‘Father Joe and the Great Day’: Giving St Patrick’s Parade back to Birmingham

Revd Taaffe courtesy of OMI

Father Taaffe photo courtesy of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate [MS 4672]

2016 is a significant year for Irish people around the world, being the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, which set in train a series of dramatic events culminating in Irish independence.  More directly for Birmingham, 2016 marks twenty years since the City’s St Patrick’s Parade was re-established, the prime mover in this being Father Joseph Taaffe.  Poignantly, this summer will also mark the twentieth anniversary of his death and the funeral which brought Digbeth to a virtual standstill, as hundreds paid their respects to a remarkable man.

A Great Day: Celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Birmingham. Gudrun Limbrick. [BCol 21.7 LIM]

A Great Day: Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Birmingham. Gudrun Limbrick.
[BCol 21.7 LIM]

Father Taaffe served for many years as Roman Catholic chaplain to Birmingham’s Irish community.  In this capacity, he might have expected to receive a conventional level of respect and courtesy, but over time he earned a tremendous degree of support, loyalty and affection across the entire community, including many who may have paid little heed to organised religion.  Twenty years on and Father Taaffe will be on the minds and in the hearts of many of the thousands who participate in the St Patrick’s Parade in March this year – even those who have no direct recollection of him.  To understand why this is, we need to recall the migration and settlement experiences of the post war Irish community in Birmingham, not least those of Father Taaffe himself.

Born in County Mayo, Joseph Taaffe joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and emigrated to serve the burgeoning Irish community in post-war Britain. As an Oblate, he expected to undertake difficult missions and his priestly duties took him to the construction camps of North Wales, where Irish labour was harnessed for building nuclear power plants.  The harsh operating conditions encountered here reinforced his commitment to serving the spiritual and practical needs of his congregation, which he carried forward when later transferred to Birmingham.  Whilst the city’s physical environment was very different, the onset of ‘The Troubles’ and deteriorating community relations in the 1970s and 1980s tested but also strengthened Father Taaffe’s commitment and gained him the ultimate community accolade: the nickname ‘Father Joe’.

rish Welfare and Information Centre Newsletter July 2008 [MS 4755 Acc 2015/022]

Irish Welfare and Information Centre Newsletter July 2008
[MS 4755 Acc 2015/022]

Father Taaffe understood that for a section of the Irish community, life in Birmingham could be very tough.  Amongst many practical initiatives, he was instrumental in developing the Irish Welfare Centre and various community based self-help activities.  He realised that a gross miscarriage of justice against the ‘Birmingham Six’ was underpinned by fractured community relations in the city, which were immediately damaging for those directly affected, but were also having a corrosive effect on civic responsibility across all elements of the population.  So began Father Taaffe’s involvement with the arduous process of seeking the release and rehabilitation of the ‘Birmingham Six’, along with his patient advocacy for the Irish community as an integral, responsible and committed component of Birmingham life.  Throughout what was otherwise a bleak time, with Irish culture being marginalised by elements of the wider population, the quiet yet insistent voice of ‘Father Joe’ provided reassurance that the community was not abandoned.  Of course, very few people knew exactly how hard and long he worked on their behalf but the community instinctively felt that he was ‘doing right by them’.

The gentle persistence of Father Taaffe and a select group of like-minded people was rewarded by the community’s gradual re-acceptance into mainstream civic life as the 1990s progressed.  He discerned however that for almost the entire Irish population, ‘normality’ would not be restored until the annual St Patrick’s Parade could be resumed.  This distinctive feature of Irish identity and self-confidence had been abandoned after the 1974 Pub Bombings and its reinstatement would be the litmus test of how robust community relations actually were in the City.  Father Taaffe lobbied hard and inspired both officialdom and the community to take a leap into an uncertain future.  After much negotiation, planning and sheer hard work by very many people and in the face of bomb threats and extremist intimidation, Birmingham’s St Patrick’s Parade was restored in 1996 after an absence of twenty-two years.  Father Taaffe’s verdict that it was ‘a great day’ has become a byword for the annual celebration of Irish culture and community within Birmingham.  Sadly, after his tireless work for so many years on behalf of the Irish and all others in the City, Father Taaffe died later that year.

Father Taaffe Memorial Bus featured in the Irish Welfare and Information Centre Newsletter, July 2008.. [MS 4755 Acc. 2015/022]

Father Taaffe Memorial Bus featured in the Irish Welfare and Information Centre Newsletter, July 2008.
[MS 4755 Acc. 2015/022]

‘Father Joe’ was honoured by the community in their hundreds at his funeral in 1996.  The success of the St Patrick’s Parade since then has vindicated his determination to reinstate it as a way of restoring the Irish community’s pride in itself and its contribution to Birmingham, so that now the Parade is integrated into a much wider St Patrick’s Festival.  His total commitment to the marginalised and misrepresented is not forgotten either and is reflected in the ongoing work of the Irish Welfare Centre and Community Forum, now both part of Birmingham Irish Association.  His name and reputation is strong with those who never met him and is perpetuated in ‘Father Joe Taaffe House’, a home for supported independent living for the elderly in his beloved Digbeth.  Perhaps most tellingly, ‘The Fr. Joe Taaffe Memorial Bus’ shuttles around the City on welfare tasks, serving a wide range of people and presenting the legacy of ‘Father Joe’ to those who remember and to those who will be inspired once they learn of his contribution to the City.

Announcement of the Father Taaffe Memorial Bus featured in the Irish Welfare and Information Centre Newsletter, July 2008. [MS 4755 Acc. 2015/022]

Announcement of the Father Taaffe Memorial Bus featured in the Irish Welfare and Information Centre Newsletter, July 2008.
[MS 4755 Acc. 2015/022]

This overview has of necessity been brief and has not considered the full range of services and tasks undertaken by Father Taaffe, particularly with regard to his spiritual and pastoral care to so many individuals.  Archive collections relating to him are dispersed amongst many institutions and whilst the images shown here are from Library of Birmingham collections, other archives hold material relevant to Father Taaffe’s time in Birmingham.   The emerging ‘Archives of Irish Birmingham’ project intends to map all of these sources and encourage research into the life and times of ‘Father Joe’.  Please contact us via the comments box below for further information.

I wish you a very Happy St Patrick’s Day and please remember Father Joseph Taaffe.

Jim Ranahan
14/03/2016

Further Reading

  1. Chinn ‘Birmingham Irish: Making Our Mark’ (2003) ISBN 070930241X
  2. Limbrick ‘A Great Day: Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham’ (2007) 9780955542107
  3. Moran ‘Irish Birmingham. A History’ (2010) ISBN 9781846314742
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