How I learned that grandad executed Erskine Childers

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

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

Michael full image 2

Michael Lawlor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

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

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

Then they executed him.

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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

Michael pages

The brochure I put together on my grandfather

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A Family at War

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

charlie-weston 1

Charlie Weston, journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Weston 2

Charlie Weston, freedom fighter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter 1916 – The Forgotten Battle

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

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

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

Thomas Ashe

Commandant Thomas Ashe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Mulcahy

Lieutenant (later General) Richard Mulcahy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hooray for Hollywood’s inventors

The glamour and glitter of the Oscars are hard to match; such exquisite dresses, so many porcelain veneers, not to mention the Botox. . .

Hollywood’s great and good have just been honoured with golden statuettes at the annual gong fest as thanks for their achievements. But, without trying to sound like too much of an old fogey, the glamour and star quality of today isn’t a patch on Hollywood’s truly halcyon years.

Neither is the talent.

You might beg to differ on that last point, but you’d be wrong because when it comes to the entertainment industry there are stars and then there are true pioneers. Step forward Howard Hughes and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Now, we all know of the legendary Hughes as the reclusive movie mogul and Curtis for her work as an actress, but there’s more to them than that. Both were also inventors and actually patented items of clothing. Well, clothing of sorts – Hughes may have invented a steel bra and Curtis a disposable nappy with pockets holding clean-up wipes, but the point is they were coming up with creative work onscreen and off.

800px-Zeppo_Marx

Zeppo Marx

Marlon Brando is another star who turned his talent to more than acting. The star of The Godfather patented a drumhead tensioning device, which made it possible to tune a drum. Even the comedic actor Zeppo Marx (Groucho’s brother, not Karl’s) got in on the act in a very serious way when, in 1969, he help to develop a type of monitor that would let people with heart problems know if their pulse was heading towards the danger zone.

James Cameron

James Cameron

Directors Steven Spielberg and James Cameron hold a number of patents. Spielberg came up ideas for annotating scripts and for a camera dolly track switch for use in filming, while Titanic director Cameron really pushed the boat out, so to speak, by patenting a submersible which can dive five miles below the surface. In 1989, he and his brother, Michael, also created  an underwater dolly equipped with propellers that makes it easy for a camera operator to manoeuvre in the water.

All very clever, I think you’ll agree. However, there was one Hollywood luminary who, in my mind, stood out more than all the rest. Her name was exotic, her looks hypnotic . . . I give you the delectable, the astounding, Ms Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr

Screen goddess Hedy Lamarr

I may be a sucker for a pretty face and a smart mind, but it’s not every day that you come across the words ‘screen goddess’ and ‘inventor’ in the same sentence, much less when you realise that the invention concerned proved to be hugely important to the military and to the rest of the world. Yet, Lamarr can justifiably make such outlandish claims.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born of Austrian and American parents on 9 November 1914. She started her acting career in Germany, but after meeting Louis B Mayer, would go on to light up the screen in the ’40s and ’50s, starring alongside Hollywood greats, including Clarke Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.

There’s a real ’40s’ glamour feel to that name, but I’d never known what she looked like. There’s a touch of Vivien Leigh about her, but aside from the beauty and acting talent, there were brains to burn, too.

During World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil actually devised a radio guidance system for torpedoes. The idea was to prevent the enemy from jamming a  signal which would allow torpedoes to hone in on their targets. To avoid the signal from being blocked, Lamarr and Antheul used frequency hopping technology to defeat the jammers.

Her technology was developed by the US Navy, which has used it ever since . . . as have most of us.  Her patent sits at the centre of what is known as “spread spectrum technology”, which is used in wi-fi networks and when we make calls with Bluetooth-enabled phones.

So, as the winners of last night’s Oscars revel in their acclaim, it might be worth their while remembering those other talents of the entertainment world . . . some of whom may never have won the golden statuette, but whose creative skills had a more lasting impact than any takings at the box-office.

 

 

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Granny, the Easter Rising looter

To have a relative who was ‘out’ in 1916 – that is, someone who took part in that mad assault on the British Empire known as the Easter Rising – is something to be treasured.

Of course, there were plenty of other people ‘out’ in Easter Week – all of them risking life and limb, not for Ireland, though, but for themselves and their families as they smashed in windows and took whatever plunder they could carry from city centre businesses.

