seamus dubhghaill

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


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Mary Robinson Inaugurated 7th President of Ireland

Mary Robinson, Irish lawyer, independent politician, and diplomat born Mary Teresa Winifred Bourke, is inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on December 3, 1990, becoming the first woman to hold the office. She later serves as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) from September 1997 – September 2002.

Robinson is born on May 21, 1944 in Ballina, County Mayo. She is educated at Trinity College and the King’s Inns in Dublin and at Harvard Law School in the United States. She serves at Trinity College (University of Dublin) as Reid Professor of penal legislation, constitutional and criminal law, and the law of evidence (1969–1975) and lecturer in European Community law (1975–1990). In 1988 she and her husband establish the Irish Centre for European Law at Trinity College.

A distinguished constitutional lawyer and a renowned supporter of human rights, Robinson is elected to the Royal Irish Academy and is a member of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva (1987–1990). She sits in Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Oireachtas, for the University of Dublin constituency (1969–1989) and serves as whip for the Labour Party until resigning from the party over the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which she feels ignores unionist objections. She is also a member of the Dublin City Council (1979–1983) and runs unsuccessfully in 1977 and 1981 for Dublin parliamentary constituencies.

Nominated by the Labour Party and supported by the Green Party and the Workers’ Party, Robinson becomes Ireland’s first woman president in 1990 by mobilizing a liberal constituency and merging it with a more conservative constituency opposed to the Fianna Fáil party. As president, she adopts a much more prominent role than her predecessors and she does much to communicate a more modern image of Ireland. Strongly committed to human rights, she is the first head of state to visit Somalia after it suffers from civil war and famine in 1992 and the first to visit Rwanda after the genocide in that country in 1994.

Shortly before her term as president expires, Robinson accepts the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). As high commissioner, she changes the priorities of her office to emphasize the promotion of human rights at the national and regional levels. She was the first UNHCHR to visit China, and she also helps to improve the monitoring of human rights in Kosovo. In 2001 she serves as secretary-general of the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa. In 1998 she is elected chancellor of Trinity College, a post she holds until 2019.

After stepping down as UNHCHR, Robinson founds the nongovernmental organization Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative (2002–2010). Its central concerns include equitable international trade, access to health care, migration, women’s leadership and corporate responsibility. She is also a founding member of the Council of Women World Leaders, serves as honorary president of Oxfam International, a private organization that provides relief and development aid to impoverished or disaster-stricken communities worldwide, and is a member of the Club of Madrid, which promotes democracy. She also holds various posts at the United Nations and, in 2010, she establishes the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, which operates until 2019.

Robinson is the recipient of numerous honours. In 2004 Amnesty International awards her its Ambassador of Conscience Award for her human rights work. In 2009 she receives the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Her memoir, Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice (cowritten with Tessa Robinson), is published in 2012.

(Pictured: Mary Robinson during her inauguration as president in 1990, photograph by Matt Kavanagh)


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Birth of Richard Croker, Leader of New York’s Tammany Hall

Richard Welstead Croker, American politician who is a leader of New York City‘s Tammany Hall and a political boss also known as “Boss Croker, is born in the townland of Ballyva, in the parish of Ardfield, County Cork on November 24, 1843.

Croker is the son of Eyre Coote Croker (1800–1881) and Frances Laura Welsted (1807–1894). He is taken to the United States by his parents when he is just two years old. There are significant differences between this family and the typical family leaving Ireland at the time. They are Protestant and are not land tenants. Upon arrival in the United States, his father is without a profession, but has a general knowledge of horses and soon becomes a veterinary surgeon. During the American Civil War, he serves in that same capacity under General Daniel Sickles.

Croker is educated in New York public schools but drops out at age twelve or thirteen to become an apprentice machinist in the New York and Harlem Railroad machine shops. Not long after, he becomes a valued member of the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang, a street gang that attacks teamsters and other workers that gather around the Harlem line’s freight depot. He eventually becomes the gang’s leader. He joins one of the Volunteer Fire Departments in 1863, becoming an engineer of one of the engine companies. That is his gateway into public life.

