Social work and Irish people in Britain
Historical and contemporary responses to Irish children and families

One: Fleeing Ireland: social exclusion and the flight of Irish ‘unmarried mothers’ to England in the 1950s and 1960s

Luckier girls, on board a ship, watch new hope spraying from the bollard. (Austin Clarke, ‘Unmarried mothers’, cited in McCormack, 1992)

Carol Smart (2000) has maintained that archival research is vitally important and provides us with an additional way to comprehend the evolution of social policy and the discursive practices of the welfare state. Perhaps this is particularly significant in terms of how questions related to ‘race’ and ethnicity have been constructed. This and the following two chapters will examine, therefore, how Irish mothers and their children were responded to in the 1950s and 1960s. We will begin in Ireland where official concerns about the migration of ‘unmarried mothers’ in the period after the setting up the Irish Free State in 1922 provide part of the historical foundation for some of the issues examined in the rest of the book. An exploration of the situation within Ireland at this time enables us to examine how one particular group of Irish citizens felt compelled to make a brief, but expeditious, ‘flight’. Using more contemporary vocabulary, it could be maintained that the women who are the focal concern of this chapter left the national territory because they were socially excluded. Many, however, were then subjected to exclusionary practices in England and pressurised to return to Ireland.

As Walter et al (2002a, pp 15-19) argue, social exclusion has rarely been perceived as a cause of Irish emigration in academic literature (see also Powell, 1992). Here, the dominant explanatory models have tended to interpret post- 1945 emigration as being prompted by economic factors with the employment situation ‘at home’ being viewed as the key determinant.

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