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


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Assassination of Sir Richard Sykes, British Ambassador to the Netherlands

Sir Richard Adam Sykes, KCMG, MC, the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, is assassinated by two members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) outside his residence in The Hague on March 22, 1979.

Sykes is born on May 8, 1920 to Brigadier A. C. Sykes. For his schooling he attends Wellington College before going up to the University of Oxford, where he attends Christ Church.

During World War II, Sykes serves in the British Army with the Royal Signals from 1940 to 1946. During his service he attains the rank of major. In 1945 he is awarded the Military Cross as well as the Croix de Guerre by France.

Sykes joined HM Foreign Service in 1947 and serves at the Foreign Office from 1947 to 1948. He then serves in Nanjing (1948–50), Peking (1950–52) and returns to the UK to serve at the Foreign Office (1952–56). His next overseas postings take him to Brussels (1956–59), Santiago (1959–62) and Athens (1963–66), before returning to the Foreign Office (1967–69).

Sykes’ first posting as an ambassador comes with a posting to Havana (1970–72) before moving to be a Minister at the British Embassy in Washington D.C. (1972–1975). From there he returns to the Foreign Office as Department Under-Secretary between 1975 and 1977. He is then appointed as Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1977.

Sykes is leaving his residence in The Hague at 9:00 a.m. on March 22, 1979, and is getting into his silver Rolls-Royce limousine when he is shot. He is sitting next to Alyson Bailes. The car door is held by Karel Straub, a 19-year-old Dutch national who works at the embassy. Straub is also shot in the attack. The chauffeur, Jack Wilson, is uninjured and drives Sykes to Westeinde Hospital, where he dies two hours later. Straub is transported by ambulance to the same hospital, where he also dies.

Police report that the shots came from around 10 yards away by two assailants wearing business suits, who escaped on foot following the attack. Suspects for the assassination are Palestinians or Iraqis, although no evidence is ever put forward. It is ultimately confirmed that the IRA had carried out the killings.

The IRA claims responsibility for the assassination in February 1980. In a statement they say of Sykes, “[he was] not just a Brit propagandist, as are all British ambassadors, but because he had been engaged in intelligence operations against our organisation.”

The ‘intelligence operations’ mentioned in the statement relate to a government report written by Sykes following the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs. Ewart-Biggs was the British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland and was killed by the IRA in 1976. Sykes produces diplomatic security guidelines as part of his report.

Sykes’ position as Ambassador to the Netherlands had been strained due to certain Dutch groups, which were sympathetic to the IRA, and consequent arms smuggling activities.

There is a memorial plaque to Sykes in St. Michael’s Church, Wilsford, Wiltshire.

(Pictured: “Sir Richard Sykes” by Bassano Ltd., half-plate film negative, 20 January 1966, National Portrait Gallery, London)


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Grote Markt, Brussels Bombing

On August 28, 1979, a bomb explodes under an open‐air stage on the Grote Markt in Brussels, Belgium where a British Army band is preparing to give a concert, injuring at least 15 persons, including four bandsmen, and causes extensive damage. Mayor Pierre van Halteren of Brussels says the Irish Republican Army (IRA) claims responsibility for the bombing in a telephone call to city hall.

The bombing comes just a day after Earl Mountbatten of Burma and three others are killed in a bombing in the Irish Republic, and 18 British soldiers die in an attack in Northern Ireland. The IRA claims responsibility for both attacks.

The band is from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, which is stationed in Osnabrück, West Germany. The bombing occurs only minutes before the band is to have begun a concert in the broad square, a major tourist site surrounded by centuries‐old buildings. However, only 6 of the 30 members of the band are on the makeshift stage when the bomb explodes at about 3:00 PM. The others had left the stage to change into their red dress uniforms after setting up music stands and instruments.

The band is held up in traffic and is late arriving for the concert. The police say that if the bomb had gone off later, during the concert, the casualty toll would have been heavier.

Before the IRA telephone call is reported, Earl Nicoll, military attaché at the British Embassy in Brussels, says, “I’d guess it is either the IRA or people sympathetic to their aims. It is clearly a manifestation they wanted to hit the band, not any Belgians.”

The temporary stage is used for daily concerts to mark the city’s 1,000th birthday. A police spokesman says the explosives were under the stage floor in the back, on the side away from the square. At the time of the explosion only a few hundred people, most of them tourists, are in the square, which is lined by outdoor cafes, flower stalls and centuries‐old guildhalls.

The blast creates a 90‐by‐30‐foot hole in the stage floor, and severely damages the back wall and the ceiling. It shatters windows in the ancient buildings. A police spokesman says investigators did not yet know what kind of bomb was used. Officials estimate the damage at $134,000 to $167,000.

