Bombs Away! The day America dropped four nukes on Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palomares H-Bomb Cleanup

Locals inspect debis from the plane collision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palomares_H-Bomb_Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Day the Nazis Bombed Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking to Work Through a Battle Zone

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

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

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

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

Customs House

The Custom House

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

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

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

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

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

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IRA prisoners being rounded up after the attack

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

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

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

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Michael Lawlor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jolly Jane and Typhoid Mary – The Household Killers

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

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

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

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

Jane Toppan

Jane Toppan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How I learned that grandad executed Erskine Childers

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

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

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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.

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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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