“All that’s left is a wall” Remembering Cardiff’s lost community of ‘Little Ireland’

Ask anyone in Wales where Newtown is and they’ll probably tell you it’s in Powys.

But for 120 years Newtown was also a vibrant Irish community in the heart of Cardiff.

Hundreds of families lived, played and worshipped on the densely packed terraced streets.

It's workforce played a crucial role in the development of the city.

One resident even went on to become a sporting legend.

Credit: Newtown Association

But if you walk the streets of Cardiff today you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single trace of the area once known as ‘Little Ireland’.

Credit: Newtown Association

In 1970 the houses were demolished and the community was scattered to the four corners of the city. It was an inglorious end to a historic neighbourhood.

The roots of Newtown lie in the booming maritime trade of Victorian Cardiff.

In the 1830s the 2nd Marquess of Bute brought over Irish labourers to dig out the new dock he was building in Cardiff.

A decade later many more Irish migrants settled in South Wales to escape the potato famine back home.

Credit: Newtown Association

“Bute actually supplied housing for them,” explains former Newtown resident Mike Crocker. “And the houses he allotted them was the first place outside the confines of the old town of Cardiff to be built. So they called it Newtown.”

As more docks were built to handle Cardiff’s burgeoning coal exports, the workforce of Newtown was kept busy. But this was never a wealthy neighbourhood.

Credit: Newtown Association

“In the days before welfare, women had no choice but to go out and work,” explains Mike. “A lot of Newtown women worked on the potato wharfs. That was ten hours a day. And in those days they would only get paid about 50% of what a man would get paid.”

Credit: ITV Wales

One Newtown resident who fought his way out of poverty was featherweight boxing champion ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll.

When he died in 1925, more than 100,000 people lined the streets of Cardiff to pay their respects.

Driscoll’s rags-to-riches story summed up the spirit of this hard working, close-knit community.

“My grandmother had 42 grandchildren and 36 of them lived in the same street,” says Mary Sullivan, Newtown born and bred.

“So you can imagine there was never any shortage of playmates.

Of course we didn’t have television so we had lots of street games.

We were poor but we didn’t realise that because everyone was in the same boat.”

By the 1960s the old houses built by Bute were showing their age.

‘Little Ireland’ had become run-down.

But the council’s vision for the area wasn’t one of repair, restoration or rebuild.

Credit: ITV Wales

In 1970 the bulldozers moved in and Newtown was demolished, brick by brick.

It's six terraced streets were razed to the ground and the community was dispersed to far-flung corners of Cardiff.

Credit: ITV Wales

If you visit Newtown today you’ll see high-rise offices and student accommodation.

The Irish district, around Tyndall Street near the city centre, has changed beyond recognition.

But a fragment of old Newtown has managed to cling on.

Credit: ITV Wales

Behind the towering new buildings, Mary Sullivan has found part of the original stone wall that ran the length of ‘Little Ireland.’

“This wall is all that’s left of Newtown now,” she says sadly. “It’s unbelievable. To think what used to be here. I’d much rather see those streets of drab, grey houses and all the life that was in them.”

You can see more on this story in Dock of the Bay. Tonight at 7:30pm on ITV Cymru Wales. It will then be online at: itv.com/walesprogrammes