by Niamh Dillon
In 2022, Ireland celebrated the centenary of the foundation of the Irish Free State. The centenary marked a long-anticipated moment that came at the end of one of the most turbulent decades in Irish history: marked by such seismic events as the Dublin Lockout of 1913, the First World War, the Easter Rising in 1916, and the war of independence leading to the foundation of the state. These events irrevocably shaped the new nation at its formation and for decades to follow. To mark this important decade, the government established the Decade of Centenaries program. The official aim of the commemoration was “to promote a deeper understanding of the significant events that took place during this period and recognise that the shared historical experience of those years gave rise to very different narratives and memories.”
While the commemoration of events occurring 100 years ago may seem a historical reminder, they are actually high-water marks in a charged relationship with Britain that continues to this day. When independence was declared in 1922, and formally inaugurated in 1948, the links between Britain and Ireland were not severed on those dates. Indeed, in the 1950s, more people crossed the Irish Sea from Ireland to Britain than at any other time since The Famine in 1845-51, prompted by Ireland’s economic stagnation and Britain’s employment opportunities. In the late 1960s, civil rights protests and their repression led to a bloody thirty year conflict known as The Troubles, and most recently, the Brexit referendum and its aftermath highlighted public debates on migration and belonging.
So, the roots of the past continue to influence the present. The Decade of Centenaries programme acknowledges the presence of ‘very different narratives and memories’ and these narratives and memories are fundamental to the rationale of my book, Homeward Bound: Return Migration from Ireland and India at the End of the British Empire. This book reaches back to those early years of the twentieth century to explore the untold experience of those migrating in this period. The birth of the new nation in 1922 was supposed to herald a new future for the country – and break many of the old, contested, ties with Britain. However, for a significant proportion of the population, who had supported the Union, these events were cataclysmic. Between 1911 and 1926 the number of non-Catholics in the Irish Free State declined from approximately 313,000 to 208,000. Homeward Bound uses original interviews with southern Irish Protestants who left in the years following independence to explore a neglected aspect of Irish migration history. It compares these with the British who left following Indian independence in 1947 to investigate whether these migrations were actually part of a wider British imperial diaspora; communities closely aligned to the empire, who felt they no longer had a role in these newly independent nations and chose to ‘return’ to Britain. By interviewing those who experienced these events first-hand and using the Irish Grants Committee records at the National Archives in Britain, alongside other documentary records, this book offers new insights into their experience in the colonial era, the factors affecting their decision to leave, and their lives in post-war and post-colonial Britain. Return migrants chose Britain because of continuing connections with it as ‘home.’ Olive Stevenson recalled her parent’s decision to leave Dublin in the 1920s,
My father was a civil servant and he had worked for the British civil service until 1920 when the change of government meant he decided he didn’t want to stay any longer in Ireland. I think he was worried about the possibility of religious discrimination; he was a Protestant, and he transferred to what was then the General Post Office in England . . . well, I mean, probably there was a basis of truth in it, that when a situation had been so manifestly unjust that Protestants were favored over Catholics, that when the change of government came the boot was going to be on the other foot and I think that was probably a fairly accurate perception on his part.
This book reveals that class, gender, and political outlook all played a part in individuals’ experience of empire and its aftermath. However, these migrants often found their colonial experience was not valued in a country re-orientating itself to the post-war order. This book is focused on two communities rooted in Ireland and India, who were part of the British Empire, but the research reveals much about identity, race, cultural difference, that has a wider relevance to current waves of migration, and the dislocation and opportunities it brings.
Niamh Dillon is project director at National Life Stories at the British Library and is also currently leading a corporate oral history of one of the UK’s leading civil engineering firms, J Murphy & Sons. Prior to this, she worked in television, most notably on the Academy Award winning Into the Arms of Strangers at Warner Bros. She has published in the Oral History Journal and recently a chapter in Protestant and Irish: The Minority’s Search for Place in Independent Ireland.