seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Balmoral Furniture Company Bombing

balmoral-furniture-showroom-bombingThe Balmoral Furniture Company bombing, a paramilitary attack, takes place on December 11, 1971 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The bomb explodes without warning outside a furniture showroom on the Shankill Road in a predominantly unionist area, killing four civilians, two of them babies.

At 12:25 PM on December 11, 1971, when the Shankill Road is packed with Saturday shoppers, a green car pulls up outside the Balmoral Furniture Company at the corner of Carlow Street and Shankill Road. The shop is locally known as “Moffat’s” although Balmoral Furniture Company is its official name. One of the occupants gets out of the car and leaves a box containing a bomb on the step outside the front door. The person gets back into the car and it speeds away. The bomb explodes moments later, bringing down most of the building on top of those inside the shop and on passersby outside.

Four people are killed as a result of the massive blast, including two babies, Tracey Munn (age 2 years) and Colin Nichol (age 17 months), who both die instantly when part of the wall crashes down upon the pram they are sharing. Two employees working inside the shop are also killed, Hugh Bruce (age 70 years) and Harold King (age 29 years). Unlike the other three victims, who are Protestant, King is a Catholic. Bruce, a former soldier and a Corps of Commissionaires member, is the shop’s doorman and is nearest to the bomb when it explodes. Nineteen people are injured in the bombing, including Tracey’s mother. The building, which was built in the Victorian era, has load-bearing walls supporting upper floors on joists. It is unable to withstand the blast and collapses, adding to the devastation and injury count.

The bombing causes bedlam in the crowded street. Hundreds of people rush to the scene where they form human chains to help the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary  (RUC) free those trapped beneath the rubble by digging with their bare hands. Peter Taylor describes the scene as “reminiscent of the London Blitz” in World War II .

It is widely believed that the bombing is carried out by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in retaliation for the McGurk’s bar bombing one week earlier, which killed 15 Catholic civilians. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had carried out the McGurk’s bombing.

The Balmoral Furniture Company bombing is one of the catalysts that spark the series of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings by loyalists, republicans and the security forces that make the 1970s the bloodiest decade in the 30-year history of The Troubles .

(Pictured: Fireman is shown removing the body of one of the victims of the bombing at the Balmoral Furniture Showroom, December 11, 1971)

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Formation of the Kildare Place Society

The Kildare Place Society, known officially as the Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor of Ireland, is formed on December 2, 1811, to maintain non-denominational schools and to promote the education of the poor. It is the most successful of all the voluntary educational agencies founded in the years prior to the establishment of the National Board of Education in 1831.

Set up in 1811 explicitly to cater to the demand for education among the Catholic poor, the Kildare Place Society aims to provide a Bible-based but non-denominational education that is acceptable to Catholics. In 1816 the society petitions the Parliament of the United Kingdom and is awarded 10,000 pounds, an amount that is greatly increased over the following decade. This money allows the society to spread across the country and to establish the rudiments of a national system of primary education. The society aims to modernize the teaching profession with a training college and an inspectorate, decent schoolhouses, and regular salaries for teachers. It also produces reading material aimed at a popular audience, which competes very favorably with the much-derided chapbooks that are the staple of popular reading material at the time.

Despite the commitment of the founders, many of whom are members of the Society of Friends, to respect denominational differences, and despite the allocation of seats for Catholics on the board of trustees, the society is increasingly drawn into quarrels over the use of the Protestant Bible for educational purposes during the second decade of the 19th century.

Particularly significant is the influence of the evangelical members of the board, especially Chief Justice Thomas Lefroy, who insists on the compulsory use of the Bible “without note or comment” in the Kildare Place schools. This measure is openly and stridently criticized by the Reverend John MacHale in the famous Hierophilus Letters of 1820 and is the immediate cause of the resignations of Daniel O’Connell and Valentine Lawless, 2nd Baron Cloncurry from the society’s board in 1821. This gesture is followed in short order by directives to Catholic parents to withdraw their children from the schools.

The substance of O’Connell’s and MacHale’s attacks on the Kildare Place Society is that its policies are in line with the more overtly proselytizing societies associated with the “Second Reformation” and are therefore unsuitable for Catholic children. The society does not survive the challenge. As a result of the ideological conflict over education, the government inaugurates a series of inquiries to determine what kind of educational system would be acceptable to the different denominations in Ireland, and the outcome is the establishment of the National Board of Education in 1831. Although the Kildare Place Society continues its work into the 1830s, its school system suffers an inevitable decline with the spread of the new national system.

