seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Josephine Bracken, Common-law wife of José Rizal

Marie Josephine Leopoldine Bracken, the common-law wife of Philippine national hero José Rizal, is born in Victoria Barracks in Victoria, British Hong Kong, on August 9, 1876.

Bracken is born to Irish parents James Bracken, a corporal in the British Army, and Elizabeth Jane McBride, of Belfast. After her mother dies shortly after childbirth, her father gives her up for adoption. She is taken in by her godfather, the American George Taufer, a blind, and fairly well-to-do engineer of the pumping plant of the Hong Kong Fire Department, and his late Portuguese wife. He later remarries another Portuguese woman from Macau, Francesca Spencer, with whom he has another daughter.

After the second Mrs. Taufer dies in 1891, Taufer decides to remarry again but the new wife turns out to be difficult to deal with for Bracken. She spends two months in the Convent of the Canossian Sisters, where she previously attended early years of school. She decides to go back only after Taufer calls at the convent’s door pleading with her to come back home as his third wife turned out to be a bad housekeeper. A few months later she has trouble again with the third Mrs. Taufer and haunts her out of the house.

Bracken later recommends that her blind adoptive father see José Rizal, who is a respected ophthalmologist who had practiced at Rednaxela Terrace in Hong Kong. By this time, he is a political exile in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte in southern Philippines. The family sails to the Philippines and arrives in Manila on February 5, 1895, and later that month Bracken and Taufer sail to Dapitan.

Taufer’s double cataract is beyond Rizal’s help, but he falls in love with Bracken. Taufer vehemently opposes the union, but finally listens to reason. She accompanies Taufer to Manila on his way back to Hong Kong, together with Rizal’s sister, Narcisa, on March 14, 1895. Rizal applies for marriage but because of his writings and political stance, the local priest Father Obach, will only agree to the ceremony if Rizal obtains permission from the Bishop of Cebu. Either the Bishop does not write him back or Rizal is not able to mail the letter because of Taufer’s sudden departure.

Before heading back to Dapitan to live with Rizal, Bracken introduces herself to members of his family in Manila. His mother suggests a civil marriage, which she believes to be a lesser “sacrament” but free from hypocrisy — and thus less a burden to Rizal’s conscience — than making any sort of political retraction. Nevertheless, Bracken and Rizal live together as husband and wife in Barangay Talisay, Dapitan, beginning in July 1895. The couple has a son, Francísco Rizal y Bracken, who is born prematurely and dies within a few hours of birth.

On the evening before his execution on December 30, 1896 on charges of treason, rebellion and sedition by the Spanish colonial government, the Catholic Church claims that Rizal returned to the faith and is married to Bracken in a religious ceremony officiated by Father Vicente Balaguer, S.J. sometime between 5:00 AM and 6:00 AM, an hour before his scheduled execution at 7:00 AM. Despite claims by Father Balaguer and Bracken herself, some sectors, including members of Rizal’s family, dispute that the wedding had occurred because no records are found attesting to the union.

Following Rizal’s death, Bracken joins revolutionary forces in Cavite province, where she takes care of sick and wounded soldiers, boosting their morale, and helping operate reloading jigs for Mauser cartridges at the Imus Arsenal under revolutionary general Pantaleón García. Imus is under threat of recapture, so Bracken, making her way through the thicket and mud, moves with the operation to the Cavite mountain redoubt of Maragondon. She witnesses the Tejeros Convention on March 22, 1897 before returning to Manila, and is later summoned by the Spanish Governor-General, who threatens her with torture and imprisonment if she does not leave the colony. Owing however to her adoptive father’s American citizenship, she cannot be forcibly deported, but she voluntarily returns to Hong Kong upon the advice of the American consul in Manila.

Upon returning to Hong Kong, Bracken once more lives in her father’s house. After his death, she marries Vicente Abad, a Cebuano mestizo, who represents his father’s tabacalera company in the British territory. A daughter, Dolores Abad y Braken, is born to the couple on April 17, 1900. A later testimony of Abad affirms that her mother “was already suffering from tuberculosis of the larynx” at the time of the wedding.

Bracken dies of tuberculosis on March 15, 1902, in Hong Kong and is interred at the Happy Valley Cemetery.


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Passage of the First Penal Laws

penal-lawsPenal Laws are passed on September 7, 1695 which restrict the rights of Irish Catholics to have an education, to bear arms, or to possess a horse worth more than five pounds. This is the price the Irish have to pay for their support of King James II in his war against William of Orange.

The Catholic James flees to Ireland and raises an army after he is deposed during England’s Glorious Revolution. His successor, William of Orange, wages war in Ireland from 1689 to 1691, eventually defeating James’s armies and causing the ex-monarch to flee to France. It is Ireland’s last great episode of resistance to British rule until the Society of United Irishmen emerges in the 1790s.

Originally it looks as though the terms will be rather lenient. The draft of the Treaty of Limerick, which ends the war between William and James, contains generous terms for the latter’s defeated supporters in Ireland. Soldiers who fought in James’s army are offered free passage to France to join James in exile. James’s supporters in Ireland are to be allowed to keep their lands and to practice their trades and professions. Finally, Catholics are promised freedom of religion.

