‘A new Irish invasion’?

Twentieth century immigration and the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in Wales.

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Between 1840 and 1900 thousands crossed the Irish sea to escape the devastating famine and to find work in the burgeoning industrial Welsh towns. The remarkable growth of the Catholic Church in Wales in the nineteenth century has long been recognised as the result of this immigration from Ireland. During the twentieth century, however, the numbers of Catholics in the Principality continued to grow quite dramatically. In 1926, a newspaper in Detroit, Michigan, noted that “the Archdiocese of Cardiff is on the way to becoming one of the most important Catholic strongholds in Great Britain” (quoted in St. Peter’s Parish Magazine, 4 (2) (1924), 37) and by 1960 the Western Mail (15 February, 1960, 4) could still write of typical “crowded Catholic churches, where the congregation spills over into the aisles and there are not enough chairs to go around”. Statistics support such contemporary reports. In the inter-war years, while the Welsh population actually decreased in size, the Catholic Church increased by 64%, from 67,560 to 105,580. The post-war years saw a similar increase, with the number of Catholics swelling to 142,881 by 1971. At a time when other denominations were rapidly losing adherents, due in part to a rapid secularisation, the Catholic Church was experiencing considerable growth.(see Table 1)
The reasons for the success of the Catholic Church in Wales in the twentieth century are complex. The Church’s pastoral system (always closely following Papal instruction) certainly contributed positively to its progress during this time. The denunciation of marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics (‘mixed marriages’), which although forbidden in principle were accepted (subject to a number of conditions) in practice, often led to the conversion of the non-Catholic partner. Rather than independent native Welsh conversions, which were (numerically at least) insignificant, it was these ‘marriage’ conversions which largely made up the average of 600 converts a year between the 1920s and 1960s. This emphasis on marriages between Catholics was also helpful in arresting the drift away from the Church. Certainly, the Welsh episcopal reaction to the leakage among the faithful helped in the Church’s expansion. Missions to scattered Catholics in rural areas were organised regularly, attempts were made to engender a strong sense of Catholic community in towns, non-attendance at Mass was constantly criticised, and provision of Catholic education for children was a high priority.
Ultimately, however, most of the Catholic expansion in the twentieth century can again be attributed to continuing immigration. The nature of this influx, however, was quite different to that in the previous century and this was due to two main reasons. The first difference concerns the geographical spread of the Irish immigration. During the nineteenth century, Irish workers were attracted largely to the thriving industries on the south-east coast of Wales. 1861 was the high-point of this immigration, with as much as 5% of the population of both Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, and around 2% of that of Breconshire, having been born in Ireland (Jackson, p. 12). So many Irish immigrants settled in the Greenhill area of Swansea from the 1840s onwards that it became known locally as ‘Little Ireland’ (Price, passim). Certainly this influx also affected parts of industrial north-east Wales. The original nucleus of the present Catholic community at Mold, for example, was a group of Irish workers who settled in the town during the nineteenth century (Joy, passim). Similarly, when a chemical works was opened at Flint in 1852, many Irishmen were among the employees (J.Rudd, ‘Catholic Life in Flint’, Menevia Record, 5 (1) (1957, 3.). Largely, however, it was the Catholic Church in south-east Wales (which became in 1916 the Archdiocese of Cardiff) that benefited from the nineteenth century immigration.
There were times, indeed, between the 1920s and 1960s when the influx from Ireland to Wales again became quite heavy. In that period, however, the immigration attained a far more comprehensive geographical spread. Not only were new immigrant Irish workers continuing to arrive in the Archdiocese of Cardiff, but the rest of Wales also found itself attracting labourers. In the inter-war years this was largely due to the relative prosperity of the north-east Wales industries (iron, steel, rayon and building) and the development of tourism along the north coast and in Pembrokeshire. After the second world war ‘a new Irish invasion’ (Gwynn, p. 12) was even more marked and sustained. Economic revival, reflected in the vast projects along the coastline of industrial south Wales following the war, drew large numbers of Irish workers. Such industrial projects included oil terminals in Milford Haven and Llandarcy (near Neath), tin plate production at Trostre (Llanelli), and steel in Margam (Port Talbot) and Llanwern (Newport). Attracted by higher wages and better working conditions the immigrants brought to Catholicism across Wales “a reinforcement almost comparable to the earlier flood of immigration after the famine years” (Gwynn, p.49). (seeTable 2)
The influence of this new wave of immigration on the diocese of Wrexham can be seen in the development of the parish of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Established in 1945, the work on the hydroelectric scheme in the late 1950s brought so many Irish workers to the district that the church’s weekly congregation was said to be overflowing (Menevia Record, 9 (3) (1962) 3-4). So great was the number of Irishmen employed to construct the atomic power station at nearby Trawsfynydd that a full-time Catholic chaplain was appointed to provide for their special needs (ibid). Irish immigrants also flocked to the north-east Wales industries such as the new coalmine at Point of Ayr and tin plate production at Shotton (Flint) as well as to the tourist industries of the coastal towns. In fact, the increase in the numbers of Irish-born people in the north Wales counties can be starkly contrasted with the decrease in those in the more densely populated counties of the south. The numbers of Irish-born in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire in 1951, although still around 1% of the population, had sharply decreased in comparison with the figures for the turn of the century of around 5% and 2.5% respectively. In the north, however, the percentage of Irish-born inhabitants increased in every county. Both Anglesey and Caernarfonshire had their highest ever recorded figures of Irish born in 1951, with as much as 2.5% and 1% respectively. In Denbighshire and Flintshire figures rose from no more than 0.2% at the turn of the century, to around 1% after the war (Jackson, pp. 16, 20). In 1960 a Congregationalist minister, the Rev. Ivor V. Cassam, estimated that since 1945 as many as 4,000 Southern Irishmen a year had found employment in Wales. He calculated that between 45,000 and 60,000 Irishmen had entered Wales since the war, and this figure did not include wives and children (Western Mail, 15 March 1960, 4).
