This morning I called into the Tipperary village of Kilsheelan where the late Joe Hanrahan lived. Joe was one of the most remarkable people we met during the Vanishing Ireland project and went on to enjoy a good deal of local celebrity as the cover star of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. Poor Joe had a sad finale, when his house burned down in November 2015. The site is now a fine grassy lawn but there is also a bench to Joe’s memory at the crossroads in the village centre. Walking past his vanished home, I recalled our lovely experience of meeting him as he took us back through his life and told us of his time as a farm labourer and trap driver. This is Joe’s story.
For the first eighty-one years of his life Joe Hanrahan did a pretty good job of keeping his eminence relatively confined. Sure, most people who lived in and around the Suir-side town of Kilsheelan knew him. The fellow with the wild hair and the sharp, affable eyes, always standing out by the gate of his cottage, dog at heel, raising his stick in friendly salutation at the motorcars passing him by. His face had a countenance that made people smile.
That’s why we couldn’t resist putting him on the cover of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. It made him something of a celebrity. Across the parish, the county, the province, the country … the poor man even had groupies calling into him from the faraway USA before the first year was out. And yet, I’m assured he adored it, that his unexpected latter-day fame was a source of great pleasure to him, which is in itself a tremendous consoling pleasure to me.
I first set eye on Joe Hanrahan, standing by that same gate, back in the early days of 2011. I was on a grand tour of Ireland at the time with my friend, the photographer James Fennell. Having united on two successful volumes of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, we were voyaging through Munster in pursuit of more wonderful old timers to charm and enlighten us with their unspoiled spirit of the old world. The phone rang and it was a close pal with a keen understanding of the essence of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ project. She explained how she had lined up a very strong contender for us and suggested we make a b-line for Kilsheelan.
Within a few forgotten hours, we were seated inside Joe’s house, listening to his life story. Here’s how his story subsequently ran in the third volume:
When Joe left school at the age of twelve, the Second World War was three years old and, across the Irish Sea, Britain was practically the only other part of Western Europe that had not fallen to Fascists of one form or another. Churchill’s people needed a lot of things to survive. Faith, courage, fortune, resilience … and rabbits.
The rabbit trade between Ireland and Britain was massive in the early 1940s. And life for the bunnies who lived alongside the banks of the River Suir in County Tipperary became singularly less promising when Mrs. Prendergast, the Kilsheelan postmistress, began her conquest of the area.
‘She used to get loads of maybe four of five hundred rabbits at a time,’ recalls Joseph. ‘She had a pony and cart and I was her driver. We went all around County Waterford, gathering rabbits up from all the farmers. The rabbits were caught in traps beforehand. We’d put the carcasses onto crates and then she’d ship them all across to England. They lived on rabbits in England during the war.’
Mrs. Prendergast paid Joseph half a crown a week to drive her around the county, as well as her twice-weekly trips into Clonmel town. ‘Things were poor enough around here that time,’ he says. And jobs were ‘scarce’, so he was thankful for the work. Besides which, anything was better than school. ‘Oh Christ stop,’ he says. ‘I didn’t like school. Oh God, I didn’t. The teacher was fine but he was very hard. He knew how to work the cane.’
Joseph’s father Thomas was a ploughman who harrowed fields all around the area with a pair of workhorses. Joseph was the seventh of eight children who all grew up in the same house where he lives today. Also living there were his parents and his grandfather Thomas Hanrahan who died in his 75th year. ‘We got kind of squashed all right,’ he chuckles. ‘But I lived here from when I was very small until I was grown up.’
He strikes a match with his fingers and lights up a Sweet Afton. He casts the match into the open fire around which his living room is focused. Timber from the woods of the nearby Gurteen Kilsheelan estate is piled optimistically either side of the fireplace, an axe gleaming in the nearby darkness. But, despite the cold day, he has not lit the fire yet. Along the mantelpiece above the fireplace is an impressive collection of cigarette lighters, gathered ever since he smoked his first cigarette at the age of twelve. Cigarettes and black pints, the source of enjoyment for so many of Ireland’s 20th century bachelors.
In the summers of his youth, Joseph’s once-nimble fingers explored the surrounding woodlands for fleshy vitamin-rich bilberries, known in these parts as hurts or, in Irish, fraochán. ‘We used to go any place and pick them and sell them for a couple of pence to the old postmistress. She’d send them off to England, with the rabbits!’ The bilberries were traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as Fraochán Sunday. They were also collected in August for Lughnasa, the first traditional harvest festival of the year, and the quality of the bilberries was considered a good way of predicting the quality of the other crops come the harvest. ‘But there’s no demand for hurts now’, says Joseph, ‘and the bushes have all been smothered.’
All of Joseph’s brothers and sisters married and emigrated to England. ‘So I was left alone,’ he says. ‘But I was never tempted to emigrate. I never got the idea into my head.’ In 1948, six years after he first started with Mrs. Prendergast, he took on a job as a labourer for a neighbouring farmer with a wage of a crown a week. ‘I was too young to be drinking at that time so the money lasted well,’ he laughs. ‘But then I got bigger and I started having a pint and the money became valuable!’ For the next half a century, Joseph worked all around the Kilsheelan area, ‘a bit here, a bit there, anywhere I could get a few bob.’ For nearly twenty years he was employed at the nearby Gurteen estate to look after their cattle and poultry.
Joseph never learned to drive a car but rode a bicycle with confidence and reckons he could ride a horse too, ‘but badly’. The farthest he has travelled is Dublin, to which he once journeyed by train to watch Tipperary win the All-Ireland. He also used to frequent Thurles for the Munster Final, particularly savouring those occasions when Tipperary beat Cork. ‘We used to say Cork beat and the hay saved,’ he says wistfully.
As a youth Joseph hurled ‘for the craic’, although he dismisses the notion that he was ever a sporty type. He also used to be something of a card shark, flipping out winning hands of 25s in Sullivan’s pub in Kilsheelan. ‘But the money got bigger and then you’re gambling so I got out of it,’ says he sagely. Whilst he has occasionally been to the coursing competitions at nearby Ballyglasheen, Joseph was never one to wager his money foolishly, ‘not on man, dog or horse’. Instead he derives considerable pleasure from ceilidh music. ‘I don’t play and I can’t sing but I love it,’ says he. ‘I wouldn’t give tuppence for anything else I hear on the wireless except ceilidh.’
Joseph has always lived a quiet life, at ease with a newspaper, a cigarette and, so long as it’s ceilidh time, a radio. He often sits on the bench by the crossroads in Kilsheelan, peaky hat over his eyes, watching the world whizz by. A dog called Blacky is by his side and Joseph endeavours to walk him every day, irrespective of weather.
‘I’ve seen a lot of changes’, he says. ‘But for the good or the bad I don’t know which. People say they are happier now than they were but I don’t believe they are. Money is not all. In the old days you could go out in the morning and pick up an odd job. But now you won’t get work like that anywhere. It’s a very different world.’
After his portrait graced the cover of ‘Vanishing Ireland – Reflections of Our Changing Times’, Joe’s fame grew swift. The local community united and gave him a clock by way of a congratulatory present. And then the strangers began to arrive, looking to talk to him about rabbits and bilberries and ceilidh music. Some just wanted his autograph. One visitor from Pittsburgh, snapped a photo of him holding up her signed copy of ‘Vanishing Ireland’ outside Sullivan’s Pub last April, and spoke of him as a picture of health and joy.
When I learned of Joe’s tragic death on a Monday morning in November 2015, I posted an obituary to him on the Vanishing Ireland facebook page. It clocked 1000 likes in 24 hours as well as 200 plus comments. Many were by people who knew him, recalling a kind, friendly character who loved pottering about in his yard betwixt his chickens and his dogs. The granddaughter of one of his friends told how she would miss ‘your voice grumbling at me, or you waving your stick at me, giving out.’
Another told how she had moved into a new housing estate behind Joe’s house nine years ago. ‘There were still diggers and big machinery everywhere. Joe was standing in his driveway, looking back at it, somewhat lost and bewildered, scratching his head. I remember thinking how sad for him to have all the townies come in and invade his village. [It was] practically his back yard’.
Joe Hanrahan was a wonderful man and it was an exceptional honour to have him as a cover star.
By 8 November 1918, 100 years ago today, it was so nearly over. The war in Western Europe, I mean. Battles would still rage across the planet in the coming years, Ireland included, but the Big War, the Great War, was nearly at an end … 4 years, 3 months, and 16 days after it had started.
That long, brutal, bloody, futile war, so crammed full of sadness and twists and horror, was one of the most cataclysmic events in human history.
A century later, we are still grappling with its repercussions.
We have recalled so many events since the Centenary commemorations began … sometimes I feel as if I’ve been living a dual existence between the present day and a second life that took place a century ago.
First we marked the civil war that almost broke out between Unionist and Nationalist here in Ireland until Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo – and, in doing so, detonated the Pandora’s Box that was to become the Armageddon of the First World War.
Within weeks, the Germans had launched their astonishingly brutal invasion of neutral Belgium as the Kaiser’s army set its sights on Paris.
I think of the Wexford-born Dame Josephine, one of the Benedictine nuns at the Irish convent in Ypres, who, in her eighties, beseeched the Heavens as the German army rumbled ever closer, “Dear St Patrick, as you once chased the serpents and venomous reptiles out of Ireland, please now chase the Germans out of Belgium.” In her youth, Dame Josephine had known nuns who lived through the French Revolution; she would not survive the exhausting flight from Ypres to the coast.
It’s so confusing trying to understand the Great War – all of the alliances and ententes, the battle fronts and troop movements and military strategies … as all of those armies – vast and small – rushed to borders across Europe, north, south, east and west. And then the long slow grinding trudge … the relentless trench warfare, which – from an Irish perspective – led to so many grim battles on the Western Front – the Marne, the Somme, Cambrai, Amiens, Passchendaele …
The No-Man’s Land of machine gun nests and barbed wire entanglements, of artillery shells and pom-poms and Maxim guns and flamethrowers and gas masks and trenches caked in mud and blood. The clouds of poison gas that, for instance, spilled into the Irish-occupied trenches of Hulluch in France in April 1916, and killed more Irishmen than died across all of Ireland during the Easter Rising that very same week.
4,000 Irishmen died die in the bleak heat of Gallipoli. We have remembered Gallipoli – Suvla Bay and Seddelbahr – and all those forgotten fronts – Salonika, Serbia, East Africa, Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula, Mesopotamia … it goes on.
We have remembered too the poignant moments – the Christmas truce, the football matches and Silent Night, Stille Nacht, drifting on the winter winds from trench to trench. The nurses and orderlies doing what they could to treat the casualties of war and, by 1918, trying to contend with a new horror, the Spanish Flu influenza which would kill more people than the war itself.
We have recalled the war at sea – naval battles like Jutland and the U-boat campaign – the German submarines that prowled around the Irish coast sinking troop ships and merchant vessels and passenger ships like the Lusitania and the RMS Leinster.
We have looked to the air above us – there’s a memorial in the North Transept beside me to the Royal Air Force, honouring Irish air aces such as George McElroy and Mick Mannock who gave their lives taking on men like Baron von Richtofen, the Red Baron, as a new age of dogfights and aerial bombardments began.
I might add that on 10 November 1918, Erskine Childers very nearly blew up Berlin. The novelist, who became such a stalwart supporter of Eamon de Valera during the war of Independence and Civil War, was working as an Intelligence Officer with the RAF at this time. He was one of the brains who masterminded a major air raid — the first of its kind — which was scheduled to take place on Berlin on 10 November. The attack was postponed for 24 hours on account of bad weather. That was one of the greatest blessings Berlin has ever had because at 11am the following morning, the Armistice was signed and the Great War ended.
