Monday 2 May 2016

The Luck Of The Irish

Tracing the Beatles' Irish Ancestry in Liverpool

Clarence Dock area

"Through these dock gates passed most of the
 1,300,000 Irish migrants who fled the Great Famine and
 “took the ship” to Liverpool in the years 1845-52.
Remember the Great Famine"

People have always travelled between Ireland and England and records show that there were families with Irish surnames in Liverpool as early as 1378. However, it was when Liverpool gained prominence as a port city in the mid-18th century that it became the primary entry point for Irish migrants as they made their way to England.

The Irish population in England grew through the 19th century when many poor labourers, drovers and artisans emigrated due to economic reasons. However, poverty was not always the motive. Middle class Irish also arrived and some made their mark on the history of Liverpool. One, Michael Whitty, founded the Liverpool Fire Brigade and the Liverpool Daily Post newspaper. Another prominent figure, William Brown, financed the building of the public library (which we will read about elsewhere) and ultimately had a street named in his honour.

In 1841, 20% of the Irish living in England and Wales were found in the Liverpool area. Due to tragic events this figure would increase enormously over the next ten years.

In the 'Pool they told us the story
How the English divided the land.....

An Drochshaol (the Great Hunger) is the name given to the famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1852.

An estimated two-thirds of the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish population toiled on tenant farms upon which they had to pay rent to their rich, and largely absent, English landlords. Potato was the staple (and often only) food of the labouring classes as it was the only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantities to feed them, especially in winter.

In 1845 the weather appeared to have been favourable and the Irish farming community had good reason to expect a bumper harvest. However, on digging up the potatoes the farmers were met with a black gooey mess. As much as 50% of the potato crop was lost and as the rural community only grew what they needed for that year, with little put aside in case of trouble, they were faced with starvation.

A starving Irish family from Carraroe, County Galway, during the famine. (National Library of Ireland)

The problem only got worse. The crop of 1846 was all but a total failure and there was a further poor harvest in 1847. The effect of three disastrous years in succession was devastating. No precise figures seem to be available but it is generally agreed that between 500,000 and more than one million people lost their lives through hunger or disease.  Some would argue the figure as high as 5.16 million, two thirds of the entire population at that time.

How could so many people be allowed to starve to death in the heart of the world’s wealthiest empire?

Although Ireland's production of corn, wheat, barley and beef was unaffected during the famine her English landlords made a bigger profit exporting these food products and shamefully sold them elsewhere. During this period, around £1 m of corn and barley were exported from Ireland to mainland Britain, along with quantities of dairy produce. Driven on by free trade, foodstuffs left Ireland - despite the fact that it was desperately needed in Ireland itself.  Around 70% of Politicians were landowners themselves or the sons of landowners, and they were slow to react. Although the government started exporting food from India and elsewhere in the Empire to Ireland the distribution was not maintained properly so food did not reach the poor. In 1847 the government set up soup kitchens where the labouring communities could eat for free. Up to three million were fed under this scheme but it was discontinued after only 6 months.


A lack of action from the majority of landlords in Ireland made matters worse. Showing no sympathy for those who worked on their land they evicted anyone who could not pay their rent, the landlords needing little excuse to rid their estates of impoverished farmers and labourers.

In the years between 1846 and 1854 perhaps as many as 500,000 people were evicted from their homes and farms. 

With no food and no home, many decided to leave Ireland and try to make a new start elsewhere. With dreams of a better life in the United States or Canada, the Irish made their way to the nearest port where they could seek passage to the New World: Liverpool.

A thousand years of torture and hunger
Drove the people away from their land
A land full of beauty and wonder
Was raped by the British brigands!
Goddamn! Goddamn! 

Irish Emigrants Entering Liverpool (David Jacques)

The famine led to the biggest mass migration of the 19th century. About 1.5 million poverty stricken men, women and children left Ireland for the US, another 340,000 for Canada, 300,000 for the British mainland and 70,000 for Australia.

Many of the desperate thousands crossed the Irish Sea on barely seaworthy vessels which soon came to be known as 'coffin ships'. One ship leaving Westport in County Mayo sank, drowning its passengers within sight of the horrified onlookers who had only just bid them farewell. Some families had been given the small amount for the crossing by their landowners' agents, who seized the opportunity to clear them off the land once and for all. Others were carried as live ship's ballast asking only to be fed and given safe passage to Liverpool and beyond.

