The Iron Man

I’m not hugely into sports. I watch the big soccer and rugby games when Ireland plays. I appreciate the skill in a good boxing bout and I sit in awe whenever the Olympics is on and I can watch those jaw-dropping displays the gymnasts put on. Other than that, I’m not that pushed. However, my antennae have picked up on the scandals in Fifa and now also in the International Amateur Athletics Federation – IAAF. Before those, of course, we had the revelations about Lance Armstrong, one-time cycling supremo and now self-confessed drugs cheat.

It’s all enough to give sport a bad name, and it has. The purity of sport is what has been lost in these days of commercialism and scientific advances. But there was a time when those things didn’t matter and when it was the winning that counted and not the rewards to be gleaned from it . . . the time of The Iron Man.

Now, by ‘Iron Man’ I don’t mean those endurance races involving running, swimming and cycling. The man I have in mind would probably have laughed that people would think such things a challenge. Nor do I mean the Marvel Comics superhero. No, this Iron Man didn’t need to strap on a metal suit to achieve his goals. He was flesh and blood, and went by the very non-Marvel Comics name of Mick Murphy.

Mick, The Iron Man or Mile-a-Minute Murphy as he was also known, was an Irish racing cyclist whose sporting prowess makes today’s athletes look like pampered sissies. I first came across his name last year when my friend and former colleague John Regan mentioned it to me accompanied by a list of Murphy’s exploits that made my eyes bulge.


“Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002” by de:Benutzer:Hase

What exploits they were… Before he became a cyclist, Mick was a keen runner, who entered races in his teens, and usually won. So good was he that he had to concede a one-mile handicap in a four-mile race (Mick had to run five miles); he still managed to come second. However, with such a steep handicap, Mick decided to turn his interests elsewhere.

Born in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, in 1933, Mick Murphy’s thoughts often strayed beyond the green fields of his youth. His first taste of the exotic came when he befriended a local circus performer. Captivated by stories of strong men, circus acts and athletic achievements, he used his Confirmation money to order a book on bodybuilding.

He would lift weights fashioned from rocks and drink cow’s blood to boost his stamina (a practice he acquired from some Russian weightlifters). His training also included balancing a ladder on his chin, and he could walk for a mile on his hands – uphill.

However, it is Mick’s exploits in 1958 during Ireland’s eight-day international stage cycle race – the Ras Tailteann – that he cemented his legendary status.

Mick won that race – and he did it in style. On one stage, Mick was in the lead and his bike became badly damaged, The rest of the pack soon passed him by. There was no time to waste, so The Iron Man stole an ordinary bicycle from a nearby farm. It was an old bone-shaker, without gears, but Mick proceeded to chase down the pack so that he could stay in contention for the top prize.

That wasn’t his only setback on the race. After another crash he was left concussed, and ended up riding 10 miles in the wrong direction before turning around. Then there was the small matter of Murphy riding for four days with a broken collarbone that he sustained during one of those crashes.

Once a race stage was complete, Mick would ride up to 50 miles past the finish line to cool down. When he finally won the race, he cycled away, leaving the crowds at the finish line without a hero to celebrate.

Earlier this year, my friend John, interested in writing a book about this extraordinary fellow, tracked Mick down to discover if these outlandish tales were really true. He found him living in Cahersiveen in a derelict ruin which lacked electricity or running water. Here, in an article for the Irish Independent, John describes what he found . . .

Mick Murphy5

Mick Murphy in his home in Cahersiveen

Entering his small ramshackle house, I was expecting to find an old eccentric, hiding away from the modern world. Instead, I found a bright, witty man who was full of stories, and was more than willing to share them.

He told me that [after the victory] he went looking for a gym to train in. Failing to find one, he rode out of town until he found a field with a stone wall. There he spent an hour lifting weights, before taking blood from a cow and drinking it.

I had heard the cow’s blood stories before, always assuming them to be myths. But he assured me that he would often go to the butcher, buy a fillet steak, and eat it raw on his way home. On the fourth stage he crashed on his way to Tralee. Even with a broken collarbone, he managed to finish in the Yellow Jersey.

From the finish line, he was brought straight to hospital but Murphy hopped out the window, over the hospital walls and escaped. Instead of going to his hotel bed, he decided to go to a dance, as he didn’t want to stiffen up and so arrived at the start line the next morning ‘fit for the grave’.

For the next 30 years he continued to compete in various sports, winning amateur competitions in boxing, wrestling and even darts. He worked on building sites, and even had a few stints in the circus. After a bad accident on a building site in England, Murphy settled back in Kerry.

In this time of glossy, pampered sports superstars, Mick was a true hero, devoid of money, media attention or, for that matter,  performance-enhancing drugs. He did it all for the love of the sport and because he could.

Mick Murphy – cyclist, wrestler, boxer, runner, farmer, circus performer, ventriloquist, fire eater and bricklayer – died on September 12 of this year, aged 82. He was a legend.

He was The Iron Man.



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Nine Facts About the Black and Tan War

I was gobsmacked recently when I was asked to contribute some facts on the Irish War of Independence to the superb website, Military History Now. Here it is again, for those interested in the subject.

The Irish War of Independence ran from January 1919 to July 1921. It was a guerrilla campaign pitching 15,000 members of the IRA against a British constabulary and military might totalling 42,000. Nearly 2,000 people died as a result – 750 of them civilians. It had its origins in the election of December 1918 when the republican party, Sinn Fein, won a landslide victory and then established a breakaway parliament free of British control.

