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


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Birth of Hugh O’Brien, 31st Mayor of Boston

hugh-obrienHugh O’Brien, the mayor of Boston from 1884-1888, is born in Ireland on July 13, 1827. He is notable as Boston’s first Irish-born mayor, immigrating to the United States in the early 1830s. He is the editor of the Shipping and Commercial List and serves as a Boston alderman from 1875-1883.

O’Brien moves with his family to Boston when he is five years old, well before the potato famine sends waves of impoverished Irish men and women to Boston. He spends seven years in the Boston public schools and is apprenticed to a printer at the age of 12.

Working first for the newspaper Boston Courier and then for a Boston printer, O’Brien excels at the printing business, making foreman when he is only fifteen. He starts his own publication, Shipping and Commercial List, and is soon successful enough to become a respected member of the Boston business elite.

O’Brien’s business success draws the attention of Patrick Maguire, publisher of The Republic newspaper and the unofficial head of Irish politics in Boston. He orchestrates O’Brien’s election to the city’s Board of Alderman.

Boston has long been controlled by native-born Protestants, generally called “Yankees,” most of whom have a stereotypical view of Irish immigrants as poor, ignorant, undisciplined, and under the thumb of the Catholic Church. But the Irish-born population of Boston is exploding, making up over 40% of the city’s population by 1885.

By 1883, Maguire decides that the time has come for Boston to elect an Irish-born mayor. He devises a two-part strategy. O’Brien will be the public face of the campaign, an able public official who criticizes the previous administration for increasing taxes. O’Brien’s pledge to reduce the tax rate without cutting city services appeals to the Yankee tradition of frugality. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Maguire develops a system of Irish ward bosses who visit each household in the neighborhood and make sure that every eligible Irishman votes for O’Brien. O’Brien sweeps 15 of Boston’s 25 wards and, on December 10, 1884, becomes the first Irish Catholic to be elected Mayor of Boston. He is sworn in on January 5, 1885.

O’Brien surprises the opposition by governing the city in a conservative and honest way during his four terms in office. He cuts tax rates as promised. He also widens streets, establishes the commission that hires Frederick Law Olmsted to design the Emerald Necklace park system, and builds the new Boston Public Library in Copley Square. He disarms his critics by enlisting Yankee and Republican businessmen to serve on the committees overseeing these projects.

Hugh O’Brien dies on August 1, 1895 and is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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Birth of Author Violet Florence Martin

violet-florence-martinViolet Florence Martin, Irish author, is born at Ross House in Connemara, County Galway on June 11, 1862. She is the co-author of a series of novels with cousin Edith Somerville under the pen name of Martin Ross in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Martin is the youngest of sixteen children of James Martin of Ross (1804–1872). The Martin family, a branch of the Martyn family – one of the Tribes of Galway – had settled at Ross by the early seventeenth century, having previously inhabited the town of Galway for some three hundred years. Her father is a Protestant, his grandfather having converted from the Catholic faith in order to retain the family estates under the Penal Laws. Nevertheless, each child of the family is secretly ‘baptised’ by the family servants.

Martin is a kinswoman of Richard Martin and her contemporary, Edward Martyn, two other notable members of the tribe. Her older brother, Robert Jasper Martin, is a noted songwriter and a well-regarded member of the Tory party in London. She shares a great-grandmother with the writer Maria Edgeworth, whose use of Irish vernacular speech she follows in her work.

Martin’s father manages to save both his estate and his tenants during the Great Famine boasting that not one of his people died during the disaster, but at the cost of bankruptcy. Following his death in 1872, the family moves to Dublin and only returns to Ross in 1888 following revelations of financial fraud of the estate by their agent.

Martin and Edith Somerville are second cousins. They originally meet on January 17, 1886 at Castletownshend, after which they become lifelong companions and literary partners. They come to share a home in Drishane, County Cork. In 1889, Violet adopts the pseudonym Martin Ross, which comprises her surname and the name of her ancestral home. Thus the authors are called Somerville and Ross. Their works include The Real Charlotte (1889), Some Reminiscences of an Irish R.M. and In The Vine Country.