Below Deck (Rodney Charman)

Very often these overloaded ships reached Liverpool after losing a third of their passengers to disease, hunger and other causes. Many who could not afford the passage abroad simply took the boat to Liverpool or Glasgow, viewing these temporary stops as stepping stones in their dreams of making it abroad in the near future. The harsh reality was that in 1846, 280,000 people entered Liverpool from Ireland but only 106,000 moved on. During the first main wave of famine emigration from January to June 1847, about 300,000 sick and poor Irish refugees sailed into the city, but only 130,000 emigrated.

As the Clarence Dock plaque states, it is thought that approximately 1.3 million migrants* passed through the port in Liverpool. By the time the famine ended, around 1852, there were some 90,000 Irish born who were living in Liverpool, a figure which had swollen the population by 25%.

Given the circumstances of their migration, the vast majority of the Irish who arrived in Liverpool were starving, poor and extremely vulnerable. Some quickly moved onwards and out into the city but those who stayed near the docks were at great risk and were often preyed upon. Gangs of unscrupulous characters sprang up almost immediately and found an easy livelihood taking the little money the Irish possessed upon arriving on the Mersey docks.

Liverpool must have seemed hostile and unwelcoming. Those Irish who arrived were quickly branded as "paupers, vagrants and thieves" with certain media outlets projecting an intense anti-Irish feeling to prevent any solidarity there may have been with the Irish from the English working class. Vicious Orange Lodge attacks were common on the vulnerable, murders and suicides were near daily occurrences as were the corpses that were fished out of the Mersey. As some historians have convincingly argued, the suggestion that these people chose to stay on in Liverpool rather than continue their journey is laughable.

In the "Condition of the Working Class in England" (1845) the social scientist and political theorist Friedrich Engels had this to say on the subject of Irish migration:

"These Irishmen who migrate for fourpence to England, on the deck of a steamship on which they are often packed like cattle, insinuate themselves everywhere. The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink. What does such a race want with high wages? The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by Irishmen. Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises at the first glance as different from the Saxon physiognomy of the native, and the singing, aspirate brogue which the true Irishman never loses. The majority of the families who live in cellars are almost everywhere of Irish origin. In short, the Irish have, as Dr. Kay says, discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are now making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them. The lack of cleanliness, which is not so injurious in the country, where population is scattered, and which is the Irishman's second nature, becomes terrifying and gravely dangerous through its concentration here in the great cities. The Milesian deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he was accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working- people's quarters and poison the air. He builds a pig-sty against the house wall as he did at home, and if he is prevented from doing this, he lets the pig sleep in the room with himself. This new and unnatural method of cattle-raising in cities is wholly of Irish origin. The Irishman loves his pig as the Arab his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill. Otherwise, he eats and sleeps with it, his children play with it, ride upon it, roll in the dirt with it, as any one may see a thousand times repeated in all the great towns of England.

The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves it is impossible to describe. The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch. A piece of wood, a broken chair, an old chest for a table, more he needs not; a tea-kettle, a few pots and dishes, equip his kitchen, which is also his sleeping and living room. When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door-posts, mouldings, flooring, finds its way up the chimney. Moreover, why should he need much room? At home in his mud-cabin there was only one room for all domestic purposes; more than one room his family does not need in England. So the custom of crowding many persons into a single room, now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by the Irish immigration.

And since the poor devil must have one enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself to the drinking of spirits. Drink is the only thing which makes the Irishman's life worth having, drink and his cheery care-free temperament; so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness. The southern facile character of the Irishman, his crudity, which places him but little above the savage, his contempt for all humane enjoyments, in which his very crudeness makes him incapable of sharing, his filth and poverty, all favour drunkenness. The temptation is great, he cannot resist it, and so when he has money he gets rid of it down his throat. What else should he do? How can society blame him when it places him in a position in which he almost of necessity becomes a drunkard; when it leaves him to himself, to his savagery?"

I had to read that a few times to know which side he was on. 

"It is they [the Irish] who inhabit the filthiest and worst of these unventilated courts and cellars."  Dr Duncan of Liverpool, speaking in 1842.

William Henry Duncan, was born on 27 January 1805 at 108 Seel Street, a house which, 155 years later, would become Allan William's Blue Angel club. After qualifying as a Doctor of Medicine in Edinburgh in 1829 he returned to Liverpool to work as a General Practitioner in the poorest quarters of the town. He was rapidly overwhelmed with cases and quickly realised that it was no co-incidence that the majority of his patients were those living in slum conditions. Until something significant was done to change this squalor his efforts would be negligible.

