Strokestown, 1847. A single shot from a blunderbuss echoed into the Roscommon skies. The lead slugs pounded into Major Dennis Mahon’s chest as he slumped into the seat of his carriage and died instantly. Set against the backdrop of Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Famine, the major’s murder sent shockwaves across Ireland. Although it was barely two years since he had inherited the Strokestown estate, he was widely, if a little unfairly, reviled for his leading role in the infamous ‘coffin ships’ tragedy.
The story of Major Mahon’s assassination 170 years ago is just one of dozens of tales told as one journeys through the labyrinths of Strokestown House, the substantial Palladian winged mansion in County Roscommon where he once lived. As well as being home to the Irish National Famine Museum, the house and its gorgeous gardens form one of the leading cultural attractions in Connaught.
In April 2017 the entire Strokestown project received perhaps the ultimate accolade when Jim Callery, its long-standing owner and principal decision-maker, was awarded the prestigious 2017 Europa Nostra Award from the European Union for his dedicated service to heritage preservation.
Now aged 82, Jim Callery purchased Strokestown at auction in 1979 from Olive Pakenham Mahon, a great-granddaughter of Major Mahon. Her ancestors had owned Strokestown since the late 17th century. In 1845, the heavily indebted estate was inherited by the luckless major on the death of a cousin. During the early stages of the famine, he acted with Christian charity, distributing Indian corn to the hungry, serving on the local famine-relief committee and establishing a soup kitchen that served nearly 3000 people daily.
However, advised by an agent with a harder heart, he subsequently consented to the clearance of 3,000 of his 12,000 tenants, including some of Jim Callery’s ancestors.
1,490 tenants took part in a deeply flawed emigration plan, sponsored by Major Mahon, which resulted in one of the most shocking events of that grim era. The tenants walked the Royal Canal to Dublin, sailed to Liverpool and then boarded a fleet of four ships chartered by Mahon to carry them to North America.
Unfortunately, the ships were riddled with cholera. By the time these aptly named ‘coffin ships’ were finally permitted to dock at Grosse-Île, an island near Quebec, 700 of Mahon’s tenants were dead. The island’s medical superintendent described the survivors as ‘without exception, the most wretched, sickly, miserable beings I ever witnessed.’
When Mahon heard the news, he anticipated the worst and ordered a six-barrel pistol from his gunsmith in Dublin. He stopped attending meetings of the Strokestown Relief Committee, even when the government ordered his soup kitchen to wind down. A public row with the parish priest further alienated him so that the notion of his murder became a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
His assassins struck just as his carriage was rattling through Four Mile House on the way to Roscommon. His companions later swore that his sole topic of conversation on the journey was how to resolve the crisis of the poor. Two men subsequently went to the gallows for their alleged role in the murder.
Major Mahon’s only daughter and sole heiress, Grace, fulfilled her vowed to never set foot in Strokestown again. One might have expected the Mahon connection to end at this point but the property passed to Grace’s son Harry and then to Harry’s daughter Olive who sold it to Jim Callery. The powerful sense of history is reinforced by the fact that Olive attended Queen Victoria’s funeral in her youth.
Raised as a farmer, the resourceful Mr Callery opened Strokestown’s first filling station in the 1960s and began selling both cars and tractors. In 1968 he became a Chrysler dealer and eight years later he scored a lucrative contract to become the main distributor for Scania trucks in Ireland. Over forty years later, his extensive truck depot runs along one side of the Strokestown estate, visible from a gazebo in the six-acre walled garden where the Mahon’s took tea in the Victorian Age.
Such a vista inspires nothing but pride in John O’Driscoll, Strokestown’s erudite General Manager, who started out as the head gardener nearly 20 years ago. He rightly accredits those Scania trucks with having enabled Mr Callery to pump several million into making Strokestown what it is today. This included the restoration and re-roofing of the main house, originally built in 1740, possibly by Richard Cassells, as well as its fantastic vaulted stables and galleried kitchen. He also paid for the landscaping and plantation of the gardens and surrounding demesne which includes one of the longest herbaceous borders in Europe, a 100-acre walled deer park and a one kilometre trail through mature woodlands.
Perhaps the most captivating part of the Strokestown experience is the house itself. The vast mansion belies a deceptively intimate interior in which many rooms are left as if the Mahons have simply nipped out to a tea party and will be back at any moment. ‘Delightfully dilapidated’ opined one recent visitor. Indeed, little has changed since the house doubled as a convincing location for Pat Murphy’s award-winning period movie ‘Anne Devlin’ over thirty years ago.
Viewable by guided tour only, this acutely atmospheric house provides an exceptionally rich and poignant insight into the life of its former occupants – a library that doubled as a ballroom, a bedroom in which nine Labradors once slept, a gigantic kitchen to satiate ‘Downton Abbey’ enthusiasts, corridors lined with a zillion books and pictures of battles past, ancestors and impressive nudes.
Much of this is a legacy of the charismatic Harry Pakenham Mahon, son of Grace, father of Olive, who enjoyed a penchant for erotic art and planted various bamboo, walnut and gingko trees in the garden. His father was a kinsman of the earls of Longford, as well as the Duke of Wellington, whose chiselled portrait stares out from many a wall.
Aided by an archive of over 55,000 documents, the multi-roomed Famine Museum provides extensive details on subjects ranging from the Mahon family history to the scientific origins of the potato blight to an examination of contemporary famines around the world. It comes as no surprise that Jim Callery and his daughter Caroilin are among the most vocal supporters of the Irish Naval Service’s work in the Mediterranean; the service has been credited with saving over 15,000 migrants since May 2015.
Visitors can also avail of a café in the courtyard, as well as a gift shop.
Paying for the upkeep of all this has put a massive dent in the Callery coffers but Jim Callery is the first to admit it never made financial sense. However, there was good news for the family in October 2015 when the Taoiseach Enda Kenny declared that Strokestown Park and the National Famine Museum would be operated by the Irish Heritage Trust until 2025. The trust also runs Fota House in Co Cork and Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford.
As Jim Callery gradually eases himself into the back seat, the Europa Nostra award is a timely nod towards his considerable efforts at preserving an extraordinary story that might otherwise have vanished from this land.
Jim Callery of Strokestown Park in May 2017, collecting his EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award – Europe’s top honour in the field – during a high-profile event at St. Michael’s Church in Turku, Finland. Maestro Plácido Domingo, President of Europa Nostra, the leading heritage organisation in Europe, and Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, co-hosted the European Heritage Awards Ceremony.” Jim Callery won the award for “restoration and establishment of the world renowned Irish National Famine Museum & Archive which has been the largest act of private philanthropy for cultural heritage in the history of modern Ireland”. Mr Callery’s award is in the Category “Dedicated Service”. http://www.irishheritagetrust.ie/jim-callery-awarded-eu-prize-cultural-heritage/
Above: Jim Callery of Strokestown Park collecting his EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award – Europe’s top honour in the field – during a high-profile event at St. Michael’s Church in Turku, Finland. MaestroPlácido Domingo, President of Europa Nostra, the leading heritage organisation in Europe, andTibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, co-hosted the European Heritage Awards Ceremony.” Jim won the award for “restoration and establishment of the world renowned Irish National Famine Museum & Archivewhich has been the largest act of private philanthropy for cultural heritage in the history of modern Ireland”.Mr Callery’s award is in the Category “Dedicated Service”.http://www.irishheritagetrust.ie/jim-callery-awarded-eu-prize-cultural-heritage/
Doughnuts and dinosaurs, innovation and treachery, war and sexual scandals … the world was in a state of high excitement in 1847 and here are 36 reasons why as per Turtle Bunbury’s new book, 1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery. Launched in Dublin by Luka Bloom on 29 September, the book blasted into the Irish non-fiction charts at No. 8 just five days …
Above: La vuelta del malón (The return of the raiders) by Ángel Della Valle.
1. The Comanche Warriors & the Free-Thinking Germans
A very tall, music-loving German aristocrat signs a treaty with the chiefs of the Penateka, or Honey Eaters, one of the fiercest bands of Comanche warriors. Under the terms of the 1847 treaty, the Germans and the Comanche agree to scratch one another’s backs in the wilds of…
Doughnuts and dinosaurs, innovation and treachery, war and sexual scandals … the world was in a state of high excitement in 1847 and here are 36 reasons why as per Turtle Bunbury’s new book, 1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery. Launched in Dublin by Luka Bloom on 29 September, the book blasted into the Irish non-fiction charts at No. 8 just five days …
1. The Comanche Warriors & the Free-Thinking Germans
A very tall, music-loving German aristocrat signs a treaty with the chiefs of the Penateka, or Honey Eaters, one of the fiercest bands of Comanche warriors. Under the terms of the 1847 treaty, the Germans and the Comanche agree to scratch one another’s backs in the wilds of Comancheria, Texas. The treaty transpires to be one of precious few agreements made with native Americans that was never broken. It also leads to the establishment of an extraordinary, proto-type hippy commune at Bettina settlement.
2. The Opium King & the Apostle of Temperance
Appalled by reports from Ireland of mass death from cholera and starvation, the merchants of Boston persuade the US government to send a warship stuffed with food supplies to assist. Ben Forbes, a Bostonian who had made his fortune selling opium to the Chinese, commands the USS Jamestown in its voyage across the Atlantic. In Ireland, he is given a grizzly insight into the effects of the famine by Father Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin monk, known as the Apostle of Temperance, who has persuaded millions of people in Britain and Ireland to take the pledge and give up alcohol. This story has side-shows relating to the ‘Aladdin Quickstep’, a world-famous “Oriental Riff”, and the voyage of the Keying, a Chinese junk and travelling museum that visited New York and Boston in 1847.
3. General Tom Thumb & the Prince of Humbugs
PT Barnum was already one of New York’s best-known showmen and ‘purveyors of curiosity’ when he introduced the world to General Tom Thumb, a perfectly proportioned dwarf boy who happened to be his distant cousin. In February 1847, the duo returned to the US after a successful three-year tour of Europe in which the boy had performed before over five million people. This is their story, in part told through the eyes of John Palliser, an Irish explorer bound for the Rocky Mountains. It also includes a spin-off about Barnum’s circus partner J.A. Bailey, born in 1847.
4. ‘Oh! Susanna, don’t you cry for me’
Stephen Foster, the young Mississippi shipping agent, whose song-writing exploits provided ‘Oh! Susanna’, the anthem of the Forty Niners, as well as such epics as ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.
5. The girl who liked dinosaurs
Having narrowly survived death by lightning as a baby, Mary Anning becomes the world’s foremost fossil collector but it is not easy being a woman in a man’s world and an addiction to laudanum ultimately brings the Dorset native to an early grave. She is recalled today in the tongue twister, ‘She sells seashells upon the sea shore.’
6. Lola Montez and the King of Bavaria
The rise and fall of the tempestuous Sligo-born dancer who seduced Franz Liszt and brought the King of Bavaria crashing down before embarking upon a new life running a saloon for gold-miners in California. This remarkable story includes a spin-off about the Château de Monte-Cristo, built by the French writer Alexandre Dumas, a paramour of Lola, for 500,000 gold francs and named for his classic novel, ‘Le Comte de Monte-Cristo’.
