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18 July 2002 Edition

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McAlpine's Fusiliers

The men who built Britain: A history of the Irish navvy
By Ultan Cowley
Wolfhound Press
E25 (hardback)

This book, as its title suggests, is a history of Irish navvies working in Britain. It is the first major attempt to place these Irish migrant labourers in their proper socio-historical context, citing their involvement in physically building Britain in its imperial heyday. It recalls the dangerous working conditions and hard life endured by them. Anyone with any interest in the construction industry will find this book compelling, but it is written and presented in a most accessible format, with liberal use of photographs showing the workers and their tremendous achievements.

Navvies were essentially migrant labourers who were used because of their flexibility and mobility and were often of Irish extraction. The term originated with the building of the 18th century canals in Britain. The diggers became known as 'Navigators', kater shortened to 'navvies'. By the mid-20th century, men who worked on hydro-electric schemes, motorways and other civil-engineering works still retained the name, but it had become synonymous with Irish migrant labourers, 'the heavy diggers', who by this time dominated the groundworks aspect of British construction.

Navvies worked hard and played hard and consequently were much feared and disparaged, particularly by the ruling class and other aspiring respectables.

The book traces the history of Irish migrant labourers from the middle of the 18th century, as they became an increasingly sizeable presence in many of Britain's labouring sectors. After the Great Hunger, and the huge socio-economic changes wrought by it, this presence became even more marked, as did a corresponding rise in anti-Irish racism and prejudice, not only from the more affluent but also from the burgeoning working class there. It follows through the various stages of this period in history up to the 20th century.

Successive generations of Irish labour continued to flood into Britain as a result of restricted economic opportunities at home right up to the end of the 1980s.

That the Irish have made a huge demographic impact on the population of Britain is undeniable, as very substantial Irish communities exist in all of Britain's major cities, and many others besides. It is generally estimated that as many as a quarter of Britain's population claim Irish ancestry.

Arguably, this Irish immigrant population has had a bigger impact on the demographics of Britain than 800 years of successive invasions had upon the Irish.

Cowley's approach to history tends more to the anecdotal and oral than to scientifically researched hard historical facts with a comprehensive overview, although in fairness to the author, the latter is not totally neglected. He is more concerned with the down to earth human impact that history had on these people, rather than with the overall political and economic context that would be considered the definitive overview of this aspect of Irish and British history.

This book is great value for money and is definitely a worthwhile contribution to the subject, particularly as Cowley is a pioneer in this field of labour history. It is a very good read, written to educate and be enjoyed.


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