A tribute to Irish construction workers

A tribute to Irish construction workers

PRESENTING THE ARCHIVE Séamus MacCormaic, CEO London Irish Centre, Hannah Pender from the London Irish Centre, Ultan Cowley and Jacqueline O’Donovan, MD, O’Donovan Waste Disposal

The London Irish Centre has been presented with historian Ultan Cowley’s archive on the huge Irish contribution to the rebuilding of Britain from the middle of the last century.

The Centre has announced the official handover of an archive entitled From Clare to Here: Memories of the Men Who Built Britain, a social history of Ireland’s construction workers by academic Ultan Cowley.

The archive tells the stories and experiences of mid-20th century emigrants who contributed to the rebuilding of post-war Britain.

Songs from the navvies’ heyday are combined with images and anecdotes of life on-site and in the pubs, bedsits, and ballrooms of London, Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere.

This generation of post-war emigrants, often referred to as “the forgotten Irish”, were crucial in the rebuilding of Britain after the war.

Ultan Cowley has spoken about the Irish in Britain as the embodiment of courage, survival and independence. Moreover, they have also been at the forefront of British industry and success. In the late 1990s, Cowley asked Sir William McAlpine, great grandson of Robert McAlpine the founder of the construction company, for his assessment of the importance of Irish labour. Sir William replied: “Since the late 18th century the Irish have played a major role in the expansion of British industry and of the country’s canal, road, and rail networks. The success of the British construction industry owes a great deal to the Irish. Their contribution to the development of this industry has been immeasurable.”

That contribution has now been given a worthy memorial in the form of this invaluable historic archive. The project, in effect a living history of the evolution of a crucial part of the Irish in Britain community, has involved many contributors. This has included O’Donovan Waste Disposal who provided vital support.

Séamus MacCormaic, CEO at the London Irish Centre, said: “The London Irish Centre is delighted to become the custodians of the Ultan Cowley archive The Men Who Built Britain. It will enhance our existing rich archive that contains the story of the Irish in Britain. We are grateful to all donors who enabled us to acquire the Ultan Cowley archive, in particular, O’Donovan Waste Disposal, who are generous and constant supporters of the work of the London Irish Centre.”

Managing Director Jacqueline O’Donovan at O’Donovan Waste Disposal said: “As an Irish family in London and a business with strong Irish roots, the preservation of this archive is extremely important. We are immensely proud of our Irish heritage and are passionate about the stories and experiences of many of those featured in the archive, which greatly reflect the journey our own parents made from West Cork in the 1950s.

“We feel it is imperative to protect the legacy of the Irish generations that sacrificed so much; not only for the of building of Britain, but for laying the foundations for the Irish that came to the UK after and the Irish diaspora now. To have the O'Donovan name associated with such a prestigious project is a privilege and we are delighted to help secure the future of the archive.”

Ultan Cowley was born into a theatrical family in Ireland in 1946. At the age of 15 he first took the boat to Briain. As a mature student he studied at the Universities of Essex and Aberystwyth before returning to Ireland to teach history in 1977.

He is the author of The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy (2001), McAlpine's Men: Irish Stories from the Sites (2010), and the audio documentary CD, Voices of the men who built Britain (2015).

Ultan Cowley in a previous feature told The Irish Post: “It would be hard to point to any important structure or utility around London with which Irish labour is not associated. If I were asked I think I’d simply opt for Wren’s famous epitaph: ‘If you seek a monument, look around.’”