There has long been much coming and going between Ireland and England. In fact, historians note that a scattering of Irish names existed in Liverpool as early as 1378. However, it was when Liverpool gained prominence as a port city that it became the primary access point for Irish immigrants as they made their way to England.
The Irish population in England grew gradually through the 19th century. Many poor labourers, drovers and artisans emigrated due to economic reasons. They weren’t the only ones, however. Middle class Irish moved in and made their mark on the history of Liverpool. Michael Whitty, for example, founded the Liverpool Fire Brigade and the Liverpool Daily Post. William Brown was another prominent figure, who financed the building of the public library.
But the situation took a drastic downturn during the tragic Potato Famine which stretched from1846 to 1852. A succession of the worst potato crop failures led to massive poverty and starvation in Ireland. The potato was a staple food of the poor, especially in winter, and the loss of the crops was devastating. Over one million people lost their lives over the course of the famine.
The Irish escaped in droves, with approximately 1.3 million immigrants passing through the port in Liverpool. Though a substantial Irish population already existed in England, the enormous influx deeply impacted the city of Liverpool.
Many immigrants saw Liverpool as a stepping stone on their way to the United States; however, a large number ended up staying on, making their homes in Liverpool. By the end of the famine in 1851, there were some 90,000 Irish born and living in Liverpool. In fact, the Irish immigrants made up about 25 percent of the town’s population.
Those that stayed in Liverpool gravitated toward established Irish communities. The Irish community developed predominantly around St. Anthony’s Church in Liverpool. Further Catholic churches quickly sprung up throughout the 19th century, providing a ballast for the droves of Irish immigrants.
Unfortunately, the Irish who arrived in Liverpool were starving, weak and extremely vulnerable. Certain groups sprung up almost immediately and found an easy livelihood taking the little money the immigrants possessed upon arriving on the Mersey docks. Many of the Irish immigrants quickly moved on; however, those who stayed near the docks were at great risk and were often preyed upon by the unsavoury characters.
Conditions worsened as the enormous volume of immigrants quickly exceeded the available housing and employment. The sanitary system was taxed to its limit – as was the Poor Law system. Liverpool taxpayers quickly became disgruntled, feeling that the immigrants were overburdening the Poor Law system.
Many Irish workers were forced to take low-paid, labour-intense jobs at the docks, processing plants, in the chemical industries, and as warehouse and construction workers. Irish women found even fewer opportunities, and were relegated to low-level jobs like hawking box chips and crushed sandstone residue.
To compound matters, typhus, dysentery and cholera swept through the population with epidemics so severe that floating hospitals and fever sheds were built along the Mersey. The overcrowded living quarters were breeding grounds for disease, and despite numerous attempts to improve sanitary conditions, “Irish Fever” persisted. In fact, at that time, life expectancy in the dock areas of Liverpool fell to the lowest in the country.
Eventually, the Irish came to dominate the Liverpool docks, and in fact had quite an impact on how the port developed. As Liverpool became a prominent port city, efficiency on the docks was a priority, and Irish dock workers played a huge role in making that possible. Irish “lumpers” loaded and unloaded cargo on the ships. Irish “carters” carted tobacco between the port and various private warehouses. Around 1900 Irish porters were employed in warehouses on the Liverpool docks. The Irish were involved with dock construction on the Mersey, and many found work as stevedores, sailors and ship’s firemen.
All-in-all, Liverpool just might not be the place it is today without the influence of the great Irish migration. The impact of the Irish on the city as a whole can still be felt today. After all, a couple of the most famous fellows to come out of Liverpool – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – do carry Irish surnames.