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

Two: Responses in Britain to the PFIs: the repatriation of ‘unmarried mothers’ to Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s

A ticket for three pounds and six

To Euston, London via Holyhead.

Well, mount the steps; lug the bag:

Take your place. And out of all of the crowd,

Watch the girl in the wrinkled coat,

Her face half-grey. (Brendan Kennelly, Westland Row, 1966)

The aim of this chapter is to focus specifically on those pregnant ‘unmarried mothers’ who travelled from Ireland to Britain to give birth ‘secretly’. How did social work and social welfare agencies respond to them once they had arrived? All migrant Irish ‘unmarried mothers’ were not, of course, repatriated back to Ireland and some women were successful in their plans to travel to England, give birth, have the baby placed for adoption and return home to Ireland. Here, however, the aim is simply to focus on a few of those Irish ‘unmarried mothers’ who were subjected to repatriation1. The period covered by this chapter will largely be the late 1950s, when the initials PFI (‘pregnant from Ireland’) were part of the everyday vocabulary of the social workers that dealt with ‘unmarried mothers’ arriving from Ireland (O’Hare et al, 1983). Indeed, most of the case records discussed relate to women and children repatriated in 1958, partly because, on account of economic changes triggered that year, “sociologically 1958 dates the beginning of the contemporary period in Ireland” (Breen et al, 1990, p 5).

At least a dozen Catholic child adoption and rescue societies in England were involved in repatriation schemes (CPRSI, Annual Report 1959, p 2). Here, we will explore the case records of just one agency, the English Catholic Rescue Society (ECRS)2.

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