Respectable and Sober? Irish Immigrants in Wales, 1850 – 1890: Part 1

During the last five years a determined effort has been made by the government of the Republic of Ireland, the academic community, and many voluntary bodies to remember the hundreds of thousands who died for want of food during the dreadful years of the Great Famine from 1845 to 1850. Following a long period during which the experience of those years was ignored or played down the question of how to interpret that agonising crisis has moved centre-stage in the debate on the development of modern Ireland. As the events around the world commemorating the famine show it was an occurrence of international significance which influenced the history of three continents.
Ensuring that the unfortunates who streamed into Wales during the 1840s and 1850s are remembered is of great importance to their descendants and to the understanding of a troubled period in the history of Wales. On St. Patrick's Day 1999 the process of remembering reached its zenith when hundreds of people gathered in Cardiff's Cathays Cemetery to witness the unveiling of a memorial to the famine dead. In view of the flood of books on the history of the famine published in recent years, the many television programmes and the numerous events, such as day schools, to discuss the matter, ignorance of the Great Famine is not as total as it once was. However, in spite of all the stress on the famine itself, we have to ensure that we do not imprison the immigrants in the history of those years of crisis. The overwhelming majority of the immigrants stayed in the country where they had made their new homes; it was there that they raised their families; it was there also that they developed a particularly Irish community life, a life that was much more varied than many believed to be the case until now.
At the time it was said that the famine refugees who reached south Wales in the second half of the 1840s had come with nothing but plague on their backs and famine in their stomachs. Many found homes in lodgings of a poor standard in the most unhealthy areas of the ports. There was serious overpopulating of those places with a number of needy families sharing the same room in houses already bursting at the seams. It is no surprise then to find that it was in those places that the worse effects of fatal illnesses such as typhus were seen. The tendency was for their contemporaries to link any public health problem with the immigrants; that is what happened in 1849 when cholera reached the coasts of Wales. Since it was not yet known how the disease was carried the influx of Irish people was linked to its spread
The problem reached places not usually associated with the inflow of Irish immigrants. In June 1849 a meeting of Bridgend residents took place under the chairmanship of the Rector of Coity because they were worried by the appearance of the disease in the surrounding districts. Following the meeting the Rector wrote to the Board Of Health in London as follows:

"Bridgend stands between Cardiff & the Western Seaports and vast numbers of destitute Irish are continually passing through the Town – many of them now remain here fearing to go elsewhere lest they may be attacked by the disease. It is computed that as many as 700 of this wretched class slept here a few nights ago, and the Town was previously much crowded by men engaged in the formation of the South Wales Railway."
Unfortunately the residents of that area failed to escape the horrors of the disease and fifty local people would die of it before the year ended. Not surprisingly the 1849 epidemic spurred local authorities to try to deal with public health.
In any event the immigrants from Ireland were not confined to particular areas in the cities and towns. The idea of areas of Irish settlement totally separate from the rest of the community, areas known as 'Little Irelands', came from commentators such as Dr. J.P.Kay and Friedrich Engels of Manchester.The same was true of the towns in south Wales. In the middle of the nineteenth century one could find areas with a high percentage of Irish people living in them, areas such as Newtown in Cardiff, Friars' Fields in Newport and Greenhill in Swansea. But it was not just Irish people who lived in these areas and one could find better off Irish in other parts of the towns as well. In a word, although dreadful poverty characterised the experience of many of the Irish emigrants, the idea of the Irish ghetto is a myth.
For all that, because of the widespread belief at the time that the immigrants were impoverished to a man, the appearance of a body of respectable-looking Irishmen on the streets could cause great surprise. When the Hibernian Society of Newport paraded in April 1850 one newspaper expressed its astonishment at seeing a body of young and middle-aged men "who in point of dress and propriety of demeanour would bear comparison with any body of gentlemen in the country". But if the story of the Irish ghetto is a myth it would be fair to enquire as to what extent were some of the immigrants assimilated into the society around them. After all, the towns of south Wales were ethnic melting pots during that period as immigrants from rural Wales, from England and from further afield created new urban cultures. A number of social problems arose out of the extraordinary change that was taking place and the state of flux also offered new opportunities to break away from the old ways of doing things. The tension between cultural differentiation and the desire to assimilate is the central theme of the Irish community in Wales during the second half of the nineteenth century.
One way to measure the complex process of assimilating the Irish is to track their Hibernian societies, a kind of Irish friendly society. Friendly societies were independent voluntary associations set up by groups of workers to look after their own interests at a time when there was no welfare state and the amount of money or food given to the needy by the parish was trifling. Individuals would pay some money to their friendly society each week in case they would fall ill and become unfit for work or endure some other misfortune.If they died the society would pay for their funeral. Not every worker was willing or financially able to do this. Joining them therefore was evidence of one's respectability as well as being a way of setting oneself apart from those who promoted Samuel Smile's ideology of self help and from the rest of society. There has been a traditional tendency in Wales to regard the Irish as a group who did not participate in this culture of respectability. This is a mistake. The distinction between respectable folk and the rougher sort existed within the immigrant community too.
The chief purpose of the Hibernian societies, therefore, was to protect the workman and his family from misfortune. But, as the general term 'friendly societies' suggests, there was a lot more to them than health insurance. These societies offered opportunities for socialising in the club room , normally to be found in a public house. The high points in the societies' calendar were the monthly meetings, the annual dinner and in some cases the annual outing or sports day. In order to conduct their business effectively these societies created numerous positions such as chairman, treasurer and secretary. In the process individuals were given the opportunity to gain distinction among their fellow members. The life of these societies was a sign of adaptation to urban life. Contrary to the generally held view such societies existed among the Irish in Wales as well as among the Welsh themselves. The Hibernian societies grew to be institutions of key importance in the immigrant culture of the Irish.
In the parades of the Irish friendly societies through the streets of the towns and ports of south Wales one section of the immigrant community could be seen making a public statement about their respectability to the rest of the Irish people and to the wider community. These events were rituals which proclaimed the separate identity of the marchers to those who were watching them. Details reports of such occasions would appear in the local press. In August 1867, for example, it was reported that the Hibernian Friendly Society of Cardiff was celebrating twenty two years of activity and that Adam Street and Bute Street had been decorated with banners and streamers. As the events of that day followed a pattern found in other towns in south Wales in those days they deserve a more detailed description.
The Hibernians gathered at the 'Tredegar Arms' public house at 10 o'clock before moving on to St. Peter's R.C. Church, Roath, where a special service to mark the occasion was conducted by Father Gavalli and Father Signini, two Italian priests who cared for the parish. On leaving the church the parade began with the steward carrying a banner which declared: "God save the Queen : Success to the Port and Trade of Cardiff'. Behind him came the Grangetown Brass Band and members of the society with their colourful banners bearing purposeful messages. These included: "Hibernia Rising in Prospects", "Daniel O’Connell, the Friend of Religious Liberty", and "Our Union Benevolence, Our Motto Charity". If the purpose of these banners was to give succinct expression to the basic values of those taking part, they also convey a faith in material and religious progress in the same key as those who spoke for Nonconformist Wales. At the same time they expressed an attempt to combine a separate Irish identity with an attachment to the town in which they lived; evidently they saw no contradiction in acknowledging their ethnic identity while supporting the material success of Cardiff. Moreover, the Welsh could feel assured about their loyalty because the nationalist who was acclaimed was Daniel O'Connell, the constitutional politician who had fought bravely for Catholic civil liberties and for the restoration of the parliament in Dublin. The fact that this nationalism was compatible with loyalty to the crown was also underlined.
After the service the Hibernians paraded through the principal streets of the city before going back to their club for dinner. All of this produced the desired affect on the other citizens of the town. As the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian noted :