We have remembered so much of the war. And in between all that, our own commemorations of 1916 and the rise of Sinn Fein who swept to victory in the General Election 100 years ago this very month … as a new battle for independence began in this small nation.
In 2014, the Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin was commissioned to design a memorial to the First World War for St Patrick’s Cathedral. They conceived the Tree of Remembrance, a lonesome wrought iron tree, ensnared in barbed wire, onto which visitors to the Cathedral could pin paper leaves, inscribed with messages of support and love for all those who suffer from conflict, past and present. The novelist Jennifer Johnston wrote and ‘barbed’ the first leaf. Every evening all the leaves were removed, ahead of the coming day, and placed in a box. By the autumn of 2018, over 220,000 leaves had been collected. By coincidence, this approximated to the number of Irish thought to have served in the war. To mark the Armistice on 11 November 2018, St Patrick’s brilliantly selected 36,000 of those leaves – each one representing an Irish man or Irish woman who died in the Great War – and threaded them them through long strands of fishing line that now hang down from the Cathedral’s roof, recalling all those who died in the war, serving as soldiers, sailors, pilots, nurses, engineers, medical corps, veterinary corp … many wearing the uniforms of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and, needless to say, there were Irishmen in the German army too.
Statistics are hard to grasp but a measure of the First World War’s violence can be seen in the casualty figures for the final days before the Armistice. 6600 lives were lost in the last three days of the war, 6600 men killed during the final push across the River Meuse. 11,000 were killed or wounded during the last morning of fighting. That’s more than all casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day in the Second World War, the difference being that the Allies had already won the war when all those soldiers died on 11 November 1918. The last British soldier to die was Private George Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was killed at Mons (where he had also fought in 1914) at 9.30am, just 90 minutes before the ceasefire.
On the Western Front alone, it works out that over 2,000 men died every single day of the war. The French lost 27,000 men in a single day. That’s the entire population of Kilkenny. At the Somme, 4,000 Irishmen died in a single day. On Bride Street, which borders St Patrick’s Cathedral, 31 men from the street were killed in the war.
All told, between 15 and 19 million men, women and children, lost their lives in the war, because of the war. And think of all the war widows and war orphans whose future lives were so harshly shaped by the conflict. Or the untold thousands of veteans who died in the decades after the war because of the war, who died of their wounds and the drink they drank to forget all those weeks and months spent wading through those poisonous trenches, watching their fellow men being blown apart in circumstances we cannot imagine. Thank goodness our understanding and empathy for what war does to a person has come on so much in 100 years.
As I say, these numbers are too overwhelming to get our heads around, but when you walk through the graveyards of the Western Front, you begin to get a sense of just how intense it was. At the Tyne Cot cemetery in Flanders, I was entirely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all when I walked alone down a path through line after line of those proud white headstones, with a wall blocking the view to my left. I thought I might have become immune to all the death by then but when the wall ended, I looked to my left and I slumped … because, behind the wall, the field of graves was replicated again and again as far as I could see, like the saddest dream ever dreamt. Endless rows of white upright slabs, framed at one end by the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ upon which were written the names of tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never identified.
And for what? To fulfil the ambitions of a bad run of egotistical monarch’s and war-hungry generals? That’s too simplistic, I know, but 100 years on, you have to wonder how it would have played out if there had been more enlightened leadership at the time.
And more fool them. Because when the Great War finally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and when the world stopped to count the dead and the maimed, the shattered families and burning cities, most of those empires had fallen … Imperial Russia was no longer an empire, its entire Royal family murdered. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empires – they were all gone too. Britain, once the world’s impeccable creditor, was on the cusp of revolution and now hugely indebted to the banks of New York. Was that what they fought for?
I think of the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin better known as Woodbine Willie, so named for his propensity of handing out Woodbine cigarettes to the wounded and dying in No Man’s land. He won a Military Cross at Passchendaele and went on to become one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists. ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind,’ he declared. ‘I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war.’
I think of Flora Sandes, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman from Kerry, a veritable tomboy if ever there was one … she went out to Serbia as a Red Cross nurse and then, by dint of her sharp-shooting and excellent gait in the saddle, fetched up as a sergeant major in the Serbian Army, marching through the icy mountains of Albania, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Bulgarians – for we were at war with the Bulgarians too. She won the Star of Karaðorðe, the highest decoration of the Serbian Military. ‘I never loved anything so much in my life’, she said of her time in the army. ‘I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of it. The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ And spare a thought for her commander, Colonel Dimitrije Milic. He was so shocked by the sight of his former sergeant major in a dress and hat that he threw his hands in the air and ordered her to put on a uniform without delay.
I think of those who did not join up, the conscientious objectors, who were handed White Feathers and castigated as cowards and traitors until they too threw themselves into the insanity of war. And I think of the pacifist Archie Brockway who received so many white feathers that he turned them into a fan.
There is tragedy in every family, in every graveyard, but the Great War was a different type of tragedy. After an unprecedented breakdown of diplomacy, we launched a ferocious civil war between our species, an existential assault by the human race on the human race.
A huge number of people in this country today were defined by what happened to their families a hundred years ago. My mother lost two great uncles; the last sons of their line. My father lost a great uncle at the Western Front; his grandfather returned home battle-scarred like the artist William Orpen and, like Orpen, he did not live for very long afterwards. I have no doubt that many of you who are reading these words also mourned the premature death of men and women in your families 100 years ago. The ripples of pain and tragedy and loss and hurt and heartache affected the next generation and the next and the next, right down to the present day. That is why we must remember. Because we are who we are because of that war.
In the Ireland of my youth, the history books seemed to suggest that the only wars that the Irish ever fought were to break the shackles of Britannia’s rule. I think we have matured immensely since the Centenary commemorations began. We have moved on. The silence is over. We need not agree with the reasons for the war – but surely we can now openly and freely acknowledge all those Irish men and Irish women who served. And, as the centenary of the Armistice approaches, it is right that we remember all of those who lost their lives in that hideous conflict.
Perhaps, by remembering them, we can also acknowledge in our hearts and minds how fortunate we are with all of our present-day creature comforts, and do what we can to end the unacceptable situation of so many souls across the world today who continue to suffer from the barbarity of war.
[A longer version of the above formed the basis of a talk I delivered at the launch of ‘Fallen’ in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 1 November 2018]
The sinking of the RMS Leinster, just one month before the end of the First World War, remains the single greatest maritime disaster on the Irish Sea. At least 550 people died when a German submarine sank the mailboat on 10 October 1918. The centenary will be the key historical event commemorated by the Irish state in 2018.
There were 22 men in the ship’s Postal Sorting Quarters when the first torpedo struck. Most were Dubliners. It was standard practice on a mailboat like RMS Leinster to ‘sort’ mail as the ship voyaged the seventy miles between Kingstown (as Dun Laoghaire was then called) and the Welsh port of Holyhead. On this morning, there were over 250 sacks of mail to go through.
The banter would have been free flowing among the postal sorters. They knew each other well. Together they had gone on strike the previous April as…
Kathleen Lynam of Abbeylands, Castledermot, County Kildare, who died on Monday 13 August 2018, was a tremendous friend to ‘Vanishing Ireland’ photographer James Fennell all his life. As well as being one of the loveliest people I have ever met, Kathleen was also among the very first to be photographed by James for the project, alongside her late cousin Kathleen Keogh. This is their story from the very first ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book.
‘At the end of it all, I’m just a jackeen from the Coombe,’ says Kathleen Keogh. The words elicit a hearty chuckle from her younger cousin, Kathleen Lynam (nee Keogh). The two Kathleens have known each other since the summers of their youth when the jackeen was dispatched south to spend some time with her Keogh kinsfolk in the Wicklow Mountains. The Keoghs were blacksmiths and their forge stood just outside the County Wicklow village of Kiltegan.
John Keogh, the man of the house, died young in 1934 and Bridget, his widow, was left with two small sons, Jack and Peter, and a little daughter, Kathleen. Bridget was a capable woman. She got on with the show and raised her children – and their visiting cousin – as best she could.
‘It’s amazing to think of her now,’ says Kathleen Lynam of her mother. ‘And what she did for us. It was a different world. There was no taps, no sinks, no nothing. We only had a few oil lamps. We done our homework by candlelight. We got our water from the well and we ate our meals on stools. We always had porridge for breakfast, big plates of porridge, with lots of milk.’
Bridget kept a vegetable garden and excelled at making bread and current cakes. (How about starting the quotation here: ‘Once a week she would walk the seven miles to Baltinglass with a basket on he arm and come home with some beef. (and delete this ‘) ‘There wouldn’t be any luxuries, mind you,’ laughs Kathleen. ‘But there might be colcannon. Potatoes and cabbage all mixed together, make a well in the middle and put a big lump of butter in it … ah, we used to love that!’
Kiltegan was a happy place to be a child. They played road-skittles and pitch ’n’ toss. They milked cows and hid in the woods. They rowed the lakes of Humewood in ‘leaky boats’. When they got out on the lake, Kathleen Lynam – ‘the only girl amongst eight or nine lads’ – would be given ‘an auld rusty bean tin’ and instructed to fish all the water out. ‘I got no sympathy,’ she says. ‘I was just a skivvy.’
When they weren’t on the lake they were clambering up the old Round Tower. Its rotten stairs still make her shudder today. ‘I don’t know how we ever made it to the top.’ Although raised as Catholics, the Keogh children were not discouraged from mingling with their Protestant neighbours. ‘We had as much fun with them as we did with anybody,’ she says. ‘And that’s the way it should be. I was never able to understand why people made such a thing about the difference. We’re all talking to the same God.’
In time, Kathleen’s brother Peter took on the family forge. ‘The Keoghs were always blacksmiths,’ he says. ‘They shod every horse that ever passed through the Glen of Imaal.’ They were ‘tenant blacksmiths’, or farriers, to the Hume family. They paid their rent by shoeing the Hume’s hunters and they made their living shoeing everybody else. Much of the metalwork at Humewood was crafted here – gates, fences, fire-grids, grain forks and such like. Peter says his grandfather was ‘an exceptionally contrary old man’. ‘No one could sledge right for him – except the wife. She had to do all the sledging for him!’
Most forges have a clay floor. The Keogh’s one was made from wood so that the draught horses could come in and crush the coal nuggets into smaller, more heat sensitive chips.
The wooden floor had an added bonus. ‘Nobody had electricity then – and a warm house could be scarce enough.’ With the fire burning, the Forge offered heath, light – and entertainment. ‘A lad with an accordion would get the dancing going,’ recalls Kathleen, who hosted a dance here after her marriage in 1949. ‘We’d only ever have half-sets; there wasn’t room for a full set. But that was where all the courting was done!’
And it was done without drink. The Keoghs are Pioneers. They took the pledge at their confirmation and have never tasted wine nor stout in their lives. ‘I never tried to stop my own children from drinking,’ says Kathleen, talking about her ten children, ‘although I have one granddaughter now who is a Pioneer too.’
Dancing at the forge faded out in the 1950s with the emergence of purpose-built venues like the Parish Hall and Village Hall. The local priest was also eager to keep a close eye on his courting flock. In the 1970s, the GAA revitalised set dancing with their SCOR programme. A teacher came up from Wexford to remind everyone how it was done. Today, set dancing takes place in the Kiltegan Town Hall every Tuesday night and the Blacksmith’s Reel is still among the more popular tunes.
Kathleen was predeceased by her husband Lar and son Peter. Deeply regretted by her loving daughters Mary, Kay, Lily and Anna, sons Jim, Larry, John, Albert and Willie, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, relatives and a large circle of friends. She was laid to rest in Crookstown Cemetery on 15 August 2018.
