Between 1903 and 1914, Irish nationalists in the North East of England held an annual gala in Wharton Park in Durham City. These galas, a mix of political demonstration, family day-out, sports day, and a celebration of the Gaelic revival, were, along with the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, a key element in the Irish nationalist year before the Great War. This post will explore the history of these Irish galas, looking in particular at their origin and at the effect – if any – they had on the lives of the Irish in the North East of England.
In 1900, after a decade of division and collapsing popular support following Parnell’s fall from grace, Irish nationalists reunited under the banner of the newly-formed United Irish League with the Parnellite John Redmond taking control of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster. In Britain, the pro and anti-Parnellite wings of the Irish National League of Great Britain (INLGB) came together, in spite of misgivings, in a new organisation, the United Irish League of Great Britain (UILGB), and the drive began to undo the damage of the 1890s.
In November 1902, at an ‘Irish national concert and demonstration’ held in the Victoria Hall, Sunderland, Michael Hoey, president of the UILGB’s ‘Eoghan Ruadh’ (Red Owen) branch, announced that in the previous eighteen months the league locally had grown from zero to nine branches with almost one thousand members. Women’s branches had also opened and, reflecting what the South Shields Daily Gazette described as the ‘remarkable… renaissance of [Irish] national feeling and national sentiment’, Gaelic language classes had begun. And this growth – and renewed confidence – was echoed across the rest of the North East of England.
On 16 May 1903, UILGB branch delegates from across the North East met in Lockhart’s Café in Nun Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, to elect a new regional executive. In the chair was Patrick Redmond, the recently appointed UILGB organiser for Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland. During the meeting, Redmond ‘threw out a suggestion that if possible an Irish gala day should be arranged on a date to be fixed by delegates in order that our people in different districts might be brought together’. His suggestion was enthusiastically received and delegates agreed to hold a gala ‘at some spot’ in County Durham on the next August Bank Holiday.
Leading Irish nationalists had previously spoken at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, most notably in July 1893, when Michael Davitt’s speech had been received with ‘continual cheering’, but this was to be the first gala organised by and for the North East’s Irish nationalists.
In late June, Redmond told a branch delegates’ meeting in Newcastle that John Lloyd Wharton, MP for Ripon and formerly MP for Durham City, had given the UILGB permission to use Wharton Park overlooking the railway station in Durham City, where the first Miners’ Gala had been held in 1871. With the venue assured, planning for the gala intensified and invitations sent to John Redmond MP and T P O’Connor MP, president of the UILGB, to speak at the gala.
At a gala committee meeting in the Miners’ Hall in Durham on 11 July, Patrick Redmond reported that John Redmond and O’Connor were detained in London on party business but that another Irish MP would attend in their place. The committee also agreed the gala’s programme that would include, as well as sports, Irish dancing and Gaelic singing competitions.
As the August Bank Holiday approached, UILGB branches agreed their travel arrangements and advertisements appeared in the local press. On Monday 3 August 1903, after a procession from Durham’s Market Place led by the Seaham Harbour Catholic Brass Band, the first Irish gala was held in Wharton Park. The main political speaker was Alderman Michael Joyce, MP for Limerick, and among the local speakers was Councillor James Murphy from Washington, who said that whilst ‘Irish people were formerly looked upon by some people as habitués of the prison and dwellers in slums… there was now a movement afoot which should show the best qualities of the Irish people’, and praised the revival of Irish language and literature. After the speeches, the sporting and other competitions began. In spite, however, of the enthusiasm of UILGB branches and the support of parish priests from across the diocese, no more than a few thousand people attended this first gala.
Undeterred by further low attendances at the galas in 1904 and 1905, the UILGB executive decided to organise a fourth gala in 1906. Just two weeks before this gala, however, on Saturday 14 July 1906, Wharton Park was the venue for a demonstration opposing the Liberal government’s Education Bill, which Irish Catholics and their English co-religionists saw as a direct threat to Catholic schools.
