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


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Birth of Henry Joy McCracken, Irish Republican

henry-joy-mccrackenHenry Joy McCracken, Irish Republican and industrialist, is born in Belfast on August 31, 1767. He is a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen.

McCracken is born into two of the city’s most prominent Presbyterian industrial families. He was the son of a shipowner, Captain John McCracken and Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, of French Huguenot descent. The Joy family made their money in linen manufacture and founded the Belfast News Letter. He is the older brother of political activist and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken, with whom he shares an interest in Irish traditional culture.

In 1792, McCracken helps organise the Belfast Harp Festival which gathers aged harpists from around Ireland, and helps preserve the Irish airs by having them transcribed by Edward Bunting. Bunting, who lodges in the McCracken’s Rosemary Lane home, is a classically trained musician.

McCracken becomes interested in republican politics from an early age and along with other Protestants forms the Society of the United Irishmen in 1795 which quickly makes him a target of the authorities. He regularly travels throughout the country using his business as a cover for organising other United Irish societies, but is arrested in October 1796 and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. While imprisoned with other leaders of the United Irishmen, he falls seriously ill and is released on bail in December 1797.

Following the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in Leinster in May 1798, the County Antrim organisation meets on 3 June to decide on their response. The meeting ends inconclusively with a vote to wait for French aid being passed by a narrow margin. A new meeting of delegates is held in Templepatrick on June 5 where McCracken is elected general for Antrim and he quickly begins planning military operations.

McCracken formulates a plan for all small towns in Antrim to be seized after which rebels will converge upon Antrim town on June 7 where the county’s magistrates are to hold a crisis meeting. Although the plan meets initial success and McCracken leads the rebels in the attack on Antrim, the Catholic Defenders group whom he expects assistance from are conspicuous by their absence. The mainly Ulster Scots rebels led by McCracken are defeated by the English forces and his army melts away.

Although McCracken initially escapes with James Hope, James Orr, and James Dickey and is supported in his month long period of hiding by his sister Mary Ann, a chance encounter with men who recognize him from his cotton business leads to his arrest. He is offered clemency if he testifies against other United Irishmen leaders but he refuses to turn on his compatriots.

McCracken is court martialed and hanged at Corn Market, Belfast, on land his grandfather had donated to the city, on July 17, 1798. According to historian Guy Beiner, his corpse is spared the indignity of decapitation in order not to provoke renewed agitation. He is buried in the Parish Church of St. George in Belfast, but a few years later the grave is demolished.

McCracken’s remains are believed to have been re-interred by Francis Joseph Bigger in 1909 at Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast, alongside his sister Mary Ann. His illegitimate daughter Maria, whose mother is speculated to have been Mary Bodell, is raised by her aunt Mary Ann McCracken.


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Death of Boston Politician James Michael Curley

james-michael-curleyJames Michael Curley, American Democratic Party politician and one of the best known and most colourful big-city Democratic bosses, dies in Boston, Massachusetts on November 12, 1958. He dominated Boston politics throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Curley’s father, Michael Curley, a juvenile petty criminal, leaves Oughterard, County Galway, at the age of fourteen. He settles in Roxbury, an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Boston.

Curley never forgets the needs of new immigrants, and he owes much of his political success to serving those needs in exchange for votes. He enters politics in 1899, winning a seat on the Boston common council. In 1904 he is imprisoned briefly for impersonating a friend at a civil service examination.

Curley serves in a succession of elective capacities—as a state legislator, alderman, city councilman, and U.S. representative—before winning the mayoralty in 1914, resigning his congressional seat to assume the municipal office.

Curley centralizes the powers of patronage in his own hands and distributes public-works jobs in such a way as to retain the loyalty and support of his working-class electoral base. As mayor, he nearly brings the city to bankruptcy by spending enormous sums on parks and hospitals to satisfy his various constituencies. He is a gifted orator and a resourceful political campaigner. He loses his bid for reelection in 1918, wins in 1922, loses in 1926, and wins again in 1930.

Unable to win a seat in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic National Convention in 1932, Curley contrives by means he never explains to be elected a delegate from Puerto Rico. He supports the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but national party leaders look upon the controversial Curley as something of an embarrassment. As governor of Massachusetts from 1935 to 1937, he spends New Deal funds lavishly on roads, bridges, and other public works programs. He is out of elective office from 1938 to 1942, during which period he loses bids for the United States Senate, mayor, and governor. He wins a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1942, however, and is reelected two years later. He follows with another tenure as mayor of Boston (1947–50) but spends five months of his term in federal prison following a conviction for mail fraud. President Harry S. Truman secures his release and, in 1950, grants him a full pardon.

