The first female detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detective Lillian Armfield

Detective Lillian Armfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detectiive Mary Shanley

Detectiive Mary Shanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Murder at Maamtrasna

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

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

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

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


Myles Joyce, Mammtrasna miscarriage of justice

Myles Joyce, who was wrongfully executed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maamtrasna murder accused

Maamtrasna murder accused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•Éagóir by Seán Ó Cuirreáin is published by Cois Life

•Éagóir by Seán Ó Cuirreáin is published by Cois Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Killer cult – The St Patrick’s Day Massacre

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cult leaders Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ireland’s Alcatraz

picture of Spike Island

Spike Island, outside Cork Harbour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

picture of Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

picture of Percy Fawcett

Explorer and Spike Island resident Percy Fawcett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



A group of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The burning of Cork by ADRIC forces

The burning of Cork by ADRIC forces

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

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

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

The aftermath of the Customs House attack

The aftermath of the Customs House attack

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

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

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

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

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


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When friends became foes…

I’m glad to say that I finally managed to let go of my latest Liam Mannion novel, Patriots’ Blood (book four in the series). Both the book and I have had a few ups and downs along the way since I started writing it, but that’s another story. Here are the blurb and the opening few pages to give you a taster of what’s to come…

It’s 1922 and Liam Mannion is in despair as Ireland tears itself apart in a bloody civil war. Friends and families split over the terms of the treaty that ended the battle with the British. Unwilling to fight old comrades, Liam stays neutral.
His fiancée Kate has thrown herself into the new conflict. She can’t accept Liam’s decision not to fight and their relationship falters.
Meanwhile, The Watchman – an assassin whose mission Liam previously foiled – is back in Ireland on a murder spree, targeting the couple’s closest friends and allies, including the new state’s Commander-in-Chief, Michael Collins.
Liam is soon drawn further into the war as he finds himself in a desperate race to protect those he loves from the deadly assassin intent on killing them all.



Chapter 1

Paudie Scanlon listened to the mawkish squawk of gulls as he sucked the last dregs of life from the butt he was holding and then flicked it away, exhaling his frustrations and the tobacco smoke all in one go. His neck felt raw from the rub of the thick serge uniform collar and his feet hurt from hours of plodding backwards and forwards along the base of Balbriggan’s viaduct.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Years of ambushes and night-time raids against the British, months of living in broken-down shacks on the side of some godforsaken mountain or other, and this is what it leads to . . . playing nursemaid to a fucking railway track.

His mood wasn’t improved by the downpour that was threatening to unleash itself from the mottled grey clouds above, although a zephyr of warm air gave a faint hope that the small town might be spared their onslaught. The day’s fate hung in the balance, but eventually, the sun took the bold step and burrowed its way through, directing a shaft of light onto the water, making it sparkle like a million jewels scattered from the heavens. As though in response, the gulls launched themselves into the warming air, their pitiless eyes scouring the surface for signs of sustenance.

Up ahead, Declan Finnegan was making slow progress moving towards Scanlon. To and fro they had moved all through the night . . . the pair of them like clockwork toys, wearing a path between each other. They met centre point beneath one of the towering archways.

Finnegan shifted the rifle strap that was digging into his shoulder. ‘Still here then.’

‘Aye. The anti-treaty boys haven’t sent the whole feckin’ thing crashin’ down around our ears.’ muttered his colleague. ‘Or maybe they had a mind to take it away with them.’

‘More’s the pity,’ said Finnegan, taking a tin of Players from his tunic pocket and lighting up. ‘How much longer ’til the relief comes?’

Scanlon tugged at his collar, trying to ease the torture on his neck. ‘Not for another three hours. God, me toes are talkin’ to me. What’s the world comin’ to when you have to pull guard duty on this yoke. We should be out scourin’ the safe houses for that shower of ungrateful hoors. Here, give us one of those, will ya? I’m out,’ he asked, nodding at the cigarettes. Finnegan doubted that but passed one over in any case. Together they stood there, puffing and chin-wagging beneath the high arches, the smell from Comisky’s coke yard hanging on the salt air like cheap incense.