James O’Brien, a Tammany associate, takes notice of Croker after he wins a boxing match against Dick Lynch whereby he knocks out all of Lynch’s teeth. He becomes a member of Tammany Hall and active in its politics. In the 1860s he is well known for being a “repeater” at elections, voting multiple times at the polls. He is an alderman from 1868–1870 and Coroner of New York City from 1873–1876. He is charged with the murder of John McKenna, a lieutenant of James O’Brien, who is running for United States Congress against the Tammany-backed Abram S. Hewitt. John Kelly, the new Tammany Hall boss, attends the trial and Croker is freed after the jury is undecided. He moves to Harrison, New York by 1880. He is appointed the New York City Fire Commissioner in 1883 and 1887 and city Chamberlain from 1889-1890.

After the death of Kelly, Croker becomes the leader of Tammany Hall and almost completely controls the organization. As head of Tammany, he receives bribe money from the owners of brothels, saloons and illegal gambling dens. He is chairman of Tammany’s Finance Committee but receives no salary for his position. He also becomes a partner in the real estate firm Meyer and Croker with Peter F. Meyer, from which he makes substantial money, often derived from sales under the control of the city through city judges. Other income comes by way of gifts of stock from street railway and transit companies, for example. At the time, the city police are largely still under the control of Tammany Hall, and payoffs from vice protection operations also contribute to Tammany income.

Croker survives Charles Henry Parkhurst‘s attacks on Tammany Hall’s corruption and becomes a wealthy man. Several committees are established in the 1890s, largely at the behest of Thomas C. Platt and other Republicans, to investigate Tammany and Croker, including the 1890 Fassett Committee, the 1894 Lexow Committee, during which Croker leaves the United States for his European residences for three years, and the Mazet Investigation of 1899.

Croker’s greatest political success is his bringing about the 1897 election of Robert Anderson Van Wyck as first mayor of the five-borough “greater” New York. During Van Wyck’s administration Croker completely dominates the government of the city.

In 1899, Croker has a disagreement with Jay Gould‘s son, George Jay Gould, president of the Manhattan Elevated Railroad Company, when Gould refuses his attempt to attach compressed-air pipes to the Elevated company’s structures. He owns many shares of the New York Auto-Truck Company, a company which would benefit from the arrangement. In response to the refusal, he uses Tammany influence to create new city laws requiring drip pans under structures in Manhattan at every street crossing and the requirement that the railroad run trains every five minutes with a $100 fine for every violation. He also holds 2,500 shares of the American Ice Company, worth approximately $250,000, which comes under scrutiny in 1900 when the company attempts to raise the price of ice in the city.

After Croker’s failure to carry the city in the 1900 United States presidential election and the defeat of his mayoralty candidate, Edward M. Shepard, in 1901, he resigns from his position of leadership in Tammany and is succeeded by Lewis Nixon. He departs the United States in 1905.

Croker operates a stable of thoroughbred racehorses during his time in the United States in partnership with Michael F. Dwyer. In January 1895, they send a stable of horses to England under the care of trainer Hardy Campbell, Jr. and jockey Willie Simms. Following a dispute, the partnership is dissolved in May but Croker continues to race in England. In 1907, his horse Orby wins Britain’s most prestigious race, The Derby. Orby is ridden by American jockey John Reiff whose brother Lester had won the race in 1901. Croker is also the breeder of Orby’s son, Grand Parade, who wins the Derby in 1919.

Croker returns to Ireland in 1905 and dies on April 29, 1922 at Glencairn House, his home in Stillorgan outside Dublin. His funeral, celebrated by South African bishop William Miller, draws some of Dublin’s most eminent citizens. The pallbearers are Arthur Griffith, the President of Dáil Éireann; Laurence O’Neill, the Lord Mayor of Dublin; Oliver St. John Gogarty; Joseph MacDonagh; A.H. Flauley, of Chicago; and J.E. Tierney. Michael Collins, Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, is represented by Kevin O’Shiel; the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Edmund Bernard FitzAlan-Howard, 1st Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, is represented by his under-secretary, James MacMahon.

In 1927, J. J. Walsh claims that just before his death Croker had accepted the Provisional Government’s invitation to stand in Dublin County in the imminent 1922 Irish general election.


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Birth of Alice Stopford Green, Historian & Nationalist

NPG x74642,Alice Stopford Green (nÈe Alice Sophia Amelia Stopford),by Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (later The Cameron Studio)Alice Stopford Green, Irish historian and nationalist, is born in Kells, County Meath on May 30, 1847. She is noted for proving the Irish had a rich culture before English rule. A strong supporter of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, she is nominated to the first Seanad Éireann in December 1922.