Martin is a convinced Irish Unionist, in opposition to Somerville’s open nationalism. Both she and her brother Robert are well-regarded members of the literary circle in Irish unionism. However, unlike her brother, Martin is a convinced suffragette, becoming vice-president of the Munster Women’s Franchise League. While on friendly terms with the leading members of the Gaelic literary revival such as W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, she objects to their romantic version of Irish peasantry. She is on good terms with Edward Martyn, partner of Gregory and Yeats – and her kinsman – and shares his love of the Irish language and culture.

Martin is seriously injured in a riding accident in November 1898, from which she never fully recovers. This is a contributing factor to her death in Drishane, County Cork, on December 21, 1915. Edith Somerville continues to write under their joint literary names, claiming that they are still in contact. The two women leave thousands of letters and 116 volumes of diaries, detailing their lives, much of them yet unpublished. Edith dies at Castletownshend in October 1949, aged 91, and is buried alongside Violet Florence Martin at Saint Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.


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Death of Novelist Maria Edgeworth

maria-edgeworthMaria Edgeworth, Anglo-Irish writer known for her children’s stories and for her novels of Irish life, dies on May 22, 1849 in Edgeworthstown, County Longford.

Edgeworth is born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, England on January 1, 1768. She is the second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Anna Maria Edgeworth (née Elers). She spends her early years with her mother’s family in England, until her mother’s death when Maria is five. When her father marries his second wife Honora Sneyd in 1773, she goes with him to his estate, Edgeworthstown, in County Longford. There, she assists her father in managing his estate. In this way she acquires the knowledge of rural economy and of the Irish peasantry that is to become the backbone of her novels.

Domestic life at Edgeworthstown is busy and happy. Encouraged by her father, Edgeworth begins her writing in the common sitting room, where the 21 other children in the family provide material and audience for her stories. She publishes them in 1796 as The Parent’s Assistant. Even the intrusive moralizing, attributed to her father’s editing, does not wholly suppress their vitality, and the children who appear in them, especially the impetuous Rosamond, are the first real children in English literature since William Shakespeare.

Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), written without her father’s interference, reveals her gift for social observation, character sketch, and authentic dialogue and is free from lengthy lecturing. It establishes the genre of the “regional novel,” and its influence is enormous. Sir Walter Scott acknowledges his debt to Edgeworth in writing Waverley. Her next work, Belinda (1801), a society novel unfortunately marred by her father’s insistence on a happy ending, is particularly admired by Jane Austen.

Edgeworth never marries. She has a wide acquaintance in literary and scientific circles. Between 1809 and 1812 she publishes her Tales of Fashionable Life in six volumes. They include one of her best novels, The Absentee, which focuses attention on a great contemporary abuse in Irish society: absentee English landowning.

Before her father’s death in 1817 she publishes three more novels, two of them, Patronage (1814) and Ormond (1817), of considerable power. After 1817 she writes less. She completes her father’s Memoirs (1820) and devotes herself to the estate. She enjoys a European reputation and exchanges cordial visits with Scott. Her last years are saddened by the Irish famine of 1846, during which she works for the relief of stricken peasants.

After a visit to see her relations in Trim, Maria, now in her eighties, begins to feel heart pains and dies suddenly of a heart attack in Edgeworthstown on May 22, 1849. She is laid to rest in a vault at Edgeworthstown Church.

The feminist movement of the 1960s leads to the reprinting of her Moral Tales for Young People, 5 vol. (1801) and Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) in the 1970s. Her novels continue to be regularly reprinted in the 21st century.

(Pictured: Maria Edgeworth by John Downman, 1807)


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Death of Historian Thomas P. O’Neill

eamon-de-valera-biographyThomas P. O’Neill, Irish historian who wrote Éamon de Valera‘s official biography with Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford, dies in Dublin on March 2, 1996.

