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


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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.

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King James I Grants License for Old Bushmills Distillery

King James I grants a license to Sir Thomas Phillips, landowner and Governor of County Antrim, for the Old Bushmills distillery on April 20, 1608. The distillery is thought to date from at least 1276 making it the oldest distillery in the world.

The Bushmills Old Distillery Company itself is not established until 1784 by Hugh Anderson. Bushmills suffers many lean years with numerous periods of closure with no record of the distillery being in operation in the official records both in 1802 and in 1822. In 1860 a Belfast spirit merchant named Jame McColgan and Patrick Corrigan purchase the distillery and in 1880 they form a limited company. In 1885, the original Bushmills buildings are destroyed by fire but the distillery is quickly rebuilt. In 1890, the steamship SS Bushmills, owned and operated by the distillery, makes its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to deliver Bushmills whiskey to America. It calls at Philadelphia and New York City before heading on to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama.

In the early 20th century, the United States is a very important market for Bushmills, as well as for other Irish Whiskey producers. American Prohibition in 1920 comes as a large blow to the Irish Whiskey industry, but Bushmills manages to survive. Wilson Boyd, Bushmills’ director at the time, predicts the end of prohibition and has large stores of whiskey ready to export. After the World War II, the distillery is purchased by Isaac Wolfson and, in 1972, it is taken over by Irish Distillers, meaning that Irish Distillers controls the production of all Irish whiskey at the time. In June 1988, Irish Distillers is bought by French liquor group Pernod Ricard.

In June 2005, the distillery is bought by Diageo for £200 million. Diageo announces a large advertising campaign in order to regain market share for Bushmills.

In May 2008, the Bank of Ireland issues a new series of sterling banknotes in Northern Ireland which all feature an illustration of the Old Bushmills Distillery on the obverse side, replacing the previous notes series which depicts Queen’s University Belfast.

In November 2014 it is announced that Diageo is to trade the Bushmills brand with Jose Cuervo in exchange for the 50% of the Don Julio brand of tequila that Diageo does not already own.

Some Bushmills offerings have performed well at international Spirits ratings competitions. In particular, its Black Bush Finest Blended Whiskey receives double gold medals at the 2007 and 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competitions. It also receives a well-above-average score of 93 from the Beverage Testing Institute in 2008 and 2011.


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Death of Dan Breen, Irish Patriot & Politician

Irish republican Dan Breen (1967)Daniel “Dan” Breen, volunteer in the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, dies in Dublin on December 27, 1969. In later years, he was a Fianna Fáil politician.

Breen is born in Grange, Donohill parish, County Tipperary, on October 10, 1894. His father dies when he is six, leaving the family very poor. He is educated locally before becoming a plasterer and later a linesman on the Great Southern Railways.

Breen is sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914. On January 21, 1919, the day the First Dáil meets in Dublin, Breen takes part in the Soloheadbeg Ambush. The ambush party of eight men, led by Seán Treacy, attacks two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men who are escorting explosives to a quarry. The two policemen, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, are fatally shot during the incident. The ambush is considered to be the first incident of the Irish War of Independence.

During the conflict, the British put a £1,000 price on Breen’s head, which is later increased to £10,000. He quickly establishes himself as a leader within the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He is known for his courage. On May 13, 1919 he helps rescue his comrade Seán Hogan at gunpoint from a heavily guarded train at Knocklong station in County Limerick. Breen, who is wounded, remembers how the battalion is “vehemently denounced as a cold-blooded assassins” and roundly condemned by the Catholic Church. After the fight, Treacy, Séamus Robinson, and Breen meet Michael Collins in Dublin, where they are told to make themselves scarce although they do not necessarily agree.

Breen and Sean Treacy shoot their way out through a British military cordon in the northern suburb of Drumcondra (Fernside). They escape, only for Treacy to be killed the next day. Breen is shot at least four times, twice in the lung.

The British reaction is to make Tipperary a “Special Military Area,” with curfews and travel permits. Volunteer GHQ authorises entrerprising attacks on barracks. The British policy forces Breen and Treacy to retreat to Dublin. They join Michael Collins’ Squad of assassins, later known as the Dublin Guard, and Dublin becomes the centre of the war.

Breen is present in December 1919 at the ambush in Ashtown beside Phoenix Park in Dublin where Martin Savage is killed while trying to assassinate the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount John French. The IRA hides behind hedges and a dungheap as the convoy of vehicles drives past. They have been instructed to ignore the first car but this contains their target, Lord French. Their roadblock fails as a policeman removes the horse and cart intended to stop the car.

Breen utterly rejects the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which makes him, like many others, angry and embittered. In the June 1922 elections Breen is nominated as a candidate by both the pro- and anti-Treaty sides, but is not elected.

Breen is elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1923 general election as a Republican anti-Treaty Teachta Dála (TD) for the Tipperary constituency. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Breen joins the Anti-Treaty IRA in the civil war, fighting against those of his former comrades in arms who support the Treaty. He is arrested by the National Army of the Irish Free State and interned at Limerick Prison. He spends two months there before going on hunger strike for six days followed by a thirst strike of six days, prompting his release.