Every time I walked back to my apartment, I went a different way. I’d learnt that it doesn’t matter which way you go in Monte Carlo. You’ll still get there. So long as you know the approximate location of the place you’re heading, all you need to do is fasten onto an angle and walk with dogged persistence in that direction. You may have to walk through a tunnel or a shopping mall, or whoosh up a cliff encased in a metal box, or clamber up a thousand steps. But you will get there.
Apart from once when I found myself face to face with an elderly lady in a pinstriped suit who was filling a bright red kettle. She smiled, even as her eyelashes fluttered wearily. I was evidently not the first to spin off piste and wander into her kitchen.
My preferred commute from my quarters in Beausoleil to the Princess Grace Irish Library took me down by the Eglise St. Devote and westwards around the bay to the ancient steps running up from Fort Antoine. And then, ruddy-cheeked and breathless, I would pile into the Princess Grace Irish Library and do my best to distract those therein from whatever tasks they were otherwise engaged in.
On my final night in Monte Carlo, I was reflectively rambling through the streets when I came to a halt by a fountain. I about turned and found my gaze cascading over a series of further fountains towards a massive building that shone bright and golden in the dark blue sky. And lo it occurred to me that despite all the time I had spent in Monaco, I had yet to visit the Casino de Monte Carlo. I recalled a text message from my brother-in-law a week earlier requesting me to place €10 on black 29 for him.
I returned to my apartment, donned a jacket and tie and ambled on down, a solitary but crisp €100 note secreted in my wallet. Aside from a drunken soiree in Aberdeen, I had never been to a Casino before and I was suitably wary about my immediate future. I figured I’d play Roulette and play it safe, €10 on red, €10 on evens, that sort of thing.
There was only one Roulette table in operation when I arrived and not a seat to be had. The silver ball was already hop-skipping around the colours. And I swear on all the Gods that have been and gone that as I watched, it popped into black 29.
So that tripped me up because I thought ah, well, black 29 ain’t going to show up again tonight. So I went to watch some Blackjack for a while.
Then I noted a second Roulette table opening up. I cruised over, waving my €100 bill at the croupier, feeling kind of cool. He looked at my banknote as if it were a soiled nappy and counselled me that it was €200 minimum on his table. While I was recovering my composure, he span the wheel. And the darned ball popped into black 29. I have no reason to kid you, and I assure you I kid you not.
I ended up watching an Italian guy who looked like me, and his pretty moll, as they blew €100 on the Blackjack, €25 a round. They probably got 12 rounds out of it all told, winning and losing, hugging and shrieking, moaning and frowning, before they realized their 100 bucks was gone and they stumbled off a little dazed.
And I reckoned that’s exactly what would happen to me. So I returned to my apartment and as I swirled a nightcap to celebrate my final night in Monaco, I figured I was doing pretty well because not only had I enjoyed a formidable month in the sun, and written a massive chunk of my book, but I still had a crisp €100 note in my wallet.
Michael ‘Ducksie’ Walsh, arguably the greatest singles handball player of all time, died aged fifty on 4 August 2016. Just a couple of weeks earlier the Kilkenny man defeated the then No. 1, Eoin Kennedy, in the final of the open singles at his home court of Talbot’s Inch. I was fortunate enough to meet Ducksie in 2010 to interview him for the book ‘Sporting Legends of Ireland’, for which James Fennell took the photograph that accompanies this post. The story I wrote about our encounter follows below in tribute to an incredible sportsman.
One of the most unusual citizens of Kilkenny City during the early 20th century was Ellen Bischoffsheim, the daughter of one of Europe’s wealthiest bankers. In 1881, this London-born Jewish heiress married the Earl of Desart and settled amid the sumptuous surroundings of Desart Court near Callan, Co. Kilkenny. In 1911, ‘Countess Ellen’, as she was known, became President of the Kilkenny branch of the Gaelic League. In 1922, she was appointed to the first Seanad of the Irish Free State. Her appointment stemmed from her good works in Kilkenny, primarily the establishment of the model village of Talbot’s Inch, with its woodworking and woollen industries.
One of the Countess of Desart’s other less well-known legacies was the construction of the Talbots Inch Handball Club in which was opened by President W.T. Cosgrave in July 1928. Indeed, the club has sound claims to be one of the oldest, and certainly the most successful in Ireland.
Six of Ireland’s national handball champions were created upon the hallowed grounds of Talbot’s Inch. However, none can hold a match to Ducksie Walsh.[i] At the age of 44, he is able to confound most statisticians by stating that he won 38 All-Ireland titles in the space of sixteen years. The way this works is straightforward.
Handball is played on a choice of two courts, some 60×30, some 40×20. There is an All-Ireland championship for both and Ducksie has single-handedly won 23 of them. And then of course there is the doubles championship for both, which accounts for Ducksie’s other 15 titles.
One of Ducksie’s favourite partners has been Kilkenny hurling icon DJ Carey who, when not whacking sliotars through the air at Croker, is also a dab hand at handball. DJ partnered Ducksie to three national titles. ‘He never beat me though’, smiles Ducksie, standing outside his furniture warehouse in Callan. Ducksie, it should be said, has also been a finalist in two World Handball Championships.
The Walsh family have been in Kilkenny for many eons. Their traditional demesne is the area known as ‘The Butts’, set beneath the Gothic shadow of St. Canice’s parish church. In medieval times, this was where the Earl of Ormonde’s archers practiced with bows and arrows, using mounds of earth as their targets. Ducksie’s grandfather Paddy Walsh was born here in the late 19th century and was employed as head gardener at Newtown House, one of Kilkenny’s big houses.
His other grandfather, William Burke, ran a successful drapery store in the city for years and it is through the Burke’s that Ducksie discovered his passion for handball.
‘I was inspired by my first cousin Billy Burke’, he says, referring to another All-Ireland handball champion from Talbot’s Inch. Young Ducksie, or Michael as he was then, frequently watched his cousin play. At the age of nine, he began playing at the two Corporation courts down beside St Canice’s. It was winner stays on and, with money up for grabs, Ducksie quickly became utterly hooked on the sport. ‘I’d be there all day Sunday’, he says. ‘And I’d come home with a good few bob’.
He then started playing at the indoor courts in Talbot’s Inch. At the age of 10, he won his first All-Ireland (under-12) medal. Ducksie’s hand-eye coordination caught the eye of the late coaching legend Tommy O’Brien. In 1981, O’Brien selected the 14-year-old for the first Irish team who participated in the US national junior championships. The duo became close friends and in 2001, Ducksie gave his newly won senior medal to O’Brien in appreciation for all his support.
He quickly learned that the key to success is practice. ‘I trained fierce hard’, he says. ‘And I always have. Six days a week, from two to two and a half hours each time. If you can stick with that, it pays off’. He learned how to blast his opponents off the court with a miscellany of superb serving, exquisite passing and merciless kill shots.
‘To win is the thing. I might tell my wife and friends that it’s only a game at the end of the day. But, if you’re in the All-Ireland, you’re there because you want to win.’
‘Its not about strength, or how fast you can get around’, he counsels. ‘It’s about technique. I write with my left hand and I brush my teeth with my left hand and I hit a hammer with my left hand, but I serve with my right and I made sure my right was as good as my left.’
Ducksie won his first senior All-Ireland title in 1985 when he was 18. ‘And I went unbeaten for thirteen years’, he says matter-of-factly. ‘Then I was injured but I played anyway and I was beaten and that was the end of that run.’
Christened Michael, he was by now much better known as Ducksie. ‘A lot of Walsh’s in Kilkenny are called Ducksie’, he says, but he is at a loss as to why. ‘My father was called Ducksie and my brothers were called Ducksie and when I started winning, they had me down as Ducksie too. And so the day I got married, even the priest called me Ducksie!’
Ducksie’s father Sean worked as a security guard, while his mother Vera raised him and his seven siblings in the Butts. After he left school, Ducksie became an apprentice cabinetmaker for Bill Rafter of Deane Furniture [sic]. He then spent eight years with Paddy Sinnott before opening his own business, manufacturing and installing kitchen and bedroom interiors.[ii]
By 2001, Ducksie was struggling with alcoholism, sustaining his habit with the ritualistic drinking sessions that accompanied his every victory. One morning he awoke to see that the man in the mirror had a very battered face. He had no memory of its cause. As the doctors stitched his chin and patched up his eyes, he accepted his predicament, checked into the Aiseiri Treatment Centre in Co. Tipperary and began following the 12-steps. Seven years later, he remains dry.
Aiseiri suggested he use his handballing skill to help his regeneration. In August 2006, he became World Over-40 champion at the Handball World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. The following year, aged 41, he earned considerable applause when he returned to contest the 2007 All-Ireland final. In 2009, he and his partner Michael Clifford narrowly missed out on a place in the All-Ireland senior doubles final. He still trains on four or five nights a week, running, skipping, cycling, and is going strong at Masters level. ‘One of the great things about handball is that you can keep on playing forever.’
The game has become increasingly international and, with sixteen countries on board, including Papua New Guinea and Puerto Rico, this ancient Irish sport is looking gradually more assured of a place at the Olympic Games. It undoubtedly helps that the requirements are so rudimentary – three walls, a pair of hands and a small ball is a promising start.
Ducksie has also made his mark as a fund-raiser. In 2008, he orchestrated a 72-hour handball marathon which raised over €50,000 for the Aislinn Adolescent Addiction Centre in Ballyragget. In 2009, he joined forces with DJ, Noel Skehan and others for a charity walk up Croagh Patrick in aid of the Kilkenny O’Neill Centre for Cerebral Palsy. He has also organised a series of Aiseiri benefit tournaments. His son Dylan won the Under 15s handball in Los Angeles in 2010. ‘He has it alright’, says Ducksie. ‘But like every young fellow in Kilkenny he also likes to hurl’.
[i] The club can boast of having produced players that have won over 100 Senior All Ireland medals. As well as Ducksie’s 38 titles, the club was home to Joe Gilmartin who won 24 senior crowns.
[ii] Michael ‘Ducksie’ Walsh, Kitchen & Bedroom Interiors, manufacturers and installers of Fitted Kitchens, Wardrobes, Sitting Room Units, Dressers and Free Standing Units for our customers. (http://michaelducksiewalsh.com/)
[iii] In 2012, I recieved an email from Tom Carew which included the following details: “My late maternal grandfather, Michael Davin, was the Countess of Desart’s Steward in Talbots Inch until she died in 1933 and very involved in Handball. he was born in South Tipperary 1869 and spent his life in Kilkenny. He was the first national Vice-President of the Irish Handball Council from his election in Croke Park in Jan, 1924 until 1929. Handball was organised under the GAA only from late 1922, starting with the GAA Leinster Council; he had been involved in the game long before that. He was also President of the Leinster Handball Council in that period [having been Secretary at the first Leinster Handball Council meeting on May 5, 1923], and its Vice-chair in 1930 before the Provincial Handball Councils were abolished from 1930 to 1950. He was also the first Chair of the Kilkenny County Handball Board from Nov 1922 [the first established in Leinster] to 1929, and Vice-Chair from 1936 to his death in Sept 1942 and while Chair, his London-born employer, the first Jewish parliamentarian in Ireland, a Senator from 1922 to her death in 1933, Ellen Lady Desart, President of the Club, gave a site for the Talbot’s Inch Alley, which was one of the few covered alleys in that era, and opened in July 1928 by President William T Cosgrave.”
In the last days of July 1918, Ireland lost two of its foremost World War One air-aces, Mick Mannock and George McIrish McElroy. In memory of the two men, this is their story, extracted from my book, ‘The Glorious Madness.’
