The town of Wednesbury was home to probably the most significant Irish population in the Black Country, after Wolverhampton. The nationalist journalist Hugh Heinrick reckoned that in 1872 there was at least 3,000 in the Irish community (based on his own definition of Irishness, in which one Irish voter probably equates to about 7 Irish men, women or children, in the area). He disapproved of their manners, the “jargon of the mines” and the “indulgences in strong potations,” but blamed these on the English workers around them – an interesting twist on the usual discourse the other way round, as promulgated by Engels, Carlyle and others.
St Mary’s, Wednesbury’s Catholic church [source]
Today’s main story, though, is a more global one than I’ve so far come across among the Black Country Irish. Our heroes (or possibly not) are several, but we’ll start with Father George Montgomery. Born in 1818 and raised a Protestant in Dublin, Montgomery converted to Catholicism during the Tractarian period and was ordained in 1849. He served a while lecturing in and around Bilston before taking up the priesthood of Wednesbury in 1850. He was a highly enthusiastic man and set about righting the wrongs of the treatment of his largely Irish flock, who had arrived along with many of their countrymen during the previous decade, and would continue to pour into this rapidly expanding town. He stopped the frequent fighting amongst the Irish, built a new church and even published his own newsletter, The Rev. G. Montgomery’s Register (surely a forerunner of a blog). His ministry to the poor led him to believe that the British state was dead against the integration of his countrymen into society, and that they would be far better served by moving on to another part of the world. Of course, there was little point them going back to their hungry and stricken homeland; but many must have dreamed of going on to America.
Enter William Scully. Another Irishman, Scully was a newspaper editor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His newspaper, the Anglo-Brazilian Times encouraged migration to the resource-rich Brazilian interior at a time when Emperor Dom Pedro II was also attempting to assert his power and grow his country’s economy. Many European settlers travelled to South America, including 55 German immigrants who settled in the forested mountains on the right bank of the Itajaí-Mirim river in the southern Santa Catarina state, at what became Colônia Itajahy (now Brusque). They were joined in the 1860s by a wave of Confederate emigreés from the Southern USA, and other countrymen of theirs from the North, including Irishmen from New York, who soon developed a tough reputation.
Scully wrote in 1867:
The Irishman, perhaps justly accused of unthriftiness and insubordination at home, for he is hopeless there and has the tradition of a bitter oppression to make him feel discontented, becomes active, industrious, and energetic when abroad; intelligent he always is. He soon rids himself of his peculiarities and prejudices, and assimilates himself so rapidly with the progressive people around him that his children no longer can be distinguished from the American of centuries of descent.
Anglo-Brazilian Times, 23 January 1867)
One individual who read these words and saw in them a hope that the Black Country’s Irish could be cured of their wicked ways and find new prosperity and spiritual fulfilment in the Americas was – you guessed it – George Montgomery. As the iron trade slumped around him, as poverty deepened, as preachers like William Murphy swept through the town causing uproar and persecution, the fertile fields and fruit trees of Brazil seemed a fine home for those Irish in his care, and he duly wrote to Scully, and to Joseph Lazenby, a Jesuit priest who described the new settlement of Colônia Príncipe Dom Pedro – on the left bank of the Itajaí-Mirim, opposite Itajaí itself. Montgomery was sold, and on 12th February 1868, 339 Wednesbury migrants set sail to the new world.
They arrived on 22nd April. It didn’t start well. Despite an official greeting from the Emperor himself, William Scully tried to advise them to find somewhere else to settle. All was not well in the settler town – the behaviour of certain Irish immigrants had caused a general displeasure towards the Irish that wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to these poor immigrants from back in the Black Country, and the American, German, English (the only English settlers in the state), French, Italian and other settlers in the Colonia were less than receptive. But they ploughed on, and arrived in the new town.
Making their way
Life was tough. Not only were the new Irish settlers unpopular, but they found themselves amid wrangling for power between other immigrant groups. Infrastructure was poor, making the town feel even more distant from the major markets than it was. Allocation of plots of land was bungled, leaving the Irish in flood-prone areas, and when the floods came, all they had was washed away. The hardiest lasted just over a year, but soon had to return to Rio de Janeiro in tatters to seek help there. The Irish were the hardest hit, but eventually all English-speaking settlers were persuaded or forced out, their places taken by new Polish migrants to become the city it is today. Our Wednesbury Irish were forced onto charity, and subscriptions raised eventually sufficed to send them back to Britain or Ireland, or in some cases, steelworking towns in Pennsylvania – another kind of Black Country…
For the Wednesbury Irish, life had been a series of upheavals in search of a better life, and they faced disappointment at every step. From desperate poverty in Ireland to poverty and hard labour in the ironworks of South Staffordshire; from persecution in Wednesbury to persecution in Santa Catarina; from rags and starvation in Rio back to hard grind in the steel mills.
Theresa May recently told us that if you think you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. This is backwards-looking , nationalist conservative rhetoric at its worst. It takes aim at some sort of imagined metropolitan elite who think (shock horror) that the nation-state might not be that glorious an idea. As with other conservative politics though, it’s those upon whom global citizenship is forced, without choice, that suffer from being citizens of nowhere. Children seeing their makeshift homes in Calais demolished might have travelled across the world but it was hardly what they wanted. Likewise those fleeing despotic regimes in Eritrea, everyday war in Libya, or grinding poverty in Pakistan, have become citizens of the world, but thanks to economic and political forces over which they have no say, are now citizens of nowhere.
The Irish of Wednesbury had become global citizens, fleeing poverty and starvation in Ireland to a new home amongst the mines and furnaces and backbreaking labour of the Black Country. They were encouraged to try again, by a well-meaning kinsman pushing them to go, and another encouraging them to come across the ocean. But global forces and parochial nationalisms prevailed again, leaving them homeless and in tatters, hoping against hope for a living.
- Kester Aspden, Fortress Church: The English Roman Catholic Bishops and Politics, 1903-63, Gracewing, 2002
- Oliver Marshall, Petition to Pope Pius the Ninth, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 4:3, 2006
- Edmundo Murray, Brazil and Ireland, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 4:3, 2006
- Miguel Alexandre de Araujo Neto, Great Britain, the Paraguayan War and Free Immigration in Brazil, 1862-1875, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 4:3, 2006