London Metropolitan University Research Institutes

ESRC project "A Hidden Population in Multi-Ethnic Britain: the Second-Generation Irish"

Prof Mary Hickman, Prof Bronwen Walter (Anglia Polytechnic Univesity), Dr Sara Morgan (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) and Dr Joe Bradley (Stirling University)



It is generally assumed that the second-generation Irish (people born in Britain to one or two Irish-born parents) have assimilated into the ‘white’ majority. This assumption has important implications both for the Irish community and for wider popular and theoretical understandings about 'race'/ethnicity/national identity in Britain. Overlooking the possibility of ongoing difference in the Irish community contributes in important ways to the 'myth of homogeneity' of ‘white’ British society . It also substantially reduces the acknowledged size of the Irish as a population group in Britain, and removes opportunities for identifying shared positionings across the black/white divide, by categorising the Irish as a migrant rather than as a multi-generational ethnic group.

One consequence of the assumption of assimilation is that very little is known about this population group. The small number of existing studies suggest mixed and differentiated experiences and identifications, including the possibility of ongoing disadvantage from their parents’ generation. They also indicate that many second-generation Irish people possess a situated ethnicity which varies according to geographical and social context. For example, there are known to be strikingly different implications of having an Irish background in Scotland and England. The most detailed research to date has focussed on the area of health, where significantly poorer outcomes than the British average are recorded.

This illustrates the potentially important policy implications of this research, which are belatedly being acknowledged in the inclusion of an ‘Irish’ category in the Ethnic Question of the 2001 Census and other ethnic monitoring records. In order to interpret this newly-available data, it is important to have fuller knowledge of those who identify themselves as Irish in Britain.


The research aims to:

· Provide a detailed picture of the 'hidden' population of second-generation Irish people in multi-ethnic Britain, using qualitative methods to examine in depth significant features of the recently-developed statistical profile: employment, education, social mobility, health, housing.

· Extend the findings of the 1997 Commission for Racial Equality Report on Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain to include the experiences of the second generation, and insights into those of the third.

· Develop a framework to explain hybridities of identity and specifically both the retention and loss of distinctively Irish identities in the second and subsequent generations in different geographical locations.

· Contribute to growing debates about 'whiteness' and racialisation in Britain and to a more complex delineation of a multi-ethnic Britain in the context of constitutional change involving devolution within the United Kingdom.

· Make policy recommendations relating to the Irish community in Britain, including: definitions of ‘Irish’, interpretation of monitoring results and inclusion of an Irish dimension in policies concerning employment, education, health, housing, social security claims.


This study combines integrated and sequentially-informed qualitative (discussion groups, semi-structured interviews), with quantitative (tables drawn from previous analysis of large datasets, Family Trees) methods to examine the characteristics, identities and experiences of people defined as second-generation Irish in Britain.

Definition: We define second-generation Irish people in England as those born in Britain to one or two Irish-born parents. Studies in the USA have used more flexible definitions to include those who arrive as children and thus experience a large part of their socialisation within the country of settlement. These definitions used numerical descriptors to suggest that a graded scale of generational difference can be applied. Some label these child-arrivals the ‘1.5 generation’, an intermediate location which acknowledges that both birthplace and upbringing are significant factors in identification. Others offer an even finer-grained scale based on stage of life-cycle: for example those entering the country aged 0-5 are the 1.75 generation, aged 6-13 are1.5 generation and 13-17 are 1.25 generation .

The simpler definition by birthplace was chosen in order to link our sampling with statistical data based on birthplace data and to simplify recruitment publicity. Since emigration from Ireland is predominantly that of young single people, rather than families, numbers arriving as young children are in any case small. (In 1991, only 3,175 Republic Irish-born in England were aged 0-4 out of a population of 556,306). However we were able to explore the issue of ‘2’ compared with ‘1.5’ identities through Family Tree data followed up in individual interview discussions. Respondents were asked to record birthplaces and current Irish/British etc identifications for each of their siblings (time was allowed for them to ask each sibling, at times involving international phone calls), some of whom were born in Ireland and any differences were fully discussed.

A slightly different procedure was followed in Scotland, where the sample was extended to include both children and grandchildren of Irish migrants. For reasons expanded on below, the division between ‘second’ and ‘third’ generations was judged to be less important then a shared ongoing experience of Irishness in Scotland.

