On This Day – 16.11.1939 – The Birth of Luke Kelly


Nobody has ever possessed, or will ever be blessed with, a voice like Luke Kelly’s. He may not have been a choir boy, but he was a one-man choir. He may not have been perfect, but he had perfect diction, and perfect pitch. He was a Dubliner, in the broad and narrow sense of the word. He was born in Ireland’s capital city and he was one of the leading lights of the legendary folk group named after that city. If you’re too young to remember him, think of him as a sort of Christy Moore, but with a banjo, and more hair

Kelly’s date of birth is disputed, his birth certificate apparently claims he was born on 16 December. His mother always insisted that was a mistake and the family celebrated his birthday on 16 November. He came from a working-class background and it was his father, also called Luke, who gave him an early love of music. Kelly was largely self-taught, though he left schools at the age of thirteen he was a voracious reader. He emigrated to England in the late 1950s, lost at least one job when he demanded higher wages, and developed the socialist principles that he never abandoned during his short life. His political convictions helped to inform much of the Dubliner’s repertoire and he was also a vocal supporter of the Irish Traveller Movement and a variety of left-wing causes.


He returned to Ireland in the 1960s an accomplished banjo player, albeit an imitator of the styles of Pete Seeger and Tommy Makem. Although the 60s are noted for the inexorable rise of rock and roll, the folk music scene was also expanding and Kelly decided to try his luck with the ‘ballad boom’. Centered around venues like the Abbey Tavern in Howth and O’Donoghues Pub in Merrion Row, singers and musicians like Ronnie Drew, the Fureys, and Andy Irvine were beginning to shine, and to thrive. The Dubliners began life as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group—legend has it that for one gig they were even billed as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group—but they became the Dubliners after the inclusion of Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna, and later John Sheahan. The group appears to owe its name to the fact that Kelly was, at the time, reading James Joyce’s famous volume of short stories. Would musical history have been very different had he been reading Jane Austen? We shall never know.

When you have heard Kelly singing certain songs you just couldn’t be bothered ever listening to anyone else singing them again. Even a Scottish song like Peggy Gordon, included in his repertoire in deference to his Scottish grandmother, can hardly be improved on after getting the Kelly treatment. The same goes for the great American socialist anthem, Joe Hill, which Kelly rendered with the utter conviction of a former member of the Young Communist League. I defy anyone to nominate a better version of Raglan Road than Kelly’s (though Glen Hansard comes close). When Patrick Kavanagh heard Kelly sing he urged him to put the poem to music—an old Irish folk song called The Dawning of the Day— and to record it. Thankfully Kelly didn’t just ignore the normally irascible poet.

In his relatively brief career he, and his fellow Dubliners, did it all, Top of the Pops, the Ed Sullivan Show, world tours, getting Seven Drunken Nightsbanned by the BBC, Kelly himself even played Herod in a Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar. When Phil Coulter briefly became the Dubliners’ manager his collaboration with Kelly produced two of their most memorable songs, The Town I Loved So Well and Scorn Not His Simplicity.

His life was tragically cut short by a series of illnesses, to which he greatly contributed by consuming copious amounts of alcohol. In that respect he didn’t differ from his fellow band members, but somehow the raucous lifestyle didn’t have quite as adverse an effect on the constitutions of the other Dubliners as it seemed to do on Kelly.

Luke Kelly was born seventy-nine years ago, on this day.








On This Day- 9 November 1875 Art collector Hugh Lane is born in Cork.



On 12 April 1956 two Dublin students, Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty, walked into the Tate Gallery in London and stole an old master, Jour d’Êté (Summer’s Day) by the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. The fact that Hogan arranged to have himself photographed with the painting as he walked out of the Tate suggested this was no ordinary theft. It was not undertaken for profit, neither was it a student prank. Hogan and Fogarty were incensed at the very presence of the Morisot and thirty-eight other paintings in London. As far as they were concerned the entire collection of priceless impressionist pictures should be in a gallery in Dublin, because that was what their owner had ordained in his will, more than forty years before.


