On This Day – 23 September 1875 – Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time


While he has Irish connections of his own it is the involvement of William Henry McCarty in an Anglo-Irish war that is of most Irish interest. Not THE Anglo-Irish war, also known as  the War of Independence, you understand but AN Anglo-Irish war – of sorts. This one was fought out in New Mexico in the 1880s.


So who is William Henry McCarty? Well he also went under the name of William Bonney. And if that doesn’t ring any bells his nickname probably will. He was best known as Billy the Kid.  It’s hardly unusual in the USA that a violent antihero and probable psychopath should be viewed with reverence. But the Kid has had more books written about him,  more films made about him, and more porkies told about him – some by himself –  than any other Western outlaw.


He was born in New York City, probably in 1859, to an Irishwoman, Catherine McCarty, whose maiden name was Devine. No other parent’s name is listed on his birth certificate though his father may have been a Patrick McCarty.  Billy was brought up in the lower east side of the city in the area known as the Five Points – made famous in the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs of New York.


By 1873 Catherine McCarty and her new husband, William Antrim were living in New Mexico. In 1874 Catherine Antrim died. The following year her son became involved in petty crime. In September 1875 he robbed a Chinese laundry in Silver City, New Mexico, was arrested, escaped from jail and went on the run. He was fifteen years old. He didn’t have long left.


The most celebrated and persistent myth about the Kid is that he killed a man for every year of his short life (he was dead by the age of twenty-one). This tall tale may have come from the Kid himself to counteract his youthful appearance and enhance his aura of invincibility but it is well wide of the mark. He is known to have been personally responsible for the deaths of four men and was complicit in the killing of four more.


His first victim was a thirty-two-year-old Irishman, Frank Cahill, a native of Galway.  The two men met, and fought, in Arizona. Cahill came off worse. The Kid was immediately arrested but, once again, displayed his knack for escaping custody. Facing a murder charge in Arizona, he returned to New Mexico. There he became involved in what is known today as the Lincoln County War. This was a power struggle for economic and political domination of southern New Mexico fought out between a group of dodgy Irish businessmen, farudsters and rustlers, Lawrence Murphy, John Riley and Jimmy Dolan on the one side, and an equally dubious young English opportunist  John Henry Tunstall as well as his Scottish-American partner Alexander McSween. The Kid enlisted on the ‘British’ side of the conflict when he took a job as one of Tunstall’s hired thugs.


His career as a practicing psychopath reached new depths in February 1878 when Tunstall was murdered by members of a posse sent out by the Sheriff of Lincoln County, William Brady from Cavan. The Kid claimed his second Irish victim a few days later when he, and at least two more of Tunstall’s former employees, gunned down Sheriff Brady in Lincoln.


The Kid went on the run again but after numerous brushes with the law, and a lot more violence, he was captured by the new Lincoln County Sheriff, Pat Garrett. He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Brady in April 1881. He was taken to Lincoln jail to await hanging but escaped yet again, this time killing two of Garret’s deputies, Bob Ollinger and James Bell as he made his getaway.


New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, put a $500 reward on Billy the Kid’s head and Garrett went in pursuit again. He tracked the Kid down in July 1881 and shot him dead in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Later Garrett, who had been a friend of McCarty – or Bonney, or Antrim – capitalized on their association by writing a suitably self-serving biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. As with Jesse James, Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, there were many reports of sightings of the Kid after his apparent demise. As he would now be more than one hundred and fifty years old we can be fairly confident that he is actually dead. But his legend lives on. So far he’s been played by Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson and Emilio Estevez, among many others.


Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time after robbing a laundry one hundred and forty one years ago, on this day.




UCD History Course – The American West -presented by Myles Dungan



THE AMERICAN WEST 1820-1920  (And the Irish who made it)

University College Dublin / National Library of Ireland  – Lifelong Learning

Where: National Library, Kildare Street

When: Wednesdays 10.30 – 13.00  October 5, 12,19 November 2, 9, 16, 23, 30

Fee: €195.00






Yes there was Billy the Kid – but he wouldn’t have become a legend but for Murphy, Dolan and Riley!