Quantitative methods

Statistical background: The research was initially orientated through statistical analysis of material from large datasets collected with funding from the Irish Government Dion Committee. This enabled us to draw up a demographic and socio-economic profile of the second-generation Irish population in Britain to guide our selection of participants in qualitative data-generating techniques, as well as statistical measures of social mobility as an element in the theorisation of the social positioning of the second-generation Irish. In the early stages of the project additional work was carried out on the datasets identified to estimate the size and characteristics of the population as accurately as possible.

Family Trees: We developed a recording instrument for individual life-histories (see Annexe). It became clear that what was particularly required was an intergenerational record of basic ‘factual’ data on key themes, including birthplace, present geographical location, religious background, education, occupation, ethnic/national identification, health, for the individual, their parents, siblings and the ‘third generation’ of their parents’ family. In the case of Scotland, data on grandparents was also recorded. Placing individuals within their family context over three or four generations allowed elements of both continuity and change over time to be examined. By extending family data into the migrant generation, the migration process was integrated into the lives of British-born children. Use of the Tree also increased the numerical size of the second-generation sample by including siblings, whose different senses of identification and trajectories of social mobility, for example, could be analysed. Adding siblings to the sample in this way increased the number of second-generation Irish people about whom quantitative data was recorded to 484 (mean number of siblings per family was 4).

We discussed early drafts of the Tree with discussion group participants and adjusted the content and layout interactively with them. The final product, with discrete boxes for individuals laid out on an A2 sheet, accompanied by an instructions, took 1-2 hours for respondents to complete in the week leading up to the interview. Consultation with other family members, and reference to documents where available, was requested. Individuals understood the concept of the Family Tree well and said they had enjoyed the exercise. Many asked for copies. Individual interviews opened with a detailed discussion of the Tree, allowing details to be checked and elucidated. This proved to be an important way in which varying senses of identity between family members, and over individuals’ lifetimes, could be explored.

Qualitative methods

Discussion groups (n=13): These were held in London (4), Glasgow (3), Manchester (2), Coventry (2), Banbury (2). They were used in combination with other methods in two ways: first, to follow up on statistical data already collected and explanations offered by previous analyses; second, as an exploratory tool to generate ideas which were pursued in more depth in individual interviews and Family Trees, to ensure the inclusion of as wide a range as possible of relevant themes. The strategy adopted was to create a variety of internally homogenous groups which would capture a wide range of potentially distinctive perspectives . Segmentation was as follows: London - professional women, professional men, mothers, one non-Irish parent; Glasgow - ** Protestants; and in the other centres, a professional/ manual split was adopted. The discussions generated particularly useful data through the sharing and comparing of group members’ experiences, bringing out areas of consensus and diversity which were not available in individual interviews. People who appeared similar backgrounds had very different perspectives on certain issues, but more usually people from different backgrounds spoke volubly about shared experiences and provided their own analyses of their situation. Two discussion groups were held later in the course of the research in order to investigate issues which had required additional exploration, backgrounds of Irish Protestant affiliation in Scotland and one ‘wholly non-Irish’ parent in England.

Respondents were offered refreshments, travel and babysitting expenses and a small gift token.

Since the discussion groups were held in the six months leading up to the 2001 Census in April 2001, we gave particular attention to responses to the new Ethnic Question which included an ‘Irish’ box. These findings were incorporated into Newsletter which was widely circulated to the media, Irish community groups, the Irish in Britain Parliamentary Group, the ONS (see below).

Individual interviews (n=120): Because of the complex set of requirements which we wanted to meet in each city/town as far as possible (gender balance, mixed RI/NI background, social class ratio of RG Social Classes V-IV/III/II-I of 40/30/30, at least 2-3 Protestants, approx 2/3 with one Irish-born parent only, a few participants with ‘mixed heritage backgrounds, 3-5 low or non-identifiers), we advertised very widely. Volunteers responded to newspaper articles, local radio station bulletins, ethnic presses, leaflets, posters and snowballing.

