Tag Archives: Irish

St Mary’s Convent: A Historic Aspect of Irish Handsworth

St Patrick’s Day will be celebrated in Handsworth, as it is across Birmingham, on 17th March 2017.  Indeed, celebrations commenced last weekend and many Irish from Handsworth joined in or watched Birmingham’s St Patrick’s Parade in Digbeth on 12th March.  Amongst those enjoying the Parade were Religious Sisters from St Mary’s Convent, Handsworth and they represent an ongoing Irish connection with this part of north Birmingham.

Handsworth today is rightly famous for its diverse communities and rich religious mix and it has long had a strong Irish element, not least in the post-war period as represented by Clare Short, a daughter of Irish parents who grew up in Handsworth and became Member of Parliament for the adjacent Ladywood Constituency (1983-2010).  Clare Short also represents a connection with an older Irish tradition in Handsworth, centred on St Mary’s Convent, Hunter’s Road.  Like so many second generation Irish in the area, Clare attended St Mary’s Catholic School (later called St Francis’ School), which was next to and supported by St Mary’s Convent.  From 1841 this convent has served the local Catholic and wider communities and has always had an Irish dimension, even in its early days when Handsworth was a semi-rural location with no distinctly Irish presence.

Catherine McAuley. Taken from Commemorating the Past, Commitment to the Future. [MS 4627]

St Mary’s Convent was established from Dublin by the Sisters of Mercy, who had been invited to Birmingham by Thomas Walsh, Catholic Vicar Apostolic for the Midlands.  Walsh wanted to harness the devotion and energy of the Sisters of Mercy in order to alleviate the suffering of Birmingham’s burgeoning poor.  Many of these were Irish, crammed into slums in central Birmingham such as John Street, as described by Thomas Finigan in his journal, now kept at the Library of Birmingham [MS 3255].  Originally founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy were a new departure for female Religions.  They led an active life in service to the poor and needy and attracted women who wanted to serve God in a practical way. In just ten years, the Sisters of Mercy spread across Ireland, were introduced to England and had laid the foundations of what would become a global ministry.

Journal of Thomas Finigan: Missionary – Birmingham Town Mission 1837 – 1838 [MS 3255]

Whilst Bishop Walsh’s focus was on inner Birmingham, practical considerations resulted in the Sisters of Mercy being established some distance away in leafy Handsworth, then on the outskirts of the town.  Funds were tight and a site was provided in fields opposite the home of the principal benefactor John Hardman [whose business records are held at the Library of Birmingham at MS 175].  St Mary’s Convent was designed for this site by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, leading light in the Gothic Revival.  However, when the Sisters arrived from Dublin, they did not represent a Catholic return to medieval notions of service and worship.  From the outset, they visited the poor and destitute in their homes and places of work.  176 years later, it may be difficult to envisage how radical this was.  The sight of overtly religious women, robed in the distinctive habit of the Sisters of Mercy and walking the streets was both novel and a dramatic visual representation of solidarity with the poor.  The practical need to walk from outlying Handsworth to the slums, combined with the social shock of (in the language of the time) ‘respectable’ women working with marginalised people ensured that the Sisters of Mercy were noticed.  Their high visibility was also unsettling to many at a time when Catholics were still largely discreet about their religious affiliations.

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Celebrating the Irish Community in Birmingham: A Personal Perspective

The Library of Birmingham and Shard End Library have arranged a programme of events to coincide with the City’s Saint Patrick’s Festival.  This annual event culminates in the famous Parade which attracts thousands of visitors each year and which has become the third largest in the world, surpassed only by those in Dublin and New York.

The Irish Centre, Birmingham (MS 4672)

The Irish Centre, Birmingham
[MS 4672]

Birmingham’s Parade and much of Irish cultural life centres on Digbeth and Deritend and this photograph shows the Irish Centre which has been at the heart of Birmingham’s Irish Life for well over 50 years.  I have chosen this photograph (‘The Irish Centre, Birmingham (2014) – MS 4672) as the image to promote the Library’s programme for two reasons.

Firstly, the Irish Centre has played a major part in my life, as it has for very many others of all generations in the local Irish community.  Its proud invitation is ‘Everyone Welcome’ and this underpins the philosophy which has sustained it through the good and bad times of the post war period.  The Centre has offered welfare, cultural and entertainment services and in the 1980s I availed myself of Galway Travel Service and Slattery’s Magic Coach for my frequent journeys to Ireland, the Centre hosting the former and providing the Birmingham Terminal for the latter.

Crucially however, this photograph was taken by me and has been donated to the Library of Birmingham archives.  It represents my small attempt to redress an imbalance within the archive collections which has arisen through an accident of history.  Despite the Irish presence in Birmingham having been ubiquitous for so long, the community’s footprint in the archival landscape is faint, often hidden and half-forgotten.  As an archivist trying to meet researchers’ requests for information about the Irish, I find this frustrating.  As a member of the local Irish community, I find it disappointing that we are not more forthcoming in communicating our successes and experiences to our fellow citizens.  Of course, within an institution as large as the Library of Birmingham there are records which can be used to assist with this communication and I will draw on these in my talk ‘Glimpsing Irish Birmingham: Images from the Archives’ on Wednesday 12th March 2014, where I will reveal much that seems commonplace but which reflects the City’s rich Irish heritage.

Despite all of this however, I am still confronted in my professional work with a relative lack of accessible, relevant records relating to Irish Birmingham.  Drawing inspiration from the positive approach of three members of the local Irish Community* I have followed their lead and have now engaged directly with Birmingham’s formal heritage institutions.  I have donated this photograph and other items relating to contemporary local Irish life to the Library of Birmingham.  Whilst my photographic skills are rudimentary, I hope that my example will prompt others to follow my example so that the Irish presence in Birmingham is more accurately represented and that members of all other communities similarly feel encouraged to strengthen their own archival presence.

Please come to one or more of the events in the ‘Celebrating the Irish Community’ series.  Just as with the Irish Centre, I am proud to say ‘Everyone Welcome’!

*Brendan Farrell has kindly agreed to donate a major photographic sequence to the Library of Birmingham, Pat O’Neill has been a long time supporter of cross community dialogue and Frank Feeney has promoted the enduring links of the Feeneys of Sligo with Birmingham, as shown by this photograph of an art mural in Digbeth (MS 4672).

Art mural in Digbeth [MS 4672]

Art mural in Digbeth
[MS 4672]

 Jim Ranahan

Want to read more? Why not take a look at Saint Patrick Would Approve?