The owner was the collector and dealer Hugh Percy Lane. Born in Cork in 1875 he was the nephew of the playwright and joint founder of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory. He originally worked in art restoration before starting to buy and sell paintings himself. He soon had his own commercial art gallery in Dublin, opened in 1908. The following year he was knighted for his servcies to art at the tender age of thirty-three. Through frequent visits to Aunty Augusta’s home in Coole, he also became acquainted with most of the leaders of the so-called ‘Irish Renaissance’. These included the poet W.B.Yeats, who made a veiled reference to Lane in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’ in the line ‘great art beaten down’ – a reference to the long dispute over the building of a home for the connoisseur’s collection.

Lane was like one of those people who bought shares in Apple … in 1977. He developed a taste for impressionists—not of the Oliver Callan type. These were artists whose work had originally been compared to wallpaper, to the detriment of their paintings. Land had rapidly acquired a personal collection which included works by Degas, Manet and Renoir. Just as no one knew that the dream of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would turn into a multi-billion dollar corporation within two decades, the impressionists in the early 1900s were still something of an acquired taste, one which might quickly give way to the ‘next big thing’, causing artists like Renoir and Monet be completely forgotten, and leaving Lane with a few dozen mediocre canvasses albeit with really nice frames. But that’s not how it turned out.

Lane wanted to leave his collection to the city of Dublin, but the reluctance of the City Fathers to spend any money on a building to house his increasingly valuable paintings, caused him to change his mind. Instead he decided that London was more deserving and the whole lot was bequeathed to the National Gallery there. At some point, however, he appears to have changed his mind again. He drew up a codicil to his will which meant that, in the event of his death, the collection would, after all, be left to Dublin. He then set off, in 1915, on a long sea journey without having the codicil witnessed.

Lane returned to the county of his birth in May 1915, but only as one of the twelve hundred fatalities on board the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale by a German U-Boat. On his death the National Gallery in London claimed his pictures. When the codicil came to light they chose to ignore the obvious implication of the document, on the basis that, as Lane had not had the codicil witnessed, it was invalid. Possession was nine tenths of the law, and they had both possession and the law on their side.

And that is how the matter stood until the intervention of Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty. The two novice, but highly efficient, art thieves held on to their Morisot for four days before getting some friends to hand it in to the Irish Embassy. They had achieved their objective by drawing attention to the injustice of the entire collection residing in London, contrary to the expressed (but unwitnessed) desire of their owner. Three years later a compromise arrangement was reached between London and Dublin, which allowed the collection to be split. This arrangement was changed in 1993 and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin now has permanent possession of thirty-one of the thirty-nine paintings.

Hugh Lane—‘Bequest’ is not actually part of his name—was born one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 26 October 1831 – Birth of painter Nathaniel Hone



Nathaniel Hone the Younger (Yes .. I know he doesn’t look very young – and ‘Pastures at Malahide’)

The birth of Nathaniel Hone the Younger on 26 October 1831 affords an excellent opportunity to ignore him almost completely, and talk about his far more interesting great-grand uncle, Nathaniel Hone the Elder.

To dispatch Younger as rapidly as possible, he began his career as a railway engineer but proved himself to be a true Hone when he took up painting as a profession and went to study in Paris … where else? How come nobody ever studied art in Basildon or Southend?  He also married a member of the Jameson distilling family and settled in North Dublin, making him far more of a truly Irish artist than his more celebrated and controversial ancestor of the same name.

One of Younger’s best-known pieces is ‘Pastures at Malahide’ which has lots of cows in the foreground and is otherwise composed of cute fluffy clouds. He was also related to the 20thcentury artist Evie Hone. And I hope that’s enough on Nathaniel Hone the Younger.

Now let’s get on to Nathaniel Hone the Elder, who was something of a lad and, with one painting at least, quite literally, brought bitchiness to a fine art.


