A date to remember…

Independence Day… two words that spark a glowing pride in most Americans. The fourth is a time of rejuvenated patriotism; a time to think back at the sacrifices once made in the name of freedom… a time when a nation was born, and a legend, too.

Mention the 4th of July and we hear the strains of The Star Spangled Banner as Old Glory flutters in the breeze, while looking out across the land of the free and the home of the brave. We hear marching bands in the street and imagine the angular frame of Uncle Sam waving to crowds. It’s heady stuff.

But there are places where that date evokes a much darker response… places like Silkstone, in Barnsley, England, where the dappled shadows of tree trunks stretch out across a mound from which two figures peer anxiously out. It’s a memorial to a tragic event whose date has been subsumed by America’s national holiday.

Huskar Colliery is quite a pretty spot these days, now that nature has reclaimed it. Back in 1838 that wasn’t the case. At that time, the smell of coke filled the air as miners hauled coal from the depths of the earth. It was hard, dangerous work, and it wasn’t just men who risked their health to retrieve the fuel. Soot-blackened children as young as seven years old also toiled in the pits.

Huskar colliery memorial

Huskar colliery memorial

And it would be on the 4th of July that 26 of them would pay the ultimate price while doing their work. For two hours that afternoon, a thunderstorm raged over the colliery. The rain was so heavy that it extinguished a boiler fire in an engine that was used to take the workers up to the surface.

Rather than make their way to the bottom of the pit as instructed, the children decided to wait where they were until the engine got working again. Nine hours they waited. Not wanting to stay any longer, 40 of them made their way to a ventilation drift in an area known as Nabbs Wood.

There was a door at the base of the drift through which the children entered. It would prove a fatal mistake. Making their way up the drift they were met by a torrent of water from a swollen stream, which washed the children off their feet and sent them back down to the door they had just passed through.  The water rose higher against the door as the children fought for their lives. Fourteen of them would manage to escape, but 26 others would drown in the drift.

Brothers George and James Burkinshaw (10 and seven respectively) were among the dead, as were Isaac (12) and Adam Wright (eight). Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Clarkson would later be buried at the feet of her 16-year-old brother James.

The Huskar Colliery disaster sparked an inquiry, and the resulting public outcry led to a law banning boys and girls under 10 years old from working underground. It says a lot about society at the time that this was deemed by many to be a reasoned response.

But back to America and the 4th of July…

I still remember the bicentennial celebrations in 1976, and all because of a tin serving tray that we had in our house. It was decorated with stars and bore the image of some Minutemen fresh from a fight with the British.  I don’t know where that tray came from, but I liked studying it.

Newspaper report of the Entebbe raid

Newspaper report of the Entebbe raid

The 200th anniversary of the founding of America was a big deal, but that 4th of July, 1976, was also momentous in Israel, where worried military chiefs waited to hear the result of a daring raid to rescue 94 Israeli passengers and 12 crew who were being held hostage at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

The kidnappers, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were being supported by Uganda’s military dictator, President Idi Amin.

The raid – codenamed Operation Thunderbolt – was hugely ambitious. It involved flying 100 commandoes over 4,000km. Three hostages died in the rescue bid and 102 were freed (one was ill in hospital at the time of the attack). All the hijackers were killed as were 45 Ugandan soldiers; 30 fighter jets were also destroyed.

The commandos suffered five wounded and one killed – the unit commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, was the elder brother to Benjamin Netanyahu who would go on to become Israel’s prime minister.

It was an audacious and spectacular rescue, and several movies were made about it.

The 4th of July can mean so many things to so many people. For me, its significance is not to be found amongst the red, white and blue of America, nor in the eerily poignant memorial at Silkstone. The Entebbe raid does linger in the mind but its date never really registered with me.


My Da with (L-R) Chloe, Lily, Harry and Ruby

No, the 4th of July is special because 86 years ago it was the first birthday of a postman, a carpenter, a glazier, a stringer of tennis rackets and a builder of dolls houses and toy forts. It was the day my father was born – and, for me, that surpasses all the historic milestones one could mention.

So, though my thoughts will stray to the victims of Huskar Colliery, the heroes of Entebbe and even Uncle Sam, my main focus will be on a bald-headed, pot-bellied man with mischief in his eyes. Happy birthday, Da.


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The village of generals

To outsiders, the village of Ballinalee, in Co Longford, might seem like no great shakes, just a bump in the road, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot that you’re through before you even notice. Were they to consult a map of the county, the seemingly inconsequential dot called Ballinalee might be ignored in favour of grander spots, like Longford town, Ballymahon, Granard or the pretty heritage town of Ardagh.

But that would be a mistake because lovers of history will find pure gold in its environs. For starters, it is the site of Ireland’s first convent – the remains of which are still visible – but that’s not what gets the juices flowing. No, the real interest lies elsewhere. Put it this way, how many tiny villages do you know that can claim two generals to their credit, and another military hero born just a five-minute drive away?

That third one, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Monro, hailed from the village Clonfin. Born in 1700 into a military family, his own soldierly career would be quite lacklustre until 1757, when he achieved renown through the Siege of Fort William Henry during the Seven Years’ War between the British and the French. Situated on the frontier between the British Province of New York and the French Province of Canada, Fort William Henry was a key military position which found itself in the path of a combined French and Indian force of 8,000 men.

Monro and his 1,500 garrison of troops were soon besieged, but managed to hold out for several days, earning the admiration of the French commander. Eventually, though, Monro had to surrender. However, while removing his troops under a flag of truce, his men were set upon by marauding Indians and decimated. Monro himself would survive the attack, but die three months later through illness.

The dastardly deed was immortalised by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans, ensuring that Monro’s name would live on in literature as well as history.

Sean MacEoin, IRA flying column leader

Sean MacEoin

But Monro wasn’t the only boy from that small neck of the Longford woods who would achieve fame – there was also the ‘Blacksmith of Ballinalee’, Sean MacEoin, who would cause a bit of a stir, to put it mildly.

MacEoin was born a blacksmith’s son in 1893, outside Granard, and would go on to set up his own forge in Kilinshley, in the Ballinalee district. But smithying would soon take second place to his other duties, namely as the leader of an IRA flying column in the area during the War of Independence.

To say MacEoin had an eventful war is an understatement. Aside from being responsible for many attacks on British troops, he and 300 men are credited with repelling a 900-British force intent on burning Ballinalee in November 1920, as a reprisal for previous IRA raids.

In January, the following year, he was almost captured in a house by a 10-man British patrol, but MacEoIn fought his way out, hurling grenades and firing his pistol, killing the patrol’s officer in the process.

A few weeks later, at Clonfin, (home to Sir Geore Monro), MacEoin and his men ambushed two lorries carrying 18 British troops, killing and wounding their commanders. He showed his chivalrous side by ordering his men to treat the enemy wounded as British reinforcements converged on the scene. MacEoin’s actions would later be praised by his opponents and castigated by men from his own side.