(Pictured: The main offices of the Kildare Place Society in Kildare Place, Dublin)


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Birth of Eoin O’Duffy, Political Activist & Police Commissioner

Eoin O’Duffy, Irish political activist, soldier, police commissioner and organizer of the infamous Blueshirts, is born in Castleblayney, County Monaghan, on October 20, 1892.

O’Duffy does an apprenticeship as an engineer in Wexford before working as an engineer and architect in Monaghan. In 1919 he becomes an auctioneer. He is a leading member of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ulster in the 1910s. In 1912 he is appointed secretary of the Ulster provincial council. He is also a member of Harps’ Gaelic Football Club.

O’Duffy joins the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1917 and is the leader of the Monaghan Brigade of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence and in this capacity becomes Chief of Staff of the IRA in 1922. He is one of the Irish activists who along with Michael Collins accepts the Anglo-Irish Treaty and fights as a general in the Irish Civil War on the pro-Treaty side.

Professionally, O’Duffy becomes the second Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, the police force of the new Irish Free State, after the Civic Guard Mutiny and the subsequent resignation of Michael Staines. He holds this post until 1933, when he is dismissed by Éamon de Valera. In his political life O’Duffy is an early member of Sinn Féin, founded by Arthur Griffith. He is elected as a Teachta Dála (TD) for his home county of Monaghan during the 1921 election.

After a split in 1923 he becomes associated with Cumann na nGaedheal and becomes head of a veterans group then known as the Army Comrades Association. O’Duffy changes its name to “National Guard” and begins to stage fascist-style rallies and adopts a fascist salute. Its members begin to wear blue uniform shirts and become known as the Blueshirts. When government opposition groups form Fine Gael in September 1933, he becomes its first president, reaching the apex of his political power.

Subsequently, the government bans O’Duffy’s National Guard, as well as the group he creates to replace it, the Young Ireland Association, which he in turn replaces with the League of Youth, but their blue shirts indicate its continued fascist ideology. Fine Gael’s other leaders soon tire of his inflammatory rhetoric and the frequent violent behavior of the Blueshirts, but are still surprised when their opposition causes him to resign his party leadership in September 1934. He is then ousted as leader of the Blueshirts as well, but does retain a small loyal following.

An anti-communist, O’Duffy is attracted to the various authoritarian nationalist movements on the Continent. In 1936, he raises the Irish Brigade to fight for Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War as an act of Catholic solidarity and is inspired by Benito Mussolini‘s Italy to found the National Corporate Party. He offers to Nazi Germany the prospect of raising an Irish Brigade to fight in Operation Barbarossa during World War II on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union, but this is not taken up.

Eoin O’Duffy takes no further part in Irish politics and dies in Dublin on November 30, 1944. In spite of his later politics, he is given a state funeral for his earlier contributions to the Irish government. He is buried in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.


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Birth of Robert Ballagh, Artist, Painter & Designer

Robert “Bobby” Ballagh, artist, painter and designer, is born in Dublin on September 22, 1943. His painting style is strongly influenced by pop art. He is particularly well known for his hyperealistic renderings of well known Irish literary, historical or establishment figures.

Ballagh grows up in a ground-floor flat on Elgin Road in Ballsbridge, the only child of a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother. He studies at Bolton Street College of Technology and becomes an atheist while attending Blackrock College. Before turning to art as a profession, he is a professional musician with the Irish showband Chessmen. He meets artist Michael Farrell during this period, and Farrell recruits him to assist with a large mural commission, which is painted at Ardmore Studios.

Ballagh represents Ireland at the 1969 Biennale de Paris. Among the theatre sets he has designed are sets for Riverdance, I’ll Go On, Gate Theatre (1985), Samuel Beckett‘s Endgame (1991) and Oscar Wilde‘s Salomé (1998). He also designs over 70 Irish postage stamps and the last series of Irish banknotes, “Series C,” before the introduction of the euro. He is a member of Aosdána and his paintings are held in several public collections of Irish painting including the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hugh Lane Gallery, the Ulster Museum, Trinity College, Dublin, and Nuremberg‘s Albrecht Dürer House.

In 1991, he co-ordinates the 75th anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, during which he claims he is harassed by the Special Branch of the Garda Síochána.

He is the president of the Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies, which promotes international republicanism. It is based at the new Pearse centre at 27 Pearse Street, Dublin, which is the birthplace of Pádraig Pearse in 1879.

In July 2011 it is reported that he might consider running for the 2011 Irish Presidential election with the backing of Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance. A Sinn Féin source confirms there has been “very informal discussions” and that Ballagh’s nomination is “a possibility” but “very loose at this stage.” However, on July 25 Ballagh rules out running in the election, saying that he has never considered being a candidate. His discussions with the parties had been about the election “in general” and he has no ambitions to run for political office.