That act spurred the first attack on crown forces on January 21, 1919, which resulted in the deaths of two policemen. Those killings would lead to a spiralling war of attrition pitching the IRA and a supportive citizenry against the might of the British Empire, resulting in a treaty and the formation of the Irish Free State almost two years later. It was a turbulent time, to say the least, and it inspired me to write my novel,Tan. Here are nine things to know about the war…

A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

: The notorious Black and Tans (so named for their mismatching uniforms) were initially a force of temporary constables intended to beef up the resident Royal Irish Constabulary. Recruits were army veterans – some of them psychologically bruised from their time in the trenches during World War One. They soon gained a reputation for brutality and wanton destruction, such as in Balbriggan, where they torched 20 houses, looted pubs, burned down a factory, and beat two men to death. What’s glossed over about the Tans is the fact that almost 20pc of the force were actually Irish or of Irish descent.

2. THE AUXIES: As bad as the Tans were, it was the Auxiliary Division (made up of former army officers) who were the most destructive and lethal in their dealings with the population – arson, robbery and murder  . . . nothing was beneath them.  With their black uniforms, bandoliers and low-slung side-arms, they carried themselves like something out of the Wild West. Set up to take the fight to the IRA, they became infamous for brutal reprisals such as the burning of Cork (when five acres of the city was torched, 300 homes destroyed as well as 40 businesses, leading to the loss of 2,000 jobs).

Thomas D Huckerby3. THE TAN SERIAL KILLER: The Black and Tans’ most notorious member must have been Thomas D Huckerby (19), from Somerset, in England. In a six-month period he was responsible for the murder of five men – all of whom were unarmed and none of which were involved in the IRA. In August, he killed 60 year-old John Hynes at Shanagolden, A month later, at Abbeyfeale, he followed two men – Healy and Hartnett – on their way home from work and shot them dead. In November, a man matching Huckerby’s description was part of a gang which stopped two ex-British soldiers – Michael Blake and James O’Neill – while travelling from Dublin to Limerick. Facing disciplinary charges, Huckerby resigned in December 1920.

4. BLOODY SUNDAY: As vicious as the fighting was, nothing could match Sunday 21 November, 1920, for sheer mayhem. That morning, Michael Collins’s gang of assassins,  The Squad, made a good attempt at wiping out all the top British intelligence agents in Dublin, by killing 14 and wounding a further five. In response, that afternoon the RIC drove onto the pitch at Croke Park and indiscriminately fired into the crowd killing 14 people (including one player) and wounding 65 others. Later that day three republican prisoners, were shot in Dublin Castle “while trying to escape”, a story which was roundly rejected by most people.

5. GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: On November 26, 1920, IRA members Pat and Harry Loughnane were arrested at their family farm by Auxiliary forces. The brothers’ bodies were found burned and mutilated nine days later. They had been tied to the back of a lorry and forced to run behind it until they collapsed and were dragged along the ground. Both of Pat’s wrists, legs and arms were broken. He had a fractured skull and wounds carved into his chest. Harry’s right arm was broken and almost severed from his body, he was also missing two fingers. When he was found all that remained of his face were his chin and lips. Authorities claimed the brothers had escaped from custody and that the Auxies were not involved in their deaths. That same month a priest and a pregnant woman were also killed by British forces.

6. AMBUSHES: A week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, an IRA flying column under Tom Barry ambushed a patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, in Cork, killing 17 of an 18-man patrol. Controversy has surrounded the attack, with suggestions that Barry’s men killed the troops after they had surrendered. That view is countered with testimony that the Auxies actually feigned surrender and then opened fire again, a tactic which resulted in nearly all of them being killed . . . or so the story goes. Conversely, the ambush conducted by IRA commander Sean MacEoin at Clonfin where, during a two-hour firefight his unit killed four Auxiliaries and wounded eight. MacEoin congratulated them on the fight they had put up, prevented his men from assaulting the captives and tended to the wounded.  Mac Eoin’s humane actions delayed the IRA’s getaway and almost led to their capture by 14 lorries of British reinforcements.

Commander_Michael_Collins7. NERVES OF STEEL: Michael Collins was Minister for Finance, Director of Intelligence, Director of Organisation, and Adjutant-General. In short, he was a very busy man. Yet he conducted his business right under the noses of his enemy, using bicycles to travel around the city dressed as a dapper businessman, and always just a whisker from being captured.

On one occasion he was stopped by a military patrol, his socks stuffed with papers with the names of contacts and codes. Collins went straight up to the officer in charge and started to chat with him, and soon had the officer roaring with laughter. He was quickly ushered past the checkpoint.

Tom Barry tells of a time when he, Collins and a few others were stopped by Auxies while driving a car. Collins told everyone to act drunk. According to Barry, Collins ‘put up such a fine act, joking and blasting in turn, that he had the whole search party of terrorists in good-humour’.  British raids came so close that once he had to flee through a skylight while the British searched for him below. On another occasion he actually slipped inside Dublin Castle – the belly of the British beast – where, for several hours and just feet away from the enemy, he perused British intelligence files about himself and his activities.

8. THE PRISON HULK: Prison ships are usually associated with the 19th century . . . rotting hulks to hold men in damp squalor. But one was actually used to hold republican prisoners during the War of Independence. Moored at Belfast Lough, the HMS Argenta, a former cargo ship, housed men who’d been interned without trial. Cages containing up to 50 prisoners at a time were used for the purpose. The conditions were appalling. There were no tables, so men ate off the floor. The toilets flooded frequently, resulting in illness and disease. Some 263 men were kept in Men ate off the floor Men took part in mass hunger strikes – in one case, 150 men went without food during the winter of 1923 in protest at their treatment.

