‘On This Day’ at your fingertips. New Island publish the collected radio columns. In shops now.

On this Day cover idea no rte logo10 October OTD

With twelve great cartoons from Annie West.

[What the publishers say]

In this entertaining and engaging book, based on the popular ‘On This Day’ segment from RTÉ’s Drivetime, Myles Dungan delivers little-known episodes from the history of Ireland, and Irish people at home and abroad, bringing fresh perspectives on the lives of both the renowned and the notorious.

The book features a diverse mix of Irish luminaries, from giants of Irish history such as Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins and Grace O’Malley, to literary legends Brendan Behan, W. B. Yeats, Francis Ledwidge and Maria Edgeworth, to Cork-born champion of the working man, Mary Harris a.k.a. ‘Mother Jones’, as well as a diverse mix of rebels, courtesans, composers and bandits.

These stories are imbued with renewed vigour and energy. Featuring pieces from as early as the thirteenth century and from as late as the mid-twentieth century, this distinct work is an original and accessible account of the trivial and tremendous moments from Irish history.

Myles Dungan is a broadcaster and historian. He presents The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1 and his weekly ‘On This Day’ column for Drivetime is in its second year. He has also compiled and presented a number of award-winning historical documentaries. He is the author of a dozen works on Irish and American history and holds a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin.




[Note: This survey is intended as a supplement to some conclusions drawn on fatalities in the afterword of the new revised edition of my book Irish Voices from the Great War]




To ascertain how many Irish-born names are included who fought with non-Irish units and to deduct these from the Irish-born total of 30,986 (source: www.findmypast.ie)



To establish how many fatalities occurred among those whose service originated in Ireland. To establish a fatality / enlistment ratio for purely Irish recruits – i.e. those Irishmen who joined up in Ireland or those Irishmen already in Irish regiments like the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, i.e. in the regular army or reserve.


A caveat – some of the Irish-born soldiers who died in British or non UK units may also have enlisted in Ireland. In, for example, a random sample of 1000 deaths of Irishmen who died serving in English regiments c.3.5% had transferred from Irish units and may well have been recruited in Ireland.


An additional caveat – the numbers recorded in the INWMR of those Irish-born soldiers who died in British units may not be exhaustive. There may be other Irishmen who died in British regiments whose names are not recorded.



Use of the invaluable Ireland’s Memorial Records page on the ‘In Flanders Fields’ website [imr.inflandersfields.be/search.html]


Basic search terms such as ‘Canada’ ‘USA’ ‘Lancashire’ ‘Royal Engineers’ etc. were entered and these were used to identify the numbers of Irish-born soldiers in British, Colonial and American units who have been included in the Irish memorial records


In the records of some soldiers there is an indication of previous units in which they served. Only units with which soldiers were serving at the time of their deaths were counted – this was to avoid the risk of double-counting


Where no place of birth was indicated [7405 instances] the soldier in question was not included in any count.








ENGLAND                              6044

SCOTLAND                             1290

WALES                                280

USA                                  13

CANADA                               53

INDIA                                11

AUSTRALIA                            20

NEW ZEALAND                          14

SOUTH AFRICA                         10


TOTAL                                7735


This means that 7735 names must be deducted from the total of 30,986 names in the Irish National War Memorial Records, designated as having been born in Ireland, in order to arrive at a tentative figure for Irish dead whose service actually originated in Ireland itself. As noted above this figure could err on the low side by around 3.5%.







However, it should also be noted when arriving at a tentative figure (no definitive figure is possible) that a significant percentage of the 7405 names in the INWM Records whose place of birth is not noted, were actually born in Ireland. On the basis of a ratio of 3:1 (Irish:Non Irish) for those whose country of origin is known we might well surmise that three-quarters of those 7405 men (5554) were born in Ireland.


This would give us an actual total of Irish-born of around 36,540 (30,986 + 5554)


From this we need to subtract 7735 – giving us a total of Irish-born serving in Irish units who died in the Great War of 28,805 – in other words an Irish fatality ratio of 1:7 – somewhat higher than the UK average of 1:8 (720,000 dead out of a serving complement of 5.7 million). It is worth noting that this figure is not far removed from the statistic of 27,405 given by the Irish Registrar General in the 1926 census as the number of Irish soldiers, excluding officers, who died on active service outside the UK between 1914-18. If deceased officers are added in the figure of 28,805 becomes even more plausible.


This of course does not take into account Irish fatalities in ‘colonial’ forces or in the US forces. The only figure that has, thus far, been independently researched, is that of Irish enlistment (c.6,000) and fatalities (c.900) in Australia undertaken by Prof Jeff Kildea. Work yet to be verified by this writer suggests that the equivalent US figure is 1200.