Carrying banners bearing the slogans ‘Catholic schools for our bairns’, ‘Catholic schools – Catholic teachers’, and ‘Catholic rates for Catholic schools’, it was estimated that over 20,000 Catholics marched behind Birtley’s League of the Cross Brass Band from Old Elvet to Wharton Park, where they heard speeches echoing the banners’ sentiments from Auxiliary Bishop Collins and others, and pledged themselves ‘to the defence of the Catholic schools’. And this was just a week after a similar demonstration by an estimated 50,000 Irish and English Catholics in Newcastle upon Tyne. Though local nationalist leaders, including John O’Hanlon and Peter Bradley, spoke at both these demonstrations, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians was out in force, no Irish nationalist demonstrations in the North East before the Great War nor any held in the depths of the Anglo-Irish War in 1920, would ever attract such numbers.
The fourth Irish gala held on 6 August 1906, however, clearly benefited both from the Catholic demonstration two weeks before and improved publicity and ‘upwards of fifteen thousand people’ were reported as having attended with many sporting green button badges bearing a portrait of Michael Davitt, who had died on 30 May. Alderman Joyce, MP for Limerick, was once again the main speaker and much of his speech concerned Catholic schools, though he did remind his audience that ‘beyond all other questions stood the Irish question, and as long as a vestige of slavery remained they must go on’. The 1906 Irish gala was, probably, the largest ever held in Wharton Park, as this was the last organised jointly by the Durham and Northumberland branches of the UILGB. In 1907 the Northumberland branches planned to organise their own gala in Morpeth.
The guest speaker at the Durham gala in 1908 was the president of the United Irish League of Great Britain and MP for Liverpool Scotland, T P O’Connor, making his first visit to the North East since he had accompanied Parnell some twenty-eight years previously. An open-topped carriage bearing O’Connor and local nationalist leaders headed the procession from the Market Place to Wharton Park, where, once again, the speeches focussed as much on the question of Catholic schools as on Irish Home Rule, with O’Connor acknowledging that this issue ‘held exceptional interest for the Catholics of the North’. The sporting highlight of the afternoon was a tug of war competition, in the final of which a team from Consett beat Ferryhill and was presented with the challenge shield by O’Connor.
O’Connor was back in Durham in July 1909 for the Miners’ Gala, where, in his speech, he thanked the Labour Party’s leadership ‘for the aid and the assistance, sympathy and hope they had given to him and his countrymen in their struggle on behalf of Ireland’. He did not, however, attend the Irish gala a few weeks later on 6 August 1909, when Durham was ‘painted green’, though four Irish MPs did attend led by J G Swift MacNeill, the Protestant Irish Nationalist MP for South Donegal. These four heard the gala’s chairman, John Holmes, argue that Irish MPs were in Parliament not only to attend ‘to the interest of Irish people in Ireland but also of Irish people in England’ and that ‘they were there to defend their schools, and, if necessary, their faith’. The demand for Home Rule, however, was not forgotten by the speakers, though, with ten Catholic priests sitting on the platform, Catholic education – ‘the final issue of the Catholic cause in England’ – dominated the speeches. And, once again, Consett won the tug of war competition.
At the eighth Irish gala held on 5 August 1910, John Holmes condemned Durham County Council’s Labour councillors for not having ‘appointed a single Irish representative’ to the Education Committee, and asked, to cries of ‘no’, if Irishmen and women were going to let ‘Lilliputian, gingerbread warriors… take the priceless gift of faith from them’. Away from the platform, Consett won the tug of war competition for the third consecutive year. This, however, was the last gala where Catholic schools dominated the political speeches. After the general election of December 1910, the Liberals needed the support of John Redmond and his Irish MPs to remain in power and the price was a Third Home Rule Bill.
