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


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Birth of Isaac Butt, Barrister & Politician

File source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Isaac_Butt.jpgIsaac Butt, barrister and politician, is born in Glenfin, County Donegal on September 6, 1813. If not the originator of the term Home Rule, he is the first to make it an effective political slogan. He is the founder (1870) and first chief of the Home Government Association and president (1873–77) of the Home Rule League of Great Britain, but he is superseded in 1878 as head of the Home Rule movement by the younger and more forceful Charles Stewart Parnell.

Butt is the son of a Church of Ireland rector and is descended from the O’Donnells of Tyrconnell, through the Ramsays. He receives his secondary school education at The Royal School in Raphoe, County Donegal, and at Midleton College in County Cork, before going to Trinity College Dublin at the age of fifteen, where he is elected a Scholar. While there he co-founds the Dublin University Magazine and edits it for four years. For much of his life he is a member of the Irish Conservative Party. He becomes Whately Chair of Political Economy at Trinity in 1836 and holds that position until 1841.

Butt is called to the Irish bar in 1838 and the English bar in 1859. Intermittently from 1852 he represents, successively, one English and two Irish constituencies in the House of Commons. In 1848 he undertakes the defense of the Young Ireland leaders, who are charged with high treason for their abortive insurrection that year. From 1865 to 1869 he is the principal defense counsel for the imprisoned leaders of the Fenians (Irish Republican, or Revolutionary, Brotherhood).

Despite his legal work for the Fenians, Butt, who is basically a conservative, fears the consequences of a successful Fenian revolt. Disillusioned, however, by the British government’s failure to relieve the Irish Great Famine of the late 1840s, he becomes convinced that a native parliament is required for Irish land reform and other needs. In May 1870 he calls for an Irish Parliament subordinate to the imperial Parliament at Westminster, and later that year he forms the Home Government Association. From 1871 he quickens the Irish nationalist agitation in the House of Commons but gradually loses his leadership, partly because he disapproves of Parnell’s tactics of obstructing routine parliamentary business.

Butt amasses debts and pursues romances. It is said that at meetings he is occasionally heckled by women with whom he had fathered children. He is also involved in a financial scandal when it is revealed that he had taken money from several Indian princes to represent their interests in parliament.

Isaac Butt dies on May 5, 1879 in Clonskeagh in Dublin. His remains are brought by train to Stranorlar, County Donegal, where he is buried in a corner of the Church of Ireland cemetery beneath a tree by which he used to sit and dream as a boy. His grave has been restored and the memorial now includes a wreath.

Despite his chaotic lifestyle and political limitations, Butt is capable of inspiring deep personal loyalty. Some of his friends, such as John Butler Yeats and the future Catholic Bishop of Limerick, Edward Thomas O’Dwyer, retain a lasting hostility towards Parnell for his role in Butt’s downfall.

In May 2010 the Church of Ireland parishes of Stranorlar, Meenglass and Kilteevogue instigate an annual memorial Service and Lecture in Butt’s honour, inviting members of the professions of law, politics and journalism to reflect aspects of his life. Speakers have included Dr. Joe Mulholland, Senator David Norris, Dr. Chris McGimpsey and Prof. Brian Walker.

(Pictured: Isaac Butt, portrait by John Butler Yeats)

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Birth of Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish Nationalist

thomas-francis-meagherThomas Francis Meagher, Irish nationalist and leader of the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848, is born on August 3, 1823 at Waterford, County Waterford, in what is now the Granville Hotel on the Quay.

Meagher is educated at Roman Catholic boarding schools. When he is eleven, his family sends him to the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare. It is at Clongowes that he develops his skill of oratory, becoming at age 15 the youngest medalist of the Debating Society. After six years, he leaves Ireland for the first time, to study in Lancashire, England, at Stonyhurst College, also a Jesuit institution. He returns to Ireland in 1843, with undecided plans for a career in the Austrian army, a tradition among a number of Irish families.