(SOURCE: WWW.FINDMYPAST.IE –   http://www.findmypast.ie/articles/world-records/full-list-of-the-irish-family-history-records/military-service-and-conflict/irelands-memorial-record-world-war)


IRISH                      30,986

ENGLISH                    9,162

NONE GIVEN                 7,405

SCOTTISH                   1,357

WELSH                      314

INDIA  N                   82

USA                        41

CANADIAN                   36

AUSTRALIAN                 21

SOUTH AFRICAN              12



This is my grand-uncle Pat O’Reilly, Baileborough, Co.Cavan – died on the Somme in September 1916 – his Lives of the First World War Site is here

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this – I’m no expert but I hope this helps.

If you are too daunted to do the work yourself I can recommend Gordon Power, military genealogist as one of the best researchers in this area. I have only met the guy once (last Saturday in Waterford Library at our Great War Roadshow) where he gave an amazing presentation) so I have no agenda and I’m not on a percentage of whatever fee he might charge. He can be emailed at gordonpower@yahoo.com




CAVEAT: 70% of the actual service records of WW1 soldiers were damaged or destroyed in the Blitz – so you may be disappointed in the quality and quantity of information available.


There is currently a plethora of websites willing to sell you information on your ancestor(s) who served. Often, however, there is no additional information available than details you can accumulate free of charge.







  1. Search under ‘Find War Dead’ – also select ‘war’ and ‘service’ (ie ‘Army’, ‘Navy’ etc) – [Smith, J]
  2. 2079 records match your search – here you will need to know the name of his regiment and, if possible, his service number – Click on name – more information available on cemetery







Imperial War Museum project. Essentially they are inviting you to add information to the personal web page they have created (one of 4.5 million so far) for a ‘remembered’. However, there is already some basic information on each soldier on their webpage.


  1. Search by name, unit or service number – ‘John Smith’
  2. 6552 results for ‘John Smith’ – choose the most likely one and click on the name – [British Army Royal Engineers Inland Waterways Transport, Service #220]
  3. Click on ‘Search Official Records’ – this may give date and place of birth
  4. Return to ‘Private John Smith’ homepage – click on Medal Index Card
  5. Select ‘? Facts were added in this source of evidence’


If you do have additional information / images of your ancestor do the world a favour and upload it onto this site for posterity.










NOTE: All the files below are available for inspection in The National Archive Reading Room in Kew in London


Unit War Diaries. (WO95)


These can be a mine of information [mostly typed and readable] or skimpy beyond belief. It’s the luck of the draw.


The good news is that some of this particular record series (WO95) has been digitized so the war diaries of battalions within the first 33 divisions of the army are available online. [Not much good if you want to research a relative in the 36th (Ulster) Division]


Search by going to http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/war-diaries-ww1.htm and entering the regiment, battalion, brigade or division number in the box provided.


There may be a charge for downloading.



Medal Card Index (WO 372)


All soldiers who served overseas were entitled to a service medal of some description. In addition many earned medals for gallantry. Each of those who served overseas (male or female) had a dedicated medal card. There are over 5m of these in the British National Archives in Kew


A charge of £3.30 is incurred if you wish to view a .pdf of the actual card. This may contain additional information on the soldier who is the object of your research.



A full list of TNA digitized WW1 collections can be seen at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/centenary-digitised-records.htm



Silver War Badge records


The badge, which came into being in September 1916, was awarded to all of those military personnel who had served at home or overseas during the war, and who had been discharged from the army under King’s Regulations. This generally meant that the soldier had been released on account of being permanently physically unfit.


If your relative was discharged before September 1916 he may still have received a badge retrospectively.


The badges were useful for deflecting the grim attentions of members of the Order of the White Feather (who once presented a white feather to a sailor in civilian clothing on his way to accept the Victoria Cross). Wounded veterans could point to their silver war badge as evidence that they had not avoided enlistment. Badges bore the inscription ‘For King and Empire – Services Rendered.


The ‘Long Long Trail website gives an excellent rundown on the nature and scope of the records.








In some instances you will be re-directed from sites like The British National Archives to ancestry.com become this company has digitized many of the WW1 holdings of TNA. So I figured it was better to cut out the middleman here.


Some records may be hard to track down if they have been misfiled in the first instance and if names can not to read properly by the optical character recognition equipment.


Access to this service may be available free of charge through your local library


British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920 (WO363) ‘The Burnt records’




This database contains the surviving service records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who served in WWI and did not re-enlist in the Army prior to World War II. With the final release, this database now contains the entire service records collection.


These records contain a variety of forms, including:


Attestation forms – the form completed by the individual on enlistment

Medical history forms

Casualty forms

Disability statements

Regimental conduct sheets


Proceedings on Discharge

Cover for Discharge Documents

Index Cards


Information available in these records includes:


Name of soldier




Marital status

Regimental number

Date of attestation

Physical description


An absolute goldmine if your man’s records survived the German bombs AND the fireman’s hoses. But only a 1:3 chance that you will turn up the relevant file.