The following month, March 1921, MacEoin was captured by the British at Mullingar station and sentenced to death (later commuted) for the murder of an RIC Inspector.

Sir Henry Wilson, assassinated by the IRA

SIr Henry WIlson

Michael Collins organised a daring rescue attempt in which six IRA men dressed as British soldiers and drove a captured armoured car into Mountjoy Prison, but MacEoin was not in the area that they had expected him to be and his would-be rescuers had to retreat under heavy fire.

Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, MacEoin joined the National Army and, in June 1922, was appointed general in charge of the Western theatre, where he helped subdue anti-treaty forces. He held several high-ranking positions after that, culminating in becoming Army Chief of Staff in February 1929.

MacEoin would have an equally successful political career, serving two terms as Minister for Defence and one as Minister for Justice.

It’s interesting to note that when he was facing the death sentence, MacEoin’s mother wrote a letter pleading clemency to her son’s neighbour, who just happened to be one of the most senior British officers in World War One.

Yes, MacEoin, the bane of the British Army, lived just a stone’s throw from the home of local landlord, Field Marshall, Sir Henry Wilson.

Wilson’s military career was even more impressive than that of MacEoin’s. He was instrumental in drawing up plans to deploy British troops to France in the event of war and became Chief of Staff, Sir John French’s most trusted adviser during Britain’s 1914 military campaign.

He would later be Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s military adviser before becoming Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1918. Four years later, Wilson, who was also a Unionist MP, would be gunned down by two IRA men, Reginald Dunne and the one-legged Joseph O’Sullivan.

As Wilson alighted from a taxi outside his home in London, the two IRA men pounced, shooting the Field Marshall seven times. As Dunne later testified: ‘I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled-up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point, Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed.’

The Field Marshall had tried to draw his ceremonial sword in a bid to defend himself but was dead before the weapon had been fully cleared of its scabbard.

One little area of Longford and three extraordinary military careers…

What history… and what stories Ballinalee’s locals must know as they watch the outsiders speeding past in search of more worthy places to visit.

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How 1916’s rebels dressed to impress

The price of freedom doesn’t come cheap, but the true cost of being a patriot wasn’t just to be paid in blood, sweat and tears, but also in pounds, shillings and pence.

Whatever one’s views about those who fought in 1916 and the destruction they brought down on our capital city and elsewhere, one thing is for sure, they were a well-dressed bunch.

The men of the Irish Citizen Army cut dashing figures as they paraded around the streets of Dublin in their white bandoliers, dark uniforms and Boer hats. The same could be said for the Irish Volunteers and their officers. These men looked the part and tried their best to act it, too.

A lot of time and effort went into moulding these men into paramilitaries . . . time, effort and money, because those uniforms didn’t come cheap.

In December, 1916, at a special conference in Derry, the Irish Trade Union Congress noted that although wages had increased 10pc throughout the country, food prices had increased by a massive 80pc, so money was scarce in many quarters.

By 1914, a drapers’ assistant earned about £1 a week; female dressmakers slightly less, at 10s a week. In 1919, the basic salary for a Constable was £109 4s a year. A trained nurse earned between £30 and £40, while a Sister was paid £50. Tram conductors earned 22s6d (22 shillings and sixpence a week).

the o'rahilly

The O’Rahilly in Volunteer uniform

To understand how big a hit the wallets of freedom fighters were taking, it’s worth noting that one old penny would be the equivalent of about 33 cents today. A shilling in 1916 would roughly have the same purchasing power as about four euro in modern currency, while one old pound was equal to €80. So, with relatively low incomes for the majority of republicans, Volunteers and Citizen Army personnel had to sacrifice a lot to dress for Ireland.

There were a couple of go-to establishments for the well-dressed revolutionary to frequent. Thomas Fallon of Nos 8 & 53 Mary Street was one; Hearne & Co Ltd was another. Both offered the complete rig – everything from “Splendid web bandoliers with five leather pockets” (two shillings and sixpence – 2/6 – each) to Sam Brown belts, “richly mounted” (14/6 – about €58 in today’s money).

Caps – dark green – cost 1/6 and 5/6, depending on head size, presumably; while Volunteer Boer-shape hats were priced at 1/10 and 2/6. Fallons was selling them for a hefty 2/3 each – mind you, they did also offer them at 22/6 per dozen.

The uniform itself was of “approved design only”. Customers could write for a self-measurement form which they would then send back to the shop’s tailor. Fallon’s offered uniform Irish tweed suits at 24/6 each, with Irish frieze green coats costing 35 shillings.

The Mary Street business styled itself as Tailor, Outfitter & Equipment Manufacturer – and the first maker in Ireland of Sam Brown belts for officers. They also claimed to be the “first maker in Ireland of special uniform for Volunteer officers”.

For the socialists of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army it must have been comforting to know that “Bandoliers and belts (are) made on the premises by trade union labour”.

In its advertisements, Fallons proclaimed that “Nothing can stop the march of the Irish Volunteers” – and so, it seemed, if their uniforms were anything to go by.

Irish Citizen Army

Members of the Irish Citizen Army

The historian and author Richard Michael Fox was a contemporary of Connolly’s and Larkin’s, and admired both men greatly. In his book, The Irish Citizen Army, he describes the uniform that was adopted by Connolly’s band of 300 ‘soldiers’:

“Until the uniforms came (in 1914), the rank and file wore Irish linen armlets of a light blue colour with the letters ICA on them, while the officers wore bands of crimson. When a consignment of belts, havoursacks (stet) and bayonets arrived the men were soon busy cleaning, polishing and oiling with enthusiasm. Big slouch hats completed the turn-out. … When the uniforms came the enthusiasm was greater than ever. They were of a darker green than those worn by the Irish Volunteers, and it became the custom among the Transport Union members to fasten up one side of the big slouch hats with the red hand badge of the Union.”

These uniforms were described as being of good quality dark green serge. They had a high collar and had two breast pockets and two large box pockets. The slouch hat was of the same very dark green colour. It was similar in style to the hats worn by the Anzacs in the British Forces and the Boer “Cronje” hat.

Countess Markievicz in uniform

Countess Markievicz in uniform

The ICA cap badge was the Irish Transport And General Workers Union badge for 1913. The uniform belt was the same pattern as the RIC belt with a brass “Snake S” buckle. Those carrying rifles wore black bandoliers and all members carried a white linen ammunition and kit bag. The trousers were the same dark green colour and material.  All in all, it was a smart rig-out.