The curse of Ignaz Semmelweis
As an obstetrician at the Vienna Maternity Hospital, the Hungarian-born Semmelweiss brilliantly deduced that the prime cause of the puerperal fever epidemic that killed so many European mothers was simply down to doctors failing to wash their hands properly. The tragic twist was that nobody believed him.
Pablo Fanque and Mr Kite
The Norwich-born black equestrian performer who wowed Queen Victoria at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1847, and who later inspired the Beatles song ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’. This story has a spin-off about the evolution of the Australian circus in 1847.
The Choctaw Nation and the Great Famine
In 1847 the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma raised $170 for Irish famine relief. Their empathy was stirred by a similar experience during the early 1830s when approximately 12,500 Choctaw were forced to embark on the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’, of whom between 1500 and 4,000 died along the way. This story explores the fate of the Choctaw and the two Irish-American brothers who helped them cross the Mississippi.
Frederick Douglass faces home
The black abolitionist and social reformer confronts racism on the Cunard line as he heads home to the US after a 19-month tour of Britain and Ireland. As he remarked, having ‘enjoyed equal rights and privileges’ during the entirety of his tour, ‘it was not until I turned my face towards America that I met anything like proscription on account of my colour.’ Back in New York, he founds the North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper that he names in tribute to the direction he and so many other runaway stars were given when the set out for the free Northern States and Canada: ‘Follow the North Star’. This story includes a substantial section on Daniel O’Connell, the celebrated Catholic Emancipator and Douglass’s mentor in Ireland, who died in 1847.
The bombardment of Tourane
The French government flex their imperial muscles by destroying the Vietnamese port of Tourane (Da Nang) on the pretext that they are protecting Catholic missionaries in the empire.
The birth of Cartier
How the son of a Napoleonic soldier based in Paris established one of the world’s most famous jewellery and watch-making brands. This story includes the tale of the Napoleon Diamond Necklace (now in the Smithsonian) and Redier’s pioneering alarm clock.
Exploring the brutal wars raging through present-day Kazakhstan as Kenesary Kasymov, Khan of the Middle Horde seeks to extend his empire across western Siberia. This includes a short account of Eset Kotibarov ‘s eleven-year-long rebellion against Russia which began in 1847.
Captain Baxter and the Barnstable Boys
In the spring of 1847, four schooners arrived into Ireland from Cape Cod, laden with food supplies. One was skippered by Rodney Baxter, one of the most charismatic sailors upon the 19th century seas, whose homeward voyage from Ireland was the fastest yet recorded by a fore-and-aft schooner. This chapter also looks at the influence of an eccentric architect named Orson Squire Fowler who inspired Baxter’s two-storey octagon home in Hyannis.
Felix Mendelssohn and the Swedish Nightingale
In May 1847 the composer Mendelssohn enjoyed one of the greatest nights of his life when his protégé and paramour Jenny Lind mesmerised London with her soprano performance in ‘Roberto il Diavolo’. Within six months, he was dead, quite possibly of a broken heart, while Miss Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, would go on to make a fortune touring the US under PT Barnum’s management.
Dr Fabre-Tonnerre’s Polynesian dictionary
The short but sad tale of the Polynesian island of Kuria and the dictionary that outlived them.
A tale of sultans, music, telegraphs and famine
Sultan Abdülmecid was one of the most enlightened of the 36 sultans who ruled over the Ottoman Empire. 1847 was very much his year as he not only enjoyed a series of private piano performances by the virtuoso Franz Liszt but he also green-lighted the laying down of Samuel Morse’s electrical telegraph across his empire, having test-run it on his own extensive harem of concubines. However, perhaps the Sultan’s finest hour was to send a massive £1,200 to help alleviate the distress caused by the famine in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland.
Death in the Arctic
A message was found in a stone-cairn on King William Island in 1859 reveals part of the grim fate of the 128 men who set out on Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition only to be ensnared by a fatal riddle in the spring of 1847. Marking one of the greatest mysteries of the modern age, the discovery of Franklin’s ships HMS Erebus in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016 suggests that further details may yet come to light.
19. The Chicago Tribune
The early days of the Illinois capital as seen through the eyes of the man who founded its foremost newspapers.
20. Mormons on the march
Brigham Young leads the Mormon exodus to the promised land of the Salt Lake Valley while the Mormon Battalion embarks upon the longest military march in US history to help the US Army in its war against Mexico. Accompanied by thirty-three women and fifty-one children, the 500-strong Mormon Battalion remains the only religious unit ever to have mobilized as part of the US Army. Some of its members are credited with introducing baseball to California in March 1847. This story also looks at Sam Brannan and the early days of San Francisco.
The father of nonsense explores southern Italy and Sicily on the eve of revolution, accompanied by his dying friend Johnny Proby. This story includes a spin-off about London Zoo (which opened to the public in 1847) and the hymn-writer CF Alexander (who penned ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ that year).
22. The surveying expedition of HMS Herald and HMS Pandora
A chronicle of Panama belles, Irish colonies and giant tortoises, as told through the experiences of Henry Kellett, a senior Royal Navy officer from Tipperary, and Berthold Seemans, a young German botanist, who together explore the Pacific coast of America from top to bottom. While Seemans heads on an overland expedition into Peru and Ecuador, Kellett gains an exceptional perspective on the mounting conflicts between British, US and Mexican interests throughout the region, as well as the sorry fate of the Galápagos tortoise.
23. Johann Gramp’s succulent vines
The story of the Lutheran émigrés who swapped persecution in Germany for a new life in the fledgling British colony of South Australia, and how they took over the Barossa Valley where Johann Grampp, founder of the Jacob’s Creek vineyards, oversaw the first commercial planting in 1847.
24. Mexico has fallen, or How the USA grew by a third
A whistle-stop account of the origin, battles and outcome of the Mexican-American War, homing in on the motives of US President James Polk and the unfortunate destiny of the San Patricios, a battalion of former US army soldiers who deserted to fight for Santa Anna.
25. The Tsar’s bizarre circus war
An extraordinary showdown between rival circus masters in the Russian city of St Petersburg during the reign of Tsar Nikolai I.
26. Royal Scandal in the House of Bourbon
Penelope Smyth, an Anglo-Irish beauty, causes one of the greatest royal scandals of the 19th century when she elopes to Gretna Green and marries Carlo Ferdinando, Prince of Capua and heir apparent to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. When the prince’s elder brother King Ferdinand II refuses to recognise the marriage, the couple go into exile where they spend over a decade trying to reclaim their place in the Bourbon hierarchy. All comes asunder in Malta in 1847. This story includes a spin-off about Malta’s first civilian governor.
27. Werner Siemens & the Gutta-Percha Tree
In the summer of 1847 the young German army engineer Werner Siemens secures a contract from the Prussian Army to lay a subterranean telegraph line insulated, at his suggestion, by sap from the Malaysian gutta-percha tree. By October the innovative genius has established a telegraph company in Berlin that will evolve into the present-day global telecommunications and engineering giant, Siemens AG.
28. Captain Hanson Gregory, doughnut inventor
Hanson Gregory, a sixteen-year-old sailor, inadvertently invents the doughnut by ramming a ‘fried cake’ over a spoke on his ship’s steering wheel during a sea storm.
29. Abide with Henry Lyte
‘Abide with Me’ is widely regarded as one of the most moving hymns ever written. The story of the man who wrote it is no less poignant.
30. The Murder of a ‘Divine Servant’
The rising tensions in disease-riddled Ireland are revealed through the murder of a clergyman and a landowner in County Roscommon, as well as horrific reports of the huge numbers dying upon the ‘coffin ships’ anchored off Canada’s Grosse-Île.
31. Camila O’Gorman and the Jesuit
A tragic love story in which the daughter of an affluent Argentinean becomes the prey for the republic’s hard-nosed dictator when she dares to elope with a Jesuit priest.
32. The King of Crackers
Tom Smith, a young ‘Ornamental Confectioner’ from London, invents the Christmas cracker and becomes the “King of Crackers”, running one of the biggest wholesale confectioners in the United Kingdom.
32. Richard Burton’s simian dictionary Sir Richard Burton was probably the most extraordinary explorer of his age. Fascinated by the language, culture and eroticism of the east, he first made his mark in British India as an undercover agent investigating illicit brothels in Karachi. 1847 was a year of personal sorrow and physical illness for him but he would find consolation with a menagerie of forty tame monkeys.
33. The New House at Lisnavagh Reflections on the construction of the author’s family home in a time of famine.
34. Literary Notes Musings upon an extraordinary year of books – Jane Eye, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Sweeney Todd and the Communist Manifesto.
35. An Alabaman reflects upon New Orleans A brief description of the Louisiana city by day and by night.
36. A Messianic Earthquake An extraordinary seismic cloud in the wilds of Mexico.
Historian Turtle Bunbury explains the reasons why he was inspired to write his new book 1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery (Gill). The book was launched by Luka Bloom at The chq Building in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday 29th September 2016. Five days later it blasted into the Irish hardback non-fiction charts at No. 8.
In the front of my car I keep a steel harmonica in order to whittle away the minutes on the rare occasions when I find myself idling through rush-hour traffic. I am by no means a skilled player – what goes on in the car, stays in the car – but I am grateful to the Seydel Söhne harmonica factory of Klingenthal, Germany, for sending me such a useful instrument. The company was founded in 1847, making it the oldest surviving harmonica manufacturer in the world, and it seems fitting that I should have one of their models in my car.
When my harmonica arrived in the post, it was accompanied by a ‘simple song example’ to enable me to practise drawing, blowing and puckering on the holes. I was thrilled to note that the chosen song was Stephen Foster’s ‘Oh! Susanna’, a veritable 1847 classic if ever there was one. I assumed the 1847 match-up was deliberate, until Lars Seifert, managing director at Seydel Söhne, expressed such pleasant surprise when I asked him about it. To my mind, this was a typical moment of 1847 serendipity.
That year has followed me around for the best part of three decades now, and my affection for it knows no bounds. In my mind there is no doubt that an inordinate number of curious, brilliant and dreadful events took place during those particular twelve months. 1847 was a year of immense discord that paved the way for so much human migration, territorial conquest and monarchy-toppling turmoil that the planet is arguably still recovering from it. And yet there was progress and harmony too, played out on pianos and banjos, on broadsheets and telegraphs, as our ever-shrinking world learned more about itself than it had ever known before.
My first awareness of 1847 came while I was studying Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights for my English A-Level examination at Glenalmond, a boarding school in Scotland. It was noted that Brontë had published her book in 1847, the same year that W. E. Gladstone, later to become the British Prime Minister, had founded our school. At about this time I came upon a silver trowel at Lisnavagh, my family home in County Carlow, Ireland, which revealed that the first granite stone of our house was laid on 23 January 1847.
Having been educated in Scotland, I didn’t learn much about the Great Famine that tore Ireland apart during 1847. It was Christy Moore’s melodic voice that first really alerted me to the catastrophe when he sang ‘The City of Chicago’, written by his brother Luka Bloom. The first verse runs:
1847 was the year it all began. Deadly pains of hunger Drove a million from the land. They journeyed not for glory, Their motive was not greed, A voyage of survival Across the stormy sea.