The second major difference between the nineteenth and twentieth century immigration of Catholics into Wales was that the new immigrants were not exclusively from Ireland. Following the war especially, the revitalised Welsh industries and the north Wales tourist industry attracted English as well as Irish workers. Elderly immigrants also moved in from England, often to retirement homes. By 1966 one in five people living in Wales was born outside the principality. Although the influx of English people into the country was causing problems for Wales and its language, for the Catholic Church it assisted growth and development. Many of those moving to the Principality were from cities heavily populated with Catholics (again due initially to the nineteenth century influx from Ireland), such as Liverpool and Manchester. The growth of Catholicism in the north Wales coastal resorts such as Llandudno, Colwyn Bay, and Rhyl (which were also popular retirement towns) was the consequence of English immigration. In other towns across Wales there was a similar trend. In the parish of Aberystwyth in 1955, for example, the number of Catholics born in England and Scotland (31%) far outnumbered those born in Wales (22%) or Ireland (15%) (Michael P. Fogarty, ‘A Social Survey of the Parish of Aberystwyth’, (1955), p. 2; in Menevia Diocesan Archives: Aberystwyth File).
The evacuation of children, civil servants, academics and bankers from England into districts of Wales during the second world war also contributed to the Church’s expansion. Although many evacuees returned to their homes after the war, others stayed behind – either through choice or because of the difficulties in obtaining housing in the devastated cities. “Catholics in their hundreds”, one historian wrote about Rhyl, “were exiled from Manchester, Liverpool and the big industrial towns of the Midlands and settled down to live there” (Menevia Record, 4 (3) (1957), 10). In the more rural areas those Catholic evacuees who remained in Wales often formed the nucleus of parishes which themselves attracted further Catholics. Thus the “unorganised and temporary dispersal from the cities into the country areas produced lasting results” (Gwynn, p. 50).
As well as benefiting from Ireland and England the Catholic Church also, surprisingly, benefited from immigration from further afield. During the first world war there was an influx of Catholic Belgian refugees into the country. Most settled in towns where Catholic communities were already established in places such as Mold ( Joy), Aberystwyth (Kiely, p. 34) and Milford Haven (Menevia Record, 4 (2) (1956), 2) where the immigration was so heavy that the Church had to be enlarged, or close to convents of French-speaking nuns (German, p. 26). Others, however, were reported to have settled in isolated areas, where priests, such as those of the Passionist Order at Carmarthen, travelled many miles to reach them (Randall, p. 24). There was also much Italian immigration in these years, largely to Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. By 1921 there were over 1500 people of Italian birth in Wales. Most of these immigrants went into the catering business, with perhaps as many as 400 Italian cafes and restaurants in the principality in the inter-war years (Hughes, pp. 23-4).
During and following the second world war many more Italians, and also Germans and Poles, settled in Wales, either as a result of being refugees, prisoners of war, or simply because of their search for work. The substantial number of German prisoners is shown in the Menevia Diocese’s requests to Westminster for extra German prayer books (Westminster Diocesan Archives: Griffin Papers Box 24/4). Likewise, the presence of Italian prisoners in Menevia during the war made it necessary for Bishop Hannon to write special pastoral letters in Italian (German, p. 43). Many of these continental immigrants, such as those in Conwy (Williams, p. 22) and Mold (Joy, pp. 32-3) remained in Wales following the war, and were often joined by relatives from abroad. A report in 1957 on the Capuchin Travelling Mission of Pantasaph noted that a number of the Mass Centres it was serving were made up predominantly of Italians (Menevia Record, 4 (4) (1957), 9). Large Italian communities could also be found at Newtown in mid Wales and at Lawrenny near Pembroke Dock, the latter of which became known as ‘Little Italy in Little England’. Most of these had taken up farming, as had many Polish families near Lampeter and in Pembrokeshire (Western Mail, 18 Feb. 1960, 6; Menevia Record, 1 (3) (1954), 4). From 1946, at the request of Cardinal Griffin of Westminster, thirteen Polish Resettlement Camps were opened across Wales (Westminster Diocesan Archives: Griffin Papers Box 2/44). Bishop Petit of Menevia’s desire to provide pastoral oversight for the subsequent immigrant communities is shown in his enthusiastic correspondence with the Polish Catholic Mission in London, which supplied Polish priests to the diocese (Menevia Diocesan Archives: Aberystwyth File). There were also Catholic immigrants from Hungary in Aberystwyth (Kiely, p. 86), from Yugoslavia in Hirwaun, Brecon (Menevia Diocesan Archives: Brecon File) and from Spain, again in Aberystwyth (Menevia Diocesan Archives: Aberystwyth File).
A social survey of the parish of Aberystwyth in 1955, if taken as a microcosm of the wider situation, shows the extent to which immigrants from the continent were strengthening the hitherto predominantly Irish church of the principality. Out of a community of 135 Catholics, 20% were born in Italy. This was 5% more than those born in Ireland, and only 2% less than those born in Wales itself! (Fogarty, op. cit., p. 2) Sermons were preached and church notices given in the Italian language (Kiely, p. 79). A further 8% of Aberystwyth Catholics had been born in Poland and 4% originated from elsewhere on the continent (Fogarty, op. cit., p. 2). In the 1961 census the numbers of Italian and Polish-born living in the principality was shown to be very high. Of all people born outside Wales (with the exception of those born in Ireland and, of course, the rest of Britain) Italians formed the largest group with over 4,600, while the Polish formed the third largest contingent with almost 3,600 (Census 1961).
Although it never reached the proportions of the Irish Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century, the numbers of Irish, English, and European Catholic immigrants to Wales during the twentieth century was certainly substantial. “No total picture of religious affiliations in Wales”, wrote Rev. Cassam, “can discount such significant numbers” (Western Mail, 15 March 1960, 4). It was also due to this wave of immigration that (in general) Catholics were markedly younger than their non-Catholic neighbours. In the parish of Aberystwyth only 5% of Catholics were over 60 years of age, compared to the general Cardiganshire figure of 20% (Fogarty, op. cit., p. 2). This would have brought to the Church a constant renewal of zeal and vigour, and contributed (along with the effect of the Welsh bishops’ incessant condemnation of birth control) to a high birth-rate among Catholics.
It is clear, then, that the legacy immigration has given to the development of the Catholic Church in Wales runs far deeper than the nineteenth century influx of Irish workers. Twentieth century immigration to Wales certainly differed from the previous century in its geographical spread and also included notable numbers of immigrants from countries besides Ireland. It is, however, still evident that it was immigration, more than any other external reason, which led to the great expansion in Catholic numbers during the twentieth century.


