With the world nursing its post-St Patrick’s Day hangover, and with the prospect of a United Ireland back on the political agenda, however temporarily, because of Brexit, today’s blog draws our attention to one of the more interesting facets of the Irish presence in Wales after independence was won in the early 1920. Most work on the Irish in the Welsh context tends to stop at this juncture: Paul O’Leary’s classic Immigration and Integration ends in 1922, for example, and the essays collected in The Irish in Modern Wales (edited by O’Leary) take a Victorian focus. My own essay, on the fortunes of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the clubs of the South Wales County Board, of necessity, since the championship suddenly stopped at the time of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout, draws to a close in 1926. So, there is a profound gap: Peter Beresford Ellis’s attempt to draw together the various ‘Celtic’ nationalisms under the same umbrella, and on-going work on individual figures and movements, notably Saunders Lewis and the Welsh language movement as inspirations for what was going on in Ireland, and vice-versa, notwithstanding. The question to ask, then, is what did it mean to be an Irish nationalist in Wales in the era of nationhood and, of course, partition of the island of Ireland?
Politically it meant several things. Up until independence, the primary allegiance of the Irish community had been to the Liberal Party and then to the Labour Party, whose fortunes were bolstered (even ‘made’) by the transfer. Amid this political alliance was the South Wales Miners’ Federation which took an activist-internationalist stand on the question of Irish Home Rule and held several great protest meetings during the War of Independence demanding immediate military withdrawal from Ireland and the establishment of an Irish parliament with all the powers of self-government that could be afforded to it. Nor was this a fringe section within the SWMF, but a movement which drew together leading figures of the period – James Winstone (SWMF President, 1915-1921), Vernon Hartshorn MP (Ogmore; SWMF President, 1922-1924), Thomas Isaac “Mardy” Jones (MP for Pontypridd, 1922-1931). The consolidation of several elements of the non-Labour far left into the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921 further added to this left-leaning, pro-Irish political milieu. But as the Labour Party marched towards government, first in 1924, and for a longer period between 1929 and 1931, its attitudes to constitutional change began to alter, and to become more pragmatic.
In 1918, several key figures in the Labour Party, notably Arthur Henderson, and in his own manner, Jimmy Thomas, came out in favour of devolution and a federal structure as the best solution to both the constitutional crisis that had been waging for decades and the looming military conflict sparked by events in 1916. Ivan Gibbons has shown how Labour’s support for this solution was anchored in a belief in a united Ireland. J. R. Clynes, Labour leader between 1921 and 1922, argued in the House of Commons in 1919 that ‘the plea was for a united Ireland, governed by the collective rule of the people of Ireland, under conditions which would give the amplest and fullest safeguards to those who claim to represent Ulster’s interests and rights’. In the post-war debates on Ireland, Labour held to this anti-partition position. This was also the same period when Labour seriously engaged with the question of electoral reform and renewal of the voting mechanisms to ensure fairer representation of all the political voices in the country, including its own.
But a party in opposition has different responsibilities and freedoms to a party of government and the Labour Party, governing as a minority on both occasions, were no less able to break that rule in the 1920s than they are now. Although traditionally regarded as a weak minority government constrained on all sides by the insurmountable political forces of the Liberal and Conservative opposition parties inside the House of Commons, and the twin issues of Ireland and the Soviet Union outside parliament, this was not necessarily the case of either the 1924 or 1929-31 administrations. As Keith Laybourn and John Shepherd have asserted, rightly,
the 1924 minority Labour administration was a sensitive indicator of how much Labour had progressed since the Labour Representation Committee was founded in London in 1900. […] Above all, the 1924 Labour government was vital in legitimising Labour as the representative of the progressive forces in British politics, and helped to dispatch the Liberal Party to political oblivion for more than eighty years.
What Labour faced in office in 1924 was a situation in which both governments, in Dublin and in London, had to assert their own legitimacy. The Free State government after a turbulent period of war and then civil war, during which its most charismatic figure, Michael Collins, had been assassinated, and the Labour government which faced accusations that it would lead Britain to the brink of bolshevism. In such a context, it would be difficult to maintain the previously warm relationship between Irish nationalism and the British Labour Party.