I went to the books to learn more. The impact of the Famine was, of course, enormous and the statistics are difficult to comprehend. In 1847 alone, some 400,000 men, women and children are believed to have died in consequence of the Famine, be it through disease or starvation, while nearly 250,000 fled, primarily to Britain and North America.[i] Such a massive exodus inevitably had a huge bearing on the shape of things overseas. For instance, the population of Toronto in January 1847 was 20,000; by the close of the year it was 60,000, with the newcomers almost exclusively from Ireland.
With so many grim statistics to ponder, I found myself questioning why my forebears took it upon themselves to build a new mansion in a year that was to become known in Ireland as Black ’47. And yet, while I have almost certainly said too little about the Great Famine in the pages of my book, my purpose is not to rake over the coals of that appalling era, which, even as I write, is replicated in the plight of so many luckless souls seeking to escape from their own tortured homelands amid the uncertainty of the present century.
What happened in Ireland during the 1840s was shocking, heart-breaking and almost entirely indefensible. Its consequence was to totally restructure the psyche of the Irish people, both at home and abroad. It is my hope that some measure of the immensity of the calamity, and of the philanthropy it generated, will be discernible in these pages in the effect, great and small, it had on such an anomalous group as General Tom Thumb, the Choctaw Indians, the Cape Cod fishermen, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the opium-running merchants of Boston, Massachusetts.
Had I but time and space I would also have told the tales of the French celebrity chef who set up his soup kitchens in Dublin, and of Cassandra Hand, the wife of an English clergyman, who moved into my wife’s family home in Clones, County Monaghan, in 1847, from where she set up a crochet lace manufacturing business that enabled at least fifteen hundred hitherto destitute women to earn ‘a respectable living’.[ii] If there are any positives to be found in the crisis that blitzed Ireland in the 1840s it is that so many people all over the world put such a noble effort into trying to make things better.
With the arrival of so many sickly and destitute Irish refugees in Canada and the United States, it is small wonder that many other settlers opted to push west in 1847 in pursuit of less congested lands. That said, the Irish Famine does not appear to have influenced the decision of the Mormons to set off on their epic voyage to Salt Lake City, or indeed that of the German colonists who set up their liberal commune at the heart of Comanche territory in Texas, or of those who began planting their vineyards in South Australia.
In a year when the world’s population stood at approximately 1.25 billion, people were on the march at almost every latitude. The citizens of Europe were, by and large, making the trek from the countryside to the cities, where the Industrial Revolution was continuing apace. However, many more were making their way to the distant continents of Australia, Africa and the Americas to start anew.
Some even ventured north to the Arctic, but, as the British explorer Sir John Franklin discovered, the northern climes were ill-suited to human survival. Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Passage is an event we have long known about in our family, because one of our forebears was involved in the quest to discover the fate of the unfortunate man, his crew and their two lost ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. However, it was only when I began reading on the subject in detail that I discovered Franklin’s life concluded so tragically in 1847. And yet that same story continues to be front-page news right up to the present day. On 12 September 2016 it was revealed that Terror had at last been found under the ice, two years and a day after the discovery of Erebus, the other ship that floundered in those treacherous Arctic waters in 1847.
As I say, the year has followed me around. I see it on Carlsberg cans, on Jacob’s Creek bottles, on my 24-hour clock in the early evenings. I live in rural Ireland, but I cannot look at a Massey Ferguson tractor without recalling how Daniel Massey started out making threshers in Ontario in 1847. When I remind my young daughters to wash their hands after they have been to the bathroom, my mind wanders to poor old Ignaz Semmelweis and his campaign to persuade doctors to wash their hands, which began in 1847. When I attended the 2015 Web Summit, I could not resist telling all those code-busting internet whizzes about how San Francisco’s streetscape was laid out in 1847 by an Irish surveyor named Jasper O’Farrell.
I think the clearest indication of my magnetic attraction for 1847 took place when I chanced to be staying in San Ángel, a suburb of Mexico City, in the winter of 2001. I had tired of trying to teach my host’s parrot how to say ‘feck’ and decided to go for a walk. I could have gone in any direction, but my feet escorted me this way and that until they reached a cobblestone plaza, where they halted in front of a marble monument. My Spanish is still dreadful, but even then it was clear that this was a memorial to seventy-one soldiers, mostly Irish, who had died fighting for Mexico against the United States in the year of Our Lord, 1847. I give my account of the San Patricios in these pages, but I can tell you here and now that stumbling upon that memorial was probably the moment when I decided that this book would one day have to be written.
The Mexican War was about the expansionist ambitions of the United States. Land ownership was also the root cause of conflict elsewhere in 1847, be it the French attack on Vietnam, the frosty relations between London and Washington over Oregon, the muscle-flexing antics of those in charge of British India, the rise of the Kazakh chieftain Kenesary or the growing threat posed along the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire by Tsarist Russia. More cerebral disputes vested in notions of equality, religion and liberty were at the heart of the revolutions that were about to erupt throughout Europe and that even plunged the Swiss into a civil war.
The world was small in 1847. It doesn’t seem so surprising that Frederick Douglass sailed home to the United States from Europe in the same ship that Tom Thumb had sailed in a couple of months earlier. Or that Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, who Douglass met in Ireland, should have also befriended the Boston opium merchant who sailed a warship stuffed with relief supplies into Cork Harbour. Entertainers like Lola Montez, Pablo Fanque, General Tom Thumb and the equestrian circus stars of St Petersburg all trod upon much the same boards, although the world of classical music, represented in these pages by Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt and the soprano Jenny Lind, must have been startled by the innovative strumming of guitar and banjo strings that carried on the air from the American West.
There are other factors I must mention. Since 2000 I have been engaged in a project called ‘Vanishing Ireland’ with my old friend James Fennell, for which we have interviewed and photographed over two hundred men and women who were born in the first decades of the twentieth century. I was consistently bowled over by how many of them told us that their grandparents had been children, if not teenagers, at the time of the Great Famine. I should not be so surprised. The year 1847 is only 170 years ago, or two 85-year-olds, if you prefer. In the spring of 2016 I met a man in his fifties who told me that his grandfather was born in 1847. Perhaps some of the senior inhabitants of Salt Lake City are the grandchildren of the youngest pioneers who made the Great Trek with Brigham Young in 1847. Some of Australia’s oldest citizens are likewise only two or three generations removed from the very last convicts sent out to the former British colony.
My fascination with 1847 means that I am loath to cease writing this book. There are still so many stories to tell, so many lives to explore, and I am starting to question whether it was really necessary to describe the formative moments of the doughnut and the Christmas cracker when I might have focused instead on the foundation of Liberia or on the Swiss Civil War. (Needless to say, the Swiss hardly killed anyone and then felt so guilty about it all that they invented the Red Cross.) It is time, however, to say, Pens down. I appreciate the fact that this work is somewhat unusual in its scope, but I hope that this chronicle of famine, warfare, scandal and doughnuts will give you a little insight into the minds of some of those who walked this earth in 1847.
‘Somewhere’, wrote Tom Kettle to his brother on the day of his death, ‘the Choosers of the Slain are touching … with invisible wands those who are to die.’ [i] The 36-year-old Dubliner was not ready to die. In that same letter, he avowed that he was ‘calm and happy but desperately anxious to live’. And yet he must have had an inkling that the Choosers were coming for him. In another letter, penned in those same moments, he wrote to his friend Joe Devlin, expressing a yearning to return to Ireland, yet reasoning that, should he be killed in the war, ‘to sleep here in the France that I have loved is no harsh fate’. [ii]
On the afternoon of 9th September 1916, Captain T. J. Kettle, commander of ‘D’ Company in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, received absolution from his padre. He then summoned his batman, an eighteen-year-old orphan called Robert Bingham. Private Bingham was heading home on leave to Belfast after the coming action; Tom Kettle quietly unstrapped his watch and presented it to the young man.
As the dusk began to settle that autumnal evening, he rejoined his men in the stinking trench. Perhaps he exchanged some words with Captain Bill Murphy, his old school friend, who had taken command of the 9th Battalion less than forty-eight hours earlier. Born in 1880, Bill Murphy hailed from Tullow, County Carlow, where his parents ran a grocery.[iii] His father Edward, a nationalist, was elected to the first Carlow County Council in 1899 but died of pneumonia soon afterwards. Bill, an only son, was educated by the Patrician Brothers before going to board with the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare. He excelled at golf, cricket and, particularly rugby, lining out for the Carlow team on several occasions and possibly even captaining the side. The Murphy family also kept a stable of horses at their farm at Kill, just outside Tullow, and Bill was an enthusiastic hunt and competitor at equestrian events on the locality. In 1908 this popular and affable young man emigrated to Western Australia where he leased 4000 acres of government land and gradually converted it into a successful wheat farm. He chanced to be back visiting his family in Carlow when the war broke out. He initially joined the Leinster Regiment in Fermoy, as a private, before transferring to the 9th Battalion of the aforementioned Dubs where he was appointed a Temporary Captain.
Standing close by was 2nd Lieut. William Hatchell Boyd, Kettle’s second-in-command. The twenty-nine-year-old son of a Methodist minister, Boyd had worked as an accountant in Londonderry before the war.[iv]
Above: Captain William Murphy, courtesy of Tullow Museum, County Carlow.
Also nearby was eighteen-year-old Emmet Dalton, a second lieutenant, who had just been made second-in-command of the battalion’s ‘C’ Company. Tom Kettle was a close friend of Emmet’s father, a second generation Irish-American called James Francis Dalton. Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, Emmet was still a toddler when his parents settled back in Ireland in about 1901, running a laundry enterprise in Drumcondra in North Dublin. His father also became a major fund-raiser for the Irish Parliamentary Party. Like Tom Kettle, Emmet was educated at the Christian Brothers School in North Richmond Street. Indeed, by the time Tom Kettle and young Dalton met again on the banks of the Somme in those strange September days they had much in common. [v] Emmet was just behind Tom Kettle when, at approximately five o’clock, Captain Murphy blew his whistle and the first wave of 9th Battalion sallied over the top.
Thomas Michael Kettle was born in Artane, north Dublin, on 9th February 1880. His father Andrew ‘Andy’ Kettle probably had other things on his mind when the boy – the seventh of twelve children – arrived. Just three months before Tom’s birth, Andy Kettle co-founded the Irish Land League in Castlebar. A close ally of both Isaac Butt and Michael Davitt, he went on to become Parnell’s right hand man, sticking by the formidable nationalist leader during his fall from power. After Parnell’s death, the elder Kettle bowed out of politics and focused instead on his farm at St. Margaret’s in Finglas. The farm where Tom Kettle spent his childhood was one of the most progressive in Ireland.
