On this day – 5 June 1916 – The death of a reluctant Irishman, Lord Kitchener




A number of highly significant Irishmen died violently in 1916 – Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, James Connolly and their associates to name but a few who were shot in May. Tom Kettle, barrister, poet and former MP followed them in September when he died at the Battle of Ginchy on the Western front.

In between, another famous Irishman came to an unfortunate end. However not many people realise that Herbert, Lord Kitchener, hero of Omdurman, scourge of the Boers and War Minister in the British Cabinet was actually Irish. It was not something he tended to highlight himself.

But he was, in fact, as much a Kerryman as Mick O’Dwyer or John B.Keane. He was born Horatio Herbert Kitchener on 24 June 1850 in Ballylongford, near Listowel.  His father, Lt.Col. Henry Horatio Kitchener, had bought land under the terms of the Encumbered Estates Act designed to buy out bankrupt landlords after the Famine. Kitchener left Kerry at the age of fourteen when the family moved to Switzerland for the health of his ailing mother. The future war lord nurtured a similar attitude to his native land as had that other great 19th century military figure, the Duke of Wellington, who famously observed of his Irish birth that, ‘being born in a stable does not make one a horse’. His dislike of the Irish, of course, did not stop Kitchener, like a lot of other Anglo-Irish grandees with a minimal knowledge of the country of their birth, from claiming to have an informed insight into how the country should be governed. Kitchener was for lots of stick and very little carrot.

Not that his counsel on the subject would have been widely canvassed. Kitchener made his reputation in faraway wars, starting with the Sudan and his victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. There he showed his compassionate side by digging up the remains of the Mahdi, slayer of General Gordon in the 1880s humiliation of Khartoum, and having his bones scattered. Even Winston Churchill, not renowned for his squeamishness, who was covering the war as a reporter, was disgusted with the slaughter of, in particular, Sudanese prisoners.

He also made his presence felt in the Boer War where his scorched earth policy and his creation of concentration camps brought the Boers to their knees in the most ruthless possible fashion. Kitchener didn’t have much time for uppity  colonials.

When WW1 broke out Kitchener was quickly appointed Secretary of State for War and his iconic moustache and index finger were used as recruiting devices on the famous ‘Your country needs you’ posters.’

In a final gesture of solidarity with his native land Kitchener refused all requests for the incorporation of the southern Irish Volunteers as a unit into his New Army, despite the passage of the Home Rule act before hostilities commenced. The Ulster Volunteers however, signatories of a covenant pledging opposition to a democratic decision taken by the British parliament, became the 36th Ulster division. Consistency to Kitchener was as dangerous a vice as sentimentality.

In June 1916 Kitchener set sail for talks in Russia on board the HMS Hampshire. The ship hit a German mine and sank, bringing the Secretary of State for War down with it. The reluctant Kerryman died 97 years ago, on this day.

On This Day – 30 May 1807 – The Wexford duel that may connect to the US Presidency




On this day – 30 May 1807.

Irish elections can be boisterous and violent affairs but none more so than the Co.Wexford election to the British House of Commons in 1807, just a few years after the Act of Union.

Among the contestants (who, unbeknownst to himself included the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan) were two local grandees William Congreve Alcock and John Colclough.  Colclough’s brother, who gloried in the traditional Irish monicker of Caesar, had been the local MP but was a prisoner of war in France. The Colclough’s, who were generally popular landlords, had lived at Tintern Abbey, a former monastery, since the mid-16th century.

The election campaign was a bitter one, polling was due to take place on 1 June but with just two days to go Alcock took exception to what he alleged was an attempt by Colclough to steal the support of tenants obligated to vote for him in what was, by today’s standards, a slightly democratic election. In what appears like a piece of egregious over-reaction, he challenged Colclough to a duel and in the encounter that followed Alcock shot his political opponent dead. As the MP for Athlone, George Tierney observed tartly, ‘that’s one way of getting an election’. As duelling was still socially acceptable in early 19th century Ireland Alcock was acquitted of murder and allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons.  But he was not to continue in office for long – two years after the duel he was committed to an asylum. The Irish judge and memoirist, Jonah Barrington wrote of Alcock that ‘alas! the acquitted duellist suffered more in mind than his victim had done in body. The horror of the scene, and the solemnity of the trial, combined to make a fatal inroad on his reason! He became melancholy; his understanding declined; a dark gloom enveloped his entire intellect; and an excellent young man and perfect gentleman at length sank into irrecoverable imbecility.’

But there is an interesting postscript to this sad tale. Not all those affected by the duel came out of it badly.

Colclough’s estate at Tintern Abbey was managed by his steward, one James Kennedy. Because of the absence of Caesar Colclough in France Kennedy continued to run the estate until his Caesar’s return in 1815. During that period something of the order of £80,000 disappeared. Nobody could pin it directly on the steward but in 1818 Kennedy was dismissed at the behest of Caesar Colclough’s wife, Jane Stratford Kirwan. The money remains unaccounted for. There are, however, persistent rumours that at least some of it may have been used a generation later to fund the migration to the USA of the Kennedy family in the 1840s, and perhaps even to set up the Boston saloon that became the basis of the family fortune. A descendant of James Kennedy, by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, went on to become President of the United States of American in 1961.

Was the Kennedy fortune based on the tragic outcome of a duel fought, on this day, in 1807? Perish the thought.


