America’s Revolution: When Men Were Men… and Women Were Men, Too

Do you remember the days when men were men and we all knew our place in the world? No? Me neither. The thing about comments that refer to ‘back in the day’ is that the people who make them tend to have a very narrow view of the past and decide that what they experienced was a universal truth for all. These days we’re constantly being warned not to make assumptions and use broad brushstrokes when referring to people or events, but that warning equally holds true for the past, too.

‘Back in the day’– in Poland in the 1760s to be precise — General Casimir Pulaski was certainly a ‘man’s man’, with dashing good looks and bravery to the point of recklessness. Pulaski’s name first gained fame when the young cavalry officer engaged in battles, raids and sieges against the Russians in Poland, where Casimir was born in 1745. These military actions were of mixed success, mainly because of Pulaski’s habit of ignoring orders and because of a total disregard for personal safety.

Pulaski at Częstochowa, an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński

Pulaski at Częstochowa, an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński

Such actions were immortalised in oil on canvass by several artists of the day. “Pulaski at Częstochowa” an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński, captures the cavalry officer astride a galloping horse and bounding ahead of troops of cavalry. A portrait by Jan Styka shows the fighter resplendent in military attire.

Pulaski later took all that military experience and joined the Continental Army of George Washington, to whom Pulaski had been recommended by Benjamin Franklin after he met the cavalry officer in Paris.

Appointed a brigadier general following the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 — where Pulaski quite probably saved Washington’s life by leading a cavalry charge against British troops and staving off a rebel defeat — the Polish officer would go on to improve the training and discipline of the horsemen in the Continental Army, eventually being feted as “the father of American cavalry”.

The only snag with that sobriquet is that Pulaski could just as easily have been called its “mother” because dashing, brave-beyond-compare Casimir Pulaski may not have been the “man’s man” that many believed.

General Casimir Pulaski

General Casimir Pulaski by Jan Styka

New DNA research on Pulaski’s bones, conducted by experts at Georgia Southern University, suggest that the Polish and American war hero was actually intersex, having had congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition in which genetic females produce excessive amounts of testosterone, resulting in abnormal sexual development of the genitals, making them appear more masculine.

The condition hit the spotlight a few years ago when success on the running track by  South Africa’s Caster Semenya, an intersex athlete, led to her legitimate achievements being criticised because her condition gives her an ‘unfair’ advantage over her opponents, according to her detractors.

But back to Pulaski… Not only did Casimir have a female-shaped pelvis, according to researchers, but the skeletal remains also showed a more female structure and jaw. Lest anyone doubt the provenance of the remains, DNA tests matched them to Pulaski’s grand-niece.

The remains also showed evidence of horseback riding and the same wound to the head that Pulaski was said to have received during one battle. The researchers’ findings have now been made into a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel.

Pulaski’s career with the Continental Army was cut short when the Polish officer was killed in action in 1779 at Savannah after being hit by grapeshot. Casimir’s military resumé was a mixed bag of defeats and small victories; however, there is no doubting the Polish war hero’s bravery or influence on the development of American cavalry in the years that followed.

It’s a fascinating prospect to consider, that the person who achieved such military feats with lance and sabre was actually female, at a time when the closest most women got to sharp objects was a household blade or an embroidery needle.

But Pulaski wasn’t the only combatant in America’s War of Independence who was more than they seemed.

Virginia woman Anna Maria Lane (c.1755-1810) also fought for the Continental Army. She joined up along with her husband, John, in 1776. That practice of spouses enlisting together wasn’t as unusual as it sounds; other women accompanied their husbands during the campaign, too. The difference with Anna was that while they served as nurses, laundresses and cooks, she dressed as a man and fought on the battlefield.

The Battle of Germantown

The Battle of Germantown

The married couple was in the thick of the action, fighting in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Georgia. They also served under George Washington in October, 1777, at the Battle of Germantown, outside Philadelphia. That last point is intriguing because Casimir Pulaski fought there, too. One can’t help but imagine Pulaski and Lane facing the enemy side by side, neither knowing the other’s deep-held secret.

Washington must have had his suspicions about women getting involved in the fighting because he issued an order forbidding female ‘camp followers’  from accompanying men onto the battlefield. Anna Lane duly ignored the edict and fought anyway, but was badly wounded and left lame for the rest of her life.

But Anna didn’t let a gammy leg stop her from fighting beside her husband. Like Pulaski, John was wounded at the Siege of Savannah in 1779, but unlike the brigadier general, he didn’t succumb to his wounds. The couple continued to serve together until 1781 and later settled in Richmond, Virginia.

