Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and ‘The Middle Nation’

Another post from The Dustbin of History, 15 August 2013.

Mac Amhlaigh, as pictured on the cover of his book Schnitzer O'Shea

Mac Amhlaigh, as pictured on the cover of his book Schnitzer O’Shea

Galway-born Dónall Mac Amhlaigh (1926-1989) is perhaps best known as the author of Dialann Deoraí, first published in 1960 and translated into English as An Irish Navvy, a record of his experiences working in England in the 1950s. This frequently referenced work established him as a dominant voice of Irishmen in Britain, but he left a much broader legacy.[1] Máirín Nic Eoin has written about his works of fiction, most of which have a strong autobiographical bent, but his extensive body of journalistic prose remains largely unexamined.[2] Unfortunately historians and literary scholars alike have even further marginalized his untranslated Irish works due to lack of familiarity or engagement with the language.[3] These omissions seem particularly grave given that Mac Amhlaigh himself expressed dissatisfaction with Dialann Deoraí, calling it ‘a great lost opportunity’ because he felt he did not take full advantage of the ‘rich, virtually unworked subject’.[4] He viewed his last novel, Deoraithe [Exiles], a fictional (though autobiographically-based) treatment of the same topic, as a way to ‘make good’ this earlier fault.[5]

In the intervening years Mac Amhlaigh continued to write prolifically and his journalism shows the development of his social and political consciousness. Between 1966 and 1988 he wrote roughly 200 articles for the Irish Times in both Irish and English. These presented the experience of the Irish in Britain, from the perspective of a working-class urban Gaeilgeoir, primarily to an Irish audience who had remained in Ireland. This post examines a series of three articles published in October 1970 titled ‘The Middle Nation’, which takes the form of observational, and at times sharply critical, social commentary.[6] Mac Amhlaigh seeks to explain the difficult and ambiguous position of the Irish in Britain and in doing so addresses persistent class divisions among the immigrants and differing levels of attachment, or lack thereof, felt by members of that group to their heritage. Though written in 1970 he focused on his own generation, those who had come to Britain in the post-war years, and while the focus on male labourers in Dialann Deoraí has been perceived as homogenizing the image of this cohort, he clearly recognized its diversity.

As the word ‘middle’ in the title suggests, a primary theme of the series is the feeling of liminality, of belonging fully neither to Ireland nor Britain. In the first article Mac Amhlaigh addresses the issue of adjustment to life in Britain, questioning the nature of ‘assimilation’. He lambasts equally the Irish who ape British ways and those who seem in denial of the fact that they live in Britain. The former he stereotypes as:

People who “muck in” in village or suburban life, who get on committees, on dart teams, pay into divvi-clubs for Christmas and go on coach-outings to the seaside where they do a “Knees Up, Mother Brown” as good as any Cockney; who rarely read an Irish paper, bother their heads about Irish affairs, try to tune into Radio Éireann or sing a bit of an Irish song. Men who talk of foreigners, wogs and – so help me, God! – of Paddies, even![7]

Though he admits ‘they are not all so objectionable as this’, what bothers him about them is their ‘complete and wholehearted apostasy’, their abandonment of their Irishness. Though he hesitates to draw firm conclusions without ‘concrete evidence’ of statistics, he suggests that this type of person tends to be of the ‘professional and business’ class.[8] On the other hand,

There are a great many of our people who have never really come to terms with their exile, people to whom after nearly forty years of residence in England the day-old Irish newspaper is of more interest than the Mirror or the Express… who are, in speech and thought and manner, as uncompromisingly Irish as the day they left home… and these are the real casualties of Emigration, the ones who won’t or can’t integrate.[9]

This latter position seems equally reprehensible. What he criticizes in both extreme cases is the failure to acknowledge or even embrace liminal status, the failure to admit (or even take pride in) Irish heritage while also facing the realities of living abroad.

The second part of the title, ‘nation’, also poses somewhat of a paradox because while the term implies a degree of unity, the Irish in Britain comprise a heterogeneous group. Mac Amhlaigh addresses head-on issues of class divisions in the second article in the series, ‘Social Life and the Emigrant’:

It was Honor Tracy, I think, who remarked upon the almost pathological fear of some of the Irish abroad of coming into contact with each other. One would perhaps need to be Irish to appreciate this fully, to understand the vagaries of class-consciousness based less on real rank or wealth than upon an unshakeable belief in one’s superiority to another – however intangible the basis for the assumption (emphasis added).[10]

