seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Rev. William Corby, Chaplain & Notre Dame President

The Rev. William Corby, American priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and Union Army chaplain in the American Civil War attached to the Irish Brigade, is born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1833. He serves twice as president of the University of Notre Dame.

Corby is born to Daniel Corby, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Elizabeth, a Canadian. He attends public school until age 16, then joins his father’s real estate business. In 1853, he enrolls in the 10-year-old college of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and begins study for the priesthood three years later. Following ordination, he teaches at Notre Dame and serves as a local parish priest.

Corby leaves his position at Notre Dame and joins the predominately Catholic Irish Brigade in 1861. He spends the next three years as chaplain of the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry, which is one of the five original regiments in the Irish Brigade. He is perhaps best known for giving general absolution to the Irish Brigade on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Brigade’s original 3,000 men, only about 500 remain. Of the men Corby absolves that day, 27 are killed, 109 are wounded, and 62 are listed as missing. The scene of Corby blessing the troops is depicted in the 1891 painting Absolution under Fire by Paul Wood, and dramatized in the 1993 film Gettysburg. His memoir of the Irish Brigade becomes a best-seller.

Following his service in the Civil War, Corby returns to Notre Dame and serves as its vice-president (1865–1866) and twice as its president (1866–1872, 1877-1881). Under his first administration, enrollment at Notre Dame increases to more than 500 students. In 1869 he opens the law school, which offers a two-year course of study, and in 1871 he begins construction of Sacred Heart Church, today the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame. The institution is still small, and he teaches in the classroom and knows most students and faculty members. In 1869, the entire student body and the faculty present him with the gift of a black horse and, when he leaves the presidency three years later, they present him with a matching carriage.

Corby becomes president again following the short term of Fr. Patrick Colovin. When he returns to the presidency, Notre Dame has not yet become a significant academic institution. His presidency sees the April 1879 fire that destroys the old Main Building of the school. He sends all students home and promises that they will return to a “bigger and better Notre Dame.” He overcomes the $200,000 fire loss and rebuilds the Main Building, which now stands with its “Golden Dome.” During his administration, he also constructs Washington Hall, in which he takes much pride, and starts the construction of St. Edward’s Hall for the minims program.

In addition to his presidency, Corby is also serving as the Holy Cross Provincial, when Rev. Edward Sorin, who had become Superior General of the Congregation, writes to him to tell him that he will have to relinquish one of his positions. He wants to remain president but is overruled by Sorin. Famous throughout the U.S. Catholic world as chaplain for the Irish Brigade, known as the “Fighting Irish,” it may be that the nickname followed Corby back to Notre Dame, where it stuck.

Corby dies at the age of 64 on December 28, 1897 in South Bend, Indiana. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Notre Dame, Indiana.

A statue by Samuel Murray, depicting Corby with right hand raised in the gesture of blessing, stands upon the same boulder at the Gettysburg Battlefield on which the priest stood while blessing the troops that second morning of the battle. It is the first statue of a non-general erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield, and is dedicated in 1910.

Corby is widely remembered among military chaplains and celebrated by Irish American fraternal organizations. Corby Hall at Notre Dame is named for him, and a copy of the Gettysburg statue stands outside the building. An organization of Notre Dame alumni is named The William Corby Society.

(Pictured: Statue of Father William Corby by Samuel Murray, Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)


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Birth of The Reverend Edward Hincks

edward-hincksThe Reverend Edward Hincks, Anglo-Irish clergyman best remembered as an Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform, is born in Cork, County Cork on August 19, 1792. He is one of the three men known as the “holy trinity of cuneiform,” with Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Jules Oppert.

Hincks is the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Dix Hincks, a distinguished Protestant minister, orientalist and naturalist. He is an elder brother of Sir Francis Hincks, a prominent Canadian politician who is also sometime Governor of Barbados, and William Hincks, the first Professor of Natural History at Queen’s College, Cork and afterwards University College, Toronto.

Hincks is educated at home by his father and at Midleton College before entering Trinity College Dublin. He is elected a Scholar of the College in 1810, and in 1812 wins the Gold Medal and Bishop Law‘s Prize for Mathematics. He is elected a Fellow of the College in 1813 and four years later takes his M.A. In 1819, following the death of Thomas Meredith, he is presented to the Rectory of Ardtrea in County Tyrone. Though Ardtrea is a valuable and highly prized Rectory, it is also isolated for a young bachelor and he resigns the position in 1826, taking up the Rectory in nearby Killyleagh, County Down, an office he holds for the remainder of his life.

The undemanding nature of his clerical duties leave him with more than enough time to pursue his interest in ancient languages. His first love is for the hieroglyphic writing of ancient Egypt. His greatest achievement is the decipherment of the ancient language and writing of Babylon and Assyria: Akkadian cuneiform.

Hincks deduces correctly that cuneiform writing had been invented by one of the earliest civilisations of Mesopotamia, who then bequeathed it to later states such as Babylon, Assyria and Elam. In 1848 he is awarded the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy for his achievements.

By 1850 Hincks comes to a number of important conclusions regarding the nature of Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform. He also discovers that cuneiform characters are “polyphonic,” by which he means that a single sign can have several different readings depending on the context in which it occurs. However, not everyone is convinced by the claims being made by the Irishman and his distinguished colleagues. Some philologists even suggest that they are simply inventing multiple readings of the signs to suit their own translations.

In 1857 the versatile English Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot suggests that an undeciphered cuneiform text be given to several different Assyriologists to translate. If, working independently of one another, they come up with reasonably similar translations, it will surely dispel the doubts surrounding their claims.

As it happens, Talbot, Hincks, Rawlinson and Oppert, are in London in 1857. Edwin Norris, secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gives each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts is impaneled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy.

In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars are found to be in close agreement with one another. There are of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot makes a number of mistakes, and Oppert’s translation contains a few doubtful passages due to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks’ and Rawlinson’s versions are virtually identical. The jury declares itself satisfied, and the decipherment of cuneiform is adjudged a fait accompli.

Hincks devotes the remaining years of his life to the study of cuneiform and makes further significant contributions to its decipherment. He dies at his rectory in Killyleagh on December 3, 1866 at the age of 74. He is survived by a wife and four daughters.