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


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Execution of Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

geoffrey-lee-compton-smithMajor Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith (DSO) of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is captured and executed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on April 30, 1921 during the Irish War of Independence.

Compton-Smith was born in 1889 in South Kensington, London. After finishing school, he decides not to follow the family tradition of studying law. He actually wants to become an artist, but his father insists that he join the army. He studies at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and during World War I his regiment is sent to France. In 1917 he is wounded at the Battle of Arras, but he continues to fight on. He is awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). In 1919 he is sent to serve in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence.

In 1919 Compton-Smith is commander of the British Army base at Ballyvonane, near Buttevant, but he is also an intelligence officer. As an officer he also sometimes presides over courts martial. In January 1921, for instance, three IRA volunteers are tried by him for involvement in the ambush at Shinanagh, near Charleville, and he sentences them each to six months.

February 1921 is a bad time for the IRA in County Cork. They suffer major losses at the ambushes at Clonmult and Mourne Abbey, and several volunteers are taken prisoner, four of whom are sentenced to death. The IRA believes that these death sentences might be commuted if a British officer is held as a hostage. This leads to the capture of Compton-Smith. On April 16, 1921 he travels to Blarney, supposedly on a sketching trip but actually to meet a nurse in Victoria Barracks with whom he is having an affair. The IRA has spies in Victoria Barracks who likely tip off the IRA that Compton-Smith is coming to Blarney. A squad led by Frank Busteed easily capture him after he gets off the train.

Busteed then meets with Jackie O’Leary, the IRA battalion commander. It is decided that Donoughmore is the perfect place to keep a hostage, because parts of the parish are remote and the IRA is strong there.

On April 18, under the cover of darkness, Compton-Smith is transferred by car to Knockane House, an abandoned big house in Donoughmore. The following night he is moved again, this time by pony and trap, to Barrahaurin, a remote townland in the Boggeragh Mountains. He is kept there for the last eleven days of his life, on the small farm of Jack and Mary Moynihan. He is held prisoner in a shed, always under guard. Every evening he is brought into the house, where he eats and stays at the fireside. He and his guards have conversations about history and politics.

The four IRA prisoners are executed on April 28, 1921. On April 30, O’Leary informs Compton-Smith that he is going to be executed. He then writes a final letter to his wife. He tells her that he will die with her name on his lips and her face before his eyes and that he will “die like an Englishman and a soldier.” He also writes a letter to his regiment and one to Lt. General Strickland.

After finishing his letters, Compton-Smith is led up into Barrahaurin bog behind the Moynihan house, to a place where his grave had already been dug, and is given a final cigarette. In his witness statement Maurice Brew writes, “When removed to the place of execution he placed his cigarette case in his breast pocket of his tunic … He then lighted a cigarette and said that when he dropped the cigarette it could be taken as a signal by the execution squad to open fire.”

It is not until late May, following the discovery of the cache of letters in a Dublin raid, that the Compton-Smith family is informed of his death. His father, William, then starts a campaign to find his son’s body. He wrote letters to MPs and to the British Army, seeking information and help. He also writes to Erskine Childers but gets no reply. He offers a reward of £500 for information, but only The Irish Times agrees to print his advertisement.

In November 1921 a cousin of Compton-Smith’s wife, Gladys, meets Michael Collins in London and asks him for help in finding the body. Correspondence between Collins and the Compton-Smith family suggests that Collins is trying to help in 1922, but he fails to get any results before he is assassinated at Béal na Bláth later that same year.

On March 3, 1926 Compton-Smith’s grave is discovered by the Gardaí. The newspapers report that the remains, because of the conditions of the bog, “were not so badly decomposed as to render identification impossible.” The body is brought to Collins Barracks in Cork. On March 5 the Gardaí send a telegram to the Compton-Smiths, informing them that the body has been located.

The reburial of Compton-Smith is carried out with great dignity on March 19, 1926. The Irish Army escorts the coffin from Collins Barracks to Penrose Quay, where British forces from Spike Island take the coffin on board a boat. While the boat travels down the River Lee, the Irish Army’s guard of honour presents arms and sounds the “Last Post.” The British then bring the coffin to Carlisle Fort, near Whitegate, where it was buried in the in the British Military Cemetery with full military honours.


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The Rathcoole Ambush

rathcoole-ambush-monumentThe Rathcoole Ambush, one of the largest ambushes of the Irish War of Independence, takes place at Rathcoole, County Cork on June 16, 1921.

