The Catholic priest who was there when they built the giant Llanwern Steelworks at Newport is stunned and saddened by the decision of the Anglo-Dutch company Corus to stop steel making at the plant, with the loss of 2,000 jobs.
Fr Owen Sweeney was Chaplain to the thousands of Catholic workers, mainly Irishmen, who worked for McAlpine, the main contractor who moved on to the site on August 8, 1959.
“The Spencer Works at Llanwern is a monument to civil engineering and during the three years it was being constructed more than 40,000 men passed through the site, including around 15,000 Irishmen, mostly Catholics whom I had the privilege to serve,” said Fr Sweeney who is now based at Sandymount parish in his native Dublin.
“At the peak of construction, 11,000 men were employed by 350 contractors and close on 5,000 of these were from Ireland. When the first cooling tower was finished, at 400ft it was the highest point on the site, the Irish Tricolour and the Red Dragon of Wales were flown from it in triumph.
“During the three years that the plant was being built a total of 31 construction workers were killed and the hardest part of my job as a chaplain was giving the last rites to thevictims. Hundreds of men were injured and dealt with by two doctors and 25 nurses, There were two ambulances and six surgeries on the site.
“The men who built Llanwern were not clothed in soft garments. They lived hard lives, separated from their loved ones at home in Ireland – except for a few weeks in the year. They started work at 6am and continued until late evening, or sometimes the next morning.
“They worked up to their knees in mud in the face of driving rain and biting wind. At the end of the shift they went home – not to a loving woman and the laughter of children, but to the loneliness of a room in a building on the camp which was part of the site, or to the discomfort of an overcrowded lodging house.
“The more I became closer to the lives of these men the more I came to appreciate the inestimable value of their contribution to human well-being. I came to regard them as the true nobility of society, humble hard-working men who rarely complained about their lot.
“Pye Corner Hostel, just outside the Llanwern site, was three miles from the centre of Newport. Having passed through Checkpoint Charlie, as it was called, at the Brandenburg Gates, you were in McAlpine’s Hostel on camp. This accommodated 1,300 men in good accommodation with good facilities, a canteen, television rooms, a medical centre with a sick bay and a shop.
“There was also a post office outside of which there were long queues every Friday evening, as Irishmen sent cash telegrams home to their families.”
Fr Sweeney’s Priest’s House was a terrapin pre-fabricated building, alongside a church which was attached to the hostel. “In those days McAlpine had a resident Catholic Chaplain in all their large hostels as most of their employees were Irish.”
Speaking on one occasion in the Camp Church in 1962, the late Archbishop John Murphy, of Cardiff made a very profound statement: “An Irishman cannot live decently without his faith; his faith is woven into his nature and without it he is like a fish out of water. As long as he is living up to his faith he is the best in the world.”
Fr Sweeney commented: “Perhaps McAlpines had that criterion in mind in providing religious facilities in their hostels – and in advertisements for workers in Irish papers where they always stated: Resident Catholic Chaplain and Church on site.”
The camp church, which seated 400, was a story in itself, said Fr Sweeney. “The basic building was provided by McAlpines, but the workers added all the extras. A very beautiful altar and sanctuary was constructed from oak panelling from the ‘Empress of France’ liner which was being broken up in Newport Docks.
“The liner’s bell became our church bell and was mounted on a brick tower, proudly erected by a group of bricklayers from Derry, Our organ was donated by a Protestant family living near the site. The children’s choir came from 200 mobile homes alongside the works.
“In that little church we had , between three Masses, a regular Sunday congregation of over 700 and about 150 on weekday evenings. More inspiring still was the regular stream of men making a visit to the church on their to work in the early morning or on their way to bed at night. The church was always open from 6am to midnight.”
Fr Sweeney’s duties as a Chaplain were not confined to religious activities. He was at the men’s service, day and night, for any kind of need. He signed countless forms and dealt with hundreds of family problems. He also ran a non-profit making travel agency, arranging flights and sailings for men returning to Ireland. Four times a year, at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and August, he charted special flights to Dublin and Belfast and charged the men just £10 return.
He laid on buses to take children from the mobile homes to a Catholic School in Newport, found lodgings for men arriving at the works and published a monthly newspaper, The Newport Irishman, which had a circulation of 10,000.
“Those were great days, a human story behind a gigantic industrial enterprise and one that must not be forgotten with the ending of steel making of the plant, of which I have nostalgic memories,” concluded Fr Sweeney, who was director of the London Irish Centre for six years after leaving Llanwern. He was later president of Clonliffe Seminary, in Dublin.
Fr Sweeney’s diary includes some amazing facts and figures about the building of Llanwern by a total workforce of 42,000 men, including 15,000 Irishmen. The gangs of navvies built 20 miles of temporary and 20 miles of permanent roads within the site.
During the first six months of the contract a total of 1,000 lorries carried over 5,000 loads to the site, every 24 hours - an average of 350 loads an hour. Newport traffic was virtually brought to a standstill.
A total of 93,000 piles were driven into the ground - at an average depth of 43ft, although some of the piles were sunk up to a depth of 80ft.
Into the vacuum, a total of 750,00 cubic yards of concrete was poured and 40,000 tons of reinforced rods were installed. This operation required ten million square feet of shuttering.
The preparation work was needed before 72,000 tons of steelworks could be erected on the site, where ten million bricks were used.
By John O’Sullivan, journalist and historian. Born in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, he has lived and worked in Cardiff for many years. He is Press Officer and PRO of the Wales Famine Forum.