The Famine and the Faith

As the liturgical year comes to a close, the Church invites us to look on life, to look on creation and to see it in the mirror of eternity. The real world, the only world in which human beings can live intelligently and wisely, is the world of God’s creation and ordering. All around us, and especially in our cities, we see the work of human hands and human minds. We forget the Lord God of heaven and earth; we become arrogant and we do wrong to one another.
Civilisations have come and gone; new cities have been built on the ruins of the old. The human mind, so fertile and ingenious, is at its most inventive in discovering ways of destruction and of terror. But in the plan of God, all will pass away. All peoples will be brought to judgment. When it will happen we do not know. All we know is that the followers of Jesus Christ will know persecution and suffering on account of His name. The message of the Gospel is to persevere, to serve God all our days and to walk in His ways.
Today at this Mass, we are remembering the sufferings and the torment experienced in Ireland, experienced by the forebears of many of us, a hundred and fifty years ago. Famine was not a new experience in Ireland in 1845. But what happened that year and in the years that followed was to have extra-ordinary and wide-ranging effects. The experience of those years is a recent one in the memory of families. My grandfather was born in the 1830s. I never knew him. For my father, he remained always the inspiration of his life.
It is not the sufferings of those years, terrible and tragic as they were, that we pray about today. Rather we should remind ourselves that similar tragedies are happening in our world today. And we continue to give the same reasons for not intervening to prevent and to end the starvation and the need. We pay people not to produce food so that our prosperity can be maintained. And so we build up the resentment and the memories that will feed the divisions and the wars of the next century.
The aspect of the Irish famine that I want to look at today is its extraordinary effect on Church life around the world. Out of the diaspora of a tormented and starving people was built the Catholic Church of today in many parts of the world. This people who had been told they had been abandoned by God because of clinging on to their ancient faith, carried that same faith with them and re-rooted it in parts of the old world and built it afresh in the new.
The beginning of the last century saw the beginnings of a revival in Catholic life. The old communities that survived the persecution began to experience a slow growth. This was helped by the beginnings of immigration from Ireland into the new industrial areas of South Wales. Irish names began to appear in the registers of Monmouth from 1814 onwards. By 1820 they are being found at Abergavenny too and by 1939 Irish names outnumber those of native Welsh Catholics. In the famine years, ships began to bring starving people to Holyhead and Milford Haven and Swansea. The main influx into this area was on ships from Cork sailing to the main port of those days at Newport. In February, 1848, the Argyle arrived from Clonakilty carrying three cows, two horses, two tons of potatoes, 64 adults and 36 children of whom 20 were under seven years. The ship did not have a licence to carry passengers.
In June 1848 the Catherine from Cork brought 98 passengers in excess of her permitted number. She was seen to land passengers two miles below the Watch House at Newport.
In March 1849, the Master of the ship Mary was prosecuted for bringing more than 20 passengers. The vessel left Cork with 46 passengers on board and 17 were put ashore in a boat at the mouth of the Usk, and others were forced overboard onto the mud near the lighthouse. In the same year a Jasper Travers was charged with conveying 197 passengers, 119 adults and 78 children, in a ship licensed to carry 98. Many were put ashore off other ships along the coast from Swansea to Newport.
In the Census returns of 1851, there were 2,069 Irish born people in Newport, 3,051 in Merthyr and 1,333 in Swansea. By the next census there were some 9,000 Irish in the County of Monmouth and 27,000 in Glamorgan. Of these, 10,000 were in the Cardiff area.
I mention these facts only to give some indication of the numbers coming to South Wales. Many of you here today are descendants of these poor people. They found work where they could and began to establish their small, poor homes. They were often despised and unwelcome. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, reporting in March 1849 had this to say: “We are accustomed to associate notions of filth, squalor and beggarly destitution with everything Irish, from the large number of lazy, idle and wretched natives of the sister island who are continually crossing our paths,” This gratuitous insult was the introduction to a report on the Hibernian Club parade which in fact, it reported, “would bear comparison with any body of gentlemen in the country” and was “one of the handsomest processions ever seen in Cardiff.”
