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


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Birth of Margaret Hassan, Irish-born Aid Worker in Iraq

Margaret Hassan, Irish-born aid worker also known as “Madam Margaret,” is born Margaret Fitzsimons in Dalkey, County Dublin on April 18, 1945. She works in Iraq for many years until she is abducted and murdered by unidentified kidnappers in Iraq in 2004. Her remains have never been recovered.

Soon after the end of World War II Hassan’s family moves to London, where she spends most of her early life and where her younger siblings are born. At the age of 27, she marries Tahseen Ali Hassan, a 29-year-old Iraqi studying engineering in the United Kingdom. She moves to Iraq with him in 1972, where she begins work with the British Council of Baghdad, teaching English. Eventually she learns Arabic and becomes an Iraqi citizen.

During the early 1980s, Hassan becomes the assistant director of studies at the British Council, later becoming director. Meanwhile, her husband works as an economist. She remains in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, although the British Council suspends operations in Iraq, and she is left jobless at the end of it.

Hassan joins humanitarian relief organisation CARE International in 1991. Sanitation, health, and nutrition become major concerns in the sanctioned Iraq. She is crucially involved in bringing leukemia medicine to child cancer victims in Iraq in 1998. She becomes a vocal critic of the United Nations restrictions. She is opposed to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing that the Iraqis are already “living through a terrible emergency. They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action.”

By 2004, Hassan is head of Iraqi operations for CARE. Well known in many of Baghdad’s slums and other cities, she is especially interested in Iraq’s young people, whom she calls “the lost generation.” Her presence draws large crowds of locals.

Hassan is kidnapped in Baghdad on October 19, 2004, and is killed some weeks later on November 8. In a video released of her in captivity she pleads for help and begs British Prime Minister Tony Blair to remove British troops from Iraq. She adds that she does not “want to die like Mr. Bigley,” a reference to Kenneth Bigley, who had been executed in Iraq only weeks earlier.

Patients of an Iraqi hospital take to the streets in protest against the hostage takers’ actions. On October 25, between 100 and 200 Iraqis protest outside CARE’s offices in Baghdad, demanding her release. Prominent elements of the Iraqi insurgency and Iraqi political figures condemn the kidnapping and call for her release. On November 2, Al Jazeera reports that the kidnappers threatened to hand her over to the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and who is responsible for the execution of Bigley. On November 6, a statement purportedly from al-Zarqawi appears on an Islamist website calling for the release of Hassan unless the kidnappers have information she is aligned with the invading coalition. The statement cannot be authenticated and Hassan’s whereabouts in the video are unknown.

On 15 November, U.S. Marines in Fallujah uncover the body of an unidentified blonde- or grey-haired woman with her legs and arms cut off and throat slit. The body cannot be immediately identified, but is thought unlikely to be Hassan, who has brown hair. There is one other western woman known missing in Iraq at the time the body is discovered, Teresa Borcz Khalifa, a Polish-born long-time Iraqi resident. Khalifa is released by her hostage takers on November 20.

On November 16, CNN reports that CARE has issued a statement indicating that the organisation is aware of a videotape showing Hassan’s execution. Al-Jazeera reports that it has received a tape showing Hassan’s murder but is unable to confirm its authenticity. The video shows Hassan being shot with a handgun by a masked man. It is not known who is responsible for Hassan’s abduction and murder. The group holding her never identifies itself in the hostage videos.

She remains a Roman Catholic throughout her life and never converts to Islam as is widely reported after her death. A Requiem Mass is held for her, after her death is confirmed, at Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

CARE International suspends operations in Iraq because of Hassan’s kidnapping. At least eight other women kidnapped by insurgents during the conflict are released unharmed by their captors. It is unclear why Hassan, who was opposed to the war, lived in Iraq for many years, held Iraqi citizenship, was married to an Arab Muslim and spoke fluent Arabic was killed.

On May 1, 2005, three men are questioned by Iraqi police in connection with the murder. On June 5, 2006, news reports emerge that an Iraqi man by the name of Mustafa Salman al-Jubouri has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “aiding and abetting the kidnappers” but two other men are acquitted. Al-Jubouri appeals this sentence and is given a shorter imprisonment.

