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


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Birth of Morgan O’Connell, Soldier & Politician

Morgan O’Connell, soldier, politician and son of the Irish Nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator of Ireland, is born in Dublin on October 31, 1804. He serves in the Irish South American legion and the Imperial Austrian Army. He is MP for Meath from 1832 until 1840 and afterwards assistant-registrar of deeds for Ireland from 1840 until 1868.

O’Connell, one of seven children (and the second of four sons) of Daniel and Mary O’Connell, is born at 30 Merrion Square, Dublin. His brothers Maurice, John and Daniel are also MPs.

In 1819, self-styled General John Devereux comes to Dublin to enlist military aid for Simón Bolívar‘s army to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule. He succeeds in forming an Irish Legion, to be part of Bolivar’s British Legions. O’Connell, encouraged by his father, is one of the officers who purchases a commission in it even though he is only 15 years old. The enterprise is mismanaged; there is no commissariat organisation on board the ships, and a part of the force die on the voyage. The remainder are disembarked on the Spanish Main at Margarita Island, where many deaths take place from starvation eight days after the Irish mutineers leave for Jamaica.

Bolivar, who had noted his pleasure at the departure of “these vile mercenaries,” is too astute a diplomat to offend the son of his Irish counterpart. O’Connell is accorded the appropriate privileges of his rank, and toasts are drunk to the health of his father, the “most enlightened man in all Europe.” A portion of the expedition, under Francis O’ Connor, effects an alliance with Bolivar, and to the energy of these allies the republican successes are chiefly due.

Bolivar makes sure that the untrained Irish lad stays out of danger. “I have numberless hardships to go through,” said Bolivar, “which I would not bring him into, for the character of his father is well known to me.” But ceremonial duties soon bore the restless young Irishman. After a year at Bolivar’s headquarters Morgan leaves for Ireland.

If South America did not satisfy O’Connell’s taste for adventure, he has more than his fill on the return journey. He survives a bout of tropical fever and is shipwrecked twice in succession, ending up stranded in Cuba. A schooner captain, who turns out to be a long-lost Irish cousin, rescues him. After the captain is killed in a fight with his boatswain, he hitches a ride to Jamaica on a Danish ship commanded by a skipper from Cork. From Jamaica, another Irish officer offers Morgan passage home.

Arriving in January 1822, O’Connell is greeted by his proud father as a prodigal son returned. His South American adventure, declares Daniel O’Connell, has made a man of Morgan. Otherwise, said O’Connell, “it would have been difficult to tame him down to the sobriety of business.” After his return to Ireland, he again seeks foreign service in the Austrian army.

On December 19, 1832 O’Connell enters parliament in the Liberal interest, as one of the members for Meath, and continues to represent that constituency until January 1840, when he is appointed first assistant-registrar of deeds for Ireland, at a salary of £1,200 a year, a position he holds until 1868. In politics he is never in perfect accord with his father, and his retirement from parliament is probably caused by his inability to accept the Repeal movement.

During his parliamentary career O’Connell fights a duel with Lord William Arden, 2nd Baron Alvanley, a captain in the British Army, at Chalk Farm, on May 4, 1835. A challenge had been sent by Alvanley to O’Connell’s father, who, in accordance with a vow he had made after shooting John D’Esterre, declines the meeting. The younger O’Connell thereupon takes up the challenge on his father’s account. Two shots each are exchanged, but no one is hurt. Afterwards, in December 1835, he receives a challenge from Benjamin Disraeli, in consequence of an attack made on Disraeli by O’Connell’s father. He declines to meet Disraeli.

On July 23, 1840, O’Connell marries Kate Mary, youngest daughter of Michael Balfe of South Park, County Roscommon.

Morgan O’Connell dies at 12 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on January 20, 1885. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin on January 23.

(Pictured: Morgan O’Connell, oil on canvas, artist unknown, c. 1819/20)


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Capture of Gustavus Conyngham, the Dunkirk Pirate

gustavus-conynghamIrish-born United States Navy Captain Gustavus Conyngham, “The Dunkirk Pirate,” is captured by the British Royal Navy in the waters off New York on April 27, 1779.

Conyngham is born in County Donegal in 1747 and emigrated to British America in 1763 in search of a better life. He settles in Philadelphia in order to work for his cousin Redmond Conyngham in the shipping industry. When the American Revolutionary War begins in 1775 he immediately sailed to France to try to procure supplies needed for the war effort.

The British become aware of Conyngham’s plans and manage to maneuver him out of his ship with the help of the Dutch. After the loss of his ship, he heads back to France, hoping to connect with an ally to the United States. It is there he meets Benjamin Franklin, who helps him in his adventures many times in the future. They form a lasting relationship, and Conyngham eventually awards Franklin the nickname “the Philosopher” for his intellectual fortitude and resourcefulness. Franklin is entrusted with several commissions of the Continental Navy, and on March 1, 1777 Conyngham is appointed Captain of the lugger Surprise.

Conyngham scores a first victory that would warm the heart of any Irishmen, capturing the British merchant ship Prince of Orange on May 3, 1777. Later that year he is commissioned a captain in the Continental Navy and given command of the USS Revenge. He begins a series of highly successful raids into British waters from the port of Dunkirk, thus earning his sobriquet “The Dunkirk Pirate.”

In 1778 Conyngham sets sail for the West Indies and terrorizes British vessels there before finally returning to Philadelphia on February 21, 1779. He and his men had claimed 60 prize vessels in just 18 months. When he sets sail again his luck runs out and his ship is captured by the British vessel HMS Galatea on April 27, 1779. Conyngham was taken to prison in England and treated harshly by his British captors.

After two failed escape attempts, Conyngham tunnels his way out of Mill Prison in Plymouth and manages to make his way to the continent. He joins John Paul Jones on a cruise on the Alliance before returning to the United States. He is captured by the British again in March 1780 and spends another year in Mill Prison.

After the war Conyngham fails in his efforts to continue his naval career or to gain recognition from the United States Congress for his service during the war. He had lost the commission papers given to him by colonial representatives in Paris in 1777. It is said that he assists in the defense of Philadelphia against his old British foes during the War of 1812.

Gustavus Conyngham dies in Philadelphia seven years later on November 27, 1819. Nearly a century later, John Sanford Barnes, a retired navy captain and naval historian, acquires a cache of autographs and documents from a sale by Charavay of Paris. In the collection is Conyngham’s commission from Benjamin Franklin. Barnes publishes his discovery in September 1902, proving that the “Dunkirk Pirate” had never been a pirate at all, but one of the first heroes of the United States Navy.

(Pictured: Captain Gustavus Conyngham, Continental Navy. Painting by V. Zveg, 1976, based on a miniature by Louis Marie Sicardi. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)


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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.”