Tom was an attentive schoolboy, quick-witted and game for a laugh. For decades after his death, both the Christian Brothers of North Richmond Street and the Jesuits of Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare would hail him as a model pupil. An enthusiastic athlete, cricketer and cyclist, he also impressed his peers at University College Dublin where he won a gold medal for oratory and became auditor of the Literary and Historical Society in the last years of the 19th century. [vi]
The columnist William Dawson would later recall him ‘… a genial cynic, a pleasant pessimist, an earnest trifler, he was made up of contradictions … a fellow of infinite jest, and infinite sadness.’ Magnetically intellectual, his circle included the Home Rule journalist Frank Cruise O’Brien and the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, both of whom were to become his brothers-in-law. James Joyce was another friend, while Oliver St. John Gogarty, immortalized as ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, was one of Kettle’s cycling and drinking comrades.
Kettle was at UCD when the Anglo-Boer War began in 1899. Echoing the anti-war stance taken by so many students in modern times, he protested vehemently against British motives for invading the Boer lands. He was among those who distributed pro-Boer pamphlets on behalf of the Irish Transvaal Committee which, founded by Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith in 1899, boasted a high calibre membership list that included W. B. Yeats, James Connolly, Willie Redmond, the veteran Fenian John O’Leary and Andy Kettle’s old friend Michael Davitt.
For those at UCD who heard Tom Kettle speak, it must have seemed likely that this young man, the prodigy of one of the Land League’s co-founders, would one day make a large impression on the Irish political scene. His biggest obstacle was himself. Highly-strung and prone to melancholy, he drank too much, not least when his favourite brother died in 1903. Shortly afterwards, the twenty-four-year-old suffered some form of a nervous breakdown that led him overseas. He spent a year at Innsbruck University where he studied history and philosophy.[vii] He also used this time to devour every European literary classic he could find, as well as mastering the German and French languages.
By the time he returned, a securer soul, it looked certain that he would pursue a career as a barrister, not least when he won the Victoria Prize at the King’s Inn and was called to the bar. However, that sort of bar just didn’t grab him and political journalism was fast becoming his raison d’être. He started by writing for papers and magazines until the newspaper proprietors took fright at his broad-minded but controversial views on topics such as the Gaelic League, women’s rights and university education.
He then established his own weekly journal, The Nationist, combining his opinions with some of the more extreme views held by John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Redmond had known of Kettle since at least 1904 when the young man co-founded the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League and became its first president. The ‘Yibs’, as they became known, injected a welcome dollop of youth culture into the ageing IPP which Redmond was keen to capitalize on. He was particularly enchanted by Kettle, even tolerating The Nationist’s dreamy notions of an alliance between the IPP and Sinn Féin. Redmond asked Kettle if he’d like to stand for Parliament as an IPP candidate. Kettle initially declined, preferring to stay focused on his journalism but in 1906 he conceded that perhaps politics was for him. That summer, the twenty-six-year-old defeated the Unionist candidate by 19 votes in a by-election and so began his four years in Westminster as MP for East Tyrone.
Tall, slight, youthful and exuberant, he cut a dash in the House of Commons from the moment he made his maiden speech, arguing that the British War Office should be footing the bill for the Dublin Metropolitan Police, rather than Dublin ratepayers. He also put his oratorical skills to good use, memorably lambasting Britain’s two biggest political parties with the observation that, ‘When in office, the Liberals forget their principles, and the Tories remember their friends’.[viii] Not surprisingly, many considered him a shoe-in to succeed John Redmond as and when the older man stepped down.
Emmet Dalton’s father was presumably closely involved when John Redmond sent his bright young star on a six-month trip to the US to raise funds for the IPP and to push home the party’s message. At Carnegie Hall in New York, Tom Kettle shared a platform with the old Fenian ‘dynamitard’ Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.[ix]
But while he undoubtedly paid close heed to Irish-American politics, Tom Kettle’s mindset was always more closely entwined with Europe. ‘My only programme for Ireland,’ he declared, ‘consists in equal parts of Home Rule and the Ten Commandments. My only counsel to Ireland is, that to become deeply Irish, she must become European.’[x] Ever since his European adventure, he had considered Ireland’s future as intrinsically bound with Europe, predicting something not dissimilar to the European Union. His European vision would play a major role in sending him to the trenches in 1916.
His personal life took a bold step forward when he married Mary Sheehy on 8th September 1909. Her father was also an MP for Redmond’s party but the newlyweds had manifold other connections. She too had studied at UCD, where James Joyce developed a crush on her, and she not only shared Tom’s beliefs in suffrage and nationalism but was also closely related to two of his best friends. Her sister Hannah married Francis Skeffington in 1903; he duly bucked the trend and latched her name onto his to become Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. Another sister Kathleen married Frank Cruise O’Brien and was mother of the future government minister, writer and historian, Conor Cruise O’Brien. Also into the mix was Father Eugene Sheehy, Mary’s uncle, a co-founder of the GAA who oversaw young Éamon de Valera’s education in Limerick.
Tom Kettle was by now such a good speaker that everyone wanted him. This became rather problematic from 1908 when he was appointed first Professor of National Economics at UCD. The post meant a lot to him; he was fascinated with economics as a means to recreating the society he believed Ireland and Europe could become. In the first of the two General Elections of 1910, he was re-elected for East Tyrone. However, when the second election was called, he took the opportunity to stand down. He subsequently teamed up with the Protestant Home Ruler Swift MacNeill and others to co-found UCD’s Legal and Economic Society (now the Law Society).
While he was no longer at Westminster, Professor Kettle continued to make his voice heard, applauding the Home Rule Bill in 1912, pushing for a united Ireland and scoffing at Unionist fears of ‘Rome Rule’. Unlike most middle class Dubliners, the hard-drinking 33-year-old also threw his support behind the strikers during the 1913 Lock Out, serving on the Peace Committee formed to broker a deal between the strikers and the employers. He published a series of articles highlighting the appalling working conditions and the state of the slums where so many people lived.
In 1913, the year his daughter Betty was born, Tom became so fed up with Unionist resistance to Home Rule that he co-founded the Irish Volunteers. On account of his impressive German, he was dispatched by the Volunteers to raise arms in Europe. The guns were successfully procured but they were never to reach Ireland because the cargo was still being considered by Belgian customs when the German army invaded the neutral kingdom in August 1914. The guns were subsequently gifted to the Belgians to assist their defence against the Germans.[xi]
As such, Tom Kettle found himself in Brussels when the Great War broke out. He was soon tapping out stories on his typewriter as a war correspondent for the Daily News, the London newspaper founded by Charles Dickens in 1846. As the conflict exploded across Europe, he counselled his readers that this was a war of ‘civilization against barbarians’. He was to remain in Brussels for two months during which time he witnessed the infamous ‘Rape of Belgium’. Like many Irish Catholics, he regarded Belgium as one of Ireland’s closest spiritual soulmates and he was appalled by the horrific manner in which the Germans overran the country, killing 6000 civilians and destroying over 25,000 buildings.[xii] When he visited the smouldering ruins of the University of Louvain, including its celebrated Irish seminary, he became so incensed that his further writings were unhesitatingly vitriolic against the Germans. He condemned Germany as ‘guilty of a systematic campaign of murder, pillage, outrage, and destruction, planned and ordered by her military and intellectual leaders.’[xiii]
He had no doubt that it was Ireland’s sacred duty to take up arms against Germany. ‘This war is without parallel,’ he wrote. ‘Britain, France, Russia enter it purged from their past sins of domination. France is right now as she was wrong in 1870. England is right now as she was wrong in the Boer War. Russia is right now as she was wrong on Bloody Sunday.’ [xiv]
He instantly sided with John Redmond’s call to join what he hailed as ‘the Army of Freedom’ and was commissioned as an officer with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in November 1914. [xv] The army were quick to pounce on such a fine orator and Lieutenant T. M. Kettle was soon touring Ireland on a massive recruitment drive, apparently addressing some two hundred rallies in his army uniform.
Having witnessed what happened in Belgium first-hand, he was desperate to convey to his fellow Irishmen that if ‘Prussian barbarity’ won the war, all talk of home rule would be canned. ‘It is a confession to make and I make it,’ he said in 1915. ‘I care for liberty more than I care for Ireland.’ [xvi] By no means everyone was convinced. When he showed up at an anti-recruitment meeting in Dublin wearing that same uniform, he was heckled and booed by the audience. In his final poem he would further underline his reasons for supporting the war effort.
‘Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.’
Like many moderate nationalists, Tom Kettle believed that a united effort by the National Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteers to defeat Germany would bond the two sides and stem the dreaded civil war that seemed to be coming down the line.
The Easter Rising was a blow for him on many levels, not least because he was close to many of the rebel leaders. Joseph Plunkett had been one of the secretaries on the Peace Committee during the Lock Out, while he had served on the board of the Theatre of Ireland with both Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearse. His brother Lawrence also took part in the Rising.
Tom Kettle was livid with the rebels for destroying what he saw as the best chance for reconciliation between Protestant Ulster and the rest of Ireland. However, as his wife later said, ‘what really seared his heart was the fearful retribution that fell on the leaders of the rebellion.’ As he himself reputedly forecast, ‘Pearse and the others will go down in history as heroes, and I will be just a bloody English officer.’ [xvii] From a personal perspective, he was also profoundly shaken by the murder of his brother-in-law and college friend Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, killed by an insane British officer during the course of the Rising. [xviii] It didn’t help when he went to console his bereaved sister-in-law and her children clad in the same uniform Francis’s killer had worn. ‘The Sinn Fein nightmare upset me a little,’ he wrote later, ‘but then if you tickle the ear of an elephant with a pop- gun, and he walks on you that is a natural concatenation of events.’[xix]
Perhaps because of all this he urged his superiors to send him to Europe so that he could fight the good fight. They finally relented and he sailed for France on Bastille Day 1916. On July 24th, five days after he found his battalion near Béthune, he went into the trenches for the first time. About a week later, a Dublin City postman arrived at 3, Belgrave Park, Rathmines, and delivered a letter to Mary Kettle. ‘My ears are becoming a little more accustomed to the diabolism of sound,’ he husband wrote, ‘but it remains terrible beyond belief. This morning, as I was shaving, the enemy began to find us and dropped aerial torpedoes, shells and a mine right on top of our dug-out. The strain is terrible. It continues from hour to hour and minute to minute. It is indeed an ordeal to which human nature is hardly equal.’[xx]
In another letter to Mary, written nearly three weeks later, he expressed his abhorrence of war. ‘I want to live, too, to use all my powers of thinking, writing and working to drive out of civilization this foul thing called war and to put in its place understanding and comradeship.’ [xxi]
Among those he teamed up with during this time was Major Willie Redmond, his fellow Nationalist MP and brother of John Redmond, who was serving on the Divisional Staff. Willie Redmond would later tell Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle of their frontline friendship. ‘I saw a good deal of Kettle,’ he wrote, ‘and we had many talks of the Unity we both hoped would come out of the War.’[xxii]
Within weeks of his arrival, the hot summer, the constant death and the drudgery of trench life were taking a toll on Tom Kettle. ‘Physically I am having a heavy time,’ he admitted to his wife. ‘I am doing my best, but I see better men than me dropping out day by day and wonder if I shall ever have the luck or grace to come home … The heat is bad, as are the insects and rats, but the moral strain is positively terrible. It is not that I am not happy in a way – a poor way – but my heart does long for a chance to come home.’ To offset his melancholy, Tom Kettle began writing a history of the 16th (Irish) Division.
