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


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Birth of Margaret (May) Tennant, Promoter of Workers’ Rights & Public Health

Margaret Mary Edith (May) Tennant (née Abraham), promoter of workers’ rights and public health, is born April 5, 1869 at Rathgar, County Dublin, the only daughter of Dr. George Whitley Abraham, a lawyer in the civil service, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Cornelius Curtain.

Abraham is educated at home by her father. Following his death in 1887, finding herself in financial straits, she moves to London, where she takes lodgings in Bloomsbury and works for Lady Emilia Dilke. Dilke is a social reformer and an advocate of trade unions for women, and as her secretary Margaret gains first-hand experience of the exploitative and unsanitary conditions afflicting women working in industry, a cause that she devotes the next decade to ameliorating. She is treasurer of the Womens’ Trade Union League, where she negotiates with employers on behalf of league members, organises meetings, and sends deputations to the House of Commons. From 1881 she coordinates a successful campaign to render regular government inspections of laundries mandatory (legislation is passed to this effect in 1908).

Abraham’s dedication to her work soon attracts wider recognition, and in 1891 she is appointed an assistant commissioner to undertake field inquiries for the Royal Labour Commission. In this capacity she travels incessantly throughout England and Ireland, gathering information and writing reports on often appalling working conditions. It is mainly because of this work that in 1893 the home secretary appoints her the first female factory inspector in England. Her new position marks a career shift from agitator to skillful and effective administrator. Traveling incessantly, the inspectors target illegal overtime, poor sanitation, and dangerous trades. In her first year alone she brings eighty prosecutions for illegal overtime.

In 1895 Abraham serves on a departmental committee at the Home Office on dangerous trades, where she meets Harold John Tennant, liberal MP for Berwickshire. The couple are married the following year, and have four sons and one daughter.

By 1896 Tennant is the superintending inspector of five more women inspectors, and her extensive experience in workers’ rights and public health is reflected in the book she publishes in that year, The law relating to factories and workshops, which runs to six editions. She finds it increasingly difficult to balance the pressures of her work with the demands of her private life, and she resigns her post soon after her marriage. However, she remains a committed social activist, serving as chairman of the Industrial Law Committee and on the Royal Commission on Divorce (1909). She is also an original member and treasurer of the Central Committee on Women’s Employment (1914–39).

During the World War I Tennant is chief adviser on women’s welfare to the Ministry of Munitions and director of the Women’s Department of the National Service Department. In recognition of her services the British government awards her the Companion of Honour in 1917, the same year that her eldest son, Harry, dies while on active service. Between the wars she turns her attention to women’s health, campaigning to improve maternal mortality and nursing care.

During the World War II, despite her failing health, Tennant works for the RAF Benevolent Fund. She is a member of the Central Consultative Council of Voluntary Organisations and the National Association for Prevention of Tuberculosis, chairman of the maternal health committee, governor of Bedford College, and a JP. She is also a director of the Mysore and Champion Reef Gold Mines, an enterprise of her husband’s family, and in this capacity travels to India and New Zealand in the mid-1920s.

The Tennants have homes in Edinglasserie, Aberdeenshire, and at 12 Victoria Square, London, as well as a restored country house, Great Maytham, at Rolvenden in Kent. She is a noted authority on gardening, and is director of The Gardener’s Chronicle (other interests included fishing, tennis, and gambling). After her husband’s death in 1935 she moves to a smaller house named Cornhill at Great Maytham, where she dies on July 11, 1946. Some of her correspondence is in the British Library, London.

(From: “Tennant (née Abraham), Margaret Mary Edith (May),” contributed by Sinéad Sturgeon and Georgina Clinton, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Tribunal of Inquiry Into Bloody Sunday 1972 Announced

On January 31, 1972, the day after Bloody Sunday, British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling announces a tribunal of inquiry “into the circumstances of the march and the incidents leading up to the casualties which resulted.”

The official British Army position, backed by Maudling in the House of Commons, is that the paratroopers reacted to gun and nail bomb attacks from suspected Irish Republican Army (IRA) members. Apart from the soldiers, all eyewitnesses — including marchers, local residents, and British and Irish journalists present — maintain that soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd, or were aiming at fleeing people and those tending the wounded, whereas the soldiers themselves were not fired upon. No British soldier is wounded by gunfire or reports any injuries, nor are any bullets or nail bombs recovered to back up their claims.

On February 2, 1972, the day that twelve of those killed are buried, there is a general strike in the Republic of Ireland, the biggest such strike in Europe since World War II relative to population. Memorial services are held in Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as synagogues, throughout the Republic. The same day, irate crowds burn down the British embassy in Merrion Square in Dublin. Anglo-Irish relations hit one of their lowest ebbs with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Patrick Hillery, going to the United Nations Security Council to demand the involvement of a UN peacekeeping force in the Northern Ireland conflict.

