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


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Death of Dick Dowling, Confederate Commander

Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer LibraryRichard William “Dick” Dowling, the victorious confederate commander at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass in the American Civil War, dies of yellow fever in Houston, Texas on September 23, 1867.

Dowling is born in the townland of Knockballyvishteal, Milltown, County Galway on January 14, 1837, the second of eight children, born to tenant farmer Patrick and Bridget Dowling (née Qualter). Following the eviction of his family from their home in 1845, the first year of the Great Famine, nine-year-old Dowling leaves Ireland in 1846 with his older sister Honora, bound for New Orleans in the United States.

As a teenager, Dowling displays his entrepreneurial skills by successfully running the Continental Coffeehouse, a saloon in the fashionable French Quarter. His parents and siblings follow from Ireland in 1851, but the joy of reunion is short-lived. In 1853, a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans takes the lives of his parents and one of his younger brothers. With rising anti-Irish feeling growing in New Orleans, following local elections which see a landslide victory for the “Know Nothing” party, Dowling moves to Houston in 1857.

In 1857 Dowling marries Elizabeth Ann Odlum, daughter of Benjamin Digby Odlum, a Kildare-born Irishman, who had fought in the Texas Revolution, being captured at the Battle of Refugio in 1836.

By 1860, Dowling owns a number of saloons. His most successful is named the Bank of Bacchus, located on Courthouse Square in downtown Houston. “The Bank” as it is known locally becomes Houston’s most popular social gathering place in the 1860s and is renowned for its hospitality. He is also involved in setting up Houston’s first gaslight company, and is first to have it installed in his home and “The Bank.” He is a founding member of Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company Number One fire department and is also involved in running the city’s first streetcar company.

Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Dowling makes a name for himself as an able and successful entrepreneur. Among other things, he is involved with a predominantly Irish militia company which serves a more social than military role in Houston society. Upon Secession, this militia company is mustered straight into the Confederate States Army, with Dowling being elected First Lieutenant. The unit names themselves the “Jefferson Davis Guards” in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Davis Guards are initially part of a Texas State Troops/Confederate expedition sent to take over Union Army forts and arsenals along the border with Mexico. The expedition is successfully completed without a shot being fired. They participate in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863, following which they are assigned to a newly constructed artillery post near the mouth of the Sabine River called Fort Sabine.

Sabine Pass was important as a point of arrival and departure for blockade runners. It is suspected that the Union Army will attempt an invasion of Texas via Sabine Pass because of its value as a harbor for blockade runners and its proximity 18 miles southeast of Beaumont, which lies on the railroad between Houston and the eastern part of the Confederacy.

To negotiate Sabine Pass all vessels except small boats take one of the two river channels. No seagoing ship can traverse the Pass without great risk of running aground should it stray from one of the channels. The inevitable course of any steam-powered warship, including shallow-draft gunboats then common to the U.S. Navy, would use one of the channels, both of which are within fair range of the fort’s six smoothbores.

Dowling spends the summer of 1863 at the earthen fort instructing his men in gunnery. On September 8, 1863 a Union Navy flotilla of some 22 gunboats and transports with 5,000 men accompanied by cavalry and artillery arrive off the mouth of Sabine Pass. The plan of invasion is sound, but monumentally mismanaged. Four of the flanking gunboats are to steam up the pass at speed and draw the fire of the fort, two in each channel, a tactic which had been used successfully in subduing the defensive fortifications of Mobile and New Orleans prior to this. This time, however, Dowling’s artillery drills pay off as the Confederates pour a rapid and withering fire onto the incoming gunboats, disabling and capturing two, while the others retreat in disarray. The rest of the flotilla retreats from the mouth of the pass and returns ignominiously to New Orleans, leaving the disabled ships with no option but to surrender to Dowling. With a command of just 47 men, Dowling had thwarted an attempted invasion of Texas, in the process capturing two gunboats, some 350 prisoners and a large quantity of supplies and munitions.

The Confederate government offers its gratitude and admiration to Dowling, now promoted to Major, and his unit, as a result of their battlefield prowess. In gratitude, the ladies of Houston present the unit with specially struck medals, which are actually Mexican eight reale coins with both faces sanded down and inscribed “Sabine Pass, 1864” on one side and a Maltese cross with the letters D and G on the other. Because of the official recognition given to the action, it is now accepted that these Davis Guard Medals are the only medals of honor issued by the Confederate government, and consequently are collector’s items today.

