It is over a year now since I last spoke with my Aunty Mary about our family history. She died, aged 91, on November 19th. 1995, the Sunday morning on which a special Memorial Mass for the dead of the Great Hunger in Ireland was taking place in Cardiff. If she had been well I had hoped to take her to the Mass that day, but, as it turned out, she got a great deal closer to our ancestors than any of us who attended Saint David’s Cathedral on that cold autumn morning.
Her memory was crystal clear right up to the day before she suffered the stroke which resulted in her death some three weeks later. She had been talking to me about the Irish lessons which had been given in the Parish Room above Saint Paul’s Church in Newtown. My father, who died in 1987, always maintained that he had “a bit of the Gaelic”, but sadly, as in many matters, we doubted him, later to discover that he was definitely remembering correctly what seemed to us so unlikely. He, after all, was the sixth child of a family of one daughter and seven sons - their mother was a widow in 1922 when John, the youngest, was only three years old. It seemed most unlikely that Nana (= ‘Granny’ - Ed.), struggling to make ends meet and to feed hungry mouths, would have found the one penny or so necessary to pay for each Irish language lesson for one or more of her children. But indeed she had done so, as verified by Aunty Mary (Mary Kiely) in October, 1995, during one of our last conversations before her stroke. Perhaps this is a clue as to why I feel so strongly now about the Welsh language and why, in studying for my degree in Welsh at University College, Cardiff, I preferred the option which enabled me to study the other Celtic languages rather than the modern Welsh Literature and Poetry option chosen by all the other students in my year.
These Irish lessons were a feature of the early 1920s, according to Aunty Mary, and the question arises as to what those Irish men who gave the lessons were doing in Cardiff at that particularly troubled time in Ireland itself. For the teachers were indeed Irish men, as Aunty Mary said, and not men from Cardiff or elsewhere who happened to speak the Gaelic. It was in 1922 that my grandmother, Mary Ellen Burns, (née O’ Shea), was widowed and it is little short of amazing that she felt she should send her children for lessons at that time when money was so very short. She must have felt a great loyalty and ‘belonging’ to her Irish past.
Aunty Mary’s memory spanned from her great-grandfather, John Burns, (or ‘Byrne’ as she maintained was the proper spelling) who was born in Ireland, somewhere in the Clonakilty area, in 1825, to the very latest additions to our huge family, born in 1995. She was a direct link with that John, survivor of the famine, born 170 years previously. She loved talking about Newtown and, like most of us, she had some vivid snap-shot memories of her early childhood. She remembered being allowed to sit up on the carriage on the long trail from Saint Paul’s up to Cathays Cemetery when her grandfather died in the first decade of this century This was the privilege of the very young. The countless mourners walked the whole way in procession.
This John Burns had very little English and Aunty Mary used to recall how he had quarrelled with Mary Clements, his daughter-in-law, with whom he lived in his old age. In a huff, he had taken himself up to the Workhouse in Canton (Saint David’s Hospital, as it became later, where many of his descendants would be born). News reached ‘Nana Clements’, as Aunty Mary called her, (although she was in fact Mrs. Burns by marriage to my great-grandfather, Timothy Burns, – the second marriage for both of them) that the old feller was bringing shame on our tribe by presenting himself as a pauper at the Workhouse. She marched straight up to Canton and brought him back to Newtown. “She has the proud on her,” he said in his strange English. We laughed so many times about that little story.
Aunty Mary used to talk about the supportive nature of the community at Newtown. When my Uncle Davey (died 1993) was working in London and my father, Tommy, was away in Birmingham, each one would send most of his paypacket back home to Newtown. This money would arrive every Monday and the postman would be followed immediately by a visit from a neighbour. All the front doors were open and you simply walked into your neighbour’s hallway or room if you needed to find them. This neighbour would walk in and ask,“ ‘Ave the postman been, Mary?” My Nana would then lend her neighbour the money sent by her two sons. This neighbour would pay back the money every Friday so that Nana could do her own shopping and pay her bills and then, according to Aunty Mary, the neighbour would be seen “like a ship in full sail” going “over the bridge” - i.e. leaving Newtown in the direction of ‘town’ – a huge, well-padded woman. On her return journey every Friday she looked “like a wraith” (I quote) because, of course, she had disposed of all the extra items of clothing in the pawnshop where they presumably spent every weekend. Thus my grandmother kept another family from trouble whist carefully maintaining her own fragile economy.
She worked very hard as a youngish widow. If there were a ship in dock she would go, along with other women, to try to get work unloading potatoes in sacks on their backs down the gangplank. She was a teetotaller, and, despite her poverty, she maintained her innate pride and dignity. She also managed to ‘adopt’ informally a couple of orphaned sisters rather than see them entering the workhouse.
Every Boxing Day all the Burnses would flock home for a ‘gathering’. The men would be in the front room with whiskey, cigars and cigarettes, the women in the ‘room’ (i.e. the back room) and, of course, in the kitchen. The children would either be at the table in the kitchen or ranged all the way up the stairs which led to Nana’s bedroom where she continued to rule the roost and lead the singing. Ballads or hymns were the order of the day with accordeon, mouth organ and sometimes spoon accompaniment. I loved it, although, living in Cathays, I was always an outsider amongst my many cousins who were the real native Newtowners.
Other fine gatherings would be like the ones after Corpus Christi when we would naturally gravitate from the Castle Grounds to our Grandmother’s home in Roland Street. She could not walk much or get out so she enjoyed seeing us in all our finery after the procession and Benediction.
When Nana left Newtown they carried her out with her eyes hut because she said she could not bear the parting. This little community had survived all the poverty and hardships of the adjustment to a new life as immigrants in a strange land, two world wars, a general strike and the depression period, only to be deliberately dismantled and scattered once more throughout the city, never quite to regain the closeness and support of “Little Ireland’.
© : Julia Burns, Head of Welsh , Saint Illtyd’s R.C. College, Cardiff.
Published in The Green Dragon No 1, Winter, 1996.
Links St. Patrick's Day / Gorgysylltiadau Gŵyl Padrig 2004