If attempting to create a ‘nation’ or sense of cohesion among an immigrant group, clearly these divisions carried over from rural Irish society are problematic whether real or imagined. To this he adds factors of ‘apathy, indifference and the traditional Irish failure to agree on things’.[11] He argues that though social organizations existed and the Irish Post (the newspaper of the Irish in Britain) might cover the functions they organized, these were formal rather than ‘free-and-easy’ affairs. From his own experience he suggests that even people from the same locality in Ireland resist associating with one another outside a close group of relatives: ‘without exception, these people will say of each other: A níl aon nádúr ionntab sín, tá siad coimhthioch – “There’s no nature in them, they’re standoffish.”’[12] He feels no compunction in criticizing them for it, for their unwillingness ‘to take the first step’ or to break out of the ‘world of taboos, of inhibitions,’ of the ‘smothering conformity which forbade them to think as individuals’.[13] Clearly he thought life in Britain offered an opportunity to develop new perspectives and lamented the failure of many to embrace that chance.

However, despite these shortcomings in the final article in the series, ‘Finding Our Feet’, Mac Amhlaigh does offer hope of redemption. He believes that Irish immigrants have made progress and argues that they are (in 1970) more comfortable with their place in British society than even a decade previously:

It is very evident that our exiles are fast shedding that extreme touchiness – well enough justified in the past, no doubt, but which sometimes bordered on paranoia – and are now able to make a more mature appraisal of themselves and of their position in what has come to be known as the host community (emphasis added).[14]

He says he has witnessed changing attitudes both of the Irish towards the English and vice versa. This includes ‘a change in our estimation of ourselves’ from ‘a sense of insecurity’ to a feeling of more ‘assurance’. However, the spectre of the Troubles and its potential impact lurked in his mind and he states that ‘barring a worsening of the Northern situation we will become steadily more identifiable with our hosts’.[15] However, this does not imply forgetting their origins and the article concludes with the hope that ‘emigration may continue to fall off and that once more we may be able to restock the great lonely spaces of Ireland,’ evoking the image of emigrants since the famine as ‘the vanishing Irish’ and on the eve of a (brief) reversal of those trends.[16]

Though he attempts to resolve the issue of being both Irish and living in Britain, arguing that dual identity or loyalty is indeed possible, there is still an ambivalence towards always remaining ‘the middle nation’. In an interview in the 1980s he said that ‘most of us, even though we’ve lived in Britain, and seen our children grow up here, could never give our hearts to this country in the same way we could to Australia or New Zealand or some place like that, because of the history’.[17] He says he has no anti-English feelings but, speaking for the Irish in Britain as a whole, there is a lingering sense of equivocation: ‘We have that feeling, on the one hand, of a certain amount of gratitude, if gratitude isn’t misplaced, that we got work here when we couldn’t have got it at home, and on the whole we’ve lived reasonably well here… On the other hand there’s the fact of finding ourselves in a country we might perhaps rather not be in.’[18] He certainly was not alone in expressing this sentiment and Liam Harte argues that ‘the dialectical tension between adherence to a fixed originary identity and the evolution of a flexible, contingent migrant identity’ is one of the ‘central tropes’ in the literature of the Irish in Britain, though each author gives it an individual colour.[19] Mac Amhlaigh’s ‘The Middle Nation’ series is a perceptive example of how the personal reflections contained in his journalism can contribute to our understanding of the experiences of the post-war emigrant generation and its evolving sense of identity. In the now more widely recognized and growing body of writing by and on the Irish in Britain Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s voice remains unique and deserving of attention in its own right.


[1] On Dialann Deoraí see: Bernard Canavan, ‘Story-tellers and Writers: Irish Identity in Emigrant Labourers’ Autobiographies, 1870-1970’, in Patrick O’Sullivan (ed.), The Irish World Wide: History, Heritage, Identity. Vol. 3, The Creative Migrant (Leicester University Press, London, 1994), pp.162-5; Tony Murray, London Irish Fictions (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2012), pp.79-85; Clair Wills, ‘Realism and the Irish Immigrant: Documentary, Fiction, and Postwar Irish Labor’, Modern Language Quarterly, vol.73, no.3 (Sept. 2012), pp.373-94.

[2] Máirín Nic Eoin, ‘An Scríobhneoir agus an Imirce Éigeantach:  Scrúdú ar Shaothar Cruthaitheach Dhónaill Mhic Amhlaigh’, Oghma 2 (1990), pp.92-104.

[3] Though historians and literary scholars frequently quote and cite An Irish Navvy, it is almost always the English translation rather than the original (as is the case in the works listed in footnote 1).

