seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Thomas Bodkin, Art Historian & Collector

Professor Thomas Patrick Bodkin, lawyer, art historian, art collector and curator, is born in Dublin on July 21, 1887. He serves as Director of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin from 1927 to 1935 and founding Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England from 1935 until 1952, where he acquires the nucleus of the collection described by The Observer as “the last great art collection of the twentieth century.”

Bodkin is the eldest son of Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, a nationalist journalist, judge and Member of Parliament. Graduating from the Royal University of Ireland in 1908 he practises law from 1911 until 1916 while collecting art privately, influenced by his uncle Sir Hugh Lane. With the death of Lane in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, Bodkin is charged with ensuring that Lane’s collection of art is displayed in Dublin, a dispute that would only finally be settled in 1957 and about which Bodkin is to write Hugh Lane and his Pictures in 1932.

Bodkin leaves the legal profession in 1916 to become a Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland, being appointed Director in 1927. He also serves in 1926 on the committee that commissions the design of the new coinage of the Republic of Ireland from Percy Metcalfe.

In 1935 Bodkin leaves Ireland upon being appointed Director of the newly established Barber Institute of Fine Arts and Barber Professor of Fine Art at the University of Birmingham. The funds available to the Barber Institute for the purchase of new works compare favourably even to some national museums and Bodkin is able to make a string of exceptional purchases in the depressed art market around the time of World War II. The collection that in 1935 numbers just seven works, by 1939 holds major pieces such as Tintoretto‘s Portrait of a Youth (1554), Simone Martini‘s St. John the Evangelist (1320), Nicolas Poussin‘s Tancred and Erminia (1634) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s Symphony in White No. III (1867). Bodkin retires in 1952 but retains control over acquisitions until 1959. His successor as Director and Professor, Ellis Waterhouse, wistfully refers to Bodkin’s wayward later purchases as “Acts of Bod.”

Bodkin is also an active broadcaster and author, publishing personal reminiscences and translations of modern French poetry as well as works of art history and criticism. In particular, his The Approach to Painting (1927), an introduction for a popular audience, runs through many editions over the succeeding thirty years.

A few years before his death Bodkin appears on the BBC panel show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? identifying curiosities from around the world, along with museum curator Hugh Shortt and archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.

Bodkin is awarded the Civil Division of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for services to his church. A bust of Bodkin, previously exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1958, is donated to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts by its sculptor, Sir Charles Wheeler, President of the Royal Academy and a personal friend of Bodkin’s, on the latter’s death.

Bodkin is the subject of This Is Your Life in March 1960 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC’s Costa Green Studios in Birmingham.

Thomas Bodkin dies in Birmingham, England on April 24, 1961. His remains are interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.


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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.


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King James I Grants License for Old Bushmills Distillery

King James I grants a license to Sir Thomas Phillips, landowner and Governor of County Antrim, for the Old Bushmills distillery on April 20, 1608. The distillery is thought to date from at least 1276 making it the oldest distillery in the world.

The Bushmills Old Distillery Company itself is not established until 1784 by Hugh Anderson. Bushmills suffers many lean years with numerous periods of closure with no record of the distillery being in operation in the official records both in 1802 and in 1822. In 1860 a Belfast spirit merchant named Jame McColgan and Patrick Corrigan purchase the distillery and in 1880 they form a limited company. In 1885, the original Bushmills buildings are destroyed by fire but the distillery is quickly rebuilt. In 1890, the steamship SS Bushmills, owned and operated by the distillery, makes its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to deliver Bushmills whiskey to America. It calls at Philadelphia and New York City before heading on to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama.

In the early 20th century, the United States is a very important market for Bushmills, as well as for other Irish Whiskey producers. American Prohibition in 1920 comes as a large blow to the Irish Whiskey industry, but Bushmills manages to survive. Wilson Boyd, Bushmills’ director at the time, predicts the end of prohibition and has large stores of whiskey ready to export. After the World War II, the distillery is purchased by Isaac Wolfson and, in 1972, it is taken over by Irish Distillers, meaning that Irish Distillers controls the production of all Irish whiskey at the time. In June 1988, Irish Distillers is bought by French liquor group Pernod Ricard.

