St. Mary’s Newport (1812 – 1840)

Irish names appear as early as 1809 when the first Mass was said in the upper room of a house in High Street. Jerry Driscoll and his wife were in the congregation of five.
When Bishop Collingridge decided to move Fr. John Burke from St. Mary’s (then a chapel) in 1828, forty five men of the parish signed a petition appealing against the decision. More than half the signatories were Irish and included James Loughlin, one of the first settlers in Cardiff, who walked to Newport to hear Mass.
The Hibernian Liberal Society was established in November 1830 and in 1848 there were 140 members (Joseph Desmond, Secretary).
In 1839 thirty six Irish people were examined by magistrates in Newport. They were found to have no means of support and were therefore chargeable to the Parish – and so were sent back to Ireland. Mary Driscoll from Cork (which she left 8 months ago) was examined by Lewis Edwards Esq. She had been taken from under a Hay Mow having been lying there two days and two nights with three of her toes fallen off through being frostbitten.
In November 1839 the Chartists marched down Stow Hill, passing the new St. Mary’s in the course of construction, and ordered the workmen to join them – they refused.
The Monmouthshire Merlin, the local newspaper owned by Mr. Dowling, an Irishman, noted that the inhabitants expressed in strong terms their satisfaction at the conduct of the Irish. A hundred Irishmen were enrolled to protect the Docks.
Fr. John Bernardine Davison O.S.F. arrived in 1841 to assist Fr. Metcalfe with his work in the poor areas of the town where most of his flock of two thousand lived in abject poverty. Fr. Davison proved to be a most zealous priest and, as the Merlin informs us, “might be seen at all hours visiting their cheerless homes, plumbing the depths of human wretchedness, administering food to the famishing, or teaching the best of lessons – how to die.” He gave his life for his flock, dying of typhus fever after three months in the town. He is buried under the new altar in the sanctuary of St. Mary’s.
As a result of the Chartist rising the 37th Regiment (literally an Irish Catholic Regiment) was stationed at Newport. In 1845 the officers and men presented a new and beautiful Lady Altar to the church.
As a result of the famine more immigrants were arriving in the town. Sometimes transported free of charge, they came as ballast instead of lime or shingle which had to be unloaded. Most vessels had no lifeboats or lifebuoys. The Merlin reports that these poor people “were seen daily parading our streets, men and women and children, without shoes or stockings, begging at shops and houses. They crowded into insanitary dwellings in the Pillgwenlly area of the town. The whole neighbourhood is in a most unhealthy state. Drains are stopped – accumulations of filth abound, typhus fever, as well as other epidemics, rages with the greatest violence. An outbreak of cholera began in Rees Court and Irish Row where there are 22 houses, each house inhabited by several families and not a single privy to any of the houses.”
The Rosminians arrived at St. Mary’s in 1847 and the new Rector, Fr. Dominic Cavalli (aged 28), risked his life by his unselfish and undaunted devotion to the sick. Called out night after night he trudged down to the slums. On three occasions in his long pastorate in Newport he was on the brink of death from fever. In 1864 he was extremely weak “what with leeches, he has nine on his side, blisters, medicines and no food, he is in a deplorable state” wrote Brother George to the Provincial. Fr. Cavalli recovered and was Rector until 1892.
In 1847 St. Mary’s School opened with accommodation for 130 boys and 120 girls. The Merlin of July 21st 1849 announced that on Sunday next the annual sermon will be preached in aid of the school and the townsfolk are encouraged to contribute to the fund because the poorest children of the town attend there.
In June 1849 the Merlin reports that the United Brothers (a Benefit Society) met at the Wexford and Kinsale Arms and afterwards, numbering about ninety members wearing sashes, marched behind the excellent Factory Band (in regimental dress) to St. Mary’s Church. Here Fr. Cavalli addressed them after which they reformed and marched back to their clubroom where Mr. Spritt provided an excellent dinner.
Newport’s religious burial ground had become full and a new Municipal Cemetery was planned, the first in the country. The Newport Burial Board, chaired by Rev. Hawkins, the Vicar of St. Woolos, refused the request of the Catholic community, now some 4,000 souls, for an area to be consecrated for Catholic burials, although provision had been made for the Established Church and the Non–Conformists. The request was forwarded to the Privy Council and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston’s threat of legal action eventually forced the board to concede.
The Irish community in Varteg in 1860 asked the Bishop for an Irish–speaking priest. They were sent a Dutch Franciscan. He was greeted by a deputation to say that they did not want a foreigner and that they would not support him but he melted their hearts with his Franciscan humility and won them over and they resolved to give him twice as much.
In 1857 Fr. Richard Richardson arrived at St. Mary’s. He was a zealous temperance advocate. Drunkenness was a problem in the town due in no small measure to the unhygienic and overcrowded homes of the poor immigrant families. He founded the Holy War which found a place in its ranks for the total abstainer and th0000e moderate drinker.
Under the patronage of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception the association held their annual meeting in the Town Hall under the presidency of the Mayor. The room was adorned with pennants, flags and banners and a band was in attendance. The members were reminded that moderation was the aim of the movement. Total membership was 2,500.