9. THE MONEY MACHINE: One associates most revolutions with the sound of gunfire and smell of cordite, but the real grease to keep a movement functioning is money. One of the greatest feats of the fledgling Irish parliament – the Dail – and of Michael Collins was the setting up of a National Loan, in which bond certificates would be sold at various prices to fund the freedom movement.  Dail President Eamon De Valera journeyed to America and sold bonds there very successfully (some $5million worth were purchased). In Ireland, Collins took on the role of selling the bonds to the Irish population. Remember, Collins didn’t know from one day to the next where he would sleep, never mind what makeshift office he would work from (in one case he operated out of a room in a sweet shop), yet he managed to sell over £355,000 worth of bonds while avoiding British raids. We could all do with some of his financial magic now.

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The Witches of Islandmagee

Illustration of witches, perhaps being tortured before James VI and I, from his Daemonologie (1597)

Illustration of witches, perhaps being tortured before James VI and I, from his Daemonologie (1597)

In this month of spooks and witches, we tend to laugh off the whole ‘demonic possession’ thing as a bit of a joke, but there was a time when accusing someone of witchcraft had very real and very dire consequences. What follows is all true, and revisits the last witchcraft trial to be held in Ireland.

It all began one night in September 1710, when Mrs Anne Haltridge, widow of the Rev. John Haltridge, late Presbyterian minister at Islandmagee, Co Antrim, was being tormented by a strange force.

Stones and turf were flung at her bed, the curtains were pulled from one end to the other, the pillows were taken from under her head, and the clothes pulled off. Terrified and bewildered, Mrs Haltridge fled the room and slept elsewhere.

Things got spookier on the evening of December 11, when a little boy came and sat with her at the fireside. According to Mrs H, he was about eleven  years old, with short black hair, and was wrapped in a threadbare blanket, which trailed on the floor. His vest was torn and he kept the blanket over his face

She asked him where he had come from and if he was hungry, whereupon he jumped up, did a jig around the kitchen and then ran out of the house and into the barn.

Servants chased him, but he was nowhere to be seen. When they returned to the house, there he was again in the kitchen. As hard as they tried they couldn’t catch him. He only fled when the master of the house, Mrs H’s son James, came home. But the boy would be back . . .

On February 12, he returned – naughtier than ever. Brandishing one of the old woman’s books, he smashed a window and then threw a stone through a door, telling a servant that he was sent from the Devil. He grabbed a turkey and tried to kill it with a sword, then he started digging a hole in the ground and said that it was a grave for someone in the house. At this point, he is said to have flown over the garden hedge, like a bird.

Three days later, the clothes were mysteriously taken off Mrs. Haltridge’s bed, and laid in a pile. They were replaced on the bed by a family member only to be removed mysteriously again later. They were put back. Then they somehow were taken off again. Finally, they were found arranged in a shape that resembled a corpse. Naturally, the Haltridges were terrified.

Local clergymen stayed praying with them for two days. At night, Mrs. Haltridge went to bed as usual. She later awoke screaming in pain, saying  she felt as if a knife had been stuck in her back. The pain never left her and on February 22, the old lady died.

About a week later, Mary Dunbar, a pretty girl of 18 years or so, came to stay with Mrs. Haltridge, junior, to keep her company after her mother-in-law’s death. That night, the troubles began anew. When Mary retired to her bedroom, accompanied by another girl, they were surprised to find that some of her clothes had been taken out of a trunk and scattered around the house.

Going in search of the missing articles, they found an apron rolled up tight and tied with nine knots, which Mary proceeded to open, only to discover that wrapped in the middle of the apron was one of old Mrs Haltridge’s flannel caps.

Later, young Dunbar was seized with a violent fit, and screamed that a knife was being stuck in her leg by three women who were tormenting her.

About midnight she had another fit, during which she had a vision of seven or eight women who called each other by their names.  So detailed were Dunbar’s descriptions, that the women were identified and summoned to the house.

Dunbar would convulse when each of the women was brought close, but not when other people were placed beside her. An investigation was conducted between March 3-24 leading to the arrest of seven women. They were:Possessed by The Devil

Janet Mean, of Braid Island.
Jane Latimer, of Irish quarter, Carrigfergus.
Margaret Mitchell, of Kilroot.
Catherine M’Calmont, of Island Magee.
Janet Liston, alias Sellar, of same.
Elizabeth Sellar, of same.
Janet Carson, of same.

Dunbar then claimed that she was still being tormented by someone called Mrs Ann, whom she described and who was subsequently identified as Margaret Mitchell, who was also arrested.

The accused were brought for trial at Carrigfergus on March 31. The hearing would last only eight hours.  A summary of the evidence was made by Dr. Tisdall, vicar of Belfast, who was present at the trial, and who wrote about it in the Hibernian Magazine in 1775. Here are two extracts:

“One of the men who had held her [Mary Dunbar] in a fit swore she had nothing visible on her arms when he took hold of them, and that all in the room saw some worsted yarn tied round her wrist, which was put on invisibly; there were upon this string seven double knots and one single one. In another fit she cried out that she was grievously tormented with a pain about her knee; upon which the women in the room looked at her knee, and found a fillet tied fast about it; her mother swore to the fillet, that it was the same she had given her that morning, and had seen it about her head; this had also seven double knots and one single one.”

“There was a great quantity of things produced in Court, and sworn to be what she vomited out of her throat. I had them all in my hand, and found there was a great quantity of feathers, cotton, yarn, pins, and two large waistcoat buttons.”

Dunbar never gave evidence in court. In fact, she never spoke. The accused had no lawyer to defend them, but they all denied the charge of witchcraft, Nevertheless, the jury found them guilty. The women were sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory four times during that period. Each time, they were pelted by mobs of onlookers, in one case so fiercely that one woman lost an eye.

