The Irish Quarter
B5 - Grid reference SP079862
During the week of St Patrick's Day, 17 March, it is clear that Birmingham's Irish community see Digbeth and Deritend as the Irish Quarter. The presence of Irish people in Birmingham is recorded as early as the 1600s. However, it was from the 1820s that waves of Irish emigrants came to England to escape famine and the poverty, some of whom to find work digging the canals. Many arrived in the 1840s, the time of the Irish potato famine; many then found jobs in railway construction.
The new arrivals did not always have an easy time. A parliamentary paper on The State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain published in 1836 described the types of employment they would find:
The general character of the Irish immigration into Great Britain is that persons for whom there is little or no demand in their own country seek employment in England or Scotland at a rate
of wages either not higher or somewhat lower than that paid to the lowest description of the native labourers.
The kind of work at which they are employed is usually of the roughest, coarsest and most repulsive description, and requiring the least skill and practice; and their mode of life is in general on a par with that of the poorest of the native population, if not inferior to it.
Royal Commission 1836 The Conditions of the Poorer Classes in Ireland
In the 19th and early 20th century every inner-city district of Birmingham had an Irish quarter or an Irish street. In the first half of the 19th century many Irish people lived in the poorest parts of central Birmingham, gradually moving outwards if their circumstances allowed and as the city itself grew. Most central areas had over 20% of the population who had been born in Ireland, while in the area around Park Street at the top of Digbeth the figure reached 55%.
Widespread unemployment in Ireland in the 1950s encouraged another wave of immigrants, manual labourers many of whom were employed building Birmingham's new roads and housing estates. In the 1980s economic problems in Ireland brought more Irish people, many of whom moved into the catering and service sector. By the 1990s it was estimated that some 70 000 Irish-born people were living in Birmingham with very many more people who couild claim Irish descent.
It is possible to get an idea of the movement of the Irish outwards from the City Centre with reference to the foundation dates of Roman Catholic churches.
Following the Act of Toleration, when Christians other than Anglicans were allowed to profess their faith openly, Birmingham's first post-Reformation Roman Catholic church was built in 1688 on the eastern fringe of the town in Masshouse Lane. It was burned by an anti-papist mob only two months later, and Catholic worship was moved out of town to Edgbaston. It was to be nearly 100 years before another Roman Catholic church was built, St Peter's in Broad Street, just beyond the built-up town, this time on the west side. Designed in an unobtrusive style in brick to resemble a factory, it survived until 1969. On the northern edge of the town St Austin's opened in Shadwell Street in 1806, the precursor of St Chad's Cathedral. These churches were built to cater for a resident community of perhaps two dozen old Roman Catholic families from the local area. In 1853 the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception was opened on the Hagley Road, an institution more for priests than for laity.
The first sign of the Catholic Church responding to the increasing number of adherents in central Birmingham was the setting up in 1847 of St Nicholas' chapel in an old building in Park Street. Attracted here by the prospects of work in the booming town, some came from other parts of the Midlands, others were Irish immigrants escaping poverty at home. In 1862 St Nicholas' moved to the former New Meeting which was then dedicated to St Michael. The church was not only a focus for the Irish but also for Italian immigrants who lived in this area. With the influx of Polish people after World War 2 a Polish chaplaincy was established here with masses said in Polish and a Polish club in nearby Bordesley Street. With the entry of Poland into the European Union in 2004, a new Polish community has again found a focus here.
St Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Alcester Street was first set up by Cardinal Newman initially in an old gin distillery in 1849 in Deritend, a district rapidly built-up and expanding both inwards and out. It was an area of poor housing, with many back-to-back courts, intermixed with industry and suffering some of the worst social conditions in Birmingham. The present building was designed in 1884 by London architects Vicars & O'Neill to replace Newman's original chapel. It is early English gothic in style, brick-built and with stone dressing. J R R Tolkien worshipped here when he lived in Moseley.
Catholic churches were established in the 1840s and -50s in Erdington, Lozells, Nechells and Edgbaston; but in 1868 provision was made for the town centre population, many of them of Irish origin, by the building of St Catherine's on the Horse Fair. Lee Bank was a cramped district of terraces and back-to-backs intermingled with small workshops. There was also a poor Jewish communtiy in the area.
As the city spread outwards, so did the Irish population. In the 1870s and -80s churches or mission chapels were built at Spring Hill on the Dudley Road, in Vauxhall Grove at Duddeston and at Selly Park. In the 1890s further from the City Centre there were churches opened in Balsall Heath, Kings Heath and Aston. And before the First World War in Small Heath, Acocks Green, Sparkhill and Saltley. Between the wars Catholic churches followed the building of the new municipal housing estates, sometimes opening a parish hall or school whose hall doubled as a church until the church was built.
However, even as the Irish population dispersed across the city and the central area became more and more depopulated, there was a feeling among many people of Irish origin that the Deritend and Digbeth area was their spiritual home. There was and is a concentration of Irish pubs and clubs in the area of which St Anne's in Alcester Street is the parish church.
In 1952 the first Birmingham St Patrick's Day Parade was held. Taking place on the Sunday before 17th March, it is now the world's largest after those in New York and Dublin. The parade starts at Camp Hill, and travels along Deritend High Street and up to the top of Digbeth. Crowds of over 80 000 spectators come to watch up to 40 floats, horses and carts, Irish dancers and marching bands many of whom travel from Ireland for the festivities.
William Dargue 03.08.2010
For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.