The 'backbone of the NHS'

Professor Louise Ryan and Grainne McPolin celebrate the historic contribution of Irish Nurses to the UK's National Health Service this International Women's Day.

Date: 8 March 2022

Historically, Irish people were the largest migrant group in Britain's workforce (Hickman and Ryan, 2021). However, the prevalence of male images, such as the ubiquitous 'navvy' or Irish construction worker, masks the predominance of women among the Irish population in Britain. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, Irish female migration out-numbered male migration (Walter, 2001).  For example, between 1946-51 the male to female ratio among Irish migrants was 73:100 (Kennedy, 1973).  Over the last 100 years, Irish women have been among the largest group of migrant workers to come to Britain (Hickman and Walter, 1995).  Most of these Irish women have come to Britain as single, young, economically active migrants (Ryan, 2008).  However, despite their prevalence, Irish women have been largely invisible in Britain.  Nonetheless, as Bronwen Walter (2001) argues, the one exception to this invisibility is probably the popular image of 'the Irish nurse'.  

During World War II and throughout the post-war period Britain consistently drew on Ireland, along with other former colonies, as a source of trained and trainee nurses (Daniels, 1993; Yeates, 2004).  The recruitment of Irish women into nursing was facilitated by the British state, for example, during World War II Irish trained and trainee nurses were exempt from war time restrictions on Irish immigration.  In the post-war period, British labour authorities directly recruited nurses through Irish labour exchanges as well as through advertisements in Irish local and national newspapers (Ryan, 2008).  Recruitment drives throughout the 1950s-60s, for example, saw NHS staff travel around Ireland, often setting up in local hotels, to interview and sign up Irish teenage girls for nurse training. Thousands of such young women were then assigned to hospitals throughout Britain where they trained and worked.  In the words of one of our interviewees, these young Irish women became 'the backbone of the NHS'.

During the 1960s 11% of all nurses recruited to hospitals in the south east of England were born in the Irish republic (Walter, 1989). By 1971 there were 31,000 Irish-born nurses in Britain constituting 12% of all nursing staff (Daniels, 1993: 5-6).  

Louise has long been interested in Irish migration and published extensively on that subject over the last 20 years. As part of that work, she undertook a qualitative study of Irish nurses (see Ryan, 2007) which has become widely cited and regarded as pioneering research in understanding the role of Irish migrant women in the NHS.  

In 2021, a radio documentary entitled Angels of Mercy produced by Grainne McPolin was broadcast on Newstalk Radio, Ireland, to wide acclaim. The programme was runner up in the 2021 New York radio awards. That programme ignited interest in the history of Irish nurses in Britain and listeners indicated their desire to know more about this important chapter in the UK/ Ireland story.  Louise was a contributor to the radio programme and at that point she and Grainne decided to develop the project further, seek funding, and preserve the stories of Irish nurses.

After months of planning, we have now embarked on an exciting new project to celebrate and commemorate the enormously significant contribution of Irish nurses to the NHS since its inception to the present day.  We aim to undertake interviews with Irish nurses who migrated to Britain from the 1950s onwards. We will preserve and archive their stories in the Irish in Britain archive at London Metropolitan University. A series of podcasts will be produced and we plan to write a report as well as developing an oral history book of stories and photographs.

We'd like to thank the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation (INMO), London Metropolitan University and the Irish nurses for supporting this important project to date. This project will also receive support from the London Irish Centre.


References without hyperlinks

Daniels, M. (1993) Exile or Opportunity? Irish Nurses and Midwives in Britain. Liverpool: Institute of Irish Studies
Kennedy, R. (1973), The Irish: Emigration, Marriage and Fertility, Berkley: University of California Press
Walter, B. (1989) Irish Women in London: the Ealing Dimension. London: Ealing Women’s Unit
Yeates, N. (2004) 'a dialogue with global are chain analysis: nurse migration in the Irish context' Feminist Review, 77: 79-95

old fashioned image of a group of nurses

Image: Photo of Ethel Corduff (nee Walsh) and her nursing colleagues in the 1960s

Louise Ryan is Senior Professor of Sociology and Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Met.

Grainne McPolin has been a nurse working on the frontline healthcare for over thirty years in Ireland, Britain and Middle East. In 2015 Grainne re-trained in radio production with Kerry College and Radio Kerry. Since then, she has produced podcasts and documentaries focusing on human interest and women’s stories.