“The Irish immigrants were pouring in from Kenfig Sands; in their hundreds they came, the men scarecrowed with hunger, the tattered women with their skeleton babies lurching on their backs.
‘Irish, Irish!’ The cry of alarm rose above Taibach…
“What began as a trickle grew into a flood of humanity that choked the Welsh lanes; they filled the barns, stole from the orchards, rifled larders… They came in droves across the sands of Kenfig and Margam and the industrialists cornered them and signed them on at starvation wages… the navvies stared down into the valley at the crawling black snake of immigrants from Kenfig Sands where the boats were unloading.”
This is certainly colourful – but inaccurate. ‘The Fire People’ is the story of Dic Penderyn and the Merthyr Rising, but these events occurred in 1831 – almost twenty years before the Famine and the main influx from Ireland. There were indeed Irish in the town in Dic’s time – but not droves or black snakes on the beaches of Aberafan. In fact the first residents of Irish origin arrived long before that; among the older placenames in the district are Cae Cnwc, Cilygofid, Cilcarn, perhaps Emroch (the unidentified name of a mountain behind Aberafan town), all names with Irish roots. And then there is the Pumpeius Carantorius stone in the Stones Museum at Margam, a monument bearing an Ogham inscription (‘Ogham’ being a script of Irish origin). A little later medieval English kings and Irish chieftains passed through Aberafan on their way to or from the English Court. There were also a great many comings and goings through the harbour at Aberafan. One of the families that came from Ireland at the time of the Famine was the Kenefick family, and recently one of the Keneficks decided to look for his Irish ancestors and also for the origins of his very unusual name. After a time the answer came – the first Kenefick had reached Ireland from a thoroughly Celtic location – by the name of Kenfig Hill. And then there were marriages that came about through the harbour, marriages like that of Margaret, of the Longdon family of Aberafan, to William Davies Kelly of Roscommon. Sailors, traders, victims of shipwrecks, all kinds of people came to Aberafan, but in general they were individuals and visitors, not settlers – though one small group did stay, for the saddest of reasons. Mrs. Mary Moore, her four daughters and three sons were drowned on Aberafan Sands during a great storm, and were buried in St. Mary’s churchyard.
The first recorded Irishman to settle himself in the area in recent centuries was a man called O’Reilly. He had taken part in the 1798 Rising in Ireland, then escaped to Wales and set up home in the little village of Cwmafan, where he married and started a family. O’Reilly was escaping from political unrest, but other Irishmen and women came for rather more peaceful reasons. Some were vagrants, like the family of young Owen Daly who died in the town in 1837, while others came as navvies, to work on the roads and canals and still others came yearly to work on farms across the country at harvest time. And in the Afan district there was an Irishwoman in the castle, because C. R. M. Talbot, Squire of Margam, married Lady Charlotte Butler, daughter of the Earl of Glengall; the wedding was held at Cahir Castle in Tipperary. Hence the distinguished Miss Emily Charlotte Talbot, her brother Theodore and their sisters Olivia and Bertha, were half Irish. Lady Charlotte died young, before the Famine, but it is possible that her own origins helped to smooth the way for her fellow-country people. ‘The Fire People’ was mentioned earlier; Alexander Cordell had intended to write a novel about the coming of the Irish to South Wales and the persecution they suffered in this new, foreign country. He researched his story in Aberafan and Taibach. However, after writing five chapters he realised that there had not been sufficient problems in that area to make a good story. I remember him telling me that this was why he turned to the history of Dic Penderyn as a better theme for the novel.
The potato blight struck Ireland in the autumn of 1845, but the worst effects were not seen until the following year. There were only a few Irish people living in the Aberafan district in the early eighteen forties – James O’Brien, first historian of the town, lists names like those of Mrs. Collins and her family in Pleasant Row, Mr. Hennessey on Cwmafan Road and Mr. Driscoll the cobbler in Sandfields, but the 1841 census adds John Keefe and Richard Walsh, both born outside Wales, and also, perhaps, Michael Barry. These three men were nailers – skilled workers. Parish registers in Swansea add names like Michael Donohue, John Lane and Andrew McCarthy, all from Cwmafan, but the census offers only Timothy Maloney and his family as residents born outside Wales. Maloney himself was a labourer. If there was a small Irish community in Aberafan or Cwmafan before the Famine, then its membership was very fluid.
