The Irish are in Town: Port Talbot. Part 2

Part 1

Societies like these were a colourful part of the life of both the town and the district – when the English Copper Company returned to Cwmafan after the great Bank of England scandal, there were seven benefit societies in the victory procession. It is possible that this scandal, which occurred in I852, helped to create an atmosphere of religious tolerance in the valley; Mr. Biddulph, who was the manager on behalf of the bank, had persecuted the Nonconformists, and perhaps this contributed to the creation of sympathy between the children of the chapel and the children of the Mass. However this may have been, James O’Brien tells of the Rev. Edward Roberts, leader of the fight against the Biddulphs and owner of a grocer’s shop in Aberafan market; the philosophy behind the shop was to help the poor, regardless of religion or race, Catholics equally with Protestants. Many of the older Catholics called Edward Roberts ‘Father Roberts’, just as though he had been one of their own priests.
James O’Brien himself was born in Cwmafan in I867, and if his account of religious life in the valley sounds a little too pleasant, he comments;”we could certainly bear more ample testimony from our own experience were it necessary.” O’Brien does not mention other parts of the district, but quite possibly the same conditions were true of Margam and Taibach, where the Talbots were less than helpful to the Nonconformists, while Aberafan itself had a history of independent attitudes. Nor was the Rev. Edward Roberts the only minister to prove supportive – men like the Baptist minister, Rev. R.S. Morris, and Rev. Thomas Edwards, a Methodist and a strong supporter of Gladstone’s ideas on Irish home rule, also contributed to peaceful co-existence. This atmosphere of mutual tolerance was to be particularly important at the time of the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin in 1882. Father McCl0ement, who was parish priest of Aberafan at the time, was zealous and strict as a pastor, but also concerned for the earthly comfort of his flock. He had a somewhat aristocratic style, and was friendly with many of the notables of the town. There seems to have been no trouble in Cwmafan when the disturbances that followed the Phoenix Park incident began, but the hooligans in the town – the same kind of ignorant louts who had thrown stones at the skittle alley in earlier years – demonstrated against the Irish, breaking windows and making general mischief. In answer, Father McClement, Marmaduke Tennant, the Town Clerk, and J. M. Smith, shopkeeper and local politician, walked through the town every night, asking for calm. Father McClement also wrote to local employers, asking for support for their Catholic workers. Finally Father McClement and the Mayor of Aberafan, T.D.Daniel, had to call a public meeting in the centre of the town; Father McClement’s words, asking for an end to the troubles, had their effect, and life returned to normal (it is interesting to notice how Irish and Catholic were seen as synonymous by those outside the community).
The Irish population in Aberafan had continued to increase, but although there were streets in the town like Mountain Row which had a majority of Irish residents, generally speaking Aberafan was a mixed community, and this probably helped to ensure the integration of the two groups, Welsh and Irish. By now several of the public houses had Irish names: the ‘Hibernian Arms’, the ‘Shamrock’, the ‘Erin Go Bragh’, perhaps ‘The Old House At Home’. And some of the more intriguing activities of the Irish community began to be visible; the processions of the Hibernian Benefit Society are a good example of this. The townspeople began to share more than colourful events too. One of the processions turned into a tragedy when a carthorse was startled by the noise of the drums and killed a child, a boy called Sheehan.
Another series of processions, the idea of Father McClement, started soon after the Phoenix Park disturbances. There is a long-standing tradition of Whitsun processions among the chapels and churches of Aberafan and Taibach, and though these are now held on Whit Sunday afternoon, a century ago they were Whit Monday celebrations. Hence, when Father McClement had the idea of organising a Catholic procession, he decided to ‘walk’ on Tuesday. The children had a party in the school yard in the afternoon, then, after the party, they changed into their Sunday best. The procession itself began after the 6 p.m. Angelus bell, and over the years the number of those walking rose from 800 to 3000. However, the procession was not only something for the local Catholic population, and at its high point, in the nineteen thirties, some ten thousand townsfolk watched the event, while the walkers themselves included Welsh Protestants, bands like those of Nazareth House Orphans, St. Joseph’s (Greenhill, Swansea) and St. Albans, Cardiff, being joined by the Aberafan Town Band and Cwmafan Silver Band. The procession was also remarkable for its magnificent banners and these were carried by two Rugby forwards, Dan Tobin and Will Hopkins. Hopkins was neither Irish nor Catholic, but he was married to Margaret Meskill and was always happy to take part in his wife’s activities. (Although neither Catholics nor Protestants encourage mixed marriages these were an important element in the integration of the two communities. Will Hopkins himself accepted his wife’s faith before he died, but sometimes the conversion went the other way). This particular series of Whit Walks ended in I939, with the beginning of the Second World War.