After the battle of Sabine Pass Dowling is elevated to hero status in his hometown of Houston. He subsequently serves as a recruiter for the Confederacy and is personally commended for his action at the battle by Jefferson Davis. After the war he returns to his saloon business and quickly becomes one of the city’s leading businessmen.

Dowling’s promising future is cut short by another yellow fever epidemic which devastates Houston in the late summer of 1867, and he dies on September 23, 1867. He is buried at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Houston.


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Death of John Holland, Irish Engineer

john-philip-hollandJohn Philip Holland, Irish engineer who develops the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the U.S. Navy, and the first Royal Navy submarine, HMS Holland 1, dies in Newark, New Jersey on August 12, 1914.

Holland, the second of four siblings, all boys, is born on February 24, 1841 in a coastguard cottage in Liscannor, County Clare, where his father, John Philip Holland, Sr., is a member of the British Coastguard Service. His mother, a native Irish speaker from Liscannor, Máire Ní Scannláin, is John Holland’s second wife. His first wife, Anne Foley Holland, believed to be a native of Kilkee, dies in 1835. The area is heavily Irish-speaking and Holland learns English properly only when he attends the local English-speaking St. Macreehy’s National School, and from 1858, in the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon.

Holland joins the Irish Christian Brothers in Limerick and teaches in CBS Sexton Street in Limerick and many other centres in the country, including North Monastery CBS in Cork, St. Joseph’s CBS in Drogheda, and as the first Mathematics teacher in Coláiste Rís in Dundalk. Due to ill health, he leaves the Christian Brothers in 1873 and emigrates to the United States. Initially working for an engineering firm, he returns to teaching again for an additional six years in St. John’s Catholic school in Paterson, New Jersey.

While a teacher in Cork, Holland reads an account of the battle between the ironclads USS Monitor and USS Merrimack in the Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War. He realizes that the best way to attack such ships would be through an attack beneath the waterline. He draws a design, but when he attempts to obtain funding, he is turned away. After his arrival in the United States, Holland slips and falls on an icy Boston street and breaks a leg. While recuperating from the injury in a hospital, he uses his time to refine his submarine designs and is encouraged by a priest, Isaac Whelan.

In 1875, his first submarine designs are submitted for consideration by the U.S. Navy, but are turned down as unworkable. The Fenians, however, continue to fund Holland’s research and development expenses at a level that allows him to resign from his teaching post. In 1881, Fenian Ram is launched, but soon after, Holland and the Fenians part company on bad terms over the issue of payment within the Fenian organization, and between the Fenians and Holland. The submarine is now preserved at Paterson Museum in New Jersey.

Holland continues to improve his designs and works on several experimental boats, prior to his successful efforts with a privately built type, launched on May 17, 1897. This is the first submarine having power to run submerged for any considerable distance, and the first to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface. The submarine is purchased by the U.S. Navy on April 11, 1900, after rigorous tests and is commissioned on October 12, 1900 as USS Holland (SS-1). Six more of her type are ordered and built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The company that emerges from under these developments is called The Electric Boat Company, founded on February 7, 1899. Isaac Leopold Rice becomes the company’s first President with Elihu B. Frost acting as vice president and chief financial officer. The company eventually evolves into the major defense contractor General Dynamics.

The USS Holland design is also adopted by others, including the Royal Navy in developing the Holland-class submarine. The Imperial Japanese Navy employs a modified version of the basic design for their first five submarines, although these submarines are at least 10 feet longer at about 63 feet. These submarines are also developed at the Fore River Ship and Engine Company in Quincy, Massachusetts. Holland also designs the Holland II and Holland III prototypes. The Royal Navy ‘Holland 1’ is on display at the Submarine Museum in Gosport, England.

After spending 56 of his 73 years working with submersibles, John Philip Holland dies on August 12, 1914 in Newark, New Jersey. He is interred at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.


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Capture of Gustavus Conyngham, the Dunkirk Pirate

gustavus-conynghamIrish-born United States Navy Captain Gustavus Conyngham, “The Dunkirk Pirate,” is captured by the British Royal Navy in the waters off New York on April 27, 1779.

Conyngham is born in County Donegal in 1747 and emigrated to British America in 1763 in search of a better life. He settles in Philadelphia in order to work for his cousin Redmond Conyngham in the shipping industry. When the American Revolutionary War begins in 1775 he immediately sailed to France to try to procure supplies needed for the war effort.

