Book Review: The Men Who Built Britain

Book Review: The Men Who Built Britain

The Men Who Built Britain
Ultan Cowley

★★★★ (out of 5)

WORKING-class poet Tony Harrison once wrote that “the dumb go down in history and disappear,” meaning that if you don’t speak up about your experiences your past will be forgotten.

The history of the Irish in Britain is inseparable from the uncountable numbers of men who worked on construction projects, building sites, demolition jobs and loft conversions over the last two centuries.

From laying railways, to modern home refurbishments, Irishmen are synonymous with the British building trade. Their memory is championed by popular historian Ultan Cowley. Suetonius never wrote about the Roman Caesars, or Vasari about the great artists, with the same passion that Cowley extols the men who “went working on the buildings”.

Cowley first published The Men Who Built Britain in 2003 and it’s had a bumpy publishing ride ever since. A fine work of populist history, it’s now reprinted in a special limited edition.

Full of stories from the 18th century to the modern day, it tells how one third of the workforce that built Britain’s infrastructure came from Ireland. It reveals how that trend became an essential part of the Irish economy. Cowley illuminates the social aspect, too, and how the “hard road to England” could bring misery or millions for different souls. Some felt excitement; some exile.

President Michael D. Higgins calls the book “a statement of pride” and it is something to treasure always, but for Christmas it would make an excellent gift for anyone with an interest in the real elbow grease the Irish put into building Britain. 

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