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


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Death of Leslie Montgomery, Playwright & Writer

lynn-doyle-ballygullionLeslie Alexander Montgomery, playwright, humorist, and writer who writes under the pen name “Lynn Doyle,” dies in Dublin on August 18, 1961. He adopts the pseudonym for his writing, using a homophone of “linseed oil.” Supposedly, he chooses the name after seeing a large tin of linseed oil in a paint shop, initially signing “Lynn C. Doyle” but later dropping the “C.”

Born in Downpatrick, County Down on October, 5 1873, Montgomery is educated at Dundalk in County Louth. He commences work as a bank clerk at the age of 16, and remains with the Northern Banking Company, working in locations such as Keady and Cushendall before a transfer to the quaint seaside town of Skerries in County Armagh. There he becomes branch manager until his retirement in 1934.

Aside from this rather straight-laced, white collar career, however, Montgomery fosters a life-time passion for writing in various forms and genres, and his contribution to Ulster literature in the early part of the 20th century should not be underestimated.

Montgomery is part of the Ulster Literary Theatre movement founded by Bulmer Hobson and David Parkhill in 1902, and early works include Love and Land, a play that is produced at the Little Theatre in London and represents Montgomery’s first critical success.

Other works during this decade include The Summons and The Lilac Ribbon. By the beginning of the 1920s, Montgomery is a leading northern playwright. He is best known, however for the Ballygullion series, twenty books which fondly caricature Northern Irish village life. The first in the series is published in 1908 and the last in 1957.

Montgomery writes the first book, which would lend its title to the rest of the series, in Dublin. This is followed by other works every few years such as Mr. Wildridge of the Bank, Lobster Salad, Dear Ducks, Me and Mr. Murphy and Rosabelle and Other Stories.

Written in the dialect of the east Ulster region, the stories celebrate an imaginary townland area in the Slieve Gullion region of County Down. They reflect Montgomery’s early years there and in Dundalk. The books also reveal a lot about contemporary Ulster life.

The versatile writer also produces poetry during the 1930s. Ballygullion Ballads, published in 1936 is illustrated by the famous Belfast artist William Conor, as are several of the later editions of his books.

In 1936, Montgomery has the somewhat dubious honour of being the first Irish writer to be appointed to the Censorship Board. He resigns within two years of accepting the job, however, claiming that it is “so terribly easy to read only the marked passages, so hard to wade through the whole book afterwards.”

Following his retirement from the Northern Banking Company, he gains further notoriety as a lecturer, and also regularly broadcasts his stories for the fledgling BBC in Belfast. Indeed his most productive period as a writer is in his 1960s, during which time he writes his autobiography, An Ulster Childhood, in 1954.

Montgomery dies in Dublin on August 18, 1961, but his legacy is preserved in the Lynn Doyle Collection at Belfast Central Library, which consists of a series of archival boxes which were purchased by the library. The collection is extensive, and includes broadcasts and lecture transcripts, manuscripts, essays, short stories, poetry, personal correspondence, photographs, land leases and legal documents.

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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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Birth of St. Columba

St. Columba, also called Colum or Columcille, Irish abbot and missionary Evangelist is born on December 7, 521, in Tír Chonaill (mainly modern County Donegal) in the north of Ireland. He is credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. He also founds the important abbey on Iona, which becomes a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry and is highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts. Today he is remembered as a Catholic saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Columba studies under Saints Finnian of Movilla and Finnian of Clonard and is ordained into the priesthood around 551. He founds churches and the famous monasteries Daire Calgaich, in Derry, and Dair-magh, in Durrow.

Columba and his twelve disciples erect a church and monastery on the island of Iona (c. 563) as their springboard for the conversion of Scotland. It is regarded as the mother house and its abbots as the chief ecclesiastical rulers even of the bishops. Columba gives formal benediction and inauguration to Áedán mac Gabráin of Dunadd as king of Dál Riata.

