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


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Death of Charlotte Grace O’Brien, Philanthropist & Activist

Charlotte Grace O’Brien, author, philanthropist and an activist in nationalist causes and the protection of female emigrants, dies on June 3, 1909. She is known also as a plant collector.

Born on November 23, 1845 at Cahirmoyle, County Limerick, O’Brien is the younger daughter in a family of five sons and two daughters. Her father is William Smith O’Brien, the Irish nationalist and her mother is Lucy Caroline, eldest daughter of Joseph Gabbett, of High Park, County Limerick. On her father’s return in 1854 from the penal colony in Tasmania, she rejoins him in Brussels, and stays there until he comes back to Cahirmoyle in 1856. On her mother’s death in 1861, she moves with her father to Killiney, near Dublin, and is his constant companion until his death at Bangor, Gwynedd in 1864.

From 1864, O’Brien lives at Cahirmoyle with her brother Edward, caring for his motherless children until his remarriage in 1880. Having been hard of hearing since childhood, by 1879 she has become entirely deaf. She goes to live at Ardanoir near Foynes on the River Shannon, and spends time writing. She becomes a staunch supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell.

A bad harvest in Ireland in 1879, combined with Irish political turmoil, causes many Irish people to emigrate to the United States. In articles and letters to newspapers and reviews, O’Brien exposes the awful conditions that exist in the Queenstown (Cobh) lodging houses, on board the emigrant ships, and in the dock slums of New York City, where the Irish have to stay upon landing. A notable piece she writes is the Horrors of the Immigrant Ship which appears in The Pall Mall Gazette on May 6, 1881.

A visit to Queenstown, the port of embarkation, and a tour of the White Star Line‘s Germanic leads her to successfully lobby to get a Catholic priest aboard the emigrant ship to help ease the passage, at least spiritually. That achievement captures even more public attention by virtue of the fact that O’Brien herself is Protestant. Despite the limit of 1,000 passengers, she notes the steamer has carried as many as 1,775 at one time.

O’Brien presses the Board of Trade for greater vigilance, and in April 1882, founds a 105-bed boarding house at Queenstown for the reception and protection of girls on the point of emigrating. The O’Brien Emigrants Home at The Beach, Queenstown fails because it is boycotted by other boardinghouse keepers and local merchants, forcing her to order provisions from Cork.

O’Brien also daily visits three or four of the ships for which her lodgers are destined along with a medical officer. She makes passages herself to America, using the occasion to investigate shipboard conditions and lobby for the reform and enforcement of health and safety standards.

O’Brien finds little effort to provide food, drink or accommodation at the Castle Garden entry facility. She also finds that often the illiterate young women are being tricked into prostitution through spurious offers of employment. Additionally, she notes the high infant mortality rates in the tenements where the women live. She proposes to Archbishop John Ireland of Minnesota an information bureau at Castle Garden, a temporary shelter to provide accommodation for immigrants and a chapel. Archbishop Ireland agrees to raise the matter at the May 1883 meeting of the Irish Catholic Association which endorses the plan and votes to establish an information bureau at Castle Garden. Ireland also contacts Cardinal John McCloskey, Archbishop of New York, about providing a priest for immigrants arriving at Castle Garden.

The Mission opens on January 1, 1884 with Rev. John J. Riordan appointed as the first chaplain at Castle Garden. Immigrant girls needing accommodation are placed in local boarding houses until May 1 when a Home for Immigrant Girls is opened at 7 Broadway. In 1885, the James Watson House at 7 State Street is purchased from Isabella Wallace for the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls to serve as a way station for young immigrant women. Between 1884 and 1890, the Mission provides assistance to 25,000 Irish immigrant women.

In 1881–82, O’Brien embarks on a campaigning lecture tour in the United States. She encounters problems, however, particularly given her Protestant background and the need to enlist support from Catholic clergy. Poor health, and her profound deafness cause her to curtail her activities in America. When she returns to Ireland in 1883, she finds herself suspected of being a British agent whose Emigrant Boarding house and whose plans for an American home for Irish immigrant girls facilitate the government’s assisted emigrant scheme. Supposedly, this would be the scheme that helps landlords clear their estates of poor tenants. In fact, O’Brien opposes assisted emigration, but she continues to assist those who are sent to her.

