“He pays £14 a year for a large room in Merthyr, and more for one at Rhymney, where he says Mass every Sunday. He is at these places alternately on Fridays and Saturdays and never leaves the confessional until twelve o’clock midnight .... He is making a collection for the purchase of a house, for it is impossible to do all the duties without one. The cost of rent, the wine and the chapel is considerable and he is often obliged to afford assistance to the poor, miserable, sick people. He is very zealous and doing much good. I fear another equal to him would not be found easily.”
To Fr. Portal was given the great joy of commending the parish’s first priestly vocation, Mr. Lewis’s son, Peter, who was to return on a mission to Welsh speakers. He would serve as a priest for 60 years.
In 1831 Fr. Portal was sent to Newport and in 1835 Fr. James Michael Carroll was sent to Merthyr, by now the largest town in Wales. A Dubliner who had studied in Paris, Fr. Carroll entered upon his new mission with truly apostolic zeal. The Catholic Directory of 1838 has this entry for Merthyr:
“Fr. M. Carroll – this very talented and zealous pastor has under his care 700 poor Irish, working in iron and coal and scattered over a distance of seven or eight miles around. No chapel – says two Masses on Sunday, one in Merthyr over a slaughter house, the other at a distance of six miles in a wash house to which he travels on foot – has a school for sixty children – lives in a workman’s cottage with no furniture, hardly any food. He has refused an easier living.”
Visiting him, while still a student at Lisbon, Peter Lewis was deeply moved by his condition:
“Fr. Carroll for a living sold potatoes and herrings. He occupied a poor workman’s cottage, the front room of which was the shop. He lived in the kitchen. He was out at elbows when I visited him in 1837.”
This is the figure which has entered the folklore of the area, a man who wholly identified with his people in their poverty. The Morning Chronicle interviewed an Irish woman who said she worked as a kiln loader. She barrowed small coal to the kilns for 5s/9d per week. Her biggest expense was replacing her boots which frequently burnt through. An Irish labourer said he earned 11s per week. He supported a wife and five children, paying 2s rent per week. During the two years he had been in Penydarren he had not bought butter or cheese. No milk seemed to be included in the family diet. The correspondent of the Chronicle reported that the streets were thronged with maimed and mutilated:
“In one hundred yards I saw three men; two had lost one leg, the third had lost both.”
Sickness was rife, cholera, called the “Irish fever”, a lurking threat. Infant mortality, at 170 per 1,000 live births, rose to 208 in 1849. Life expectancy for working men was twenty-three years. There were no workhouses or hospitals, hospital treatment being available only to those sponsored by Sir John Guest in Swansea and Bristol.
Fr. Carroll, who, partly by the benefaction of the same John Guest, ensured the building of St. Illtyd’s Church, Dowlais, in 1846, died within a year – himself a victim of the dreaded cholera. He is buried beneath that very fine church. He was replaced by Fr. Patrick Millea, another Dubliner, whose pastorate brought to a close this first part of the area’s Catholic history.
These Irish priests, utterly dedicated to the people in their care, gave the noblest leadership to their own people – but they also did something greater: they left an example which captivated even those whose prejudices had made them hostile to both Catholicism and the Irish who brought it back again. Extracts from the obituaries of Fr. Carroll and Fr. Millea, which appeared in the local press after their deaths, are frank eulogies. A section from Fr. Millea’s is sufficient testimony to the great good remembered of them:
“Who amongst the old inhabitants cannot recall Fr. Carroll, his little figure, the old brown cloth leggings, the inseparable snuff-box? He was the best classical scholar in the district, yet lived among the poorest of the poor, devoted his time to their interests and his means to their support.... Fr. Millea was a Christian in the fullest sense of the word. With all his devotion to and faith in St. Peter, we yet believe he was one of the tamest followers of the profound philosophy and large-heartedness of St. Paul. A pithy illustration of the broadness of his creed came under our notice some time ago. He was in the town and happened to meet twice or thrice our much esteemed townsman, Mr. William Morris, with whom each time he shook hands and pleasantly chatted. At the last meeting, as they thought for the day, each said goodbye, but scarcely half an hour passed when they met again. “Well, well,” said Mr. Morris, “we have met again.” “Yes,” said Fr. Millea, with the kind, winning smile so associated with him, “yes, and I hope we shall meet again in heaven!”
©: Fr. Nicholas James, former Parish Priest, St. Illtyd’s Church, Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil and now (AD 2000) Parish Priest of St. Francis with St. Clare's, Ely, Cardiff.
Poverty in a Missionary territory