A few feet from them lay the small stretch of sandy beach . . . although ‘beach’ was too generous a word. There was more sand to be found in a builders’ yard than alongside the little harbour. Trawlers bobbed by the quayside and, above, the gulls jinked as they spied for scraps, swooping low to take them in their cruel beaks before soaring skyward to land gently on the viaduct railing and watch Balbriggan’s goings-on; not that there was too much to see. Mass was being said, so the streets were empty bar for a dog or two sniffing the gutters. Once the church organ struck up and the doors opened to disgorge the congregation, life would flow again. Families would come to the beach, and little ones would dip their toes in the cool waters while anxious mothers hovered close by. The pubs would open and men would chat and puff . . . talk of the latest killings and maybe add some notes of concern over the drop in the catch the trawlers were bringing in. They’d drink their porter or whiskey, with one eye on their companions and the other on the clock, mindful of being home in time for the dinner that would be placed before them by wives or mothers.

But that would be later. Right now, it wasn’t just the gulls that were looking out on the town, others were watching, too. Martin Carberry nudged the shoulder of the man beside him and nodded towards the sentries. ‘Here Con, isn’t that yer man Finnegan down there . . . the beanpole on the left.’

Con Power scratched at the week’s stubble that filled his face. ‘That’s him. A good man with a knife, if memory serves. Helped me out in a scrap once with the Peelers. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d a had me head bashed in. Pity . . .’

Carberry gave a wry shake of the head. ‘Pity he couldn’t see sense and fight for the right side you mean.’


Patriots' Blood

You can buy Patriots’ Blood here

They were on the top floor of a haberdashery about a hundred yards from the viaduct. The observation post was well chosen, giving a good view of the side streets as well as of the Free State sentries standing guard. It was to those on top of the viaduct that Carberry now turned his attention. Two soldiers patrolled along its path. 

Carberry brought the butt of his rifle into firing position. ‘Alright, Con, I’ll have the one on the left; you take the other fella. Now, send the signal.’

His companion moved to a side window which overlooked a lane. He removed a red handkerchief from his pocket and waved it three times. ‘They’re movin’ boss.’

Carberry watched as two men on bicycles pedalled slowly towards the viaduct arches.


Finnegan saw them coming, their overcoats trailing as their bikes gained speed. Something about the two cyclists made him take pause, but he couldn’t place what it was that bothered him and so dismissed the warning. Scanlon was saying something about going out that night for a pint, but the words were drowned out by the sharp report of gunfire. Both soldiers whirled about seeking out the source.

‘Up there!’ Scanlon shouted as he saw another flash from the open top window of the haberdashery. The guns weren’t aimed at them, but at the men on the viaduct walkway. Finnegan levelled his weapon and prepared to fire, and that’s when he thought of the cyclists.

‘The overcoats . . .’

Scanlon looked at his comrade as if he had lost his senses. ‘What?’

Finnegan turned in time to see two shotguns being levelled at them by the men on bikes. He was quick to see that much, but not quick enough to do anything about it. The first blast hit Scanlon in the neck, the second Finnegan felt himself – a huge thump that knocked him onto his back. As he lay there numbly looking at the pool of blood obliterating the olive drab of his tunic, he chided his slow thinking. ‘You dope . . . overcoats in July.’

The words came out slurred and blood filled. They weren’t much as last words go, but they were all his.

Carberry fired another bullet into each of the sentries on the viaduct wall to make sure they weren’t feigning injury, then he peered down in time to see his men strip the dead soldiers of their weapons and ammo before pedalling away. It was time for him and Con to go, too. They’d all rendezvous a few streets away in a lock-up where a waiting furniture truck would take them the hell out of Balbriggan and back to the safe house.

‘Nicely done, boss,’ Con winked.

Carberry felt a twinge of remorse and then batted it aside. ‘That’ll teach those Staters to think twice before showing their faces. Stupid fuckers thought we’d just packed up and ran away.’

The words were harsh and he regretted them as soon as they’d left his mouth, just as he regretted a lot of things these days, but that was war for you, he mused, as he headed down the stairs to congratulate his men.


‘Feck it!’

Liam Mannion looked up from the book in his lap towards his father. ‘Everything alright, Da?’

Dan gave a tetchy shake of the head before sucking the bubble of blood that was forming on his finger. ‘Caught meself on the hook. I’ll be grand,’ he said bending over the fishing rod that lay across his knees.

Liam left him to it and returned to his book . . . Great Expectations. He laughed inwardly at the title. He held few expectations these days, and those he had were far from great. The books were a comfort, though . . . a badly needed distraction from the thoughts that were ganging up in his mind, ready to torment him.