Nathaniel Hone the Elder (Yes … I know he looks younger than Nathaniel Hone the Younger. Confusing isn’t it?)

The first Natty Hone was an 18thcentury artist, son of a Dutch merchant based in Wood Quay in Dublin. At an early age he moved to London, married the daughter of the Duke of Argyll and established himself as a portrait painter before moving to Rome for further study. Once again neither Basildon nor Southend getting a look in.  One of Hone’s most famous sitters was the founder of Methodism, the great preacher John Wesley.  Hone was so highly regarded that he was one of the founder members of the Royal Academy, established in 1768. So far, so good.

But, in 1775 he painted a picture which rests not too far from here, in our own National Gallery. It’s called The Conjuror and depicts an aged Sir Joshua Reynolds in a distinctly unflattering light. Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, was the most celebrated portrait painter of his day. Unfortunately his day was the same as Hone’s. Which meant that Hone, had he played a violin, would have been second fiddle to Reynolds. Both men were founders and members of the Royal Academy, but Reynolds got to hang out with the likes of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Charles James Fox, in a group known collectively as ‘The Club’. Another member of his set was one of only two female members of the Royal Academy, the Anglo-Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman. That both Reynolds and Kaufmann held each other in high regard is undeniable. That they were lovers is also likely. That Hone loathed both of them can hardly be disputed either, given the subject matter of The Conjuror.

Reynolds had a habit of ‘quoting’ from the classical canon in many of his portraits, a practice that Hone could not abide.  In The Conjuror– whose full title was The Pictorial Conjuror, displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception-an elderly bearded man, meant to represent Reynolds, sits in front of a cascade of classical portraits. A young smiling girl rests her elbows on his right leg. The young girl is intended to depict Angelica Kauffman, who was considerably younger than Reynolds. But that wasn’t the real problem, or the only representation of Kauffman in the original painting. In the top left-hand corner Hone added a group of naked artists in procession, waving paint brushes in the air. In the middle of this claque is a naked woman dressed only in black stockings. When the painting was presented to the Royal Academy for exhibition Kauffman objected, on the grounds that the scantily-clad female was clearly intended to be her. The painting was rejected by the Academy. Had Reynolds been the duelling type a challenge would almost certainly have followed. Dash it all, the honour of a woman was at stake! Hone spent a lot of time apologising and claiming that he had never intended any insult to Angelica Kaufmann. Nobody believed him, though it didn’t seem to do his career much harm.

Hone later exhibited a redacted version, with the nude figures painted out. This is the one that hangs in our National Gallery. The painters in the altogether were replaced by what looks like an image of the members of ‘The Club’ assembled around a writing table. This was displayed in a retrospective Hone exhibition, the first of its kind to be devoted to a single artist. The event’s lustre is slightly diminished, however, by the fact that it was all organised by Hone himself. He died in London in 1784 at the age of sixty-six.

Nathaniel Hone the Younger, his esteemed great-grand nephew, was born, one hundred and eighty-seven years ago, on this day.


‘The Conjuror’ by Nathaniel Hone (the Elder)  – sublime bitchiness 




On This Day – 19.10.1955  Ireland v Yugoslavia – John Charles defied


Given that Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina have all got pretty useful international soccer teams it’s hardly surprising that when they operated together as Yugoslavia old Tito’s boys could hold their own with the best. The Yugoslavs were good enough to come to Dublin in October 1955 and beat Ireland 4-1 at Dalymount Park.

Not good enough for Archbishop John Charles McQuaid however. He didn’t like Communists very much whether they wore suits, uniforms or football boots. In fact in 1952 McQuaid had successfully lobbied the Football Association of Ireland and prevented an equivalent fixture from taking place at all. On that occasion the FAI had actually consulted the archbishop and asked him if it was all right to play the Yugoslavs, who, in 1947, had jailed Archbishop Stepinac, an erstwhile supporter of the Croatian Fascist Ustashe regime. In 1955 the FAI went ahead with the fixture without consulting McQuaid, who only found out about it a few days before it was due to take place. The Archbishop obviously wasn’t a big reader of the sports pages or he would have become aware of it a lot sooner.