That same month, Ballagh breaks ranks with his colleagues in the travelling production of Riverdance in their decision to perform in Israel. He is an active member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which insists that artists and academics participate in boycotts of Israeli businesses and cultural institutions.

In July 2012, Ballagh says he is “ashamed and profoundly depressed” at the en masse closure of Irish galleries and museums. He cites an example of some Americans and Canadians on holiday in Ireland. “They described most of the National Gallery as being closed along with several rooms in the Hugh Lane Gallery. I’m glad they didn’t bother going out to the Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham because that’s closed too. At the point I met them, they were returning from Galway where they had found the Nora Barnacle Museum closed too.” He condemns the hypocrisy of political leaders, saying, “I know arts funding is not a big issue for people struggling to put food on the table but we are talking about the soul of the nation.”


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Death of Irish Hunger Striker Raymond McCreesh

Raymond McCreesh, volunteer in the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies on hunger strike at 2:11 AM on May 21, 1981 in the H Blocks of Long Kesh Prison. McCreesh is one of ten Irish republicans who died on hunger strike in Long Kesh Prison.

Raymond Peter McCreesh, the seventh in a family of eight children, is born in St. Malachy’s Park, Camlough, on February 25, 1957. He is born into a strong Irish republican family, and is active in the republican movement from the age of sixteen. He attends the local primary school in Camlough, St. Malachy’s, and later attends St. Colman’s College, Newry.

McCreesh first joins Fianna Éireann, the IRA’s youth wing, in 1973, and later that year he progresses to join the Provisional IRA South Armagh Brigade. He works for a short time as steelworker in a predominately Protestant factory in Lisburn. However, as sectarian threats and violence escalate, he switches professions to work as a milk roundsman in his local area of South Armagh, an occupation which greatly increases his knowledge of the surrounding countryside, as well as enables him to observe the movements of British Army patrols in the area.

On June 25, 1976, McCreesh and three other IRA volunteers attempt to ambush a British Army observation post in South Armagh. It lay opposite the Mountain House Inn, on the Newry–Newtonhamilton Road. As the armed, masked and uniformed IRA volunteers approached the observation post, they are spotted by British paratroopers on a hillside. The paratroopers open fire on the volunteers, who scatter. Two of them, McCreesh and Paddy Quinn, take cover in a nearby farmhouse. The paratroopers surround the house and fire a number of shots into the building. After some time, McCreesh and Quinn surrender and are taken to Bessbrook British Army base. Local Catholic priests facilitate their surrender. The third volunteer, Danny McGuinness, takes cover in a disused quarry outhouse but is captured the following day. The fourth member of the unit manages to escape despite being shot in the leg, arm and chest.

On March 2, 1977, McCreesh and Quinn are sentenced to fourteen years in prison for the attempted murder of British soldiers, possession of a rifle and ammunition, and a additional five years for IRA membership. The rifle that McCreesh has in his possession when captured is one of the rifles used in the Kingsmill massacre on January 5, 1976, when ten Protestant civilians are shot dead.

McCreesh is sent to the Maze Prison. He joins the blanket protest and takes part in the 1981 Irish hunger strike. He dies on 21 May, after 61 days on hunger strike.


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The American Civil War Begins

The American Civil War begins on April 12, 1861. There is perhaps no other ethnic group so closely identified with the Civil War years and the immediate aftermath of the war as Irish Americans.

Of those Irish who come over much later than the founding generations, fully 150,000 of them join the Union army. Unfortunately, statistics for the Confederacy are sketchy at best. Still, one has but to listen to the Southern accent and listen to the sorts of tunes Southern soldiers love to sing to realize that a great deal of the South is settled by Irish immigrants. But because the white population of the Confederate states is more native-born than immigrant during the Civil War years, there does not seem as much of a drive in the Southern army to recognize heritage in the names and uniforms of regiments as there is in the Union forces.

In the Union army there is the fabled Irish Brigade, likely the best known of any brigade organization, organized in 1861 and led by the flamboyant General Thomas Francis Meagher. They go into battle with an emerald green flag with a large golden harp in its center, celebrating their heritage even in the midst of death. The Irish Brigade makes an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry. It belongs to the First Division of the Second Corps, and is numbered as the Second Brigade. The Irish Brigade loses over 4,000 men in killed and wounded during the war, more men than ever belong to the brigade at any given time. The Irish Brigade is commanded, in turn, by General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly (killed), General Thomas A. Smyth (killed), Colonel Richard Byrnes (killed), and General Robert Nugent.

