Respectable and Sober? Irish Immigrants in Wales, 1850 – 1890: Part 2

Against this background ensuring that public celebrations did not upset the Welsh was crucially important. After the festival had been made respectable the general feeling was that the celebrations of St. Patrick's Day were entirely consistent with the customs and values of Welsh society. A change was observed in the attitude of that Aberdare paper which had hammered the navvies for their bad behaviour in 1850, when the paper had expressed the hope that the festival would never again be celebrated in the town. On one such event in the 1860s, for example, the paper had referred to the "exemplary propriety" of those taking part. One can get an idea of the character of the celebrations in the town from the following report in 1872:

"ST. PATRICK’S DAY. - This event was celebrated to-day by a grand procession of the Catholic clergy and the Hibernian Club. Many of the streets were gaily decorated, and the inhabitants turned out in hundreds to witness the display. Among the most noticeable features of the procession, we may notice were Dr. Corry’s company of Hibernian Minstrels, 18 in number, wearing national emblems, and conveyed in well-appointed equipages. They were well received, and some of the more popular members were frequently greeted with cheers. We may add that the day was suitably celebrated at the Music Hall by the introduction of original national songs and the display of allegorical tableaux."

These were events to be observed, and the appearance of those taking part was central to their success. The men wore black coats and white trousers with a silk hat and white gloves. They would often wear a green scarf or a sash with an image of an Irish harp to complete the ensemble. Dressing in that fashion was a way of declaring that they belonged to the respectable echelons of society, the sort of people who could afford clothes very different from those they wore to work.
In addition to their dress the banners carried by those who took part in the marches gave clear indications of a distinct Irish image. Unfortunately not one of them has survived but the press drew attention to them sufficiently often for us to form a clear idea of what some of them were like. From these descriptions we get some idea of the thinking and iconography of the respectable Irish. Let us take as an example a report about a march by the Saint Patrick's Total Abstinence Society in Cardiff in 1861. This association had been set up relatively recently but boasted 575 members, both men and women. In the procession the members were "not only well but most respectably attired", and they carried "splendid and costly banners and flags, mounted upon the richest silk and painted by first class artists".
Religion was one of the most obvious themes on the banners. From the descriptions one could say that Catholic symbolism had an obvious and powerful influence on them. On one banner made by the wife of the French Consul in Cardiff and which had been presented to the Catholic band, St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, had been portrayed. Among the many other banners were two large ones made of silk, one showing an image of St. Patrick and the other bearing a tableau showing the Virgin Mary trampling on what was called the 'drink demon'.
Thus, rather than showing their alienation from urban life in Wales, the feast of St. Patrick provided the opportunity to develop an immigrant identity which incorporated religion, respectability and peaceful patriotism. This way of of expressing Irish identity had become firmly established in south Wales by the 1860s in spite of the attempts by some groups to hijack the festival in the name of a militant and aggressive nationalism. For example, a branch of a movement called The National Brotherhood of St. Patrick was set up in Cardiff in the 1860s. This organisation had strong links with the Fenians, nationalists who intended to establish an independent Irish republic by force. But, on the whole, attempts to separate the image of St. Patrick from the respectable one that had been so assiduously cultivated did not succeed.
The feast also gave the authorities in the various towns the chance to congratulate the Irish on their good behaviour. On the 18th of March, 1882, for example, the Chief Constable of Cardiff wrote to the Parish priest of St. Peter's in Roath to inform him that not one defendant had appeared before the court on that day. "Yesterday being St. Patrick’s Day," he wrote, "it spoke very well for the Irish residents of Cardiff". The letter reveals quite a lot about the expectations of the Chief Constable because if he had not anticipated some degree of disturbance on that day he would not have gone to the trouble of writing to the priest in the first place. In the same year the Irish of Newport received congratulations on their good behaviour but in that case it appears that reports of violence in rural Ireland had prompted the favourable comments.
One factor it is necessary to bear in mind when discussing the reaction of the Welsh to the Irish are events in Ireland because the press in Wales tended to react harshly to the immigrants when things in Ireland were not to their liking. That was particularly relevant during the 1860s because that was the decade when the Fenian movement was flourishing. This movement was a revolutionary brotherhood which won considerable backing among the Irish in America and Britain and there is indisputable evidence that the brotherhood had a presence in Wales as well. The south Wales public was stunned at the close of 1867 when it was revealed that a Fenian cell had been arrested after having been seen marching on the mountains near Merthyr Tydfil. At that period marching with banners proclaiming "God Save the Queen", as some of the Irish friendly societies did, was a clear political statement. In the same way one could play tribute to Daniel O'Connell's constitutional campaign to win Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s as a means of reproaching those who supported revolutionary methods. After Fenianism had died among the Irish in Britain at the beginning of the 1870s one heard toasts at St. Patrick's Day dinners to the Irish nation and to the Irish Parliamentary Party (that is, Parnell's party).
