Crossing Cultural Boundaries

Irish Catholics and the Welsh language in the 20th century

In 1931 the Wesleyan minister, Reverend Lewis Edwards, announced that “there is no disguising the fact that Roman Catholics are opposed to everything the Welsh people hold dear in their national life”. Such criticism was inspired by the foreign, immigrant character of the Catholic Church in Wales. To many outside its fold, the Church was essentially an English-speaking Irish congregation, which displayed little desire to assimilate into traditional Welsh life. Even the faithful were aware of this predicament. “It is indeed probable”, wrote R.O.F. Wynne in 1948, “that Catholics are further withdrawn from Welsh life than any other section of the community”.
For non-Catholics, then, all outward evidence seemed to suggest that the Church had little or no interest in things Welsh. Saunders Lewis and his native convert friends were regarded as a peculiar aberration in an anti-Welsh Church. Further evidence was revealed as late as the 1982 Church Act, which demonstrated that Catholics, in the words of R.M. Jones, “show comparatively little interest in witnessing to the Welsh speakers”. Yet, underlying this apparent indifference, was a significant movement which attempted to change the attitude of the majority. Within this group, the ironic significance of a strong Irish minority should not be underestimated. It is the position of those Irish who crossed cultural, as well as geographical, boundaries that this paper will address. Fr Gregory Fitzgerald summarised the attitude of these first or second generation Irishmen when he stated that, although originally an outsider, he had learnt Welsh and “if there were such a thing as Welsh citizenship I should have applied for it long ago”.
Many immigrant Irish and their descendants, then, had no inclination towards Welsh language and culture. In 1955, for example, in the parish of Aberystwyth, 68% of Catholics regarded English as their mother tongue. The number speaking Welsh (2%) was far lower than Italian-speakers (20%) and even lower than the Polish-speakers (9%).
The situation among those Irish priests who had moved to Wales was similar. Many of them were indifferent, hostile even, towards the Welsh language, regarding their exclusive duty as being to minister to their Anglo-Irish flock. Frances Maredudd wrote that Irish priests and nuns came “as they mistakenly believed, to a part of England, to minister to the needs of their own nationals, [and] found themselves in a foreign country. [They were] ignorant of the language, the literature and the history of Wales”. This, however, was certainly not the whole picture. There were a number of Irish Catholics, either first or second generation, who crossed cultural boundaries to become staunch advocates of Welsh culture, and their influence reached far beyond their meagre numbers. A number of these were from among the laity. In the inter-war years, for example, James O’Brien of Port Talbot was installed as a bard at the Gorsedd of the National Eisteddfod. Largely, however, these were secular and regular priests, who (from the 1950s) became supporters of Y Cylch Catholig, hitherto an almost wholly native convert domain.
This minority trend was already prevalent from early in the twentieth century. Fr. Patrick Kane, parish priest at Llandrindod, for example, was a Limerick-born Jesuit priest who became known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike as ‘the Welsh Saint Patrick’. He learnt Welsh fluently, and achieved eisteddfodic fame as a bard. Yet it was a young Irish secular priest from Kilkenny who was to achieve the most prominence for his efforts on behalf of the language. As early as 1920, Fr Michael McGrath was preaching in the Welsh language. He was soon to be known across Welsh-speaking Wales as a Welsh speaker, scholar, and nationalist. Both as Bishop of Menevia and as Archbishop of Cardiff, McGrath encouraged priests to learn Welsh and implemented policies to ensure a core Welsh-speaking priesthood. It was at his initiative that in 1936 the Irish Carmelites of Whitefriar Street, Dublin re-opened St Mary’s College, the Welsh seminary in Aberystwyth, a move which led to a new supply of Carmelites dedicated to using Welsh and to nurturing Welsh culture.
Following the war, there was a notable increase in the number of Irish priests who followed the example of McGrath and the other early pioneers. These included Fr Pádraig Ó Fiannachta (Patrick Fenton), Fr James Donnelly, Fr Patrick Gibbons, Fr James Cunnane, Fr Pat McNamara, and a number of priests at the Redemptorist house at Machynlleth (fluent speakers there included Fr Riordan, Fr Maddock, Fr Furey, and Fr Oliver Conroy). One of the most striking examples is that of the present (now retired – Ed.) Bishop of Menevia, Daniel Mullins. Hailing from County Limerick, a curacy in Maesteg enabled him to perfect his Welsh, and he was later awarded first class honours in Welsh at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Likewise, Fr John Ryan, who became a teacher at St Mary’s College, Rhos-on-Sea, was a Welsh scholar of repute. He was said to speak fluent Welsh in a broad Irish accent and was eager for “the promotion of the Welsh language” within his school. By 1967, with the financial help of R.O.F. Wynne (the squire of Garthewin), he had even established a ‘Welsh language laboratory’ at his school.
Alongside such immigrant Irish priests, were a number of clergymen with second-generation Irish roots who embraced a Welsh consciousness, including Fr James O’Reilly at Barmouth, Fr MacGuire of Llandudno Junction, and the Carmelite brothers John and Gregory Fitzgerald.