Twenty-four female members of the ICA took part in the Rising. Their uniforms were of a similar colour, but coarser tweed than the men’s. Ladies wore the same bandoliers and white kit bags as the men but sometimes wore Sam Browne belts rather than the “Snake S” buckle belts. Most wore a skirt in the same colour, but others, such as Countess Markievicz, wore trousers.  In some quarters, that act alone was probably more rebellious than anything else that happened on Easter Week…


 Haversacks 10½d and 1/2
 Putties, grey-green – best Volunteer colour 1/- and 1/4½
 Leather bandoliers, five pocket, used before, 2/11
 New Officers belts, with sling, richly mounted 5/11
 Sam Brown new belts, richly mounted 14/6
 New bandolier, five pocket 4/11
 Volunteer badges, 3/11 per dozen
 Green Irish flag with harp, 1/11; best quality 10/6
 Green sashes 1/-; 1/11; 2/11


Thomas Fallon, 8 & 53 Mary Street, Dublin
 The famous Boer hat as worn by the American Army 2/3 each -22/6 dozen

 Haversacks – 10d * water bottles – 1/3 & 4/9 * waist belts – 1/- & 2/6  * leather bandoliers 4/9 & 7/6 * leather slings 1/6 * grey-green putties 1/6 per pair * grey-green uniform caps 1/6, 2/6, 3/6 * frogs 10d & 1/9 * signalling flags 10d 1/6 * infantry whistles 1/- * armbands 5½d * harp cap badges 6d * shoulder decorations 6d * harp buttons 6d per dozen small, 1/- large * green flags four yards long 7/6

 Burnishers, swagger canes, button sticks, button brushes, green sashes, officers’ Sam Brown belts, officers’ map cases, even sword scabbards, fittings & mountings for bandoliers and Sam Brown belts, grey-green shirts, collars and fronts; Everything to equip the soldier for the field; leather leggings. Binoculars 35/-


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

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Ireland’s Civil War – when truth was stranger than fiction…

Michael Collins makes for an easy hero – good-looking, vibrant, devil-may-care, intelligent, ruthless, brilliant, passionate, loyal… what’s not to love? But he was petulant, too, and careless, and unpredictable and argumentative and arrogant and single-minded. It’s why he appeals to so many people – he’s loved for his flaws as much as his finer traits.

When Collins was buried in 1922 following his fatal ambush at Beal na mBlath, friend and foe wept. And in his dying – gun in hand and bullets whizzing past – the legend that had mushroomed during the War of Independence was cemented for eternity.


Michael Collins

The bane of the British Empire fell in full bloom, which was a tragedy but also a blessing for those who like to wear their spectacles rose-tinted. He died so young that there was little time for his reputation to be tarnished or for people to grow out of love with him.

Collins’ death was due in a large part to his disregard for his own safety, but also a result in no small degree to two brothers, who took opposite sides in the Irish Civil War that erupted following the treaty which ended the War of Independence.

Tom and Sean Hales, from Ballinadee in Co Cork, personified the cleavage within the country in 1921. Sean, a brigadier-general and TD, felt the treaty should be supported and that later, at a time more advantageous, it should then be broken – just as the British themselves had broken countless treaties down through the centuries.

Such an argument held no truck for Sean’s younger brother, Tom, who had been brutally tortured by British soldiers during the War of Independence.

Captured alongside fellow IRA officer Pat Harte, Tom was beaten, had a fingernail torn out and was threatened with being blown up. Harte was so badly tortured that he subsequently had a nervous breakdown and ended up in an insane asylum.

As a result of his treatment, Tom had no time for anything to do with the British, treaties or otherwise.

HalesThe brothers took opposite sides in the fighting that followed, and their story is told by historian Liz Gillis in her book, The Hales Brothers and the Irish Revolution. Fate would see to it that both men would be pivotal in what would turn out to be the final hours of Ireland’s most charismatic leader.

On 22 August, 1922, Michael Collins, the Free State army’s commander-in-chief, travelled in convoy through Beal na mBlath (“The Mouth of Flowers”), in West Cork. He was touring the area, meeting with troops, and his next port of call that day was the Munster Arms Hotel, in Bandon, where he would talk with Sean Hales.

Collins’ column stopped at Beal na mBlath for directions to Bandon. Unfortunately, the man they asked happened to be a member of the anti-treaty IRA. Plans were subsequently set in motion to mount an ambush upon Collins’ return from Bandon. Tom Hales lead the ambush party.

The events of that day are woven into Irish history. Sean Hales later said that he advised Collins not to travel through Beal na mBlath.  Imagine the scene… one brother warning Collins not to go there, and the other one lying in wait.

Collins, ‘The Big Fella’,  ignored the advice, just as he ignored advice to speed through the ambush once it was launched. Instead, he ordered his convoy to halt and engage the enemy, with Collins himself taking a rifle and striding along the road in pursuit of his attackers.

The self-assuredness of youth… Collins – the meat in the Hales brothers’ sandwich – was the only casualty that day. A bullet wound to the back of the head put paid to one of Ireland’s greatest sons and spawned countless musings as to how the nation would have fared with Collins at its head.

Before the end of the year, Sean Hales (32) would join his leader in death. He was shot in the back on 7 December as he mounted a jarvey at Dail Eireann.  Tom Hales survived the Civil War, and died in 1966.

The Hales brothers’ falling-out was replicated in families around the country. Both their dilemma and Collins’ fatal journey inspired characters and scenes in my new novel, Patriots’ Blood.

Trying to capture the past can be difficult, but trying to capture an iconic moment that shaped a nation can fill one with trepidation. I hope I did justice to these momentous events.  Whether I succeeded or not remains to be seen, but it was certainly fun trying.

You can judge for yourself with this extract from Patriots’ Blood

Patriots' BloodThey waited all through the afternoon and into the evening. Some of the men departed for short periods to eat in local farmhouses or at a pub further down the road. Brennan walked the length of the ambush site, studying the road below and looking for an escape route once the job was done. There was a path close by, running perpendicular to the road, which would allow for a quick escape. He’d be able to work his way back towards Crookstown quickly and get his motorbike, for which he’d managed to scrounge a few gallons of petrol from the IRA men. Satisfied with the terrain, Brennan sat down and cleaned the Mauser. Then, he ate from his tins, munching on some bread given to him by the Irregulars and listening to the chit-chat of O’Neill and the three other men who sat close by amongst the scrub.

Brennan watched with approval as O’Neill checked over his Lee Enfield rifle. By the way he handled the weapon it seemed like he knew what he was about. Still, they waited. The evening light was beginning to fade and a thin mist began to fall. Brennan considered calling it quits for the day, but then thought of the company he’d have to keep at the nearby castle and a slight shudder ran over him. He’d hold on where he was a while longer.

One of the men stretched and yawned. ‘Where the hell is this blasted convoy? It’s near eight o’clock. The day’s almost gone and there’s no sign of them.’

‘Maybe they decided to stay in Bandon for the night,’ offered up another.

Almost in answer to the query, the shrill blast of a whistle rang in the air.

