The Great Famine and its Background through Welsh Eyes: Part 2

The Old Welsh Nonconformists had put the principle of religious liberty above their personal feelings. However, by the beginning of the last century John Elias (1774–1841) was expelling members of Capel Jewin in London for supporting Catholic Emancipation. And, as R.T.Jenkins says, “The Nonconformist periodicals in Welsh in 1828–29 are, to tell the truth, as narrow in their views on Catholicism as John Elias could ever have been.” John Elias was also opposed to the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales, and fully supportive of the Crown and of the English side in every war with the Catholic powers, and especially with the irreligious ones, such as the Republic of France.
It is difficult to understand the difference between the Irish of that time, who welcomed French help during the 1798 Rebellion, and who denied the sovereignty of the English Crown over their country, and the attitude of people like John Elias. Here is a passage from a book of Recollections of him by a certain R.Parry, published in Denbigh in 1859. Here he describes a meeting of the Bible Society in Beaumaris, Anglesey, some three years after the battle of Waterloo. The Right Honourable the Marquis of Anglesey, in whose honour a tower was erected in Llanfairpwyllgwyn, had agreed to preside. That was something of a surprise as he was a member of the Church of England, noted for its hatred of Nonconformists. As well as that, John Elias was going to speak in Welsh – with a man from England speaking in English. But the old Marquis knew his friends, and the friends of the aristocratic English order maintained by the Crown. Here is part of the account of John Elias’s speech in which he talks about the great battle between good and evil in the world, as represented by the battle of Waterloo:

"…he showed how the fate of nations, the peace of the world, trade and enterprise, hope, art, the increase in knowledge – yes, and the free spread of the gospel – turned on that crucial hour. But the hand of Providence was clearly seen there. Their generals had been equipped with the wisdom and the ability the great deed called for. ‘The Lord is a warrior – the Lord is his name.’ With that, he began to describe the chairman as he took the field at the moment the great scales were about to turn for ever! To that end he used the description in the Book of Job of the battle steed and its rider."

It is evident that John Elias went into ‘hwyl’, the traditional half song, half chant, associated with climactic moments in a Welsh sermon, as he identified the Marquis with the Old Testament figure, and there is a lengthy description which concludes with Providence preventing death from taking the Marquis because he was needed to preside over the meeting of the Bible Society. And no one laughed or even smiled as he said that!
John Elias then put the following words into the mouth of poor Providence:
"I need his services once more as a general in a battle much more important than this – I need him to lead an army to spread the word of life to every country, and language, and nation on the face of the whole world."

By this time there was not a dry eye in the room and when the words describing how the general had been saved by Providence had been translated the Marquis was seen to be searching hurriedly for his pocket handkerchief as tears the size of peas flowed from his eyes!

It comes as no surprise, after reading the above, that the Welsh had very little interest in the troubles of Ireland, not even during the Great Famine, not even in Anglesey, so close, geographically and historically, to Ireland.
There were some outstanding Welsh people wholly on the side of the people of Ireland, such as T. Gwynn Jones (1871–1949) in Y Peth nas Lleddir (‘That which is not Slain’) and the booklet Iwerddon(‘Ireland’). But he makes practically no mention of the Famine. There is some element of sympathy with the Irish in books such as Yn Ngwlad y Gwyddel (‘In the Land of the Irish’), by J. Morgan Edwards, published on Easter Monday, 1903. But compare the following two passages from his book, the first describing the filth and the poverty which filled him with revulsion and the second describing some of the wrongs endured by Ireland and note how he failed to connect the two. This was because of his hatred of Catholicism, which is revealed in other parts of the book. Here, to begin with, is a passage describing what he found as he visited the mountains of Kerry and saw poor people:

"Every one of them was very eager to sing and having got a tune from two other fellows they sang together and Befan conducted them with his walking stick. We were very pleased to see how happy they were in their poverty…
We passed by their houses, – they were absolutely filthy. Blobs of manure drained from the house as well as from the byre with which it shared the one roof and the pigs and the poultry were as as much at home in the one as in the other. Let no one suppose that it is hatred of the Irish that leads me to say this, – that is the farthest thing from my mind. It is Catholicism which keeps the Irish in the mire, and the landowners take advantage of the former to push them into the latter. When will the valleys of Kerry become as clean as the valleys of Wales?…"