[4] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Documenting the Fifties’, Irish Studies in Britain, no.14 (Spring/Summer 1989), p.9.

[5] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, in Nigel Gray (ed.), Writers Talking (London: Caliban Books, 1989), p.181.

[6] The drawings that accompany these articles are also very interesting, but unfortunately copyright prevents me from reproducing them here. They are worth looking up if you have access to the Irish Times via the ProQuest Historical Newspapers archive.

[7] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘The Middle Nation’, Irish Times, 14 Oct. 1970.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Social Life and the Emigrant’, Irish Times, 15 Oct. 1970.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Finding Our Feet’, Irish Times, 16 Oct. 1970.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, in Gray (ed.), Writers Talking, p.181.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Liam Harte, ‘“You want to be a British Paddy?”: The Anxiety of Identity in Post-war Irish Migrant Writing’, in Dermot Keogh, Finbarr O’Shea & Carmel Quinlan (eds.), The Lost Decade: Ireland in the 1950s (Mercier, Douglas Village, Cork, 2004), p.234, p.236. He also makes the problematic assertion that ‘while migrant writers of the 1950s such as Dónall Mac Amhlaigh and John B. Keane are primarily concerned with chronicling the loneliness and alienation of the Irish in post-war England, Walter Macken and Tom Murphy focus on the dilemmas faced by migrant protagonists who wish to evolve new narratives of belonging’ (p.238). While that may be true of Dialann Deoraí (the only work of Mac Amhlaigh’s that Harte cites in relation to that statement), it does not hold true for all of Mac Amhlaigh’s later work.

Na Spailpíní: Irish Seasonal Labourers in Britain in the 20th Century

A blog post over on The Dustbin of History, 18 March 2013.

Go deó deó rís ní raghad go Caiseal
Ag díol ná reic mo shláinte;
Ná ar mhargadh na faoire am shuighe cois balla,
Um sgaoinsi ar leath-taoibh sráide:-
Bodairídh, na tire ag tígheacht ar a g-capaill
Dá fhiafraidhe an bh-fuilim h-írálta,
Téanamh chum siubhail, tá’n cúrsa fada
Seo ar siubhal an Spailpín Fánach!

No more – no more in Cashel town
I’ll sell my health a-raking,
Nor on days of fairs rove up and down,
Nor join in the merry-making.
There, mounted farmers came in throng
To try and hire me over,
But now I’m hired, and my journey’s long
The journey of the Rover![1]

This song from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century tells the story of ‘an spailpín fánach’, ‘the wandering labourer’, who hires himself out to farmers to make his living, though in this case he has chosen to forsake that life and all its hardships. Seasonal migration, both within Ireland and across the Irish Sea to Britain, formed an important part of the life cycle of many rural communities over the centuries, probably peaking in the decades immediately after the Great Famine. An estimated 38,000 migratory agricultural labourers went to Britain in 1880, and 27,000 in 1896, but numbers dropped to 13,000 in 1915, after which the government stopped collecting the statistics.[2] Despite evidence that it did continue (though in smaller numbers) even until the 1980s, little work has been done specifically on the twentieth century.[3] The event that garnered the most notice was a tragedy in September 1937 when ten workers from Achill Island died in a fire in a bothy in Kirkintilloch, Scotland. This prompted the establishment of the Irish government’s ‘Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938’, which produced a report describing the categories of labourers, primary places they came from, and recommendations, but little consideration has been given to the persistence of seasonal migration after that time.[4]

The voices of a few former migrants can be heard on the RTÉ radio documentary, ‘The Tattie Hokers: The Migrant Workers of North Mayo’. As one man says on the programme, seasonal migration was ‘a way of life’ for many, though it seems one relatively neglected in scholarly works on migration and the Irish diaspora. The most comprehensive work on the subject is Anne O’Dowd’s Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain. However, it is organized thematically rather than chronologically, thus integrating oral testimonies and answers from folklore questionnaires related to twentieth-century movement with other similar material from earlier periods. This emphasizes continuity over change, minimizing consideration of questions such as: Did mechanization of farm work have a significant effect and how? Did seasonal migration continue but in other lines of work (outside agriculture)? How did the changing political context (Ireland’s independence, the two world wars) affect workers’ experiences? What were significant regional differences? Did certain localities continue to have greater seasonal movement and why?