On 8 August 1911, ‘Irishmen and their wives in their hundreds poured into the streets of the old city’ to join the procession to Wharton Park, accompanied by bands and members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish National Foresters in their full regalia. No Irish MPs were present at this gala, however, as all were required at Westminster, but the speeches reflected Irish nationalist hopes for Home Rule, with the main speaker, John O’Donnell Derrick, UILGB Scottish organiser, promising that ‘within two years, their branches in England, Scotland, and Wales would be appointing delegates to go to Dublin for the re-opening of the old Parliament’. The galas held in 1912 and 1913 continued to reflect the nationalists’ expectation that Irish Home Rule was finally within reach, though one speaker from Trimdon in 1913 reminded his audience that even after there was a Parliament in Dublin they should still meet in 1914 as ‘the education question’ remained unresolved.
On Bank Holiday Monday 3 August 1914, innocent of the impending transformation of Irish – and world – politics, Irish men and women from across the North East, many ‘proudly wearing their green badges’, walked from Durham’s Market Place to Wharton Park to take part in the twelfth annual gala of the County Durham branches of the United Irish League of Great Britain. On the platform were nationalist leaders from across County Durham and Tyneside, together with the leadership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Irish National Foresters, though again no Irish MP was present. As in previous years, loyalty was re-pledged to John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, though much of the optimism of those previous years was missing. Irish Home Rule had still not been delivered, prompting speakers to attack the ‘storm of abuse’ that was assaulting Redmond ‘from the enemies of Ireland and especially the Orange rebels led by Carson’. Speakers also condemned the ‘recent military outrage in Dublin’ (when British soldiers had shot and bayoneted unarmed civilians on Bachelor’s Walk) and demanded ‘the most impartial enquiry into the circumstances of the crime’. There was also much speculation on the worrying news from Europe’s capitals, with local newspapers that morning reporting the German ultimatum to Belgium and the invasion of Luxemburg. That afternoon in the House of Commons, whilst the Irish gala in Wharton Park was in full swing, John Redmond pledged Irish support for Britain in the event of war. And Irish politics would never be the same again.
This was the last Irish gala organised by the United Irish League of Great Britain in Wharton Park and the last that closed with the Fenian anthem ‘God Save Ireland’. The next time an Irish gala was held in the park – in August 1920 – the Irish tricolour flew, ‘The Soldier’s Song’ was played, and speakers from the Irish Self-Determination League pledged their support for the Irish Republic.
For twelve years, from 1903 to 1914, Irish galas were held in Wharton Park, but did they have any effect on the Irish men and women then living and working in the North East of England? Were the galas no more than just a day-out in Durham? One speaker at the 1913 gala certainly thought so, complaining that most of the gala crowds just ‘went away and forgot everything they had heard’?
Yet Irish men and women in the North East of England were prepared to turn out in their thousands in support of Catholic schools for this issue impacted directly on them and their children: ‘Catholic schools for our bairns’. But the cause of Irish Home Rule failed to mobilise the support, either active or passive, of a majority of the Irish in the North East, as across the rest of Britain, before 1914. That year, after decades of sustained constitutional agitation and argument, and with Ireland seemingly on the verge of achieving self-government, the United Irish League of Great Britain could still only boast a membership of 47,000, which, though the highest ever attained by an Irish nationalist organisation in Britain, was a mere 12.5 per cent of the Irish-born population of Great Britain in 1911, and an almost negligible percentage of the additional tens of thousands of British-born members of the Irish community living in Britain in 1914.
Though now all but forgotten, the Irish galas in Wharton Park deserve to be remembered as an expression of the cultural life of the Irish community in the North East of England before the Great War; a community that was both settled and maturing, as there appears, from the absence of reports in the local newspapers, to have been no associated drunkenness or crime, when Durham City was ‘painted green’.
Coming soon: Irish Galas part 2. ‘With the Irish tricolour’: Irish nationalist galas in Wharton Park, Durham, 1920-1922.