That the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian did not reflect the views of all Welsh people is evidenced by the action of Mr. Jones of Court Farm near Port Talbot. When a group was put ashore at Kenfig Sands, Mr. Jones prepared his barn as a refuge for them and organised the provision of food by his neighbours. For several months, starving Irish people were glad of the shelter, the food and the kindness shown them by Mr. Jones and his neighbours.
These incoming Irish people were anxious to find priests to serve them. It is reported of the famine Irish in Port Talbot that though there was not a tradesman among them, their great desire was to be able to practise their faith and “to kneel once more at the Altar of God”.
The missionary priests serving South Wales found it impossible to meet the need. Though there had been a slight increase, they were few in numbers. Added to that was the experience of the centuries of persecution which made them very cautious about starting new centres lest the ancient and deep-seated prejudices should again be aroused to the detriment of the Catholic people. It was only with the arrival of men like Fr. Portal in Merthyr, Fr. Millea in Cardiff, Fr. Kavanagh in Swansea and Fr. Tobin among the railway workers in North Wales, that the building of a renewed people could really begin. In Cardiff itself, the arrival of the Rosminian Fathers was to bring a new vision and a new hope.
It is right that today, 150 years after the famine began, we should remember with pride and in deep humility these men, women and children who came here in increasing numbers. They were poor, starving and often despised. When we began to forget, to choose not to remember these people to whom we owe so much, we began to move away from our origins and from the fullness of our faith. People who forget those from whom they are sprung quickly forget who they are.
These people, in their suffering and in their struggles, carried with them an awareness of God and a vision of Christ’s Church. Very quickly, as they arose out of their initial destitution, they began to form their Hibernian clubs and their societies. These gave shape and direction to their communities, and they were linked to their Faith and to the Feasts of the Church. They looked around for priests to serve them and they set about finding teachers for their children. The Irish workers at Bridgend who commissioned a travelling pedlar to find them a priest and warned him not to return without one had a sense of the Catholicity of the Church which we would do well to rediscover. These people did not wait for others to do things for them and to provide for their spiritual needs. At a time when we speak about the role of the laity in the Church, it is well to remember that we are speaking out of a lived reality of lay initiative and lay involvement which has always sprung from the people. We sometimes speak today about preparing for a time without priests. Should that day arrive, what would remain would not be the Catholic Church. For the ministerial priesthood is at the heart of the service of the Church as Christ intended it. Our uneducated forebears, rooted deeply in the Faith knew this in their very bones. And they acted on that knowledge.
I ask you today to pray for our Church here in Wales. We have a noble and inspiring history. In more recent centuries, in persecution and in poverty, the Catholic people have struggled to maintain the celebration of Mass and to find effective ways of handing on their Faith to their children. Whether it be the Privy Council complaining in Elizabeth’s time that in Hereford the children of Papists “be learned and bred by schoolmasters of their own creed” or Fr. Millea in Cardiff giving powerful testimony to the Government Commissioners in 1847 on the urgent need for schools for his Catholic flock, we are listening to a tradition that is part of our Catholic heritage. In our generation, we are failing to make that heritage, to make the content of the Gospel, the memory and the hope of our young people. Catholic Cardiff, Catholic Wales, rediscover your past. In doing so, you will be building your future. If you dig deep enough, that future will be as noble and as challenging as the past out of which it will have come. For it will be part of that unbroken chain of service and of prayer that comes to us from the apostles.

The above sermon, written by : Bishop Daniel Mullins of Menevia (Swansea and SW Wales), was preached by the then Archbishop of Cardiff (The Most Reverend J.A.Ward, OFM.) during the Great Famine Memorial Mass at Saint David’s Cathedral, Cardiff on Sunday 19 November, 1995.

Published in: The Green Dragon No 1, Winter, 1996.