seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs

christopher-ewart-biggs-assassinationChristopher Thomas Ewart Ewart-Biggs, British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, author and senior Foreign Office liaison officer with MI6, is killed in Sandyford, Dublin on July 21, 1976 by a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) land mine.

Ewart-Biggs is born in the Thanet district of Kent, South East England to Captain Henry Ewart-Biggs of the Royal Engineers and his wife Mollie Brice. He is educated at Wellington College and University College, Oxford and serves in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment of the British Army during World War II. At the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942 he loses his right eye and as a result he wears a smoked-glass monocle over an artificial eye.

Ewart-Biggs joins the Foreign Service in 1949, serving in Lebanon, Qatar and Algiers, as well as Manila, Brussels and Paris.

Ewart-Biggs is 55 when he is killed by a land mine planted by the IRA on July 21, 1976. He had been taking precautions to avoid such an incident since coming to Dublin only two weeks earlier. Among the measures he employs is to vary his route many times a week however, at a vulnerable spot on the road connecting his residence to the main road, there is only a choice between left or right. He chooses right and approximately 150 yards from the residence he hits a land mine that is later judged to contain hundreds of pounds of explosives. Ewart-Biggs and fellow passenger and civil servant Judith Cooke (aged 26) are killed. Driver Brian O’Driscoll and third passenger Brian Cubbon (aged 57) are injured. Cubbon is the highest-ranking civil servant in Northern Ireland at the time.

The Irish government launches a manhunt involving 4,000 Gardaí and 2,000 soldiers. Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave declares that “this atrocity fills all decent Irish people with a sense of shame.” In London, Prime Minister James Callaghan condemns the assassins as a “common enemy whom we must destroy or be destroyed by.” Thirteen suspected members of the IRA are arrested during raids as the British and Irish governments attempt to apprehend the criminals, but no one is ever convicted of the killings. In 2006, released Foreign and Commonwealth Office files reveal that the Gardaí had matched a partial fingerprint at the scene to Martin Taylor, an IRA member suspected of gun running from the United States.

Ewart-Biggs’s widow, Jane Ewart-Biggs, becomes a Life Peer in the House of Lords, campaigns to improve Anglo-Irish relations and establishes the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for literature.

(Pictured: The twisted remains of the car lie upended beside a huge crater after the explosion that killed Christopher Ewart-Biggs and civil servant Judith Cooke)


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Death of Eoin McKiernan, Scholar of Irish Studies

eoin-mckiernanEoin McKiernan, early scholar in the interdisciplinary field of Irish Studies in the United States and the founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI), dies in Saint Paul, Minnesota on July 18, 2004. He is credited with leading efforts to revive and preserve Irish culture and language in the United States.

Born John Thomas McKiernan in New York City on May 10, 1915, McKiernan adopts the old Irish form of his name, Eoin, early in his life. While in college, he wins a scholarship to study Irish language in the Connemara Gaeltacht in the west of Ireland. In 1938, he marries Jeannette O’Callaghan, whom he met while studying Irish at the Gaelic Society in New York City. They raise nine children.

McKiernan attends seminary at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s College in New York, leaving before ordination. He earns degrees in English and Classical Languages (AB, St. Joseph College, NY, 1948), Education and Psychology (EdM, UNH, 1951), and American Literature and Psychology (PhD, Penn State, 1957). Later in life, he is awarded honorary doctorates from the National University of Ireland, Dublin (1969), the College of Saint Rose, Albany (1984), Marist College, Poughkeepsie (1987) and the University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul (1996).

Passion for Irish culture is the dominant undercurrent of a distinguished teaching career in secondary (Pittsfield, NH, 1947–49) and university levels (State University of New York at Geneseo, 1949–59, and University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, MN, 1959–72). McKiernan serves as an officer of the National Council of College Teachers of English, is appointed by the Governor of New York to a State Advisory Committee to improve teacher certification standards and serves as a Consultant to the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1960s.

McKiernan suggests to the Irish government in 1938 that a cultural presence in the United States would promote a deeper understanding between the two countries, but he eventually realises that if this is to happen, he will have to lead the way. His opportunity comes in 1962, when he is asked to present a series on public television. Entitled “Ireland Rediscovered,” the series is so popular that another, longer series, “Irish Diary,” is commissioned. Both series air nationwide. The enthusiastic response provides the impetus to establish the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI) in 1962. In 1972 he resigns from teaching to devote his energy entirely to the IACI.