‘Hmm, that’s Tom. Looks like it’s off for tonight,’ said O’Neill. Brennan could hear Hales down on the road ordering the main group of men to clear the area while the mine was carefully removed and dismantled.

About a dozen men took the road south, while others headed towards the village. A few stragglers helped reload the crates of bottles onto the dray.  Brennan grabbed his knapsack and prepared to leave, but halted when he noticed a commotion down on the road. Then he heard it: the sound of engines approaching. Suddenly, things began to happen very fast. Men scattered over roadside fences. A moment later, a motorcycle outrider approached with a Crossley tender following, after that was a staff car, followed by an armoured truck with a turret machine gun. No sooner had the outrider swept past than there was a rapid volley of fire from the men by the roadside.

The soldiers in the Crossley laid down heavy fire on the attackers as the staff car pulled up, its windscreen shattered. Brennan saw two figures leap out and take cover behind a mud bank. They were joined by a couple of other soldiers as the armoured car began to let rip with its machine-gun. Brennan ducked low behind the fence as clumps of earth were ripped up by the spitting bullets. The sleepy country road became alive with the crackle and chatter of gunfire.

Try as he might, Brennan couldn’t get a shot off such was the onslaught from the armoured truck. The firefight raged for about twenty minutes all along the road. He could see Irregulars moving away from their positions, making their retreat, probably already out of ammo. Hales had mentioned that the men only had about ten rounds each. Brennan didn’t care. He wasn’t going anywhere if Collins was within hitting distance.

Things grew quiet as the heavy fire from the armoured truck stopped, to be replaced by the sound of single shots coming from its turret.

‘Must be a jam of some kind,’ muttered O’Neill, who was crouched close by.

The light was fading fast and it was getting harder to pick out targets. Brennan peered over the fence and saw one of the officers from the staff car, armed with a rifle, dash towards the armoured truck, his open greatcoat swaying as he moved. The man sheltered there and took pot shots at his attackers. Brennan fired back but only managed to dent the truck. Then the officer spotted the Irregulars who were retreating up the path.

‘Come on boys! They’re running up the road!’ he called, excited.

The man was tall and broad – a big fellow – with a commanding presence. Brennan was not one to be easily fazed, but his heart pounded when he realised who it was. Even in the dim light, he knew that down below, in front of him, gripping a rifle, stood Mick Collins himself.

Brennan fired, but Collins moved at that very moment, his attention focussed on the retreating enemy. Then, he was running, out from the cover of the armoured truck and around a bend in the road, chasing the Irregulars. Brennan watched him stop in the middle of the road, to fire at one of his fleeing attackers.

Now was his chance. Up on the hill, Brennan raised the Mauser, took aim and fired. Beside him, O’Neill had started to retreat, pausing to fire as he went. Collins’s head snapped back as a round struck him and then he fell face down on the road.

Brennan knew he’d hit him. The sense of satisfaction was overwhelming. In that instant, all the noise dissipated and he drank in the scene. O’Neill had gone, fleeing up the path the other Irregulars had used, and for a moment it was just The Watchman and The Big Fella.

The Staters had yet to realise their leader had fallen. Brennan couldn’t help himself. He clambered down to the road and dashed over to the body. Ragged gasps were coming from Collins, his body giving short spasms as he still clutched his rifle. Brennan nodded, satisfied. The Dum-Dum had done the job: a large hole was visible at the base of the skull. He knew there’d be no surviving such a wound.

Patriots’ Blood will be available on Amazon soon. You can check out reviews for other books in the Liam Mannion series here.

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Five of The Best Streets in the World…

This is a piece I wrote for my friend Robert Horvat’s great blog, If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History. Robert’s blog is full of fascinating history and is well worth a good rummage…

Rearview Mirror

Every now and then I will invite a special guest to write about their five favourite streets (or places) in their own city and or somewhere around the world that they have managed to travel to. Today, I am honoured to have David Lawlor as my special guest. I must confess, David is someone whom I admire and have gained plenty advice from over the past few years. I am especially excited today by his choice to focus on his hometown. It is truly a city close to his heart. Without further ado I will let David take you on his tour of his favourite streets/places in Dublin, Ireland.

7516244016_fcb640b5a5_b (1).jpg


This is one of the five ancient roads to Tara, the home of Ireland’s ancient High Kings. It also happens to be the working-class neighbourhood in which I grew up. Being from the inner city and on the northside of the…

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Five historic mothers for Mothers’ Day…

Were you smugly congratulating yourself in December for getting off the Christmas card merry-go-round? Perhaps you thought an email to loved ones would cover things on that occasion. Or you might have avoided the financial haemorrhage known as Valentine’s Day, when a card, a few flowers and (dare I even mention it…) a meal in the local restaurant can prove particularly bruising on the wallet.

Maybe you’re one of those people who refuse to be suckered into the emotional maelstroms of ‘big’ occasions. Well, don’t be feeling so smug with yourself because you’re not out of the woods yet.

In this part of the world, today is the moment card manufacturers salivate over all year round – the day when the emotional blackmail barometer soars to dizzy heights. It’s the day that none but the coldest of hearts would dare ignore – yes, Mothers’ Day in all its violet-tinged, floral glory is upon us, and God help anyone who forgets.

Of course, mothers are great, and there certainly have been plenty of them down the years. Some, though, lifted themselves higher than others…

I can hear those cries of protest already. When I say ‘some’ I mean the ones that took the moniker of ‘mother’, or one like it, and made it their own.


Mary Harris Jones aka 'Mother Jones'

Mary Harris Jones

I mean women like Mother Jones – that stalwart of the American labour movement, who galvanised calls to action, marching on Washington to protest over the plight of the working class. Cork-born Mary Harris Jones was a union organiser, who (from the 1870s to her death in 1930) campaigned for workers’ rights through her long career, which was peppered with prison terms and court appearances.

She marched and protested for railroad workers, miners, and even minors – the ‘March of the Mill Children’ in 1901 was part of a campaign to secure adult wages for child workers. Although unsuccessful, Jones’ actions did lead to an improved situation for young workers.

And don’t forget another great mama – Cass Elliot. Mama Cass’s velvet tones brought huge success to her and her group, The Mamas and The Papas in the Sixties. Songs like California Dreamin’, Monday, Monday and (her solo) Dream A Little Dream of Me showcased her talent – a talent which was augmented after an accident that occurred while she was holidaying in the Virgin Islands.

Elliot claimed that an iron bar from a construction site fell on her head, giving her concussion. Her misfortune proved to be the music industry’s gain because, two weeks later, she found herself able to sing three notes higher.

Mama Cass

Mama Cass

Elliot, a large lady, is said to have been unhappy with the moniker ‘Mama’, particularly after the group split. Her subsequent solo career was plagued by drug abuse, which led to a disastrous opening night in Las Vegas in 1968. By all accounts, it was a car crash of an evening, not helped by the fact that she had injected heroin just prior to going on stage.

