Bishop John Kirby’s address at the launch of Welcoming the Stranger – Irish Migrant Welfare in Britain since 1957 by Patricia Kennedy

28 May 2015

Embassy of Ireland, London

“Regardless of available resources, the Church will always serve the common good, and will prioritise those on the margins … Though emigration should never be justified as a tool of economic policy, one can only be grateful for the freedom of movement between Britain and Ireland, and wonder what can policy-makers learn in this regard in the wake of ongoing human tragedies off the coast of Southern Europe?” – Bishop Kirby

As I look around this room this evening I see the faces of first, second and third generation Irish.  From the outset I wish to salute you and your families, for your courage, as it was you who, as pioneers, established roots here in the land of our nearest neighbour during times – economically and socially – radically different, and sometimes hostile, from the optimistic era within which we live today.  With the exception of a brief period in the last ten years, net outward migration has always been a strong vein running through the narrative of Ireland’s history – North, South, East and West – most infamously during the Great Famine period, but also during the dark days of the 1950s and the 1980s.  Every family and parish felt the pain and loss – sometimes akin to bereavement – but it was your displacement, your commitment to your faith and family, and your work ethic, all of which combine to give Ireland, and the Irish, the exemplary reputation which we enjoy today around the globe.  Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus go mBeannaí Dia sibh!

Turning to our hosts, I express my gratitude to His Excellency, Mr Daniel Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland to Great Britain, and to Mrs Greta Mulhall, for hosting this event.  I thank too the diplomatic staff at the embassy for making us feel so welcome and at home.

I also wish to acknowledge the presence of the media here this evening, and to express my gratitude for your work in highlighting the plight of the Irish emigrant in Britain in contemporary and in past times.

The purpose of our gathering this evening is to launch this excellent publication by Dr Patricia Kennedy entitled Welcoming the Stranger – Irish Migrant Welfare in Britain since 1957.  I express my appreciation to the Irish Academic Press for recognising the value of this work and for agreeing to publish it.  Your role in this project is testament to the scholarly tone of this book, both in terms of its research and the presentation of its findings.

This evening, on my own behalf and on behalf of the bishops of Ireland, I wish to sincerely thank Mr John Walsh, chairman of the trustees of the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, all the remaining trustees, the staff, volunteers, clergy and religious, past and present, for your work as pastoral leaders, whilst mostly going unheralded, gives witness to the core mission of the Gospel, that is, to love God and to love our neighbour.

Before I address the book’s content, it is indeed very fitting that we are here in the Embassy of Ireland in Britain.  The embassy has hosted moments of major historical significance for Ireland and its people.  Many engagements here bear witness to the continuing cultural complexity of a Nation-State as it seeks to find its identity at different stages in its evolution.    At times, in the evolution of that identity, Church and State have held diverse and even opposing views and this is healthy for our society, however, I think it is fair to say that both institutions are committed to the concept of a strong and pluralist civil society where human beings flourish.  This is exemplified where Church and State best complement each other at the interface – where real tension exists – between social justice priorities on the one hand, and available macroeconomic resources on the other.  Regardless of available resources, the Church will always serve the common good, and will prioritise those on the margins.

Let me now focus on the main purpose of this evening’s gathering.  Firstly, I express my admiration and gratitude to you Dr Kennedy for this important and significant research and this excellent publication.  Some may find it hard to believe that other than letting you free to delve into the archives and responding to requests for interviews we, the Irish bishops, had no input into this work.

I am inspired and humbled by its content.  Before reading Welcoming the Stranger I was largely unaware of the extent of the selflessness and the commitment of so many lay people, religious sisters, and clergy in this mission to our Irish emigrants in Britain for over half a century.  I am also greatly inspired by the leadership and vision of so many on both sides of the Irish Sea who saw the need for a pastoral response and despite enormous obstacles put a sound structure in place to serve those in need.  A warm word of acknowledgement to those priests from the Archdiocese of Dublin, especially under Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who served in the Irish Chaplaincy in the decades following its establishment in 1957.

Rather than giving you a summary of the book or indeed my thoughts on how emigration has impacted on my own part of the country in East Galway, I want to pay tribute to this work in a different way.  While this research has brought to light the good work of many people and organisations, it is not merely a book about the past.  It speaks also to the present and points us to the future.  There are four key areas that I would like to highlight this evening which show what this research has to offer migration today.  By doing this I will illustrate that Dr Kennedy’s work has a reach that goes beyond the story of the migration of Irish people to Britain; this work has a global significance.

Firstly, when one looks at the work undertaken on behalf of Irish prisoners in the campaign to free those wrongly imprisoned, and separately at the achievements of the Task Force on Emigration, it is clear that in order to achieve significant outcomes for those living overseas, connection with the homeland is vital.  By homeland, I do not mean the institutions of Ireland; I mean the emigrant has to occupy a space in the heart of the people of Ireland.  The lesson from this book is that the more isolated emigrant or diaspora groups become; the less effective they are on behalf of those they serve.  New energy and fresh imagination has to be brought to bear on the way that Irish people abroad relate to their homeland for the good of both.  I offer my support and encouragement – especially to the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Mr Jimmy Deenihan TD, who wrote the foreword to Welcoming the Stranger – as Ireland seeks to engage with those living abroad.