I can’t claim to answer all those questions, but my interest in them was prompted by anecdotes in two oral history interviews. Fiddle player Vincent Campbell was born in 1938 in An tSeanga Mheáin near Glenties, Co. Donegal. The county has a long history of ties to Scotland and Vincent describes workers going for the ‘tattie hoking’: ‘There was an awful lot of potatoes grown in Scotland that time and when it would come to, say, around the month of October, the spuds would be, the potatoes would be raked down to be packed and there used to be gangs would leave Donegal here and go over to Scotland to gather the potatoes.’[5] He recalled gangs still engaging in this type of work in his youth:

Sara Goek: Did you know many people that went over to work in Scotland in your time?
Vincent Campbell: Of course I did know them. The last of the crowds that I heard of going over when I was young they came from Glenfin country, that’s up near, that’s just about, I suppose it would be about eight miles from here [Glenties]. They were the last that took gangs with them going over to Scotland. There was other places then down Gaoth Dobhair and places like that, they used to have a gang. They had to try to have a ganger man or a gaffer of some kind as well, but a lot of them they enjoyed going over because there was great dances on the Friday night always, they would have great dances. So it was entertaining as well. If a fiddle player would hear or a musician would hear that they were going to go on such a day, he would make sure to land at their house the night before to tell them, ‘give me a promise – bring back a good tune or a few tunes or a few good songs’ and that was a part of the bargain, that they would have to bring something like that back.[6]

The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration specifically mentions this region around Glenties as one of the principal places from which migration took place, with 1,352 agricultural workers leaving in 1937.[7] Vincent’s interest in the subject is also closely connected to the cultural exchange promoted by this type of back-and-forth movement and to this day the Donegal fiddle repertoire retains its influence. Vincent himself worked on a hydroelectric scheme in Scotland when he first emigrated in 1956, following the same route as those before him, and he describes a similar social life with music and dancing on the weekends. However, despite his drawing parallels between the experiences of earlier migrants and his own, the fact that he engaged in industrial rather than agricultural labour shows the declining importance the latter as the twentieth century wore on.

Another musician, Tommy Healy, a flute player from Montiagh, Co. Sligo then living in London, was interviewed by Reg Hall in 1987-88 for his research on Irish music and musicians in London. This area near Tobercurry is also mentioned specifically in the Report as one of those sending large numbers of seasonal workers to Britain, 352 in 1937.[8] Tommy’s narrative of migration is especially interesting because it is multi-generational: his maternal grandfather worked as a seasonal agricultural labourer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the late nineteenth century, his paternal grandfather worked as a hired labourer within Ireland, his father went to Scotland once picking potatoes but then immigrated to Boston (where Tommy was born) around the turn of the twentieth century, the family returned to Sligo in 1928 where they took over his mother’s parents’ farm, and Tommy went to England in 1943, first doing seasonal agricultural work and eventually settling in London after the Second World War, working on railways and in construction. He thus situates his own migration intimately within that of his family and local community, highlighting the normalcy of this type of global transiency, saying of seasonal employment, ‘that was the only employment those people used to have outside their own little farms’ and of going to America and back, to Reg’s astonishment, ‘it was the usual procedure’ and several other families in his parish had done the same.[9]

Tommy Healy & Johnny Duffy

Tommy’s story differs from those who went before him because he emigrated during the Second World War. He describes the process of getting work in England at that time (listen to part 1 of the interview online, this portion is at 1:14:30):

Reg Hall: Did you do farming work?
Tommy Healy: Oh I did in the early part. That was the only way we could get over here, as a migratory agricultural worker.
Reg: Can you explain that system? This was at the end of the war?
Tommy: No, no middle way in the war really or even 1941 or ’42. In the area that we come from, we were given employment on this piece production and they didn’t want anybody to leave. They wouldn’t give you a permit at the Labour Exchange to leave – you had to get permission, but when it come to harvest time and that if you could prove that you were a migratory agricultural worker, then you got your permission.
Reg: You could prove that in Ireland?
Tommy: Yeah.
Reg: How did you prove that then?
Tommy: Forgery.
Reg: [Laughs] prove that you’d done it regularly, you mean?
Tommy: Yes, that I was there the year before and that this farmer wanted the same men as he had the year before. Somebody that was working in Lincolnshire, that was the principle part of the agricultural work, one of our own mates sent a letter to this one and that one and so on, 4 or 5 letters, such a one wants the same gang, you, you, and mention the names that he had last year. We were never there before, but the bloke in the Labour Exchange or the guard’s barracks didn’t know that. He had to do his own part before you could apply for the passport. The application for the passport had to be done in the guard barracks. He had to sign his name to it and all.[10]