British Army WW1 Pension Records (WO364)




Known as ‘The Unburnt Records’. Potentially useful where WW1 survivors are concerned


This database contains service records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who were discharged from the Army and claimed disability pensions for service in WWI. These were also men who did not re-enlist in the Army prior to World War II. Approximately 5 million men served in the British Army in World War One (WWI) and these records contain many of them, especially if they claimed a pension.


These records contain a variety of forms, including:


Attestation forms – the form completed by the individual on enlistment

Medical history forms

Casualty forms

Disability statements

Regimental conduct sheets



Information available in these records includes:


Name of soldier




Marital status

Regimental number

Date of attestation

Physical description


NB: Don’t bother if your soldier was killed in action or was not entitled to a disability pension











1901 and 1911 CENSUS


In the absence of conscription in Ireland the two digitized Irish censuses are not quite as useful as their British equivalents. However, they can certainly indicate whether the name for which you are searching was a male of military age (18-41 18-51 from 1918)


Soldiers Wills


To circumvent the necessity for a will to be witnessed legislation allowed soldiers to make wills on forms included in their paybooks.


At least 9000 of the 30,000+ Irish soldiers who died chose this option and their wills are preserved in the National Archives of Ireland. The wills have also been digitized and can be read online at http://soldierswills.nationalarchives.ie/search/sw/





The Irish Military Service Pensions are likely to become an increasingly useful source in years to come. At the moment the only information available is on 1916 veterans but as time goes on the files of Irish WW1 veterans who went on to join the IRA and fight in the War of Independence should also become available. There were at least 116 WW1 veterans in the IRA during the Anglo Irish War. Your grandad might have been one of them.


For the same reason it would be useful to consult the Bureau of Military History witness statements. Many names appear of men unconnected with the IRA. Perhaps your ancestor was an IRA target because of their WW1 service.






Irish National War Memorial Records – compiled in the 1920s and giving rise to the myth that 49,500 Irishmen died in the war – now searchable via

http://imr.inflandersfields.be/search.html – in some cases there is more information than on the CWGC website


The Long, Long,Trail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918

http://www.1914-1918.net . This site includes a useful tutorial page on how to go about researching a soldier – http://www.1914-1918.net/soldiers/research.html




Forces War Records is the sister site of Forces Reunited, the leading British military community on the web with more than one million members and reuniting veterans since 2001, part of Clever Digit Media Ltd.

This is a commercial site but is useful and user friendly.


www.rootschat.com – other people might be able to suggest avenues of research if you are facing dead ends




www.findmypast.ie – a commercial site but often accessible FOC via your local library





The Irish Times digital archive is a very useful source, especially for Dublin-based soldiers – however, it is likely to have more information on deceased soldiers than on those who survived – searchable


The Freeman’s Journal and Irish Independent for the Great War period are available on the Irish Newspaper Archive website – as are many local newspapers of the period (eg Kerryman, Limerick Leader, Meath Chronicle etc] – you can subscribe yourself to search and download but your local library may have an account with INA which will allow you to access the site FOC on library computers.


It may also be worth checking the London Gazette for details of military honours awarded




Irish regimental/museum websites



Some additional information can be found on the following websites, mostly maintained by dedicate enthusiasts who are willing to help you in your searches.






http://homepage.eircom.net/~tipperaryfame/leinster.htm– Leinster Regiment


http://royalirishrangers.co.uk/irish.html– Royal Irish Fusiliers

http://www.inniskillingsmuseum.com– facility to ‘trace a relative’ at a cost of £28








These will often give general ‘feel’ for the experience of your relatives and might even mention them specifically. I came across a reference to my own granduncle’s death (he was a mere rifleman/private) in Taylor’s history of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War.




Cooper, Bryan, The Tenth (Irish) Division in Gallipoli (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1993).

Cunliffe, Marcus, The Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1793-1968 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1970).

Denman, Terence, Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers: the 16th Irish Division in the Great War (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1992).

Doherty, Richard, The Sons of Ulster (Belfast, Appletree, 1992).

Dooley, Thomas, Irishmen or English Soldiers: The Times and World of a Southern Catholic Irish Man (1876-1916) Enlisting in the British Army in the First World War (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1995).

Dungan, Myles Irish Voices from the Great War (Irish Academic Press, Dublin 1995)

Dungan, Myles, They Shall Grow not Old: Irish soldiers and the Great War (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1997).

Feilding, Rowland, War Letters to a Wife (London, Medici Society, 1929),

Fox, Sir Frank, The Royal Inniskilling Rifles in the World War (London, Constable, 1928).

