The Dying Minutes of World War One

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 brought peace, at last, to the war-ravaged fields of Flanders and other blood-soaked theatres of carnage. To
those three elevens would be added another – 11,000 men were killed or wounded on
that last day before the guns finally stopped firing.

It is a cruel irony that men who had fervently prayed they would make it home to
their loved ones would fall as the final hours and minutes ticked down to the
armistice.

In frontline aid stations, in hospitals and in convalescence facilities far beyond the
sound of gunfire, soldiers would die as the minutes ticked down to peace. Historian
Tom Burnell estimates that 29 Irishmen lost their lives on that final day… most of
them to pneumonia, disease or by succumbing to wounds received days earlier.

However, four of them were killed in action that last day. Two were from Mayo –
Michael Garvin, from Newport, and Patrick Murray, from Doocastle. Austin Francis
O’Hare, from Clare, was also killed. All three served with the US Army. George
Grover, from Dublin, a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, was serving in Egypt
when he was killed in action on November 11.

To die in those last hours seems somehow crueler than to be one of the 16 million
who died over the course of the entire war.

George Elison

George Elison

Private George Elison was the last British soldier to be killed. Elison served with the Royal Irish Lancers and had enlisted at the start of the war in 1914. He’d had an eventful time of it, fighting at Mons, as well as in the battles of Ypres, Armentieres, La Bassée, Lens, the Battle of Loos and the Battle of Cambrai.

Elison, born in Leeds, was 40 years old when he was killed while on patrol in Mons. Married to Hannah and with a son, James, he died at 9.30am, just an hour-and-a-half before the armistice came into effect.

Frenchman Augustin Trébuchon was a messenger with the 163rd Infantry Division when they were ordered to cross the flooding Meuse river near the town of Sedan and to attack an elite German unit.

Augustin Trébuchon

Augustin Trébuchon

Drenched by rain and freezing with cold, about 700 men crossed the river at a railway line a little after 8am under cover of heavy fog, some falling in the water and drowning along the way.

Then, at 10.30am, the fog cleared and the Germans opened fire with machine guns. Ninety-one Frenchmen were killed in the action. Trébuchon was the last to die – shot as he tried to deliver a message to his comrades to muster for food. Augustin Trébuchon died at 10.45am, with just 15 minutes to go before fighting was to cease.

Canadian soldier George Lawrence Price, from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, was serving with the 28th Infantry Battalion on November 11. The 26-year-old was part of a five-man patrol that was checking buildings beside the canal at Ville-sur-Haine, in Mons, for signs of the enemy.

George Lawrence Price

George Lawrence Price

Unfortunately, they found them – a group of German soldiers in the process of setting up machine guns on a wall overlooking the canal. There was an exchange of fire; both sides took cover and the Germans retreated.

The Canadians began to follow, but just as George stepped out onto the street he was shot in the chest by a German sniper. Dragged into a nearby house, he was treated by a local nurse, but there was little she could do.

George Price died soon after, at 10.58am… just two minutes before the armistice.

US Army Sergeant Henry Gunther got even closer to that magic hour before his life was taken. Gunther, 23, was either brave beyond all compare or someone with a death wish. The bronze plaque at the base of his grave refers to him being ‘highly decorated for exceptional bravery and heroic action that resulted in his death one minute before the Armistice’.

Gunther’s unit – Alpha Company, 313rd Regiment, 79th  Infantry Division – were
pinned down by a German ambush during the Battle of Argonnne Forest. News
reached the men that the war would be over at 11am, and as the last minutes ticked
away Henry Gunther stood up and charged forward, with fixed bayonet, towards a
German machine-gun unit.

Henry Gunther

Henry Gunther

The Germans pleaded with him to stop but on he charged until they were forced to open fire, hitting him in the head.  He was killed at 10.59am.

Why had Henry Gunther, a recently engaged bank bookkeeper, felt the need to do such a thing?

Some point to the fact that he had recently been demoted for writing disparagingly in a letter to a friend about army life. Another reason lies in that surname… Gunther. His family were of German descent and were wrongly suspected of being spies. Gunther himself felt he was suspected of being a German sympathiser.

After his demotion (his rank was reinstated after his death), Gunther went out of his way to put himself into harm’s way. So, perhaps, that mad headlong charge at the enemy was less about bravery and more about Henry Gunther thinking he had a point to prove about his patriotism. Either way, it cost him his life and a peculiar place in the history books – as being the last man killed before the armistice.

But what were troops doing engaging with the enemy at all when the clock was
counting down to peace? General John Pershing, commander of the American
Expeditionary Force, had told his men to continue fighting even after the armistice…
an order which resulted in the loss of 3,500 Americans on that final day.

Pershing later stood by his order, claiming that Marshal Ferdinand Foch,
commander-in-chief of Allied Forces in France, had told him to maintain pressure on the
retreating enemy until the ceasefire went into effect.

It wasn’t just American officers who put their men’s lives at risk. Just before 11am,
the commander of the British army’s 88th Infantry Brigade, Bernard Freyburg led a
cavalry charge of a detachment of the 7th Dragoon Guards through enemy outposts
and on into the village of Lessines as bullets flew in all directions (one hit Freyburg’s
saddle), he and his men managed the feat with just seconds to spare before the
armistice started.

Awarded the Victoria Cross, three Distinguished Service Orders, wounded twice and
mentioned in despatches five times, Freyburg clearly loved being in the thick of the
fighting, but why he would risk the lives of his men in such a futile action is open to
question.

Unfortunately, the killing didn’t stop with the start of the armistice. According to
some sources, the last German said to have been killed was a Lieutenant Tomas, who
approached some US soldiers after 11am to tell them that he and his men were
vacating a nearby house and that the Americans were free to use it. Not knowing about the armistice, the soldiers shot him down.

As the centenary looms, take a moment to remember the millions who gave their lives during four years of murderous mayhem… four years of heartache that continued unrelentingly right up to that eleventh hour and to those terrible dying minutes of World War One.

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The Romanovs’ Irish Nanny

On September 1, 1918, a top-secret despatch from British spies in Archangel, Russia, reported devastating news: ‘After the Czechs took Ekaterinburg … a heap of charred bones was discovered in a mine shaft, about 30 versts north of the town. Among the ashes were shoe buckles, corset ribs, diamonds and platinum crosses … Amongst trinkets and buckles [were] articles belonging to the Empress, her four daughters and the Tsarevitch.’

The remains were discovered in a forest, battered, burned and covered in sulphuric acid. A solitary finger was found among the debris. ‘I think it must belong to the Empress. It is very difficult to tell because it is so very swollen,’ an eyewitness stated. ‘They probably wanted to take off the ring, and as the fingers were so swollen and they could not get it off, they cut off the finger. It was lying there in the ashes as were the false teeth.’

It was an horrific end for Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and son Alexei. The imperial highnesses, the Romanovs, one of the most resplendent families in the world, had been shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death in a cellar on July 17, 1918.

Their murders would send shockwaves around the world and the details of their final gruesome moments still send shudders down spines to this day. One can only imagine how Limerick woman Margaretta Eagar must have felt when she heard the news.

For six years, Margaretta was nanny to the four little grand duchesses, and later published her biography, Six Years in the Russian Court.

Born in 1863, Eagar was trained as a nurse in Belfast and later worked as matron in an orphanage. In 1898, she was recommended to the Tsar as nanny to his growing brood, and so Margaretta gained an insight to a life of untold wealth and privilege.

