How the Irish built Britain

McAlpine’s Men: Irish Stories from the Sites (2010) edited by Ultan Cowley

Rating: ★★★★★

Britain owes a debt to the Irish navvy, the migrant labourer willing to do the back-breaking shovel work others baulked at. By the 1970’s there were over 200,000 of them. Nobody has done more to document their cause than the author Ultan Cowley, who wrote the definitive book on the subject called The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy (2001). The book stripped away decades of ignorance about the Irish navvy. It also forms a fitting memorial to a race of men whose contribution to British society, especially during the post-war construction boom years, has for too long been undervalued.

The term ‘navvy’ originated with the building of the 18th century canals, the ‘inland navigation system’ in Britain. The diggers became known as ‘navigators’ or ‘navvies’. The pioneering construction methods of these canal builders were then adapted by the railway engineers and the excavators who, working on this new transport system, kept the name ‘navvies’.

Post-world war two, the new generation of Irish immigrants who worked on the construction of the motorways, hydro-electric schemes and other massive civil engineering works were given the same name. In this way, the word navvy became synonymous with Irish migrant labourers, the ‘heavy diggers’ who came to dominate the ground-works aspect of construction in Britain..

Now Ultan Cowley has written ‘McAlpine’s Men- Irish Stories From The Sites’, and he recounts the tales of a hard life on the shovel that the Irishmen in the trenches have told him.  Up until recently the Irish navvy has been but a mere footnote in the history of the British construction industry. In his new book, Ultan Cowley ensures that the navvy is at the very core of that history.

The author’s method of working is a simple but vital one. He goes back and speaks to the men who were there and who did the work, from labourers and subcontractors to senior executives of British construction companies.

He then supplements his interviews from source material where he can find it, and the new book includes anecdotes, jokes, songs, tales of drink and bravado. The troubles they faced were not simply finding the next job, but facing prejudice, poor lodgings, loneliness and home sickness, they deserve our respect. The importance of the north London pubs went beyond the obvious. “..The pub was much more than just a clearing house for wage cheques. It was also what it had always been for the construction industry; the unofficial labour exchange”.

“Men were more given to nostalgia than the women..Brendan Kennelly, the Kerry-born poet, told that in the Fifties many local lads about to emigrate asked him for a poem mentioning their home place or townland, but he insisted that, for whatever reason, no woman ever asked for one!”  We have extracts of ballads such as McAlpine’s Fusiliers and apocryphal anecdotes such as the teacher in the West of Ireland who asked a child: “Who made the world?” The child’s reply was: “McAlpine, sir. And my daddy laid the bricks!” Or what does the construction firm Wimpey stand for? Answer? ‘We Import More Paddys Every Year’.

Ultan Cowley makes a point of not writing a heavy academic tome on the history of the Irish navvy. His new book is a living, breathing account written with a passion for a way of life that had room for romance and mischief as well as the blood, sweat and tears. A good example of the exploitation the men were vulnerable to was the ‘subbie’ who, according to custom, normally paid the men by the day, took them on for a week, transporting them by van, a van mysteriously prone to splutter to a halt on the Friday return journey to London. ‘You’ll all have to get out and push, lads!’ but having started the engine, roared off, not to be seen again. The men, minus their week’s wage, had to get back alone.

On his deathbed Sir Robert McAlpine reputedly dictated the following edict: “If the men wish to honour my death, allow them two minutes’ silence; but keep the big mixer going, and keep Paddy behind it.”

A number returned to Ireland but the majority did not. Living often amongst their own, many tended to mix sparingly with the British, harbouring the belief that ‘someday’ they would return ‘home’ – even while their children progressed through the British education system and into the workplace.  Domhnall MacAuligh, author of An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile said:

‘Everyone here is in a hurry. I know every inch of this town as well as, or better than Ireland. Nevertheless, the old feeling is still there, the alienation, uneasiness. Not that someone like myself has any reason to complain; many Irishmen wouldn’t go home for love nor money! But as soon as I set foot in Ireland I’m a different person, I’m where I’m meant to be, and I’m no longer a stranger.’

Bringing up a family in Northampton; the children speaking with Northampton accents…apart from that, I’ve never felt settled in this place. I still feel like an outsider – that I don’t belong. There was a freedom about expatriation once; you told yourself it would be over sooner or later…But that’s no longer true; all that’s ahead of you is the time you have left on Earth – spend it here in loneliness and desolation. I came here in 1951 and I’ve never felt at home here in all that time’.

Of course, you don’t have to be Irish to feel like Domhnall MacAuligh, and you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy this book. But if you are, so much the better! As the song says:

If you’re Irish come into the parlour
There’s a welcome there for you…
We’ll sing you a song and we’ll make a fuss
Whoever you are you are one of us
If you’re Irish, this is the place for you

With thanks to:

Please see also: Fund supporting the vulnerable and elderly Irish community in the UK

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