In his book, Possessed By The Devil, Dr Andrew Sneddon, of Ulster University, argues that Mary Dunbar made the whole thing up to break free from the tight social restraints put on her at the time and to become a local celebrity.

‘Being possessed allowed her to misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will,’ he told the Daily Mail newspaper.

He believes that Dunbar chose to blame the women because they had somewhat damaged reputations for one reason or other.

‘Some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. All were poor. The local male authorities believed Dunbar’s version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family,” he said.

The Islandmagee case was the last witchcraft trial in Ireland. What became of the ‘witches’ and Mary Dunbar is unknown. It’s a  story that brings to mind the Salem witch trials and The Crucible, and of a time when the stoking up of superstition could reap terrible consequences.

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The Irish Wolfhound of Gettysburg

Gettysburg coverIf ever you want to know something about the American Civil War, I can’t think of anyone better to ask than Iain C. Martin. Not only is Iain an expert in his field, but he has also produced a fascinating book on the seismic battle that was Gettysburg.

The need to make history more accessible is something I’ve always believed in, and Iain has done just that with his book, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War, in which he takes the events surrounding the historic battle and writes about them with a younger audience in mind. Here, he gives an interesting insight into a memorial placed on the battlefield for one of the conflict’s most memorable brigades. I’m proud to say that they were Irish…

Faugh-a-Bellagh! — Clear the Way! — Irish Brigade battle cry

Gettysburg is one of America’s best-preserved battlefields of the Civil War. More than 1,200 monuments dot the landscape where the Army of the Potomac fought the Army of Northern Virginia on July 1-3, in 1863. Arguably the most beautiful of these statues is the one dedicated to the five regiments of the Union’s Irish Brigade. The five regiments, three from New York, and one from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, fought valiantly not only at Gettysburg but from the Peninsula campaign in 1862 all the way to Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865.

The bronze Celtic cross is based on granite and stands over six meters tall, decorated with a 2nd Corps trefoil, the numbers of the three New York regiments, the Seal of the State of New York, and a harp flanked by eagles. At the foot of the cross lies an Irish wolfhound, the symbol of honor and fidelity. The monument was sculpted by William R. O’Donovan, a former Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg. [1]

The Monument to the Irish BrigadeI at Gettysburg Credit: Photo: R. G. Lubischer

The Monument to the Irish BrigadeI at Gettysburg Credit: Photo: R. G. Lubischer

Two wolfhounds were adopted by the brigade’s 69th New York Infantry Regiment as mascots during the war. Clad in green coats bearing the number “69” in gold letters they would parade behind the color guard. (Most Civil War units, north and south, adopted a mascot of some kind —- dogs, cats, birds, bears, raccoons, badgers, and in one case — a camel.) Appropriately, the Irish chose to immortalize their loyal hound in bronze, so that it now stands for all eternity, ready to answer its master’s call’.

Father William Corby, the brigade chaplain, dedicated the monument on July 2, 1888. “We have unveiled this pile, and it will stand to perpetuate the fame of those heroes. To keep their memory green in the American heart, this Celtic Cross has been erected. It is an emblem of Ireland, typical of faith and devotion, and the most appropriate that could be raised to hand down to posterity the bravery of our race in the great cause of American liberty.”

The Irish Wolfhound on the Irish Brigade monument Credit: Photo: R. G. Lubischer

The Irish Wolfhound on the Irish Brigade monument Credit: Photo: R. G. Lubischer

The monument at Gettysburg and two others – one at Antietam and at Fredericksburg – stand as a testament to the courage and loyalty of the Irish in America who volunteered for the Union cause. The Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade. Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed or mortally wounded, and approximately 3,000 were wounded. The number of casualties was more men than ever served in its ranks at any one time. As a testament to the Irishmen’s bravery, 11 of the unit’s members were awarded the Medal of Honor. [2]

Irish Brigade Monument at Fredericksburg (photo credit:

Irish Brigade Monument at Fredericksburg (photo credit:

You can discover more about the Gettysburg campaign in my book, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War written for teens but a great read for anyone interested in the Civil War, Gettysburg and President Lincoln.

If you’d like to read more about Father William Corby and the Irish Brigade read my blog post Absolution Under Fire: A Moment of Grace a Gettysburg:

  1. Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg,
  2. Jones, Terry, L., “The Fighting Irish Brigade.” New York Times, December 11, 2012.
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The Secret Disaster

It was 1944, and the troops were waiting nervously for the barrage on the beach to end. Their stomachs heaved as their clumsy landing craft rode the swell. Nearby, the support vessels and destroyers watched as their orderly line headed for the landing spot. The men concentrated on trying to overcome their sea sickness, their impending landing and the assault they’d have to make once they made it to shore.

This wasn’t the heart-in-mouth assault on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 – one of history’s greatest ever naval landings that signalled the end of Hitler’s dominance in Europe. No, this was a few weeks earlier – at Slapton Sands, a beautiful beach in Devon, England.

It was a Royal Navy and US Army training exercise called Operation Tiger – the last one before the real thing. But the events that would unfold on the morning of April 28 would prove to be a costly affair. Many of the men on those landing craft would never make it to dry land again. In a very short time, hundreds of them would be dead in the water.

Tiger was a week-long exercise meant to simulate as close as possible the actual landing on D-Day itself. Slapton was chosen because it had a beach of coarse gravel. It was a shallow lagoon backed by high bluffs and as such was almost a replica to what was codenamed Utah Beach on the Cherbourg peninsula.