Anna’s military service was later recognised and she was granted a pension of £100 a year for life. According to historian Joyce Henry,  Anna’s pension record states that  “in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, [she] performed extraordinary military services at the Battle of Germantown”. That pension was far in excess of the average – Anna’s husband’s annuity was £40 a year – which would suggest that Anna Lane’s actions were uncommonly brave.

Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson (or Samson) also donned britches and disguised herself as a man in order to fight for the fledgling American nation. Born in Plympton, Massachusetts, in 1760, Sampson’s ancestors are said to have included passengers from The Mayflower.

At 5’9’’ she was tall for the times – the average height for women was just five feet – and was described as being broad, strong and with plain,  not particularly feminine features.

By the age of 18, Sampson was teaching in a school during the summer months and supplementing her income with basket weaving and by making wooden tools and sleds. Then, in 1782, she answered the call to arms, donned men’s clothing and signed up under the name Robert Shirtliff, enlisting in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as a Light Infantryman.

Things got off to a disastrous start during her first military engagement, at Tarrytown, New York, in July 1782, when Deborah was shot twice in the thigh and received a wound to her head. Fearful that her true identity be discovered, she refused to allow doctors to treat her leg, preferring to dig one of the musket balls out herself using a penknife. The second ball was too far embedded and remained in place for the rest of her life.

The following year she was given lighter duties, acting as a waiter to General John Paterson until she was finally discharged from service in October 1783. Sampson’s post-war years were a struggle financially. For much of her life she teetered on the edge of penury, not helped by the meagre pension she had been awarded for service to her country. She died in 1827, in Sharon, Massachusetts, aged 66, after succumbing to yellow fever.

Pulaski, Lane and Sampson… three rare individuals who bucked the trend and showed that women (intersex or otherwise) had more than enough guts and grit when it came to the ‘manly’ trials of warfare.

They were trailblazers who put their lives on the line; who saw beyond the sexual prejudices of the day, and who refused to be categorised by what form their bodies took.  In so doing they, more than any other heroes from America’s War of Independence, were the true revolutionaries of their time.

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The Native Irishman

I wrote this book a long time ago now and never did anything with it. I’d be interested to hear any opinions on the first chapter…






The Arkansas Intelligencer




A CORRESPONDENT REPORTS terrible tragedy upon the western coast of Ireland where the devastating famine persists. This article was kindly compiled by our colleague at the Illustrated London News who was moved by the devastation he witnessed; it reveals the horror for those unfortunates living under this dreadful calamity.

Mr J.T. Mahoney writes: ‘I started from Galway, by the mail, for Clifden. It was not long upon that highway that we encountered the dying, the living and the dead lying indiscriminately along the roadside. We were quickly surrounded by a mob of men and women, more like famished dogs than fellow creatures, whose figures, looks and cries all showed they were suffering the ravening agony of hunger. We assisted in whatever small manner we could and proceeded on our way, met every hundred yards by the sight of a funeral or a coffin, half buried or open to the elements for the dogs to feed upon. The desperate souls were more like skeletons than men and women, scourged as they were by hunger. Their presence spoke better than any article ever could of the devastation that is being wrought. Drooping forms and vacant stares were to be seen around every bend, their breaths hanging ghostlike in the frosty air as we passed. At Westport, the spectacle was equally bleak. Human wretchedness seems concentrated here for it was near this town that the culmination of physical degradation was reached with a dreadful calamity on the Louisburgh Road. Several days prior to our arrival, a group of approximately six hundred had gathered in the market square to seek sustenance from the Relieving Officer. Alas, that gentleman instructed these frail, empty-bellied sacks to travel ten miles over mountainous tracks and barren, windswept bog to Delphi Lodge, where the Board of Guardians was in session. It is with dismay that I report that these gentlemen found the presence of this ravenous band unsettling and sent them upon their way, back to the very Officer who had ordered them there to plead their cause. It was a journey beyond most and they soon succumbed to the elements. Witnesses spoke of a strong gale blowing off the looming mountain of Mweelra, which overlooks the road upon which they travelled. Such was its force that many of this starving band were carried to their deaths into the waters of Doo Lough, which borders the highway. The famished convoy – men, women and little children – perished in the freezing gale or were swallowed by the icy lake. Some of the stronger ones lingered longer until they too felt their fragile grip on life loosed and they slipped to the ground, huddled masses of skin and bone; human milestones on a road of death.

I implore all with a Christian soul to assist these unfortunates who die by the hundred every day. From the sights that have scarred my eyes it is clear that the Government cares not a whit for the travails of its citizens. Therefore, it falls upon us all to act where they have failed. We must help these people, for God’s sake.’

This publication concurs with the honorable sentiments of the reporter. In these desperate times we must all be forthcoming. It falls to us now to lend a hand to a benighted land from the bosom of which many of our settlers have travelled. Let no one say that we were found wanting when it came to helping our fellow man in his hour of need.


