Holding up a mirror to the Irish in Britain
In an essay for the collection 'Migrations: The Irish at Home and Abroad' in 1990, Liam Ryan wrote, "Emigration is a mirror in which the Irish nation can always see its true face". Today we might suitably substitute the word 'immigration' for 'emigration' but the metaphor of the mirror serves as a useful one for capturing the essence of the project I have been involved with in recent years. In June 2000, a development programme funded by the Smurfit Foundation was launched in the Irish Studies Centre at London Metropolitan University to preserve, catalogue, expand and disseminate a unique collection of documents, photographs, books and audio-visual materials relating to the Irish in Britain. As part of the launch, items form the Archive of the Irish in Britain were exhibited to the public for the first time. During the all too brief three days available to do this, I met and spoke to countless local Irish people as well as visitors from further afield. My abiding memory from the time was watching the way in which people saw their own experiences of migration and life in Britain reflected back to them in a way that is still relatively rare for our community. Allied to this were the many individual stories people had to tell me, how similar or different their experiences were to those displayed and how important it was to them for their voices and personal histories to be acknowledged also. No single repository of course can pretend to adequately reflect the multifarious dimensions of a community as large as the Irish in Britain, but the fact that so many visitors to the exhibition wanted to contribute to the development project in however small a way convinced me of the importance of ensuring that such a venture had to at least attempt to be as inclusive and representative as possible.
The Archive of the Irish in Britain was originally donated to the Irish Studies Centre by the Irish in Britain History Group in 1991. The IBHG which was set up in the early 1980s began to collect documentation and oral interviews on the Irish in Britain as no other such collection existed at the time. Since moving to the Irish Studies Centre, the collections have been significantly expanded and due to better access arrangements many more people have been able to use the Archive, in some cases from as far afield as Japan and Australia. Many visitors have remarked on the advantage of being able to access so many sources for their research under the one roof. Examples of some the holdings we have are a copy of the first ever book-length history of the Irish in Britain by John Denvir published in 1892, a collection of St. Patrick's Day programmes produced for events in London dating back to 1922, oral history recordings of individuals' experiences of migration to Britain in the 1930s, photographs of Irish community events in the 1950s and political posters from the 1980s. In addition to this the Archive possesses the prison letters of Guildfour Four man Paul Hill and is regularly consulted by researchers, programme-makers, historians and journalists from Britain, Ireland and further afield. Tim Pat Coogan's recent history of Irish migration 'Wherever Green Is Worn', the TV documentary on the Irish abroad 'The Irish Empire' and Clare Barrington's bibliography of Irish Women in Britain are just some of the works for which the Archive has been consulted. In addition to visits, the Archive deals with numerous enquiries requesting information, literature searches and referrals to other Irish agencies in Britain.
A development programme was launched in 2000 and is progressing in three key ways. Firstly, by preserving and expanding the collections. The Archive contains a number of rare and fragile materials which it has newly preserved and recently acquired dedicated archival space within the university to ensure the safe housing and appropriate access for users. The expansion programme entails outreach, liaison and consultation with various organisations and individuals in order to acquire new materials. In particular the Archive is keen to expand its collection of photographs, recordings and ephemera. A schedule of oral interviews with individuals about their personal experiences of life in Britain is part of this initiative and a film documentary of interviews with London Irish elders was produced in 2003 entitled I Only Came Over for a Couple of Years... Secondly, dissemination and widening access to the data held by the Archive is an important goal. The Archive helped fund and support the 'Shades of Green' directory of the Irish in Britain and will launch a website in due course with digitization and the establishment of a digitized library of photographic and other images of the Irish in Britain planned.
By extending the metaphor of the mirror referred to earlier, the Archive might be compared to a mirrored ball. Apart from containing numerous small individual mirrored tiles which represent each of the individual items, stories or images in the collections, the ball once it begins to spin in the spotlight of publicity begins to reflect and project its contents far and wide. The Irish have a special historical and cultural relationship with stories and storytelling. There is an argument that no story, be it academic, fictional or autobiographical truly exists until it is told. So too it could be argued that no archive truly exists until its contents are disseminated. My hope is that this project will go some way to achieving this through the goals outlined above and that the Archive will be seen as a process as much as an end product, which all sectors of the community can feel they have a stake in. Despite the existence of an 'Irish' category in the recent census, there is still a massive shortfall amongst large sectors of British society in awareness and recognition of the contributions, needs and achievements of the Irish in Britain as compared to other ethnic groups. The Archive of the Irish in Britain is one means of attempting to put this right. To that extent, I hope this particular Archive is as much about the future as the past.
Tony Murray, Archive of the Irish in Britain