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.
Through the misty darkness of the night, the figure continued to move slowly towards him. ‘I said good night’, repeated Paddy, feeling a cold chill whistle up his spine. The stranger still did not reply. Paddy’s right hand clenched at the spade he was holding, the one he had used to help bury his uncle earlier in the day. Why had he not stayed at the wake?, he wondered. What was he thinking going up the road in the black of night? ‘Whoever you are, you should have spoke?’ he shouted. The figure continued to draw near. Paddy raised the spade. ‘Good night, Sir?’ he roared. The figure hesitated, about-turned and trotted away.
‘And what was it?’, says Paddy, ‘only an auld skin of a donkey’. Decades after the event, Paddy’s relief continues to be immense. ‘Only for knowing it was a donkey, I wouldn’t be passing on that road ever again.’
You wouldn’t have Paddy pegged as an easily intimidated sort. Indeed, he is surely one of the most agile and robust men of his generation. In March 2009, the 86-year-old ghillie helped reel in the first salmon of the season at Delphi Lodge. We found him not long afterwards, over by a small, corrugated shed at the back of his house, chopping a fallen alder tree into logs, ‘to pass the day’.[i]
Born at what is now Waterfall Cottage on 27 June 1922, Paddy is the third generation of Heneghan to work as Delphi’s ghillie. The family were originally woodmen from Cork. In the early 19th century, they came north into Mayo where they were employed to fell the once great oak forests that grew along the River Erriff. Paddy has fond memories of his grandfather, Michael Heneghan, who was born and raised near the bridge at Ashleigh Falls. When the 6th Marquess of Sligo repurchased the family fishing lodge at Delphi in the 1890s, he recruited Michael as caretaker of the property.[ii]
Delphi Lodge was built in the 1820s by the 2nd Marquess of Sligo, a colourful soul who named it Delphi after a lengthy sojourn in Greece with the opium-toting poet, Lord Byron.[iii] Lord Sligo clearly had an eye for location. Delphi is arguably the most spectacular setting in Ireland, with sprightly rainbows and soft mists frequently adding to its Eden-like beauty. In 1851, the lodge passed to a Scotsman, Captain William Houstoun, who built a second fishing lodge, Dhulough House, further north along the shore of Doolough. This is now a crumbling moss-hued ruin, hidden by Scots Pines and sprawling rhododendrons. [iv]
Directly beneath this second lodge is a small cottage where Captain Houstoun’s steward once lived. This is the house where Paddy and his two sisters live today.[v] The views from here are as epic as any, with the Sheefry, Mweelera and Binn Gabhar (Ben Gower) rising steeply on all sides. Paddy has climbed these mountains many times and claims to know every foothold. At the summit of Binn Gabhar stands the remains of a shelter built by the Houstouns for a lonely night-watchmen. Sheep-rustling was rampant in Mayo at that time, explains Paddy. Inevitably the wind blew the shelter apart but the stones are still there.
In due course, Johnny Heneghan succeeded his father as caretaker of Delphi. Together with his wife Bridgit and their four children, he moved to the cottage at Doolough .[vi] Sad times had already befallen the Heneghans with the loss of two children – a baby girl called Bridie who succumbed to rheumatic fever in 1949, and 19-year-old Jim, who Paddy describes as ‘the best of us all’, to meningitis. Paddy’s other brother Michael was the only one to marry and now lives ‘at the butt of Croagh Patrick’ where he also operates as a ghillie. There were also two sisters Mary (who worked at Delphi Lodge and died in 2010) and Nonie.
With so many ghillies in the family, Paddy knew all the secrets to becoming a fish whisperer by the time he was a teenager. He learned the hard way, earning the wrath of his grandfather when, aged seven, he cast his line and caught a pony by the ear. During the 1930s, he and his brothers often walked down to the pebble stone beach that runs along this part of Doolough to fish. Sometimes the dark waters seemed to shriek, and the Heneghans would think again of the poor souls who drowned near here during a particularly bleak episode of 1849.[vii]
On hot summer days, the youngsters swam in the beautiful stretch of the Glenummera river which runs just in front of the cottage. The salmon used to spawn in these clear waters but Paddy says the forestry plantations on the surrounding hills have played havoc with the local river system, sending floods gushing out across the road and into a riverside field where his father used to cut hay for the sheep.
During the 1930s, Delphi Lodge was leased to a well-to-do family lately returned from British India. In 1936, the family’s Scottish chauffeur taught 14-year-old Paddy how to drive a car. It was an invaluable lesson for someone living in a remote location like Delphi.
In his late 20s, Paddy tired of life as a ghillie and joined the county council. He slowly worked his way up the road-building hierarchy, crushing stones in the Sheefry Pass in the early days, directing others as he got older.
When Peter Mantel purchased Delphi Lodge in the 1980s and reopened it as a fishing lodge, he simultaneously recruited Paddy as ghillie. Delphi Lodge remains one of the finest fishing retreats in Ireland and there is a large volume of repeat custom. Paddy still goes out on the water today but ‘only with certain people’. There are some, he holds, who ‘would take the eye out of you and not notice’. He also has an interest in a mussel farm on the north coast of Mayo by Kilsallagh.
Paddy keeps himself busy and aims to live long. ‘My mother was a couple of weeks short of 102 when she died’, he says with a chin-twitching chuckle. For entertainment, he drives to Leenane twice weekly to pick up his copy of The Mayo News and to have a drink in one of the village’s two pubs. It’s fast approaching twenty years since Leenane hosted Jim Sheridan, Richard Harris and others for the making of John B Keane’s epic, ‘The Field’. But Paddy complains that it has become very quiet in Leenane lately. He can’t remember the last time he heard a good sing-song.
Paddy is a contented bachelor. He has loved a few women but never enough to change their name. He recalls one particularly inquisitive neighbour who was forever pestering him about whether he would marry. ‘She would nearly want to know what’s in your pocket’, he says. ‘So I told her I was often married but never churched. And she never asked me anymore.’
[i] When we mention the idea of a photograph, he looks to the mountain and says the rain is coming in. It all looks pretty sky blue to us but, he counters, ‘you can be sure you’ll get rain sometime anyway’.
[ii] Michael’s wife died young, leaving him two sons and three daughters. In later years, he lived in a cottage now known as ‘No 1’ and ‘No 2’. Other cottages were formerly the garage and turf shed.
[iii] Delphi Lodge was originally leased to Thomas Spencer Lindsey of Hollymount House, Co Mayo in the 1820s, to Stepney St George of Headford Castle, Co Galway in the 1830s and to the Honourable Reverend William Conynham Plunket (later Archbishop of Dublin 1884-1887) in the 1850s.
[iv] Captain Houstoun leased some 40,000 acres, known as the ‘Dhulough Farm’, from Lord Sligo. Captain and Mrs Houston previously lived at Ross House, built by Lewis O’Donel, a son of Lewis O’Donel of Killeen, Crossmolina, Co Mayo and a first cousin of the first Sir Neal O’Donel baronet. (Ross House was purchased by Middleton O’Malley about 1880 and it is now the home of Mrs Meike Blackwell). The Houstoun lease of what ‘Dhulough’ farm, in the parish of Kilgeever, was renewed to the Captain’s son George and in the early 20th century, for a much reduced acreage, to his nephew Alfred Houstoun Boswall. Legal documents in the Westport Estate Papers record much of the history of the Houstouns occupation of the farm. There is a memorial to the Captain in Aasleagh Church, Leenane, Co Galway.
The Captain’s wife wrote a colourful memoir of their time in Doolough Matilda Charlotte Houstoun, ‘Twenty Years in the Wild West; or, Life in Connaught’ (John Murray, 1879). Today, Doolough House is just about accessible by a rough squelchy beater’s path. Water flows straight down the mountain into the house. An ominous black stain marks the exterior of one wall but Paddy assures us the house was simply abandoned, never burned. In its glory days, the view of the lake from here would have been magnificent. Its’ the sort of place Lord Byron would have happily spent some time, tooting on his opium pipe, if only the Mayo weather wasn’t so wet.
By the 1880s, large numbers of black-faced sheep and polled Galloways were grazing in the surrounding lands – see Bernard H Becker, Disturbed Ireland – Being the Letters Written During the Winter of 1880-81. (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19160)
[v] Another beloved local resident was a stray donkey who had been with them for 23 years when he died last year. They also had a few cows.
[vi] Paddy was born and spent his early childhood in the cottage where Peter Mantel now lives.
[vii] The deceased were swept to their deaths while they vainly sought assistance from the Board of Guardians at Delphi Lodge. It was in these same waters that Sean Bean’s Tadgh McCabe drowned Tom Berenger’s American in ‘The Field’.