Columba accompanies Aidan to Ireland in 575 and takes a leading role in a council held at Druim Cetta, which determines the position of the ruler of Dál Riata in relation to the king of Ireland. The last years of Columba’s life are apparently primarily spent in Iona, where he is already revered as a saint. He and his associates and successors spread the gospel more than any other contemporary group of religious pioneers in Britain.

Columba dies on Iona and is buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descend on Iona. Columba’s relics are finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. The parts of the relics which go to Ireland are reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St. Patrick and St. Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick.

Three Latin hymns may be attributed to Columba with some degree of certainty. Excavations in 1958 and 1959 revealed Columba’s living cell and the outline of the original monastery.

St. Columba’s Feast Day, 9 June, has been designated as International Celtic Art Day. The Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, great medieval masterpieces of Celtic art, are associated with Columba.


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Execution of Thomas Russell, United Irishmen Co-founder

thomas-russellThomas Paliser Russell, co-founder and leader of the Society of United Irishmen, is executed for his part in Robert Emmet‘s rebellion on October 21, 1803.

Born in Dromahane, County Cork to an Anglican family, Russell joins the British army in 1783 and serves in India. He returns to Ireland in 1786 and commences studies in science, philosophy and politics. In July 1790 he meets Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitors’ gallery in the Irish House of Commons and they become firm friends.

In 1790 Russell resumes his military career as a junior officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot and is posted to Belfast. The French Revolution in 1789 is warmly greeted in Belfast as are its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. With his keen mind and radical ideas, Russell soon becomes a confidante of Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, Samuel Neilson and others who are to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement. With them he develops ideas of parliamentary reform, to include the bulk of the people, and Catholic emancipation.

Russell leaves the army in July 1791 and attends a convention of the Whig Club in Belfast to mark Bastille Day. The convention is addressed by William Drennan, who proposes a brotherhood promoting separation from England and co-operation with the increasingly radical Cisalpine Club in the pursuit of political and social reforms. However, Russell notes the lack of trust between Dissenters and Catholics which is due to fears that Catholic radicalism can be bought off by religious concessions. Informing Wolfe Tone of his observations, within weeks leads to Wolfe Tone’s publication of Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland to address these suspicions. The pamphlet is extremely well received and provides the impetus for the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast on October 18, 1791.

Pressure from Dublin Castle later forces the United Irish movement to become a clandestine organisation as the would-be revolutionaries seek to continue their slow progress towards challenging the occupying British.

In 1795 Russell, Andrew Henderson, Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson lead a band of United Irishmen to the top of Cavehill overlooking the town of Belfast where they swear an oath “never to desist in our effort until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence” prior to Wolfe Tone’s exile to the United States. The event is noted in Dublin Castle although there is no immediate move to disband or arrest the members of the United Irishmen.

In 1796, Russell publishes an ambitious and far-sighted document, Letter to the People of Ireland, which lays out his vision of social and economic reform for the Irish nation. In addition to his stance on religious freedom, he makes clear his anti-slavery views in the Northern Star on March 17, 1792.

Russell takes an active part in organising the Society of United Irishmen becoming the United Irish commander in County Down. However the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1793 leads to an ongoing campaign against the United Irishmen and in 1796 he is arrested and imprisoned as a “state prisoner” in Dublin. In March 1799 he and the other state prisoners are transferred to Fort George in Scotland, an extensive fortress some miles north of Inverness built in the wake of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46. He is released on condition of exile to Hamburg in June 1802 following a brief cessation in the war with France.

Not content to sit things out in Hamburg, Russell soon makes his way to Paris where he meets Robert Emmet who is planning another insurrection pending the French renewal of the war against England. He agrees to return to Ireland in March 1803 to organise the North in conjunction with James Hope. However he meets with little success as much of the north is subdued following the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and displays little appetite for a renewed outbreak. Finally, finding some support in the vicinity of Loughinisland, he prepares to take to the field on July 23, 1803, the date set by Emmett.

However the plan is badly thought out and quickly collapses, forcing Russell to flee to Dublin before a shot is fired in anger. He manages to hide for a number of weeks but Dublin is a hard place in which to hide in the days following the failure of Emmett’s rebellion as the shocked authorities have launched a massive campaign of raids and arrests in an effort to finally eradicate the United Irishmen.

