Liverpool's connection with Ireland: Celtic history, culture and property
Liverpool’s cultural links with Ireland are well known but with St Patrick’s Day approaching, what better time to dig deeper into the less familiar residential relationship between the two destinations and assess the current Celtic demand for property here in the ‘real capital of Ireland’.
By the early 20th Century the number of Irish-born residents in Liverpool was estimated at a whopping 200,000 – roughly one third of the city’s entire population.
The influx of Irish migrants to Liverpool, massively accelerated by the Great Famine (1845-1852), transformed the city; undeniably altering its cultural make-up and helping it become Britain’s great port on the west coast.
During the famine years, a total of 1.5 million souls endured the treacherous 135-mile boat trip from Dublin to Liverpool in search of a new life.
Whilst many soon departed for North America and other parts of the UK, some 35,000 remained. It’s safe to say they did not enjoy the warmest of welcomes, with job opportunities limited and housing options often horrendous.
Work-wise, dangerous labour down at the docks was the best men could hope for, and the situation wasn’t much better for women.
Those who decided to stay in Liverpool congregated in the established Irish communities around Scotland Road and Vauxhall Road where they were subjected to appalling conditions in houses which, in many cases, were unfit for human habitation.
“Their residential choices were strictly limited because they had to be close to the waterfront for the casual labour market,” says John Belchem, emeritus professor of history at the University of Liverpool and author of ‘Irish, Catholic and Scouse’.
“It was for a collective mutuality that they remained together because if you were living close to one another you were there to help one another – even if the housing was poor.”
As John explains, Irish migrants did much of the work digging out the seven and a half miles of docks which were of course central to establishing Liverpool as the ‘second city of the Empire’.
However it wasn’t just the Irish working class that made their mark on Liverpool’s architectural fabric.
Ballymena-born William Brown, a wealthy merchant banker and MP, amassed a fortune large enough during his time in the city to fund the construction of a museum and library on what was then known as Shaw’s Brow.
The William Brown Library and Museum opened in 1860 at a personal cost to Brown of £40,000 – a “gift to the people of Liverpool”, as he called it at the time.
Now home to parts of World Museum Liverpool and Liverpool Central Library, the imposing Grade II-listed construct sits on William Brown Street, a road celebrated for its collection of stunning public buildings.
“A number of prominent Liverpool buildings have Irish links through their architects or engineers,” says Dr Ciarán Wallace, lecturer in Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).
Dr Wallace explains how the famous Victorian architect Richard Turner, born in Dublin, designed a new iron roof for Liverpool Lime Street station in 1848, whilst Irish architects applied to build both St George’s Hall and Wellington’s Column.
Meanwhile, it’s certainly no stretch to argue that Liverpool’s majestic Metropolitan Cathedral wouldn’t be celebrating its golden anniversary this May if it weren’t for the Irish.
The dramatic increase in the city’s Catholic population following the Great Famine, combined with the restoration of the hierarchy, convinced assistant Bishop of Liverpool Alexander Goss of the need for a cathedral.
Although it would be over 100 years before construction on the church began, there is no doubting how big a part the Irish migrants played in getting the idea off the ground.
The connection between Ireland and Liverpool remains strong to this day and can be witnessed through the thousands of students from the Emerald Isle who choose to study here every year, drawn by the vibrant nightlife and welcoming atmosphere.
Equally, Irish property investors have long viewed the city as the ideal location for a spot of speculation and continue to do so according to Dublin-born, Liverpool-based estate agent Gordon Cuthbert.
“We deal with a lot of Irish clients with investments in Liverpool,” says Gordon, director of Beech Properties, who splits his time between the Irish capital and Liverpool.
“I developed a portfolio of my own here in Liverpool and then others began asking me if I could manage their investments.
“My experiences in Liverpool have been extremely positive and we’re really busy at the moment.”
Gordon gives a number of reasons why he thinks the Irish still see Liverpool as a great place to invest in property and also praises the positive impact they have on the city’s housing stock.
“The Irish come here because of the easy transport links, the huge following of the local football teams, to soak up the atmosphere and generally to enjoy a city they feel very much at home in.
“Many of these investors purchase properties that, in a lot of cases, would have otherwise remained derelict for much longer.
“They spend heavily on bringing these houses back into the rental market with the obvious benefit to the local economy through employment and ultimately improving the rental supply in Liverpool.”
Phil Redmond, creator of ‘Grange Hill’ and ‘Brookside’ and chair of the Liverpool City Region’s Local Cultural Partnership (LCP), was raised by parents who both came from across the Irish Sea. He offers a rather more forthright opinion on the subject.
“My ancestors helped build the city so it’s probably right they should own part of it,” he says.
On a more serious note, Phil considers any Irish interest in Liverpool’s property market as good news and a sign that the city clearly rates as a viable investment opportunity.
Although this investment isn’t limited to a particular area or property type, the fact that Irish investors are conceivably buying up plush waterside apartments overlooking the docks which their forefathers helped build, is an intriguing development.
“It’s really quite a nice irony that the Irish can now come to Liverpool as casual visitors rather than casual labourers,” adds John.