The Man Who Turned Back Time

They say time waits for no man, and that’s true – unless your name happens to be William Willett. It was because of Willett that I and my wife found ourselves sitting in an empty cinema staring at a blank screen one Sunday afternoon, wondering when the film was going to start. And it was because of Willett that I was once far too early for an appointment I had rushed to attend.

I don’t think I’m the only person to have experienced frustrating episodes in my life due to Willett, there are millions of people around the world who would probably have had similar experiences.

Without him there would be no handy little memory aids like ‘spring forward and fall back’ . . . or is that ‘spring back and fall forward’? You see, a little over a hundred years ago, it was Willett who came up with idea of Daylight Saving Time. It’s fair to say then that William Willett has made his mark on the world.

However, it is Benjamin Franklin that we must blame/credit for the debate which unfolded about the nature of time. In 1784, Franklin wrote to a Paris newspaper suggesting rising earlier as a way to save money on the purchase of candles.

The concept of daylight saving was first seriously suggested by New Zealander George Hudson, whose shift work job led him to appreciate after-hours daylight. In 1895, he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing a two-hour daylight-saving shift, and followed that up with another paper in 1898.

Waste-of-Daylight-19-coverWilliam Willett,  from Surrey, in England, was a builder of quality homes who became somewhat obsessed with daylight. He took up the subject in 1907 when he published a pamphlet, The Waste of Daylight, in which he praised the lightness of day: ‘Light is one foot the greatest gifts of the Creator to man. While daylight surrounds us, cheerfulness reigns, anxieties press less heavily, and courage is bred for the struggle of life.’

Willett’s points were hard to disagree with. His initial suggestion at daylight saving was to reduce the length of four consecutive Sundays in April by 20 minutes each, thereby moving the clocks forwards by 80 minutes for the summer months so that workers could have extra light to enjoy the summer evenings.

The idea would also help the economy, he argued, by saving the Echequer £2.5 million a year due to the need to consume less fuel to provide less artificial light.

The notion of subtracting or adding minutes to our lives is radical and shows an expansive mind, unrestricted by social convention. Willett deserves great credit for thinking outside the box – and the fabric of time for that matter, but it would be years before his plan would come to fruition.

William-Willett

William Willett

By March 1914, Willett was advocating a single jump in summer time of one hour as opposed to four tranches of 20 minutes over a month. He claimed to have the support of a large number of MPs in the House of Commons. Even Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of daylight saving, claiming that it would benefit the ‘physical, mental, moral and financial welfare’ of citizens.

One avid supporter of Willett’s cause was British politician Robert Pearce, who, in 1908,  introduced a Daylight Savings bill to the House of Commons. It passed its first and second readings but failed to get through other legislative stages. The bill would float around in several guises until it was finally passed in May of 1916.

There was opposition to the idea, though. The argument being that for millennia mankind used the sun to tell the time, and if it was good enough for early civilisations, then it was good enough for today. There was a sense that people’s basic daily routine was  inextricably linked to the sun and to somehow interfere with that wouldn’t bode well.

However, the outbreak of the First World War, gave the debate fresh legs as it was felt that any measure that would save the Exchequer money during the costly war, should be adopted. Germany introduced Daylight Saving earlier in 1916 and Britain followed suit in May of that year. Unfortunately, Willett died the year before his idea came to fruition. He was 58.

I have the Century Ireland section on RTE’s website to thank for teaching me something about the visionary thinker that was William Willett.

A hundred years since his idea was voted into existence, it is still being used. Daylight Saving Time gives us the opportunity to enjoy sunny summer evenings and to make a little more of the dark days of winter time, but, boy, it sure is irritating when you forget to turn that clock back.

I can see the benefits of it in Arctic regions, but in my neck of the global wood, I could live without the change. It’s hardly surprising  that less than 40pc of the world’s countries actually use the system.

I’m still sore about sitting in that cinema an hour early the day after the clocks went back, so Daylight Saving Time still riles me a bit. Spring forward, fall back . . . spring back, fall forward . . . I’m sorry, life’s complicated enough for me without adding William Willett’s magic hour into the mix, no matter how well-intended.

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Interview with a Holocaust Survivor

Frank - Auschwitz

Young prisoners in Auschwitz

Frank Grunwald was just 12 years old when he and his family entered the concentration camps. Terezinstadt, Auschwitz, Melk, Mauthausen . . . he was in them all. Unfortunately, neither his brother nor his mother would leave Auschwitz alive.

Frank was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932. His father was a doctor, as well as being a very talented photographer. Both of his parents, Kurt and Vilma, were musicians and instilled a love of music into Frank and his brother, John, who was four years his senior.

The family lived a comfortable life in Prague. Growing up, Frank liked art – he focused on it, as he did playing the accordion. For him, the instrument’s melancholy sound was both personal and human.

The notion of being Jewish never really entered Frank’s head. He was just a Czech, like his fellow citizens – but not in the eyes of the Nazis who invaded in 1939. Less than two years later, the Grunwalds were wearing yellow stars and being forced to move from their large home to a small apartment. They endured intimidation, prejudice and social ostracisation. Then things really got tough.

Frank with his mother

Frank with his mother, Vilma

First the family were sent to the ghetto of Terezinstadt, then they were transported to Auschwitz in cattle wagons holding up to one hundred people. Upon their arrival, Frank’s mother was placed in the female quarters.

He barely survived the selection process overseen by the ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele, who decided whether people should live or die by placing them to the left or to the right of a table. Frank and his brother, John, were told to stand at the left. Neither knew this meant a death sentence.

Eight seconds changed everything…

…That’s how long it took for a brave prisoner to step forward and quickly shove Frank into the queue on the right. John was not so fortunate.

When their mother learned that her eldest son had been selected to die, she decided to join him – not wanting him to face death alone. She scribbled a hasty note just as the trucks arrived to take them to the gas chambers.

Frank’s story is unbearably sad and is told in the moving documentary, Misa’s Fugue.

I’m glad to say, though, that he is still with us – and still playing the accordion, as well as producing evocative works of sculptural art. His story is an inspiration to us all… that he could not only survive the horrors he experienced but that he could create art from the destruction that surrounded him, is remarkable.

Amazingly, Frank contacted me here on this blog after I referenced him in a previous post. He kindly agreed to answer some questions about his Holocaust experience. My questions may not be the ones you would have asked, but they were areas that intrigued me.

Here’s what Frank (below) has to say about life during and after the Holocaust…

Frank Grunwald

Do you feel duty-bound to discuss what happened, no matter how much it might upset you to think about it?

Yes, I feel that I need to talk about it since so few people do. I must talk about it since I was there, I am one of the witnesses and perhaps I can neutralize some of the lies perpetrated by the antisemitic Holocaust deniers. The deniers are a huge insult to the six million of Jews (including about a million and a half children) that were killed.


When you see barbarity elsewhere, does it make you think how little people have learned from what was done in the Holocaust, or do you feel that there is an inherent evil which will always be with us, no matter how many talks or movies are shown?

