When researching my PhD, I spent a lot of time following the minutes of parks committees and those of the Labour Party, South Wales Miners’ Federation, and the surviving slithers of welfare associations. Few of the characters really stand out, not because they were unduly anonymous, but because the same spirit of civic duty and working-class solidarity was evident across the board. The exceptions – Mark Harcombe, Lewis Jones, Llew Jenkins, George Paget, D. L. Davies, Abel Morgan – had something about them that transcended the normal enthusiasm of a Labour councillor in the 1920s and 1930s. Not for nothing was Mark Harcombe known as the ‘Czar of the Rhondda’ for his many years as the power broker in the Rhondda Labour Party (for more on him see Chris Williams’ Democratic Rhondda). Lewis Jones, the star Communist of the Rhondda and novelist-historian of the movement, probably needs no introduction. George Paget, D.L. Davies, and Abel Morgan, three Labour councillors (and one MP) whose work can still be seen in the communities that they served: Davies an instrumental figure in the development of Ynysangharad Park, Pontypridd; Morgan an instrumental figure in the development of Ynysybwl Recreation Ground; and Paget an ex-Pontypridd RFC player and an instrumental figure in providing for a variety of sports in Pontypridd, not least rugby league.
But it would be remiss of me, on International Women’s Day, not to address today’s post to the unsung hero of the Pontypridd Labour Party: Myra O’Brien. Born in Cape Town to Irish Parents, O’Brien grew up on the west coast of Ireland in Kilrush, County Clare (her obituaries make no mention of her South African birth) and trained as a school teacher. She taught first in Holywell, North Wales, but made her career in Pontypridd teaching at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Treforest, rising to become head-teacher. She served in the latter post for 35 years. Teaching provided O’Brien with a trade union platform – she was heavily involved in the National Union of Teachers locally and nationally – and used this to engage with the wider Labour movement, particularly the Women’s Labour League which she helped to established in Pontypridd and served as president from its inception in 1906 until her death in November 1935. She was also the first woman president of Pontypridd Trades Council and Labour Party, elected to three consecutive terms in office between 1922 and 1925. No other woman held elected office on the Pontypridd TC&LP executive until 1941. O’Brien’s election to Glamorgan County Council for Pontypridd Town Ward in 1934 and subsequent election, unopposed, to Pontypridd Urban District Council for the Graig Ward in 1935 were both firsts – the more impressive because no Labour candidate had hitherto won in the notoriously Liberal Town Ward.
When looking back at Myra O’Brien’s career three features are apparent: her commitment to welfare, her commitment to the Labour movement, and her Irishness. If her relationship with the Labour movement is clear from the preceding paragraph, it falls now to consider the other aspects of her life. Above all else, O’Brien was dedicated to the cause of the Pontypridd and District Institute for the Blind, which she served as secretary for a quarter of a century. She served too as president of the South Wales and Monmouthshire Counties Association for the Blind and on the committee of the Glamorgan Committee for the Blind. This activism took her across South Wales on a regular basis and her name appears frequently in reports of special lessons and open days provided for blind children in Swansea, Cardiff, the South Wales Coalfield, and beyond. She put to use her singing voice to teach children in non-traditional ways. There is little doubt that Myra O’Brien was instrumental in the affiliation of the local National League for the Blind branch to Pontypridd Trades Council and Labour Party in 1919 and the campaign to provide literature in Braille at the town library the following year.
But it was her Irishness that was key to understanding the many roles Myra O’Brien played in Pontypridd life. This is perhaps not the place to try and explain the complicated relationship between the Labour movement and the Irish movement in the South Wales of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but suffice it to say activists such as Myra O’Brien were at the forefront of building a unity that would later prove decisive in the transformation of Liberal South Wales into Labour South Wales. It was not merely by virtue of her Irish childhood and her teaching at a largely Irish Catholic primary school, for Myra O’Brien lived at a time of Irish cultural revival and in the last phase of the Irish independence movement. She saw the transition of Ireland out of the Union and had worked for it, at least in the ways that exiles then did. She was especially active in the Pontypridd branches of the United Irish League and later the Irish Self-Determination League – the latter had an especially strong tie to the Labour Party in Pontypridd. In the early years of the twentieth century, O’Brien took a leading role in St Patrick’s Day celebrations and we find in the newspaper reports the many songs she sang over the years, each of them combining her political activism, her love of the Ireland of her childhood, and the desire for a better future for all. Myra O’Brien was a genuine hero not just of the Pontypridd Labour Party but of the Labour movement in Britain and Ireland more generally. And so, on International Women’s Day, I raise a toast and offer a song to her. A song she sang at the Tonypandy St Patrick’s Day celebrations over a century ago.