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


In the late 1990s and early 21st century, politicians and commentators in Britain have looked on, in puzzled wonderment, at the arrival of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy in the Republic of Ireland1. It has even been asserted that the Irish, with their allegedly ostentatious new-found wealth, are the “playboys of Europe” (The Observer, 22 July 2001). Recent representations of Irish people have also tended to centre on popular culture: the Riverdance phenomenon, U2 and The Corrs (Stevens et al, 2000; see also West, 2002). Indeed, the popularity of a particular construction of Irishness led one British newspaper to contend, in the mid-1990s: “If you’re hip, you must be Irish” (O’Sullivan, 1996). In the same article, a writer and cultural commentator mused: “Irish culture is seductive. It has become a signifier for hedonism with soul” (see also ‘Dubliners come home to find boom prices in Cool Hibernia’, The Independent, 30 May 1998, p 14). More generally, within the field of cultural studies, it has been claimed that ‘Irishness’ has ‘cachet’ and that it has attained the ‘status of cultural capital’ (Thompson, 2001, p 1; see also, however, Maddox, 1996).

All of these notions are, of course, highly debatable. Cultural commodification is, of course, a key characteristic of Late Capitalism and this can be related to what has also been dubbed ‘Cool Hibernia’ and the ‘commodification of Irishness’ (McGovern, 2002; see also Fish, 1997). Thus, throughout the late 1990s, this was evidenced in the marketing of alcoholic drinks (Armstrong, 1996; see also ‘Special brew of trendy ales and blarney rakes in cash’, The Guardian, 1 May 1997). More recently, it has been possible to detect a certain wane in corporate interest in utilising ‘Irishness’ to promote consumption (see, for example, ‘Breweries call time on “Oirish” theme pubs’, The Irish Post, 5 May 1999; ‘Irish acts in doldrums as festival is axed’, The Observer, 1 June 2003). Nonetheless, these developments do highlight the new centrality of Ireland and ‘Irishness’ in the field of cultural studies (see also Kirby et al, 2002b). In contrast, with social work – and social policy – in Britain, there has been an embedded failure to recognise the specificity of Irish people2.

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