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


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Death of Frank Hugh O’Donnell, Writer, Journalist & Politician

Frank Hugh O’Donnell, Irish writer, journalist and nationalist politician, dies in London on November 2, 1916.

O’Donnell is born in an army barracks in Devon, England, where his father, Sergeant Bernard MacDonald, is stationed. His mother, Mary Kain, is a native of Ballybane, close to Galway city. He is educated at the Erasmus Smith School in Galway, Coláiste Iognáid (the “Jes”), and later enrolls in Queen’s College Galway, where he studies English literature, history and political economy. While a student at the college, he acquires a considerable reputation as an orator, and is a frequent contributor to meetings of the college’s Literary and Debating Society, of which he becomes vice-auditor for the 1864–65 session.

Even in his student days, O’Donnell seems to be quick to voice his opinions, and revells in controversy. In November 1866, addressing the Literary and Debating Society on the question “Was the character of Warren Hastings as Governor-General of India praiseworthy?,” he causes uproar by denouncing “the principle and the system which have lain at the root of the international and intercolonial policy of England, from the days when Elizabeth, the Infamous, chartered for profit two of the first ships which opened the African slave trade.” His remarks cause the chairman of the meeting, Professor Thomas Moffett, to prevent him from continuing his speech, stating that “such an epithet ought not to be applied to any predecessor of our present gracious Queen.” O’Donnell regards such action as an unwarranted restriction on his freedom of speech, and in a letter published in the local press gives an early example of his high-flown literary style:

“I hold that Debating Societies are the nurseries of independent thought, and the training schools of sober criticism. I believe in the power and impartiality of an enlightened studenthood … I have followed the mind of Austin. I have sat at the feet of Cairnes. I have drunk of the philosophy of Mill. I claim for Judicial Science, for Economic Science, for the Philosophy of History, a place in the discussions of our society, I pity and I scorn the formidable confederacy of fools who dare not call a spade a spade.”

This incident, combined with the reluctance of the society to prevent O’Donnell from addressing its meetings, eventually leads to the suspension of the society from the Queen’s College and its temporary migration to rooms in the city of Galway.

O’Donnell graduates from the Queen’s College with an M.A. degree in 1868, winning several gold medals for his academic performance. By this stage, he has begun to style himself ‘Frank Hugh O’Donnell,’ believing himself to be a descendant of Hugh O’Donnell, 2nd Earl of Tyrconnell.

Leaving Galway, O’Donnell moves to London, where he embarks on a career in journalism, following his college contemporary T. P. O’Connor. O’Connor’s knowledge of modern European languages has helped him to establish himself as a correspondent on European affairs, and he assists O’Donnell in developing a similar reputation. He spends a brief period on the staff of The Morning Post.

In the 1874 United Kingdom general election, O’Donnell is elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Galway Borough, but is unseated by the courts in what appears to be a politically inspired judgment which uses certain unsavoury campaigning tactics in which O’Donnell had indulged as its basis. He is succeeded in the seat by his election agent, Dr. Michael Francis Ward, who is himself succeeded in 1880 by T. P. O’Connor in an unusual succession, all three having been either auditor or vice-auditor of the Queen’s College Literary and Debating Society in the same era.

In 1875, O’Donnell is a founding member of the Constitutional Society of India, a group promoting political autonomy for India. In 1877, he secures a more permanent election to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom as MP for Dungarvan. He holds the seat until 1885, when the constituency is abolished. He strikes a colourful and controversial figure in parliament and becomes renowned for his declamatory speech-making. He is a prominent obstructionist and claims credit for inventing the tactic of obstructionism which is to yield such results for the Home Rule League under Charles Stewart Parnell. Indeed, he sees himself as a natural leader and becomes disillusioned when Parnell is selected in May 1880 to succeed William Shaw as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He calls the British ‘Imperial pirates’ and inaugurates the Constitutional Society of India. Its aim is Home Rule for India, “Mr. O’Donnell’s grand passion in politics was a confederation of all the discontented races of the Empire under the lead of the Irish party. He once brought down some scores of dusky students of all the races and creeds of Hindustan to the House of Commons.”

Parnell refuses to let O’Donnell be nominated in 1885. He leaves the Irish Parliamentary Party and conventional politics, but not its general aims of promoting home rule and tenant farmers’ rights. His last and perhaps most important contribution to the fortunes of the party is the libel case he launches against The Times in 1888 over the series “Parnellism and Crime.” Though the case is lost, it results in the establishment of the Parnell Commission which exonerates Parnell from condoning the Phoenix Park Murders, and exposes the Pigott Forgeries.

