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


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Assassination of Billy “King Rat” Wright

billy-wrightBilly “King Rat” Wright, prominent Ulster loyalist death squad leader during the ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, is murdered on December 27, 1997 in HM Prison Maze by three members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) who manage to smuggle guns into the prison.

William Stephen “Billy” Wright, named after his grandfather, is born in Wolverhampton, England on July 7, 1960 to David Wright and Sarah McKinley, Ulster Protestants from Portadown, Northern Ireland. The family returns to Northern Ireland in 1964. While attending Markethill High School, Wright takes a part-time job as a farm labourer where he comes into contact with a number of staunchly unionist and loyalist farmers who serve with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Reserve or the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). The conflict known as the Troubles has been raging across Northern Ireland for about five years by this stage, and many young men such as Wright are swept up in the maelstrom of violence as the Provisional Irish Republican Army ramps up its bombing campaign and sectarian killings of Catholics by loyalists continue to escalate. During this time his opinions move towards loyalism and soon he gets into trouble for writing the initials “UVF” on a local Catholic primary school wall. When he refuses to clean off the vandalism, he is transferred from the area and sent to live with an aunt in Portadown.

Wright joins the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1975. After spending several years in prison and becoming a born again Christian, he resumes his UVF activities and becomes commander of its Mid-Ulster Brigade in the early 1990s, taking over from Robin “the Jackal” Jackson. According to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, he is involved in the sectarian killings of up to 20 Catholics, although he is never convicted for any. It is alleged that Wright, like his predecessor, is an agent of the RUC Special Branch.

Wright attracts considerable media attention during the Drumcree standoff, when he supports the Protestant Orange Order‘s desire to march its traditional route through the Catholic/Irish nationalist area of his hometown of Portadown. In 1994, the UVF and other paramilitary groups call ceasefires. However, in July 1996, Wright’s unit breaks the ceasefire and carries out a number of attacks, including a sectarian killing. For this, Wright and his Portadown unit of the Mid-Ulster Brigade are stood down by the UVF leadership. He is expelled from the UVF and threatened with execution if he does not leave Northern Ireland. He ignores the threats and, along with many of his followers, defiantly forms the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), becoming its leader.

The LVF carries out a string of killings of Catholic civilians. In March 1997 Wright is sent to the HM Prison Maze for having threatened the life of a woman. While imprisoned, Wright continues to direct the LVF’s activities. On the morning of December 27, 1997 he is assassinated inside the prison by three INLA volunteers – Christopher “Crip” McWilliams, John “Sonny” Glennon and John Kennaway – armed with two smuggled pistols, a FEG PA-63 semi-automatic and a .22 Derringer. The LVF carries out a wave of sectarian attacks in retaliation. There is speculation that the authorities collude in his killing as he is a threat to the peace process. An inquiry finds no evidence of this, but concludes there are serious failings by the prison authorities.

Owing to his uncompromising stance as an upholder of Ulster loyalism and opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process, Wright is regarded as a cult hero, icon, and martyr by hardline loyalists. His image adorns murals in loyalist housing estates and many of his devotees have tattoos bearing his likeness. His death is greeted with relief and no little satisfaction, however, from the Irish nationalist community.

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Birth of Sir John Parnell, 2nd Baronet

john-parnellSir John Parnell, 2nd Baronet, an Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament, is born on December 25, 1744.

A Church of Ireland landowner, his family had originally migrated to Ireland from Congleton in Cheshire. Although not from an Irish Roman Catholic background, Parnell, the only son of Sir John Parnell, 1st Baronet, is renowned in Irish history for his efforts to bring about a more emancipated country. He is the great-grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell, known as the uncrowned king of Ireland and best known for opposing the Acts of Union 1800 between the two kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.

From a line of politically astute ancestors who had moved to Ireland in the 17th century, Parnell rises to the highest positions in Irish politics as Commissioner of the Revenue (1780), Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland (1787), and Lord of the Treasury (1793).