An Iraqi man named Ali Lutfi Jassar al-Rawi, also known as Abu Rasha, an architect from Baghdad, is arrested by Iraqi and U.S. forces in 2008 after contacting the British Embassy in Baghdad and attempting to extort 1 million dollars in return for disclosing the location of Hassan’s body. Though Jassar signs statements confessing to the charges, he pleads not guilty, stating he was forced to sign them after receiving beatings and electrical shocks during questioning.

On June 2, 2009, the Press Association reports that Jassar is given a life sentence by Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court for being involved in Hassan’s abduction and murder, and for attempting to blackmail the British Embassy. Hassan’s family welcomes the court’s decision but pleads with Jassar to tell them where her body is so they can return her to Britain for burial. On July 14, 2010, a day before Jassar is due to appear in court for retrial, it is reported that he could not be located in the prison facility where he was being held. He had been missing for a month.


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Birth of Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Horse Racing Commentator

Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Irish-British horse racing commentator for the BBC, and a correspondent for the Press Association, the Daily Express, and Today, is born Newcastle, County Down on March 3, 1918. He is the BBC’s leading horse racing commentator from 1947 to 1997, during which time he describes some of the greatest moments in the history of the Grand National.

O’Sullevan is the son of Colonel John Joseph O’Sullevan DSO, resident magistrate at Killarney, and Vera (née Henry). As an infant, the family returns to his parents’ home at Kenmare, County Kerry and he is raised in Surrey, England. He is educated at Hawtreys Preparatory School, Charterhouse School, and later at Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil in Switzerland.

In the late 1940s O’Sullevan is involved in some of the earliest television commentaries on any sport, and makes many radio commentaries in his earlier years (including the Grand National before it is televised for the first time in 1960). On television, he commentates on many of the major events of the racing year, including the Cheltenham Festival until 1994, The Derby until 1979, and the Grand National, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood until he retires in 1997. During his career, he commentates on around 30 runnings of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris and racing from the United States and Ireland as well as trotting from Rome during the 1960s.

During his 50 years of commentating on the Grand National, O’Sullevan commentates on numerous historic victories. These include Bob Champion‘s run on Aldaniti in 1981 after recovering from cancer, 100/1 outsider Foinavon‘s win in 1967, and the three-times winner Red Rum in 1973, 1974 and 1977. He also commentates on the 1993 Grand National, which is declared void after 30 of the 39 runners fail to realise there had been a false start, and seven go on to complete the course. As the runners approach the second-last fence in the so-called “race that never was,” O’Sullevan declares it “the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National.”

O’Sullevan becomes known as the “Voice of Racing.” In a television interview before his 50th and last Grand National in 1997, he reveals that his commentary binoculars came from a German submarine. He is knighted the same year – the only sports broadcaster at the time to have been bestowed that honour. He is also a racehorse owner, including of Be Friendly, who wins the King’s Stand Stakes at Ascot, and Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp. He is twice successful in the Haydock Sprint Cup (then Vernons Sprint) in 1966 and 1967. Another horse he owns is Attivo, whose victory in the 1974 Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival is described by O’Sullevan as the most difficult race to call.

Attivo also wins the Chester Cup and the Northumberland Plate during the 1970s. O’Sullevan’s final race commentary comes at Newbury Racecourse for the 1997 Hennessy Gold Cup, and he visits the winners’ enclosure as a winning owner in the race which follows courtesy of Sounds Fyne’s victory in the Fulke Walwyn Chase. He is succeeded as the BBC’s lead commentator by Jim McGrath.

After his retirement, O’Sullevan is actively involved in charity work, fundraising for causes which revolve around the protection of horses and farm animals, including the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre and Compassion in World Farming. The National Hunt Challenge Chase Cup (run at the Cheltenham Festival) is named after him in 2008 to celebrate his 90th birthday. In 2010, Aintree Racecourse names O’Sullevan as one of the eight inaugural “Grand National Legends.” His name is inscribed on a commemorative plaque at the course, alongside the likes of Ginger McCain and Captain Martin Becher.

O’Sullevan meets his wife Patricia, daughter of Frank Duckworth of Manitoba, Canada, at a ball in Manchester in 1947. She dies of Alzheimer’s disease in 2010.

O’Sullevan dies of cancer at his home in London on July 29, 2015.