On meeting the children, not all of whom were born by then, she wrote: ‘The little Grand Duchess Olga was at this time over three years of age. She was a very fine child, and had large blue-grey eyes and long golden curls. The Grand Duchess Tatiana was a year and a half; a very pretty child, remarkably like her mother, but delicate in appearance.’

The Winter Palace had over fifteen hundred rooms, with the children’s nursery particularly well catered for.  One of the rooms there contained a ‘mountain’ down which the children would toboggan to amuse themselves.

Margaretta Eagar

Margaretta Eagar with the Romanov grand duchesses

Eagar describes the fabulous wealth that surrounded her. One room had eight  pairs of doors in tortoiseshell embellished with gold. In another were collections of Rembrandts and Rubens, but it was the Empress’s jewels that seemed to outshine everything. ‘Her rubies and emeralds are very fine, and, of course, her diamonds are famous. The Grand Duchess Serge, sister to the Empress, is possessed of what are considered the finest sapphires in the world but the Empress has some which run them very closely.’

In her memoirs, Eagar tells of the children’s reaction to their mother’s court dress for Mass one Christmas Day. The Empress was bedecked with ‘seven chains of diamonds around her neck, a girdle of the same sparkling gems around her waist… [and] a head-dress, decorated with large single stone diamonds.

‘The little girlies… circled round her in speechless admiration for some time, and suddenly the Grand Duchess Olga clapped her hands, and exclaimed fervently, “Oh! Mama, you are just like a lovely Christmas tree!”’ 

Ironically, it was these jewels which prolonged the suffering of the royal family in their final moments. During captivity, the royals secreted diamonds in specially made underwear, reinforced with toughened material. When it came to the executions, the bullets bounced off the garments or merely wounded the royals, resulting in the guards bludgeoning and bayoneting them to death.

Margaretta 3

Tsar Nicholas II and his imperial family

Eagar clearly loved her charges, describing them as ‘my girls’ or’ my children’. Each one displayed a charming innocence. Olga feared she would go to prison after seeing a policeman write in a notebook on an occasion when she had been naughty. In a poignant hint at what was to come, she asked her father if he had ever been a prisoner, to which he replied he had never been quite naughty enough to go to prison. ‘Oh, how very good you must have been, too,’ she said.

Little Grand Duchess Maria was clearly besotted with her daddy. Eagar writes: ‘When she was barely able to toddle she would always try to escape from the nurseries to go to papa, and whenever she saw him in the garden or park she would call after him. If he heard or saw her, he always waited for her, and would carry her for a little.’

When she wasn’t playing with the girls and doting over them, Eagar was teaching them English – so successfully in fact that they developed a slight Limerick accent, which was eventually eradicated by another tutor.

All the girls were very close. When Olga had typhoid fever, her sister Tatiana cried with distress to see her sister so ill. On another occasion, Eagar recalls: ‘Grand Duchess Anastasie [sic] was sitting in my lap, coughing and choking away, when the Grand Duchess Marie came to her and putting her face close up to her said, “Baby, darling, cough on me.” Greatly amazed, I asked her what she meant, and the dear child said, “I am so sorry to see my dear little sister so ill, and I thought if I could take it from her she would be better”.’

In light of what was to happen just a few years later, little Duchess Olga’s musings on death seem quite heart-breaking. Eagar describes Olga’s reaction to a story from history of how the English beheaded a Welsh prince. The girl exclaimed, ‘I really think people are much better now than they used to be. I’m very glad I live now when people are so kind.’

Margaretta 2

Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia pictured in 1906

The mayhem in that Ekaterinburg cellar would last 20 terrible minutes. The Tsar and his wife died instantly – most of the executioners were unwilling to be first to fire on the children, so targeted the parents instead. Other deaths weren’t so quick. The Empress’s maid, Anna Dermidova, was stabbed trying to defend herself with a cushion stuffed with jewels.

The Tsarevich Alexei was shot twice in the head after the killers noticed that he had survived the first bullet.

Grand Duchess Maria cowered against the wall, covering her head in terror before being stabbed. As the bodies were being hauled away, two of the duchesses were heard to be coughing. Bayonets soon put an end to that.

Margaretta Eagar left the royals’ service in 1904, long before the horrors of Ekaterinburg were visited on her charges. The love and pride she held for them remained undimmed as this entry from her memoir, published in 1906,  shows…

‘Someone… lately said, “Olga has grace, wit, and good looks; Tatiana is a regular beauty; Marie [sic] is so sweet-natured, good and obliging, no one could help loving her; but little Anastasie has personal charm beyond any child I ever saw.”

‘It wasa true summary of the children as they would appear to a stranger, but there is a great deal more depth and strength of character in all the children than appears at first sight. I often wonder what use they will make of all the talents God has entrusted them with

Margaretta Eagar died in 1936 – no doubt, with that last thought plaguing her to her dying day.

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The Irish rebels who fought for Israel

Mike Flanagan and (inst) Paddy Cooper

Mike Flanagan and (inset) Paddy Cooper

It was 1948 and as the military half-track drove through the Beit Netofa Valley, at the village of Madna in Galilee, shots rang out. One Israeli soldier was killed and another was hit in the head. A sniper had zeroed in on the men and was picking them off one by one.

Then, one of the half-track’s occupants, a tall, sturdy man with blue eyes and brown hair, broke cover from behind the vehicle and went to outflank the gunman. According to one witness, the soldier picked up a heavy stick and crept up behind the sniper, who was still shooting, and promptly bashed his head in.

It wasn’t the first time that Paddy Cooper saw action fighting for Israel. That same year under the hot noon-day sun in the small town of Bayt Jibrin, to the west of the Hebron Hills, a detachment of the Israeli Defence Forces were pinned down by armoured vehicles of the Jordanian Legion.

Paddy inched his way forward with a Piat anti-tank weapon to sort out the problem. The Piat could only be fired within 50 metres, but the soldier crept even closer to make sure of his target. Alone, he cocked the weapon, fired and hit the vehicle.

On another occasion, Paddy, who was a specialist with the Vickers machine gun in World War II, took part in an attack on a police station.

A hole was blown in the wall, through which Paddy and two others entered. According to one witness, Paddy found a Vickers there, loaded it and started to fire every which way. ‘He was our hero that day.’

Such words seem to repeat whenever people talked of the Irishman – for that’s what Paddy, whose mother was Irish, considered himself to be.

Through dogged research, his sister Veronica later managed to unearth some tales of his fascinating life fighting on the Arab front line.

‘He had no fear,’ one former comrade told her.  He was ‘an impressive man, tall and handsome’ recalled another – Yohanan Piltz, former deputy commander of the 89th battalion.

John Patrick Cooper certainly stood out from the crowd. Born to Irishwoman Agnes Collins and raised a Catholic in England, he enlisted in the British Army in 1942.

Paddy, as he was known, served in North Africa and later in Europe. Discharged from service in December 1946, he re-enlisted in October 1947, returning to the British Army as a driver.

Britain had been in control of the area known as Mandate Palestine since 1917. Over the years, tensions had mounted between Palestinian Arabs and Jews who wanted to create their own homeland there.

When the Nazis took power, there was a huge influx of Jewish refugees from Germany to Palestine, increasing the percentage of Jews from almost 17% to nearly 30% between 1931 and 1935, a change in the social dynamic that further fuelled tensions.

Britain found itself, on the one hand, trying to contain Palestinian Arabs who wanted their own national government free of British control, and on the other with a growing Jewish population determined to create a homeland for themselves.

After World War II, hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews flocked to Palestine, increasing the clamour for a Jewish state.

Not knowing how to placate both sides, the British handed the problem over to the United Nations which, in 1947, divided the territory into two states – one for Jews and the other for Palestinian Arabs.

