A history beyond shovel,pick and pint

David Granville reviews The Men Who Built Britain by Ultan Cowley, Wolfhound Press, £19.70 hbk

DUE TRIBUTE is paid in Ultan Cowley's excellent book to the contribution of Irish migrants to the building of much of Britain's modern industrial infrastructure.

Although they were far from being alone in these great construction projects, it nevertheless remains inconceivable that Britain’s canal, rail and road and motorway networks, its tunnels, sewers, docks, oil refineries, power stations, hydro-electric dams and public housing projects could have been built without the skills and endeavours of Irish labour. Its importance from the mid-19th century onwards, and especially to Britain's war effort and the growth of industry between the late 1930s through to the boom of the 1980s, and on to the current day, is recorded here.

The wealth this generated for the country as a whole, though not for Irish labourers and their families, was enormous, as were the huge personal fortunes accrued by the building-industry giants such as Sir Robert McAlpine, John Murphy and M J Gleeson, themselves of Irish origin.

Based largely on interviews with people at all levels of the industry and on material culled from publications such as the Irish Democrat and Irish Post, Cowley's book attempts to get beneath the stereotypical image of the Irish 'navvy' to paint a fuller picture of the Irish experience of emigration, dislocation, work and social life in Britain.

To a considerable extent, the author achieves this objective, though this splendidly-illustrated book is not without its weaknesses.

The influx of Irish migrants encouraged by the shortage of labour created by the war and the poor state of the economy at home brought hundreds of thousands of Irish people to Britain in search of work -- 400,000 alone emigrated to Britain from the 26 counties between 1951 and 1961, roughly half of them women.

Working conditions in the construction industry, particularly for casual labourers, were often harsh; poor safety standards were common; accidents and injuries a regular occurrence; employment on 'the lump' was the norm, with job security either minimal or simply non-existent.

The living conditions for Irish building workers, particularly in the men's hostels, were squalid and the work done by the Irish Democrat and the Connolly Association in campaigning for better conditions for Irish workers in Britain is duly acknowledged here by Cowley. Many of those who came and who were to settle in Britain believed, like many migrants before them, that they were only here for a short spell and would soon return home.

The Connolly Association realised otherwise and in addition to maintaining its campaign for Irish unity and independence campaigned vigorously for Irish workers to join a trade union and to get involved political life in Britain "in militant defence of their interests, in unity with the (British) labour movement". It is clear from Cowley's book that not all Irishmen and women agreed.

One disappointing aspect of the book is the paucity of material on the role of the Irish in the labour and trade union movement and the absence of any reference to the work undertaken by the Construction Safety Campaign.

Apart from a couple of fleeting references to strikes and strike-breaking in the 19th and 20th century, a couple of quotes from trade union activists Brian Behan and Tom Durkin and a few tantalising references to the "widespread and effective" unionisation of the "trades elements" in the construction industry, in one brief section headed 'Militants', that's all there is.

This is remarkable considering the role that the Irish have played in Britain’s trade union and labour politics and it is to be hoped that the shortage of material is not in any way related to the extensive co-operation provided Cowley by the construction companies. The efforts to curtail the slaughter on Britain's building sites caused by poor health and safety enforcement and the negligent practices of unscrupulous employers certainly deserves to have been given a degree of prominence.

Throughout the 1980s alone over 1,500 people died in accidents in the construction industry, while diseases such as bronchitis, cancer, asbestosis claimed the lives of some 40,000 more. Estimates suggested that figure for workplace injuries ran into millions. Despite some improvements in health and safety legislation in the intervening years, the current situation is far from perfect and the campaign is as busy today as it ever was.

This caveat aside, I can heartily recommend this book.

February/March 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 14:52:00.
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