On August 29th, the 9th Battalion marched from Longueau to billets at Corbie on the River Somme. It was at about this time that he became reacquainted with Emmet Dalton. The American-born officer may have only been eighteen but he had already lived an interesting life. In November 1913, aged fifteen, he had signed up with the Irish Volunteers and while Tom Kettle was gun-running in Belgium, the youngster was helping his father dispatch a small cargo of rifles to County Mayo for Patrick Moylett, a future President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Encouraged by Joe Devlin, Emmet opted to join the 7th Service (Dublin Pals) Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915. Moylett tried to talk him out of it but to no avail. [xxiii] His father was likewise appalled. ‘The first he knew was when I’d walked into my home dressed as a second lieutenant,’ Dalton recalled. ‘He told me to get out, that no bloody redcoat would enter his home.’
Dalton was undergoing training at Kilworth Camp near Fermoy, County Cork, when the Easter Rising took place. Approximately 125 past pupils of O’Connell School served under Pearse and Connolly but Dalton, wearing his British uniform, regarded it as madness. Unconfirmed reports place him at Wexford and Enniscorthy where the rebels surrendered without a fight. Dalton would later doubt the merits of the Rising, reasoning that there was not ‘a whale of a difference between the Home Rule Bill at that time and the Treaty as it was subsequently accepted.’
He was subsequently sent to the Western Front and transferred to the 9th Battalion where he reunited with Tom Kettle. On September 5th, the men marched through heavy rains for three hours to the Sherwood and Pagan trenches at Trônes Wood from where they took part in the attack on Guillemont two mornings later. On the eve of Guillemont, Tom Kettle found the time to pen the poem he is best known for, a sonnet entitled “To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God”, written in a field near Guillemont. He recited the poem aloud to Dalton. Regarded as one of the most outstanding poems of the Great War, the final line inspired the title of Sebastian Barry’s award-winning novel, ‘The Secret Scripture’.
“To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God”
To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Tom Kettle came through Guillemont unscathed, leading some to briefly wonder if he had a charmed life. However, as Emmet Dalton later wrote, the 9th Battalion had lost seven officers and 200 men to ‘the Bosch shell fire’ during the battle. As they raced to refill the upper ranks, Captain Murphy took command of the battalion, Tom Kettle took over ‘B’ Company and Emmet Dalton became second in command of ‘A’ Company.
On September 8th, Captain Murphy received his orders. The Dubs were to advance on Ginchy the following day, not at dawn as was the norm, but when the twilight came. Their mission was to clear out the Bavarians who occupied the western side of the village. There had been many Allied attempts to conquer Ginchy during the war; none had succeeded.
Tom Kettle wrote his last letter to his brother. ‘If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen the war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men … We are moving up tonight into the battle of the Somme. The bombardment, destruction and bloodshed are beyond all imagination, nor did I ever think the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers. I have had two chances of leaving them – one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades … The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like overhead express trains, at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector.’
That was also the letter in which he referred to ‘the Choosers of the Slain’ and their ‘invisible wand’.
As they made their way out of Trônes Wood, Emmet Dalton recalled how ‘the stench of the dead that covered our road was so awful that we both [ie: he and Tom] used some foot powder on our faces.’
On the outskirts of Ginchy, the Dubs dug in for the day. Professor Kettle received his absolution, wrote his final letters and gave Private Bingham his watch.[xxiv] And then, upon the sound of the whistle, he and his men went over the top. A staff-captain who knew Kettle claimed that he threw himself into the ensuing charge with a degree of relish. ‘He was enjoying it like any veteran, though it cannot be denied that the trade of war, and the horrible business of killing one’s fellows was distasteful to a man with his sensitive mind and kindly disposition.’ [xxv]
German bullets and bombs slashed through the rain-sodden skies and the Dubs began dropping left and right. Sixty-seven of them would die that day. Many weeks later, Emmet Dalton found the strength to write to Mary Kettle and explain what happened to her husband.
‘I was just behind Tom when we went over the top. He was in a bent position and a bullet got over a steel waistcoat that he wore and entered his heart. Well, he only lasted about one minute, and he had my crucifix in his hands. He also said, ‘This is the seventh anniversary of my wedding’.’ [xxvi]
When it became apparent that Tom Kettle was dead, Emmet Dalton quickly removed all his papers and personal items from his pocket. He then handed them to 2nd Lieutenant Boyd, the Londonderry accountant, with instructions to send them back to Mary. Just minutes later, William H. Boyd was atomized by a howitzer shell, and all Tom’s belongings with him.
Bill Murphy, the grocer’s son from Tullow, was also now dead; his body was last seen crumpled in a trench. [xxvii] It was left to eighteen-year-old Emmet Dalton to take command of both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies for the final push. With night falling fast, he led the men onwards, under intense fire. He positioned a series of machine gunners in the most commanding spots he could find and instructed them on how to protect their flank. While he and a sergeant were on a mission to check these positions, they ran into an enemy patrol. Amazingly the two Irishmen managed to stun the officer commanding the patrol into surrender and they returned to their trench line with twenty-one German prisoners. The following year Dalton would be presented with a Military Cross at Buckingham Palace for having displayed ‘great bravery and leadership in action’. [xxviii] He apparently refused to bow to the king because of his strong feelings about the execution of the Easter Rising leaders.
The Irish conquest of Ginchy turned out to be one of the few victories the Allies could claim in the terrible year of 1916. It gave them control of a series of vital observation posts overlooking much of the Somme region and that would prove to be a game-changer of a sort in the inch-by-inch battle for the Western Front. That the Bavarians had been ousted from the village was almost entirely thanks to the 16th (Irish) Division. ‘The wild rush of our Irish lads swept the Germans away like chaff,’ applauded Father Willie Doyle, Chaplain of the 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, who also won a Military Cross for his service during the battle. ‘The first line went clean through the village and out the other side, and were it not for the officers, acting under orders, would certainly be in Berlin by this time!’
The cost to the Irish was immense. Tom Kettle was one of over 4,350 casualties recorded by the 16th (Irish) Division between 7th and 12th September, as compared to 884 of the village’s Bavarian defenders. The Dubs were so badly hit that Emmet Dalton and Second Lieutenant E. R. Hurst were the only two of their eight officers to leave the battlefield alive. Amongst the sixty-one others from the battalion who died were Tullow-born Sergeant Edward Wall, who was born on Barrack Street, and Private James Rathband, the sixteen-year-old son of an auction porter from Gardiner Street in Dublin.[xxix] The Royal Munster Fusiliers who also took part in the battle of Ginchy suffered worse still, losing eight officers and 220 men.
Tom Kettle’s body was buried by the Welsh Guards who took over the ground where he died after the Irish had pushed on. Despite extensive searches initiated by his widow, its location remains unknown. His name would be carved upon the Thiepval Monument to the Missing of the Somme along with 72,194 others whose remains were never identified.
‘Kettle was one of the finest officers we had with us,’ wrote an unnamed staff officer in the coming weeks. ‘The men worshipped him, and would have followed him to the ends of the earth … When the battle was over, his men came back to camp with sore hearts. They seemed to feel his loss more than that of any of the others. The men would talk of nothing else but the loss of their ‘own Captain Tom,’ and his brother officers were quite as sincere, if less effusive, in the display of their grief.’
‘Tom’s death has been a big blow to the Regiment’, agreed Emmet Dalton in a letter he wrote to Mary Kettle five weeks later, ‘and I’m afraid that I could not put in words my feelings on the subject.’ The orphan Robert Bingham also took a moment to write to Mary. ‘He was a brave officer and was like a father to me … I was awfully sorry when God called such a brave man away.’ Mary would do her best to take Private Bingham under her wing, sending him cake and other parcels in the coming years. He survived the war but died in Belfast at the age of twenty-one in October 1919, possibly a victim of the Spanish Flu.
News of Tom Kettle’s death, just fifty-two days after he arrived on the Western Front, shocked his political and intellectual colleagues in Ireland. As the columnist William Dawson put it in an introduction to ‘Poems Parodies’, a book of Tom’s poetry published later that year, ‘it is not the death of the Professor nor of the soldier, nor of the politician, nor even of the poet and the essayist, that causes the heart-ache we feel. It is the loss of that rare, charming, wondrous personality summed up in those two simple words, Tom Kettle.’ [xxx]
Reports upon his death and extracts from his letters home regularly featured in The Irish Times for the rest of the year, while the Freeman’s Journal of October 23rd published an extraordinary letter which he wrote on the eve of Ginchy with directions that it was to be sent to Mary in the event of his death.
‘Had I lived, I had meant to call my next book on the relations of Ireland and England: The Two Fools: A Tragedy of Errors. It has needed all the folly of England and all the folly of Ireland to produce the situation in which our unhappy country is now involved. I have mixed much with Englishmen and with Protestant Ulstermen and I know that there is no real or abiding reason for the gulfs, saltier than the sea, that now dismember the natural alliance of both of them with us Irish Nationalists. It needs only a Fiat Lux [ie: ‘let there be light’ – TB], of a kind very easily compassed, to replace the unnatural with the natural. In the name, and by the seal of the blood given in the last two years, I ask for Colonial Home Rule for Ireland – a thing essential in itself and essential as a prologue to the reconstruction of the Empire. Ulster will agree. And I ask for the immediate withdrawal of martial law in Ireland and an amnesty for all Sinn Fein prisoners. If this war has taught us anything it is that great things can be done only in a great way.’
Those who knew him must have imagined that the name of Tom Kettle would be enshrined forever, with perhaps a city street or a train station named in his honour. As it happened, on account of his allegiance to the Crown and his massive support for the recruitment drive, he was largely purged from memory when the new Irish Free State took shape. There was a considerable rumpus when his supporters commissioned a commemorative bust by the sculptor Albert Power. Cast in Brussels, the bust now stands discreetly in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and hails him as a ‘Poet, Essayist, Patriot’. He is also recalled by a bronze plaque in the Four Courts along with the twenty five other Irish barristers who died in the war, including Major Willie Redmond.
Tom’s heartbroken father died at home in Finglas less than two weeks after the battle of Ginchy.[xxxi] Tom’s widow Mary continued to play a leading role in the emancipation of women, as well as in Dublin’s municipal affairs, and lived until 1967. She had made her last public appearance three months earlier to at a Mass in St. Francis Xavier’s Church to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Tom’s death. Their daughter Betty Dooley also studied at UCD and became a solicitor. She died at a nursing home in Clontarf in 1996 and is buried in the family plot in Swords.