The major exodus began to flood out of Ireland at the end of 1846. The majority of local immigrants came from the southern counties, Cork and Waterford in particular, and they were Catholics. This was to prove of great importance – the incomers were not alone in a foreign land, but part of a family of belief with a support system in place, and belonging to such a family gave them a sense of empowerment and identity. It is clear that over the years Irish Protestants must also have come to the town – to the harbour in particular – but as a group they simply disappeared. without trace.
In the early years the local Irish Catholics had to travel to Swansea for their church services and this was a long, dangerous journey either through Neath or else in small boats across the river at Briton Ferry. However, in I849 Father Charles Kavanagh came to Aberafan to say Mass in public – the first since the Tudor period; this occurred in the front room of a cottage in Pleasant Row, the home of Timothy Maloney (formerly of Cwmafan). There was not enough room in the house for all the congregation and part of the crowd had to stand outside in the street. Father Kavanagh came often after that, to places like Mrs. Donovan’s cottage in Talbot Street, near the Ship Inn, or to a skittle alley behind the Railway Hotel in Water Street, not yet to a church. There were problems at the skittle alley because hooligans would stand on the railway embankment and throw stones at the congregation and so some of the men stood watch over the services. It was the men, too, who prepared the room for the Sunday services – in all probability because of the hooligans.
In his book Old Afan and Margam James O’Brien tells a very pleasant story about the arrival of the Irish community. Very often the captains of the ships which brought the immigrants from Ireland would land the travellers on the sands – particularly Kenfig Sands – leaving them to walk to the town. One such group found shelter in a barn belonging to Lower Court Farm, and when the farmer, a man called Robert Jones, saw smoke rising above the roof, he hurried to the building to see what had happened. There he saw men, women and children in rags and starving and at once he went to get boiled potatoes and milk for them. After that, many of the newcomers found shelter in Maes-y-Cwrt Barn, and also in Stallcourt Barn in Margam.
But not everything was as pleasant as that. O’Brien himself tells a story of vandalism in the temporary church by the railway, and I remember a story I heard from an old friend, Mrs. Davies, about her forefathers. The family landed on the beach on a cold day and began to walk through the muddy lanes; they had no food and the children were starving hungry. Then they came to a farm gate; the farmer’s wife and. son were standing by the gate, looking at them, and the boy was eating a piece of bread. The woman noticed that the Irish children were hungry, and she sent the boy to get another piece of bread. Then, when it arrived, she threw the bread down, into the mud, saying, ‘That’s good enough for you!’
As a rule, however, things were rather less painful. At that point the majority of the Irishmen had no industrial skills – most of them had been farmers – and so they offered no challenge to the local craftsmen (others did; like the Cornish tin miners who came to Taibach a little later on to work at Morfa Pit). And, much like today’s immigrants, they tended to settle together. In Cwmafan, Dan-y-Coed Row, nicknamed ‘Bando’ Row after the popular game, turned into Bandon Row because so many families from Cork made their home there (43% in 1851). The same thing happened in Aberafan, where Irish communities grew up in Charlotte Street and Mountain Row, in the middle of the town (Charlotte Street was particularly appropriate of course, named after Lady Charlotte Butler Talbot). However these places did not become ‘Irish ghettos’; they were mixed societies.
Meanwhile, the hour had called forth the man. Father Kavanagh had not arrived of his own accord, but thanks to the efforts of a young man called John King. Perhaps King, like O’Reilly before him, had been escaping from political difficulties; James O’Brien commented that “he had played an active part in the age-old struggle for Ireland’s freedo”’. In any case, once in Wales, King turned his attention to the needs of the Irish community. He organised a meeting of the local Catholics – who were, at the time, about 140 all told, made up of I8 families and a fair number of bachelors – and was elected Secretary of the group and directed to write to the authorities of the Church to ask for a priest. We tend to think of the immigrants as poor, without skills and often without education, but there is no telling how many John Kings travelled across the Irish Sea at that time. In Wales he was a workman, but he had been educated at Mount Melleray Abbey in Waterford, and according to O’Brien (who had known him) “he was one of the best educated working men we have ever met.” A little later on King was the architect for the first St. Joseph’s church in Aberafan. The official histories include the names of the clergy – and those men were certainly of the greatest importance – but often they did not stay long, and it was men like John King – and women too, of course – most of them never mentioned in the records – who were the essential mortar in the building of the community.