Indeed, from the perspective of the increasingly conservative Free State government, the Labour Party were, in the words of Ivan Gibbons, lacking ‘the competence, understanding or commitment to resolve this issue [of the territorial boundary] and contribute to long-term stability in Ireland’. The reasons for this apparent lack of administrative ability lay in ‘Labour’s perceived lack of knowledge and interest in Irish politics’. If this absence of knowledge developed, at all, it must have developed quickly, because a matter of a few years before Labour were regarded in most Irish circles as the only political force in Britain that properly understood the Irish cause. The political directions of the two governments – the one towards social democracy, the other towards social and cultural conservatism – no doubt played a substantial role in this divergence, as did the need to assert the strength of respective national positions. Not for the first time, and not for the last, the conservative nature of Irish politics clashed with Britain’s steady move towards an idiosyncratic form of social democracy.
The more Labour participated in government, the less comfortable it became with the militant and militaristic tendencies of Irish nationalism, partly because of a genuine belief in the need for peace and partly for pragmatic reasons – British voters (it was felt) would not allow the British government to align itself with such activity. For all that the sympathies between the wider Labour Party and the Irish nationalist cause did not entirely dissipate – as the history of Labour’s current leadership team shows – it became far more of a minority engagement. An idea, rather than an active commitment.
But what was going on underneath the realm of high politics? At this level, particularly in areas where there had previously been quite substantial Irish political activity, such as South Wales, there was a distinct wave of ‘ethnic fade’. Cultural activities, such as Irish language classes, ceilidhs, St Patrick’s Day festivities, and for a period Gaelic Athletic Association competitions, certainly persisted, but for the most part the Irish ceased to articulate a distinct political identity and instead pursued the social, economic, and political, questions of the day through the labour movement. This became the default position of the mainstream and the question of partition, and Labour’s previously antagonistic stance, quietly dissipated. The Irish Question moved to the fringes, to the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, on the Left, and to the fledgling Welsh Nationalist Party, Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, on the Right. For the CPGB, which inherited a substantial bloc of Irish support and membership from its predecessor parties and organisations upon formation in 1921, support for a united Ireland was a clear manifestation of communist commitment to colonial liberation and the throwing off the yoke of imperialism all over the world. This led, by the time of the Troubles, to an active call for the removal of British troops and administrative presence from Northern Ireland.
Plaid Cymru, on the other hand, embraced Ireland for a number of reasons. It had, to some extent, inherited the traditional Welsh nationalist view of Ireland as the vanguard of a wave of Celtic independence from British – indeed, English – colonialism and imperialism. Since Irish Disestablishment in 1869, Welsh nationalists had looked to Ireland, rather than Scotland, for their inspiration. Cultural nationalists, too, viewed the Irish cultural Revival, and its leading figures such as Sean O’Casey and W. B. Yeats, with a certain Romantic glow, hoping for a similar renewal of the Welsh cultural milieu. And, it must be said, too, the Catholicism of Ireland provided a clear appeal to several of the early leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party, notably Saunders Lewis and Ambrose Bebb. In an era of starkly conservative Catholic politicisation, particularly in France, Spain and, of course, Ireland, the beliefs espoused by Lewis and Bebb, including that nationalists should seek to be ‘Europe’s interpreter[s] in Britain’, pushed them into a realm of politics that had little direct parallel in Britain itself. In this context, is it any surprise that Lewis expressed admiration for General Franco?
That Gwynfor Evans, the more traditionally Liberal president of Plaid Cymru after the Second World War, found a comfortable ally in the ageing Éamon de Valera is perhaps more surprising. But then Plaid Cymru had its own reasons for allying itself with the dominant Fianna Fáil, not least the bolster of credence it gave to the Welsh nationalists who continued to struggle to break into parliament. It was in this period that the Anti-Partition of Ireland League was formed, providing an ideal platform for collaboration between Irish nationalists and Welsh nationalists at a grassroots level. As Jacob Murphy has written,
Whilst the anti-partition campaign was led in Ireland by Nationalist MPs and TDs both North and South of the border, the campaign in Britain focused much more on grassroots organisation through setting up branches throughout England, Scotland and Wales. This was particularly the case during the ‘flourishing days’ the League (1949-1953) where hundreds of branches were set up in and around Eamon de Valera’s anti-partition tour of Britain in 1948 and 1949.
