Bridgend’s Irish Lane

Between 1820-40 the Earl of Dunraven brought agricultural labourers from his Adare estate, in Co Limerick, to work at Dunraven Castle, near Bridgend, Glamorgan.

In 1840, and again in 1849, a second spate of the Irish immigrants arrived at the Welsh ports, driven from their homeland by poverty and the potato famine. They came to Bridgend to seek their fortune in the quarries and tanneries; on the railway, and in the coalfields and ironworks. Irish colonies were soon established in and around Bridgend.

At first the newcomers were welcomed with open arms, but with the increase of immigrants came the fear that they would take the jobs from the local inhabitants. Resentment grew until it became unsafe for an Irishman to be alone on the streets at night. Fear and bigotry were the dominant factors in the division which arose in the town. The Irish feared the hostility, Welsh language and culture. Being Gaelic and Catholic, in an area of strong nonconformity, set them apart from the townspeople. The immigrants’ acceptance of any deprivation that was thrust their way helped to further the locals’ contempt of them. It was thus they found security with their own kind, and formed an enclave within the town, in an area that became known as ‘Irish Lane’. Townsfolk gave this area a wide birth, fearing the solidarity provided by the enclave. This fear was handed down through the generations. I remember in the 1950’s my mother admonishing me for wanting to take a short cut through ‘Irish Lane’. This area must have posed a serious threat to the town for its memory to have lasted so long.

Hostility towards the Irish was exacerbated by the worry that they would bring the dreaded Black Fever with them. Typhoid and cholera epidemics were taking their toll in surrounding areas, and Bridgend had all the ingredients: overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of good drinking water, but Bridgend miraculously escaped.

The market town of Bridgend, which had been little more than a village before the 1840s, grew too rapidly. Sanitation was at best overflowing culverts feeding into the river. Water was provided by a few wells, but with the increased population this had to be greatly supplemented by the polluted river.

In 1849, and again in 1892, the houses were reported unfit for human habitation:

“Overcrowding is frequently observed. The smaller house property generally is in a wretched condition. Many of the cottages are thatched, confined, dilapidated, excessively damp, dirty and ill‑provided with privies. Many houses without through ventilation. When entered the stench was unbearable. They have no privy or drainage.

Further, in this Court they are in the habit of keeping a large pan within doors during the day (having no privy) and when night comes they deposit the whole upon the dunghill near the entrance of the Court, the effluvia from which is abominable and the appearance disgusting to the eye‑sight.”
Report of the General Board of Health (1850).

In one street there was one privy for nine houses, and a pump in one garden serving several streets. There were usually a few families living in each small house. One three‑roomed house had eleven beds in which twenty‑five persons slept. However, overcrowding did not prevent a welcome to fellow countrymen. Space could always be found – even if it was only a tent in the garden.

The Irish were not deterred from practising their faith. Each week the fitter members of the Irish community met at the 'Coach and Horses' public house, before walking the twenty miles to St David’s Church in Cardiff. Members of the church provided overnight lodgings. On special feastdays a visiting priest would take a service in someone's house, but from 1852 Father Benzwioski of Swansea held a monthly service at John Burke’s house in Chapel Street, and children were baptised in their own homes.

Education in Bridgend was either in a private boarding school or through the Sunday Schools. As the Irish had no church their children were not able to obtain even a basic education.

This was corrected in 1857 as the Irish population had grown to a size that warranted the building of a church in the town, which was dedicated to St Mary. In 1879 a church was built in Aberkenfig, three miles outside Bridgend, and dedicated to St Robert.

When fights broke out in ‘lrish Lane’, and they frequently did on Saturday nights, the police would send for the priest to deal with it.

Three generations of Randalls worked as agents for the Dunraven Estate, who owned the property in this part of the town. A Mr Donagar was keeper of one of the three Lodging Houses in the town.

Nowadays Bridgend’s industrialisation attracts all nationalities, German and Japanese are taught in schools, and no trace remains of the xenophobia caused by the poverty and suspicion of the 19th century.

'Irish Lane' is now recognised by its proper names – Chapel Street and Maddocks Place; Paradise Street, Phillip’s and David's Courts have disappeared. It is no longer an Irish enclave. The names Randall, Hegarty, Murphy, Walsh, Dyer, Driscoll and Daniels are a few of the Irish names to become integrated into the fabric of the town.

©: Hilary M. Rowley.
A shortened version of this article has been published previously in ‘Ireland’s Own’ and in the anthology, ‘ Voices from Wales’, published in 1997 by the Bridgend Wriers’ Circle of which the author is a member

Published in The Green Dragon No 8, Spring 1999.