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Irish Women in Britain: a dip in the archives

Irish in Britain's Heritage Researcher Rosa Gilbert has been going though the archives as part of Irish in Britain's 50th anniversary project. She highlights some of the histories of Irish women for Women's History Month.

With the exception of two short periods in the 1960s and 1980s, women have always outnumbered men in Ireland’s emigration statistics. One third of all women living in the Republic in 1946 had left by 1971.

The 1956 Commission on Emigration and Population expressed particular concern about the emigration of women as the gender ratios in rural areas became extremely unbalanced.[1]

Despite these statistics, much of the scholarly analysis on Irish migration to Britain has focused on men, particularly their role in the construction industry. The pioneering work of sociologist Bronwen Walter rectified this – she explained how women’s work in hospitals, factories, and offices had been overlooked.

Professor Louise Ryan is currently undertaking a landmark research project recording the stories of Irish women who migrated to Britain to work in the NHS – a photography exhibition featuring this work is currently on at the London Irish Centre.

One area that is still under-researched is the political engagement of Irish women in Britain in the latter part of the 20th century. Bronwen Walter’s book Outsiders Inside on Irish women migrants draws fascinating connections between the Irish women textile workers in 19th century Lancashire, their involvement in trade unionism and early Suffragism.

The migration of Irish women in the 1970s and 1980s – many of whom were leaving Ireland as a response to conservative cultural norms – gave rise to Irish feminist organising in Britain. The Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group, for instance, was set up in response to the lack of abortion access across Ireland and the introduction of the Eighth Amendment in the Republic.

The London Irish Women’s Centre

This is the context in which the London Irish Women’s Centre (LIWC) emerged in 1982. It took a few years to find offices – the LIWC, based in Stoke Newington, was officially opened by Irish feminist Nell McCafferty on 1 February 1986.

The Stoke Newington centre was initially funded by the Greater London Council (GLC) women’s committee, just before the GLC was disbanded. The LIWC provided weekly welfare advice sessions, educational and training programmes for women and children, festivals and classes in Irish language, music and literature.

The disbanding of the GLC placed the LIWC at risk. In 1988, it faced a 25 percent funding cut by the London Borough Grants Scheme. According to reports at the time, Conservative and Liberal councillors defended the cuts by claiming that the Irish did not represent an ethnic minority.

This was at odds with the prior engagement of the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Committee with various Irish organisations. This committee had produced a report advising local authorities on how to avoid discrimination against Irish people, including Irish Travellers, and protect Irish cultural heritage. The right to assert a distinct ethnic identity would become a key battle of the 1990s.

Political and social activism

As social deprivation and homelessness worsened in Britain in the 1980s, the LIWC campaigned on these issues, opposing the 1988 Housing Act, which they said would leave Irish women in the private rented sector with less security and would worsen homelessness.

The LIWC was also politically engaged in matters relating to the North of Ireland, particularly concerning the strip-searching of women prisoners in Armagh and Maghaberry prisons. Groups that came under the LIWC umbrella, such as the London Armagh Women’s Group (established 1980) and the Stop the Strip Searches Campaign (established 1983) led delegations of British and Irish women to the North of Ireland, including the feminist collective Spare Rib.

Another key campaign taken up by activists involved with the LIWC was anti-racism. Despite their comradely relationship with Spare Rib, or perhaps because of it, the Irish Women’s Centre made complaints about Spare Rib magazine’s treatment of Irish issues, including the reproduction of racist cartoons.

Spare Rib at least took the criticism more seriously than Ofcom’s predecessor, the Independent Broadcasting Authority. In response to a complaint against a BBC comedy show, it responded by claiming that to stop the ‘Irish joke’ would be ‘an unprecedented act of political censorship… [l]aughter can be an emollient’.[2]

The Centre finally closed its doors in 2012, after 30 years of advocacy and activism, entrusting its extensive archival collection to London Metropolitan University’s Archive of the Irish in Britain. It is a vital resource for any researcher interested in Irish feminist activism in Britain and the many causes for which the London Irish Women’s Centre fought.

Find out more about Irish in Britain's 50th anniversary project here, made possible with finding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Were you involved in the London Women's Irish Centre or any women-led or feminist campaigns? We would love to hear from you. Please email us

[1] Bronwen Walter, Outsiders Inside: Whiteness, Place and Irish Women (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 154.

[2] Letter from Peter Ashforth, Independent Broadcast Authority, to Siúbhan McNally, 20th November 1984, LIWC collection at Archive of the Irish in Britain.