There were, in truth, no more than a handful of A-PL branches established in Wales, and the centre of activity was in Cardiff. The branch there was established in 1947 by John Fogarty. Branches in Ferndale and Tonypandy, both in the Rhondda, followed in the next few years. Although primarily focused on the political situation, the A-PL also provided the catalyst for a revival in Irish cultural activity after the Second World War, with a new hurling club and Irish language classes established in Cardiff in 1952. The Cardiff branch also held regular ceilidh dances at the Co-operative Hall on Charles Street throughout this period.
The key figure, as already mentioned, was the businessman, John Fogarty (1877-1958). Born, at least according to the census entry he provided in 1911, in Drumkeeran, County Leitrim, he spent most of his life living in Cardiff. Forgarty was instrumental in establishing the Cardiff branch of the A-PL in 1947 and quickly became the president of the League’s Welsh Council when it was established in January 1948 (or so). Fogarty’s interest in this question was hardly a sudden one. Because of his longevity of life, he had been an active campaigner in Irish nationalist circles in Cardiff since before the First World War. Equally significant, but of a younger generation, was Frank McFarland (1922-1978) who took over from Fogarty as the president of the Cardiff branch in the mid-1950s. He had previously been the branch chairman. It was McFarland, rather than Fogarty, for instance, who represented the Cardiff A-PLers at the League’s Annual Convention in Enniskillen in 1954, although on all previous occasions it had been Fogarty who travelled to Ireland to represent Welsh members.
Nor did the branch have to send figures to Ireland to enjoy the patronage of leading political figures, several came to speak in Cardiff itself. These included Anthony Mulvey MP (Fermanagh & Tyrone), who denounced the post-war Labour government for seeking to ‘extend the power of the “Tory junta” at Belfast’; Cahir Healy MP (Fermanagh & Tyrone); Michael O’Neill MP (Mid Ulster); and Éamon de Valera. De Valera’s visit, in the autumn of 1948 was part of his anti-partition campaign which took him around the world between 1948 and 1951. Having lost power in 1948, de Valera threw his political weight behind the anti-partition cause hoping to build a consensus at home and abroad for a united Ireland. It was, as Stephen Kelly has argued, a dismal failure. Nevertheless, when de Valera arrived in Cardiff towards the end of October 1948, he was greeted by the Anti-Partition League branch, by the Plaid Cymru present, Gwynfor Evans, and by a crowd, according to some reports, of around 1,000 who came to listen to what he had to say. Welcoming de Valera to the stage, Fogarty remarked:
I am glad to be here because I am an Ulster man. They want to continue to call it Ulster. Well, I will give you a word which better describes it, they have made it into an ulcer.
Gwynfor Evans then offered a few words from his own movement:
We feel a great wrong has been done to Ireland, a wrong that must be righted.
De Valera then spoke at length, remarking on the apparent fallacy of partition and the lack of enthusiasm for it outside of Belfast. There is, he said, ‘no justification on any principle whatsoever for cutting them off. If they had a chance of a plebiscite they would decide by a majority for a United Ireland’.