A further number of Irish priests, though not fluent in Welsh, were supportive of the language and efforts to nurture its use within the Church. Fr Patrick Shannon’s parents had moved from Ireland to England, yet remained fervent Irish nationalists. Before his untimely death in 1956, Fr. Shannon channelled his own nationalistic tendencies into Wales. His brother, Tom Shannon, spoke Welsh well and was, for a period, the Welsh teacher at the Carmelite school at Llandeilo. Likewise, in Carrog, Fr Dermot Walsh, an Irish Divine Word Missionary, learnt enough Welsh to endear himself to prominent non-Catholic clergymen. In the 1960s his monthly ecumenical discussion group for clergy was highly successful and saw Abel Ffowc Williams and the Reverend Harri Parri in regular attendance. In their desire to foster a zeal for Welsh things, some first and second generation Irish priests went as far as to accept ostensibly Nonconformist practices (such as McGrath’s well-known support of ‘Nonconformist’ Sabbatarianism) and champion the chapel hymn-writers (such as John Ryan’s interest in and study of Ann Griffith). Such efforts certainly engaged the respect of Welsh non-Catholics. With Anglicisation threatening the existence of traditional Welsh life, even the ordinarily hostile Y Faner commended such Catholic endeavours. In 1948 it reported that Fr J. Brennan of Cardiff had spoken in Welsh at a Cylch Catholig meeting. “Fr. Brennan”, it noted, “is an Irishman but, like many of his brothers in the priesthood, he has learnt Welsh more thoroughly than thousands of Welshmen”.
The development of a Welsh consciousness by Catholics of Irish descent resulted in an interesting incident in 1971, when a successor was to be found to Bishop Petit of Menevia. The Cylch Catholig offered suggestions which are a fitting tribute to those Irishman who did adopt Welsh culture. Instead of a proposed ‘young Irish priests’ with little Welsh national sympathy, two names were put forward by Cylch members. R.O.F. Wynne proposed Fr Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire (Dermot O’Leary), a Jesuit Welsh-speaker from Dublin. The proposal gained little support. The suggestion of Fr James Owen O’Reilly, however, was far more popular. Although an Englishman by birth, his Irish background was unmistakable. On moving to Wales, he soon learnt to speak Welsh fluently and was well-liked among Welsh Catholics. A deputation of Cylch members comprising R.O.F. Wynne, T. Charles Edwards, and John Daniel even visited the Apostolic Delegate in London to recommend O’Reilly for the Welsh episcopal vacancy. Their efforts were, however, to end in bitter disappointment as, ironically, it was an Englishman, Langton T. Fox, who was finally appointed to the bishopric.
The significant, if minority, involvement of Irish priests in the efforts to nurture Welsh culture is unmistakable. To attain a rationale for this engagement is more complex. There are several possible reasons, which are by no means mutually exclusive. Firstly, the far-reaching influence of Michael McGrath should not be underestimated. In ‘Y Bywgraffiadur Cymreig’ (‘Welsh Biographical Dictionary’), his sole Irish successor in the Menevian episcopal seat, Daniel Mullins, paid tribute to McGrath’s considerable significance, both to the Church and to Wales at large. “Archbishop McGrath’s greatest contribution to the life of the Catholic Community in Wales and to the life of the nation”, he wrote, “was his clear perception of the importance of the historical culture and language of Wales”. Throughout his life, and especially in his years on the Episcopal bench, McGrath remained an important influence on, and the consummate example to, all those Irish priests who followed his zealous adoption of Welsh life.
A further possible explanation for the interest shown in Welsh culture by these priests is that the state of their native Irish culture imbued them with sympathy for the plight of the Welsh language. It is clear that generally, although not exclusively, it was those Irish priests who were part of the Irish cultural and linguistic revival who displayed an acute sympathy for the Welsh predicament. The Irish promotion of Welsh culture for this reason did not even require a move across the Irish Sea. The Irish branch of the Legion of Mary, An Réalt (‘The Star’), was a fraternity of Gaelic-speaking scholars, clergy, and laity, and took a particular interest in the Welsh language. Many An Réalt members were fluent in the Welsh language, while others were learning Welsh in a 200-strong Dublin night class. During the 1950s a representative group led by Fr Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire visited Wales annually, either to R.O.F. Wynne’s Garthewin estate or to the ‘Welsh Catholic’ parish of Gellilydan.
Another possible reason for the Welsh cultural zeal of an Irish minority was the strong emphasis placed on evangelism by Catholics in the twentieth century. The incentive to learn Welsh was often mission-minded, driven by the belief that the wholesale conversion of Wales was imminent. If this was to be achieved, the language was essential, both to convey the Faith’s tenets in a familiar and homely tongue and to show that Catholicism was not a foreign, Anglicising religion. In 1949, an article in the Welsh American paper Y Drych epitomised the dedication of Irish priests to use the language as a missionary weapon. The newspaper reported that an ‘Irish priest’ in New York was zealously attempting to learn Welsh, “so he can go as a missionary to Wales to win Baptists, Independents, Methodists, and Presbyterians back to the ‘Old Church’ ”.
A final possible incentive for Irish Catholic engagement with Welsh cultural matters was a consequence of the pervasive ultramontanism which was characteristic of the Church in that period. During the mid-twentieth century, priestly regard for the Pope and his teaching cannot be understated. Papal instruction on Wales specifically, and on national identities generally, was therefore conducive to the advancement of Welsh culture. “The Church”, wrote Frances Maredudd in 1965, “is showing sympathy for the national patriotism of the people of all mission lands”. Irish priests with an interest in their own neighbouring mission land, Wales, would certainly have been inspired and motivated by Papal instruction on the importance of missionaries fostering the native cultures of the countries in which they toiled.
Although the majority of Irish priests who moved to Wales had little or no interest in the Welsh language or culture, the significance of the minority who did embrace a Welsh consciousness should not be underestimated. In 1963, H.W.J. Edwards wrote of the Welsh-Irish antagonism within the Catholic Church in Wales. In fact, Welsh-English friction had become a far more potent issue. Still, the passion and sentiment behind this Welshman’s concluding words (which admittedly do not stand the test of historical scrutiny) spoke for all those Catholic Irish priests who had crossed cultural boundaries: “For my own part, I see [the deep affiliation between Wales and Ireland] very clearly in March when I commemorate that great Irishman, St David, and that great Welshman, St Patrick”.

