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Historical Notes: 'Little Ireland' riots in Cornwall

ON 19 April 1882, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, received a letter from the clerk to the magistrates at Camborne informing him that

a riot of somewhat serious character occurred last night. The cause was apparently an ill feeling existing between the native and Irish population of the district in and around Camborne.

This riot, which involved assaults on Irish people, attacks on their homes, and damage to the local Roman Catholic Church, was eventually quelled by the Cornish County Constabulary, assisted by a large body of special constables.

Reports of disturbances involving Irish migrants in Victorian towns were by no means unusual. Most were confined to Irish districts and comprised drunken brawls, quarrels between neighbours and domestic disputes. Police attempts to combat the drunkenness, noise, and casual violence in the public houses, beershops, and lodging- houses of these so-called "Little Irelands", not to mention the celebration of weddings, wakes and St Patrick's Day, sometimes resulted in more general disorders. So too did sectarian violence between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, especially in Liverpool and Glasgow.

More serious, however, were instances of communal violence against the Irish, rooted in popular stereotypes of the Irish as a threat not only to jobs and living standards but also, as Roman Catholics, to Protestant traditions and, as Irish nationalists, to the British state. Anti-Irish sentiment was exacerbated by migration from Ireland during the Great Famine, when the size of the Irish-born population of England, Scotland and Wales virtually doubled. In their search for work, many of the newcomers crowded into the urban slums, magnifying the contemporary social ills of poverty, public health, and crime, for which the poor Irish emerged as convenient scapegoats, and economic competition between English and Irish workers contributed to serious anti-Irish violence in several towns, including Newcastle, in 1847, and Durham, in 1858.

Religious issues also fomented anti-Irish violence. The restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in 1850 prompted both public and government to embark upon a phase of anti-Catholicism in response to "papal aggression", resulting in a spate of serious anti-Catholic and anti-Irish disorders, including the infamous Stockport riots of 1852. Later, between 1867 and 1871, the public lectures of William Murphy, the apostle of anti-Catholicism, sparked serious communal violence in the Midlands, Lancashire, Northumberland and Cumberland.

The Camborne riot does not, however, fit easily into the general pattern of anti-Irish violence. The town's Irish community was the largest in Cornwall but most Irish people settled in the surrounding hamlets, where housing was cheaper, so that these came to be considered Irish areas, even though their Irish residents were never more than a minority of the population. Because of the local mix of agriculture and industry, they had an interesting range of occupations, including tin-mining.

The riot of 1882 was largely the product of a local popular tradition of protest against injustice by authority, in this case, the perception of a too-lenient sentence (of two months and six weeks respectively) for an assault by two Irishmen, Daniel Corney and John McCarthy, on a Cornishman, Richard Evans, on 3 April, and was part of a Cornish pattern of riotous behaviour which took the form not so much of actual violence as of mob intimidation.

Moreover, the riot occurred during a period when anti-Irish disorders were becoming increasingly rare. By the 1880s and 1890s, with public concern focused on the thousands of poor Jews fleeing from persecution in Russia to the sanctuary of London's East End, Irish immigration and its consequences were no longer contentious public issues.

Roger Swift is the co-editor, with Sheridan Gilley, of 'The Irish in Victorian Britain: the local dimension' (Four Courts Press, pounds 17.50)