Tag Archives: Irish community

My favourite things in Archives & Collections, Jim Ranahan

Blue Connected

The theme that has (very) loosely guided our Explore Your Archive campaign this year has been to celebrate our favourite things in our wonderful collections. You would think it would have been a difficult task given how many documents we hold, but for Jim it was really easy to choose..!

Photographs of St. Patrick's Parade 2014. (C) James Ranahan. [MS 4672 ]

Photographs of St. Patrick’s Parade 2014. (C) James Ranahan.
[MS 4672 ]

“This photograph sat on the corner of my desk and has lifted my spirits for 18 months, every time I have glanced up. Its’ appeal for me is three-fold:

  • Uplifting – It reminds me of a very happy day, when otherwise responsible people don funny costumes and celebrate their Irish heritage in their own way, in their home city.
  • Reminiscence – The tractor is similar to my uncle’s tractor, which as a ten year old in rural Ireland I was able to steer across the fields, under his close but relaxed supervision.
  • Professional – this print reminds me of the importance of reaching out to all communities and ensuring that their individual and collective voices are represented in the archive.

Tramways Committee Minute Book. 1951 - 1952 [BCC/1/BE/1/1/25]

Tramways Committee Minute Book. 1951 – 1952
[BCC/1/BE/1/1/25]

This is my other choice for three reasons – all related to my personal sense of identity: Continue reading

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St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham: Devotion and Celebration

MS 4672 Clonmacnoise Crozier An Post

Clonmacnoise Crozier, 1993.Courtesy of An Post  [MS 4672]

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast day is the Seventeenth of March.  It is celebrated across the world, wherever Irish people gather:  from Dublin to Derby to Dubai and from Belfast to Barnsley to Brisbane – and all points in between.  Birmingham has a long history of celebrating this day, Thomas Finigan observing the practice amongst Irish immigrants in 1838 [MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan].

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Monday March 20th 1916. Irish and Proud of It.

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Irish and Proud of It. 1916.

These were informal, self-generated affairs, but from 1869, formal events were held at Birmingham Town Hall.  Music Halls also staged entertainments, such as the revue ‘Irish and Proud of It’, shown at the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Corporation Street, in 1916.  Populist entertainments like this chimed with some Irish but for others the simplistic portrayals of evictions and caricatures of drunken Irish strengthened their resolve to have their culture and experiences represented appropriately.  Such sentiments were perhaps strengthened, given the revue’s performance just weeks before the Easter Rising in Ireland ushered in momentous changes to Anglo-Irish relations.

In today’s generally tolerant atmosphere, there is less sensitivity over community representation, with self-parody now playing a part in the City’s St Patrick’s celebrations.  These last for up to two weeks, this year’s festival having been launched on the Sixth of March with a range of events (large and small) scheduled until beyond St Patrick’s Day.  The main feature of this programme is the St Patrick’s Parade, which has a proud history, being the first in Britain [in 1952, beating London’s event by 45 minutes!].  Despite an absence of over 20 years from 1974, it has developed from 1996 to be counted as the third largest in the world after those in Dublin and New York.

What makes 80,000 people stand for hours in dreary March weather in dreary Digbeth to watch a parade?  Why does a procession of [amongst many other things] vintage tractors and over-sized leprechauns excite so many and bring them back year after year?  There are no simple answers, but underpinning the complex reality is a combination of the long standing devotion of many Irish people to the memory of Saint Patrick with the urge to celebrate and promote their Irish identity, wherever they may find themselves.  The Parade showcases components of Irish culture, heritage and sport, giving snapshots of each which can be examined in more detail at various events throughout the Festival.

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

Cynics see St Patrick’s Day as just one more element in the phenomenon known as ‘Marketing March’ where the celebration is commercially exploited along with events including the Six Nations Rugby Championship, Cheltenham horse racing festival and [even] Red Nose Day.  Whilst Irish people are willing participants in all of these events, the more thoughtful recognise that the crux of St Patrick’s Day continues to be something worth nurturing.  Running in parallel with the public, organised celebrations are informal, often private gatherings of friends and family, at home or in small venues.