On 12 March 2018, New York Senator Chuck E Schumer announced that the U.S. Navy will name one of its next destroyers, the Arleigh Burk-class DDG-127, after Marine Corporal Patrick ‘Bob’ Gallagher (1944-1967) of County Mayo, Ireland. The USS Patrick Gallagher is under construction in Bath, Maine, and is expected to enter service following completion and sea trials in 2024.
All of this follows on from a remarkable campaign and petition to have the Vietnam hero honoured. This is Bob Gallagher’s story.
Somewhere amid the jungles of central Vietnam on 28 January 1967, Marine Corporal Patrick ‘Bob’ Gallagher found a moment to write to his parents in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. It had been nearly a year since the 23-year-old had visited Ireland. At the time, he had told his parents of his ambition to join the United States Marine Corps. When they expressed alarm that he might be drafted in to fight in the Vietnam War, he assured them that he would be spending the ensuing year training in San Francisco and that the war would surely be over by then.
However, the truth was that Bob Gallagher had already joined the Marines before he made that final visit to Ireland. And he had received his orders to make his way to Vietnam almost as soon as he returned to the USA from Mayo.
So now he must have grimaced as he wrote. ‘I hope you won’t be too mad at me for the news I got for you,’ he commenced. ‘I have been in Vietnam since last April, and I will be leaving here in 60 days. Now don’t get worried. Everything is going just fine here and I am enjoying it very much.’
Gallagher felt obliged to confess to his parents because he had lately been singled out for the Navy Cross, the US Navy’s highest medal of valor.[i] It was to be awarded to him for an act of extraordinary heroism he performed during the summer of 1966.
He correctly anticipated that the awards ceremony would attract attention from the Irish media and so his letter home was to forestall the shock his parents would feel about his having secretly been fighting in Vietnam for the past ten months. He assured them of his plans to visit them, complete with Navy Cross, following the completion of his tour of duty in April 1967.
The people of Ballyhaunis were elated by the news that one of their own had been awarded such a prestigious medal. Plans were put in motion to celebrate Corporal Gallagher’s homecoming with a street party on April 14. However, when the day came, the streets of Ballyhaunis were deathly silent. Bob Gallagher returned home, as promised, but he came home in a coffin having been killed in an ambush two weeks earlier.
Gallagher was born on 1 February 1944, the second of nine children – and the eldest son – of Peter and Mary Gallagher. He grew up on the family farm at Derrintogher, three miles from Ballyhaunis.[ii] The nickname ‘Bob’ was bestowed upon him by his older sister Margaret who couldn’t pronounce his name ‘Patrick’ when she was small. His grandfather Patrick, for whom he was named, had been a schoolteacher. The younger Patrick also showed much promise at school and was educated by the Franciscans at Granlahan Monastery on the Roscommon-Mayo border. As well as being a fine footballer, he developed an interest in carpentry and cabinet-making, studying at the vocational school in Ballyhaunis.[iii]
In 1962, the second year of JFK’s Presidency, the 18-year-old flew from Shannon to New York and moved in with an aunt, Mrs May Burns, on Long Island. He found a job in real estate and started at law school. However, with the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, he found himself drawn to the Marines, one of the world’s premier fighting forces, enlisting in late 1965.
The Vietnam War officially lasted from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is estimated that over 3 million people lost their lives in the war, mostly civilians.
The Irish involvement in the war was a much neglected subject until 1998 when Declan Hughes (www.irishveterans.org) began the identificaton of the Irish who lost their lives in that war, at a time when few believed any Irish had been there. As Declan put it in an email to me in March 2015: ‘In 1999, I brought the Vietnam Memorial (replica) to Ireland, where it toured the 4 historic provinces, with 3-day stops in each of the following: Collins Barracks Cork, Dublin Castle, Queens University Belfast, NUI-Galway and Adare Manor. The Irish Defence Forces rendered military honours in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Adare. An Garda Siochana escorted The Wall around the country, and the then-RUC escorted north of the border. President McAleese paid her respects to those Irish who died when The Wall was in Queens University Belfast, along with Secretary of State for NI, Mo Mowlam. The Taoiseach laid a wreath on behalf of the Irish people when The Wall was in Adare Manor. I continued (and continue) to identify Irish dead from the conflict.’
In 2008 Gaul House Press in County Kildare published James Durney’s acclaimed book ‘Vietnam – The Irish Experience’ in 2008. As Durney observed, at least 2,500 of the men and women who served during the Vietnam War were Irish.[iv] Untold numbers were of Irish descent; Tim Pat Coogan recalled coming across a ‘Shamrock Squadron’ of 22 Irish-American piloted helicopters in Vietnam.
Irish soldiers were in the action from the moment US troops began arriving in droves after the Gulf of Tonkin incident led to a considerable escalation of the conflict in 1964. Among them was Michael Coyne, now living in Jenkinstown, Co Meath, who was injured five times during his 16 months in Vietnam. Coyne received five Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.
The war also accounted for the deaths of 28 Irishmen and one Irishwoman who were killed in action, or died in accidents or perished of natural causes.[v]
Among the most vocal supporters of the war was Cardinal Francis Spellman, arguably the most powerful man in 1960s New York, whose father was a shoemaker from Clonmel, County Tipperary.[vi]
On the other hand, Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain had been one of the sparks that compelled a young Paris-based Vietnamese Marxist called Ho Chí Minh to lead Vietnam’s fight for independence from France. Interested in the Easter Rising, Ho was particularly impressed by Terence MacSwiney’s death from hunger strike, remarking ‘A nation that has such citizens will never surrender’. He also studied Tom Barry’s book, ‘Guerrilla Days in Ireland,’ which he would put to good use himself when he led North Vietnam during its wars against the French and the USA.[vii]
In February 1966 Bob Gallagher returned to Ireland on a surprise trip that lasted three weeks. It seems likely he had already completed his three months of training by this time. Pat Nee, a fellow Marine from Galway, likened the experience to ‘12 weeks of pure hell’. However, Gallagher did not tell his family that he had joined the Marines. ‘I was afraid you might worry too much,’ he wrote to them in January 1967, ‘so I made my aunt and sisters in New York promise they would not tell you I was there.’
By the time Ireland was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in April 1966, Gallagher was serving as a Lance-Corporal in the jungles of south-east Asia. Three months later, while stationed in Quang Tri Province in north central Vietnam, he performed the act that was to win him the Navy Cross.
On 18 July Gallagher and three other Marines were quietly manning a defensive, riverside post near the border at Cam Lo when a party of Viet Cong guerrilla fighters ambushed them with grenades. Gallagher managed to kick the first grenade out of the post before it exploded. A second grenade then landed on the ground between two of his comrades. The citation for his Navy Cross explains what happened next.
‘Without hesitation, in a valiant act of self-sacrifice, Corporal Gallagher threw himself upon the deadly grenade in order to absorb the explosion and save the lives of his comrades.’
Remarkably, none of the Marines were wounded, despite the fact two more grenades landed in the post and exploded. The grenade upon which Gallagher was lying had still not exploded either. His squad leader ordered him to roll over and hurl the grenade into the river. Gallagher did just that; the grenade exploded on impact with the water.
Gallagher was rightly applauded for saving his comrades ‘from probable injury and possible loss of life’. His action also rang loudly with the Marine’s code of ‘Semper Fi’ (Always Faithful).
‘It is a pleasure to pin this on your breast,’ said General William Westmoreland, deputy commander of the US in Vietnam, when he awarded Gallagher his Navy Cross. Frank Erwin, one of his fellow Marines wrote: ‘I remember Patrick Gallagher, the bravest Marine that ever wore the uniform. He was so proud the day General Westmoreland presented him with the Navy Cross. We had our picture taken together.’[viii]
At the ceremony, Gallagher was apparently told that he would have been ‘a shoe-in’ for the Congressional Medal of Honour, the USA’s highest military honour, if the grenade had exploded and killed him.
Gallagher was almost bashful when he told his parents the news in his letter of January 27. ‘It was not much, but they made a big thing of it … I had planned on not telling you myself until I got back to the US.’
When word of his award reached Ireland, there was considerable excitement. RTÉ News dispatched Seán Duignan to interview his family while Ballyhaunis Junior Chamber of Commerce began gearing up to light up the town for Gallagher’s planned home-coming on April 14.
However, glum news reached the parish. Four Irish soldiers were killed in Vietnam in March 1967.[ix] The last of the four was Corporal Gallagher who was killed on the morning of 30 March, just over eight weeks after he wrote to his parents. He was part of a squad on patrol at Dai Loc, near the coastal city of Dà Nang when ambushed by the Viet Cong. Bob Gallagher was one of eight Marines who died in the attack. Frank G. Erwin, who was beside Gallagher, later recalled finding his friend dead. ‘I crawled to him, rolled him over and saw that horrible stare of death on his face.’ [x] Erwin described his death as ‘a profound loss to our entire company, as everyone looked to Patrick for courage in battle.’ Erwin would later name one of his sons Patrick in honour of his Irish friend.
