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Irish immigration

Last updated: 15 August 2008

The Irish began arriving in Wales in the 1840s. They were the largest single group of immigrants to play a part in the story of Wales.

Those who arrived in Wales were fleeing the Irish potato famine, and often arrived in a very desperate state. The Wanderer docked in Newport in 1847 and deposited 113 destitute men, women and children in the town, with 20 of them said to be close to death.

This prompted comment in Parliament, and the Monmouthshire Merlin newspaper commented on "the alarming and lamentable appearance of the streets of Newport, crowded with many hundreds of famishing Irish".

The emotional impact the famine had on the escaping Irish was so great that they built a Famine Memorial in a Cardiff cemetery.

From 1841, the Irish kept coming to Wales, to reach a high point of almost 30,000 people by 1861 - a 344% increase. They settled primarily in the four largest South Wales towns - Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Merthyr.

But not all Irish immigrants to Wales were poor and unskilled. Among the new arrivals were also doctors, businessmen and other members of the professional classes. As the population dwindled at home, they too had to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Uneasy neighbours

However, the arrival of the Irish caused tensions between neighbours, and led to Cardiff's first race riot in 1848. Cardiff's very first policeman, Jeremiah Box Stockdale, found the dead body of Welshman Thomas Lewis in Cardiff's Irish quarter, which was the area around Stanley Street. He had been brutally stabbed by Irishman John Conners.

Prior to this, in some quarters there had long been a suspicion about the Irish - in earlier times there were rumours that the immigrant Irish sucked the blood of sheep, murdered children and ran "faster than any dog". In those days, Stanley Street was not a very inviting place - it wasn't uncommon for over 50 people to occupy a single room.

Catholic churches and homes were assaulted with some venom as Welsh mobs rampaged through these streets looking for John Conners.

In the end, he was arrested at Pontypridd, found guilty of manslaughter, and shipped off to Botany Bay in Australia.

At the funeral of the murdered man, Irish railway workers apparently lined these streets, armed with pickaxes, ready to protect the Irish population against any further Welsh reprisals.


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