Meagher becomes a member of the Young Ireland Party in 1845 and in 1847 is one of the founders of the Irish Confederation, dedicated to Irish independence. In 1848 he is involved, along with William Smith O’Brien, in an abortive attempt to mount an insurrection against English rule. Arrested for high treason, he is condemned to death, but his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment in Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania.

Meagher escapes in 1852 and makes his way to the United States. After a speaking tour of U.S. cities, he settles in New York City, studies law, and is admitted to the bar in 1855. He soon becomes a leader of the Irish in New York and, from 1856, edits the Irish News.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Meagher becomes a captain of New York volunteers and fights at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. He then organizes the Irish Brigade, and in February 1862 is elevated to the rank of brigadier general. After his brigade is decimated at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, he resigns his commission, however in December he returns to command the military district of Etowah, with headquarters at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

At the close of the war, Meagher is appointed secretary of Montana Territory where, in the absence of a territorial governor, he serves as acting governor.

In the summer of 1867, Meagher travels to Fort Benton, Montana, to receive a shipment of guns and ammunition sent by General William Tecumseh Sherman for use by the Montana Militia. On the way to Fort Benton, the Missouri River terminus for steamboat travel, he falls ill and stops for six days to recuperate. When he reaches Fort Benton, he is reportedly still ill.

Sometime in the early evening of July 1, 1867, Meagher falls overboard from the steamboat G. A. Thompson, into the Missouri River. His body is never recovered. Some believe his death to be suspicious and many theories circulate about his death. Early theories included a claim that he was murdered by a Confederate soldier from the war, or by Native Americans. In 1913 a man claims to have carried out the murder of Meagher for the price of $8,000, but then recants. In the same vein, American journalist and novelist Timothy Egan, who publishes a biography of Meagher in 2016, claims Meagher may have been murdered by Montana political enemies or powerful and still active vigilantes. On the frontier men are quick to kill rather than adjudicate. A similar theory shown on Death Valley Days (1960) has him survive the assassination attempt because his aide had been mistakenly murdered when he accepted one of his trademark cigars, and Meagher uses his apparent death as leverage over his political opponents.


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The Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848

young-irelander-rebellion-1848The Young Irelander Rebellion, a failed Irish nationalist uprising against the British led by the Young Ireland movement, takes place on July 29, 1848 in the village of Ballingarry, County Tipperary. The rebellion is part of the wider Revolutions of 1848 that affect most of Europe. It is sometimes called the Famine Rebellion (since it takes place during the Great Famine) or the Battle of Ballingarry.

In 1846, William Smith O’Brien, alongside John Mitchel, form the Irish Confederation with the Young Ireland movement which is dedicated to direct action against the British. Two short years later they are already calling for open rebellion, despite the fact that Ireland is now in the third year of the devastating famine which is leaving millions of the country’s people in brutal starvation.

Just a year after Black ‘47, the worst year of the Great Famine, the Young Ireland movement is hoping to uprise and overthrow the British but with the starving Irish just struggling to stay alive, dying or emigrating in their thousands, their revolutionary talk does little to act as a call to arms for the average Irish person.

Whereas the mistreatment of the Irish people by the British had rightly led to an increased radicalism in Irish nationalist movement, without the general Irish population able to think of anything other than staying alive, it seems doomed to failure, especially after the arrest of Mitchel before the rebellion is even started. He is convicted of sedition and transported to a penal colony in Australia before the revolt begins, a move that leads to an increased furor to revolt among the leaders that remain.

On July 29, 1848, O’Brien launches his rebellion. After being chased by a force of Young Irelanders and their supporters, a Royal Irish Constabulary unit takes refuge in a house and holds those inside as hostages.

