seamus dubhghaill

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


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Abbey Theatre Premiere of “The Shadow of a Gunman”

The Shadow Of A Gunman, a 1923 tragicomedy play by Seán O’Casey, premieres at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on April 12, 1923.

The play is the first in O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy” – the other two being Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). It is set in Dublin in May 1920 during the Irish War of Independence and centres on the mistaken identity of a building tenant who is thought to be an Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassin. Each act takes place in Seumus Shield’s room in a tenement in Hilljoy Square.

Donal Davoren is a poet who has come to room with Seumus Shields in a poor, Dublin tenement slum. Many of the residents of the tenement mistake Donal for an IRA gunman on the run. Donal does not refute this notoriety, especially when it wins him the affection of Minnie Powell, an attractive young woman in the tenement. Meanwhile, Seumus’ business partner, Mr. Maguire, drops a bag off at Seumus’ apartment before participating in an ambush in which he is killed. Seumus believes the bag to contain household items for re-sale. The city is put under curfew as a result of the ambush. The Black and Tans raid the tenement and, at that point, Donal and Seumus discover the bag is full of Mills bombs. Minnie Powell takes the bag and hides it in her own room. The Black and Tans find nothing of note in Seumus’ room, but arrest Minnie Powell, who is later shot and killed trying to escape.

The first performance of The Shadow of a Gunman in England is given in 1958 at the Progress Theatre in Reading, Berkshire.

A 1972 televised version of The Shadow of a Gunman stars Frank Converse and Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss. In 1973, Alvin Rakoff directs a televised version for BBC Two starring Stephen Rea, Sinéad Cusack and Donal McCann. In 1992 Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Rea and Bronagh Gallagher star in an adaption as part of the 1992 BBC Two Performance series.

In the music video for Northern Irish rock/pop band The Adventures song “Send My Heart” (1984), the lead character is seen trying out for a version of the play.


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The Clerkenwell Explosion

The Clerkenwell explosion, also known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, is a bombing that takes place in London on December 13, 1867. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), nicknamed the “Fenians“, explode a bomb to try to free one of their members being held on remand at Clerkenwell Prison. The explosion damages nearby houses, kills 12 people and causes 120 injuries. None of the prisoners escape.

The whole of Ireland has been under British rule since the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1603. The Irish Republican Brotherhood is founded on March 17, 1858 with the aim of establishing an independent democratic republic in Ireland, and the Fenian Brotherhood, ostensibly the American wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, is founded in New York City in 1859.

On November 20, 1867, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and his companion Joseph Casey are arrested in Woburn Square in London. Burke had purchased weapons for the Fenians in Birmingham. Burke is charged with treason and Casey with assaulting a constable. They are remanded in custody pending trial, and imprisoned at the Middlesex House of Detention, also known as Clerkenwell Prison.

Burke’s IRB colleagues try to free him on Thursday, December 12, without success. They try to blow a hole in the prison wall while the prisoners are exercising in the prison yard but their bomb fails to explode. They try again at about 3:45 PM the following day, December 13, using a barrel of gunpowder concealed on a costermonger‘s barrow. The explosion demolishes a 60-foot section of the wall, but no one escapes. The prison authorities had been forewarned and the prisoners were exercised earlier in the day, so they are locked in their cells when the bomb explodes. The blast also damages several nearby tenement houses on Corporation Lane on the opposite side of the road, killing 12 people and causing many injuries, with estimates ranging from around 30 to over 120.

Charges are laid against eight, but two turn Queen’s evidence. Michael Barrett and five others are tried at the Old Bailey in April 1868. Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn and Baron George Bramwell preside with a jury. The prosecution is led by the Attorney General Sir John Karslake and the Solicitor General Sir William Baliol Brett supported by Hardinge Giffard QC and two junior counsel. Defence barristers included Montagu Williams and Edward Clarke.

Barrett, a native of County Fermanagh, protests his innocence, and some witnesses testify that he was in Scotland on December 13, but another identifies him as being present at the scene. Two defendants are acquitted on the instructions of the presiding judges in the course of the trial, leaving four before the jury. Following deliberations, three of the defendants are acquitted, but Barrett is convicted of murder on April 27 and sentenced to death. Barrett is hanged by William Calcraft on the morning of Tuesday, May 26, 1868 outside Newgate Prison. He is the last man to be publicly hanged in England, with the practice being ended from May 29, 1868 by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868.

