seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Dromcollogher Burning

drumcollogher-cinema-fireForty-eight people die when a fire breaks out in a make-shift cinema on the upper floor of the village hall in Dromcollagher, County Limerick, on September 5, 1926.

The conversion of village halls into makeshift cinemas is a common practice in many rural villages in Ireland, right up to the 1940s. Prints are often borrowed from cinemas in larger towns or in Cork city, and then bicycled over to smaller venues (sometimes surreptitiously).

During the Irish Free State period (1922-1937), the exhibition of films is still governed by legislation put in place by the British government in 1909. The Cinematograph Act 1909 stipulates that cinema owners must apply for a license to screen films, and that venues must observe strict safety standards. Such standards include encasing projectors in fireproof booths, ensuring that the highly-unstable nitrate film, then the industry standard, be properly stored and handled, and fitting out venues with several fire exits. The regulations are generally observed by established cinemas but they are often ignored by operators of ad hoc venues/makeshift conversions.

The consequences of such indifference to patron safety are tragically realized in the small town of Dromcollogher in West Limerick in 1926. Situated a few miles from the County Cork border, its population is around 500 at the time, hardly enough to sustain a full-time cinema. However, local hackney driver, William Forde, identifies a business opportunity that seems too good to pass up. Through a contact, Patrick Downey, who works as a projectionist in Cork city’s Assembly Rooms cinema, he arranges for a print of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic The Ten Commandments to be bicycled over for an unofficial one-off screening.

Forde rents the upstairs room of a venue on Church Street, later described by the Leinster Express as a wooden two-story structure, and advertises his evening’s entertainment. He finds a readymade audience among the churchgoers that come out of the service in the adjacent Catholic Church and straight into the hall, many with their rosary beads still entwined in their hands. It is estimated that 150 people crowd into the room and ascend the ladder to the upstairs room. Though Forde has been informed by one local Garda that he cannot run a screening unless the venue is equipped with fire blankets and exits, he and Downey disregard the advice and, in a bid to reduce the weight for the cyclist bringing the reels from Cork, instruct that the fireproof metal cases be left behind in the city.

A generator hooked up to a lorry is used to power the borrowed projector, and candles to illuminate the makeshift box-office. It is one of those candles, placed in close proximity to an exposed film reel, which sparks off a series of small fires that quickly developed into an inferno. Some of those seated closest to the main exit manage to escape, but those nearer the screen find themselves trapped and iron bars that had been placed on the few windows in the hall windows seal their fate. Whole families are wiped out and the final death toll comes to 48. As newspapers of the time report, 1/10th of the town’s population is lost.

Newspapers around the world carry reports of the tragedy and a relief fund is set up for the survivors with Hollywood star Will Rogers being one of the contributors. President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State William T. Cosgrave later travels to the town to attend the mass funeral service held for the victims.

As for Forde and Downey, they are later charged with manslaughter but the State chooses not to pursue the prosecutions. Forde apparently later immigrates to Australia and possibly accidentally poisons himself, and two others, while working as a cook in the Outback.

The “Dromcollogher Burning”, as it becomes known, holds the dubious honour of Ireland’s worst cinema fire. Sadly, it is not the last time safety regulations are disregarded in an entertainment venue: 75 years later the devastating Stardust Nightclub fire in Dublin also claims the lives of 48 patrons.

(From: “The Dromcollogher Cinema Fire,” http://www.corkmoviememories.com | Image Source: National Library of Ireland)


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Muhammad Ali Fights Al Lewis in Dublin

muhammad-ali-and-al-lewisMuhammad Ali fights Al “Blue” Lewis in Dublin on July 19, 1972 and defeats him via a technical knockout (TKO) in the eleventh round.

After losing to Joe Frazier in March 1971, Ali goes on something of a world tour, fighting 13 times in six countries before defeating Frazier in a rematch in January 1974.

The promotion is the brainchild of a character from County Kerry named Butty Sugrue, known throughout Ireland as a circus strongman, whose alleged claim to fame is pulling double-decker buses by a rope in his teeth. Dublin journalists laugh at him when he first announces his intentions.

But despite the scepticism, the fight is arranged for July 19, 1972. As soon as he steps off the plane at Dublin Airport, Ali, ever the showman, immediately captures the heart of a nation by announcing that he has Irish roots. In the 1860s, Abe Grady left his native Ennis in County Clare and emigrated to the United States. In Kentucky, he met and married an emancipated slave. A century later Abe Grady’s great grandson Muhammad Ali touches down in Dublin.