Duncan's great achievement was to draw the authorities attention not only to the plight of the thousands of slum dwellers, but also the epidemics which were bound to arise and seep into the wealthier districts of the city. His efforts and those of other like-minded philanthropists in the city led to action in Parliament resulting in Duncan's appointment as the first Medical Officer of Health on 1 January 1847.

It was a role which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The number of Irish who had arrived in Liverpool and not subsequently moved on was conservatively estimated to be around 80,000 and more were continuing to arrive every day.

As much a problem today as it was then, a huge influx of additional mouths to feed can cripple a city and in 1847 Liverpool the authorities could simply not cope. That June, under the newly passed Poor Law Removal Act, around 15,000 migrants were deported back to an uncertain fate in Ireland.

It was calculated that 35,000 people, mainly Irish, were inhabiting court dwellings or cellars, with some 5341 of the latter described as 'wells of stagnant water', without light or ventilation. With so many starving people mainly left to fend for themselves, countless thousands died, 40 or 50 deep, in appalling conditions. 

The Courts were accessed by a narrow gate or passageway that, from the outside at least, might have looked like a normal doorway or entry in the front of a terrace of houses. However, these would lead directly into the court-yard, a central square, about 20-30 feet long by about 10-15 feet wide, around which blocks of rooms had been built, often up to 4 floors high. Each tenement block accommodated dozens of families. At times, there could be more than one family living in each room.

These confined urban communities would not have had any form of localised water supply, and in most cases the only sanitary provision for the hundreds of people living around each court was a single, communal water-closet placed at one end of the yard (see centre rear of the above photo). 

The water-closet would generally consist of a wooden bench with a lavatory hole cut in it, suspended over an earthen pit, the contents emptied irregularly by the "Night Soil" men. Worse were those courts with earthen middens, not water closets as there were few street sewers at the time. With some of these privies situated directly under windows once can only imagine the stench and pestiferous gases from their foul contents flowing in to the houses whenever these were opened. In 1841 it was estimated that as many as 50% of the population lived in courts with the districts of St. Paul, Exchange and Vauxhall having the highest percentage of this type of dwelling.

Dr Duncan had quickly identified that these overcrowded living quarters were breeding grounds for disease, and despite numerous attempts to improve sanitary conditions, the “Irish Fever” persisted. Typhus, dysentery and cholera swept through the population. It is estimated that in Liverpool as a whole, 60,000 caught the fever and 40,000 contracted dysentery. In 1847, 5,845 people died from typhus in just a few weeks. The epidemic was so severe that floating hospitals and fever sheds were built along the Mersey.

If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you'd wish you was English instead!

Life with the O'Leannains

Stepping off one of the Irish boats and into this living hell was James Lennon, the great grandfather of Beatle John.

James, son of Patrick Lennon, was born in County Down, Ireland in 1829. Their surname was Irish, derived from O'Leannain or O'Lonain.

There is no evidence that Patrick ever left Ireland. However, at the height of the famine and with no forseeable future, James made the crossing, perhaps with his father's encouragement, and entered Liverpool through the huge gates of Clarence Dock alongside thousands of his countrymen.

Despite the end of the Famine around 1849-1850, and subsequent decrease in the number of migrants entering Liverpool most of the Irish already here remained and carried on integrating with the local life. They were ready to accept any job, especially in the newly expanding seaport, working as dockers and seamen. Many Irish workers were forced to take low-paid, labour-intense jobs at the docks, processing plants, in the chemical industries, and as warehouse and construction workers. Those that stayed gravitated toward established Irish communities. The Irish Catholic community developed predominantly around the Scotland Road area with St. Anthony’s Church at the slum ridden heart. Further Catholic churches quickly sprung up throughout the 19th century.

James Lennon was one who stayed, working locally as a warehouseman and cooper (barrel maker) and living in the cramped squalor of Vauxhall Road, a mile north of the city centre, just behind the docks.

It was probably whilst living in Vauxhall that James met Jane McConville for the first time. Her parents James and Bridget McConville had moved to Liverpool with Jane and her two brothers John and Richard between 1840 and 1849. Like James Lennon the McConville's came from County Down and had probably fled similar hardships.

On 29th April 1849 an earlier Len-Mac partnership was formed when James Lennon, aged 20 married Jane McConville, aged about 18 (b.1831) at St Anthony's (above).