In his later years O’Donnell begins investigating misconduct by both the British Civil Service and the Roman Catholic church in Ireland. His Paraguay on Shannon (1908) is an amusing but serious critique of unethical practices by the Catholic clergy in local politics, education, and their involvement in the Congested Districts Board for Ireland that is financed by Parliament in order to improve the depressed economy of western Ireland. Parliament believes that by improving the living standards of the Irish peasant class, they can “kill Home Rule with kindness.”

After careful investigation, O’Donnell accuses members of the Catholic clergy of illegally diverting Government money earmarked for economic development into new Cathedrals, parish churches, and other ecclesiastical building projects. He argues that the British Government needs to provide better oversight of how the Congested Districts Board’s funds are being used. He believes that “in Ireland material ruin has accompanied clerical despotism.” His hostility to the Church draws the ire of Catholic historians who systematically undermine his credibility.

Ernest Belfort Bax writes that O’Donnell’s “matter is better than his manner.”

O’Donnell dies a bachelor in London on November 2, 1916 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.


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Birth of Charles Patrick Meehan, Priest & Historian

Charles Patrick Meehan, priest and historian, is born on July 12, 1812 at 141 Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street), Dublin.

Meehan’s father, a native of Manorhamilton, County Leitrim, is a prosperous farmer at Ballymahon, County Longford. He receives his early education in a hedge school and from a local curate at Ballymahon. In 1828 he enters the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, where he is a brilliant student, acquiring fluency in several languages. As a child he had loved to listen to stories of the Flight of the Earls and the Flight of the Wild Geese, and during his time in Rome he discovers the neglected graves of Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell in the church of San Pietro in Montorio. He begins his lifelong research on the seventeenth century by locating and transcribing hitherto unstudied documents held in Roman repositories. Ordained in 1835, he is appointed curate at Rathdrum, County Wicklow in August and five months later is transferred to the parish of Saints Michael and John, Dublin. He is an excellent preacher and a strong advocate of temperance, and zealously discharges his parish duties.

A supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the repeal movement, Meehan is particularly attracted by the ideals of Young Ireland, and becomes friendly with the principal writers of The Nation, especially Charles Gavan Duffy and James Clarence Mangan. He is Mangan’s confessor, and attends his deathbed in 1849. The Young Irelanders often meet in his presbytery in Lower Exchange Street. From 1842 he contributes occasional verse and translations to The Nation using the pseudonym ‘Clericus’ and the initials ‘C. P. M.’ He defends the Young Irelanders from accusations of irreligion. During the debates on physical force in Conciliation Hall in July 1846 he supports the Young Ireland position and is shouted down by O’Connellites.

He secedes with the Young Irelanders from the Repeal Association and becomes a member of their Irish Confederation on its foundation in January 1847. Later that year he becomes president of the St. Patrick’s Confederate Club, and delivers lectures to it on Irish history. A strong believer in the importance of history in creating national pride and awareness, he contributes The Confederation of Kilkenny (1846) and a translation of Daniel O’Daly, The Geraldines, their Rise, Increase and Ruin (1847) to The Nation‘s Library of Ireland historical series. He publishes a translation, with a valuable introduction and notes, of John Lynch‘s Latin life of Francis Kirwan, bishop of Killala 1645–61, as Portrait of a Christian Bishop (1848). In 1848 he resigns his presidency of the St. Patrick’s Confederate Club in the hope of becoming librarian or professor of modern languages at Queen’s College Galway, but is unsuccessful.

For the rest of his life Meehan devotes himself to parish work and historical research, occasionally publishing articles and poems in the Hibernian Magazine and Irish Catholic Magazine. He also edits six volumes of the second series of James Duffy‘s Duffy’s Hibernian Magazine (1862–65). Having acquired a vast store of anecdotes and curious information from his researches, he is an interesting companion who loves the company of poets and scholars and forms friendships with many young nationalist writers, including Denis Florence MacCarthy, John Keegan Casey and John Francis O’Donnell.

Most of Meehan’s research is devoted to Irish history, but he occasionally tackles other subjects, such as his translation from the Italian of Vincenzo Marchese’s Lives of the most eminent sculptors and architects of the order of St Dominic (2 vols, 1852). Although his work is marked by a strong sympathy for Catholicism and Irish nationalism, he is among the more scholarly historians associated with the Young Ireland movement. He is elected Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA) in February 1865. Gavan Duffy lauds his efforts and ranks him with the great patriotic clerical scholars of the past who had devoted their lives to the study of Irish history.

