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Family connections: the Walshes and the Mannions

The Walsh family is unique amongst the Stafford Irish in leaving explicit evidence that it continued to identify with Ireland and Irish nationalist issues. Stafford’s social environment was unattractive to such people, and the Walshes ultimately left. Even so, they stayed in Stafford for over twenty years.

John Walsh, a Galway man, married Mary Mannion in Ireland in the late 1850s. The newly-established Walsh-Mannion partnership became a link in the chain migration of the extensive Mannion family from Co. Galway to Stafford. Most of the Mannions put down roots in the town, and many descendants of the family are still there today. The Walshes did not conform to the family pattern, however, and we need to examine why they broke the mould and emigrated.

Patrick Mannion was the family’s pathfinder. The Walshes and Mannions may have been victims of the Gerrard evictions in Co. Galway in 1846 (see my post on 17 June 2015).  Patrick Mannion was a labourer aged about forty whose wife had died during the Famine. In 1851 he was living in Raftery’s lodging house in Allen’s Court. That family came from Kiltullagh, Co. Roscommon, just over the border from north-east Galway. Patrick was still a seasonal migrant worker and during the 1850s his sons Patrick (b. 1836), Martin (b. 1839) and Michael (b. 1841) also came over for seasonal work.[1] In April 1861 Patrick father and son were in Edward Kelly’s lodging house in Snow’s Yard.

Mannion tree

The stem of the Mannion-Walsh family in Stafford

The economy of Stafford was buoyant at this time as farming prospered and the shoe trade expanded. That was the incentive for the Mannions to settle permanently in Stafford. Martin’s wife Ann and their young children Michael and Mary arrived some time in 1861.[2] Then Patrick Mannion’s daughter Mary came with her husband, John Walsh. They already had a son, Michael, who had been born in Ireland in 1860, but the couple went on to have seven more children in Stafford. In 1859 Patrick Mannion junior had married Kitty (Catherine) Kelly, a member of the Kelly family discussed in my post of 24 March 2015. Kitty seems to have returned to Ireland after the wedding, but she had settled in Stafford by the end of 1862 because her one-year old child died in the town. We see, therefore, that the Mannion and Walsh families’ process of settlement was drawn out, but from around 1863 there were three branches of the family living in Stafford, all of them initially in Snow’s Yard.

The Mannion family remained for many years an integral part of the deprived and sometimes violent Snow’s Yard community. We now need to see how and why the Walshes broke free from this problematic family embrace, left Snow’s Yard and ultimately emigrated. Answering these questions is not easy but a key element must have been the personal characters of John Walsh and Mary Mannion and how they responded to the challenges and opportunities facing them. All we know from the surviving evidence is that John and his family were feisty people who asserted themselves in pursuit of their interests and beliefs. As immigrants to Britain in the early 1860s, they had survived the worst of the Famine and its aftermath but had seen at first hand the burdens of landlord power, poverty and eviction. They had also been open to the nationalism of Daniel O’Connell, the Young Irelanders, the Tenants’ Rights movement and the early Irish Parliamentary Party. The Fenians were also starting their underground organization at this time. These forces for Irish identity seem to have influenced the Walshes much more than most of Stafford’s poor Catholic immigrants.

The Walshes’ independence 

Initially there was little to suggest the Walsh family’s trajectory would differ from that of their rough Mannion kin in Snow’s Yard. Soon after his arrival John Walsh was fined for assaulting John Kelly, a farm labourer from Galway. Although Walsh was a building labourer, he and Mary immediately began to making money by taking in lodgers. They ignored the legal regulations and in July 1862 John was fined for keeping an unregistered lodging house. Five years later he was in court again for not whitewashing or cleansing his premises in Snow’s Yard.