O’Brien retires from active public work in 1886, moving to Ardanoir, Foynes, on the Shannon Estuary. She spends considerable time in Dublin, where she socialises with Douglas Hyde and the painter William Osbourne. She joins the Roman Catholic Church in 1887. She dies of heart failure on June 3, 1909 at Foynes, and is buried at Knockpatrick.


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Founding of the Ladies’ Land League

Anna Parnell, younger sister of Irish Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, founds the Committee of the Ladies’ Land League, an auxiliary of the Irish National Land League, in Dublin on January 31, 1881. The organisation grows rapidly. By May 1881 there are 321 branches in Ireland, with branches also in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The organization is set up to take over the work of the Irish National Land League after its leadership is imprisoned. They raise money for the Land League prisoners and their dependants. They encourage women to resist eviction from their cottages. If families are evicted, the Ladies’ Land League provides wooden huts to the evicted families.

The ladies find themselves with additional work late in 1881. The Land League has started its own paper, United Ireland, in August 1881, but towards the end of the year the government tries to close it down. William O’Brien, the editor, continues to smuggle out copy from Kilmainham Gaol, but it falls to the ladies to get it printed. This is done first in London and then for a while in Paris. Eventually the ladies print and circulate it themselves from an office at 32 Lower Abbey Street.

On Sunday, March 12, 1881, just more than a month after the formation of the league, a pastoral letter of Archbishop of Dublin Edward McCabe is read out in all the churches of the diocese. It condemns the league in the strongest terms, deploring that “our Catholic daughters, be they matrons or virgins, are called forth, under the flimsy pretext of charity, to take their stand in the noisy street of life.” McCabe is not representative of all bishops, particularly Archbishop of Cashel Thomas Croke, a strong supporter of the original league. Croke publishes a letter in the Freeman’s Journal challenging the “monstrous imputations” in McCabe’s pastoral.

The dissension is revived somewhat in the summer of 1882. McCabe, now a Cardinal, and another bishop try to have a public condemnation of the Ladies’ Land League inserted into an address by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland in June. The other bishops resist on the basis that it would probably do more harm than good. They content themselves with expressing their hope that “the women of Ireland will continue to be the glory of their sex and the noble angels of stainless modesty.” When newspapers interpret this as a condemnation of the league, Croke writes again to the Freeman’s Journal to deny that this had been the intention of the bishops.

The order banning the Irish National Land League makes no direct reference to the Ladies’ Land League but many police officers try to insist that the ban includes the women’s group. Eventually, on December 16, 1881, Inspector General Hillier of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) orders the police to stop the women’s meetings. Anna Parnell defiantly issues a notice to all Ladies’ Land League branches in the country calling on them all to hold a meeting on January 1, 1882.

The prominent resident magistrate, Major Clifford Lloyd, claims that the huts built for evicted tenants are being used as posts from which the evicted tenants can intimidate anyone who attempts to take over their vacated holdings. In April 1882, he threatens that anyone attempting to erect huts will be imprisoned. That month, Anne Kirke is sent down from Dublin to Tulla, County Clare, to oversee the erection of huts for a large number of evicted tenants. Lloyd has her arrested and imprisoned for three months.

The government does not wish to be seen to use the Coercion Act to imprison women, but another stratagem is used. In December 1881 21-year old Hannah Reynolds is imprisoned under an ancient statute from the reign of Edward III, the original purpose of which was to keep prostitutes off the streets. The statute empowers magistrates to imprison “persons not of good fame” if they do not post bail as a guarantee of their good behavior. Since Reynolds claims her behavior is good, she refuses to pay bail and spends a month in Cork gaol. In all, thirteen women serve jail sentences under this statute.

On May 3, 1882 Parnell and other leaders are released from jail after agreeing to the Kilmainham Treaty. This includes some improvement in the 1881 Land Act. He now wishes to turn his attention more to the Home Rule question. The Irish National Land League is replaced by the Irish National League. Parnell also wants to see an end to the Ladies’ Land League. There had been increased violence while he was in jail and he sees Anna as too radical. The organization has an overdraft of £5,000 which Parnell agrees to clear from central funds only if the organization is dissolved. At a meeting of the Central Committee on August 10, 1882 the Ladies’ Land League votes to dissolve itself. Anna Parnell herself is not in attendance at that meeting having suffered a physical and mental collapse after the sudden death of her sister Fanny the previous month.

The records of the Ladies’ Land League are lost to history in 1916. Jennie Wyse Power, who had served on the Central Committee, had kept them in her house in Henry Street, Dublin. When fire spreads from Sackville Street during the 1916 Easter Rising, her house is destroyed and the records perish in the blaze.

