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Historical and contemporary responses to Irish children and families

Dominant social work and social care discourses on ‘race’ and ethnicity often fail to incorporate an Irish dimension. This book challenges this omission and provides new insights into how social work has engaged with Irish children and their families, historically and to the present day. The book provides the first detailed exploration social work with Irish children and families in Britain; examines archival materials to illuminate historical patterns of engagement; provides an account of how social services departments in England and Wales are currently responding to the needs of Irish children and families; incorporates the views of Irish social workers and acts as a timely intervention in the debate on social work’s ‘modernisation’ agenda. The book will be valuable to social workers, social work educators and students. Its key themes will also fascinate those interested in ‘race’ and ethnicity in Britain in the early 21st century.

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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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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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In February 1955, the chairman of London County Council’s Children’s Committee was asked if there was any evidence that “increased immigration from the West Indies in recent years” had led to an increase in “coloured children” coming into care? The chairman responded that the number of children taken into care was available on a monthly basis and it “would be undesirable to give any appearance of segregation … by giving details as to colour or nationality” (1 February 1955, London County Council Minutes of Proceedings). However, despite this reply, from the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s, the Council was, in fact, intent on sifting, logging and demarcating Irish children on the basis of their nationality. Related to this process of classification, hundreds of children were removed from Britain and taken to live outside the jurisdiction of the British government, in Ireland.

The aim of this chapter, therefore, is to chart the approach of the England’s largest local authority to Irish children in public care in the middle of the 20th century. More specifically, the central focus will be on the activities of the London County Council Children’s Committee and its efforts to discharge children from care to Ireland. The key period stretches from 1954 until 1965 since, as we shall see, it was during this time that that the council appeared to have been most preoccupied with Irish children in its care. This part of the book will refer to the publicly available minutes of the proceedings of the council. However, it will also make more extensive use of the ‘closed’ minutes of the Children’s Committee (1948-65) and related presented papers.

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Having put in place an historical foundation for the second half of this book, the focal argument in this chapter is that social work’s theoretical approach to questions of ‘race’ and ethnicity, associated with a more embracing academic discourse, fails to address the specificity of Britain’s largest ethnic minority, Irish people1. This is not to argue that Irish people are entirely omitted, even within Department of Health (DoH) publications that provide guidance for social workers (see, for example, DoH, 1991, p 106; DoH, 2001). Nonetheless, it is apparent that the hegemonic, or dominant, approach is apt to shrink the discourse on ‘race’ and ethnicity and does not allow for a more complex understanding. Similarly, there is a failure to examine some of the historical patterns of involvement with Irish children and families discussed in earlier chapters of this book.

Providing part of the context for an exploration of contemporary responses to Irish children and families, the chapter begins by briefly highlighting social work’s more general interest in promoting what is loosely referred to as ‘anti- discriminatory social work practice’. This has been subjected to a good deal of political criticism in recent years. Next, it looks at social work’s dominant orientation in relation to ‘race’ and ethnicity, then goes on to examine contemporary and official guidelines for practice, revealing how these have tended to ignore Irish children and families. It is suggested that there may be some signs of change with the evolution of newer approaches, which take account of the diversity within black and white categories.

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So far, this book has investigated social work’s historical responses to Irish ‘unmarried mothers’ and children in Britain and gone on to look at how today’s dominant conceptualisation of ‘race’ and ethnicity has tended to omit an Irish dimension. In a contemporary context, however, it is clearly important to try to find out how social services departments (SSDs) are responding to Irish children and families. Indeed, to generate a more appropriate response it is important to try to ascertain what the current approach is in terms of social work practice in the various SSDs throughout England and Wales.

In what follows, the chief research instrument was a questionnaire, which was completed by SSD directors or delegated officers within their organisations. The support of the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) was obtained in July 2001 in order for the questionnaire to be distributed among its members and it was agreed that no specific SSD would be identified in any research that was subsequently published. Initially, a pilot exercise was undertaken and a draft version of the questionnaire was mailed to five directors in geographically and demographically diverse areas of England and Wales. This included an authority in Wales, London, the Midlands, and in north-west and south-west England. Having obtained their views on the content of the questionnaire and the process of completing it, minor amendments were made. It was then mailed to the directors of SSDs in England and Wales in January 2002.

All SSDs who were are members of the ADSS network were mailed, excluding those in Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey, the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Man.

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The second part of this book, which examines contemporary responses to Irish children and families, at first concentrated on dominant approaches to ‘race’ and ethnicity within social work in Britain. It then analysed some of the findings from a survey of directors of social services departments (SSDs) that looked at their organisation’s involvement with Irish children and families in England and Wales. The data generated might be viewed, therefore, as providing a ‘view from the top’. Now, however, the discussion will switch focus and examine the ‘view from below’ and look at what Irish social work practitioners regard as the key issues. The ‘voices’ featured derive from in-depth interviews conducted in early 2003. More specifically, eight Irish social workers involved in children and families social work were interviewed1.

As observed in Chapter Five, almost a quarter of the returned questionnaires in the survey of directors of SSDs came from London. Indeed, more Irish- born people live in London than in any other city except Dublin and Belfast (Hickman, 2002, p 22), and in what follows all of the respondents live and work in the capital. Moreover, in this chapter, ‘social worker’ is used in a broad and inclusive manner. Three of the practitioners had attained a social work qualification – either a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work or the Diploma in Social Work. The other interviewees had different, though related, job titles. Previous research has revealed the relatively high proportion of Irish-born people who work in ‘health and social care in Britain’.

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In Britain, social work has no memory. That is to say, the social work, as a constellation of discourses rhetorically founded on safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the vulnerable, often appears oddly amnesiac. Partly because of this condition, the profession has tended to lack interest in unearthing historical patterns of engagement with the Irish community in Britain. For this reason, this book began with an examination of social work’s historical responses to Irish children and families in Britain. Initially, the focus was on how Irish women and their children were responded to in the 1950s and 1960s. It then went on to examine more contemporary responses; here, it was maintained that Irish children and families are largely rendered ‘invisible’ by mainstream discourses on ‘race’ and ethnicity. In the early 21st century, some changes are detectable. However, empirical research exploring the policies of social services departments (SSDs) throughout England and Wales and the perspective of a number of Irish social workers indicates that Irish children and families receiving services (and Irish providers of social work and social care services) are still not properly recognised.

This book can be seen, therefore, as a modest attempt to reshape British social work’s dominant approach to issues of ‘race’ and ethnicity. In this sense, the aim has been to question the black/white binary that lies at the heart of the profession’s approach. Although not a central concern in the foregoing discussion, social work’s dominant theoretical understanding also fails adequately to conceptualise the situation of many recent migrants seeking refuge and asylum in Britain (see Castles and Davidson, 2000; Parker, J., 2000; Simms, 2004).

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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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