HUDDERSFIELD, like many other English towns, was an attractive destination point for the Irish, and not just at the time of the Great Hunger (1845-52).
Esther Moriarty has completed her doctoral thesis on the subject at Huddersfield University.
She has been looking closely at the diaspora we Brits commonly call the Great Irish Potato Famine and its effects on Huddersfield.
It was in this period that a great number arrived in town looking for work – possibly as many as 1,500.
The expansion of the town’s industry meant that there was a need for workers and the Irish migrants were largely welcomed.
Prior to 1832, there had been only a small Catholic population in the town. A mass influx of Irish people in the 19th century changed all that.
The churches dedicated to their patron saint, St Patrick, are a sure sign of their arrival in force, in Huddersfield, Leeds and Bradford.
In time, as more migrants arrived, more churches and Catholic schools were established.
Aside from their faith and desire for a Catholic education, family was also important to the migrants.
Money was sent home to Ireland to either assist with daily living or more often than not helped pay for their relatives to re-locate to Britain or the ‘New World’.
Britain was the cheaper option and its proximity meant that a move there was regarded as less permanent.
In reality, they rarely returned home from either place.
On their arrival in Huddersfield, some of the locals were hostile and resentful.
The Irish mainly settled in the town centre where jobs were available and they were within walking distance of work.
Their lives were not easy as they were poorly paid and lived in primitive and unsanitary conditions.
Many of them occupied run-down properties in courts and alleys off the main streets in areas such as the Beast Market and Cross Church Street.
“Interestingly, in Huddersfield, there were not enough of them to form a ‘ghetto’.
“They also tended to move around a lot since many were either only lodgers or visitors,” said Esther.
It is impossible to truly envisage what life was like then but a lack of adequate sanitation and problems of disease and illnesses meant that conditions were, in modern terms, dire.
There were other factors at work, such as the reluctance of landlords to improve their property, the harsh journey from Ireland, the tradition of ‘wakes’ (coffins were left open in homes until burial) and unwillingness to go to hospital meant that the Irish were more vulnerable to infection.
Many lived in damp cellars and homes without running water – hardly conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
Poverty forced all sorts of people to take in lodgers. Single people tended to find it more financially viable to reside in lodging houses. At times, entire families resorted to this option.
However, such homes were not reserved for the Irish; poverty too motivated English people to live in similar circumstances.
In light of this, diseases bred and were a common feature of 19th century industrial life.
The Irish, however, appear to have been eager to support themselves and took all types of jobs.
Not all of them wanted to work: a few were paupers or vagrants. But most found work in hawking and labouring, since neither required much training. Additionally, labouring was a transferable skill from Ireland and hawkers sold a wide variety of products and were mainly self-employed.
Cultural differences led to disagreements between the Irish and English people.
For example, Irish people had a tendency to revert to customs and habits that they had practised at home such as keeping pigs or building primitive houses.
Elsewhere in Britain, this was deemed odd but interestingly in Huddersfield, both Irish and English people kept pigs which the authorities did their best to deal with and admirably treated all offenders the same irrespective of their nationality.
“The Huddersfield Irish seem to have distrusted hospitals and this, coupled with a naturally weak immune system, meant they were prone to ‘poverty’ diseases such as typhus, which quickly became known as the ‘Irish fever’,” said Esther.
“Pride in the Catholic faith motivated the Irish to finance the expansion of their churches and schools.
And clearly, although few in number, their impact was far reaching.”
If any descendant of the Famine Irish has a story to tell, Family History would be delighted to hear it.
In the 1840s, all of Ireland was part of the UK. It had a population of about 8m.
The vast majority of the land was owned by English absentee landlords. The best land was farmed for beef, leaving the native Irish to subsist on tiny plots, for which they were charged enough rent to ensure that, in 1842, about £6m was transferred to England.
In the famine years of 1845-52, an estimated 1m Irish died and another 1m emigrated.