Cardiff: An Incomplete History of an Irish Family

In 1848/49, oral history tells us, my father’s maternal grandfather, Michael Fitzgerald, arrived in Cardiff. He had come from Skibbereen in West Cork. Arriving with female relatives, he was the only survivor of his family. All the others, parents and siblings, had died in and around that town as a result of the Great Famine. He married and had children, including a daughter, Catherine, my father’s mother, around 1860.

My grandfather, Cornelius Sweeney, was born in the Parish of Myross and Union Hall, about 4 miles from Skibbereen, in 1860 after the famine was over, but his parents had lived through it. The Sweeneys were a Scottish Highland family of ‘Gallowglassses’ (The word, Irish ‘Gallóglaigh’ = ‘foreign soldiers’, referred to military retainers – ‘mercenaries’ would be the modern word – originally recruited in Gaelic𔂽speaking Scotland –Ed.) who had fought for the O’Donnells of Donegal for 400 years. They are said to have been left behind in West Cork after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601(An Irish army, commanded by O’Neill and O’Donnell had marched from Ulster in just three days to come to the aid of a Spanish force which had been trapped in Kinsale by an English army. The subsequent defeat of the Irish and the surrender of the Spanish marked the effective end of Gaelic Ireland –Ed.) The aftermath of eviction and emigration was still with them. Cornelius Sweeney came to Cardiff in the early 1880s and married Catherine Fitzgerald. He worked latterly as a Coal Trimmer in the Barry and Cardiff docks. Cornelius and Catherine had 17 children of which 11 survived. One of the younger children, my father, Cornelius, married Margaret O’Brien in 1926. They had 9 children, 7 surviving. I am the youngest of those children.

My mother’s family, the O’Briens / O’Neills, arrived in Cardiff at different times. The O’Briens are said to have fled the famine in and around the Clonakilty / Courtmacsherry area of West Cork in the late 1840s. They went first to Liverpool and finally arrived in Cardiff around the late 1850s. That is all we know of them.

We have a reasonably full account of the O’Neills / Burkes history. John O’Neill, my mother’s maternal grandfather, was born in Dungarvan, County Waterford, in 1846, at the start of the famine. His family aurvived. His wife‑to‑be, Ellen Burke, was born in Dunmanway in West Cork in 1844, also at the start of the famine. She was the daughter of a land‑owning farmer, Sean Burke, whose father had acquired land “by changing his colours on marriage” in 1790, before the repeal of the Penal Laws by the Act of Union of 1801.

(In 1691 Patrick Sarsfield, Commander of the last Catholic Irish army to take the field in full uniform, surrendered to William of Orange at Limerick on terms – the ‘Treaty of Limerick’ – which were fair and reasonable by the standards of those days. However, the King was unable to persuade Parliament to ratify the treaty which he had agreed, apparently in good faith. There followed a series of oppressive measures - the ‘Penal Laws’ – which removed from Irish Catholics all rights other than the basic right to life itself. They could not practise their religion, could not own or bequeath land, could not engage in any business or profession, could not hold any position of rank in the armed forces, could not educate their children, could not vote or stand for election and could not acquire security of tenure in any land or property they rented. The result was the emergence of the most destitute and uneducated peasant class in Europe – Ed.).

John O’Neill had gone to work for them as an itinerant farm labourer in the 1860s. John and Ellen fell in love. The Burke family did not approve of their daughter marrying a farm labourer, so the couple fled to Cork City, married and had their first child, Ellen, who was baptized in the Blackpool area of the city.

The aftermath of the famine led them to take a ship out of Kinsale in 1867, bound for North America on one of what became known as ‘coffin ships’. These ships often became the coffins of their passangers, many of whom never made it to America, either through sinking or because of the fever a lot of the passengers took with them.

Their ship foundered in the Western Approaches. Some of the passengers were picked up and landed in Milford Haven. They included John O’Neill, his wife and their daughter, Ellen. They walked to Cardiff, working on farms on the way. They were prevented from entering Cardiff as it was feared they may have been carrying fever so they settled in the ‘Irish Town’ which had been set up in Penmark near the site of today’s Cardiff Airport. John O’Neill and other Irishmen were taken daily by horse and cart to work in the Cardiff docks. They had further children in Penmark, including my grandmother, Catherine, Mary‑Ann, Honora, and lastly William. William played Rugby for Cardiff in the 1900s. He was picked to play for Wales against the Springboks in 1906 and had a further 6 / 7 caps although he had to change his name to ‘Billy Neale’. I should add that he would never have been picked to play for Ireland as he was a docker on the iron ore wharf in Cardiff. He would have been of the wrong class to have played for Ireland at that time!

The family left Penmark in the early 1870s to live in 67 Milton Street, Roath, Cardiff, part of the City Road Irish ghetto. They seem to have prospered. Catherine married my grandfather, Michael O’Brien, in the early 1880s (Michael’s brother, John O’Brien, was first a prizefighter and later, with the adoption of the Marqess of Queensbury rules, a boxer in Newtown, Cardiff). Margaret and Michael had nine children, including my mother, Margaret, who was born in Milton Street in 1898.

In concluding it may be worth mentioning that all these ancestors of mine who settled in Cardiff spoke Irish Gaelic at home and English at work and elsewhere. The Forster Education Act of 1870 probably undermined the use of the old language, although it continued to be used until the First World War.

©: John Sweeney, Chairman, Wales Famine Forum, Cardiff, Wales.

Published in: The Green Dragon No 1, December 1996.

As Gaeilge / In Irish

Another article by John Sweeney.