 Indian Territory, 1846


THEY RODE in silence; a tiny bell – its striker removed – hung on the bridle of his horse glistening in the sunlight as the pony jostled him up the steep slope to the edge of the village. The smell from the man next to him hung in the air; bad whiskey, puke, pure funk and the three graces – blood, sweat and tears. Light Horse captain Chenubee stole a glance at the sad sack of misery clinging to the pommel of the saddle beside him. The Mexican’s cuts oozed blood, the pores of his skin wept fear. As they crested the brow of the hill and reached the outskirts of the village the man whimpered and another more pungent odour was released. Chenubee’s nose wrinkled and he spat in disgust.

‘Tushpa[1]!’ he muttered, flicking the reins along the pony’s neck as he urged her forward.


TOBIAS Smolt sighed heavily, ran his finger around the folds of flesh that threatened to overwhelm the cravat beneath, and then sighed some more just for good measure. Smolt covered upper lip with lower lip, shifted in his seat, shaking his head in sadness and exasperation.

‘It’s too much; I’d like to offer more but it’s impossible – I’d be losing money myself if I did. Really Osyka[2], 25 cents a bag is generous.’

The Choctaw maize grower stared impassively at the fat man.

‘I can get 30 at Fort Towson and you know it.’

Smolt shrugged, lifted a cheek and cracked a fart as the chair beneath creaked in protest.

‘Go on then. You want to spend two days in the saddle you do it… if you can spare the time that is…’

Osyka shifted. Smolt waited, the beginnings of a smile playing about his lips, the dark shadows of the shop hiding the expectant glint in his eyes. Two days from now the biggest event in the Choctaw social calendar was going to take place – a tolik ­– a grand ball play against the men from Skullyville, and betting would be heavy. He leaned forward and the chair wobbled as its thin legs fought gamely against the lumbering frame above.   The drone of a bee broke the silence as the maize grower mulled things over. Spend up to two days there and back and miss the biggest ball game they had played in years… The last time any of them had even held a tolik stick was back in the old country, in Mississippi before the removal, before the time when the bloom of their youth would wither and die in the freezing cold of a death march that lasted months and whose effects were still being felt all these years later. Preparations for the game had been going on for weeks. Osyka was a good player, or at least he used to be. He was keen to prove he’d lost none of his prowess and, besides, he could win a small fortune with all the betting.

Smolt knew the answer before the man spoke, but just as he was going in for the kill he heard his voice say something that his mind couldn’t quite comprehend:

‘Alright, alright…I’ll make it 28 cents a bag, but that’s my final offer.’

The maize grower smiled; a fleeting sense of relief flickering across his face.

‘It’s a deal.’

‘Well, of course it is!’ barked Smolt, irritated at his own largesse. ‘Just don’t spend it all at the ball-play, eh!’

Osyka laughed. ‘You, too, Coushatta[3]. I remember you on the field when we were younger… a feared opponent – now you must make do gambling instead of playing.’

‘Yes, but it is more satisfying when you win!’ replied the trader.

He stood in the doorway of his trading post and watched the maize grower recede into the distance, his gaze wandering lazily across the narrow dirt road and up to the scraggy brow of the hill that marked the start of Eagletown, the Choctaw district capital just north of the mighty Red River, and sandwiched between the Mountain Fork and Little River. Coming over it through the midday haze were two horsemen – well, two silhouettes… but he didn’t have to see the face of the one on the left to know who he was. Some people were good hunters or good farmers – Smolt had green fingers when it came to money – but the captain of the Light Horse coming down the hill, the Miko Loosa as he was known, was in a category all his own.

The two riders were almost level with Smolt’s store. The businessman levered his bulk from the creaking frame, watching them pass. Chenubee’s bright cotton shirt fluttered, a zephyr tugged at his shoulder-length hair, the face was mask like: chin square, lips thin, tightly closed. He squinted against the sunlight, causing the lines that ran on either side of his mouth up past his nostrils to deepen. The brow was lined and the right temple bore a red circle and three black dots. Time and the weather had left their mark on the war chief, but the handsome features which had turned many a squaw’s head in his youth were still there. His expression was impassive, almost – there was a hint of haughtiness to it, noted the trader, as there was, too, in the way he rode. Only the eyes betrayed his true bloodline; they were bright blue. Chenubee, like Smolt, was a half-breed, but a more full-blooded indian you’d never find anywhere in the country. Despite the mixed blood, Chenubee was Choctaw through and through.

