Placeless People: Aspects of Exile

Irish Historian Ultan Cowley, author of The Men who built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy (Dublin, 2001), is researching a new book on Emigration as Exile.


We are finding deep wells of sadness in ordinary human lives’, Sr. Teresa Gallagher, Director, Irish Counselling and Psychotherapy, London.


There is some degree of sadness in every human life but the lives to which Teresa Gallagher was referring are those of elderly Irish emigrants in Britain.

Half a million Irish migrated to Britain in the Nineteen Fifties while the Republic’s population reached an all-time low of 2.8 million. Roughly 80% of those emigrants had left school before the age of fifteen. In the words of one female emigrant: ‘They taught us to hate England – and then they sent us over here!’

A number returned to Ireland but the majority did not. Living often only amongst their own, many tended to mix sparingly with the British, harbouring the belief that ‘some day’ they would return ‘home’ – even while their children progressed through the British education system and into the workplace.

The experience of novelist and navvy Domhnall MacAuligh, who emigrated to England in 1951, is typical. His successful Irish-language memoir, Dialann Deorai (Diary of an Exile) was published in 1964 and translated into English under the title, An Irish Navvy. Throughout his life he regularly wrote for Irish newspapers and magazines while continuing to work full-time in construction.

MacAuligh, though happily married, never reconciled himself to life in England. Asked by an Irish journalist in 1966 what troubled him most, he responded:

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 free-ness 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’.

Clearly it was no accident that MacAuligh, a fluent Gaelic speaker, should have chosen the word Deorai for his title. Deorai, Gaelic for exile, translates literally as Placelessness or Banishment. Placelessness – not belonging, traumatises many rural Irish for whom community is everything, while the corrosive sense of banishment – of leaving because Ireland had no place for them, carries implications for those at home as well as for those abroad which have yet to be faced up to fully:

`Emigration has allowed those who remained at home to enjoy a standard of living which is not justified by the volume of their production. If it ended suddenly…life would become much more competitive, and much less remunerative’. Meenan, James, The Irish Economy since 1922 (Liverpool, 1970) 

I have encountered this perception amongst many emigrants in Britain but I regarded the emigrant experience in the United States as significantly different. In that country, since the early 20th century, Irish emigrants seemed well regarded and those at home appeared to take a pride in them not often shown towards their countrymen in Britain.

Consequently I made a sharp distinction between ‘emigration’, as typified by the American experience, and ‘exile’ as defining the experience of many of the Irish in Britain. It has however surprised me to learn that there are many Irish in America who also share this sense of placelessness and banishment. Amongst these are many former Religious. The Irish Descent also often experience problems around issues of place and belonging – not least in Ireland.

Born into an independent nation, which could no longer legitimately blame Britain for its social and economic ills, many older emigrants have avoided questioning the actions and attitudes of those who may have influenced their decision to emigrate – whether within the Church, the State, or the Family. Criticism of these sacred institutions was considered disloyal, especially abroad, and provoked uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

I believe these issues have yet to be fully acknowledged, explored, and understood. This book is intended to provide a forum for Irish emigrants and their descendants to express their personal feelings about the causes and consequences of emigration.

Official Ireland, while acknowledging the protracted trauma of emigration, now regards it as a part of the past to be consigned to history. However, unlike the dead generations whose thoughts and feelings are recorded only in archived fragments of written correspondence, Ireland’s living emigrants can still speak for themselves – and perhaps demand answers from others.

I welcome contributions and comments from members of other emigrant ethnic minorities also. It is my hope that this work will broaden understanding and perhaps bring healing in its wake.

Please contact
See more information on Ultan Cowley’s work at

Reviews of The Men who built Britain

The author’s distinction is to have sought these voices out and placed them on record. This is an important and impressive book which does the Irish in Britain a great service’ IRISH POST

Told with unblinking honesty’ IRISH INDEPENDENT

1 Comment

Filed under book, history, research, vox populi

One response to “Placeless People: Aspects of Exile

  1. Pingback: Commentary Roundup « Inter-sections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s