Monster Picnics were held each year. Caerphilly Castle, Caldicot Castle and Clytha House – the home of the Jones family, benefactors of St. Mary’s – were among the venues.
The members processed through the town to St. Mary’s led by the Saxhorn Band. After High Mass they reformed and marched to the station where the Station Master personally supervised the boarding of the special train. On the outing to Clytha House the members took picnic lunches and paid a shilling for ale, cider, porter or ginger beer or tea, and the railway fare there and back. First Class tickets were available at 7s 6d and included a dinner served in the grand dining room of Clytha House. On arrival the band played a hymn to the Virgin and a blessing was invoked, then there were races and football followed by dancing to the band.
H.M. Inspector of Schools were so impressed with St. Mary’s School that they asked for the release of Brother George Clarkson from the Rosminians so that he could join the inspectorate. Bro. George made it clear to the Provincial that he had no wish to give up his work with the boys of St. Mary’s.
There were four Catholic Benefit Societies in Newport in the 1870’s.
The United Brothers who held their Club Feast on Easter Monday at the Ship and Pilot Inn. The Hibernians (Whit Monday) and The Catholic Women’s Club (the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th) – both dined at the Wexford and Kinsale Arms – and St. Patrick’s Guild who dined on March 17th. Each society attended Mass at St. Mary’s on their feast days and then marched through the town with banners flying and bands playing.
Mr. James Murphy, the owner of a very large wagon works, became Mayor of Newport in 1868. He was one of a group of men always willing to help the clergy. Others were Con Collins, John O’Brien, James Moriarty, Tim Downey, John Bennett, Patrick Haley and Michael Manley.
Alderman D.A. Vaughan, Alderman Thomas Canning and Mr. C. Harrington were devout Catholics and during the troublesome times in Ireland took a deep interest in the Irish people and their cause.
Daniel Augustine Vaughan, although born in Brynmawr, was educated at St. Mary’s under Brother George. He was elected to the Town Council in 1877, became a magistrate in 1880, and served on the Newport School Board. He was an active President of the Robert Emmet Branch of the United Irish League. His Requiem Mass was celebrated by Fr. Nolan I.C. whose uncle, Captain Nolan, carried the message to the Light Brigade from Lord Raglan at Balaclava and was afterwards killed in that famous charge(see note below). The South Wales Argus reported that an immense concourse of spectators lined both sides of Stow Hill as the cortege left St. Mary’s and two to three hundred people, for the most part working class, paid their respects at the graveside.
In memory of Alderman Vaughan a fund was opened to which the people of the town contributed, resulting in the erection of a beautiful Lady Altar in St. Mary’s.
Fr. Michael Bailey in Newport from 1862 to 1904 spared no effort, physical or mental, in the cause of Catholic education. Between 1880 and 1900 he collected Ł30,000 (equivalent to Ł3 million today), building St. Michael’s Church, now a listed building, and four large schools. Catholic and non–Catholic workmen would come after their day’s work was over and dig the foundations of the church, others who were out of work would give the whole day. Thus the foundations were dug almost without expense.
In 1892 Alderman David Evans was elected Lord Mayor of London. He gave a Welsh National Banquet at the Mansion House in the City of London. Among those present were the Duke of Beaufort, the Earl of Powis, the Bishop of St. David’s and Lord Tredegar.
The loyal toast having been honoured, the Catholic Bishop of Newport, Bishop Hedley, responded to the toast of the Clergy. It is 50 years, he said, since many thousands of Irish people who now constituted his flock, claimed the hospitality of Wales. There had not been much friction between the two races. That was owing first to the sterling qualities of his flock. But he must not forget the kindness of the Welsh people and of the employers of labour.
Irish immigrants of the 1820’s and 1830’s may well have come to Newport because of St. Mary’s Chapel (1812) and St. Mary’s Church (1840). There was no Catholic Church in Cardiff at this time.
The magnificent work of the dedicated Rosminian priests and brothers, the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy was of immense and lasting value to these Irish families and their descendants who are a considerable part of Newport’s Catholic community today.

©: Eddie Curran, Newport, the author of the above article, is well known as a writer and speaker on local history.

Published in The Green Dragon No 4, Autumn 1997


Note on Captain Nolan:

The following email was received on 6 June 2002:

Dear Barry Tobin,
If Father Nolan was at all related to Captain Louis Edward Nolan (1818-54), it must have been much more distantly than uncle and nephew. Louis and his 2 full brothers died unmarried. Of his older half-brothers (by his mother Eliza's 2 previous marriages, and therefore surnamed McFarlane and Ruddach, not Nolan), only one married and had a son, who later died without heirs.
Louis' father Major John Babington Nolan had been married previously, with no issue, and had only one sibling, a sister.
Moreover, the family was not Roman Catholic. John Babington Nolan and his sister, a trooper's children, had been orphaned early in the West Indies, and adopted by their father's superior officer. They were Anglican, or - since J. B. Nolan and his wife Eliza (a Londoner originally) lived for many years in Scotland - Scottish Episcopalian.
See the biography, by H. Moyse-Bartlett: 'Louis Edward Nolan & His Influence on the British Cavalry'.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. M. M. Gilchrist.


The Green Dragon No. 4

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