Grayson, Richard S., Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (London, Continuum, 2009).

Hanna, Henry, The Pals at Suvla Bay (Dublin, Ponsonby, 1916).

Harris, Henry, Irish Regiments in the First World War (Cork, Mercier Press, 1968).

Hitchcock, Frank, Stand To: a Diary of the Trenches (Norwich, 1988).

Hogarty, Patrick, The Old Toughs: A Brief History of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion (Dublin, Private publication, 2001).

Horne, John, ed., Our War: Ireland and the Great War (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 2008).

Kipling, Rudyard, The Irish Guards in the Great War, Vol.1. (London, Macmillan,1923).

Laird, Frank, Personal Experiences of the Great War (Dublin, Eason, 1925).

Lucy, John, There’s a Devil in the Drum (London, London and Naval Military Press, 1992).

Johnstone, Thomas, Orange, Green and Khaki (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1992).

McCance, Captain S., History of the Royal Munster Fusiliers: Volume II – from 1862-1922 (Aldershot, Gale and Polden,1927).

MacDonagh, Michael, The Irish at the Front (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1916).

MacDonagh, Michael, The Irish on the Somme, (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1917).

Orr, Phillip, The Road to the Somme (Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1987).

Orr, Philip, Field of Bones: An Irish Division at Gallipoli (Dublin, Lilliput Press, 2006).

Quinn, Anthony P., Wigs and Guns: Irish Barristers in the Great War (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2006).

Rickard, Jesse Louisa, The Story of the Munsters at Etreux, Festubert, Rue du Bois and Hulluch (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918).

Robertson, David, Deeds not Words: Irish Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen in Two World Wars (Multyfarnham, Privately published, 1998).

Taylor, James. W., The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2002).

Taylor, James. W., The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2005).

Walker, G.A.C., The Book of the 7th Service Battalion – The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – from Tipperary to Ypres (Dublin, Brindley, 1920).

Whitton, Col.F.E., The History of the Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment, Vol.2 (Aldershot, Gale and Polden, 1926).

Wyly, Col. H.C., Crown and Company – The Historical Record of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, vol.2 1911-1922 (London, Humphreys, 1923)

Wylly, Col.H.C., Neill’s Blue Caps – Vol.3, 1914-1922 (Aldershot, Gale and Polden, 1923).


A number of counties (Cork, Louth, Cavan, Dublin, Donegal etc) have also now published ‘Roll of Honour’ books with information on those who died from that county.








New on Kindle – The Stealing of the Irish Crown Jewels


1907. The Irish Crown Jewels are stolen from under the noses of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in Dublin Castle a few days before the royal visit of King Edward VII. The stumped DMP send for Scotland Yard. The crime is never solved, perhaps because if the thief was ever identified a huge scandal would follow? This is the tale of an audacious robbery, an outrageous heist, blackmail, murder and political intrigue at the highest level.

The Stealing of the Irish Crown Jewels by Myles Dungan is now available on Kindle at $6.99 (+VAT) or under €6.00


On This Day – 5 February 1960 – the first commercial screening of Mise Eire


As a young boy in a rather grim Irish boarding school in the 1960s one of the few attempts by the prison authorities to break the monotony was the occasional screening of a film in the school library. These would often be of an ‘improving’ nature, designed to elevate and inform rather than to entertain. So The Song of Bernadette was rather more likely to turn up than the latest James Bond adventure.


One screening which greatly appealed to this particular teenage nerd, though it might not have been quite as well received by some of the less historically oriented students, was a stirring archive-based account of the build up to the 1916 Rising and it’s aftermath. Mise Eire was like nothing we had ever seen before. It combined the talents of two of the country’s greatest ever artists, filmmaker George Morrison and composer Sean O’Riada.


Mise Eire was commissioned in the late 1950s and premiered at the 1959 Cork Film Festival. The feature length documentary, entirely in Irish with suitably portentous narration by Padraig O’Raghallaigh, had been directed or, more accurately, assembled by the legendary Irish film maker George Morrison, then in his thirties. Morrison, who had been a Trinity College medical student before he was eaten alive by the dreaded film bug, visited archives all across Europe and collected 300,000 feet of old, silent, black and white film which he then edited painstakingly into a full length documentary. For this he was, apparently, paid £375 – unfortunately he didn’t haggle for residuals and made nothing further from his efforts. Some compensation for this was his election to Aosdána in 2005 and an Industry Lifetime Contribution Award at the IFTA’s in 2009, when he was 87 years old.


