Some years ago in reading that fascinating study in Irish history: "The Making of Ireland and its Undoing" by Alice Stopford Green, the wife of the famous English historian of that name, the present writer noted the existence of an Irish Colony in Wales in the neighbourhood of Tenby towards the end of the 16th century. Mrs. Green simply stated the fact in a few lines. But the circumstances in which this Irish colony had settled in Pembrokeshire were left unrecorded by her. There exists among the first series of Ellis's Letters, vol. 1. p. 191 a letter from R. Gruffithe to Cardinal Wolsey that reveals fully the history of this Irish colony. It was due to a great sudden colonisation of Pembrokeshire, and which was reported to have caused some alarm to the English Government. The letter is in quaint English and for the benefit of our readers the extracts quoted shall be given in modern dress.
Gruffithe tells the Cardinal "that there is so great abundance of Irishmen, lately come within the past twelve months, into Pembrokeshire, the Lordship of Haverford West and along the sea coast to the town of St. David's, and within the town of Haverford West, Pembroke and Tenby. With such Irish as had come before and were dwelling there, they all by estimation do amount at the least to the number of 20 thousand persons and more, all of meaner sort; and the most part of the rascals come out of the King's dominions in the earldom of Desmond then in rebellion. And very few of them come out of the English pale in Ireland."
The area of colonisation is here stated to be entirely in Pembrokeshire. As Milford Haven was the port in the middle ages most in use for communicating with Ireland, it was only natural that some Irishmen should have settled in the area. This sudden colonisation was due very likely to the campaign against the Earl of Desmond, who successfully retreated before Kildare into the mountains some time about 1528. The people came therefore from Waterford and Cork and possibly Kerry —20,000 'rascals' in all, as Gruffithe calls them, of the meaner sort. There were some from the English Pale.
Tenby was in their grip. He writes: "The King's town of Tenby is almost clean Irish, the head men and rulers as well as the commons of the town…
Their high and presumptuous minds do disobey the King's process that cometh to them for the King's Exchequer of Pembroke, supposing that their charter will support them in this—which charter in reality allows no such large liberties as they claim it does. One of them, Germyn Gruffith, who was born in the Earl of Desmond's dominion, is now owner of two great ships, well appointed with ordnance. It is daily proved by experience that few or none of the English or Welsh can, or be, received amongst them to any service or wages." Truly a serious state of affairs! So Gruffithe tells the Cardinal that he tried to stop it. "Last year I heard of a great number of Irish that landed along the coast. I made a secret watch and in two small parishes in one night I gathered of them about 200 new comers. And there were 200 more already there. All the new company I sent to sea again. But," he sorrowfully adds, "they be comyn with monye moo," and hitting off a truly Irish characteristic he adds "Every one that cometh doth claim relationship to one or other of the same shire, towns and country aforesaid. Every time that I expelled the new coming Irish out of the country the rest do have a grudge against me. Of a truth in the whole area there are four Irish against one English or Welsh."
Gruffithe goes on to advise the King and Council to consider the matter and devise some order to keep them out, and to ordain that no man in that area shall retain in service any that come out of Ireland thither under a heavy penalty. If this is not done "they will increase more and more." The Tenby Irish were particularly in his black books. He complains: "The Mayor and Town of Tenby have committed and done many great riots, rows and unlawful assemblies against the King's laws his peace crown and dignity as appears by the indictments against them in the King's Pembroke records. It shall be duly proved that they have aided and victualled the King's enemies." Gruffithe concludes that he is ready to carry out any orders on the matter, "to the uttermost of my little power." He wrote from Carmarthen on the 8th July.
Sir Henry Ellis gives some particulars of the conditions prevailing over 60 years later. He takes it from a MS. in the Harleian Collection in the British Museum, No. 6250 entitled "The First Booke of the Description of Pembrokeshire in General," written 1603, author unknown, After describing Pembrokeshire as inhabited by Welsh, English and "Irishmen who do daily ferry thither out of Ireland," the author on page 21 says: "As for the Irishmen they are so powdered among the inhabitants of Rowse and Castlemartyn, that in every village you shall find the third, fourth or fifth householder an Irishman. Of late they come more than in times past by reason of the late wars in Ireland. If it so continue for the time to come, they will shortly equal the other inhabitants in number." The author evidently notices the brogue and some Irishisms in their speech; "they speak and use here the English tongue, yet in such a sort that all may know they came from Ireland. And the servant will give the 'thou' when addressing his master, and mean no offence thereby. Those that come from Wexford say that they do not understand the Irish language, neither doth any understand well their English! "
The final paragraph is most interesting, showing how potheen was made and sold by them in Pembrokeshire. "They are so increased that there are some whole parishes inhabited by the Irish, having not a single English or Welshman, except the parson of the parish. These Irish people do use their trade in making aquavita [potheen or whiskey] in great abundance, which they carry to be sold around the country on horseback or otherwise, so that weekly you may be sure to have whiskey sold at your door; and by this means it is grown to be the usual drink in most men's houses instead of wine, some of them making exceedingly good stuff, and selling it better and cheaper than in any part of England or Ireland, for I have [not] drunk as good as some Rosa Solis made by them, and this usually was sold for 16 pence a quart,but commonly you can get very good stuff for 10 or 12 pence a quart—which is better and cheaper than ever I could buy the like in any part of England.” ‘Rosa Solis’, ‘rose of the sun’, must have been a special brand of their ‘mountain dew’.
Ellis states that considering that such a powerful Irish colony existed in 1603, over sixty years after they settled there, it would be natural to expect some traces of this colonisation, if it were only in family names; but upon the most accurate inquiries it appears that not only every trace, but even the tradition of the colonisation is worn out in Pembrokeshire. State papers and an old manuscript are the only records. What became of the Pembroke Irish? History does not record.
From St. Peter’s Magazine (Cardiff), March, 1925. The article is signed ‘J.M.C.’, which is presumably that of Fr. J. M. Cronin of St. Peter’s Church, Roath, Cardiff, who contributed many interesting items to the magazine.