Tag Archives: St. Patrick’s Day

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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‘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’.

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St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham: Devotion and Celebration

MS 4672 Clonmacnoise Crozier An Post

Clonmacnoise Crozier, 1993.Courtesy of An Post  [MS 4672]

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast day is the Seventeenth of March.  It is celebrated across the world, wherever Irish people gather:  from Dublin to Derby to Dubai and from Belfast to Barnsley to Brisbane – and all points in between.  Birmingham has a long history of celebrating this day, Thomas Finigan observing the practice amongst Irish immigrants in 1838 [MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan].

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Monday March 20th 1916. Irish and Proud of It.

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Irish and Proud of It. 1916.

These were informal, self-generated affairs, but from 1869, formal events were held at Birmingham Town Hall.  Music Halls also staged entertainments, such as the revue ‘Irish and Proud of It’, shown at the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Corporation Street, in 1916.  Populist entertainments like this chimed with some Irish but for others the simplistic portrayals of evictions and caricatures of drunken Irish strengthened their resolve to have their culture and experiences represented appropriately.  Such sentiments were perhaps strengthened, given the revue’s performance just weeks before the Easter Rising in Ireland ushered in momentous changes to Anglo-Irish relations.

In today’s generally tolerant atmosphere, there is less sensitivity over community representation, with self-parody now playing a part in the City’s St Patrick’s celebrations.  These last for up to two weeks, this year’s festival having been launched on the Sixth of March with a range of events (large and small) scheduled until beyond St Patrick’s Day.  The main feature of this programme is the St Patrick’s Parade, which has a proud history, being the first in Britain [in 1952, beating London’s event by 45 minutes!].  Despite an absence of over 20 years from 1974, it has developed from 1996 to be counted as the third largest in the world after those in Dublin and New York.

What makes 80,000 people stand for hours in dreary March weather in dreary Digbeth to watch a parade?  Why does a procession of [amongst many other things] vintage tractors and over-sized leprechauns excite so many and bring them back year after year?  There are no simple answers, but underpinning the complex reality is a combination of the long standing devotion of many Irish people to the memory of Saint Patrick with the urge to celebrate and promote their Irish identity, wherever they may find themselves.  The Parade showcases components of Irish culture, heritage and sport, giving snapshots of each which can be examined in more detail at various events throughout the Festival.

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

Cynics see St Patrick’s Day as just one more element in the phenomenon known as ‘Marketing March’ where the celebration is commercially exploited along with events including the Six Nations Rugby Championship, Cheltenham horse racing festival and [even] Red Nose Day.  Whilst Irish people are willing participants in all of these events, the more thoughtful recognise that the crux of St Patrick’s Day continues to be something worth nurturing.  Running in parallel with the public, organised celebrations are informal, often private gatherings of friends and family, at home or in small venues.

St Patrick’s Day remains at heart a religious festival and whilst contemporary society in Ireland and across the Irish Diaspora is no longer so overtly religious, many people still recognise this element of the celebrations.  The Parade’s opening Mass may not be as well attended now and the days of it ending at St Chad’s Cathedral are long gone, but many people still sing the hymn ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick’ with a feeling of gratitude for his recorded decision to trust and minister to the Irish [Patrick was a Briton, kidnapped by Irish raiders, who escaped and subsequently returned to support Christianity amongst a mainly pagan Irish society].  The customary wearing of shamrock still reminds many people of Saint Patrick’s legendary use of the plant to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.  For many years the ceremonial highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the arrival via Aer Lingus of a consignment of shamrock from Dublin, to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral for distribution amongst congregations.  Private devotions to the Patron Saint by their nature cannot be quantified, but are undoubtedly still observed in the City.
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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?

Saint Patrick would approve: Birmingham’s Kennedy Memorial

Invite to Rededication of the Kennedy Memorial

Rededication of the Kennedy Memorial [MS 4237 Irish in Birmingham]

 The Kennedy Memorial has been re-created in Digbeth, the official re-dedication taking place on Saturday 23rd February 2013.  The invitation shown is taken from the collection of ‘Irish in Birmingham’ at Birmingham Archives and Heritage (MS 4237).  Illustrated is a small section of the mosaic which forms the centrepiece of the memorial, erected at the junction of Floodgate Street, High Street Deritend and Digbeth.  This memorial has a special place in the hearts of Birmingham Irish people and they will appreciate it in their thousands each March during the Saint Patrick’s Festival which centres on Digbeth and culminates in the famous Parade.

Why is this memorial to an American so important to the Birmingham Irish?  At one level the answer is easy.  John F. Kennedy (JFK) was genuinely regarded across the Irish Diaspora as a figure of pride and hope.  His family history offered parallels for very many Irish people and his depiction as a modern, successful and conscientious statesman caught the optimism of the time.  This fourth generation Irish American was regarded as a true ‘Son of Erin’ across the world and this helps to explain the sense of loss so keenly felt by Irish people on his assassination in November 1963.  Despite the passage of half a century and even with a more realistic assessment of the Kennedy legacy in the intervening years, his memory still strikes a genuine chord with many Irish people.  However, the story of Birmingham’s ‘JFK’ Memorial itself is intimately bound up with the City’s Irish and wider communities and is worth consideration in its own right.

The Kennedy Memorial, 1981 [[BCC Departmental 2011/199]

The Kennedy Memorial, 1981 [BCC Departmental 2011/199]

Following Kennedy’s assassination, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham launched a general appeal for funds to raise a memorial.  Initially, this met with little success but the Irish community ensured the memorial proceeded by raising the substantial sum of £5,000.00 through a range of events and collections.  By this time, the construction of Birmingham’s flagship Inner Ring Road was well under way, with the City Council envisaging a series of public art installations, to be located at strategic points around the route.  The Kennedy Memorial was included in these plans and Kenneth Budd was commissioned to design murals for pedestrian walkways at Old Square (‘Memorial to Old Square’, 1967), Holloway Circus (‘Horse Fair in 1908’, 1967) and Saint Chad’s Circus (‘J.F.K. Memorial’ and ‘History of Snow Hill’, both 1968).          

The Irish community took great pride in paying for and presenting the Kennedy Memorial to its adopted city.  It relished its growing self confidence and recognised that like the Kennedy family in America, Birmingham’s Irish were increasingly contributing to civic life and celebrating their role within wider society.  The memorial reflected this, being a substantial structure consisting of a large pool and water feature in front of a mural.  The 1980s view shows two women sitting on the pool wall and gives an idea of the mural’s size.*   This also provides an insight to the memorial’s significance, with Kennedy reaching out to black and white people alike and a white American policeman (so often drawn from the Irish population) showing solidarity with a black man.  Out of view are mosaic representations of JFK’s brother Teddy and Martin Luther King Junior, both intimately linked with civil rights issues in America and beyond.  Also out of view is the inscription which captures the ethos of the memorial, albeit with language which if sincerely expressed now jars:

‘There are no white or coloured signs on the graveyards of battle’

Kenedy Memorial, Digbeth. Courtesy of Tom Ranahan.

Kenedy Memorial, Digbeth. Courtesy of Tom Ranahan.

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