Above: The commemorative bust of Tom Kettle by the sculptor Albert Power was cast in Brussels and now stands discreetly in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. (Photo: Patrick Lynch)
Emmet Dalton was destined to have a particularly remarkable life after Ginchy. Promoted to the rank of Major, the MC winner was wounded in the chest and knee and would go through the rest of his life with a bullet scar on his face. He served out the remainder of the war in Salonika, Egypt, Germany, Palestine and France. De-mobbed in 1919, he then reverted to his pre-war empathies, re-joined the Irish Volunteers as a training officer and rapidly rose to become the organization’s Director of Training and Munitions during the War of Independence. In his spare time, he played for Bohemian Football club during the 1919-1920 season. [xxxii]
In the wake of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Dalton supported Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty side and was one of the leading military brains involved with the National Army’s subsequent campaigns. On 28 June 1922, he commanded the Free State troops assigned to dislodge the rebel ‘Provisional Executive’ from the Four Courts in Dublin, an event generally considered to be the start of the Irish Civil War. The following month, he led the army south, driving the Irregulars out of towns such as Tullow, the home of the late Captain Bill Murphy, his commander at Ginchy. Depending on one’s convictions, Major-General Dalton is to be either credited with, or blamed for, breaking the back of the Anti-Treaty forces in the ‘Munster Republic’ during the summer of 1922, including a dramatic amphibious attack on Cork City. Tom Kettle’s ‘invisible wand’ passed close to him once again that August when, as General Officer Commanding the Southern Command, he was with Michael Collins when the latter was gunned down at Béal na Bláth.
Emmet Dalton resigned his army commission in December 1922, having marked his card as an opponent of the Free State government’s policy of executing anti-Treaty IRA prisoners without trial. After a short stint as Clerk of the Senate, he quit politics to try and rescue his father’s ailing wholesale goods business. A fan of the silver screen, he then moved to London to work as a film distributor and producer. In 1958 he co-founded the Irish Ardmore Studios in Bray, County Wicklow. Its first production was an adaptation of Walter Macken’s play, ‘Home is the Hero’, starring Macken himself and Joan O’Hara, mother of the novelist Sebastian Barry. Ardmore went on to produce films such as ‘The Blue Max’, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘The Lion in Winter’, all filmed in Ireland. In more recent years, Ardmore has been the base for movies such as ‘Braveheart’, ‘My Left Foot’, ‘The Commitments’ and ‘Veronica Guerin’, as well as ‘The Tudors’, ‘Moone Boy’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’.[xxxiii]
Emmet Dalton died in 1978, over sixty years after Ginchy. He was survived by his son Richard and three daughters, Audrey (an acclaimed actress), Sybil and Nuala.[xxxiv]
With thanks to Niall Ó Siocháin, Simon John Draper, Sean Connolly (Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association), John O’Donovan, Michael Brennan, Laz Murphy, Sebastian Barry, William Paton, Billy Wright (Tullow Museum), Noel Cuddy, Chris McQuinn, Jake Duggan (Military Museum, Carlow), Sean Boyne, Jim Murphy, J.A.David Bird, Dermot Mulligan (Carlow Museum), Peter Fegan, Joshua Levine & the Dublin Fusiliers.
REASON IN RHYME
Tom Kettle’s close friend Robert Lynd always maintained that his poem, “Reason in Rhyme” was the one that best represented ‘his testament to England as his call to Europeanism is his testament to Ireland.’
Bond, from the toil of hate we may not cease;
Free, we are free to be your friend;
And when you make your banquet and we come,
Soldier with equal soldier must we sit,
Closing a battle, not forgetting it.
With not a name to hide,
This mate and mother of valiant “rebels” dead
Must come with all her history on her head.
We keep the past for pride:
No deepest peace shall strike our poets dumb:
No rawest squad of all Death’s volunteers,
No rudest man who died
To tear your flag down in the bitter years,
But shall have praise, and three times thrice again,
[i] Quoted in ‘War Letters of Fallen Englishmen’ by Laurence Housman
[ii] Tom Kettle to Joe Devlin, shortly before he died, quoted in The Ways of War Memoir p. 34: “I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France that I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement. Give my love to my colleagues – the Irish people have no need of it.”
His war journalism was issued as The Ways of War (1917) and edited by Mary Kettle. She also compiled the aphorisms of An Irishman’s Calendar ([1938).
[iii] William Joseph Murphy and his family appear on the 1901 census. Their grocery was the building which now holds Griffin’s Chemists at 1 Barrack Street, Tullow, County Carlow. The Murphys owned a substantial chunk of The Square in Tullow including (apparently) the Sherry Fitzgerald building (where I have my office), as well as the Presbytery where the Forward Steps Resource Centre now stands.
In 1907, Bill Murphy’s only sister Tess was married at the University Chapel on Stephen’s Green, Dublin, to Bernard Maurice O’Connor of Newcastle West, Australia. (Weekly Irish Times, 30 November 1907). According to the 1907 wedding announcement, Bill Murphy was a nephew of Rev. A. F. Murphy who preseumably Rev. Arthur Murphy, affiliated with Emo Court – see image here. By 1911, the O’Connors were living at Kilmagarvogue, better known as Kill (now the Bolgers home, formerly home of Thomas Bunbury), a mile west of the main N81 road between Tullow and Rathvilly. Also with them was Captain Murphy’s widowed mother Mary and their baby son Gerard. (See 1911 Census) it is thought the O’Connors later emigrated to Australia with her husband. Kill was formerly property of the Bunbury family and Thomas Bunbury of Kill wrote a detailed diary during the 18th century. After the death of Captain Murphy’s mother in about 1925, his sister – also living in Australia – sold the house to Thomas Bolger (1882-1938), Cumann na nGaedhael Teachta Dála (TD) for Carlow from 1925-1926. Mr. Bolger’s grandson and namesake presently owns the property.
[x] “Ireland” in ‘The Ways of War’, Memoir p.4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle, T. M. Kettle.
[xi] Adrian Gregory, Senia Paseta, ‘Ireland and the Great War: ‘A War to Unite Us All’?’ (Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 9.
[xii]German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial(1999) (2001) John Horne and Alan Kramer of D.U., Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-10791-9. Detailed researched account of German atrocities perpetrated on the Belgian and French civilian population in Autumn 1914. Winner of the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History in 2000.
[xiv]The Rise and Fall of Imperial Ireland: Redmondism in the Context of Britain’s Conquest of South Africa and Its Great War on Germany 1899-1916, p. 404.
[xv] His first attempt to enlist was apparently rejected on the grounds of his poor health, possibly connected to his drinking?
[xvi] Extracted from ‘NEWS FROM IRELAND – An Appeal to Irishmen (The Tablet, 7th August 1915).
[xvii] This quote appeared in Bruce Stewart’s useful dataset site. However, while Bruce initially suggested this line came from Desmond Ryan, but it is not clear where Ryan got it from, possibly Ernie O’Malley’s book , The Singing Flame (Anvil Books, 1978). It may be in J. B. Lyons, The Enigma of Tom Kettle (Dublin: Glendale Press, 1983)? In July 2015, Bruce contacted me to say: ‘The point you make is true enough and the sentence quoted is so telling – if derisive – that it is a shame to let it remain an orphan so if you have found it anywhere since writing, please let me know! I am perfectly sure that Kettle said no such thing in the tone implied by the wording though he may have been distressed by the Rising and the executions. I recall that some of my notes on Kettle were taken in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s house and contain some material in his papers. You know of course his place in Conor’s outlook and his writings.’
[xviii] Léon Ó Bróin, Protestant Nationalists &c (1985), p. 117.
[xix] PRONI, D.3809/67/2, McLaughlin papers, letter, T. M. Kettle to Sir Henry McLaughlin, 7 August 1916. Quoted in ‘Irish Regiments in the Great War – Discipline & Morale’, Timothy Bowman, p. 128.
[xx] Quoted in ‘War Letters of Fallen Englishmen’, by Laurence Housman, p. 166.
[xxi] Quoted in ‘War Letters of Fallen Englishmen’, by Laurence Housman, p. 166.
[xxii] Letter from Willie Redmond to Arthur Conan Doyle, dated 18/12/1916, quoted in ‘Memories and Adventures’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1924) via
[xxiii] Patrick Moylett later recalled, ‘Emmet Dalton told me that John Redmond was getting him a commission in the British army. Emmet Dalton was wearing a Christian Brothers cap at the time; he told me he was 18 years of age. His statement made me sad, because it cut straight across what he was then doing. I tried to persuade him not to join, but I was not successful.’ Bureau of Military History (WS 767).
[xxiv] At some point he also revoked copyright of his works in favour of his wife.
Letter to Mary Kettle from Emmet Dalton c/o Liverpool Merchants Hospital at Etaples, France, dated 14 October 1916. It begins: ‘Dear Mrs Kettle, I presume by now that you are utterly disgusted with me for failing to reply to your letter, but I assure you that if I had been in a fit condition I would I have….’ It is quoted in fill in Tom Burke’s article in Dublin Historical Record.
Why was this so? Did Dalton make it up? Or did Mrs Kettle prefer the idea of her husband leading her men, even as he lay dying on the ground? Here is what the staff captain said:
” In the Guillemont righting I caught a glimpse of him for a brief spell. He was in the thick of a hard struggle, which had for its object the dislodgment of the enemy from a redoubt they held close to the village. He was temporarily in command of the company, and he was directing operations with a coolness and daring that marked him out as a born leader of men. He seemed always to know what was the right thing to do, and he was always on the right spot to order the doing of the right thing at the right moment. The men under his command on that occasion fought with a heroism worthy of their leader. They were assailed furiously on both flanks by the foe. They resisted all attempts to force them back, and at the right moment they pressed home a vigorous counter-attack that swept the enemy off the field. ” The next time I saw him his men were again in a tight corner. They were advancing against the strongest part of the enemy’s position in that region. Kettle kept them together wonderfully in spite of the terrible ordeal they had to go through, and they carried the enemy’s position in record time. It was in the hottest corner of the Ginchy fighting that he went down. He was leading his men with a gallantry and judgment that would almost certainly have won him official recognition had he lived, and may do so yet. His beloved Fusiliers were facing a deadly fire and were dashing forward irresistibly to grapple with the foe. Their ranks were smitten by a tempest of fire. Men went down right and left some never to rise again. Kettle was among the latter. He dropped to earth and made an effort to get up. I think he must have been hit again. Anyhow, he collapsed completely. A wail of anguish went up from his men as soon as they saw that their officer was down. He turned to them and urged them forward to where the Huns were entrenched. They did not need his injunction. They swept forward with a rush. With levelled bayonets they crashed into the foe. There was deadly work, indeed, and the Huns paid dearly for the loss of Kettle.”
In July 2016 I spoke at an event marking the centenary of the Somme in Christchurch Cathedral. Amongst those in attendance was David Bird who afterwards wrote to me:
“My father Thomas Bird was in the 3rd Munster Fusiliers and landed in France on the 7th June 1916 attached to the 9th Dublin Fusiliers.His Field Message Book (Army Book 153) is inscribed by him—T.H.Bird 6PL. B Coy. 9th. RDF. I remember him saying that he was with Tom Kettle in the trenches. We have my father`s copy of “ POEMS & PARODIES” T.M.KETTLE and on page 16 at the end of the poem to his daughter my father has written “This was written from a page of my Army book 152 (Correspondence Book)”. I have always wondered if the original manuscript i.e the page, still exists in the Kettle papers, and, after reading your account of his death and what happened to his papers, how did the poem get back to Ireland? Was it entrusted to someone or did he just post it with a letter to his wife?
