Irish immigration and the Catholic Church


With regard to the Roman Catholic community in Edinburgh, [there] would have been a continuation from the reformation, a tiny rump [of the community which survived]… But the modern Catholic community has it’s origins in the waves of Irish immigration, that radically transformed the Catholic church in Scotland, and had a significant effect here in Edinburgh. The radical change happened in the nineteenth century, the legal situation facilitated Catholics to have places of worship, so [St Mary’s Cathedral] was the first public, visible place of worship for Roman Catholics after the Reformation.


St Patrick’s parish started in 1834, it was fairly compact territory [Cowgate], and it [provided for] a huge population, who generally saw themselves as being connected with Ireland. Cowgate had become known as ‘Little Ireland’ because once the New Town was built, better off people moved out of what was the medieval city, and then the houses were subdivided, and there could be cases of 10 people living in one room. It was very poor conditions for families in those days - Grassmarket, right down to where the Parliament is now. It was a quite poor area, and the High Street as well was not posh, so there were lots of [Catholic] people here, and there was a strong sense of community spirit. The Catholic community had a number of schools and there were halls for various social events. One particular root of this community spirit was the founding of the Hibernian Football club, which has it’s origins in this Parish, and the Catholic Young Men’s Society, which was based here.


You’ll get more people turn up on St Patrick’s day than on St Andrew’s day for worship in a Catholic Church here in Edinburgh. [In the nineteenth century there were Irish and Scottish Catholics] And then there would have been people who were converts, and then by the end of the nineteenth century you started getting Italians coming here, and you also had, in Scotland, [Catholics] from Lithuania, because there was great poverty in Lithuania at that time. So there was that ethnic mix in the community, but there were big efforts made to help people become aware of the Scottishness of Catholic culture in Edinburgh.


The clergy, especially in the nineteenth century, who were administering to small congregations suddenly had to cope with this influx of new people. And it was much more than how we’ve had to meet and welcome the Polish people who came, let’s say, 10 years ago, it was on a far bigger scale [with Irish immigration]. [Scottish Catholics] were respected by the rest of the Scottish community. But the Irish were a bit more, let’s say, in your face. They had their own cultures, and they were coming from an area where most people were Catholic. The Irish were very poor, and there was a certain tension in general with the wider Scottish community as some people felt the Irish were taking their jobs. A lot of the Irish people were poor, and they wouldn’t actually emerge from this valley [Cowgate/Grassmarket], they certainly wouldn’t go into the New Town, because they felt out of place.

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Edinburgh Inter Faith Association

A Registered Charity in Scotland SCO 17622

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