From the Easter Rising to the Hollywood Hills

When the actor Arthur Shields strode towards the Abbey Theatre on Easter Monday, 1916, it was with one intent – not to rehearse or act in a play, but to collect his rifle and take part in the greater drama that was about to shake the streets of Dublin.

Arthur Shileds in The Fabulous Dorseys

Arthur Shields

Once armed, Shields went around the corner to Liberty Hall and joined with James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, before marching up to Sackville Street, where he was stationed in the Metropole Hotel (now the location of Penneys clothing store).

By April 28, he and the rest of the men there would have to abandon their positions and join the other rebels inside the GPO, which was already on fire. They didn’t stay there very long. Shields and the remaining GPO garrison – rebel leader Padraig Pearse included – retreated to Moore Street.

There, they moved from house to house, knocking through dividing walls between the houses’ basements. Arthur Shields and six others would eventually find themselves hiding out at the back of Hanlon’s fish shop (16 Moore Street).

They were told that they would be the first line when the planned break-out occurred. In the event, that never happened – the break-out idea was abandoned and surrender was the chosen option, to avoid further bloodshed. Had that not been the case, the movie world might have been deprived of a very fine actor.

After his capture, Shields, alongside Michael Collins, was eventually sent to Frongoch prison camp in Wales. Both men would find themselves back in Dublin by the end of the year – Collins with a mission to destroy British rule and Shields with a mission to entertain and enthral on the Abbey stage.

Barry Fitzgerald

Barry Fitzgerald

It is at this point that the story of Arthur Shields becomes even more interesting. Acting was clearly in his blood – his brother William was also an actor (he would change his name to Barry Fitzgerald and go on to have a stellar career in film, picking up an Oscar along the way). Interestingly, before fame took hold, ‘Barry’ actually worked as a civil servant in Dublin Castle.

Both men would journey to the States and appear in legendary director John Ford’s film of The Plough and the Stars (Shields played Padraig Pearse), which was released in 1936. It would be the beginning of a long relationship with the movie director.

Shields would appear in The Quiet Man alongside his brother and both Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne; She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (Wayne and O’Hara), and Long Voyage Home (Wayne again and Barry Fitzgerald).

Shields had a priestly quality to him that was useful for his role in the clerical flick, The Keys of The Kingdom, but there were many, many more roles that he played. He died in California in 1970, aged 74.

You might think that one burgeoning Hollywood actor taking part in the Easter Rising would be enough, but there was another, only the second fought on the British side.

Padraig Pearse

Padraig Pearse surrenders to Major General William Lowe and his son, Major John Lowe

That old adage about every picture telling a story is a bit wide of the mark – some pictures can tell a whole lot more than one. Just take a look at this famous photograph from the Rising, taken on April 29, 1916, of Pearse surrendering to the commander of British Forces in Dublin, Major General William Lowe.

There’s Pearse in the cape. Beside him, but obscured from view, is Elizabeth O’Farrell, a nurse with Cumann na mBan. It was O’Farrell who would carry the subsequent surrender notes to the other rebel commandants around the city.

In the original version of this image, all that could be seen of O’Fareell were here feet, visible beneath Pearse’s cape. They looked incongruous, so they were removed and poor Elizabeth lost her place in history – at least for a while. Her heroism was recently remembered by naming a bridge across the Liffey in her honour.

But, apart from Pearse and the early dig at feminism in the form of the excised Elizabeth O’Farrell, there is another intriguing point to the picture.

That tall man on the left is General Lowe’s aide-de-camp and son, Major John Lowe, a man who would have just as remarkable a life story as Arthur Shields, once the dust of the Rising finally settled.

Following his father into the army in the early months of World War I, Lowe had already seen service in Gallipoli and Egypt. He arrived in Ireland just a few days before the outbreak of the rebellion to take up his new appointment as aide-de-camp to his father, who set up his military headquarters in Dublin Castle once hostilities commenced.

In his autobiography, Hollywood Hussar, Lowe Junior speaks in broad terms about the civilian deaths and the fighting in the capital, as well as the destruction of the GPO, but he saves the detail for a fascinating nugget about Padraig Pearse.

Once the surrender had been accepted, Major Lowe brought Pearse, accompanied by a priest, by staff car to Kilmainham Gaol. He recalls the rebel poet giving his watch and ring to the priest to be forwarded to his family.

Lowe showed some compassion in this moment by asking the driver to continue past the Gaol’s gates so that the rebel leader would have more time to pass on last messages. As a token of his gratitude, Pearse gave the Major his cap badge as a keepsake, but, according to Lowe, the badge was destroyed during the London Blitz in 1940.

The Major’s military career didn’t end in Dublin. Lowe later saw service at the Somme before being captured by the Germans in 1918. And that’s when things took a more unusual turn for the British officer.

After the war, he decided to remain in Germany to run a pickle factory, but soon turned to acting in movies. Naturally, his father, the General, was aghast, so the wayward son changed his name and became John Loder.