"Before we close our report, we cannot help remarking upon the respectable appearance and the good order maintained by the members during the day. It is a source of gratication to learn that the funds of this society now amount to about 1,000 and during the past six months upwards of 100 have been expended on sick relief."

In noting the exact amount of the society's funds the newspaper betrayed a certain enduring suspicion about the ability of the Irish to provide for their own welfare and one can sense a note of anxiety that they would be dependent on the parish for their support. For all that the positive tone of the report must have warmed the hearts of the Hibernians. In the absence of newspapers of their own the Irish in Wales depended on the Welsh press to report on their activities in a sympathetic manner. They had not always received favourable attention from that quarter and it is quite certain that positive reports on the parades and celebrations of the Hibernian societies and their like gave considerable impetus to the slow and uneven process of assimilating the Irish community. The act of parading through the principal streets of the town was a statement by the Irish that they were not a marginal minority from a ghetto cut off from the rest of the community and that they had the same right as everyone else to make use of public space.
Of course the attempt to cultivate respectability and sobriety among the Irish sparked considerable opposition from those whose behaviour was based on a more ancient style. This opposition was seen at its most ferocious around St. Patrick's Day when there was disagreement about the most fitting way to celebrate the day. When the festival was celebrated in Aberdare in 1850 by navvies working on the South Wales railway there was heavy drinking and fighting among them. It seems that it was the first time the day had been celebrated in the town and the local paper expressed the hope that it would also be the last! The navvies were a special group of workers who lived a life on the move and who had their own social customs. But they were not the only ones to honour St. Patrick in this way. In 1860 for example one priest complained dramatically about the "Bacchus-Orgies" that marked the day in Cardiff, adding that the occasion produced a lot of drunkenness. Quite often it was the violence that followed excessive drinking that caused the greatest concern, as may be seen in the following report from Cardiff in 1870:

"Patrick Maloney and Joanna Maloney were charged with an assault on Ellen Marley on St. Patrick’s Day … and on that day, all being the worse for drink, the women began to row, each seizing the other by the hair of the head. The male defendant, seeing his wife in a fix, came up and beat the complainant about the head with the handle of a whip used by him to thrash his donkey, and this caused the relatives on each side to join in."

Happenings of this kind continued to mark the the feast of the patron saint but they were less frequent by the 1870s when it finally became possible to make the public celebrations of the occasion more organised and respectable. The Catholic church sought to persuade its members to express their fidelity in a way that showed that they were prepared to tame and control the event so as to improve the image of their flock in the eyes of Protestants.
It is necessary to remember that there were dangers inherent in the custom of celebrating their patron saint outside their own country. In the words of one historian of the Irish in America the danger was that the immigrants would be accused of cultivating "triumphant tribalism", that is, proclaiming their separate identity to such an extent that the local community reacts in a hostile manner. That is precisely what happened in the north of England where the press interpreted the celebrations of St. Patrick's Day as evidence of aggressive nationalism. For some reason that was not how the press in Wales reacted once it had been realised that the celebrations on that day did not threaten the status quo. It cannot be explained by saying that the Irish and Welsh were both Celtic people since there had been no sign of closeness between the two nations for many centuries. As proof of the fact that the bad feeling did not disappear during the nineteenth century twenty anti-Irish riots took place in Wales between 1826 and 1882.

Part 2