Under McKiernan’s direction, the IACI publishes the scholarly journal Eire-Ireland, with subscribers in 25 countries, and the informational bi-monthly publication Ducas. The IACI still sponsors the Irish Way (an immersion program for U.S. teenagers), several speaker series, a reforestation program in Ireland (Trees for Ireland), theatre events in both countries and educational tours in Ireland. He continues these educational Ireland tours well into his retirement. At his suggestion, the Institute finances the world premiere of A. J. Potter‘s Symphony No. 2 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Troubled by the biased reporting of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, McKiernan establishes an Irish News Service, giving Irish media and public figures direct access to American outlets. In the 1990s, he is invited by the Ditchley Foundation to be part of discussions aimed at bringing peace to that troubled area and is a participant in a three-day 1992 conference in London dealing with civil rights in Northern Ireland. Organized by Liberty, a London civil rights group, the conference is also attended by United Nations, European Economic Community, and Helsinki representatives.

McKiernan also founds Irish Books and Media, which is for forty years the largest distributor of Irish printed materials in the United States. In his eighth decade, he establishes Irish Educational Services, which funds children’s TV programs in Irish and provided monies for Irish language schools in Northern Ireland. Irish America magazine twice names him one of the Irish Americans of the year. In 1999, they choose him as one of the greatest Irish Americans of the 20th century.

McKiernan dies on July 18, 2004 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. On his death, The Irish Times refers to him as the “U.S. Champion of Irish culture and history . . . a patriarch of Irish Studies in the U.S. who laid the ground for the explosion of interest in Irish arts in recent years.”


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Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan & Others Declared Illegal Organizations

sinn-fein-cartoonSinn Féin, the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League are proclaimed as illegal organisations by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, John French, 1st Earl of Ypres on July 4, 1919.

The proclamation states that the proscribed organisations are dangerous and a “grave menace” designed to “terrorise the peaceful and law-abiding subjects of His Majesty in Ireland.” It goes on to say that these associations “encourage and aid persons to commit crimes and promote and incite to acts of violence and intimidation and interfere with the administration of the law and disturb the maintenance of law and order.”

The Irish Times, no supporter of any of the banned organisations, welcomes the development as a sign that the government has decided that sedition will “no longer be preached and practised with impunity in Ireland.” The paper also says that this new policy “furnishes final proof of the gravity of the Irish problem.”

In the immediate aftermath of the proclamation, business continues as usual at the Sinn Féin headquarters at 6 Harcourt Street and at the Gaelic League’s head offices at 25 Parnell Square. Both organisations claim that they have not received any direct communication, let alone any visits, from the police or military.

Speaking to a representative of the Evening Telegraph, Eoin Mac Neill, President of the Gaelic League, strikes a defiant note, declaring that the organisation will “not allow itself to be driven underground” and will continue to “have the support of the nation and of Irishmen abroad.”

MacNeill points out that the Gaelic League is approaching its 25th anniversary, on July 23, and that throughout its lifetime it has always been “non-political – that is to say has never interfered in the controversy with regard to the form of the Irish Government, and left all its members absolutely free to hold whatever political opinions they pleased. Of course it a new situation now. The Government itself has taken the initiative in making the neutrality of the Gaelic League impossible.”

Apparently the banning of the Gaelic League spurs interest in the language movement as several booksellers refer to being “inundated with orders” for booklets and manuals of instruction and conversations in the Irish language. The casual use of Irish on the streets also reportedly increases.

Cumann na mBan expresses surprise at the actions of the government and takes it as a sign that “conscription is now a certainty.” All of the organisation’s public work up to this point has been geared towards the campaign to oppose conscription.

The Lord Lieutenant makes his proclamation under the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act of 1887 which gives the authorities the power to outlaw any organisation it believes to be involved in criminal activities.

(From: “BANNED: Sinn Féin, Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League,” RTÉ.ie, the website of Raidió Teilifís Éireann | Photo: The government trying to douse the flames of Sinn Féin, from “The Republic,” April 11, 1907, DigitalLibrary@Villanova University)


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President Mary Robinson Meets Queen Elizabeth II

robinson-elizabeth-visit-1993Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, becomes the first Irish head of state to meet with a British monarch when she visits Queen Elizabeth II on May 27, 1993.

For much of the 20th century, relations between Ireland and its nearest neighbour are cool. Temperatures drop significantly over the economic war in the 1930s and Ireland’s neutrality in World War II. The sense of unfinished business permeates diplomacy during the Troubles, but by 1990 there is significant warmth in trade, tourism, business and even politics.

