A book review for Liverpool’s Culture Campus magazine, 2007.

By John Belchem
Liverpool University Press

Early one morning in Liverpool in 1862, an Irishman called John Sheridan was arrested for being drunk. Hauled before the magistrates he pulled himself up to his full dignity and declared the arresting officer was “a gigantic uncultivated barbarian, an unscrupulous falsifier of fact, and had assaulted him in the most unconstitutional way, as he was proceeding along the street, in a decent, orderly manner.”

In other words, it was just another day dawning in what Professor Belchem calls “the central hub of the Irish diaspora”. Throughout the 19th century Liverpool’s waterfront swarmed with ragged immigrants seeking “the nearest place that wasn’t Ireland”. They were fleeing poverty but often found more of the same, with the added hazard of prejudice. I don’t know what effect John Sheridan’s eloquence had upon the magistrate, but I doubt it did the trick – officialdom and the Liverpool-Irish seldom could agree to differ.

Two things make this superb book acutely resonant today. One is the way in which the Irish influx shaped the modern character of Liverpool – whenever the rest of Britain speaks loftily of feckless, thieving scallies, rioting at will and squandering their dole money on smack, you are hearing echoes of Victorian attitudes to Irish Liverpool. The other is the way that everything said about the Liverpool Irish anticipates the immigration debates of our time.

Apart from a reputation for squalid living, drunkenness and crime, the Irish were barred from assimilation by virtue of their religion: they were Catholics in a staunchly Protestant society. They faced the hostility of organised labour as well, accused of under-cutting local wage-rates. Then there was the taint of treachery. As Ireland struggled to shake off British rule, its exiles were suspected of what we’d now call terrorist sympathies. At the extreme, Fenians plotted to set the Mersey warehouses ablaze; when it came to smuggling, sabotage and safe-houses, the IRA could count on friends in Liverpool. Meanwhile at the ballot box, North End areas of Liverpool (along Scotland Road) returned Irish Nationalist councillors and even, for decades, an MP to Westminster.

Over time, Liverpool’s Irish dimension has become less visible. Crass demolition of the North End broke up local loyalties; sectarian passions cooled, Irish Home Rule removed the biggest source of political dissent. Above all, second and-third generation Irish began blending in – the charms of Irish country dancing and Gaelic hurling could not compete with nights at the picture palaces or Saturdays at Anfield and Goodison. Was it cultural suicide, as the separatists feared? Or a hopeful lesson in assimilation? Not for the first time, nor the last, Liverpool was a vast laboratory of social experiment.

The Liverpool-Irish did not so much disappear into history as transform the city’s cultural future. They made Liverpool into something more like themselves. They gave to their adopted city a strange and unique personality – with a hybrid accent to match. Had those crowded boats of fearful, seasick human cargo been turned back at the Mersey, our city would be a very different place today. And I suggest it would be very dull indeed.