Yes – it proves my assumption that barbarity and hatred are part of the human brain. Nothing will change – ever.


In Misa’s Fugue, you said that in one camp you could see local townspeople going about their daily lives. What’s your attitude to those people?

It made me sad to see the contrast between the free and us. I wished I was on the outside, part of a ‘normal’ life. I felt lonely and abandoned.


Is all your art informed by what happened in the camps?

No, some represent normal / happy life.

What do you hope people will learn from your film and your work?

To be alert and to question the veracity of all information before judging others. Still, we must be openly critical of other cultures and religions, particularly the one’s that promote hatred and killing of others – who don’t believe in their religious laws. There is no room for political correctness, it hides the real truth.


Do you believe in God?

Not in the common / traditional way. I believe in the power and beauty of Nature. However, Nature is not here to control or decide how people should live or behave. People themselves must find their own way.


You say in the documentary that your parents imbued you with a strong ethical attitude. What other traits, gleaned from your time in the camps, would you consider important in making one’s way through life?

I am a good listener and have a high degree of empathy for people. I am a good reader of people and their body language. I am (sometimes unfortunately) a conflict avoider. I am also a good negotiator. I have learned to deal with my cowardly conflict avoidance, now that I am aware of it. Most of these characteristics were the result of my war experiences – I think. I use humor to reduce stress and to make people more comfortable.


Were you ever tempted to take your own life in the years after you were liberated?

Never. I respect who I am and I want to live.

Do you feel guilt that you survived selection and that John didn’t?

Most likely, and also that I was one of the few children that survived.


Did you ever have to resort to violence in camp in order to keep food from being taken from you by other inmates?

Never. I got into a wrestling match with a prisoner, after we were liberated. We fought for some red beets that we found in a wooden shack. I might have hurt his ear when we fought but it was not that violent.


What’s your attitude to OAP ex-Nazis going on trial?

Most of the ex-Nazis are now in their 90s. In my opinion, they should not go to prison but perhaps be forced to do some community service, such as speak to young people in high schools and colleges about their crimes.

Frank Misa's Fugue
You said in the film that you constantly have flashbacks. What is your overriding emotion when you get them – anger or despair? How long does a flashback last?

Sadness. I feel terrible about people’s suffering and death. They typically last just a few minutes.

When you were released and starting a new life, did you seek out camp survivors in order to feel empathy, or did you tend to avoid them as they reminded you of those nightmare years?

I did not seek them, I tried to suppress  some of the memories (but I could not). I did not mind meeting them, but we seldom spoke about our experiences. We were kind of in a ‘denial mode’.

Is it possible to forgive your tormentors?

It’s very hard not to be angry with them. Not because of personal reasons, more because of what they did to others. It’s not up to me to forgive them for what they did to others.

You said in Misa’s Fugue that you survived the camps by immersing yourself in your own fantasy world. Is your immersion in music and art a way of surviving today?

In a small way – yes. But to me, art is a communication medium and a challenge for me to communicate as much emotion as possible. I judge art by the amount of emotion it communicates and it has to be more than at an aesthetic level. It must be human.

You had success in your professional life as well as your artistic life. You have children and grandchildren, are you happy in yourself or is that not possible?

I am relatively happy – I would say. I am the happiest when I am with my family and grandchildren. I think that being with my grandchildren is all about them – not me. I do not do well being alone for a long time. I get easily lonely.

Describe a typical day in camp.

Getting up early, roll call, a little food (artificial coffee and a slice of bread), walking to the kitchen and peeling potatoes for soup, eating some raw potatoes while peeling, a light lunch, going back to the barrack. In the late afternoon, soup for dinner with one slice of bread and a small square of margarine. Spending some time with other prisoners outside in the yard, roll call, wash up, bed.

What is the most important thing to have in life?

Inner peace (self respect / self confidence), enjoying the company of others, enjoying the beauty of Nature. Most of all, being able to accept the fact that death is also a natural phenomenon (not just the result of murder) not being afraid of that. I am more afraid of being alone than being dead. For me it’s been important to communicate via art, I get a pleasure out of that. I also get pleasure out of teaching / lecturing at Purdue University, I do a class on strategic design and design research. I get a huge satisfaction out of sharing my professional experiences / knowledge with the students.

 

Frank Grunwald has somehow risen above his experiences to make a life for himself and to become a highly productive member of society. He is a lesson to us all. He witnessed the depths of depravity to which mankind can fall. But he is more than just a witness – he is also a beacon to the heights to which we can all rise, if we have the will.

Thank you, Frank, for your time and your wisdom.

 

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The Cult of the World War II Soldier

The American flag stands for different things to different people – some see it as the symbol of freedom, others see Old Glory in less benign terms as a banner of repression and global control. This 4th of July, though, Americans – and others – the world over will toast it and celebrate their nationhood with parties and parades festooned in red, white and blue.

The land of the free and the home of the brave – the Emerald City, where wealth, health and happiness are possible in a country forged by an unquenchable pioneering spirit – isn’t that what the founding fathers fought for? That ideal is held up as a benchmark for US citizens and politicians, however much history and cold hard facts might challenge it.

The American Dream may be less of a reality these days, but that doesn’t mean people don’t aspire to it and hope that the wealth it promises will some day come to them. And what’s wrong with that?

Hope – faith –  is what keeps us all going. We hope, we believe that our day will come, whether that be in the form of a lottery ticket, or in accepting that a higher power is guiding us and will reward us for our faithfulness.

Which, in part, explains why a religious cult in the South Pacific surrounding a World War II US soldier still flourishes to this day.

Americans have the 4th of July, but for the natives of Tanna – which forms part of the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, 1750km east of Australia – February 15 is the day to raise Old Glory and pray that the man who brought them great wealth will one day return.

Each year, the islanders dress up – the women in long, flowing multi-coloured grass skirts, while the elders wear old GI uniforms bedecked with medals. The men of the island parade in trousers with the letters USA painted on their bare chests, and carry sharpened red-tipped bamboo poles to resemble bayoneted rifles.

Songs are sung, flags are raised and music comes courtesy of a string band, all to pay homage to the god-like spirit of the almighty John Frum, who they hope will one day return, bringing wealth and gifts from the far-flung land of America.

During World War II, the island of Tanna (population 29,000) was inundated with 300,000 American serviceman preparing to fight  Japan following the murderous attack on Pearl Harbour.

To accommodate the soldiers, airstrips were built, hospitals erected and all manner of equipment landed. For the islanders it became a time of great prosperity as food and supplies were plentiful.

Naturally, the soldiers made a big impression. They would tell the islanders, ‘I’m John, from Mississippi,’; ‘I’m John, from Philadelphia…’ These ‘John Frums’ were the bringers of magical gifts, things Tanna’s residents had never seen before – Coca Cola, radios, watches, ice boxes – the list of wondrous objects seemed limitless.