The British were still in situ and, keen to build their relationships with these new Middle East nations, quietly aided the surrounding Arab states to the detriment of the Jews.

It was into this powder keg that Sergeant Paddy Cooper was deployed.

There were a series of clashes between groups from both sides, but tensions really overflowed on April 9, 1948, when Jewish forces attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, close to Jerusalem, in a bid to rid the area of Arabs.

Paddy Cooper’s conversion from British soldier to freedom fighter took place four days later, on April 13, 1948, when Arabs retaliated by attacking a Jewish convoy in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of eastern Jerusalem.

Paddy was part of a detachment of British troops who watched the attack unfold and which prevented Jewish reinforcements coming to the aid of the convoy.

Under orders not to interfere, Paddy and his comrades watched until the convoy was overrun and its vehicles set alight with the passengers still inside, leaving 78 Jews dead.

He later told his Israeli commander Yohanan Piltz, he could not ‘serve in an army that allows atrocities like that’.

Paddy had always advocated an independent Ireland, so he already had an affinity for what Jewish people were trying to achieve. As far as he was concerned, the Jewish/Palestine issue was very simple. It made no sense to him that he fought Nazi Germany in World War II only to be then deployed to the Middle East to fight the Nazis’ victims.

That convoy massacre was the final straw – that evening, Paddy decided to desert his unit and fight for the Jewish state.

A month later, on May 14, the state of Israel was declared and the very next day it was attacked by a coalition of Arab forces (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Palestinians and volunteers from other nations).

Paddy’s military career with the Israeli army was action packed on and off the battlefield. He could fight hard, but he partied harder. According to one story, he went to a hotel restaurant in Tel Aviv to unwind with some mates after a battle.

All was good fun until the bill arrived and they realised they didn’t have enough money to pay. Paddy solved the problem by taking out a smoke grenade and throwing it into the lobby. In all the confusion, he and his pals made their escape.

Paddy, who had been declared a deserter by the British army in June 1948, was discharged from the IDF in April 1949. He decided to remain in Israel despite an amnesty being granted to him by the British in 1958.

He wasn’t the only British army deserter to join the ranks of the IDF. One of the most famous was Foxford, Co. Mayo man Sergeant Mike Flanagan, who together with fellow Sergeant Harry MacDonald, stole two Cromwell tanks, bursting them through the gate of the British base in Haifa before delivering them into the hands of the Israeli army.

Like Paddy Cooper, Mike Flanagan saw the Jews battling the same British army that the Irish had fought 25 years earlier. The plot to steal the tanks was hatched when Flanagan and MacDonald were contacted by an agent of the Jewish paramilitary group Haganah.

Using their rank, Mike and Harry volunteered to take midnight guard duty at the camp. The initial plan called for taking four Cromwell tanks that were in the soldiers’ care, but the two Jewish Haganah agents who were tasked with driving the other vehicles ran into difficulties.

The two stolen tanks became the ‘core’ of the IDF’s first tank battalion, which also included one Sherman and some Italian tanks, and both Mike and Harry fought through the war of independence as members of the Israeli Defence Forces.

In one action, Operation Yoav, their tank spearheaded an attack by the Palmach Hanegev Brigade against the Egyptian army’s Iraq-el-Manshiya fortress.

Racing ahead, Flanagan lost touch with what was going on with the attack’s progress as artillery fire tore up the ground around his tank. So heavy was the shelling that MacDonald couldn’t even open up the hatch to see what the situation was.

A shell landed in front of the Cromwell and a piece of shrapnel passed through the driver’s viewing slot, wounding Flanagan in the head and chest, but Mike managed to keep driving, ramming through barbed wire and into the heavily defended fortress.

Rifle fire pinged off the tank as MacDonald carefully raised the hatch only to realise that they had made the advance alone without any ground support. Mike Flanagan quickly turned his Cromwell around and got out of Dodge as quick as his tracks could carry them.

Both men would continue to serve throughout the war. When the dust of battle settled, MacDonald moved to Canada, but Flanagan stayed on, converted to Judaism, married and raised a family.

Mike Flangan’s tank now sits in the Armoured Corps Museum in Latrun… a little piece of history to mark the Jewish nation’s road to independence.

As Israel’s citizens reflect on their state’s foundation 70 years ago, they will look at a past of blood and sacrifice – but it’s a past made all the richer thanks to two Irish deserters from the British army… brave men who saw Israel’s struggle for independence and found a common cause in which they would risk all for their place in the Promised Land.

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Ireland’s Holocaust heroine

The great events of our past – the wars and the genocides – are just a series of small steps strung together… steps that when looked back upon appear to be a seamless, momentous journey.

And because of that, we tend to overlook many of those very people who created the events that make history so extraordinary.

The name Mary Elmes is not one that conjures up any special memory to most people, and that’s probably just the way the Corkwoman would have wanted it.

Look at her photo and words like ‘refined’, delicate’ and ladylike’ spring to mind. Mary Elmes was all those things and more besides. She was also fearless, iron-willed and relentless in her cause – to bring help and succour to frightened, dispossessed people in fear for their lives. Were it not for Mary, hundreds of children would have died at the hands of the Nazis and thousands of refugees could have starved to death.

Put plainly, Mary Elmes was a humanitarian par excellence, who was locked up in a Gestapo prison for doing good work… work that has until recently been forgotten – work which, in 2014, earned her the Jewish accolade of Righteous Among Nations… the only Irish person to be so honoured.

Born on May 5, 1908, and raised in Cork, Mary graduated with a first-class honours degree in modern languages from Trinity College and was awarded a gold medal for her efforts.

She went on to win a scholarship at the London School of Economics, before earning a place at an international relations summer school in Geneva in 1936.

Then the Spanish Civil War broke out and everything changed. Hearing about the plight of refugees, Mary volunteered with Save the Children, and was assigned to the aid station at Almeria, on the southeast coast of Spain.

An estimated 80,000 people had sought refuge there, walking 120 miles from Malaga and suffering daily bombardment and machine-gun fire along the way. Some 5,000 had died en route.

Mary’s humanitarian work began in that hot climate of fear and despair. She would go on to help the refugees, feeding them and ensuring they were educated and clothed, until the civil war ended.

Her aid work continued when she moved across the border into France to work with the Quaker organisation, the American Friends Service Committee.

By 1940, Mary was running the AFSC office in Perpignan on the Spanish border and gave assistance at another refugee camp at nearby Argeles. The workload was overwhelming, and Mary became a vital cog in the humanitarian effort to help the thousands who were fleeing Spain.

Mary Elmes was an administrative powerhouse, as is revealed in journalist Clodagh Finn’s thoroughly researched and well-written book, A Time to Risk All.

According to Clodagh,  she ‘organised school for two thousand children, set up a library with four thousand books, established a maternity wing in one of the barracks, distributed clothes, blankets, reading glasses, medical aids, established classes for adults, set up sewing and carpentry workshops, distributed food and milk… oh, and established a hospital, equipping it with medicine and instruments’.

She did similar work in several other refugee camps and administered aid in the region’s general hospitals and schools.

The following year, the army camp at nearby Rivesaltes was used by the French government as a refugee centre. Mary and her colleagues helped the thousands who were sent there. By 1942, it had become a holding centre for all the Jews in non-occupied France. Conditions were dreadful; food, clothing and all other necessary support were in scant supply, and Mary was working round the clock to improve things.

Her work stretched beyond the camps themselves, and in nearby towns she set up a series of hostels or ‘colonies’ – holiday homes to which children could be sent as a place of respite from the very difficult conditions in the refugee camp.