(Pictured: Lady Land Leaguers at work at the Dublin office)


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Death of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, Mistress of Louis XV

Marie-Louise O’Murphy, one of the lesser mistresses of King Louis XV of France and possibly the model for the famous painting by François Boucher, dies in Paris on December 11, 1814.

O’Murphy is born in Rouen, France on October 21, 1737 as the youngest of twelve children of Daniel Morfi and Marguerite Iquy, a family of Irish origin. Her parents have well-known criminal histories. Her father was involved in a case of espionage and blackmail while her mother was accused of prostitution and theft. She and her sisters are also known for being involved in prostitution.

Contemporary and modern historiography believe O’Murphy is the very young model who posed for the Jeune Fille allongée (Reclining Girl), of François Boucher, a painting famous for its undisguised eroticism, dating from 1752. Two versions of this painting have survived, both conserved in Germany, one in the Alte Pinakothek at Munich and the other in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum at Cologne.

The term petite maîtresse (little mistress) is given to Louis XV’s mistresses that are not formally presented at court, and unlike the official mistress (maîtresse-en-titre) do not have an apartment in Palace of Versailles. Generally recruited by the King’s valets in Paris surroundings, if their affair lasts more than a single night, they are placed in a group of houses in the district of Parc-aux-Cerfs in Versailles, or close to other royal residences. O’Murphy resides there for two years, from 1753 to 1755.

After a miscarriage in mid-1753 which almost kills her, O’Murphy gives birth to Louis XV’s illegitimate daughter, Agathe-Louise de Saint-Antoine de Saint-André, born in Paris on June 20, 1754. The King, who does not want to recognize the offspring born from petites maîtresses and brief affairs, orders that the newborn must be immediately placed in care of a wet nurse. Subsequently, Agathe-Louise is sent to the Couvent de la Présentation, where she is raised.

After serving as a mistress to the King for almost two years, O’Murphy makes a mistake that is common for many courtesans, that of trying to replace the official mistress. She unwisely tries to unseat the longtime royal favorite, Madame de Pompadour. This ill-judged move quickly results in her downfall at court. In November 1755 she is expelled at night from her home at Parc-aux-Cerfs, repudiated by the King, and sent far away from Versailles.

O’Murphy hastily marries Jacques Pelet de Beaufranchet, Seigneur d’Ayat on November 25, 1755. Soon after she becomes pregnant. Her first child, a daughter named Louise Charlotte Antoinette Françoise Pelet de Beaufranchet, is born on October 30, 1756 (she dies at the age of two). Thirteen months later, on November 5, 1757, her husband is killed in action at the Battle of Rossbach. Seventeen days after his death she gives birth a second child, a son, Louis Charles Antoine de Beaufranchet, the later Comte de Beaufranchet and General under the Republic.

On February 19, 1759, O’Murphy marries François Nicolas Le Normant, Comte de Flaghac and Receiver General of Finance in Riom, a divorcee with three children. From this marriage, she gives birth to a daughter, Marguerite Victoire Le Normant de Flaghac on January 5, 1768, who, according to one theory, could be another illegitimate daughter of Louis XV. François Le Normant dies on April 24, 1783.

During the Reign of Terror O’Murphy is imprisoned as a “suspect,” under the name of O’Murphy, at Sainte-Pélagie Prison and later at the English Benedictine convent in Paris. After her release she marries Louis Philippe Dumont, a moderate MP for Calvados in the National Convention and twenty-eight years her junior, on June 19, 1795. This union quickly fails, and after almost three years, they divorce on March 16, 1798. She never marries again.

Marie-Louise O’Murphy dies in Paris on December 11, 1814 aged 77, at the home of her daughter Marguerite Le Normant.


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Death of Isabella Tod, Women’s Rights Activist

Isabella Maria Susan Tod, Irish women’s rights activist, dies at her home at 71 Botanic Avenue in Belfast on December 8, 1896. She is a formidable lady who uses her political skills to great advantage in order to further many causes.

Tod is born on May 18, 1836 in Edinburgh into a well known Irish Presbyterian family, her uncle being the Rev. Hope Masterton Waddell, one of the earliest Irish Presbyterian missionaries who served with the Scottish Missionary Society in Jamaica and whose great grandfather is the Rev. Charles Masterton, one of the most distinguished minsters of the General Synod of Ulster who ministers at Connor and Rosemary Street, Belfast. She is very proud of her Presbyterian heritage and of her Scottish ancestry.