The news was wired to the American embassy in Dublin who made contact with Father Rushe, parish priest in Ballyhaunis. Following the Mass on Sunday, Fr. Rushe informed Bob Gallagher’s parents of the sad news. Gallagher’s younger sister Teresa Keegan, now Dublin City Councillor for Cabra-Finglas, was in her early teens when Bob died and clearly remembers seeing her mum’s desolate face when she learned the news.
On a day that had once been marked to celebrate his homecoming, Bob’s casket was escorted to Ballyhaunis by his cousin Staff Sergeant Gerard Moylan. The Western People wrote: ‘The funeral to the new cemetery was one of the largest ever to pass through the town of Ballyhaunis.’ Among those who attended the funeral were the parents of Christy Nevin of Claremorris, who had been killed in Vietnam a year earlier, and Mary Freyne of Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, whose 21-year-old son Bernard was one of the other four Irishmen killed in March 1967.
Staff Sergeant Moylan laid a wreath on the grave on behalf of the US forces before presenting the American flag, which draped the coffin, along with the Navy Cross insignia and the citation to Mrs Gallagher. Bob was buried in a tomb in Ballyhaunis constructed by his old school friends. His name is recalled on the USA Memorial in Castlebar, as well as on Panel 17 East of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington.
The Gallaghers also received a letter from Bobby Kennedy who wrote: ‘Winston Churchill said, ‘Courage is rightly esteemed as the first of all human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others’. This courage, Corporal Gallagher gave to us all. To him and to his family are due the thanks of a humbly grateful nation.’
[iii] One of his brothers was also a carpenter. Patrick also won first prize for a vegetable plot at the vocational school.
[iv] They served variously in the army personnel of the US, Australia or New Zealand forces. Most of the five million who died were Vietnamese; the US lost 58,000 men while Australia, one of its main allies, lost 496.
[v] Sgt Patrick Nevin from Claremorris, Co Mayo, was killed in February 1966 after coming across hostile gunfire.
Dubliner Paul Maher was 20 when he died in an explosion set up by the Viet Cong in March 1966.
John Collopy of Limerick was killed a week before his 21st birthday in July 1967.
Pamela Donovan was the only known Irish woman to have lost her life. The 26-year-old, who was born in Liverpool to parents from Dublin, was deployed in the US Army Nurses Corp and died from what was recorded as “illness/injury” less than three months after arriving in Vietnam.
[vi] According to Tim Pat Coogan, Spellman “ruled New York from 1939 to 1968”. His support impressed Lyndon B Johnson greatly and Spellman had much clout in Washington. (Coogan, Tim Pat, Wherever Green is Worn, p. 302).
[vii] Berresford Ellis, Peter (1996). A History of the Irish Working Class (new ed.). London: Pluto Press. p. 254. ISBN 0-7453-1103-2.) In 1923, H? Chí Minh met Sean MacBride, the IRA veteran, in Paris.
[viii] ‘Vietnam: Our Story – One on One’, Gary D. Gullickson (V V Publishing, Minnesota, 1992), p. 49.
[ix] Eight Irish-born soldiers died in 1967. March 1967 was the single worst month for the Irish soldiers serving in Vietnam when four men died. The four men were Bernard ‘Brian Og’ Freyne from Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, Mike Smith of Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, John Coyle of Birmingham (whose parents were from Cavan) and Corporal Patrick Gallagher of Ballyhaunis.
[x] ‘Vietnam: Our Story – One on One’, Gary D. Gullickson (V V Publishing, Minnesota, 1992), p. 49. Mr Erwin included a rather gruesome detail which I have opted to leave out of this piece as the request of Bob’s family.
On Monday, Leo Varadkar will meet with leaders of the Choctaw in Durant, Oklahoma, to thank them for the succour that their ancestors provided during the time of the Famine … here is my account of that extraordinary donation.
Above: In the summer of 2015, Kindred Spirits, a beautiful sculpture by Alex Pentek, was unveiled at Bailic Park in Midleton, County Cork, to commemorate the Choctaw Nation and their kindness to the Irish. The sculpture comprises of an empty bowl made from nine giant stainless-steel eagle feathers. Gary Batton, present chief of the Choctaw Nation, attended the unveiling and declared: ‘These are great healing moments. A great moment for us to show our respect back to them as nation to nation. A chance to stand up and say, ‘A, Chata Sia.’ ‘Yes, I am Choctaw.
Skullyville, Oklahoma – Tuesday 23 March 1847
On that spring day, as Major William Armstrong surveyed those who had gathered in the small timber agency where he lived, he must have experienced mixed emotions. For one thing, the meeting had been summoned to raise money for ‘the relief of the starving…
Above: In the summer of 2015, Kindred Spirits, a sculpture by Alex Pentek was unveiled at Bailic Park in Midleton, County Cork, to commemorate the Choctaw Nation and their kindness to the Irish. The beautiful work comprises of an empty bowl made from nine giant stainless-steel eagle feathers. Gary Batton, present chief of the Choctaw Nation, attended the unveiling and declared: “These are great healing moments. A great moment for us to show our respect back to them as nation to nation. A chance to stand up and say, ‘A, Chata Sia.’ ‘Yes, I am Choctaw.'” You can view a Nationwide special on the Choctaw and Alex Pentek’s sculpture at this link on RTÉ Player.
Skullyville, Oklahoma – Tuesday 23 March 1847
On that spring day, as Major William Armstrong surveyed those who had gathered in the small timber agency where he lived, he must have experienced mixed emotions. For one thing, the meeting had been summoned to raise money for ‘the relief of the starving poor of Ireland’, the birthplace of his own father. For another, while the crowd included many missionaries and traders, much of the $170 subscribed at day’s end would come from the chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, who were also present.[i]
Major Armstrong had known these Choctaw men for many long years, having served as the US government’s chief agent in the region since 1832. He had been with them through the ‘Trail of Tears’, in which perhaps as many as four thousand Choctaw men, women and children perished when they were bullied out of their ancestral homelands and forced to cross the River Mississippi.
The major’s wife, Nancy, and his older brother Frank had been as keen as he was to help the Choctaw, but both died in the wake of the Trail of Tears. And when the 52-year-old Armstrong himself succumbed in the summer of 1847, less than three months after the Skullyville meeting for the ‘white brethren of Ireland’, the chief of the Choctaw Nation, Colonel David Folsom, would recall him as ‘our father and our friend’.[ii]
Oral histories collected in the nineteenth century include tantalising suggestions that the ancestors of the Choctaw Nation were hunting for mammoths over 12,000 years ago. Nanih Waiya, an ancient grass-covered earth mound held sacred by the Choctaw, lay at the heart of their ancestral lands in the Mississippi region. During the eighteenth century they traded with French, British and Spanish alike, but following the Treaty of Hopewell (1786) they became close allies of the United States itself.
When Britain went to war against the US in 1812, many Choctaw warriors served in the American army of Andrew Jackson, particularly during the crushing defeat he inflicted on the Creek Indians, Britain’s erstwhile allies, as well as in the successful rescue operation of two hundred Tennessee Riflemen from a British ambush.[iii] David Folsom was among the 50 or 60 young Choctaw warriors who were still with Jackson’s army when he annihilated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. .
However, the Choctaw’s credit with Jackson amounted to little when he became President of the United States fourteen years later. During the 1830s ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson was responsible for transplanting numerous American Indian tribes, including the Choctaw, over the western frontier and appropriating their ancestral lands for settlement. Jackson, whose parents were both born in County Antrim, Ireland, had barely been elected to the White House when he persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in June 1830, thereby legitimising his ruthless eviction policy.
Much of Jackson’s focus was on the fertile lands east of the River Mississippi belonging to five nations, including the Choctaw, known as the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ by the Anglo-European colonists and settlers of the period. The state of Mississippi had been admitted to the Union in 1817. Twelve years later Mississippi passed resolutions that declared Choctaw lands ‘state property’ and ‘terminated’ Choctaw sovereignty, thereby making the Choctaw communities subject to the state’s laws and open to possible attack by the militia.
In September 1830 the Choctaw minkos (chiefs) signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the last of seven such land treaties, by which they ceded nearly 11 million acres of their ancestral homeland in present-day Alabama and Mississippi to the US. In return, the Choctaw were to receive 15 million acres of wilderness across the Mississippi in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), lands that had already been obtained by a cessional treaty a decade earlier.
By Christmas, 1831, an estimated seven thousand Choctaw had set off for the Indian Territory, where the US had promised to leave them to their own devices. In the widely published ‘Farewell Letter to the American People’ (1832) one of the minkos, George W. Harkins, explained that ‘we as Choctaws rather chose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, where our voice could not be heard in their formation.’ [iv]
In December 1831 the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville chanced to witness ‘a large troop’ of Choctaw men, women and children stumbling out of the forest near Memphis, Tennessee, on their way to the Mississippi.[v] He also observed an American agent who, with the aid of a wad of banknotes, managed to induce a steamboat captain to escort the group ‘sixty leagues further’ downriver into Arkansas.
