Images of the Irish in Scotland

The School of Scottish Studies Archive (SSSA) brings together a range of material on Scottish life, particularly during the twentieth century. One of the beautiful aspects of the SSSA holdings is their sound recording archives which include folklore, interviews, and songs. These were mainly collected during the 1950s and followed similar collecting principles as the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) which had done similar. The main difference is that while the IFC has a lot of transcribed interviews, the SSSA has digitised much of its sound archive which are accessible through the Tobar an Dualchais website. Using the two archives, particularly the digitised collections, in tandem, a researcher can begin to build up pictures of how knowledge about each nation – Scotland and Ireland – were transmitted and the ways that migrants between the two were imagined.

When Willie Mathieson first heard ‘An Irish Gentleman’/’Patsy Fagan’ sung in a music hall in Aberdeenshire and Moray in 1909, he followed up the concert by writing to Mr Gillies, a postman in Cabrach, for the words. The song tells the tale of Patsy Fagan who travelled from Sligo to Glasgow to work  in brickworks there. He’s on the look out for a wife. Mathieson was interviewed by Hamish Henderson in 1952, and thanks to the Tobar an Dualchais website, the recording is available for us to listen to here. Willie Mathieson provided a number of sound recordings for the Archive, many of which relate to Irish migrant labourers in Scotland. According to the interview relating to ‘The Scavenger Brigade’ – about an Irishman who moves to Glasgow and struggles to make a living though his family believe he is in the British Army  – Mathieson notes that he learned the song from an itinerant Irish singer – “I think he would have been a Paddy” – when he was a child.

William Mathieson, dubbed by Henderson as a “ploughman folklorist” (McMorland & McIntyre: 138) was born in 1879 in Ellon and spent his working life as a farmworker in North-East Scotland. Thomas A. McKean has written a useful biographical article on Mathieson, bringing together these sound recordings with notebooks and interviews. McKean notes that ‘when schoolmaster Gavin Greig set out to collect folk songs in the North-East [of Scotland] in 1904, he found that around one third of the repertoire of “local” songs was, in fact, Irish in origin’ (McKean: 42). As Geraldine Vaughan notes ‘Far from being a terra incognita, Scotland had been a familiar destination for Irish migrants since early modern times’ (Vaughan: 2). There was growing Irish migration to Scotland from the 1840s and 1850s due to the Irish Famine and increased industrialisation, some of it long-term but much of it was seasonal.  By 1851, 18 percent of Glasgow’s population was Irish and in areas like Coatbridge, this proportion increased to half of the population (MacRaild; Black).

In addition to folk songs such as the ones recollected by Mathieson, the hard lives of Irish immigrants in Scotland was made famous in the early twentieth century by Patrick MacGill. The so-called ‘Navvy Poet’ moved from Glenties, County Donegal to Scotland when a teenager and made his living working on the railways (before becoming a lauded poet, journalist, and author). His first novel, Children of the Dead End, was published in 1914 to great acclaim. In it, Dermod and Norah make their way from Strabane on the ‘Derry boat’ to Scotland:

“Have ye seen Scotland yet, Dermod?” she asked.

“That’s it, I think,” I said, as I pointed at the shoreline visible many miles away.

“Isn’t it like Ireland.” Norah nestled closer to me as she spoke. “I would like to be goin’ back again,” she said after a long silence.

“I’m going to make a great fortune in Scotland, Norah,” I said. “And I’m going to make you a great lady.”

“Why are ye goin’ to do that?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I confessed, and the two of us laughed together.

MacGill used his platform to highlight the harsh lives of those living in Scotland’s slums. His books worked in tandem with songs and folklore which wove through communities, spread by farm labourers like Willie Mathieson and travelling singers who entertained in the music halls and street corners. Together they worked to shape ideas of Scotland and Ireland, and the people of those nations, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Digitisation brings some of these stories to the fore. The next post will delve into the ideas of Scotland which made their way to Ireland in similar ways.

Continue reading “Images of the Irish in Scotland”

The Bi-Lateral Review of Scottish-Irish Relations.

This week, Fiona Hyslop (Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs) and Simon Coveney (Irish Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade) announced a bi-lateral review of historic and future relations between Ireland and Scotland. This review will be carried out by the Irish Consulate in Scotland (alongside the Ireland, UK and Americas Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and the Scottish Innovation and Investment Hub in Dublin (alongside the Scottish Government External Relations Directorate) and will result in a public document in late 2020 (more here). In the press release, Ms Hyslop MSP noted that ‘Ireland is one of Scotland’s oldest friends, linked by history, geography and culture’. SIMI aims to explore elements of this ‘friendship’ and consider the ways that Ireland and Scotland have learned from each other in the past, how their histories have intersected and converged, and also how each ‘small nation’ can inspire the other now.