Then, the Vichy government instructed that Jews from the centres be transported out of the country. It didn’t take long for people to realise the evil motivation behind the order as the wheels of the transports began taking tens of thousands to Nazi death camps.

Mary Elmes during the war years and in later life

Mary Elmes during the war years and in later life

Mary spirited away nine children from the first convoy bound for Auschwitz when it left the Rivesaltes camp in August 1942. From then on, she brought a steady stream of children from the camp, smuggling them out in the boot of her car before sending them on to other care homes, where the children were hidden or passed along to safer environments.

One colleague recalls that Mary brought between three and seven children from the camp to the Quaker respite centre at Cane-Plage every fortnight. But this was just one centre Mary used to rescue children, there were many others.

Nine Nazi convoys deported 2,289 Jewish adults and 174 children between August and October 1942. It’s estimated that thanks to Mary and her friends, 427 children were saved from deportation that autumn.

There is no proper record of how many children Mary Elmes saved. The children themselves were not in her care for long – she would whisk them from the camp and then deposit them in a safe home and then depart, so the children never got to know her well.

When she wasn’t physically rescuing children, she was using bureaucracy to safeguard them… changing details on forms so that children weren’t included on the transports. She helped adults, too… on one occasion hiding an Austrian family in her flat before the tried to escape into Switzerland.

In short, she was doing everything she could to save lives and run a huge humanitarian operation to sustain thousands of others.

Of the estimated 1,193 children aged under 16 at Rivesaltes, 174 were deported and 13 died in the camp due to the conditions there. Mary and her colleagues managed to save the rest – 84pc of the children – from the Nazis clutches.

The same can’t be said for Mary herself. In 1943, she was arrested by German security police on suspicion of espionage, making secret border crossings and for anti-Reich propaganda.

After months of lobbying for her release by the Quakers, the Irish government and the German ambassador to Ireland, Mary was finally freed from the Gestapo-run Fresnes Prison.

She continued her aid work after being released, but when the war ended she settled down to married life with her French husband and busied herself raising her two children.

Mary was offered the Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest accolade – but refused as she thought others were worthier.  She rarely spoke to her family about her life-saving work during both wars.

A Time to Risk All, by Clodagh FinnAuthor Clodagh Finn travelled throughout Europe and Ireland picking up the pieces of information to reveal the story of this brave, unknown woman, even meeting some of the children Mary saved from Auschwitz. Clodagh’s excellent book, A Time to Risk All, is a testament to the courage and spirit of Mary Elmes.

We often look to politicians and soldiers as being the shapers of history but were it not for extraordinary people like Mary, the story of our past would be very different, and much, much bleaker.

Mary Elmes died in 2002, aged 93. She provided sanctuary for the most vulnerable, gave them hope amid despair, saved lives and created futures where none looked possible. What greater legacy could a person leave?

Whether she’d like it or not, she should not be forgotten. We should treasure her memory and, in our own small ways and in these times when refugee crises are rife, we should continue her good work.

Mary Elmes – Corkwoman, humanitarian and Ireland’s forgotten Holocaust heroine.

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The relic hunters

Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but some remorseful thieves in Dublin decided to leave theirs in the care of the Irish police force last week.

The city’s Christ Church Cathedral welcomed back an old friend when the stolen heart of Dublin’s patron saint, Laurence O’Toole, was returned to its care having been taken from the church six years earlier.

Laurence – an ascetic who wore a hair-shirt, who never ate meat and who fasted every Friday – became Archbishop of Dublin in 1161.

St Laurence O'Toole's heart

St Laurence O’Toole’s heart

In 1180, after travelling to Normandy, he became ill and died. His heart was preserved, and after he was canonised in 1225, it was taken to Christ Church Cathedral.

According to Garda sources, the ancient organ had only brought bad luck to the family who had stolen it, and the thieves were only too glad to hand it back. The news was met with joy by Church authorities.

As stolen goods go, you might think a human heart is something of a rarity, but there have been plenty of famous body parts that have gone AWOL over the years… just take the case of Yelena Rzhevskaya.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

During the final days of the Second World War, the 25-year-old Russian army interpreter was handed a satin-covered burgundy box, which contained a charred fragment of lower jaw and some dentures.

According to her commanding officer, these were the teeth of Adolf Hitler – or where they?

Many suspected the Fuhrer could have escaped from Berlin and might be hiding somewhere in the Bavarian Alps. Proving that he was dead, therefore, was crucial.

Yelena soon found herself travelling across bomb-scarred Berlin for proof that the teeth were indeed Hitler’s. She eventually found the answer in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery, where the dental office of Dr Hugo Blaschke was discovered.

Searching through a cabinet in Blaschke’s office, she found X-rays of Hitler’s teeth. They matched those in Yelena’s box.

But Stalin wanted the secret of Hitler’s death to himself. In terms of post-war negotiations, it suited him to suggest that Hitler might have survived the fall of Berlin.

So, it would not be until 2000 that the world would learn about Adolf’s gnashers, when the Russians put the teeth on display as part of an exhibition to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

But Hitler wasn’t the only war leader to have part of their body taken. Napoleon is another, er, member of the club…  given that his penis did a disappearing act shortly after his death. Seemingly, the late Emperor’s little prince was cut off during his autopsy, before finding its way into the possession of Abbé Anges Vignali, who had given Napoleon the last rites.

After being displayed in New York’s Museum of French Art in 1927, the penis was bought at a Paris auction for $3,000 by an eminent American urologist, and now belongs to his son – New

Jersey man Evan Lattimer. ‘Napoleon’s item’, as the Lattimer family refer to it, may be a shrivelled husk of its former self, but it still makes a great conversation topic at a dinner party.

Another AWOL organ from a famous leader surfaced in 1966 when the American government returned part of the brain of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to his widow, Rachele. Mussolini had been lynched by a mob in 1945, and the Americans had somehow got hold of the brain, either to study it or to have a ghoulish trophy.

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

In 2009, the dictator’s granddaughter Alessandro reported to police that vials alleged to hold the remaining some of Mussolini’s brains and blood were being offered on eBay for €15,000. The online store is said to have quickly removed the listing.

When it comes to well-travelled body parts though, few can rival St Francis Xavier. The 16th century saint spent his life spreading the gospel through Spain, France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka and India. He was about to extend his missionary to China when he died in 1552 and was buried on the beach at Shangchuan Island, in Guangdong province.

Several months later a group of Christians disinterred the body and were amazed to find it perfectly preserved. In March 1553, Francis was temporarily buried in St Paul’s Church, in Portuguese Malacca.

Francis’s corpse was put on public display, exposed for veneration – which, in hindsight, wasn’t a great idea because a Portuguese noblewoman is said to have taken the opportunity to bite off one of Francis’s big toes with the view to setting up her own lucrative relic chapel.

St Francis-Xavier

St Francis-Xavier

Poor, Francis – toe-less and with his hopes of eternal rest constantly being interrupted  – was then shipped to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, where his body was placed in a glass container encased in a silver casket in December 1637. Eventually, the toe was reunited with its foot, but a few other bits and pieces went missing along the way.

Francis’s right forearm was dispatched to Rome, while one of his hand’s ended up in Japan, and a bejeweled fingernail drew in the crowds in a Goan village. Another of his arm bones went on display in Macau.

Last year, one of the arms ‘toured’ Canada, where it apparently got a great reception.

Ah yes, relics on tour… no doubt the support act was The Grateful Dead.

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The first female detectives

Growing up in Dublin’s inner-city northside, my childhood was filled with crime.