Irish guerrillas are accused of responsibility for several other attacks in Belgium in recent months, including one in June 1979 involving Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., then Supreme Allied Commander Europe for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

A number of other recent terrorist attacks on the continent are blamed on the IRA. On March 22, 1979, Sir Richard Sykes, Britain’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, and his Dutch valet are shot and killed as the envoy leaves for work in The Hague. On the same day, a Belgian bank employee is shot to death in front of his home in suburban Brussels in what police believe is a case of mistaken identity on the part of the IRA. Officials believe the gunmen were after Sir John Killick, deputy chief of Britain’s mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has its headquarters in Belgium.

On July 6, a bomb that officials believe to be planted by the IRA goes off in the British consulate building in Antwerp, Belgium, causing damage but no injuries. Four days later, two bombs go off at two British Rhine Army barracks in Dortmund, West Germany, causing extensive damage but again no injuries. The IRA claims responsibility for those and other bombings at facilities of the 50,000‐member Rhine Army.

(From: “I.R.A. Sets Off Bomb at Belgian Concert,” The New York Times, August 29, 1979)


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Death of William III, King of England, Scotland & Ireland

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; King William III (1650-1702)William III, also widely known as William of Orange, dies at Kensington Palace on March 8, 1702 following a fall from his horse when it stumbles on a molehill. Upon his death, Anne accedes to the throne of Britain and Ireland.

William is sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672 and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known in Northern Ireland and Scotland as “King Billy.”

William is born on November 4, 1650 at Binnenhof, The Hague, Dutch Republic. He inherits the Principality of Orange from his father, William II, who dies a week before William’s birth. His mother, Mary, is the daughter of King Charles I of England. In 1677, William marries his fifteen-year-old first cousin, Mary, the daughter of his maternal uncle James, Duke of York.

A Protestant, William participates in several wars against the powerful Catholic King of France, Louis XIV, in coalition with Protestant and Catholic powers in Europe. Many Protestants herald him as a champion of their faith. In 1685, William’s Catholic uncle and father-in-law, James, becomes king of England, Scotland and Ireland. James’s reign is unpopular with the Protestant majority in Britain. William, supported by a group of influential British political and religious leaders, invades England in what becomes known as the Glorious Revolution. On November 5, 1688, he lands at the southern English port of Brixham. James is deposed and William and his wife become joint sovereigns in his place.

William’s reputation as a staunch Protestant enables him to take power in Britain when many are fearful of a revival of Catholicism under James. William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is still commemorated by loyalists in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

William and Mary reign together until Mary’s death from smallpox on December 28, 1694, after which William rules as sole monarch. Despite his conversion to Anglicanism, his popularity plummets during his reign as a sole monarch. His reign in Britain marks the beginning of the transition from the personal rule of the House of Stuart to the more Parliament-centred rule of the House of Hanover.

On March 8, 1702, William dies of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone following a fall from his horse, Sorrel. The horse had been confiscated from Sir John Fenwick, one of the Jacobites who had conspired against William. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow, many Jacobites toast “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.” Years later, Winston Churchill, in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, states that the fall “opened the door to a troop of lurking foes.” William is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his wife. His sister-in-law, Anne, becomes queen regnant of England, Scotland and Ireland.

William’s death means that he would remain the only member of the Dutch House of Orange to reign over England.


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The Navigation Act 1651

The Navigation Act 1651 is passed on October 9, 1651, by the Rump Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell. It authorises the Commonwealth of England to regulate trade within the colonies. It reinforces a long-standing principle of government policy that English trade should be carried in English vessels. The Act is a reaction to the failure of the English diplomatic mission led by Oliver St. John and Walter Strickland to The Hague seeking a political union of the Commonwealth with the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, after the States of Holland had made some cautious overtures to Cromwell to counter the monarchical aspirations of stadtholder William II, Prince of Orange.

The stadtholder dies suddenly, however, and the States are now embarrassed by Cromwell taking the idea too seriously. The English propose the joint conquest of all remaining Spanish and Portuguese possessions. England would take America and the Dutch would take Africa and Asia. But the Dutch have just ended their war with Spain and already taken over most Portuguese colonies in Asia, so they see little advantage in this grandiose scheme and propose a free trade agreement as an alternative to a full political union. This again is unacceptable to the British, who would be unable to compete on such a level playing field, and is seen by them as a deliberate affront.

The Act bans foreign ships from transporting goods from outside Europe to England or its colonies, and bans third-party countries’ ships from transporting goods from a country elsewhere in Europe to England. These rules specifically target the Dutch, who control much of Europe’s international trade and even much of England’s coastal shipping. It excludes the Dutch from essentially all trade with England, as the Dutch economy is competitive with, not complementary to the English, and the two countries therefore exchange few commodities. This Anglo-Dutch trade, however, constitutes only a small fraction of total Dutch trade flows.