There were probably more looters out and about in Dublin that week than there were rebels holed up in the GPO. My granny, Maggie, was one of them – and we still have the dishes she ‘liberated’ to prove it: Four soup bowls with a Milan stamp on the back . . . they are testament to another, less noble side to the Rising.

Maggie was a teenager at the time, and a tenacious one, given that dishes weren’t the only things she set her sights on that fateful week.

The story goes that she was looting a butcher’s shop when she spied a prize shoulder of ham. Determined to get more than that and hauling the ham along, Maggie sought out more booty from the shelves. A man nearby kindly offered to hold the ham while she went foraging. Needless to say, that was the last time she saw that lump of meat.

Maggie was just one of many who ransacked city centre premises during the Rising. The first business to fall was Noblett’s sweet shop on Sackville Street, the plate glass window of which shattered as the last words of the Proclamation were fading on Padraig Pearse’s lips.

A shower of sweetstuffs,chocolate boxes and huge slabs of toffee were taken by the crowd in double-quick time, all the while ignoring pleadings from Volunteers and from Fr Michael Flanagan, from the Pro-Cathedral,who had arrived on the scene.

Women and children were the first to start looting on Easter Monday. Businesses in Earl Street and Abbey Street were ransacked while Pearse and Connolly sipped tea and ate sandwiches inside the GPO.

Granny's bowl

One of the bowls  my granny Maggie looted during the Rising

Clery’s, Elvery’s and McDowell’s jewellers all fell victim to looters, with the Illustrated Sunday Herald reporting: “McDowell’s, the jewellers, was broken into and some thousands of pounds worth of jewellery taken. Taafe’s, the hosiers; Lewer’s, Dunn’s hat shop, the Cable shoe shop, all were gutted, and their contents, when not wanted, were thrown pell-mell into the street.”

One witness recalls seeing people in the Gresham Hotel with jewellery they had bought from the looters. In his memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, Ernie O’Malley recalled arriving onto Sackville Street and being pestered by looters hawking their booty: “Diamond rings and pocketsful of gold watches were selling for sixpence and a shilling, and one was cursed if one did not buy.”

Meanwhile, Volunteers with batons tried in vain to protect business, and the journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who would not survive Easter week, stood atop a tram car and pleaded with people not to steal.

One Volunteer described witnessing looters carrying a stolen piano from the direction of Mary’s Lane. They ignored warnings to stop, and only did so after a volley was fired over their heads. The would-be plunderers scarpered, leaving the piano in the middle of the street.

The bizarre sights didn’t end there. Several Volunteers broke into the Waxworks Museum and were soon to be seen parading up and down in all manner of outlandish costumes.

The looting lasted for most of the week. CItizens had gone mad and no manner of threats or impeachments would disuade them from their path.

In his book, Dear, Dirty Dublin: A City in Distress, 1899-1916, Joseph O’Brien wrote that “according to police statistics for 1916, 425 persons were proceeded against for looting during the rebellion and 398 of these were either fined or imprisoned”.

The Irish Independent reported on May 11, 1916, how a mother and daughtet had been, charged with being in illegal possession of “two mattresses, one pillow, eight window curtains, one lady’s corset.. one top coat, two ladies coats, five ladies hats and four chairs.”

In the same news report, it was noted that two ladies from Camden Street had been prosecuted for being in possession of, among other things, “3lbs of tea, 12 boxes of sweet herbs…some lemonade and cornflower.” The constable told the court that the accused told him: “we were looting, like the rest. We had a bit out of it, too!” They were sentenced to a month in prison each.

The testimony of Royal Irish Regiment Sergeant Flethcher-Desborough, found in the Bureau of Military History, states that “months after the end of the Rising, flower sellers and paper vendors round the pillar, sported fur coats and bejewelled fingers, which they could never have bought with the profits from their flower selling”.

The rebellion of 1916 highlighted two sides to the Irish coin – fearless patriotism and venal greed. We celebrate the patriotism and ignore the baser motives of those who were ‘out’ that week one hundred years ago. In my own family’s case, were it not for four soup bowls from Milan, those darker deeds may have been lost to history entirely.

 

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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 and her name was included among several candidates to be honoured by having a new bridge across the Liffey named after her, alas poor Elizabeth missed out on that opportunity as well.

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.

Hedy_Lamarr_and_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.

titanic

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.

Picture3.jpg

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

“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


tan1. BLACK AND TANS
: 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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