SOUTH QUEENSFERRY – DEMONSTRATION AGAINST STREET PREACHERS BY IRISHMEN
South Queensferry was on Sunday afternoon last the scene of a disgraceful disturbance, occasioned by the district missionary and two lay preachers from Edinburgh, having taken up a position at a part of the town which is principally inhabited by Irishmen of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and there begun to expound their doctrines, and denounce the creed of the Church of Rome. The Catholics taking offence at this turned out in large numbers on the street, and commenced hooting and yelling in a furious manner. Matters assuming a rather serious aspect, the police were obliged to interfere. They requested the preachers to desist, which request was met with flat refusal; and, setting the authorities at defiance, the preachers continued to harangue the mob for a considerable time, amid much tumult and uproar. At length, fearing that the Catholics would proceed to inflict summary vengeance on them, the preachers made their exit, amid the shouts and derisive cheers of the mob. It will be remembered that the late Queensferry riot owed its origin to a similar cause, and it might be well for the public peace if the authorities would take measures to prevent a recurrence of such unseemly outbreaks as these.
Just recently, I recalled that my sister Ann Marie, the family archivist, had sent me the results of her research into the ancestry of my father’s side of the family. Being more focused on my mother’s lineage, I hadn’t paid much attention to those results before. But a belated examination of them showed that not only did my great-great-grandparents, Daniel and Mary McKay, come over to Scotland from Ireland, they also resided in the Ferry at the time of the “disgraceful disturbance” – and may well have been a part of it.
A wee bit further delving revealed that Daniel and Mary are almost certain to have emigrated with their parents in order to escape Ireland’s Great Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, which lasted from 1845 to 1852. Probably attracted by the promise of work in the growing shale mining industry in the East of Scotland, both sets of parents ended up in a little place called Ratho, where Daniel and Mary met and married.
All of which supplied this writer with the ingredients for a short story, a factional account of the 1865 incident in the Ferry, which has been published on McStorytellers and is called A Disturbance in a Small Town.
That story aside, I’ve been puzzling over this whole business of the Irish in the Ferry. By the time work on the Forth Bridge was completed in 1889, the place must have been hoaching with them. Yet, when I was growing up there in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, I can’t remember hearing the merest hint of the brogue – apart from my mother’s distinctive accent, of course. Not only that, but the town’s Roman Catholic community seemed tiny in comparison with the rest of the local population. In fact, the only evidence of a past Irish heritage was to be found in one small part of the town called the Crossroads, where there was an abundance of old Irish surnames – so much so that in The Rebel’s Daughter my mother refers to the Crossroads as “Little Ireland”.
And that begs the big question. What happened to all the Ferry’s Irish folk? My theory is that, like Daniel and Mary in the story (as well as in reality), they stayed, but that the great majority blended into the wider community, leaving both their Irishness and their religion behind. I have three reasons for coming to that conclusion.
The first is bigotry. Clearly, as the 1865 incident testifies, there was a lot of local hostility to Roman Catholicism back then. It was still there when I was a boy – not the screeching, in-your-face type of hostility practised by those preachers, but something more insidious. I was beaten up and called a “dirty Pape” on three occasions that I can remember. You might argue that the perpetrators were just daft laddies. Aye, they were just (big) laddies, all right, but laddies who took their cue from their parents. Anyway, I reckon that in the face of sustained hostility back in the nineteenth century a lot of the Irish people went for an easier life by downplaying their religion and even their nationality. And who would blame them for that if their primary objective in life was to put food on the table for their families?
The second reason is to do with the dearth of opportunities for the Ferry’s Irish Catholics to practice their faith. The first proper Chapel wasn’t provided for them until 1884. A corrugated iron affair that stood originally in Madeira Street in Leith, it was dismantled and re-erected in the town. You can see its steeple in the old photograph at the top of this post. Prior to 1884, the Catholic community didn’t have a resident priest, and their “Chapel” was a room in a house, where services were held by priests travelling from elsewhere. In 1865, for example, Mass was said in the house every fourth Sunday by a priest from Linlithgow. Back then, if I was working six days a week for a pittance, I’d be inclined to forego Mass on a Sunday for a rest at home. With no priest to answer to, I might even be inclined to forego religious adherence altogether. Which is what I think many of the Irish people did.
The third reason concerns the absence of religious education. The Ferry didn’t have its own Roman Catholic Primary School until the late 1950’s. Before then, Catholic parents had a choice – send your kids to the town’s non-denominational school or have them travelling to schools elsewhere. In my case and that of some of my siblings, we went to the RC school in Winchburgh until the one in the Ferry was built. There was no such thing as a school bus back then, so we had to travel on the very limited SMT service – not a pleasant experience for a youngster, I can attest! Of course, back in the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a public bus service, so the local non-denominational school it had to be for the Catholic children, which was probably the quickest route for them to lose their religious identity.
So what does all this mean? Well, if my theory is correct, there are many Ferry people who were brought up as non-Catholics and went to non-Catholic schools, and who are Scots to all intents, but who actually have their roots in Catholic Ireland. And not just in the Ferry. The same applies in towns and villages throughout West Lothian, the cradle of the shale mining industry, into which the Irish immigrants flocked.
You may be one of the people I’m referring to. If you’re wondering about that, why not do as my sister did and research your ancestry? Find out where your great-great-grandparents or their parents came from. You may discover that it was Ireland. But don’t despair. Forget about the religious baggage. Celebrate your roots instead. Celebrate your heritage, your Irishness. You know the words of the old song, don’t you? ♫ If you’re Irish…
… come into the parlour,
There's a welcome there for you;
If your name is Timothy or Pat,
So long as you come from Ireland,
There's a welcome on the mat. ♫
But if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigot, who wants to send me some hate mail because of this article, I’d advise you to check your family tree first. You could change your tune quick enough and start singing ♫ I’m no’ a Billy, I’m a Tim! ♫
Find out more about Mr McStoryteller himself at his website Blazes Boylan's Book Bazaar and visit his Amazon Author Page or Contemporary Scots at the unco bookstore to buy his books.