Postscript: I’ve been unable to find any photographs of the Irish galas in Wharton Park. Some must have been taken, but they may have been mistakenly identified as being from the Durham Miners’ Gala. If you know of any photos of these Irish galas, please, get in touch.
 Philip Bull, ‘The United Irish League and the reunion of the Irish Parliamentary Party, 1898-1900’, Irish Historical Studies, 26.101 (1988), pp. 51-78.
 Alan O’Day, ‘Irish Diaspora Politics in Perspective: The United Irish Leagues of Great Britain and America, 1900-14’, in Donald M. MacRaild (ed.), The Great Famine and Beyond. Irish Migrants in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Dublin, 2000), p. 225.
 Sunderland Daily Echo, 12 Nov. 1902.
 Jarrow’s women’s branch initially had twenty members. Tyneside Catholic News, 14 March 1903; South Shields Daily Gazette, 12 April 1903; In Houghton le Spring, the local Catholic parish priest joined the Irish language class. South Shields Daily Gazette, 12 November 1902.
 Irish News & Belfast Morning News, 20 May 1903.
 The Irishman, 8 July 1876; Sunderland Daily Echo, 17 July 1877 and 8 July 1878. John O’Connor Power the Irish MP for Mayo and Connaught’s representative on the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Supreme Council spoke at the Miners’ Gala in 1876, 1877 and 1878. See T W Moody and Leon Ó Broin, ‘IRB Supreme Council, 1868-78’, Irish Historical Studies, 19.75 (1975), pp. 327-328.
 Durham Chronicle, 4 August 1893.
 Sunderland Daily Echo, 29 June 1903. For Wharton Park https://www.durham.gov.uk/article/7323/About-Wharton-Park
 Sunderland Daily Echo, 13 July 1903.
 In Seaham, the men’s and women’s branches held a joint meeting to discuss the gala. Sunderland Daily Echo, 22 July 1903. Admission to the gala was 6d for adults and 3d for children. Sunderland Daily Echo, 30 July 1903.
 Before the procession began, members of the UILGB women’s branches handed out badges commemorating the centenary of Robert Emmet’s abortive rising. Tyneside Catholic News, 8 August 1903.
 Durham Chronicle, 7 August 1903.
 Durham Chronicle, 20 July 1906.
 Tyneside Catholic News, 14 July 1906.
 Irish News & Belfast Morning News, 4 and 10 August 1906. There was also a report of ‘a record’ 17,000 attending. Tyneside Catholic News, 11 August 1906.
 Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 7 August 1906.
 Durham Chronicle, 7 August 1908.
 Irish News & Belfast Morning News, 6 August 1908.
 Durham Chronicle, 30 July 1909.
 Freeman’s Journal, 3 August 1909.
 Durham Chronicle, 6 August 1909.
 Durham Chronicle, 5 August 1910.
 Alan O’Day, Irish Home Rule 1867-1921 (Manchester, 1998), p. 231.
 Durham Chronicle, 11 August 1911.
 Durham Chronicle, 9 August 1912 and 8 August 1913.
 Durham Chronicle, 7 August 1914.
 For Bachelor’s Walk, see Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London, 2005), p. 42. In September 1913, an Orange Order rally in Wharton Park had welcomed the Ulster leader, Sir Edward Carson, to the North East. D. M. Jackson and D. M. MacRaild, ‘The Conserving Crowd: Mass Unionist Demonstrations in Liverpool and Tyneside, 1912-13’, in D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds), The Ulster Crisis 1885-1921 (Basingstoke, 2006), pp. 238-239.
 Newcastle Daily Journal, 3 August 1914.
 Hansard, House of Commons, 3 August 1914, vol.65, cc.1828-1830. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1914/aug/03/statement-by-sir-edward-grey#S5CV0065P0_19140803_HOC_71
 Durham Chronicle, 6 August 1920.
 Durham Chronicle, 8 August 1913.
 Durham Chronicle, 20 July 1906.
 Freeman’s Journal, 1 June 1914.