The most difficult groups to locate were those with an Irish Protestant background and ‘low identifiers’, those without a strong sense of an Irish identity. Although we were not attempting to locate a representative sample for statistical purposes (nor is the necessary background data available), we needed an adequate number in key categories to explore a range of experiences and attitudes. After extensive searches, the total number of interviewees with an Irish Protestant was 6 participants in England (7%) and 3 in Scotland (11%). Methods of searching included use of personal contacts, contacting graduate associations in London and Manchester (Trinity College, Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University), contacting sporting associations (London Irish RFC supporters), the CRE Magazine, social workers in Manchester dealing with Loyalist youth group. Perhaps surprisingly greatest success in recruiting volunteers was achieved in Banbury (3/20). This may reflect greater ease of expressing difference in a small-town context, and the inclusive way in which a local newspaper article about the Irish 2 Project expressed our aims (see Family Stories article).

Interviews were held in participants’ homes or hired rooms. They lasted between one and three and a half hours and were tape-recorded.


Group discussions/interviews were transcribed in full. Transcripts were indexed using NUD.IST to extract and group major themes of the research. Family Trees have been summarised into their major dimensions to allow preliminary quantitative analysis to be conducted.


The research followed rigorous APU guidelines http// Permission forms were used to record agreement. In all cases pseudonyms are used in written documentation.
As anticipated some ethical concerns arose. A small number of discussion group participants (1) and interviewees (10) agreed to be interviewed but withheld permission for the deposit of tapes in the Qualidata archive. The concerns included both personal issues and, in one case, revelations about discrimination in employment on political grounds.


Portrait of the second-generation Irish population

An important aim of the research was to illuminate the meagre statistical data about the second-generation Irish in Britain available from large datasets . The major source of additional quantitative data is the Family Trees. One area on which further light is thrown is that of parental origins. For example data from LS shows that only 24% had two Irish-born parents in 1991, a proportion which had declined from 40% in 1971. Although this might be taken as a sign of a high level of social intermixing, the Family Trees indicated that a substantial minority of participants with one Irish-born parent also had Irish family connections on their apparently non-Irish side. This was most marked in Manchester and Strathclyde, reflecting ongoing links between Catholic families. By contrast most ‘mixed’ marriages in the parental generation in Coventry, where the growth of the Irish population took place predominantly in the 1950s, were between an Irish-born person and a partner with no known Irish ancestry. The mixing of parental backgrounds thus has a strongly differentiated geographical input, reflecting the history of earlier periods of Irish settlement in Britain. Its importance to hybrid senses of identity is examined below.

Geographical mobility within Britain in the second-generation also varied distinctively between the research locations. Data from the GHS shows that the distribution of the second-generation Irish is generally similar to that of the Irish-born population, apart from a markedly smaller proportion of the total in Greater London and South East England (38% second generation/49% Irish-born) and a higher proportion in the North West (16% compared with 12%). The second/migrant generation ratio is also slightly greater in South West England (4%/7%), Scotland (6%/7%), East Midlands (6%/7%) and Yorkshire and Humberside (5%/6%). This suggests that there is some movement towards a redistribution of the second generation, although many remain close to, and may reinforce, longer-standing Irish migrant communities. Data from the interview sample provided more detail about the processes involved. All the Strathclyde sample had been born and raised within the area. This was true of the majority of people interviewed in the three larger English centres, London, Manchester and Coventry. However Banbury differed markedly, only three out of 20 participants having been born there. Four more had moved with their parents during childhood, but for more than half settlement in Banbury was part of a much more complex pattern of movement in southern England. In the total sample (120), seven people had been born in London but now lived in another interview location, allowing their migration paths to be traced. One interviewee in Glasgow had a (second-generation Irish) mother born in Banbury!

Large datasets have also been used to explore the key issue of social mobility amongst the second-generation Irish in Britain. LS data 1971-81-91 shows unusually high rates of upward mobility for the second generation Irish, especially for those with two Irish-born parents. Transition rates show that between 1981 and 1991 30.46% of the latter were upwardly mobile, compare with 23.34% of those with one Irish-born parent and 21.00% of the total population. The more detailed individual data collected for the Irish 2 project, initially by means of the Family Tree, followed by more detailed discussion in the interview, was used to examine the character and processes involved in these changes. Initial findings from this Project suggest that upward mobility represented a move from manual work in their fathers’ generation to lower professional status, perhaps closer to the pattern of their mothers, many of whom were in nursing and other caring occupations.