It was during the farewell dinner for Gwil ‘Noisy’ Lewis in July 1918 that Mick Mannock pulled McElroy aside and gave his protégé an earful. ‘Don’t throw yourself away,’ he barked. ‘I hear you’re going down to the deck. Don’t do that. You’ll get shot down from the ground.’ Within ten days of that dinner, both pilots were dead, killed in two separate incidents, victims of the very ground fire Mannock had spoken of.[i]
Precise figures for which pilots won more aerial victories in the sky can become a matter of considerable dispute, but it is generally agreed that the top three World War One air aces from Britain and Ireland were Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock with at least 61 kills, James McCudden with 57 and George ‘McIrish’ McElroy with 47. All three were destined to die in the war.
All three men had strong Irish connections.
Mannock was born in Ireland to a mother from Cork. McCudden’s father was born in County Carlow. McElroy, who was born and raised in Dublin, was the son of a Roscommon man and his Westmeath-born wife.
Mick Mannock, the eldest of the three, was born at Ballincollig Barracks in County Cork on 24 May 1887. His mother, Julia O’Sullivan, grew up in the nearby village. In the summer of 1881, Julia befriended Edward Mannock, the son of a Fleet Street editor, who was serving as a corporal in the Royal Scots Greys, then stationed at Ballincollig. The couple, both Catholics, married the following spring. Five years later, after postings in Glasgow and Aldershot, the Mannocks returned to Ballincollig with two small children, Patrick and Jessica. Edward (‘Mick’), their third and youngest child, was born soon afterwards.
Mick’s father then left the army but, having drank his way through his army gratuity, he re-enlisted in 1893, becoming a trooper in the 5th Dragoon Guards. His family, including young Mick, accompanied him to India when the regiment was posted to Meerut. During his six years in India, Mick was nearly blinded in his left eye by an amoebic infestation. His father had a violent temper and a drink problem that worsened after his service in the South African War. Shortly after his return from the war in 1901, Edward Mannock deserted his family and vanished.
While Julia moved to Canterbury, young Mick Mannock headed for the old Saxon town of Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, where he found work in a grocery and then in a post office. By 1911, he was a skilled telephone engineer. Always outspoken, he became a passionate socialist and was elected secretary of the Wellingborough branch of the Independent Labour Party. Proud of his Irish ancestry, he supported the ILP’s call for Home Rule for Ireland.
When the war broke out, Mick Mannock was 1,500 miles from London, laying cables in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) for the National Telephone Company. Shortly after the Ottoman Empire formally joined the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was arrested by the Turkish authorities. After several failed escape attempts, he was sent to a concentration camp at Stamboul in the heart of Constantinople. He remained there until April 1915, when he was repatriated in an exchange of prisoners.
Inspired by the exploits of air ace Albert Ball, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in August 1916. Life expectancy for wartime pilots was never great. Of 14,000 airmen killed in the war, more than half died while training. Mannock swiftly mastered the rudiments of flying, but his convoluted background did not immediately win him friends amongst the public-school educated elite who dominated the RFC. Lionel Blaxland, one of his fellow pilots, recalled Mannock as ‘a boorish know-all and we all felt that the quicker he got amongst the Huns, the better that would show him how little he knew’.
In the spring of 1917, Mannock was assigned to the RFC’s No 40 (‘Forty’) Squadron and given a Nieuport 17, a nimble French biplane fighter. Considered superior to any British plane of the time, it was particularly well suited to bursting observation balloons and low-level, hedge-hopping attacks on enemy spotters.
It took him several weeks to adjust to his new life. April 1917 was the most devastating month in the RFC’s short history. Two hundred and eleven aircrew were dead or missing and a further 108 had been taken prisoner. Such statistics inevitably played on pilots’ nerves and when Mannock repeatedly held back in flight patrols, some began to question the courage of a man who, at 29, was much older than most men in the squadron.
He was, by his own admission, frightened. At length, he took hold of his fear. On 7 May he scored his first hit when he shot down a German balloon. He would go on to become one of the most deadly fighter pilots on the Western Front. There is still considerable debate about just how many enemy aircraft he shot down, but the figure was at least 61 and could have been as high as 75.
The War Office in London warmly welcomed him to the fray, bedecking him with not one but three Distinguished Service Orders as well as a Military Cross and, ultimately, a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Mannock’s tally soon earned him the absolute respect of ‘Forty’ Squadron and he excelled as a patrol leader. He was one of the finest mentors in the RFC, which was to be a major plus for a curly-headed young Dubliner called George McElroy who arrived at ‘Forty’ in August 1917.
The McElroys were Protestant farmers from Kiltycreighton, just outside Boyle, County Roscommon. George Edward Henry McElroy was born in a Protestant school at Beaver Row on the banks of the River Dodder in Donnybrook, south Dublin, on 14 May 1893; his parents Samuel and Ellen had established the school shortly before his birth.[ii] George, the eldest of eight, grew up to be a particularly bright boy. From Beaver Row he went to the Educational Institute in Dundalk in 1906. Three years later he went to Mountjoy School, where he excelled at rugby and showed himself to be of a mathematical, mechanical mindset.
In 1912, he went to Rosse College, the Dublin business school on St Stephen’s Green, after which he went to work as a clerk in the civil service. Most of his summers were spent in Roscommon, where his uncle kept a large rowing boat for George and his siblings to indulge their passion for fly-fishing. Aged 21 when war broke out, he volunteered as a Despatch Rider on 13 September.[iii] He almost certainly brought his own motorcycle to the service, for which the army would have paid him. Just over two weeks later, he was one of 34 Despatch Riders who landed in France with the British Expeditionary Force, serving in the latter days of the Great Retreat from Mons.
On 8 April 1915, he was sent to the Cadet School at Bailleul to train as an officer and, just over four weeks later, 2nd Lieutenant McElroy went to the front line to join the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). During the ensuing battle of Ypres, he was nearly choked to death by one of the deadly clouds of mustard gas unleashed by the Germans.
McElroy was recuperating with his family in the Irish capital when the Easter Rising broke out. As a soldier, he was drafted in to put an end to the rebellion. Eight men from the Royal Irish Regiment were killed and 16 more were wounded, but McElroy apparently refused to fire on his fellow Irishmen. Fortunate to escape serious punishment, he was assigned to menial garrison duty for a short period.
On 1 June 1916, he gained entry as a Gentleman Cadet to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and relinquished his commission in the RIR. He graduated from Woolwich in February 1917 and joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant. By this time he had developed an infatuation with flight and, the same month, he began training at the Central Flying School in Upavon on the River Avon in Wiltshire.[iv]
In August 1917, just six weeks after he became a flying officer, McElroy joined the 10th Wing of ‘Forty’ Squadron at Bruay, west of Lens, where he was to be instructed by the now legendary Mick Mannock.[v]
It is not known how Mannock reacted to the 1916 Rising. It seems likely he would have empathised with the rebels and that he would have been duly impressed by McElroy’s refusal to fire upon them. In any event, the two Irishmen became friends. Mannock already had one ‘Mac’ in his squadron — a Scot called George McLanachan — so to simplify things, he rechristened McLanachan “McScottish” and McElroy became “McIrish”.[vi]
The rugby-loving, song-singing McElroy would go on to become the star of the mess, according to Gwil Lewis. However, his initial outings in the Nieuport biplane so beloved by Mannock did not suit. After wrecking two of these valuable fighters while landing, he was on the cusp of being sent home as a failure. Mannock intervened on his behalf and McElroy was given a single-seat SE5a fighter shortly before Christmas 1917. It was one of the quickest aircraft of the war; its top speed of 138 mph (222 km/h) was faster than any of its German rivals.[vii] This was the plane in which McElroy came into his own and racked up all 47 of his aerial victories.
On 28 December 1917, McElroy claimed his first victory at Drocourt-Vitry, while two other pilots from ‘Forty’ also scored hits. That night, the men stayed up late, with McElroy singing Irish ballads, accompanied by Mannock on his violin, while everyone knocked back the squadron’s signature cocktail, the ‘Ladykiller’, a concoction of whiskey, brandy, port and grenadine.
By January 1918, McElroy was soaring through the skies like ‘a terrier let loose in a rat-infested barn’. He shot down two German planes and, the following month, knocked out three enemy observation balloons in a 72-hour period.
January was also the month in which Mick Mannock was given eight weeks’ leave. He went to find his family in England but, to his horror, his mother had become an alcoholic and his sister Jessie was working as a prostitute. Unable to handle this situation, he persuaded the RFC to take him back early. In February, he was appointed Flight Commander of the newly formed No 74 (Training) Squadron in London, which he then took to France.
Mannock still had his sense of humour. He once took his squadron on a mission to bomb the Mess of the RFC’s No 1 Squadron at the Clairmarais aerodrome near Ypres. The bombs comprised 200 oranges. The pilots of No 1 retaliated with a banana attack soon afterwards. The two squadrons then joined forces at the George Robey café in St Omer for ‘a memorable evening’.
However, Mannock also had a hard edge that sometimes stunned his men. In April 1918, Manfred von Richthofen — the notorious Red Baron — was shot down. When some English pilots raised their glasses to salute their deadliest foe, Mannock growled, ‘I hope the bastard burnt all the way down.’[viii]
The following month, Mannock ruthlessly downed 20 German planes, sometimes zoning his guns on the stricken crew with a terrifying callousness. On a single day he claimed four kills, bursting into the mess afterwards with the words ‘Flamerinoes boys! Sizzle sizzle wonk.’ Thereafter, any German aircraft that went spiralling down in flames became known to the men of ‘Forty’ as a ‘flamerino’.
In fact, Mick Mannock’s greatest nightmare was to finish up as a ‘flamerino’. When he flew, he kept a revolver in the cockpit so that, as he told McScottish, he could ‘finish myself as soon as I see the first signs of flames.’[ix] Behind his bravado, he was suffering intense trauma, tormented by the apparent cheapness of life and haunted by the memory of so many dead faces, friend and enemy alike. His diary hints at a fragile mind. ‘I felt exactly like a murderer,’ he wrote after seeing the body of a German airman he killed. On another occasion, he wrote: ‘Feeling nervy and ill during the last week. Afraid I’m breaking up.’
By the time Mannock went on leave to London in June 1918, some of his closest friends feared that he was indeed breaking up. There was some respite in London when he became close friends with Jimmy McCudden, the most decorated British airman of the war, who was also on leave.[x] The two men had much in common. Unlike most pilots, neither had been to public school. They were also both sons of military men of Irish stock; McCudden’s father was born in County Carlow.[xi] A good deal of their time in London centred around a West End dancer called Teddie O’Neill whom McCudden, a Victoria Cross winner, took out for a joy ride. McCudden had also befriended the Irish artist William Orpen; they played ping-pong together and Orpen painted his portrait.
Mannock’s new-found friendship ended on 9 July when Jimmy McCudden’s plane stalled after take-off and crash-landed near a small RAF airfield at Auxi-le-Château. Mannock was greatly upset when he heard the news.
Meanwhile, George McElroy, his old protégé, was fast becoming the leading light of the RFC. In March and April, the pipe-smoking Dubliner spent eight weeks as Flight Commander of No 24 Squadron at Matigny on the Somme. One of his pupils was the future American air ace Bill Lambert who later recalled: ‘George McElroy, without a doubt, was one of the most fearless men I have ever met. He was also most considerate of the pilots under him and at all times tried to keep his pilots out of trouble. He would not allow me to go out until he felt I was ready and I think I owe my survival to his teaching.’[xii]
During his time with No 24 Squadron, McElroy claimed 16 of his 46 victories and was awarded the Military Cross.[xiii] By now a highly skilled dogfighter, he established himself as a master of the SE5a’s dual gun system. The biplane was equipped with a Vickers machine-gun up front, synchronised to fire through the propellers, while he also had a Lewis machine-gun pitched up on the top wing. The Lewis was set upon a sliding rail, so that he could yank its breech back down to the cockpit and load fresh ammunition, or clear stoppages, while he was flying. Between the two guns, he could either fire both guns forward, or use one to attack an enemy aircraft from behind and below. At all times, he made sure his guns were meticulously oiled and clean.
