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Ellen Street, still there

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Can a whole district - houses, people, even the name - simply disappear? They can. Ask your average Cardiffian if they know where Newtown is and they'll tell you it's in mid-Wales. Of the vanished local little Ireland they know nothing at all. I'd first heard of the slum-cleared Newtown by following a link from Barry Tobin's now vanished Welsh-Irish website. Barry, a former librarian, multi-linguist and expert on the Irish Famine, had more local Irish links running off his html creation than the Pope. Scrape the Cardiff surface and you'll find shamrocks underneath. Barry may be a comparatively late arrival here but as a networker he was worth his weight in native sod.

Newtown was built by Bute in 1846 to house Irish workers fleeing the potato famine by sailing from Cork as human ballast on the coal ships that plied industrial trade across St George's Channel. Cardiff was a boom town with a vast need for labour. Docks were to be dug, railways laid, buildings to be slung up, pig iron to be loaded. The district consisted of six streets - Pendoylan Street, Roland Street, North William Street, Rosemary Street, Pendoylan Place and Ellen Street - two hundred houses - jammed, insanitarily, back-to-back, in the sliver of ground between the main rail line and Tyndall Street. A warren of bedrooms used in relays above cramped, over-occupied parlours and damp, unventilated kitchens were home to more than a thousand desperate immigrants. There were shops, pubs (five in one street alone in the early years) and two churches - the Roman Catholic St Pauls's which was permanently full and dominated local life almost as much as the drink did and the Welsh All Saints which scratched a congregation from somewhere, just. There was smoke and unsurfaced streets, steam and roofs which leaked, the roar of the steel works and the clank and clatter of a thousand passing trains. Newtown was never silent. you could always hear your neighbour breathing. There were tiny back yards made from uneven flag and rough grass. There were no trees. Not one.

Newtown wasn't the only Irish area of Cardiff - the Hayes, and the cramped courts and back streets around Bridge and Mary Ann Streets were almost uniformly green - but Newtown was an island. Bounded by the rail line to the north, the goods yard to the east, feeder to the west, and the dock itself to the south it developed a particularly strong sense of community. You did not travel through it, you went there to arrive.

Mary Sullivan, who runs the present day Newtown Association, a sort of virtual Cardiff Irish community of the web , was born in Newtown and is the centre of many commendable attempts to keep the name alive. Her grandmother shoveled potatoes for Edward England from boats wharfed at the top of West Bute, three hundred yards from Ellen Street. England's warehouse is still there, stranded, the filled-in West Bute now a manicured park, the factories around it turned to offices or glitz glass apartment. We meet in the forecourt. I'm carrying a newspaper so she can recognise me. The Western Mail, news of the Irish troubles still on page one. She leaves her car where the wharf edge once was, next to a berberis bush, planted for the enjoyment of new residents at the nearby Lloyd George Avenue apartments. Money talks. Newtown never had any.

the Driscoll Workshops still working
sign at the workshop's entrance

We cross Tyndall Street, full of passing traffic now, past the Willis Corroon Group building and the tiny site for the proposed Newtown Memorial Garden. Mary is proud of this, Tarmac have donated the land, Sir Geoffrey Inkin and the old CBDC have put up some development cash, artist David Mackie has planned the layout, all that's needed now is the lottery money to build. Do it soon, I urge, before the developers use the space for something else. The area once filled by Newtown is now Atlantic House, the Peacock Group headquarters high rise, with Doug Corker's 1991 art work, looking a lot like an oversize car badge, to its front; and the Tyndall Street Industrial Estate - stores, small workshops, the premises of greetings card agents, Rock Bottom Wholesale, Nature's Table Wholefoods, Fireworks & Diecast Collectables. Inner city commerce. Round the back will be dumpsters full of cardboard waste. Inside, denim-clad truck loaders drinking tea. The name of Newtown is utterly invisible. We walk in strong sun, Mary pointing out the sites of the old pubs - the Crichton Arms, Tobins, the Cambridge, the Duke of Edinburgh, where the corner shop was, the single telephone box. Ellen Street is still there, leading to the Driscoll Workshops, named after Newtown's most famous son. In the early years of the twentieth century Peerless Jim Driscoll was Featherweight Champion of the World. All eyes were on Newtown. When he died in 1925 100,000 people lined the streets to watch his funeral cortege go by. The statue the city has erected to his memory is elsewhere, at the top of Bute Street. Ellen Street, where he was born, lived and died, has the Workshops - King Oak Network Installers, Brolec Electrical Contractors, Motor Tint Door and Window Maintenance.

Going back down Ellen Street a week later to check out the occupants of some of the units I spot a bloke in jeans fixing a Rover 414sli on the pavement outside an electrical wholesalers. He's got half the engine out and a whole passenger door lying on the pavement. It's amazing what you can manage to mend in your lunch break. I ask him if he knows about Newtown. Newtown, mate, nah, not round here. No, I insist, Newtown the old district. District? Never heard of it. He's changing spanners and pulling furiously at some engine part which won't budge. What about Jim Driscoll? Yeah, heard of him. He was a boxer, right? Back in the twenties. We knew how to do things then. Sport, the people's history. Much better than the young researcher for a new Bay area TV company making a sports quiz who came down here recently looking for the legend with a view to getting him onto the panel.

still there
The last wall in Newtown

By the time Newtown was marked for demolition in 1966 it had 169 falling-down houses, two pubs and a garage. Half its population called themselves Welsh rather than Irish, but their names - O'Sullivan, O'Leary, Burns, O'Shanahan, Dwyer - gave away their origins. A proposal that the district should be rebuilt where it stood was unaccountably defeated. Families were dispersed to Ely, Pentrebane, Trowbridge, and Llanrumney. The community broken. In 1970 St Pauls, the church, the school and the presbytery, went too in order to make space for the Central Link Road flyover, the route from the changing city to the redeveloping bay.

All that's left today are the fourteen standard-pattern council houses built late on the bobtail, waste ground once fronting Tyndall Street. This was a red-light district for a time after the prostitutes were moved up off the newly cleansed Bute Street. They are west of here today near the Central Station. I ask someone mowing their front lawn if she knew about little Ireland. Yes. Mrs Kitchen next door lived here when the houses still stood. So what's the area called today? Where do you live? Atlantic Wharf, she replies without a flicker. The mower roars.

The Newtown Association is at . Among many other delights it contains the complete text of Tommy Walsh's "The Parish of St Pauls", a sociological history of the district in verse. Barry Tobin's excellent all-irish site is now at

Peter Finch

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