But on the whole, while they boasted of their constitutional patriotism, the Hibernian societies in Wales avoided direct links with political movements, unlike what happened in other parts of Britain where one saw Hibernian societies develop into recruiting agencies for secret political movements.
The celebrations of the feast of St. Patrick had become part of the civic calendar in large towns such as Cardiff, Swansea and Newport by the 1870s. When for some reason the celebration was not public the press drew attention to that fact. For example, at the beginning of the 1880s the Star of Gwent referred to the tendency to celebrate the day in Newport in a less prominent way than previously. It was noted that the stre00ets of the town had been packed with revellers on 17 March, 1881, but that a year later the lack of any commotion had been the principal feature of the day. On that day men and women could be seen wearing the shamrock and an Irish play had been performed in the town's Gaiety Theatre but the prominence of the celebrations in previous years was missing.
Among the characteristics which distinguished respectable people from the rest were attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol. There was a tendency to associate the Irish in particular with excessive drinking although there were plenty of Welsh who shared that same pleasure. Catholic priests strove to persuade their flocks of the advantages of temperance and sobriety. Because of the central role of wine in the Mass it is important to distinguish between temperance and total abstinence. Although priests tended to be suspicious of total abstainers they supported temperance movements as shown by Fr. Millea when he delivered a series of lectures on temperance in Merthyr Tydfil in 1853. Nor was this an exception either. The greatest attempt to spread the message of temperance in the 1850s was in Newport. There the priest most prominent in the battle against drinking to excess was Fr. Richardson. He was the founder of the Catholic Association for the Prevention of Drunkenness in 1857, a society that was among the first of its kind among the Irish in Britain. The Association held its meetings in a room provided for their use entirely free of charge by the Tredegar Wharf Company. At the time of the anniversary of the Association in November 1858, seven hundred people gathered to enjoy the music of a local Irish band while on the second night of the celebrations nine hundred people paid a penny each towards the cost of the band's musical instruments. The floor of the room almost collapsed beneath the weight of the audience. This was an exceptionally successful society: by the end of its first year it had 1,200 members. Its influence reached beyond Newport when additional branches were established in Cardiff, Swansea and Treforest. Branches were set up in Merthyr Tydfil and in Dowlais before long but Newport remained its stronghold. According to the local press the society affected the behaviour of its members in a positive way: "One now meets with very few cases drunkenness among the Irish", it was said, "and the police testify to the great improvement that has taken place in their homes and in their behaviour". On account of the growth in membership the Association had to look for a new meeting place by 1859. The fact that a meeting room was given for their use in the Town Hall and that the Town Clerk was supportive of it shows that this Association was a means of beginning the process of integrating the respectable Irish into the civic culture of Newport.
The basic objective of the Association was clearly expressed at one of its meeting: "We have an enemy – not drink but drunkenness; and we will not rest until it has been defeated". Of course the temperate tended to drop out from time to time (a characteristic of every temperance movement) as the individual yielded to the temptation of alcoholic drink. What is interesting about the Catholic Association for the Prevention of Drunkenness was its response to that problem. The town was divided into districts and twenty three stewards were appointed who were given the responsibility of strengthening the morale of those who were weakening. This system was remarkably successful. The Association's annual report for 1859-60 noted that just 80 out of a total of 2,000 members had fallen by the wayside and that 75 of that 80 had succeeded in reestablishing their attachment to temperance, some after falling again and again. Such was the commitment of the temperate to save the younger generation that a temperance society for children, the Society of Saint Joseph , was set up in 1863.
It should also be noted that the Catholic Association for the Prevention of Drunkenne0ss supported the prevailing ideas of the time on the place of women; that is, it was asserted that women had a definite role in society which was confined to the domestic scene. According to this thinking the principal responsibility of women was to keep their fathers, brothers and husbands out of the public house by making the home into an island of order and comfort in a sea of temptation and degradation. This ideal was rooted in the idea of the respectable man who earned a wage sufficient to keep his wife and children without any need for them to look for work. An echo of this thinking was heard in April 1859 when Thomas Woolett, the Town Clerk of Newport, addressed the Association on the lack of domestic skills among Irish women. It was his opinion that if girls gave more time to the task of looking after the clothes of their fathers and brothers they would be able to save some money while at the same time enabling the men to look more respectable, even if they were poor. With a comfortable home to return to at the close of day men would not be driven to the public house for entertainment and comfort. Moreover, since drunkenness resulted in debt it was believed that saving a man from the clutches of alcohol would also free him from the pawn shop. Thomas Woolett's words were enthusiastically received, a response which suggests that there was a considerable section of the audience who shared his ideals. The reality was that life for the majority of Irish people, even of the more respectable sort, was one of intermittent unemployment and a dependence on contributions from every member of the family in order to make ends meet. The women worked in the docks or took on jobs such as washing clothes for other families.