The two James O’Briens were another special feature of the processions. One of them – the ‘Silver King’ – rode his horse in front of the procession, and the other – James O’Brien the historian – was one of the four marshals who walked immediately behind the Silver King. The second O’Brien was a character of considerable note in the history of the district.0 As noted earlier, he was born in Cwmafan, where the Irish community predated the Famine by perhaps half a century, and worked at Port Talbot Docks for thirty-two years – seventeen of them as chief superintendent for the employers; he supported the unions but, like his fellow villager Mabon, believed in cooperation and not, like later generations, in confrontation. He was elected to Cwmavon Parish Council before the end of the nineteenth century, and appointed as Overseer of the Poor under the Board of Guardians before moving to Aberafan in 1904. He was appointed as a Justice of the Peace, the first Catholic in the area to hold that office, in 1924.
James O’Brien led his co-religionists in the field of public service, but he also represented his community in his contribution to Welsh culture. He was Chairman of the Aberafan and Margam Historical Society for ten years, and wrote numerous books and articles on the history of the area, so that when the National Eisteddfod came to Aberafan in I932 he was made a member of the Gorsedd of Bards, with the bardic name ‘Gwas Afan’ (‘The Servant of Afan’, a particularly appropriate title). The first Historical Society came to an end because of the Second World War, but its successor, founded after the war, also included members of Irish ancestry, men and women like Margaret Shanahan and Gerard Lahive, who made their own invaluable contributions to local culture.
Although the Catholic community had grown considerably over the years, it continued to worship in St. Joseph’s church. Father James Barton Moore had intended to begin services in Cwmafan, and began to say Mass there in Cwmafan School in I900, but there were too many problems – mainly of timing and the experiment ended after a year. St. Joseph’s was in a central position in the district, of course, but finally the old church became too small for its congregation, and the new parish priest, Father Phillip Kelly, worked towards the building of a new church. Father (later Canon) Kelly was a very thrifty man and an excellent organiser; he built a new, more suitable presbytery and opened Mixed Schools and a new parish hall, but the rebuilt St. Joseph’s church was the summit of his career in the town. Canon Kelly, who was physically strong and much respected, was able to deal with the fights that broke out on a Saturday night when even the police were unable to do so. He was highly regarded by everyone including Protestants and ‘unbelievers’.
As it happened, the respect in which Canon Kelly was held was to be very useful in the nineteen twenties and thirties. There had been attacks on the community before – the hooligans at the time of the first influx, the events at the time of the Phoenix Park affair – but they had mostly been more noisy than dangerous. There had been religious tensions too, certainly, between Catholic and Protestant – neither group, for example, was happy about the idea of mixed marriages. However, such marriages happened, and after half a century one could find the Llewellyn family in St. Joseph’s and the O’Briens in chapel. The war memorials in St. Joseph’s from the two world wars show this: Joseph Jones, Thomas Llewellyn and Stanley Mainwaring are listed side by side with Daniel Crowley, Patrick Murphy and John Fitzgerald. A friend told me the story of his mother’s ancestors: the family came originally from Dublin, but one of them, Annie O’Neill, married a boy from a chapel family – Rees the builders – the same firm, perhaps, that built the new St. Joseph’s church in 1931. The marriage was unusual, but in the end accepted.
However, the same friend also described the history of his paternal great-grandfather, who came from the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry. He arrived first in Dowlais, but there was intense bitterness there because the Welsh workers believed the Irish were undercutting their wage rates. The great-grandfather learnt Welsh in order to avoid being beaten up, but in the end he moved to Aberafan.
Historians do not record whether there were economic problems of this kind in Aberafan or Taibach in the earlier days of the Irish community there, but whatever the original situation may have been, things seem to have changed in the period between the two world wars. The Irish had not remained navvies; some went to work in the pits – and three ‘Irishmen’, Daniel and John Buckley and Patrick Kennedy, died in the major explosion at Morfa Pit in 1890. Others went to work in the Docks, and cut out an ‘Irish corner’ for themselves there. The precise truth of the matter would be difficult to establish, but non-Irish workers said that to be a successful applicant for a job in the Docks one had to be Irish – and, if possible, the son of someone already working there. When there was enough work around, this was not a problem, but once the Depression took hold, the other workers complained bitterly about the situation. There were no major riots in the towns but plenty of mischief and bad feeling, and it was felt necessary to put men with cudgels alongside the Whitsun processions, for fear of attacks by hotheads and bigots.