The British become aware of Conyngham’s plans and manage to maneuver him out of his ship with the help of the Dutch. After the loss of his ship, he heads back to France, hoping to connect with an ally to the United States. It is there he meets Benjamin Franklin, who helps him in his adventures many times in the future. They form a lasting relationship, and Conyngham eventually awards Franklin the nickname “the Philosopher” for his intellectual fortitude and resourcefulness. Franklin is entrusted with several commissions of the Continental Navy, and on March 1, 1777 Conyngham is appointed Captain of the lugger Surprise.

Conyngham scores a first victory that would warm the heart of any Irishmen, capturing the British merchant ship Prince of Orange on May 3, 1777. Later that year he is commissioned a captain in the Continental Navy and given command of the USS Revenge. He begins a series of highly successful raids into British waters from the port of Dunkirk, thus earning his sobriquet “The Dunkirk Pirate.”

In 1778 Conyngham sets sail for the West Indies and terrorizes British vessels there before finally returning to Philadelphia on February 21, 1779. He and his men had claimed 60 prize vessels in just 18 months. When he sets sail again his luck runs out and his ship is captured by the British vessel HMS Galatea on April 27, 1779. Conyngham was taken to prison in England and treated harshly by his British captors.

After two failed escape attempts, Conyngham tunnels his way out of Mill Prison in Plymouth and manages to make his way to the continent. He joins John Paul Jones on a cruise on the Alliance before returning to the United States. He is captured by the British again in March 1780 and spends another year in Mill Prison.

After the war Conyngham fails in his efforts to continue his naval career or to gain recognition from the United States Congress for his service during the war. He had lost the commission papers given to him by colonial representatives in Paris in 1777. It is said that he assists in the defense of Philadelphia against his old British foes during the War of 1812.

Gustavus Conyngham dies in Philadelphia seven years later on November 27, 1819. Nearly a century later, John Sanford Barnes, a retired navy captain and naval historian, acquires a cache of autographs and documents from a sale by Charavay of Paris. In the collection is Conyngham’s commission from Benjamin Franklin. Barnes publishes his discovery in September 1902, proving that the “Dunkirk Pirate” had never been a pirate at all, but one of the first heroes of the United States Navy.

(Pictured: Captain Gustavus Conyngham, Continental Navy. Painting by V. Zveg, 1976, based on a miniature by Louis Marie Sicardi. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)


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Drowning of Anna Catherine Parnell

anna-catherine-parnellAnna Catherine Parnell, Irish nationalist and younger sister of Irish Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, drowns at Ilfracombe, Devon, England on September 20, 1911.

Parnell is born at Avondale House near Rathdrum, County Wicklow, the tenth of eleven children of John Henry Parnell, a landlord, and Delia Tudor Stewart Parnell, an Irish American and daughter of Admiral Charles Stewart of the United States Navy. She has very little formal education as a child but the family has an extensive library which she is encouraged to read by her mother. After her father dies in 1859 she moves with the family to Dublin. Delia Parnell is an active socialite while in Dublin and exposes her children to a wide variety of political views.

In 1865 the family moves to Paris but Parnell feels stifled by upper class society rules imposed upon her. She is in Paris when the Franco-Prussian War breaks out in 1870 and is active in the American Ladies’ Committee fundrasing and setting up hospitals. She returns alone to Dublin in 1870 to study art.

Parnell moves to London in 1875 to continue studying art. When her brother Charles is elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Meath, she becomes increasingly political. She frequently visits Parliament during debates, sitting in the Ladies’ Gallery. She writes articles about the debates in a column titled Notes From the Ladies’ Cage in the Celtic Monthly. In 1879 she joins her sister, Fanny Parnell, a poet, in New York City where they raise money in support of the Irish National Land League. The sisters work closely with their brother Charles and Michael Davitt but are critical of how the funds raised in America are being used in Ireland. In October 1880 the sisters found the New York Ladies’ Land League with their mother as president. They raised thousands of dollars sent to Ireland.

Parnell returns in Dublin in late 1880. When it seems that the Land League men are likely to be arrested, it is suggested that a women’s league in Ireland could take over the work in their absence. Public opinion at the time is against women in politics, but the Ladies’ Land League is founded on January 31, 1881 with Parnell as its effective leader.

