The Irish community's impact on South Tyneside

IMMIGRATION today remains as much a political hot potato as it has ever been.

It leads to fears that an influx of different cultures can change communities forever.

Today, in the first of a two-part feature, we look at the impact immigration from Ireland had on Tyneside at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

My descendants were immigrants from Ireland.

They came from the Emerald Isle at the end of the 19th century, and their arrival led to Jarrow being nicknamed 'Little Ireland'.

The paternal side of my family left Kilkenny, and eventually found themselves on Tyneside after first working in the jute mills in Dundee.

This was, apparently, a regular route to Tyneside for many Irish workers.

The influx of the Irish into Jarrow changed the entire picture from a town having a small contingent of Catholics, to being known as 'Little Ireland' within a lifetime.

Jarrow in 1821 had four known Catholics, and they travelled to North Shields for Mass on a Sunday.

Things had changed radically by 1849, when Father Richard Singleton opened at South Shields, a church dedicated to St Bede which was attended by many Jarrow catholics.

It was, an Irishman from County Waterford who founded the Jarrow Mission in 1856 when Father Edmund Kelly said Mass in a house in High Street, Jarrow.

It was a humble beginning. At the time Jarrow was still a village, with a population of about 3,500.

But over the coming decade, the pace of Jarrow's "Irish revolution" was to quicken rapidly.

A key date was the laying of the foundation stone for St Bede's, church, Jarrow, on October 30, 1860.

For those that have not been inside St Bede's, it is a beautiful, airy building that my paternal great-grandfather helped to build.

At the ceremony, following the laying of the foundation stone, the Rev Father Bernard delivered an address in which he said the church had returned, after 300 years, to take its place at Jarrow.

The population at the time was about 7,000.

The church was eventually completed on December 27, 1861, all the work having been carried out by the men and women of the parish with the two priests, Fathers Kelly and Meynell.

Initially, the congregation was made up of English and Scottish families, but the majority of men employed in the chemical industry were Irish.

The expansion of Palmer's from shipyard to rolling mills, blast furnaces in 1867 and steelworks in 1888, brought an influx of immigrants from all over the British Isles, Ireland in particular.

By 1871, Jarrow's population was 18,000, an increase of 11,000 from the opening of the church in 1861, by 1881 it was 25,000, and 10 years later, 33,000!

The influx of Irish was due, in part, to Palmer's advertising in Ireland.

The Irish immigrants became shipyard labourers, and later worked in the rolling mills and blast furnaces, a large number spoke Gaelic more fluently than English.

They were said to have been greeted with little warmth by the English, Scottish and Welsh, but that Father Meynell became an ally.

St Bede's quickly became an Irish parish.

From the beginning, Irish gatherings were frequent and concerts often included Irish music.It is claimed that there was animosity towards the Irish Catholics because of their support against Garibaldi in the fight for Italian Unification in the 1860s, and their opposition to English rule of Ireland, this often caused friction and Jarrow could be a "rough place" on Saturday nights.

When trying to raise funds for the church, Father Meynell would stand outside the work's gates and claim that every contributor should give half a crown.

Later, he claimed he knew which men were Catholic by the reverence they showed him.

He would then approach them and ask for a contribution.

This eventually led to Palmer's taking sixpence from each man who was willing to contribute.

This method continued until the company went into new hands.

The first Catholic school building, in Chapel Road, was opened on October 19 1868.

Prior to this, there had been a number of house schools.

A new section was added to the school in 1870, this catered for junior children, and a room in the basement was turned into an infant school.

In January, 1872, the East Jarrow School of St Bede's was opened for boys and girls.

The next year, the first male teacher was appointed to the school, and by 1880, the basement in Chapel Road had ceased being the infant school when the school was extended into St John's Terrace.

The school in East Jarrow was built as near as possible to what was then the built up area of Jarrow, and from 1876 the East Jarrow School became boys only.

From this time, Marist Brothers became involved in the school, and the first head teacher under the new regime was Brother Valente, a Frenchman.

The brothers remained in the parish for a further 30 years.

My father attended this school, and it was said to be a harsh regime.

The Jarrow parish was also instrumental in the development of churches at Willington Quay, Boldon Colliery and later Hebburn, when, in 1871, Father JJ Corboy became Hebburn's resident priest.

St Bede's parish continued to grow, and the church was extended in March 1883 when the Catholic population numbered around 6,000.

In 1884, Father Meynell retired, and in his final sermon mentioned that a new school on Grant Street would be opened.

He also said that employers had been open-hearted to all Catholics and had given them the same privileges as those enjoyed by others.

He felt there had been no distinction made. That the priest should make such a comment reflects the opposition they expected Catholics would meet.

A member of the parish, Thomas Larkin, became general manager of Black's Chemical Factory, and Catholics found employment there.

You see, in this the development of certain industries or particular factories being almost taken over by specific religions or groups.My grandfather told me that Irishmen coming to work in Palmer's for the first time would often ask, 'can you tell me where I'll find Coyne's shipyard?' Coyne being an Irish name, and Palmer's was felt to be an Irish preserve.

* TOMORROW ... 'Little Ireland' becomes a reality.