While these things occurred, there were also more positive developments. James O’Brien became a J.P, and James Noonan became the first Irish mayor of the town. And not every Irishman worked on the Docks; a substantial number were out of work just like their non-Irish fellows, and some of the young men decided to form a ‘jazz band’. There were a great many of these in South Wales at the time and a great many competitions were held for them. St. Joseph’s band called itself ‘The Persian Princes’, but in 1935 the group changed its costume and renamed itself ‘The Jubilee Band’. A third band, ‘The Blue Danubes’, was founded a little later. These three groups were extremely popular, and they collected a great deal of money for the local hospital, though any prizes they won went to the Church funds. The women took part as well, by designing and making the costumes for the bands.
Meanwhile, the one church had served the whole area, from Margam to Baglan, from Pontrhydyfen down to Aberafan, for almost a century – but even if Canon Kelly had intended to build other churches once the new St. Joseph’s was completed, the Depression was not the best time to do this. Canon Quilligan, the next major builder, arrived after the Second World War, in 1951. Mass was already being offered in Margam, in the Henry Davies Memorial Hall, in the Public Library and in the Port Talbot Hotel (now the Taibach Rugby Club) but in the nineteen forties Major Llewellyn David, a local industrialist, sold his house, Maesgwyn, to the Catholic community in Margam. They worshipped in the stables at first, but a new, purpose-built church was opened in 1972.
Canon Quilligan also began to hold Mass in Cwmafan in 1972. This was part of a thoroughly ecumenical story – in the spirit of James O’Brien! The vicar of Cwmafan had offered the Catholic community the use of St. Michael’s church for their services, but they decided to use the parish hall instead. Then, a year or two later, the minister of Salem Chapel approached Canon Quilligan; the chapel congregation had decreased and the minister did not want to see the chapel itself turned into a warehouse or a bingo hall. The chapel was sold to the Canon, and opened as St. Philip’s Church (after the martyr Philip Evans of Sker) in 1974. In Cwmafan too there was a long-standing tradition of Whitsun processions and the Cwmafan Council of Churches invited the congregation of St. Philip’s to join in the celebration.
A little earlier the building of the Abbey Works of the Steel Company of Wales had led in turn to the building of a vast council estate in Sandfields, and there was need for a parish there too. The church of St. Therese of Lisieux was opened in 1971, and Father Sean Kearney, the second of its parish priests, followed the old tradition of social concern. He set up a credit union, and initiated, with Dan O’Neill and others, the Margam Passion Play, intended as a community project – but one that came to involve Port Talbot as whole.
The Irish had arrived in Aberafan for the most part without either money or skills; there was prejudice too, against both the Irish and the Catholics. However, they had the Church as a focal point for their lives, somewhere to find support and advice, and they also had a great pride in their Irish identity and the network of family and other connections that came from it. That initial influx has continued for over a century and a half – the first Irish mayor of Port Talbot was born in Ireland – and it was easy for the incomers to remember that their origins lay across the sea. In the spring of 1922 the local Gaelic League had 240 eager students. Yet in the end the newcomers had become natives of Aberafan. When the Aberafan Green Stars went to Ireland recently, the Irish told them ‘You’re Welshmen now!’ – like Richard Wright or James Baldwin in Africa. Their Irish inheritance has been of great importance to them – sometimes as a gift, sometimes as a burden – but it has also been important to the town, which would have been much the poorer and drabber without them. Yes, there's an Irishman in the town – and thank the Lord for that.

The above is the English text of the lecture delivered in Welsh during the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli by Port Talbot historian and writer, Sally Roberts Jones, who has learned that language. She got involved in the history of the Irish famine and its effects in Wales more than 20 years before the setting up of the Wales Famine Forum. In the early 1970s a radio play she had based on the story of an Irish family that had sought refuge in Port Talbot during the famine was broadcast by BBC Wales.

Part 1

Published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002