McQuaid managed, indirectly, to get Radio Eireann to pull out of covering a game with one of the world’s top rated sides when the station’s soccer commentator, Phillip Greene, declined to lend his vocal chords to a fixture of which the Archbishop disapproved.  This prompted one newspaper headline, ‘Reds turn Greene yellow’. Around 22,000 people showed up in the 40,000 capacity stadium to see the game – there’s no point in calling it a match because, as the scoreline suggests, it wasn’t.

Archbishop McQuaid’s illustrious sporting career – as in his tendency to interfere with anything of a sporting nature that offending his moral or religious sensibilities – went back to the 1930’s when he occupied the only slightly less exalted position of President of Blackrock College.  In 1934, for example, he took issue with the notion of girls and women being allowed to compete in the sport of athletics.

In 1928 women had been admitted to the Olympic Games for the first time but McQuaid came from the same school as the founder of the modern Olympiad, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that ‘women have but one task [in the Olympics] that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands’. In 1934 the National Athletic and Cycling Association [grandparent of Athletics Ireland] was contemplating adding a women’s 100 yards dash to the national championships. McQuaid, principal of an all-male rugby playing school, was profoundly unhappy. And when he was displeased he liked to share. He wrote a letter on the subject to the Irish Pressnewspaper on 24 February 1934 in which he observed that:

‘mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded                  people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist.’

He then proceeded to invoke one of only two superior beings he recognised, by pointing out that ‘God is not modern; nor is his Law’. Women who sought to compete athletically in the vicinity of men were ‘un-Irish and un-Catholic’, and the entire phenomenon was a ‘social abuse’.  He concluded by quoting from the only other superior being he acknowledged, the Pope, who was, apparently, of the opinion that:

‘ …in athletic sports and exercises, wherein the Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded … it is supremely unbecoming that they flaunt themselves and display themselves before the eyes of all.’

So that was pretty conclusive, God, the Pope and John Charles were on the same side and the option of Catholic women competing in burqas was not available. The NACA decided not to include female athletes … even for the ten or eleven seconds it would have taken them to run 100 yards. To their eternal shame the Irish Camogie Association supported McQuaid, although that may have been not unconnected with the fact that its secretary was a man, Sean O’Duffy. He promised that his association:

‘ …would do all in its power to ensure that no girl would appear on any            sports ground in a costume to which any exception could be taken. If  they remained Irish in the ordinary acception [sic] of the word they could not go wrong.’

He never quite explained where he had come across the word ‘acception’.

Not until 1956 did Maeve Kyle become Ireland’s first female athletics competitor at the Olympics. It probably helped that she was a Northern Protestant and therefore an utterly lost cause.

The Archbishop further expanded his sporting horizons at a later date when he expressed concern about the dangers of hockey for women. He feared that the frequent twisting movements would lead to infertility, or what he called ‘hockey parturition’. The sport of lacrosse, which he believed to involve less midriff action, was encouraged in Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the Dublin archdiocese. The fact that lacrosse had originated among Native Americans using the heads of defeated opponents did not seem to occur to him as making it in any way unsuitable. Without doubt the intervention of Sean O’Duffy on behalf of the Archbishop in the Hundred Yard Dash controversy of 1934 had resulted in McQuaid refraining from expressing similar anxieties about the bendiness of the sport of camogie.

All of which illustrates that the Archbishop’s interest in sport did not just emerge from a clear blue sky when he took on the Dublin soccer public in 1955, something for which he was criticised at the time.

To the consternation of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid Ireland met, and were soundly trounced by Yugoslavia in a friendly soccer international sixty-three years ago, on this day.