St Patrick’s Day remains at heart a religious festival and whilst contemporary society in Ireland and across the Irish Diaspora is no longer so overtly religious, many people still recognise this element of the celebrations.  The Parade’s opening Mass may not be as well attended now and the days of it ending at St Chad’s Cathedral are long gone, but many people still sing the hymn ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick’ with a feeling of gratitude for his recorded decision to trust and minister to the Irish [Patrick was a Briton, kidnapped by Irish raiders, who escaped and subsequently returned to support Christianity amongst a mainly pagan Irish society].  The customary wearing of shamrock still reminds many people of Saint Patrick’s legendary use of the plant to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.  For many years the ceremonial highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the arrival via Aer Lingus of a consignment of shamrock from Dublin, to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral for distribution amongst congregations.  Private devotions to the Patron Saint by their nature cannot be quantified, but are undoubtedly still observed in the City.
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Saint Patrick would approve: Birmingham’s Kennedy Memorial

Invite to Rededication of the Kennedy Memorial

Rededication of the Kennedy Memorial [MS 4237 Irish in Birmingham]

 The Kennedy Memorial has been re-created in Digbeth, the official re-dedication taking place on Saturday 23rd February 2013.  The invitation shown is taken from the collection of ‘Irish in Birmingham’ at Birmingham Archives and Heritage (MS 4237).  Illustrated is a small section of the mosaic which forms the centrepiece of the memorial, erected at the junction of Floodgate Street, High Street Deritend and Digbeth.  This memorial has a special place in the hearts of Birmingham Irish people and they will appreciate it in their thousands each March during the Saint Patrick’s Festival which centres on Digbeth and culminates in the famous Parade.

Why is this memorial to an American so important to the Birmingham Irish?  At one level the answer is easy.  John F. Kennedy (JFK) was genuinely regarded across the Irish Diaspora as a figure of pride and hope.  His family history offered parallels for very many Irish people and his depiction as a modern, successful and conscientious statesman caught the optimism of the time.  This fourth generation Irish American was regarded as a true ‘Son of Erin’ across the world and this helps to explain the sense of loss so keenly felt by Irish people on his assassination in November 1963.  Despite the passage of half a century and even with a more realistic assessment of the Kennedy legacy in the intervening years, his memory still strikes a genuine chord with many Irish people.  However, the story of Birmingham’s ‘JFK’ Memorial itself is intimately bound up with the City’s Irish and wider communities and is worth consideration in its own right.

The Kennedy Memorial, 1981 [[BCC Departmental 2011/199]

The Kennedy Memorial, 1981 [BCC Departmental 2011/199]

Following Kennedy’s assassination, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham launched a general appeal for funds to raise a memorial.  Initially, this met with little success but the Irish community ensured the memorial proceeded by raising the substantial sum of £5,000.00 through a range of events and collections.  By this time, the construction of Birmingham’s flagship Inner Ring Road was well under way, with the City Council envisaging a series of public art installations, to be located at strategic points around the route.  The Kennedy Memorial was included in these plans and Kenneth Budd was commissioned to design murals for pedestrian walkways at Old Square (‘Memorial to Old Square’, 1967), Holloway Circus (‘Horse Fair in 1908’, 1967) and Saint Chad’s Circus (‘J.F.K. Memorial’ and ‘History of Snow Hill’, both 1968).          

The Irish community took great pride in paying for and presenting the Kennedy Memorial to its adopted city.  It relished its growing self confidence and recognised that like the Kennedy family in America, Birmingham’s Irish were increasingly contributing to civic life and celebrating their role within wider society.  The memorial reflected this, being a substantial structure consisting of a large pool and water feature in front of a mural.  The 1980s view shows two women sitting on the pool wall and gives an idea of the mural’s size.*   This also provides an insight to the memorial’s significance, with Kennedy reaching out to black and white people alike and a white American policeman (so often drawn from the Irish population) showing solidarity with a black man.  Out of view are mosaic representations of JFK’s brother Teddy and Martin Luther King Junior, both intimately linked with civil rights issues in America and beyond.  Also out of view is the inscription which captures the ethos of the memorial, albeit with language which if sincerely expressed now jars:

‘There are no white or coloured signs on the graveyards of battle’

Kenedy Memorial, Digbeth. Courtesy of Tom Ranahan.

Kenedy Memorial, Digbeth. Courtesy of Tom Ranahan.

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