De Tocqueville watched as the Choctaw ‘advanced mournfully’ towards the steamboat. The horses were loaded first; several took fright and plunged into the river, from which they were ‘pulled out only with difficulty’. Then came the men and women, with their children either attached to their backs or wrapped in blankets. And finally the elderly hobbled on, including a desperately emaciated, semi-naked woman who, de Tocqueville learned, was reckoned to be 110 years old. ‘To leave one’s country at that age to seek one’s fortune in a foreign land, what misery!’ opined de Tocqueville.[vi] The Frenchman also knew that the promise that the Choctaw would be left alone on the far side of the Mississippi was a joke; he felt it would be ten years at most before the insatiable white man came looking for more land.
‘In the whole scene,’ continued De Tocqueville , ‘there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas [sic] were leaving their country. ‘To be free,’ he answered. – I could never get any other reason out of him … It is a singular fate that brought us to Memphis to watch the expulsion, one can say the dissolution, of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.’[vii]
De Tocqueville was right to feel so gloomy. That first migration of the Choctaw proved utterly devastating, coinciding with one of the coldest winters ever recorded. Endless blizzards, flash floods, pestilent swamps and iced-up rivers combined with a cholera epidemic and malnutrition to kill thousands of the hapless migrants. When they finally reached Little Rock a Choctaw minko was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette as describing the trek as a ‘trail of tears and death’. After a journey of 600 miles, the survivors would later settle in what became the state of Oklahoma, the name being Choctaw for ‘red people’.
Numbers tend to vary wildly, but it is thought that, between 1830 and 1834, about 12,500 Choctaw embarked on the Trail of Tears, of whom between 1,500 and 4,000 died along the way. A further 6,000 Choctaw chose to remain in Mississippi, where they would experience considerable harassment during the 1830s and 40s from the influx of Anglo-European settlers. Many continued to embark on the Trail of Tears, with a thousand Choctaw migrants making the journey in 1846 alone, while many more simply succumbed to the alternative reality bestowed by an addiction to whiskey.[viii]
When one reads of the Trail of Tears – or, indeed, of the Great Famine in Ireland – one is generally inclined to think that the scoundrels who allowed these grim events to happen must have been the most villainous blackguards that ever lived. I assumed that those who orchestrated the ‘forced relocation’ of the Choctaw were the sort of yobbos you see in cowboy films who yelp with delight as they set fire their to tipis. However, history is rarely that simple. Contemporary correspondence suggests that Frank and William Armstrong – the two principal government figures during the Trail of Tears era – were utterly appalled by what happened to the Choctaw that cruel winter.
Like Andrew Jackson, the Armstrong brothers were of Scots-Irish stock. Colonel James Armstrong, their father, was born in 1736 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and is said to have been a son of the Rev. Gustavus Armstrong.[ix] He was known as ‘Trooper’ Armstrong from his time with the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, a regiment of the British army largely mustered in Ulster. A contemporary later recalled ‘his superb figure and great physical strength, as well as his skill and enterprise.’[x] Trooper Armstrong is thought to have served in the Seven Years’ War, in which the Inniskillings fought with great distinction at the Battles of Minden and Wetter in 1759. He subsequently left the army and immigrated to America shortly after the Revolutionary War. By 1786 he had settled in Abingdon, Virginia, and married Susan Wells, daughter of Charles Wells, founder of Wellsburg, West Virginia.
In July 1791 Trooper Armstrong’s gentlemanly education came to the fore when he served as an ‘arbiter elegantiarum’ during Governor Blount’s seven-day council with the Cherokee at White’s Fort (now Knoxville), Tennessee. More than 1,200 unarmed Cherokee observed the courtly manner in which the Ulsterman presented forty-one chiefs and warriors to the governor, introducing each one by his aboriginal name.[xi]
A decade later Trooper Armstrong moved his family to a 2,500-acre farm on Flat Creek, fifteen miles from Knoxville, where he died in 1813.[xii] He was survived by two daughters and five sons. His sons fought in Andrew Jackson’s army during the Creek Wars of 1813–14 and again at the Battle of New Orleans. Such service stood them in good stead when Jackson was elected to the White House in 1829. Robert Armstrong, a particular ‘pet’ of Jackson’s, became postmaster of Nashville, while William became the town’s mayor.[xiii]
In April 1831 another brother, Frank, was despatched to the Mississippi to take a census of the Choctaw and to survey their farms before their departure.[xiv] Born in Virginia in 1783, Frank Armstrong is one of those near-miss household names: he reputedly designed a short-barrelled pocket pistol, of large calibre, and then showed the pattern to a gun-maker named Henry Derringer. When Derringer successfully manufactured the weapon, a delighted Armstrong selflessly christened it the ‘Derringer pistol’.[xv]
Many years later the Choctaw chief David Folsom would tell of how he had known Frank since 1810 and of how he had surveyed the Choctaw lands ‘faithfully and to the entire satisfaction of all concerned’.[xvi] On 7 September 1831, the day on which he completed the census, Frank was appointed agent to the Choctaw in Indian Territory. As such, he was to prepare for the arrival of all those Choctaw who would soon be spilling across that mighty, rolling, yellow river to establish a new life.[xvii] He set in motion the construction of a wagon road from Fort Smith to Red River. Built by US soldiers, the Military Road, as it became known, was fraught with complications, requiring numerous causeways across the boggy marshes.
Meanwhile, in July 1832, Frank’s younger brother William was assigned the task of looking after the remaining Choctaw on the east side of the Mississippi. Although the Armstrongs had served under the hard-nosed Jackson, they had inherited their father’s honourable demeanour as well as his respect for the Native Americans and the pioneer’s determination to improve someone’s lot. However, entrusted with the thankless task of overseeing the mass exodus, they were both badly hampered by a lack of money and resources.[xviii]
By April 1833 it was reckoned that the majority of Choctaw had crossed the river, and Frank Armstrong secured $10,000 to build a council house for the Nation, as well as houses for the chiefs of the three districts and a church in each district, which were to double as school houses until actual schools could be completed. These schools were set up at the request of the Choctaw chiefs, and most were paid for out of the money the Choctaw had obtained in exchange for land cessions. As a result, it could be argued that the Choctaw Nation had the first publicly funded school system in the US.
Frank seems to have been on good terms with the Choctaw, but it was a tough slog for everyone. When the crops failed in the dire spring of 1834 he tried to get hold of as many bushels of corn as he could to relieve the starving Choctaw, as well as commissioning looms and spinning wheels. His diplomacy was greatly prized by the government, and by 1835 he was picked to negotiate a treaty with the Comanche and other ‘wandering tribes’ west of Missouri and Arkansas. He also erected a new logwood head office, known as the Agency Building, some fifteen miles west of Fort Smith. The settlement that grew up around the building became known as Skullyville. However, Frank was struck down by an unidentified disease and died, aged fifty-two, on 6 August 1835. One wonders whether he passed away tormented by the promises he’d been unable to keep to the Choctaw, embittered by the government’s almost total failure to meet his demands during the grim trek to Indian Territory. Either way, he died and was buried at Fort Coffee in Le Flore County, Oklahoma.
At the time of his death twelve logwood schoolhouses were either finished or nearing completion. Books had been bought and ‘steady, sober, married’ candidates were being interviewed as potential teachers. Three months after Frank died his wife delivered a posthumous son, Frank, Jr, who would later earn the distinction of being the only Confederate general to start the Civil War fighting for the Union.[xix]
After Frank’s death his brother William succeeded him as Superintendent for Indian Affairs for the Western Territory. He moved across the Mississippi and occupied the Agency Building, where he was based for the next twelve years. As Chief Folsom put it, William ‘came among us with his family’, but a few months later his wife, Nancy, died. ‘My friends, but few of you knew the loss we sustained in the death of Mrs Armstrong,’ said the chief. ‘She was an excellent woman. The sympathies of her heart flowed out to the Choctaws – to the poor Choctaw women.’[xx]
Meanwhile, William had to contend with considerable discord within the Choctaw Nation itself, brought about by the apalling sorrow of the previous years. His diplomatic skills ensured that he was also deeply embroiled in negotiating the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation to the Indian Territory from their lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and the Carolinas.
Like Frank, William spent much of his time helping to create a semblance of a society for the Choctaw in their new location, with a particular emphasis on education. He had a good deal of success in this regard, and a report in the Missionary Herald of early 1847 applauded the ‘great efforts’ being made ‘by the leading men to establish schools, and a strong desire is manifested by the people to avail themselves of the benefits of schools.’[xxi] Among these buildings was a boys’ school founded in 1844, known as the Armstrong Academy, which was eventually destroyed by fire in 1921.