And here is another excerpt which could be from a different book by an entirely different author, in which he describes his tour through the Gap of Dunloe:

"The south of Ireland spread out before us, – how much oppression has taken place there? Here, as the sixteenth century ended, it had been a cloudy and misty day. At that time the Government, to maintain order and with a view to Anglicisation, granted the land to a number of adventurers from the west of England, – a group noted for sin and cruelty, and not the least in that regard was the villainous Peter Carew. He claimed to be a descendant of Fitzstephen in the days of Henry II and so laid claim to lands in Carlow and Cork. The inhabitants did not recognise his claim so in 1576 the Desmonds rose in rebellion against him. Lengthy suffering had taught them that it was in vain that one looked to the English for mercy and justice. An appeal for help was made to France but Fitzmaurice landed at Smerwick with a small Spanish force. Sir John of Desmond joined them. He had recently been released from Dublin Gaol on condition that he kept the peace and his brother James escaped from captivity to help in the attempt to secure independence. The Desmond forces gathered under arms along the shores of the Shannon estuary and on the lower slopes of the Kerry mountains, and they were joined by 3,000 tenants of the Geraldines near a large wood not far from Limerick. Their leader, Fitzmaurice, soon lost his life, but his replacement, Sir John of Desmond, succeeded in driving the English and their commander, Sir William Drury, into the old castle at Killmallock. That victory cost the Irish dear for the Government despatched two companies of soldiers from Dublin and Kilkenny under the command of Sir William Polham and Ormonde. The two armies joined forces at Tralee. A wasteland of bodies marked their progress. Having used the soldiers that met them there to burn and destroy they made a ruin of the old castle at Carrigafoyle. The soldiers then proceeded through a land full of poor and defenceless inhabitants, killing and laying waste. They went to the furthermost parts of Kerry, to Valencia and Dingle, so great was their senseless lust for blood. The story of their campaign is a dreadful one:

‘Lladd pawb, lladd pob oed,
Lladd yr hyna a’r ieunga ‘rioed.’
(‘Kill all, kill all ages,
kill the oldest and the youngest of all.’).

The soldiers were drunk with gore. Thus did Ormonde boast of his achievements, – ‘I slew 88 captains, and 1547 other wondrous traitors and 4,000 inhabitants.’ After this hideous slaughter the long awaited Spanish help arrived…"
But it was too late, the whole of Munster had been subjugated. But then more help arrived from Spain and Italy thereby affording the English a pretext to get their revenge by laying waste the country once more. In the words of the book:

"Lord Gray hurried south from Dublin with Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser to take Smerwick. The 800 foreigners were forced to lay down their arms and march out to be shot by Raleigh.
Terror and death reigned supreme in all parts. ‘Whoever,’ said the chronicler, ‘journeyed through Munster met neither man nor child nor saw any animal,’ and the vivid picture of the misery there from Spenser is almost incredible. The dregs of England were brought in to take over the 547,628 acres Desmond had lost by rebellion, and so began the ‘Plantation of Munster’."

If we now turn to another book in Welsh we will find a much better attitude towards the Irish and the whole history of Ireland. I am referring to a book by Griffith Havard of Whitland; namely Hanes Gwladlywiaeth y Saeson yn Iwerddon, o’r Amser Boreuaf, Hyd Basiad Deddf yr Undeb yn y Flwyddyn 1800, yn nghyd a Sylwadau ar Anghyfiawnder y Ddeddf, a’i Heffaith Ddinystriol ar y Wlad (‘The History of English Rule in Ireland, from the Earliest Times, to the Passing of the Act of Union in the Year 1800, along with Observations on the Injustice of the Act, and its Harmful Effect on the Country’). This was published in Rhymney, Gwent, in 1888, about two years after the book by Lloyd Jones. Here is part of the foreword:

"Ireland is at present attracting the attention, not just of this kingdom, but of the whole civilised world. Therefore, before one can attain to any standing as a politician, or be in any way qualified to fulfil our political duties, and to do justice to a country that has long been neglected, it is necessary to be familiar with the heartbreaking history of the Irish under the oppressive rule of the English. Little indeed is the knowledge of many in this kingdom of the many qualities of the Irish nation, and of the appalling treatment which they have endured for so long. Otherwise no one possessed of the least grain of humanity would join with those who call themselves Unionists in order to prolong their sufferings. I am pleased to think that the generality of my fellow citizens in Wales have healthy political beliefs in regard to this important matter and thereby demonstrate that they possess much greater knowledge of the Irish cause than many of their neighbours in England, even though they enjoy far fewer advantages in terms of having access to information in their own language.
A desire to be of service to my fellow citizens in Wales, as well as the cause of freedom, has compelled me to write this little book in the language of my mother."

The book has many chapters on the whole history of Ireland up to the Act of Union in 1800, along with a detailed listing of the bribes, both in cash as well as in enoblements, given to the members of Grattan’s Parliament to procure a majority to vote for the abolishing of that parliament and for the union with Britain in one kingdom. The pity is that, though he wrote the book in the last quarter of the century, he did not discuss the Great Famine and all the great changes that followed it and the partial correspondence between those matters and what was going on in Wales.
But his descriptions of another famine that followed English oppression, especially that of Cromwell, are agonising. Cromwell had cleared out the remnant of what he considered an uncivilised, barbarous race, ‘ to Hell or Connaught’ – in fact to the uninhabited fringes of the bleak province in the west, a place where scarcely any arable land was to be found. The descriptions anticipate the effects of the Great Famine two hundred years later, and show how the English were able to treat the Irish as if they were animals. The Irish race, that race that had kept the lamp of faith and learning burning during the Dark ages and had later spread their light back across Europe:

" "It was at this time that the system of land tenure in Ireland was established, a system that could in no way be regarded as sacred but the very opposite. It was in fact the most unholy, uncivilised and pernicious system that could have been introduced into any country. It actually started in the time of Mary, the Catholic, but it was during the reign of Elizabeth, after she had adopted the Protestant cause, that this system went ahead with all the power of the state. Mary had taken Kingstown (Dn Laoghaire) and Queenstown (Cbh) from the Irish, but Elizabeth declared the whole of Ulster to be the personal property of herself and her heirs. With good reason, Elizabeth, when she declared her right to the lands of Ulster, needed something to mask her notoriety as a cruel and presumptuous thief. To this end, in 1569, she insisted that the Irish Parliament should pass a measure to impeach Shane O’Neill and to present historically-founded proofs of her claim to the lands of Ulster, etc. The attempt, to judge by what that Parliament accepted as being Irish history, to prove the right of the queen to the lands in question, is laughable and is indicative of a tendency to cloak injustice in the murk of misleading history. It is with this tendency that English historians align themselves when they declare that Ireland was conquered by Henry II. The lands of Munster and Leinster were given as hereditaments to the cruel adventurers we have already considered, and the whole population was plundered of its possessions throughout the entire island apart from the Pale. The surviving inhabitants of the provinces of the Irish princes who, before their destruction, had been possessed of the highest elements of civilisation, became the slaves of the cruelest and most oppressive of land grabbers. These thieves, placed in Ireland by Elizabeth to represent Protestantism, and their murderous successors (the Orangemen), are without doubt a disgrace to Protestantism and are wholly unworthy of the name." And here is Cromwell in his turn:

"Immediately upon his appointment as Governor of Ireland, Cromwell and his army crossed over to the island. He set out on the 13 August, 1649. Charles I had been executed and Ormonde had made peace with the Irish, who were at the time masters of virtually the whole country. With their agreement Ormonde had proclaimed Charles II King of the whole Kingdom of Ireland. Almost all the Anglicans had united with the Catholics on the side of Charles against the Round heads. Cromwell came to the island as a ferocious anti-royalist and with great prejudice against the Catholics of the country, so that they could expect little quarter from him. As soon as he had landed he hurried, without resting, to Drogheda, the principal stronghold of the royalists. There were seven or eight armies in the town, most of them English Protestants, including the flower of the royalist troops, some 3,000 in number, under the command of Sir Arthur Aston.
After two furious onslaughts, on the second day the city walls were breached in two locations simultaneously and Cromwell’s soldiers rushed in. This is Cromwell’s own account of what followed;– ‘I believe that we put all of the defenders to the sword. I do not think that thirty of them escaped with their lives out of the whole number, and those that did escape were carried off securely to the Barbados.’ Salmon, in Chronol. Hist. 101., states that every man, woman and child who was Irish and lived in the town was killed. Cromwell, taking no rest, spent the eight months from 14 September, 1649 to 31 May, 1650 going around the whole island with the utmost speed and fury. He wreaked such havoc that to this day Irish people are unable to mention his name without cursing him."
Some of the poor people who left Ireland came here to Wales, to the south in particular, and in the second cemetery of St. John’s Church – the old Parish Church of the capital city – now a park, near the prison, there are graves of Irish people who had just come over here because of the Famine. Some of them went to Clwyd and were better received than those who came here. Perhaps it was one of them, or a child of one of them, who was the model for the character Y Gwyddel (‘The Irishman’) who mopped the head of Mari Lewis in the novel, Rhys Lewis!
But the story of the Irish immigrants in the south is quite a mixed one, and there are reasons for this to which we will return. They arrived in fragile boats or were carried as ballast in ships trading with Ireland, and they reached the beaches of the south ragged and hungry. There is a painful description of what used to happen in the novel, The Fire People, by Alexander Cordell:

“The Irish immigrants were pouring in from Kenfig Sands: in their hundreds they came, the men scarecrowed with hunger, the tattered women with their skeleton babies lurching on their backs.
‘Irish, Irish!’
The cry of alarm rose above Taibach.
Since the little winter famines they had been coming, striking the Welsh coast in their rotting boats, begging their way like Blod Murphy, to the new Welsh industries of iron and copper. What began as a trickle grew into a flood of humanity that choked the Welsh lanes: they filled the barns, stole from the orchards, rifled larders: they ate their way from barren Connemara, giving birth in the frozen fields, finding graves in wayside ditches. The churches and chapels were filled with keening women and rebellious men: these, the descendants of the heroic 1798 Rebellion, whose fathers had forged their pike for a promised land, now deserted crucified Ireland for promises of food in a country of brothers, all Celts under the skin; for the Welsh, they were told, were only Irish who had never learned how to swim. They came in droves across the sands of Kenfig and Margam and the industrialists cornered them and signed them on at starvation wages in furnaces of Merthyr to Swansea, Aberdare to Blaenafon: they put their crosses on the books of the company shops for the horrors of truck: they housed themselves twelve to a room and five to a bed, naked at times, to make more room. And the iron and copper masters packed them in like herrings in a barrel; the dram–road sub–contractors bedded them in culverts and water pipes, and bricked up bridge–arches for rooms, with tin chimneys going up through the sleepers where the drams rumbled overhead.
‘Irish, Irish!’
The cry flushed like a forest fire through Taibach Copper Town: doors came open on chains up Constant, windows were slammed down along The Side. Up the Conk the dram–road navvies like Belcher and Blackbird leaned on their shovels and stared down into the valley at the crawling black snake of immigrants from Kenfig Sands where the boats were unloading. Fights began in the streets, with bottles going up and heads going down, and it was raining Irish confetti between Colliers’ Row and Grannie’s Hole, and half of Cotton Row lost its glass according to Mammie goldie.
All this Gideon heard in the wind driving up the mountain, and he smelled the familiar tang of clothes drenched with salt water and sea–sickness. The invading, tattered Irish— ‘Mary’s Children’, as Taibach called them, had been coming in for as long as he could remember."