On This Day – 5 October 1911  Birth of Brian O’Nolan


flann o brien.jpg

It might have been a mistake for Brian O’Nolan not to become an exile. The fact that he remained in Ireland all his life and could be seen trotting in an out of Dublin pubs any time of the week meant that he never quite managed to acquire the cachet of that famous resident of Paris, Samuel Beckett, not to mention that citizen of most of the major cities of Europe, James Joyce.

While Beckett, famously,  observed via one of his protagonists, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, especially in his sarky Myles na Gopaleen persona, was more of an ‘ah will you go on out of that’, sort of writer. He lacked the minimalism of Beckett and the maximalism of Joyce, but he was still a fine writer at his best and worthy of almost as many PhD theses as his more illustrious compatriots. They could do worse than start with one of O’Nolan’s observations ‘I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.’

Born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone in 1911 he was raised in an Irish-speaking family and educated in Blackrock College in Dublin. There his English teacher was the President of the College and future Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. The young O’Nolan was known to imitate McQuaid’s walk, a highly distinctive gait with one lowered shoulder. On one occasion McQuaid is said to have caught O’Nolan in the act, and pointed out that he was dipping the wrong shoulder.

Because his father died young O’Nolan, with a job in the Civil Service, was obliged to help support a family of ten siblings. The nature of his employment was one of the reasons for his many pseudonyms,  though if you wanted to find out who Flann O’Brien, or Myles na Gopaleen was, it would not have been too difficult.


He was fortunate in that the reader appointed by the publishers, Longmans, to peruse his first novel, At Swim Two Birds, was an enthusiastic Graham Greene. There his good fortune ended, however. Although subsequently celebrated as a work of genius, the first edition, published in 1939, sold barely two hundred and fifty copies and the rest of the print run was obliterated by Nazi bombers in the Blitz. As a sworn enemy of satire, decadent fiction, surrealism and just about anything remotely interesting, Adolf Hitler would probably have approved of this act of censorship, had he known of the existence of the novel. It was in At Swim Two Birds that O’Nolan wrote the immortal line ‘Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.’

O’Nolan was at his most popular in the guise of Myles na Gopaleen (a character from a 19thcentury Irish novel and subsequent Dion Boucicault play). Myles was the scribe behind the Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times– it translates as ‘the full jug’. Here O’Nolan argued constantly with the highly opinionated ‘Plain People of Ireland’, composed dozens of exquisite puns in his tales of ‘Keats and Chapman’, and created a mythical agency for handling the books purchased by the pretentious Dublin middle classes so that they would look as if they had actually been read. The first column appeared in 1940 and it continued right up until his death in 1966. The column, though avowedly satirical, was mostly surreal humour, though O’Nolan was, occasionally, capable of biting the hand that was feeding him, as when he observed that ‘The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at a crossroads.’  O’Nolan also wrote a humorous column for the Nationalist and Leinster Times under the glorious pseudonym of George Knowall.

One of his best-known works, An Beal Bocht, later translated as The Poor Mouth, was first published in Irish. O’Nolan once observed of the language in his Cruiskeen Lawn column … ‘If Irish were to die completely, the standard of English here, both in the spoken and written word, would sink to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England, and it would stop there only because it could go no lower.’

O’Nolan, who suffered from alcoholism for most of his adult life, died on 1 April 1966, April Fool’s Day.  Perhaps one of his most piquant observations comes in his earliest and greatest work At Swim Two Birds

A wise old owl once lived in a wood,

The more he heard the less he said,

The less he said the more he heard,

Let’s emulate that wise old bird

Brian O’Nolan, alias Flann O’Brien, alias Myles na Gopaleen, alias George Knowall, and alias God knows who else, was born one hundred and seven years ago, on this day.


