Writing Irish nurses in Britain

Murray, Tony (2017) Writing Irish nurses in Britain. In: A History of Irish Working-Class Writing. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 195-208. ISBN 9781316570425


The demand and supply of migrant labour has always been central to understanding the mutually dependent if uneasy centuries-old economic and political relationship between Ireland and Britain. Whilst Irish migrants have been represented in a wide range of occupations in Britain, they have been disproportionately clustered in unskilled and semi-skilled sectors of the workforce. In the mid-twentieth century, Irish workers were particularly prominent in two sectors of the British economy: construction and health. After independence, the sense of national pride envisaged by Éamon de Valera as ‘joyous with the sounds of industry’, rather than being realized in the fields and mountains of Ireland, had, as a result of continuing emigration, to be found on the building sites and hospital wards of its neighbouring island.

If, as Luke Gibbons points out, ‘understanding a community or a culture […] means taking seriously their ways of structuring experience, their popular narratives, the distinctive manner in which they frame the social and political realities which affect their lives’, then literature clearly has a key role to play. With this principle in mind, this chapter will analyse the experiences of Irish nurses and navvies in London and the south east of England from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s by closely examining a range of fictional and autobiographical texts such as: The Diary of an Exile (1964) by Donall Mac Amhlaigh; Florrie’s Girls (1989) by Maeve Kelly; I Am Alone (1949) by Walter Macken; Sixty Years a Nurse (2015) by Mary Hazard; With Breast Expanded (1964); A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime (2014) by Mary Morris. By doing so, the chapter will shed light on the lives and recollections of working Irish men and women who, although a familiar sight in Britain, remained a hidden and somewhat mysterious sub-sector of the country’s workforce.

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