Nellie Cashman did a lot more for Tombstone than Wyatt Earp!


George Custer was a dashing cavalryman but Phil Sheridan was his boss!


Tom Fitzpatrick had more of an impact on the ‘real’ West than Buffalo Bill!


Come and find out about the dozens of Irish adventurers, entrepreneurs and lawmen who helped create the American West


You’ll find out about Sitting Bull, the Union Pacific, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Battle of the Little Bighorn but also about Belinda Mulrooney, William Mulholland, Myles Keogh and a host of other extraordinary Irish characters.

On This Day – 9 September 1831 – Irish National Education



Education in Ireland at primary and secondary level has traditionally been the preserve of the main religious denominations in the country and one in particular. That was not quite the intention of the prime movers back when a formal education system was first established in this country in 1831. That year £30,000 was allocated to establish a national system of elementary education in Ireland.

There is a myth that prior to this date Irish children were largely taught in what were known as ‘hedge schools’. While such informal and occasionally al fresco establishments did exist in the 1700s education had become rather more professionalized by the 19th century.  The Society for Promoting Elementary Education among the Irish Poor, better known in its much shorter form as the Kildare Street Society was in receipt of government funds from 1812 and ran almost fifteen hundred schools with over one hundred thousand students by 1825.

Despite the fact that there were allegations made against the Society of proselytism the influential Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, James Doyle – an ally of Daniel O’Connell – saw nothing objectionable to Catholics in the schools. Doyle was more concerned with low educational standards elsewhere than he was with any perception that the Kildare Street institutions might be trying to convert Catholics to Protestantism.

Others were not quite so sanguine and deprecated the practice in Kildare Street schools of scripture reading or ‘unaided private interpretation of the Sacred volume’ which was ‘peculiarly obnoxious’ to other members of the Catholic hierarchy.

It was, in part at least, to, as he put it himself,  ‘banish … even the suspicion of proselytism’ that in October 1831 the Chief Secretary Earl Stanley – later British Prime Minister Lord Derby –  wrote a letter to the Duke of Leinster outlining a system of education more closely associated with the state than the looser regime that prevailed at the time.  The government, the Chief Secretary informed the Duke, would fund the building of schools (with a small amount of local financial input), and would pay the salaries of teachers. Stanley’s letter was meant to convey to the Duke and to the Kildare Street Society that the government was no longer prepared to farm out education to an organization that was, in part, privately funded. It then proceeded to do just that all over again.

The main object of the new regime was to ‘unite in one system children of different creeds.’ The Board of National Education was told to look most favourably on applications for assistance from schools jointly managed by Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the policy of introducing a system of non-denominational, religiously integrated education was quickly abandoned as the Commissioners of Education caved in to demands from the main churches for rigidly denominational, segregated education. Within twenty years only 4% of national schools were not associated with a single religious denomination. The Dublin Castle administration didn’t always buckle to the realities of Irish life but in this instance it opted for pragmatism over principle.

The sum of £30,000 was allocated for the development of a new system of national education one hundred and eighty five years ago, on this day.


On This Day –2 September 1865, birth of William Rowan Hamilton






It was perhaps the most important example of anti-social behaviour in scientific history. What today might merely have merited an ASBO for the scraping of a piece of incomprehensible graffiti, back in 1843 was the breakthrough that William Rowan Hamilton needed to come up with the concept of something called the quaternion.


No one could have predicted at his birth that the son of Sarah Hutton and Archibald Hamilton, a Dunboyne, Co. Meath solicitor, would emerge as Ireland’s  most significant mathematician – other than Eamon de Valera – and one of the world’s foremost scientific minds.  But pretty soon after his birth it was clear to the extended Hamilton family that young William was a bit different.


He was sent at the age of three to live with his uncle James, a teacher and cleric, in Trim and there began to collect languages as a hobby. Before his teens he had already acquired a dozen. In addition to the predictable European tongues he had also picked up Hindustani, Sanskrit and Malay. Clearly the curriculum in Uncle James’s school was an interesting one.