As one colleague observed, an analysis of his flights ‘reveals the hallmark of the high-class fighter, low expenditure of ammunition… he would only fire a few short bursts and the trick was done. Unlike most great fighters, however, he used frequently to open fire at comparatively long range, and being a wonderful shot, the fight was sometimes over before the victim had time to realise it had begun.’
McElroy prowled the skies with terrifying belligerence, repeatedly risking his life and barging into scenes where the odds were stacked against him. The only thing he could not handle was the cold, particularly when he had to fly high. Much to the amusement of his fellow pilots, he endeavoured to counter this problem by purchasing a ‘pocket warmer’, a small cylindrical tin containing a chunk of smouldering charcoal. He stuffed this into his trouser pocket, so that he could keep at least one part of himself warm during such flights. Unfortunately, it overheated while he was flying and, unable to access the pesky thing through his heavy, fur-lined coat, he fetched up with a burn the size of a chicken egg.
On 1 April, the day the Royal Flying Corps was reborn as the Royal Air Force, McElroy was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross for showing ‘skill and determination… most praiseworthy’.[xiv] One week later, he claimed three victories on a single patrol but, as he came into land, his plane clipped a treetop and he spent the next two months recovering on the sidelines.[xv]
When his convalescence was complete in June, McElroy rejoined his old pals at ‘Forty’ Squadron in Bryas, shortly after the squadron leader, Australian air ace Stan Dallas, was shot down. In his first eight days back with ‘Forty’, he took out eight planes, as well as bombing several key German strong points along the front. By the end of June, McElroy had taken his tally to 30. In July, he went ballistic and, during the first three weeks, there was hardly a day in which he did not return to base having shot or destroyed some form of enemy aircraft. His score of 17 new victims in that time was one of the most remarkable in the history of fighter aviation and put him on a par with the Red Baron.
On 20 July, McElroy again crash-landed his plane, but despite being left shaken and bruised, he made it to Gwil Lewis’s farewell dinner that same evening. This was the occasion that Mannock accosted him for flying too low. The two men had known each other less than a year and strong words between them were by no means unknown. ‘Each was convinced that the other was rash, and took risks,’ recalled fellow squadron member FT Gilbert. ‘Each reproved the other and issued solemn warnings. To hear them on this was amazing. But McElroy was less berserk than Mannock and … his nerves showed little sign of being on edge, except in a new petulance when he could not get combats.’
Mannock, now commanding 85 Squadron, was still in deep depression after Jimmy McCudden’s death. Those who knew him said the 31-year-old should never have been allowed to fly. His nerves were shot, his wit and sparkle depleted and, as Gwil Lewis remarked, he had been ‘kept out on the battlefront too long and he’d suffered in losing his judgment’. When Mannock shot down yet another German aircraft two days after Gwil’s farewell, a fellow pilot said: ‘They’ll have the red carpet out for you after the war, Mick’. Mannock grimly replied, ‘There won’t be any “after the war” for me.’[xvi]
He was correct. On 26 July, Mick Mannock set off alongside a young New Zealand pilot, Donald Inglis, crossing the German front line. Ignoring his own wise words, he flew too close to the ground, apparently to view the wreckage of an enemy two-seater they had shot down near Robecq. A German machine-gun opened up and, in moments, his plane was engulfed in a bluish white flame. He never used his revolver but instead jumped from the blazing plane. His body was found 250 yards from the wreck but, bizarrely, it was never formally recovered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission so the precise whereabouts of his remains are unknown.
After intensive lobbying by friends, Mannock was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in July 1919. It was presented to his father, Edward, at Buckingham Palace. Contrary to the explicit terms of Mick’s will, his father also secured his other medals. He sold the whole lot for £5 soon afterwards. They have since been recovered and, having been on display at the RAF Museum in Hendon, they are now displayed on rotation in the ‘Extraordinary Heroes’ exhibition at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum, London.
On the day Mannock died, McElroy received the second Bar to his Military Cross for his ‘most enterprising work in attacking enemy troops and transport’.[xvii]It was his greatest ambition to be awarded the DSO, which would put him on a par with Mannock. After Mannock’s death, the DSO became a fixation for him, more powerful even than his competitive urge to beat Mannock’s victory tally.
Early on the morning of 31 July, McElroy set off in a new SE5, a plane so crisp that it had only logged 11 hours’ flying time. When he didn’t return, the squadron feared the worst. At length, the Germans dropped a note to say that the 25-year-old Dubliner had been killed and buried. Precise details as to how he died remain a mystery but it is thought he was shot down over Laventie by anti-aircraft guns shortly after he had taken out a German two-seater.[xviii]
‘We took [the news of his death] very quietly’, recalled FT Gilbert. ‘There did not seem much to say. And somehow, he doesn’t seem dead even now for we all drew something from him, to become a part of us. We worshipped him for his prowess, and loved him for himself. 40 Squadron thought there was no one like him, and we shall never forget him.’[xix]
On 3 August, McElroy received the posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘his dashing and skilful leadership’.[xx] A Bar followed six weeks later.[xxi] He never received the DSO he had so desperately sought.
George McElroy was buried in the Royal Irish Rifles cemetery at Laventie, 12 miles west of Lille. Whilst it is unlikely to ever be proven, there is an extraordinary possibility that the nearby grave of an ‘Unknown British Aviator’ is that of Mick Mannock.
‘A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds…
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.’
WB Yeats, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’
Extracted from ‘The Glorious Madness – Tales of the Irish & The Great War’ by Turtle Bunbury (Gill & Macmillan, 2014). Available here from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
OTHER IRISH AIR ACES
To become an air ‘ace’, one has to have destroyed at least five enemy aircraft. At least 38 of the Royal Flying Corps’ top fighter aces were Irish, including:
Tom Falcon Hazell of Roundstone, County Galway, who scored 43 victories between 1917 and 1918, making him the third most successful Irish-born pilot after Mannock and McElroy
Standish Conn O’Grady of Donnybrook, Dublin, a son of WB Yeats’s friend Standish O’Grady
Paddy Langan-Byrne of Clogherhead, County Louth
Joe Cruess Callaghan of Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin
Oscar Heron of Banbridge, County Armagh
Ronald St Clair McClintock of Rathvinden, County Carlow
Eddy Hartigan of Ardagh, County Limerick
Amongst the notable Irish pilots who didn’t quite make it to ‘ace’ were:
Neville Usborne of Cobh, County Cork, who was killed in a test flight in 1916.
Robert Gregory of Coole, County Galway, a son of WB Yeats’s friend Lady Gregory.
James Fitzmaurice, the Dubliner who later completed the first successful transatlantic aircraft flight from East to West in 1928.
Erskine Childers who flew as an observer over the North Sea, Gallipoli and the Holy Land.
Hector James Toler-Aylward, father of Nicky and Ada, who was in the RFC before being hospitalised by pneumonia; his wife Zinna Knox was a voluntary nurse. They both survived the war.
William Dunlop Hamilton FRCS (1897-1984) served as a pilot in the RFC and RAF, and later became an eye specialist in Liverpool; he told his great-nephew James O’Fee that he served mainly in Palestine & Lebanon.
With thanks to Philip Lecane, Joe Gleeson, James Burke and James O’Fee.
[i] The calm and quiet Flight Commander Captain Gwil Lewis, DFC, nicknamed ‘Noisy’ by ‘Mick’ Mannock, downed 12 planes during his tour of duty. He returned to England, where he lived until his death in 1996. He was the next to last surviving British ace from the war.
[ii] George’s father Samuel McElroy, BA, was the son of farmer George McElroy (1828-1909) and his wife Kittie (Katherine) (1836–1905) of Kiltycreighton, just outside Boyle, County Roscommon. At least three of Samuel’s siblings emigrated to the USA, and some of the McElroys ended up in Montana. Samuel’s Westmeath-born wife Ellen Synnott, described in 1901 as a ‘work mistress’ was the daughter of farmer Edward Synnott of 38 Glengariffe Parade. They were wed in St George on 18 July 1892. The McElroy family headstone is in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin.
[iii] Mountjoy School, a boarding school on Mountjoy Square, Dublin, was located in the same building as the Incorporated Society for Promoting Protestant Schools.
According to Scott Addington in For Conspicuous Gallantry: Winners of the Military Cross and Bar During the Great War, McElroy initially joined the Royal Engineers as a Corporal with the regimental number 28292.
[iv] Initial training was completed at Reading and basic flying training at Nos 14, 6 and 54 Training Squadrons.
[v] McElroy would go on to become the highest scoring ace of the unit
[vi] “On my return from leave, the gap in the flight caused by Kennedy’s death had been filled by a sturdy, curly-headed young Irishman, McElroy. To differentiate between the two “Macs” in his flight, Mick (Mannock) called McElroy “McIrish” and me “McScottish”, names which stuck to us until I left the squadron. Unlike the majority of new pilots we had had, McElroy immediately fitted into the working of the flight. A new pilot was nearly always a danger to himself and to the others; if he was too cautious he was liable to be left behind to be sniped off by an astute enemy when the flight attacked; or, if he were courageous, he was just as liable to be “downed” in his first scrap because of his ignorance of what was going on around him. In either case, his misdemeanours were likely to incur special dangers for the rest of the flight. McElroy never caused us any anxiety. His attitude towards the war was that of a terrier let loose in a rat-infested barn. Both in the mess and the rugger field, his sturdy scrappy was a source of great pleasure to the flight.” Quoted in George McLanachan, Fighter Pilot.
[vii] Designed and built at the RAF Factory in Farnborough, the SE5a was, along with the Sopwith Camel, pivotal in ensuring that the Allies regained control of the west-European skies after the horrors of ‘Bloody April’ 1917.
[viii] The greatest air ace of World War One was Manfred von Richtofen, with 80 victories.
[ix] ‘The other fellows all laugh at me for carrying a revolver. They think I’m going to shoot down a machine with it, but they’re wrong. The reason I bought it was to finish myself as soon as I see the first signs of flames.’ — Quoted in George McLanachan, Fighter Pilot.
He was greatly disturbed when Henry Dolan was shot down in flames by Raven Freiherr von Barnekow on 12 May. Dolan had been amongst Mannock’s best pupils and had shot down seven enemy airplanes by the time of his death.
[x] Traditionally, the British preferred to praise the team rather than the individual and, in contrast to the way the German media had elevated the Red Baron to superhero, Britain’s air aces were rarely acknowledged unless they died. However, Lord Northcliffe, the Dublin-born newspaper tycoon, changed all that in January 1918 by splashing an illustrated feature on McCudden across the pages the Daily Mail.
[xii] Quoted in In Clouds of Glory: American Airmen who Flew with the British During the Great War by James J Hudson (University of Arkansas Press, 1990), p. 78.
[xiii] By 26 March 1918, when he was awarded the Military Cross, he had upped his scalp collection to 18 “kills”. His tally would ultimately include four enemy planes sent down in flames, with a further 23 planes and three balloons destroyed. Nicknamed ‘Deadeye’ by some of his colleagues, he also sent at least 16 enemy craft spinning ‘out of control’ and thereby out of the fight.
