The Great Famine took a terrible toll.
Ireland had previously suffered famines and disasters in the 19th century. The Big Wind of the night of Sunday 6th January 1839, the night of Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan, was one such traumatic occurrence. This storm presided unchallenged over the whole of Ireland. The death toll was low, below 250 souls, and people came together to help each other. On that night our own Parish Church, newly erected at Derrytrasna on Lough Neagh's shores, was destroyed. The local Christian communities gathered around to help with the rebuilding costs. Many such stories are told, and the newspaper, The Ulster Times, although missing the point somewhat, declared of this communal activity in Co Armagh :
"How angel-like is this! How beautifully demonstrative of the blessed superiority of the Protestantism which is the glory of our North!"
There was great destruction all over Ireland, and the people had to fend for themselves and bear the cost of repairs. Despite many appeals for help from the government nothing was done. The non interventionist policy of the time extended to the English towns as well as Ireland. In Ireland there was disease and hunger. There was no way of coordinating the charitable efforts being made. Peter Carr in 'The Night of the Big Wind' states that a potentially very instructive experience was not profited from, and Ireland marched unreconstructed towards the Famine.
The Great Famine came in the next decade. The people could not fend for themselves. In the area of The Montiaghs around Derrytrasna on Lough Neagh's southern shore in 1837, an area described by the Original Ordinance surveyors (army and navy personnel) as a wild and dreary place, the same surveyors were able to say :
"The people have no amusements except making music and dancing, of which, they are very fond.
This area survived in the Famine better than many areas but it suffered greatly. Music, dancing and poetry were hard hit.
These took a long time to recover, but the sports recovered in the late 19th century, and the Gaelic games were put on a more organised basis.
Soon these games were brought to the areas where the Irish had been forced to emigrate during and immediately after the Famine and as more and more people left their homeland the sports came with them.
There is a handball court at Nelson, in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales. This was built in the 1860's, when the railways were at their height. You can read about this court in our 1st edition.
Since the 1995 European Championships played there the Court has been repaired to its former glory, and championships continue, with every year players attending the championships in Ireland. In the early days one of the most famous players was Richard Andrews (‘Dick Ted’), who won many tournaments in Ireland in the late eighteen hundreds. There is one unsubstantiated story that handball was taken to America from Ireland via Wales. It is planned for the European One Wall Championships to be held in Nelson in 2002.
Another game which was played in South Wales on occasions is road bowls. This game is played in Ireland in parts of County Cork and in South Armagh. It is also played around Dagenham in East London. I have been told this game was played around Swansea and Port Talbot. The Dutch claim this game as their invention. They say it was first played during the building of the dykes in the 13th century, when they threw rounded stones along the dyke surface. The sport called KLOOTSCHEITEN is today played by over 5000 enthusiasts in Eastern Holland. They now use either original stone balls or wooden balls filled with lead. The game came to Ireland with William of Orange in the 17 th century, when his soldiers would use the cannon balls as stones to throw.
There are reports from various areas in South Wales of the custom where children used to walk along the beaches hitting a ball with a stick. Shades of Cuchulain!
Hurling was and is the national sport of Ireland, although a lot more people play Gaelic Football.
The first mention of Hurling in South Wales comes from a history of Pill Harriers, formerly Pillgwennly Athletic Club. In 1893 this club was reported in the South Wales Argus as having the driest and most complete ground in the country. This piece of land had been levelled and prepared by the Irish immigrants, all navvies, who had come from Ireland for work filling in the Marshes. In pursuit of their sport of hurling they had prepared this pitch on land belonging to the Alexandra Dock Company off Mendalgief Road. This actual pitch was used for rugby, track racing and football till 1940, but after the war was not available. However Pill Harriers reformed in 1978, and in the late 1980's they found another ground very close to their original ground. It was on that pitch that the Gaelic Club, Pride of Erin, played their football, hurling and camogie when they were reformed in 1989 with Jimmy Harty as their chairman.
Pride of Erin has had a chequered history. When the team was being reorganised in the 1950's the following gives a good insight into how things were :
"Michael Dolan, Ned Kearns and Jimmy Harty collected one shilling per person each week from those involved The jerseys cost £I6 and were bought in Athlone. As many as possible team members met in Athlone to buy them The team were afraid that the Customs would confiscate the jerseys on their arrival in Britain. So some players smuggled a number of jerseys in their suitcases. Mrs. O'Connell (Martin Walsh's mother-in-law) washed the team's kit every Monday after the matches.
Biddy Rearden (nee Vaughan) took over as secretary at this time. The first batch of medals was posted from Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, to Wales. But they were held up by the customs in Btitain. They were later released."