Sources used include:

The Tablet, 23 May 1931, 672.
R.O.F. Wynne, “The Wall of Brass”, Blackfriars March 1948, 143-4.
In Peter Brierly and Byron Evans (eds.), Prospects for Wales: From a Census of the Churches in 1982 (London, 1983) p. 14.
Western Mail, 27 Feb. 1960, 6.
Michael P. Fogarty, ‘A Social Survey of the Parish of Aberystwyth’, (1955), p. 2; in Menevia Diocesan Archives: Aberystwyth File.
Menevia Record, 12/3 1965, 13.
St. Joseph’s, Port Talbot: Commemorative Brochure Diamond Jubilee 1931-1991 (1991), p. 52.
Menevia Record, 2/1 1954, 4; Attwater, The Catholic Church, p. 134.
University of Wales, Bangor Archives: Garthewin Additional 1247;
Baner ac Amserau Cymru, 15 Sept. 1948, 8.
Cf. Reaction of Fr Patrick Crowley; University of Wales, Bangor Archives: Garthewin Additional 1119.
Y Bywgraffiadur Cymreig 1951-1970, p. 138.
Catherine Daniel, ‘Wales’, in Adrian Hastings (ed.), The Church and the Nations (London, 1959), p. 130.
Oliver Conroy; University of Wales, Bangor Archives: Garthewin Additional 1117.
Cf. Menevia Record, 10/4 1963; 712/3 1965, 13; The Tablet, 15 Aug. 1925, 206.
Y Drych, 15 March 1949.
Menevia Record, 12/3 1965, 13.
Menevia Record, 10/4 1963, 7.

Contributed by Trystan Owain Hughes, Head, School of Religious and Theological Studies, Trinity College, Carmarthen who says:

“This is a shortened version of the paper given by me in Welsh at the Llanelli Eisteddfod in August 2000. The full version will be published elsewhere at a later date. My thanks to Bishop Edwin Regan, J.P. Brown, John Daniel, and Harri Pritchard-Jones for their valuable suggestions and information.”

Published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002

Another article by this author:
'A new Irish invasion'?

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