On 23 March 1847 William Armstrong chaired the meeting at the Agency Building in Skullyville at which the $170 was raised for Irish famine relief. It is assumed that the Choctaw contributed because they felt immense empathy for the Irish situation, having experienced such similar pain during the Trail of Tears a little over a decade earlier. The money was then forwarded to Charles Goffland, Treasurer of the Memphis Irish Relief Committee.
Of all the thousands of benevolent bodies and individuals who contributed to the General Irish Relief Committee of the City of New York in 1847, ‘the Choctaw tribe of Indians in the far West’ were regarded as the most remarkable.[xxii] The committee’s chairman was the 65-year-old Myndert Van Schaick, a veteran New York politician and former State Senator. On 22 May 1847 he wrote to Joseph Bewley and Jonathan Pim, joint secretaries of the Quaker-inspired Central Relief Committee in Ireland, stating that American contributions had thus far raised nearly $145,000, and expressing his satisfaction that the first vessels laden with ‘bread stuffs’, clothing and other provisions had already arrived in Ireland. Another ship was being loaded as he wrote.[xxiii]
Van Schaick then drew specific attention to a sum of $2,747, which had been collected by James Reyburn, president of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, from donors in Mississippi and Tennessee. Van Schaick observed that, ‘out of $170 of that sum, the largest part was contributed by the children of the forest, our red brethren of the Choctaw nation. Even those distant men have felt the force of Christian example, and have given their cheerful aid in this good cause, though they are separated from you by many miles of land and an ocean’s breadth.’[xxiv]
The $170 raised in Skullyville was not the only money raised by the Choctaw. More than 150 miles south, the citizens of Doaksville, the largest town in Indian Territory, gathered to consider ‘the benefit of the starving Irish’ in early May 1847. The meeting was chaired by Joseph R. Berthelet, a public-spirited soul who would go on to found the Milwaukee Cement Company. A total of $153 was ‘immediately subscribed’, prompting Charles de Morse, editor of the Northern Standard of Texas, to remark: ‘Considering how far in the wilderness Doaksville is situated, its small population, the fact that nothing but unprompted sympathy for distress elicited their aid, and its very great distance from the scene of the famine and from all active efforts in its behalf … we consider it very creditable to the citizens of that little place.’[xxv]
The Arkansas Intelligencer published a rather more self-congratulatory tribute on 8 May: ‘What an agreeable reflection it must give to the Christian and the philanthropist, to witness this evidence of civilization and Christian spirit existing among our red neighbors. They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from the benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism. Not only by contributing a few dollars, but by affording evidence that the labors of the Christian missionary have not been in vain.’
Curiously there is no record of the Doaksville contribution in the accounts of the General Irish Relief Committee. Nonetheless, the Choctaw money that did reach Ireland was gratefully received by the Society of Friends, who referred to it as ‘the voice of benevolence from the western wilderness of the western hemisphere.’[xxvi]
Major William Armstrong died at Doaksville, aged fifty-three, on 12 June 1847.[xxvii] He was buried in Swallow Rock Cemetery, beside his beloved wife, Nancy Irwin. Her brother and his brother are also buried there. A month after his death the Nashville Whig published Chief Folsom’s remarkable appreciation in which he commended William, ‘our father and our friend’, for being so ‘deeply interested’ in the well-being of the Choctaw. ‘He was careful to do everything he could to make our wives and little ones comfortable. He saw us settled in our homes.’ [xxviii]
Assistance to the Irish people notwithstanding, the Choctaw of Mississippi were still in torment in 1849. They described how they ‘have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.’[xxix]
The Choctaw’s generosity to the Irish was vaguely remembered during a terrible drought in 1860, which killed almost all their crops and left them on the verge of famine. Elias Rector, the Southern Superintendent of Indian Affairs, issued a reminder of their generosity in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington. ‘As we aided in sending food to starving Ireland, so we should preserve from destruction and misery these faithful allies and dependents.’[xxx]
In 1989 the author/ humanitarian and media producer Don Mullan attended a lecture in upstate New York, in which he learned of the Choctaw donation. He subsequently became the first Irish person to travel to Oklahoma, accompanied by his father-in-law, Dermot Beatty, and thanked the Choctaw for their kindness. He invited the First Nation to lead the annual AFrI Famine walk in 1990, an event that was broadcast in over 50 countries by Worldwide Television News. Mullan was made an honorary Chief of the Choctaw Nation.
In 1992 a group of twenty-two Irish men and women walked the 600-mile Trail of Tears, raising $1,000 for every dollar given by the Choctaw in 1847. The money went to relieve suffering in famine-stricken Somalia. Seven years later Gary White Deer, a member of the Choctaw Nation, reciprocated when he visited County Mayo and led the annual Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh.[xxxi]
Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, is also an honorary Choctaw chief, and a plaque acknowledging the Choctaw contribution is mounted in the Mansion House in Dublin. On 10 March 2018, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met with leaders of the Choctaw in Durant, Oklahoma, to thank them for the succour that their ancestors provided.
This story is extracted from Turtle Bunbury’s book ‘1847-A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery’, published by Gill in 2016. The acclaimed book is available via Amazon.
The following clips were filmed by the Choctaw Nation film crew while they attended the sculpture launch and visited the studio of sculptor Alex Pentek (www.alexpentek.com).
[i] On 3 April 1847 the Arkansas Intelligencer reported that ‘a considerable portion’ of the $170 raised at the Skullyville meeting was contributed by ‘the “poor Indian” sending his mite to the poor Irish!’ Quoted in Nehemiah Adams, The Life of John Eliot (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), p. 324. Another account from the Conneticut Courant of 24 April 1847 added that whole Major Armstrong took the chair, J.B. Luco was appointed Secretary. Major Armstrong read out a circular of the “Memphis Committee “, after which the meeting contributed $170. “All subscribed, Agents, Missionaries, Traders, and Indians, a considerable portion of which fund was made up by the latter.” A misprint dating from at least 1916, perhaps copied from the Arkansas Intelligencer, mistakenly put the figure at $710. It can be found in Joseph B. Thoburn, A Standard History of Oklahoma (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1916), p. 266, as well as in Joseph B. Thorburn and Muriel H. Wright, Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People, Vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1929), p. 249, and in ‘James Shannon Buchanan’, Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 30, no. 3 (September 1930), p. 353.
[iii] The Tennessee Riflemen were commanded by General Billy Carroll when a party of fifty to sixty Choctaw came to their rescue. Iti Fabussa, ‘Choctaws and the war of 1812: A high point in relations with the US’, in Biskinik,the Official Publication of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, February 2015, p. 11.
[iv] George W. Harkins, ‘Farewell Letter to the American People’ (1832). Reprinted in Wayne Moquin and Charles Van Doren (eds.), Great Documents in American Indian History  (New York: DaCapo Press, 1995), p. 151.
[viii] ‘Choctaw social and ceremonial life’, in John Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1931).
[ix] ‘James Armstrong (1736–Sept. 28, 1813)’, in Mary U. Rothrock (ed.), The French Broad-Holstein Country (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1946). His birthplace is reported by one source as ‘Knock Ma Knowles’, presumably Knockmanoul, Co. Fermanagh.
[x] Recollections of Dr J. H. Calendar, quoted in Zella Armstrong and Janie Preston Collop French, Notable Southern Families (Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1974), p. 4–16.
[xi] J. G. M. Ramsey, Annals of Tennessee (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1853), p. 555. Quoted by Carolyn Thomas Foreman, Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 15, no. 2 (June 1937), p. 293. Under the terms of the ensuing Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Holston, the loosely affiliated Cherokee tribes were to fall under the protection of the United States, while the government would oversee all foreign affairs.
[xii] In 1801 James ‘Trooper’ Armstrong, then living at Abingdon, Virginia, bought 2,180 acres from Francis Maybury, to which he added 400 acres from Nicholas Tate Perkins seven years later.
[xiii] In 1836 Brigadier-General Robert Armstrong commanded the Tennessee mounted volunteers at the Battle of Wahoo Swamp, Florida, during the Second Seminole War. In 1845, he was appointed United States consul to Liverpool, remaining in England until 1852. He was also sometime publisher of the Washington Union and a close adviser to President Polk.
[xiv] Frank’s first port of call was the office of George S. Gaines, a licensed trader and friend of the Choctaws, who noted that Frank ‘appeared to be entirely ignorant of the actual state of things’. Gaines duly introduced him to the Choctaw chiefs.
[xv] The story about Frank Armstrong showing Henry Derringer the pattern was recorded by William Park, the Donegal-born husband to Armstrong’s sister Jane (Jenny), who stated that he personally witnessed this. This story and other details about Armstrong’s connection to Derringer are covered in an appendix in Carolyn Thomas Foreman’s article ‘The Armstrongs of Indian Territory, part II: William Armstrong’, from Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 30, no. 4 (1952), at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v030/v030p292.pdf.