Ironside, Mannix, Banachek, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Kojak, Columbo, McCloud, Petrocelli, Quincy M.E… I watched them all.

They were cops and private detectives mostly, armed with snub-nosed Smith & Wesson’s, screeching around corners in Buicks, Chevrolets and Dodges, hubcaps flying off as they frantically pursued the bad guys.

Sometimes the cars got cooler – like Jim Rockford’s Firebird, or, later, Starsky and Hutch’s white-striped Gran Torino. One thing that was a given, though, was that all crime fighters were men. Then the female detectives Cagney & Lacey came along, and a small blow was struck for feminists. To teenage me, though, that last one seemed a bit, well… contrived.

Am I really expected to believe that these women can haul the killers off the street and lock them in the clink, I would tut as I scanned the newspaper’s TV schedule for more fitting crime-fighting fare.

Had I known then about two real-life crime-fighting female cops I would never have dared entertain such a thought.

Lilian Armfield became Australia’s first female detective as long ago as 1915.  To say she had things stacked against her is an understatement.

For one, Armfield had to sign a waiver agreeing that the New South Wales police department she served was not responsible for her safety and welfare, and that no compensation would be provided for injuries sustained during her duties.

Then there was the fact that she wasn’t given a uniform and had to pay for civilian clothes worn on duty. She couldn’t marry either. To top it all, she had to go about her business unarmed and, er, was not allowed to arrest criminals.

Detective Lillian Armfield

Detective Lillian Armfield

Ah, yes… the spinster policewoman with no uniform, no weapon, with no powers of arrest… All they were short of doing was painting a target on her back, saying ‘Assault me’.

But Armfield was not to be deterred by such minor details. Adorned with pearls but no handcuffs, she took on some of Australia’s most dangerous ‘razor gangs’ of the Twenties and Thirties armed only with her handbag.

Armfield investigated everything from opium trafficking to rape and murder. Her main beat was in the tough neighbourhoods around east Sydney, where she would often work undercover in the city’s brothels. Women police were also used to search female suspects and to interrogate witnesses.

‘We are free to go anywhere and make what investigations we think wise,’ Lillian said in an interview with The Sun newspaper, at a time when the number of female detectives had risen to eight. ‘We are likely to be called out at any hour of the night. Normally we work eight hours a day, with one day off each week and twenty-eight days holiday in the year. We cover the city and the country. If a policewoman is wanted for a female investigation in the country, one goes from the central staff in Sydney.’

When the reporter suggested she arm herself for her duties, Armfield replied: ‘We carry no weapons. A warrant card explains who we are. Handcuffs! Oh, no, we never handcuff a woman.’

But lest anyone think she was some sort of dainty Miss Marple, it’s worth noting that one of her colleagues described how Armfield ‘swore like a trooper’. She could hold her own, too, in any of Sydney’s low-life haunts, having to detain suspects until armed male officers arrived with cuffs and those all-important powers of arrest.

Lillian Armfield was clearly an extraordinary woman, and her story is told in an eponymously titled book by historian and writer Leigh Straw. She has also found fame as part of Australian TV series, Underbelly: Razor.

But Lillian wasn’t the only ground-breaking female detective. Over in the United States, Mary Shanley – or ‘Dead Shot Mary’ as she was known – also made a name for herself.

Born to an Irish mother in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Mary joined New York’s Finest as their fourth female detective in 1931, and it soon became clear that she wasn’t afraid to use her weapon.

Detectiive Mary Shanley

Detectiive Mary Shanley

Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s the New York Times is full of stories about the gun-toting policewoman. Mary, weapon in hand, chasing down a pickpocket on Fifth Avenue; Mary firing two rounds into the air while chasing a larceny suspect; Mary (5ft8) arresting two burly men by herself; Mary firing as she chased a suspect from a cinema. In that episode, one newspaper reported…

‘The suspect accompanied Detective Shanley–she was in her Sunday best, with a pale blue hat and bright earrings lending a gay touch to her gray hair–to the rear of the orchestra. But before she could complete the arrest, the man punched her, broke away and headed down the center (stet) aisle. It was at this point that the shots from the Detective’s service revolver slammed harmlessly into the floor…’

But that gun of hers also got her in trouble, when Mary got drunk one night in a bar in Queens and fired her revolver.  She was demoted from first-detective to patrolwoman, but it wasn’t long before she regained her old rank.

Mary’s grit and determination to uphold the law never wavered. At the age of 54, she was still tough enough to take on and arrest an armed 22-year-old man who was brandishing an automatic pistol in Macy’s department store.

Thanks to her colourful antics, Mary was a media darling of her day.

‘I can usually tell in 20 minutes whether a suspect is legitimate or not,’ she told the Panama City Herald in one interview.

When asked about her career, she told a reporter: ‘I’d die if I had to go back to working in an office.’

Luckily for New York City, that never came to pass. Mary retired in 1957 as a first-grade detective and with over a thousand arrests to her credit. Her escapades would later be celebrated in the documentary, Sleuthing Mary Shanley.

‘Dead Shot’ Mary Shanley died in 1989, aged 93, and is buried in Long Island. Lillian Armfield died in Sydney in 1971, aged 86.

Lillian and Mary, two extraordinary trailblazing women, who took on the criminals, not to mention society’s misconceptions, and proved that ‘the fairer sex’ could be just as tough, or tougher, than their male counterparts.

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Murder at Maamtrasna

Myles Joyce muttered a stream of Gaelic as he walked bareheaded through the prison gates, escorted by two warders. It was just after 8.15am on December 16, 1882, and Joyce had only a few minutes left to live… the scaffold awaited.

He was repeating in Gaelic the responses to prayers which were being read by the Rev Mr Grevan. But he was saying other things, too, which were later translated by some of those present.

‘I am going before my God. I was not there at all. I had no hand or part in it. I am as innocent as a child in the cradle. It is a poor thing to take this life away on a stage, but I have my priest with me.’

He was one of three to be executed. As he stood on the trap door his mind must have been a flurry of desperate sadness at the injustice of it all. Then the lever was pulled by the executioner William Marwood, and Myles Joyce dropped… to dangle like a final exclamation mark for all that had led to this sorry moment.

*

Myles Joyce, Mammtrasna miscarriage of justice

Myles Joyce, who was wrongfully executed

Maamtrasna is the highest peak in Connemara’s Party Mountains on the Galway-Mayo border. The Srahnalong River runs southwest from it to the shore of Lough Mask. On the south bank of the river sits a townland whose residents eked out an existence rearing sheep in the tough windswept conditions, and it is here that the tragedy which befell Myles Joyce had its origin.

On August 18, 1882, at a cottage by the lake’s shore, a scene of true horror revealed itself. The front door to the dwelling had been broken from its hinges. Inside, the walls were pockmarked with bullet holes.

The head of the household, John Joyce lay naked and dead on the floor, shot twice. Bridget, his wife, was on a bed, skull crushed above the right eye. Beside her was her son, Michael, still clinging to life after being shot twice. He would soon succumb to his wounds.

Another room revealed further carnage. Bridget’s mother, Margaret was also dead. A deep wound to her forehead signalled the cause. She had been stripped. Peggy was next ‒ a girl in her mid-teens, she had been bludgeoned to death.

Finally, beside her, lay Patsy, a boy of 12 who was found with two wounds to his head. He was still alive… and terrified. His older brother Mairtín was spared the horror – he’d been away during the attack, working as a farmhand in a neighbouring parish.

It was presumed that the motive for the slayings was somehow connected with stealing sheep.

What happened inside those walls at Maamtrasna not only shocked the community of 250 people who lived beneath the mountain but stretched all the way across to London.