Stopford Green is born Alice Sophia Amelia Stopford. Her father, Edward Adderley Stopford, is Rector of Kells and Archdeacon of Meath. Her paternal grandfather is Edward Stopford, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath, and she is a cousin of Stopford Brooke and Mother Mary Clare. From 1874 to 1877 she lives in London where she meets the historian John Richard Green. They are married in Chester on June 14, 1877, however he dies in 1883. John Morley publishes her first historical work, Henry II, in 1888.

In the 1890s Stopford Green becomes interested in Irish history and the nationalist movement as a result of her friendship with John Francis Taylor. She is vocal in her opposition to English colonial policy in South Africa during the Boer Wars and supports Roger Casement‘s Congo Reform movement. Her 1908 book The Making of Ireland and its Undoing argues for the sophistication and richness of the native Irish civilisation. She is active in efforts to make the prospect of Home Rule more palatable to Ulster Unionists. She is closely involved in the Howth gun-running.

Stopford Green moves to Dublin in 1918 where her house at 90 St. Stephen’s Green becomes an intellectual centre. She supports the pro-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War and is among the first nominees to the newly formed Seanad Éireann in 1922, where she serves as an independent member until her death in Dublin on May 28, 1929, two days shy of her 82nd birthday. She is one of four women elected or appointed to the first Seanad in 1922.


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Birth of Bob Tisdall, Olympic Gold Medalist

bob-tisdallRobert (“Bob”) Morton Newburgh Tisdall, gold medalist in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, is born on May 16, 1907 in Nuwara Eliya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Born to a family of Irish landed gentry, he lives on his father’s plantation in Ceylon until the age of five, when they return to the family home in Nenagh, County Tipperary. Following prep school at Mourne Grange, he goes on to Shrewsbury School, where he wins the Public Schools 402 metres, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he wins a record four events – 402 metres and 110 metres hurdles, long jump and shot put – in the annual match against Oxford. This record is only equaled nearly 60 years later.

Tisdall sets South African and Canadian records in the 201 metres low hurdles in 1929, a year later setting Greek records in the same event. While at Cambridge in March 1932, he decides to try for a place on the Irish Olympic squad and, after he runs a record 54.2 seconds for the Irish Championship 402 metres hurdles in June that year, the authorities agree to let him run in his new event at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Tisdall had run only six 400 metres hurdles when he wins the gold medal at the 1932 Olympic Games in a world record time of 51.7 seconds, which is not recognised under the rules of the time because he had a hit a hurdle. Later, because of the notoriety of this incident, the rules are changed and the President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, presents Tisdall with a Waterford Crystal rose bowl with the image of him knocking over the last hurdle etched into the glass. Though the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) did not recognise the record at the time, they now recognise the mark, giving Tisdall credit for setting the milestone of being the first man under 52 seconds.

Following his victory, Tisdall is invited to a dinner in Los Angeles where he is seated next to Amelia Earhart on one side and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on the other.

Later in life, Tisdall lives in South Africa, where he runs a gymnasium during the day, which he converts to a night club after dark. He grows coffee in Tanzania, but moves to Nambour, Queensland in 1969 with his wife Peggy, where he farms fruit crops and cattle. He admits to running his last race at the age of 80, though he runs in the Sydney Olympics torch relay at age 93. At that point he is the oldest living recipient of an individual track and field Olympic medal。

At the age of 96 Tisdall falls down a steep set of rock stairs and breaks his shoulder, ribs and ruptures his spleen. He never completely recovers and dies on July 27, 2004. At that time, he is the world’s oldest track and field Olympic Gold medalist. He does not want a funeral because “they are altogether too sad.” His wake is attended by family and a few friends.

In 2002, three statues honouring Olympic champions with links to Nenagh, Matt McGrath, Johnny Hayes and Bob Tisdall, are unveiled in front of the Nenagh Courthouse.


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The Execution of Joe Brady

joe-bradyJoe Brady is hanged at Kilmainham Gaol in Kilmainham, Dublin on May 14, 1883 for the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Four others are also executed for the murders.

