Welsh youngsters gave their local MP a grilling as he launched the first Irish in Wales conference in Prestatyn over the weekend.
Chris Ruane hosted six school pupils alongside an audience of 30 people who came out to tackle issues of Irish identity in Wales at a roundtable discussion held at The Beaches Hotel.
The students from Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan Secondary School quizzed the MP on the issues that mattered to them – asking whether Ireland had any Welsh societies and if the North/West divide in Wales correlated to that found in Ireland.
“We might complain that north wales get everything, or south wales get everything,” Mr Ruane told the 11 and 12 year olds. “But in Ireland the antagonism between two places is much stronger as they are two separate nations, which were divided in the 1920s.”
Regarding the Welsh in Ireland he added: “There is a strong Welsh society in Ireland but you have to remember there has been much more emigration out of Ireland over the years than there has been out of Wales.”
The MP, whose roots lie in Oranmore, Co. Galway, also admitted he hoped for better representation of Welsh culture in mainstream channels.
“I would like to see more of our welsh acts in the pop charts and our musicians becoming folk musicians and being recognised for their talents,” he told the students, who were filming their interview for a BBC schools project regarding inter-community and inter-generational issues.
“Duffy, Catatonia and Super Furry Animals all came out of Wales but this was 10-15 years ago and we could do with a revival of fresh Welsh talent,” he added.
Questions continued at the afternoon event, with guest speakers Dr Paul O’Leary, of the University of Aberystwyth and Irish diaspora researcher Professor Bronwen Walter tackling the identity topic.
Host Mr Ruane, who claimed his Irish/Welsh roots make him proud to be “Wirish”, stated he wished to explore the modern and historic experience of the Irish in North Wales, to engage that community and ‘get them to ask questions’ at the inaugural Irish in Wales – Identity in Context event and at future sessions.
Dr O’Leary, author of Immigration and Integration: the Irish in Wales and Irish Migrants in Wales, posed questions to the room.
Asking why the Irish who settled in Wales did not experience the sectarianism of their counterparts who settled in Glasgow and Liverpool, he said: “Sectarianism became a big part of everyday life for the Irish in Liverpool and Glasgow, but that never happened in Wales. Why did Wales escape the bitter history that scarred other parts of the country?
“What allowed the Irish to integrate into Welsh society and be seen as people who make a positive contribution?”
He claimed it might be because historically politics were not dissimilar between the two largely rural countries, whose tenants had both experienced struggles with land wars.
The academic used the opportunity to announce his plans to further research the Irish in Wales and asked for anyone willing to be interviewed to make contact following the discussion.
The event, sponsored by The Irish Post, was held on the same day the North Wales Irish Society held their annual evening get together at the hotel.
Later more than 100 people turned out for a buffet dinner and excellent entertainment – including a harpist, Irish dancers and welsh and Irish songs performed by 16-year-old Seren Ruane.