MANY of the residents in Bradford today are descendants of migrants from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.

One of these groups who have had a big impact on the city in the past 200 years are the Irish - the most significant group of migrants to travel to the UK in the 19th Century. It may surprise some readers to learn that in 1851 Bradford had an Irish population greater than other towns in West Yorkshire, and was often referred to as an ‘Irish town’. Many of Bradford’s Catholics are descendants of these migrants.

There’s often an assumption that Irish citizens only began to migrate to Britain during and after the Great Famine of 1845-49, however, there has been a steady flow of people between these islands going back to ancient times. In the early 19th Century seasonal workers called ‘Spalpeens’ (which can also mean ‘rascal’) travelled to the mainland to work on bringing in harvests. Many of them originated from County Mayo, County Sligo in the west of Ireland as well as Western Ulster. There was even a ‘harvest ticket’ offered by the Irish Midlands Railway which carried people from the countryside to Dublin, from where they sailed to Liverpool. In the 1820s the numbers of Spalpeens began to increase as steamer packets offered affordable transport across the Irish Sea for two shillings and sixpence. By 1834 there were some 40,000 or so seasonal workers busily engaged in these activities, supplementing incomes back home.

Irish migrants began to settle permanently in the UK, attracted by bustling, prosperous cities with shops and nightlife including music halls and public houses. But the reality on arrival in a northern city like Bradford turned out to be quite different to how they’d imagined. On arriving in Bradford, many Irish migrants struggled as they couldn’t speak English, and many more were illiterate. Life was tough, the change from rural to city life was challenging, generating a sense of uprootedness and feelings of isolation and despair. In addition, migrant workers were not always welcomed by the indigenous population, and were sometimes blamed for taking jobs. As many of the migrants coming to Bradford were poor and uneducated, they sought occupations which tended to be poorly paid and found themselves part of a socio-economic group more likely to be exploited. Irish workers were often paid less and were soon depicted as strike breakers who were happy to work for lower wages. Hostility and resentment towards the incomers began to develop and tensions spilled over into fights between English and Irish workers, as in 1848 when a group of Spalpeens or seasonal workers on their way back from Lincolnshire were confronted in Manchester Road by English labourers. English ‘navvies’ were thrown out of a pub in Cleckheaton by their Irish counterparts, who were then in turn were thrown out when English labourers returned in greater numbers armed with clubs.

As Irish migration increased, an atmosphere of prejudice grew in the UK, with migrant workers often described as uncivilised. The Bradford Observer would run ‘Irish jokes’ and articles about the ‘low Irish’ portrayed as likely to be involved in fights and disorderly behaviour. Renowned writer, essayist and philosopher Thomas Carlyle in his text on Chartism in 1840 wrote: “The uncivilised Irishman, not by his strength, but by the opposite of strength drives out the Saxon native, takes possession of his room. There abides he, in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder”. There was little thought given to the conditions of the lives of many Irish people. That they were ‘culturally inferior’ was simply a given and they were considered a drain on rate-payers. Migrants were also depicted as carriers of disease and contagion. In 1847-8 an outbreak of Typhus in Britain was referred to as the ‘Irish fever’.

Over time anti-Irish sentiment became commonplace, and cartoons depicting Irish migrants as threatening or to be feared were printed in the popular press. As Irish people were often living alongside one another in the same streets, they were portrayed by writers of the time as living in ‘ghettos’ used interchangeably with the term ‘Little Irelands”. In an often hostile social climate, it is understandable that Irish migrants would seek out others for support. In Bradford they lived in the West End, in streets which no longer exist with curious names like Salt Pie Street and Pool Alley. Others could be found at Westgate, Lumb Lane, White Abbey Road and Goitside which ran alongside Thornton Road. Today this area encompasses Sunbridge Road, Grattan Road, Baptist Place and Tetley Street.

Housing conditions were often appalling, with overcrowding commonplace. Entire families would live cramped in a single room. In Canon Street the houses were so overcrowded that beds were sub-let on a shift basis. Infant mortality was unsurprisingly high and diseases including tuberculosis were rife due to poverty and unsanitary conditions.

Initially, Bradford had been a Protestant town but as the population became increasingly diverse in the 19th Century, the landscape began to change. New places of worship were springing up, including the city’s first Catholic church, St Mary’s, on Stott Hill, built in 1825. St Mary’s was known as the ‘Mother church’ since the Catholic parishes which exist here today grew from this one source. St Patrick’s church, Westgate was built in the 1850s and St Joseph’s Church was built on Pakington Street in the late 19th Century.

The Catholic church played a pivotal leadership role in social and political life, providing education for boys and girls, as well as accommodation for single women at Bank House, which still stands today.

Whilst there was prejudice towards Irish immigrants in the UK, there were many migrants including George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith who made quite a splash, going on to achieve success.

In the mid 20th Century, Irish immigration to Britain began to increase again, particularly during and after the Second World War as industry grew. It is estimated that in the 1950s half a million people migrated from Ireland to the UK.

In the 21st Century their legacy here in Bradford can be found in education, for instance the schools St Joseph’s and St Bede’s, in art and theatre through the creation in 1927 by Bernard Boylan of St Joseph’s Musical and Dramatic Society which subsequently became the Bradford Catholic Players. Most recent, pre-pandemic productions of this longstanding society include Hairspray and High School Musical. The Irish legacy is also felt in Bradford’s social life through pubs and hospitality venues including the Harp of Erin, The Lord Clyde and The Irish Café. In 2016, after nearly 200 years as residents in the city, the Irish community was recognised at a civic reception hosted by then Lord Mayor of Bradford Joanne Dodds at City Hall. A good question might be: what will the next 200 years bring?

Thanks to the Bradford Local Studies Library for assistance with writing this article.