Saint Illtyd’s Church, Dowlais

In a recently published book, “How the Irish saved Civilisation”, the American, Thomas Cahill, confronts those prejudices which have denied Ireland its full place in the history of European culture and Catholicism. His name, no doubt, betrays his own interest, but he presents his argument with great force. Turning aside the accusation of Hibernia’s having lain outside the accepted bounds of the Roman Empire, he goes on to assert that this very fact was to prove of incalculable benefit for those who were its heirs. Removed by the same fact from barbarian invasion, Ireland, which had received through Patrick an especially fervent share in the Roman faith, was to provide a haven for the copying and preserving of those texts which were so threatened elsewhere.
Indeed, because of the deep mutual attraction between Patrick and the Irish (almost uniquely the planting of the faith in Ireland seems to have been unfertilized by martyrdom) the tradition which was returned to Europe had a vigour and freshness all its own. Lord Clark had grasped this in his famous television series, ‘Civilization”, focussing on the wild, remote Skelligs, but otherwise little enough has been made of the “Coming of the Irish” into European life.
There is in this much food for thought, not least in its reflection on a later age when the arrival of large numbers of Irish men, women and children on the shores of Britain was to be as largely unappreciated. God knows, they had little enough to come to, just a chance of survival in the brutal environment of sudden industrial growth. In Ireland the emigrations of the Famine years, in Europe the publication of the Communist Manifesto, are barely separable, both have as their background the new age of foundry and pit, the squalor of a workforce reduced to the level of mere subsistence.
In the case of Dowlais and the area of Merthyr Tydfil, savaged by epidemics and blighted by the very means of employment, a kind of Klondyke had emerged, the conditions of which favoured moral anarchy. Some church life there was, of course, and that chapel worship which had filled the void left by Welsh Catholicism, but of “The Old Faith” there was little enough sign.
For long it had persisted in Wales. In his introduction to the early history of St. Illtyd’s Church, Dowlais, Martin Mansfield observes that “the Welsh seem to have ceased gradually to be Catholics for want of instruction and ministry, rather than to have embraced the Established Creed.”
Be that as it may, in 1798, after the failure of the `98 Rebellion, a certain Lawrence Hughes found his way from Ireland to Merthyr and discovered that he was the only Catholic living in the town. In 1815 some more Irish Catholics came, and for a time these would make their way to Brecon (where there had been a continuous succession of Catholic families from pre - Reformation times) for Mass.
Numbers, however, continued to grow, and in the 1820s great help was given by a Mr. Lewis, a Welsh-speaking Catholic convert of about thirty, who had moved to Merthyr and who was appointed by Bishop Collingbridge as catechist (a Celtic interchange which recalls the primitive history of Christianity in these islands). Highly respected locally, he gathered the 2 / 300 Catholics of the district each Sunday, preached to them, catechised the children in the hearing of the congregation, and taught them hymns. More importantly, he petitioned the bishop to appoint a resident priest to the area.
In November, 1827, Fr. Patrick Portal was sent to Merthyr from Dorset. He was a native of Waterford, a former student of Carlow College – and an Irish speaker, which, for the majority of parishioners at that time, was essential (With the assistance of Mr. Lewis sermons were preached in Welsh, Irish and English). Writing to his bishop of the hardship of his new mission Fr. Portal noted that many had not made their Easter duties for ten years.
Another priest noted:

“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.

Published in The Green Dragon No 3, June 1997

Poverty in a Missionary territory