Swansea Irish

Most studies of the Irish in England, Scotland and Wales naturally focus on the Irish immigration following on from the famine of the 1840s. In the case of a Welsh seaport town like Swansea, however, the links with Ireland go back many centuries earlier.

The first Irish immigration to South Wales that has been recorded historically is the movement of the Déisí from Southern Ireland to the Southwest Wales Kingdom of Dyfed. The Welsh chronicler Nennius mentions the settlement of the Uí Liatháin in the Gower and Kidwelly regions. The Déisí came from the locality known to this day as 'The Decies', in the western half of County Waterford. The Uí Liatháin were their neighbours towards the west in County Cork, where their name lives on in the place-name Castle Lyons.

Ogham stones provide evidence of early Irish settlement. These are memorial stones with inscriptions in an early Irish alphabet. They exist in considerable numbers in the province of Munster in Southwest Ireland. In Wales the majority are found in Pembrokeshire and west Carmarthenshire. Two Ogham stones nearer to Swansea are found in Kenfig and Loughor.

Place-name evidence for Irish settlement includes the names of rivers that have the -ach termination, such as Desach and Mawddach in the northern half of Wales, and the Clydach rivers of south Wales. Druim, Cnoc and Tulach, Irish words for ridge, hill and hillock, are cognate with the Welsh words Drum, Cnwc and Tyle. Examples of place-names including these elements are Drumau, near Neath, Cnwc Coch, Llansamlet and numerous examples of Tyle in south Wales.

The early Christian period witnessed a close relationship between Wales and Ireland. St Cadog, we are told, wished to build an oratory in Neath and engaged an Irish workman for the task by the name of Liuguri or Laoghaire ('Leary'), who was a skilful architect. The church of Llanmadog in west Gower is said to be dedicated to St Aidan, Bishop of Ferns in County Wexford. The so-called Leper Stone in the Parish of Llanrhidian exhibits definite Irish influence, as does the memorial stone at Gelli Onnen, in the hills above Pontardawe.

The first Viking raids on the British Isles began in the last decade of the eighth century. Scandinavian settlements were founded in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, and from these bases the coast of Wales was raided in the following centuries. In later times, a flourishing trade was carried on across the Irish Sea, and Swansea may well have been established in this period, for the name Swansea is believed to be derived from Sweinsey, the island of Swein. Although the Norsemen forged links between the Welsh and the Irish, it was the Norman settlement in both countries that was to have the most profound and lasting effect.

Seven or eight decades separate the incursions of the Normans into Wales and Ireland respectively, and in that period the Normans had built up a power base of marcher lordships along the English-Welsh border from Chester to Chepstow, and along the coast of south Wales, from Chepstow to Cardigan. It is an historical fact that a very large proportion of the first Norman invaders of Ireland came from the Welsh Marches. This was a region that had a population consisting of Normans, Bretons, Flemish, English as well as native Welsh. These Cambro-Normans, who followed Strongbow to Ireland, included the Geraldines, who were descendants of Gerald de Windsor and Nest, daughter of the last native prince of Dyfed, FitzGeralds, de Barris, Carews and others who, described by Geraldus Cambrensis as "My people", were related by ties of marriage and kinship.

Other families that originated in Wales included Roche, Prendergast, Cogan, and Lawless, in addition to the dozens of others who made up the first Walsh families of Ireland. Medieval documents include the names Gower and Penrice in several localities, the name Rhosili occurs in the town of Youghal, County Cork, whilst the Dublin Roll of names, from the first half of the thirteenth-century, records about half a dozen people from Swansea, such as Godafridus and Ricardus filius Segeri de Sweinesea.

Irish-Welsh family ties continued from the medieval to the modern age. In addition, there were trade links between the two countries. Ireland was vital to Welsh exports, especially of coal, from Neath, Swansea and Llanelli, to ports such as Wicklow, Waterford and Youghal in Ireland. The Swansea copper industry used copper from the Wicklow mountains. People as well as goods travelled both ways across St George's channel. The Cromwellian officer, Colonel Henry Bowen, known as the Hawk, from Ilston, Gower, settled at Bowens Court, Northwest Cork (see the novels of one of his descendants, Elizabeth Bowen, 1899-1973).

Swansea became the destination of Protestant refugees such as Hugh Gore, Bishop of Lismore and Waterford. But from the late eighteenth century onwards, it was the poorer classes of Ireland that were to come into Swansea and other sea ports of South Wales in search of work. The numbers continued to grow steadily during the decades of the next century, and culminated in the middle decades, after the Irish Potato Famine.

One direct result of this influx of Irish into Swansea was the growth of the Roman-Catholic Church in the town. A place of worship for Roman Catholics had been established in about 1797, in a fourteenth-century mansion known as 'The Plas'. A new Swansea chapel was opened at Nelson Place in 1813. This was the first Catholic chapel built in Glamorgan in the nineteenth-century.