Plaid Cymru seized on the opportunity of de Valera’s presence in Cardiff and hosted a luncheon with the former Irish Taoiseach as guest of honour. Fully aware of his audience, de Valera encouraged those present with his belief that the anti-partitionists would ‘have the aid of Wales in getting rid of the present injustice. It would be a recognition of national rights and would be something in the way of full recognition of Wales’s own national rights’. This was little more than eighteen months prior to the launch of the Parliament for Wales Campaign at Llandrindod Wells. From a nationalist point of view, Irish and Welsh, de Valera’s visit was welcomed; but the view of the wider community was rather more hostile. Indeed, the Western Mail recorded a particularly stormy and hostile reception amongst the city’s business community. De Valera was even labelled a ‘traitor’ for his actions at the end of the Second World War. A meeting arranged by the Newport Rotary Club was cancelled, too. De Valera visited Wales once again in January and February 1950 when he delivered a guest address ‘Our Bilingual Problem’ at the Caernarfonshire County Association of the National Union of Teachers conference in Bangor. ‘The fate of a nation that loses its language’, he said, ‘is to be a cripple nation’. He made the same points at Caernarfon and in Aberdare, on 26 January, where he spoke in front of more than 1,000 teachers and students. His advice in Aberdare was:
[To build] a shell of protection around the hard core of the districts where the language, to be revived, was spoken, and gradually to restore the language to the ares bordering on them.
Again, this was more than a decade prior to Saunders Lewis’s clarion call, Tynged yr Iaith (1962), and shows, perhaps, the extent to which Plaid Cymru – in an effort to throw off the foul stench of the interwar flirtations with right-wing Catholic conservatism, which provided the Labour Party with the easy j’accuse ‘the Fascist Party of Wales’ – leant on the united Ireland campaigns as a way of turning the page. Gwynfor Evans certainly threw his political enthusiasm behind de Valera’s anti-partition cause. Labour, however, put considerable distance between itself and the former Taoiseach, with Labour councillors in Swansea refusing a civic reception in 1950. Evans denounced the action calling for the ‘sharpest censure’ for Swansea’s Labour Council for having acted in that manner. During de Valera’s earlier tour, David Rhys Grenfell, Labour MP for Gower, issued a barely disguised rebuke for the position being articulated remarking that ‘he had been very disappointed that a man who came from such an eloquent race should not have proved a better speaker’. Swansea’s Labour Council did, by contrast, hold a civic reception for Basil Brooke, the Ulster Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Grenfell’s view of Brooke:
[He] was a very good exponent of the ideals which had sustained Ulster in her place in the political world for many years. There was no doubt about the loyalty of Ulster and the part she had played, and [he] was glad to meet people who believed so firmly in the righteousness of their cause.
It is quite clear what was going on in Swansea at that time, with civic receptions for one set of politicians from the island of Ireland and not another, and the rhetoric around it follows the familiar path of guilt by association. This was as much about the politics of Wales as it was the politics of Northern Ireland – although there is no doubt that the Labour Party were deeply hostile to the Anti-Partition League itself. Were the Welsh nationalists the ‘Fascist Party of Wales’ – well look at the company they keep…wink wink, nudge nudge. Now, it is far too easy to follow this quite esoteric aspect of post-war Welsh politics and think it rather more important than it was. The branches of the Anti-Partition League seem to have contained no more than a couple of hundred members in total, even where they were artificially inflated by dual members of Plaid Cymru, and they wielded almost no political influence. Except, that is, over Plaid Cymru.
Labour’s steady withdrawal from the Irish nationalist cause in the 1920s, then, together with the political malaise of the Liberal Party, left few meaningful political avenues for British support. Not that the steady divergence of political ethos between governments in Dublin and in London (to say nothing of Belfast) made for an easy relationship, either. In the era of independence, perhaps this sponsorship was no longer necessary, and that is why it ended up on the fringes of political discourse, the plaything of the Communist Party and Plaid Cymru. But it is a moment in time which tells us much about the way in which mainstream politics, today, has collapsed in on itself. And so I’ll end with a letter sent by Éamon de Valera to the Cardiff A-PL branch on St Patrick’s Day, 1954. Its words echo alarmingly today for one obvious reason: Brexit.
Greetings to the gathering at your St Patrick’s Day dinner. As you know the Partition of Ireland is a barrier which makes cordial relations between Ireland and Britain impossible. No Irishman can forget or forgive this crime against our nation. It sets a minority against a majority and leads that minority to resort to unjust and undemocratic methods to maintain their power in the area they control. Those who bring the evils of Partition to the notice of the people of Britain are serving not alone the interests of the Irish people, majority and minority, but the interests of the British people as well.