The events represented visually in Mise Eire – the first theatrically released film to be recorded in the Irish language – had already become the stuff of legend long before it was released. It included footage of the 1915 funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, including shots of the old Fenian’s open coffin and the graveside oration by Pearse. It’s probably the only existing moving documentary coverage of either man. There is also unique footage of James Larkin leading a protest march after the 1914 Bachelor’s Walk killings and of the main motive force behind the Rising, the arch plotter himself, Thomas Clarke. Members of the Irish Citizen’s Army are depicted in training. Members of the Irish Volunteers are shown on their way to take up their positions on Easter Monday in Dublin. And then, of course, there is the representation of the Rising itself. We see the impact of the conflict on the fabric of Dublin city centre and the Volunteers, post surrender, being marched off to Frongoch prison in North Wales. Later material, from the War of Independence, includes rare shots of Michael Collins – speaking at the funeral of hunger striker Thomas Ashe, and of Eamon de Valera campaigning in the decisive 1918 General Election.


But of course there is a huge irony at the heart of Mise Eire, because despite the gargantuan achievement of Morrison in collecting and collating all this invaluable material, what sticks in the mind is not so much the images as the music underneath. Because, famously, the score for the film was written by the great Sean O’Riada. Making ingenious use of familiar traditional pieces like Roisin Dubh and Boolavogue, O’Riada created a soundtrack that underlined the significance of the images seen onscreen but also stood on its own as abiding symphonic music. The soundtrack was recorded in the Phoenix Hall on 19 May 1959 with O’Riada conducting the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra.


Some trivia associated with the film. It includes one of the earliest photographs ever taken in Ireland, a still dating from the Famine period when photography was in its infancy. George Morrison later wanted to add an English language version of the film’s voice-over. Anglo-Irish film star Peter O’Toole was recruited for the task but, in the face of opposition from the producers Gael Linn, this version was never recorded. Today DVD’s of the film includes English language subtitles.


Mise Eire, blessed by the images collected and assembled by Morrison and the music of O’Riada, had its commercial release fifty six years ago, on this day.




On This Day-29.1.1768 – Oliver Goldsmith’s first play The Good-Natured Man opens in London


Oliver Goldsmith must have been the despair of his mother – his father didn’t live long enough to see him fail at almost everything to which he turned his hand. Eventually he would write one of the finest plays, one of the best novels and one of the most ambitious long poems of the 18th century – but not before he had managed to mess up almost every opportunity that came his way.

Goldsmith was born either in Longford or Roscommon in November 1728, son of a Church of Ireland curate. In 1730 the family moved to Westmeath when his father was appointed rector to a parish in that county. In 1744 Goldsmith was admitted to Trinity College – there he learned to drink, gamble and play the flute. Although neither he nor the college greatly profited from his brief tenure his subsequent fame has earned him one of the two most prominent statutes in that venerable institution, overlooking College Green.

His father died around the time he graduated and Goldsmith moved back in to the family home so that he could be a burden on his poor mother rather than on himself. He got a job as a tutor, and quickly lost it after a quarrel. He decided to emigrate to America, but managed to miss his boat. He then took fifty pounds with him to Dublin to help establish himself as a student of law, but instead he lost it all gambling. He pretended to study medicine in Edinburgh, but rather than knuckle down he took off on a Grand Tour of Europe, keeping body and soul together by busking with his flute.

Eventually he settled in London and began to churn out hack writing work to keep him gambling in the manner to which he had become accustomed. Because, in spite of himself, he also occasionally published something of merit, he came to the attention of the famous wit and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. He became a founder member of the club of writers and intellectuals unimaginatively entitled ‘The Club’. This included Johnson, his biographer James Boswell, the actor-manager David Garrick, the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke and the painter Joshua Reynolds. Heady company for a young ne’er do well from Ballymahon.

In 1760 he wrote the epic poem The Deserted Village – elements of which schoolchildren of a certain age were once forced to learn by heart. This tells the story of the fictional village of Auburn that has been laid waste to make way for the ornamental gardens of a local landowner. The poem is a critique of rural depopulation and the seizure of valuable agricultural land by the wealthy.

… The man of wealth and pride

Takes up a space that many poor supplied;

Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,

Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:

The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth

Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth

He followed this up with his charming novel The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766 and one of the greatest comic plays in the English language, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773. Prior to that classic play he had a modicum of success with The Good Natured Man, which bombed on the London stage but, perversely, sold a lot of copies when the text was published.

Success enabled Goldsmith to carry on a style of life that virtually guaranteed an early exit. And so it proved. He continued to gamble and drink on a spectacular scale and ended up in debt and in bad health, simultaneously. He died in 1774 at the age of 45.

Despite all his achievements as a novelist, playwright and poet he’s probably still best remembered today for an inspired piece of doggerel, no pun intended, Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog – the title gives away the ending but the short verse is a satire on hypocrisy, corruption and pietism in which a man of acknowledged substance, guilty of all three vices, is bitten by a dog and given up for dead by the commentariat – then comes the sting in the tail (and yes, the pun is intended this time)

But soon a wonder came to light,

That showed the rogues they lied:

The man recovered of the bite,

The dog it was that died.