The man on the right didn’t look too happy, Smolt noticed. Manero, the Mexican whiskey peddler; every Choctaw knew him and the damage he caused. The man had ignored warnings not to sell his cheap liquor here; he was paying for that stupidity now. The Mexican’s shirt stuck to his plump, sweaty body, as he swayed in the saddle. The cool stares of the silent villagers lining the street appraised the arrivals; only the wheezy breathing of the peddler and an occasional snort from his pony as it stepped through the horse apples that dotted their path broke the silence. Smolt watched them halt outside a long log cabin with a window at each side and a door in the middle. A large stone chimney sat at the gable end and a wide porch fronted the building. The Chief’s lodge; it was the biggest house in the village and the best built.

Tuskogee[4] had ordered an end to the peddling, but the Mexican had ignored it and had continued to push his whiskey on braves, getting them so drunk they spent what money they had on the liquor, letting their families go hungry while they whooped it up away from the village. Now he would pay the consequences.

A small crowd gathered as the Miko Loosa dismounted and, ignoring their questions, ran his hand gently – lovingly – over his pony’s nose and whispered in its ear.  Those hands that so softly caressed it were large and scarred, the skin calloused from years spent on the trail of men and beasts.

The hands left off with the petting to grab the Mexican’s shirtfront and drag him from the saddle. Manero offered up a feeble protest as he felt an iron grip in his hair, a knee shoved hard into the small of his back as his face pushed down into the dirt. Just as quickly the peddler felt the pressure ease and he turned his head in time to see the swing of a foot and felt a sharp pain in his ribs. Choking on dust and rising bile, he lay there watching the feet of the indian walk towards the chief’s cabin.

From the brow of the hill to the entrance to the chief’s house, oblivious to the Mexican’s desperate pleadings, the Miko Loosa had not uttered one single word.


TUSKOGEE lay on the floor propped on one elbow, smoking a pipe. The room, one of two in the building, was relatively bare. Hides and furs made the log floor more comfortable, there was a stool by the fire and a small iron kettle simmered in the background. An empty wooden bowl with a horn spoon inside it lay between the chief and his young squaw, who immediately left the room on seeing Chenubee. The chief gestured for him to sit.

‘You have just missed tafula[5], there is some more in the kettle if you want it?’

‘No, I’m not hungry, but thank you.’

Instead he accepted the pipe that was offered and both men puffed away in silence for some time. The chief peered at the Miko Loosa through the clouds of smoke. ‘Did you get him?’

‘He’s outside. We caught up with him at Mud Creek, broke his bottles and told him to go home. I sent my men to search the woods in case he has a stash there, but I think he would have told me.’

Tuskogee smiled; he knew Chenubee well enough to understand what that meant. It was good… he himself would give the man his final warning. The peddler wouldn’t be back, the chief was sure of that. For now, he’d let him sweat it out in the noon sun. Tuskogee peered at his leading warrior through the blue smoke haze that hung in the air.

‘You seem troubled though, what is it?’

Chenubee shifted a little as he sat. He composed himself before staring directly at the chief.

‘It’s Neshoba[6], I think I was wrong about him.’

Tuskogee puffed on the pipe and eyed his guest cautiously.  He didn’t like it when the tribe’s chief enforcer disagreed with his own punishment ruling.

‘You are our war chief; you heard the evidence, everybody spoke and now you must accept the decision that your own Light Horse men came to – Neshoba must be punished. He shot Koonowa[7] in the back… it was the act of a coward, and now he must pay.’

‘Yes, but I am the one who will have to use this rifle on him. Painting a red dot on his chest and shooting him down like a dog is not the act of a brave.’

‘You’re wrong; it takes a very brave man to do such a thing. And whether you like it or not, it’s your duty to carry out the punishment. Neshoba is stupid, but he will be there on the day to take his medicine. If it makes you feel better, I do believe that Coushatta – or Mr Smolt as he prefers to be called – will accept compensation rather than blood.’

Chenubee grunted at the mention of the trader’s name. As head of Koonowa’s family, Smolt could decide whether to take monetary compensation for the death of his relative or to take the life of his cousin’s killer. Knowing Smolt, Chenubee thought that maybe the chief was right; the trader would take the easy money.

‘I think you are a wise chief,’ he said, standing up and reaching for his rifle. Now I must sleep before the dance tonight. Thank you for hearing my words.’

Tuskogee nodded his assent, puffed on his pipe and watched his bravest warrior leave the cabin. This Miko Loosa, who tried so hard to keep the white man’s ways from the village, sometimes showed some of his own white blood, even if he didn’t realise it. This was one of those times, thought the chief. It was one reason why he could never be the tribe’s leader – that white man’s mentality sometimes got in the way.

