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Nearly half Stafford’s settled Irish families depended on occupations other than labouring. They spanned a wide range of jobs. At one extreme they did work of the lowest social status and were essentially similar to the labourers. At the other extreme there were people with privileged occupations. In the middle were those with various sorts of craft, clerical or service jobs. The history of these families was not predictable. Some were always poor or left for more promising pastures elsewhere, but a small number climbed into Stafford’s economic, religious and political elite. This post is the story of one of the latter – Bartholomew Corcoran.

Bartholomew and his family created successful lives in Stafford. He gained a secure foothold in local society whilst maintaining limited contact with the Catholic Irish. He was cautious and avoided anything that might threaten his family’s integration into respectable Stafford society. Family events did not take a totally predictable course, however. During the 1900s his children abandoned the town but at the same time a new family nucleus emerged to carry on the Stafford Corcoran name into the twentieth century.

The Corcorans originally came from Tibohine parish, about six miles north of Castlerea in Co. Roscommon, but around 1830 Bartholomew’s father Patrick and mother Catherine moved to the outskirts of Castlerea town itself and Bartholomew was born there in 1834. Patrick was a joiner.[1] The family survived the immediate impact of the Famine but were forced to move to England in the 1850s. They had arrived in Stafford by 1856 but we only know because Patrick died that year.[2] At that point the Corcorans seemed a stereotypically deprived immigrant family. They were fatherless and struggling to survive in one of Stafford’s worst slums, Plant’s Square.

In the absence of Patrick, Bartholomew played a major role in defining the Corcoran family’s fortunes. In the1861 census he claimed to be a plumber, glazier and painter. He began in business modestly and in the 1860s presumably worked for other employers. Hard work enabled him to get out of Plant’s Square and by 1865 he was living in Friar Street, a solid working class address.[3] By 1871 he had done well enough to begin work on his own account, operating from substantial premises on Foregate Street.[4] He, his family and his business were to occupy this property for over forty years.

In 1863 Bartholomew married Anne Goodman who came from another poor Connacht family. She was illiterate but clearly aspired to break free from her deprived background, and in Bartholomew Corcoran she found a kindred spirit. [5]

Bartholomew & Anne Corcoran in 1893

Bartholomew & Anne Corcoran in 1893

They were a hard-working couple who exploited connections in business, the church and politics to achieve a secure and respectable position in local society. Bartholomew had witnessed the Famine at first hand and his early years had been hard. These experiences led him to seek security by working assiduously, exploiting openings and taking care to avoid conflict with anybody influential. As a result he may have been a somewhat repressed individual for much of his life, but towards the end the old man broke free from his life’s traditional restraints.

Bartholomew did well to move into the substantial house and yard in Foregate Street. His neighbours were all English skilled workers, shopkeepers or minor public servants. The Corcorans’ residential integration into the host community was clear from an early stage. Bartholomew prospered because of the late nineteenth century building boom and the higher quality of maintenance, construction and services imposed by new building regulations. His business was consistently listed in directories from 1872 onwards, and it became more substantial during that decade.[6] In 1879 his tender of £40 to paint the outside of Stafford Workhouse was accepted by the Board of Guardians.[7] In 1888 he was admitted to membership of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers whose object was to promote good workmanship by its members.[8] From 1891 his firm was also listed amongst the more limited group of ‘waterworks plumbers – authorised’.[9] This indicates a well-founded business allowed to undertake substantial public work. In 1891 Thomas Sneath, one of the firm’s plumbers, entered a national competition sponsored by the Plumber and Decorator and won a certificate of merit for his practical plumbing work.[10] This demonstrates how Bartholomew was an outward-looking entrepreneur keen to raise the public prestige of his business.