Brady is a member of the Irish National Invincibles, usually known as the Invincibles, a splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. This group of assassins is active in Dublin between late 1881 and 1883, with an intent to kill the authorities in Dublin Castle.

After numerous attempts on his life, Chief Secretary for Ireland William Edward “Buckshot” Forster resigns in protest of the Kilmainham Treaty. The Invincibles settle on a plan to kill the Permanent Under Secretary Thomas Henry Burke at the Irish Office. The newly installed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, is walking in Phoenix Park with Burke on Saturday, May 6, 1882, the day of his arrival in Ireland, when the assassins strike.

The first assassination in the park is committed by Brady, who attacks Burke with a 12-inch knife, followed in short order by Tim Kelly, who knifes Cavendish. Both men use surgical knives. The British press expresses outrage and demands that the “Phoenix Park Murderers” be brought to justice.

A large number of suspects are arrested. By playing one suspect against another, Superintendent Mallon of G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police gets several of them to reveal what they know. The Invincibles’ leader, James Carey, and Michael Kavanagh agree to testify against the others. Carey is ultimately given passage to South Africa but is shot on board the Melrose Castle by Patrick O’Donnell. O’Donnell is brought back to England and hanged in December 1883.

Brady, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey, Dan Curley and Tim Kelly are hanged by William Marwood in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin beginning with Brady’s execution on May 14 and and continuing until June 4. Others are sentenced to long prison terms.

No member of the founding executive, however, is ever brought to trial by the British government. John Walsh, Patrick Egan, John Sheridan, Frank Byrne, and Patrick Tynan are welcomed in the United States, where sentiment toward the murders is less severe, although not celebratory.

Brady by all accounts was a mountain of a man. The Times writes following his execution: “He was brought up as a stonemason of herculean strength, his occupation developing the muscular power of his arms, which told with such terrible effect when he drove the knives into the bodies of Lord Cavendish and his secretary T. H. Burke.”

Kilmainham Gaol contains the graves of the Invincibles convicted and executed for the Phoenix park stabbings.


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Birth of Robert Tressell, Irish Writer

robert-tressellRobert Noonan, Irish writer born Robert Croker and best known by the pen name Robert Tressell, is born in Dublin on April 17, 1870. He is best known for his novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

Noonan is the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a senior member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He is baptised and raised a Roman Catholic by his mother Mary Noonan. His father, who is not Catholic, has his own family, but attempts to provide for Robert until his death in 1875.

By 1875 Noonan is living in London. When he is sixteen, he shows signs of a radical political consciousness. He leaves his family declaring he “would not live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlordism.” It is around this time he changes his surname to his mother’s maiden name.

In 1890, Noonan is a sign writer living in Queen’s Road, Everton, Liverpool. On June 10, 1890 he appears at Liverpool County Intermediate Sessions court at County Sessions House, Islington, Liverpool on charges of housebreaking and larceny. He is found guilty and given a six-month prison sentence.

By 1891, Noonan has moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where he is a painter and decorator. He marries in 1891, but the marriage is an unhappy one, with his wife having numerous affairs after the birth of their daughter, Kathleen. They divorce in 1895 and Noonan acquires all the property, including their house in an affluent suburb of Cape Town.

Noonan and his daughter move to Johannesburg, where he secures a well-paying job with a construction company. It is here that he learns the ways of the industry he would later write about in his novel, although Noonan’s actual circumstances vary greatly from the proletarian characters of the book. After becoming Secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council, he is able to send his daughter to an exclusive convent school and also to employ a black manservant called Sixpence.

In 1897, Noonan leads a successful protest against the employment of black skilled labour. During 1898, he becomes a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the Centennial of 1798 Association, which commemorates the revolutionary nationalist Society of United Irishmen. As a 1798 Association member, he helps form the Irish Brigades, an anti-British force that fights alongside the Boers in the Second Boer War. At this point, accounts of his life differ. Some assert he takes up arms and is interned by the British until the end of the war, when he returns to Britain. Others say he leaves South Africa just before hostilities began in October 1899.

In any event, around the turn of the century, Noonan ends up in Hastings, Sussex. Here, he finds work as a sign writer, but at much lower wages and in far poorer conditions than he had experienced in South Africa. He has to take part-time jobs in addition to his full-time position.