[xviii] In November 1831 William Armstrong went to Washington and secured $50,000, but this seems to have been only to help fund the agents orchestrating the emigration. Severe weather delayed his return until late January 1832.
[xix] Francis Wells Armstrong was buried at Swallow Rock (Fort Coffee) at Spiro in Le Flore County, Oklahoma. His wife, Anne Willard, was a Catholic from Baltimore, Maryland, who, after his death, married General Persifer Smith, military governor of Mexico City in 1847. After General Smith’s death in 1858, Anne entered a convent and became a mother superior.
[xxi] On 3 February Mr Charles C. Copeland, a licensed preacher, wrote a letter from Norwalk to the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions describing the improvement made by the Choctaws since he went to reside among them. ‘It is perceptible in every thing; and in nothing more than in the interest that is manifested in schools. Great efforts are made by the leading men to establish schools, and a strong desire is manifested by the people to avail themselves of the benefits of schools. The applicants for admission to the boarding schools would fill twice as many.’ Missionary Herald, vol. 43 (1847).
[xxii] The General Irish Relief Committee was originally ‘appointed by the inhabitants of the City of New York’ to devise ‘efficient measures for the relief of the starving poor of Ireland, to collect and transmit funds and provisions, and to do such other acts as they might from time to time think expedient.’ Full details of all those who contributed between February 1847 and February 1848 were published in Aid to Ireland: Report of the General Relief Committee of the City of New York (New York: General Relief Committee, 1848).
[xxiii] Aid to Ireland: Report of the General Relief Committee of the City of New York (New York: General Relief Committee, 1848), p. 91.
[xxiv] Aid to Ireland: Report of the General Relief Committee of the City of New York (New York: General Relief Committee, 1848), p. 92. See also p. 51. When Van Schaick read of the Choctaw’s kindness it was likely to have stirred memories of his father, Goose Van Schaick, an officer in George Washington’s Continental Army, who received the thanks of Congress in 1779 for the ‘activity and good conduct’ displayed by his troops in ‘the late expedition against the Onondagas’ of upstate New York. The Onondaga Indians, one of the constituent nations of the Iroquois, were being punished because some of their warriors had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Colonel Van Schaick’s force of 558 men attacked their principal settlement along Onondaga Creek, methodically burning fifty houses, along with their provisions and stores. Van Schaick took thirty-two prisoners without losing a single man. However, the thanks extended by Congress made no mention of the alleged rape and murder of Onondaga women, or the killing of the Onondaga’s cattle. Nor did it observe that the settlement was largely undefended because all the Onondaga warriors were away.
[xxv] Northern Standard, 5 May 1847. Quoted in Richard B. Marrin and Lorna Geer Sheppard, The Paradise of Texas: Clarksville and Red River County, 1846–1860 (Clarksville, Tex.: Heritage Books, 2007), p. 235–6.
[xxvi] Quoted by Christine Kinealy in A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997), p. 111.
[xxvii] The Armstrong family had been heavily involved with Native Americans for nearly sixty years by this time. As one descendant put it in the 1930s, ‘their humanity to the Indians under their charge caused them to be loved by the red men.’ Carolyn Thomas Foreman, ‘The Armstrongs of Indian Territory, part II: William Armstrong’, Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 30, no. 4 (1952), p. 292.
Correspondence in the Baltimore Patriot, 15 July 1847 (www.history.vt.edu/MxAmWar/Newspapers/MG/MG1847fJulyDec.htm), suggests that William Armstrong’s 23-year-old son, a lawyer in St Louis, was in the running to succeed him in his post. The other candidate was Major Arnold Harris, son-in-law of Brigadier-General Robert Armstrong. However, the man who ultimately succeeded appears to have been Samuel M. Rutherford (see footnote 6 at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v007/v007p152.html).
The Agency Building later became home to Tandy Walker (1814–77), a mixed- race Choctaw and sometime governor of the Choctaw Nation. It was considered the oldest building in Oklahoma when it was destroyed by fire in 1947.
[xxviii] Nashville Whig, 16 July 1847. A fuller version of Chief Folsom’s speech can be found at http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Armstrong-1995. It was previously believed that Major Armstrong’s remains were brought to Nashville City Cemetery for burial. In January 2019, I was contacted by Mary Perkins whose late husband was a great-grandson of Major Armstrong’s son David and a grandson of David’s daughter Lucretia, who married Dr.Rufus Carroll. She kindly informed me of her discovery of the major’s burial at Swallow Rock.
[xxix] ‘Three efforts at development among the Choctaws of Mississippi’, in Walter L. Williams (ed.), Southeastern Indians Since the Removal Era (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1979), p. 142–53.
[xxx] The letter states: ‘The Choctaws and Chickasaws are, it is believed, the greatest sufferers from drought; their crops have almost wholly failed, and it is thought that many will perish for want of food, unless some provision is made by the government to relieve them. Humanity urges that the department should ascertain their condition and necessities …’ Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1860), p. 117.
[xxxi] It is sometimes said that the Choctaws’ attention was caught by the story of the Doolough Tragedy in Co. Mayo, in which at least sixteen people perished in a blizzard while seeking to obtain relief from the Poor Law Union. However, the Doolough Tragedy ocurred on 30 March 1849, two years after the Choctaw donation. This horrific event took place when a desolate group went to the town of Louisburgh to be assessed for famine relief by the Board of Governors. When they arrived they were told the two commissioners had gone on to Delphi Lodge, a hunting lodge 12 km south. The group were advised to be there for assessment at seven o’clock the following morning, but when they arrived they were turned away. In appalling cold and sleet they attempted the return journey to Louisburgh, but many perished along the way. The bodies of seven men, women and children were found on the roadside. Another nine disappeared, either washed into the open waters of Doolough or Killary. Local lore puts the figure considerably higher.
The AFRI (‘Action from Ireland’) Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh has taken place annually since 1988 and was famously led by Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1991.
[xxxii] Adam Kemp, ‘Ireland recognizes gift from Choctaw Nation during potato famine’, Oklahoman, 23 March 2015.
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 part of a successful protest against a threat by the British government to introduce conscription in Ireland.[i]
Joseph Blake from Drumcondra had been particularly active in the strike. Two of his sons served with the Volunteers during the Easter Rising; one died of his wounds.[ii]
Matthew Brophy of Phibsboro had just learned that his wife was pregnant with their first child. Adam Smyth from Sandycove was called in at the last minute when a colleague fell ill.[iii] Just before he boarded the ship, Adam saw his eldest daughter Daisy running towards him, armed with sandwiches his wife had just made for him.
Although her main purpose was to carry mail, the Leinster was also transporting 187 civilians – men, women and children.[iv] Civilians were the primary source of income for the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company, which had operated the Leinster and three sister ships on the Kingstown-Holyhead route since before the war. Each ship was named for an Irish province.
Some of the passengers were very well-to-do, such as Lady Phyllis Hamilton, eldest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Abercorn and a sister to Lady Wicklow.
Jocelyn Alexander, a poet, was the eldest son of the Protestant Primate of All Ireland; his mother was the hymn writer Mrs. Cecil Frances Humphreys who penned such classics as ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ [v]
As a past pupil of Winchester College (or Old Wykehamist, as they are called), he may have exchanged words with another Winchester pupil, Bob King, a 14-year-old butterfly enthusiast who had been visiting his family in Dundrum. Bob’s father was Professor of Oriental Languages in Trinity College Dublin; his mother was a sister of the press barons Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere. [vi]
Widowed just over three months earlier, Fanny Wookey was sailing home to live with her family in England. She apparently carried a bag of gold sovereigns given to her by a Latvian Jew in return for the sale of her late husband’s business, the Wookey Linen Mills in Leixlip, County Kildare. [vii]
John Ross, secretary of the Howth Yacht Club, was on his way to a scouting conference in England.
Fanny Saunders was going to visit her dying daughter in Wales; she had bought a new pair of red shoes for the trip. [viii]
Elsewhere on the ship, some 500 soldiers were milling about, mostly preparing to rejoin their units in the UK and beyond.[ix]
Ernest Lee, a captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps, was heading back to the Western Front where he had been based for four long years. Many were aware of his incredible heroism during the battle of Ypres. His father Edward Lee, a draper, was one of Ireland’s best-known businessmen; as well as operating the largest retailer in Dun Laoghaire, he had been the only employer to serve on Tom Kettle’s Peace Committee during the 1913 Lockout.[x]
Forty-year-old Arthur Cohen had moved to Ireland from Lithuania as a teenager and tried his hand at many things, including stints as a railway porter and as a gold prospector in South Africa. His biggest venture was the Donegal Clothing and Home Furnishing Company, based in Belfast. However, its failure in 1916 ultimately left him with little option but to join the army so he could secure a regular income for his wife Mollie and their son Louis. And so it was that he was on board the Leinster, headed, he thought, for the frontlines.[xi]
Private Patrick Faughlin of the 3rd Battalion of the Leinster Regiment had come home from the frontlines to meet his baby son.