Unfortunately, five German torpedo boats picked up British naval signals and moved into the area in darkness as nine landing craft were approaching the beach. British onshore batteries had actually identified the silhouettes of the German E-boats but, following orders, did not open fire for fear they would reveal their own positions.

US troops on exercise at Slapton Sands

US troops on exercise at Slapton Sands

What followed was like shooting fish in a barrel. Torpedoes slammed into the landing craft. One burst into flames, the soldiers on board being engulfed in burning fuel. It is said that 190 men were killed. Another sank within minutes – 411 men died on it –  while a third was badly damaged and limped back to port with 13 dead.

Many men survived the attack but drowned in the dark waters due to their inability to don lifejackets properly.

But the carnage didn’t end there. General Eisenhower had wanted his men battle-hardened and so had ordered that live rounds be used to bombard the beach before landing craft approached. But timings and communications were off between the controller of the landing craft and the commander charged with firing the shells onto the beach.

The result was carnage, with men rushing off landing craft and through white tape, which had been placed there to stop their advance – straight into the deadly barrage.

The number of dead at Slapton is disputed. Certainly many hundreds died – some put the figure at more than 700 dead – a  figure actually higher than the casualty rate on Utah Beach itself.

The seriousness of the episode was underlined by the fact that ten of the officers missing held ‘Bigot’ clearance – which meant that they knew the plans for D-Day itself; and for a period, the Normandy invasion was actually in doubt up until all ten bodies were retrieved from the sea.

There was the inevitable inquiry, which drew up some recommendations, namely that troops be given better training in the use of lifejackets and that rescue protocols be established to pick up survivors from sinking craft. Radio frequencies were also standardised between the various military wings.

Operation Tiger was a dreadful disaster, and it was hushed up for security reasons. The young men involved never did taste real battle, never fired a gun in anger nor even saw a German soldier, but they gave their lives nonetheless, by the hundredfold . . . on a pretty beach in the south of England.

Their loss was terrible, but not futile. As brutal as it sounds, their sacrifice helped pave the way for a smoother operation come D-Day itself. That’s not a pleasant fact to admit, but war is never pleasant and casualties come in all guises – and that includes young lads who died through the inefficiency of others and by sheer bad luck.

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The Molasses Tsunami

The devastation wrought by the Great Molasses Flood

The devastation wrought by the Great Molasses Flood

In 1919, there occurred an accident so strange and so devastating that, as I learned about it, I was stunned into silence for a few moments while I scratched my head and tried to figure out how the hell that could happen.

On the afternoon of January 15 in that year, the citizens of Boston’s North End were gong about their business when they felt a rumble, followed by a huge crash and then the machine-gun rattle of thousands of rivets as they began to pop.

It wasn’t an earthquake that was about to befall the neighbourhood but a tsunami, courtesy of the Purity Distilling Company.

A five-storey-high metal tank, measuring 50ft x 90ft had split open, releasing a wall of molasses. Patrolman Frank McManus was there to witness it. He called in the report from a police call box: “Send all available rescue vehicles and personnel immediately, there’s a wave of molasses coming down Commercial Street!” he screamed.

Officer McManus’s panic was justified because, quite frankly, the statistics are mind boggling: More than 7.5 million litres of sweet, sticky molasses, moving at roughly 55 kilometers an hour in a wave that was 7.5 metres high and 50 metres wide, engulfed the area.

Such was the force of the surge that rail freight cars were crushed, a fire station was ripped from its foundations and an elevated train was almost lifted from its track.

Running 90 metres down the street from the wrecked storage tank, a  river of molasses trapped people, horses and dogs in its sticky grip.

Boston_post-January_16,_1919,The Boston Post captured the scene: ‘Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.’

The Great Boston Molasses Flood, as it became known, killed 21 people and injured 150. About half the victims were crushed by the wave, hit by debris or drowned in the syrup. The rest died from injuries and infections in the weeks that followed. We sometimes hear of people coming to a sticky end, but never could we imagine  it to be be in the form of a syrupy tsunami.

I came across this intriguing episode in Bill Bryson’s great book One Summer: America, 1927.  If you haven’t read Bryson’s book, I would recommend wholeheartedly that you do so. It is fascinating.

But back to the disaster. At the time, molasses was being used in the armaments industry. Distilled into industrial alcohol, it became a key component in the manufacture of bombs during World War One.

The massive storage tank at North End had been built in 1914. Even as it was first filled, the signs were ominous. According to witnesses, the metal seemed to groan from the mounting pressure inside. The amber fluid was seen to seep from the seam of the giant tub, and local residents collected the leaked syrup for their homes

Over time, things could only get worse. The unusually warm weather on January 15, 1919 proved the topping point, the pressure increased in the tank and the molasses burst forth with catastrophic results.

Eight-year-old Anthony di Stasio was one of those caught up in the flood. He had been carried along for several blocks by the deluge before smashing into a lamppost. His body was recovered from the quagmire and taken to a building being used to store the bodies of victims. A sheet was placed over his molasses-covered form. However, Anthony was merely unconscious.

Hours after being laid among the dead, he awoke to the sound of his mother’s voice. Anthony couldn’t speak because his mouth was full of molasses, but he did sit up and was soon comforted by his family. Ten-year-old Maria di Stasio wasn’t so fortunate. She died in the flood.

Three hundred people spent weeks cleaning the disaster area. Despite using salt water to wash the molasses away and sand to absorb it, Boston harbour remained syrupy brown all through the summer. But that wasn’t the half of it . . . the molasses had spread further afield, thanks to rescue workers and sightseers tramping the syrup throughout the city. Subway station platforms, train seats and even telephone handsets were left sticky from the syrup.