In the week leading up to the fight Ali meets people from all walks of life in Dublin. He spends time with celebrities, including actor Peter O’Toole, and playfully spars with director John Huston, whose boxing movie, Fat City, is screened with both Ali and Lewis in attendance.

Ali also meets politicians, including Taoiseach Jack Lynch in Leinster House and political activist Bernadette Devlin. The Cork Examiner comments on how popular Ali has proven with politicians in Ireland. “Not since the late President John F. Kennedy was in Dublin in 1963 has a visitor from abroad been given as big a welcome at Leinster House as that accorded to Muhammad Ali.”

Ali is always about so much more than boxing, and that week in Dublin is another case in point, as the fight itself is not a classic. He has a cold and is wary of Lewis, who is a dangerous fighter and a man who had previously served time in prison for manslaughter. Ali who, prior to the bout predicts that his opponent’s chances of victory lay somewhere between “slim and none,” eventually wins with a TKO in the eleventh round.

In 2009, Ali returns to Ireland to visit Ennis in County Clare, the home town of his ancestor Abe Grady, where he is granted the freedom of the town. The huge crowds who come out to meet him are testament to his enduring appeal. But the magic of Muhammad Ali leaves an indelible impact on Ireland after his 1972 visit as the late Budd Schulberg, a legendary boxing writer, said, “Ali was like the Pied Piper. It was really kind of magical. He had enormous influence over there. He was a fellow Irishman.”

(From: “When Ali thrilled Ireland: How ‘the Greatest’ shook up Dublin” by Peter Crutchley, BBC NI Digital & Learning, June 6, 2016)


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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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The Boston Massacre

boston-massacre-1770The Boston Massacre, a riot known as the Incident on King Street by the British, takes place in Boston, Massachusetts on March 5, 1770. British Army soldiers shoot and kill several people while under attack by a mob.

The incident is heavily publicized by leading Patriots, such as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, to encourage rebellion against the British authorities. British troops have been stationed in Boston, capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, since 1768 in order to protect and support crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular Parliamentary legislation.

Amid ongoing tense relations between the population and the soldiers, a mob forms around a British sentry, who is subjected to verbal abuse and harassment. He is eventually supported by eight additional soldiers, who are subjected to verbal threats and repeatedly hit by clubs, stones and snowballs. Without orders, they fire a ragged series of shots into the crowd, striking eleven men. Three Americans, ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks, die instantly. Samuel Maverick, a 17-year-old apprentice ivory turner, is struck by a ricocheting musket ball at the back of the crowd and dies a few hours later, in the early morning of the next day. An Irish immigrant, Patrick Carr, dies two weeks later. Christopher Monk, another apprentice, is one of those seriously wounded in the attack. Although he recovers to some extent, he is crippled and eventually dies in 1780, purportedly due to the injuries he had sustained in the attack a decade earlier.

The crowd eventually disperses after Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson promises an inquiry, but the crowd re-forms the next day, prompting the withdrawal of the troops to Castle Island. Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians are arrested and charged with murder. Defended by lawyer and future American president John Adams, six of the soldiers are acquitted, while the other two are convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences. The men found guilty of manslaughter are sentenced to branding on their hand. Depictions, reports, and propaganda about the event, notably the colored engraving produced by Paul Revere, further heighten tensions throughout the Thirteen Colonies.

(Pictured: Famous depiction of the Boston Massacre engraved by Paul Revere (copied from an engraving by Henry Pelham), colored by Christian Remick, and printed by Benjamin Edes. The Old State House is depicted in the background.)


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Death of the Quinn Brothers in Ballymoney

Three brothers, Jason, Richard and Mark Quinn, are killed by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in a firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland on July 12, 1998. The crime is committed towards the end of the three-decade period known as “The Troubles.”

The Quinn family, consisting of mother Chrissie and sons Richard, Mark and Jason, live in the Carnany estate in the predominantly Protestant town of Ballymoney. The family is of a mixed religious background. Mother Chrissie is Roman Catholic from a mixed background and the boys’ father Jim Dillon is Catholic. After separating from her estranged husband, Chrissie rears the boys as Protestant “to avoid the hassle.” Chrissie lives with her Protestant partner Raymond Craig in Carnany which is predominately Protestant, reflecting the religious make-up of Ballymoney itself. The boys, aged 9, 10 and 11, attend a local state school and on the evening before their deaths had been helping to build the estate’s Eleventh Night loyalist bonfire. A fourth brother, Lee, is staying with his grandmother in Rasharkin at the time of the attack.