Tuskogee lay back and thought of the time when one of their own chief’s treachery had sold them out to the whites for a few thousand acres and sent thetribe on a road to hell, a road that they all still walked in their dreams at night. He recalled Chenubee; tireless Chenubee, always willing to help the weak as he silently grieved for his own loved ones who had been lost on the way. All were gone but he, and so for Chenubee the whole tribe became his family. Tuskogee could still remember him as he struggled each day up and down the line, urging them on, offering encouragement and a helping hand as they struggled with their loads through snowdrifts and freezing winds. He had been magnificent. It was his bravery on the trail as much as after it that gave him the respect of all. And now here they were, thirteen years later, still living with the scars as they struggled to build themselves a future.

Tuskogee leaned forward and from beneath a fur skin took a general goods catalogue advertising items from Turner’s Mercantile, of Little Rock, Arkansas – ‘Proprietors of the Finest Goods Emporium in the United States’. The chief flipped through the well-thumbed brochure until he found what he was looking for … Furniture – two fireside chairs: $5. He marked the item, puffing on his pipe, humming an ancient burial song before moving on to the next section.


Mary McCrae sat cross-legged beneath the spreading branches of the apple tree and watched the sun-dappled head of Cyrus Bingley as he deftly whittled away at the wood, shaping it into a small figure. The hands that held the boning knife moved smoothly, picking out details here and there, using the grain and blemishes to his advantage when he could. The scent of apple blossom hung on the air as the Quaker’s eyes flicked from the carving to the little girl who watched him work the wood. Her fingers toyed idly with the ribbon on her modest dress. Her long black hair shone in the sun, its head crowned with a chain of daisies. He never ceased to be amazed by the indians. So at one with the nature around her was she that Wordsworth himself could have written an ode to her beauty, thought Bingley. He shook his head in bemusement. It was hard to believe that this nymph was the daughter of a riverboat captain whose fondness for whiskey and women led to him causing about a dozen little McCraes to be born along this stretch of the river.

Mary was known as Panola[8] by the villagers, but Bingley insisted on calling all the children by the Christian names he had allotted them, though he would never dare do such a thing to the man now leaving the chief’s cabin.  Chenubee broke stride just once; to deliver a well-directed kick at the whiskey peddler, before continuing on his way. Bingley shuddered with distaste. The little girl coughed, bringing him back to his work. Slowly, as though by magic, the shape of a baby in a papoose emerged from the wood: first the blanket, then the face… that of a sleeping child.

‘Now… there you go Mary, you run along and play.’ He handed over the toy. The girl took it eagerly, giggled and ran towards the cornfield.

Bingley’s attention returned to the figure of Chenubee walking towards his own cabin. As usual, the so-called Miko Loosa looked dour, thought the preacher. The man was an unreconstructed savage – despite the civilised blood that flowed through his veins. Bingley grunted at the sight of the tall, tanned warrior with the aloof air. He tutted his disapproval; knowing in his own way he was as much a warrior as this buffoon of a war chief, only he was God’s warrior; this savage fought out of sheer devilment. Bingley twitched in irritation as he recalled the latest example of the Miko Loosa’s heathen stubbornness – his refusal to allow a simple blessing be given to the players before the tolik started. Why anyone would object to a benediction was beyond him. As far as Bingley was concerned it showed a closed mind… something that he was determined to change in the village at all costs.


James Nolan, the half-breed Choctaw warrior otherwise known as Chenubee or the Miko Loosa, lay on his furs in the dark of his small cabin, the white stripes of sunlight poured through the planks of his door as he berated himself for being so weak.

How could I… I’m like a woman crying over an unpleasant task. If I was more a man I would never have said anything about Neshoba. I’ve killed men before. The chief is right this IS harder than going on a raid or going on spirit quest. But I am brave, I can do this. Neshoba was wrong and should be punished. It is my duty.

 He tossed and turned, blaming himself and his white blood for all his imagined failings, until finally a kind of peace settled on him and sleep came. Chenubee stirred as he lay on the hides, the faint noises of the village filtering through the cabin’s door, as he hauled up the past and sieved it for gold dust memories.

He dreamed of his father, Thomas – strong of arm, fair of hair (curly), big of smile and the bluest eyes any Choctaw had ever seen. From the start, the Irishman seemed to understand, almost instinctively, the influence that Choctaw women had on daily life; the braves could talk all day of their hunts and battles but it was the women ­who ruled the roost. He’d accepted completely that his wife would control both his possessions and hers. It was how things should be.

Chenubee had the best of both worlds growing up. In Choctaw villages it was the mother and her male relatives who raised the children, yet because Thomas was so loved by his squaw and her family he’d been just as influential on the boy. His eyes would glitter in anticipation at his father’s tales about the warriors on the small island across the great sea – the island where Thomas grew up, a place from which the greatest of all warriors lived: Cuchulainn. He could fight ten men at once and be the only one left standing at the end of the battle, so his father told him. Chenubee could still remember his uncle Mishawaka[9] bridle at the mere mention of the name, seeing it somehow as a slight against the great chief Pushmataha. He could almost hear the arguments between them to this day….

