In 1972, 21 construction workers posed for a newspaper photographer in front of a loop of raised highway. A group of Irish immigrants, they appear tired but proud, smiling at the camera and standing before their latest accomplishment. Forty-five years later, we finally know who they were.
In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, thousands of immigrants flocked from Ireland to Birmingham, England. Many found work in the burgeoning construction industry, which was modernizing the city with new roads, reservoirs, stadiums, and municipal buildings.
The best-known of these infrastructure projects is probably the Gravelly Hill Interchange on Highway M6, nicknamed “Spaghetti Junction” for its tangle of intertwining roads. After its completion, 21 of the workers posed for the photo above, and last August, the Birmingham Irish Association called for the public’s help in identifying these men.
Today—St. Patrick’s day—they announced their success. “We had people contacting us about the Spaghetti Junction photograph the world over,” Association member Yvonne Price told the BBC. They managed to identify all 21 people in the photograph, and to collect even more pictures that show what working life was like for this group of immigrants. The information and photos are currently on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in an exhibition called “We Built This City.”
In some of the photos, the workers goof around, lifting each other off the ground and balancing precariously on high-up beams. Other images reveal details of their work clothes, which often include tweed jackets. In one, a team toasts each other with stout on the top of a finished building.
“I think they would have made health and safety go grey if they’d been around then,” Carmel Girling, the daughter of worker Fabian Cowan, told the BBC.
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