It was evident to the rebels that the position of the police is almost impregnable. When a party of the Cashel police are seen arriving over Boulea Hill, the rebels attempt to stop them even though they are low on ammunition. The police continue to advance, firing up the road. It becomes clear that the police in the house are about to be reinforced and rescued. The rebels then fade away, effectively terminating both the era of Young Ireland and Repeal, but the consequences of their actions follow them for many years. This event is colloquially known as “The Battle of Widow McCormack’s cabbage plot.”

In O’Brien’s subsequent trial, the jury finds him guilty of high treason. He is sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Petitions for clemency are signed by 70,000 people in Ireland and 10,000 people in England. On June 5, 1849, the sentences of O’Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation are commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania in present-day Australia). In 1854, after five years in Van Diemen’s Land, O’Brien is released on the condition he never return to the United Kingdom. He settled in Brussels.

(Pictured: The attack on the Widow McCormack’s house on Boulagh Common, Ballingarry, County Tipperary)


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Birth of Fenian John O’Leary

john-o-learyJohn O’Leary, Irish republican and a leading Fenian, is born on July 23, 1830 in Tipperary, County Tipperary. He is imprisoned in England during the nineteenth century for his involvement in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

O’Leary, born a Catholic, is educated at the local Protestant grammar school, The Abbey School, and later the Catholic Carlow College. He identifies with the views advocated by Thomas Davis and meets James Stephens in 1846.

He begins his studies in law at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1847, where, through the Grattan Club, he associates with Charles Gavan Duffy, James Fintan Lalor and Thomas Francis Meagher.

After the failure of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, O’Leary attempts to rescue the Young Ireland leaders from Clonmel Gaol, and is himself imprisoned for a week from September 8, 1849. He takes part in a further attempted uprising in Cashel on September 16, 1849, but this proves abortive.

O’Leary abandons his study of law at Trinity College because he is unwilling to take the oath of allegiance required of a barrister. He enrolls at Queen’s College, Cork in 1850, to study medicine, later moving to Queen’s College, Galway, then on to further studies at Meath Hospital in Dublin, in Paris and in London. In 1855, he visits Paris, where he becomes acquainted with Kevin Izod O’Doherty, John Martin and the American painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He subsequently becomes financial manager of the newly formed Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and is joint editor of the IRB paper The Irish People.

On September 16, 1865, O’Leary is arrested and later tried on charges of high treason, eventually reduced to “treason felony.” He is sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude, of which five years are spent in English prisons, prior to his release and exile in January 1871. During his exile, he lives mainly in Paris, also visiting the United States, remains active in the IRB and its associated organisations, and writes many letters to newspapers and journals.

On the expiration of his 20-year prison term and therefore of the conditions associated with his release in 1885, O’Leary returns to Ireland. He and his sister, the poet Ellen O’Leary, both become important figures within Dublin cultural and nationalist circles, which include William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Rose Kavanagh, Rosa Mulholland, George Sigerson, and Katharine Tynan. He also functions as an elder statesman of the separatist movement, being active in the Young Ireland Society, and acts as president of the Irish Transvaal Committee, which supports the Boer side in the Second Boer War.

John O’Leary dies at his residence in Dublin on the evening of March 16, 1907. He is referred to famously by W.B. Yeats in his poem September 1913: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone/It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

(Pictured: Painting of John O’Leary, a favorite subject of John Butler Yeats (1904). The National Gallery of Ireland owns three oil portraits of O’Leary.)


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Birth of Richard D’Alton Williams, Physician & Poet

richard-dalton-williamsRichard D’Alton Williams, physician and poet, is born in Dublin on October 8, 1822. He is the son of James and Mary Williams, who come from County Westmeath. He grows up in Grenanstown, a townland near the Devil’s Bit in County Tipperary, where his father farms for Count Dalton. He is educated at Tullabeg Jesuit College and St. Patrick’s, Carlow College.

Williams becomes a member of the Young Ireland movement and contributes poetry to The Nation under the pseudonym “Shamrock.” He is immediately successful. In the January 21, 1843 edition there appears: “Shamrock is a jewel. He cannot write too often. His verses are full of vigour, and as natural as the harp of Tara.”