In June 2005, the distillery is bought by Diageo for £200 million. Diageo announces a large advertising campaign in order to regain market share for Bushmills.

In May 2008, the Bank of Ireland issues a new series of sterling banknotes in Northern Ireland which all feature an illustration of the Old Bushmills Distillery on the obverse side, replacing the previous notes series which depicts Queen’s University Belfast.

In November 2014 it is announced that Diageo is to trade the Bushmills brand with Jose Cuervo in exchange for the 50% of the Don Julio brand of tequila that Diageo does not already own.

Some Bushmills offerings have performed well at international Spirits ratings competitions. In particular, its Black Bush Finest Blended Whiskey receives double gold medals at the 2007 and 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competitions. It also receives a well-above-average score of 93 from the Beverage Testing Institute in 2008 and 2011.


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Birth of Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Cryptanalyst & Chess Player

Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Irish-born British cryptanalyst, chess player, and chess writer, is born in Cork, County Cork, on April 19, 1909. He works on the German Enigma machine at Bletchley Park during World War II, and is later the head of the cryptanalysis division at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for over 20 years. In chess, he twice wins the British Chess Championship and earns the title of International Master. He is usually referred to as C.H.O’D. Alexander in print and Hugh in person.

Alexander is born into an Anglo-Irish family, the eldest child of Conel William Long Alexander, an engineering professor at University College Cork (UCC), and Hilda Barbara Bennett. His father dies during the Irish War of Independence in 1920, and the family moves to Birmingham in England where he attends King Edward’s School. He wins a scholarship to study mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1928, graduating with a first in 1931. He represents the University of Cambridge in the Varsity chess matches of 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932.

From 1932, Alexander teaches mathematics in Winchester and marries Enid Constance Crichton Neate on December 22, 1934. In 1938 he leaves teaching and becomes head of research at the John Lewis Partnership.

In February 1940 Alexander arrives at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre during the World War II. He joins Hut 6, the section tasked with breaking German Army and Air Force Enigma messages. In 1941, he transfers to Hut 8, the corresponding hut working on Naval Enigma. He becomes deputy head of Hut 8 under Alan Turing and formally becomes the head of Hut 8 in November 1942. In October 1944, Alexander is transferred to work on the Japanese JN-25 code.

In mid-1946, Alexander joins GCHQ, which is the post-war successor organisation to the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. By 1949, he has been promoted to the head of “Section H” (cryptanalysis), a post he retains until his retirement in 1971.

Alexander is twice a winner of the British Chess Championship, in 1938 and 1956. He represents England in the Chess Olympiad six times, in 1933, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1954 and 1958. At the 1939 Olympiad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alexander has to leave part-way through the event, along with the rest of the English team, due to the declaration of World War II, as he is required at home for codebreaking duties. He is also the non-playing captain of England from 1964 to 1970. He is awarded the International Master title in 1950 and the International Master for Correspondence Chess title in 1970. He wins the Hastings International Chess Congress 1946/47 with the score 7½/9, a point ahead of Savielly Tartakower. His best tournament result may have been first equal Hastings 1953/54, where he goes undefeated and beats Soviet grandmasters David Bronstein and Alexander Tolush in individual games. He is also the chess columnist of The Sunday Times in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many knowledgeable chess people believe that Alexander had Grandmaster potential, had he been able to develop his chess abilities further. Many top players peak in their late twenties and early thirties, but for Alexander this stretch coincided with World War II, when high-level competitive opportunities were unavailable. After this, his professional responsibilities as a senior cryptanalyst limited his top-class appearances. He defeats Mikhail Botvinnik in one game of a team radio match against the Soviet Union in 1946, at a time when Botvinnik is probably the world’s top player. Alexander makes important theoretical contributions to the Dutch Defence and Petrov’s Defence.

Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander dies on February 15, 1974, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England.


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Birth of Playwright & Poet Samuel Barclay Beckett

Samuel Barclay Beckett, avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet, is born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, in Foxrock, Dublin. His father, William Frank Beckett, works in the construction business and his mother, Maria Jones Roe, is a nurse. Beckett attends Earlsfort House School in Dublin and then, at age 14, he goes to Portora Royal School, the same school attended by Oscar Wilde. He receives his Bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 1927. In his youth he periodically experiences severe depression keeping him in bed until mid-day. This experience later influences his writing.

In 1928, Beckett finds a welcome home in Paris where he meets and becomes a devoted student of James Joyce. In 1931, he embarks on a restless sojourn through Great Britain, France and Germany. He writes poems and stories and does odd jobs to support himself. On his journey, he comes across many individuals who inspire some of his most interesting characters.

In 1937, Beckett settles in Paris. Shortly thereafter, he is stabbed by a pimp after refusing his solicitations. While recovering in the hospital, he meets Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil, a piano student in Paris. The two become life-long companions and eventually marry. After meeting with his attacker, Beckett drops the charges, partly to avoid the publicity.

During World War II, Beckett’s Irish citizenship allows him to remain in Paris as a citizen of a neutral country. He fights in the resistance movement until 1942 when members of his group are arrested by the Gestapo. He and Suzanne flee to the unoccupied zone until the end of the war.

After the war, Beckett is awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery during his time in the French resistance. He settles in Paris and begins his most prolific period as a writer. In five years, he writes Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories, and a book of criticism.

Beckett’s first publication, Molloy, enjoys modest sales, but more importantly praise from French critics. Soon, Waiting for Godot, achieves quick success at the small Theatre de Babylone putting Beckett in the international spotlight. The play runs for 400 performances and enjoys critical praise.

Beckett writes in both French and English, but his most well-known works, written between World War II and the 1960s, are written in French. Early on he realizes his writing has to be subjective and come from his own thoughts and experiences. His works are filled with allusions to other writers such as Dante Alighieri, René Descartes, and James Joyce. Beckett’s plays are not written along traditional lines with conventional plot and time and place references. Instead, he focuses on essential elements of the human condition in dark humorous ways. This style of writing has been called “Theater of the Absurd” by Martin Esslin, referring to poet Albert Camus’ concept of “the absurd.” The plays focus on human despair and the will to survive in a hopeless world that offers no help in understanding.

The 1960s are a period of change for Beckett. He finds great success with his plays across the world. Invitations come to attend rehearsals and performances which lead to a career as a theater director. In 1961, he secretly marries Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil who takes care of his business affairs. A commission from the BBC in 1956 leads to offers to write for radio and cinema through the 1960s.

Beckett continues to write throughout the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in a small house outside Paris. There he can give total dedication to his art evading publicity. In 1969, he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, though he declines accepting it personally to avoid making a speech at the ceremonies. However, he should not be considered a recluse. He often times meets with other artists, scholars and admirers to talk about his work.

By the late 1980s, Beckett is in failing health and is moved to a small nursing home. His wife Suzanne dies in July 1989. His life is confined to a small room where he receives visitors and writes. He dies on December 22, 1989, in a hospital of respiratory problems just months after his wife.


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Birth of Northern Ireland Politician Gerry Fitt

Gerard Fitt, Northern Ireland politician, is born in Belfast on April 9, 1926. He is a founder and the first leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a social democratic and Irish nationalist party.

Fitt is educated at a local Christian Brothers school in Belfast. He joins the Merchant Navy in 1941 and serves on convoy duty during World War II. His elder brother Geordie, an Irish Guardsman, is killed at the Battle of Normandy.

