Friday, 14 March 2014

Patrick Bourke - ‘just one story, in the story of thousands'

Partnership event with Irish Arts Foundation 14 March, 8pm in HEART

Photo: Sally Bavage
Síle Moriarty writes:
The Claremont Room at HEART was packed last night as Brendan McGowan told us the story of Patrick Bourke – ‘just one story, in the story of thousands, which shows the precarious existence of the Irish in England at the time’ - mid-nineteenth century.

Brendan is a historian who has written previously about the Irish in Leeds (Taking The boat: The Irish in Leeds 1931-81), and it was as a historian that he investigated the story of Patrick Bourke but he also had a more personal interest – he was born in Leeds, of Irish parents, just a stone’s throw away from the Leeds Workhouse - now the Thackray Museum - where Patrick spent his last days before being ‘deported’ to Ireland.

The back-drop to Patrick’s story was the overcrowding and poverty of the Irish in Leeds in the early part of the nineteenth century which was exacerbated by the arrival in Leeds, after 1840, of an increasing number of Irish migrants fleeing An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine) in Ireland.
Patrick himself came to England in 1820 at the age of thirty and he spent the next more than forty years in and around Leeds supporting himself by his own efforts. During this time he never applied for poor relief or for any other sort of assistance but he was also semi-itinerant; he travelled around West Yorkshire plying his trade, as a street hawker and maker of spectacles, staying in lodging houses which were overcrowded and less than sanitary.  He never married and as he became older he could not maintain his lifestyle and in 1862, being ill and destitute, he applied for relief to the Leeds Union Workhouse.

Leeds Union Workhouse - now Thackray Medical Museum)
At this stage he was judged as having no settlement rights – under the Poor Law at the time relief could only be given by the parish where the applicant had settlement rights i.e. where they were born or where they had established rights through other means e.g. marriage or property. This meant that Patrick had to receive relief in West Port in Mayo, his place of birth. Thus, on 31 December 1862, seventy-two year-old Patrick set off for Ireland. His journey in the depths of winter included an eleven hour journey to Holyhead, a 3am sea crossing - where he was a deck passenger subject to the elements - a stopover in Dublin and a journey across Ireland, during the last part of which, in open-topped transport , he was soaked to the skin in a rainstorm. As can be imagined he arrived in West Port in poor condition and died two weeks later.

Patrick’s story, although desperate, would have remained obscure - we don’t know where he was buried - but for the action taken by his MP, Lord Browne, who raised questions about his treatment in the House of Commons. During the subsequent enquiry many of the people involved in his case, both in England and Ireland, were interviewed and records were kept which enabled Brendan’s research.  The outcome of the enquiry was that the Leeds Union had acted within the law but, as Brendan said, ‘it might have been legal but it was not humane’. There were subsequent changes to the Poor Law and limitations put on the transportation of elderly and sick people during the winter but there was no apology from the Leeds Union because they had, of course, acted within the law.

This story engaged our sympathy and Brendan was a knowledgeable and interesting speaker. Brendan, and many people in the audience, drew parallels with modern times when market forces reign supreme - the Great Famine in Ireland was exacerbated by the application of a market forces philosophy - and there was a lively Q&A session after the talk.

Audience reactions:

Really, Really interesting story. I’m so glad I came...

Very  good talk. Most enlightening with very engaging speaker

An interesting presentation giving a clear picture of the state of Irish immigrants and their way of life when fleeing the famine in Ireland. Also the bad way some people were treated on being sent back to Ireland


Taking the Boat: The Irish in Leeds, 1931-81 is available: at the Leeds Civic Trust, at Amazon and on ebay.

1 comment:

  1. Brendan was an excellent speaker whose exploration of this topic just made you think: 'Same old, same old' treatment of the wealth-creating classes

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