Later in 1843 Williams goes to Dublin to study medicine at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. In 1848 he brings out a newspaper, the Irish Tribune, to take the place of the suppressed United Irishman, founded by John Mitchel. Before the sixth weekly publication, it is seized by the Government, and proceedings are instituted against the editors, Williams and his friend Kevin Izod O’Doherty. On October 30, 1848, at a third trial, O’Doherty is convicted of treason and transported to Australia while Williams is successfully defended by lawyer and fellow poet Samuel Ferguson two days afterwards on the same charge. He then resumes his medical studies, takes out his degree at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1849 and emigrates to the United States in 1851.

Williams is married to Elizabeth Connolly on September 8, 1856, with whom he has four children of whom the youngest is commemorated in Lines on the Death of his Infant Daughter, Katie.

In the United States Williams practises medicine until he becomes ill and dies of tuberculosis in Thibodaux, Louisiana on July 5, 1862. He is buried there in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. His headstone is later erected that year by Irish members of the 8th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, then encamped in Thibodaux.


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The Battle of Antietam

irish-brigade-at-antietamThe Irish Brigade of the Union Army fights in the Battle of Antietam, one of the most famous battles of the American Civil War, on September 17, 1862. The battle has the sad distinction of being the bloodiest single day of fighting in America’s bloodiest war. Combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam are 26,134. Few regiments suffered more than the Irish Brigade.

The Irish Brigade is the brainchild of their commanding officer Thomas Francis Meagher. The former Young Ireland rebel, creator of the Irish Tricolor of green, white and orange, escaped political prisoner, lawyer, newspaper editor and politician forms the brigade with the twin objectives of gaining respect for the Irish by their patriotism for their adopted country and developing a nucleus for a future fight for Ireland’s freedom. The Brigade is formed of the almost exclusively Irish American 69th, 63rd and 88th New York and the “honorary Irish” of the 29th Massachusetts. The regiments of the Irish Brigade had already earned a formidable reputation as a crack unit, having distinguished themselves in every battle of the earlier Seven Days Battles. It is small wonder, many in the Brigade’s ranks had already distinguished themselves in the Mexican-American War or in fighting with the Papal forces in Italy against Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The Union Army is already heavily engaged, when the Irish Brigade is ordered to advance through an open field to take an area of high ground. Subjected to accurate Confederate rifle fire as they cross the field, the Brigade marches on in disciplined order, the National and the famed Green Regimental Colors (flags) fluttering overhead. When they encounter a fence across their line of march, eighty volunteers rush forward to knock it down, rather than see the whole Brigade slowed by the obstacle and exposed to fire. Over half of these volunteers are killed. Seeing the Irish continue to press forward, the Confederates fall back as the Irish advance up the hill.

What no one on the Union side knows is that on the other side of the hill is a farmer’s dirt road that years of rain has eroded into a ditch five feet below the surrounding ground level. The sunken road is a perfect rifle pit and is filled with Colonel John Brown Gordon’s Georgians. As the Irish crest the hill, they are met with a volley that decimates the Brigade, including killing or wounding every single standard-bearer. Seeing the flags fall from across the field, an aide to Union General George B. McClellan exclaims, “The battles lost, the Irish are fleeing!” only for McClellan to respond, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing.” Eight successive standard-bearers of the 69th New York alone fall that day as men pick up the flags from fallen comrades. Captain Patrick Clooney, though wounded himself, snatches up the colors from the 88th’s fallen standard-bearer only to be killed by multiple shots, the Green Flag wrapping around him like a shroud befitting a hero. Another standard-bearer, the staff of his Irish Brigade flag snapped in two by a rifle shot, drapes the flag over his shoulder like a sash and continues to move forward, personifying the Gaelic phrase on the flag he is carrying “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn lann”, “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.”