A report in The Times two days later conveyed the mood…

‘No ingenuity can exaggerate the brutal ferocity of a crime which spared neither the grey hairs of an aged woman nor the innocent child of 12 years who slept beside her. It is an outburst of unredeemed and inexplicable savagery before which one stands appalled and oppressed with a painful sense of the failure of our vaunted civilisation.’

Ireland’s farmers were not exactly unfamiliar with agrarian violence. Just three years earlier, the Land League had been founded to fight for tenant farmers’ rights.

The battle was non-violent to a degree – co-ordinated non-payment of rents and the ‘boycott’ of certain landlords, coupled with highly effective political campaigning through the leadership of Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell.

But violence was also part of the arsenal, and landlords and land agents were soon targeted for attack. Several were murdered. In fact, seven months before the Maamtrasna killings, two men who worked for local landlord Lord Ardilaun had been murdered, their bodies dumped in the icy waters of Lough Mask.

In May 1882, the British government was left reeling with the news that its newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Under Secretary Thomas Henry Burke had been murdered in broad daylight while travelling through the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

The air was febrile as the British introduced draconian policing measures to stabilise what seemed imminent anarchy. There was a sense amongst the British establishment ‒ exemplified by the anti-Irish cartoons in the satirical magazine Punch ‒ that there was a latent savagery in the Irish as a whole.

Then, as if to confirm this prejudice, came the Maamtrasna murders.

Maamtrasna murder accused

Maamtrasna murder accused

The police soon had an extraordinary break. Victim John Joyce’s cousins – brothers Anthony and Johnny Joyce and his nephew Paddy told police they had crucial evidence.

They gave statements to the effect that they had followed a group of ten men who had gone to John Joyce’s home. From their hiding spot in nearby bushes, the three cousins said they witnessed the group break down the door; some had then entered the cottage and much screaming ensued.

Anthony Joyce named the ten, and they were subsequently arrested and charged.

All the accused were Gaelic speakers. None could speak the Queen’s English – a fact that only added to the sense amongst the ‘civilised’ British Establishment that they were dealing with a bunch of ignorant barbarians.

The men’s solicitor – a 24-year-old graduate from Trinity College – could not speak Gaelic. The case was heard in the English language. Myles Joyce and his co-accused had no real idea what was going on.

British ‘justice’ rushed to make an example. Eight of the men were soon convicted, three of them receiving the death penalty for their part in the murders.

Not only did the accused not have the ability to defend themselves against the accusations, but witnesses were also bribed to ensure the ‘right’ verdict was reached.

Myles Joyce (left) and Tom Casey, the man who wrongfully accused him of the Maamtrasna murders

Myles Joyce (left) and Tom Casey, the man who wrongfully accused him of murder

While researching his book on the subject, Éagóir author Seán Ó Cuirreáin discovered that Earl Spencer, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (the country’s highest-ranking official) had been involved in secret payments to three witnesses in the case, giving them £1,250 for their ‘service’ (the equivalent of €160,000 in today’s money).

Before Myles Joyce’s walk up those scaffold steps, the other two men facing death admitted separately that they were guilty of the crimes, but they said that Joyce was innocent.

At the time, this was deemed insufficient to prevent or even postpone the execution and, so Myles Joyce was executed alongside them.

To make matters worse, if that were possible, the execution was botched. A Times reporter present on the day wrote that the executioner, Marwood, had to intervene when it came to Joyce’s death. Following the drop, Joyce was still alive and Marwood was heard to mutter in irritation and manipulate the rope to hasten death.

It was slow in coming. While the Death Certificates for the other two men, Patrick Casey and Patrick Joyce, is given as “Fracture of the neck being the result of hanging”, in Joyce’s case “Fracture of the neck” is scored out and the entry gives the cause of death as “Strangulation being the result of hanging”.

Even in death, there was no justice for Myles Joyce.

Two years later, in August 1884, beset by remorse, one of the witnesses, Tom Casey, approached the altar of the church in Tourmakeady during Confirmation Mass by the archbishop of Tuam, Dr John McEvilly, and admitted that he had been responsible for the death of an innocent man. He claimed that Myles Joyce, and four of those imprisoned were not guilty.

Meanwhile, journalist and Member of Parliament, Tim Harrington had met some of the men in prison when he himself was convicted for participating in anti-eviction protests. He soon became convinced of their innocence.

•Éagóir by Seán Ó Cuirreáin is published by Cois Life

•Éagóir by Seán Ó Cuirreáin is published by Cois Life

According to Ó Cuirreáin: “Harrington did all the good things an investigative journalist would do, visiting the area with two priests in 1885.

“He even named the instigator, who was never charged, because the British government couldn’t contemplate having to admit to convicting innocent people.”

Following his investigations, the MP claimed that the Crown Prosecutor for the case, George Bolton, had deliberately withheld evidence from the trial.

The accusations caused a sensation in both the press and in parliament, with Parnell demanding an inquiry into the handling of the case. Prime Minister William Gladstone would not budge, despite damning evidence that a miscarriage of justice had been committed.

Flash forward to 2011 and, finally, two British peers ‒ Lords Lubbock and Alton ‒ asked for the case to be reviewed. Alton was keenly aware of the miscarriage as his mother was a Gaelic speaker from Maamtrasna.

In a subsequent documentary about the case, Alton spoke about the injustice that had been meted out.

“To have a fair trial, you need to be able to understand the evidence being given by your accusers, and you need to be able to understand the directions of the judge.”

An official review of the case was carried out and it was found that Joyce was “probably an innocent man”, but there was no talk of an official pardon from Britain.

The Irish State launched its own review in 2015, the results of which have recently been published and which found several factors, including witness statements and the processes and procedures around the trial, had led to a miscarriage of justice.

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins has long been convinced that Myles Joyce was innocent of all charges. He intends to issue a presidential pardon – the first such pardon ever relating to an event that occurred before the foundation of the State.

“Everything that happened at the level of the State was horrendous. There was bribery involved. The accused didn’t get a proper chance to defend themselves. There wasn’t an atmosphere of equality and there was no equality as regards legal processes at that time,” he said.

It may have taken 136 years, but it finally looks like Myles Joyce will get the justice he undoubtedly deserves, and which was so sadly lacking all those years ago.

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Killer cult – The St Patrick’s Day Massacre

History is littered with forgotten tragedies… tragedies so great that we must pause and feel gratitude that neither we nor any of our loved ones suffered the fate of those involved. The story below is one such example, of when a community blindly followed its leaders to their doom… it is the story of the death-wish cult.

 

‘The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented.’

The congregation in the church tingled with excitement. There were hundreds of them, gathered for this special moment. It was March 17 – St Patrick’s Day – but there’d be no parade, or garish green leprechaun outfits, or copious pints of stout to be downed.

There would be hymns though… hymns that might have drowned out the sound of hammers, nailing wood over windows and doors, sealing in the faithful. Then would come the smell of gasoline, followed by death on a terrible scale.

This was Kanunga, Uganda, in 2000, and the members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Commandments of God were on a mission of mass murder and self-destruction. As an incendiary was ignited, flames engulfed the men, women and children crammed into the building, burning them to a cinder.

It would be estimated that 530 people were killed – 78 of them children – but it was hard to tell how many lost their lives so ferocious was the fire.

The death toll didn’t end there, though. More bodies were later discovered – hundreds more – on property owned by the religious group’s leaders. It’s estimated that a total of 780 members of the sect died in the run-up to and on March 17.

As its name would suggest, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandment of God (MRTCG) advocated strict adherence to the Commandments ‒, so much so that members were discouraged from talking, lest they break the Ninth Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.