But when the war ended, John Frum packed up and moved back home, taking all that magic and prosperity with him. Ever since, the people of Tanna have done all in their power to entice him back.

john-frum-march-cargo-cult

Tanna islanders celebrating John Frum Day

Rickety ‘observation towers’ were erected, fields were ploughed to resemble airstrips, replica airplanes were built, discarded uniforms were recovered and worn, Star Spangled Banners were raised, songs chanted and prayers were said, all in a bid to lure John Frum back.

And this has been going on since the 1940s. Smithsonian Magazine sent a reporter to the island in 2006, to learn more about the John Frum Movement, which has thousands of followers. Elders told him that they worshipped in the hope that John, who was ‘more powerful than Jesus’, would return with more cargo.

However, John Frum is not the only ‘cargo cult’. The islanders also revere ‘Tom Navy’ and even the Duke of Edinburgh. ‘The Prince Philip Movement’ stems from the Fifties or Sixties when islanders saw how much respect was given to the Queen, they came to the conclusion that her husband must be a very powerful man indeed.

To my American friends, I wish you all a happy 4th of July, and ask that the next time you watch Old Glory fluttering in the breeze, you think of the islanders of Tanna with their grass skirts, painted chests and sharpened bamboo poles. In their own way, they are just as patriotic when it comes to celebrating all that John Frum’s homeland has to offer.

God bless America indeed…

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Bombs Away! The day America dropped four nukes on Spain

Usaf.Boeing_B-52

A B-52 bomber like the one which crashed at Palomares

It was January 17, 1966, and Jose Molinero was teaching class in his elementary school in the village of Palomares, on Spain’s southeast coast, when he noticed huge pieces of blazing metal falling from the sky.

A plane’s landing gear smashed into the ground just 80 yards away. He immediately ordered his pupils to stay indoors. One little girl later described how the sky was ‘raining fire’.

Others witnessed the debris, too. ‘I looked up and saw this huge ball of fire, falling through the sky. The two planes were breaking into pieces,’ local man Manolo Gonzales later told Public Radio International.

Plane crashes are rare enough, mid-air collisions even more so, but this was even rarer – and far more dangerous… this was the day an American B-52 bomber and its refuelling plane collided causing four nuclear bombs to fall on Spain.

Each of these bombs was one hundred times more powerful than the one which had destroyed Hiroshima.

Palomares H-Bomb Cleanup

Locals inspect debris from the plane collision

Octogenarian Pedro de la Torre was standing with his great-nephews when one of the bombs fell and exploded  in front of him.

Thankfully, the blast was from the bomb’s regular payload – the nuclear part of the device had not been armed, otherwise Pedro, his family and much of the south-east of Spain would have been vaporised.

Palomares, a sleepy fishing village of 2,000 residents who prided themselves on the tomatoes grown in the area, now had 500 acres of land showered with three kilos of highly radioactive plutonium.

Seven airmen were killed in the accident. They were part of Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War mission in which bombers were flown 24-hours-a-day in a roundtrip between America and Italy

The top-secret flights were to ensure the US had first strike and retaliation capabilities in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Due to the lengthy flight, the B-52 had to be refuelled four times in mid-air. It was during one of these refuelling operations that disaster struck. The bomber pilot overshot the long refuelling nozzle, which stuck the B-52 so hard that one of the wings was ripped off.

The 30,0000 gallons of fuel in the tanker ignited, incinerating its four-man crew, while four of the B-52 crew bailed out – which left the small problem of four hydrogen bombs plummeting towards the Spanish regions of Andalucia.

Although the conventional ordinance in two bombs exploded, neither did much harm. Their detonations caused a small amount of plutonium to be distributed, but this was carried away form the village on a strong breeze. Most of the radioactive release occurred deep below ground when the ordinance exploded. Of the other bombs, one fell in a dried river bed and the other into the sea.

Palomares_H-Bomb_Incident

U.S. military with one of the recovered hydrogen bombs

In just 24 hours, three of the  bombs were located and removed. The fourth would take 11 weeks to recover as it was 2,500 ft deep in the Mediterranean.

It was a miraculous escape for the villagers and the entire country.The citizens of Palomares have been subject to annual health checks ever since, which are funded by the Spanish government and the United States. A small percentage of villagers (5%) show traces of plutonium in their bodies, but the amount is said to be well below danger levels.

However, it was only in October 2015 – almost 50 years later – that America agreed to help finish the clean-up process. All contaminated soil from the area is to be disposed of at a site in the United States.

Europe was spared a dreadful catastrophe that day 50 years ago, but there have been other near misses when it comes to nuclear bombs. In 1957, a  bomb fell from a B-36 and landed in Albuquerue. It never detonated, and a cow was the only victim in that mishap.

The following year there was a mid-air collisoin over Georgia between a B-47 and an F-36 jet. The B-47’s nuclear bomb was jettisoned into the Savannah River, but it has never been recovered, which might make you think twice about ordering fish in a Georgia restaurant.

In January 1961, a B-52 crashed at Yuba City, in California, but its nuclear bombs never detonated. The luckiest escape, though, was in January of 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over North Carolina. Two hydrogen bombs – each 260 times the strength of the Hiroshima device – fell to earth. One of them went into detonation sequence – only a faulty switch saved America from self-made nuclear Armageddon.

These days we look to countries like Iran and North Korea, or to  terror organisations like Islamic State as being the possible source of nuclear catastrophe, but as we’ve seen above, when it comes to nuclear weapons not even those who have their finger on the trigger are safe from disaster.

Blind luck has managed to keep catastrophe at bay so far, but one can only wonder how long before there is another accident like that at Palomares, but one which doesn’t have such a fortunate outcome.

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The Day the Nazis Bombed Dublin

Noel Brady was standing with his father at the hall  door of their family home on St Ignatius Road in Dublin’s North Strand area when they heard the drone of a Nazi Luftwaffe bomber flying overhead.

“I saw flashes in the sky. My father shoved me onto the ground and down on top of me he went. There was a very loud explosion,” he said.

It was May 31, 1941, Noel was 21 at the time and a member of the St John Ambulance Brigade. He grabbed his bicycle and raced to the scene and was soon treating the injured in rubble-strewn streets. He would continue to do so for the next 12 hours.

To this day, the death toll is still a little sketchy – at least 28 were killed, and a hundred injured. Three hundred homes were damaged, and all this from one 500lb bomb, which was dropped at 2am.

The memories of that night are still with Noel 75 years later. The first person he treated was a man with a gash across his forehead.

“A lot of people were bleeding. I bandaged many people that night. Those that were seriously injured were taken immediately to hospital,” he recalled in an interview with The Herald newspaper.

“A lot of people were frightened, but there was no panic.”

The sight of children’s toys and dolls lying among the rubble was particularly hard to take, though.

As bad as things were, they could have been a lot worse, because it wasn’t just one bomb that had been dropped, there were four in total.

North Strand1

Damaged homes caused by the bomb dropped on the North Strand, in Dublin

The first bomb fell on the suburb of Ballybough, destroying two houses. The second dropped near the President’s residence in the Phoenix Park, shattering some windows, while the third fell on the North Circular Road. Miraculously, nobody was injured.