My father was injured in the battle of Ginchy but rejoined his unit in February 1917. He was captured in the breakout from St. Quentin on the 21st March 1918 … We now know that the man who would have been his brother-in-law- Arthur Wilson- was serving with the 1st. Munsters at Ginchy. Arthur was fatally wounded and died on the 10th September. He was attended by Rev Richard Bird, a Chaplain to the 16th. Division, who was my father`s eldest brother. Richard Bird was the Senior Church of England Chaplain at the unveiling of the two memorials to the 16th Irish Division at Guillemont and Wytschaete.”
I pitched David’s question at Sean Boyne, author of ‘Emmet Dalton, Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer’ (Merrion Press, 2014), who told me how Dalton referred to Kettle having written the famous poem ‘in an officer’s notebook’. We don’t yet know how the poem survived – it may have been in Kettle’s belongings back in his billet. (Dalton’s daughter Audrey told Sean Boyne that he carried a copy of the poem in his wallet all his life, until he died.) Dalton recorded that, after Kettle was killed, he removed papers and other items from the body and gave them to 2nd Lt William Hatchell Boyd to pass on to Mrs Kettle. Sadly, Boyd was ‘blown to atoms’ a few minutes later, and everything was lost. There follows a rough transcript of a passage from a series of interviews which Emmet Dalton gave to Pádraig Ó Raghallaigh, and which were broadcast on RTE radio in early 1977.
Tom Kettle I had met in my battalion, [he was] a Lieutenant. He was in the advanced trenches, the kick-off point where I met him and talked to him. He was more an associate and a friend of my father’s than he was of mine, but he was a very charming and delightful man and I spent a little time with him, the little time that was available because within two days we were in the forefront and within three days he was dead. He literally died in the advance on Ginchy. He was with me when he died, I was literally beside him when he died, he was shot over the heart. It was sad because I recall, sitting with him prior to the movement up to the front line, that he recited to me a poem that he had written to his daughter, and he had it written down in an officer’s notebook, it was a delightful little poem which I look back on with great … I was very moved when I read it, Kettle obviously by the tone of the poem as I now think of it, saw the difficulties that had arisen due to 1916 in Ireland…
[xxvii] In 1926 Captain Murphy’s devastated mother Mary gifted a house and garden to the people of the parish in his memory, now known as the Captain Murphy Memorial Hall. The Catholic Church are believed to be the trustees. On 9 September 2016 I attended a charming centenary commemoration of Captain Murphy’s life in this very building, at which John O’Donovan spoke of Bill Murphy’s life, Robin Harvey read a poem and joint prayers were held by Archdeacon Andrew Orr of the Church of Ireland and the Very Rev. Andy Leahy of the Roman Catholic Church. The event was organised by William Paton.
Laz Murphy, the Tullow butcher, heard a story in his youth of a detachment of soldiers, bedraggled and war weary, arriving into Tullow just after the war and giving some form of a salutation outside the Murphy premises on the square. It is assumed they were surviving members of the 9th battalion. This apparently did not stop the Black and Tans from subsequently burning the building.
Captain Murphy’s portrait is in the museum in Tullow.
MURPHY Captain William Joseph (commanding) being killed as the 9th battalion reached GINCHY.Age 36. died. 09/09/1916 Mentioned in Despatches Son of Edward and Mary Murphy, of Tullow, Co. Carlow. Joined Cadet Corps, Leinster Regt., Nov., 1914; appointed Lt. 9th Dublins, Dec., 1914, and Capt., March, 1915. Via http://www.dublin-fusiliers.com/battaliions/9-battalion.html
[xxviii] “At the capture of Ginchy, on the 9th of September, 1916, he displayed great bravery and leadership in action. When, owing to the loss of officers, the men of two companies were left without leaders, he took command and led these companies to their final objective. After the withdrawal of another brigade and the right flank of his battalion was in the rear, he carried out the protection of the flank, under intense fire, by the employment of machine-guns in selected commanding and successive positions. After dark, whilst going about supervising the consolidation of the position, he, with only one sergeant escorting, found himself confronted by a party of the enemy, consisting of one officer and twenty men. By his prompt determination the party were overawed and, after a few shots, threw up their arms and surrendered.”
[xxx] Poems & Parodies, T. M. Kettle (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1916). William Dawson wrote under the penname ‘Avis, primarily for Leader, and was a cousin and close friend of politician Arthur Clery.
[xxxi] Andrew Kettle died on 22nd September 1916 at St Margaret’s, Finglass, aged 83.
[xxxii] As a member of General Headquarters Staff, he both conceived and took part in the daring plan to rescue the IRA’s flying column leader Sean MacEoin from Mountjoy prison in May 1921. All went well until it emerged that Mac Eoin was not where they expected him to be and the would be rescuers made a hasty retreat.
Among those whom Emmet Dalton encountered in this era was Edward Bellingham who had been Lieutenant Colonel of the 8th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Ginchy. Bellingham later became a senator.
[xxxiv] On the off-chance that you’re a Perry Mason fan, Audrey Dalton appears as Kate Eastman in an episode called ‘The Case of the Injured Innocent’. Richard Dalton, son of Emmet, emailed me in December 2014 to say: “My two sisters, Sybil & Nuala who were alive at the time of my father’s death have since passed on so now there are just two of us! Sounds like a Agatha Christie story.”
Edward II did not have much cause to celebrate during his reign as King of England. However, his mood in October 1318 must have been singularly improved by the arrival of a package from Ireland containing the head of one of his most notorious enemies. The head belonged to Edward the Bruce, a Scottish warlord who had caused Edward II considerable indigestion when he crowned himself High King of Ireland in 1316. In the ensuing period, Bruce had caused much mayhem for the Anglo-Norman lordship of Ireland.
Not that Edward II expected anything but hardship from the Bruces. After all, Edward the Bruce was the younger brother and heir apparent of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, who gave the English such a massive drubbing at the battle of Bannockburn, fought on 24 June 1314.
The House of Bruce came to the fore during the Scottish War of Independence, the early years of which were characterised by the rise and fall of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. In 1306, less than a year after Wallace’s execution, Robert slew his arch-rival and was crowned King of the Scots.
King Robert spent much of the next eight years engaged in a form of guerrilla warfare, defending his throne against the English forces of Edward I (‘Longshanks’) and his feeble successor Edward II.
By the summer of 1313, Bruce’s army were in the ascendance across Scotland and all that stood between them and total victory was Stirling Castle. King Robert sent Edward, his brother and his most trusted commander, to negotiate with Sir Philip de Mowbray, the castle’s Governor. A glutton for chivalry, Edward struck a deal that favoured de Mowbray. From Midsummer’s Day, the Governor had one year to secure reinforcements from Edward II. If none arrived, de Mowbray would surrender the castle.
King Robert was understandably livid this arrangement as it not only green-lighted an English invasion of Scotland but gave them an entire year to organize. Moreover, the Bruces may have excelled as guerrilla fighters but they had little experience of pitch battles.
One year later, the two armies met at Bannockburn for a battle that was to become the most seminal victory in Scottish history. During the battle, the Scots ‘schiltroms’ advanced forward ‘like a thick-set hedge’, protected by closely locked shields, bonded by immense courage, carrying sharp axes at their sides and deadly lances in their hands. The English cavalry were simply unable to penetrate. When Robert Clifford, one of the English commanders, lost his cool and charged at a schiltom, he was quickly overcome and slain. By the end of the battle, Edward II had lost two thirds of his men and the English king fled the battlefield. Mowbray duly surrendered Stirling Castle, making the Scots victory absolute.
In the wake of England’s meltdown at Bannockburn, the Scots mounted a series of invasions into northern England. King Robert also decided to open up a second front in Ireland to further deplete England’s resources.
The task fell to his brother Edward who, having commanded one of the schiltroms at Bannockburn, was forgiven for his blunder at Stirling Castle. On 26 May 1315, Edward sailed for Ireland with 6,000 men who duly disembarked along the Antrim coast between Carrickfergus and Larne.
The immediate catalyst for the Bruce invasion of Ireland was an invitation from their cousin Domnall mac Brian Ó Néill, King of Tyrone, who sought an ally against the Anglo-Normans in Ulster. King Robert agreed to assist on condition that the Irish accept Edward as High King of Ireland.
Aside from a short-lived attempt by the Ó Néill’s in 1258, Ireland had not had a High King in 130 years. The Bruce brothers were the sons of Sir Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, and had a tentative claim to the dormant throne through their paternal grandmother Lady Isabella de Clare, a descendant of Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster.
Edward the Bruce is believed to have spent a good deal of his childhood in Ulster, either as a foster child of the O’Neill’s, kinsmen of his mother, or with the Bissett family, Lords of the Glens of Antrim.
Even as Bruce’s ships powered across the North Channel to Ulster, King Robert’s propaganda chiefs were highlighting the Bruce’s Irish lineage as the key to their ideological vision of a ‘Pan-Gaelic Greater Scotia’ in which the family would rule over Scotland, Ireland and, in due course, Wales. In a letter addressed to the leading Irish kings and chieftains, Robert spoke of the Scots and the Irish as ‘nostra nacio (our nation) … stemming from one seed of birth’, united ‘by a common language and by common custom.’
The Bruce’s had hoped the Irish would arise in their favour, oust the Anglo-Normans and proclaim Edward as High King. The reality was infinitely more complex, not least because so many of the Irish kingdoms were already locked in bitter internecine warfare between rival claimants to the various thrones.
When Edward arrived, he was merely another player in this game of thrones, albeit one of the most powerful. He quickly secured control of much of Ulster, capturing Carrickfergus and defeating an army raised by Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster, who was, to further complicate matters, King Robert’s father-in-law.
In early June, 13 of Ulster’s Kings and lords swore fealty to Edward at Carrickfergus. The annals would later claim that ‘all the Gaels of Ireland agreed to grant him lordship’ but many were clearly hedging their bets. Two of the 13 men at Carrickfergus subsequently orchestrated a failed ambush on Edward as he marched south from Newry. Dundalk was to experience the full hell of Scottish vengeance; the town was destroyed and its entire population, Norman and Gael alike, brutally put to the sword.
In early November, Edward convincingly defeated Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, in a pitched battle at Kells, Co. Meath. Kells was a smouldering ruin by the time the Scots moved south and over the ensuing months they similarly pillaged and burned towns across Counties Longford, Westmeath and Kildare. Such anarchy simultaneously prompted the O’Toole, O’Byrne and other clans of the Wicklow Mountains to rise up against the Anglo-Normans.
Pillage was arguably necessary; how else was Bruce to feed the thousands who served under him? However, it came at a serious cost to his reputation and the marauding Scots were soon as despised as the English. The situation was by no means helped by a series of severe winters between 1315 and 1317 which led to widespread famine across Ireland.
Bruce was also consistently let down by Irish leaders whose promise of support frequently failed to materialize. Without their support, Edward was compelled to withdraw to his safehaven in Ulster. On his return trip, he cemented his ambitions on 2 May 1316 when he was crowned High King of Ireland on the Hill of Maledon near Dundalk.