Secondly, one often hears reports of the ‘ghettoisation’ of emigrant communities. Those looking in from the outside can often accuse those who work with migrants of creating ‘ghettos’. This research challenges those who hold this view. Whether it is in the work of housing, visiting hotels, or celebrating the sacraments, the aim of the emigrant chaplains was always to help Irish emigrants integrate into their new home here in Britain.  As societies are becoming more diverse, this research undoubtedly shows that one can never underestimate the significance and importance of any assistance that is given to newly arrived individuals and communities for the long term well-being and cohesiveness of the society that they move to.

Thirdly, this book shows us that policy which endures starts with the people it serves.  We can see from many current crises that no amount of policy will deter people from migrating.  Whether policy seeks to curtail or discourage, to invite or integrate, it will never be successful unless it addresses the needs of those who are migrating.  The mind-set of policy-makers must include the lives of migrants otherwise policy won’t work and will create backlogs, illegality and unrest.  Migrants in some cases will take advantage of policy that works in their favour but they will always find a way around policy that presents a barrier to their ultimate goal.

Fourthly, whilst Irish migrants were not without stigma in some of their host communities, we are fortunate that the Irish who travelled to Britain didn’t have to worry about visas or quotas.  They didn’t have to declare as refugees and asylum seekers though many were economic refugees and some may have fled persecution of one form or another.  The freedom of movement between our two nations meant that people could concentrate on work, housing, family and security.  When work dried up our migrants moved on, some to other parts of Britain, others became part of a second wave of emigration to other countries.  However, as people of the ‘Islands of the North Atlantic’, we have always sought to help each other, as well as to enjoy and mutually benefit from the best aspects of what our respective cultures have to offer.

Welcoming the Stranger is filled with stories of giants, people who contributed hugely to the welfare of our emigrants at a time when there was little interest from official Ireland.   I am impressed by the roles of Nuala Kelly,  Bishop Éamonn Casey and Fathers Paul Byrne and Bobby Gilmore.  The work of the religious congregations of the Columbans and the Oblates, as well as the Legion of Mary, shine out in the text.  The application of Catholic social teaching underpinned many of their campaigns.  Issues of housing, miscarriages of justice and the care of members of the Travelling community were – and still are – challenging, but especially so during the climate of the Troubles.  The work of many religious sisters, the development of the Irish Chaplaincy and the support offered in difficult times, the courageous human rights campaigning of solicitor Gareth Peirce, and of barrister Michael Mansfield, all feature in this book.

On a different note, I took particular delight in the account of the Huddersfield Gaeltacht.  Many years ago, I read the original Irish version of Dialann Deoraí by Dónall MacAmhlaigh.  It was later translated into English as An Irish Navvy and gives an extraordinary vivid picture of an Irish navvy’s life in the England of the 1950s.  Workless days, the hardships of work camps, lonesome partings after trips home, periods of intense isolation and occasional bitterness were all part of the picture.  The section on Huddersfield reflects much of that situation.

As many countries today become preoccupied with negative depictions of immigration there is merit in pondering how the unrestricted movement of people between Britain and Ireland has, for the most part, benefited these islands.  There were many hazards for our people who emigrated across the Irish Sea, but that freedom of movement opened wonderful opportunities for those who took the risk.  Today it would be remiss of us not to think of those who travel across the Mediterranean Sea and in doing so put their lives in danger.  Though emigration should never be justified as a tool of economic policy, one can only be grateful for the freedom of movement that exists between Britain and Ireland, and wonder what can policy-makers learn in this regard in the wake of ongoing human tragedies off the coast of Southern Europe?

We should learn from the problems associated with migration that our people faced in the past.  Being a son of migrants, Pope Francis is very sensitive to their needs.  In April the Pope said, “Migration is linked to hunger and lack of work.  People are being discarded and forced to seek employment elsewhere.”  More recently, following one of the many incidents of mass drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean, he said:

“A boat full of migrants capsized last night about one hundred kilometres off the Libyan coast, and hundreds are feared dead.  I express my deepest sorrow in the face of this tragedy and I assure my thoughts and prayers to those still missing and to their families.  I address an urgent appeal that the international community will act with decision and promptness to avoid any similar tragedy from happening again.  These are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, and exploited victims of war; they are seeking a better life.  They were seeking happiness.”

Today I have shared with you four areas which illustrate that the chaplaincy service to Irish emigrants in Britain is a model of best practice in welcoming the stranger.  Dr Kennedy’s publication provides us with many more inspiring examples that one could draw on this evening.  It highlights the importance of: supporting emigrants maintaining contact with their homeland; the importance of providing assistance to new emigrants; placing people at the heart of migrant policy; and, encouraging the work of integration.

Finally, while it is heartening that the profile of the Irish emigrant has utterly changed when compared with earlier generations, today the Irish Chaplaincy’s three main pastoral activities – working with Irish prisoners, Irish Travellers, and with the elderly Irish who are often alone – are hugely demanding and expensive.  May I appeal to your Christian spirit and ask those of us who can, to reflect on how we might better share our talents, or resources, or both, for the good of those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Congratulations to you, Dr Kennedy, for this fine work and thank you for the professional, courteous and committed manner in which you went about the project.  Thank you also for helping us to inform the present and the future through this prolific study of the past.

May God bless you all.


  • Bishop John Kirby is Bishop of Clonfert and chair of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants

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