Forget the poet’s musings that April was the cruellest month...
For the people of Cardiff’s ‘Little Ireland’, Old Newtown, a bleak November just 30 years ago earned that title.
November, 1966. And for the celebrated slice of the city that got its name when it was set up to house the Irish workers who built Cardiff’s docks a century earlier, it was - The End.
New buildings mushroomed, Atlantic Wharf arrived, we got what the promoters tried to label ‘Little Venice’ instead of ‘Little Ireland’. A vast flyover sweeps over the end of the road once dominated by St. Paul’s Church and the streets that clattered with kids vanished with the sound of their laughter.
The death sentence was handed down in July that year. Cledwyn Hughes, Secretary of State for Wales, gave Cardiff City Council the go-ahead to compulsorily acquire and demolish the tiny homes that had sheltered generations of our Cardiff-Irish, the land they loved to be readied for development.
There were objections. Of course there were objections. But nothing could halt ‘progress’. And after 120 years of vivid, raucous street life, the threads binding the most closely-knit community in Cardiff were unravelled. Forever.
A quater of a century later the Echo came across a single small girl skipping on the pavement of Tyndall Street.
There were no companions to join her game. Somehow this melancholy image, a lonely little girl at play, symbolised everything that had gone.
Her parents, her grandparents, might have remembered a time when there were a hundred like her. But not any more. For Newtown, ‘Little Ireland’, is as distant a part of our past as Troy except that there is nothing now left to remind us of that area seen in the minds of those who lived there as a sort of shining Shangri La.
Irish mythology speaks of an enchanted land, an Isle of the Blessed. That is how the people wrenched from their homes thought in exile of their beloved Newtown.
They flattened the Duke of Edinburgh, the pub where Newtown’s most famous son, Peerless Jim Driscoll, breathed his last. The other pubs too. And the houses and St. Paul’s Church, built in the 1870s, the centre of the community. No need for a policeman in Newtown when the priest walked by. Hard men would touch their foreheads, fights would miraculously end.
The Cardiff rugby legend, the famous Ocker Burns, ran the Duke at one time. He was a cousin of Jim Driscoll whose funeral in 1925 was watched by 100,000. Ocker’s daughter Kitty, who now runs the Royal Oak, Cardiff’s most revered sporting pub, in Broadway, remembers.
“There were no strangers in Newtown. No one was ever left unaided. People were poor, but it was a wonderful community.”
To this huddle of houses just off Bute Street came the McGraths and the O’Keefes and the rest, fresh from the Famine, to begin the dynasties that still survive. They lived in those little houses built in the 1840s, with no proper water supply, no sanitation, their children too often dying young.
Between the wars women brought up as many as 15 children in a couple of rooms, today’s taken-for-granted mod cons somewhere else. But they produced doctors, lawyers and sportsmen, above all, sportsmen. In some ways they were unique. It couldn’t last, though.
And while some were glad to leave what were slums, most felt a sense of melancholy as they moved out.
Before they flattened 200 houses, leaving just a handful of the ‘new’ council houses built just before the war, we wtnessed celebrations, or, if you like, traditional wakes that always surrounded a death in an Irish family. No fewer than 57 members of one Newtown clan, Raffertys, Murphys, O’ Briens, Kennedys, O’ Sheas, and Regans - to name just a few of the cousins, sisters and aunts who made it an all-women party - said their farewells together. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, the Right Reverend J.A. Murphy, begged the city council to reconsider. But in the end the demolition went ahead.
The attachment to these slum homes was great. Which is why one old man sat alone for four hours in the house where he had been born 83 years before. Patrick “Kiker” O’ Leary was “just remembering.”
There’s a lot to remember. When Newtown went, a little of Cardiff’s soul went.