The fire of the Confederates is so intense that the Irish Brigade cannot advance, but they do not flee either. Despite the failure of promised reinforcements that never materialize, the Brigade pours “Buck and Ball” (a 69 caliber ball and three 30 caliber buckshot) into the enemy at 300 paces, turning the “Sunken Road” into “Bloody Lane.” When their ammunition is depleted, the remnants of the Brigade, with drill ground precision, form and march back to the Union lines. The Irish Brigade never “ran” from the enemy. Another Union unit takes the “Bloody Lane,” but most credit the punishment that the Irish Brigade inflicted on the enemy, at a terrible cost to themselves, with making it possible. The New York Regiments take over 50% casualties. The Irish Brigade is now no bigger than a single regiment. As the depleted ranks of the 88th march passed, Union Major General Israel Bush Richardson salutes as it passes with the words “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!”

During the course of the War, the Irish Brigade suffers over 4,000 casualties, more men than the Brigade ever had at any one time. The Fighting 69th loses more men than any other New York regiment. The Battle of Antietam is remembered as the Union victory that allows President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which frees the slaves in the Confederate states. It is all too often forgotten that this emancipation was secured in no small part with the blood of Irish immigrants, immigrants who were denied civil rights in their own country and faced discrimination in their adopted county before and after the Civil War.

In thinking of the Civil War, all Americans should remember the words of a defeated Confederate Officer to his Union counterpart at Appomattox, “You only won as you had more Irish than we did.”

(Credit: “The Irish Brigade at Antietam” by Neil F. Cosgrove, October 17, 2009)


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Death of Poet & Barrister Samuel Ferguson

sir-samuel-ferguson

Sir Samuel Ferguson, Irish poet, barrister, antiquarian, artist, and public servant, dies in Howth, County Dublin on August 9, 1886. Ferguson is perhaps the most important Irish poet of the 19th century. Due to his interest in Irish mythology and early Irish history he is seen as a forerunner of William Butler Yeats and the other poets of the Irish Literary Revival.

Ferguson is born in Belfast on March 10, 1810. He lives at a number of addresses, including Glenwhirry, where he acquires the love of nature that informs his later work. He is educated at the Belfast Academy and the Belfast Academical Institution, and then moves to Dublin to study law at Trinity College, obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1826 and his masters degree in 1832.

Because his father has exhausted the family property, Ferguson is forced to support himself through his student years. He turns to writing and is a regular contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine by the age of 22. He is called to the bar in 1838, but continues to write and publish, both in Blackwood’s and in the newly established Dublin University Magazine.

Ferguson settles in Dublin, where he practises law. In 1848, he marries Mary Guinness, a great-great-niece of Arthur Guinness and the eldest daughter of Robert Rundell Guinness, founder of Guinness Mahon bank. At the time he is defending the Young Irelander poet Richard Dalton Williams.

In addition to his poetry, Ferguson contributes a number of articles on topics of Irish interest to antiquarian journals. In 1863, he travels in Brittany, Ireland, Wales, England, and Scotland to study megaliths and other archaeological sites. These studies are important to his major antiquarian work, Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which is edited after his death by his widow and published in 1887.

His collected poems, Lays of the Western Gael is published in 1865, resulting in the award of a degree LL.D. honoris causa from Trinity College. He writes many of his poems in both Irish and English translations. In 1867, Ferguson retires from the bar to take up the newly created post of Deputy Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland. As reward for his services, he receives a knighthood in 1878.

Ferguson’s major work, the long poem Congal is published in 1872 and a third volume, Poems, in 1880. In 1882, he is elected President of the Royal Irish Academy, an organisation dedicated to the advancement of science, literature, and antiquarian studies. His house in North Great George’s St., Dublin, is open to everyone interested in art, literature or music.

Ferguson dies on August 9, 1886 in Howth, just outside Dublin city, and is buried in Donegore near Templepatrick, County Antrim.