The Irish Potato Famine - 1847
They are leaving far behind them the heathery moor and mountain rills,
All the wealth of hawthorn hedges where the brown thrush sways and thrills.
They are going, shy-eyed cailins, and lads so straight and tall, From the purple peaks of Kerry, from the crags of wild Imaal, From the greening plains of Mayo, and the glens of Donegal.
They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay,
Their fields are now the strangers, where the strangers’ cattle stray, Oh! Kathaleen Ni Houlihan, your way’s a thorny way
(The Passing Of The Gael.)
Aftermath of the Clerkenwell bombing
But what about the Irish back in Victorian London? Many of these Irish were the poorest of the poor. They lived in squalor and rat infested tenement blocks in the rookeries (slums) of London. They worked as casual labourers and costers in places like St Giles in the Fields – a sprawling area of blind alleys, narrow streets and passages which ran from The Seven Dials northwards up towards the edges of Warren Street and then onwards to Camden – still a haven for Irish culture today. Back then, the rookeries were stuffed to the gills with Celtic speaking Irish with their own laws and customs. They looked to their church and their Catholic priests for governance, not the Crown and very quickly these desperate Irish ghettoes became no-go areas as far as the police were concerned. Cut off by language, poverty and religion, many of these poor Irish communities lived in a parallel universe to the rest of Victorian Society.
A London slum
I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don't believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . ."This was the period of social Darwinism and the beginnings of ideas about eugenics. The idea that different races had evolved into a hierarchy of intelligence and worth and that the white man (the Englishman in particular but also the Germans) were superior to everybody else. Indeed, in many Victorian articles on the emerging science of anthropology, the Irish were seen at the very bottom of the heap. With their low slung brows and jutting jaws, according to many racial scientists and phrenologists, it was the Irish and not the Negro, who was the missing link between man and ape.
D E Meredith