A central theme of the research related to the issue of identities. This was explored along a number of dimensions.

Whiteness and difference in England

The analysis demonstrates that multi-culturalism is not reducible to skin colour and should therefore inform developing strategies for achieving a multi-cultural or multi-ethnic society. In particular it highlights the necessity of thinking about and promoting practices of social inclusion beyond the workplace as there are many silenced subordinations. The analysis also develops our understandings of how people try to negotiate ways of belonging in England where these are circumscribed.

Religion and Irishness in Scotland

A multi-generational Irish community has been produced in Scotland for several reasons. Particular communities have become characterised by their ‘Irishness’ because of the significance of religion, religious education and sectarianism in Scotland and finally, because of the historic role played by Celtic Football Club in the construction of Irish identity in Scotland. These factors have encouraged a tangible idea or concept of an Irish community in Scotland in a way less applicable to England. Therefore community history and experience are less fragmented (this is partly due to the size of each society) and high rates of inter-marriage, although less significant now than in the recent past, have been recorded. This means that a person may have only one Irish-born grandparent but all Irish- born great grandparents and great-great grandparents, clearly demonstrated in the Family Trees.

Our findings show a complex relationship between emerging senses of Scottishness and Irishness, with strong pressures for the latter to be downplayed. The media promotes Scottishness as religiously neutral (although this is far from the case), inhibiting expressions of Irishness which can appears to be ‘sectarian’. Moreover in an increasingly secular society, the religious dimensions of Irishness alluded to by most of the interviewees is a further problem for Catholics. About half of respondents in Scotland preferred to claim a Scottish identity, although one often permeated by a sense of Irishness.

Narratives of the Irish nation

The Irish are one of many groups who bring a different set of cultural understandings to the ‘diaspora space’ of Britain . This knowledge is passed to their British-born children in a variety of ways. Groups with oppositional histories may have particular difficulty in accessing this knowledge in the public sphere, especially when political conflicts are unresolved, as in the case of Northern Ireland. Using Banbury as a case study of a particularly ‘English’ milieu, we analysed material from both group discussions and individual interviews. This confirmed that Irish history had been absent from their formal education, even in Catholic schools where second generation Irish people comprised the majority of pupils. Respondents had made efforts to acquire a better understanding of Irish history as adults in order to contextualise their own family histories and find more satisfying explanations for the Northern Ireland conflict than those available to them in the British media.

Policy implications

1. Census and ethnic monitoring forms

An important finding was the complexity of translating people’s senses of identity into simple labels for monitoring purposes. Very clear choices of all ethnic categories are needed in order to elicit responses which correspond to the information being sought. For example a simple categorisation of ‘White’ followed by a national identity such as ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ (as used in the 2001 Census for England and Wales which will become the benchmark for other monitoring formats) will produce an over-identification with ‘British’ because it is seen as a ‘fact’ based on birthplace and passport entitlement. It also excludes the small but significant number of ‘non-white’ Irish people. A better result might be achieved by replacing ‘British’ with ‘ethnic’ categories such as ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’. The 2001 Census in Scotland included separate categories for ‘Scottish’ and ‘other British’ as well as ‘Irish’. This gave more choice to people of Irish descent, although there was a more positive choice of ‘Scottish’ in the Strathclyde sample than for ‘British’ in the English research locations. However in Scotland an added factor was apprehension as revealing an Irish background because it is a stigmatised identity. Where more detail is possible, a mixed option, such as ‘Irish/English’ or ‘Irish/Scottish’ would reflect the hybrid senses of identity expressed by a majority of the respondents in this research.

In the light of these findings the 2001 British Census will need very careful interpretation. It is likely seriously to underestimate the number of people who would include ‘Irish’ as a major component of their identities if they had understood that this was what was being asked. From our discussions, very few people read the rubric for the Ethnic Question which invited them to ‘tick the appropriate box to indicate your cultural background’ unless they had been alerted to this by Irish community groups or media. When the wording was pointed out in the discussion groups, for example, many decided that it did describe their ethnicity, but would have overlooked it see Impacts for further details).