The newly elected Robinson makes a big play of reaching out to Irish emigrants and sees the opportunity to help Anglo-Irish relations. And so, on her 49th birthday, she pops in for tea with the British head of state.

None of Robinson’s predecessors had set foot in Britain, other than to change planes. Even when President Patrick Hillery is invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, he is advised by the Government of Ireland to decline the invitation.

But Robinson decides she will not be pushed around, and successfully insists she be allowed to join other heads of state at the opening of a European bank in London. Next she asks the government if she might be able to travel to the University of Cambridge to deliver a speech and receive an honorary degree. It is only after he reluctantly agrees that Taoiseach Charlie Haughey realises that the Chancellor of the University is the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Robinson meets the royal, the world remains on its axis, and a precedent is set. “Partly because I’ve never been fazed by royalty of any kind, least of all the British royal family, I felt entirely relaxed,” she recalls in her authorised biography.

Robinson next meets the prince at a memorial service for the victims of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing in Warrington, where she is applauded as she leaves the church. Soon, she is meeting royals all over the place, at rugby matches and memorial ceremonies, and in a television interview says that she would like to meet the Queen.

By February 1993, Haughey has been replaced by Albert Reynolds and he grants permission for Robinson to travel for a strictly personal visit. The visit does not happen in a vacuum – Reynolds is in secret discussions with Republicans that would end in the IRA ceasefire – and the Taoiseach is keen not to give any suggestion that this is a State visit, which would require a reciprocal visit.

Robinson’s party arrives at Buckingham Palace at 4:55 PM on May 27 where they are greeted by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes. Robinson’s staff pushes the Palace to allow press photographers, reckoning that a historic moment should be captured.

Robinson, in an Ib Jorgensen fuchsia suit, later donated to Madame Tussauds waxworks, and her husband Nick are brought up to the first floor to meet the Queen for a friendly and informal tea party that lasts 30 minutes. They sip a blend of Chinese and India tea in Minton cups, exchange signed photographs of themselves, and discuss the prospects for peace. The President also hands over an extra present of a hand-turned wooden cup from Spiddal.

Afterwards, the ground-breaking photographs are taken and published all over the world, including the front page of the Irish Independent. “Palace Talks Prepare Way for State Visit” runs the lead headline over a piece by Bernard Purcell and Gene McKenna. They go on, reporting the President as saying the visit is “symbolic of the maturing relationship between Ireland and Britain.”

In 1996 President Robinson’s 15th visit to Britain is upgraded to an Official Visit, and she leaves office the following year.

Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese, takes things further, and meets Queen Elizabeth II several times in London and at World War I commemorations on the continent. In May 2011 McAleese welcomes Queen Elizabeth II on her four-day State Visit to Ireland and in April 2014 President Michael D. Higgins makes the first State Visit to the UK.

(Pictured: President Mary Robinson with the Queen outside Buckingham Palace in 1993. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland | “Flashback 1993: The first Irish head of state meeting with a British monarch” by Ger Siggins, Independent.ie, May 22, 2016)


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Irish Protests of the War in Iraq

iraq-war-protestOn the evening of March 20, 2003, up to 2,000 people take part in a protest outside the United States Embassy at Ballsbridge in Dublin to voice their opposition to the war in Iraq. This is one of numerous protests held in response to the Irish Anti-War Movement‘s call on Irish citizens to mount mass protests against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The group says thousands of workers, students and school pupils had taken part in stoppages and walk-outs throughout the day.

Richard Boyd Barrett, the chairman of the IAWM, says, “The complicity of the Irish government in this murderous war through providing facilities for the U.S. military at Shannon Airport is an absolute disgrace. “This war has little support among ordinary people and has provoked a wave of anger and revulsion. We call on the people of Ireland to come out in their thousands at 6:00 PM tonight to their town centre demonstrations to show this carnage is not being mounted in our names.”

Earlier in the day, several hundred protesters gather outside Dáil Éireann to protest the Irish Government‘s decision to continue allowing U.S. military aircraft use Shannon Airport. The Dáil is holding a six-hour debate on a Government motion which, among other topics, contains a clause permitting U.S. forces continued use of Irish airspace and facilities.

A 10-minute work stoppage at noon is observed by thousands of people, the IAWM claims. They say hundreds of students in University College Dublin, Dublin City University, University of Limerick and the Waterford Institute of Technology walked out, as did secondary school students in several schools in Dublin. Up to 1,000 students from second level colleges in Derry take part in an hour-long city centre protest. Around 50 health workers at Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown, staff at the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street and Collins Barracks and workers at the Motor Taxation office in Cork also stop work.