The first resident priest, Father Genzwiowski, or Generoski, as he was most often called, a doctor from Poland, came a year or two later. He arrived at the end of 1851 and stayed for only about eighteen months, but he established the first Catholic church in the town, in Moriah Chapel. Moriah had been built by the Baptists, but over the years it became a thoroughly ecumenical building housing, at various times, the Independents, the Wesleyans and the Salvation Army as well as the Catholics, before it was demolished to make way for the M4 motorway. Father Generoski had language problems – he was not fluent in English, and in all probability spoke no Gaelic at all. This may have been why he failed to keep records of church matters – births, marriages and deaths; these records only began at Christmas, 1853, when a new priest, Father William Marshall, arrived. The community had grown again – up to three hundred souls by now – and Father Marshall realised that his congregation would soon outgrow Moriah. He decided to buy a piece of land called the Croft, which was being auctioned by the brothers Jones. The Joneses clearly had no objection to selling the land to the Catholics, but not everyone agreed, and so the leading men of the parish arranged that a stranger should bid on their behalf at the auction; the bigots did not see through the scheme – and were furious when they realised what had happened.
However, the church was not to be built during Father Marshall’s time in Aberafan, and the congregation continued to worship in Moriah until 1860, after the arrival of Father Edward Glassbrook. As has already been mentioned, John King was the architect of both the church and the presbytery and worked on the building as a stone mason. The woodwork of the church was entrusted to Thomas Jones, one of the brothers who had sold the land to them, not a Catholic himself, but a friend. The new church of St. Joseph’s was the mother-church for the area as a whole at that point, and Father Glassbrook also had responsibility for the Catholics in Neath and Maesteg; he lived at Penrhiwtyn, on the way to Neath, until the presbytery was built. Maesteg became a separate parish in 1872 and Neath seventeen years after that.
It would be all too easy to see the history of the Roman Catholic Church over the last two centuries in Aberafan town or in Wales as a whole, as the history of the Irish in the same place and period. Yet, as has already been noted, not every Irish man or woman belonged to the church of Rome – nor was every Catholic a faithful son or daughter of the Church. And, of course, not every member of the Church was Irish – the first Catholic mayor of Port Talbot was Karl Wehrle, a lawyer who came originally from Germany. The first Irish mayor of the town, in 1938, was a man from County Cork, by the name of John Noonan; new immigrants constantly renewed the Irish influence on the community. The three parish priests who made the most obvious contribution to the buildings and institutions of the Church in Aberafan – Father McClement, Father Kelly and Canon Quilligan – were all born in Ireland. Yet without the Church it is likely that the Irish community would simply have disappeared, like those from Cornwall or Somerset; it provided both a meeting place for the immigrants and their families, and a mark of identity to people in the outside world.
The first St. Joseph’s church opened officially in June 1862, and in the following autumn an article about the church and the area was published. in The Tablet: “The Catholics… are exclusively of the poorest class… of late [they] have suffered greatly from the depression of trade. Many have their wages reduced 20%, while others are paid in food and articles of clothing from the shop, and in money about every eight weeks; and thus . . . have little or nothing to contribute to the support of their pastor…”
This description has an element of special pleading of course – the authorities were trying to raise money in order to complete the church and build schools – but there were no streets of gold in Aberafan for the Irish or, indeed, for anyone except the employers.
Perhaps we should note here that among the guests at the opening ceremony of St. Joseph’s was Mr. Theodore Talbot, the half-Irish heir of Margam Castle, although the Talbots were not usually tolerant of anyone except members of the Established Church (according to James O’Brien, there were many of the local gentry at the ceremony, but Theodore Talbot is the only one he names).
As has already been noted, although Father Marshall planned the new church, St. Joseph’s was actually built during the pastorate of Father Edward Glassbrook. Father Glassbrook was an excellent pastor, in worldly matters as well as the spiritual life of his flock. He was a farmer, but he also had to act as a doctor and as an amateur lawyer – though he was better at healing indigestion and rheumatism than he was at the law. He played a public role too, joining with the ministers of other churches in their campaign against drunkenness, and attending another meeting in the same year, 1863, which considered ways of helping the families of the miners who had died in an explosion in the Morfa Pit. One of the dead was an Irishman – Michael Crowley – of a family well-known in the town today.
By then there were about five or six hundred Catholics in the area, and, as The Tablet reported, the majority of them were very poor; because of this, Father Glassbrook encouraged the men to join a group such as the local Hibernian Benefit Society, which in I864 had 82 members and a fund of ĢI27. The benefit society was not only concerned with saving money; it also had a social aspect, with processions and bands.