Thomas Russell is promptly arrested and sent to Downpatrick Gaol where he is executed by hanging then beheaded on October 21, 1803.


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The Murder of Outlaw Redmond O’Hanlon

redmond-ohanlonRedmond O’Hanlon, Irish guerrilla outlaw and an important figure in the Irish Rebellion of 1641, is shot and killed by his foster brother on April 25, 1681.

O’Hanlon is born in 1620 near Poyntzpass, County Armagh, in what is now Northern Ireland, the son of Loughlin O’Hanlon, rightful heir to Tandragee Castle. As a young man he is sent for a “proper” education in England and later works as a footman to Sir George Acheson of Markethill, but is dismissed for stealing horses. After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, he joins the Irish Catholic rebel forces. He serves under Owen Roe O’Neill at the Irish victory at the Battle of Benburb in 1646 but flees to France after the defeat of the Irish Confederation in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. O’Hanlon’s family lands are confiscated under the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652.

O’Hanlon spends several years in exile as an officer with the French army and is awarded the title of Count of the French Empire. He returns to Ireland around 1660, after the Restoration of King Charles II of England. After realizing there will be no restitution of his family’s lands, he takes to the hills around Slieve Gullion and becomes a notorious highwayman.

Although O’Hanlon is often compared to a real-life Robin Hood, the truth is more complex. Protestant landlords, militia officers, and even Anglican and Catholic priests work as informal members of the O’Hanlon gang, giving him information and scouting sites for him to rob. He also forces the landlords and merchants of northern Ireland to pay protection money. It is stated that the criminal activities of O’Hanlon are bringing in more money than the King’s revenue collectors.

In 1674 the colonial authorities in Dublin put a price on O’Hanlon’s head with posters advertising for his capture, dead or alive. The Anglo-Irish landowner Henry St. John, who had been granted the traditional lands of the O’Hanlon clan, receives O’Hanlon’s undying hatred when he begins evicting his clansmen in large numbers. St. John responds by waging a private war against the O’Hanlon Gang. The loss of his 19-year-old son while pursuing O’Hanlon only makes Henry St. John increasingly brutal toward anyone suspected of aiding Redmond O’Hanlon. On September 9, 1679, St. John is riding on his estate with a manservant and the Reverend Lawrence Power, the Church of Ireland Rector of Tandragee. A party of O’Hanlon’s associates ride into view and seize him, warning that he would be killed if a rescue is attempted. Then, a group of the family’s retainers ride into view and open fire on the kidnappers. As a result, Henry St. John receives two pistol balls in the forehead.

At the landlord’s funeral, an outraged Reverend Power denounces the outlaws and the landowners who do business with them. Outraged, James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, orders the assassination of O’Hanlon.

Count Redmond O’Hanlon is murdered in his sleep by his foster brother and close associate Art MacCall O’Hanlon at Eight Mile Bridge near Hilltown, County Down on April 25, 1681. Art receives a full pardon and two hundred pounds from the Duke of Ormond for murdering his leader. William Lucas, the militia officer who had recruited Art and arranges the killing, receives a Lieutenant’s commission in the British Army.

As is the custom of the day, there are gruesome displays of his body parts including his head which is placed on a spike over Downpatrick jail. His remains are eventually removed to lie in a family plot in Conwal Parish Church cemetery in Letterkenny, County Donegal, where his parents had fled from Henry St. John. His bones, however, are not left to rest in peace there and his grave is constantly desecrated by the Duke’s supporters. His remains are finally removed by his family and interred in his final secret resting place, somewhere within Lurgan Parish.


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The Battle of Ballynahinch

The Battle of Ballynahinch is fought outside Ballynahinch, County Down, on June 12, 1798, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 between British forces led by Major-General George Nugent and the local United Irishmen led by Henry Munro.