[xiv] The Bar to his Military Cross was given on 22 April 1918 with the following citation: ‘When on an offensive patrol, observing a hostile scout diving on one of our aeroplanes, he opened fire, and sent down the enemy machine in an irregular spin out of control, when it finally crashed completely. Later in the same day, he sent down another enemy machine in flames. On another occasion, when on offensive patrol, he singled one out of four enemy machines, and sent it down crashing to earth. On the same day he attacked another enemy machine, and, after firing 200 rounds, it burst into flames. On a later occasion, he opened fire on an enemy scout at 400 yards range, and finally sent it down in a slow spin out of control. In addition, this officer has brought down two other enemy machines completely out of control, his skill and determination being most praiseworthy.’
[xv] This was at Conteville, the aerodrome to which ‘Forty’ squadron were obliged to retreat on account of German advances on the ground.
[xvi]An Incomplete History of World War I by Edwin Kiester (Barnes & Noble, 2007), p. 117.
[xvii] McElroy’s citation of 26 July read: ‘While flying at a height of 2,000 feet, he observed a patrol of five enemy aircraft patrolling behind the lines. After climbing into the clouds, he dived to the attack, shot down and crashed one of them. Later, observing a two-seater, he engaged and shot it down out of control. On another occasion he shot down an enemy scout which was attacking our positions with machine-gun fire. He has carried out most enterprising work in attacking enemy troops and transport and in the course of a month has shot down six enemy aircraft, which were seen to crash, and five others out of control.’
[xviii] The two-seater, a Hannover CL, would be chalked up on some accounts as his 47th and certainly final victory. There is a theory that he was shot down by a novice, Unteroffizier Gullmann of Jasta 56, who claimed to have shot down a SE5 south-west of Armentieres at 10.15. No other SE5 was shot down that day. See ‘Who Downed the Aces in WW1?’ by Norman Franks (Barnes & Noble, 1998).
[xix] ‘McElroy of “Forty”’ by FT Gilbert, with a foreword by John Simon. From private manuscript courtesy of Rob McElroy.
[xx] His posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross citation on 3 August read: ‘A brilliant fighting pilot who has destroyed thirty-five machines and three kite balloons to date. He has led many offensive patrols with marked success, never hesitating to engage the enemy regardless of their being, on many occasions, in superior numbers. Under his dashing and skilful leadership his flight has largely contributed to the excellent record obtained by the squadron.’
[xxi] The citation for his Bar arrived on 21 September and read: ‘In the recent battles on various army fronts this officer has carried out numerous patrols, and flying at low altitudes, has inflicted heavy casualties on massed enemy troops, transport, artillery teams, etc., both with machine-gun fire and bombs. He has destroyed three enemy kite balloons and forty-three machines, accounting for eight of the latter in eight consecutive days. His brilliant achievements, keenness and dash have at all times set a fine example and inspired all who came in contact with him.’
Seventy years ago today, a plane crash in southern France ended the life of Kick Kennedy, oldest sister of Jack and Bobby, and her lover, Peter, Earl Fitzwilliam. This story recounts the series of events that lead up to the tragedy, and the remarkable Irish connections to each of the protagonists.
Lismore, Co. Waterford, August 1947. Standing by the banks of the River Blackwater, the future American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy must have winced when his eldest sister whispered to him, ‘I’ve found my Rhett Butler at last.’ It was not yet two years since Kathleen – known as Kick – had become a widow when her husband Billy Hartington was shot dead in a gun battle with SS troops in Belgium.
Her marriage to Billy had been profoundly controversial on many fronts. As heir apparent to the Duke of Devonshire, he was one of Britain’s preeminent Protestant peers while Kick was the daughter of a man widely reviled in Britain for his support of both Catholicism and Irish nationalism.
But now, as Jack Kennedy well knew, Kick had taken another giant leap into the mire by falling head over heels for Peter Fitzwilliam, a charming but notorious womanizer and party animal. She had her heart set on marriage, just as soon as Peter divorced his devoted Irish wife.
Kick’s romance with the 8thEarl Fitzwilliam was destined for a tragic finale seventy years ago this week, as recounted by Catherine Bailey in her definitive epic, ‘Black Diamonds – The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty.’
The Fitzwilliams, the subject of Bailey’s book, were one of the wealthiest families in Britain with over 20,000 acres in Yorkshire, centred on an enormous mansion, Wentworth Wodehouse, which boasted a room for every day of the year and 5 miles of internal passageways. Located just north of Sheffield, it was built in the 1720s for Thomas Wentworth, later Marquess of Rockingham, from whom it passed to the Fitzwilliams.
As Bailey observes, their fortune derived from ‘a spectacular stroke of luck’ when it emerged that their estate straddled the Barnsley seam, the main artery of the South Yorkshire coalfield. As one friend put it, the collieries were ‘within a rifle shot of [the Earl’s] ancestral seat.’ The ‘black diamonds’, or coal nuggets, duly gave the Fitzwilliams enough money to buy a 50-room house in London’s Mayfair, a vast portfolio of shares, 80 racehorses and a priceless collection of art and books.
The family also owned the 100-room mansion of Coolattin, near Shillelagh, Co. Wicklow, with 85,000 acres, marking one fifth of Co. Wicklow. There had been Fitzwilliams in Ireland since the Tudor Age; Sir William Fitzwilliam served as Lord Deputy of Ireland for the bones of a decade, co-founded Trinity College and secured his massive Wicklow estate after the defeat of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne, Lord of Ranelagh. In 1716 Sir William’s descendant was created the 1st Earl Fitzwilliam, of the County of Tyrone; his eldest son was given the subsidiary title Viscount Milton, in the County of Westmeath.
The 4th Earl, who served as Viceroy to Ireland on the eve of the 1798 Rebellion, was dismissed from office for his pro-Catholic stance. The family fortunes continued to grow through the 19thcentury and by the time Peter Fitzwilliam was born in 1910, his father Billy, the 7th Earl, was one of the richest men on earth with a fortune estimated at over €3.5 billion in today’s money.[i]
With four older sisters, Peter had been an unpromising and rather mollycoddled child. However, he emerged from his Eton schooling as a confident boy and became ever stronger as the years passed. In 1933 he married Olive ‘Obby’ Plunket, the youngest daughter of Benjamin Plunket, a Guinness heir and former (Protestant) Bishop of Meath.[ii]The bulk of her childhood was spent between Bishops Court in Navan and St Anne’s, an imposing Liffey-side mansion in Raheny, at the mouth of the Liffey, overlooking Dublin Port.
The wedding took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin with 12 bridesmaids and over 1000 guests; you can see it on YouTube. Tens of thousands lined the 5-mile route from St Patrick’s to Saint Anne’s, as the bridal party set off in three Rolls-Royces, bearing the Fitzwilliam family crest, shipped over from England for the occasion.
Slim, petite and full of joie de vivre, the coppery blond Olive was one of the most beautiful debutantes of her generation. She and Peter adored partying and were constantly dashing off on spur of the moment trips, chartering a plane if necessary. Paris and Le Touquet were frequently on their agenda.
The marriage got off to a shaky start when Obby arrived at Coolattin midway through the honeymoon explaining to her startled sisters that Peter had ‘gone off somewhere else.’ [iii]The aristocratic quest for a son and heir also played havoc with their marriage when, following the complicated birth of a daughter Juliet in 1935, Obby was told not to have more children. She tried, but each one resulted in a miscarriage.
The war changed everything for the Fitzwilliams. A German bombing raid decimated the coalfields; the family home at Wentworth was requisitioned by the Intelligence Corps; and Peter’s father died, at which he became the 8thEarl Fitzwilliam.[iv]
A trained officer, Peter had joined the Commandos and saw action in the Middle East.[v]He was then headhunted by the Special Operations Executive to lead a series of daring motor boat raids behind enemy lines to secure badly needed parts for British airplanes from Sweden.[vi]He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his courage.
Meanwhile, headed his way in 1946, was the woman formerly known as Kick Kennedy. The vivacious American widow was regarded as one of the most alluring women in London. She had first come to the city in 1938, along with her eight siblings, when her father Joe Kennedy was appointed American Ambassador to the Court of St James. The freckle-faced, red-haired Irish-American Catholic had been a divisive choice. His grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands who crossed the Atlantic during the Great Hunger and he was unlikely to look favourably on the British elite. Moreover, the ambassadorship was traditionally reserved for the heads of America’s powerful old moneyed Protestant WASP families.
It came down to money. Kennedy was a self-made millionaire who made his fortune boot-legging alcohol during the Prohibition and as a movie mogul in Hollywood, where he produced the first talking picture starring Gloria Swanson, his sometime mistress. He not only survived the Wall Street Crash but profited from it so that, by 1930, he was reputedly worth over $100 million. He used a healthy chunk of that money to sponsor Roosevelt’s victorious campaigns for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
The ambassadorship was Roosevelt’s payback.
From the day he and his wife Rose arrived in London, Joe Kennedy played the British press perfectly, who lapped up his showbiz life and the photo-calls with his nine handsome, wholesome children.
Kick was the most dazzling of all. Although not conventionally beautiful, her personality captivated everyone. ‘She was very genuine, very kind and very funny’, recalled her close friend Janie Compton. In 1938, her first Season as a debutant, she made more of an impact than almost any American woman had done before. She also behaved unconventionally, kicking off her shoes in stately homes, and sharing an unabashed but good-humoured disregard for social etiquette. However, the good times came to an abrupt end in September 1939 when, with the outbreak of war, Joe Kennedy sent his family back to the United States for safety.
Britain turned against Kennedy when his ferocious opposition to American intervention and his defeatism earned him the wrath of almost everyone, including Churchill, who forced him to resign in November 1940.
In the summer of 1943, Kick returned to England as a Red Cross volunteers.[vii]Unlike her father, she had been an enthusiast for American intervention since the beginning. She had been pining for England ever since her departure nearly four years earlier, envious of all her English friends who were involved in the war – the men fighting overseas or training, the women working in armaments factories and secret establishments like Bletchley Park. Her brothers Joe and Jack were also serving in the American forces.
On arrival she was posted to an exclusive offices-only club in Hans Crescent in Knightsbridge, London, where her job was to boost the morale of the American GIs with a routine of, as she described it, ‘jitter-bugging, gin rummy, ping-pong, bridge and just being an American girl among 1500 doughboys a long way from home.’
Word was soon out that Kick Kennedy, ‘the merriest girl you ever met, was back in town. In post-Blitz London, the party scene was carrying on regardless, with big bands playing through the night.
On her first Saturday night in London she was taken out by Billy Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, heir apparent to the 10thDuke of Devonshire and an estate of 180,000 acres of Britain and Ireland, including Lismore Castle. Billy had been in love with her since they met four years earlier; she had strong feelings for him.
The Duke was highly unimpressed with his eldest son’s choice of girlfriend: an Irish-American Catholic whose father supported Irish nationalism. Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Duke’s great-uncle, had been assassinated in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1882 by Irish Nationalists just after he had arrived in Ireland to take up office as Chief Secretary. The 8thDuke of Devonshire subsequently founded the breakaway Liberal Unionist party in absolute opposition to Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule for Ireland.
Hostility to Catholicism was deeply ingrained in the Cavendish genes for long generations before Billy’s father apparently contemplated moving the master bedroom of his London townhouse in order to avoid seeing the spire of Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
In January 1944 the 10thDuke compelled Billy to resign his commission in the Coldstream Guards and stand for parliament at a by-election in West Derbyshire. Kick, by now madly in love with Billy, stood by his side during the whole miserable campaign, despite the Duke castigating her as an “evil influence ” and warning her not to even open her mouth. An increasingly vocal audience ridiculed Billy throughout the campaign; unjust allegations of cowardice and his privileged position were used against him. So too was the fact that his brother Andrew had recently married Deborah Mitford; her sister Diana was the wife of Oswald Mosley, the British fascist.
As Billy predicted, there was a massive swing to the Socialists and his opponent Charles White swept the poll. The result convinced Billy that post-war Britain was going to be completely different, that socialism would be the new world order and that his family would no longer even be allowed to live at Chatsworth.