Influenced by the Marxist-influenced ideas of designer and socialist William Morris, he joins the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The next year, after a dispute with his employer, he loses his job. Despite the demand for his skills, his health begins to deteriorate and he eventually develops tuberculosis. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he starts writing, something he hopes will earn enough money to keep him from the workhouse.

He writes under the pen name Robert Tressell as he fears the socialist views expressed in the book will have him blacklisted. He completes The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript is rejected by three publishing houses. The rejections severely depress him, and his daughter has to save the manuscript from being burned.

Unhappy with his life in Britain, Noonan decides that he and Kathleen should emigrate to Canada. However, he only reaches Liverpool when he is admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary, where he dies of pulmonary tuberculosis on February 3, 1911, at the age of 40. He is buried in a pauper’s grave at Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, later known as Walton Park Cemetery. The location of the grave is not rediscovered until 1970. Twelve other people are buried in the same plot. The plot is now marked although the land is no longer used as a cemetery and is now used by Rice Lane City Farm.

Kathleen mentions her father’s novel to a friend, writer Jessie Pope, who recommends it to her publisher. In April 1914, the publisher purchases the rights to the book for £25, and it appears in Britain, Canada and the United States later that year, in the Soviet Union in 1920, and in Germany in 1925. The version as originally published is heavily abridged by Pope, with much of the socialist ideology removed.

The original manuscript is subsequently located by F. C. Ball and, after he raises funds to acquire and reassemble the original version, an unabridged edition is published in 1955.


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Birth of Ollie Campbell, Former Rugby Union Player

seamus-oliver-campbellSeamus Oliver “Ollie” Campbell, former rugby union player, is born in Dublin on March 5, 1954. He plays fly-half for the Ireland national rugby union team from 1976 to 1984. He is most well known for his role in orchestrating Ireland’s Triple Crown victory at the 1982 Five Nations Championship, breaking a drought of over 30 years. He has been described as Ireland’s most complete fly-half since Jack Kyle.

Campbell is educated at Belvedere College, a famous Irish rugby school in Dublin, where he is on the teams that win the Leinster Schools Rugby Senior Cup twice in a row in 1971 and 1972. He plays for Old Belvedere R.F.C. at club level and represents Leinster at provincial level, although prior to the professional era. While playing for Old Belvedere, he travels to the United States in 1978, where he plays in New York City against the Old Maroon Rugby Club.

Campbell wins a total of 22 caps for Ireland from 1976–1984, scoring 217 test points. His international career is more brief than this span suggests, however, as he plays only four full seasons for Ireland from 1980–1984. Of his career totals, he wins 22 caps and scores 182 points in the Five Nations tournament. He tours twice with Ireland, to Australia in 1979 and to South Africa in 1981.

Campbell wins his first cap for Ireland at the age of 21 against Australia in 1976, but does not secure another cap with Ireland until 1979 during Ireland’s 1979 tour to Australia. He sets an Irish record on the 1979 tour to Australia when he scors 60 points, 19 of them in Brisbane which is an Irish record for points in a match against Australia.

The defining moment in Campbell’s career comes in 1982, with Campbell as the architect-in-chief of Ireland’s 1982 Triple Crown victory, Ireland’s first since 1949. Ireland enters the tournament winless in its past eight matches. Campbell starts the 1982 Five Nations by scoring eight points in Ireland’s 20–12 win against Wales, and also playing a major hand in all three of Ireland’s tries. He then scores another eight points in the following match, a 16–15 win against England. In Ireland’s third match, he kicks all of Ireland’s 21 points, including a career best 6 penalties, against Scotland at Lansdowne Road to secure the Triple Crown. He is the leading scorer in the 1982 Five Nations with 46 points.

In the 1983 Five Nations Championship, Campbell leads Ireland to a joint Five Nations Championship shared with France. He is again the tournament’s leading scorer with 52 points, and scores 21 points against England to set an Irish record for most points against England in a Five Nations match. He plays his last match for Ireland in 1984 against Wales.

Campbell is also capped seven times for the British & Irish Lions. He earns three caps in the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa, where he is the Lions’ leading scorer in the last two tests with six and five points respectively. He earns another four caps in the 1983 Lions tour to New Zealand, where he is the Lions’ leading scorer in the four test matches with 15 points. He scores 184 points in total for the Lions.