In the days following Bloody Sunday, Bernadette Devlin, the independent Irish nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) for Mid Ulster, expresses anger at what she perceives as British government attempts to stifle accounts being reported about the shootings. Having witnessed the events firsthand, she is infuriated that the Speaker of the House of Commons, Selwyn Lloyd, consistently denies her the chance to speak in Parliament about the shootings, although parliamentary convention decrees that any MP witnessing an incident under discussion will be granted an opportunity to speak about it in Parliament. Devlin slaps Reginald Maudling and calls him a “murdering hypocrite” when he makes a statement to Parliament that the British Army had fired only in self-defence. She is temporarily suspended from Parliament as a result.

An inquest into the deaths is held in August 1973. The city’s coroner, Hubert O’Neill, a retired British Army major, issues a statement at the completion of the inquest. He declares:

“This Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday and bloody it was. It was quite unnecessary. It strikes me that the Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder.”

(Pictured: Home Secretary Reginald Maudling (left) and Member of Parliament for Mid Ulster Bernadette Devlin)


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The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 Receives Royal Assent

coat-of-arms-of-the-united-kingdomThe Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, the culmination of the process of Catholic emancipation throughout the United Kingdom, receives royal assent on April 13, 1829. In Ireland it repeals the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Parliament of Ireland of 1728. Its passage follows a vigorous campaign that threatens insurrection led by Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell. The British leaders, starting with the Prime MinisterArthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,  and his top aide Robert Peel, although personally opposed, give in to avoid civil strife. Ireland is quiet after the passage.

In 1778, English Catholics are relieved of the restrictions on land inheritance and purchase. A savage reaction to these concessions produces the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the whole history of Catholic Emancipation is one of struggle against great resistance. In 1791 the Roman Catholic Relief Act repeals most of the disabilities in Great Britain, provided Catholics take an oath of loyalty. In 1793 the army, the navy, the universities, and the judiciary are opened to Catholics, although seats in Parliament and some offices are still denied. These reforms are sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who hopes thereby to split the alliance of Irish Catholics and Protestants. But Pitt’s attempt to secure a general repeal of the Penal Laws is thwarted by George III. Pope Pius VII consents to a royal veto on episcopal nominations if the Penal Laws are repealed, but the move fails. In Ireland the repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782 is followed by an act (1792) of the Irish Parliament relaxing the marriage and education laws and an act (1793) allowing Catholics to vote and hold most offices.

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 permits members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster and to hold all but a handful of public offices. O’Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell as a Catholic, is forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. Peel, the Home Secretary, until then is called “Orange Peel” because he always supports the Orange (anti-Catholic) position. Peel now concludes, “Though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.” Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel draws up the Catholic Relief Bill and guides it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington works tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatens to resign as Prime Minister if the King does not give Royal Assent.

With the Universities Tests Act 1871, which opens the universities to Roman Catholics, Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom is virtually complete.


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The Release of the Birmingham Six

birmingham-sixThe Birmingham Six – Paddy Joe Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter, Billy Power and Johnny Walker – are released from jail on March 14, 1991 after their convictions for the murder of 21 people in two pubs are quashed by the Court of Appeal.

The Birmingham pub bombings take place on November 21, 1974 and are attributed to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Explosive devices are placed in two central Birmingham pubs – the Mulberry Bush at the foot of the Rotunda and the Tavern in the Town, a basement pub in New Street. Up until this point, the resulting explosions collectively are the most injurious attacks in Great Britain since World War II. Ten people at the Mulberry Bush and eleven at the Tavern in the Town are killed and 182 people are injured. A third device, outside a bank in Hagley Road, fails to detonate.

Five of the six are taken into custody on the evening of November 21. The men agree to be taken to Morecambe police station for forensic tests.The following morning, after the forensic tests and questioning at the hands of the Morecambe police, the men are transferred to the custody of West Midlands Serious Crime Squad police unit. Hugh Callaghan is taken into custody on the evening of November 22.

On May 12, 1975 the six men are charged with murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. The trial begins on June 9, 1975 at the Crown Court sitting at Lancaster Castle. After legal arguments the statements made in November are deemed admissible as evidence. The unreliability of these statements is later established. Forensic scientist Dr. Frank Skuse uses positive Griess test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives. Callaghan, Hunter, McIlkenny and Walker all had tested negative. The jury finds the six men guilty of murder. On August 15, 1975, they are each sentenced to 21 life sentences.

In March 1976 their first application for leave to appeal is dismissed by the Court of Appeal. Their second full appeal, in 1991, is allowed. New evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence, the successful attacks on both the confessions and the 1975 forensic evidence causes the Crown to decide not to resist the appeals. The Court of Appeal states that “in the light of the fresh scientific evidence, which at least throws grave doubt on Dr. Skuse’s evidence, if it does not destroy it altogether, these convictions are both unsafe and unsatisfactory.” On March 14, 1991 the six walk free.

In 2001, a decade after their release, the six men are awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million.

The success of the appeals and other miscarriages of justice cause the Home Secretary to set up a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. The commission reports in 1993 and leads to the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 which establishes the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997. Superintendent George Reade and two other police officers are charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but are never prosecuted. During the inquest into the bombings in 2016, Hill states that he knows the identities of three of the bombers who are still “free men” in Ireland.