So strict were these rules that on certain days communication was solely conducted through sign language. Sex was also forbidden, presumably in deference to the Tenth Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’.

The movement had a number of seers, or leaders, the most prominent of whom were Credonia Mwerinde, a woman who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary and who said she had once been a prostitute. Another key figure was Joseph Kibweteere. He, too, said he had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1984. Five years later, the two ‘visionaries’ met and formed the MRTCG and spread the word about Mary and her message about how an impending apocalypse would occur on December 31, 1999.

credonia-mwerind-and-joseph-kibweteere

Cult leaders Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere

This was highlighted in movement’s booklet. Entitled ‘A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Time’, it said: When the year 2000 is completed, the year that will follow… shall be called Year One in a generation that will follow the present generation…The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented.

The text was required study for new members, who were taught that the Virgin Mary had a special role in the end, and that she communicated with their leadership.

The group’s ranks were joined by a number of former nuns and excommunicated priests.

Kibweteere, a businessman and politician, sold his properties and plant machinery and used the money to fund the movement. By 1997 the movement was going strong, with a membership of almost 5,000 people.

The sect had set up a community within pineapple and banana plantations, paid for by the members, who pooled their financial resources. Properties were built in western Uganda for the purpose of recruitment and indoctrination. Meanwhile, Mwerinde continued to have her visions of the Blessed Virgin… visions that told of an imminent Doomsday.

The following year, 1998, things weren’t going so smoothly. The Ugandan press reported that the sect had been shut down for unsanitary conditions, as well as for being suspected of kidnapping children for child labour.

Despite the serious accusations, the government gave the sect permission to reopen. By the time the final months of 1999 came around, the movement was a buzz of activity in preparation for the end of days. Personal belongings, cattle and property were all sold at knock-down rates and work on the plantations stopped.

The end may have been nigh, but it never arrived. January 1, 2000, signalled a new dawn…and no sign of an apocalypse.

Mwerinde and Kibweteere were asked to explain themselves. Police suspect that some members who had sold their possessions demanded a return of their money. Amid mounting pressure and after discussion amongst the leadership, it was decided that the apocalypse would occur on March 17.

That day, a feast was prepared. Three bulls were slaughtered, and the followers drank 70 creates of soft drinks during their version of a Last Supper. They then entered the church to sing and pray. Minutes’ later, nearby villagers heard an explosion.

The principal cult leaders, including Kibweteere and Mwerinde, were assumed to have died with their followers in the fire that consumed the building.

Four days after the church fire, police investigated the sect’s properties and discovered hundreds of bodies at sites across southern Uganda. The victims had been poisoned and stabbed about three weeks before the church inferno. The final death toll was put at 778 in what police believe to be mass murder, given the nature of the deaths and the fact that the church had been boarded up before being set alight.

And it doesn’t end there. Police also suspect that Kibweteere and Mwerinde may still be alive and have issued an international warrant their arrest. There have also been uncorroborated sightings of Kibweteere after the fire and some people suspect he is living under an assumed name.

Alive or dead, the ‘visionaries of the MRTCG committed a terrible deed. For a movement so fixated on the Ten Commandments, they had arrogantly managed to overlook the Fifth on that list: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

As an Irishman, I know that March 17 is meant to be a time of joy and celebration. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s Patrick’s Day parade, but after what happened in Kanunga, the date will be associated with a terrible crime – when hundreds of deluded adherents perished in agony at the hands of visionaries with a death wish.

Sometimes anniversaries need to be noted, no matter how painful the memory.

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Ireland’s Alcatraz

picture of Spike Island

Spike Island, outside Cork Harbour

They sat clothed from head to toe in black, a veil covering their faces, leaving only their eyes visible to look out at the cold limestone walls around them. Their bones ached and their flesh was rubbed raw from the chains that held them fast. This was solitary confinement, 28 cells in which the floor was a prisoner’s bed and a small stool the only item of furniture.

The troublesome and most dangerous prisoners were kept here in the 1860s ­- the Penal Class, men whose agony was so great that several tried to seek release through suicide. It wasn’t for nothing that Spike Island became known as a ‘Hell on earth’ to some of its inmates.

Years later, Winston Churchill, in a typical grandiose flourish, would call the area ‘the sentinel tower of the approaches of Western Europe’. These days, though, Spike has received yet another appellation – being deemed Europe’s most popular visitor attraction at this week’s World Travel Awards.

Spike Island beat off stiff competition from the likes of the Acropolis, Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum…not bad going for an old prison that only opened its doors to the public in 2016.

It’s fair to say that wasn’t the intended plan when General Charles Vallancey designed the island’s fortress back in 1789. Fort Westmoreland, as it was called then, was later added to, becoming the squat, star-shaped structure it is today. The name changed, too, to Fort Mitchel as a nod to John Mitchel, the Fenian who is said to have begun his Jail Journal there before being transported.

By the time the Famine brought its misery, death and destitution, the fort, which had been designed to garrison soldiers, was being used to house prisoners – at one stage some 2,300 of them, making it the largest prison in Europe.

And what prisoners they were… Henry Sweers tried to escape in 1863 by swimming to Cobh (a not inconsiderable 1.8 kilometres away) but was forced to turn back when he was halfway there. He was whipped for his efforts. That didn’t deter Henry, though, who tried again two months later, only to be intercepted by boatloads of warders. This time, a good thrashing and a spell in solitary weren’t deemed enough, so Henry was forced to wear heavy chains… constantly… for two solid years, until his release.

picture of Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin

For sheer persistence when it comes to escapes, the award must surely go to William Johnston, who started his escapology habit when he managed to break out of Kilmainham Gaol in 1858. He was soon caught and transferred to Cork, where he broke loose once again in January 1859.

What gifts Johnston had in the escape department were clearly lacking when it came to avoiding detection. Two days later he was found drinking in a nearby pub and was returned to prison. This time the warders took no chances – Johnston was placed under 24-hour watch and had all his clothes removed. Sound – if rather brutal – measures you would think, until one day he was discovered, still naked, halfway out of a tunnel he had somehow managed to dig.

Johnston was transferred to Mountjoy Prison, but after two escape attempts there, he was sent out to Spike. The warders were made aware what sort of a nuisance was coming their way. Despite careful watching, he confounded them all one stormy October night in 1860.

Warders found the bars of his cell removed and sheets tied together to fashion a rope. Johnston and another inmate were missing. The alarm was raised and the island scoured, but all that was found was a ladder and two prisoner caps floating by the shoreline. The guards called off the search, assuming the escapees had drowned in the rough sea.

While returning to the prison, one of the warders tripped in the darkness and fell flat on his face…only to find himself staring into the eyes of William Johnston, who was hiding in a nearby bush with his accomplice. It was bad luck for Johnston. The ladder and caps had been a decoy, which almost worked. A severe beating followed, but for the rest of his incarceration, Johnston continued to strive for freedom – often being found in possession of pen knives, bars and escape equipment.

He was eventually released in 1866. Two years later he was back inside, having been found guilty of theft. The warders knew trouble when they saw it and stripped him naked every night before lights out. And then, the inevitable… Johnston escaped, having removed the iron bars of his cell and climbed 30ft-high walls to finally reach freedom. It was third time lucky for William Johnston.

During the War of Independence, the prison was used to house republican prisoners, and in November 1921, IRA officer Dick Barrett and six others continued the tradition of escape by rowing to freedom under the eyes of their British guards.