2. Recognition of specificity of an Irish background for second as well as first generation

The findings demonstrate that children raised in Irish families share important cultural experiences with their parents, both private and public, including religious belief systems (mainly Catholic, but with a distinctive Protestant content for a minority), meanings of family and visits to Ireland. They support the arguments made by Paul Michael Garrett that attention should be paid to the treatment of second generation Irish children by the social services and fostering agencies. Five interviewees had been raised outside their birth families, two adopted at birth and three spending most of their childhoods in care. We interviewed two adoptees and three who had been in care homes. One of the interviewees who had experienced the care system was denied both her ethnicities (Irish and Pakistani) and assumed to be English, an experience she now views as having been very negative and destructive.

This recognition is also often absent from other state agencies, for example the criminal justice system. One respondent, a magistrate in Manchester, described the value of having a similar background to people who appeared before her in court, contrasting her own reactions to those of the English magistrates with whom she sat.

3. Experiences of discrimination can extend into second generation

Amongst participants in England, a number of experiences of direct discrimination were reported, usually in schools and the workplace. People reported abuse and ‘being picked on’ by teachers at school, and the need to ‘keep their heads down’ at times of IRA activity in Britain. At 16 a manual worker in Leicester was given the worst jobs from Scottish Presbyterian manager on grounds she was ‘Irish Catholic’. In Scotland……

4. Education and cultural provision

A unanimous comment from Catholic and state schools in England was the absence from the curriculum of reference to Irish history or culture. Public provision was also absent in situations where other minority cultures were recognised. For example respondents in Coventry reported that the public library has no section and the librarian would not respond to request to group existing materials in a more visible way.

5. Health

This is a very complex issue to which our study contributes in several ways. We collected both quantitative and qualitative material about family members’ health status. This will allow work to be carried out on specific family histories of illness and physical and mental health problems linked to difficulties around managing/negotiating Irish identities in Britain.

Dr Walter is a member of the steering group for the project Investigating the knowledge of and attitudes to cancer, and means of raising awareness amongst people of Irish ancestry, directed by Dr Seeronomie Harding, Medical Research Unit, university of Glasgow (funded by Cancer Research UK). The Irish 2 Project findings will be made available to this study.


Logo: In order to highlight the research for dissemination of findings to the media and to policy users in the mainstream and Irish community we entitled it the Irish 2 Project. This has been very effective in bringing it to public attention. It is now regularly in Irish Studies academic networks, amongst Irish community groups and in the Irish press.

Consultative Committee: A committee was set up to liaise with users of the research both amongst Irish interest groups and mainstream policy areas. The membership included representatives from the Commission for Racial Equality, the Housing Corporation, Glasgow Medical Research Unit, Cara Irish Housing Association, Manchester Irish Community Care, Coventry Irish Society, London Irish Women’s Centre and two Scottish MPs ( and Tom Clarke, Coatbridge). Three meetings were held to discuss the objectives of the research, incorporate users’ views as the research developed and report preliminary outcomes. The final meeting, where preliminary findings were reported and discussed, was held in a Committee Room at the House of Commons, hosted by Tom Clarke MP.

Newsletters: Two newsletters (Mailing list c.250) have been widely distributed to public agencies, Irish welfare and community groups and interested individuals. They can be viewed on the project’s website at
These provided a way of publicising the work of the project and keeping in regular touch with participants. The third is about to be published with a summary of major findings to date.

Launch: The report Second-generation Irish people in Britain: a demographic, socio-economic and health profile (Hickman, Morgan and Walter 2001) was launched at the Irish Embassy in June 2001 where we coupled our presentation with preliminary findings from this project. The report was also launched at the House of Commons to a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Irish in Britain.


