 1971 was described as a significant topic to analyse the ‘whiteness’ of race. It was later confirmed that the bombings were the IRA. The bombing killed 21 people and injured over 200. The bombings caused shock and outrage due to the scale of death and injury mixed with the civilian casualties. On the streets of Birmingham, violence immediately erupted, targeting Irish people and places. Anti-Irish slogans were chanted, and the Irish Centre was repeatedly firebombed, and Irish businesses, schools, and pubs were attacked. In the meantime, six Irish men living in Birmingham were arrested and charged with carrying out the attacks. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was specifically intended to focus only on Irish terrorists. Its aim: ‘influence public opinion or government policy concerning affairs in Northern Ireland, and not ‘terrorists of other persuasions.’

The growing anti-Irish sentiment led to many Irish choosing when to be Irish in public; they could easily pass as British if they tried. The ability to choose where or when to be Irish, limited as it was by accent and other signifiers, seems to differentiate the Irish from black and Asian immigrants who could not decide when they wanted their blackness to be noticed as ascribed with meaning, a reality which led to contemporary observers and some subsequent scholars to observe better outcomes for Irish migrants. Yet passing as white British, and negotiating safe spaces to perform Irishness, took their own toll on Irish lives in Britain, shaping the consciousness of shame and silence.

In Conclusion, telling the story of white Irish migrants has the potential to clarify the significance of colour in migration history and improve historical understanding of the multiple processes by which constructions of racial difference have shaped Britain.

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Tony Kushner, “Constructing (another) ideal refugee journey: the Kinder” – AG

This blog post focuses on the chapter, “Constructing (another) ideal refugee journey: the Kinder,” in Tony Kushner’s The Battle of Britishness.

The Kindertransport was a voluntary movement organised by the British government in 1938 that brought 10,000 Jewish and other children from Nazi Europe to Britain. It was set up in November 1938 and successfully brought refugees (of which, 90 per cent of the 10,000 children were Jewish) from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The anti-Alien feeling still very much existed in Britain when this movement was created. Questions were increasingly raised on whether it was right to give free entry to political refugees who were seen as a danger to state and to law and order. Especially as, to the British state, migrants from Eastern Europe were the least desirable, no matter which problems they were facing at home. Kushner documents that almost all of the 80,000 refugees from Nazism, before the outbreak of the war, including those on the Kindertransport, were on temporary visas. Kushner also discusses the anti-Alien feeling in regard to the attitude of the British government, as there was no intention of the Kindertransportees to stay indefinitely, entry was, in words of the Home Office overview policy, strictly ‘on condition that they would be emigrated when they were 18’. This is reflected by a refugee worker who spoke to journalist, Mollie Panter-Downes (one of the leading voices in kindertransport), at Liverpool Street Station,  who informed her that the children would not be settled in Britain permanently – homes may be found for them in America, Australia or ‘wherever room can be found for them’.

The Kindertransport was restrained within the confines of existing alien legislation, according to Kushner’s studies, he regarded it as ‘a scheme with many flaws’.  He mentions the failure to assess the sustainability of guarantors and whether children should be separated from their parents. However, Kushner states that those working on the project acknowledges their short-comings, and admit their failure on the guarantor’s assessment.

Nonetheless, the movement is celebrated in Britain, with many statues, documentaries and movies spawning from the experiences of the children. Britain became a shining example, especially to America,  of help given and a contrast to restrictionism everywhere. Kushner states there was a mixture of sadness, excitement, confusion and tiredness among the kinder and that the memory of the Kindertransport has been instrumentalised to show how generosity is integral to British character. But, Kushner concludes that while it is important to remember how many refugees Britain has taken in, it also has a history of rejecting many refugees.

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Seminar 8 – AG ‘The Sunshine of Manly Sports and Pastimes: Sport and the Integration of Jewish Refugees in Britain’ by David Dee

Dee begins his article by stating that it’s important to highlight the bi-directionality of the process of cultural transfer and that refugee and majority community can be both donors and receivers of certain cultural, social, economic or political values through such cultural transactions.

By stating this, Dee means to speak about the assimilation process Jews faced upon entering Britain and how they settled in their prospective towns and cities. An already established English Jewish population began an ‘anglicisation’ campaign to attempt to accelerate the integration of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. The idea was to transfer to English norms, customs and ideals, stating ‘the task of making the immigrants less foreign.’ Orthodox Jewish authorities had frowned upon activities perceived as distracting from the study of religious texts and restrictions were placed on Jewish organisational life imposed by the Tsarist regimes which meant many Jewish refugees did not have an interest in sports – which the English were shocked by.

To the English, the idea that ‘unsportsmanlike’ spirit enforced that Jews would appear physically, psychologically and culturally ‘alien’ to the areas they were meaning to settle, hindering their assimilation process. Especially in a time where Jews were being accused of overcrowding and raising unemployment levels, increases in rent, etc.

Thus, the schooling system would play a compulsory role in the anglicisation teaching cleanliness and punctuality, as well as ‘proper’ methods of speech (also, British history and geography were taught). Organisations/clubs then formed in the late 1890’s who sought to include physical recreation. They consisted of armed drills, marching and gym training among traditional sports – some clubs like the Jewish Working Lads Brigade were criticised for their militaristic techniques, however it was brushed off due to teaching a physical culture.

The hope from these organisations was that it would prevent young Jews from falling into crime, smoking, gambling and drinking. However, the process was far from easy as they relied on non-financial assistance from the established community and interest among the refugees was generally not there. But, in the following years, the Jewish refugees started to win sporting competitions primarily in Gymnastics and boxing. The Jewish Athletic Association, formed in 1899, promoted sports and created weekly leagues, tournaments, competitions and galas in order to continue the interest.

