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


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Birth of Januarius MacGahan, Journalist & Correspondent

januarius-macgahanJanuarius Aloysius MacGahan, American journalist and war correspondent for the New York Herald and The Daily News, is born near New Lexington, Ohio on June 12, 1844. His articles describing the massacre of Bulgarian civilians by Turkish soldiers and irregular volunteers in 1876 creates public outrage in Europe, and are a major factor in preventing Britain from supporting Turkey in the Russo–Turkish War of 1877–78, which leads to Bulgaria gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire.

MacGahan’s father is an immigrant from Ireland who had served on the Northumberland, the ship which took Napoleon into exile on Saint Helena. He moves to St. Louis, where he briefly works as a teacher and as a journalist. There he meets his cousin, General Philip Sheridan, an American Civil War hero also of Irish parentage, who convinces him to study law in Europe. He sails to Brussels in December 1868.

MacGahan does not get a law degree, but he discovers that he has a gift for languages, learning French and German. He runs short of money and is about to return to America in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War breaks out. Sheridan happens to be an observer with the German Army, and he uses his influence to persuade the European editor of the New York Herald to hire MacGahan as a war correspondent with the French Army.

MacGahan’s vivid articles from the front lines describing the stunning defeat of the French Army win him a large following, and many of his dispatches to the Herald are reprinted by European newspapers. When the war ends, he interviews French leader Léon Gambetta and Victor Hugo and, in March 1871, he hurries to Paris and is one of the first foreign correspondents to report on the uprising of the Paris Commune. He is arrested by the French military and nearly executed, and is only rescued through the intervention of the U.S. Minister to France Elihu B. Washburne.

In 1871 MacGahan is assigned as the Herald‘s correspondent to Saint Petersburg. He learns Russian, mingles with the Russian military and nobility, covers the Russian tour of General William Tecumseh Sherman and meets his future wife, Varvara Elagina, whom he marries in 1873. In 1874 he spends ten months in Spain, covering the Third Carlist War.

In 1876 MacGahan quarrels with James Gordon Bennett Jr., the publisher of the New York Herald, and leaves the newspaper. He is invited by his friend, Eugene Schuyler, the American Consul-General in Constantinople, to investigate reports of large-scale atrocities committed by the Turkish Army following the failure of an attempted uprising by Bulgarian nationalists in April 1876. He obtains a commission from The Daily News, then the leading liberal newspaper in England, and leaves for Bulgaria on July 23, 1876.

MacGahan reports that the Turkish soldiers have forced some of the villagers into the church, then the church is burned and survivors tortured to learn where they have hidden their treasures. He says that of a population of seven thousand, only two thousand survive. According to his account, fifty-eight villages in Bulgaria are destroyed, five monasteries demolished, and fifteen thousand people in all massacred. These reports, published first in The Daily News, and then in other papers, cause widespread popular outrage against Turkey in Britain. The government of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a supporter of Turkey, tries to minimize the massacres and says that the Bulgarians are equally to blame, but his arguments are refuted by the newspaper accounts of MacGahan.

In the wake of the massacres and atrocities committed by the Ottoman forces during the suppression of the April Uprising, as well as centuries-long conflicts between Russia and Turkey in Crimea, the Russian Government, stirred by anti-Turkish and Pan-Slavism sentiment, prepare to invade the Ottoman Empire, and declare war on it on April 24, 1877. The Turkish Government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II appeals for help to Britain, its traditional ally against Russia, but the British government responds that it can not intervene “because of the state of public feeling.”

MacGahan is assigned as a war correspondent for The Daily News and, thanks to his friendship with General Skobelev, the Russian commander, rides with the first units of the Russian Army as it crosses the Danube into Bulgaria. He covers all the major battles of the Russo–Turkish War, including the Siege of Plevna and the Battle of Shipka Pass. He reports on the final defeat of the Turkish armies and is present at the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano, which ends the war.

MacGahan is in Constantinople, preparing to travel to Berlin for the conference that determines the final borders of Bulgaria, when he catches typhoid fever. He dies on June 9, 1878, and is buried in the Greek cemetery, in the presence of diplomats, war correspondents, and General Skobelev. Five years later his body is returned to the United States and reburied in New Lexington and a statue is erected in his honor by a society of Bulgarian Americans.

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Death of War Correspondent William Howard Russell

william-howard-russellSir William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter with The Times and considered to be one of the first modern war correspondents, dies in London, England on February 11, 1907.

