‘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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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…

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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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