When Charles Parnell and other leaders are imprisoned in 1881, as predicted, the Ladies’ Land League takes over their work. Though it is envisioned as a place holder until the men are released, Parnell organises branches throughout Ireland, encouraging women to play an active role in Land League activities. Offices are given to the ladies but little help. They raise funds for the League and for the support of prisoners and their families. They distribute Land League wooden huts to shelter evicted tenant families and by the beginning of 1882 they have 500 branches, thousands of women members and considerable publicity. They distribute £60,000 in relief aid.

This puts the Ladies’ Land League in serious debt. Parnell approaches her brother Charles, requesting money to settle the debts. Charles, who distrusts her understanding of politics, agrees to provide the money under the condition that the Ladies’ Land League is disbanded. She agrees, disbanding in 1882, but she never forgives Charles.

After her brother’s death in 1891 Parnell lives the rest of her life in the south of England under the assumed name Cerisa Palmer. She writes an angry account of her Land League experiences in Tale of a Great Sham, which is not published until 1986. She makes one last political appearance when she campaigns for a Sinn Féin candidate in a 1907 by-election.

By the summer of 1911, the 59-year-old Parnell is staying in lodgings at Ilfracombe in Devon. An enthusiastic swimmer since childhood, she bathes every day, and on September 20, disregarding a warning of dangerous seas, she goes swimming as usual. She is seen to be in difficulties and the alarm is raised, but by the time rescuers reached her, she is dead. Unlike her brother, whose funeral in Dublin had been the occasion for a massive outpouring of grief and remorse, Anna Parnell was buried quietly in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church in Ilfracombe, in the presence of just seven strangers, and far away from the scenes of her greatest efforts and notoriety.


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Death of Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon

presley-neville-obannonPresley Neville O’Bannon, first lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and descendant of Brien Boru O’Bannon (1683) who is apparently the first notable O’Bannon to enter the American colonies, dies on September 12, 1850.

O’Bannon is born in 1776 in Fauquier County, Virginia, to William O’Bannon, a captain of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War, and Anne Neville, a sister of General John Neville, commander of Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania during the Revolution. He is probably named after Neville’s son, Presley, who is aide-de-camp to the Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

O’Bannon enters the Marine Corps on January 18, 1801. As a first lieutenant assigned to the USS Argus, he commands a detachment of seven Marines and two Navy midshipmen in diplomatic Consul General William Eaton‘s small army during the Tripoli campaign of the First Barbary War. In the combined operations with the United States Navy, he leads the successful attack at the Battle of Derna, a coastal town in eastern modern Libya on April 27, 1805, giving the Marines’ Hymn its line “to the shores of Tripoli.”

Lieutenant O’Bannon becomes the first man to raise a United States flag over foreign soil in time of war. O’Bannon’s superior, William Eaton, a former Army officer, had raised the American flag several months earlier while traveling on the Nile River from Alexandria to Cairo, but it had not been in a time of war. According to Marine Corps legend, Prince Hamet Karamanli is so impressed with O’Bannon’s bravery during the attempt to restore him to his throne as the Bey of Tripoli that he gives O’Bannon a sword as a gesture of respect. This sword becomes the model for the Mameluke sword, adopted in 1825 for Marine Corps officers, which is part of the formal uniform today.

O’Bannon resigns from the Marine Corps on March 6, 1807. He moves to Logan County, Kentucky, making his home in Russellville. He serves in the Kentucky Legislature in 1812, 1817, and 1820–21, and in the Kentucky State Senate from 1824 to 1826.

Some time before 1826, O’Bannon marries Matilda Heard, daughter of Major James Heard and Nancy Morgan, a daughter of American Revolutionary War general Daniel Morgan, commander at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina in 1781.

Presley O’Bannon dies at age 74 on September 12, 1850 in Pleasureville, Kentucky, where his daughter and nephew live. In 1919, his remains are moved to the Frankfort Cemetery on East Main Street in the state capital of Frankfort, Kentucky.

(Pictured: Oil painting of Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon, USMC, by Colonel Donald L. Dickson, USMCR, from the Official Photograph Album Collection (COLL/2246) at the Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division)


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Death of J.P. Donleavy, Novelist & Playwright

jp-donleavyJames Patrick Donleavy, Irish American novelist and playwright, dies in Mullingar, County Westmeath on September 11, 2017. His best-known work is the novel The Ginger Man, which is initially banned for obscenity.