But John Walsh had another life on the building sites. There he stuck up for workers’ rights. In 1871 the trade unions’ ‘nine-hour day’ campaign swept the country like a bush fire, and John Walsh was involved in an incident in Stafford. [3] In August 1871 he and another Irish man, Thomas Carney, were charged with ‘molesting’ Isaac Rushton, a building foreman. The men were working for Francis Ratcliffe, a builder who employed many Irish workers and was also slum landlord. Rushton had ‘asked’ the workers on site to work overtime, but Walsh and Carney tried to get the men to stick to the nine-hour day. When they were present the men went along with them but they later capitulated under pressure from the foreman. Walsh and Carney responded with ‘a volley of abuses and threats’ against the workers and the foreman. They were charged under the new Criminal Law Amendment Act but avoided prison by agreeing to pay the expenses of the hearing.[4] The case would have confirmed John Walsh’s hostility to the power of the British ruling class both in Ireland and against workers in Britain.

John and Mary Walsh clearly wanted to leave the squalor of Snow’s Yard. The final incentive to get out came in 1877 when the family suffered a triple tragedy. Three of their young children, John (b. 1871), Stephen (b. 1872) and Margaret (b. 1875) died within two days of each other. They succumbed to fatal infections that spread easily in that overcrowded and rat-infested slum.[5] The event must have traumatized the family since there is every indication that John and Mary Walsh were conscientious and loving parents. By 1881 three of the surviving children had got jobs in the shoe trade and they showed every sign of upward occupational and social mobility. Their earnings contributed to the family income and bolstered its economic security. John himself must have managed a relatively secure income even in the precarious building trade.  All this meant that some time between 1877 and 1881 the family gave up the lodging house and shifted well away from Snow’s Yard. They moved into No. 34 Cooperative Street, a house located on the northern edge of town. Although it was next to the Workhouse, this was an area of new and solid bye-law housing mostly occupied by shoemakers and other artisanal workers. Almost all were English.

It was a massive step up for the family. To help with the costs they still needed to take a lodger and in 1881 they hosted a young Irish bricklayer’s labourer who probably worked with John Walsh. Even so, living in Cooperative Street meant they were able to create a civilized home in the house. Their move was not just geographical, however. It suggests they also wanted to distance themselves socially from their less respectable relatives in Snow’s Yard. Members of the Mannion family had numerous brushes with the law during the 1870s and 1880s, but the Walshes were never involved. The kinship bonds were breaking and there is no evidence that the Walshes felt any obligation to help their more deprived relations. The impression is of an independent and increasingly confident family anxious to move on to other things. For most such Irish families in Stafford this meant seeking respectability and acceptance by downplaying their Irish origins. The Walshes did the opposite – they publicly affirmed their Irish identity.

Frustrated nationalists?

In January 1881 Gladstone’s government introduced the Coercion Bill that would suspend habeas corpus in Ireland and threatened the mass internment of ‘suspects’. It was the government’s response to the campaign of the Irish Land League and the ‘agrarian outrages’ taking place during the Land War. In February there were fierce debates in Parliament, and Charles Stewart Parnell galvanised the Irish Parliamentary Party into unified and effective opposition. The Speaker’s response was to impose the first ever guillotine on debate, something described at the time as a coup d’état.[6] For Irish nationalists it was yet further evidence that the British would always bend the rules to repress Irish nationalism.

These events brought a small flurry of activity amongst the Irish even in Stafford, and John Walsh was at the centre of it. On 12 February ‘a numerously attended meeting’ was held at the Slipper Inn in the town centre. Walsh presided and proposed two resolutions:

‘That we, the Irish electors of Stafford, record our indignant protest against the Coercion Bill introduced by the so-called Liberal Government in order to place a weapon in the hands of the landlord-magistracy of Ireland to crush the just aspirations of a cruelly persecuted people.’

‘That we, the Irish electors of Stafford, tender our grateful thanks to the senior representative of this Borough (Alexander McDonald Esq.) for his noble advocacy and defence of the just claims of the Irish people, and we acknowledge the debt of gratitude due from us to that gentleman who, though suffering from recent illness, generously stood by our countrymen in combating the tyrannical Coercion Bill introduced by the so-called Liberal Government.’