‘What would you know of real warriors Onalaska[10]‘, Mishawaka would say.  ‘Pushmataha was the greatest warrior who ever stood on this ground. I could spend five sunrises telling you of his bravery. How could any man compare to the most honoured Choctaw of them all, who brought terror to those cowardly dogs the Callagehahs when they dared attack him and his hunting party.’

Mishawaka would proceed to tell of the great event, as much for Thomas’s benefit as the boy’s. In that assault, so the story went, several Choctaw braves were killed, but Pushmataha spent the rest of that summer tracking his attackers and taking their scalps before returning to his village. Even then that wasn’t enough; later, he led two more war parties against the Callagehah, killing many without loss of even one of his own party.

‘Pushmataha was truly the greatest warrior. Your Cuchulainn would not even be allowed hold his tomahawk.’

Had anyone been watching Chenubee in his half-sleep they would hardly have believed their eyes because, like snow in summer or a bear out roaming in the depths of winter, the rarest of things happened – a smile began to creep across the grim mouth of the dozing Miko Loosa. He could still see his father’s face break into a grin and then switch to mock-seriousness as he debated with an increasingly agitated Mishawaka about the prowess of warriors in Ireland….

‘Ah now, I’m sure your Pushmataha was a man to be reckoned with – a fierce fellow, no doubt. But Cuchulainn – he was sent straight from the gods. Do you know a man who could hit a ball far into the air and run so fast that he could catch it before it fell to the ground? Or a man who could kill the fiercest of beasts without a gun in his hand, nor a knife, nor a tomahawk for that matter? Or a man who could fight whole tribes of warriors for an entire day and walk away the victor? A man who could play tolik alone against a whole tribe of the best players the Choctaw’s could muster?’

This last point would enrage the boy’s uncle, as he was one of the most skilled tolik players in the tribe.

‘Now you insult me!’

‘No… no… no…’ Thomas would soothe. ‘I only mean to say that of my people Cuchulainn is the greatest of all warriors. My boy here is lucky to have such mighty fighters in his bloodline. With their skills coursing through him he himself could become the mightiest warrior of them all.’

Mishawaka would smile, nod his head and look closely at the little boy who stared wide-eyed at the two men before him.


Outside in the noon-day heat, Cyrus Bingley watched in dismay as Manero was tied to the punishment pole, stripped naked and beaten. Tuskogee then drew his hunting knife, the blade glinting in the bright afternoon light as several dozen pairs of eyes followed its movement. The old chief weaved it slowly in front of the Mexican’s face before placing it on the peddler’s quivering thigh. The sharp point nicked the tender flesh, causing Manero to yelp. A rivulet of blood slid slowly down his leg, which vibrated like a freshly plucked bowstring. Tuskogee grabbed the peddler’s balls – Bingley winced as an animal cry pierced the air. The chief flashed the knife in front of the man’s eyes.

‘You see that? Well it will make short work of this piece of useless meat I hold in my hand. Come here again and I’ll feed your balls to the dogs.’

Bingley couldn’t make out what the sobbing Mexican was saying, but it was safe to say that he got the message. Manero was strapped to his horse and run out of the village, the squaws and children chasing alongside in fits of laughter. Sticks and stones pelted the whiskey peddler from all sides, adding to the injuries he’d already sustained. His cries of pain were drowned beneath the neighing of the alarmed horse and the taunting of the crowd. Amid all the commotion and through the swirling dust kicked up by the horse’s hooves, Bingley could see a beautiful mane of dark glossy hair crowned with daisies, its owner giggling merrily as she hurled another clod of earth at the retreating Mexican.

He shook his head in despair. Sometimes he wondered whether he was making any progress educating these people in the ways of the Lord or was it all a waste of time.  Whatever the answer, he knew, though, that the Heavenly Father would reward him for his efforts. He thought of his days back on the family farm; the memories somehow helped whenever he harboured any doubts of his mission. Enrolling as one of the Almighty’s foot soldiers had been the greatest moment in Bingley’s life. His love of books and an inquisitive nature had propelled him from the family farm and into the city where, until his forty-second birthday, he had worked as an accounts clerk with Mason, Stockard and Bell, New England’s pre-eminent haberdashery store. A combination of itchy feet, religious fervour and the novels of James Fennimore Cooper had impelled him into missionary life and given him a desire to work among savages. This was proving to be a disappointing day for his congregation’s march towards righteousness, though, but he reminded himself that his Quaker testimony was to be a true apostle of Christ, and that meant shining His light into darkened corners.