The trial of Burke and Casey, and a third defendant, Henry Shaw, begains on April 28, all charged with treason. The prosecution claims that Burke had been involved in finding arms for the Fenians in Birmingham in late 1865 and early 1866, where he was using the name “Edward C Winslow.” The case against Casey is ultimately withdrawn, but Burke and Shaw are found guilty of treason on April 30 and sentenced to 15 years and 7 years of penal servitude respectively.

The bombing enrages the British public, souring relations between England and Ireland and causing a panic over the Fenian threat. The radical, Charles Bradlaugh, condemns the incident in his newspaper, the National Reformer, as an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes.” The Metropolitan Police form a Special Irish Branch at Scotland Yard in March 1883, initially as a small section of the Criminal Investigation Department, to monitor Fenian activity.

In April 1867, the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood condemns the Clerkenwell Outrage as a “dreadful and deplorable event,” but the organisation returns to bombings in Britain in 1881 to 1885, with the Fenian dynamite campaign.

(Pictured: The House of Detention in Clerkenwell after the bombing as seen from within the prison yard)


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The Great Dublin Lockout

great-dublin-lockoutThe Great Dublin Lockout, a major industrial dispute between approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers, begins in Dublin on August 26, 1913 and lasts until January 18, 1914. It is often viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history.

Irish workers live in terrible conditions in tenements. The infant mortality rate among the poor is 142 per 1,000 births, extraordinarily high for a European city. Poverty is perpetuated in Dublin by the lack of work for unskilled workers, who lack any form of representation before trade unions are founded.

James Larkin, the main protagonist on the side of the workers in the dispute, is a docker in Liverpool and a union organiser. In 1907 he is sent to Belfast as local organiser of the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). His tactic of the sympathetic strike are deemed highly controversial and as a result Larkin is transferred to Dublin.

Larkin sets about organising the unskilled workers of Dublin which is a cause of concern for the NUDL, who are reluctant to engage in a full-scale industrial dispute with the powerful Dublin employers. They suspended Larkin from the NUDL in 1908. Larkin then leaves the NUDL and sets up the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), the first Irish trade union to cater for both skilled and unskilled workers.

Another important figure in the rise of an organised workers’ movement in Ireland at this time is James Connolly, an Edinburgh-born Marxist of Irish parentage. In 1911, Connolly is appointed the ITGWU’s Belfast organiser. In 1912, Connolly and Larkin form the Irish Labour Party to represent workers in the imminent Home Rule Bill debate in Parliament.

Foremost among employers opposed to trade unionism in Ireland is William Martin Murphy, Ireland’s most prominent capitalist, born in Castletownbere, County Cork. In 1913, Murphy is chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company and owns Clery’s department store. Murphy is vehemently opposed to trade unions, which he sees as an attempt to interfere with his business. In particular, he is opposed to Larkin, whom he sees as a dangerous revolutionary.

The resulting industrial dispute is the most severe in Ireland’s history. Employers in Dublin lock out their workers and employ blackleg labour from Britain and elsewhere in Ireland. Dublin’s workers apply for help and are sent £150,000 by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other sources in Ireland, doled out dutifully by the ITGWU.

The “Kiddies’ Scheme,” allowing for the starving children of Irish strikers to be temporarily looked after by British trade unionists, is blocked by the Roman Catholic Church and especially the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who claim that Catholic children will be subject to Protestant or atheist influences when in Britain. The Church supports the employers during the dispute, condemning Larkin as a socialist revolutionary.

Guinness, the largest employer and biggest exporter in Dublin, refuses to lock out its workforce. It has a policy against sympathetic strikes and expects its workers, whose conditions are far better than the norm in Ireland, not to strike in sympathy. Six who do strike are dismissed.

Strikers use mass pickets and intimidation against strike breakers, who are also violent towards strikers. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charge worker’s rallies, including a rally on Sackville Street which results in two deaths and over 300 injuries. James Connolly, Larkin, and ex-British Army Captain Jack White form a worker’s militia, the Irish Citizen Army, to protect workers’ demonstrations.

For seven months, the lockout affects tens of thousands of Dublin families. The lock-out eventually concludes in January 1914, when the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Britain rejects Larkin and Connolly’s request for a sympathetic strike. Most workers, many of whom are on the brink of starvation, go back to work and sign pledges not to join a union. The ITGWU is badly damaged by its defeat in the Lockout, and is further hit by the departure of Larkin to the United States in 1914 and the execution of Connolly, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Although the actions of the ITGWU are unsuccessful in achieving substantially better pay and conditions for workers, they mark a watershed in Irish labour history. The principle of union action and workers’ solidarity has been firmly established. No future employer would ever try to “break” a union in the way that Murphy attempted with the ITGWU.