Oliver Goldsmith’s play The Good Natured Man opened in London to less than ecstatic reviews 247 years ago, on this day.



On this day –Drivetime – 22 January 1879 James Shields elected Senator for Missouri


James Shields from Co.Tyrone was an extraordinary Irishman though his name is virtually unknown in his native country. He had an uncle of the same name who emigrated from Ireland and became a U.S. senator for Ohio. Not to be outdone James Shields Jr. left Ireland at the age of twenty and went on to represent not one but three states in the U.S. Senate. A unique achievement unlikely ever to be repeated.

He started in Illinois – where he had also been a State Supreme Court justice. From 1849 he served one term as a US Senator. His election was helped by what came to be known as the ‘lucky Mexican bullet’. This he had stopped while a brigadier general in the Mexican-American war in 1846. His opponent for the Illinois seat was the incumbent Sydney Breese, a fellow Democrat. A political rival wrote of Shields’s injury “What a wonderful shot that was!  The bullet went clean through Shields without hurting him, or even leaving a scar, and killed Breese a thousand miles away.” He is also unusual in that he replaced himself in the Senate. When he was first elected it emerged that he had not been a citizen of the USA for the required nine years. He had only been naturalized in October 1840. So his election was declared null and void. However, he would have been entitled to take his seat after a special election was called to replace him, as he had, by then, been naturalized for the required period. So he stood again and won the seat for a second time.

Failing to be re-elected six years later he moved to what was then the Minnesota ‘territory’ from where he was returned in 1858 as one of the new state’s first two senators after Minnesota achieved statehood. Later, during the Civil War he distinguished himself as a Union General and then settled in Missouri.

He had obviously taken a liking to the Senate chamber because he contrived to get re-elected to that house from Missouri in 1879 at the age of 73. He died shortly after taking office.

But Shields is possibly even more important for something he didn’t do.

In 1842 he was already well-known in his adopted home of Illinois. He was a lawyer and was serving in the state legislature as a Democrat. After one of those periodic economic recessions hit the nation in the 1840s Shields, as state auditor, issued instructions that paper money should no longer be taken as payment for state taxes. Only gold or silver would be acceptable. A prominent member of the Whig party, one Abraham Lincoln, took exception to the move and wrote an anonymous satirical letter to a local Springfield, Illinois newspaper in which he called Shields a fool, a liar and a dunce. This was then followed up by his wife-to-be, Mary Todd, with an equally scathing letter of her own. When Shields contacted the editor of the newspaper to find out who had written the second letter Lincoln himself took full responsibility. A belligerent Shields, accordingly, challenged the future US president to a duel. The venue was to be the infamous Bloody Island in the middle of the Mississippi river, dueling being illegal in Illinois.

Lincoln, having been challenged, was allowed to choose the weapons and set the rules. He did this to his own considerable advantage, opting for broadswords as opposed to pistols. While Shields was a crack shot he was only 5’9” in height, as opposed to Lincoln’s towering 6’4”. When the rivals finally met on 22 September 1842 Lincoln quickly demonstrated his huge reach advantage to Shields by ostentatiously lopping off a branch above the Irishman’s head with his weapon of choice.

When the seconds, and other interested parties, intervened peace was negotiated between the two men, though it took some time to placate the pugnacious Shields and persuade him to agree to shake hands with Lincoln.

The man who might have abruptly ended the life and career of Abraham Lincoln, and radically changed the course of American history, James Shields from Co.Tyrone, was elected as Senator from Missouri, 136 years ago on this day.



On This Day – Drivetime – 15.1.1825 Suicide of banker Thomas Newcomen



In case you thought Irish banking failures and inquiries were peculiar to the 21st century – think again. As Woody Guthrie pithily put it …


Some men rob you with a gun

And some with a fountain pen


… and the Irish banker has been ruining himself and his customers as well as cleverly socializing his losses since the early 1800s.


Let’s look at a few of the most spectacular Irish banking collapses of the 19th century. Most of them involve politicians as well. Strange that.


For example, there was the scandal of the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank in 1856. It was run by the Irish Liberal MP for Carlow John Sadlier, and his brother James, MP for Tipperary. When it ran out of money John Sadlier took the easy way out and committed suicide on Hampstead Heath, leaving James to face the music. This he did for a while before he absconded. He ended his days in Switzerland, the natural home of the dodgy banker. Investigations revealed that the reason for the collapse of the bank was that John Sadlier had been embezzling on an outrageous scale. Before he shuffled off his mortal coil he’d removed nearly £300,000 from the vaults. The whole episode is said to have provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration to create the dubious financier Mr. Merdle in Little Dorritt. The book was being serialized when the scandal erupted.


