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Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association.

Founded 150 years ago in April 1871, Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute is still remembered both for the impact it had on the lives of the Irish migrants and their descendants living on Tyneside in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the key role it played in Irish nationalist politics in the North East of England.[1] And the history of this club is soon to be told in detail by Bridget Lowery for the Tyneside Irish Cultural Society in Newcastle.[2]

Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute, however, was not the only such Irish club in the North East of England. Nor was it the first. That honour fell to Middlesbrough. And this post will explore the short and turbulent history of Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association.[3]

Though Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society founded in 1793 might be seen as a model for the later development of Irish Literary organisations in the North East, it is more likely that Mechanics’ Institutes with their focus on providing educational, social and cultural activities for their working-class members fulfilled that role.[4] Irish nationalist meetings had been held in Mechanic’s Institutes in Blaydon and Jarrow in the 1860s, and the North East’s Irish Catholics continued to meet in Mechanic’s Institutes in towns, where they did not have their own rooms.[5]

In Middlesbrough, there was no open, as distinct from secret, Irish organisation before 1870.

And, even if a club had been formed, there was nowhere it could meet except in a public house or the mission chapel, where it would have been under ever-watchful clerical eyes, since ‘public halls were not let to Irishmen, as it was thought that twenty of them could not get together without making a row and smashing everything’.[6]

In February 1870, however, the Oddfellows’ Hall in Bridge Street risked opening its doors to Arthur M Forrester’s popular touring ‘Irish Lecture and Entertainment’.[7] A few days before, Forrester, a Flag of Ireland journalist and (presumably unknown to the hall’s management) a Fenian organiser,[8] had entertained the Consett Irish with his satirical lecture ‘Patriots of the Period’, featuring the likes of ‘Daniel O’Blather, the Parliamentary Patriot’; ‘Paddy MacSwiper, the Whisky Patriot’; ‘Phelim O’Makemoney, the Profit-seeking Patriot’; and ‘John Joseph O’Sneak, the Sanctimonious Patriot’. In Middlesbrough, Forrester added the ‘Rev Anathema Damnall… a political priest who excommunicates everyone who differs with him in politics’.[9] And, as we shall see, few in the audience would not have known which priest was here under attack.

Later that year, on 2 December, the Oddfellows’ Hall also provided the venue for a meeting of Middlesbrough’s Irish Catholics at which was formed ‘an association of a Catholic and Literary nature… to watch over the interests of the Catholic people in the town, and to promote, as far as possible, their welfare and prosperity’.[10] What prompted this is not known, but a later suggestion that the Association was formed at the behest of the local priest seems unlikely given the unhappy relationship between the Association and the local mission priest.[11]  

Named the ‘Middlesbrough Catholic Association’, this club proposed to open a reading room and library to counter ‘the many evils produced by the influence of public-houses’. And its formation was welcomed by Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette as ‘it cannot fail to have an elevating, liberalising, and solidating influence’ on the town’s Irish Catholics. Local employers of Irish labour also welcomed the new association and donated money.[12]

A second meeting quickly followed, at which there was much discussion on the ‘want of proper schools’ for the town’s ‘poor Irish children’.[13] It was also agreed to change the association’s name to the ‘Irish Literary Association’ to avoid any accusation of sectarianism. Later meetings saw an executive elected and rooms taken in the Gazette’s offices opposite the railway station in Zetland Road, and by May 1871 the association was claiming some 400 members.[14]

To great fanfare, Middlesbrough’s re-named Irish Literary Association held its inaugural event in the Royal Albert Theatre on Whit Tuesday, 30 May 1871, and attracted an audience of 1,300 to hear the Irish journalist Denis Baylor Sullivan.[15] During his lecture on the position of the Irish in England, Sullivan warned his audience not to ‘allow anyone to persuade you that by becoming good Irishmen you cease to be good Catholics’, and declared that there was nothing ‘antagonistic to Catholicity in Irish nationality’. And Sullivan’s warning would not have been lost on his audience.

The Literary Association had been under attack from its formation by Father Andrew Burns of Middlesbrough’s Roman Catholic mission.[16] This Lancashire-born priest’s relationship with Middlesbrough’s Irish Catholics had not been easy from his appointment to the mission in 1853, and it deteriorated further after he delivered from his pulpit in February 1870 the papal condemnation of Fenianism.[17] He followed this in May with another denunciation of Fenianism and pointed at men in the congregation, prompting some thirty men to walk out of Sunday mass.[18]

Burns explained in a letter to the local newspaper that, though most of the men who left were ‘perfect strangers to me and the rest of the congregation’, some were from Middlesbrough. These men, he claimed, were ‘all ringleaders… active agents of secret leaders, who preserve more privacy in higher places, but whose headquarters are chiefly in the iron ship yard’ and other works, ‘where the Fenian head-centre, well known to the Government, has been working for some time’.