The Act is often mentioned as a major cause of the First Anglo-Dutch War, though it is only part of a larger British policy to engage in war after the negotiations have failed. The English naval victories in 1653 (the Battle of Portland, the Battle of the Gabbard and the Battle of Scheveningen) show the supremacy of the Commonwealth navy in home waters. However, farther afield the Dutch predominate and are able to close down English commerce in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Both countries hold each other in a stifling embrace.

The Treaty of Westminster (1654) ends the impasse. The Dutch fail to have the Act repealed or amended, but it seems to have had relatively little influence on their trade. The Act offers England only limited solace. It cannot limit the deterioration of England’s overseas trading position, except in the cases where England herself is the principal consumer, such as the Canary Islands wine trade and the trade in Puglian olive oil. In the trade with the West Indies, the Dutch keep up a flourishing “smuggling” trade, thanks to the preference of English planters for Dutch import goods and the better deal the Dutch offer in the sugar trade. The Dutch colony of New Netherland offers a loophole through intercolonial trade wide enough to drive a shipload of Virginia tobacco through.

The 1651 Act, like other laws of the Commonwealth period, is declared void on the Restoration of Charles II of England, having been passed by “usurping powers.” Parliament therefore passes new legislation. This is generally referred to as the “Navigation Acts,” and, with some amendments, remains in force for nearly two centuries.


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Birth of Activist & Feminist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

hanna-sheehy-skeffingtonJohanna Mary “Hanna” Sheehy-Skeffington, Republican activist and feminist, is born in Kanturk, County Cork, on May 24, 1877.

Sheehy is the eldest daughter of Elizabeth McCoy and David Sheehy, an ex-Fenian and Member of Parliament (MP) for the Irish Parliamentary Party, representing South Galway. One of her uncles, Father Eugene Sheehy, is known as the Land League Priest, and his activities land him in prison. He is also one of Éamon de Valera‘s teachers in Limerick. When Hanna’s father becomes an MP in 1887, the family moves to Drumcondra, Dublin.

Sheehy is educated at the Dominican Convent on Eccles Street, where she is a prize-winning pupil. She then enrolls at St. Mary’s University College, a third level college for women established by the Dominicans in 1893, to study modern French and German. She sits for examinations at Royal University of Ireland and receives a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899, and a Master of Arts Degree with first-class honours in 1902. This leads to a career as a teacher in Eccles Street and an examiner in the Intermediate Certificate examination.

Sheehy marries Francis Skeffington in 1903, and they both take the surname Sheehy Skeffington, which they do not hyphenate but use as a double name. In 1908, they found the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a group aiming for women’s voting rights.

Sheehy-Skeffington gets into numerous scuffles with the law. She is jailed in 1912 for breaking windows of government buildings in support of suffrage as part of an IWFL campaign. That same year she also throws a hatchet at visiting British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. She loses her teaching job in 1913 when she is arrested and imprisoned for three months after throwing stones at Dublin Castle and assaulting a police officer in a feminist action. While in jail she goes on hunger strike and is released under the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act but is soon rearrested.

Being free from her teaching job enables Sheehy-Skeffington to devote more time to the fight for suffrage. She is influenced by James Connolly and during the 1913 lock-out works with other suffragists in Liberty Hall, providing food for the families of the strikers.

She strongly opposes participation in World War I which breaks out in August 1914, and is prevented by the British government from attending the International Congress of Women held in The Hague in April 1915. The following June her husband is imprisoned for anti-recruiting activities. He is later shot dead during the 1916 Easter Rising after having been arrested by British soldiers.

Sheehy-Skeffington refuses compensation for her husband’s death, which is offered on condition of her ceasing to speak and write about the murder. Rather, she travels to the United States to publicise the political situation in Ireland. In October 1917, she is the sole Irish representative to League for Small and Subject Nationalities where, along with several other contributors, she is accused of pro-German sympathies. She publishes British Militarism as I Have Known It, which is banned in the United Kingdom until after the World War I. Upon her return to Britain she is once again imprisoned, this time in Holloway prison. After release, Sheehy-Skeffington attends the 1918 Irish Race Convention in New York City and later supports the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish Civil War.

In 1926, Sheehy-Skeffington becomes a founding member of Fianna Fáil and is elected to the party’s Ard Comhairle. During the 1930s, she is assistant editor of An Phoblacht. In January 1933, she is arrested in Newry for breaching an exclusion order banning her from Northern Ireland. At her trial she says, “I recognize no partition. I recognize it as no crime to be in my own country. I would be ashamed of my own name and my murdered husband’s name if I did…Long live the Republic!” She is sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

Sheehy-Skeffington is a founding member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and an author whose works deeply oppose British imperialism in Ireland. Her son, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, becomes a politician and Irish Senator.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington dies in Dublin on April 20, 1946, at the age of 68 and is buried with her husband in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.