The meeting passed the resolutions and agreed to form a branch of the Irish National Land League in Stafford.[7]

This was tepid stuff by the standards of militant Irish nationalism but it was, nevertheless, one of only two documented instances of clearly Irish nationalist political activity in nineteenth century Stafford. The other had occurred in 1876, also at the Slipper Inn, when there was a fight between different factions during an Irish Home Rule Association meeting. The ringleader was James Garra, ‘a tall stout-built young Irishman who for a number of years has been employed in and around Stafford’. [8] A farm labourer, he later settled in the Cannock area.[9] His presence reminds us that initially transient and short-term settled Irish people were always present in Stafford, although in diminishing numbers.

Walsh was clearly the instigator of the 1881 Land League meeting. It reveals his continuing identification with Ireland’s sufferings and that he was able to motivate others to show at least minimal support for action. The results would have disappointed him. There is no evidence that a functioning branch of the Land League was actually established in Stafford or that Walsh or anyone else publicly espoused the Irish cause again in the town. Although it was possible to get Irish Catholic workers, mostly the young and migrant, to attend political gatherings in pubs, the Stafford Irish and their descendants were too few and too thin on the ground to nurture committed and effective nationalist activity. The social environment was fundamentally unsupportive. Long-term settlement in Stafford meant rejecting overt involvement in the Irish national cause. There was no future in it. People had to move elsewhere if they wanted to retain and transmit such an Irish identity.

That is what John Walsh and his family did. Despite their obvious ability to succeed in Stafford, the family left the town and emigrated to America in 1886.[10] We must beware of imputing purely political reasons for this. They would have read the economic signs. The shoe trade was past its heyday and suffering from foreign competition.[11] West Midland industry generally was depressed in the 1880s, and many people from Staffordshire were emigrating.[12] The local newspapers had frequent advertisements for passages to the Americas and Australasia.[13] Even so, Stafford’s social scene was uncongenial to John and Mary Walsh. They had left the Irish environment of Snow’s Yard but they also rejected the move to English identity and social conformity shown by other aspirant and respectable Catholics. The Walshes reckoned they could do better elsewhere.

  1. Michael was subsequently a migrant farmworker in Staffordshire and Shropshire and never lived with the rest of the family in Stafford.
  2. The family was not present in the 1861 census but Ann’s baby Bridget was baptised at St Austin’s on 28 December 1861.
  3. H. Hunt, British Labour History, 1815-1914, (London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1981), pp. 263-7.
  4. Staffordshire Advertiser, 12 August 1871.
  5. Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, 3/6010, 3/6011, 3/6015, 16/18 October 1877.
  6. Bew, Ireland: the Politics of Enmity, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.323-4.
  7. Staffordshire Advertiser, 19 February 1881.
  8. Staffordshire Advertiser, 23 December 1876.
  9. In the 1881 Census he was at Teddesley Farm, Teddesley Hay and in 1901 in Cheslyn Hay. He was not, however, present in 1891.
  10. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, Microfiche M237, Roll 498, Line 19, List no. 1111, arrival 13 September 1886, Mary Walsh (40), Bridget Walsh (8), James Walsh (4) and Bernard Walsh (3), from Liverpool aboard SS John Walsh presumably arrived ahead of his wife and children but has not been traced. Ancestry Database accessed 16 January 2014.
  11. Harrison, ‘The Development of Boot & Shoe Manufacturing in Stafford, 1850-80’, Journal of the Staffordshire Industrial Archaeology Society, 10, 1981; Alan Fox, A History of the National Union of Boot & Shoe Operatives, 1874-1958, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958), Chaps 9-13; Staffordshire Advertiser, passim, 1880s.
  12. Lawton, ‘Population Migration to & from Warwickshire and Staffordshire, 1841-91’, Unpub. MA thesis, no date (copy of Staffs section in William Salt Library, Stafford, William Salt Library TH48), Chap XII.
  13. g. Staffordshire Advertiser, 30 June 1883, when there were three advertisements for ships to Australia/New Zealand and five for the USA/Canada together with an advertisement by the New South Wales government for assisted passages.