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


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Birth of Historian George Benn

george-bennGeorge Benn, Irish historian of Belfast, is born in Tanderagee, County Armagh on January 1, 1801.

Benn’s grandfather, Jonn Benn, came from Cumberland about 1760 as engineer of the Newry Canal. His father, also John Benn (1767-1853), was proprietor of a brewery in Belfast. He is educated at the Belfast Academy, under Rev. Dr. Bruce and afterwards under Sheridan Knowles, then a teacher of English at Belfast. He enters the collegiate classes of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in 1816, being one of the original alumni, and takes gold medals in logic (1817) and moral philosophy (1818).

In 1819 the faculty prize is offered for the “best account of a parish.” Benn is the successful essayist, with the parish of Belfast as his theme. He also gains in 1821 the faculty prize (The Crusades), and Dr. Tennant’s gold medal (Sketch of Irish Authors in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries). His essay of 1819 attracts the attention of James M’Knight, LL.D., then editor of the Belfast News-Letter who offers to print and publish it. It is issued anonymously in an enlarged form in 1823, with three maps and sixteen engravings by J. Thomson. For so young a writer it is a work of uncommon judgment and research, exceedingly well written, with an eye for scenery and a taste for economics as well as for antiquities. It is not superseded by Benn’s later labours.

Benn, with his brother Edward (1798- 1874), engages in distilling near Downpatrick. Subsequently the brothers spend the prime of their days on an estate they purchase at Glenravel, near Ballymena. Here, in an unimproved district, they plant the hillsides, plough the moors, build good houses, and collect a valuable library. They endeavour to create a new industry by an experiment in the manufacture of potato spirit, but excise regulations in place at the time frustrate their object. The cost of the experiment, and the losses from potato disease, induce the brothers to undertake a business in Liverpool for some years. Returning to Glenravel, a casual circumstance leads to a rich discovery of iron ore in the Glenravel hills. The first specimen is smelted in 1851 under Edward Benn’s direction. In 1866 an agreement is made with James Fisher, of Barrow-in-Furness, to work the mineral beds. Hence comes a new and valuable addition to the commercial products of Ulster, which has since attained important proportions.

Meanwhile, Edward Benn is contributing antiquarian articles to various journals and forming a fine archaeological collection, now in the Ulster Museum. It his proposed to George to resume and complete the history of Belfast. He modestly indicates, as more fit for the task, William Pinkerton, who collects some materials, but dies in 1871 without having begun the history. Pinkerton’s papers are submitted to Benn for publication, but he finds employment of them impracticable, and states in his preface to his history, “It is all my own work from beginning to end.”

Benn returns to Belfast after his brother’s death in 1874, publishing A History of the Town of Belfast in 1877. A second volume appears in 1880. This supplementary volume, though the proof-sheets are “corrected by a kind friend,” the late John Carlisle, head of the English department in the Royal Academical Institution, bears evidence of the author’s affecting statement: “Before I had proceeded very far, my sight entirely failed.” Benn dies on January 8, 1882.

Edward and George Benn are members of the nonsubscribing presbyterian body, but wide in their sympathies and broad in their charities beyond the limits of their sect. Edward is the founder, and George the benefactor, of three hospitals in Belfast and their gifts to educational institutions are munificent.

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Peter O’Connor Sets World Long Jump Record

peter-oconnorPeter O’Connor, Irish track and field athlete, sets a long-standing world long jump record of 24′ 11-3/4″ in Dublin on August 5, 1901. He also wins two Olympic medals in the 1906 Intercalated Games.

Born in Millom, Cumberland, England on October 24, 1872, O’Connor grows up in Wicklow, County Wicklow. He joins the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1896. In 1899 he wins All-Ireland medals in long jump, high jump and hop, step and jump (triple jump). Over the next ten years he consistently beats British athletes in international competitions. The Amateur Athletic Association of England invites him to represent Britain in the 1900 Summer Olympics but he refused as he only wishes to represent Ireland.

As of June 1900, the world record for the long jump is held by Myer Prinstein of Syracuse University, at 24′ 7-1/4″. In 1900 and 1901, competing with the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA), a rival association to the GAA, O’Connor sets several unofficial world records in the long jump. He sets an officially recognised world record of 24′ 9″ at the Royal Dublin Society’s grounds in Dublin on May 27, 1901. On August 5, 1901 he jumps 24′ 11-3/4″ in Dublin. This is the first IAAF-recognised long jump world record. It causes a sensation at the time, being only a fraction short of the 25-foot barrier, and remains unbeaten for 20 years, a longevity surpassed only by Jesse Owens‘s 25-year record and Bob Beamon‘s 23-year record. It remains an Irish record for a remarkable 89 years.