Reports later described how the German aircraft that dropped the deadly cargo had circled the city for some time, making low passes across what is now Connolly railway station “as if awaiting instructions of some sort”.

On that day – May 31, 1941 – the Mayor of Baghdad was surrendering that city to British forces, thereby ending the Anglo-Iraqi War. In another theatre, British troops were busy evacuating from Crete in the face of German attacks.

Those two events are blips in terms of the history of World War II, as is what happened in Dublin that morning 75 years ago.

I look at the images of North Strand on the day of that tragedy and I shake my head. My heart goes out to those families, but my head thinks of Londoners during the Blitz, and I can’t help but wonder how they coped when bombs rained down on Britain for 57 consecutive days.

German authorities later claimed the bombing to be due to a navigational error – that the real target had been Belfast (British territory, for those unsure of the Irish geo-political map). However, some speculated that it may actually have been a warning to the neutral Irish Government, which had sent fire fighters into Belfast to tackle blazes caused by German air raids.

The West German Government later paid £344,000 in compensation for the death and damage that had been caused – but, of course, you can’t put a price on loved one’s lives.

Thankfully, for Ireland, the North Strand bombing would be the closest we would come to enduring the horror of World War II – a blessing for the country, but scant consolation for the families of those who died.

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Walking to Work Through a Battle Zone

There are two routes I can take to my office when I leave the train station to go to work. They both pass a large 18th century building of Palladian, neoclassical design, which I used to admire as a child, long before I knew of its connection to my own family.

Now, as I pass it by, I study its pillars and façade for signs of bullet holes and shrapnel scars, and I imagine the men who died there.

I can almost hear the crack of gunfire, the screams of anger, pain, defiance, and the sight of red-gold flames flashing beneath billowing black-grey smoke.

My nostrils twitch at the imagined smell of cordite, and I wonder what my grandfather Michael’s role was when, aged just 20, he and scores of other IRA men in the Dublin Brigade attacked the Custom House in May 1921, on what would turn out to be the most disastrous raid in IRA history.

Customs House

The Custom House

At luchtime on May 25, small groups of IRA men had gatheerd in the area surrounding the Custom House – a symbol of British rule in Ireland. There were about 120 IRA men in total, many of them inexperienced fighters. Although that could not be said of my own grandfather Michael.

By that stage of the War of Independence he was something of a veteran, having joined up in 1919. Michael was a member of the Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Dublin Brigade.

That day, the ASU had been issued with revolvers (six rounds per man) and hand grenades,’ Their job was to position themselves beneath the Butt Bridge railway line, running beside the Custom House, and act as a protective force in the event of British troops arriving on the scene. The rest of the men were to enter the building and set it on fire using tins of petrol.

At one o’clock, the attack began. The first casualty was an elderly caretaker who was gunned down as he tried to telephone for help. IRA men herded civilians together and set about torching the rooms.

Auxiliaries and several hundred British troops soon arrived to surround the building, and a heavy firefight ensued. Michael’s unit managed to hold them off for about half an hour, but with just six bullets each against machine-guns, the result was inevitable. An official statement issued by Dublin Castle later described the attack…

Customs House body

IRA prisoners being rounded up after the attack

“Three tenders carrying Auxiliary Cadets, accompanied by an armoured car, approached the Dublin Customs House, which was occupied by a large body of Sinn Feiners. The Cadets dismounted from their tenders under heavy fire and surrounded the Customs House, which was seen to be on fire. Fire from the Auxiliaries and the machine-guns on the armoured car was poured into the windows of the Customs House, from which the rebels replied vigorously, and a series of desperate conflicts took place between Crown forces and seven or eight parties of rebels, who rushed from different doors of the building and made dashes for liberty, firing as they ran. The first party to emerge from the building consisted of three men, one of whom was killed and two wounded.

By this time smoke and flame were pouring from the building, and the official staff, including many women, who had been held prisoners by the rebels, came flocking out with their hands above their heads and waving white handkerchiefs. While these defenceless people were leaving the building the rebels continued to fire from the windows. The staff were taken to a place of safety by some of the Auxiliaries.

As the staff were leaving the building the rebels made their last sortie, and of this party, consisting of seven men, only one escaped, the rest being killed or wounded. Some of the Auxiliaries then stormed the blazing building, where many of the rebels surrendered. Some of them were found to be saturated with petrol which they had been pouring over the flames, and several of them were probably burnt to death before the Crown forces entered….at the conclusion of the fighting dead and wounded rebels lay about on all sides…Four Auxiliaries were wounded, 7 civilians were killed, 11 wounded, and over 100 captured.”

Michael full image 2

Michael Lawlor

Despite the Dublin Castle statement, it would emerge that five IRA men were killed, as were three civilians. The British forces suffered four wounded. The greatest loss, though, was in the capture of 80 volunteers at the scene.

Michael was lucky to get out of there in one piece.

The same could not be said of the Custom House. It was gutted, with documents stretching back hundreds of years destroyed in the conflagration. In time, it was restored, and carries its scars to this day.

The attack was a stunt that the hard-pressed IRA, struggling in terms of manpower and resources, could ill afford. The operation was an unnecessary disaster – the truce would come less than two weeks later, bringing an official end to fighting.

Now, as I walk beneath Butt Bridge on my way to work – the same bridge where grandad fought – the hairs on my arms and neck bristle. Where, precisely, had he stood?  Did he shoot anyone … injure anyone with a well-lobbed grenade?

I think of him … think of his youth and his bravery, and then wonder how I would have fared standing in his shoes.

The ghosts of that day still linger, their barely-heard echo masked amongst the sounds of rush-hour traffic and smothered by our  own rush-hour lives.

If you pause and listen carefully, though, you might just hear them because the past is ever present and it wants its stories told; wants them to be read on buildings like those shrapnel-scarred, bullet-pocked walls that I walk by every day.

We should always seek out the clues to our past. The stories waiting to be discovered tell us more about ourselves than we’d have ever thought possible.

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Jolly Jane and Typhoid Mary – The Household Killers

A SURE sign you’ve reached the top of the fame totem pole must surely be when you’re known by just your first name – Marilyn, Madonna, Britney and Beyonce are synonymous with the glitz and glamour of showbiz.

But fame on first-name terms is not really that modern a phenomenon. Spanning the 19th and 20th centuries there were two single, independent-minded women – both of Irish parentage – whose names would echo throughout America. One would even be known around the world, and both would forever be linked to death and misery.

These harbingers of gloom were Honora Kelley and Mary Mallon, but they would become better known by their monikers of Jolly Jane and Typhoid Mary.

Honora Kelley was a private nurse who would go down in infamy as a prolific poisoner of patients – killing at least 31 along the way.

Jane Toppan

Jane Toppan

Born in 1857, Jane was a plain woman but one who is said to have had a warm personality, so warm, in fact, that in time many would know her as Jolly Jane.