It was odd, Liam had barely lifted a cover in the past few years, but now in just a few months, he had consumed book after book. His reading was ill disciplined . . . everything from Greek and Roman philosophers to Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dickens, even the westerns of Zane Grey. If it took him away from this useless war, then that was good enough for him. He couldn’t face how his friends were tearing the country apart, so he tried to stay out of it.

The treaty signed with the British had ended one war but started another as the once-united Irish Republican Army split over what had been conceded during the negotiations. Those in favour of the treaty lined out behind Michael Collins, the leader who had done more than anyone in developing a strategy to bring the military might of the British Empire to a standstill and that Empire’s politicians to sue for peace. If the treaty was good enough for Collins, it was good enough for most people. But not all. There were those who thought too much had been given away – six Irish counties too much, in fact, which remained under British control. Leading the anti-treaty side was Eamon de Valera, president of the fledgling Irish Republic. He wouldn’t stand by the agreement his own comrades had made. He and his supporters couldn’t understand how a united, independent Ireland was not achieved and so, even as the British Army vacated barracks around the country to depart for home, the Irish pro- and anti-treaty factions squabbled and scrambled to take those barracks under their own jurisdictions. As each side grabbed various areas for themselves, the country came to a stalemate, each side waiting for the other to blink first. Two armies were developing, Collins’s admittedly much more organised than the other.  Anti-treaty forces took hold of the Four Courts in Dublin, turning into a fortress as they demanded that the treaty be ripped up.

But Collins wouldn’t be provoked. Hoping to find a peaceful solution to the impasse, he waited.  The British government wasn’t so patient. They threatened to use their remaining troops in Ireland to settle the matter and remove the rebels themselves. Collins’s hand was forced and the guns resumed their firing, except this time they were aimed at fellow Irishmen. Soon the country’s highways and byways trickled with blood, which flowed thicker with every passing day as comrades turned on each other. That was something Liam couldn’t countenance, which was why he now found himself living in this cabin with only his father, Dan, and the fish in the nearby stream for company.

It was Ben Hanrahan’s place: a kitchen, a bunk room and a veranda overlooking enough land to keep you occupied, but not so much as to be a burden. Ben – Kate’s father – gave it the grand title of ‘hunting lodge’ . . . his bolt hole from business and family concerns. Dan had accompanied Ben here many times, but now it was just the two Mannions, father and son, both using it as a refuge.

It worked, too, up to a point. But not even its quaint surroundings could keep the world at bay forever.

Liam worried about his dad. What had happened in London had affected him deeply. Dan wasn’t used to death – least not that kind. Liam, on the other hand, had been surrounded by it for years now, so much so that he wondered if he would ever be able to step out from its shadow. Fighting the Germans in France, fighting the British in Ireland . . . it had all left its mark. There had been so much killing, so much pain . . . too much. The thought of adding to all that by taking part in a civil war was too hard to bear, so Liam had retreated to this place. The nearest village, if you were presumptuous enough to call it that, was three or four miles down a winding road that seldom saw traffic, which suited Liam just fine. He watched as his dad put the rods aside and took out his pipe, tamping the Walnut Plug blend carefully into the bowl before lighting up and sending slow, considered puffs into the afternoon air.

The leaves of the sycamores and horse chestnuts rustled in the breeze. Liam paused to watch them sway as the muted sound of lowing cattle carried on the air. He liked it here, the trees acted as a curtain to the fields beyond. In front of the porch lay a stretch of grass dotted with moss-covered boulders. On a sunny day, it was the perfect spot to stretch out on a blanket and soak in the heat. Right now, the day was overcast, but even so, there was a serenity to the spot, whatever the weather. It was a refuge. All Liam needed now was Kate here to share it with.

He felt the stab of frustration as he thought of her for the tenth time that day. They were so far apart in every way. He wondered if the distance could ever be bridged again. His thoughts went to her father.

‘Any news in that letter Ben sent down?’

Dan paused mid-puff and patted his shirt pocket. ‘Here it is here. I forgot all about it.’

They’d picked it up from the village pub-cum-grocer-cum-undertaker the previous night. They’d gone for a chin-wag with the locals and a few pints of stout . . . and to get out of each other’s shadow, if truth be told.

‘Let’s see now what’s going on in the world,’ said Dan, slipping on his glasses and poring over the pages. There was silence for a few moments and then came a few tuts and a long sigh. ‘Jaysus . . . he’s only gone and made Tom Preston foreman while I’m away. A big mistake that . . . Preston doesn’t know his arse from his elbow when it comes to organisin’ rosters, he’s as thick as two short planks. I best get back up there soon or there’ll be no factory left at all.’