Cass Elliot died of heart failure in 1974. She was just 32. It was a life cut short too soon, but the name ‘Mama Cass‘ – and her music – lives on.

There have been other celebrated mothers – Mother Teresa, for instance. The Albanian nun and her Order, the Sisters of Charity, have been celebrated for doing sterling work fighting poverty in India. Well, that’s how some would view the saint…

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

Others saw the wizened nun’s actions as being far from saintly. The conditions in her Order’s hospitals were lambasted, her use of huge donations questioned, and she was accused of being more interested in growing the Catholic faith than in alleviating poverty.

But let’s push that to one side and reflect on another woman who set the bar high for Mothers’ Day. I refer to Grandma Moses…

I must admit, I had heard of her name before but had no idea how she had become so well known. The more I read of her now, the more I like what I see. Anna Mary Robertson Moses achieved fame as a painter. She was born in 1860 and would live to the ripe age of 101.

A house servant and later a farmer’s wife and mother of ten, her art was inspired by bygone times – ‘old timey’, as she called it.

Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses

Initially selling for $3-$5, her works rose in price to between $8,000 and $10,000 as her fame grew. In 2006, one of her paintings, The Sugaring Off, sold for $1.2million – not bad going for someone who only took up painting at the age of 78.

Moses certainly made up for lost time, though. She was a prolific artist, painting 0ver 1,500 works of art in her lifetime – and she was feisty, too. The character Daisy Moses in The Beverly Hillbillies is said to be based on her (and I can see the resemblance).

These were all remarkable women in their own way. But, for me, there’s one who sticks out more than most – Arrie Barker, that much-maligned matriarch to four sons whose crimes had the family name plastered over newspapers throughout America in the 1920s and ’30s.

Ma Barker‘s boys were trouble with a capital T. Hermann, Lloyd, Fred and Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker were involved in a whole series of crimes that escalated from petty thieving to robbery and murder. Hermann killed himself in 1927 following a botched robbery and shoot-out with police.

For almost three years, Arrie lived alone – her husband had left and her three surviving boys were all incarcerated. Then, in 1931, Fred was released from prison. He immediately hooked up with criminal Alvin Karpis and set about doing what they did best – committing robberies and murdering police officers. The pair became Wanted men, and Arrie, rather than be alone again, decided to join them on the road.

Ma Barker

Ma Barker

‘Doc’ Barker was released from jail the following year and joined Lloyd and a few others to form the Barker-Karpis gang. The siblings’ mother, now known as ‘Ma Barker’, was still in tow, but now she had a price on her head for being an accomplice to her sons’ depredations.

The gang hid out in various houses in and around the town of St Paul, Minnesota, where they undertook two kidnappings, which netted them $300,000 in ransom money.

These were the days of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI when criminals became celebrities. Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby-Faced Nelson… their names filled column inches in newspapers throughout the country. Added to that lurid list were Ma Barker and her boys.

The reign of terror came to an end two years later when Ma and her son Fred were cornered in a house in Florida. After a firefight that lasted several hours, both were killed. A ‘Tommy’ gun was found on the ground between their bodies in the upstairs bedroom. Fred’s body was peppered with bullets. Arrie (aged 62) died from a single shot.

Ma was dubbed by the FBI as being the criminal mastermind of the Barker-Karpis gang. However, all those who knew her, including members of the gang, found this claim laughable. They all said that Ma had been a handy cover for her boys – an ageing woman with her sons in tow carried less suspicion than if they crossed the highways and byways by themselves.

There’s something terribly sad about a mother trailing after her marauding sons, living in hotel rooms and rented houses while they went out and did their worst – a woman still trying to protect her brood, no matter what their actions.

Ma Barker no doubt had her faults, but she stood by her sons come hell or high water, going on the run with them and even being with one until the bitter, bloody end. There’s nobility in that.

A mother’s love is a blessing but a bad son can be a curse. Arrie Barker had four bad sons, but she tried to do good by them all, no matter how misguided her actions might have been… and isn’t that all any mother could do for her brood?

To all mothers out there, take a pat on the back.

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It’s Time to Look Closer at Black History

Katherine Johnson is a remarkable woman, but you don’t need me to tell you that, all you have to do is look at her CV. She was one of Nasa’s ‘human computers’ – a physicist whose job, among other things, was to calculate trajectories and flight times for the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

Katherine was pivotal to the success of the mission and she did so using just a slide rule and pencil. That a woman could achieve such a distinction at a time when men ruled the employment roost is remarkable – but that the woman in question also happened to be black is downright amazing.

For her work in helping to win the space race, Katherine Johnson (now 97) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year by President Obama. Her story is told in the book, and soon-to-be-released movie, Hidden Figures.


Katherine Johnson

Katherine’s life and achievements are intriguing, but what really fascinates is the historical space (no pun intended) that her story inhabits. Quite frankly, the history we tend to read about black achievement and struggle usually centres not on the space race but on race itself – on issues like Civil Rights and the fight against slavery.

We are used to viewing black history through this prism, so when you throw in the fact that a very smart and very determined black woman helped put humans on the moon, that makes a lot of people suddenly pay attention.

It made me wonder, though, what other historical spaces have been overlooked when it comes to black people. For instance, what about all those black men who fought in Nazi armies during World War II. We don’t tend to read about the Phalange Africaine Legion, which fought for Hitler in the North Africa campaign, or the Free Arab Legion which formed part of the force that occupied Greece and which fought partisans in Yugoslavia.


Free Arab Legion soldier

Similarly, we read little about those black people who struggled to survive after falling prey to Nazi race laws and who were described as ‘of alien blood’ in Nazi Germany and were prohibited from marrying or having sex with ‘people of German blood’.

In the Rhineland, a programme was established, which led to up to 500 mixed-race children (conceived when French African colonial troops occupied the region) being sterilised lest they ‘contaminate’ the Aryan bloodline.

For some reason, the notion of black people living in Nazi Germany seems to be off our radar.

But it’s not just there that we have lost sight of the black experience. The American Civil War is another case in point. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment is celebrated for being the first black Union regiment of soldiers in the US Civil War. Books have been written and films made describing their fighting acumen and bravery.


A black man in Confederate uniform

As fascinating as they were, we hear little in popular culture about the black Confederate soldiers who fought during that conflict. They did exist (their numbers have been hotly debated), but their story is still waiting to be told. Maybe the notion of black people – even a tiny minority – supporting the Southern states is just too much to contemplate for some.

The popular history of America’s West also gives short shrift to the black experience. We tend to see the Old West through the stories of white settlers and ‘red’ Indians – the colour black doesn’t get much of a look-in, particularly when it comes to those charged with enforcing the law in those days.