Born in County Carlow, O’Neill is educated at St. Mary’s Knockbeg College and University College Dublin (UCD). While assistant keeper of the National Library of Ireland, he is asked to undertake the work on de Valera. Frank Gallagher, head of the Government Information Services and later a member of the library’s staff had been working on a biography for several years but dies in 1962 without completing the work.

De Valera knows of O’Neill’s reputation as a historian and asks him to undertake the project. A contract is signed with the publishers in 1963, and O’Neill moves to Áras an Uachtaráin to work on the book. He is later joined by Lord Longford as co-author.

O’Neill’s other works include a biography in Irish of James Fintan Lalor and a major study of the Great Famine, which establishes his reputation as a historian.

After the completion of the de Valera work, O’Neill is appointed lecturer and later professor of history in University College, Galway. On his retirement, he returns to live in Dublin, where he renews his association with the National Library, becoming a strong supporter of its expansion.

O’Neill continues historical research until shortly before his death. He discovers evidence that the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic was signed by the seven signatories at the home of the president of Cumann na mBan, Jennie Wyse Power, in Henry Street, Dublin, before the Easter Rising and not merely printed in Liberty Hall from an unsigned manuscript on Easter Sunday.

O’Neill is survived by his wife, Marie, and six children. His funeral Mass takes place at St. Joseph’s Church on March 5, followed by his interment at Shanganagh Cemetery.

(From: “Biographer of de Valera dies at 74,” The Irish Times, Monday, March 4, 1996)


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Death of Robert John Kane, Chemist & Educator

robert-john-kaneSir Robert John Kane, chemist and educator, dies at the age of 80 in Dublin on February 16, 1890. In a distinguished career, he founds the Dublin Journal of Medical  & Chemical Science, is Vice-Chancellor of Royal University of Ireland and is director of the Museum of Irish Industry.

Kane is born at 48 Henry Street, Dublin on September 24, 1809 to John and Eleanor Kean (née Troy). His father is involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and flees for a time to France where he studies chemistry. Back in Dublin, Kean (now Kane) founds the Kane Company and manufactures sulfuric acid.

Kane studies chemistry at his father’s factory and attends lectures at the Royal Dublin Society as a teenager. He publishes his first paper in 1828, Observations on the existence of chlorine in the native peroxide of manganese, in the London Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Art. The following year, his description of the natural arsenide of manganese results in the compound being named Kaneite in his honour. He studies medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1834 while working in the Meath Hospital. He is appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Apothecaries’ Hall, Dublin in 1831, which earns him the moniker of the “boy professor.” In the following year he participates in the founding of the Dublin Journal of Medical & Chemical Science.

On the strength of his book Elements of Practical Pharmacy, Kane is elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832. He studies acids, shows that hydrogen is electropositive, and proposes the existence of the ethyl radical. In 1836 he travels to Giessen in Germany to study organic chemistry with Justus von Liebig. In 1843 he is awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s Cunningham Medal for his work on the nature and constitution of compounds of ammonia.

Kane publishes a three-volume Elements of Chemistry in 1841–1844, and a detailed report on the Industrial Resources of Ireland. This includes the first assessment of the water power potential of the River Shannon, which is not realised until the 1920s at Ardnacrusha.

Kane becomes a political adviser on scientific and industrial matters. He serves on several commissions to enquire into the Great Irish Famine, along with Professors Lindley and Taylor, all more or less ineffective. His political and administrative work means that his contribution to chemistry ceases after about 1844.

Kane’s work on Irish industry leads to his being appointed director of the Museum of Irish Industry in Dublin in 1845. The Museum is a successor to the Museum of Economic Geology, and is housed at 51 St. Stephen’s Green.

Also in 1845 Kane becomes the first President of Queen’s College, Cork (now University College Cork). He does not spend a lot of time in Cork as he has work in Dublin, and his wife lives there. The science building on the campus is named in his honour. He is knighted in 1846.

