Cardiff and the Great Famine, Part 1.

Irish Vagrants
Even before the Great Famine and migrations of the late 1840s and early 1850s the Irish had become scapegoats for the steadily worsening living conditions developing in the early industrial society. As towns developed their industries a vast amount of labour was required. Families moved from the countryside into towns that were woefully inadequate in housing and general sanitation. As the Irish were less experienced in urban dwelling than the British and were anyway less socially developed because of the appalling backward nature of the Irish economy the migratory Irish very quickly became the scapegoat of all society's urban problems. With the Irish pouring into the mid‒century towns it is not difficult to understand how this came about. Yet it must be stressed that the Irish did not cause the problems but did indeed exacerbate them.

Vagrancy became a major problem in most towns. Mendicant Irish men and often women who had been unable to settle to any town life became professional beggars drifting from place to place. Vagrancy was a growing problem for the authorities and the Cardiff Council Minutes of 1844 noted the increase of vagrancy in the town. In Boase’s report 1848 the author noted that there was an increasing number of English and Welsh vagrants since 1846. Undoubtedly the migrant Irish added very heavily to the ranks of these persons and were in many towns including Cardiff. Boase feared that these Irish vagrants would breed a new generation who would rely on charity for a living rather than work. Though this was not a consequence in fact, nevertheless the Irish tramp, man or woman, remained a common sight for many years. However, relief officers and workhouse managers agreed that the Irish behaved best, and the greatest blackguards came from the large towns of England. ’’If I refuse relief, the Irish will live at the doors for hours, and the English will break the windows.’’ (Mr. Bentley, Relief Officer at Neath, quoted by Boase).

With large numbers of starving people descending on Cardiff, petty thieving increased, especially amongst the poor Irish: onions, turnips, potatoes, swedes, iron, all taken by cold, starving Irish who later often appeared before the town’s petty sessions. Those who were truly starving were often sympathetically treated. In July 1847 Eleanor Sullivan "a poor, wretched-looking, miserable creature" was seen stealing coal. When she was taken before the magistrates, owners and businessmen were warned against leaving coal iron, etc. open to theft - such goods should be protected. "In this, and numerous other instances of a similar nature, poor, half-starved wretches, under pressure of want, stole coal and iron, which were totally unprotected either by enclosure or by the presence of a watchman; and as they (the poor) were exposed to such temptation, they (the magistrates) were certainly disinclined to put the county to the expense of a prosecution under such circumstances."
Other unfortunates were treated with far less sympathy. When Teague Desmond was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour for stealing turnips, ’’Superintendent Stockdale said it was perfectly astonishing to think of the depredations committed upon the property of farmers by the Irish. These depredators were most daring and impudent. Certain farmers gave them permission to cut the turnip‒tops, but they stole the turnips in addition’’. Here is a very clear clash of interests leading to grievances.

It was a common occurrence at this time for Irish who stole food or heating materials for their own use or to sell at profit to receive up to a month's hard labour. The Irish were not singled out – this was the usual sentence.

Cardiff proved an ideal town for the Irish to seek work for there was much unskilled labour required on the developing docks and new transport systems. The Irish, unskilled as they were, happily accepted the least skilled jobs and were also prepared to accept the lowest wages. Wages in Ireland were very low by Welsh standards, generally under six shillings per week. Often the labourer was paid six pence or less per day. Many labourers worked only in lieu of the rent on their farms handling no money at all. The ’farm’ was usually a small patch of land easily managed by one man with a spade, on which he would grow potatoes for the family. Wages in Cardiff in the early 1850s were about twelve shillings per week for the unskilled labourer rising to eighteen shillings or more per week for skilled men. In accepting wages lower than many Welsh or English workers, the Irish were helping to depress wages. Starving men with starving families were happy to earn any money at all, but unwittingly they tended to arouse hostility from native labourers who felt that their living standards were threatened.

Housing Conditions
The housing they occupied matched their earning capacity. They general occupied the poorest houses crowded together in narrow unpaved streets or cramped airless courts. Most families who rented property could only afford to do so by sub‒letting. So the norm became one family in the two rooms downstairs with a further two or even three families sharing two rooms upstairs. In Landore Court it was calculated that just under 500 people lived in 23 houses sharing 3 outside privies that stank and overflowed: just three houses had their own stinking privies. Those poor who could not afford to rent or sub‒let were condemned to the lodging houses where all day a human tide of misery crowded into small houses. Stanley Street contained the very worst examples and Michael Harrington’s the very worst where 50 people, men, women and children, slept in any 24 hour period, strangers of different sexes often having to share beds. The cheapest bed used the privy as a pillow, a privy which overflowed into the street.

It seems inconceivable that the poor Irish preferred to live in these conditions rather than return to Ireland, but they did. To them anything at all where they did have a chance of life was better than the awfulness of the Great Famine, the constant fear of recurrent famine and the ever-present threat of sudden eviction. At least they did have full stomachs, regular work and some hope of a better future for their children.