Born in New York City on April 23, 1926 to Irish immigrants Margaret and Patrick Donleavy, Donleavy receives his education at various schools in the United States. He declares himself to be an atheist at the age of 14. He serves in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war ends, he moves to Ireland. In 1946 he begins studying at Trinity College, Dublin, but leaves in 1949 before taking a degree. Also in 1946, he marries Valerie Heron and the couple has two children: Philip (born 1951) and Karen (born 1955). They divorce in 1969 and he remarries in 1970 to Mary Wilson Price. That union also ends in divorce in 1989.

Donleavy’s first published work is a short story entitled A Party on Saturday Afternoon, which appears in the Dublin literary periodical, Envoy, A Review of Literature and Art in 1950. He gains critical acclaim with his first novel, The Ginger Man (1955), which is one of the Modern Library 100 best novels. The novel, of which his friend and fellow writer Brendan Behan is the first person to read the completed manuscript, is banned in Ireland and the United States by reason of obscenity. Lead character Sebastian Dangerfield is in part based on Trinity College companion Gainor Crist, an American Navy veteran also studying at Trinity College on the G.I. Bill, whom Donleavy once describes in an interview as a “saint,” though of a Rabelaisian kind.

Correctly or incorrectly, his initial works are sometimes grouped with the Kitchen Sink artists as well as the “angry young men.” Another novel, A Fairy Tale of New York, provides the title of The Pogues hit song “Fairytale of New York.”

In March 2007, Donleavy is the castaway on BBC Radio 4‘s Desert Island Discs. In 2015, he is the recipient of the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards.

In 2011, it is reported that Donleavy had not fathered his two children with Mary Wilson Price. A DNA test in the early 1990s confirms that Rebecca is the daughter of brewing scion Kieran Guinness, and Rory is the son of Kieran’s older brother Finn, whom Price marries after her divorce from Donleavy. “My interest is only to look after the welfare of the child,” Donleavy tells The Times, “and after a certain stage, you can’t worry about their parentage.”

J.P. Donleavy dies of an apparent stroke in Mullingar, County Westmeath on September 11, 2017 at the aged of 91.


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Birth of Audie Murphy, Decorated Soldier & Actor

audie-leon-murphyAudie Leon Murphy, one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II, is born to sharecropping parents of Irish descent in Kingston, Texas on June 20, 1925.

As a child, Murphy is a loner with mood swings and an explosive temper. He grows up in Texas, around Farmersville, Greenville, and Celeste, where he attends elementary school. His father drifts in and out of the family’s life and eventually deserts them. He drops out of school in fifth grade and gets a job picking cotton for a dollar a day to help support his family. After his mother dies of endocarditis and pneumonia in 1941, he works at a radio repair shop and at a combination general store, garage and gas station in Greenville.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Murphy’s older sister helps him to falsify documentation about his birthdate in order to meet the minimum-age requirement for enlisting in the military. Turned down by the Navy and the Marine Corps, he enlists in the Army. He first sees action in the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Then, in 1944, he participates in the Battle of Anzio, the liberation of Rome, and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France. He fights at Montélimar and leads his men on a successful assault at the L’Omet quarry near Cleurie in northeastern France in October.

Murphy receives every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. He receives the Medal of Honor for valor that he demonstrates at the age of 19 for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.

After the war, Murphy embarks on a 21-year acting career. He plays himself in the 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back, based on his 1949 memoirs of the same name, but most of his roles are in westerns. He makes guest appearances on celebrity television shows and stars in the series Whispering Smith. He is a fairly accomplished songwriter. He breeds American Quarter Horses in California and Arizona and becomes a regular participant in horse racing.

Suffering from what would today be described as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Murphy sleeps with a loaded handgun under his pillow. He looks for solace in addictive sleeping pills. In his last few years, he is plagued by money problems but refuses offers to appear in alcohol and cigarette commercials because he does not want to set a bad example.

Audie Murphy is killed on May 28, 1971 when the private plane in which he is a passenger crashes into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, twenty miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers are also killed. On June 7, 1971, he is buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In attendance are United States Ambassador to the United Nations George H.W. Bush, Chief of Staff of the United States Army William Westmoreland, and many of the 3rd Infantry Division. His gravesite is the cemetery’s second most-visited gravesite, after that of President John F. Kennedy.

(Pictured: Audie Murphy as Tom Smith in the television series Whispering Smith, 1961)