Meehan repeatedly takes the opportunity to amend and expand his published works, producing revised editions of The Geraldines (as The Geraldines, their Rise, Increase and Ruin (reprinted 1878)), Confederation of Kilkenny (1882), and Lynch’s Life of Kirwan (1884). His other important publications are The Fate and Fortunes of the Earls of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) and Tyrconnel (Rory O’Donel), their flight from Ireland and death in exile (1868), and Rise and Fall of the Irish Franciscan Monasteries and Memoirs of the Irish Hierarchy in the Seventeenth Century (1870). He edits the essays of the Young Irelanders in The Spirit of the Nation (1882) and publishes editions of the poetry of Mangan in The Poets and Poetry of Munster (1883), with an important biographical memoir. His last scholarly work is to re-edit Literary Remains of the United Irishmen (1887) to include material left in manuscript by Richard R. Madden.

A small man, Meehan always wears a monocle attached to a silk ribbon, a tall silk hat, and a stout blackthorn stick. He suffers badly from indigestion for most of his life, and this aggravates a testy personality and a waspish tongue. He regularly falls out with friends, and few parishioners are foolhardy enough to brave his confessional. He retains strong anti-English views all his life. In the 1880s he encounters the young Arthur Griffith pulling down a union flag from a lamppost in Dublin, and astounds the boy by congratulating rather than chastising him. His Young Ireland nationalism and irascible personality ensure that he never progresses beyond the position of curate in his forty-five years at Saints Michael and John. Here, he works alongside Fr. James Healy, a renowned wit, and the two men delight in trading caustic remarks. Healy is present at Meehan’s deathbed and admits to brushing away a tear – the only thing, he remarks, that had been brushed in that room for many years.

Meehan dies on March 14, 1890 at his presbytery in Dublin, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. He is survived by two brothers, one of whom is also a priest. He is commemorated by a mural tablet erected by his parishioners in the church of Saints Michael and John.

(From: “Meehan, Charles Patrick” by James Quinn and Linde Lunney, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Birth of Sir Joseph Larmor, Physicist & Mathematician

Sir Joseph Larmor FRS FRSE, Irish and British physicist and mathematician who makes breakthroughs in the understanding of electricity, dynamics, thermodynamics, and the electron theory of matter, is born in Magheragall, County Antrim on July 11, 1857. His most influential work is Aether and Matter, a theoretical physics book published in 1900.

Larmor is the son of Hugh Larmor, a Belfast shopkeeper and his wife, Anna Wright. The family moves to Belfast around 1860, and he is educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and then studies mathematics and experimental science at Queen’s College, Belfast, where one of his teachers is John Purser. He obtains his BA in 1874 and MA in 1875. He subsequently studies at St. John’s College, Cambridge where in 1880 he is Senior Wrangler and Smith’s Prizeman, and obtains his MA in 1883. After teaching physics for a few years at Queen’s College, Galway, he accepts a lectureship in mathematics at Cambridge in 1885. In 1892 he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and he serves as one of the Secretaries of the society. He is made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1910.

In 1903 Larmor is appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a post he retains until his retirement in 1932. He never marries. He is knighted by King Edward VII in 1909.

Motivated by his strong opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, in February 1911 Larmor runs for and is elected as Member of Parliament for Cambridge University (UK Parliament constituency) with the Conservative Party. He remains in parliament until the 1922 general election, at which point the Irish question has been settled. Upon his retirement from Cambridge in 1932 he moves back to County Down in Northern Ireland.

Larmor receives the honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) from the University of Glasgow in June 1901. He is awarded the Poncelet Prize for 1918 by the French Academy of Sciences. He is a Plenary Speaker in 1920 at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) at Strasbourg and an Invited Speaker at the ICM in 1924 in Toronto and at the ICM in 1928 in Bologna.

Larmor dies in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland on May 19, 1942.


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Birth of Fenian John O’Leary

john-o-learyJohn O’Leary, Irish republican and a leading Fenian, is born on July 23, 1830 in Tipperary, County Tipperary. He is imprisoned in England during the nineteenth century for his involvement in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

O’Leary, born a Catholic, is educated at the local Protestant grammar school, The Abbey School, and later the Catholic Carlow College. He identifies with the views advocated by Thomas Davis and meets James Stephens in 1846.