Dee’s conclusion was from the 1890’s to 1914, a new sporting culture was produced amongst the youngest first and second generations refugees which was not previously in existence for the immigrants or the established Jewish community.

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Session Four – C. Holmes ‘Anti Semitism in British Society, 1876-1939’

This book by Holmes, as suggested by the title, explores the experience of Jews in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth century. The chapter ‘Movements and Measures Against Jews’ details the organised attacks and experiences held by the Jewish population in Britain. Holmes is a specialist in Social and Economic History.

This chapter by Holmes provides an in-depth analysis of the British Brothers League (BBL) and varying attempts in Britain and Ireland that displayed hostility towards Jews. He examines the anti-Semitic nature of the organisation and the United Kingdom itself. Holmes begins the chapter by speaking of the British Brothers League, illustrating that the increase in immigration after 1900 and the current social pressures in London helped the emergence of the league.

Holmes recants the cold manifesto of the league, which states that alien paupers were ‘driving English people out of their native parishes and literally taking the bread out of English peoples mouths’ which was a comment on the American Aliens Act, stressing that if Americans needed restrictions on a country as grand in size of that, then it stressed immediate need for Britain to take action. By including this, Holmes immediately illustrates the brutal hostility of the local population towards the Jews.

As the BBL was growing,  the organisation faced controversy with many differing opinions on alien immigration / anti-Semitism and thus, Tory MP’s were warned about their involvement with the league and often the BBL were associated with ‘extremists’ that had ‘a warmth of language’. Through the negative connotations of the BBL, political officials spent time associating themselves with the Immigration Reform Association (IRA) instead. The IRA, tightly controlled by upper and middle class restrictionists, was opposed to the immigration of those who had ‘bad character’. Their manifesto specifically stated they lay no claim to stress upon the ethnic origins of immigrants. The IRA was favoured by the Conservative government, it was viewed as the more ‘respectable’ group.

Furthermore, Holmes makes sure to document the cases of anti-Semitism in other parts of Britain and Ireland to document the agitation felt by the public. Holmes comments on Limerick, Ireland which had several outbreaks of anti-Semitism often tracing back to a Redemptionist monk. The hostility went as far as the local population planning organised attacks and boycotting Jewish businesses which lasted two years, driving the majority of the Jewish community in Limerick out.

Overall, Holmes details the organisations involved and attacks made that express the hostile environment of Jews in Britain. He uses over 96 sources to illustrate the anti-Semitism in Britain, ultimately concluding on the fact the Aliens Bill is not explicitly anti-Semitic as nothing within the bill specifically casts out Jews, but the organisations at hand in putting the bill through may be another story.

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Donald MacRaild ‘Culture, Conflict and Migration: The Irish in Victorian Cumbria’

Donald MacRaild’s ‘Culture, Conflict and Migration: The Irish in Victorian Cumbria’ is a meticulous account on sectarian violence and communal division in the county of Cumbria. MacRaild documents four main incidents that occur between the host community and the Irish over the period of thirty nine years. The factors which communicate the anti-Irishness that England portrayed during the time (that MacRaild lists) include: the Barrow anti-Irish riot of 1864, the disorder that accompanied notorious protestant preacher William Murphy’s lectures in Whitehaven, 1871, the CleatorMoor Orange Day riot of 1884 and the violence that followed John Kensitt’s Wycliffe Preachers to Barrow in 1903.

While it would take more than a few pages to surmise the events that MacRaild highlighted in his chapter, the common denominator remains the same throughout each incident: violence was a common language between English and Irish. Throughout each incident, the anti-Irishness felt by the English had devastating consequences, specifically showcased in the Barrow riot of 1864 that had spawned merely due to, what is assumed, a rumour that the Irish were brought in to undercut wages. Upon hearing word of this, a crowd formed in rage who later stalked the streets, battering down dwellings known to contain Irishmen. Sectarianism was the main cause of the following three factors, which resulted in mobbing’s, planned attacks, deaths on both sides and brutal violence. The Murphy riots highlighted the inter-communal hostilities within Cumbria and was the root of the Orange orders revival in the area, as William Murphy was badly beaten by the Irish after he had given a controversial performance. Murphy died the following year (whose death was attributed to his beating) after being bed-ridden for what can be assumed as months due to the injuries he had sustained from the Irish in Whitehaven. This furthered tensions in Cumbria to a dangerous level. The Orange Day riot of 1884 was a boiling point for the county, as a riot broke out when Catholics had heard that an Orangeman had ‘struck one of the crowd a blow to the face.’ Revolvers were then drawn with sixteen of the crowd arrested. MacRaildnotes it could be possible to dismiss these instances as an inevitable feature of working class life that has only been heightened by incendiary elements. In regards to John Kensitt’s Preachers, Catholic tensions had rose upon their visit when George Wise, a prominent Protestant leader ‘cut left and right at Roman Catholics’ before the Preachers gave their lecture. When the Preachers began, an argument quickly surfaced among the Catholics and a ‘rush was made for the preachers’ and the following day, they were surrounded by a mob with one Ulster Irishmen savagely beaten. The Preachers were charged for causing a breach of the peace.

MacRaild’s chapter is both fascinating and a complex account of issues that are integral to understanding Irish immigration. His chapter is accessible, broken down into large sprawling sections with an incredible attention to detail on each incident. A key component is that he never favours one side over the other, he expresses the brutality of both sides and refuses to harbour the trials and tribulations both sides face. The topic of Irish Immigration in Cumbria is niche, but MacRaild manages an impressive 141 sources to document his journey, dealing mainly in newspapers from the time. While the majority of the chapter is excellent, a weakness is that the reasons for the breakouts in the riots are entirely speculated, and can never be definitively proven. Therefore, the truth still remains unknown for who started the riots, or the specifics of what caused such devastating violence.