In 2015, Northern Ireland said goodbye to its lowest number of emigrants from the country in nine years, but is still losing a whopping 21,500 people to countries such as England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Everyone now knows someone who has left Northern Ireland, and it seems whole towns and villages are reuniting Down Under.
Between 1951-61 the annual emigration rate in Northern Ireland was 15.4 per thousand of the population and the number of Catholics emigrating was nearly double the amount of Protestants. My grandparents left Northern Ireland in the early ‘50s along with so many young people (including my grandfather’s older brothers) who had little hope of finding employment in Belfast, and headed to Birmingham. From what I gather, they intended to marry and start a family but didn’t have the money to get their own home and so set sail for Britain’s second city on a long boat ride bringing only what they could carry. It’s hard to imagine now the Birmingham that greeted them, but my grandmother, before she became the smiling old lady in my photographs and memories, before my Mother was even an idea, as young and naïve as I am now, stood where I stood a few months ago, on the verge of the rest of her life with a decision to make.
Nanny and Granda only stayed in Birmingham for about two years, during which time they married, my Uncle Jackie was born and my Granda’s brother Jackie was killed. They married on 26th December 1953. Having returned home for Christmas, my Grandparents sought to rent their first home. They had worked hard and saved the money they needed to put a deposit down for their house, but since my Grandfather didn’t have a job or a steady income in Belfast, their applications were all denied. They married on Boxing Day in Belfast, before returning to Birmingham.
Living in Aston in a shared house, my grandfather was a driver for Kynoch’s munition factory in Witton and his brother Jackie made the munitions. Jackie died in an industrial accident in 1954. In my research of Kynoch’s, I came across a discussion thread on birminghamhistory.co.uk, in which a man describes working at the factory:
“I later worked in the Cap Priming area where they made the percussion caps for the bullets. These would be made in trays of about 500 caps, which would be filled and then compressed by the operators. Every now and then the trays would explode. The worker often needing medical attention.”
This is how the story goes that my Great Uncle Jackie was killed.
When my grandmother gave birth to her first child in October 1954, he was named after his late uncle.
After Jackie was born my Grandparents returned home, and still not able to find their own home, lived with my maternal Great Grandmother for a number of years, this was to become my mother’s first home.
Mark and I moved to Birmingham on 2nd July 2016. We decided to come by boat because Mark wanted to bring his car over and we could load up the TV and the boxes upon boxes of all of our things. We were put up by Mark’s uncle in the Four Oaks area of Sutton Coldfield, living on a private road in a multi-million-pound house while we searched for our first home together. As we looked for an apartment to rent in the City Centre, viewing flats in the Irish Quarter, Digbeth, where so many people like my grandparents settled in the ‘50s, it became apparent that we were to face the same problems that they did all those years ago. We had the money ready for a deposit, but because I had no income, we had trouble finding somewhere that would accept us. And I, fresh out of university with a degree in hand, had the same trouble finding a job in England as the Irish immigrants before me who had been greeted with signs reading “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.”
However, I eventually found a job waitressing and we moved into a brand new turn-key apartment to begin our lives here.
I visited the Library of Birmingham in August and began my research on my grandparents’ lives in Birmingham. Since my uncle was born here, I was able to find his birth record, and with the help of Aunt Mary at home, find the address where my grandparents began their married life together.
Mark drove me to 310 Birchfield Road one Sunday afternoon with the help of Google Maps, only to find it was now the home of a dual carriageway, and a long cry from the street on which my grandparents lived. I wondered what it looked like when they lived here. We parked the car at a shopping centre and began our search for their home. Like in the 1950s, the Birchfield Road was home to immigrants, and the dirty streets were lined with foreign and run-down shops. There were large gangs of men standing on street corners and overheard voices were not speaking English. I felt somewhat unnerved as we walked along, following a map on my iphone, sticking out like a sore thumb, feeling as if I did not belong there. We passed under a subway to the other side of the road and had to hold our breaths to block out the smell of urine. Mark hurried me along, feeling unsafe. We reached the other side and found a row of shops and offices with rooms above them, finding number 310 above an Accountants’ Office with shutters on it. The curtains on the windows above assured me that these were still homes. Had I found this house on another street, on another day, maybe I would have knocked the door and asked to come in. But the fear that I would be greeted with hostility or someone who didn’t speak English, stopped me from doing so. Instead, I stood at the front door and took a photograph of the house where an uncle I had barely known was born, and the grandparents who were just distant childhood memories now had begun my family.
As I walked away, I was overcome with emotion. I didn’t feel safe in this street and I hurried back to the car holding tight to my boyfriend’s hand. This street, that screamed poverty and deprivation to me, is where it all began. And my grandparents worked hard to find the money to create a future for my mother, and in turn, for me. And as I drove away in a fast and shiny car, to return to the comfort of my apartment with all the luxuries I have been afforded, I felt snobbish and humbled, reminded of the background from which I have come and the struggles that were faced in the past to get me to where I am today.
I don’t know how long my life in Birmingham will last. I could be home by Christmas, or I could start my own family here. But either way, I feel I am better for having been here. Maybe in sixty years’ time there will be a young girl tracing my life here, living in a house that she had no trouble securing for herself, and working in a job that she loves. Maybe for her this city won’t be a means to an end, it will be home.