Bass Reeves may be well-known to some, but for most of us I’d wager his name draws a blank. It shouldn’t because Bass had an extraordinary life. As the first black deputy west of the Mississippi, he worked for the ‘Hanging Judge’, Isaac Parker. For 32 years, he would serve in various districts.


Bass Reeves

By his own reckoning, he arrested 3,000 criminals and shot dead 14 outlaws. Based on his success as a lawman alone, his story certainly deserves to feature more prominently in the history of the Old West than some other ‘characters’ from that era who are better known than he is.

Of course, I might just be highlighting my own ignorance when it comes to black endeavour and not the fact that cases like black Nazi soldiers and black lawmen are little known.

For instance, I’d never heard of Matthew Henson, who is credited as being the first African-American Arctic explorer. Born in 1866 to a family of sharecroppers, Matthew fist went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of 12. He would go on to make seven voyages to the Arctic alongside explorer, Commander Robert Peary.

The Commander would be feted for his endeavours, but for decades Henson was only recognised within the black community. He would later be honoured by presidents, books would be written about him, and he was given a hero’s burial at Arlington Cemetery.


Matthew Henson

So, ultimately, Henson was recognised for his efforts. Yet, why did it come as a surprise to me to find a black face in the vast white landscape of the Arctic? Perhaps it’s a result of viewing black people through their experiences on American soil. That’s certainly how I viewed Frederick Douglass.

That great abolitionist, orator, writer and one-time slave, Douglass is a man synonymous with high intellect and great rhetoric.  I can imagine his high-flown oratory at public meetings in America where he might debate with proponents of slavery or argue for women’s rights.

But that a black man of such titanic intellect traversed my own isle of Ireland in 1845 and debated the issues of the day… well it’s hard to get one’s head around.

It was only until relatively recently that I discovered the great orator had come to Ireland on a lecture tour for four months at the outset of the famine, and that he had stood alongside Ireland’s ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell, in whom Douglass found a match for his own great oratory.


Frederick Douglass

And what a wordsmith Douglass was. Here’s what he had to say about his time in Ireland:

‘I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!

Much like the notion of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of America, or Sitting Bull’s presence in England as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, I suppose we can sometimes find certain historical scenarios hard to envisage. So, perhaps I am not alone in finding it surprising to view black lives in the context set out above.

One thing’s for sure, though. February is designated Black History Month in some parts, and we should all make it our business to delve more deeply into the stories of black lives down the centuries.

I’ll be wading through aspects of the past that I had neatly pigeonholed as being areas of white experience. I will seek out the black stories there that may have been lost in the mix, I will rummage for that forgotten voice – the one that tells a tale unheard by many of us, and then I will marvel at the deep, dark recesses of my own ignorance.

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How The Good Nazis Put Their Lives on The Line

When we think of World War II it’s easy to know which side the good guys and gals were on, right? Unless, of course, you recall the GI murder gangs that sowed terror in wartime Paris. If you don’t know that story, then you can read about it in a previous post, here.

But it isn’t just criminal GIs who can turn our concept of good and bad on its head. We should also remember those Nazis who put their lives on the line, or gave them up entirely to save the ‘enemy’.

They seldom get the credit they deserve, but the good Nazis of Hitler’s Germany are owed a debt that can never be repaid. Here are some stories of the Nazis who really did make a difference… and for the right reasons.

On July 26, 1942, the bridge at the River San in southern Poland was thronged with troops at both ends.

It led to the town of Przemysl, where the SS had orders to liquidate 100 Jewish inhabitants, but they faced an obstacle in the form of a detachment of soldiers with orders to defend the town at all costs.

Each side’s men faced off against one another in broad daylight, their fingers hovering over triggers. The bridge’s defenders must have had their hearts in their mouths as they trained their guns on the SS troops opposite and waited for the order to fire.

All it would take was some over-excited trooper to let loose with a burst from his machine-gun and hell would be unleashed. Thankfully, the order to fire never came. Instead, the SS commander finally decided to pull back his men.

The soldiers involved must have breathed a sigh of relief. The town’s 100 Jews must have wept for joy. What’s remarkable about this little tableau is not that the SS turned on their heel without firing a shot, rather that those making them flee were fellow German soldiers, who had put their lives on the line to protect Przemusl’s Jews from liquidation.


Albert Battel

The events of that day were played out due to the determination of the local military commander Major Max Liedke and his adjutant, 51-year-old reserve officer, Lieutenant Albert Battel, who later that day entered the Jewish ghetto and evacuated the Jews, placing them under the protection of the Wehrmacht.

The affair created an almighty stink. An investigation was ordered, with SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler himself vowing to have Battel thrown out of the Nazi party and arrested once the war was over.

It never came to that. Battel was retired from the army due to heart disease. He was captured by the Russians, and upon his release moved to West Germany. He died in 1952. Israel honoured his act of heroism, making him one of the Righteous Among Nations in 1981.

But Battel wasn’t the only Nazi to put his life on the line for the enemy. In 1942, Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman avoided being rounded up by Nazis and sent to Treblinka concentration camp. He hid in Warsaw, always waiting for the heavy stomp of jackboots on stairs to announce that the Germans had discovered his whereabouts.


Wilhelm Hosenfeld

That day finally did come, in August 1944, when Szpilman was found hiding in an abandoned building by German Captain Wilhelm Hosenfeld. Instead of turning the pianist in, however, Hosenfeld found a better place for him to hide, brought food to him regularly and even gave him an army great coat to keep warm.

The German officer wasn’t so fortunate. He was captured by the Russians in 1945, and died in captivity six years later.

In 2009, Hosenfeld was posthumously honoured by Israel for his courage.

Hosenfeld’s act of humanity ensured that Szpilman survived the war. His remarkable story was later turned into the film, The Pianist. Hollywood also rightly eulogised the role played by Nazi industrialist and spy Oskar Schindler in saving Jews from the gas chambers. The story of how he used guile and huge bribes to secure the safety of 1200 Jewish workers is well known. Schindler was practically bankrupt by the time the time Hitler’s armies surrendered.


Oskar Schindler

For a time after the war he lived in Argentina with his wife, and took up farming. Neither the marriage nor the farming worked out and he returned to Germany in 1958, where a string of failed business ventures followed. Schindler survived through financial support from the Jewish workers he’d spent his fortune trying to save. He was named Righteous Among Nations in 1963, and died 11 years later.

Just as remarkable, though, is the story of the Hungarian Nazi officer who saved over 100 Jewish workers from execution. Zoltan Kubyini was not your average soldier. A Seventh Day Adventist who refused to carry a gun, he was placed in charge of the workers when their previous camp commander broke his leg while travelling to superiors to finalise orders for the workers’ execution.

Kubyini respected his charges, giving them more rations, allowing them to observe Jewish holidays and even fasting with them for Yom Kippur. But when he was given orders to escort his men to a destination where they would then be sent to the gas chambers, he instead took them into Hungary to hide from the Nazis.