William supports these lenient terms because he wants to end the struggle in Ireland. It is costing a great deal of money and diverting military resources he wants to use in his ongoing war against France. Irish Protestants, however, bitterly oppose the treaty’s concessions to Catholics, and successfully water down or remove key provisions from the final draft of the Treaty. They also successfully push for a series of anti-Catholic measures known as the Penal Laws.

The first of the Penal Laws are passed on September 7, 1695. Many more follow over the next 30 years. These “popery laws,” as they are popularly known, sharply curtail the civil, religious, and economic rights of Catholics in Ireland. The most important ones make it illegal for Catholics to marry Protestants, inherit land from Protestants, buy land, carry weapons, teach school, practice law, vote in parliamentary elections, hold public office, practice their religion, own a horse worth more than 5 pounds, and hold a commission in the army or navy.

One particularly devastating law forces Catholic land owners to divide their estates among all their sons, in contrast to the preferred practice of handing most or all of the land to the eldest, unless they convert to the Church of Ireland. This leaves them with a choice between two evils: abandon their Catholic faith in order to save their holdings or allow them to be successively subdivided into oblivion.

It is this law, along with continued land forfeitures, that over the next century and a half push Ireland’s people onto smaller and smaller plots of land. Smaller holdings force Irish peasants to turn to the potato, a high yield crop, for the bulk of their daily diet. By the eve of the Great Famine, more than 60 percent of the Irish people depend on the potato for the main source of food. Thus the Penal Laws create the conditions that turn an accident of nature — the fungus that ravages Ireland’s potato crop between 1845 and 1850 — into a monumental human tragedy.

Some Penal Laws are either repealed or simply ignored in the course of the eighteenth century. By the late-1700s, for example, Catholics are allowed to buy land and practice their religion. But the most debilitating laws, those that deny Irish Catholics basic political, economic, and civil rights, are kept in full force until Daniel O’Connell launches his successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s.

(Source: The Irish Echo, oldest Irish American newspaper in the United States, February 16, 2011)


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Death of Samuel Nielson, Society of United Irishmen Founder Member

Samuel Neilson, one of the founder members of the Society of United Irishmen and the founder of its newspaper the Northern Star, dies in Poughkeepsie, New York on August 29, 1803.

Neilson is born in Ballyroney, County Down, the son of Presbyterian minister Alexander, and Agnes Neilson. He is educated locally. He is the second son in a family of eight sons and five daughters. At the age of 16, he is apprenticed to his elder brother, John, in the business of woollen drapery in Belfast. Eight years later he establishes his own business.

Despite his commercial success, Neilson is naturally drawn to politics and is early on a member of the reformist Irish Volunteers movement. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, he suggests to Henry Joy McCracken the idea of a political society of Irishmen of every religious persuasion. He establishes the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast. The following year he launches the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star, which effectively throws away his fortune. As its editor he is a high-profile target for the authorities and is prosecuted for libel several times, being twice imprisoned between 1796 and 1798.

Along with several other state prisoners, Neilson is released in February 1798 following several petitions by influential friends, on grounds of bad health. Upon release he immediately involves himself in the United Irishmen aligning with the radicals among the leadership who are pressing for immediate rebellion and oppose the moderates who wish to wait for French assistance before acting.

The United Irishmen are however, severely penetrated by informants who keep Dublin Castle abreast of their plans and discussions. In March 1798, information of a meeting of the United Irish executive at the house of Oliver Bond leads to the arrest of most of the leadership, leaving Neilson and Lord Edward FitzGerald as the only figures of national importance still at liberty. They decide to press ahead as soon as possible and settled on May 23 as the date for the rebellion to begin.

As the date looms closer, the authorities go into overdrive to sweep up the rump leadership and on May 18 Lord Edward is betrayed in his hiding place and critically wounded while resisting capture. Neilson, now with responsibility for finalising plans for the looming rebellion, decides that Fitzgerald is too valuable to do without, and decides to try and rescue him from Newgate Prison in Dublin. Wary of confiding his plans too early for fear of betrayal, Neilson goes on a reconnaissance of the prison but is spotted by chance by one of his former jailers and after a fierce struggle, he is overpowered and dragged into the prison.

Neilson is indicted for high treason and held in Kilmainham Gaol with other state prisoners for the duration of the doomed rebellion outside. After the execution of Oliver Bond, and the brothers John and Henry Sheares, Neilson and the remaining prisoners agree to provide the authorities with details of the organisation of the United Irishmen, plans for the rebellion, etc. in return for exile.

Following the suppression of the rebellion, Neilson is transferred to Fort George in Inverness-shire, Scotland, and in 1802 he is deported to the Netherlands. From there he makes his way to the United States, arriving in December 1802, and settling in Poughkeepsie, New York.  He has little time to enjoy his liberty  before his  sudden death on August 29, 1803 of yellow fever, or possibly a stroke.

Nielson is not idle during his short life in America as he completes plans to start a new evening newspaper in Poughkeepsie and also has plans in the works to establish a version of the Society of United Irishmen in the United States. Since his death, his remains have been moved to three different cemeteries before coming to rest in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in 1880.

(Photograph: (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)