Decades after the event, it was said that the sweet smell of molasses still hung in the air on hot summer days around Boston’s North End.

The Great Molasses Flood was an extraordinary event. It’s quirky nature tends to obscure the terrible tragedy that it actually was. But what is even more strange than the disaster itself, is that it could be so quickly lost to popular culture.

If an event as downright bizarre as this can be forgotten by the majority of people, what hope is there for our own claims to posterity.

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Sinking Into Oblivion

The SS Arabic sinking (Image: Photo: Illustrated London News [London, England]

The SS Arabic sinking (Image: Illustrated London News [London, England]

The captain was on the bridge of the ship when he saw the track of the torpedo about 300 ft away, but by then it was too late.

Captain William Finch was a portly man, but I imagine him moving faster than someone of his build would be expected. I can almost see those jowls quiver as he issued his final commands before the torpedo struck, sending a huge column of water into the air and hurling him into the sea.

Finch was sucked beneath the roiling waves, but he fought for his life and managed to make his way to the surface.

SS Arabic

SS Arabic

It was August 19, 1915, and his passenger ship, the SS Arabic, was in its death throes, having been torpedoed without warning by German submarine U-24 just four miles off Ireland’s Cape Clear.

There were 180 passengers – 145 British, 26 Americans and several Spanish, French, Belgians and Russians on board, as well as 250 crew, travelling from Liverpool to New York.

Fourteen lifeboats were launched, and all the passengers donned the life jackets that had been placed around the ship’s deck. Finch and his men must have worked very fast because in little over 10 minutes the SS Arabic would be gone, taking 44 lives with her.

Captain WIliam Finch (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Captain William Finch
(Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Had it not been for the quick actions of captain and crew, the number of fatalities would have been higher. As William Finch said later about the engineers, who stuck to their posts up to the last moment: ‘They were heroes a thousand times over, who carried out my orders from the bridge, even when they knew the ship was sinking.

‘It was well that this was so, as otherwise the loss of life would have been very large, as the enemy submarine never gave us any warning whatever, and as a matter of fact we never saw her.’

A little over two months earlier, on June 9, the luxury liner RMS Lusitania was struck by a torpedo just a few miles from the Arabiic’s position. It sank with the loss of almost 1200 lives.

On October 10, 1918, the RMS Leinster would suffer the same fate. A German submarine sank it as it travelled across the Irish Sea to Holyhead. A total of 529 civilian and military passengers were killed that day – the greatest ever loss of life in that stretch of water and the greatest loss of life on an Irish-registered ship.

I’d never heard of the Leinster, much less the Arabic. It is ships like the Lusitania and the Titanic that we commemorate. The loss of life was greater in those tragedies, and in the numbers’ game that sometimes is history, they qualify as somehow being more significant.

Tell that to the families of those on the Arabic, who felt the weight of their loss almost a hundred years ago to this day.

History can be as unforgiving as the cruel sea. It takes complex, nuanced lives that were filled with passions, secrets, loves and fears, and then consigns them to its dusty depths, leaving only a statistic to be browsed by the mildly curious.

I’ll think of the Arabic in the days ahead. That’s not much as far as commemorations go, but it’s all that’s left.

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The Stars Who Earned Their Stripes

I first heard the phrase ‘Do you talk the walk or walk the talk?’ as a child. It came from the lips of John Wayne and it has stuck with me ever since, particularly when someone uses it incorrectly and refers to ‘walking the walk and talking the talk’. At such moments my inner pedant bristles. That peculiar foible aside, it’s nice to know whether someone ‘walks the talk’ or merely ‘talks the walk’.

In the past few days that phrase came up during references to Mixed Martial Arts fighter Conor McGregor, from Dublin. Pundits wondered if he would ‘walk the talk’ when it came to his interim title fight in Las Vegas last week with top contender Chad Mendes. It turned out that McGregor could, indeed, back up his boasting. In Dublinese, he wasn’t ‘all mouth and no trousers’.

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee

Doubts of a similar nature have been cast against the late great actor Christopher Lee, concerning his wartime record.

Amongst his 356 movies, Lee is best remembered for his role as Dracula in the Hammer Horror-produced films and as Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. His career had a resurgence when he played the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings series.

But it is with a previous role that I wish to mention him. During World War II Lee is said to have served with Special Operations Execute (SOE) and the Long Range Desert Group (which was a precursor to the SAS).

Due to Lee’s refusal to speak about his war service, the information concerning his actual role remains sketchy and, according to one historian of the SAS, it is somewhat inflated.

In an interview with The Spectator magazine, Gavin Mortimer, who specialises in SAS history, claims Lee had ‘led on’ the public to believe he played a bigger role.

‘Lee didn’t exactly lie, but he did lead us on, encouraging us to believe it had involved more… than it actually did,’ claims Mortimer.

So, did the actor ‘walk the talk?’ Well, Lee did serve as an RAF intelligence officer in Africa and also had some involvement with the SOE and SAS. At the end of the war he became a Nazi hunter, a job which required him visiting concentration camps.

Personally, I can’t see what Mortimer’s problem is, but here’s something else that might illustrate Lee’s mettle.

While filming on Lord of The Rings, a scene required Lee’s character to be stabbed in the back. Director Peter Jackson wanted Lee to cry out in pain when the ‘blade’ entered.

Lee refused, saying: ‘Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he’s stabbed in the back?’

The director admitted that he hadn’t.

‘Well, I have, and I know what to do.’

Enough said…

David Niven

David Niven

Lee isn’t the only actor who walked the talk, though. One of my favourites, David Niven (for a real laugh and a great insight into the golden days of Hollywood you have to read The Moon’s A Balloon’), did likewise.