The NGO Peace Alliance says it is “extremely disappointed” at the Government’s refusal to condemn the attack on Iraq. “We call upon thousands of Irish people to reject this shameful position by thronging the streets of Dublin and other cities and towns next Saturday” said the alliance’s co-ordinator, Brendan Butler.

SIPTU‘s National Executive Council also interrupts their monthly meeting. “This war is not only unnecessary but illegitimate in the context of international law”, says Joe O’Flynn, SIPTU General Secretary.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions organises peace vigils on March 21 at the Spire of Dublin and other locations in various town and cities. Weekend anti-war protests take place in Dublin, Cork, Derry, Belfast, Galway, Sligo and Waterford.

(From: “Thousands protest against war at US Embassy” by Kilian Doyle, The Irish Times, March 20, 2003)


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Birth of Tomás Mac Giolla, Irish Workers’ Party Politician

tomas-mac-giollaTomás Mac Giolla, Workers’ Party of Ireland politician who serves as Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1993 to 1994, leader of the Workers’ Party from 1962 to 1988 and leader of Sinn Féin from 1962 to 1970, is born Thomas Gill in Nenagh, County Tipperary on January 25, 1924. He serves as a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin West constituency from 1982 to 1992.

Mac Giolla’s uncle T. P. Gill is a Member of Parliament (MP) and member of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) of Charles Stewart Parnell. His father, Robert Paul Gill, an engineer and architect, also stands unsuccessfully for election on a number of occasions. His mother is Mary Hourigan.

Mac Giolla is educated at the local national school in Nenagh before completing his secondary education at St. Flannan’s College in Ennis, County Clare. It is while at St. Flannan’s that he changes to using the Irish language version of his name. He wins a scholarship to University College Dublin where he qualifies with a Bachelor of Arts degree, followed by a degree in Commerce.

A qualified accountant, Mac Giolla is employed by the Irish Electricity Supply Board (ESB) from 1947 until he goes into full-time politics in 1977.

In his early life Mac Giolla is an active republican. He joins Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) around 1950. He is interned by the Government of Ireland during the 1956–1962 IRA border campaign. He also serves a number of prison sentences in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

At the 1961 Irish general election, Mac Giolla unsuccessfully contests the Tipperary North constituency for Sinn Féin. In 1962, he becomes President of Sinn Féin, and is one of the people who moves the party to the left during the 1960s. In 1969, Sinn Féin splits and he remains leader of Official Sinn Féin. It is also in 1962 that he marries May McLoughlin who is also an active member of Sinn Féin as well as Cumann na mBan, the women’s section of the IRA. In 1977, the party changes its name to Sinn Féin the Workers Party and in 1982 it becomes simply the Workers’ Party.

Mac Giolla is elected to Dublin City Council representing the Ballyfermot local electoral area in 1979 and at every subsequent local election until he retires from the council in 1997. In the November 1982 Irish general election he is elected to Dáil Éireann for his party. In 1988, he steps down as party leader and is succeeded by Proinsias De Rossa. He serves as Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1993 to 1994 and remains a member of Dublin Corporation until 1998.

While president Mac Giolla is regarded as a mediator between the Marxist-Leninist wing headed by Sean Garland and the social democratic wing of Prionsias De Rossa. At the 1992 special Ard Fheis he votes for the motion to abandon democratic centralism and to re-constitute the party much as the Italian Communist Party became the Democratic Party of the Left. However the motion fails to reach the required two-thirds majority. Following the departure of six Workers’ Party TDs led by De Rossa to form the new Democratic Left party in 1992, Mac Giolla is the sole member of the Workers’ Party in the Dáil. He loses his Dáil seat at the 1992 Irish general election by a margin of just 59 votes to Liam Lawlor of Fianna Fáil.

In 1999, Mac Giolla writes to the chairman of the Flood Tribunal calling for an investigation into revelations that former Dublin Assistant City and County Manager George Redmond had been the official supervisor at the election count in Dublin West and was a close associate of Liam Lawlor. In 2003, Redmond is convicted of corruption by a Dublin court but subsequently has his conviction quashed due to conflicting evidence.

In his eighties Mac Giolla continues to be active and is a member of the group which campaigns to prevent the demolition of No. 16 Moore Street in Dublin city centre, where the surrender after the Easter Rising was completed. He also serves on the Dublin ’98 committee to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Tomás Mac Giolla dies in Beaumont Hospital in Beaumont, Dublin on February 4, 2010 after a long illness.