Census 1961 England and Wales: Birthplace and Nationality Tables (London, 1964).
G.B.German, A History of the Diocese of Menevia: 1898-1987 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Liverpool, 1991).
Denis Gwynn, ‘Great Britain: England and Wales’, in Patrick Corish (Ed.), A History of Irish Catholicism, Volume 6 (Dublin, 1968).
Colin Hughes, Lime, Lemon & Sarsaparilla: The Italian Community in South Wales 1881-1945 (1991).
John Archer Jackson, The Irish in Britain (London, 1963).
Margaret Joy, A History of St. David’s Roman Catholic Parish, Church and School, Mold (1992).
M.B.Kiely, Annals of the Parish of Our Lady of the Angels and St. Winefride, Aberystwyth (1973).
R.T. Price, Little Ireland: Aspects of the Irish and Greenhill, Swansea (Swansea, 1992).
Alan Randall, The Passionists at Carmarthen 1889-1986: A Commemorative Booklet (1986).
Margaret Williams, Catholicism in Conwy 1186-1993 (1993).

: Dr. Trystan Hughes, to whom we are very grateful for permitting us to publish this research paper. When he wrote it Dr. Hughes was Teaching Assistant, University of Wales, Bangor, but soon afterwards he was appointed Head of the School of Religious and Theological Studies, Trinity College, Carmarthen.

Published in The Green Dragon No 8, Spring 1999.

Another article by the same author : Crossing cultural boundaries