Campbell retires from rugby in 1986 following two years of struggles with hamstring injuries. In 2007 he is presented with the Newbridge RFC Legend in Rugby Award along with the Irish Rugby Squad which won the 1982 Triple Crown and elected an Honorary Life Member of Newbridge RFC. He has worked in the family clothing business since retirement from rugby in 1984.

Old Belvedere’s sportsground on Anglesea Road in Dublin is renamed Ollie Campbell Park in his honour in 2019.


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Birth of John Barry, Victoria Cross Recipient

john-barry-vcJohn Barry is born on February 1, 1873 in St. Mary’s Parish, Kilkenny, County Kilkenny. He is by birth an Irish recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Little is known of Barry’s early life prior to his enlistment with the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment of the British Army. Shortly after his enlistment, he finds himself sailing to South Africa for the outbreak of the Second Boer War, a conflict which ultimately leads to the award of the Victoria Cross, albeit tragically posthumously.

During the night attack on Monument Hill on January 7-8, 1901, Private Barry, although surrounded and threatened by the Boers at the time, smashes the breach of the Maxim gun, thus rendering it useless to its captors. It is in doing this splendid act for his country that he meets his death.

Barry dies of wounds received during his VC action at Monument Hill, South Africa. At the time, no posthumous awards of the VC can be made. However, as so often in the history of the Victoria Cross it is an individual, the mother of Alfred Atkinson, that brings about a decisive move to investigate those servicemen who would have been recommended for the award of the VC if they had not died beforehand. The outcome of the War Office investigation results in an announcement being published in The London Gazette on August 8, 1902. In fact, Barry’s family had already received his medal via registered post on April 30, 1902.

Barry is buried in Belfast Cemetery, east of Johannesburg, South Africa. His medals are sold at auction on September 22, 2000 and purchased at a hammer price of £85,000 by the Ashcroft Trust and displayed in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum, London.


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The Battle of Colenso

battle-of-colensoOn December 15, 1899, Irish units of the Boer army face the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, and the 6th (Inniskillings) Dragoons in the battle of Colenso, the third and final battle fought during the Black Week of the Second Boer War. It is fought between British and Boer forces from the independent South African Republic and Orange Free State in and around Colenso, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Inadequate preparation and reconnaissance and uninspired leadership lead to a British defeat.

Early on the morning of December 15, Major General Arthur Henry Seton Hart-Synnot, commander of the 5th (Irish) Infantry Brigade, gives his men half an hour’s parade ground drill, then leads them in close column towards the Bridle Drift. However, his locally recruited guide, who speaks no English, leads the brigade towards the wrong ford, the Punt Drift at the end of a loop in the river. Louis Botha, commander of the Boers on this front, orders his men to hold their fire until the British attempt to cross the river. However Hart-Synnot’s brigade, jammed into the loop of the river, is too good a target to miss and the Boers open fire. Hart-Synnot’s brigade suffers over 500 casualties before they can be extricated. The battalions repeatedly try to extend to the left and locate the Bridle Drift. On each occasion, Hart-Synnot recalls them and sends them back into the loop.

Meanwhile, as Major-General Henry J. T. Hildyard moves his 2nd Infantry Brigade towards Colenso, the two batteries of field guns under Colonel Charles James Long forge ahead of him and deploy in the open well within rifle range of the nearest Boers. Once again, this is too tempting a target, and the Boers open fire. The British gunners fight on, even though suffering heavy casualties, but ammunition cannot be brought to them and they are eventually forced to take shelter in a dry stream bed behind the guns. The bullock-drawn naval guns have not been able to keep up with the field pieces, but are able to come into action 1,500 metres from the Boer trenches.

General Sir Redvers Buller, who has also heard that his light horse are pinned down at the foot of the hill known as Hlangwane south of the river and unable to advance, decides to call the battle off at this point, even though Hildyard’s men, advancing in open order, have just occupied Colenso. He goes forward, being slightly wounded himself, and calls for volunteers to recover Long’s guns. Two teams approach them, hook up and bring away two weapons. A second attempt to recover the rest of guns fails when horses and volunteers are shot down by Boer rifle fire.