The flight was full of risk. At one point the group were approached by policemen who intended to have them sent to Germany. Kubyini plied the officers with drink and then spirited his band of workers away.


Zoltan Kubyini

When they reached Russian forces, the Jewish workers pleaded with Kubyini to remove his uniform and pretend to be a Jew. He refused and was subsequently arrested and ended his days in Siberia, where he died, his great act of humanity forgotten in the surrounding tundra.

Today, though, after some detective work, his brave act has been recognised and he, too, is listed as Righteous Among Nations.

But it wasn’t only Jews the heroic Nazis risked their lives for. In November, 1944, the US First Army found itself in a deadly struggle with the German 275th and 353rd Divisions in the Hurtgen Forest, along the Belgium-German border.

Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld was commanding 2nd Company of the 275th Division. By November 11, his men had been decimated, and those who survived were exhausted, cold and hungry.

They had been fighting the US 12th Infantry at a forester’s lodge in the woods, besides which was a minefield.


Lt Friedrich Lengfeld

As the Americans retreated, one of them ran into the field, with devastating consequences. Severely injured, the GI survived and began calling for help. Hours passed, but there was no sign of an American rescue.

Maddened by the cries of the wounded man, Lengfeld entered the minefield to help. No sooner had he done so than he stepped on an anti-personnel mine.

The lieutenant suffered serious internal injuries and died later that evening at a first-aid station. The identity of the American soldier remains unknown.

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest lasted from September 1944 until February 1945. It cost the lives of 33,000 American lives and about 28,000 Germans.

Despite the large numbers involved, Lengfeld’s heroism wasn’t forgotten. In October 1994 veterans of the 22nd US Infantry Society erected a monument at Hurtgen War Cemetery to honour his memory.

Yet another brave Nazi was John Rabe, a businessman who operated out of Nanking in China. He was there when Japan’s Imperial Army rampaged through the city between November 1937 and February 1938 in what later became known as the Rape of Nanking. Between 200,000 and 300,000 (depending on your source) are said to have been killed in the attack.

Rabe and other Europeans still in the city organised an international Safety Zone, to which refugees could flee. He even sheltered 650 civilians in his own garden. As a Nazi and given the Sino-German alliance, Rabe was appointed head of the safety committee.  It was felt that his stature would prove effective when dealing with the Japanese.


John Rabe

Rabe certainly delivered on that score. He created several areas where Chinese could seek refuge, patrolling the streets unarmed, facing down marauding Japanese troops and preventing outrages from occurring. His policing campaign lasted for four months and saved the lives of 250,000 people.

Rabe fell on hard times after the war, but was supported financially and with food parcels by grateful Chinese. He died in 1950. It was fitting though, that 47 years later his headstone was moved to a memorial site in Nanking, where he is still remembered to this day in a very real way – many children in Nanking now bear the name of ‘Rabe’ in his honour.

We prefer to see the good and bad guys in black and white terms, but there are always nuances, and as much as it upsets our neatly ordered view of World War II, we should remember those who allowed their sense of humanity to override their loyalty to the twisted views of the Nazi party.

The stories of the good Nazis give us a valuable lesson, that even ardent followers of the most brutal regimes can have a conscience and can assert their humanity come the hour.

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Why we need Santa more than ever…


British and German troops during the Christmas truce in 1914 (pic: Imperial War Museum)

You might have read before about the Christmas truce of 1914, that impromptu gathering in the mud of Flanders’ No Man’s Land when German and British soldiers downed weapons and greeted each other as men, not enemies. For a few hours, the din of brutal battle was forgotten and the bond of common kinship rekindled over a shared smoke or a bit of prized grub saved for that special day.

The following year it was the turn of the Scots’ Guards when one of their company commanders agreed to a ceasefire which ended up with German soldiers dancing to the music of a Scot’s mouth organ.

The magic of Christmas does that to people. It’s a magic fostered by our memories of more innocent childhood times. I still remember that Christmas morning when I looked beneath my bed to see what Santa had left. There, waiting for me to play with was a fort… not just any fort, either. This one had the words ‘Fort Apache’ emblazoned over the front gates. The walls were painted blue and the roofs of the buildings inside were a glossy black.

Sentry towers stood in each corner and there was a corral for horses and some sort of shack – a goods store perhaps, or a jail. There were US cavalrymen brandishing pistols and rifles. Surrounding them, making silent blood-curdling cries were Apache warriors – tomahawks raised, about to rain down death blows on their enemies.

My heart caught in my throat. How could Santa possibly have known to choose such a perfect present. How could something so wonderful be delivered beneath my bed without my knowledge. I rushed downstairs to tell my parents.

My dad, a skilled woodworker, seemed to appreciate the way the wood had been shaped and cut, even somehow managing to point out details I had overlooked in the excitement of my discovery – like how a door opened to reveal a room within, and how there were ladders that cavalrymen could use to reach the battlements. Dad seemed very quick at spotting all these things, I thought.

For years after I would play with that wonderful fort. My heart wrenched when one of the towers eventually broke and the hinge on the gate gave way, but these were honourable wounds, inflicted by hours and hours of unfettered, joyous play.

The joy of Christmas is a much-needed blessing. We live in a hard and sometimes heartless world… a world where children drown in foreign seas while fleeing from their ravaged homelands; a world where the rich prevail and the ordinary worker clings on for dear life.

It’s a world where fear and anger are rampant. Parents look at depleted bank accounts and wonder with trepidation how they can support their families for another year… how they can keep the roof over their heads while the shadow of debt grows ever longer and ever darker.

We fear for our loved ones’ safety – from terror attacks, from predatory paedophiles, from drunken yobs. And when we don’t feel the fear, there’s always the anger to fall back on… anger at our governments for failing us, at our banks for exploiting us, and the justice system for ignoring us.

Then Christmas comes, and for many, the fear and the anger subside a notch, to be replaced by warmer, gentler thoughts.

Somehow, we become that little bit more thoughtful, have a greater awareness of those around us who are struggling more than we are. A glimmer of goodwill grows in our hearts as we plan homecomings, family get-togethers, and foresee the light of excitement in our children’s eyes on Christmas Eve night as they prepare for bed.

The presents help, too, of course. But it’s isn’t really about the gifts. The magic of Christmas lies in those tiny gestures that pass between us – the nods of understanding, the sense of unspoken kinship with our fellow beings as we make our preparations for the big day.

The thing is, though, the magic is there all year round, even in the harshest of times. Those Christmas truces in World War One weren’t the only cases of men showing kindness to one another.

Richard Van Emden’s book, Meeting The Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, highlights some others particularly well.