It was a sobering experience at the age of eight that caused young William to wise up and stop messing around with foreign languages. Also something of a whizz at mental arithmethic in 1813 he was pitted against the visiting American mathematical genius Zerah Colburn in a head to head contest. Half the rakes of Dublin probably had money on the outcome. But it wasn’t a happy experience for young Hamilton. In this early Ryder Cup of Hard Sums – or ‘math’ as the young American would probably have called it – he lost out to Colburn. Realising he needed to up his game if he wanted to wanted to become a famous mathematician William Rowan Hamilton abandoned the acquisition of languages in favour of the solving of equations.


He entered Trinity College in 1823 and was appointed Professor of Astronomy in 1827. This was pretty rapid progress as he had yet to even graduate. That same year he took up residence in Dunsink Observatory and spent the rest of his life there.


Which brings us to his famous walk. It took place on 16 October 1843 when he and his wife left Dunsink to go for a stroll along the banks of the Royal Canal. We can only assume that they either walked in silence or that Hamilton, as is sadly the case with a lot of husbands, was paying little or no attention to what his spouse was saying, as they neared Broom Bridge in Cabra. Now while most men, in such circumstances, might have been idly poring over in their heads the advisibility of Manchester United, Chelsea, Kerry or Dublin acquiring a new head coach, Hamilton’s mind was concentrated on higher things – something called quaternions. These I am forced to concede, I know nothing whatever about and can’t even comprehend sufficiently to offer a passable Idiot’s Guide.


As the couple approached Broom Bridge Hamilton began to behave in a fashion that must have caused his wife some concern. He took out a penknife and carved

the following legend in the superstructure of the bridge


i² = j² = k² = ijk = -1


And, no, I’m very sorry but I don’t understand it either. This, it transpired, was the discovery of the quaternion, which apparently extends the range of complex numbers. One can only agree with the use of the word complex. The knowledge that her husband had discovered quaternions and was not simply vandalizing the bridge must have come as a great relief to Mrs. Hamilton.


Of course the moral of the story is, if you are a budding astronomer or mathematician who wants to make a difference, you should never leave the house without carrying a knife.


William Rowan Hamilton, mathematician and astronomer, died one hundred and fifty one years ago, on this day.






THE AMERICAN WEST 1820-1920  (And the Irish who made it)

University College Dublin / National Library of Ireland  – Lifelong Learning

Where: National Library, Kildare Street

When: Wednesdays 10.30 – 13.00  October 5, 12,19 November 2, 9, 16, 23, 30

Fee: €195.00





‘This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact print the legend’ (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)

The history of the American far West has been romanticised and mythologised in popular culture to a point where it is difficult to disentangle truth from fiction. Its icons (usually heavily armed) tend to be male, Caucasian, charismatic and violent. There is little room in the classic Western narrative for women, immigrants and persons of colour. Indigenous peoples, while included, usually get short shrift and fill the role of perennial and unsuccessful antagonist.

The actual narrative of the trans-Mississippi region in the late 19th century is far more complex and multi-faceted than the mythology propogated by Hollywood and the dime novel. It has been aptly described as ‘a past that never was and always will be’. It is an integral part of the U.S. foundation myth and of America’s sense of itself as a rugged, independent, self-reliant, free-thinking nation.


‘The American West, 1820-1920’ while acknowledging and addressing the romance and myth, aims to de-glamourise the ‘Frontier’ era and challenge some of the received wisdom that has gone largely unchecked in the popular imagination. While icons like Billy the Kid, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Wyatt Earp, Jim Bridger, Lol Montez, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley will all feature so too will Thomas Fitzpatrick, Nellie Cashman, William Mulholland and Jasper O’Farrell from Ireland, the Boo How Doy of San Francisco’s Chinatown, John Sutter from Baden in Germany and Londoner John Tunstall.