1871 saw the ‘“Fenian”-hunting reverend gentleman’, as he was described in the nationalist press,[19] refusing communion to men he believed were Fenians and complaining to his bishop about Fenians undermining his authority.[20] Meanwhile, the executive of the Irish Literary Association complained in the press and to the bishop about their priest’s conduct, focussing especially on the lack of Catholic schools in the town, and organised a public protest meeting in September.[21] Finally, a petition to Archbishop Manning in Westminster led to Burns being moved in January 1872 to a new parish. After a brief interregnum, Navan-born Richard Lacy became Middlesbrough’s mission priest. More of him later.

But had Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association been infiltrated by Fenians, as Burns believed?

In an early history of the Irish on Tyneside, Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute was described as being ‘a common camp’, where ‘Fenians and Constitutionalists… could discuss and develop their darling plans for Ireland’s salvation by bullet or ballot’.[22] And there is no reason to believe that this statement was not true.[23]

So, was Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association any different to Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute formed only a few months later?

The names of the leading members of Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association may be read in the press reports of the club’s activities. And one names stands out – John Walsh.[24] This Irish-born iron worker, who was a regular speaker at Association meetings and a committee member,[25] was one of the ‘Fenians’ pointed out by Father Burns at Sunday mass.[26] He was also, at the same time, the North of England’s representative on the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Supreme Council.[27]

When Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association had been formed ‘all political and religious discussions’ were ‘forbidden by rule, the sole object being the improvement of the social condition of the Irish people’.[28] But, with Father ‘Anathema Damnall’ gone, the Association openly proclaimed its nationalist politics, inviting John Martin, the Young Ireland leader and recently-elected first Irish Home Rule MP, to visit the town. Huge crowds were waiting at the railway station to greet this nationalist celebrity. And Irish bands from Stockton on Tees and Middlesbrough played outside the Association’s rooms before his lecture in the Cleveland Hall.[29]

After speaking in Sunderland, John Martin returned to Middlesbrough a few days later for a Home Rule rally, organised by the Literary Association. This was the first Home Rule rally to be held in Middlesbrough and Martin told the packed audience in the Oddfellows’ Hall that he had come ‘to explain what Home Rule was… Irish Home Rule was Ireland for the Irish’ and he warned that ‘English people had the choice’ between Home Rule ‘or violent separation sometime here after’.[30]

In parallel with the demand for Home Rule came the demand for Amnesty for all Fenian prisoners. Whilst Amnesty meetings had already been held in the North East, with the first in Newcastle in October 1869,[31] the first demonstration in Middlesbrough was only organised in October 1872, when the Literary Association appealed to ‘the Irish residents of the district… in the name of their suffering brothers to come forward in their numbers at the call of humanity and justice’.[32]

By the summer of 1872, however, Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association seems to have been losing support, as the annual subscription was reduced from ten shillings to four shillings to make the club ‘more accessible to Irishmen’ and steps taken to increase the membership.[33]

Meanwhile, Richard Lacy had taken over Middlesbrough’s Catholic mission and, in September, he chaired a ‘Catholic demonstration’ and concert in the Cleveland Hall to raise funds for a new church and Catholic school in the town. As well as priests from across South Durham and North Yorkshire, several of the Literary Association’s leading names were present, but no John Walsh. And, though the concert featured popular Irish songs, ‘God Save Ireland’ and other nationalist songs were not sung.[34]

In December 1872, a Sunday afternoon open-air Amnesty meeting in Stockton, attracting some 3,000 Irish demonstrators from across Teesside, ended when the Irish were attacked by English men and youths.[35] It is not known if Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association was involved in organising the meeting, though John Walsh was there and, in his speech, had described the treatment of the Fenian prisoners as ‘tortures… unparalleled in the annals of cruel and vindictive punishment’.[36]

For Father Lacy, however, this riot seems to have been the last straw, and he was instrumental in the re-forming of the Middlesbrough Catholic Association in February 1873 for ‘the advancement of its members religiously, morally, and socially’. And, at the Association’s inaugural meeting, it was reported that the new Association had agreed with the ‘trustees’ of ‘the late Irish Literary Association’ to take over its furniture and effects valued at £40. Once again, no nationalist songs were sung, and the meeting ended with Lacy, who was appointed the first Bishop of Middlesbrough in 1879, calling for ‘three cheers for Pope Pius IX’.[37]