There are so many stories, but you can’t talk about Spike without mentioning Percy Fawcett. That meek-sounding name belied a soaring adventurous spirit.

picture of Percy Fawcett

Explorer and Spike Island resident Percy Fawcett

Percy or ‘Puggy’ as his wife affectionately called him, was a surveyor who in 1903 was sent to work on Spike by the British War Office. The tranquil surrounds were very different from North Africa, where Fawcett had previously worked for the British Secret Service. His three years on Spike would be a quiet interlude until his next adventure in 1906, when he took the position of chief surveyor in Bolivia.

Tasked with mapping Bolivia’s rainforests and rivers, he encountered great danger, whether from Nature herself or the manmade variety in the form of Amazonian tribesmen or the roughnecks of the boom towns set up on the back of the rubber industry.

Traipsing through those rainforests only whetted Fawcett’s appetite as he heard tales of fabled lost cities. One of these really caught his imagination, and he would devote the rest of his life to finding what he dubbed ‘The Lost City of Z’.

In between time spent in England with his family, Fawcett mounted a series of expeditions, journeying where no other European had ever gone in his bid to find the lost city. In 1925, he, his son Jack and another companion set off on another trek to find Z. They were never seen again.

In the decades that followed, rumours abounded about the explorers’ fate – some said they had been killed by tribesmen, others that Fawcett had lost his memory and lived out his final years as chief to a tribe of cannibals.

The stories only fuelled imaginations, so much so that various search parties were sent out to discover what had happened. It’s said that almost one hundred would-be rescuers died trying to find the answer.

The mystery is kept alive to this day, thanks to the movie The Lost City of Z, starring Brad Pitt.

Fawcett, the spy, jungle explorer and Spike resident certainly left his mark on history, as did the rest of the island’s characters.

What stories can be told… Is it any wonder then that this prison island – Ireland’s Alcatraz – is Europe’s leading attraction?

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‘Auxies’ – the 20th century’s first special forces

 

Eminent author and historian Paul O’Brien has written a series of meticulously researched books on the Easter Rising (Crossfire, Shootout, Fields of Fire and Battleground), which offer a fly-on-the-wall look at the actions of that momentous week. They should be required reading in schools throughout the country. Paul has written several other books on the period both during and after the Easter Rising.

His latest book, Havoc: The Auxiliaries in Ireland’s War of Independence, offers fresh insight into the brutal actions of the notorious Auxiliary force sent to put manners on the IRA. I’m delighted to say that Paul has written a fabulous article on the impact the Auxies had during the War of Independence, which he’s sharing with HistoryWithATwist. Check it out below… 

 

Auxies

A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

During the Irish War of Independence, the rank and file of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police bore the brunt of attacks by the Irish Republican Army. A campaign of intimidation and violence against policemen and their families had, in a short period of time, forced many officers to resign from the force. In order to bolster the police in Ireland, the British Government hastily advertised for recruits. The recruitment of the Black and Tans, an ancillary force with a mixed uniform of police and military attire, were rapidly deployed to augment the dwindling ranks of the police. Their intervention did little to stem the death and chaos.

In the aftermath of the Great War and the conclusion of the Versailles peace talks in 1919, the British Empire found itself overstretched by ever increasing demands to police its interests in places such as Germany, the Middle East, India and Ireland. The government was concerned that the unrest in Ireland would have a domino effect and spread to Britain’s other colonies. The authorities were unprepared and under equipped to deal with the large number of nationalists demanding independence, and the possibility of increased numbers of violent and bloody insurgencies that might occur. In Ireland, the government depended on the civil administration based in Dublin Castle and the Royal Irish Constabulary to deal with the situation.

As the unrest in Ireland intensified, Sir Winston Churchill suggested a Gendarmerie to restore law and order in Ireland. In July 1920, a new force, a specialist force, that of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) were raised. These ex-military personnel, all ex-officers, were assigned by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to do a rough and dangerous mission – to take the fight to the IRA.

HavocSpecial Forces are units which conduct military operations by specially designated, trained and equipped forces, manned with selected personnel, using unconventional tactics, techniques and modes of employment. Rather than aligning the new force with the army, it was decided to incorporate them into the police, with the new recruits being called Temporary Cadets. It was envisaged that the Auxiliary Division was to be maintained as an autonomous force and was to be deployed into areas where the IRA was most active, with the mission of find, fix and destroy.

The first recruits arrived at the North Wall Dock, Dublin where they were then transferred to Hare Park camp at the Curragh Training Camp in County Kildare. Here they underwent a brief, yet inadequate training course consisting of the rudimentary skills of policing. They also received a refresher course in weapons training consisting of firing and bombing practice, for which they provided their own instructors. Beggars Bush Barracks were later to become their depot headquarters. The unit was equipped with up-to-date weaponry and an array of vehicles for rapid insertion into areas of operations.

Fifteen Companies had been formed by the end of August 1920, and four were immediately deployed to areas of considerable insurgent activity in counties Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway. In total, there were to be 21 Companies, numbering between 40-80 T/Cadets, organised along military lines, deployed as an elite body to seek out and eliminate the IRA.

Realising that IRA intelligence had infiltrated the police, the ADRIC established their own intelligence units to gather information on Republican operatives. Utilising their military skills, they began a violent counter-insurgency campaign with raids on IRA safe houses and the lifting of suspects. Their aggressive tactics alienated the population and their actions and techniques were often questioned in the House of Commons, bringing condemnation from both sides of the house.

The insurgents hit back with planned ambushes against ADRIC patrols and the assassination of Cadets, both on and off duty. An attack on a motorised ADRIC unit at Kilmichael in County Cork by Tom Barry and his Flying Column resulted in the annihilation of the patrol. Retaliation by crown forces for such attacks was brutal, with the houses of locals being destroyed and the destruction of local industrial and agricultural infrastructure which was, in many cases, was sanctioned by the authorities.

The burning of Cork by ADRIC forces

The burning of Cork by ADRIC forces

The very nature of counter-insurgency warfare found the ADRIC operating in a hostile environment with little or no support from the local population. The pressures of operating under such austere conditions often resulted in certain units taking out their frustrations on the local populace, as can be seen with the burning of Cork city after an earlier ambush in the vicinity.

The force was involved in numerous operations throughout the country and also was accused of conducting black operations resulting in the killing of high-value targets.

Two Companies of Auxiliaries responded to the attack on the Custom House, Dublin, by the IRA in May 1921. A fierce gun battle commenced as the building caught fire and IRA operatives tried to shoot their way out, with some being killed.  In the aftermath of the operation over one hundred members of the IRA were arrested and imprisoned, leading to a shortage of trained and experienced operatives to continue the fight against the British in the capital. Smaller operations did take place but not to the same scale as that of the Custom House raid.

The aftermath of the Customs House attack

The aftermath of the Customs House attack

The British authorities in Ireland believed that the Republican campaign was nearing an end as the lack of experienced manpower, weapons and munitions were having a detrimental effect on the organisation.

Initial talks between the two sides resulted in a ceasefire and later to peace talks which gave Ireland a ’Free State’ status.

One of the conditions for the cessation of hostilities was that the recruitment of cadets into the Auxiliary Division of the RIC cease and operations be suspended. The British government agreed and the force was disbanded in early 1922, with many officers looking to Palestine and its new gendarmerie for employment and adventure.

During World War Two, Churchill requested ‘specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast’. The Royal Marine Commandos are considered by many to be the prototype for the modern special forces but it was Churchill’s request in 1920 which saw the formation of the Auxiliaries, a controversial force,  considered by some to be the 20th century’s first Special Services unit.

(This article originally appeared in the Defence Forces magazine,  An Cosantoir, 2017)

 

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