Niven was a British actor, debonair, good-looking and charming. He invariably played the hero in movies – he starred in The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dawn Patrol and The Prisoner of Zenda, amongst other films – but he was also something of a hero himself during the war.

Niven trained as an elite Commando and took part in the invasion of Normandy in 1944. He commanded a specialist reconnaissance unit called Phantom, which located and reported enemy positions.

It’s nice to know that Niven not only looked the part of a brave officer in his films but did so in real life, too.

Richard ToddAnother star who did likewise was Richard Todd. He was actually Irish, but played stiff-upper-lip types in his roles. Todd was one of the very first men on the ground on D-Day. He was a captain in the parachute regiment and played a key role in the daring night-time operation to seize Pegasus Bridge.

The movie, The Longest Day portrayed that raid. Interestingly, Todd had a role in the movie – not playing himself (some other actor did that), but his commanding officer during the raid.

I can only imagine what was going through the movie director’s mind as he told Todd how to play the scene.

Lewis Collins

Lewis Collins

Growing up in the Seventies I used to champ at the bit waiting for the latest episode of The Professionals to hit the screen. The show involved two British SAS-type plainclothes men who did all manner of daring things for queen and country. One of the stars, Lewis Collins, was mean and moody and certainly looked the part. The fact that he used to be a hairdresser before he got the role is neither here nor there.

Collins would find himself typecast in action man roles for the rest of his career. He tried out for the role of James Bond but never made it . . . being deemed ‘too aggressive’ to play 007. Ironically, if he was around today, Collins would have made for a great Bond.

The other thing about Collins was that he was obviously tough as nails. Aside from achieving fame in The Professionals, he starred in the SAS movie, Who Dares Wins.

Privately, he yearned to join the elite regiment. He even passed the rigorous and debilitating selection course to become a member of the Territorial SAS (part-time members, but no-less effective) but was refused admission due to his celebrity. Collins had to content himself by training with 3 Company of the 10th (V) Battalion Parachute Regiment instead.

James Stewart

James Stewart

That great Hollywood star James Stewart was another whose real life actions could overshadow any heroic role he ever played in the movies.

Stewart, who played a string of cowboy roles as well as starring in the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Rear Window and Vertigo, was the first A-list Hollywood star to enlist, joining a bombing squadron when America went to war against Japan and Germany.

He also became the highest-ranked star (a Colonel) and the most decorated (the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars).

Stewart continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve for a further 22 years, working on a military base during the Korean War, and even flying a non-combat mission in Vietnam. He was a one-star general in the USAF by the time he retired.

Audie Murphy  (courtesy US Army)

Audie Murphy
(courtesy US Army)

Finally, one can’t talk about heroic stars without mentioning Audie Murphy, who was one of the most decorated US combat soldier in World War II, having received every military combat medal the army could award, including the Medal of Honour.

Murphy won that for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers (over two hundred men) for an hour and managing to lead a counterattack while wounded.

His bravery and cherubic good looks found him fame in Hollywood after the war, when he starred in a slew of westerns, as well as his own biopic. To Hell And Back.

Quite simply put, when it comes to living up to the hype, Murphy could not only walk the talk, he could run, waltz and sashay it too.

To all those stars who earned their stripes, we salute you.

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GIs, Spies and the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’…

A few weeks ago I saw some photos that made for uncomfortable viewing. They showed a paedophile who had been chased by a mob of Irish parents. The man had been kicked and beaten. Blood ran from his nose as he  leaned, dazed against the roof of a car. The parents had learned that he was living in the area and that he had been seen outside a local school. They marched to the hostel in which he was staying and he fled, but they caught up with him and some of the fathers present let their fists and feet do the talking.

I’m a father-of-four, and part of me was glad to see such a vile person get a beating, but there was niggle, too, that I couldn’t quite shake. I think it might have been the image of normally law-abiding citizens breaking society’s rules so blatantly – the anarchy of mob mentality, however justified – unsettled me. Such mob law can infect even the most disciplined of people as history shows.

The scene of the Nazi executions at Dachau

The scene of the Nazi executions at Dachau

Take, for example, what happened when Dachau concentration camp was liberated in April, 1945 by soldiers from the US 45th Infantry Division… Upon their arrival, the GIs discovered more than 2,000 bodies stuffed inside 39 rail goods wagons. That sight, coupled with everything else they had witnessed in the death camp, proved to be the tipping point for these battle-scarred troops.

The soldierss gathered together 30 SS guards, lined them up against a coal yard wall and machine-gunned them. Others were shot elsewhere in the camp. Some of the freed prisoners also exacted their revenge by beating their former tormentors and killing them.

A letter has recently emerged, written by Capt David Wilsey, an anesthesiologist in the Seventh Army, which describes the horrors he saw in Dachau and the revenge meted out by GIs to the Nazis. An article in the New Republic recounts his testimony to those events. On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, Wilsey sent a seven-page letter to his wife, Emily, describing what he witnessed.

He wrote: ‘I saw captured SS tortured against a wall [by U.S. soldiers] and then shot in what you Americans would call ‘cold blood’—but Emily! ‘God forgive me if I say I saw it done without a single disturbed emotion BECAUSE THEY SO HAD-IT-COMING after what I had just seen and what every minute more I have been seeing of the SS beasts’ actions’.

Some have described these acts as shameful, but it’s easy to say that from this point in time. The Nazi guards at Dachau were responsible for the murder of 35,000 innocent people. So, put yourself in those GIs’ shoes and you might have been cheering them on – or worse, in the thick of the blood lust.

In Irish history, one day of revenge stands out more than others . . . that of November 21, 1920, during the War of Independence.