Parnell first serves in the Parliament of Ireland as one of the members for Bangor, from 1767 to 1768. He later sits for Queen’s County from 1783 until the Union with Great Britain creates the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. After the Union, he gains a seat in the Parliament of the United Kingdom for a short time as member for Queen’s County, but dies suddenly in London in December 1801.

Henry Grattan describes Parnell as “an honest, straightforward, independent man, possessed of considerable ability and much public spirit; as Chancellor of the Exchequer he was not deficient, and he served his country by his plan to reduce the interest of money. He was amiable in private, mild in disposition, but firm in mind and purpose. His conduct at the Union did him honour, and proved how warmly he was attached to the interests of his country, and on this account he was dismissed.”

(Pictured: Oil painting on canvas, The Right Hon. Sir John Parnell, 2nd Bt (1744–1801) by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (Lucca 1708 – Rome 1787))


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Birth of Martin Archer Shee, Portrait Painter

martin-archer-sheeSir Martin Archer Shee, portrait painter and president of the Royal Academy of Arts, is born in Dublin on December 23, 1769.

Shee is born into an old Irish Catholic family, the son of Martin Shee, a merchant, who regards the profession of a painter as an unsuitable occupation for a descendant of the Shees. He nevertheless studies art in the Royal Dublin Society and comes to London. There, in 1788, he is introduced by Edmund Burke to Joshua Reynolds, on whose advice he studies in the schools of the Royal Academy of Arts.

In 1789 Shee exhibits his first two pictures, the “Head of an Old Man” and “Portrait of a Gentleman.” Over the next ten years he steadily increases in practice. In 1798 he is chosen an associate of the Royal Academy and in 1800 he is elected a Royal Academician. He moves to George Romney‘s former house at 32 Cavendish Square and sets up as his successor.

Shee continues to paint with great readiness of hand and fertility of invention, although his portraits are eclipsed by more than one of his contemporaries, and especially by Thomas Lawrence. His earlier portraits are carefully finished, easy in action, with good drawing and excellent discrimination of character. They show an undue tendency to redness in the flesh painting, a defect which is still more apparent in his later works, in which the handling is less square, crisp and forcible. In addition to his portraits, he executes various subjects and historical works, such as Lavinia, Belisarius, his diploma picture “Prospero and Miranda,” and the “Daughter of Jephthah.”

In 1805 Shee publishes a poem consisting of Rhymes on Art, and a second part follows in 1809. Lord Byron speaks well of it in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. He publishes another small volume of verse in 1814, entitled The Commemoration of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and other Poems, but this is less successful. He also produces a tragedy, Alasco, set in Poland. The play is accepted at Covent Garden, but is refused a licence, on the grounds that it contains treasonable allusions, and Shee angrily resolves to make his appeal to the public. He carries out his threat in 1824, but Alasco is still on the list of unacted dramas in 1911. He also publishes two novels – Oldcourt (1829, in three volumes) and Cecil Hyde (1834).

On the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1830, Shee is chosen president of the Royal Academy in his stead and shortly afterwards receives a knighthood. In 1831 he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In an examination before the parliamentary committee of 1836 concerning the functions of the Royal Academy, he ably defends its rights. He continues to paint until 1845, when illness makes him retire to Brighton. He is deputised for at the Academy by J. M. W. Turner, who had appointed him a trustee of the projected Turner almshouse.

From 1842–1849, Shee is the first president of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.

Martin Archer Shee dies in Brighton, Sussex, England on August 13, 1850 and is buried in the western extension to St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in Brighton. His headstone remains but has been laid flat and moved to the perimeter of the site.


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The Flight of the Wild Geese

flight-of-the-wild-geesePatrick Sarsfield sails to France on December 22, 1691, leading 19,000 of his countrymen to enter the French service in the first phase of the military denuding of Ireland known as the Flight of the Wild Geese, as agreed in the Treaty of Limerick on October 3, 1691, following the end of the Williamite War in Ireland.