The daughter of James Banks Tod, an Edinburgh merchant, Tod spends her early years in Edinburgh. She is educated at home by her mother, Maria Isabella Waddell, who comes from County Monaghan. The family moves to Belfast in the 1850s following the death of her father. She and her mother join Elmwood Presbyterian Church. Her Presbyterian background no doubt contributes to her radical views on social issues and women’s rights. She earns her living from writing and journalism, contributing, for example, to the Dublin University Magazine, an independent literary, cultural and political magazine, and to the Banner of Ulster, a Presbyterian newspaper.

Tod becomes one of the leading pioneers in the fight to improve the position of women. She is the only woman called to give evidence to a Select Committee of Enquiry on the reform of the married women’s property law in 1868 and serves on the executive of the Married Women’s Property Committee in London from 1873 to 1874. She successfully campaigns for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 which enacted that a woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. She sees this legislation as an infringement of a woman’s civil liberties.

Tod is also a strong supporter of the temperance movement and, along with her friend Margaret Byers, forms the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association in 1874. Perhaps she is best known for her tireless campaign to extend the educational provision for middle-class women. For example, in 1878 she organises a delegation to London to put pressure on the Government to include girls in the Intermediate Education Act of 1878. The Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast, Alexandra College in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies Institute owe their existence largely to her. She writes a paper entitled “An Advanced Education for Girls in the Upper and Middle Classes” which is presented in 1867 at a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and is among the pamphlets held in the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland library.

Tod is also an active campaigner for women’s right to vote, embarking on her first campaign in 1872 and addressing meetings in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Londonderry. Following a meeting in Dublin a suffrage committee is established that later becomes the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society and in 1873 she forms the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society. She extends her meetings to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh and is a frequent visitor to London to lobby politicians during the parliamentary session.

Tod is very much a staunch opponent of Home Rule, establishing a branch of the London-based Women’s Liberal Federation in Belfast and the Liberal Women’s Unionist Association. She sees unionism as the way to progress. “I knew that all the social work in which I had taken so prominent a part for 20 years was in danger and most of it could not exist a day under a petty legislature of the character which would be inevitable,” she says. “What we dread is the complete dislocation of all society, especially in regard to commercial affairs and organised freedom of action.”

Tod suffers from ill-health in her later days and dies in Belfast of pulmonary illness on December 8, 1896. She is buried in Balmoral Cemetery in South Belfast.


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Closing of the Magdalene Laundries

magdalene-laundriesThe last of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, also known as the Magdalene Asylums, closes on September 25, 1996.

The Magdalene Laundries are institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operate from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They are run ostensibly to house “fallen women,” a term primarily referring to prostitutes in the late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, Magdalene laundries are filled with many different kinds of women, including girls who are “not prostitutes at all”, but either “seduced women” or women who have yet to engage in sexual activity.

Several religious institutes establish even more Irish laundries, reformatories and industrial schools, sometimes all together on the same plot of land, with the aim to “save the souls primarily of women and children.” Examples are Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, who run the largest laundries in Dublin. These large complexes become a massive interlocking system, carefully and painstakingly built up over a number of decades. Consequently, Magdalene laundries become part of Ireland’s “larger system for the control of children and women.”

An estimated 30,000 women are confined in these institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is unknown how many women resided in the Magdalene institutions after 1900. Vital information about the women’s circumstances, the number of women, and the consequences of their incarceration is unknown. Due to the religious institutes’ “policy of secrecy,” their penitent registers and convent annals remain closed to this day, despite repeated requests for information.

In Dublin in 1993, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sell part of the land in their convent to a property developer to cover money lost in share dealings on the stock exchange. This leads to the discovery of 133 corpses in a mass grave. The Sisters arrange to have the remains cremated and reburied in another mass grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, splitting the cost of the reburial with the developer who had bought the land. It later transpires that there are 22 more corpses than the sisters had applied for permission to exhume. In all, 155 corpses were exhumed and cremated.

Discovery of the mass grave leads to media revelations about the operations of the secretive institutions. A formal state apology is issued in 2013, and a £50 million compensation scheme for survivors is set up by the Irish Government. The religious orders which operate the laundries have rejected activist demands that they financially contribute to this programme.


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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.