A trip through Liverpool's rich Irish history
Monday, 15 October 2012 17:00

Museum tours add detail to the fun and games of this month's Irish festival on Merseyside. Declan McSweeney reports

Liverpool is widely known as the 'real capital of Ireland', with an estimated three quarters of its population having some Irish roots. This rich heritage is being marked this month in the tenth Liverpool Irish Festival, which continues until October 21.

As well as the usual lively and numerous performances by Irish musicians and writers, the festival has included tours of the Museum, which focus on the Irish contribution to the city. They start at the atrium, which is based on the design of a passage grave - common in Ireland, and there are some in Anglesey and off the Scottish coast, but the only one on the British mainland is at the Calderstones in Liverpool.

Tour participants hear of how the early growth of Liverpool was aided by trade with Ireland, and of the influx of Irish following the 1798 rebellion and more especially during and after the Great Famine of the 1840s, when Liverpool became a major centre for Irish moving to other parts of Britain and to North America, while tens of thousands made their home in the city.

The tour also homes in on the role of Irish workers in the development of the city's docks, including men like union organiser Sir James Sexton, who, when he sustained a serious eye injury at work, had the cost of his transport to hospital deducted from his wages by his employer. Liverpool native Jim Larkin gets his due; he is better known in Ireland as the founder of its trade union movement than in the city where he grew up.

We get to learn about Thomas Power O'Connor, the only Irish nationalist ever elected to Parliament for an English constituency, who represented Liverpool's Scotland Road area for nearly 40 years, but whose nationalist views ebbed towards the end of his career, as he became an enthusiast for the British Empire. Michael James Whitty, a native of County Wexford, achieved a curious trio, becoming Chief Constable in Liverpool and founding the city's fire service and the Daily Post newspaper.

The sectarian politics of late 19th century and much of 20th century Liverpool is also reflected in the museum, and visitors hear how the Conservative Party's dominance of local politics for much of the first half of the 20th century prospered on anti-Irish sentiment. The Protestant Party played a prominent role in local politics for many decades, telling Protestant voters that a vote for Labour was a vote for Catholic domination.

In latter decades, of course, this sectarianism has greatly declined, and Liverpool is today renowned as a symbol of reconciliation, epitomised when the late Pope John Paul II visited the Anglican Cathedral as well as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King when he came to the city in 1982.

The contributions of Irish women such as Agnes Jones from Donegal and Kitty Wilkinson from Derry to the development of public hygiene is also acknowledged, along with the role of the Irish in the development of sport, music, literature and the visual arts - a notable example of the latter is the sculptor Arthur Dooley, known both for his religious art and his depiction of the Beatles.

The tour is a reminder that the Irish intermarried extensively, not just with the English and the Welsh and Scots who also settled in Liverpool, but with people from the Caribbean and Africa, which is why many black Liverpudlians have Irish surnames.

Saturday last also saw an enactment of the sad Irish story of the Children of Lir by pupils of St Patrick's Primary School, Toxteth, to the background of Riverdance music and pictures which included a slide of the sculpture of the Children of Lir near Ballycastle, Co Antrim. The legend tells of three children turned into swans in the days when Ireland was inhabited by a prehistoric people known as the Tuatha De Danaan. They were followed in due course, according to the old stories, by Partholonians, Nemedians, Fomorians, Fir Bolg the Milesians. Liverpool's Irish roots go way back.

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source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2012/oct/15/blogpost-liverpool-irish-festival


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