As the post-Paris conversation gets uglier, and anti-Muslim acrimony flourishes, in France itself, in Britain and especially here in the U.S., my mind went back to the anti-Irish hysteria that swept England during the early and mid-1970’s, prompted by an IRA bombing and shooting campaign that for its time, and in its sometimes indiscriminate targeting (no warning pub bombs for instance), was arguably the equivalent of today’s ISIS violence.
So I began a search on the internet for material from that period and to my surprise I could find none, or at least only passing references (perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised as the peace process has made the sensitive areas of British Hibernophobia and Irish Anglophobia off limits).
What I did find however was a fascinating and sharply written article about the unhappy experience of the Liverpool Irish during the IRA’s short-lived but very violent English bombing campaign of 1939, in the months preceding the start of the Second World War.
The work of Liverpool-based academic, Dr Bryce Evans, whose website can be accessed here, ‘Fear and Loathing in Liverpool….’ firstly sheds new light on the extent of the campaign, at least for me. For example, there was an IRA bombing incident in England ‘almost every other day’, according to Dr Evans, during the first nine months of 1939. Although short-lived, the IRA’s England Campaign was clearly a more forceful affair than is usually depicted.
But his work is really important because it chronicles the nightmare visited upon the city’s Irish population as fear and outrage spread in a city already infamous for its sectarian divisions.
In circumstances that Donald Trump might find pleasingly familiar, the Liverpool Irish became targets not just because of their suspected sympathy for the IRA, but because Irish immigrants were ready to work for lower wages than the natives who consequently were losing jobs.
A huge public meeting was held shortly after the first IRA bombings in the city in mid-January, 1939 and angry citizens demanded that an Irish bureau be set up “to monitor the city’s Irish immigrants and expel trouble-makers”.
To a chorus of cheers, a local councillor complained that if the flow of Irish migrants to the city continued, Liverpool would have to be renamed Dublin.
A month later as anti-Irish frenzy spread – encouraged by some racially salacious reporting by the local media – the newly formed Liverpool Irish Immigration Bureau began overseeing the forced expulsion of undesirables back to Dublin. Evans writes of poignant scenes at Liverpool docks as tearful relatives saw off expelled family members.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act notwithstanding, the IRA’s campaign of the 1970’s never produced an excess to match this.
Two potent forces, fear of, and anger at IRA violence combined with resentment at job losses blamed on Irish immigration to make life increasingly uncomfortable for Liverpool’s Irish population during 1939 and some in that community adjusted accordingly.
By the time a 19-year old Brendan Behan was arrested in Liverpool, on the day he arrived in the city, in December 1939 at the fag end of the IRA campaign, he was, Evans writes, jeered by a hostile crowd who shouted: ‘String the bastard up’.
Behan, who went to Liverpool on an unauthorised bombing mission and subsequently served time for IRA activity in Ireland, later wrote of the experience: “….some of them were Liverpool-Irish, trying to prove their solidarity with the loyal stock.”
Another IRA activist wrote of a change in the Irish mood as 1939 wore on: the Liverpool Irish, “…..now met him and his comrades with fear and sometimes outright hostility.”
All this, and possibly much worse, is what faces Europe’s and America’s Muslim people.