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President McAleese Visits Brakey Orange Hall

mcaleese-at-brakey-orange-hallPresident Mary McAleese makes the first official visit by an Irish head of state to an Orange Order hall when she visits Brakey Orange Hall, just outside Bailieborough, County Cavan on November 28, 2008.

Brakey Orange Hall had been destroyed in an arson attack on July 13, 2000, but had since been rebuilt and reopened in 2004. Further extensions and improvements have been made since, with the latest recently completed in time for the occasion.

Approximately 50 local people, many of the men in their orange lapels and other regalia, pack the little hall to honour their guest. Placing the visit in a wider context, McAleese says the “journey of peace-building and peace-making” since the signing of the Belfast Agreement ten years earlier must continue, and calls for a new culture of tolerance and acceptance in both parts of Ireland.

McAleese is welcomed by Cavan County Grand Master Henry Latimer, who praises the financial support for Orange halls in Border counties provided by the Government. He outlines to the President and her husband, Dr. Martin McAleese, the close bond between local communities and Orange halls and the facilities provided for meetings, classes and social events. “Given the widespread nature of such activity, it demonstrates why when halls are damaged, attacked, destroyed or [placed] beyond use for periods of time, the community activity of its related hinterland suffers and is curtailed,” he adds.

McAleese hails the occasion as an example of fresh understanding in relationships between different traditions. “We have taken the first important steps towards ending the bitter culture of ‘either-or,’ of them versus us,” she says. She calls on Irish people everywhere “to build a new culture . . . each accepting that there are different perspectives and practices.”

McAleese praises Latimer as a good Cavan man, a good Irishman and a good Orangeman. The burning of Orange halls, she says, are “intemperate acts of vandalism” which are “a throw-back to another time.”

Appealing for an end to attacks on Orange halls and GAA clubs by arsonists McAleese adds, “I invite them all to stop and think how wonderfully transformed all our lives would be if we were all made as welcome in each other’s homes as I have been made welcome here.”

McAleese receives a bouquet of flowers and a piece of Cavan crystal to mark her visit. She later attends other engagements throughout Cavan.

(From: “President makes first official visit by Irish head of state to an Orange hall” by Dan Keenan, The Irish Times, November 28, 2008)


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Closing of the Magdalene Laundries

magdalene-laundriesThe last of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, also known as the Magdalene Asylums, closes on September 25, 1996.

The Magdalene Laundries are institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operate from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They are run ostensibly to house “fallen women,” a term primarily referring to prostitutes in the late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, Magdalene laundries are filled with many different kinds of women, including girls who are “not prostitutes at all”, but either “seduced women” or women who have yet to engage in sexual activity.

Several religious institutes establish even more Irish laundries, reformatories and industrial schools, sometimes all together on the same plot of land, with the aim to “save the souls primarily of women and children.” Examples are Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, who run the largest laundries in Dublin. These large complexes become a massive interlocking system, carefully and painstakingly built up over a number of decades. Consequently, Magdalene laundries become part of Ireland’s “larger system for the control of children and women.”

An estimated 30,000 women are confined in these institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is unknown how many women resided in the Magdalene institutions after 1900. Vital information about the women’s circumstances, the number of women, and the consequences of their incarceration is unknown. Due to the religious institutes’ “policy of secrecy,” their penitent registers and convent annals remain closed to this day, despite repeated requests for information.

In Dublin in 1993, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sell part of the land in their convent to a property developer to cover money lost in share dealings on the stock exchange. This leads to the discovery of 133 corpses in a mass grave. The Sisters arrange to have the remains cremated and reburied in another mass grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, splitting the cost of the reburial with the developer who had bought the land. It later transpires that there are 22 more corpses than the sisters had applied for permission to exhume. In all, 155 corpses were exhumed and cremated.

Discovery of the mass grave leads to media revelations about the operations of the secretive institutions. A formal state apology is issued in 2013, and a £50 million compensation scheme for survivors is set up by the Irish Government. The religious orders which operate the laundries have rejected activist demands that they financially contribute to this programme.


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Brian Keenan Released by Islamic Jihad

brian-keenanBrian Keenan, Northern Irish writer, is released by the Islamic Jihad Organization on August 24, 1990 after having spent 52 months as a hostage in Beirut, Lebanon. His works include the book An Evil Cradling, an account of the four and a half years he spends as a hostage.