Once the firm was secure Corcoran branched out into other activities. Both Bartholomew and Anne became active in the social life of the Catholic Church. He was a man of substance amongst the laity. The Corcorans were consistently present at, and making donations to, the Catholic soirées that were a distinctive feature of Stafford church life from the 1870s onwards. Bartholomew also became president of the local St Vincent de Paul society.[11] He became a governor of St Austin’s and St Patrick’s Catholic schools. In 1890 he indicated his political allegiance by joining the organising committee of the ‘Grand County Conservative Ball’. Many local business leaders were present, a number of whom were Catholics.[12] Even so, he was cautious enough to avoid a party allegiance when he finally went on the Council. In 1894 he stood as an independent for the East Ward and came top of the poll in this multi-member ward.[13] He got fifty-six per cent of the votes.

Did Bartholomew Corcoran get elected through the Irish Catholic vote? The answer is clearly negative – there were not enough of them to swing the outcome.  It is clear that most of those who voted for him were neither Irish nor Catholic. It shows that sectarian forces in Stafford were feeble. Even so, it must have taken courage to stand. Corcoran was the first Irish or Irish-descended Catholic to be elected to Stafford Borough Council. He was the trail-blazer and he deserves recognition for that fact alone. Perhaps because of this, his subsequent history as a local politician was stolid rather than inspiring. Despite his ethnic origin, in most ways Bartholomew was typical of councillors in small town England – a local businessman with a network of profitable contacts in building, commerce and property.

Having got on to the Council Corcoran was immediately elected a Poor Law Guardian.[14] On the Council he was appropriately put on the Sewerage Committee and on the sub-committee identifying a location for the town’s urgently-needed sewage works.[15] By 1899 he had progressed to chairmanship of the Council’s Burial Board.[16] All of this was parish pump stuff. Corcoran had no obvious political vision or dynamic agenda. He was in it for the status, the contacts and to respond to the day-to-day problems of people in his ward. He wanted to avoid controversy and conflict, particularly if there was a religious dimension. In 1903 the Council debated whether to take up powers under the 1902 Education Act. It proposed to appoint a special committee to consider the issue and membership was to be determined by religious allegiance. Corcoran was nominated but refused, saying ‘he was not over-anxious to serve. He did not want squabble but amiable work’.[17] This demonstrates his avoidance of the contentious areas of local government.

By the autumn of 1903 Bartholomew had had enough of being a councillor. He was now an old man, nearly seventy, and he decided not to seek re-election.[18] He also left the Board of Guardians around the same time. The pinnacle of his local government career had been the chairmanship of the Burial Board. He was not, however, quite in his dotage. His affairs had already taken a new twist, and to understand this we need to return to the family home in Foregate Street.

Bartholomew and Anne Corcoran had had five children but Anne died in 1895.[19] There seems little doubt that their marriage had been conventionally dutiful and apparently successful but her death at the early age of fifty-two shattered the family. Bartholomew expressed his grief publicly by donating the Stations of the Cross to the new St Patrick’s church as a memorial to his wife.[20]

But Bartholomew had a shock in store for his fellow parishioners and townspeople. He was now an old man in a hurry.

Bartholomew Corcoran in 1896, after the death of his wife

Bartholomew Corcoran in 1896, after the death of his wife

On 28 January 1897, he arrived at the Sacred Heart Catholic church in Blackpool and got married again. His new wife was Beatrice Benton. She was twenty-two years old – forty-one years younger than her husband. The couple had sneaked off to Blackpool to avoid the embarrassment of a ceremony in Stafford, and it must have created quite a scandal.[21] The apparently respectable public figure had married a woman from a pretty humble background. Whatever the age and social disparity between the couple, the marriage put new life into Bartholomew. He was still active in politics and local society, but between 1898 and 1906 he fathered six children with Beatrice, although only three survived infancy. Unlike their step brothers and sisters, members of this branch of the Corcoran family were to remain in the Stafford area throughout the twentieth century. Anne Goodman’s children were, however, unable to accept their father’s radical change of life and became increasingly estranged from him. They all married English Staffordians, were cut out of his will and left Stafford during the 1900s.[22]

Bartholomew Corcoran died in June 1908 at the age of seventy-four. He merited an obituary in the Staffordshire Advertiser which said that he came to Stafford about fifty years previously but made no mention of his Irish origin.[23] It paid tribute to his interest in public affairs and as a liberal benefactor to St Patrick’s church and schools, and it suggests a man still respected in the district despite his somewhat surprising final years.