The Task for the Catholic Authorities
Before the famine Cardiff already had a large, somewhat beleaguered Irish community. In 1840 this numbered just over 1000, one tenth of Cardiff’s total, but it declined during the 1840s, probably by a quarter. These Irish had managed to obtain land for their own church, presbytery and small school. Suddenly the Catholic authorities were faced with the famine deluge. There was a devastating shortage of priests, schools, preachers and cash. Probably over a half of the poor Irish lost their faith. Yet within 30 years the church in Cardiff had developed most of the Catholic institutions we know today: another remarkable story.

The Irish Swarming Season
Famine was by no means unusual in Ireland. Localities suffered regular localised famines throughout the early years of the nineteenth century. Most areas, even the prosperous towns of Leinster, suffered some months of deprivation during the normal course of the year. The famine that began in the summer of 1846 was nationwide in Ireland, and prevalent also in parts of Scotland, England, and, to a lesser extent, Wales.

In Ireland the rising population, especially in the south and west, caused pressure on the value of land, pushing up rents and precipitating evictions. Fathers traditionally divided land equally between children (gavelkind) so that many so‒called farms became tiny small‒holdings. Many absentee landlords and landowners cared little for improving their lands, happy to see their incomes increase by letting or sub‒letting the increasingly divided holdings.

As a result, peasant farmers were reduced to subsistence level. They grew potatoes for their own use, selling the corn they grew to pay for rent. Often they handled no money at all, the landowner taking all the corn. However, they survived well on potatoes and buttermilk, and there was plenty of peat to provide warmth in winter.

Others. less fortunate, became wandering labourers who found work wherever possible, often building temporary cover for their families in ditches and depressions in the ground.

This was a true subsistence level from which there was little hope of escape. It was a standard of living and of progress a century or more behind rural development in Britain.

The Irish have always been a very sociable race with strong family ties. People resented leaving their homeland, reluctant to emigrate to Britain or elsewhere for work. Nevertheless, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, thousands of young men had emigrated, especially from Ulster. Many more followed to escape the increasing miseries of the next century. Others emigrated only for short periods: these were the harvestmen, seasonal workers who laboured in Britain during the summer months. Most harvestmen came to Britain through Liverpool and Glasgow. In 1841 it was estimated that 1,817 harvestmen came from Cork to Bristol and it is believed that none at all came before 1830. Few of these men found their way into remote South Wales.

But the potato blight which spread throughout Ireland in the summer of 1846 changed all this. The blight struck suddenly, potatoes changing overnight into a black, stinking residue. Few areas escaped.

In September 1846 starvation was noted in Skibbereen quickly followed in other towns of South West Cork, and by October children were dying from diarrhoea brought on by their exhausted condition. Before Christmas bodies were lying unattended in the streets. Whole families were lying dead in their cabins, their bodies half-eaten by rats. Childrens stomachs swelled and their limbs shrank – typical symptoms of hunger oedema. Typhus (black fever) and relapsing fever (yellow fever) raged – in fact more people died from fever than from starvation.

Local authorities just could not cope with the disaster and emigration quickly became the common solution: ’’Before the potato failure, to leave Ireland had been regarded as the most terrible of fates, and transportation was the most dreaded of sentences. But now the people, terrified and desperate, began to flee a land which seemed accursed. In a great mass movement they made their way by tens of thousands out of Ireland, across the ocean, to America, or across the sea to Britain.’’

This great mass movement had one marked characteristic. Most mass migrations are of skilled people moving to a less civilised community. But Cecil Woodham‒Smith observes, ’’The Irish famine emigration is unlike most other emigrations because it was of a less‒civilised and less‒skilled people into a more civilised and more skilled community.’’ The backward Irish had little to offer their newly adopted countries, and filled the lowest social ranks to become social scapegoats everywhere, many never escaping from permanent destitution.

The Journey
They chose three main gateways to a new life – Liverpool, Glasgow and South Wales. The vast majority chose Liverpool and often onward from there to Canada and onto the United States. Liverpool attracted emigrants from all over the midlands, the south and the west of Ireland. South Wales attracted emigrants almost exclusively from Cork, especially from South‒West Cork. It is believed that 95% of the emigrants escaping from from the Great Famine and arriving in Cardiff were from Kinsale, Clonakilty, Rosscarbery, Skibbereen and the other small towns of that remote area, towns which experienced the very worst ravages of starvation and fever.

The victims fled from their rural cabins, walking for two or three days to Cork City. There they milled in the docked area seeking a means of escaping overseas. A voyage to Cardiff cost between one shilling and two shillings and sixpence, a fare most of these destitute and often very sick people could not afford. Help came from a number of sources. Often a benevolent landowner or local philanthropist provided a few shillings of succour for the emigrant. Priests and doctors, when they could afford it, offered the same assistance. Relief officers, whose job it was to assist the destitute, saw emigration as a means of easing the overwhelming overcrowding of the Irish workhouses, and often gave small sums to to intending emigrants. The destitute were also helped by sympathetic men of substance who deliberately gave alms on the dock sides.

The same scene, on a smaller scale, was repeated in the smaller ports like Kinsale from where many of the South Wales emigrants started their voyages.