Breen writes a best-selling account of his guerrilla days, My Fight for Irish Freedom, in 1924. He represents Tipperary from the fourth Dáil in 1923 as a Republican with Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken. He is defeated in the June 1927 general election and travels to the United States where he opens a prohibition speakeasy. In 1932 he returns to Ireland and regains his seat as a member of Fianna Fáil in the Dáil at that year’s general election. During World War II he is said to hold largely pro-Axis views. He represents his Tipperary constituency without a break until his retirement at the 1965 election.

Breen dies in Dublin on December 27, 1969 and is buried in Donohill, near his birthplace. His funeral is the largest seen in west Tipperary since that of his close friend and comrade-in-arms Seán Treacy at Kilfeacle in October 1920. An estimated attendance of 10,000 mourners assemble in the tiny hamlet, giving ample testimony to the esteem in which he was held.

Breen is the subject of a 2007 biography Dan Breen and the IRA by Joe Ambrose.


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Death of William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan

william-joseph-donovanWilliam Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan, a United States soldier, lawyer, intelligence officer, and diplomat, dies on February 8, 1959. Donovan is best remembered as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. He is also known as the “Father of American Intelligence” and the “Father of Central Intelligence.”

Of Irish descent, Donovan is born in Buffalo, New York, to first generation immigrants Anna Letitia “Tish” Donovan (née Lennon) of Ulster and Timothy P. Donovan of County Cork. His grandfather, Timothy O’Donovan, Sr., is from the town of Skibbereen, and marries Mary Mahoney, who belongs to a propertied family of substantial means who disapprove of him. They move first to Canada and then to New York, where their son Timothy, Jr., Donovan’s father, attempts to engage in a political career but with little success.

William attend St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University, where he earns the nickname “Wild Bill”, which remains with him for the rest of his life. He graduates from Columbia in 1905. He then attends and graduates from Columbia Law School, after which he becomes an influential Wall Street lawyer.

In 1912, Donovan forms and leads a troop of cavalry of the New York National Guard, which is mobilized in 1916 and serves on the U.S.-Mexico border during the American government’s campaign against Pancho Villa.

During World War I, Major Donovan organizes and leads the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on October 14-15, 1918, he receives the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war he receives a promotion to colonel, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart.

Donovan serves as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York from 1922 to 1924. Due to his energetic enforcement of Prohibition in the United States, there are a number of threats to assassinate him and to dynamite his home but he is not deterred. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge names Donovan to the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division as a deputy assistant to Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. Donovan runs unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of New York (1922) and for Governor of New York (1932) as a Republican.

During the years between the world wars, Donovan earns the attention and friendship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although the two men were from opposing political parties, they were very similar in personality. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan traveled as an informal emissary to Britain, where he is urged by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Roosevelt to gauge Britain’s ability to withstand Germany’s aggression. During these trips Donovan meets with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill and the directors of Britain’s intelligence services. Donovan returns to the U.S. confident of Britain’s chances and enamored of the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.

On July 11, 1941, Donovan is named Coordinator of Information (COI) where he is to oversee America’s foreign intelligence organizations which, at the time are fragmented and isolated from each other. He is plagued over the course of the next year with jurisdictional battles as few of the leaders in the intelligence community are willing to part with any of their power. Nevertheless, Donovan begins to lay the groundwork for a centralized intelligence program.

In 1942, the COI becomes the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan is returned to active duty in the U.S. Army. He is promoted to brigadier general in March 1943 and to major general in November 1944. Under his leadership the OSS eventually conducts successful espionage and sabotage operations in Europe and parts of Asia. By 1943, relations with the British are becoming increasingly strained, partly due to British concerns that OSS operations are sometimes regarded as ill-disciplined and irresponsibly managed. MI6 chief Stewart Menzies is extremely hostile towards the idea of OSS operations anywhere in the British Empire and categorically forbids them to operate within the U.K.

After the end of World War II and the death of President Roosevelt in early April 1945, Donovan’s political position is substantially weakened as he finds himself opposed by President Harry S. Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, and others. Truman disbands the OSS in September 1945 and Donovan returns to civilian life. Several departments of the OSS survive the dissolution and, less than two years later, the Central Intelligence Agency is founded.

Donovan does not have an official role in the newly formed CIA but he is instrumental in its formation. His opinions meet strong opposition from the State, War, and Navy Departments, as well as J. Edgar Hoover. President Truman is also unenthusiastic about some of Donovan’s arguments but he prevails and they are reflected in the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949.

After the end of the war ended, Donovan returns to his lifelong role as a lawyer and serves as special assistant to chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany. On August 3, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appoints Donovan Ambassador to Thailand and he serves in that capacity from September 4, 1953 until his resignation on August 21, 1954.

Donovan dies from complications of vascular dementia on February 8, 1959 at the age of 76, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower remarks, “What a man! We have lost the last hero.”