Today is, of course, St Patrick’s Day, and no doubt pubs across the country will be celebrating this typically alcohol-soaked celebration with a wide range of inflatable shamrocks, green top hats, and “kiss me I’m Irish” t-shirts. I tend to think of this bonanza of tat being a fairly modern affair, but a quick search through the many newspaper clippings I’ve accumulated over the course of my research soon puts me wrong.
Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair’s book also points to the antiquities of some of the traditions associated with St Patrick’s Day. Thomas Dineley noted an array in 1681: Celtic crosses, green ribbons in hats, shamrocks pinned to clothes and so much drink that “few of the zealous are found sober at night.” So these traditions were certainly pre-Famine, but pre-dated too the growth in Irish emigration of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I had imagined that such material celebrations were the product of diaspora, an assertion of Irishness in foreign lands. But Cronin and Adair argue that “the majority of Irish people, based as they were in rural areas, experienced St Patrick’s Day as a local and family event dominated by their faith and rural occupations.
There were certain differences that came with a different milieu though, and an example from Wolverhampton is a quick study. In 1873, The Irishman included reports from all over Britain about the various St Patrick’s Day celebrations, and noted that “St Patrick’s Day was celebrated with more than the usual enthusiasm on this anniversary of Ireland’s national festival by the Irishmen of Wolverhampton.”
Celebrations drew on many traditions: a case of Limerick shamrocks had been provided by “the Bard of Thomond”, Michael Hogan (though quite what Hogan’s connection with the town was, I don’t know). The local Home Rule Association distributed these liberally, and by the morning of St Patrick’s Day, these were to be seen adorning coats and hats. Many of the gentlemen (no women are mentioned except to be toasted) wore a green, streamered rosette.
The Association held a dinner at The Vine, at the corner of Canal and Stafford Streets (where today’s Hogshead is – you can still see some of the salvaged ceramics even though the building is not the same) that evening. Being in a poorer part of the town – in fact, at the edge of the famous Carribee Island which forms my main research – this was a heavily Irish area still in 1873. Nevertheless, the dinner sounds spectacular, which is interesting in itself – were the poor Irish part of the celebrations? Or were the town’s Irish middle class more key to understanding the local Irish political organisation?
The pub was decorated throughout with evergreens, with shamrocks weaving in and out of national mottoes on the walls. “Pendant festoons” hung from the ceilings and chandeliers, and at one end, the words “Home Rule” had been constructed from laurel to surround a massive shamrock. At the other end, a “God Save Ireland” banner was displayed. After dinner, speeches began. John J. Egan was in the chair – it’s not obvious from census records who this is: the main suspect is John Egan, born in Ireland but living in Littles Lane in 1881. The vice-chair was John Hand: my guess is that this was the Irish-born publican of the Old Clog Inn on Canal Street.
The tone of the evening was jubilant, but very much entrenched in nationalist, home-rule politics. Letters were read from several local priests (including Father Hall, priest of St Patrick’s, Littles Lane) and Isaac Butt MP, “whose name received rapturous applause.” Butt was MP for Limerick, previously a supporter of the Fenians and now founder of the Irish Home Government Association, a more polite separatist movement. Egan’s speech then praised the tenacity of the Irish people through “persecution and suffering,” and hoped that soon the Irish people could say that their country was “great, glorious and free, first flower of the earth and first gem of the sea” (the words are Thomas Moore‘s). The response was led by Michael Kelly junior – this is another difficult to pin down because of the commonness of the name: there were two in my study area alone. William Bickley, on the other hand, I think I can narrow down to the plasterer living at St Mary’s Terrace – adjacent to the church, this was a fairly modern, smart-ish row of houses, and William’s neighbours included policemen, commercial travellers and railwaymen. His speech “advised his countrymen to organize, organize, and work in harmony under every adversity until their country had occupied its proud position amongst the nations of the earth.”
Bickley was echoing sentiments expressed by Hugh Heinrick just six months earlier, when he wrote his series of reports on the Irish in Britain for The Nation. In discussing Wolverhampton, he noted that despite the large number of Irish living here, their political influence had been weak. The diagnosis: a “want of a principle of unity, and an organisation based on that principle and “educated” up to the standard essential for united action at the call of patriotic duty.” This was on the increase, he was pleased to note: “the Home Rule Association of the town, which is large and growing larger, is well organised, under intelligent, active, and earnest administration.”
A further response by Limerick-born James F Egan, a merchant’s clerk living in the smarter end of town, at Newhampton Road, praised Ireland’s patriots and martyrs in “appropriate and stirring” tones. John Hand followed, eloquently toasting the Irish in prison. John M’Conville, a brickie’s labourer living in a Stafford Street court toasted “success to the Home Government Association or Ireland, and the Irish Home Rule Confederation of England and Scotland.” John M’Ginty responded to the toast to “the Irish clergy of the town and district… God bless the soggarths” (this latter is the Irish word for priest). A visitor from Walsall, William Mannix, toasted the women of Ireland; John Molloy the national press of Ireland; James Newell and Mr Mullens (also from Walsall) the Wolverhampton branch of the Home Rule Confederation.
Songs interspersed the evening, including “St Patrick’s Day,” “The Exile of Erin,” “The Land that bore us,” “We shall have our own again,” “Our Ancient Faith,” and “The Voice and Pen.” Solos included “The harp that once through Tara’s halls” (sung by Mr Ganly), “The Memory of the Dead” (sung by Michael Kelly) and another sung by John Welsh. “The Exile of Erin” is of course the migrant’s song:
Oh! Erin, my country, though sad and forsaken,
In dreams I revisit thy sea-beaten shore;
But, alas! in a far foreign land I awaken,
And sigh for the friends that can meet me no more.
“We shall have our own again” is also a song with a message – a ballad by Thomas Osborne Davis, founder of the Young Ireland movement: “Riches come from Nationhood – shan’t we have our own again?”
A good time was clearly had by all, but it was clear what the purpose of the gathering was. It’s not possible to infer from this what the St Patrick’s Day experience of the ordinary poor of Wolverhampton was – in the same way as the Irish rural poor celebrated through faith and family rather than at parties, the thousands of Irish living just behind The Vine were certainly not all at this gathering. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to trace the networks of Irish political interest in the town, and to see that it was by no means an exclusively middle-class event. It’s also important to note that the Irish of Wolverhampton were clearly not a monolithic group of the poor or the working-class either – ethnicity is complicated by class, work, politics, gender and much else besides.
 The Irishman, 29th March 1873
 Heinrick, H. A Survey of the Irish in England, 1872 – edited by Alan O’Day