More broadly, the term “Wild Geese” is used in Irish history to refer to Irish soldiers who leave to serve in continental European armies in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, or even, poetically, Irish soldiers in British armies as late as World War I.

Irish recruitment for continental armies dries up after it is made illegal in 1745. In 1732 Sir Charles Wogan indicates in a letter to Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, that 120,000 Irishmen have been killed and wounded in foreign service “within these forty years.” Swift later replies, “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think, above all other nations.”

It was some time before the British armed forces begin to tap into Irish Catholic manpower. In the late eighteenth century, the Penal Laws are gradually relaxed and in the 1790s the laws prohibiting Catholics bearing arms are abolished.

Thereafter, the British begin recruiting Irish regiments for the Crown Forces – including such famous units as the Connaught Rangers. Several more Irish units are created in the 19th century. By 1914 specifically Irish infantry regiments in the British Army comprise the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers. With the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 five of the above regiments are disbanded, with most of the remainder undergoing a series of amalgamations between 1968 and 2006. The United Kingdom still retains three Irish regiments: the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, and the London Irish Rifles.

Sarsfield is honored to this day in the crest of County Limerick. The Flight of the Wild Geese is remembered in the poetic words…“War-battered dogs are we, Fighters in every clime, Fillers of trench and of grave, Mockers, bemocked by time. War-dogs, hungry and grey, Gnawing a naked bone, Fighters in every clime, Every cause but our own.”

(Pictured: ‘Irish Troops Leaving Limerick’, 1692, (Cassell Petter & Galpin, London, Paris & New York, c1880), Artist Unknown)


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The Treaty of Limerick

treaty-stone-limerickThe Treaty of Limerick, which actually consists of two treaties, is signed on October 3, 1691 ending the Williamite War in Ireland between the Jacobites and the supporters of William III of England, widely known as William of Orange. Reputedly they are signed on the Treaty Stone, an irregular block of limestone which once served as a mounting block for horses. This stone is now displayed on a pedestal in Limerick, put there to prevent souvenir hunters from taking pieces of it. Because of the treaty, Limerick is sometimes known as the Treaty City.

After his victory at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, William III issues the Declaration of Finglas which offers a pardon to Jacobite soldiers but excludes their senior officers from its provisions. This encourages the Jacobite leaders to continue fighting and they win a major victory during the 1691 Siege of Limerick. However, defeats the following year at the Battle of Aughrim and the second siege of Limerick leave the Williamites victorious. Nonetheless the terms they offer to Jacobite leaders at Limerick are considerably more generous than those a year earlier at Finglas.

One treaty, the Military Articles, deals with the treatment of the disbanded Jacobite army. This treaty contains twenty-nine articles. Under the treaty, Jacobite soldiers in formed regiments have the option to leave with their arms and flags for France to continue serving under James II of England in the Irish Brigade. Some 14,000 Jacobites choose this option. Individual soldiers wanting to join the French, Spanish or Austrian armies also emigrate in what becomes known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. The Jacobite soldiers also have the option of joining the Williamite army. One thousand soldiers chose this option. The Jacobite soldiers thirdly have the option of returning home which some 2,000 soldiers choose.

The second treaty, the Civil Articles, which contains thirteen articles, protects the rights of the defeated Jacobite landed gentry who choose to remain in Ireland, most of whom are Catholics. Their property is not to be confiscated so long as they swear allegiance to William III and Mary II, and Catholic noblemen are to be allowed to bear arms. William requires peace in Ireland and is allied to the Papacy in 1691 within the League of Augsburg.

It is often thought that the Treaty of Limerick is the only treaty between Jacobites and Williamites. A similar treaty had been signed on the surrender of Galway on July 22, 1691, but without the strict loyalty oath required under the Treaty of Limerick. The Galway garrison had been organised by the mostly-Catholic landed gentry of counties Galway and Mayo, who benefited from their property guarantees in the following century.