Curley, who has foiled an attempt by the Republican Party to have him replaced while he is in prison, retires from politics after losing reelection bids in 1950 and 1954. His career inspires Edwin O’Connor’s popular novel The Last Hurrah (1956), and the next year Curley’s best-selling autobiography, I’d Do It Again, is published.

James Curley dies in Boston, Massachusetts on November 12, 1958. His death is followed by one of the largest funerals in the city’s history. He is interred in Old Calvary Cemetery.


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Death of William Smith O’Brien, Young Ireland Leader

william-smith-obrienWilliam Smith O’Brien, Irish nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) and leader of the Young Ireland movement, dies in Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales on June 18, 1864.

Born in Dromoland, Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, O’Brien is the second son of Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Baronet, of Dromoland Castle. His mother is Charlotte Smith, whose father owns a property called Cahirmoyle in County Limerick. He takes the additional surname Smith, his mother’s maiden name, upon inheriting the property. He lives at Cahermoyle House, a mile from Ardagh, County Limerick. He is a descendant of the eleventh century Ard Rí (High King of Ireland), Brian Boru. He receives an upper-class English education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Subsequently, he studies law at King’s Inns in Dublin and Lincoln’s Inn in London.

From April 1828 to 1831 O’Brien is Conservative MP for Ennis. He becomes MP for Limerick County in 1835, holding his seat in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom until 1849.

Although a Protestant country-gentleman, O’Brien supports Catholic emancipation while remaining a supporter of British-Irish union. In 1843, in protest against the imprisonment of Daniel O’Connell, he joins O’Connell’s anti-union Repeal Association.

Three years later, O’Brien withdraws the Young Irelanders from the association. In January 1847, with Thomas Francis Meagher, he founds the Irish Confederation, although he continues to preach reconciliation until O’Connell’s death in May 1847. He is active in seeking relief from the hardships of the famine. In March 1848, he speaks out in favour of a National Guard and tries to incite a national rebellion. He is tried for sedition on May 15, 1848 but is not convicted.

On July 29, 1848, O’Brien and other Young Irelanders lead landlords and tenants in a rising in three counties, with an almost bloodless battle against police at Ballingarry, County Tipperary. In O’Brien’s subsequent trial, the jury finds him guilty of high treason. He is sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Petitions for clemency are signed by 70,000 people in Ireland and 10,000 people in England. In Dublin on June 5, 1849, the sentences of O’Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation are commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania in present-day Australia).

O’Brien attempts to escape from Maria Island off Tasmania, but is betrayed by the captain of the schooner hired for the escape. He is sent to Port Arthur where he meets up with John Mitchel.

O’Brien is a founding member of the Ossianic Society, which is founded in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day 1853, whose aim is to further the interests of the Irish language and to publish and translate literature relating to the Fianna. He writes to his son Edward from Van Diemen’s Land, urging him to learn the Irish language. He himself studies the language and uses an Irish-language Bible, and presents to the Royal Irish Academy Irish-language manuscripts he has collected.

In 1854, after five years in Tasmania, O’Brien is released on the condition he never returns to Ireland. He settles in Brussels. In May 1856, he is granted an unconditional pardon and returns to Ireland that July. He contributes to the Nation newspaper, but plays no further part in politics.

In 1864 he visits England and Wales, with the view of rallying his failing health, but no improvement takes place and he dies at Bangor, in Wales on June 16, 1864.

A statue of William Smith O’Brien stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin. Sculpted in Portland limestone, it is designed by Thomas Farrell and erected in D’Olier Street, Dublin, in 1870. It is moved to its present position in 1929.


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Execution of James Cotter the Younger

cotter-family-burial-spotJames Cotter the Younger, the son of Sir James Fitz Edmond Cotter who had commanded King James‘s Irish Army forces in the Counties of Cork, Limerick, and Kerry, and Eleanor/Ellen Plunkett, daughter of Matthew, 7th Baron Louth, is executed on May 7, 1720 for high treason in supporting the Jacobite cause. His death is seen by many, especially within the Catholic population of Ireland, as a form of political assassination.

At the time of his death Cotter is seen, like his father before him, as the natural leader of the Catholics of Cork. He is also a prominent patron of poetry and other literature in the Irish language. The Irish text Párliament na mBan or ‘The Parliament of Women’ is dedicated by its author, Domhnall Ó Colmáin,’ to a young James Cotter in 1697. As one of the few major landowners of the Catholic faith remaining in Ireland, and as a man of known Jacobite and Tory sympathies he is distrusted by the authorities. He is also held in suspicion by those of his landed neighbours who are part of the Protestant Ascendancy and of Whiggish political views. Amongst his overt political actions he is believed to play a leading part in the instigation of the election riots of 1713 in Dublin. His trial, ostensibly for rape, is a cause célèbre at the time and widely seen as an example of judicial murder.