Munro is a Lisburn linen merchant and Presbyterian United Irishman who has no military experience but has taken over command of the Down organisation following the arrest on June 5 of the designated leader, Rev. William Steel Dickson. Upon hearing of the victory at Saintfield on June 9, Munro joins the rebel camp there and then moves to Ednavady Hill, Ballynahinch to join the thousands who have gathered in support of the rebellion. The response of the British garrisons is to converge on Ballynahinch from Belfast and Downpatrick in two columns accompanied by several pieces of cannon.

The battle begins on the night of June 12 when two hills to the left and right of Ballynahinch are occupied by the British who pound the town with their cannon. During a pause when night falls, some rebel officers are said to have pressed Munro for a night attack but he refuses on the grounds that it is unchivalrous. As a consequence many disillusioned rebels slip away during the night.

As dawn breaks the battle recommences with the rebels attacked from two sides and although achieving some initial success, confusion in the rebel army sees the United Irishmen retreat in chaos, pursued by regrouping British forces who quickly take advantage by turning retreat into massacre. Initial reports claim four hundred rebels are killed, while British losses are around forty.

Munro escapes the field of battle but is betrayed by a farmer who he has paid to conceal him and is hanged in front of his own house in Lisburn on June 16. Ballynahinch is sacked by the victorious military after the battle with sixty-three houses being burned down. Cavalry scours the surrounding countryside for rebels, raiding homes and killing indiscriminately, the 22nd Dragoons being guilty of some of the worst atrocities. The most famous victim is Betsy Gray, a young female rebel who, with her two brothers, is slaughtered in the post-battle massacre, ensuring her place in legend to this day.

Because of his family’s involvement in this event, Robert Stewart, the future Lord Castlereagh, is made Chief Secretary for Ireland.


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St. Patrick Returns to Ireland

st-patrickSt. Patrick returns to Ireland as a missionary bishop on April 5, 456.

Patrick is born in Britain of a Romanized family. At age 16, he is taken from his family by Irish raiders and carried into slavery in Ireland. During six bleak years spent as a herdsman, he turns with fervour to his faith. Hearing at last in a dream that the ship in which he is to escape is ready, he flees his master and finds passage to Britain. There he is reunited with his family.

The best known passage in the Confessio, his spiritual autobiography, tells of a dream where he is told to walk once more among the Irish. He is reluctant to respond to the call for a long time. Even on the eve of re-embarkation for Ireland he is beset by doubts of his fitness for the task. Once in the field, however, his hesitations vanish. Utterly confident in the Lord, he journeys far and wide, baptizing and confirming with untiring zeal. On at least one occasion, he is cast into chains. On another, he addresses with lyrical pathos a last farewell to his converts who have been slain or kidnapped by the soldiers of Coroticus.

Careful to deal fairly with the non-Christian Irish, he nevertheless lives in constant danger of martyrdom. The evocation of such incidents of what he calls his “laborious episcopate” is his reply to a charge that he originally sought office for the sake of office. In point of fact, he is a most humble-minded man, pouring forth a continuous paean of thanks to his Maker for having chosen him as the instrument whereby multitudes who have worshiped “idols and unclean things” have become “the people of God.”

The phenomenal success of Patrick’s mission is not, however, the full measure of his personality. Since his writings have come to be better understood, it is increasingly recognized that, despite their occasional incoherence, they mirror a truth and a simplicity of the rarest quality. Not since St. Augustine of Hippo has any religious diarist bared his inmost soul as Patrick does in his writings.

It is not possible to say with any assurance when Patrick was born. There are, however, a number of pointers to his missionary career having lain within the second half of the 5th century. In the Coroticus letter, his mention of the Franks as still “heathen” indicates that the letter must have been written between 451, the date generally accepted as that of the Franks’ irruption into Gaul as far as the Somme River, and 496, when they are baptized en masse. Patrick, who speaks of himself as having evangelized heathen Ireland, is not to be confused with Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine I in 431 as “first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ.”

St. Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba, although this has never been proven. Saint Patrick Visitor Centre is a modern exhibition complex located in Downpatrick and is a permanent interpretative exhibition centre featuring interactive displays on the life and story of Saint Patrick. It provides the only permanent exhibition centre in the world devoted to Saint Patrick.