Many emigrants had only the voyage fare, nothing else. They were told to apply for parish relief as soon as they landed in South Wales. Others had a few shillings more, rarely a few pounds. As these could not apply for relief, a few hid their savings in the hope of more. Unfortunately these few often gained all the emigrants a disreputable name for deception.

The ships were generally small, under two hundred tons – coasters plying between British, Irish and West European ports, many sailing from Cork in ballast. They were brigantines, schooners, sloops and smacks owned by British and Irish companies. The two most prominent Cork collier owners were James Scott and Co., and J. A. Hurley, but the majority of the ships employed in the coastal trade were independently owned, built by small yards in Cork, Youghal, Dungarvan, Kinsale and along the Welsh and English coasts too.

During May 1847, when the earliest famine emigrants were in full flood, a total of 53 ships arrived in Cardiff from Irish ports. Of these 22 came from south‒western Irish ports, and 16 from ports in the south‒east of Ireland. Exactly half of these, 19, arrived in ballast, and 28 of them came from Waterford, Cork and Kinsale. Newport was certainly a larger port than Cardiff at this time, and Bristol, too, had a significant Irish trade. So there was no shortage of ships, carrying coal and general cargo, passing along the Glamorgan shoreline close to Cardiff.

The emigrants usually occupied the open deck, or were huddled in the empty holds acting as cheap ballast. Either way facilitated the spread of fever and dysentery. Some emigrants provided their own food of salted herring, salted cod and bread. No food was provided by the crew, only water. Not surprisingly many emigrants lived only on water during the passage.

Usually the passage took a few days depending on the wind conditions, but at times the journey lasted for two or three weeks if the ships became becalmed. The busiest seasons for emigration were early spring and autumn, though there was a constant stream of emigrants from 1847 through to 1861 and beyond. However, the most destitute arrived in the early years up to 1852. Conditions for the emigrants aboard these small vessels, facing bitter North Atlantic winds and heavy rain, huddled on the open deck or locked in the cold holds, leave little to the imagination.

How many Irish immigrants (once they arrived in Wales they were no longer emigrants) landed at Cardiff docks just cannot be ascertained. There were the luckier ones who had means to support themselves, were generally able–bodied, and therefore did not seek the assistance of local relief officers. During the early 1850s their numbers increased as the numbers of destitute declined. Those people crowded into the town or moved on to other towns where there was work.

However, the plight of the destitute was not ended by landing on the Welsh coast. Because they had no means of support they were classed as illegal immigrants and were therefore landed secretly along the remoter coasts or remoter parts of the Taff‒Ely estuary, usually by night. After the horrendous voyage, the ship would come in as close to shore as possible. Coming either directly from the ship or from the ship’s boat, these destitute, starving individuals waded waist‒deep onto the shore – often knee – deep in mud too, for deep mud deposits prevail all along the Glamorgan shore. The most favoured beaches were Penarth, Sully, Porthkerry and the mudflats at Cardiff. Remember that many of these forsaken people were seriously ill with fever or dysentery, and a few were probably close to death. In such manner came to Cardiff the ancestors of a considerable proportion of the present population of Cardiff.

W. D. Boase, reporting on vagrancy in South Wales in 1848, described what he saw and was told: ’’Great numbers of Irish are landed on the Welsh coast; but the amount cannot be ascertained or even guessed at. They are brought over by coal vessels as a return cargo (living ballast) at very low fares. (2s 6d is the highest sum I have heard of) huddled together like pigs, and communicating disease and vermin on their passage. Thrust ashore clandestinely, perhaps in the night (for there is great odium attached to the traffic), landed in the mud in some obscure part of the river, exhausted, faint and feverish from privation of food and air; is it to be wondered at that these become the medium of extending fever and contagion into the heart of the country, into the asylum of the poor, where it finds its most susceptible victims and its greatest stronghold in the overcrowded rooms.’’

It seems that such secret, illegal landings took place almost daily or nightly from 1847 to 1849, easing from 1850 when numbers of destitute and sick began to decline. Numbers in each landing ranged from a handful to over one thousand in the busiest periods. Attempts to fine the captains involved proved to be almost impossible for the immigrants neither knew nor cared what the names of captains, crews or ships were: they had more essential problems. Occasionally a captain was fined £10 for carrying passengers without a licence, an action brought to court by the coastguards.

Far more rarely a captain received a heavy fine. In May 1847 the ’Catherine’ of Clonakilty illegally landed 15 women and children in an open boat at the mouth of the Taff, forcing them to trudge through the mud to reach shore. When the captained appeared in court he excused this unacceptable action by his ’’fear of getting abused by the inhabitants because the Irish people were in such a diseased and destitute state.’’ This time the court fined the captain £200 and sent him to prison for 2 months. Two years later, in May 1849, the ’Mary’ of Cork put 20 women and children into the mud at the mouth of the Ebbw at Newport lighthouse. Other women and children on the same boat were placed in an open boat which capsized, drowning one woman and three children. When the captain was brought to court he was fined £150 and sent to prison for 3 months but there was no inquiry into the drowning.

But nothing could stop the human tide of wretched misery.

©: Sean Cleary, a retired secondary school teacher from Cardiff.


Part 2