He says ‘forgery’ in a perfectly straight tone of voice, again suggesting it was nothing unusual. During the war the Irish government placed a ban on the migration of men with experience in agricultural or turf work; ‘they didn’t want anybody to leave’.[11] However, despite the complexities of the regulations it seems loopholes existed and the workers proved particularly adept at finding them:

Complicated as the rules for travel and employment may have appeared at first sight, they do not appear to have hindered migration by reason of their incomprehensibility. On the contrary, Irish workers were found to display so considerable a familiarity with the finer points of official requirements, and so ingenious a knowledge of the limits of tolerance which official routine was accustomed to observe, that a constant watch was needed to prevent the evasion of rules.[12]

In the end, Tommy did not migrate with the permit he received through ‘forgery’ because of other circumstances at home, but about a year later he got work through an agent and went over to Gloucestershire:

The next best thing, I had got the passport this time, the next best thing was to sign on with an agent to do agricultural work here. You couldn’t get the work yourself because in wintertime you see it’s thrashing, hedging, all that type of thing, so I signed on and I come over here in the month of February in the middle of a blizzard. But like we got here today and we went off to the food, somebody took us to the food office, the labour exchange and everything, all the paperwork was cleared up that day, and we were out on our glory at seven o’clock the next morning into some farmer’s yard.[13]

He went on to describe conditions in wartime England: working hours (54 hours per week plus overtime), wages (£3 5s. plus a lodging allowance), blackouts (‘no lights whatsoever’), shortages (‘razor blades were hard to find’) and rationing.[14] He did that work seasonally for about three years, going back home to Sligo at Christmas, went back to stay from 1947 to 1949, but then returned to settle in London, where he still lived at the time of the interview.

These two individuals offer only a brief glimpse of patterns and circumstances of seasonal agricultural migration from Ireland to Britain in the twentieth century. They both suggest continuity of geographical patterns, but changes in the type of work and circumstances from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Much more work remains to be done to understand these migrants’ varied experiences and contexts.


[1] Traditional song, in Anne O’Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1991), p.313-6.

[2] Enda Delaney, Demography, State and Society: Irish Migration to Britain, 1921-1971 (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2000), p.28; Appendix II, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938 (Stationary Office, Dublin), p.59. The report estimates that 9,500 seasonal labourers went to Britain in 1937. The 1954 report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems mentions seasonal migration only in passing in four separate paragraphs.

[3] O’Dowd in Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers provides snippets of evidence of seasonal agricultural labour in the twentieth century: in Connaught ‘‘the tradition continued right up to the 1940s and 1950s’ (p.82), ‘men and women from Ballina and Mulraney, Co. Mayo, still work as tattie hokers in the 1980s’ (p.199), and resentment of Irish migratory workers because of they had not fought in either world war (p.267), but she provides little further detail apart from citation of her own interviews. Many folklore sources were collected in the twentieth century, but it is difficult to pinpoint the time period in which they originated.

[4] The report itself does not actually say the committee was established in response to the Kirkintilloch tragedy, but the letter at the beginning states the committee was appointed on 23 September 1937, exactly one week after the event. For a more detailed description of that particular event see: http://www.theirishstory.com/2012/09/24/the-kirkintilloch-tragedy-1937

[5] Vincent Campbell, interview with Sara Goek, 12 June 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 9,783 agricultural workers migrated from certain areas of Clare, Connaught, and Donegal in 1937 and Glenties had the 3rd highest total of all the areas enumerated. These areas tended to be in the ‘Congested Districts’, with high population density on poor land and generally small landholdings. Appendix V, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938, p.62.

[8] Appendix V, Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1937-1938, p.62.

[9] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 3, 6 April 1988, British Library. He talks about the work his grandfather would have done as a hired labourer from 04:30.

[10] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 1, 28 Oct. 1987, British Library.

[11] A.V. Judges noted in his report, Irish Labour in Great Britain, 1939-1945 (1949), that this ban did not extend to the ‘Congested Districts’ in the western part of the country and though maintained, it had little effect until restrictions were tightened further in 1944 (p.13). There were three ways of securing labour in Britain during the war: through a liaison officer, through direct contact with the employer, or through the employer’s agent. Tommy’s story falls under the second category, of which Judges writes, ‘an employer who was actually in contact with a potential employee could furnish him with a letter… through the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Industry and Commerce and the worker would then secure the necessary travel documents on producing the letter’ (p.14).

[12] Judges, Irish Labour in Great Britain, p.15.

[13] Tommy Healy, interview with Reg Hall part 1, 28 Oct. 1987, British Library.

[14] Ibid.