The railway line between Banteer and Millstreet had been cut in several places so the British Auxiliary forces based at Millstreet have to travel to Banteer by road for their supplies twice a week. As a result, a combined force of 130 Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers from the Millstreet, Kanturk, Newmarket, Charleville and Mallow battalion columns are mobilised to attack the Auxiliaries as they return from Banteer. The volunteers are under the command of Paddy O’Brien from Liscarroll.

On the night before the ambush the IRA volunteers sleep at Rathcoole Wood, which overlooks the planned ambush position. Shortly after sunrise the following morning, Captain Dan Vaughan lays six land mines on the untarred road and covers them with dust. After a wait of several hours a convoy of four armour-plated lorries, each mounted with a machine gun and carrying ten men, is observed heading for Banteer.

The volunteers prepare themselves and at 6:20 in the evening, as the lorries pass through the ambush area on their return journey, three of the land mines explode with devastating results. One mine detonates as the last of the four lorries drives over it and another explodes under the leading lorry in the convoy. Both vehicles are out of action with the two other lorries trapped between them. A third mine explodes amid a party of Auxiliaries as they attempted to outflank the position. A bitter firefight develops. Each time Auxiliaries attempt to outflank the IRA they are driven back, suffering losses of more than twenty dead and over a dozen wounded.

When it becomes clear that the IRA cannot achieve a complete victory because of their limited ammunition supply, the order for withdrawal is given and the whole force retires without a single casualty. Although no arms are captured during the action, a reconnaissance party from the column returns the next day to search the ambush position and recovers 1,350 rounds of ammunition which the Auxiliaries had left behind them as they removed their dead and wounded.

The ambush at Rathcoole is one of the Irish Republican Army’s most successful actions during the War of Independence. A week after the ambush, British Forces from Kanturk, Buttevant, Ballyvonaire, Macroom, Ballincollig, Killarney and Tralee carry out a widespread search throughout the Rathcoole area. Michael Dineen, a Volunteer in Kilcorney Company is taken from his brother’s house at Ivale by a party of Auxiliaries and shot dead. On the evening of July 1, the Auxiliaries set fire to and destroy the wood at Rathcoole from where the ambush had been launched. That same day that they shoot and kill a local man, Bernard Moynihan, as he is out cutting hay.

(Pictured: Monument at the site of the Rathcoole Ambush)


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Assassination of RIC Inspector Percival Lea-Wilson

percival-lea-wilsonPercival Lea-Wilson, a District Inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who is stationed at Gorey, County Wexford, is shot dead on June 15, 1920 by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) outside his Gorey home on the orders of Michael Collins.

Lea-Wilson is born in Kensington, London and is educated at the University of Oxford but his route into the British Army begins with a stint as a RIC constable in Charleville, County Cork in the early 20th century.

When World War I breaks out in 1914 Lea-Wilson joins the British army where he reaches the rank of captain in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. An injury during the war forces him back to Ireland where he is stationed in Dublin, just in time for the Easter Rising in 1916.

When the week long rising ends, the rebels who had fought in the Four Courts and the GPO are marched to the Rotunda Hospital where they are kept overnight under the glare of British troops. Among those detained are leaders of the rebellion such as Sean Mac Diarmada and Tom Clarke. Clarke is singled out and subjected to public humiliation by 28-year-old British army Captain Percival Lea-Wilson.

Lea-Wilson and his soldiers walk among the captured rebels and he picks the 58-year-old Clarke out of the group. He marches Clarke to the steps of the hospital where he orders soldiers to strip him bare as nurses look on in horror from the windows above. Clarke is beaten and left there overnight in his tattered clothes. One of the prisoners, Michael Collins, who witnesses Clarke’s mistreatment at the hands of the British captain vows vengeance.

In the years following the Easter Rising, Lea-Wilson settles in Wexford where he attains the role of RIC district inspector.

On the morning of June 15, 1920, Lea-Wilson is walking back home after paying a visit to the RIC barracks in Gorey. Dressed in his civilian clothes, he stops at the local railway station where he purchases a newspaper and meets Constable Alexander O’Donnell, who accompanies him on part of his walk home.

O’Donnell and Lea-Wilson part company at the railway bridge on Ballycanew Road while further up that very same stretch of road there is a number of men standing around a parked car with its hood raised. Michael Collins had sent Liam Tobin and Frank Thornton from Dublin to meet with Joe McMahon, Michael McGrath and Michael Sinnott in Enniscorthy. They were then driven by Jack Whelan to Ballycanew Road to carry out the assassination of Lea-Wilson.

Unaware of his assassins lying in wait , Lea-Wilson is reading his paper while strolling along the road. The men by the parked car pull out revolvers when their target comes into range and two bullets strike him down. He manages to quickly get back on his feet and attempts to make an escape but his six assassins run after him and finally bring him down in a hail of bullets. A coroner’s report later states that Lea-Wilson had been shot seven times.