There are many mansions in this particular house and quite a few surprises behind the doors of those mansions. There will also be a multitude of locations (including the Little Bighorn, Deadwood, Dodge City, South Pass, Donner Pass, Chilkoot Pass), forms of transport (horse, wagon, buggy, Shank’s mare, railroad), armaments (the longbow, Colt 45, Winchester 73, the Gatling gun, the Bowie knife) and occupations (preacher, prostitute, lawman, cattleman, miner, labourer, teamster, assassin, schoolteacher, farmer).


Where appropriate the course will point to the significance of Irish emigrants in the far West. The ‘two-boat’ Irish exerted a far greater influence on the work, politics, law, military affairs and cultural life of the region than is generally acknowledged.

Among the topics for discussion will be the era of the fur trapper, the emigrant trails, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the rise of the city of San Francisco, the Gold Rush and mining for precious metals, bringing water across the deserts, violence and gun law, the frontier Army, the wars with Native America and the Hollywood treatment of all the above.

‘There’s no law west of Dodge and no God west of the Pecos’  (Chisum)


MYLES DUNGAN: Holds a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin and is the author of a number of books, including How the Irish Won the West (New Island, 2006). He also compiled and presented the RTE radio series True West in 2003.




On This Day – 26 August 1725 – Smallpox


Its effects were feared for centuries before it was finally declared to have been eradicated by the World Health Organisation in 1980. The last recorded case of this dreadful disease was in Somalia in 1977. Good riddance smallpox, which plagued this country for generations.

Ireland has more than a nodding acquaintance with smallpox. It originally got its name in the 15th century to distinguish it from ‘great pox’ aka syphilis. Around one third of its victims died. Many survivors were left with the scars of the disease in the form of permanently pock-marked skin. As recently as half a century ago, in 1967, two million people died of smallpox worldwide.

The disease inspired particular dread in Ireland where smallpox and its ugly sisters, cholera, typhoid and dysentery made themselves at home for hundreds of years and exploited extreme poverty and ignorance to devastating effect. The symptoms of the disease were high fever, headache, pain in the back and muscles. Children might also experience vomiting and convulsions.

If you didn’t die of smallpox in 18th and 19th century Ireland you probably went blind. The next time you hear the music of the great harpist Turlough O’Carolan from Nobber in County Meath think of smallpox. It blinded him at the age of eighteen in 1688 making him virtually useless for any occupation until he developed a talent as a harpist and a facility for musical composition. Many other itinerant harpists had been similarly afflicted.

The disease, which was highly contagious and infectious, is believed to have caused about one fifth of all deaths in the city of Dublin between 1661 and 1746. About a third of all child deaths were probably caused by smallpox. Although it mainly afflicted the poor it was no respecter of rank. The children of the rich could die of the disease just as quickly as those closer to the breadline.

Hope emerged towards the beginning of the 18th century when the efficacy of inoculation started to become apparent. Inoculating people with small doses of the virus had apparently been practiced in China since the 10th century but didn’t really begin to make inroads in Europe for almost another eight hundred years. In Ireland the technique was first tried on a number of, presumably unwilling, prisoners in Cork Jail in 1721. Four years later the experiment was extended to five children in Dublin.

As the effectiveness became clear the better off began to use inoculation to protect themselves and their children.  During periodic epidemics in the mid to late 18th centuries the survival rate among the wealthy families who had engaged in the practice encouraged its more widespread use. The South Infirmary in Cork even initiated a programme to inoculate the poor.

Naturally where there was money to be made there were charlatans. Travelling inoculators with a very basic grasp, if any, of what they were doing, competed for trade. In Donegal in 1781 all but one child of a group of fifty-two died when one unqualified practitioner purported to inoculate them.

Whatever inroads were being made in Ireland against the disease came to virtually nothing with the onset of the Great Famine of the 1840s when smallpox returned with a grim vengeance. Even for sufferers who survived the recovery period of the disease ensured that many were pauperized and died anyway with breadwinners unable to work.