He didn’t know it but his inroads with them were largely down to an accident of birth on his behalf. Simply put, the Choctaw had never seen anything like Cyrus Bingley before. Despite his best efforts, his genteel manner could not disguise the tough farming stock from which he came. Thickset – just like his father – with a barrel chest and short, hairy forearms, he didn’t look like your typical man of God. His clothes were those of the frontiersman, not the bible-basher. A blue check shirt and brown, corded trousers were his typical attire. Many whites who saw him took him for a passing logger. His appearance was topped off by a bald dome surrounded by a half moon mass of wild red hair that flicked across his scalp like flames licking at a log. The Choctaw, never having seen a bald man before, never mind one whose whole head seemed to be ablaze, called him Wisakchi Humma4. Intrigued enough by his appearance and his odd behaviour they let him stay. Blessed are the ways of the Lord.


[1] Choctaw for ‘hurry’

[2] Choctaw for the crane bird

[3] Choctaw for ‘broken arm’

[4] Weather Warrior  i.e. a warrior who predicts the weather

[5] walnut and meat dish

[6] Wolf

[7] The Walker

[8] Cotton

[9] Mishawaka – one raised in abundance

[10] Onalaska – To arrive wet. Thomas Nolan was given the name by Mishawaka on their first meeting, when the indian fished Nolan half drowned from the Tallahacthie River

[11] Wisakchi Humma – Red Top

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The Bother with Brothers…

Brothers have a lot to answer for when it comes to history. From the mythology of twins Romulus and Remus, who are said to have founded Rome, to the brutal reality of the Lewingdon brothers, whose murder rampage terrorised the folk of Ohio during the 1970s, brothers have made the headlines for good and ill over the years.

When bicycle manufacturers Orville and Wilbur Wright reached for the skies and took their powered flying machine into the air for all of 12 seconds in 1903 at Dayton, Ohio, they not only flew into the history books but joined an exclusive group of siblings who worked together to make their mark on the world.

In literature we had the Grimm brothers, in politics the Kennedys, comedy brought us the Marx brothers, and music the Everlys and the Gallaghers. In sport, there were the Murrays – Andy occupying the number one spot in men’s singles tennis and his brother Jamie at number one in men’s doubles, both in 2016.

America’s Wild West is awash with brothers who joined forces, usually for ill, in a bid to better themselves. Former Civil War Confederate guerrillas Frank and Jesse James robbed banks and trains in the Midwest before Jessie was gunned down by an accomplice out to claim a sizeable reward.

The Dalton brothers – Bob, Grat and Emmet – sowed terror with their robberies and got their comeuppance in Coffeyville, Kansas, on October 5,1892, when they tried to rob not one but two banks at the same time in their old hometown. Their demise was quite spectacular…

Disguised with fake beards, Grat and Bob entered the First National Bank while Emmet and two accomplices took on the Condon Bank nearby. Unfortunately for the gang, they were recognised and by the time Grat and Bob walked out of the First National the townsfolk met them with all guns blazing. In the ensuing gun battle four citizens were killed and all the gang lay dead, apart from Emmet Dalton, who was seriously injured.

You could add the Younger brothers, the Earps (Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, James and Warren) and the McClaurys to name just a few other siblings…none of whom fared particularly well while working together.

Union Brigadier General William Terrill

Union Brigadier General William Terrill

Confederate Brigadier General James Terrill

Confederate Brigadier General James Terrill

But really, it’s not the brothers who stood shoulder to shoulder that is the purpose of this blog, what we’re really talking about is the Cain and Abel kind, the ones who forsook the adage of blood being thicker than water and fought against each other’s interests.

Civil wars have a tendency to split certain clans, and there is one familial split from the American Civil War that stands out in particular – two brothers, both brigadier generals, who gave their lives fighting on opposite sides.

The Terrills of Virginia were Confederate to the core. Four of the Terrill men, including the patriarch, Colonel William H. Terrill, fought for the Confederacy. James Terrill made a name for himself in a series of actions, including the Battle of First Manassas and the Battle of Fredericksburg. He was promoted to major and then to lieutenant colonel for his soldiering ability. Then, on May 30, 1864, his nomination to the heady heights of brigadier general was confirmed, only for him to be killed in action the same day.

The Terrill family did have one black sheep, however, in the form of William R. Terrill, who took the Union side. William’s military campaigns took him West, so he never had to meet any of his family on the battlefield. Following success at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 he, too, was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, but in September of that year he was killed at the Battle of Perryville, in Kentucky.

Brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler

Brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler

Sometimes brothers at war with one another can be a good thing. Were it not for sibling rivalry the world would be a poorer place for the athletes among us. Shoemakers Adolf ‘Adi’ and Rudolf ‘Rudi’ Dassler continuous headbutting resulted in them splitting their business and setting up rival firms.

Today, Adi’s Adidas brand is known throughout the world, while Rudi’s Puma isn’t far behind.