He begins his studies in law at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1847, where, through the Grattan Club, he associates with Charles Gavan Duffy, James Fintan Lalor and Thomas Francis Meagher.

After the failure of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, O’Leary attempts to rescue the Young Ireland leaders from Clonmel Gaol, and is himself imprisoned for a week from September 8, 1849. He takes part in a further attempted uprising in Cashel on September 16, 1849, but this proves abortive.

O’Leary abandons his study of law at Trinity College because he is unwilling to take the oath of allegiance required of a barrister. He enrolls at Queen’s College, Cork in 1850, to study medicine, later moving to Queen’s College, Galway, then on to further studies at Meath Hospital in Dublin, in Paris and in London. In 1855, he visits Paris, where he becomes acquainted with Kevin Izod O’Doherty, John Martin and the American painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He subsequently becomes financial manager of the newly formed Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and is joint editor of the IRB paper The Irish People.

On September 16, 1865, O’Leary is arrested and later tried on charges of high treason, eventually reduced to “treason felony.” He is sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude, of which five years are spent in English prisons, prior to his release and exile in January 1871. During his exile, he lives mainly in Paris, also visiting the United States, remains active in the IRB and its associated organisations, and writes many letters to newspapers and journals.

On the expiration of his 20-year prison term and therefore of the conditions associated with his release in 1885, O’Leary returns to Ireland. He and his sister, the poet Ellen O’Leary, both become important figures within Dublin cultural and nationalist circles, which include William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Rose Kavanagh, Rosa Mulholland, George Sigerson, and Katharine Tynan. He also functions as an elder statesman of the separatist movement, being active in the Young Ireland Society, and acts as president of the Irish Transvaal Committee, which supports the Boer side in the Second Boer War.

John O’Leary dies at his residence in Dublin on the evening of March 16, 1907. He is referred to famously by W.B. Yeats in his poem September 1913: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone/It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

(Pictured: Painting of John O’Leary, a favorite subject of John Butler Yeats (1904). The National Gallery of Ireland owns three oil portraits of O’Leary.)


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Birth of George Sigerson, Physician & Writer

george-sigersonGeorge Sigerson, Irish physician, scientist, writer, politician, and poet, is born at Holy Hill, near Strabane in County Tyrone on January 11, 1836. He is a leading light in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th century in Ireland.

Sigerson is the son of William and Nancy (née Neilson) Sigerson and has three brothers, James, John and William, and three sisters, Ellen, Jane, and Mary Ann. He attends Letterkenny Academy but is sent by his father, who developed the spade mill and who played an active role in the development of Artigarvan, to complete his education in France.

He studies medicine at the Queen’s College, Galway, and Queen’s College, Cork, and takes his degree in 1859. He then goes to Paris where he spends some time studying under Jean-Martin Charcot and Duchenne de Boulogne. Sigmund Freud is one of his fellow students.

Sigerson returns to Ireland and opens a practice in Dublin, specializing in neurology. He continues to visit France annually to study under Charcot. His patients included Maud Gonne, Austin Clarke, and Nora Barnacle. He lectures on medicine at the Catholic University of Ireland and is professor of zoology and later botany at the University College Dublin.

His first book, The Poets and Poetry of Munster, appears in 1860. He is actively involved in political journalism for many years, writing for The Nation. Sigerson and his wife Hester are by now among the dominant figures of the Gaelic Revival. They frequently hold Sunday evening salons at their Dublin home to which artists, intellectuals, and rebels alike attend, including John O’Leary, W.B. Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Roger Casement, and 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh. Sigerson is a co-founder of the Feis Ceoil and President of the National Literary Society from 1893 until his death. His daughter, Dora, is a poet who is also involved in the Irish literary revival.

Nominated to the first Seanad Éireann of the Irish Free State, Sigerson briefly serves as the first chairman on December 11-12, 1922 before the election of James Campbell, 1st Baron Glenavy. Sigerson dies at his home at 3 Clare Street, Dublin, on February 17, 1925, at the age of 89, after a short illness. On February 18, 1925, the day after his death, the Seanad Éireann pays tribute to him.

The Sigerson Cup, the top division of third level Gaelic football competition in Ireland is named in his honour. Sigerson donates the salary from his post at UCD so that a trophy can be purchased for the competition. In 2009, he is named in the Sunday Tribune‘s list of the “125 Most Influential People In GAA History.” The cup is first presented in 1911, with the inaugural winners being UCD GAA.