According to Mr. Evan David, Chairman of the Board of Guardians of the Cardiff Union, ship captains found it cheaper to carry this living ballast rather than limestone or gravel. The wretches would be squeezed into the hold – ‘like piling pigs on top of each other’ – according to a certain Mr. Boase, a Poor Laws Inspector. Frequently this living – or half-living – ballast would be landed under cover of darkness, to prevent the locals from finding out. And then they would crawl into the towns, remarks Mr. David, ‘overcrowding the poorest lodgings and carrying fever on their backs and famine in their stomachs.’
In one case, sixty unfortunates were brought over from Clonakilty and Skibbereen – where that Justice had been so appalled – all of them died of famine and fever after landing here in south Wales. Moreover, typhus followed in the wake of the migration causing quite a problem to the hospitals of the region. The local people felt revulsion towards these Irish people, not only on account of the filthiness associated with them but also because they were recruited by the owners of local industrial enterprises to break strikes or to push down wages.
Irish migration to Wales had begun in 1817 but it rose to a peak in the 1840s. By 1851 there were around 20,000 Irish here and there were demonstrations against them. They were like the Boat People – from Vietnam to Hong Kong – of their time. Attempts were made to force them back from the coasts of Glamorgan before they could come ashore and after they had become established here clashes would often occur: in the Rhymney Valley in 1825, Swansea in 1828, and in a number of places in the 1840s. The Irish were forced to live in dreadful conditions, in slums such as Cae–draw and Ynys–gau in Merthyr Tydfil, and in the Newtown district of Cardiff – now behind the cathedral and the International Centre. These slums were described as the worst in Europe in the Rammell Report which mentions one windowless dwelling , having just one door and two rooms in which 57 people were trying to live. One could stretch a hand from one such house to touch another.
The struggle of these people to build churches and to defend their own people was heroic. Mass was said in the attic of a slaughterhouse in Merthyr Tydfil in the early years. The historian John Davies has described how local people held these strangers in utter contempt. When a Welsh Protestant was killed in 1848 in Cardiff by an Irishman named John Connors there were angry demonstrations and Irish labourers working on the roads in the Pontypridd area had to come down, armed with pick axe and spade handles, to defend the Irish Catholics and the old St. David’s Church (now the cathedral).
Connors was found guilty of manslaughter rather than of murder, but the anti–Irish feelings remained intense throughout almost the whole of the period down to the present day. No wonder that until recently Catholic mothers, as their children prepared to join the Corpus Christi Procession (discontinued in the 1970s– Ed.), would urge them to bless the Pope and to curse the Welsh. That, of course, without realising that it was poverty and ignorance which lay at the root of so much of these anti–Irish and anti–Catholic feelings.
The whole history of the Great Famine is one of horror and of sadness. It resembles the unclean destructive blackness of the plague that exterminated the potatoes. But the greater plague was the inexcusable misgovernment of Ireland by England, and indeed their very presence there down the centuries. However, the story of the Great Famine marks a particularly black chapter in England’s mixed history. It was to that that the whole history of England’s interference in Ireland during the previous six centuries had led, and it also meant that the people were forced to decide to rid themselves of that interference finally and for ever. And that was a good thing, for England as much as for Ireland.
The great disaster of the Famine had the result that the people, especially those in the west of the country, became dispirited and demoralised and lost confidence in their rich cultural inheritance. It caused them to abandon their language on a large scale and between 1841 and 1891 the number of Irish speakers was halved. People like Daniel O’Connell even urged the people to burn their old manuscripts and to concentrate on the struggle for their political rights as Irish Catholics, thereby leading the Unionists to assert that self–government would mean a Roman Catholic Government; ‘Home Rule = Rome Rule’.
Instead of moving forward into the Industrial Revolution Ireland, apart from the most strongly Unionist area around Belfast, was allowed to remain an impoverished rural retreat. Instead of being similar to England in terms of population as it had been at the beginning of the last century, its population today is more like that of Wales, even though it is four times bigger. There are very dark chapters in the history of the dealings of England, and of Wales, which is tied to it, with other countries: the history of the conquest of Australia and New Zealand and of the countries and tribes of Africa. But the history of England in Ireland is also pretty dreadful and the deliberate neglect at the time of the Great Famine is every bit as loathsome as the earlier periods of persecution, pillage and mass slaughter.

Part 1

©: Dr. Harri Pritchard–Jones, doctor, journalist, writer and broadcaster, who delivered this lecture in Welsh at the Central Library, Cardiff on 4 April, 1995. We are very grateful to him for permission to publish it in our own translation.

First published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter 1997.