Despite contributing handsomely to the economy, to public life and to sport and entertainment, there are very few memorials to the Irish in Britain. Steve Coyne went about locating some of them.
The highly successful state visit to the UK by President Michael D Higgins in 2014 was significant in many ways, not in the least in reaching out to the Irish in Britain community. Has it really taken centuries of emigration before the Irish in Britain have been officially acknowledged?
It had occurred to me that there are very few statues, monuments or memorials to Irish men and women in Britain despite contributing to the economy, to public life and to sport and entertainment. I set out to find some examples.
The earliest example must surely be St. Aidan who came to Holy Island in Northumberland in the year 635AD to form his bishopric at Lindisfarne. A son of Lugair of Eochaidh Finn lineage, he spoke only Irish and was described as a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation, with a special interest in the needs of the poor.
Today a fine statue in the grounds of the Priory ruins stands as a fitting memorial.
Another man of the cloth remembered in the north of England is the Rev. Patrick Bronte, head of the famous Victorian literary family and a native of County Down. His name is listed on a wall tablet denoting the incumbents of Haworth Parish Church, while opposite a blue plaque on the School building states that “Patrick Bronte 1777-1860 built this school for the children of Haworth.”
Memorials in the south are harder to find. In the small town of Heronsgate off the M25 is a plaque on which is written “In proud memory of O’Connorsville” – all that remains of the work of Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, born in West Cork in 1794.
O’Connor was the fiery editor of the Northern Star newspaper and a Member of Parliament who spoke at great rallies, agitating for reform and improvement in the lives of the workers.
O’Connorsville was set up in 1847 as a pioneering venture in land reform which did not survive. The Chartists did however succeed with many of their aims later. O’Connor died in 1855 and is buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.
The south coast town of Hastings also remembers an Irish literary connection. Dublin-born Robert Noonan was a house painter by trade who famously wrote the Edwardian novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, under the name of Robert Tressell.
Focusing on the lives of building workers in the town it is referred to by some as a ‘socialist bible’. Two house wall plaques – at 115 Millward Road and 241 London Road – mark where the author lived in the first decade of the last century.
The town also periodically holds a Robert Tressell Festival. This brings us to Liverpool where Noonan died in February 1911 and where he was buried in a pauper’s grave – a later headstone paid for by local trade unionists now provides a more fitting memorial.
The great sea port of Liverpool’s connections with Ireland are well documented. In 1995, a wall plaque positioned on the Clarence Dock gate, recognised the emigrants of the Great Famine who passed through it’s gates. Elsewhere in the city, in Toxteth, Jim Larkin was born in Combermere Street in 1876 to Irish parents.
The nearby Globe pub announces that “Jim Larkin 1876-1947 renowned trade union leader was born in this street.”
Liverpool also has one very unusual Irish monument. Known as the Dandy Pat Memorial Fountain it has had three locations in the Scotland Road district where it stands in honour of one Patrick Byrne, an Irish-born Victorian city councillor, publican and philanthropist who was known as ‘Dandy Pat’ on account of his fashionable clothes.
Byrne was born in Ferns, Co. Wexford, in 1845, and did not move to Liverpool until 1862. He became the publican of the Morning Star pub, Scotland Place, one of a number of properties he owned. Renowned for talking politics and drinking whiskey, he died aged forty five.
At his funeral thousands followed his coffin. He was buried in Ireland but such was his popularity a memorial fountain was erected outside his former pub paid for by donations from the local community.
The fountain was originally bedecked with marble pillars when it had to be relocated in 1983, but following vandalism in has since found a permanent home (albeit without the missing pillars) in the grounds of St. Anthony’s Church.
Thirty miles to the east Manchester also marks it’s Irish heritage in a number of locations. Just south of Oxford Road station is a wall plaque marking the location of ‘Little Ireland’ an infamous ghetto of insanitary housing from the nineteenth century.
Better known, however, in the district of Moston a celtic cross was erected in 1897 in St Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery as the memorial to the Manchester Martyrs, unjustly executed at the height of Fenian activity in the city in 1868.
The cross commemorates the three local Irishmen, Allen, O’Brien and Larkin, whose triple execution aroused worldwide condemnation.
Still within Lancashire, in the small cotton town of Haslingden, they remember the times of the great nineteenth century political activist, Michael Davitt – active not just on both sides of the Irish Sea but also in America and Australia such were his range of interests.
Davitt lost an arm in a childhood accident in a Haslingden mill. The original house in which the Davitts lived after being uprooted from Straide, County Mayo, during the Famine no longer exists, but a wall structure housing a plaque has been built in Wilkinson Street acknowledging the Davitt home.
Finally there are two memorials in Scotland we can note – one each in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the capital, another plaque marks the birthplace of James Connolly in 1868. Fixed to the wall by the George IV Bridge it is close to what was once 107 Cowgate, then the home of the Connollys.
Finally there is one outstanding statue to an Irishman in Scotland. Standing resplendent outside Celtic Park in Glasgow is a fine bronze statue to Andrew Kerins, born in Ballymote, County Sligo in 1840. He is better known however among Celtic followers around the world as the club’s founder, Brother Walfrid.
This is quite a varied group, with something of a radical streak, but evidence nonetheless of some acknowledgement of the contributions of the Irish to life ‘across the water’.