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Victorian Manchester

Manchester's Irish connection goes further than the thousands who travel across the Irish Sea each week to watch their beloved Manchester United. Indeed it goes deeper than the thousands of Irish Mancunians who live in Levenshulme and throughout the city. The annual Manchester Irish Festival is the largest in the UK and one of the biggest in the world. On these pages, we take a look at why the connection is so strong and celebrate everything Irish to have emerged from Manchester.

By 1841, a tenth of the city's population was Irish and many lived in the district known as "Little Ireland", a slum area in the Ancoats area of Manchester which Engels labelled in his 1845 'Condition of the Working Class In England' as "the most disgusting spot of all!". This area of the city was so overcrowded that the sudden Irish influx during the Potato Famine could not be accomodated and had to turn to other English cities, notably Liverpool and Birmingham.

Engels wrote, "The New Town, known also as Irish Town, stretches up a hill of clay, beyond the Old Town, between the Irk and St. George's Road. Here all the features of a city are lost. Single rows of houses or groups of streets stand, here and there, like little villages on the naked, not even grass-grown clay soil; the houses, or rather cottages, are in bad order, never repaired, filthy, with damp, unclean, cellar dwellings; the lanes are neither paved nor supplied with sewers, but harbour numerous colonies of swine penned in small sties or yards, or wandering unrestrained through the neighbourhood. The mud in the streets is so deep that there is never a chance, except in the dryest weather, of walking without sinking into it ankle deep at every step. In the vicinity of St. George's Road, the separate groups of buildings approach each other more closely, ending in a continuation of lanes, blind alleys, back lanes and courts, which grow more and more crowded and irregular the nearer they approach the heart of the town. True, they are here oftener paved or supplied with paved sidewalks and gutters; but the filth, the bad order of the houses, and especially of the cellars, remain the same." [Buy Engels 'Condition of the Working Class']

According to the census of 1841, 60% of the population of the West of Ireland lived in windowless single-roomed mud cabins with little furniture. It was from this area that the majority of Manchester's Irish immigrants came. Unprepared for city life, they often took any job available, many degrading, low-paid and dangerous.

Manchester's early Irish inhabitants found themselves living in poverty. They often crammed into houses with little air and light. A tax on windows caused many landlords to block up as many openings as possible, making the houses dangerously dark and lacking ventilation. Overcrowding forced many to live in the cellars of houses where the conditions were damp, dangerously dark and lacking sanitation. A report found that 18,000 Irish inhabitants lived in Manchester cellars. (15% of these actually slept more than 3 people in one bed, with cases of 8 in a bed reported and even horrific tales of many even sleeping without a bed).

Life in Manchester though for many was surprisingly better than that enjoyed in Ireland, and for this reason immigrants were willing to work for lower pay than the locals. This lead to tension, especially when Irish workers were used to break strikes. Many Irish in Manchester sent a fraction of their earnings 'back home' which helped the Irish economy.

In the main Manchester's Irish immigrants found jobs in construction. As well as the labourers and builders there were the 'navvies' (navigators), who learnt their trade in the construction of canals (of which Manchester had many), before adapting to work in railway and road construction. Many women became domestic servants, a surprisingly high number of Irishmen found jobs in the armed forces, and a few became prize-fighters finding fame and small fortune in the process.

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The Manchester Irish Festival - March 4th to 20th 2005
Buy the book "The Reynolds Letters - An Irish Emigrant Family In Late Victorian Britain"
Buy the book "The Wearing of The Green - A Political History of the Irish in Manchester" by  Michael John Herbert
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