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.

"This was very successful. Davitt was very well respected and he spoke at Durham Miners Gala in 1893.

"So successful were the Irish in politics and the trade union movement that the colours of the Labour Party in the North East were green from its inception in 1906 right up to the days of Neil Kinnock."

A second wave of migration by the Irish to Tyneside came during World War 1 when Swan Hunter, Palmers and Armstrong were contracted to build war ships.

The Tyneside Irish Brigade, made up of four battalions of 1200 men, was also prolific in the war.

Tony explains: "There was a big influx of Irish, particularly from Northern Ireland, a lot of people had the skills the North East ship yards needed.

"Catholics and Protestants moved to Wallsend, Hebburn and Jarrow. In Hebburn the Catholics lived by the river and the Protestants lived in the better part on higher ground. Fifty years ago they were separated and you could tell someone's religion by where they lived.

"They now all live together and a benign peace exists."

Elisih Gallagher, 77, of West Denton Hall, has lived in Newcastle for half a century. After her father died her mother Bridget brought her, her brother and three sisters to Newcastle to start a new life.

Elisih and her family moved to Hebburn where a relative lived and she has stayed in the North East ever since.

She got married in 1954, when she was 25, and has two sons, a daughter, and four granddaughters.

The former shop worker says: "I made my life here. I go on holiday to Ireland and I have a cousin who still lives there.

"I go to the Tyneside Irish Centre every week and I have made lots of good friends here."

Elisih's friend Rose McGee, 82, of West Denton, originally comes from County Mayo in Ireland but has lived in Newcastle for 60 years.

She moved to Lemington to help look after her sister who was expecting a baby. It was there that she met her husband Arthur, a train driver, and they married when Rose was 29. Rose, who worked in Fenwick for 24 years, says: "I came here for a week and I have been here ever since. I made my home here.

"I met my husband in Lemington, he used to follow me to church. I like everything about Newcastle. I started work and made lots of friends, friends for life."

Next month, from October 12 to 22, the Irish community will come together for the Tyneside Irish Festival which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

When it first started two decades ago it was just a small production but now attracts crowds of 15,000 people. In its prime it attracted more than 30,000 festival goers.

Back in the 1980s the troubles continued to dominate Northern Ireland and the Irish were never out of the news. Tony recalls: "It was still very bad at the time. One of the aims of our festival was to reach out to people and say, there is an Irish community here and we are not intent on blowing up places. We go shopping and drinking and do stuff like you as well. We want peace just as much as you do and a little bit more.

"We wanted to project a more positive image of Ireland and that it was not a place where we set off bombs all the time. It was a difficult time."

After the troubles started in the late 1960s people started to dissociate themselves from all things Irish.

"There is a lovely tale about a back lane down near by the riverbank in Hebburn called Collins back lane. People were so fearful that the people who lived there were supporters of the big fella Michael Collins that they changed the name to Edward Street. Funny thing was Collins back lane was named after the landlord who lived there,", laughs Mike.

Tyneside Irish Centre, in Gallowgate, will host some of the activities during the festival which promotes Irish traditional music and Gaelic dancing and storytellers visit schools telling tales of Ireland.

Fans of the festival include actor Tim Healy, who was a guest speaker in 1989, Jack Charlton, former Newcastle United player Mick Martin and current United goalie Shay Given.

Tony says: "We have encouraged Gaelic dancing, had the President of Ireland come to visit and encouraged participation in Irish traditional music.

"We have achieved a lot in 20 years.

"We would like to do more with Irish history in the North East and are looking for people to help us.

"There needs to be a book written about the Irish community here."

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