When the Heart Stopped Beating

The publication of an article by Dan O’Neill in the South Wales Echo (25/11/96) on the demolition of Newtown in 1966 stirred many memories. Among the many letters received by the ‘Echo’ was one from Bernard O’Sullivan of Gabalfa who offered some of his own memories and photographs which were presented by Dan O’Neill in the South Wales Echo of 30 December, 1996 as follows:-

The last Mass was celebrated in Saint Paul’s Church, Newtown, on Sunday, October 22, 1967.

And that, more than anything else, more than the sight of old houses falling, familiar pubs reduced to dust, men, women and children moving from the homes where they were born — that, more than anything else, spelled out that this was truly . . . .The End.

For Saint Paul’s was the beating heart of ‘Little Ireland’. When it was built it signalled that the men and women from the Ould Sod had come to stay.

They had come fresh from the terrible famine, that calamity imprinted on the world’s mind as the Great Hunger, and they had built the vast docks which were to make Cardiff the coal capital of the world; and they brought their customs, and their religion with them.

The Second Marquess of Bute, creator of the docks, knelt, it is said, in Saint John’s Church (Church in Wales – Ed.) and begged forgiveness for bringing over these ‘Papists’. His son became, in time, one of those Papists himself.

But that single incident in our city’s history tells us what forces were against those first Irish immigrants. What else, when notices went up on factory gates: “No Irish need apply”.

No wonder, then, that the church spelled out security. Here was an anchor, here was home.

It took less than 20 years for that first church to become too small for Newtown’s growing population. In November, 1889, Father Butler announced: “Plans for the new church are now finished... the work of converting the building will be proceeded with as soon as weather permits. The first stone, it is hoped, will be laid on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Great news for the people of Little Ireland. St. Paul’s new church would be, they learned, “in the early gothic style of architecture, with a high altar, two side altars, a gallery, baptistry and confessional”.

And when there was more money the ceiling, divided into panels, could be filled with “Ecclesiastical decoration”. It would seat almost 600, which tells us something about the size of families there.

When they flattened Newtown more than 70 years later, 200 houses disappeared. In some were families with no fewer than 15 children!

And the cost of this grand new building — 10,000.

“To raise such a sum in so short a time in such a poor district,” said Father Butler, “would of course be impossible”.

So there would be a bazaar in the old Town Hall, an appeal to “all generous friends”.

St. Paul’s, then, stood on Tyndall Street for almost a century, the centre of the community, the place where generations of Little Irelanders were christened, married and taken for their last farewells. It closed prematurely – because of repeated vandalism.

After the houses started to go, after the wasteland began to appear, hooligans moved in.

Said the late Canon Bernard Cosulich: “Time and again thieves have broken into the church and recently they stole the crucifix, the candles and the brassware.”

What an end to all the bright dreams...

But on this page, thanks to Bernard O’Sullivan, we are able to get a glimpse of the church as it was.

And some of the people who worshipped there as well. Here they are, off on a ‘charabanc trip’, recalling those days when Newtown was a thriving, vibrant, close‑knit community.

They were photographed outside Tobin’s Pub (or ‘Fitzy’s’), says Bernard, and “these are the grandmas and great‑grandmas and great‑great‑grandmothers of those who are descended from them to this day”.

All gone now, like Little Ireland itself. Like the church and the school where young Jim Driscoll was a pupil. But, thankfully, they are not altogether banished as long as they remain, frozen forever, in these old photographs.

The women in these pictures wouldn’t know the place today. A huge flyover soars over the place where St. Paul’s once stood. Vast new buildings have usurped the streets where generations of children played.

The past is truly another country. But what a past. And what a country we once owned in that little corner of Cardiff.

Published in The Green Dragon No 2, March 1997.