The killings take place at the height of the stand-off over the Orange Order march at Drumcree, which creates a tense atmosphere in various towns across Northern Ireland. In the weeks leading up to the fatal attack, the children’s mother expresses fear that she is not welcome in the area and that there is a possibility the family home might be attacked by loyalists. The Ballymoney Times reports a story the week of the deaths, stating that a resident of the Carnany estate had called in and was concerned about tension in the area adding something serious might happen “unless Catholic residents were left alone.”

The attack occurs at approximately 4:30 in the morning as the inhabitants of the house sleep. A car containing members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary organisation, arrive at the house and throw a petrol bomb through a window at the rear of the house. The petrol bomb is made from a whiskey bottle. The sounds of the boys’ shouting wakes their mother, who finds her bedroom full of smoke. Chrissie Quinn, Raymond Craig and family friend Christina Archibald escape the resulting fire with minor injuries. Chrissie believes the boys have escaped the fire as she is unable to locate them in the dense smoke before she jumps to safety from a first floor window. Two of the brother’s bodies are found in their mother’s bedroom and the other in another bedroom. Chrissie is taken to the hospital and released the next day after receiving minor injuries and shock in the attack.

One man, Garfield Gilmour, is found guilty of murdering the three brothers fifteen months later and is sentenced to life imprisonment after admitting that he had driven three other men to the house to commit the fatal petrol-bombing. Although Gilmour names the three alleged killers, they are never charged due to a lack of concrete evidence. Gilmour’s conviction for murder is reduced to manslaughter on appeal on June 5, 2000 and he is released six years later. Nine days after his release, his life sentence is replaced by a fixed prison sentence of 14 years.

(Pictured: The Quinn brothers. Left to right: Jason, Mark, Richard)


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The La Mon Entertainment Complex Bombing

la-mon-bombingA Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) incendiary device explodes at the La Mon entertainment complex in Comber, County Down, on February 17, 1978, killing twelve people and injuring thirty others. The blast has been described as “one of the worst atrocities” of the Troubles.

Since the beginning of its campaign, the IRA has carried out numerous attacks on economic targets, killing many members of the public in the process. The IRA’s goal is to harm the economy and cause disruption, which will put pressure on the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

On February 17, 1978, an IRA unit plants an incendiary device attached to petrol-filled canisters on meat hooks outside the window of the Peacock Room in the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel. The IRA often give bomb warnings in advance of destroying property but never when targeting the police or military. After planting the bomb, the IRA members attempt to send a warning from the nearest public telephone, but find that it has been vandalised. On the way to another telephone they are delayed again when forced to stop at an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) checkpoint. By the time they are able to send the warning, only nine minutes remain before the bomb detonates at 21:00. The blast creates a fireball, killing twelve people and injuring thirty more, many of whom are severely burned. Many of the injured are treated in the Ulster Hospital in nearby Dundonald. A 2012 news article claims that the IRA were targeting Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers they believed were meeting in the restaurant that night. The article claims that the IRA had gotten the wrong date and that the meeting of RUC officers had taken place exactly one week earlier.

The day after the explosion, the IRA admits responsibility and apologises for the inadequate warning. The hotel had allegedly been targeted by the IRA as part of its firebomb campaign against commercial targets. However, the resulting carnage brings quick condemnation from other Irish nationalists, with one popular newspaper comparing the attack to the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bombing. Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh also strongly criticises the operation. In consequence of the botched attack, the IRA Army Council gives strict instructions to all units not to bomb buses, trains, or hotels.

A team of 100 RUC detectives is deployed in the investigation. As part of the investigation, 25 people are arrested in Belfast, including Gerry Adams. Adams is released from custody in July 1978. Two prosecutions follow. One Belfast man is charged with twelve murders but is acquitted. He is convicted of IRA membership but successfully appeals. In September 1981, another Belfast man, Robert Murphy, is given twelve life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy is freed on licence in 1995. As part of their bid to catch the bombers, the RUC passes out leaflets which display a graphic photograph of a victim’s charred remains.

In 2012, a news article claims that two members of the IRA bombing team, including the getaway driver, are British double agents working for MI5. According to the article, one of the agents is Denis Donaldson. That year, Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) completes a report on the bombing. It reveals that important police documents, including interviews with IRA members, have been lost. A number of the victims’ families slam the report and call for a public inquiry. They claim the documents had been removed to protect certain IRA members. Unionist politician Jim Allister, who has been supporting the families, says, “There is a prevalent belief that someone involved was an agent and that is an issue around which we need clarity.”