It has to be remembered that there was more to belonging to a temperance movement than strict discipline and an ideology of iron. Otherwise it would be difficult to understand why it was supported by so many people. The followers of temperance battled with the use made of the scarce leisure time of the workers and attempts were made to offer alternative ways of relaxing with an emphasis on sober pastimes. On special holidays, for example, trips to local beauty spots were arranged and the social side of the activities of the movement were an attraction to people who would otherwise have been charmed by the entertainment in the public house. In addition the movement was a means of cultivating the separate identity of the immigrants. Although Fr. Richardson was not Irish at the end of each meeting he would call for applause for Daniel O'Connell in order to stress the special ambience of the Association.
The success in Newport was not repeated to the same extent in other towns in south Wales. One indication of this was the failure of the Cardiff branch of the Catholic Association for the Prevention of Drunkenness which was set up in 1859. Priests in Cardiff regularly complained that drunkenness was rife among the Irish who lived there and that some took the temperance pledge one day and broke it the next. An attempt to revive the temperance movement among the Irish in Cardiff was made in March 1861 but the response was mixed. It is difficult to describe the situation with total confidence because supporters of temperance tend to overstate the affects of excessive drinking in order to promote their cause and to persuade drinkers to change their behaviour. In Cardiff in 1862 T.F.Meagher claimed that the suggestion that every Irishman was a drunk blackened the character of the hundreds of sober and respectable Irishmen who lived in the town. In spite of this support for temperance in Cardiff was fairly limited as shown by the fact that only 400 members were attracted to the Catholic Association for the Prevention of Drunkenness when it was relaunched in the town in 1867. And ten years later drunkenness among Irish women in Cardiff was far worse than among other women in the town.
One finds a contrast between the comparative weakness of the temperance movement in Cardiff and strong support for the town's Hibernian Society which had been established in 1847 to encourage thrift among the Irish. One could view the support for this society as a pragmatic response to the housing problems in a town which experienced a steady and rapid growth in population from the 1850s on.
Among the most characteristic celebrations in Cardiff from the 1870s on was the procession on Corpus Christi, a Catholic festival celebrated each year late in May or in June, depending on the date of Easter. The event grew to be one of the high points in the civic life of the town. The Catholic children of the town with their colourful banners and their band would march through the principal streets before being admitted to the private grounds around Cardiff Castle where a special service would be held for the faithful in their thousands. The fact that the Protestants of the town were willing to accept this public celebration of Catholicism without protest showed that the Irish were now held in some regard. There was no need to fear the hostile reaction that was to be seen in other parts of Britain such as Liverpool and Glasgow in those days.
During the 1880s Irish nationalists and Welsh Liberals joined forces to campaign for self-government in Ireland and a number of nationalists visited south Wales on speaking tours. Among them was the head of the Irish Party, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891). The new spirit of cooperation was called the Union of Hearts. At the same time mass trade unions were formed among groups of workers such as the dockers and the Irish and the Welsh began to campaign together more and more on bread and butter issues. This process was just about beginning in the 1880s but its foundations had already been laid by the Hibernians and the Catholic temperance movements So it is evident that the Irish immigrants had not turned their backs on their Irish identity after leaving their homeland. In fact a new and different Irish culture developed overseas with the gap between the reality of life in Ireland and their new lives in Britain (or in the United States or Australia) widening by the day. By the close of the nineteenth century quite romantic ideas began to be cherished about Ireland, a country beginning to recede in the memories of the majority of immigrants, even though immigration on a small scale continued into the early decades of the twentieth century. One also saw a tendency for the sons and daughters – yes, even the grandsons and granddaughters – of immigrants to acknowledge their Irishness, though many of them would never have set foot in that country. By then the years of the Great Famine had become a painful memory for those who had experienced the horrors of that event; for their descendants, it was a historic wrong to be put right by demanding self-government for the land of their mothers and fathers.

: Paul O’Leary of the Department of History and Welsh History in the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Written in Welsh, this is an updated version of a talk he gave, with Rhodri Morgan AS in the Chair, at the National Eisteddfod of Wales at Bridgend in August 1998. It was one of a series of four lectures in Welsh arranged by the Wales Famine Forum.

Translation : Wales Famine Forum.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999

Part 1