It was only from the 1880s onwards that the disease began to be more rapidly eradicated in Ireland. In the 1870s more than seven and a half thousand people died of smallpox. By the first decade of the 20th century that figure was down to sixty-five. Between 1901 and 1910 almost a million Irish people were vaccinated against the disease.

A global campaign by the World Health Organisation begun in 1967 bore fruit and now smallpox can only return via the insanity of chemical warfare.

Five Dublin children received the first voluntary smallpox innoculations in Ireland
 two hundred and ninety one years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 19 August 1876 – The Catalpa arrives back in the USA



Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of seeing Donal O’Kelly’s memorable one man show about the 1876 voyage of the whaling barque, the Catalpa, will be unlikely to forget the significance of that event.  It was The Great Escape crossed with Papillon to create one of the most unorthodox and daring prison breaks in the history of incarceration.

The back-story begins with the abject failure of the Fenian rebellion of 1867. In its wake more than sixty IRB prisoners were transported after treason-felony and rebellion convictions to the penal colony of Western Australia. Over the years most of the prisoners were amnestied or released so that by the mid 1870s only a small handful of Fenians remained in Freemantle prison on the Australian west coast not far from the city of Perth.

In 1873 one of the men who remained in jail, James Wilson, managed to get a letter to John Devoy of the Irish revolutionary organisation, Clan na Gael, in New York. Wilson asked Devoy to launch an operation to free the remaining prisoners. It was a former Fenian transportee Thomas McCarthy Fennell who came up with the unorthodox but highly imaginative plan that was put into operation the following year.

The Clan bought a New Bedford whaling barque the Catalpa for $5500 in 1874.  A ship’s captain, George Smith Anthony, agreed to help. He recruited twenty-two sailors who were not in on the secret. The ship sailed from Massachusetts in April 1875. In the meantime two senior members of the Clan, John Breslin and Tom Desmond had been sent ahead to Western Australia to prepare for the rescue. Breslin, posing as an American mining speculator, ingratiated himself with the British governor of the colony while Desmond secured transport for the prisoners and devised a means of cutting telegraph lines to impede communications.

A faulty chronometer meant that Captain Anthony had to use his own navigational skills for the first leg of the Catalpa’s journey. The vessel also lost much of its crew when it landed in the Azores. But the deserters were replaced and the whaling ship finally arrived off the coast of Western Australia in April 1876.  There it dropped anchor in international waters and waited.

On 17 April six Fenian inmates working outside Freemantle prison walls absconded from their work party. The group included James Wilson. They met up with Breslin and Desmond and were driven to reconnoitre with Captain Anthony. They were then taken on board a small whaleboat. At this point the alarm was raised by a local man and the search for the escaped prisoners began in earnest. A storm initially prevented Anthony from transferring the freed Fenians from the small whaleboat to the Catalpa. It was hours before the storm abated and they could begin to row towards safety.

As Captain Anthony’s whaleboat neared the Catalpa, moored more than three miles off shore, he noticed a steamer, the Georgette, approach the whaling ship. This had been commandeered by the Western Australian governor. Anthony’s First Mate refused to allow the Catalpa to be boarded as it was anchored in international waters. The Georgette, short on fuel, withdrew for the moment and this allowed Anthony to smuggle the six Fenians on board his ship.

However the Georgette returned the following day and attempted to force the Catalpa back into Australian waters. A shot was fired across the bow of the small whaling ship. Anthony then raised the US flag and warned the pursuing steamer that any interference with the Catalpa would constitute an act of war. The police on board the Georgette had been told by the colonial governor not to create an international incident.  They were forced to allow the American vessel to escape into the Indian Ocean.

After its return to the USA the Catalpa was gifted by the grateful Fenians to its captain and leading crew members. Anthony, who courted arrest if he returned to sea, published an account of the operation in 1897 entitled The Catalpa Expedition.

The New Bedford, Massachusetts whaling ship, the Catalpa, sailed into New York harbour to a rapturous Irish-American welcome one hundred and forty years ago on this day.