Her own background was far from jolly, though. Honora was the daughter of Irish immigrants, Bridget and Peter Kelley. Bridget died of TB, leaving the alcoholic and mentally unstable Peter to raise Honora and her sister. It is said that Peter was so disturbed that he once sewed his eyelids together while working as a tailor.

Unable to care for his daughters, Kelley  placed them in the care of the Boston Female Asylum in 1863, where Honora stayed for over a year before being placed as an indentured servant with Ann Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Honora took on her employer’s surname and also changed her first name to Jane.

In 1885, Jane began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital, in Massachusetts. It is here that the first hint to her murderous nature was revealed. Jane liked to experiment on those in her care – using drugs to send them into fluctuating states of consciousness, bringing them to the cusp of death using morphine before reviving them with doses of atropine.

Excited, Jane would lie beside her bedridden charges, clutching them as they teetered on the brink of life, watching their struggle. Then she would administer a final dose and let them die.

It wasn’t quite the bedside manner her instructors had hoped to foster and, over time, hospital authorities must have had their suspicions about Jane because she left the facility before fully qualifying as a nurse. Undeterred, though, and armed with the knowledge from her training, Jolly Jane set herself up as a private nurse.

In 1901, she tended to the ailing wife of a Mr Alden Davis. If Mrs Davis had been ill before Jane’s visits, she was dead as a duck by the end of them. A distraught Mr Davis asked Jane move into the family home to care for him. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Within a few weeks, it appeared that Alden had succumbed in a similar fashion to his late wife, as did Alden’s two daughters. It’s said that Jane felt so sorry for the girls, grieving their lost parents, that she felt it only right to help them on their way to effect a heavenly family reunion.

But Jane’s murder spree didn’t end there. She then moved back to her hometown and began courting a man to whom she took a shine. Jane’s courtship was, to say the least, unorthodox. She began by killing the man’s sister (presumably to ensure there would be no other female distractions), then set about poisoning him, but only to the extent that she could then nurse him back to health, thereby impressing him with her caring loyalty.

Meanwhile, Jane’s past was catching up with her, in the form of the surviving Davis family members, who had smelled a rat and ordered a toxicology report on the youngest daughter of Alden Davis. The report proved that the young woman had indeed been poisoned.

On October of 1901, Jane Toppan was arrested for murder.

During her interrogation, Jolly Jane admitted to 31 murders. She was later found guilty and committed to an insane asylum for life. After her death in 1938, the New York Journal, printed what was purported to be Toppan’s confession to her lawyer in which she claimed to have killed far more than her 31 listed victims (some say the figure is over a hundred).

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon may have been less calculating in how she went about her business, but she may have even more deadly.

Born in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, in 1869, she emigrated to the United States in 1883, where she lived with an aunt and uncle before forging a career for herself as a household cook for affluent families.

She began to make her presence felt as she moved around New York cooking for seven different families between 1900 and 1907. Within two weeks of staring work for a family in the Mamoroneck area, typhoid fever was diagnosed among the residents.

Mary moved on. In 1901, she was in Manhatten working in the kitchen for another family. Here, members developed fevers and suffered diarrhoea, and the family’s laundress died.

Her next posting was working for a lawyer. By the time she left there, seven of the eight residents had fallen ill.

One wonders what must have gone through Mary Mallon’s mind as she moved from one job to the next, leaving illness and death in her wake. Was she really so bad a cook or was it mere coincidence that all of her employers were prone to sudden debilitating illness.

Surely some niggle of doubt must have presented itself in her head as people succumbed all around her. It would seem not, for Mary blinkered herself to all that was happening and carried on with her cooking in household after household.

The pattern repeated with depressing regularity. In 1906, Mary worked in a house in Long Island. After just two weeks, 10 of the 11 family members had typhoid. Mary left and the sorry saga continued – more deaths and illness and then a new posting for Mary. On another occasion, she worked for a wealthy banker, again in Long Island. Within a week, six of the family fell ill with typhoid.

Wherever Mary went, outbreaks occurred, but still nobody could pinpoint her as being the cause. It was only when one family hired typhoid researcher George Soper that a common thread finally began to emerge. Mary was eventually confronted, but refused to give stool or urine samples to confirm that she was an asymptomatic carrier of the disease (ie someone who is a carrier but who shows no sign of the disease herself).

In 1907, Mary was arrested and samples were taken which confirmed typhoid bacteria were present in her gallbladder. The newspapers were all over the story and, soon, Mary Mallon became known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.

It was found that Mary had been spreading the disease through poor hand hygiene – in particular through her preparation of a dessert dish, ice cream containing raw peaches.

Despite the evidence of her being a carrier, Mallon refused to have her gallbladder removed, and so, she was held in isolation at a clinic under lock and key. However, after three years, the idea of permanently incarcerating her didn’t sit well with some people. It was then decided that Mary be released back into society with the proviso that she didn’t work as a cook ever again.

Naturally, she agreed to the conditions and, in 1910, Mary was released from quarantine. She found work as a laundress, but the pay wasn’t good and, incredibly, it wasn’t too long before she decided to change her surname to Brown and go back to more lucrative work as a cook.

The pattern of death and illness started again. For five years, wherever Mary worked, typhoid outbreaks occurred. Soper tried to track her down, but she changed jobs so frequently, he couldn’t find her. Eventually, in 1915, Mary caused an outbreak at Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City, infecting 25 people and leading to the deaths of two.

She was eventually arrested and, on March 27, 1915, was placed in quarantine once again.Still refusing to have her gallbladder removed, Mallon remained in quarantine for 23 years, until pneumonia claimed her in 1938.

Anyone doubting the wisdom of locking her up until her dying day need only look at the results of her autopsy, which showed the presence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. . . even in death, Mary remained a danger.

It was difficult to track Mary Mallon through her working life, but it is estimated by some that she caused the deaths of 50 people (others put the figure at only three) before she was locked up permanently.

Mallon wasn’t the only typhoid carrier nor even the most lethal, but she was the first that was identified, and that brought her infamy.Today, the term ‘Typhoid Mary’ is used for anyone who knowingly or not carries disease.

The motivations behind Mary’s actions were not as sinister as those of Jolly Jane, but their stories run parallel in many ways -both were women of Irish parents; both worked in private households and became synonymous with death; and both were incarcerated until they died in the same year, 1938.

Jolly Jane may have been more calculating and her actions more disturbing, but Typhoid Mary’s feckless disregard for those around her . . . putting them in harm’s way so she could earn a few extra dollars, makes her just as culpable for the death and misery she sowed.

The notion of locking people up and throwing away the key may not sit well with most of us, but, sometimes, it might just be the only answer.

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How I learned that grandad executed Erskine Childers

Do you know where you’ll be on April 24? Maybe not, but chances are you might just find yourself huddled over a form, answering innumerable questions about your personal life. Filling in the census may not be the most exciting of pastimes, but it sure is important. Without all those statistics it generates, we’d be lost in terms of planning for the future. Just as importantly, though, we’d be all at sea when it comes to the past, too.