When the shooting ends, one of Lea-Wilson’s executioners calmly walks up to the body to make sure he is dead. He then picks up the newspaper from the ground and takes it with him. Later that evening Michael Collins is in the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin when word reaches him from Wexford of the shooting death of Lea-Wilson. Collins greets the news with glee and mentions to one of his comrades, “Well we finally got him!”

Percival Lea-Wilson is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in southwest London. His grave is marked by a plaque which mentions his assassination in Gorey in 1920, a death which has its roots in the Easter Rising four years previously.


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Birth of Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne

daniel-mannixDaniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, advocate of Irish independence, and one of the most influential and controversial public figures in 20th-century Australia, is born near Charleville, County Cork on March 4, 1864.

Mannix is the son of a tenant farmer, Timothy Mannix, and his wife Ellen (née Cagney). He is educated at Congregation of Christian Brothers schools and at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, County Kildare, where he is ordained priest in 1890. He teaches philosophy (1891) and theology (1894) at St. Patrick’s and from 1903 to 1912 he serves as president of the college. During his presidency, he welcomes both King Edward VII in 1905 and King George V in 1911 with loyal displays, which attract criticism by supporters of the Irish Home Rule movement.

Consecrated titular archbishop of Pharsalus in 1912, Mannix arrives in Melbourne in the following year as coadjutor archbishop, becoming archbishop of Melbourne in 1917.

Mannix’s forthright demands for state aid for the education of Roman Catholics in return for their taxes and his opposition to drafting soldiers for World War I make him the subject of controversy. A zealous supporter of Irish independence, he makes an official journey to Rome in 1920 via the United States, where his lengthy speech making attracts enthusiastic crowds. His campaign on behalf of the Irish, however, causes the British government to prevent him from landing in Ireland, which he finally visits in 1925.

After World War II Mannix seeks to stop Communist infiltration of the Australian trade unions. He plays a controversial part in the dissensions within the Australian Labor Party and backs the largely right-wing Catholic Democratic Labor Party, which breaks away. A promoter of Catholic Action (i.e., lay apostolic activity in the temporal society) and of the Catholic social movement, he is responsible for the establishment of 181 schools, including Newman College and St. Mary’s College at the University of Melbourne, and 108 parishes.

By the 1960s the distinct identity of the Irish community in Melbourne is fading, and Irish Catholics are increasingly outnumbered by Italians, Maltese and other postwar immigrant Catholic communities. Mannix, who turned 90 in 1954, remains active and in full authority, but he is no longer a central figure in the city’s politics. He dies suddenly on November 6, 1963, aged 99, while the Archdiocese of Melbourne is preparing to celebrate his 100th birthday. He is buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne.


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Birth of William Reeves, Bishop of Down, Connor & Dromore

bishop-william-reevesWilliam Reeves, Irish antiquarian and the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore from 1886 until his death, is born on March 16, 1815. He is the last private keeper of the Book of Armagh and at the time of his death is President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Reeves is born at Charleville, County Cork, the eldest child of Boles D’Arcy Reeves, an attorney, whose wife Mary is a daughter of Captain Jonathan Bruce Roberts, land agent to the Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl of Cork. This grandfather had fought at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, and Reeves is born at his house in Charleville.

From 1823, Reeves is educated at the school of John Browne in Leeson Street, Dublin, and after that at a school kept by the Rev. Edward Geoghegan. In October 1830, he enters Trinity College, Dublin, where he quickly gains a prize for Hebrew. In his third year, he becomes a scholar and goes on to graduate BA in 1835. He proceeds to read medicine, wins the Berkeley Medal, and graduates MB in 1837. His object in taking his second degree is that he intends to become a clergyman and to practice the medical profession among the poor of his parish.

In 1838, Reeves is appointed Master of the diocesan school in Ballymena, County Antrim, and is ordained a deacon of Hillsborough, County Down. The following year, he is ordained a priest of the Church of Ireland at Derry.

In 1844, Reeves rediscovers the lost site of Nendrum Monastery when he visits Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, County Down, searching for churches recorded in 1306, and recognises the remains of a round tower. By 1845, he is corresponding with the Irish scholar John O’Donovan, and an archive of their letters between 1845 and 1860 is preserved at University College, Dublin. In July 1845, Reeves visits London.