What are we to make of Bartholomew Corcoran and his families? Both he and Anne sought security through hard work and a willingness to take the Stafford social environment as they found it. Their faith was important to them, but the Church was valuable for contacts in the host society as much as for spiritual support. That meant, however, largely sublimating their Irish identity and allying themselves with English Catholicism. There is only one public record of Bartholomew showing an interest in Irish affairs. On St Patrick’s Day 1896, amidst the celebrations at St Patrick’s schoolroom, an outside speaker lectured on ‘The Young Ireland Movement’. He was ‘loudly applauded’ and Cllr. B. Corcoran proposed ‘a hearty vote of thanks’.[24] This event took place nine months after Anne Corcoran’s death. Perhaps he was already loosening the shackles after years of caution and conformism. Even so, a brief dose of enthusiasm amidst the bonhomie of St Patrick’s celebrations was but a modest nod to his Irish origins.

This is not to say that the family’s Irish origin was immaterial. Rather, it is an example of O’Day’s concept of ‘mutative identity’ affected by the inherent and changing circumstances of the place in which they settled. The Corcorans’ ethnic identity was not maintained as an active force because in Stafford it could not distribute meaningful benefits.[25] Their general strategy of integration, most notably by inter-marriage with people from the host society, was ultimately the dominant force.

  1. Stafford Registration District (RD), Marriage Certificate, 6b/25, No. 183, 12 February 1863, Bartholomew Corcoran and Anne Goodman.
  2. Stafford RD, Deaths, Jan-Mar 1856, 6b: 7.
  3. Stafford RD, Birth Certificate, 6b/12, No. 425, 15 May 1865, Mary Corcoran..
  4. Their address was variably given as Foregate Street and Grey Friars in both Census returns and trade directories but they were clearly in the same premises all the time.
  5. She was unable to sign her name when she registered Mary Corcoran’s birth on 12 June 1865.
  6. His first entry, as ‘Bartlett (sic) Corcoran, painter and glazier’ gives his address as no. 2 Grey Friars Place. The 1871 census nevertheless shows Bartholomew and his family living at No. 2 Grey Friars, so the directory got his address wrong as well as his Christian name. Kelly’s Staffordshire Post Office Directory, 1872.
  7. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 25 October 1879.
  8. SA, 21 April 1888.
  9. Halden, Stafford and District Directory and Almanack, (Stafford, the publishers, editions 1891-1907).
  10. SA, 11 April 1891.
  11. SA, 6 June 1908.
  12. SA, 30 November 1889 and 11 January 1890.
  13. SA, 20 October 1894 and 3 November 1894.
  14. SA, 22 December 1894.
  15. SA, 17 November 1894 and 26 January 1895. The works at Lammascote Farm were opened in 1897.
  16. Halden, Directory, 1899; SA, 18 May 1895
  17. SA, 14 March 1903.
  18. SA, 24 October 1903.
  19. Memory card of Anne’s death in the possession of Sheila Leslie-Miller, a descendant.
  20. Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of St Patrick’s, Stafford, with the History of the Parish, (Stafford, Privately published, 1945), p. 2.
  21. Fylde RD, Marriages, 1897, January-March, 8e/938, Bartholomew Corcoran and Beatrice Benton. Information from Nick Griffin, a relative of the Benton family, April 2007.
  22. Probate Office, London, Will of Bartholomew Corcoran, probate granted 17 July 1908. His executors were the priest at St Patrick’s, Joseph Lillis, and Patrick Donnelly, a rising stalwart of the parish. This suggests Bartholomew’s standing in the local Catholic community was still high.
  23. SA, 6 June 1908.
  24. SA, 21 March 1896.
  25. O’Day, ‘A conundrum of Irish diasporic identity: mutative ethnicity’, Immigrants and Minorities, Vo. 27, Nos. 2/3, July/November 2009, pp. 317-339.