Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Anti-Irish Riot in Radnorshire

We're aware of the sometimes violent antagonism between Irish and Welsh workers in 19C  South Wales and even Pennsylvania; but in early May 1863, during the construction of the Mid-Wales railway line, Radnorshire, too, had its very own anti-Irish riot.

The trouble seems to have started at Marteg Bridge with rumours of workers being laid off in favour of the Irish.  A demand was put to the contractors, Watson & Co, insisting that all Irishmen be gone within 24 hours.   This led to fighting between the two groups and the out-numbered Hibernians were soon fleeing in all directions.  Some reached safety in Llanidloes while others were caught and savagely beaten in St Harmon, where one man lost an eye.

The workers marched, some 200 or 300 strong, down the track into Rhayader where they proceeded to drive the Irish from their lodgings. Soon a crowd - the press claimed it was a thousand strong - had assembled in the town.  A Scotsman, mistaken for an Irishman, received a beating, as did a native of Somerset who had refused to answer the mob's queries as to his nationality.  A handful of locals did try to protect the Irish from the depredations of the crowd.  A Mrs Lloyd, who reporters waggishly dubbed the heroine of Cwmteuddwr, set about the rioters with a poker as they sought to eject a lodger from her dwelling. 

The three days of rioting - the local police had decided that intervention was impossible -  culminated with the mob driving the Irish before them into Newbridge where the village was searched.  The rioters finally ending their pursuit at Pontarithon on the Builth road. 

A local clergyman said that the riot had began inside a beer barrel, although the Irish practise of working at below the usual rate for the job seems to have been at the root of the unpleasantness.


Jac o' the North, said...

I remember hearing similar stories while growing up in Swansea. One notorious incident resulted in 2 local men being killed with shovels in Fforestfach.

Pay rates may have played a part, as did the Irish reputation for being used to break strikes. But I think there were other factors at play.

First, Wales in the mid-nineteenth century was thoroughly nonconformist, and so most Welsh would have been antagonistic towards the catholic Irish on religious grounds alone.

Next there was the political dimension. Almost all Welsh then would have been loyal imperialists, whereas the Catholic Irish were perceived as always rebelling against the English crown.

Add the difficulty of communication to the mix of pay rates, religion and politics and 'anti-Irish riots' were almost inevitable.

radnorian said...

Yes I'm sure that anti-Catholicism was a big factor in all this and I'm also not sure how many of the rioters were actually locals.

Certainly West Radnorshire was the scene of frequent civil disturbance during the Victorian period - toll gates, fisheries, enclosures, profiteering shopkeepers were all likely to receive a visit from the Rebeccaites, who were still active as late as the 1930s.

These protests were well organized, limited to achievable ends and almost all had an economic cause. The authorities couldn't cope with the scale of the disorders and the impossibility of getting convictions. The local gentry opted for a quiet life and often sided with the populous, releasing rioters on the flimsiest of excuses.

I'd guess that this anti-Irish riot was primarly the work of itinerant workers rather than locals since the Radnorshire version of Rebeccaism was led by the small farmers rather than the labourers.

Newspapers of the day often compared Radnorshire to Ireland. Indeed it wasn't unheard of for the Irish to hold Radnorshire up as an example. See here:

Anonymous said...

My great-grandparents (Rhayader folk)were furious when my paternal grandmother married a half Irish man from South Wales. This manifested itself in their insistence that the first born, instead of inheriting his father's first name as had happened for generations, was christened with their family name as his first name. This evolved into a dislike of the second-born (my old man) because he was too much like his father.

Years later my maternal grandfather (from the Rhymney Valley) refused to attend my parents wedding because my old man had an Irish name and an historical dislike of the Irish.

I've also been unwelcome in many a home but alas I cannot blame that on my name - but I can blame it on the beer barrel.

Jac o' the North, said...

Radnorian, Good point, this riot could have been fomented by itinerant English navvies resentful of a competing Irish workforce.

As you also point out, Rebeccaism was the work of small farmers, and a number of historians have suggested that it died out when it became 'too popular', because once the labourers got involved many farmers became frightened about where it could lead.

Anon, Something similar happened in my family. A brother of my maternal grandfather married an 'Irish' girl from Swansea's (long gone) Greenhill area, that was focused on St Joseph's church (now cathedral) and school.

My understanding is that the family cut him adrift and he was hardly spoken of. I certainly never met him. I often wonder if I have 'Irish' kinfolk named Rees.