Setting out on the first—post-Bloom —Bloomsday, with some mates (including Patrick Kavanagh and a young Anthony Cronin)

On This Day 28 September 1678 – The ‘Popish plot’





Irish history has always been dogged with fictitious intrigues designed to keep the Croppies down. Daniel O’Connell spent a restful few weeks in jail after a spurious 1844 conspiracy trial. In 1887 a group of dastardly Fenians were supposed to be plotting the murder of Queen Victoria. Trouble was they were all working for the British government.  The leadership of Sinn Fein was rounded up in 1918 based on another made-up plot, worthy of John Le Carré. If you wanted to bung an Irish nationalist in jail, but felt the need to go through the ritual of a trial (which wasn’t always the case), you just devised a vaguely plausible conspiracy and the law would, most likely, do the rest.

The infamous 17thcentury ‘Popish plot’ was a case in point, though it only roped in a few Irish martyrs along the way. Its main target was English Catholics and the Jesuit order. Once again the plot was supposed to have been aimed at the reigning monarch, in this case Charles II. The man who fabricated the whole thing was Titus Oates, aka Titus the Liar, one of the most egregious perjurers in British history—even worse than Jeremy Thorpe. The first thing Titus lied about was that he had a degree from Cambridge. The Bishop of London believed him and he was given an licence to preach. That was not accompanied, however, by a licence to kill, though before he was finished he was directly responsible for the horrific deaths of more than twenty men.



In order to secure a teaching position in 1674, Titus had alleged that the man in possession of the job at the time, had sodomised one of his students. When he was caught out in that particular lie he fled the country and joined the navy. There he himself was accused of the same crime and was dismissed in 1876. He only avoided execution because he was an ordained minister. The following year he converted to Catholicism. He later claimed that he had only pretended to become a Catholic so that he could go undercover and expose the shocking secrets of the Jesuits.

In 1678 Oates made up charges against hundreds of Catholic clerics and laymen. He made for an unsavoury witness, given his record of perjury and all-round depravity, but he did have one thing going for him, a prodigious memory. This enabled him to lie with the gift of total recall of everything he was making up. One of the men he accused, later acquitted, was the famous diarist Samuel Pepys.

The two most prominent Irish victims of the increasingly convoluted ‘Popish plot’—supposedly designed to put a Catholic on the throne of England—were Peter Talbot, the Archbishop of Dublin, and Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh. Involved in the persecution of both was the Irish Lord Lieutenant of the day, the magisterial James Butler, 1stDuke of Ormonde. Butler was, personally, skeptical of the existence of a widespread conspiracy. When he was informed of the identity of Plunkett’s accusers he described them as ‘drunken vagabonds’ and commented that ‘no schoolboy would trust them to rob an orchard’. Butler was sympathetic to Plunkett but had him arrested anyway. Talbot he loathed, so he took some pleasure in tossing the Archbishop of Dublin in jail, where he languished for two years before he died. The last rites were administered by his fellow prisoner, Archbishop Oliver Plunkett

Plunkett’s own fate was more hideous and more melodramatic. He was to be tried in Dundalk, charged with plotting to bring an army of 20,000 soldiers from France. When it became clear that there was insufficient evidence to convict, he was moved to London and tried there instead. In 1681 he was found guilty of high treason and of ‘promoting the Roman faith’ which, you would have to accept, is probably an integral part of the job description of a Catholic archbishop. On 1 July 1681 he was hanged drawn and quartered. What exactly that involves … you do not want to know. Let’s just say that the hanging isn’t supposed to kill you, and we’ll leave the rest to your imaginations. Oliver Plunkett became the last Roman Catholic martyr executed in Britain.

Plunkett’s show trial was one of the events that prompted public opinion to turn against Oates, and his equally repulsive fellow accusers. Oates was tried for perjury in the court of the same judge, the infamous Judge Jeffreys, who had, with great delight, passed the death sentence on many of those fingered by the perjurer. Oates was imprisoned for life. He was pilloried and pelted with eggs at Westminster Hall, which sounds like a waste of good food. He was also sentenced to be whipped through the streets of London for five days each year for the rest of his natural life. They did dream up interesting and utterly sadistic punishments in those days. When William of Orange came to the throne, however, Oates was released, and given a pension. He is unlikely to have spent any of his take home pay on omelettes.