In the North, centers of Irish settlement are Boston and New York, both of which have sizeable Irish neighborhoods. There are major immigration periods in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. The numbers steadily increase until, according to the 1860 census, well over one and a half million Americans claimed to have been born in Ireland. The majority of these live in the North. There are periods of severe economic difficulties both before and after the war when the immigrant Irish are singled out for the distrust and hatred of their fellow Americans. “No Irish Need Apply” is a frequently seen placard sign above the doors of factories, shops, warehouses, and farms.

The Irish are chiefly distrusted because they are Catholic, and there is much opposition in the United States to the Church of Rome. The frustration this prejudice causes leads indirectly to the boil-over of tempers in July 1863, when the first official draft is held. A mob of mostly immigrant laborers gather at the site of the draft lottery, and as names are called and those not wealthy enough to purchase a substitute are required to join up, the mob’s temper flares.

The situation escalates into full-scale rioting. For three days, cities like New York and Boston are caught up in a rampage of looting, burning, and destruction. Many of the rioters are frustrated Irish laborers who cannot get jobs, and their targets are draft officials, as well as free blacks living in the North, who seem able to get jobs that the Irish are denied. It takes the return of armed troops from the fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg to bring the cities back to peace and quiet.

Such events do little to help the image of the Irish in America, until many years after the war. Despite their wartime heroics, many Irish veterans come home to find the same ugly bias they faced before going off to fight for the Union. Many of them choose to go into the post war army.

Still others follow Thomas Meagher into Canada, where they join up in an attempt to free Canada from British domination. Many simply choose to remain in the Eastern cities, hoping matters will improve as time goes by. Eventually things do get better for the Irish, but it is many long years before ugly anti-Irish prejudice fades.


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The Sinking of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109

pt-109-crewIn the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, three small American torpedo boats are moving just west of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. In command of PT-109 is a young Irish American destined to one day be the first Catholic president of the United States, Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

On a moonless night, Kennedy’s boat is idling on one engine to avoid detection of her wake by Japanese aircraft when the crew realizes they are in the path of the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which is returning to Rabaul from Vila, Kolombangara, after offloading supplies and 900 soldiers. Amagiri is traveling at a relatively high speed of between 23 and 40 knots in order to reach harbor by dawn, when Allied air patrols are likely to appear.

The crew of PT-109 has less than ten seconds to get the engines up to speed. The commander of the Amagiri, Kohai Hanami, spots the tiny ship but it is too close to fire upon. Instead, Hanami decides to ram it. PT-109 is cut in half and bursts into flames. Seamen Andrew Jackson Kirksey and Harold W. Marney are killed, and two other members of the crew are badly injured. PT-109 is gravely damaged, with watertight compartments keeping only the forward hull afloat in a sea of flames.

PT-169 launches two torpedoes that miss the destroyer and PT-162‘s torpedoes fail to fire at all. Both boats then turn away from the scene of the action and return to base without checking for survivors.

The eleven survivors cling to PT-109’s bow section as it drifts slowly south. By about 2:00 PM, it is apparent that the hull is taking on water and will soon sink, so the men decide to abandon it and swim for land. Since there are Japanese camps on all the nearby large islands, they choose the tiny deserted Plum Pudding Island, southwest of Kolombangara. They place their lantern, shoes, and non-swimmers on one of the timbers used as a gun mount and begin kicking together to propel it. Kennedy, who had been on the Harvard University swim team, uses a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth to tow his badly-burned senior enlisted machinist mate, MM1 Patrick McMahon. It takes four hours to cover the 3.5 miles to their destination, which they reach without confrontation by sharks or crocodiles.

The island is only 100 yards in diameter and has no food or water. The crew has to hide from passing Japanese barges. Kennedy swims to Naru and Olasana islands, a round trip of about 2.5 miles, in search of help and food. He then leads his men to Olasana Island, which has coconut trees and drinkable water.

The explosion of PT-109 is spotted by an Australian coastwatcher, Sub-lieutenant Arthur Reginald Evans, who mans a secret observation post at the top of the Mount Veve volcano on Kolombangara, where more than 10,000 Japanese troops are garrisoned below on the southeast portion. Evans dispatches islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana in a dugout canoe to look for possible survivors after decoding news that the explosion he had witnessed was likely from the lost PT-109.

Kennedy and his men survive for six days on coconuts before they are found by the scouts. The small canoe is not big enough for passengers. Kennedy quickly carves a note on a coconut for Gasa and Kumana to deliver to Evans. Evans gets word back to the U.S. Navy and, on the night of August 8, all eleven survivors of PT-109 are rescued by PT-157.

John F. Kennedy keeps that carved coconut on his desk in the Oval Office at the White House until the day he is assassinated.