Like the majority of the Irish arriving in Liverpool Jane was illiterate, signing her name with an "X". The marriage certificate gave their addresses as Vauxhall Road and Saltney Street and their respective fathers were Patrick Lennon, a farmer and James McConville, an engineer.

Following the marriage James moved into court housing with his new in-laws on Saltney Street, spitting distance from Clarence Dock where he had first arrived in Liverpool.

A court in Saltney Street, 20 December 1906 (L.R.O.)

Saltney Street,
Liverpool 3

An 1891 map of Saltney Street (click to enlarge). The Palatine pub facing Clarence Dock backed onto Court No.16. James Lennon was living at No. 12 Court in 1851.

According to the 1851 census, James Lennon and his wife Jane were living in No. 12 Court, Princes Place at 51 Saltney Street with their daughter Elizabeth who had been born in 1850 and 11 other people. Four of these were probably Jane's family - her parents James McConville (b.1810 Ireland) and Bridget McConville (b.1811 Ireland) and her brothers John McConville (b.1834 Ireland) and Richard McConville (b.1840 Ireland).

The 1908 Ordnance Survey map (above) shows a street of very small block houses, little alleys or courts containing ten houses each. The courts were named after the adjacent docks - Clarence Place, Trafalgar Place, Victoria Place, Waterloo Place and Princes Place where the Lennon’s lived.  Maps show nine public houses in the immediate vicinity - one on every street corner and more halfway along. Inevitably few men could pass them on their way home without going in for a quick one, spending what few pennies they had earned on ale or spirits, despite their families starving and shivering a few yards away.

The Great Howard Street end of Saltney Street (1912). This end block has a public house on each corner, The Bull on the left and the Stanley Arms on the corner with Saltney Street seen on the right. The terraced houses fronting court properties are still standing to the immediate right of the pub but it was about this time that the courts were being cleared from the street. The section of the street further down the towards the dock road (seen here on the extreme right of the photograph above) had already been replaced by the taller landing houses seen in the 1920 and 1966 photographs below. Today only The Bull public house remains (below)

The dock end of Saltney Street looking towards Great Howard Street on 8 March 1920 (above) and 25 November 2012 (below). Note the men gathered outside the Palatine Hotel on the bottom right of the above photo watching the photographer whom I am assuming was stood on the dock wall**.

The author David Lewis writes that Saltney Street was hard by the docks of this great global seaport, ocean liners steaming up and down the River Mersey right at the end of the street. It's still there today though the horrors of its cholera-infested housing have long since disappeared. Today the other side of the street is still taken up by the long flat wall of Stanley Dock’s warehouses and any houses were squeezed into the industrial fabric of the area.

Children in Queens Place Court, Saltney Street 1909 

David Lewis vividly describes how life would have been when he imagines barefoot children running along greasy cobbles, giant horses hauling wagons of barrels, the air full of smoke and metallic shrieks. Over the huge dock wall is a forest of masts and rigging, the occasional funnel and blasts of smoke from steamships and Irish boats.

Wonderful, evocative stuff.

Many of the Irish migrants arrived in Liverpool with little more than the clothes on their backs. They were the poorest of the poor and yet they had pay unscrupulous private landlords between 2s 6d and 6s a week for the privilege of living in such atrocious squalor. In many cases several or more families were forced to cohabit a single room in order to share the rent. Those with no means to pay were moved on countless times, the Lennons amongst them, census records and other documents showing they were always on the move, at least eight of their babies being born at different addresses. We'll find out where they went in a future post.

An early 1900s photo of a typical squalid room in Saltney Street (LRO)

Saltney Street, circa 1966 showing the landing houses present on the 1920 photograph. These started to replace the original court dwellings around 1911 but today these too have disappeared.

Saltney Street today looking towards Clarence Dock (left) and Great Howard Street (right). The tarmac has worn away in parts revealing the original cobbles, relics from the Lennon's and McConville's time there. 


Clarence Graving Dock where the Irish arrived in Liverpool.


* I use the word migrants because Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. These were people moving within their own country.

** The photographer could just as easily have been standing on the platform of Clarence Dock station, part of the Liverpool Overhead Railway. Adjacent to the dock of the same name it was opened on 6 March 1893 by the Marquis of Salisbury no less.



The Beatles Liverpool Landscapes (David Lewis)


Liverpool Echo here:

You can see more of Rodney Charman's beautiful paintings of the Irish Famine ships here:

For the accuracy of John Lennon's family tree we have Michael Byron to thank. You can read it in full here:

Lyrics from "The Luck of The Irish" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (from the 1972 album Some Time In New York City)

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