The census proved invaluable when it came to discovering more about my grandfather, Michael Lawlor, as part of a family history project looking at his role during the War of Independence and Civil War.

Michael full image 2

Michael Lawlor

I’d heard some snippets of stories about Michael, but not much of substance, so I decided to do some digging. I started my research with the national archives, specifically the census figures for 1901 and 1911, and I hit pay dirt.

Michael was born on August 8, 1901. According to the 1911 Census, Michael (then aged nine) was one of eight children born to Elizabeth Lawlor (38) and Thomas Lawlor (36).

He had seven siblings (the eldest just 13). Thomas and Elizabeth had been married 14 years by then and in that time Elizabeth had given birth to eight children. Two others died before the Census was taken. At the time, the family lived in 11.4 Francis Street (Merchants Quay, Dublin). Thomas Lawlor Snr ran a hairdresser business in The Coombe.

The previous Census of 1901 showed the family living in 129.4 Francis Street, with Thomas (25), Elizabeth (28) and sons Thomas (3) and James (1). James was one of the two children not alive when the 1911 Census was taken.

After their father died, I knew that Michael had been sent to the Artane Industrial School. So, my next stop was to contact the Dept of Education. I gave them Michael’s details and they said they’d be back in touch. The lady I spoke to also pointed me towards Barnardos children’s charity, which also kept records of those who’d spent time in the industrial schools.

A few weeks later, I got a result –Barnardos had a record of Michael’s time at Artane. It turned out that a Judge MacInerney had ordered that Michael be detained there on July 24, 1913, for “wandering and not having any visible means of subsistence”.

There was no record of his years within the school, but there was other information. Once he’d left, according to the industrial school register, he followed his father’s trade and apprenticed as a hairdresser. The register noted on August 16, 1917, that he “likes his place well”. On December 9, 1920, it recorded that he was “working as a journeyman”.

The date is intriguing because Michael was certainly doing more than journeyman work at that time; he was also a soldier in the IRA, engaged in intelligence work – spying against the British army – for E Company, 1st Battalion, of the Dublin Brigade during the War of Independence.

That information came courtesy of Michael’s military pension application form, which was supplied to my father as far back as 2004 by the Department of Defence. Every former soldier from those times would have filled in this form, detailing their service history, in order to obtain a pension.

According to Michael’s form, he had operated in the city centre, taking part in, mobilisations, armed patrols, and “was always ready for emergencies, ambushes etc”. He states: “On Friday, March 25th, 1921, captured books and documents from B&T [Black and Tan] private car outside Knowles, Grafton Street, being employed there as a store man.”

Michael was imprisoned in Arbour Hill for five weeks at some stage between 1919 and 1921 (possibly for the action mentioned above).  Not mentioned, though, is that, according to what he told my father, he was interrogated and tortured, even having a fingernail pulled out.

Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

His application form also states: “Acted on Intelligence staff, procuring information, notably concerning a Lieut Maj of the Welch Fusiliers, who was stationed in Moira Hotel, and who afterwards was executed.”

A little online research soon showed that the man Michael spied on was Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith (2nd Welch Fusiliers). The hotel referred to was located at 15, Trinity Street.

Compton-Smith was actually abducted on April 16, 1921, in Blarney. He was later found with a bullet in his forehead, wearing plus-fours and in his stocking feet. He was a hero from the war – wounded twice, mentioned in dispatches six times, and won the Distinguished Service Order and the Legion of Honour.

Of course, Michael knew none of that. Nor, I suspect, did he know that moments before he was killed, the Major wrote a poignant letter of farewell to his wife and daughter, and even managed to bequeath his watch to the IRA officer who was about to execute him.

It was rewarding to find such information and being able to link it to my grandfather. It somehow made his military service more real.

One final piece from his application form: “Had access to Dublin Castle delivering goods to H Coy B&T’s officers mess, and there secured information which was duly passed on to our i o’s [Intelligence officer’s] staff.”

Reading those words made me so proud of Michael. Stealing information from under the noses of notorious Black and Tan officers in the very room where they felt safest, and in the most guarded building in Ireland… that took some guts.

My father told me that Michael had taken part in the disastrous attack on the Customs House in which almost a hundred IRA men were captured. Later, Michael was one of those who fired the artillery on the Four Courts during the Civil War. The shells fired there led to a massive explosion and the destruction of 800 years’ worth of historic documents.  Grandad certainly made his mark on history…

His darkest time, though, came when he formed part of a firing squad to execute none other than Erskine Childers (author, Irish patriot, gun-runner and director of propaganda for the anti-treaty side).

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, Childers spoke to Michael and the other men about to kill him.

“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

Then they executed him.

I mentioned this fact on my history blog and was contacted by a man, who had done much research on the subject. His father had also formed part of that firing squad. He showed me photocopies of army registers for the Dublin Guard with his father’s name and, just a few lines below, that of my own grandfather Michael.

He asked what rank Michael was. I told him Sergeant Major. He seemed satisfied with this (only NCOs formed the firing party). He then asked if Michael had ever served in the British Army. I said no. I was then informed that the practice at the time was to give live rounds to those men who had once been British soldiers and to give blanks to those who hadn’t. So, maybe Michael didn’t actually kill Childers with his bullet.

My grandfather was prone to epilepsy – said to be due to beating he received during his military service. He died on Christmas Day, 1953, aged just 52.

His story is like that of many young men of his generation, who risked all in the name of freedom. Were it not for the bureaucracy of pension and census forms, though, much of his story would have remained untold.

So, come April 24, remember that although filling in the census may be a bit of a chore, do it anyway – for future generations it is a vital link in their understanding of who we once were and how they came to be.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

If you’d like your ancestor’s story brought to life, contact me here.

Michael pages

The brochure I put together on my grandfather

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A Family at War

Charlie Weston is the foremost personal finance journalist in Ireland. I’m also proud to say that he is a very good friend. In this article for the Irish Independent, he explains the extraordinary place his family holds in the history of the 1916 Rising. Alas, a hundred years later, things have “changed utterly”, as Yeats would say. Right now, we are celebrating the unifying forces that brought people together to fight for freedom, yet our own political parties can‘t unite enough to form a government to run the country. What Charlie’s ancestors would have to say about that state of affairs is probably unprintable, but read on and learn about one family’s unique contribution to those seismic events of 1916 that paved the way for independence.

charlie-weston 1

Charlie Weston, journalist

A man I have known for a long time was surprised to see me at a press conference recently for the launch of a report on life in Ireland in 1916. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) had put together a fascinating databank laying bare the low life expectancy, the grinding poverty and the chronic overcrowding of 100 years ago.

The figures were so stark that statistician Helen Cahill admitted at the press conference that she was in tears compiling the report, such was the deprivation back then. But my friend was puzzled to see me at the launch of ‘Life in 1916 Ireland: Stories from Statistics’.

“With a name like Weston, you guys must have been on the British side?,” he suggested, only half joking.