For instance, in one French sector of the front taken over by the British, a note pinned to some barbed wire suggested both sides exchange newspapers. Prior to the arrival of the British, German officers had been in the habit of popping over of an evening for a game of bridge with their French counterparts. That, alas, was soon knocked on the head.


German and British officers at Capt Wilfred Birt’s funeral (pic: Imperial War Museum)

The treatment of prisoners of war was also quite civil. In one instance, a British officer – Captain Wilfred Birt – died of his wounds while in a hospital in Cologne. He was buried with full military honours in Cologne Cathedral at a service attended by British officers who were given safe passage back to their own lines after the funeral


Max Immelmann

However, it was fighter pilots who displayed the greatest chivalry. Downed enemy pilots were often invited for a meal in the German officers’ mess. The British reciprocated with equally thoughtful gestures. When the German ace Max Immelmann was killed, a British pilot dropped off a wreath and message of condolence on the late German’s airfield.

If we can show humanity in wartime, why can’t we do so more often in times of peace. The spark of magic that prompts such acts of empathy is in us all, but it is terribly fragile.  Too often it is smothered by our rush-hour lives… bludgeoned by the daily grind.

Thankfully, it’s amplified come the middle of December, made more potent by the Nativity and the imminent arrival of Santa.

The man in the red suit brings more than a sack full of goodies when he comes calling. His imminent arrival brings expectation and excitement and a tingling effervescence. His real gift is in reinvigorating the dull glow that beats within us all, making us that little bit happier and turning the darkness that bit brighter.

Like those trench-line soldiers of World War One, we need to foster that Christmas glow and make it shine, but we need to do it the whole year round. We need to show its light to others, so that the magic spreads and the light of hope, happiness, fellowship – call it what you will – brightens all our days when the dark times threaten.

This year, play Santa yourself and bring some brightness into strangers’ lives. It doesn’t have to be with a present, a nod and a smile will work wonders, and will outlast many a gift found beneath the tree come Christmas morning.

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How History’s Lookalikes Helped Win The War

Growing up, I always had a great fondness for war movies, particularly those surrounding the Second World War. Of the many that I saw, one sticks in my mind a little longer than others. I Was Monty’s Double told the true story of the actor M.E. Clifton James who entertained troops during the war by pretending to be British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was Monty who helped crush Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert. He was then tasked with helping to plan Operation Overlord, the D:Day landings.

While Monty’s military career was going from strength to strength, James, who had been an actor before the war, was engaged in somewhat less stimulating work as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Pay Corps.  About seven weeks before D:Day, a newspaper article reported on how James had performed as Monty during a patriotic show.


General Bernard Montgomery (left) and lookalike M.E. Clifton James

An Intelligence officer spotted the uncanny resemblance and soon Operation Copperhead, a scheme to misdirect Nazi spies, was hatched. James learned Montgomery’s mannerisms and speech and was even fitted with a prosthetic finger to replace the one he’d lost while fighting in World War One. Monty was a non-smoker and teetotal, so James had to give up the booze and the fags to be truly convincing.

And so the deception began. While the real Monty got busy planning the invasion of France, James was flown to Gibraltar where, at a reception at the Governor-General’s house, he dropped hints of’Plan 303′ – a bogus invasion of southern France – which were overheard by German agents.

With those little seeds sown, he was then whisked off to Algiers in North Africa, where he made several public appearances with General Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, just to give Nazi spies the impression that something fresh was afoot in that military theatre.

Five weeks later, D:Day took place with Monty as one of the main commanders. James found himself back in his old job with the Pay Corps, trying to explain where he had been for the previous five weeks.

It’s not known for sure how successful James’s ruse was, but the German’s were certainly taken by surprise on D:Day, so maybe it was indeed useful.

Meanwhile, over in Russia, Joseph Stalin was having something of an identity crisis. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union is said to have had no less than four lookalikes to act as his decoys to thwart spies and would-be assassins.

One, ‘Rashid’ was said to be so like the Soviet leader, right down to pockmarks on his skin from a bout of childhood smallpox, that he was dismissed from the army because of his uncanny resemblance to Stalin. He was later recruited by the NKVD to act as a decoy and would sit in at meetings and formal dinners.

Rashid’s fascinating job came to an abrupt end in 1953 when Stalin died. The lookalike moved out of Moscow, shaved his hair and moustache and tried to blend back into society. Despite all his precautions, though, he would still find himself being stared at in the street due to his similarity to the late leader. Rashid died in 1991, aged 93.



Felix Dadaev (left) and Joseph Stalin

Another body double was Felix Dadaev, a one-time dancer and juggler, who was injured in the fight to re-take Grozny from the Germans in 1942. Impressed by his resemblance to Stalin, intelligence chiefs faked Dadaev’s death and spirited him away to transform him into the Soviet leader.

Dadaev was almost 40 years younger than Stalin, but the rigours of war had aged him. That, combined with some well-applied make-up did the trick. The Soviet leader’s voice was not so familiar to  Russian citizens, so all Dadaev had to do then was to practice Stalin’s mannerisms and gait in order to dupe onlookers.

His role, too, was to appear at ceremonies and rallies all across the USSR inplace of the real leader. Once, he said, he stood at the mausoleum in Red Square to review a parade of athletes that filed past. No one suspected a thing. In an age when there was no television and people rarely saw their leaders up close, the deception always succeeded.

His most important appearance as Stalin was when the Soviet leader travelled to the Yalta conference in 1945. Stalin’s flight was shrouded in secrecy but Dadaev’s was in the full glare of publicity, making him a ripe target for would-be assassins.

In 2008, Dadaev (88) wrote about his wartime secret in an autobiography, Variety Land (I’ve searched for it, but can’t find the book). Military intelligence wartime archives and Russian state security backup his extraordinary story.

I can’t help imagining the conversation at a lookalikes’ reunion, if only one had taken place – Stalin 1 and Stalin 2 comparing moustaches, while Nos.3 and 4 discussed tips on backcombing to achieve the desired bouffant style.


Gare Du Nord station in Paris

But Monty’s and Stalin’s lookalikes are in the ha’penny place when it comes to ambitious decoys. Finding a body double is one thing, but what about finding a city’s double?

No, I haven’t been at the magic mushrooms again. I refer to the ruse during World War I when the French built a fake Paris to fool German bombers.

An area about 15 miles outside the French capital was picked on a stretch of the River Seine, which was similar to Paris itself.

There, areas of the city around the Arc de Triomphe and suburbs like Saint-Denis were recreated. Wooden replicas of the Champs Elysees and Gare Du Nord were erected, and lighting effects, using white, yellow and red lamps, were employed to give the impression of machinery in operation at night and of trains and tracks which appeared real.

Special paint was even used to give the impression of dirty glass on factory roofs.

It was all in vain, though. The replica was still being built when the Germans made their final air raid on Paris in September 1918. Less than two months later the war ended.

Still, you can’t fault the French for effort…



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