The following papers have been given by members of the team:

‘Researching hidden ethnic groups: statistical data on the second-generation Irish in Britain’ ESRC-funded Workshop on Gender, Diasporas and Changing Societies, University of Oxford (Walter)

‘Second generation Irish identities and social position in contemporary Britain’ American Conference for Irish Studies, Fordham University, New York (Hickman)

Discussant, Plenary session , The Irish Diaspora. Writing. Researching. Comparing, conference organised by the University of North London and the British Association for Irish Studies (Hickman)

‘Within the Pale? White diversity and Irishness’ Plenary speaker, The Irish Diaspora conference, University of North London and British Association for Irish Studies (Walter)

Irish-British or Plastic Paddies? Second-generation Irish identities and social positioning in contemporary Britain’ to Race, Ethnicity and Migration Conference, University of Minnesota, USA. (Hickman and Walter)

‘Geography, Cultural Studies and Diaspora’, invited lecture at Annual Conference of Irish Geographers, Cork, Ireland (Walter)

‘Cultural Spaces and Multiple Identities: City, Nation, Diaspora’, The New face of the European City: Immigration in an Urban Perspective’, organised by the New York Consortium for European Studies, New York University and Columbia University (Hickman)

‘The Specificity of Irish Experiences in Britain’, keynote paper, Substance Misuse and the Irish, conference organised by Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council (Hickman)

‘Ethnicity, Empire and the Multi-national State: "locating" the Irish in Britain’, Inaugural professorial lecture, University of North London (Hickman)

‘Whiteness, hybridity and the Irish diaspora’: Paper to the Geography Department Seminar, University of Cambridge (Walter)

‘Gender and hybridity: second-generation Irish identities’ Paper to Migration Seminar, University of Sussex (Walter)

‘Hybridity and whiteness: second-generation Irish identities in Britain’ Annual Conference of the Institute of British Geographers, Belfast, January (Walter)

Presentation on the Irish in Britain to Ethnic Liaison Committee of the London Borough of Haringey, February (Morgan)

‘Missing hyphens; second-generation Irish-British identities in England and Scotland’ British Island Stories: History identity and nationhood (BRISHIN) York, April (Walter and Morgan)

‘Bloody Sunday and the Irish Diaspora’, symposium on Bloody Sunday organised by New York University (Hickman)

‘Ireland: from Emigration to Immigration. Contexts, responses, Comparisons’, public lecture, Europe-Australia Institute, Victoria University (Hickman)

‘Across the Black-White Dichotomy: understandings of discrimination in British social policy’, public lecture, Europe-Australia Institute, Victoria University (Hickman)

‘The Irish in London’s Diasporas’ Raphael Samuel’s London Conference, June (Morgan and Walter)

‘On Identities: Britain, the USA and Australia’, public lecture, Europe-Australia Institute, Victoria University (Hickman)

Datasets: The following datasets have been/are being deposited at the Qualidata Archive, with details of methods of generation:

Tapes: interviews 99, discussion groups 12
Transcripts: interviews 109, discussion groups 13
Family Trees: 104


The research results have had impacts in two areas so far:

(i) Publicising 2001 Census advice: A timely finding from the focus group discussions was the confusion expressed by many participants about the meaning of the category ‘Irish’ in the Census Ethnic Question. We publicised this concern as widely as possible (ONS, Irish community groups, Irish in Britain Parliamentary Group, media), in order to try to improve the quality of responses. Irish community groups at both national and local levels adopted our recommendations about methods of clarification and produced newspaper advertisements and leaflets drawing attention to the Census instruction asking about ‘cultural background’ which many respondents had overlooked and wrongly assumed they were being asked about nationality. There was widespread media coverage in Scotland where our team member, Dr Joseph Bradley, was interviewed by national radio and newspapers about findings from the Irish 2 Project about the Census. Particular interest stemmed from the additional category ‘Scottish’ available in Scotland, which was chosen by about half of people of Irish descent in the focus groups in preference to ‘Irish’.

(ii) Irish Government Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants: In September 2001 the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Irish Republic set up a Task Force to recommend policy initiatives which would offer support to migrants outside, and returning to, Ireland. The remit extended to members of Irish communities abroad, including second generations, with special reference to vulnerable groups. Professor Hickman was appointed a full member in December 2001. I March 2002 Dr Walter was commissioned to provide a research report providing statistical data and an analysis of existing sources of information on Irish communities abroad. Dr Morgan and Dr Bradley contributed specialist sections on England and Scotland respectively. The report, which will be published in Autumn 2002, was delivered in May and gave an early opportunity to ensure that findings from the Irish 2 Project are included in policy-making.


International comparisons with second-generation Irish experiences in the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand

Comparisons with other second-generation minority ethnic populations in Britain


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