Russell is born in Tallaght, County Dublin on March 28, 1820. As a young reporter, he reports on the First Schleswig War, a brief military conflict between Prussian and Danish troops in Denmark in 1850.

Initially sent by editor John Delane to Malta to cover British support for the Ottoman Empire against Russia in 1854, Russell despises the term “war correspondent” but his coverage of the conflict brings him international renown, and Florence Nightingale later credits her entry into wartime nursing to his reports. The Crimean medical care, shelter and protection of all ranks by Mary Seacole is also publicised by Russell and by other contemporary journalists, rescuing her from bankruptcy.

His dispatches are hugely significant as for the first time the public can read about the reality of warfare. Shocked and outraged, the public’s backlash from his reports leads the Government to re-evaluate the treatment of troops and leads to Florence Nightingale’s involvement in revolutionising battlefield treatment.

On September 20, 1854, Russell covers the battle above the Alma River, writing his missive the following day in an account book seized from a Russian corpse. The story, written in the form of a letter to Delane, is supportive of the British troops and pays particular attention to the battlefield surgeons’ “humane barbarity” and the lack of ambulance care for wounded troops. He later covers the Siege of Sevastopol where he coins the phrase “thin red line” in referring to British troops at Balaclava.

Following Russell’s reports of the appalling conditions suffered by the Allied troops conducting the siege, including an outbreak of cholera, Samuel Morton Peto and his partners build the Grand Crimean Central Railway, which is a major factor leading to the success of the siege.

Russell spends December 1854 in Constantinople on holiday, returning in early 1855. He leaves Crimea in December 1855 to be replaced by the Constantinople correspondent of The Times.

In 1856 Russell is sent to Moscow to describe the coronation of Tsar Alexander II and in the following year is sent to India where he witnesses the final re-capture of Lucknow.

In 1861 Russell goes to Washington, D.C., returning to England in 1863. In July 1865 he sails on the SS Great Eastern to document the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable and writes a book about the voyage with color illustrations by Robert Dudley. He publishes diaries of his time in India, the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, where he describes the warm welcome given him by English-speaking Prussian generals such as Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal.

Russell retires as a battlefield correspondent in 1882 and founds the Army and Navy Gazette. He is knighted in May 1895 and is appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) by King Edward VII on August 11, 1902.

Sir William Howard Russell dies on Februry 11, 1907 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.


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Birth of Denis Johnston, Writer & Playwright

Irish writer William Denis Johnston is born in Ballsbridge, Dublin on June 18, 1901. He primarily writes plays, but also works of literary criticism, a book-length biographical essay of Jonathan Swift, a memoir and an eccentric work on cosmology and philosophy.

Johnston is a protégé of William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, and has a stormy friendship with Seán O’Casey. He is a pioneer of television and war reporting. He works as a lawyer in the 1920s and 1930s before joining the BBC as a writer and producer, first in radio and then in the fledgling television service. His broadcast dramatic work include both original plays and adaptation of the work of many different writers.

Johnston’s first play, The Old Lady Says “No!”, helps establish the worldwide reputation of the Dublin Gate Theatre. His second, The Moon in the Yellow River, has been performed around the globe in numerous productions featuring such actors as Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Errol Flynn, although not all in the same production. He plays a role in the 1935 film version of John Millington Synge‘s Riders to the Sea.

During World War II Johnston serves as a BBC war correspondent, reporting from El Alamein to Buchenwald. For this he is awarded an OBE, a Mentioned in Despatches and the Yugoslav Partisans Medal. He then becomes Director of Programmes for the television service.

Johnston later moves to the United States and teaches at Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and other universities. He keeps extensive diaries throughout his life, now deposited in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. These, together with his many articles and essays, give a distinctive picture of his times and the people he knows. Another archive of his work is held at the library of Ulster University at Coleraine. He receives honorary degrees from the Ulster University and Mount Holyoke College and is a member of Aosdána.

The Denis Johnston Playwriting Prize is awarded annually by Smith College Department of Theatre for the best play, screen play or musical written by an undergraduate at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Johnston’s war memoir Nine Rivers from Jordan reaches The New York Times Bestseller List and is cited in the World Book Encyclopedia‘s 1950s article on World War II under “Books to Read”, along with Churchill, Eisenhower et al. Joseph Ronsley cites an unnamed former CBS Vietnam correspondent who calls the book the “Bible”, carrying it with him constantly, “reading it over and over in the field during his tour of duty.”

Denis Johnston dies on August 8, 1984 in Ballybrack, Dublin. His daughter Jennifer Johnston is a respected novelist and playwright.