Living in the nationalist Beechmount neighbourhood of the Falls, he stands for the Falls as a candidate for the Dock Labour Party in a city council by-election in 1956, but loses to Paddy Devlin of the Irish Labour Party, who later becomes his close ally. In 1958, he is elected to Belfast City Council as a member of the Irish Labour Party.

In 1962, he wins a seat in the Parliament of Northern Ireland from the Ulster Unionist Party, becoming the only Irish Labour member. Two years later, he left Irish Labour and joined with Harry Diamond, the sole Socialist Republican Party Stormont MP, to form the Republican Labour Party. At the 1966 general election, Fitt won the Belfast West seat in the Westminster parliament.

Many sympathetic British Members of Parliament (MPs) are present at a civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968 when Fitt and others are beaten by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Fitt also supports the 1969 candidacy of Bernadette Devlin in the Mid Ulster by-election who runs as an anti-abstentionist ‘Unity‘ candidate. Devlin’s success greatly increases the authority of Fitt in the eyes of many British commentators, particularly as it produces a second voice on the floor of the British House of Commons who challenge the Unionist viewpoint at a time when Harold Wilson and other British ministers are beginning to take notice.

In August 1970, Fitt becomes the first leader of a coalition of civil rights and nationalist leaders who create the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). By this time Northern Ireland is charging headlong towards near-civil war and the majority of unionists remain hostile.

After the collapse of Stormont in 1972 and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 Fitt becomes deputy chief executive of the short-lived Power-Sharing Executive created by the Sunningdale Agreement.

Fitt becomes increasingly detached from both his own party and also becomes more outspoken in his condemnation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He becomes a target for republican sympathisers in 1976 when they attack his home. He becomes disillusioned with the handling of Northern Ireland by the British government. In 1979, he abstains from a crucial vote in the House of Commons which brings down the Labour government, citing the way that the government had failed to help the nationalist population and tried to form a deal with the Ulster Unionist Party.

In 1979, Fitt is replaced by John Hume as leader of the SDLP and he leaves the party altogether after he agrees to constitutional talks with British Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins without any provision for an ‘Irish dimension’ and then sees his decision overturned by the SDLP party conference. Like Paddy Devlin before him, he claims the SDLP has ceased to be a socialist force.

In 1981, he opposes the hunger strikes in the Maze prison in Belfast. His seat in Westminster is targeted by Sinn Féin as well as by the SDLP. In June 1983, he loses his seat in Belfast West to Gerry Adams, in part due to competition from an SDLP candidate. The following month, on October 14, 1983, he is created a UK life peer as Baron Fitt, of Bell’s Hill in County Down. His Belfast home is firebombed a month later and he moves to London.

Gerry Fitt dies in London on August 26, 2005, at the age of 79, after a long history of heart disease.


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Birth of Actor Niall MacGinnis

Niall MacGinnis, Irish actor who appears in 80 motion pictures, is born in Dublin on March 29, 1913.

MacGinnis is educated at Stonyhurst College in England, and studies medicine at the University of Dublin. He qualifies as a house surgeon. During World War II, MacGinnis serves as surgeon in the Royal Navy.

MacGinnis plays a German sailor in the British war film 49th Parallel (1941) with Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Eric Portman, and Raymond Massey. He portrays Captain MacMorris in Olivier’s version of Henry V (1944) and the title character in the film Martin Luther (1953). He plays the villainous Julian Karswell opposite American actor Dana Andrews in the British horror film Night of the Demon (1957), which is released in the United States as Curse of the Demon. He also plays Zeus opposite Honor Blackman‘s Hera in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), plays the arch-criminal A. J. Kent in an episode of Danger Man entitled “Battle of The Cameras” (1965), and has a supporting role in John Huston‘s film The Kremlin Letter (1969).

MacGinnis returns to medical practice during the 1970s. He dies of cancer at the age of 63 in Newport, Dyfed, Wales on January 6, 1977.