In History there has been a renewed interest in the shared histories of Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish Studies Archive at the University of Edinburgh and the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin hold a connected history through Calum Maclean. The increasing amount of digitised material held in these collections has provided new research opportunities for scholars interested in overlaps and engagements across the Irish Sea. SIMI’s meetings over the last two years have also helped to build links between researchers at UCD and Edinburgh.  In Scotland and Ireland more generally,  the twentieth anniversary of the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies in Aberdeen and the related Twenty Years Hence project (funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and under the leadership of Maria-Daniella Dick and Michael Brown) has prompted new conversations on the evolution and future of Irish and Scottish Studies. New works on migration between and from the two nations are helping to encourage consideration of the similarities and disparities of life in/from Scotland and Ireland – this is of particular importance considering the dominance of England in traditional histories of Britain and Ireland (in all their constitutional states throughout history). This bi-lateral review therefore comes at an opportune time in politics but also in historical scholarship.

Memorandum of Agreement between the University of Edinburgh and UCD.

By Justin Synnott

Memorandum of Agreement-4
16 November 2018, University College Dublin has today signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the University of Edinburgh to develop closer collaboration between both universities. Pictured at UCD is Professor Orla Feely, UCD Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact and Professor Jonathan Seckl, Vice-Principal Planning, Resources and Research Policy, University of Edinburgh. Pic Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX


The Scottish Irish Migration Initiative (SIMI) took another important step forward on Friday 16th November with the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) between the University of Edinburgh and University College Dublin (UCD) and a joint commitment to develop closer collaboration between the two universities.

Professor Orla Feely, Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact, UCD said, “UK institutions, such as the University of Edinburgh, are significant partners for UCD and our strategy is to strengthen our relationships with such universities and to maintain and develop those relationships, whatever the external landscape.”

“I am therefore delighted that UCD is deepening its level of partnership with the University of Edinburgh through the Memorandum of Agreement signed today. The agreement formalises a close partnership between the two institutions that is one of our most valued and expresses our ambition to jointly contribute our expertise to solving some of the world’s most challenging problems.”

Professor Jonathan Seckl, Vice-Principal Planning, Resources and Research Policy, University of Edinburgh, said, “As a world-leading university, Edinburgh is highly international in its outlook.  43% of our students and more than 30% of our staff are from abroad. To address the great challenges that our planet and its people face, we are now forging deeper partnerships with select leading European universities.”

As part of the MoA the universities have announced that they will establish a joint 3-year strategic partnership fund, worth up to €100,000 in the first year, to support collaborative research, along with undergraduate and postgraduate education, in a number of key thematic areas including migration research as set out in under SIMI.

Bryan Fanning, Professor of Migration and Social Policy and UCD’s Academic Lead for SIMI updated colleagues on progress made under the initiative. Professor Fanning noted the key areas currently under development across both universities including historical and comparative approaches to migration, young people and ‘sites of interpretation’, rural integration and localisms and finally, migration and ‘citizenships’.

In the coming weeks SIMI members will consider proposals to leverage the strategic partnership fund towards larger funding mechanisms and other ways of strengthening activities under SIMI.

 Pic Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

October Meeting and Future Directions for SIMI.

Written up by Dr Sophie Cooper.

On 5 October, researchers on migration from University College Dublin (UCD) and the University of Edinburgh held the second Scottish Irish Migration Initiative (SIMI) meeting at UCD. Nine researchers from Edinburgh joined 13 UCD colleagues from disciplines such as History, Policy, Social Sciences, Law, and Social Work in order to share research priorities and establish some concrete avenues for collaboration over the coming months and years. You can read more about those involved in SIMI here.

Some of the SIMI collaborators. Photo credit: Justin Synnott.

We began the meeting by looking at the previously decided upon research themes of SIMI before deciding on the themes that most people thought that there was collaborative potential for. These were:

  • Young people and ‘sites of interpretation’.
  • Migration, rural integration and localisms.
  • National identities [now ‘citizenships’].

Splitting into smaller groups to discuss these themes, we sought to choose some positive actions that could be carried out over the next months, particularly with an eye on national and international funding bid potentials. These smaller group discussions really helped to bring researchers from across institutions and disciplines together, which could then be built upon in the wider group.