Keenan is born into a working-class family in East Belfast on September 28, 1950. He leaves Orangefield High School early and begins work as a heating engineer. However, he continues an interest in literature by attending night classes and in 1970 gains a place at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. Other writers there at the time included Gerald Dawe and Brendan Hamill. In the mid 1980s he returns to the Magee College campus of the university for postgraduate study. Afterwards he accepts a teaching position at the American University of Beirut, where he works for about four months.

On the morning of April 11, 1986 Keenan is kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad Organization. After spending two months in isolation, he is moved to a cell shared with the British journalist John McCarthy. He is kept blindfolded throughout most of his ordeal, and is chained by hand and foot when he is taken out of solitary.

The British and American governments at the time have a policy that they will not negotiate with terrorists and Keenan is considered by some to have been ignored. Because he is travelling on both Irish and British passports, the Irish government makes numerous diplomatic representations for his release, working closely with the Iranian government. Throughout the kidnap they also provide support to his two sisters, Elaine Spence and Brenda Gillham, who are spearheading the campaign for his release. He is released from captivity to Syrian military forces on August 24, 1990 and is driven to Damascus. There he is handed over by the Syrian Foreign Ministry to the care of Irish Ambassador, Declan Connolly. His sisters are flown by Irish Government executive jet to Damascus to meet him and bring him home to Northern Ireland.

An Evil Cradling is an autobiographical book by Keenan about his four years as a hostage in Beirut. The book revolves heavily around the great friendship he experiences with fellow hostage John McCarthy, and the brutality that is inflicted upon them by their captors. It is the 1991 winner of The Irish Times Literature Prize for Non-fiction and the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize.

Keenan returns to Beirut in 2007 for the first time since his release 17 years earlier, and describes “falling in love” with the city.

Brian Keenan now lives in Dublin.


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The Buttevant Rail Disaster

buttevant-rail-disasterThe Buttevant Rail Disaster, a train crash that occurs at Buttevant Railway Station, County Cork, takes place on August 1, 1980. More than 70 people are injured, and 18 die, resulting as one of Ireland’s worst rail disasters to ever occur and the country’s worst rail disaster during peacetime history.

At 12:45 the 10:00 am Dublin (Heuston) to Cork (Kent) express train enters Buttevant Railway Station carrying some 230 bank holiday passengers. The train is diverted off the main line across a 1:8 temporary set of points into a siding. The locomotive remains upright but carriages immediately behind the engine and generator van jack-knife and are thrown across four sets of rail lines. Two coaches and the dining car are totally demolished by the impact. It results in the deaths of 18 people and over 70 people being injured.

The accident happens because a set of manual facing points are set to direct the train into the siding. These points are installed about four months previously and have not yet been connected to the signal cabin. The permanent way maintenance staff are expecting a stationary locomotive at the Up platform to move into the siding, and set the points for the diversion to the siding, without obtaining permission from the signalman. Upon seeing that this has been done, the signalman at Buttevant manually sets the signals to the Danger aspect and informs the pointsman to reset the points. The train is traveling too fast to stop in time. The train is moving at approximately 60 mph when the derailment occurs.

The train consists of one locomotive, a generator van and eleven coaches. Six of the coaches consist of wooden bodies on steel underframes. Four of these are either destroyed or badly damaged in the impact, the two which survive being at the rear of the train. The remainder of the coaches are light alloy Cravens stock and most survive the crash.

This event, and the subsequent Cherryville junction accident, which kills a further seven people, account for 70% of all Irish rail deaths over a 28-year period. CIÉ and the Government come under severe public pressure to improve safety and to modernise the fleet. A major review of the national rail safety policy is held and results in the rapid elimination of the wooden-bodied coaches that had formed part of the train.

The passengers who are most severely injured or killed are seated in coaches with wooden frames. This structure is incapable of surviving a high speed crash and does not come near to the safety standards provided by modern (post-1950s) metal-body coaches. The expert bodies that review the accident discover that the old timber-frame carriage bodies mounted on a steel frame are totally inadequate as they are prone to complete collapse under the enormous compression forces of a high-speed collision.

The more modern steel-framed carriage bodies survive due to their greater structural rigidity. On this basis the decision to purchase a new fleet of modern intercity coaches based on the British Rail Mark 3 design is quickly made. The Mark 3’s longitudinally corrugated roof can survive compression forces of over 300 tonnes. These coaches, an already well proven design, are built by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) in Derby, England and, under licence, at CIÉ’s own workshops at Inchicore Railway Works in Dublin between 1983 and 1989.