During the afternoon, the British fall back to their camp, leaving ten guns, many wounded gunners and some of Hildyard’s men behind to be captured during the night. Although Buller had committed few of his reserves, he reasons that a full day under a boiling sun would have sapped their morale and strength. Major General Neville Lyttelton (4th Infantry Brigade) commits some of his troops to help Hart’s brigade withdraw, but the cautious Major General Geoffrey Barton (6th Infantry Brigade) refuses to support Lord Dundonald‘s or Hildyard’s hard-pressed troops.

Buller’s army loses 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured. Boer casualties are eight killed and 30 wounded.

After the battle of Colenso, four soldiers are awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry that can be awarded to British forces. All crossed an exposed area of intense Boer fire and rescued two of the twelve guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries when their crews had become casualties or were driven from their weapons. They are Captain Walter Norris Congreve, Captain Harry Norton Schofield, Corporal George Edward Nurse and Lieutenant Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts, son of Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, who died of his wounds two days later.

(Pictured: Boers capturing the British guns at the Battle of Colenso on December 15, 1899 in the Boer War. Picture by Fritz Neumann.)


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Birth of William Francis Butler, Army Officer & Writer

william-francis-butlerWilliam Francis Butler, 19th-century British Army officer, writer, and adventurer, is born on October 31, 1838 at Ballyslatteen, Golden, County Tipperary.

Butler is the son of Richard and Ellen Butler. The great famine of 1847 and scenes of suffering and eviction are amongst his earliest recollections. He is educated chiefly by the Jesuits at Tullabeg College.

Butler enters the army as an ensign of the 69th Regiment of Foot at Fermoy Barracks in 1858, becoming captain in 1872 and major in 1874. He takes part with distinction in the Red River expedition (1870–71) and the Ashanti operations of 1873–1874 under Garnet Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley and receives the Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1874.

On June 11, 1877, Butler marries Elizabeth Thompson, an accomplished painter of battle scenes, notably The Roll Call (1874), Quatre Bras (1875), Rorke’s Drift (1881), The Camel Corps (1891), and The Dawn of Waterloo (1895). They have six children. His daughter, Elizabeth Butler, marries Lt.-Col. Randolph Albert Fitzhardinge Kingscote (1867-1940) on July 24, 1903.

Butler again serves with General Wolseley in the Anglo-Zulu War, the Battle of Tell El Kebir (after which he is made an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria) and the Sudan in 1884–1886, being employed as colonel on the staff in 1885 and brigadier general in 1885–1886. In the latter year, he is made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He serves as brigadier general on the staff in Egypt until 1892 when he is promoted to major general and stationed at Aldershot, subsequent to which he is given command of the South-Eastern District in March 1896.

In 1898 Butler succeeds General William Howley Goodenough as commander-in-chief in South Africa, with the local rank of lieutenant general. For a short period (December 1898 – February 1899), during the absence of Sir Alfred Milner in England, he acts as high commissioner, and as such, and subsequently in his military capacity, he expresses views on the subject of the probabilities of war which are not approved by the home government. He is consequently ordered home to command the Western District, and holds this post until 1905. He also holds the Aldershot Command for a brief period from 1900 to 1901. He is promoted to lieutenant general in 1900 and continues to serve, finally leaving the King‘s service in 1905.

In October 1905, having reached the age limit of sixty-seven, Butler is placed on the retired list. The few years of life which remain to him he spends at Bansha Castle in Ireland, devoted chiefly to the cause of education. He is a frequent lecturer both in Dublin and the provinces on historical, social, and economic questions. He is known as a Home Ruler and an admirer of Charles Stewart Parnell. He is a member of the Senate of the National University of Ireland, and a commissioner of the Board of National Education. In June 1906, he is appointed Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and in 1909 he is made a member of the Privy Council of Ireland.

William Butler dies at Bansha Castle in Bansha, County Tipperary, on June 10, 1910 and is buried at the cemetery of Killaldriffe, a few miles distant and not far from his ancestral home.

Butler had long been known as a descriptive writer, since his publication of The Great Lone Land (1872) and other works and he was the biographer (1899) of Sir George Pomeroy Colley. He had started work on his autobiography a few years before his death but died before it was completed. His youngest daughter, Eileen, Viscountess Gormanston, completes the work and has it published in 1911.

(Pictured: William Francis Butler, Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities – Butler, W. F. 1, N10492)