On the contrary, I replied, there were four Westons involved in the Easter Rising. He was taken aback, because it is a claim to fame that few can match.

Four of my direct descendants fought in the Easter Rising. Both my grandfather Charlie Weston and my great-uncle Bartle Weston took up arms that fateful week. And their sisters Thomasina and Julia Weston — who are my great-aunts — were members of Cumann na mBan.

The women acted in intelligence liaison roles for Commandant Thomas Ashe of the Fingal Brigade during the week, carried messages between units, helped prepare food and were involved in burying the dead.

That two brothers and two sisters from the same family rose up is fascinating. That the four Weston siblings lived to tell the tale, be awarded medals and military pensions, and that Charlie Weston went on to become one of the first officers of the Irish Free State Army is nothing short of extraordinary. It almost goes without saying that I am immensely proud of my family’s role in the Rebellion.

Whether you agree with what they did or not, it is hard not to see them as brave.
But what were they thinking, getting involved in a fight where they were bound to be on the losing side, and quite possibly killed? Why did a family with such an English-sounding name have such staunch republican views? And what would the rebel Westons make of Ireland today?

Unfortunately, they had all long died by the time I was born. My father, a great family historian, has also since passed away. But I have always known that we Westons had no truck with the British empire. If you look at the 1911 Census return for the family, you will see that the four Weston siblings, along with their parents Patrick and Kate Weston, all indicate that they could speak and write in both English and Irish.

That is a major clue to the fact that this was a rabidly republican household, based around a small homestead at Turvey, between Donabate and Lusk in North County Dublin.
The family deeply resented British rule in Ireland. We Westons claim to be able to trace our lineage back to Molly Weston, who died on her white charger on the Hill of Tara in the 1798 Rebellion. I can’t prove this relationship, but it has always been part of family lore.
Recently, a family member traced the Weston name in Ireland to the time of the Flight of the Earls in 1607.

Given the family history, it is not surprising my grandfather Charlie Weston was an avowed nationalist from an early age. In school, he developed a love of Irish history that led him later to join the Gaelic League. He also became a musician, playing and co-founding the Black Raven Pipe Band.

In 1913, as the Home Rule Crisis deepened in Ireland, he became a physical-force nationalist and joined the Irish Volunteers as a member of the 160-strong Lusk Company. He became a Volunteer because it gave him a chance to “burst the English domination”, his Bureau of Military History deposition shows.

The rest of the family was similarly imbued with a strong distaste for English rule.
According to my late father and his sister, Ena, Charlie Weston was someone with a keen sense of the unjustified nature of British rule in Ireland. Not everyone shared his view at the time.

When some people who knew him saw him cutting telephone wires during Easter Week 1916, they asked: “Charlie Weston, are you gone mad?” But he was not an aggressive man. People who knew him tell me he was most unassuming, soft-spoken and never boastful in later life about his role in the fight for freedom.

Given the nationalistic leanings of the family, it was hardly surprising that they would end up in an armed rebellion. Charlie and his older brother, Bartle, were part of the 5th Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, known as the Fingal Brigade in North County Dublin.

This unit was under the command of Thomas Ashe, a charismatic teacher and gaeilgeoir. Originally from Kerry, he taught in Corduff, near Lusk. He died after going on hunger striker in Mountjoy. Charlie was a lieutenant of the Lusk Company, and Bartle joined the Swords Company.

Contrary to the myths surrounding the Rising, these men were well trained, according to historian Paul Maguire. The other myth-busting fact is that the Fingal Brigade was successful in its military objectives, unlike other engagements during the Rising.

The Fingal Volunteers won the so-called Battle of Ashbourne, forcing the surrender of an armed constabulary force, whom they disarmed and released after a five-hour battle. Eight RIC officers were shot dead, 18 wounded and some 96 prisoners  taken, despite the volunteers being fewer in number.

They had very different tactics to those used in the city, as the Battle of Ashbourne represented the first time guerrilla warfare was used, offering a blueprint for future conflicts. This allowed them to defeat superior numbers.

In the lead-up to the battle, Charlie Weston led a unit that bombed bridges and attacked RIC stations around North County Dublin. In Donabate on the Wednesday, my grandfather demanded the surrender of the barracks. The answer was a revolver shot.

His section and the RIC then engaged in a firefight. However, the RIC men soon gave up, when “Weston broke the iron shutters of the barracks with a sledgehammer”, according to British historian Charles Townshend’s book on 1916.

Charlie Weston 2

Charlie Weston, freedom fighter

Charlie’s older sister Thomasina joined Cumann Na mBan in 1915, soon after it was founded. During Easter week she acted in an intelligence liaison role, under the command of Ashe. On Easter Monday, her duties included contacting the volunteers who had failed to mobilise due to confusion over whether the Rising was going ahead or not.

According to her handwritten statement when applying years later for a military pension, her role during the Rising included “keeping in touch with Volunteer camps, taking orders from Comdt Thomas Ashe, and associated activity as a unit in battalion operations, in scouting, intelligence work, and in providing food and clothing, etc”.

She remained with the Fingal Brigade through Easter week, treating the wounded from the Battle of Ashbourne and helping with the removal and burial of the two volunteers who had died. Thomasina, whose married name was Lynders, also collected information on RIC and British military movements, carried dispatches and directed to camps Volunteers who wanted to join up.

After the Rising, when Donabate man Michael McAllister refused to surrender, Thomasina hid him in her house for seven months. When the Volunteers were released from prison in Britain, she organised a reception and collected funds for them.

Her role must have been 1important because a copy of War News — a pamphlet that was printed in Dublin, probably on the evening of Easter Monday, — is dedicated to her by Ashe.
It read: “To Thomasina Weston from T Ashe, Commandant, 5th Batt Dublin Brigade, AIR, April 27 1916 (Killeck)”. AIR stands for Army of the Irish Republic.

Her sister Julia (Mary) Weston was another of the 250 women involved in the Rising.In her own words, Julia’s role involved “keeping in touch with volunteer camps and taking orders from Comdt Ashe” along with scouting and intelligence work, and providing food. Her pension papers describe Julia as having the rank of Acting Confidential Intelligence Officer.

Ireland was clearly misruled by Britain at the time. Poverty was rife and in 1916, Dublin was one of the poorest cities in Europe. We should not forget that the threat of conscription was hanging over the people of the island.

And the odds were overwhelmingly against the rebels. Just a few hundred brave men and women took up arms against an empire that comprised a fifth of the world’s population, knowing that they probably were going to their deaths.  Others see the Rising as our ‘Origin Myth’, kicking off a period of armed struggle that unleashed decades of death and destruction on these islands.

Yes, the use of violence is always problematic, but we were an oppressed people and should cherish those brave enough to have stood up to the imperial bullies.
Many historians feel that partition was inevitable, with or without the Rising, with such strong Unionist opposition to Home Rule in the North.

But my view is that the sacrifice of the rebels awakened the Irish nation from its slumbers and unleashed our vital energies. It was our Storming of the Bastille, and it cleared the way for an independent State.