(Pictured: The Treaty Stone on which the Treaty of Limerick may have been signed)


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The Sack of Cashel

rock-of-cashelThe Sack of Cashel (also known as the Massacre of Cashel) is a notorious atrocity which occurs in County Tipperary on September 15, 1647, during the Irish Confederate Wars, part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

In the summer of 1647, Murrough O’Brien, 6th Baron Inchiquin, the Irish Protestant commander of the Protestant army of Cork, commences a campaign against the Irish Catholic strongholds in Munster. The counties of Limerick and Clare are raided and he soon turns his attention to the bountiful eastern counties of Munster. In early September, his forces quickly take the Cahir Castle in Tipperary. This strong castle is well positioned to become a base for the Cork Protestant army, and it is used to raid and devastate the surrounding countryside. The Munster army under Lord Taaffe does not make any serious effort to oppose Inchiquin, probably the result of the political scheming of Donough MacCarty, 2nd Viscount Muskerry and other powerful Irish lords who hope to keep the Munster army intact for their own ends. As such, Inchiquin is allowed to make a major push towards the town and ecclesiastical centre of Cashel.

Inchiquin has already launched two minor raids against Cashel, and he now has the opportunity to launch a major assault. The Parliamentarian forces first storm nearby Roche Castle, putting fifty warders to the sword. This attack terrifies the local inhabitants of the region, some of whom flee to hiding places, while hundreds of others flee promptly to the Rock of Cashel, a stronger place than the town itself. Lord Taaffe has placed six companies in the fortified churchyard that sits upon the rock, and considers the place defensible, though he himself does not stay to put it to the test, leaving command to the Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Butler.

Arriving with his army at the Rock, Inchiquin calls for surrender within an hour. The defenders of the churchyard offer to negotiate but that is refused, and on the afternoon of September 15 the assault commences. The Parliamentarians are first reminded of earlier atrocities against Protestants, and then begin to deploy. The attack is led by around 150 dismounted horse officers with the remainder of the infantry following. Troops of horse ride along the flanks of the advancing force to encourage the infantry. The Irish soldiers attempt to drive off the attackers with pikes while the civilians inside hurl rocks down from the walls. In turn the attackers hurl firebrands into the compound, setting some of the buildings inside on fire. Although many are wounded, the Parliamentarians gradually fight their way over the walls, pushing the garrison into the church.

Initially, the Irish defenders manage to protect the Church, holding off the attackers trying to get through the doors, but the Parliamentarians then place numerous ladders against the many windows in the church and swarm the building. For another half an hour fighting rages inside the church, until the depleted defenders retreat up the bell tower. Only sixty soldiers of the garrison remain at this point, and they thus accept a call to surrender. However, after they have descended the tower and thrown their swords away, all are killed.

In the end all the soldiers and most of the civilians on the Rock are killed by the attackers. The Bishop and Mayor of Cashel along with a few others survive by taking shelter in a secret hiding place. Apart from these a few women are spared, after being stripped of their clothes, and a small number of wealthy civilians are taken prisoner, but these are the exceptions. Overall, close to 1,000 are killed, amongst them Lieutenant-Colonel Butler and catholic scholar Theobald Stapleton. The bodies in the churchyard are described by a witness as being five or six deep.

The slaughter is followed by extensive looting. There is much of value inside, for apart from pictures, chalices and vestments of the church, many of the slain civilians had also brought their valuables with them. The sword and ceremonial mace of the mayor of Cashel, as well as the coach of the bishop are captured. The plunder is accompanied by acts of iconoclasm, with statues smashed and pictures defaced. The deserted town of Cashel is also torched.

The atrocity at Cashel causes a deep impact in Ireland, as it is the worst single atrocity committed in Ireland since the start of fighting in 1641. Previously, the most infamous massacre amongst the Catholic population is that at Timolin in 1643, when 200 civilians are killed by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde‘s English Royalist army, but many more than this are killed at Cashel, and the Rock of Cashel is one of the chief holy places of Ireland. The slaughter of the garrison at Cashel and the subsequent devastation of Catholic held Munster earns Inchiquin the Irish nickname, Murchadh na Dóiteáin or “Murrough of the Burnings.”


