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.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. 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.