With such convictions in place, he shed his concerns about being the first impending duke to ‘marry an RC’ and proposed to Kick. The Duke’s first reaction was to send her a book for a birthday present – The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Perhaps the old bigot could derive some consolation that this particular commoner was an heiress with a fortune estimated at $10 million.
Billy’s one pre-nuptial condition was that any sons be raised as Protestants. Kick assumed she would be able to get clearance from the Catholic Church, not least as the Kennedys had represented the United States at the Papal Inauguration in 1939. However, to her horror, her father wrote that he was unable to secure the necessary permission from the Vatican. One assumes he didn’t try too hard, not least with his wife breathing down his neck.
Kick faced a stark choice – give up Billy or marry him and risk exile from the Catholic Church, which she held very dear. As she agonized, she received significant support from the Duchess of Devonshire who recognised how much Billy loved her and how wretched she must be feeling.
When it became clear that Billy would not compromise on the education of their future sons, Kick reluctantly chose the church. The couple nearly broke up but after a bout of intense soul-searching, they realised their love was too strong. Moreover, Kick had a breakthrough when the Catholic Bishop of Westminster advised her that marrying Billy would notbe a mortal sin and that, while he couldn’t offer immediate dispensation, it was possible that dispensation would be given at some point in the future. After three days in Yorkshire together, Kick said yes.
Rose Kennedy was appalled by news of her daughter’s impending marriage. Joe was also hostile, not least because having a Protestant Duke as a son-in-law would greatly undermine his electoral appeal amongst Irish Catholics. Archbishop Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, was assigned to break up the marriage but his envoys failed.
Kick was devastated by her parents’ reaction, and the failure of all of her siblings, except Joe Junior, her oldest brother, to offer any form of congratulations. Joe junior calmly assured his parents that Billy was a perfectly nice man. ‘I think he is ideal for Kick.’
They were wedded in a 10-minute civic ceremony at Chelsea Town Hall on London’s Kings Road on 6 May 1944. Joe was the only member of the Kennedy family to attend. Instead the flashbulbs of the world’s press had to satisfy themselves with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, as well as of Billy’s grandmothers. The London Newscrowed that the descendent of a man who destroyed Parnell was now married into one of ‘the great Home Rule families of Boston’.
Rose did not speak to her daughter for two months.
After a short honeymoon in London, Billy rejoined his regiment ahead of the Normandy landings.
And then the dominos began to fall.
On 12 August, Joe junior – Kick’s ‘pillar of strength’ and closest sibling – was killed when his plane, a Liberator bomber, exploded on a secret mission over the North Sea.
Just over a month later, Kick returned to the Kennedy home in Manhattan after a visit to a department store to find her father with a telegram from Europe. Billy had been shot through the heart while taking on a crack squad of German SS troops in the Belgian town of Heppen, shortly after they had liberated Brussels. It was three months since he had rejoined his regiment in France.
Her parents were not terrific in Kick’s hour of sorrow. Her mother repeatedly instructed her to go to mass; her father took her out to a French restaurant and suggested a show on Broadway. Kennedys were brought up not to cry.
Kick went into silent grief.
Rose took her back into the fold content that, according to the teaching of Saint Paul,
Kick’s mortal sin was absolved with Billy’s death. The irony of this was not lost on Kick who felt like she had lost her own soul as well as that of her husband.
Billy had instructed Kick to marry ‘someone good and nice’ in the event of his death. That was Billy – a good, nice, moral man.
Peter Fitzwilliam was not quite the polar opposite – he was extremely generous to his friends – but he was certainly a man of questionable morals.
Since the end of the war, he had been deeply embroiled in a losing battle with Manny Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power in Britain’s radical, new Labour government, who was determined to break the power of families like the Fitzwilliams.
Midway through the war, Peter paid 8000 Guineas for a horse at the Newmarket sales. As well as being the highest price on record, it was the equivalent of 40 years wages for a well-paid workmen and that did as much as anything to put Manny Shinwell on the war path. On his watch, Wentworth’s beautiful formal gardens were requisitioned, along with nearly 100 acres of parkland trees, and thousands of acres of farmland, and the Fitzwilliam estate was converted into the biggest opencast mining site in Britain.
Despite a public outcry against the destruction of the land at Wentworth, Peter could barely secure an audience with Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In 1945 he had been practically able to ring Winston Churchill directly. On 15 April 1946, Peter met Atlee but the PM had already made his mind up that the Fitzwilliam estate was to be the source “first of all, of coal, [and] secondly, of more coal.’[viii]
Perhaps weary of so much war and destruction, Peter found solace with a heavy-drinking, hard gambling jetset of rich tycoons, frequenting White’s Club in St James’s, where the baccarat stakes often exceeded £10,000. He reputedly lost £20,000 (circa ½ million in today’s money) on the betting tables. Summers were spent chartering private planes to beautiful Mediterranean villas; winters were for foxhunting and horse-racing in France, England and Ireland.
He formed a particularly strong friendship with Prince Aly Khan, the suave son of the Aga Khan (the billionaire leader of an estimated 15 million Ismaili Muslims in Asia and Africa) whose wife Joan Yarde-Buller, one of the ‘Bright Young Things’, was the former wife of Loel Guinness of the Anglo-Irish merchant banking Guinnesses.
Meanwhile, his eleven-year marriage to Obby was on the rocks. Their separation during the war years, the destruction of Wentworth, his obsession with horses and Obby’s failure to produce a male heir all played their part, as did Peter’s philandering while Obby remained faithful.
And then Peter met Kick.
On 12 June 1946, Peter attended a ball at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair, a fundraiser for families of Commandos killed and injured in the war. It was the first Season since 1939 and the future Queen Elizabeth was among the guests enjoying the Latin American music, the Rumba and the Mambo.
In a blink, the decorated ex-Commando had invited the alluring widow to dance and it was love at first sight. Eighteen months after Billy’s death, Kick entered into an extraordinary and tragic affair that would scandalise and divide London society.
Although they both led a high-octane lifestyle, Peter and Kick were an odd couple. His friends were drinkers and gamblers; hers were intellectuals who could only assume that Peter was eager to seduce an ‘unobtainable’ Catholic or that he was ‘a very good lover’. Catherine Bailey notes that Prince Aly was a renowned expert in Imsak, an ancient Arabic love making technique that apparently enabled him to delay orgasm for hours. In 1947, the prince had numerous affairs, including one with Pamela Churchill, recently separated from Winston’s son Randolph. Aly married the actress Rita Hayworth in 1949.
Peter certainly made Kick laugh and her taught her how to play and have fun and reinstalled the happiness she had lost amid the sorrow of the war. Over the course of 1947 they spent many weekends at Château de l’Horizon, Aly’s gleaming white Modernist villa on the Riviera.
London may have know of the affair but the Kennedys were kept in the dark until Kick told Jack over a weekend at Lismore Castle, the Devonshire estate in Waterford, the autumn before her death. By Christmas, she was telling close friends that Peter was going to divorce Obby and marry her. Nobody supported her but Kick either wouldn’t listen or seemed to no longer care about consequences.
The love between them does appear to have been genuine but, once again, the issue of children’s education became a sticking point when Peter insisted that none of his children could be raised as Catholics.
Kick was still ruminating on this when she joined the Kennedy family at Hyannis Port, their holiday home in Palm Beach, for the traditional winter break in February 1948. It took her over two months before she told her parents of her plan to marry Peter. Rose point blank vowed that she would be disinherited and never seen or spoken to again if she went through with it.
When Kick returned to London, Rose followed, hounding her around her own house for days on end demanding the romance end. Terrified that Rose really would banish her, Kick rang her father who was more supportive and suggested they meet up at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on Saturday 15 May.
It was 18 months since the affair began when, after one last visit to Wentworth, Peter and Kick chartered a 10 seater de Havilland Dove on 13 May to fly them from Croydon Airport to France. As 37-year-old Peter put it, ‘we’re going to try to persuade old Kennedy to agree to our getting married.’ The couple planned an illicit weekend on the south of France before they met Joe Kennedy. However, when the flight briefly stopped to refuel at the upmarket La Bourget airport near Paris, Peter seized the opportunity to scoot into Paris with Kick for a long lunch.
By the time the “star-cross’d lovers” returned 2 ½ hours later, Peter Townshend, the captain of their plane, was livid and threatened not to fly because of a bad weather report. Somehow Peter persuaded him to carry on south to Cannes and the small plane then flew into what transpired to be one of the worst thunderstorms the Rhône Valley had experienced in years. Hailstones the size of French francs were sighted shortly before 5:30pm when the plane burst from the clouds and disintegrated in mid-air over the Ardèche mountains, north of Avignon, broken up by the massive G-Force.
It took nearly an hour for a farmer who watched the horror unfold to reach the wreckage. All four people inside had been killed on impact: the pilot, the co-pilot, Peter Fitzwilliam and Kick.
The Kennedys, Fitzwilliams and Devonshires presented a united front to conceal the truth. As well as a newspaper blackout in England, Joe Kennedy pulled strings to ensure that the story got minimum coverage in America. The official story was that Lady Hartington just happened to be offered a flight by Lord Fitzwilliam, an acquaintance, who was going to visit horses in the south of France.
The destruction of any incriminating correspondence continued until at least July 1972 when the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam destroyed 16 tons of the family’s 20th century archive, including Peter’s private papers, in a bonfire that blazed for three weeks. The fire is also thought to have included records relating to allegations that Peter’s late father Billy was a changeling.[ix]
Neither Kick’s parents nor her siblings ever spoke of the affair or acknowledged it. It took 40 years before any of the Devonshires or Fitzwilliams broke the silence.
Kick was buried at Chatsworth, the Devonshire’s home in Derbyshire, on 20 May 1948. Joe Kennedy was the only Kennedy present at her funeral and comes across surprisingly well in the story, forming a bond with the Duchess of Devonshire who chose Kick’s epitaph: ‘Joy she gave, Joy she has found.’
Inevitably there were conspiracy theories. Some said they had been off to Rome to obtain special dispensation from the Pope to marry. Others believed that Rose had put a curse on her own daughter. Evelyn Waugh believed they were simply killed eloping.
In 1951 when Bobby proposed naming his eldest daughter Catherine Hartington Kennedy, the family agreed on condition that she never be referred to as Kick. However, the family did permit Bobby’s granddaughter to be called Kick.
Lady Juliet Fitzwilliam, the earl’s only child, was just 13 years old when she inherited her father’s fortune, including half of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, the Coolattin estate and a large part of the Fitzwilliam art collection. The peerages passed to Peter’s second cousin once removed, Eric Wentworth-Fitzwilliam. Peter’s widow Obby died in 1975.
See also “Kick: The True story of Kick Kennedy” by Paula Byrne.
[i]William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, died at Wentworth Wodehouse on 20 February 1902. His eldest son William, Viscount Milton, an explorer, had predeceased him in 1877. As such, the earldom passed to his grandson Billy Fitzwilliam, who was at Coolattin when he heard the news of his grandfather’s death. Some of Billy’s aunts and uncles doubted Billy’s legitimacy and, with hundreds of millions of pounds at stake, there was much subterfuge among his aunts and uncles.
The Fitzwilliam estate descended through the female line from Black Tom, first Earl of Stratford, notorious advisor to Charles I. He also built Jigginstown outside Naas before he was beheaded in 1641.
[ii]Obby’s nickname derived from her favourite childhood game of prancing around on a hobbyhorse. Her grandfather was Archbishop of Dublinand has a statue near Leinster House; her grandmother was a daughter of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness. Her mother was a Butler of Ballintemple.