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Birth of Chicago Mobster Charles Dean O’Banion

charles-o-banionCharles Dean O’Banion, better known as Dion O’Banion, is born to Irish Catholic parents in Maroa, Illinois on July 8, 1892. He graduates from the violent newspaper wars of early 20th century Chicago to become the chief bootlegging rival of mobsters Al Capone and Johnny Torrio.

After the death of his mother in 1901, O’Banion moves with his family to a North Side neighborhood populated largely by other Irish Americans. The neighborhood, then known as Kilgubbin after an Irish place name and now called Goose Island, is notorious for its high crime rate, and O’Banion by all accounts fit easily into that environment. In his teens, he forms a street gang with Earl “Hymie” Weiss, Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci and George “Bugs” Moran with whom he continues to associate throughout his life.

Chicago of the period is, according to Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, a “wide open city.” Wide open for rackets such as prostitution and gambling, and wide open for violent competition among gangsters. Bombings and murder are met with token official resistance but are often settled by uneasy truces among the rivals.

The violence extends to the press. O’Banion and his friends are “sluggers” for, first, the Chicago Tribune and later for the Tribune’s rival, the Chicago Examiner. Sluggers intimidate sellers and readers of the wrong newspaper. Although played for laughs in stage and film in productions such as The Front Page, the Chicago newspaper wars are quite violent and include lethal gunfights in saloons and on the streets.

In 1909, O’Banion is arrested and convicted of robbery and assault.

The newspapers wars are a good warm-up for O’Banion’s work as a bootlegger when Prohibition comes into effect in 1920. Chicago, with its large population of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe, is a town that loves its beer, wine and liquor. Almost from the start, O’Banion’s North Side Gang is at odds with the South Side outfit led at the time by Torrio.

About 1921, O’Banion and Torrio, who actively wants peace with his rival, works out a deal that seems to satisfy both the South Side gangsters and O’Banion’s group. O’Banion not only keeps the North Side and the Gold Coast, a wealthy neighborhood on Lake Michigan, but he even gets a slice of Cicero, a suburb controlled by Torrio and Capone on the South Side of Chicago, and they all share profits from a lakefront casino called The Ship.

Eventually the peace breaks down. O’Banion is enraged by efforts of a third gang, the Genna crime family’s West Side Gang, to expand its bootlegging and rackets operations into his territory. The Gennas are allied with Torrio’s South Side gang. O’Banion seals his fate when he refuses to forgive a gambling debt that one of the Gennas had racked up at The Ship.

On the morning of November 10, 1924, O’Banion is in his North Side flower shop, Schofield’s, a front for his mob activities. A Torrio associate from New York City, Frankie Yale, enters the shop with Genna gunmen John Scalise and Albert Anselmi. When O’Banion and Yale shake hands, Yale grasps O’Banion’s hand in a tight grip. At the same time, Scalise and Anselmi step aside and fire two bullets into O’Banion’s chest and two into his throat. One of the killers fires a final shot into the back of his head as he lies face down on the floor.

Since O’Banion is a major crime figure, the Catholic Church denies him burial in consecrated ground. However, a priest O’Banion has known since childhood recites the Lord’s Prayer and three Hail Marys in his memory. Despite this restriction, his funeral is the biggest anyone can remember. Among those attending are Al Capone and members of the South Side Gang. But there soon will be other funerals. The Beer Wars, as they become known, are just beginning.

Torrio escapes an assassination attempt in 1925 and turns over his operation to Capone, the greatest gangster of all. O’Banion’s friend and conspirator Hymie Weiss, who is fingered as one of those who tried to kill Torrio, is gunned down in 1926. In 1929, in an effort to permanently put down the North Side Gang, led then by Bugs Moran, seven of the North Side mobsters are killed in the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, but Moran survives through the end of Prohibition in 1933.