Meanwhile, the English were regaining their composure under the guidance of John de Hothum, the sagacious Governor of Ireland. Under his watch, several of Bruce’s key allies, including the pirate Thomas Dunn, were captured and killed.
In February 1317, the reinforced Scots launched a massive campaign for which King Robert joined his brother upfront. Perhaps they still hoped the Irish would rise up as ‘Gaelic brothers’, although they must have by now realized that most of the Irish were opportunists who could not be relied upon.
As the Bruces advanced on Dublin, Hothum prepared the city’s defences, burning the suburb of St Thomas and dismantling the church at St Mary’s del Dam on Dame Street to strengthen Dublin Castle. Such defences had the desired effect and the Scots instead wheeled west from Castleknock to Leixlip before laying waste to Naas, destroying the Franciscan friary at Castledermot and advancing south through County Kilkenny towards Limerick.
The King of Connaught were supposed to join the Bruces but the kingship was in crisis and, harried by hostile forces, the Scots were once again forced to return to Ulster. Robert abandoned Ireland in May and returned to Scotland.
Edward the Bruce’s morale also took a further blow in 1317 with the failure of a major campaign to convince the Pope to accept him as King of Ireland.
On 14 October 1318, Edward’s army met a superior Hiberno-Norman force at the Hill of Faughart near Dundalk, Co. Louth. Three columns of Scots were defeated in succession and at least 30 Scottish knights were killed, including Philip de Mowbray, the former Governor of Stirling Castle, as well as the Kings of Argyll, the Western Isles.
Edward the Bruce also fell in the battle, slain by John Malpas from Dundalk. The news was greeted with much joy in certain quarters. Perhaps under the watchful eye of the Red Earl of Ulster, the authors of the Annals of Ulster lambasted Edward as ‘the destroyer of Ireland in general, both Foreigners and Gaels’ and applauded his death as the best ‘deed’ since the beginning of the world, because his time in Ireland caused such hunger that ‘people undoubtedly used to eat each other throughout Ireland.’
According to the Lannercost Chronicle, ‘Edward was beheaded after death; his body being divided into four quarters, which were sent to the four chief quarters of Ireland.’ While Edward II almost certainly received his head, his remains are believed to have been buried in the churchyard at Faughart beneath a large flat stone that can still be seen today.
Following his death, the Scots position in Ireland collapsed. The House of Bruce would retain the Scottish throne until 1371 when a new dynasty came to the fore – the House of Stuart whose destiny would also ultimately be dictated on the battlefields of Ireland.
This article/review of PEACEKEEPER was published Tuesday August 2016 in the Leinster Leader Newspaper
A Review by Liam Kenny
Michael J. Whelan, 2016, Peacekeeper, Doíre Press,
Casla, Co. na Gaillimhe.
Voice of the soldier-poet
Local newspapers are good at reflecting the nuances and characteristics of the community they serve. The reports of meetings, court-cases, politics, profiles, incidents, matches, launches, local notes and much else create a nuanced picture of everyday life in the locality covered by the paper. It is often been said that to reconstruct Dublin in the early 20th century a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses would provide all the working drawings needed by way of its multi-layered descriptions of people and places. Much the same can be said about the local newspapers. To view the files of this paper from, say, a hundred years ago, is to surround oneself with the ebb and flow of life…
Before the First World War, Sir Roger Casement was considered Britain’s foremost human-rights activist. Born in Dublin to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, he journeyed to the Congo Free State in Africa as a young man. He stayed there for twenty years, rising to the position of British consul. For a short period he shared a room with Joseph Conrad, whose experiences of the Congo inspired him to write the novel Heart of Darkness upon which the film Apocalypse Now is based.
Casement’s 1904 report on the Congo exposed appalling atrocities on the rubber plantations, in which hundreds of thousands of people died in order to provide rubber for the Belgian-owned companies that were supplying the rapidly expanding automobile industry with tyres. He laid the blame squarely at the feet of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, a first cousin of Queen Victoria and reputedly the richest man in the world. Leopold ruled the Congo as a personal fiefdom with his own private mercenary army. Such was the outrage that followed Casement’s report that Leopold was forced to relinquish control over his mini-kingdom.
Casement subsequently visited the remote Putumayo region on the Colombia–Peru border and cracked open another ghastly case of exploitation, torture and murder, this time run by the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), a rubber firm consolidated in London and backed by British shareholders. The Putumayo, where PAC was headquartered, was a no-man’s land full of wild rubber trees as well as more than 50,000 Bora, Andoke, Huitoto and Ocaina Indians. Casement estimated that during the first decade of the century 30,000 of these indigenous inhabitants had been murdered or deliberately starved to death. For this heavy toll, PAC received 4,000 tons of rubber.
In June 1911 Casement received a knighthood from George V in recognition of his humanitarian work. As part of his campaign to highlight the atrocities, he bought Ricudo and Omarino, two young rubber workers, to London, parading them before Britain’s elite as prime exhibits of imperialism gone rotten. He wrote to Patrick Pearse about the possibility of enrolling Omarino at Scoil Éanna, Pearse’s progressive, Irish-speaking school at The Hermitage in Rathfarnham. Pearse earnestly replied that he would certainly do his best to ‘make a success of the young barbarian’. However, when asked about London, the Amazonians remarked that it was ‘very beautiful … but the great river and the forest where the birds fly is more beautiful … one day we shall go back’. Casement returned to the Putumayo with both Amazonians later that same year.
His experiences in the Congo and the Amazon convinced him that colonialism was intrinsically evil. In 1913 he co-founded the Irish Volunteers and began raising money for the cause in the USA. In October 1914, he made his way secretly to Germany where he attempted to form an Irish Brigade from Irish prisoners willing to wear a German uniform and fight the British. However, just fifty-six men volunteered, and the Germans never took Casement’s brigade seriously.
Casement’s hopes to persuade the Germans to send an armed force to Ireland were also dashed but he did manage to arrange for a large consignment of rifles, machine guns, explosives and ammunition to be sent to Ireland on the Aud ahead of the Rising.
Casement travelled separately on board the German U-19, with Robert Monteith and Julian Bailey (who used the alias Sergeant Daniel Beverley in the Irish Brigade), departing from the German naval base at Heligoland, a small archipelago in the North Sea, and arriving on the north coast of Kerry five days later.
The three men opted to row ashore when it became apparent that neither the Aud nor the pilot boat were in Tralee Bay as planned. In the hours before dawn on Good Friday, they clambered out of U-19’s conning tower and boarded a collapsible rowing boat with some basic food, maps and sidearms. It took just over an hour – and a near fatal capsizing – for them to combat the dark, rolling ocean and land upon the open sandy beach of Banna Strand from which St Brendan the Navigator is said to have sailed in another age.
At length, they drew up in the old rath at Currahane (now called Casement’s Fort) near Ardfert, where the exhausted Casement lay down to rest while the other two sought help. Montieth managed to evade capture and inform Austin Stack of Casement’s arrival, while Bailey made it to Tralee, where he was arrested the following day. However, locals who had watched them come ashore alerted the local RIC, and early in the afternoon, before the Kerry Volunteers could get to him, Casement was arrested, ultimately being charged with treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown.
Casement’s trial (pictured right) was one of the most controversial of its time. The solicitor George Gavan Duffy was elbowed out of his law firm for agreeing to defend him. At a pivotal moment during the trial, the British authorities leaked a number of stories describing homosexual encounters that were alleged to have come from private journals written by Casement. The so-called Black Diaries were part of a campaign to turn public sentiment against him. The fifty-one-year-old was hanged by John Ellis and his assistants at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August.
On 9 April 1916, the steamer Aud (above) sailed from the Baltic port of Lübeck, bound for the south-west coast of Ireland. Built in Hull, Yorkshire, and initially called SS Castro, the steamer had been seized by the Imperial German Navy at the start of the war and renamed Libau. On the Casement expedition, she adopted the guise of a Norwegian timber carrier called SS Aud-Norge. As well as twenty-two crew, the Aud carried 20,000 rifles, including modern Lee Enfields and Mausers, along with ten light machine guns, 1 million rounds of ammunition and 400 kilogrammes of explosives. Reserve-Lieutenant Karl Spindler, a quarry owner’s son from Cologne, was the man entrusted with bringing Casement’s armaments to Ireland. Over the course of eleven days, he skippered the SS Aud-Norge from the Baltic to Tralee Bay.
The ship evaded patrols by the British 10th Cruiser Squadron, and weathered two violent storms off Rockall to reach Tralee Bay on Thursday 20 April. However, the plan to transfer the cargo to the Irish Volunteers fell apart due to a combination of bad luck, poor planning and communication breakdown. In Kerry Austin Stack, a former secretary of the Kerry GAA County Board and commandant of the Kerry Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, was entrusted with the task of meeting the Aud, unloading the weapons and distributing the arms. However, he was not expecting the ship until Easter Saturday so when Captain Spindler sailed into Tralee Bay two days earlier, there was no one there to receive his cargo, and he had no way of contacting the local Volunteers.
In fact, the Volunteers had an ambitious plan to establish communication with the arms ship. Assuming the Aud would arrive on Saturday, a three-man unit left Dublin on Good Friday and made their way south to Killarney, Co. Kerry, where they were picked up by Limerick Volunteers Thomas McInerney and Sammy Windrim. The plan was for them men to drive to Valentia Island and seize control of the wireless station. Having taken the station, the men were to alert the Royal Navy that the German Imperial Navy was about to invade Scotland, thus generating much confusion among the ships patrolling the coast of south-west Ireland. They would simultaneously establish contact with the Aud and guide her and her cargo in to meet Austin Stack’s Volunteers waiting on the Kerry shore.
McInerney was the chauffeur for Con Keating, Charlie Monaghan and Dan Sheehan that fateful evening. Keating hailed from Cahirsiveen and had served as a radio officer on various ships, while Monaghan was a wireless installation expert. Sheehan had worked at the War Office and knew the vital Admiralty codes. On the journey from Killarney to Valentia, McInerney tragically took a wrong turn in the dark and drove off the pier at Ballykissane, near Killorglin. The driver escaped, but his three passengers drowned in the River Laune, becoming the first casualties in the 1916 Rising. McInerney was arrested shortly afterwards and following the Rising was transferred to the Frongoch prison camp in North Wales. Upon his release, he rejoined the IRA. He was accidentally killed in Co. Tipperary in 1922.
Even if these Volunteers had succeded in taking the Valentia station, they would have been too late to save the situation, as earlier on that same Good Friday, the Aud had been trapped in Tralee bay by a blockade of British ships. British Naval Intelligence had intercepted messages between Clan na Gael and the German ambassador in America concerning the ship’s journey and had been on the lookout for her. While the Aud was being escorted towards the naval base at Cobh (then Queenstown), Karl Spindler instructed his crew to scuttle the ship at the entrance to Cork Harbour, where her remains lie to this day.
Having scuttled the ship, Spindler and his crew were briefly interned on Spike Island in Cork Harbour, before being transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in England for the remainder of the war. Spindler subsequently moved to the USA, where he embarked on a lecture tour, speaking of his epic trip to Ireland and his connections with the Easter Rising. He died in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1951.