Remembering the Dead on St. Patrick’s Day

By Seán Mac Réamoinn

To Celebrate St Patrick’s Day in a graveyard might seem at first to be the worst kind of Irish joke. But to the several hundred Irish and Welsh people who gathered in a Cardiff cemetery last Wednesday morning, this was a real celebration: a remembering of things past but with a mind and heart to the future.

They came to perform the final act in four years of commemoration of the great Irish Famine, and of the thousands who crossed the Irish Sea in its wake : by the 1860s there were more than 73 Irish ghettos in Cardiff alone, as well as in the several centres of the Industrial Revolution then approaching its vigorous and often ruthless heyday. For those who fled hunger and plague, and for the generations who followed to make a life in the new towns and mining valleys,

Happy endings did not come easy. What we now call "economic" refugees are rarely welcomed with open arms, especially in times of industrial and social stress and upheaval. In the south Wales of the last century (and later) the poor were often set against the poor; inevitably, there were street fights and, too often, violent death.

Mutual understanding was not made easier by differences in language and religion, as well as in life style and outlook. There was little or no sense of the common Celtic heritage which had been long buried in the remote past. But common humanity was never really forgotten, and there are still memories of caring and kindness and generosity on both sides. And it was these which were uppermost as the sun shone down on Cardiff’s Irish graves on St Patrick’s morning.

The standing of the Irish in the city today was attested by the fact that a large attendance of their fellow-citizens was led by the Lord Mayor, the charming Ms Marion Drake. And the Welsh community was represented by, among others, Mr John Owen Jones MP, Minister of State. He joined the recently appointed Consul-General of Ireland, Mr Conor O’Riordan, in unveiling the Famine Memorial which is the centrepiece of the commemoration: a Celtic Cross in Irish limestone with commemorative plaques in Welsh slate. There was an ecumenical religious service with participating clergy of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Non-conformist traditions; the homily was preached by Bishop Daniel Mullins of Menevia, and there were many tributes to the famine relief work of the Society of Friends. There were poems and songs in Welsh and Irish, and an Irish student read the final passage from Joyce’s The Dead.

This ceremony, and the several commemorative events which preceded it since 1995, did not happen by magic. They are the fruit of the vision and hard work of a small but remarkable group of people, Irish either by birth or descent, who have both led the Welsh Famine Forum and produced The Green Dragon, a magazine of the Irish in Wales, which appears both in English and in Welsh (Y Ddraig Werdd;).

These developments could hardly have come about at a better time for Wales, or indeed for Ireland. The new National Assembly due to be elected and to meet in Cardiff in a few weeks’ time will provide an important new focus for Welsh life in cultural as well as socio-political areas, and I must say I have been impressed by the enthusiasm with which the prospect is being greeted on all sides - including those who were cool on ‘devolution’ only a little while ago.

This was particularly evident in Cardiff’s City Hall on St Patrick’s evening, when a cross-section of the civic and national representatives were guests of our Consul-General. (The recent establishment of this post, by the way, has been very widely welcomed). There is a palpable feeling that "home rule" in Wales and Scotland is the key to a transformation of relationships, not alone within the “Island of Britain” (as the Welsh have traditionally called it), but between Britain and Ireland. There is a great interest in the possibilities inherent in the Council of the Isles (“strand three"”of the Good Friday Agreement), not least for the defence and cultivation of our several interests within the European Union. So, concern for the prospect of a final settlement in the North and an impatience to see the proposed institutions up and running are not just altruistic. A common future is envisioned, and seen to be in the balance.

In the current issue of The Green Dragon, the distinguished historian Dr John Davies tells the story of a meeting in north Wales in January 1886, addressed by Michael Davitt from Mayo and his Welsh friend and fellow landreformer Michael D. Jones. The vote of thanks was proposed by an eloquent 23-year-old: “One Michael with his angels,” he said, had thrown down Satan. “What could two Michaels, one Welsh, one Irish, do if they worked in harmony!”

Davitt was much impressed. “You must get this fellow into Parliament,”he said to Jones. They did, His name was David Lloyd George.

Adapted from :

©: The Irish Times, ‘An Irishman’s Diary’, Tuesday, March 23, 1999, contributed by Seán Mac Réamoinn.

Wales National Great Famine Memorial

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