Yet those brave men and women would doubtless be appalled and shamed at our loss of sovereignty when the EU and IMF had to bail us out in 2010. The fact that bankers, and their weaselly advisers, are still dictating terms to a free people would, I am sure, be seen as scandalous by the Weston rebels.

That lawyers, pharmacists, accountants, auditors, senior public servants and consultants are making good in a still-fragile and badly-damaged economy would also be seen as a betrayal of the ideals of the Rising.

Our failure to form a government, decades after the Westons joined the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal, would have seemed strange to them, I guess. Because the four rebels would feel it surely is high time to end the great split in Irish politics.

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Easter 1916 – The Forgotten Battle

The GPO, Mount Street Bridge, The South Dublin Union these are names that resonate when it comes to Easter 1916 as the battlegrounds for what became Padraig Pearse’s ‘glorious failure’.

However, for some quirk of history, the success that took place in the sleepy town of Ashbourne, Co Meath, during the Rising has been largely ignored by the general public.

On April 24, Easter Monday morning, Commandant Thomas Ashe received orders from James Connolly to send 40 of his 5th Fingal Battalion to the General Post Office, in Dublin, to help fortify it. Also contained in his orders, were instructions for Ashe to raid nearby barracks, thereby, hopefully, locking down Crown forces and relieving pressure on those fighting in the city.

Thomas Ashe

Commandant Thomas Ashe

Ashe sent 20 men to the rebels’ headquarters at the GPO and kept the remainder for the barracks attacks. It would prove to be a wise decision by the school teacher from Lusk.

He retained 60 men and seized the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks and the Post Office in Swords. They would have further success over the next few days, seizing barracks and Post Offices in the nearby villages of Donabate and Garristown.

The rebels then turned their sights on Ashbourne and planned to attack the RIC barracks there. That day, Ashe was joined by Richard Mulcahy, who had only recently been appointed to the rank of First Lieutenant. He was in the area following his own orders and happened to meet the Fingal Commandant by chance.  Ashe immediately made Mulcahy his second-in-command.

Before launching their assault, the rebels had made sure to cut telephone wires, and even sawed down telephone poles, to block off communications with the surrounding police district. Ash also decided to send his older volunteers home, thus reducing his ranks to about 45 men.

The attack at Ashbourne would prove to be tougher than the rebels had expected. Usually, the barracks was manned by a sergeant and four constables, but it had been reinforced due to the fighting in the capital.

Instead of five RIC for the rebels to contend with, there were now 10 policemen, led by a District Inspector McCormack, all well-armed and well-prepared.

The rebels had an early boost when they managed to disarm two RIC men who were setting up a barricade outside the barracks. Ashe then called on the remaining officers to surrender. Instead, the RIC showed the rebels the business end of their guns, and soon heavy fire was being exchanged.

The rebels were making little headway until a homemade hand grenade was lobbed at the station. This soon settled things and the RIC inside waved a flag of surrender.

However, just as the constables were about to emerge, the rebels were alerted to the imminent arrival of a large RIC convoy, under County Inspector Alexander Gray, on its way to put the down the rising. With the prospect of rescue from the convoy, the besieged policemen returned to their posts and resumed the fight.

Seventeen cars carrying approximately 60 RIC officers from Slane were, at that moment, speeding towards the rebels. Ashe and his men were in a race against time, and had to rush towards the road to stop the convoy reaching the crossroad at Rath Cross, where the RIC could then spread out.

It was at this point that second-in-command Richard Mulcahy came into his own. The narrow Dublin to Slane road, with its tall, close hedges – about seven-feet-high – on either side, provided perfect terrain for the rebels.

Mulcahy had his men positioned on both sides of the road as the convoy approached at a few minutes past noon.

Just before Rath Cross, the road rose at Hammandstown. It was just as the convoy crested this hill, 15 yards from the cross roads, that the rebels launched a devastating attack on the Crown Forces, with the RIC taking heavy fire from all quarters. First to be hit was County Inspector Gray, in the lead car.

The Irish Independent newspaper reported some of the ensuing events: ‘County Inspector Gray received a wound to the head, and Sgt Shanaher, of Navan, who was with him in the car, was shot through the heart.

‘The Sergeant fell into a channel of water near the cross, and presented a gruesome spectacle when the battle ended. He was thrown into the channel in a sitting position and was found dead, still wearing his helmet’.

The rest of the convoy then jumped from their vehicles, seeking cover behind the wheels or beneath the cars themselves. Others leapt into a ditch and started firing on their attackers from there.

Richard Mulcahy

Lieutenant (later General) Richard Mulcahy

The fighting was fierce. A civilian car that blundered into the ambush was also fired on, resulting in the deaths of two of the occupants. For five hours lead flew in all directions. The rebels were closing in.

The convoy’s new commander, District Inspector Harry Smyth, managed to kill one volunteer with his pistol only to be shot dead himself a moment later, his brains spattered across the ditch into which he fell.

With the loss of their leader, the police signaled their surrender. At the end of the carnage, eight policemen lay dead in ditches and along the road, and up to 18 were wounded. The rebels suffered two dead – John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty – and five wounded.

The besieged officers in Ashbourne barracks soon gave up the fight when they were informed that the rescue party had been defeated. Ashe and Mulcahy had the injured, including the RIC, ferried to the Meath Infirmary, in Navan.

Singing in chorus and cheering for the Irish Republic, Ashe’s men marched off and camped at Kilsallaghan, near Dublin, where they remained until they received orders to surrender on Saturday.

The statistics speak for themselves – four barracks raided, eight RIC killed, 18 wounded, up to 80 policemen captured in total; all this with the loss of two dead and five wounded on the rebel side.

If a lesson in guerrilla warfare was ever needed, all any future rebels had to do was to compare the results from the fighting in Dublin to that of the men led by Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy in Ashbourne.

Thomas Ashe would have his death sentence commuted for his part in the Rising, but he would die nonetheless a year later in Mountjoy Prison, while being force fed when he was on hunger strike.

Richard Mulcahy would go on to have a stellar career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army, and Minister for Defence in the Civil War, as well as holding other ministries in the years following.

Paul O’Brien’s book Field of Fire – The Battle of Ashbourne, 1916 offers an intense look at those hours of combat. I showed it to an old friend of mine, Charlie Weston, who lives in the area where the fighting occurred. It turns out that his grandfather, also named Charlie Weston, was one of the section leaders during the attack.

My friend spoke with real pride for what his grandfather had achieved on that day.

The Battle of Ashbourne was important because it showed that Crown Forces could be comprehensively defeated if the right tactics were chosen. Never again, would Volunteers make prisoners of themselves by occupying buildings that could then be surrounded by British military.

Instead, the use of ambushes and guerrilla tactics would be critical to the success that would follow in the War of Independence.

The brave men at Ashbourne paved the way for that kind of warfare – the only kind that could possibly defeat the might of the British Empire. It’s just a pity their courage and fighting prowess is not as widely acknowledged today as it undoubtedly should.

 

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