[iii]Lady Barbara: ‘I was sitting in the drawing room at Coolattin with my mother and my sister when suddenly, in walked Obby. We were all astonished to see her. Peter had left her in the middle of their honeymoon. He had gone off somewhere else.’ Catherine Bailey speculates that Obby’s innocence in bed was too wearisome for Peter, a veteran of many girlfriends.
[iv]Peter Fitzwilliam’s inheritance is estimated to have been something like €80 million at today’s value, perhaps more. The nationalisation of the coal industry, plus Labour’s high taxation of the super-rich, did much to rein that in.
[v]Peter Fitzwilliam, a reserve officer in the Grenadier Guards, was called up the moment war was declared. He was 30 on New Year’s Eve 1940. He spent the first six months of the war training with his regiment at Windsor Castle. By the spring of 1941, he was fighting in a Commando unit in the Middle East. He was regarded as exceptionally brave; a contrast with his pre-Eton childhood when he was known as a feeble boy.
[vi]In early 1943 Peter was hand-picked by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for a top-secret wartime operation in the North Sea. Codenamed “Operation Bridford”, the objective was to secure tiny ball-bearings obtainable only in Sweden which were absolutely vital to aircraft parts. Without them Britain’s aircraft assembly lines with stumble to a halt. The Ministry of Aircraft Production calculated that it would need 500 tons of ball-bearings to survive… This was a last ditch attempt to break the German blockade. Operating under the pseudonym of Peter Lawrence, Peter Fitzwilliam was assigned as chief officer to the Hopewell … The daring operation began on the 26th October 1943 when the flotilla proceeded down the Humber in diamond formation…by the time it ended in March 1944, it had secured 347.5 tons of its objective.
He was also involved in Operation Moonshine, in which his gun-boat deliveredvital supplies to Sweden for onward movement to the resistance forces in German-occupied Denmark between 13 January and 6 February 1945.
[vii]She sailed on board the Queen Mary which left New York in June New York, bound for England. The luxury liner had been commandeered as a US troop carrier some weeks earlier.
[viii]Realising all was lost, Peter tried to give the house to the National Trust, through its representatives Michael Parsons, Earl of Rosse, and James Lees Milne, but the trust declined. Eventually Peter’s sister Lady Mabel Smith intervened.
[ix]Billy employed Johnston and Long, a firm of solicitors, to defend himself against the allegations – particularly from his aunt, Lady Alice – that he was an impostor, a ‘spurious child’, a changeling, substituted at birth. Up until 1930, the Home Secretary was required to attend all births to guard against the danger of substitution. Witnesses were often called in when aristocrats had babies also to avoid the danger of a changeling. (See page 14, Black Diamonds). However, Billy was born in faraway Canada and, while the doctor and nurse who were present later categorically refused Lady Alice’s allegations, there are still doubts over their testimonies.
Some memories of my formative years at Trinity College Dublin where I inadvertently found myself reading law for a couple of years in the early 1990s …
It was quite comfortable to sleep on; that I do remember. Wylie’s Land Law, I mean. A hefty tome of maybe 1400 pages of legal jargon pertaining to Irish property, equity, trusts and succession. It wasn’t a work I became overly familiar with, mind you, but I can still just about feel the impressions of the book cover upon my forehead. Sometimes I got through a couple of pages before it happened. Mostly it struck me on page one. I’d think, ‘maybe I’ll just have a wee nap before I start, clear the auld cranium a little.’
The book would be shut and carefully positioned. My head would lean forwards and I’d nod off, listening to the whirl of papers and biros and distant whispers emanating around the Berkeley Library.
It was certainly a mellower sleeping spot than the house where I lived on Heytesbury Lane, a short stumble from the east end of Baggot Street. Technically speaking there were five of us in the house, four young men, one courageous young lady, all students. However, in the ensuing decades I have met many people who tell me, with much authority, how they spent so many nights in our house that they were practically entitled to squatter’s rights. Ours was a party house, for sure. It wasn’t supposed to be a party house, of course, and yet, in hindsight, perhaps all the chaos was somewhat preordained.
My Berkeley snoozes rarely lasted more than thirty minutes. When I awoke from my slumber, I would invariably put the nice book away and head outside for a smoke. And then, trance-like, I’d drift across to the soft green playing fields where familiar faces were sure to be soaking up the rays or the rains with some nutritious wheat juice at the Pav. Many a moon might wax and wane before I made it back into the library.
Model student, I was not. From the age of eight through eighteen I was locked up in boarding schools, one in Dalkey, the other in Scotland. I remain convinced that the Oxford & Cambridge examination board botched up and gave me someone else’s A-levels results. They were too good. Having hitherto assumed I would be reading Art History at Dunstable Polytechnic or similar, I found that I had unexpectedly qualified to read Law at Trinity. My parents were so thrilled they banished me on a ten-month trip around the world and I duly headed off to paint gates in Virginia, master the art of poker in Hawaii and flog encyclopaedias door-to-door in the suburbs of Australia.
Globe-trotting was such enormous fun that by the time I started at Trinity in October 1991, I couldn’t take it seriously. A college in the centre of Dublin, brimming with joyous youth, surrounded by amazing pubs. Immensely exciting. My knowledge of the capital prior to this was limited to a few days on the razz at the Dublin Horse Show, and a handful of “cinema” trips with my older brother, which basically involved sneaky scoops in Bruxelles where a prematurely stubbly chin served in my favour. But now I was old enough to drink legally – and could there be a finer city in the world to enjoy such a pastime?!
I was formally registered on 4 October. Hazy memories of my first stroll across the now-so-familiar cobbles of Front Square. A hasty dash through a long string of enthused faces trying to convince my fellow Junior Freshman and I that if we joined their camogie team, sci-fi club, theoretical society, etc, we would get all our books at half price forever more. It all seemed more akin to the American high schools I had seen in movies than a solemn seat of learning. I was deeply relieved that initiation ceremonies were not part of the process. Someone presented me with a library card, someone else took me to see the Berkeley and Lecky libraries, after which I sought out some bad company and fled to a pub.
I’ve kept a diary since I was eight. These days I play a game when pals come to stay. I ask them to pluck a 1990s diary off the shelf, any diary. Now choose a page, any page. And when they do, the chosen page unvaryingly finds me either in a pub or at a party, or on my way to one, or recovering from the last one. Frequently I am all of the above at once. Midway through my first law exams, for instance, I find myself consuming a bottle of Buckfast at the Pav and then, fast forward a half-dozen hours, I’m doing knee-bendy dance manoeuvres down at Screwy-Lewy’s on Leeson Street.
Trinity itself plays an embarrassingly small cameo role in those formative years. I blame the law. I just could not grasp it as a subject. It confused me. It made me sleepy. Here’s a sample I copied directly into my diary from one of our books about constitutional law:
‘The terms are not so unambiguous as to prohibit an interpretation of them aided by a consideration of the apparent intention of the legislature in enacting the bill.’
It’s lines like that that had me pinned to my chair in tremendous horror, reaching for my pouch of rolling tobacco.
There were maybe a hundred people in my class and I am still in touch with a number of them to this day. They were a good, kind-hearted, intelligent bunch. It seemed to me like they’d all known each other for ages but that cannot have been right. Indeed, many of them were as giddy as me, euphoric at the prospect of living away from home for their first ever time. I think my year roaming the globe had perhaps made me a little aloof, or maybe I just thought of myself as too cool for school but I was slow to mix with the class. I probably didn’t help my cause when I raised a hand during one of our first lectures and asked ‘What’s your auktass?’ I can still feel a couple of hundred eyeballs swinging around to see what eejit would ask such a question. My Scottish education hadn’t prepared me for terms such as Oireachtas.
Somehow I survived my Junior Freshman exams intact although, reading my diary, I cannot see how this was possible. Fortunately I did not deceive myself that all was well. I realised that if I didn’t buckle down, all this studying Law would be a colossal waste of time and money. So I signed up to study for Schol, the voluntary exams, on the basis that it might spur me into action. Victory would also secure me free education for the rest of my time at Trinity as well as complimentary rooms on campus, not to mention the strange rumours that I’d be entitled to graze a sheep in Front Square and march around the Buttery with a cutlass. Emboldened by my decision, I allied myself to a sagacious friend, Mr Nicholas McNicholas, who was also sitting Schol and we both went to stay with his fabulously strict Mother Superior of a mother in Athlone. She did all that she could for us, turfing us out of our beds before the dawn, time-clocking the hours we spent at our desks and keeping us far from the temptations of Bacchus et al.
It might have worked but the questions did not go my way. Failing Schol was the knockout punch to my fleeting visions of becoming the new Perry Mason. I went on the batter and forgot to stop before the summertime exams came. And then I failed them too. Which meant I would have to do re-sits later in the summer. Fifteen law exams in one year. Everyone else in my class sat five. What on earth had I done to myself?
The situation was becoming increasingly untenable. A family friend urged me to meet with a circuit court judge of his acquaintance. Down I popped to the Four Courts where the genial judge enquired about my legal ambitions. I told him of my miserable plight and admitted that I was contemplating abandoning the course. He leaned in close, glanced discreetly left and right, and said, ‘I don’t blame you, son. Get out while you can.’
So I did.
Or at least I transferred.
A sagacious non-academic pal, Mr Stuart Carroll, put the notion of a transfer into my head when I called into him for a refreshment one morning. ‘I don’t understand why you’re not doing history anyway?’, he said.
I’ve always been obsessed by history. An inevitable consequence of growing up in a big old house surrounded by historic paintings and furniture. I lapped up history in my school years. I read history books for fun. I never let a historical epic leave a cinema unseen. The notion that I could actually study the subject at university level began to make my ears shake.
Fast forward to the winter of 1993 and you couldn’t have found a cheerier student than the 22-year-old from Carlow who was now seated close to the front row, learning about Viking Dublin in the age of Sitric Silkbeard and how the Tudor Viceroys all went demented trying to govern Ireland. I was overjoyed to be studying such topics. Now, it would be erroneous to say that I was henceforth a student of terrific diligence and resolve but I did have a considerably jauntier stride whenever I strolled or cycled into Trinity to attend a lecture.
I subsequently spent a year at Groningen University, where I mastered a different form of Schol, or Skol, if you will. The life of an Erasmus student studying history in Groningen was preposterously easy. My weekly agenda comprised of four hours lectures, two of which were conducted by a lecturer with severe hypochondria who quite frequently cancelled them at the last minute. For the remaining 166 hours of each week, I was left to my own devices in the northern Dutch town. What’s a guy to do? However, at least my chosen subject was history and, between the boldness, I read plenty of books about the long term origins of the Vietnam War and why the South lost the US Civil War and why the Dutch are boring. The last topic was probably the oddest but they took it so seriously in Groningen that we spent an entire term studying it; a flat landscape and a 400-year-old democracy were cited as the two main reasons.
I made it all the way through college and left with a perfectly good history degree. I honestly can’t now recall if it was a 2-1 or a 2-2. I remember that when it was conferred I had Jonathan Swift’s beady eyes looking at me reproachfully; my main thesis, an unremarkable work, was an examination of Swift who was about as convoluted and barmy a man as one could possibly find to write about.
I’ve never been called upon to show my degree to anyone but the historical itch was firmly upon me by the time I donned the gown for the graduation ceremony. Within a month, I was on a flight to Hong Kong where the next chapter of my life was about to begin. History would have to go on hold for a while because, much as I enjoyed my historical studies, the good people of Hong Kong just weren’t ready to hear me expound on all my newfound knowledge about Sitric Silkbeard. I assumed when I left Trinity in 1996 that I’d probably had my fill of history and that a new career would come my way before long. Half a decade would pass before I realised that my love for the subject was absolute and I yielded with a familiar elation when history came full circle to grip me once more.