For quite some time, the republican leader Michael Collins had been monitoring British spies in the capital. When he had gathered enough intelligence about their addresses and their movements he sent his hit men, ‘The Squad’ or ‘The Twelve Apostles’ as they were also known. to track them down.

The Cairo Gang

The Cairo Gang

Among the targets were members of the ‘Cairo Gang’ (so-called because of their patronage of the Cairo Cafe on Grafton Street and from their service in British military intelligence in Egypt and Palestine). Within a few hours 14 British officers had been killed, sending shockwaves through the Crown forces.

A reprisal was called for. Later that day, Dublin and Tipperary were playing a charity football match at Croke Park stadium. British Auxiliary forces marched into the ground, ostensibly to search the thousands of  supporters present for weapons.

The troops opened fire almost immediately, killing 14 people. Among those who died were Tipperary players Michael Hogan  and Thomas Ryan, said to have been shot on his knees while reciting an act of contrition to Hogan.

The killings were followed by more deaths later that evening in Dublin Castle when three IRA officers  – Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune -were beaten and shot by their captors for supposedly trying to escape.

The events of the day became known as Bloody Sunday. The revenge meted out by the British backfired. The outcry was loud and fierce and only prompted further support for the IRA.

However, there is one act of revenge the effectiveness of which could never be questioned. It involves one Mariya Oktyabrskaya, a Soviet housewife who decided to get proactive when she received notice of her husband’s death in battle in 1943.

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Rather than go into mourning for his loss, Mariya sold all her possessions and then offered to honour her husband’s memory by buying the Soviet state a new T-34 tank. . . with one proviso – that she would be the one to drive it into battle against the Nazis.

The military agreed, smacking their lips at the prospect of such a propaganda  coup.

After completing her tank driver’s course, Mariya rolled her T-34 – nicknamed ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ – into battle.

Male officers scoffed at this propaganda stunt, but Mariya’s confident command of the tank soon shut them up – as did her bravery, which she showed at the Second Battle of Smolensk, where she led her unit straight into enemy fire.

Shortly after, during another battle, her tank got separated  when a German shell broke the ‘Fighting Girlfriend’s’ tracks. She and her crew had to conduct repairs in the thick of enemy fire, while keeping the enemy at bay with their guns.

In March of 1944, Mariya was hit by shrapnel while conducting more repairs to her tank during a battle. She died of her wounds two months later. Shortly after that she was made a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Had Mariya’s husband not fallen in battle against the Nazis she probably would never have had the opportunity to make the Germans reap the whirlwind of her revenge.

The love of her husband propelled Mariya into the thick of the action with just the beast she needed. I suppose you could call it a case of tank’s for the memories…

It’s okay, you can stop groaning now.

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The Defiant Ones

There are many ways to subvert authority that don’t require resorting to violence. Gandhi did it through non-cooperation and passive resistance against British rule in India in the 1920s. Rosa Parks did it on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person because her feet hurt and she wasn’t in the mood to stand for the journey home.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

That small act of civil disobedience led to her arrest and acted a catalyst to the simmering racial tensions of the day. Rosa’s sore feet brought about momentous events for which she is celebrated to this day.

Last week, Irish citizens caused a seismic societal shift by voting in a change to the constitution to recognise same-sex marriage… the only country in the world to do so by popular vote. It was a bold move, and one which does this country great credit, especially when you consider how repressive Irish society has been up until relatively recently.

Put it this way, such was the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society that it wasn’t until 1979 that married couples were allowed access contraception – and then only with a doctor’s prescription. It would take until 1993 before all restrictions were removed relating to the sale of condoms and, incredibly, it was only in 2011 that the morning-after-pill could be sold without prescription.

These changes to Irish society were largely down to the campaigning zeal of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, which aimed to subvert the country’s strict anti-contraceptive prohibitions. They did so quite effectively by taking a train to Belfast (part of Britain, for those who are unaware), in May 1971. There, they purchased condoms and spermicides over the counter, and returned with them to Dublin’s Connolly Station.

The customs men on duty were so mortified at seeing a gang of over 40 slogan-chanting women walking towards them brandishing their contraband, that they quickly waved them through… banned items and all.

One or two of the ladies even chose to inflate the condoms once they got outside the station. The media lapped it all up and the response across Ireland to the ‘condom train’ was immense, sparking debate on a subject that had been hitherto taboo.

My favourite act of subversion comes from Romania, where one Irina Nistor chose a unique way to defy the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Nistor worked as a translator on programmes for Romanian state television. In 1985, a colleague asked if she would be interested in dubbing banned foreign films.

And so began a momentous era for Romania’s movie fans. Nistor dubbed over 1,000 movies into Romanian – and she played ALL the parts, whether it was Van Damme, Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, Irina did all the voices.

She would finish work and then go to an apartment to dub films until midnight. It was a hurried, secret affair with no time for finesse. Nistor would dub as many as eight French or English movies a day in an improvised basement studio. Since there wasn’t time to watch the movies first, she had to dub them in real time on her first viewing.

Irina Nistor

Irina Nistor

At a time of secret police and repression, the films (which were watched by large groups huddled around a TV set) gave a glimpse into the outside world. It didn’t matter that a 28-year-old woman was voicing De Niro in Taxi Driver or Pacino in The Godfather, Nistor gave people the chance to put two fingers up to Ceausescu’s dictatorship and enjoy a good film in the process (although I’m not sure about some of those Chuck Norris ones…)

Irina Nistor’s small act of defiance had a huge effect. For a generation of Romanians, she became the voice of the movies and gave them some much-needed enjoyment… not a bad way to be remembered at the end of the day.

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