Reeves resides in Ballymena from 1841 to 1858, when he is appointed vicar of Lusk following the success of his edition of Adomnán‘s Life of Saint Columba (1857), for which the Royal Irish Academy awards him their Cunningham Medal in 1858. In 1853, he purchases from the Brownlow family the important 9th-century manuscript known as the Book of Armagh, paying three hundred pounds for it. He sells the book for the same sum to Archbishop Beresford, who has agreed to present it to Trinity College, Dublin.

In 1875 Reeves is appointed Dean of Armagh, a position he holds until 1886 when he is appointed as Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. In 1891 he is elected as President of the Royal Irish Academy. As bishop, he resides at Conway House, Dunmurry, County Antrim, and signs his name “Wm. Down and Connor.”

William Reeves dies in Dublin on January 12, 1892, while still President of the Academy. At the time of his death, he is working on a diplomatic edition of the Book of Armagh, by then in the Trinity College Library. The work is completed by Dr. John Gwynn and published in 1913.


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Death of Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel & Emly

Thomas William Croke, the second Catholic Bishop of Auckland in New Zealand (1870–74) and later Archbishop of Cashel and Emly in Ireland, dies on July 22, 1902. He is important in the Irish nationalist movement especially as a Champion of the Irish National Land League in the 1880s. The main Gaelic Athletic Association stadium in Dublin is named Croke Park in his honour.

Croke is born in Castlecor, County Cork, on May 28, 1824. He is educated in Charleville, County Cork, the Irish College in Paris and the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, winning academic distinctions including a doctorate of divinity with honours. He is ordained in May 1847. Returning to Ireland for a short time he is appointed a Professor in St. Patrick’s, Carlow College. The Irish radical William O’Brien says that Croke fought on the barricades in Paris during the French Revolution of 1848. Croke returns to Ireland and spends the next 23 years working there. In 1858 he becomes the first president of St. Colman’s College, Fermoy, County Cork and then serves as both parish priest of Doneraile and Vicar General of Cloyne diocese from 1866 to 1870. Croke attends the First Vatican Council as the theologian to the Bishop of Cloyne 1870.

Croke gains the good opinion of the Irish ecclesiastical authorities and is rewarded in 1870 by his promotion to Bishop of Auckland in New Zealand. His former professor, Paul Cullen, by then Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin, is largely responsible for filling the Australasian Catholic church with fellow Irishmen. His strong recommendations lead to Croke’s appointment. Croke arrives at Auckland on December 17, 1870 on the City of Melbourne. During his three years as bishop he restores firm leadership to a diocese left in disarray by his predecessor, Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier. He devotes some of his considerable personal wealth to rebuilding diocesan finances and also takes advantage of Auckland’s economic growth following the development of the Thames goldfields to further his aims, ensuring that all surplus income from parishes at Thames and Coromandel is passed on to him, and he institutes a more rigorous system for the Sunday collection at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He imports Irish clergy to serve the growing Catholic community, and with Patrick Moran, the first Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Dunedin, he tries unsuccessfully to secure an Irish monopoly on future episcopal appointments in New Zealand. Croke supports separate Catholic schools and their right to state aid, and voices his opposition to secular education as Auckland’s Catholic schools are threatened by the provincial council’s Education Act 1872, which helps to create a free, secular and compulsory education system. However, generally, Croke’s image is uncontroversial. On January 28, 1874, after barely three years in office, Croke departs for Europe, on what is ostensibly a 12-month holiday and he does not return to New Zealand.

Croke becomes a member of the Irish hierarchy when he is translated to be Archbishop of Cashel, one of the four Catholic Irish archbishoprics in 1875. Archbishop Croke is a strong supporter of Irish nationalism, aligning himself with the Irish National Land League during the Land War, and with the chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Charles Stewart Parnell. In an 1887 interview he explains that he had opposed the League’s “No rent manifesto” in 1881, preferring to stop payment of all taxes.

Croke also associates himself with the Temperance Movement of Fr. Theobald Mathew and Gaelic League from its foundation in 1893. Within Catholicism he is a supporter of Gallicanism, as opposed to the Ultramontanism favoured by the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Cullen. His support of nationalism causes successive British governments and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland‘s governments in Dublin to be deeply suspicious of him, as are some less politically aligned Irish bishops.

Following the scandal that erupts over Parnell’s relationship with Katharine O’Shea, the separated wife of fellow MP Captain William O’Shea, Archbishop Croke withdraws from active participation in nationalist politics.

Thomas Croke, 78, dies at the Archbishop’s Palace in Thurles, County Tipperary on July 22, 1902. He is buried at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles. In honour of Croke, his successors as Archbishop of Cashel and Emly traditionally are asked to throw in the ball at the minor Gaelic football and All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship finals.