John Loder and Hedy Lamarr

Tall, good-looking and debonair, he managed to get a few small parts before setting his sights higher and heading for Hollywood, where, in 1929, he appeared in Paramount’s first talkie, The Doctor’s Secret. He returned to England to do some more acting and, during World Wart II, went back to Hollywood as a supporting actor, mainly playing posh aristocrats.

For almost 50 years he would have roles in a plethora of films, including King Solomon’s Mines.

Loder clearly liked the ladies, and married five times – one of his spouses being the Hollywood screen goddess Hedy Lamarr. His final wife was an Argentinian heiress on whose ranch in California he lived until his death in 1988, aged 90.

Shields and Loder may have taken opposite sides during the Rising, but the two former combatants found a common refuge in California and on the movie backlots of Hollywood. One suspects, though, that the greatest role of each of their lives was played on the streets of Dublin in 1916.


This article, written by me, first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Disaster-prone women

To say that Violet Jessop was disaster prone is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has issues with his hair (and a few other issues besides…). Her story takes survival and pure luck to a whole new level. Violet achieved a peculiar kind of fame when she managed to survive three disasters.

She was the first of nine children born to Irish emigrants William and Katherine Jessop,  in Argentina, where William was a sheep farmer.  After his death, Violet and the family moved to Britain, where she attended a convent school. When her mother became ill, she left school and took a job as a ship’s stewardess.

Violet Jessop

Violet Jessop

Violet was aged 23 when she was aboard the world’s largest civilian ship  RMS Olympic when it collided with HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight on September 20, 1911. Olympic′s hull was breached resulting in the flooding of two of her compartments and a twisted propeller shaft. Despite the serious damage, she limped back to port. It was Violet’s first maritime collision.

She would be part of a far more serious disaster on board the Olympic′s sister ship, the RMS Titanic. which she joined as a stewardess on April 10, 1912. Four days later, on 14 April, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, starting to founder and, over the next two hours, broke in two and sank. Violet was ordered into lifeboat 16, and, as the boat was being lowered, one of the Titanic′s officers gave her a baby to look after. The next morning, she and the rest of the survivors were rescued by  RMS Carpathia. According to Violet, while on board the Carpathia, a woman grabbed the baby she was holding and ran off with it without saying a word. She never saw the child again.

Undaunted by two disasters, Violet went back to sea. Four years later, during World War One, she was serving on the hospital ship, HMHS Britannic (another sister ship of the Titanic) in the Aegean Sea when it struck a mine. The ship’s portholes had been kept open for better ventilation. As a result, water pouted in and the ship sank with the loss of 30 lives.


RMS Titanic

Once again, Violet made it into a lifeboat, but this one was perilously close to the Britannic as it went under, threatening to take the lifeboat in its wake. Violet leaped into the water and tried to swim away, but was sucked under nonetheless. She resurfaced but struck her head on a lifeboat keel and had to be rescued. She later attributed her survival to the cushioning effect of her plaited auburn hair.

Of course, by this time Violet was a veteran in ship survival. She said she made sure to grab her tootbrush before leaving her cabin on the Britannic, as that had been the one thing she missed most when the Titanic went down. Violet continued her life on the ocean wave, but with no further sinkings reported.

Now if you thought that Violet was unlucky (or incredibly lucky, depending on whether the glass is half full or empty), then meet Melanie Martinez, from Louisiana.

DISASTER Melanie Martinez

Melanie Martinez after another disaster

I wouldn’t suppose Melanie is up for home visits that much these days. I mean when Betsy, Juan, George and Katrina dropped by they tore the place apart. They’re hurricanes by the way. Betsy vistied Melanie in 1965, Juan 20 years later, George in 1998 and Katrina in 2005. Poor Melanie was left picking up the pieces every time.

But then things started to look up. A TV makeover show dropped by and gave her home in Braithwaite, New Orleeans, a $20,000 facelift – new kitchen, the latest appliances and a 50-inch television. What more could a body want?

Ah, but then on Wednesday August 29, 2012 – the seventh anniversary of Katrina – Hurricane Isaac howled in from the Gulf and hit her again. Cue a fifth total wipeout for the New Orleans woman.

Violet and Melanie may have been disaster prone, but First Officer Leta Frost, of the the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, aka “Wrens”) practically courted fatal mishaps.

During her post-World War II career with the Royal Navy’s Safety Equipment and Survival School, Leta did all manner of daredevil – some would might use the word ‘lunatic’ – things.


Image of First Officer Frost in a Sproule net (courtesy of the Telegraph)

In order to test whether a rescue beacon would operate properly, Leta was dropped into the ocean and waited to be located. On another occasion she jumped into the English Channel, acting unconscious and waiting to be scooped up by a ‘Sproule net’. She was also hung by a winch from a helicopter and lowered onto a ship, all the while directing the pilot by radio, as he couldn’t see her.

Leta served with the Wrens from 1942 to 1956. To all intents and purposes, she was a human guinea pig – who thrived on the fact that disaster might strike at any time.