In the early days there was a rapid succession of priests, but in 1839, Father Charles Kavanagh arrived in Swansea from Newport, and was to remain in Swansea until he died on 20 October 1856, aged 47. He was responsible for an extensive area which included Swansea, Llanelli, and, until 1852, Aberafan and Neath.

On 8 September 1847 St David's church in Rutland Place was opened and a school was built nearby in 1851. Another school was b0uilt in the Irish district of Greenhill, known as 'Little Ireland', this school was aptly called St Patrick's School.

Father Kavanagh witnessed the growth of this Irish community during his life in Swansea. In 1838, it was estimated that there were 400 Catholics in Swansea, most of them Irish. By 1851, it was estimated that there were 1,369 Irish-born people in Swansea and district. Eight years later we are supplied with the information that out of the three thousand Roman Catholics, probably some 2,800 are Irish.

Historical evidence about the life of the Swansea Irish is found in a variety of sources. The Health Reports of 1845, 1849, 1854 and 1856 are valuable for the insight they give us into the frightful living conditions they had to endure. From the start the Irish were concentrated in the industrial area to the north of the town, more specifically, between the Carmarthen and Neath roads. Llangyfelach Road ran through this area.

The highest percentage of mortality caused by outbreaks of cholera and typhus epidemics in Swansea between 1839 and 1842 occurred in the Strand and Greenhill localities. In 1849 the cholera epidemic was confined to the upper part of the town, particularly in the vicinity of Greenhill.

The newspapers of nineteenth-century Swansea include The Cambrian and The Swansea Journal. The first accounts of the Swansea Irish appear in these publications between 1818 to 1825, but from the 1840s Irish-related stories become more widespread, especially in the Police Intelligence and the Petty Sessions columns. Two cases highlight the tensions that must have existed between some of the Welsh and Irish at this time. In 1842 six Welshmen murdered an Irishman, John Bowling. The second occurred in 1848, when a party of Irish railway navvies at Fforestfach killed two Welshmen.

Most of the stories about the Irish in Swansea, however, have not such a sombre tone, and indeed, many are quite humorous. An interesting and informative series of articles appeared in the Cambrian in 1853, under the titles "A visit to the courts and alleys of Swansea" and "A visit to the Common Lodging Houses of Swansea". The writer informs us that though the Irish lived a poverty-stricken life their cultural life was rich, and they would sing and dance to the sound of the fiddle.

A very large number of the Swansea Irish would have been Irish speakers, as they came from localities in Southwest Ireland where Irish was spoken by at least fifty percent of the population, as recorded by the 1851 Census of Ireland. This included the coastal districts from County Waterford westward via County Cork to County Kerry. Even as late as the end of the nineteenth-century and the beginning of the twentieth-century the Swansea area would receive many Irish with the ability to speak their native tongue. One such individual was to settle in the village of Clydach, a few miles north of Swansea, who not only spoke Irish but is also recognised as a great Irish Language poet. His name was Pádraig Ó Miléadha.

Pádraig Ó Miléadha was born in Skeheens in east Sliabh gCua, about three miles from Kilbrien in West Waterford He learned Irish Gaelic from his grandfather who spoke only Irish, as did all the people of the townland of Skeheens.

He came to Clydach around 1902 and began work at the recently opened Mond Nickel Works, and lived in No 55 Nickel Terrace where his children were born between 1905-11, later moving to No 13 Kelvin Road, 'Sunny Bank' (now known as Lone Road.).

Other Irish families in Clydach included the Marnells from County Kilkenny, Mylers and Purcell's from County Wexford, Healys, Howlys and O'Brians from Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Duggans, Ryans and Tierneys from County Waterford, and Ó Súilleabháin from County Cork.

In the village of Clydach there was a Benedictine Convent and later on a Catholic Church, St Benedict's, was built in 1915 in Pontardawe Road. Pádraig Ó Miléadha was a founder member of this church. He collected for both the convent and church. He taught Irish Gaelic language and poetry to the local Irish people with his friend Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin at the 'Shack" - the Church Hall – to both children and their elders.

He was also one of the founder members of the Workers Union, who went on strike to improve worker's conditions, although the management had offered Pádraig Ó Miléadha a foreman's job in 1917. Ó Miléadha was on the strike committee. Months later the works re-opened but Pádraig Ó Miléadha, Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin and others were not called back. The family left Wales in the summer of 1922.

Thus, Wales lost a union man, but Ireland gained a Gaelic poet.

The author, Roger Price of Llanelli, is a historian with a particular interest in the links between Ireland and Wales from the earliest times.

The above is a shortened version of the talk in Welsh he gave during the Wales National Eisteddfod in Llanelli in August 2000.

Translation: The Wales Famine Forum

Back to The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002