Lacy, a supporter of Home Rule but no Fenian,[38] again clashed with John Walsh and Middlesbrough’s advanced nationalists in 1873, over the formation of a branch of the Home Rule Association in the town, which resulted in two rival branches being formed.[39] But by then Middlesbrough’s Irish Literary Association, which had always been an uneasy alliance of ‘Fenians and Constitutionalists’ was gone, and there was no successor, unlike in Newcastle, where the Irish Literary Institute became the Irish National Club in 1908, and survived until September 1939, when the club went into voluntary liquidation.[40]

Finally, other Irish Literary Institutes were opened in the North East before the Great War, including those in Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Morpeth, North Shields, South Shields, Sunderland, Walker, and Willington. But I’ll leave the stories of those institutes for others to tell.


[1] See D.A.J. MacPherson and Joan Allen ‘Irish and Welsh Migration and the North East of England, 1851-1980’, in Adrian Green and A.J. Pollard (eds), Regional Identities in North-East England, 1300-2000 (Woodbridge, 2007), pp.143-44.

[2] https://tynesideirish.com/projects/irish-centres-150th-anniversary/

[3] In England in 1871 only Liverpool had a higher percentage than Middlesbrough of Irish-born residents. Malcolm Chase, ‘The Teesside Irish in the nineteenth century’, in Patrick Buckland and John Belchem (eds), The Irish in British Labour History (Liverpool, 1993), p.14.

[4] https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/iha-mechanics-institutes/heag187-mechanics-institutes-iha/

[5] North & South Shields Daily Gazette, 20 September 1860; Flag of Ireland, 29 May 1869. In 1922, Tow Law Mechanic’s Institute hosted a St Patrick’s Day social. Auckland & County Chronicle, 23 March 1922.

[6] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 1 May 1872.

[7] The Irishman, 26 February 1870.

[8] Mark Ryan, Fenian Memories (Dublin, 1946), pp.14-15.

[9] Flag of Ireland, 12 March 1870.

[10] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 5 December 1870.

[11] North East Daily Gazette, 3 March 1883.

[12] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 30 January 1871.

[13] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 10 December 1870.

[14] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 27 January & 31 May 1871.

[15] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 31 May 1871. D B Sullivan was the brother of T D Sullivan, composer of the nationalist anthem ‘God Save Ireland’.

[16] For the story of Father Burns’ stormy relationship with his congregation, see Dominique Minskip, ‘The Middlesbrough Troubles of 1871’, Northern Catholic History, 38 (1997), pp.52-66.

[17] See Oliver P Rafferty, The Catholic Church and Fenianism https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/the-catholic-church-and-fenianism/

[18] Flag of Ireland, 28 May 1870.

[19] Flag of Ireland, 30 September 1871.

[20] See Minskip, ‘The Middlesbrough Troubles of 1871’, for this paragraph.

[21] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 9 September 1871.

[22] Joseph Keating, ‘The Tyneside Irish Brigade: History of its Origin and Development’, in Felix Lavery, Irish Heroes in the War (London, 1917), p.57.

[23] See my earlier posts to Exiles in England: ‘M J Kelly, Newcastle’s Fenian school teacher’ and ‘Fenians in the North East of England during the 1890s’.

[24] John Walsh will feature in a future post on this website.

[25] Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough) 26 July 1872.

[26] North East Daily Gazette, 3 March 1883.

[27] T. W. Moody. and Leon Ó Broin, ‘The IRB Supreme Council, 1868-78’, Irish Historical Studies, 19.75 (1975), p.326.

[28] The Nation, 11 March 1871.

[29] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 1 May 1872. This was Martin’s first stop on his lecture tour of England.

[30] The Irishman, 11 May 1872.

[31] Newcastle Daily Journal, 25 October 1869.

[32] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 22 October 1872.

[33] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 6 July 1872.

[34] Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), 17 September 1872.

[35] For a detailed account of the riot see: https://heritage.stockton.gov.uk/articles/stories/fenian-amnesty-riot-in-stockton/ Also see: http://republic-of-teesside.blogspot.com/2013/07/republicanism-revolutionary-rhetoric.html

[36] The Irishman, 21 December 1872.

[37] Northern Echo, 19 March 1873. Also see Malcolm Chase, ‘The Teesside Irish in the nineteenth century’, Labour History Review, 57.3 (1992), pp.14-17.

[38] Richard Lacy was a member of Dublin’s Home Government Association. Flag of Ireland, 5 September 1873.

[39] Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough), 19 August 1873.

[40] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 19 September 1939.

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