Alexander Burleigh from Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, had been visiting his older brother, Andrew, an injured soldier, at a hospital in Dublin. Travelling with him was an Australian relative, Edwin Johnson Carter, who had also been wounded.
Margaret and May O’Grady, two young nurses from Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, were returning to their duties in England after a holiday with their parents.
The 77-strong-crew was predominantly Irish or Welsh. They included William Maher, a moustachioed Boer War veteran who worked as a stoker, and the Greaser Connolly, whose son Tom was a cabin boy on the ship.
Jem Carraher, a seasoned mariner from Cahore, Co Wexford, had been at sea since he was 13. As the Leinster’s bosun, he looked after her rigging, anchors and cables.
In charge of this entire operation was Dublin-born William Birch, the 61-year-old captain of the ship, who had been sailing the seas for nearly half a century.[xii]
Shortly before 9 o’clock that Thursday morning, Captain Birch gave the signal; the Leinster left her moorings on Carlisle Pier and set off on its last voyage from Kingstown.
Nobody should cross the Irish Sea without a degree of trepidation, not least in a time of war, when German U-boats are on the prowl. Although the Germans had suspended attacks on merchant ships in the wake of the uproar over the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, there had been a shift in the Kaiser’s naval policy since late 1917 and many ships had been sunk.
As such, the Leinster’s 230-foot long exterior had been painted with zig-zag lines, the clever camouflage employed by many merchant ships at this time. A twelve-pound gun was also mounted on her stern, along with a three-man team of Royal Navy gunners to man it. This explains the origin of some live artillery shells divers found on the ship in the 1980s. The shells inspired a certain amount of baseless conspiracy thereafter, with allegations that the ship was transporting armaments, but she was certainly carrying troops and that arguably made her a legitimate target.
Moreover, with no escort, she was still exceedingly vulnerable.
Below sea-level, Oberleutnant Robert Ramm of UB–123 scanned the waters for suitable quarry.
The weather was fine but the Irish Sea was rough after a recent storm. As the Leinster steamed by the Kish Bank, it passed RMS Ulster, her sister mailboat, returning from Holyhead. Adam Smyth must have thought of his eldest son Daniel, a cabin boy on the Ulster.
Shortly after 9.30, the Leinster passed the Kish Light Vessel. And then, approximately 16 miles from Dun Laoghaire, Ramm’s submarine spotted the ship and fired.
When passengers on the Leinster saw the first torpedo approach, they initially thought it was a porpoise. As it crossed the bow, narrowly missing them, the shock of realisation set in.
Captain Birch was informed and immediately ordered the ship to turn about and head back to Kingstown, following a zig-zag course. When the Leinster was launched in 1897, she was one of the fastest ships at sea with a speed of 24 knots; the captain had reasonable grounds to hope he could outrun the submarine.[xiii]
Sensing further trouble, he also ordered the lifeboats to be lowered but unfortunately the horror was only just beginning.
Ramm’s second torpedo struck slammed into the port side, right beside the postal sorting quarters. The ladder connecting the quarters to the upper deck was also destroyed and all but one of the 22 sorters either drowned or were killed in the initial explosion.
Captain Birch was blown off the bridge into the sea, as a torrent of water began gushing into the ship through holes in both her port and starboard sides.
In desperation, the crew tried to alter course and lower the lifeboats but the panic was rife. Many had already tumbled into the icy waters and started to drown.
Some heads remained unruffled.
Louie Parry, a fun-loving 22-year-old stewardess, instantly ran down to the lower decks to bring women and children up, handing out lifejackets.
Alderman Michael Joyce, the nationalist MP for Limerick since 1918 and a founder member of Garryowen Rugby club, was reading a newspaper in the smoke-room when the first torpedo struck. Having already survived four shipwrecks in his life, the 68-year-old calmly made his was onto one of the lowered lifeboats, which quickly went around collecting people from the sea.
‘We are quite alright,’ Lady Phyllis Hamilton assured crewmembers. ‘Not a bit excited, don’t worry about us.’
That was just before a third torpedo ripped into the starboard side of the ship, penetrating through to the engine room. As one witness put it, the ensuing explosion ‘shattered the ship like matchwood.’ It blew the funnels into pieces; splinters riddled the deck, killing several passengers.[xiv]
The Leinster plunged, bow first, hurling the majority of passengers on the forward deck into the water. Lady Phyllis handed her lifejacket to someone else, saying ‘I’m a strong swimmer.’
Louie Parry was trying to get a woman and child out of their cabin when the second torpedo hit. Their cabin door slammed on all three of them; their bodies were never recovered.
As the ship was sinking, Ernest Lee helped a fellow officer with a metal splint in his arm to put on his life jacket. He also helped a nurse with her life jacket and then swam out to a lifeboat. However, he then jumped back into the sea to help a woman and child in distress. Having got them safely on board, he suddenly disappeared from sight.
Edward Shortt, Lloyd George’s Chief Secretary (and future Home Secretary), was a passenger on the incoming Ulster and watched aghast as the Leinster sank beneath the waves.[xv]
Arthur Cohen had managed to clamber onto a raft after the first hit but fell back into the freezing water amid the turbulence of the second strike. All around him the sea was now full of men, women and children, terrified, screaming, dying. Some struggled into lifeboats while others, like Arthur, clung on to floating pieces of wood or debris. A self-professed atheist, Arthur vowed that he would say his morning prayers forever more if he survived.
William Maher plunged into the cold waters. A strong swimmer, the fireman had just reached an upturned lifeboat when he saw 13-year-old Dorothy Topping struggling in the water. He dove back in, grabbed her and held onto her for 2½ hours until the rescue boat arrived. She later presented him with a watch as a symbol of her thanks.[xvi]
Captain Birch was pulled into the lifeboat “Big Bertha”, his legs smashed, his eye badly cut.
The bosun Jem Carraher managed to push a raft into the water and gathered up several people, including a baby. Together they prayed for rescue.
The dreadful news had now reached the Admiralty at Kingstown who dispatched fifteen vessels, tugboats and torpedo destroyers to the scene.[xvii] However, amid fears of more torpedo strikes, the first rescue boats did not arrive until almost 90 minutes after the initial attack, by which time unknown numbers had perished.
The torpedo destroyer, HMS Lively, eventually picked up 127 survivors but when its crew began throwing ropes at Big Bertha, there was such a mad scramble to catch them that the lifeboat capsized. Captain Birch was never seen again.
The destroyers Seal and Mallard rescued 51 and 20 people respectively.
All survivors were brought to Victoria Wharf, Kingstown, to receive medical care and comfort. Boats continued to arrive back with survivors and the bodies of the dead until night fell. The bodies were placed in piles along the pier, their heads hanging, one to the left, one to the right, as distraught families jostled with the press to identify their loved ones.
Fanny Saunders’ younger sister broke her heart when she saw a pair of familiar red shoes poking out from one of the body blankets. Fanny’s sickly daughter Janet Owens died three days later.
Also found among the dead were Nurse Margaret O’Grady, Alexander Burleigh, Adam Smyth and Jocelyn Alexander.[xviii]
Fanny Wookey’s body was also recovered and she was buried in Leixlip; the fate of her bag of gold is unknown.
When John Brophy failed to find the body of his brother Matthew, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother or Mathew’s pregnant wife, Molly. He arranged for an empty coffin to be buried alongside his father in Glasnevin. Molly gave birth to her first child in July 1919; she named the boy Matthew.
Ernest Lee’s body washed ashore in Gorey a week later. The woman and child who he rescued later called to his parents to express their immense gratitude and told how Ernest had smiled so encouragingly as he saved them.
Lady Phyllis Hamilton’s body was never found.
Nor was that of John Ross.
Nor Bob King, the butterfly boy.
Nor Patrick Faughlin, whose wife Mary, unsure of his whereabouts, rightly feared the worst when his frequent letters ceased on 18 October.[xix]
Nor did they find nineteen-year-old Josephine Carr, a shorthand typist from Cork, who thus had the unhappy distinction of being the first member of the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) to be killed on active service.
Jem Carraher, the bosun, made it ashore and waked quietly past the row of dead bodies, a blanket over his shoulder, and home to his wife and children on Findlater Street.[xx]
Arthur Cohen was hospitalised with pneumonia for six months but kept his vow to say his prayers. He later became a cinema magnate in Britain, running the London and Southern Super Cinemas, which built several large cinemas named Ambassador, and also took over a number of existing halls. He died penniless when his housekeeper embezzled the funds.
