St Parick’s Day is this weekend! And to mark the occasion, we thought we’d take a look at the connections between Ireland and Wales. From the tragedy of The Irish Famine to the birth of St Patrick himself, join us as we take a step back in time…
The Start of Irish Communities
Irish migrants initially received a hostile reception in Wales. Throughout the mid 19th century, the Irish were often seen more as a problem to be solved than Celtic cousins to embrace. Many of those arriving in Wales were in a state of desperation. When The Wanderer docked in Newport in 1847, it arrived with 113 destitute men, women and children. Up to 20 of the arrivals were said to have been close to death.
The streets of Newport were filled with hundreds of starving Irish people. By 1861 there were almost 30,000 Irish migrants in Wales, settled primarily across Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Merthyr. The years following the Irish famine proved particularly troublesome, with a multitude of conflicts between Welsh people and Irish settlers.
Cardiff saw its first race riot in 1848. The tensions were fuelled by years of suspicions and myths about the Irish, ingrained in generations of Welsh people. But eventually, attitudes did begin to shift. Though many Irish settlers were famished, it should be acknowledged that not all of the migrants were poor. Many were employed in skilled occupations.
Finding a Communal Identity
You would have also found Irish doctors across several towns and industrial settlements in Wales, while Irish business people and coal merchants also played a significant role in Welsh life. Those employed in skilled and influential occupations also included Edward Dowling, the editor of Newport’s newspaper, the Monmouthshire Merlin.
Struggling Irish settlers took comfort in spending their time in taverns, which led to a significant problem with drunkenness. To help tackle the problem, the Welsh began to look for ways to involve Irish settlers in communities. Paul O’Leary’s ‘Irish Migrants in Modern Wales’ highlights, “conscious efforts were made in Cardiff to provide more opportunities for the Irish to spend their leisure hours in a more constructive and rewarding fashion than by merely frequenting the taverns.”
O’Leary emphasises, “In February 1859 Brother Colton, a member of the Institute of Charity came to Cardiff and founded a night school at what he taught. In order to influence as wide a section of the Irish as possible, Brother Colton also formed a fife and drum band, an organisation that would have been very familiar to the immigrants and that may have provided them with a link to their homeland.”
It is thought that these small, organised activities paved the way for future developments of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. O’Leary concludes:
“In this regard they are important as forerunners of communal activities – parish social and religious groups, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, city-wide celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day – provided the Irish settlement with a sense of communal identity.”
Paying Tribute to Irish People
Today, you’ll find a tribute to those who died in The Great Famine of 1845 -1849. Ensuring that the victims of The Great Hunger are never forgotten, The Wales National Great Famine Memorial was erected in Cardiff’s Cathays Cemetery on St. Patrick’s Day of 1999.
The heartfelt memorial also pays tribute to the thousands of Irish people who died in Wales. This includes over 300 migrants who are sadly buried in an unmarked grave at Cathays Cemetery.
Where Was St Patrick Born?
Arguably the biggest connection between Wales and Ireland is St Patrick himself. Legend has it that the Saint was born in Wales. Historians believe he was specifically born in south Wales at Banwen in Neath Port Talbot, meaning the patron saint of Ireland could have actually have been a Welshman!
Every year a service is led at Banwen to pay tribute to St Patrick. The annual service sees residents, historians and school children gather together beside a plaque left in memory of the saint.
Author and historian George Brinley Evans told the BBC:
“My grandfather had a small holding by the side of the road which he farmed. When I was about eight years old I was told St Patrick was born on that land.It has been said for years he came from Banwen, and in 2004 we had a beautiful stone by the side of the road to mark this. People come from Ireland to visit it.”
Meanwhile, historian Tom Marston added:
“I think the strongest evidence is the persistence of the notion among local people that it was so. Next is the written confession of the man himself where he mentions the name and description of his birthplace itself. But for me it is a line of wordplay in The Confession of St Patrick, I quote: ‘I was picked a stone out of the bog’, the word stone being a play on his name Patrick and bog being a play on the name of birthplace Banwen.”
Widespread St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Wales see people flock to local Irish bars to get involved in the fun. Many clubs and venues also play host to themed events and parties, offering plenty of choice to enjoy some truly Irish shenanigans!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our look back at Irish and Welsh connections. If you’ll be celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Cardiff, why not pay us a visit at The Exchange Hotel?