Liam smiled. ‘Sure we couldn’t have that, what would the big shots do for drawers?’

Ben Hanrahan’s hosiery factory, Hanco, had provided jobs far and wide for years and had made undergarments for half the royals of Europe. Business had fallen off, admittedly, due to the war and the fight with the British, but it continued to keep its head above water from what Liam could gather. His father and Ben had been joined at the hip ever since their boyhood when Dan, the farmer’s son, had rescued the scion of the wealthy textile manufacturer from the river. They’d been inseparable ever since – even trying to woo the same girl, Peggy Coogan. Dan had won that contest, marrying her a year later. Their union had produced two sons, Liam and Eoin. Now Peggy was dead from tuberculosis. Eoin had been hastened in his passing by an IRA bullet.

‘Any word on the fighting?’

Dan tutted and blessed himself for good measure. ‘Four Free-Staters were killed in an ambush at the viaduct . . . Declan Finnegan was one of them. Two fellas on bicycles blasted him with shotguns.’

Liam closed his eyes, He remembered Finnegan . . . a lanky fellow with a quick wit and an even quicker temper. Good fighter, though. He’d done his bit to push the Brits out, and look how he’d been repaid. ‘What a waste.’

‘Aye . . . you’re well out of it,’ said Dan, his head bent low over the letter.  ‘Says they suspect Martin was behind it.’

Martin Carberry and his brother Kevin had been Liam’s closest confidantes in the flying column. Kevin had even taken command when Liam had gone to England on a mission for Michael Collins.  Now the two brothers were on opposite sides in a deadly sibling rivalry that had already cost a dozen lives. Liam shook his head in despair before asking the one question he wanted answered most of all. ‘. . . And Kate – any news of her? What’s she been doing?’

Dan read a bit more before answering. ‘Ben says that she’s up to her neck in intelligence work, trying to ferret out Martin and any other anti-treaty man she can find.’

‘Is there a message for me?’

Dan shook his head. ‘Sorry son. Ben doesn’t know what’s gotten into her. Ever since we all got back from England she’s been a changed woman.’

The English mission had almost been the death of him, but Kate had a mission of her own. It turned out they had both been chasing the same thing: a bad apple in the republican barrel. The whole business almost put an end to the treaty Collins had been negotiating with the British in London. Sometimes Liam wondered if his intervention was worth it. If the treaty had failed maybe the country wouldn’t be in such a mess.

‘It’s the baby,’ said Liam, taking out the makings of a smoke from his tin and swiftly rolling himself a tab.

‘I know. It was a cruel loss . . . for both of you, but surely that can’t explain her actions now.’

‘It makes sense to me.’ Liam spread his fingers and ticked off the facts. ‘Kate uncovered a traitor, who attacked her, causing her to miscarry and lose the baby. She’s taking revenge by rooting out all those who disagree with the cause. She’s filled her life with that to block out the loss of our child.’

‘The way she’s goin’ about it isn’t right. She’s like the Grand Inquisitor . . . anyone who’s even slightly suspect of helping the other lot is in the firing line. Accordin’ to Ben, there’s no talkin’ to her . . . she won’t listen to reason. Herself and Kevin Carberry have a fierce fire in their bellies.’

‘Well she won’t listen to me, that’s for sure.’ Liam sucked on his tab, his brow furrowing as his frustrations bubbled to the surface.

‘Did you tell her you backed Collins?’

‘She knows. I’ve spent seven years killing people. That was bad enough, but at least they were the enemy. I draw the line at killing other Irishmen. Civil war is the last thing we should be engaged in. I’ll not be part of it. She can’t accept that, so she’s shut me out.’

Dan’s eyes moistened. ‘The English business was nasty. We all suffered over there.’ His voice grew brittle and there was a lost look in his eyes as he stared into himself.

Liam could see the conflict play out before him. ‘You did what you had to do, Da – you killed a traitor, a murderer. There’s no sin in that.’

‘That’s not for you to say, son. Only God can make that judgement.’

‘Well I’ve spoken with God on more than one occasion when bullets came too close and I think you’re safe enough from fiery damnation.’

‘It’s no laughin’ matter,’ Dan chided.

‘No, you’re right, Da. There’s very little worth laughing about at all these days,’ he said, the humour leaving his voice as he flicked his butt away and sought sanctuary in his book.




You can buy Patriots’ Blood here.

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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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