Sheffield history: St Patrick’s Day celebrations remain great day for city's Irish population

St Patrick’s Day, which was earlier this week, is one of the most celebrated festivals in the UK. That is not surprising when you think that millions of residents of Great Britain are either from Ireland or have Irish ancestry.

By Monica Dyson
Friday, 18th March 2022, 1:47 pm
Updated Friday, 18th March 2022, 1:47 pm

More than six million people claim at least one Irish grandparent and until recently they were the largest ethnic minority in the country.

People sometimes query the fact that St George’s Day is never celebrated quite in the same way. Well, I’ve no answer to that. As a person of Anglo-Irish ethnicity, I can only say that the Irish have always loved a good party.

My mother and two of her sisters left the Republic of Ireland in the late 1930s, one sister having already sailed to America, to have, hopefully, a better life than the one they had left.

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Sheffield's St Patrick's Day parade sets off from St Marie's Cathedral led by piper Joe McNulty on March 17, 2011

There was a custom in Ireland called ‘Going away’ which is what young people did in times of economic crisis and that crisis was certainly true of their parents who had eight children and who were trying to survive on the proceeds of the family farm.

Also, the introduction of the Irish Free State after turbulent years of conflict had resulted in an Ireland with little equality for women.

The Catholic Church had a deeply sexist view of women in society at that time and had very strong views of women working outside the home.

Their traditional role was of wives and mothers, caring for livestock, bringing up children and tending to the vegetable garden!

A previous St Patrick's Day Parade in Sheffield led by piper Joe McNulty which started St Marie's and finished at the town hall

The Irish President Eamon De Valera placed great pressure on women.

In 1937 he proclaimed that ‘We must guard with special care the institute of marriage’. He also outlawed divorce in the Catholic Church.

In 1935, selling contraceptives was prohibited and it seemed that women had very few rights left.

Large families were the norm.

My mother’s sister, Teresa, who had stayed behind in Ireland, had nine children, and although my cousins turned out to be clever, hardworking, and responsible citizens, their childhood was not without hardship.

Even up to the 1990s Ireland was one of the most sexually repressed countries in Europe.

My mother and her sisters, after finding that the only avenues of employment open for them in their immediate area in Ireland, in the absence of any foreseeable marriage, was working in the local dairy or bakers, decided to take the bull by the horns and seek work elsewhere.

Their eldest sister, Mary, had left some years before for America, although things were not good there for Irish immigrants, especially for women who were stereotyped as ‘reckless breeders’ due to the size of families back home in Ireland.

Men were often called ‘white negroes’ and they were thought of as uneducated, less skilled and looked down on as being Catholics in aland of Protestants.

Irish immigration was welcomed here in Britain, to some extent anyway.

There was a severe labour shortage during the mid-20th century and we depended heavily on the Irish to work in the areas of construction and domestic labour.

In fact, Sir William McAlpine said in 1998, that the contribution of the Irish in the success of his industry had been immeasurable. This was also true in America.

Sheffield was a friendly enough place for my mother, Rose and her sister, Eileen, who found work at the then City General Hospital. Their sister Bridie found employment in Birkenhead.

They didn’t encounter as much of the anti-Irish feeling of other towns where there were notices saying ‘No Blacks, No dogs, No Irish’ on boarding house doors.

My mother eventually married my father, Ernest, who was neither Irish nor a Catholic.

The Irish immigrants in Sheffield traditionally settled in what was called ‘The Croft’ which was the area in the city centre round Hawley Street, Broad Lane, and Solly Street.

The Crofts were Hawley/Hollis/Lee/Pea/School/Sims/White and Workhouse.

All largely now disappeared, although in 1902 Pea Croft was renamed Solly Street and Workhouse Croft became Paradise Square, itself steeped in history.

The first Irish settlers, for the most part Catholic, often lived in comparative poverty in overcrowded back-to-back houses, and there were also many Italian immigrants living in the Crofts and the West Bar area.

In 1847, work was started on St Marie’s Cathedral on Norfolk Row. It cost £10,563 to build and at last Catholics had somewhere to worship.

Things were amicable enough although there was some animosity towards Irish parishioners who were thought of as dirty with filthy living conditions.

In fact, the Crofts had the highest death rate in Sheffield with appalling sanitary conditions.

Eventually they were demolished, and in 1856 the church of St Vincent’s was built at White Croft on Solly Street which the Irish welcomed as their own.

Our Irish heritage was important to my sister and myself when we were growing up and spending school holidays on our grandparents’ farm in County Monaghan.

Ireland is a unique and beautiful country. It has a turbulent past, but people are still fiercely proud of being Irish.

As Judy Garland sang in the film Little Nellie Kelly in 1940, It’s a Great Day for the Irish. And it has been sung worldwide on St Patrick’s Day ever since.