Though married, Cotter has a reputation as a ladies’ man. His wealth allows him to flaunt his independence of the Protestant ruling class and anti-Catholic laws of Ireland. These characteristics, allied to his political activities, lead to his downfall. He makes an enemy of a powerful neighbour, Alan Brodrick, 1st Viscount Midleton. Brodrick, it appears, arranges that Cotter be accused of abducting and raping a young Quaker woman named Elizabeth Squibb, reported by some to have been Cotter’s mistress. When news of this trumped-up or exaggerated charge reaches Cork City, the Quakers of the town live in fear of their lives for many weeks. Believing the charge cannot hold up in court, Cotter gives himself up to the Cork sheriff.

The judge presiding on the case is Sir St. John Brodrick who, as a close relative of James Cotter’s accuser, is hardly impartial. The jury has also been packed as all twelve of its members are justices of the peace. The trial takes place in a period of heightened rumour of Jacobite invasion. A large number of arms for cavalry are found in Cork which triggers a scare until it is discovered that they are government owned and intended for a local militia unit. James Cotter is held in jail, though bail has been granted, and is convicted of the crime.

A bizarre element in Cotter’s downfall are the pleas for mercy expressed by both the jury which has convicted him and Elizabeth Squibb, his alleged victim. Attempts to gain a pardon in Dublin are proceeding and a stay of execution is sent, however, the hanging is deliberately brought forward and the stay does not arrive in time. Cotter has attempted to escape and spends the night before his execution in chains. The gallows erected for the execution are destroyed by some of the citizens of Cork and the hanging is extemporised using a rope attached to a metal staple in a vertical post. James Cotter is hanged in Cork City on May 7, 1720. News of his execution triggers widespread riots on a national scale. He is buried in his family’s vault at Carrigtwohill.

Some have seen the death of James Cotter as the working of a family feud. His father had been intimately involved in the assassination of the regicide John Lisle in Switzerland (1664). The wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time of James Cotter’s trial is a granddaughter of John Lisle.

Up to twenty poems in Gaelic survive which reflect the widespread dismay felt at James Cotter’s execution, including ones by Éadbhard de Nógla, son of his close friend, the lawyer Patrick Nagle.

(Pictured: the Cotter Family burial vault in Carrigtwohill)


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The Sallins Train Robbery

The Sallins Train robbery occurs on March 31, 1976 when the Cork to Dublin mail train is robbed near Sallins in County Kildare. Approximately £200,000 is stolen. Five members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly, Brian McNally, Mick Plunkett, and John Fitzpatrick, are arrested in connection with the robbery.

After the failure of the authorities to produce a “book of evidence” against them, the four are released but are immediately re-arrested. During interrogation in Garda Síochána custody, all except Plunkett sign alleged confessions, presenting with extensive bruising and injuries they claim are inflicted by members of the Gardaí.

While awaiting trial, Fitzpatrick jumps bail and leaves the country. The trial of McNally, Kelly, and Breatnach in the Special Criminal Court becomes the longest-running trial in Irish criminal history, at 65 days, before it collapses due to the death of one of the three judges, Judge John O’Connor of the Circuit Court.

Medical evidence of beatings is presented to the court, both during the initial trial and the second trial. The court rejects this evidence, finding that the beatings have been self-inflicted or inflicted by the co-accused. Anticipating a conviction, Kelly flees before the conclusion of the second trial. The three are found guilty, solely on the basis of their confessions, and sentenced to between nine and twelve years in prison. Kelly is sentenced in absentia.

In May 1980, Breatnach and McNally are acquitted on appeal on the grounds that their statements had been taken under duress. The same month, the Provisional Irish Republican Army claims responsibility for the robbery. Kelly returns to Ireland from the United States in June 1980, expecting to be acquitted. Instead he is incarcerated in the maximum-security Portlaoise Prison and spends the next four years proclaiming his innocence, including a 38-day period on hunger strike.

After a campaign by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, and others and a song, Wicklow Boy, by the popular folk singer Christy Moore, Kelly is eventually released on “humanitarian grounds” in 1984. He is given a presidential pardon in 1992 and receives £1,000,000 in compensation. Breatnach and McNally are also given compensation.