The hidden Irish in multi-ethnic Britain

November 18, 2002

Assumptions that British-born second generation Irish people simply assimilate into the 'white' majority are a myth, according to new ESRC-funded research.

The report warns that official results from the 2001 Census in England, Wales and Scotland, which included an 'Irish' category in the ethnic origin question for the first time, are likely to give a serious underestimate of the number of people who have a strong sense of their Irishness.

The study team led by Dr Bronwen Walter of the Anglia Polytechnic University included Professor Mary J Hickman of London Metropolitan University and Dr Joseph M Bradley of Stirling University.

Building on the small amount of data available, the research looks at people with at least one Irish-born parent, and in Scotland grandparents, draws on first-hand material from discussion groups and interviews in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Coventry and Banbury.

It challenges existing ideas about second generation Irish people assimilating into the English population. Rather, it shows children of Irish parentage in England to be placed at the intersection of two nations, neither of which represents their Irish identity as real. England insists on their Englishness, and Ireland rejects these 'hybrids' as not-Irish and, in fact, English. Interviewees, however, spoke of allegiances to two nations.

The findings show that children raised in Irish families share important cultural experiences with their parents, including religious belief, meanings of family and visits to Ireland. This supports previous arguments that attention should be paid to the treatment of second-generation Irish youngsters by the social services and fostering agencies.

One interviewee who experienced the care system was denied both her Irish and Pakistani origins and assumed to be English.

Irish history is notably absent from formal education, even in Catholic schools where second-generation Irish are often the majority. Elsewhere, public provision, in libraries for instance, was missing in situations where other minority cultures were recognised. Moreover anti-Irish experiences were reported in the workplace and in schools.

Scotland has a distinctive multi-generation Irish community. However, the findings show a complex relationship between merging senses of Scottishness and Irishness, with strong pressures for the latter to be downplayed especially in the Scottish media where expressions of Irishness can be labelled as 'sectarian'.

Religion, religious education, town of residence and, for many, football are important focuses for celebrating their Irish heritage and help distinguish those of Irish origins in Scotland. In England, however, compared with these public institutions, marking Irish culture is usually a more private affair.

Of the 2001 Census, Dr Walter says her team found that people made faulty assumptions about what was required of them, or were confused. She says: "A large number of people did not read the instruction to 'indicate your cultural background' and believed that they must answer 'British' (or 'Scottish in Scotland) rather than 'Irish' because of their birthplace."

A female interviewee in Scotland said that she is frequently challenged about her Irish identity with the arguments revolving around place of birth and accent and as a result she feels constantly denied her identity. Many interviewees in both England and Scotland made similar comments. Unlike ethnic groups clearly visible because of their colour, the second-generation and subsequent generations of Irish in England and Scotland have to stake a claim to their difference.
For further information, contact Dr Bronwen Walter on 44-122-336-3271, or email:
Or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley at ESRC, on 44-179-341-3032/413119

1. The research report 'The Second-Generation Irish: a hidden population in multi-ethnic Britain' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr Walter is at the Geography Department of Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge CB1 1PT.
2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is
3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

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