Irish Eyes Are Set to Smile on Tyneside Again

Article excerpt

Byline: By Liz Lamb

Next month Newcastle's Irish Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary. With 4,000 Irish families living in the area, Liz Lamb looks back at the history of the festival and the Irish migration to the North East

Irishman Mike Doyle chuckles as he recalls a recent job ad in the Evening Chronicle. "It was for builders to go over to Ireland to work. I just thought how ironic is this, the tables have completely turned," he smiles.

Mike, of the Tyneside Irish Cultural Society in Newcastle is referring to the late mid 19th Century when Irish families descended on the North East desperate for work in the shipyards and coalmines.

The potato famine in the 1840s had devastated Ireland leaving thousands dead and millions destitute.

Desperate for work families emigrated to the United States, Australia and the UK, setting up home in areas rich in industry.

Attracted by Newcastle and North Tyneside's shipbuilding and mining industries many Irish families made the region their home and 4,000 Irish families still live here today.

Tony Corcoran, of the Tyneside Irish Centre, explains: "At the time of the mass immigration after the famine the Irish came over, not only because Ireland was on the edge of devastation but because the North East was such a boom area economically.

"It was a magnet for Irish people. They struggled when they got here because they were all Gaelic speaking and did not speak any English.

"They were illiterate in English, they could not write their names.

"My grandfather's birth certificate was marked with an X by his father, who was from West Ireland, when they asked for his name, not because he could not write but because he could not write in English.

"They only learned English when the national schools programme started in the 1880s."

Irish families who came over in the mass immigration settled in the East End of Newcastle, mainly in Walker, and along the banks of the Tyne at Wallsend.

Hebburn and Jarrow were dubbed Little Ireland, a term still used by many today, because of the huge number of Irish families that lived there.

"If you look at where the Catholic churches are in Newcastle, that is where a lot of the Irish lived, like St Dominic's in Bridge Street, St Lawrence's and St Anthony of Padua in Byker, and St Andrews," says Tony.

"By 1870 the records of St Andrew's, in Newgate Street, show that English priests were writing to the Bishop asking if they could be excused from having to learn Gaelic.

"Irish came to confession and confessed their sins in Irish and English priests had got to learn Irish in order to understand them.

"What is interesting to me is that an incredible number of people who came here had originally had Irish names that have been Anglicised.

"There are a lot of people living in Newcastle who don't even know that they are Irish."

By the end of the 19th Century the Irish had a high profile in Newcastle largely due to their patron and champion Joseph Cowen, an MP and a former owner of the Evening Chronicle, who stood up for the working classes.

The first play ever to be staged at Newcastle's Tyne Theatre in the 1860s, was an Irish production by Dion Boucicautt called Arragh na Pogul, meaning Garland of Kisses.

Tony says: "You could get away with an Irish show on opening night at a big theatre with a Gaelic title in 1868.

"It tells you something of the make up of the population of the city at the time.

"The Irish went on establish themselves in the North East in the labour and trade union movement largely due to a man called Michael Davitt.

"He was of the English working classes and wanted to fight for peasants rights. He started the Irish democratic league in the 1870s and their aim was bring the Irish people together and to stop them being used as cheap labour. …