Fast forward to 1869 and yet another example of Ireland’s capacity to forgive a scoundrel. In this instance it was another MP, James McNeale McKenna who, in the 1850s and 60’s was Chairman and MD of the National Bank of Ireland – so he combined in one person the roles later held by Sean Fitzpatrick and David Drumm in Anglo Irish Bank. Either Seanie and David were total slackers or James Mac Mac was an absolute hive of fiduciary energy.


He successfully ran the bank into the ground on foot of a number of unwise investments in pursuit of growth and greater market share. Aren’t we fortunate that our bankers shrugged off that bad habit a century and a half later. By the time he resigned, accused of cronyism and paying himself too much – other habits utterly alien to the modern equivalent – the National Bank of Ireland had debts of almost £400,000. Miraculously it survived. McKenna, MP for Youghal, lost his seat, but much later re-invented himself as a Parnellite and was re-elected in South Monaghan This bears out the suspicion that if Parnell had nominated a pile of pigeon droppings for a nationalist constituency they would have won the seat with a thumping majority.


Another flawed banker, however, was not so lucky where the Uncrowned King of Ireland was concerned. William Shaw, briefly, held the leadership of the Irish party after Isaac Butt died. But then in 1880 he got the bum’s rush when Parnell stood against him. Interestingly Shaw was supported in the leadership vote by one James McNeale McKenna. These banker/politicians stick together. Shaw, was also founder and Chairman of the Munster Bank. In 1884 he resigned, having received loans to the value of £80,000 – twice the exposure of the rest of the directors combined. Again, we are fortunate that this practice was completely stamped out before the 20th century. The bank didn’t outlive his Chairmanship long. It went bust the following year.


Finally we quickly rewind to the 1820s and Thomas Newcomen, a Viscount and, surprise surprise, a politician. He inherited the Newcomen bank, voted for the Act of Union in 1800, spent much time in his bank’s fine new headquarters – now the rates office beside Dublin Castle – and proceeded to drive the family business into the ground, taking many depositors with him. Newcomen was described as a reclusive Scrooge-like figure who ‘it was widely whispered, gloated over ingots of treasure with no lamp to guide him but the luminous diamonds which had been left for safe–keeping in his hands.’


Thomas Newcomen, driven to distraction by the collapse of his family bank, took his own life 190 years ago, on this day.



On This Day -8.1.1871 Birth of James Craig



The most familiar photograph of James Craig is of a rather startled looking but steely-eyed elderly man with rapidly receding hair and a thick prominent grey moustache. He looks like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. In this instance looks were not deceptive.


Craig was born in Belfast in 1871, son of a distiller. He was a millionaire by the age of 40 – much of his money coming from his adventures in stockbroking. This meant that he had plenty of opportunity and resources to devote to his favourite pastime, keeping Ulster out of the Union. This he was very good at indeed.


As did many a younger son of a well-established family he first distinguished himself in the Army. Everybody had enjoyed the first Boer War so much that they decided to do it all over again and from 1899 Craig served as an officer in the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles. He was, at one point, imprisoned by the Boers and was finally forced home by dysentery in 1901.


His name is, of course, as indelibly associated with that of Edward Carson as is Butch Cassidy’s with that of the Sundance Kid. Craig came into his own in 1912 in the organisation of unionist opposition to the prospect of Irish Home Rule. He was central to the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the promulgation of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in which Ulster said ‘no’ with an emphatic flourish. While Carson made the speeches and was the most public opponent of Irish devolution Craig was seen as the organizational genius who developed the muscular element to back up Carson’s rhetoric. Craig was, for example, one of the men behind the Larne gun running of 1914, which brought 20,000 rifles to the UVF.


Unlike Carson, Craig was perfectly content at the exclusion from Home Rule of the six counties of what became, in 1920, Northern Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act that year gave Ulster, somewhat ironically, a Home Rule parliament of its own. In February 1921 Craig succeeded Carson as leader of the Ulster Unionist party. He fought the 1921 election later that year asking unionist supporters to ‘Rally round me that I may shatter our enemies and their hopes of a republic flag. The Union Jack must sweep the polls. Vote early, work late.’ If you were expecting ‘vote often’ there … well that wasn’t Craig’s style. In June 1921 he became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.


His most famous speech was made in the Northern Ireland parliament in 1934 and, we are told, is often misquoted. He did not actually refer to that assembly as a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. What he did say was ‘my whole object [is] in carrying on a Protestant Government for a Protestant people.’ You might well be forgiven for wondering what’s the difference.


