The Irish in Cardiff

About 1830, with the population of Cardiff a little over 6,000, and almost 6,000 more living in the surrounding parishes which now form part of the modern city, Welsh was the language of four out of five of the inhabitants of the whole area and was also the main language of thirty of its thirty five places of worship. The Welsh Baptists’ ‘Tabernacl’ in the Hayes, where fellow Celts gathered this year to commemorate the 150th. anniversary of the Irish Famine, was founded in 1813. One of the chapel’s first members recorded the fact that there were only two Irishmen living in the town in the early 1820s and both of them were Welsh speakers. In 1828, the famous preacher, Christmas Evans, was the Minister of Tabernacl. He lived around the corner in 44 Caroline Street and would visit members living in the area of the Old Sea Lock or Roath on horseback. His old house is still standing, almost opposite Mulligan’s Irish Bar, formerly the ‘Cambrian’, a pub which was the location of the big brawl in 1910 that followed the official fight between Jim Driscoll, the uncrowned featherweight champion of the world, and Fred Hall Thomas, alias Freddie Welsh, the then reigning world lightweight champion.
Between 1835 and 1840 Cardiff’s first dock and the Taff Vale Railway were built, and by 1841 the number of Irish in the town, including their children born here, was a little over 1,200. In the part of Whitmore Lane, now known as Custom House Street, and in John Street and Stanley Street, they formed a majority; in Landore Court, The Hayes, and Mary Ann Street between 25% and 39% of the population were Irish. The total population of the town was 10,077, with the Irish forming one eight of that total.
In the late 1840s, Cardiff’s Irish element was swollen as a result of the Famine and by 1851 had reached a total of around 3,000, including children born here. The Irish then formed about one in six of the total population with their settlement area being only a little bigger than in 1841 with a strong presence in the new streets clustered around Bute Terrace and Adam Street. Old Saint David’s Church at the apex formed where Stanley Street and David Street met with Bute Terrace seems to have been both the geographical and the religious centre of the Irish community. The 1847 Government report on Education in Wales (the notorious ‘Blue Book’) presents a cameo of the town and an indication of its authors’ bias:

"From the tradespeople upwards English is spoken, . . . but Welsh is still prevalent amongst the adult labouring class . . . here is little poverty except amongst the Irish . . . The (beer) trade was said to be thrown into the hands of any idle vagabond . . . the beerhouses were generally brothels as well as beerhouses: trade unions, Chartism and every mischievous association had its origins in them.”

A closer view of the conditions in which the Irish lived is gained from the Rammell Report on Health and Sanitation in the town in 1850. Amongst the general population, it is recorded that over half of those born during the 1840s died before reaching their fifth birthday. Stanley Street, where over 400 of the Irish population lived, was only partly paved, did not have even one street gas light, was barely ten feet wide, had one well filled with dirty water and there was an open, blocked and overflowing sewer running along the middle of the road. Tim Harrington’s by now infamous lodging house had some fifty occupants, all sleeping in one room according to the report - although it was a four roomed house. The Irish bore the brunt of the epidemics of cholera, typhus, dysentery and smallpox.
The 1851 census suggests that the crossroads where Bute Street, Bute Terrace, Custom House Street, and Hayes Bridge Road met was the focal point where areas with strong Welsh, Irish and English concentrations converged. The names of public houses nearby confirm this: the Fishguard, the St. Dogmael’s Arms, the Merthyr and Dowlais Inn, and the Pembroke Castle; the Killarney Inn, the Dublin Arms, and the Wexford and the Waterford Arms;the Bridgewater Inn, the Plymouth Arms, the Cornish Arms and the Glastonbury. It seems very likely that Cardiff’s distinctive accent evolved thereabouts, using the long flat ‘a’ of the local Welsh as its main marker; or should one say “merker”!
Relations between the Irish and Welsh were often strained at this time; the Irish had been prominent members of the Militia used against moves for social reform in Merthyr and Newport. The undercutting of wages at the docks in Cardiff and in the mines in the Rhondda were also sore points between the two peoples. The press, although not sympathetic to Welsh aspirations, did much to drive the wedge further between them and their Celtic cousins. In 1847 the murder of a Welshman in Stanley Street by an Irishman led to the Welsh surrounding the old Saint David’s Church and to the escape from the town of the priest, Fr. Millea.
The building of Newtown about 1853 did much to relieve the overcrowding amongst the Irish community and at about the same time a new community was being formed at the town end of Heol Plwca - the present day City Road - and shortly afterwards (about 1861) Saint Peter’s Church and school were set up to serve it. By 1870 similar Irish communities were flourishing in Canton and in Grangetown and by the 1890s Irish furnacemen at the Dowlais Steelworks were the pioneers of the Irish community in Splott.
During the 1880s there seems to have been a considerable degree of friendship between Irish and Welsh patriots, and when the Cymrodorion Society was formed in Edward Thomas’s Coffee Tavern on the corner of Bute Street and Custom House Street in 1885, Father John Heyde of St. Peter’s was one of its first members. Ironically, the Hibernian Club, then in Bute Terrace, was officially opened by the same Edward Thomas, a teetotal, Welsh-speaking Baptist and deacon of Tabernacl. Commonly known as ‘Cochfarf’, due to his red beard, he was the councillor serving that part of the town where most of the Irish population dwelt. He was a staunch supporter of Home Rule for both Ireland and Wales and in 1899 conducted Pádraig Pearse around the National Eisteddfod on his visit to Cardiff.
By today, many people with their origins in Wales have been absorbed into the Irish Catholic community of the city and hundreds of speakers of Welsh with surnames such as Burns, Murphy, Kane, Flynn, Tobin, O’Neill and Doyle swell the ranks of Cardiff’s growing number of Welsh speakers. The capital city is enriched by its Cambro-Hibernian communities as it is by the Welsh language and by those of other backgrounds who together give Cardiff its distinctive cosmopolitan character.

©: Owen John Thomas, a former teacher in a Cardiff primary school, a local historian and member of the National Assembly of Wales. This article is based on the address that he delivered in both Welsh and English during the Service of Commemoration and Reconciliation in Tabernacl Caerdydd, the Welsh-speaking Baptists’ church in The Hayes, Cardiff, on Friday evening, 18 October, 1996.~

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


Another article by this writer.