In Maesteg, in the Llynfi Valley, there is a field on the outskirts of the old town known as the Hurling Field. The story of Maesteg’s Clan na Gael hurling team goes back to the early 1920's when there was a county structure in South Wales. At that time the hurling sticks cost about 6 shillings each, and it is to be noted that some players played in bare feet. Teams took part in the hurling competitions from Pontypridd, Mountain Ash, Neath, Swansea and Cardiff, who at times had 2 teams. In 1925 Maesteg won the South Wales Hurling Championship outright beating Emmetts of Cardiff in the final. Names of those who played in those days in Maesteg appeared in Gerald McCormack's excellent publication, The Shamrock and Leek. The Irish in South Wales. Maesteg and Distiict 1826 - 1985. These included James Rohan, Frank Leigh, Will McBride, Jack Devereaux, John Rohan, Jimmy Murphy, Paddy Murphy, Patrick Brown, Andy O'Brien, Jim and John Riley, Bill McGrath, Tom Keegan and Dr Hanna. I have been told but not been able to verify that Frank Leigh once led a Welsh hurling team in the Tailteann Games. It is known that a Welsh Irish side played an American Irish side in 1925 in Ireland and lost, and the four Maesteg men on that team were Will McBride, James Murphy, Patrick Brown and William McGrath. Frank Leigh was an all round sportsman, playing rugby, hurling and football.
I have been unable to get information on the Pontypridd teams of the past, so suffice it to say that they definitely did exist. The contact with today in that area is the input that the Irish students at the University of Glamorgan have given to the formation of a Gaelic Football team in the university. They play in the Championship of Great Britain when the students from all over the country gather in Birmingham, usually in early March. Swansea Institute won the Championship outright in 1993 at the first Championships held at Páirc na hÉireann in Birmingham. That year they were led by Phil O'Connor, with his brother Brain in close support. Phil and Brian now live in Merthyr and play for St Colmcilles, Cardiff. In 1992 St. Mary’s College, Twickenham won the title in the North East in Newcastle and Sunderland. This was a tournament organised across the country by various people. Joe Moore referred to a great final when St Mary's beat Dundee. However the games were reaching a stage where they needed to have recognition and be played on proper pitches. To that purpose Phil O'Connor, Brian O'Connor, and Joe Moore travelled to meet the Provincial Council of Great Britain at Páirc na hÉireann, and the outcome was the move to Birmingham for the weekend and funding for medals. The Championship has since been put on a firm footing, and the winning team now travel to Ireland for the Championships there.
Cardiff has always had a history of Gaelic games being played. In the early days there were the Emmetts who were mentioned previously. The late Jack Kingston was a driving force in that era, when they hurled in Wales and South and West England. In the 1950s with the upsurge in emigration from Ireland there were great teams of hurlers in Cardiff, Newport and Maesteg. Mr. W. McCarthy of Swansea told me of a news item on TV of a final between Cardiff and Maesteg in the 1960s. I have not been able to trace the film footage, which is probably in some archive in some studio vault. In 1960 Cardiff Emmetts picked up the Gloucestershire Championship and in that year Michael Power with his brother Paddy were in the team. Michael later became a founder member of the St Colmcilles GAA football team in the city, which in the mid 1980s started with underage teams and then produced a team which picked up the Gloucestershire County title in 1989. The underage team won the u 14 Championship of Great Britain in 1988, winning out of Gloucestershire in great style. Michael Power's son Paul is now the manager of the St Colmcilles senior squad. There are many stalwarts of the Gaelic scene in Cardiff. John Quigley has played a ongoing role in St Colmcilles and with the Gloucestershire County Board. Tommy Flaherty is the present Chairman. In the millenium year of 2000 St. Colmcilles again won the Gloucestershire County Championship, and the Tara Cup. Paul Power managed this side, and Phil and Brian O'Connor lined out in the team.
There are other sports in Wales where Irish men and women have excelled. Until recently Cardiff and Newport had Camogie teams, and Camogie has been played at the colleges.
Baseball, a game played in a few areas in Wales and in Liverpool, had Paddy Hennessey, a bowler of renown. He once skittled out the England batters for 5. Another great baseball player, the late Paddy Gee, could claim that he had hit Paddy Hennessey for successive 4s.
Stan O'Brien holds a record number of Mallett Cup medals at Rugby. Billy Neal's story is well known, when he played for Wales at the turn of the century and played for Cardiff on a very early tour to Cork in 1905. Gerry McLoughlin of Ireland and British and Irish Lions fame last year helped in coaching Cardinal Newman to achieve an incredible victory in the Welsh Schools Cup. His sons Fionn and Emmett played in the team.
The story goes on and on. Irish dance, music and culture now has a status and a respect. The games are played. May it continue to be so.
Joe Moore, from the Armagh shore of Lough Neagh, has lived in Cardiff many years where his children have acquired a reputation as splendid display dancers at Irish events. He is also well known as the local correspondent for the London weekly, The Irish Post. He is also Treasurer of the Wales Famine Forum.
Published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002
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