Tom Connolly, the cabin boy, survived when John Donohoe, the Chief Stoker, gave him his own life-jacket. Remarkably Donohoe also lived, as did Tom’s father, the Greaser. Tom later established the first supermarket in Dun Laoghaire.
Alderman Joyce declared he had ‘never had a more trying experience than he had that morning’. He died in his bed in his 90th year
It is not certain how many died. The official death toll of 501 but there were at least 550. The reason for the discrepancy is that (as on many ferries) people did not have to give their name in order to buy a ticket. In any case, it was very much an Irish tragedy; more Irish people died in the sinking of the Leinster than on either Titanic or Lusitania. The fact that the ship sank within sight of Dun Laoghaire was particularly shocking and brought the war right to the Irish shore in a way that hadn’t happened before.
The authorities refused to hold an official public inquiry despite an outcry over the failure to provide the ship with an escort; the Germans had warned that all ships within the exclusion zone surrounding Britain were liable to be sunk. As such, the Leinster was deemed a legitimate target and its sinking was a thus an act of war. Such a conclusion had unhappy consequences for families seeking compensation. Nor did it help the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company, which went bust in the early 1920s.
Sinn Fein effectively capitalized on the failure to hold an inquiry during their triumphant General Election campaign in December 1918, just two months after the disaster.
The wreck of the Leinster is presently embedded in the sands about 30 m or 100 feet below sea level. She was bought by the late Des Branigan, an archaeological diver and maritime historian, widely hailed for his research into Spanish Armada vessels on the west coast of Ireland. He bought her to stop the plunder of artefacts from the vessel. It is hoped that the wreck will become State property on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking.
As for UB-123, the submarine that sank the Leinster … just nine days later the entire crew died when it struck a mine in the North Sea.
If there was any upside to the tragedy, it did speed up the end of the war. The German government had, in fact, being pushing for peace talks since early October. However, on hearing of the Leinster’s fate, US President Woodrow Wilson remarked on 14 October:
‘At the very time that the German government approaches the government of the United States with proposals of peace its submarines are engaged in sinking passenger ships at sea.’
Six days later, Germany agreed to cease attacks on merchant ships. An armistice was agreed and the First World War formally ended on 11 November 1918.
With thanks to David Cotter, Philip Lecane and Linda Maher of the Irish Daily Mail.
Please visit www.rmsleinster.com for regular bulletins as plans for the centenary are developed. Anyone with information about, or photos of, their RMS Leinster relatives are likewise encouraged to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] They also included Tom Bolster, one of three players with the Davis GAA Club, and two more players from Glasthule Mitchels. ‘The Last Voyage of the Leinster’ book erroneously gives Tom’s age as 15. In fact, he had served in the Post Office for 15 years.
[ii] Joseph Blake’s son Jack Blake apparently died of wounds received as a volunteer in the 1916 Rising. Does anyone know which area he served in? Another son Joe Blake Junior served under De Valera in Boland’s Mill during the Rising. One of Joseph’s daughters was mother to Liam Whelan, the Busby Babe killed in the Munich air crash in 1958. Another was grandmother to Aidan Gillen, the actor who plays Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in ‘Game of Thrones.’ The Blake family played a prominent role during the War of Independence and Michael Collins regularly stayed in their home in Drumcondra. Joseph’s in-laws were the Fay family, closely involved with he Abbey Theatre.
[iii] The second of 11 children, Adam Smyth grew up on Sandycove Road and was himself married with nine children aged between two and 17.
[iv] Many of the passengers had stayed the previous night in Dun Laoghaire at Ross’s Victoria Hotel, the Royal Marine or Salthill Hotel.
[v] (Robert) Jocelyn Alexander (1852-1918), third son of Mrs. Cecil Frances Humphreys and her husband, Sir William Alexander, the Protestant Primate of All Ireland the Most Reverend. His only son had died in infancy over forty years earlier. The 66-year-old Oxford graduate, poet and HM Inspectorate of Schools was buried in Derry near his parents.
[vi] Alfred Curzon King, as Bob was formally called, had been visiting his family at Roebuck Hall in Dundrum; his father, Sir Lucas King, was Professor of Oriental Languages in Trinity College Dublin while his mother, Geraldine, was the eldest sister of the press barons Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere. It was nearly four years since his older brother Luke was killed in action at Ypres.
[vii] Fanny Wookey was the English wife of Frederick Wookey, Justice of the Peace and owner of the Wookey Linen Mills, once the largest employer in the Leixlip area of County Kildare, with 50 staff. During the 1913 Lockout, Frederick became notorious for locking out members of the ITGWU, despite there being no dispute among the workers. Their eldest son was killed in France during the war. After Frederick’s death on 6 July 1918, Fanny sold the business to Benny Wolfsson, a Jewish refugee from Latvia who had come to Ireland in 1903. He paid her a bag of gold sovereigns as a down payment. She was returning to England to live with her relatives. Her body was recovered and she was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard in Leixlip next to her husband and, in due course, their only surviving child, Frances Norah Wookey, who died in 1939.
[viii] Fanny Saunders’ husband was one of the lifeboat men who died in the 1895 Dun Laoghaire Christmas Eve tragedy.
[ix] Transporting soldiers was compulsory during the war; the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company was ordered to provide space on each crossing for soldiers. On occasion there were rowdy scenes when paying passengers were turned away because there were so many soldiers on board that the ship was at maximum capacity. The soldiers came from all over the world. Many had gone to Ireland on leave.
[x] Having studied medicine in Trinity, Ernest Lee was working as a medical officer on a cruise ship when war broke out. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and spent the next four years in Flanders and France, being widely applauded for his work on the front lines during the Battle of Ypres.
His father Edward Lee, the son of a Methodist tenant farmer from Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath, was born in 1853 and married Annie Shackleton from Dungar, County Offaly. Only four of their nine children reached adulthood but their drapery business was so successful that they were able to send their sons to boarding school and to Trinity College Dublin. The family lived in The Grange, Stillorgan, County Dublin. Edward served on Bray Urban District Council and owned, among other things, the biggest retail outlet in Dun Laoghaire, which stood on the site of present-day Dunne Stores at 22 to 24 upper Georges Street. During the 1913 Lockout, Edward Lee was the only employer to join Tom Kettle’s Dublin Peace Committee, which tried but failed to find a resolution to the conflict.
Ernest Lee’s brothers Joseph and Tennyson were with the 6th Munster Fusiliers during the bloody landing at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli in August 1915; Joseph was killed on the 7th; Tennyson was wounded two days later.
[xi] Arthur Jacob Israel Cohen was the son of Russian Jews who emigrated from Lithuania to Belfast in 1892. They started as bakers but soon ran a successful linen business. At the age of 15 he ran away to South Africa where he tried but failed to make his fortune from diamonds all gold. He then tried his luck in Canada before returning to Belfast in 1904. In 1910 he married Louisa, with whom he had Mollie and a son Louis. He claimed he was ruined when a cargo of linen he sent from Ireland to England was torpedoed in the Irish Sea. In fact, his linen and clothing business simply failed and he was declared bankrupt in both England and Ireland in 1915. He subsequently took various odd jobs, including a stint as a railway porter, before deciding to join the British Army for a regular income. See also The Northern Whig, 10 February 1916.
[xii] William Birch, the son of a Woollen Merchant, gained his 2nd Mate’s Ticket over forty years earlier. Having worked for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company since 1902, he was now their most senior captain, holding the honorary title of Commodore. He was a veteran of the Holyhead to Kingstown route.
[xiii] RMS Leinster was built by Laird Brothers of Birkenhead in 1897 and weighed 2,640 gross tons.
[xiv] The third torpedo hit the ship about three minutes after the second one struck.
[xvi] William Maher was also awarded a silver medal and certificate for bravery from the Royal Humane Society. He died in 1953 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Dean’s Grange. I understand a headstone is ahoy!
[xvii] The early edition of the Evening Herald carried the news but mistakenly claimed there were no casualties; as the paper had reported without official permission, it was closed down by Dublin Castle and banned for four days.
[xviii] Margaret O’Grady is buried in the family plot at Quin Abbey; her sister May’s body was never recovered. Adam Smyth was buried in Deans Grange Upper North. Fanny Saunders is also buried in Deans Grange. Jocelyn Alexander was buried near his parents in Derry exactly a year to the day after his mother was laid to rest. Alexander Burleigh was buried in Enniskillen. 144 military casualties were interred at Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin
[xix] Nor was that of Edward Moors of Birkenhead was the Engineer’s Steward on the Leinster. He left a widow and eight children. He grew up near Laird Brothers, Birkenhead, where Leinster was built in 1897.
[xx] Jem Carraher narrowly avoided death when MV Inishfallon was sunk by a mine on 21st December 1940. He died in 1965 at the age of 82.
[xxi] The story, published in ‘The Last Voyage of the Leinster’ book, about the McCormacks searching the pier at Dun Laoghaire is not accurate.