“The resonances of the Great Irish Famine still echo today and, more than any other event in our
history, the deaths and suffering of the dreadful years of devastation have left a deep scar on the consciousness
of the Irish people. The Famine radically transformed the history, people and landscape of Ireland. Over
one million people died and more than two million emigrated.
“It also transformed the history of many countries around the globe, countries where Irish refugees from the horrors of the Famine settled and established communities that in time would play a vital role in those lands. In recent years there has been increasing acknowledgment of the significance of the Famine in international terms.
“It is after the Famine that the Irish arrived in the greatest numbers in Wales, working in mining, in the steelworks, in labour and in service. In Ireland we are extremely proud of your accomplishments and contribution in your adoptive country. We look forward to deepening the ties that have linked us over the centuries, links that embrace Irish communities around the world who today are joined with us in a new way through their acts of remembrance.
“Mo ghraidhin sibh.*
Mary Robinson, President.”
*These Irish words convey very warm and affectionate congratulations (Editor).
Following the Mass many members of the congregation went to the Cardiff Bay Hotel, which is close to the site of the former Newtown, for a social evening. The entertainment was provided by 'The Hennessys' (Frank Hennessy, whose forebears came from West Waterford, Dave Burns, a 'Newtown boy' and Iolo Jones, a native speaker of Welsh).
The highlight of the evening was probably the first rendering in public of a new Newtown song by
'The Hennessys'. The song was based on Newtown – the Parish
of Saint Paul's, a poem by the late Tommy Walsh, which was published in
the second edition of this magazine.
On the following day, Saturday 25 October, a group of about 80 – 90 people took part in what is believed to have been the first ever 'famine walk' in Wales.
In Ireland 'famine walks' to the site of mass graves or other places associated with the Great Famine have taken place in some areas for many years. Although no Irish refugee from the Famine is believed to have died in Wales from actual hunger, many new arrivals died of fever within a short time of arrival. Some brought the fever with them, as they came with “fever on their backs and famine in their stomachs” as one observer wrote. Others, crowded into hastily erected houses that were little more than hovels, became infected with cholera and other fevers associated with overcrowding and poor sanitation.
At that time, in the 1840s and 1850s, only Anglican clergy could conduct burial services and only Anglican cemeteries were recognised as legal burial grounds. Many Irish people were buried under such circumstances, some in marked graves with headstones, others in mass graves which became necessary during epidemics.
Thus it was that at 11.00 a.m., in the presence of the Irish Ambassador, Ted Barrington, Mrs. Clare Barrington and civic and clerical representatives, Canon J. Buttimore conducted an Anglican service of remembrance for the Irish dead at the former All Saints Cemetery, Adamstown. In his introductory remarks he included the following excerpt from a letter sent a few days previously by Wales Famine Forum member, Frank Lane:-
I am particularly interested in the fact that the Famine Walk starts at the old Adamsdown Cemetery. I had a great-aunt buried there; she died in the early 1860s, at the age of 12 years, only a few weeks after the first branch of my family came here. She spoke no English, and was buried by an Anglican minister, as non-conformist clergy were not allowed to bury in consecrated ground before the Burials Act that came a few years later. As a very young child I was taken to see her grave, the tombstone of which was engraved in Gaelic.
The procession then moved on to the site (now under a flyover) of the former Saint Paul's R.C. Church in
Tyndall Street. There Father Ieuan Wyn Jones, a convert to Catholicism, spoke and prayed his tribute to that
fondly remembered old church and its now scattered flock.
The group then walked to the statue, unveiled a day or two previously, erected to the memory of Newtown's most famous son, Peerless Jim Driscoll, a boxer with a world-wide reputation in his day. When he died in his mid 40s about 70 years ago his funeral was watched by over 100,000 people. There the Ambassador was greeted by Rickie Ormonde, from County Carlow, a former boxer and one-time Lord Mayor of Cardiff, and Chairman of the Committee which had campaigned long and successfully for the memorial.
The 'famine walk' ended at Saint John's (Church in Wales) in the centre of the city, Cardiff's oldest parish church (13th. century). Here, in the churchyard, Canon Buttimore conducted a further service of remembrance for Irish people buried there during and immediately after the Famine years.
Then in the church itself the remaining participants, including Mr. and Mrs. Barrington, listened to a meditation on poverty and deprivation in the Third World before joining in a simple 'Famine Lunch' of tea, bread and cheese arranged by the Vicar, the Reverend Malcolm Ellis.
The events of 24 and 25 October were arranged jointly by the Newtown Association (Chair: Mary Sullivan) and the Wales Famine Forum as part of Cardiff’s ‘One World Week’.
Published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter 1997.