I’m not sure how well she would have got on with the other two ladies, but I’m sure there would have been plenty to talk about…



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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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Ireland’s Dirty War…

Right now, Ireland is gearing up to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Events will be held throughout the country to mark the moment when a brave few hundred stood up against the British Empire and sowed the seeds of a nationwide rebellion that would come to fruition just a few years later in the Irish War of Independence . . . at least that’s one narrative doing the rounds. Another narrative berates the irresponsibility of the rebels and the destruction their actions brought upon the country.

Whichever version you choose, rest assured that there will be much basking in a green national glow. The 1916 Rising was pivotal, as was the War of Independence. Both are momentous occasions in the history of this State. However, there is one other huge moment when arms were taken up to fight for a cause . . .Ireland’s Civil War, which ran from June 1922 to May of 1923.

It was 11 months of bloody struggle in which atrocities occurred far worse than most of those perpetrated by British forces during the War of Independence. Yet, those gory, vengeful days of brother fighting brother are largely overlooked. However, they do bear uncomfortable scrutiny – if only to show the depths people will go in the name of patriotism.

In all, the Free State formally sanctioned the execution of  81 Anti-Treaty fighters during the war. But, of course, there were extrajudicial killings, too, with many incidents of the National Army and the police force killing prisoners.

Tom Derrig

Tom Berrig

During this time, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), based at Oriel House in Dublin,was linked with several murders of boys and IRA men. Torture was common. One anti-treaty man – Tom Derrig – had his eye shot out by police while in custody. Simply put, Oriel House became a place synonymous with brutality.

Both treaty and anti-treaty forces played dirty, though.  Prisoners were executed on eachh side. However, in March 1923, things reached a new low – a series of notorious incidents occurred that month which would make the Black and Tans behaviour in the War of Independence seem like the work of choirboys.

It all began on March 6 when a booby trap bomb killed five Free State soldiers who had been searching a republican hiding spot in Knocknagoshel, Co Kerry.

The retaliation was siwft and brutal. The following day, Free State commander Paddy Daly (who had served as leader of Michael Collins’s team of assassins, The Squad) ordered nine republican prisoners to be taken from Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee and brought to Ballyseedy crossroads. The men were  tied to a landmine . . . which was then detonated. Those who survived the blast were  shot with a machine-gun.

How do we know this? Because, amazingly, one of the prisoners – Stephen Fuller – was actually blown clear by the blast. Fuller was  tended to by locals and, though badly injured, would survive and later become a politician.

The Free State troops at Ballseedy shoved the remains of the bodies into coffins and drove them back to Tralee, claiming that the victims had been accidentally killed while clearing a mined road. A riot broke out in the town when the relatives of the dead tried to break open the coffins and identify their loved ones.

The squad

Members of The Squad (from left) Mick McDonnell, Liam Tobin, Vinny Byrne, Paddy Daly  and Jim Slattery

Those murders would open a door to violent madness. Later the same day four republican prisoners were blown up by an another landmine, this time at Countess Bridge near Killarney. Then, on March 12, again in Cahersiveen, another five men were murdered in similar fashion.

The victims, members of a unit in the Kerry No 3 Brigade of the IRA, were: Michael Courtney jnr, Eugene Dwyer, Daniel Shea, John Sugrue and William Riordan. They had been held by Free State troops in a temporary detention centre at Bahaghs workhouse.

According to reports, in the early hours of March 12 members of the Free State’s Dublin Guard went to the workhouse and selected five of the twenty men being held there.

These were then brought to a republican roadblock several miles away where the IRA men were, allegedly, shot in the legs before being laid over a mine which was then detonated, blowing the five men to pieces.

Horror was piled upon horror. On March 28, five more republicans were officially executed after being captured in an attack on Cahersiveen.  Yet another, captured the same day, was also summarily executed.

To this dreary catalogue of atrocity could be added many more forgotten incidents from the same month – a lone National Army sentry killed by a sniper in Tralee, four republicanss shot by machine guns after a failed ambush in Wexford, two assassinations of suspected republicans in Dublin by Free State Intelligence, two off-duty Free State soldiers seized and shot in the same city; and so on. Such is the fruit of civil war.

Of the 32 republican fighters who died that month in Kerry alone, only five were actually killed in combat.

Daly, the Free State commander who caused most of the deaths, claimed that the prisoners had been killed while clearing roads by landmines laid by republicans, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing by a Court of Inquiry.

Documents released in late 2008 show that the Free State Cabinet knew that the Army’s version of events was bogus. An investigation concluded that the victims at Cahersiveen on March 12 had been beaten and shot before being blown up by mines that had actually been made by Free State soldiers.

But nobody was called to account. The incidents were all hushed up.

Not surprisingly, the Civil War left a bitter, bitter legacy. To this day, the dark doings of those times are rarely discussed in the same manner as British brutalities from the War of Independence are. Some things are too painful to study, particularly when the perpetrators were once bosom buddies.

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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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