The first spurious accusations were laid against innocent men in the diabolical Popish plot three hundred and forty years ago, on this day.



On This Day 21 September 1827 birth of General Michael Corcoran



He’s the voice of Irish rugby on RTE radio, a passionate Munster man who would never dream of allowing any provincial preference to become apparent in his broadcasts. Allegedly.  But today we’re talking about the other Michael Corcoran, Fenian, soldier and confidant of Abraham Lincoln.

The story begins in 1860. The occasion is the proposed visit of the Prince of Wales to New York. The Prince had been gracing Canada with his presence and was invited south. In order to avoid the attentions of Irish desperadoes he journeyed to New York incognito. Being a member of the royal family, however, he chose not to travel as plain old Mister Smyth (probably with a ‘y’), but selected the assumed name of Baron Renfrew. He had a perfect right to do so as it happened to be one of his many titles. Doubtless for the sake of brevity and anonymity he chose to forego the rest of the Renfrew name, which goes ‘Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland’.So quite a comedown really for poor old Bertie.

The plan was that on his arrival the Prince was to be greeted by an honour guard of New York Militia Regiments. This, in theory, was to include the famous ‘Fighting 69th’, a regiment of committed Irish nationalists. When its commanding officer, Colonel Michael Corcoran, from Ballymote, Co.Sligo, was informed of the plan he refused absolutely to parade his regiment before the heir to the throne of England. The fact that he was a member of the growing Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, was likely to have influenced his attitude.

His insubordination in the face of the man who would be Edward VII (but not for another forty years or so) caused him to be arrested pending a court martial. Fortunately for him Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, intervened on his behalf. Well at least he did so in the sense that the Confederate army fired on Fort Sumter and the American Civil War began.

It was deemed wise to release Corcoran without the need for a court martial. In return the Sligo man offered to recruit new Irish members to the 69thto bring it to full strength. He sought 1000 men. He could have got five times that number. It was a period of profound innocence. No one knew what war was really about. It was all a big adventure.


The 69th found out very quickly what exactly it was all about. They went into action in the defence of Washington, DC, on 21 July, 1861 on the banks of a Virginia river in the first major battle of the war. It was Bull Run if you were fighting for the Union in the Civil War – Manassas if you were with the Confederates in the War Between the States. It was a battle in which the Union army offered a powerful demonstration – of exactly how much it had to learn about warfare. The Union forces were overwhelmed by the greycoats. The 69th, abandoned and isolated, attempted to beat an orderly retreat in the midst of the shambles that surrounded them. Corcoran was wounded in the leg. He, and a number of his men were taken prisoner. When the Union threatened to execute a captured Confederate naval commander for piracy the Confederacy selected Corcoran to be shot in retaliation. It was quite a tribute to his leadership qualities and his importance. Fortunately for the Irish Colonel both sides backed down.

The Confederates offered to release Corcoran on parole. All he had to do was guarantee not to rejoin the Union Army and continue to fight against them. On those terms Corcoran preferred to stay in prison.  Then, in November, 1861, a Union ship intercepted an English steamer on the high seas and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, who were on their way to England. Her Majesty’s government was livid and, for a brief period, there was a genuine threat that Britain would enter the war on the Confederate side. Of course, this did wonders for Irish recruitment in the North, though probably not as much in the South. Corcoran, who had been promoted to Brigadier General while he was in prison, was exchanged for the two southern diplomats. So impressed was President Lincoln with the Irish officer’s refusal of parole, that he invited him to dinner in the White House.

Corcoran, far from opting out of the war, as the Confederacy would have preferred, raised a force of eight Irish regiments, in a Legion that was called after him. He himself rose to become a Corps commander until he was thrown by his horse and died, tragically and pointlessly, in 1863. As far as we know the Prince of Wales sent no flowers to the funeral.

Michael Corcoran from Ballymote in Co. Sligo, American Civil War General and dedicated member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was born, one hundred and ninety one years ago, on this day.