St. Patrick's Day: The Irish in Cardiff
Updated: May 21, 2020
The mixture of St. Patrick's weekend, the Six Nations Grand Slam decider between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff, the jovial atmosphere between the two nationalities over the last few days, and the fact that I'm from Dublin, make this an ideal opportunity to look at the close connections between the two countries, and especially in Cardiff.
Both are prominent Celtic countries today, with native Celtic languages, and both claim origins from the Celts, who originated from central Europe, if not even further east, over 3,000 years ago. The Irish possess more similarities with the Scottish and Manx though, while the Welsh have closer ties with Cornwall, England, and Brittany, France, but there are still prominent connections between them nonetheless.
Arguably the most famous person to hail from Wales is somebody most people consider to be from Ireland, is St. Patrick. The man the world seems to celebrate every March 17th is not from the country he has come to represent at all. Born, allegedly, in Pembrokeshire in the late 400s/early 500s, Patrick ultimately brought Christianity to Ireland and became the country's patron saint following a vision from God. The Irish have created a booming tourism industry off the back of St. Patrick's week festivities today, something they should be eternally thankful to Wales for. If only St. David could inspire such expenditure!
The links between the countries go much deeper than one man of course, and in more recent centuries the Irish helped turn Cardiff into what it is today, the capital of Wales. Following the Great Famine of the early 1840s in Ireland and the failure of the potato crop, the population of Ireland dwindled from about eight million (a peak that has yet to be reached again) to close to four million people due to death and emigration. This is a significant factor in how 40 million people in the US claim some form of Irish heritage. In 1846, 10,000 of those people departed Ireland for Cardiff, subsequently making up 40% of the population of their new home. Cardiff was a growing industrial town at the time, still somewhere between being the fishing village of the late 18th century and the largest town in Wales it would soon become due to the growth of the coal mining industry and Cardiff's docks in Tiger Bay.
The 2nd Marquess of Bute laid on passage for the thousands of starving, poor and disadvantaged Irish and put them to work in Cardiff, building the docks of Tiger Bay as well as the canals, tunnels and railways surrounding the rapidly growing town. Ever the savvy, yet ruthless, businessman.
Their arrival was not positively greeted by all. Cardiff was becoming an international hotspot with representatives from dozens of countries from around the world living in the town across the 19th century and beyond. The Irish were cheap labour however, and ultimately undercut Welsh wages and led to break of strikes, leading to animosity between them in the early years.
The Irish 'colony' of Cardiff settled in an area which came to be known as Newtown, or Little Ireland, directly south of modern city centre today. Six streets of 200 houses spanning the current Tyndall St area in a purpose built neighbourhood created by Bute. Newtown eventually spawned one of the city's most legendary Cardiffians, 'Peerless' Jim Driscoll, former British and Commonwealth featherweight champion in the early 20th century, but it no longer exists today.
Today, Tyndall St is dominated by tower blocks, major business complexes and hotels and is unrecognisable compared to what it once was (as shown throughout the video below). Yet another example of Cardiff's missing heritage unfortunately. In the 1970s the neighbourhood had fallen into poor condition and was levelled to make way for what we now have. There is one reminder though of the neighbourhood that once contributed so much to making Cardiff the industrial powerhouse it would become by the First World War.
The Newtown Memorial Garden was opened on March 20th 2005, consisting of a large stone 'knotwork' Celtic style sculpture by local artist David Mackie, flanked by inscriptions in Irish and Welsh, as well as the surnames of some of the old families of Little Ireland.