There are lots of other examples of brothers at odds with one another. However,one of the most interesting must surely be that of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone and his brother, the policeman. One was a snappily dressed crime boss during Prohibition, the other a lawman who wore a ten-gallon hat and a holstered six-shooter strapped to his waist.

William 'Two-Gun' Hart

William ‘Two-Gun’ Hart

Al Capone

Al Capone

Al Capone’s big brother, Vincenzo, loved the Old West and ran away with a circus when Al was just eight years old. He changed his name to Richard J. Hart (likely trying to link himself to William S. Hart, a star of Western movies at the time), joined a Wild West Show and toured Europe. When America entered World War I, he enlisted and was promoted to lieutenant, earning a Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action’.

After the war, he became a town marshal in Homer, Nebraska. As a police officer, Hart was all action. He rescued several town residents (his future wife included) from a flash flood and became known for getting into fights. When Prohibition came into effect in 1920, he was appointed a prohibition agent, tasked with cracking down on bootleggers illegally importing and selling alcohol while his brother made a fortune from exactly the same practice.

‘Two-Gun’ Hart’s exploits hit the papers, helped a little due to his own talent for self-publicity. He was every newspaper editor’s dream – a lawman straight out of the Old West who wore spurs with his cowboy boots and a 10-gallon white hat on his head, a man who tracked down offenders using his trusty horse, Buckskin Betty, and who carried two pearl-handled pistols around his waist in case of trouble.

He was the bane of the moonshiners, going undercover to trap them and bringing to justice other criminals who crossed his path. Hart later worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Cheyenne Reservation in South Dakota, where he learned the tribal language and was credited with the arrest of 20 killers.  Hart would eventually move back to Nebraska and work again as prohibition agent.

Meanwhile, pearl-handled pistols notwithstanding, little brother Al was busy building his criminal empire. The brothers were reportedly reunited in the 1920s, but it never made the newspapers. They stayed in touch, though, according to Jeff McArthur in his book, Two-Gun Hart: Lawman, Cowboy and Long-Lost Brother of Al Capone.

When $2.7 million in cash and security bonds was stolen in September 1920 from Lincoln National Bank, in Lincoln, Nebraska, by associates of Al Capone, Hart used his little brother as a middle man and the bonds were returned.

He visited Capone at his Florida mansion after he was released from his 11-year term in prison for tax evasion.

‘Scarface’ Capone died in 1946; his law-abiding brother followed him in 1952, but with no mention of the Capone name on his headstone.

Brothers Hermann and Albert Goering

Brothers Hermann and Albert Goering

There is one sibling relationship that was quite remarkable in the impact it had not just on the brothers themselves but on the lives of countless others.

Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering was one of the leading members of the Nazi party and head of the Luftwaffe. Hitler’s henchman squirreled away art treasures from around the world, much of it stolen from wealthy Jews. He was a fat, self-satisfied, drug addict who was second only to Hitler. His influence and his crimes were enormous. However, his younger brother, Albert, could not have been  more different.

Albert despised the Nazis and would do all in his power to undermine them. In one incident he is said to have joined a group of Jewish women who had been forced to scrub a public pavement. When the officer in charge of this humiliation demanded to see his papers and realised who he was dealing with, the punishment was cancelled – how else could he avoid being accused of trying to humiliate the Reichsmarschall’s brother.

He would use his influence in order to free Jewish from the Nazis clutches. Although despising the regime, Albert did accept the post of export director at the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia when the job was presented to him.

He diverted a large chunk of his salary into the coffers of the resistance movement and encouraged acts of sabotage at the factory. Emboldened by his success he even used Goering family-headed notepaper to secure the release of Jewish families. Albert would type a letter and simply sign it ‘Goering’ demanding that prisoners be placed in trucks and removed from camps.

There were occasions when his activities were discovered, but that family name prevented a scandal from becoming public and big brother Hermann would sometimes have to use his hefty influence to smooth things over.

Justice finally caught up with Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials; however, he evaded the hangman’s noose by talking poison the night before his execution. As for Albert, he was shunned after the war because of that surname and he died in 1966, aged 70,  without receiving public recognition for all he did to save lives during the war.

It takes a great person to use their influence for the benefit of others and not for themselves. Albert Goering could so easily have sat back, switched off his conscience and let the money roll in as sibling to the second most powerful man in Germany. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes about his character.

‘Two-Gun’ Hart was brave, too… not just in catching criminals and by not being lured into the life led by his baby brother, but because of the manner in which he went about living his own. Ten-gallon hats, pearl-handled revolvers and trusty steads are the froth of Hollywood, yet ‘Two-Gun’ embraced them and ignored the snickers of the naysayers over how he went about his business as a lawman.

A few more Albert’s and ‘Two-Guns’ would do us all the world of good.

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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

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

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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