In 1906 O’Connor and two other athletes, Con Leahy and John Daly, are entered for the Intercalated Games in Athens by the IAAA and GAA, representing Ireland. However, the rules of the games are changed so that only athletes nominated by National Olympic Committees are eligible. Ireland does not have an Olympic Committee, and the British Olympic Council claims the three. On registering for the Games, O’Connor and his fellow athletes find that they are listed as Great Britain, not Irish, team members.

In the long jump competition, O’Connor finally meets Myer Prinstein of the Irish American Athletic Club who is competing for the U.S. team and whose world record O’Connor had broken five years previously. The only judge for the competition is Matthew Halpin, who is manager of the American team. O’Connor protests, fearing bias, but is overruled. He continues to protest Halpin’s decisions through the remainder of the competition. When the distances are announced at the end of the competition, Prinstein is declared the winner, with O’Connor in Silver Medal position.

At the flag-raising ceremony, in protest of the flying of the Union Flag for his second place, O’Connor scales a flagpole in the middle of the field and waves the Irish flag, while the pole is guarded by Con Leahy.

In the hop, step and jump competition two days later, O’Connor beats his fellow countryman, Con Leahy, to win the Gold Medal. At 34 he is the oldest ever Gold Medal winner in this event. Prinstein, the champion in 1900 and 1904, did not medal.

O’Connor wins no more titles after 1906. He remains involved in athletics all his life. He is a founder member and first Vice-President of Waterford Athletic Club, and attends later Olympics both as judge and spectator. He practises as a solicitor in Waterford and is married with nine children. He dies in Waterford on November 9, 1957.


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Birth of Sister Anthony, Mary Ellen O’Connell

Mary Ellen O’Connell, Roman Catholic Religious Sister better known as Sister Anthony, S.C., is born in Limerick, County Limerick, on August 14, 1814.

Connell is the daughter of William O’Connell (1769-1841) and Catherine Murphy (-1821). In 1821, she emigrates with her family to Boston, and attends the Ursuline Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts. On June 5, 1835 she enters the novitiate of the American Sisters of Charity in St. Joseph’s Valley, Maryland, founded by Saint Elizabeth Seton, and is professed in 1837, taking the name of Sister Anthony. Soon after, she goes to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Sister Anthony arrives in Cincinnati in 1837 to begin her work at St. Peter’s Orphan Asylum and School for girls. Given charge of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum for boys when it is begun in 1852, she later oversees the combining of the two asylums in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Cumminsville. She is in Cincinnati through 1852, when the Sisters in Cincinnati become independent of their founding motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She is placed in charge of St. John’s Hostel for Invalids, a new hospital.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, the Sisters volunteer as nurses. More than one-third of the community, which by then has more than one hundred members, serve. In June, 1861 Sister Anthony is one of six Sisters of Charity who go to Camp Dennison, about 15 miles from Cincinnati. A request is made from Cumberland, Virginia for nursing assistance, and eight sisters are sent to serve the wounded of both armies.

The Battle of Shiloh brings ten sisters to the scene including Sister Anthony. Some describe her word as being law with officers, doctors, and soldiers once she has established herself as a prudent and trusted administrator and nurse. She and other sisters often are picked to treat wounded prisoners of war since they show no bias in serving rebel, yank, white, or black soldiers.

When Sister Anthony serves at Shiloh she becomes known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” and “the Florence Nightingale of America.” She goes out to the battlefield to help bring in the sick and dying and also develops the Battlefield Triage. Her method is “the first recognizably modern triage techniques in war zones, saved countless lives through faster hospital treatment and won her praise from President Lincoln.” Her medical skills allow her to intervene to save soldiers’ limbs from amputation.

Sister Anthony also serves at the battlefields of Winchester, VA, the Cumberland Gap, TN, Richmond, VA, Nashville, TN, Gallipolis, OH, Culpeper Court House, VA, Murfreesboro, TN, Pittsburg Landing, TN, and Lynchburg, VA. She also serves on a hospital ship on the Ohio River. She sees no distinction between Union and Confederate soldiers. She becomes personally acquainted with Jefferson Davis and knows a number of generals on both sides of the conflict.

After the war, in 1866, Joseph C. Butler and a friend, Louis Worthington, purchase a large building at Sixth and Lock Street, to present to Sister Anthony as a gift in recognition of the sisters service during the war. There are two conditions: that no one be excluded from the hospital because of color or religion, and that the hospital be named “The Hospital of the Good Samaritan,” to honor the sisters’ kindness. It opens that same year as the St. Joseph Foundling and Maternity Hospital. It still serves as St. Joseph Hospital, a residential facility for children and adults with severe mental and multiple physical disabilities.

Sister Anthony is also recognized for her work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1877. She retires from active service in 1880, and dies in 1897 in Cumminsville, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Sister Anthony’s portrait hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.