I was in the national identities group and it soon emerged that the fluidity of ‘national identities’ as a term was problematic – particularly when nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians were working alongside law scholars and social scientists! Our primary focus was to compare and consider the connections between ideas about identity in Scotland and Ireland which can be problematic when you’re switching between different contexts of nationhood. However, there were a lot of possibilities for comparison and contrast when ‘citizenships’ was considered. By changing our thematic focus from ‘national identities’ to ‘citizens’, new avenues were opened up related to social institutions, belonging, and international diplomacy. This change in focus required the freedom to share our different perspectives and thrash out the restrictions and opportunities presented by each of our disciplinary contexts.

Our group came up with a series of activities related to this adapted theme of ‘citizens’ which can bring together researchers from UCD and Edinburgh, and also have the potential to apply the theme to both historical and current contexts of migration and belonging. More information about these activities will be promoted over the coming months.

There were two other groups. One focused on the changing political and local engagements with migration policy in Ireland and Scotland, particularly related to the re-population of rural areas and islands, and the importance of de-centring cities as policy case studies for integration and acceptance. The other considered young people and irregular migration, and how policy makers in Scotland and Ireland engage with young migrants at different levels, particularly relating to state institutions like schools and residential care. These was led by social work scholars and linguistics, with researchers in policy and law able to provide different insights and suggestions.

One of the particularly positive elements of the day was that it brought together researchers from across career level and experience meaning that even when the theme was not one person’s area of expertise, other colleagues could provide experiential advice on working with a variety of stakeholders, including those colleagues based in the administration of research funding. This led to a day which was both inter-disciplinary and collegial – we hope that these working priorities will soon lead to concrete activities dedicated to migration scholarship across the University of Edinburgh and University College Dublin.

Connecting Migration Histories to the Current Day.

Dr Sophie Cooper – Postdoctoral Research Fellow for SIMI.

Last night I went to see Scotties, a play about Scottish and Irish identity, language, and migration. Switching from contemporary Scotland to 1937 and back again, it told the story of migrant workers – potato pickers or ‘tattie-hokers’ – who travelled from Achill Island, Co. Mayo to the Ayrshire town of Kirkintilloch. The reason for Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet’s focus on Kirkintilloch was a fire in a locked bothy led to the death of 10 boys and young men, a tragedy which brought  Ireland and Scotland together in multiple ways. The tri-lingual play (English, Scots Gaelic, and Irish) which connects the experiences of migrant workers in 1937 with those who migrate to and from Ireland and Scotland today, has toured Scottish cities and will finish its journey in Achill Island, Co. Mayo.

Dundee Courier and Advertiser 17 September 1937
Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 17 September 1937.

‘Scotties’ highlighted many of the themes that SIMI (the Scottish Irish Migration Initiative) seeks to engage with. Migration between and within Scotland and Ireland and the importance of language to national identities are two themes that stood out to me immediately. Another element that was raised in the Q&A was the new migration to Achill Island and the changing knowledge about the history of the area, including the Kirkintilloch tragedy. A new exhibition on the history of Achill and the visit of ‘Scotties’ is helping to unite the knowledge of the island’s traditional inhabitants and newer groups. The movement of people from urban areas to rural and island, and also the migration from rural areas and island communities into cities like Glasgow and Dublin is an ongoing story that changes identity and integration. It is another of themes that will be explored by SIMI researchers.

My own research focuses on the historical experiences of Irish migration to Melbourne and Chicago during the nineteenth century, and the importance of education by Irish women religious/nuns to shaping ethnic identity in the diaspora. One of the actors in ‘Scotties’ mentioned that growing up in Glasgow, it took him until he was about 8 to realise that he wasn’t actually Irish. His education, his religion, the music and sport that he grew up engaging with and the community that he lived within was so entrenched in Irish culture that Scottishness became an afterthought. However, teenage rebellion and the political climate led him to question these assumptions and he began engaging with the Scottish parts of his life and identity. This dual identity which now involves learning Scots Gaelic and playing Irish traditional music mirrors the intellectual and identity tussles that members of diasporic communities have gone through over centuries.

I’m really looking forward to connecting some of the historical strands of my research with the work of historians, social scientists, social workers and policy experts from across UCD and the University of Edinburgh. As the postdoctoral research fellow for Edinburgh’s side of SIMI, I’ve already got the chance to glimpse how historical experience is used to inform policies on migration, and also how social scientists are learning about migrant experiences from and across Scotland and Ireland today. This cross-national, cross-institutional, and cross-disciplinary endeavour provides us with an important opportunity to explore migration in a variety of ways and time periods, and I’m particularly pleased that these stories are being spotlighted in the arts at the same time.



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