The forgotten million

By Angelique Chrisafis (for the Guardian)

Con Scully lit a candle in the gloom of his decaying house in Coventry. There was no heating, electricity or natural light. The windows were boarded up against vandals and drug addicts.

Since his wife died, Mr Scully, 71, had lived alone. At night, he crawled on top of piles of hoarded debris to sleep with his dog and a stray cat, ready to defend himself against feared intruders.

He arrived in the UK from Ireland in the 50s, part of a generation of almost a million men and women who came to rebuild Britain after the war. They had no choice but to leave the poverty of the west of Ireland and send their wages back to keep communities alive.

But many of the elderly men who built London’s underground, the motorways, the railways and the women who served as “domestics” sending home an estimated O3.5bn (#2.4bn) during Ireland’s darkest days - are growing old in subhuman conditions in the UK.

When Ireland’s state broadcaster, RTE, showed footage of Mr Scully and other destitute Irish with no running water, no sanitation and no hope, the country was horrified.

A debate is raging about the Irish government’s “moral debt” to a “forgotten generation” ignored during the Celtic Tiger boom years.

Last month the government set up a unit in its foreign ministry for the Irish emigrants in the UK, with #2.37m awarded to more than 50 groups working with Irish people in Britain this year.

The sum was short of recommendations from a taskforce on emigrants, but many say Britain should bear its share of the burden and recognise the Irish as a distinct ethnic minority instead of putting them together with the white British population.

There are estimated to be more a million Irish people in Britain with many more second- and third-generation Irish, but numbers are vague. The Irish are the third biggest ethnic minority in Britain.

A generation of young professionals who left Ireland in the 80s leads in media, arts and academia in Britain.

But the biggest problem is the elderly who arrived in the 50s.

They are the only ethnic minority group to have shortened their lifespan by coming to Britain. They have the highest rate of mental illness and are 50% more likely to commit suicide and nine times more likely to suffer from alcoholism than British people.

According to the Federation of Irish Societies, Irish men have the highest mortality rate of all ethnic minorities in Britain.

Eithne Rynne, director of the London-based federation, said the Irish left a culture of communal living to become isolated in Britain, culturally unable to ask for help. They have the highest percentage of single-person households of any ethnic group in Britain and carry a strong stigma of “not wanting to be a burden”.

Ms Rynne said: “There needs to be a proper recognition across the board of Irish people as a distinct ethnic minority in Britain. The British government have a duty of care to the Irish community.”

In Mulranny, west Mayo, the independent Irish MP, Jerry Cowley, works to bring emigrants back under the state-funded Safe Home scheme. He has brought back 369 people in four years to live in sheltered housing.

“It was the nearest to slavery we went through,” said Patrick Gallagher, 89, who left Mayo at 16 to work as a tattie howker, or potato digger, in Scotland.

But community workers in Britain say the Irish who return home are a tiny percentage of the numbers in London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham who need help.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News