In last week’s column I showed how the sheer number of Irish immigrants into Glasgow in the middle of the 19th century began to comprehensively change the city and its surrounding towns.

As W.W. Knox in his History of the Scottish People wrote: “The Irish-born population of Scotland stood at 126,321 out of a total of 2,620,184 in 1841, or 4.8%. Ten years later it stood at 207,367, or 7.2%, out of a total of 2,888,742.” This figure does not include those children of Irish immigrants born here in Scotland.

What brought them here? At the time of the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor, the Irish – mostly from the historic nine counties of Ulster – came here simply to survive, to stay alive, because their main staple food had succumbed to potato blight right across the island. Irish immigration was already a well-established phenomenon by the time of the Famine, however, and the reason they came to Glasgow and places like Airdrie, pictured, and Coatbridge, Denny and Dumbarton, was simple: work.

It was not expensive to come to Glasgow.

Fares were cheap and ships criss-crossed the Irish Sea on a daily basis. The growing industries of shipbuilding and mining needed workers and Ireland provided a steady supply of them. Many young Irishmen came here as ‘navigators’ – the name applied to the unskilled labourers who built roads, railways and bridges.

We know them as navvies.

There were many skilled workers, too, both men and women who found work in the cotton mills and in the handloom weaving industry in which they played a leading role as labour began to be organised.

There were religious tensions, no doubt, though often that was between the Irish themselves – Billy and Dan, Orange and Green, often fought each other in many places in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire.

As a proudly Presbyterian country, the Scottish people should have been vehemently opposed to the Catholic immigration, but the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was really only opposed by the Presbytery of Glasgow and the city’s University.

There were mixed feelings towards Irish immigrants, however. One major criticism was the lack of education among the Catholic Irish, but then there were no proper Catholic schools and the right to education was not guaranteed until the late 19th century.

Irish labour, being plentiful, was therefore cheaper and a constant refrain was that Irish miners in particular were used as strike breakers or to lower the overall income of mining communities. An editorial in the Glasgow Courier of 1830 summed up one positive view: “ In our opinion, the Irish have as much right to come to this country to better their lives as the Scots and English have to go to Ireland or any other part of Britain for the same reason. Let us hear no more complaints about the influx of Irish having a bad effect on Scotland unless it is to do something about tackling the problems which caused the emigration.”

The fact is that for most of the 1830s and 1840s, the Church of Scotland was riven by its own civil war that culminated in the Disruption of 1843, and the Catholic Irish were by and large left to get on with things.

As quoted by Professor Sir Tom Devine, right, in his The Scottish Nation: A Modern History, Henry Cockburn in his Journal commented in 1835: “The whole country was overrun by Irish labourers, so that the presbyterian population learned experimentally that a man might be a Catholic without having the passions or the visible horns of the devil. New chapels have arisen peaceably everywhere; and except their stronger taste for a fight now and then, the Irish have in many places behaved fully as well as our own people.

“The recent extinction of civil disability on account of the religion removed the legal encouragement of intolerance and left common-sense some chance; and the mere habit of hating, and of thinking it a duty to act on this feeling being superseded, Catholics and rational Protestants are more friendly than the different sects of Protestants are.”

Prof Devine has long challenged the prevailing view that the Catholic Irish were an isolated community within Scotland at that time, and has conclusively proved to me and many others that while they obviously had great concerns about the politics of Ireland, they were much more to the fore in trade union and radical activity here in Scotland than has previously been recognised.

Devine writes: “The common experience of migration, urbanisation and industrialisation helped to fuse the aspirations of many Irish and Scots workers before the 1840s towards those common political goals which were seen as the real key to social and economic improvement.”

So even before the Great Famine caused the influx of sometimes 1,000 Irish immigrants a week, the Irish – both Catholic and Protestant – were very much part of life in and around Glasgow.

It was the Great Famine of 1847, however, which changed matters.

As Dr Martin Mitchell of Strathclyde University has written: “Throughout that year the Town authorities, and the middle class in general, viewed the new arrivals with fear, horror and alarm. This immigration coincided with high levels of unemployment in Glasgow, and also with the arrival of refugees escaping the potato famine in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The poverty-stricken Irish were therefore an additional burden on the resources of the city.”

Various councils were appalled at the numbers of Irish people living on the streets and began a process of repatriation. As Dr Mitchell has noted:” Thousands of the destitute were sent back to Ireland by the civic authorities. Indeed, between 1847 and 1852, 41,275 were repatriated to Ireland from Scotland - the overwhelming majority from in and around Glasgow.” The influx of so many Catholic people in such a short time had caused alarm among Scottish Presbyterians, and organisations and publications sprang up which were sectarian and bigoted against Catholics, with fire and brimstone preachers railing against the advance of ‘popery’.

Fortunately this wave of anti-Catholic sentiment barely lasted after 1860, by which time Irish workers were established in the heavy industries which were coming to dominate Glasgow’s economy.

I will show next week how that dominance became an international force.