He also reflected on one occasion in the Northern Ireland House of Commons that ‘It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.’ Arguably he achieved that ambition during his tenure as Prime Minister, though large-scale fiscal transfers from London and the Anglo-Irish Economic War of the 1930s undoubtedly helped the Northern Irish economy keeps its nose ahead of that of the under-performing Irish Free State.


Craig was almost obsessive about having Northern Ireland treated as an integral part of the United Kingdom, to such an extent that he occasionally acted contrary to the apparent interests of its population. This can be seen most clearly in his insistence in 1940 that conscription be introduced in Northern Ireland when WW2 broke out. Wisely Winston Churchill passed on that particular poisoned chalice, fearing the inevitable backlash from the sizeable nationalist population – not to mention the reaction in the Irish Free State.


Towards the end of his days Craig began to take on an uncanny physical resemblance to the man who, in later life, would become the Rev. Ian Paisley. When he died in November 1940, aged 69, he was still Northern Ireland Prime Minister.


Captain James Craig, later 1st Viscount Craigavon, was born 144 years ago, on this day.





On this day – 18.12.1878 Hanging of John Kehoe of the Molly Maguires



Their Irish origins are mysterious, though they were almost definitely a 19th century agrarian secret society. Their name may have emanated from a tradition that was not just Irish – the Welsh were party to it as well in the so-called Rebecca riots – where male activists disguised themselves as women before engaging in illegal activity up to and including murder. They may have also have been associated with the main Roman Catholic rival to the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.


But it wasn’t in Ireland that the Molly Maguires made a name for themselves. It was in the anthracite mines and on the rail-roads of Pennsylvania. Here, the tactics used against landlords and land agents in Ireland, were applied in bitter labour disputes, with the Ancient order of Hibernians, an organisation that originated in the USA, acting as a legitimate front for the illegal activities of the Mollies. Then again there are historians who do not believe this shadowy conspiracy ever existed on the scale that was claimed by the owners and shareholders of the mines and railways in late 19th century Pennsylvania. That is a point of view that was widely held at the time as well.


Immigrant labour offered a glorious opportunity for Pennsylavania capitalists to undercut the wages being paid to American-born miners. Wages for Irish migrants were low and conditions were brutal. ‘On the job’ fatalities and injuries ran into the hundreds each year. The so-called ‘panic of 1873’ – not a million miles removed from the stock market crash of 1929 and the sub-prime crisis of 2007 made a bad situation even worse for the mine and railroad workers.


Just as every crisis brings opportunity, mostly for the unscrupulous, the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron company, Franklin Gowen, son of an Irish immigrant and the richest man in the region, decided it was high time to crush the burgeoning trade union activity in the state, represented by the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. While the ‘Molly Maguires’ may have been the convenient invention of Gowen himself there is no doubt that perceived enemies of the Pennsylvania mineworkers were being killed by the dozen. In one of the six main anthracite-mining counties there had been 50 such murders between 1863-67.


Gowen, with the co-operation of his fellow mine owners, engaged the services of the yet-to-be-famous detective agency run by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, to help break a general strike in the anthracite fields. In 1875 he despatched an agent, Armagh-born James McParland, to the area. Posing as ‘James McKenna’ the Pinkerton detective infiltrated the Benevolent Association and claimed also to have insinuated himself into the confidence of the Molly Maguires. Information gathered by McParland was, in the first instance, passed on to vigilante elements who happened to share Gowen’s union-bashing objectives. When suspected ‘Mollies’ were murdered in their own homes McParland threatened to resign from the Pinkerton organisation but was persuaded to remain in place. After six months the strike ended and most of the miners returned to work having agreed to a 20% wage cut. However, Irish-born members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians refused to concede and fought on. Attacks on overseers, strike-breakers and police continued until information supplied by McParland led to a number of arrests.


The Armagh Pinkerton, who had, by his own account, been a trusted collaborator of the leadership of the Mollies, testified against a number of those accused of murder. Demonstrating the extent of his political power within the state of Pennsylvania Gowen managed to have himself made special prosecutor and actually conducted some of the cases against the Mollies. The accused included the alleged ringleader of the organisation John ‘Black Jack’ Kehoe. McParland’s testimony sent ten men to the gallows. Many of them, including Kehoe, loudly proclaimed their innocence of the crimes of which they had been convicted. In 1979 the state of Pennsylvania pardoned Kehoe posthumously after an investigation by its Board of Pardons at the behest of one of his descendants.


The Molly Maguires have passed into legend. Arthur Conan Doyle based a Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Valley of Fear on their alleged activities. The 1970 film The Molly Maguires, starred Sean Connery as Kehoe and Richard Harris as McParland.


John ‘Black Jack’ Kehoe, the last of the Molly Maguire defendants was hanged in Pennsylvania 137 years ago, on this day.