In 1873 Kane takes up the post of National Commissioner for Education. He is elected president of the Royal Irish Academy in 1877, holding the role until 1882. In 1880 he is appointed the first chancellor of the newly created Royal University of Ireland. After a motion to admit women to the University, put forward by Prof. Samuel Haughton at Academic Council in Trinity College Dublin, March 10, 1880, Kane is appointed to a committee of ten men to look into the matter. He is opposed to the admission of women, and nothing is reported from the committee in the Council minutes for the next ten years.


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The Londonderry Tragedy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the most tragic events of the Great Famine occurs on December 1, 1848 when 72 people suffocate in the small aft cabin of the paddle steamer Londonderry, which often sails between Sligo and Liverpool.

One hundred seventy-two men, women, and children, mostly impoverished farmers from County Mayo and County Sligo, and their families, fleeing the ravages of the Great Famine, board the Londonderry in Sligo in late November. As the steamer is approaching Derry on the first leg of its journey to England, a sudden storm prompts Captain Alexander Johnstone to order his crew to force all the passengers into a small aft cabin, measuring about eighteen feet in length and, at most, twelve feet wide. The situation is exacerbated when the only ventilation available is covered with a tarpaulin to ensure that water does not get into the cabin. As a result, many of the passengers begin to suffocate.

The captain seeks refuge from the storm in the harbour at Derry on December 1. When the hatches of the Londonderry are opened it reveals a horrific scene. The corpses of 31 women, 23 men and 18 children are found in the grossly overcrowded hold. Soldiers are called to the docks as public rage intensifies. The public outcry that follows belatedly forces the British government to publish guidelines for the safe transport of Irish Immigrants, too late unfortunately for the victims of the coffin ship Londonderry.

After the tragic voyage, the master and two mates are arrested. During an inquest, survivors accuse the Scottish crew of being cruel and savage. The captain says that he had given orders for the decks to be cleared for the passengers’ safety while the storm raged.

The coroner’s jury returns a verdict of manslaughter, commenting that more consideration was shown to the cattle than the passengers entrusted to their care.

In 1996 six coffins are found by workmen on a building site in the Waterside area of Derry, in grounds close to the former workhouse. They are believed to be the remains of some of the poverty-stricken travelers from the ill-fated paddle steamer.

(Pictured: The Great Hunger Plaque, Derry, near Derry County Borough, Derry, Clooney Park, Creggan and Boom Hall)


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Death of Michael Cusack, Founder of the GAA

michael-cusackMichael Cusack, teacher and founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, dies in Dublin on November 25, 1906.

Cusack is born on the eastern fringe of the Burren to Irish speaking parents in Carran, County Clare on September 20, 1847, during the Great Famine. He becomes a national school teacher and in 1874, after teaching in various parts of Ireland, becomes a professor at Blackrock College, then known as the French College. In 1877, he establishes his own civil service academy, Cusack’s Academy, in Dublin which proves successful in preparing pupils for the civil service examinations.

A romantic nationalist, Cusack is also reputed to have been associated with the Fenian movement. He is active in the Gaelic revival, initially as a member of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language which is founded in 1876, and later the Gaelic League who in 1879 breaks away from the Society. Also in 1879, he meets Pat Nally, who is a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and a leading nationalist and athlete. He finds that he and Nally agree on the influence of British landlordism on Irish athletics.

He would recall how both Nally and himself, While walking through Phoenix Park in Dublin and seeing only a handful of people playing sports in the park so depresses Cusack and Nally that they agree it is time to “make an effort to preserve the physical strength of [their] race.” Nally organises a National Athletics Sports meeting in County Mayo in September 1879 which is a success, with Cusack organising a similar event which is open to artisans in Dublin the following April.

On November 1, 1884, Cusack together with Maurice Davin, of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, calls a meeting in Hayes’ Commercial Hotel, Thurles, County Tipperary, and founds the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Davin is elected president and Cusack becomes its first secretary. Later, Archbishop Thomas William Croke, Archbishop of Cashel & Emly, Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell become patrons. Cusack also becomes involved in the Irish language movement, founding The Celtic Times, a weekly newspaper which focuses on “native games” and Irish culture.

Michael Cusack dies in Dublin on November 27, 1906 at the age of 59. He is buried in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.