The History Show, 26 May – Book Club – ‘The outer edge of Ulster’ by Hugh Dorian


Life in 19th century Donegal could be, to quote Thomas Hobbes, ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And that was at the best of times, in the most convivial places. The Fanaid peninsula was neither. It is situated on the far side of Lough Swilly to the Inishowen peninsula. With much of the land owned by one of the most oppressive landlords in the country, William Sydney, the 3rd earl of Leitrim, the people of Fanaid, to paraphrase the words of Henry David Thoreau, ‘led lives of  quiet desperation and went to the grave with the song still in them.’ Except for Hugh Dorian, clerk, schoolmaster, whose ‘song’ was a fascinating memoir of the area through most of the Victorian period. His portrayal of Fanad from the 1830’s to the 1890s has finally been published, almost a century after his death, by Lilliput press, in an edition edited by Breandan Mac Suibhne of the University of Notre Dame, and Professor David Dickson of Trinity College, Dublin.

Dorian writes about an impoverished but resilient community, tightly knit but exclusive, hospitable but wary. He describes the traditional Irish land-holding system of rundale and the attempts by the unpopular landlord, the 3rd Earl of Leitrim, to sweep the system away in a  series of evictions in the 1850s and 1860s. [He largely glosses over the infamous murder of Lord Leitrim in 1878]. He also writes about the influence of traditional religious practices on the area as well as the importance of smuggling and poitin to the people and the economy.

Dorian was a former schoolmaster who fell foul of the  local parish priest in Fanaid  and migrated to Derry in 1872, where he became a clerk. The brutal murder of an RIC Detective Inspector William Martin in 1889 prompted him to write the memoir, which has only been published a century after his death in 1914.

On this day – 24 May 1772 – Francis Magan, spy and informer




Francis Magan was something of a trailblazer in his early twenties and a traitor before he reached his thirties.

Magan came from a well-to-do Westmeath Roman Catholic family. His father was a woolen draper with a premises in High Street in Dublin. Magan attended Trinity College. In 1793 he was one of the first Catholics admitted to the Bar. This happened by virtue of an important Catholic Relief Act passed that year.  Sadly he was not a very good barrister and was soon in financial difficulties as he tried to maintain an establishment in Usher’s Island in Dublin, close to the Four Courts.

He was, however, a far better spy. As a young man he joined the Society of United Irishmen and was privy to the work of that organisation’s inner councils. He was recruited, in 1797, as an informer by the infamous Francis Higgins, the so-called ‘sham Squire’ and proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, a newspaper solidly supportive of government policy. Magan was one of a number of spies being run by Higgins, who answered directly to his own spymaster, the under secretary based in Dublin Castle, Edward Cooke.

Magan insinuated himself into the United Irishmen to the point where he became friendly with the acknowledged leader of the Dublin section, the charismatic Lord Edward Fitzgerald. He unsuccessfully attempted to betray Fitzgerald to the authorities on 17 May 1798 but the city’s leading policeman, Major Sirr, failed to arrest the United Irishmen leader as he left Magan’s house. Magan was more successful two days later. Information he supplied led to the apprehension of Fitzgerald, who died of the wounds incurred resisting arrest. The death of Fitzgerald was a huge blow to the revolutionary prospects of the United Irishmen in Dublin.

Magan, like that other notorious informer, fellow barrister Leonard McNally, always managed to remain above suspicion. Indeed, on the night of Fitzgerald’s arrest, he was elected a member of the executive committee of the United Irishmen in Dublin. He continued to pose as a committed Catholic nationalist after the suppression of the 1798 rebellion. He spoke against the Union in the Dublin bar and became active in the early struggle for Catholic emancipation. In all of this he had his own agenda.

Magan was well paid for his efforts. He received £1000 for betraying Fitzgerald,  and £500 for spying on William Todd Jones, a northern Protestant advocate of Catholic Emancipation. He also enjoyed a secret pension of £200 a year from a grateful administration in Dublin Castle in the latter years of his life. He remained a respectable member of the community until his death, becoming, for example, a life member of the Royal Dublin Society. Magan died in 1843 leaving his fortune to his nearest relative, a sister. When she, in turn passed away, she left £14,000 in her will, much of which would have come to her from her brother.

Magan was not finally ‘outed’ as a spy and informer until the publication in 1892 of W.J.Fitzpatrick’s book The Secret Service under Pitt.

Francis Magan, unsuccessful barrister and accomplished informer, was born 241 years ago, on this day.

The History Show, Sunday 19 May – JFK and the Irish visit – the 50th anniversary

JFK in Ireland Wide Shot

When I was nine years old an uncle and aunt descended on the family homestead in Kells and kidnapped me for a few hours. They brought me to Dublin to see John F.Kennedy parade through the streets of the capital city. I was brought along because, even then I was a nerdy little swine who was interested in these things. I probably had a JFK scrapbook or the like, at the time.

We stood in Cathal Brugha street waiting for the cavalcade. It turned out to be an ideal position because the vehicle carrying JFK and Dev had to slow down at the corner of O’Connell street and CB street to make the right turn (the traffic flow was different in those days). Both men were standing in the vehicle clutching a steel railing of some kind and waving to the crowd. Or at least JFK was, I think Dev was spending more time concentrating on his grip on the rail. In fairness he was 80 years old after all.

And that was just one of the contrasts between the two men. JFK looked young, engaged and vibrant. He, like Bill Clinton many years later, was lapping up the blatant adulation. He was incredibly bronzed, with those perfect white teeth we were just beginning to get used to from American TV programmes on RTE. Beside him de Valera looked pale and old. The image was maintained for all of ten seconds but it has stuck with me since then. The irony? A few months later Kennedy was dead while de Valera lived on for another dozen years.

All of which is by way of introduction to a new project to mark the 50th anniversary of that visit, shared by The National Library of Ireland, the US Embassy, the National Archives and the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Together, they  will be launching an interactive website and app where people can share their memories of the visit and this will be linked to a multimedia exhibition, JFK: Homecoming, which will be opening at the National Library on 21 June.

And to give us all the details, I’ll be joined by Katherine McSharry from the National Library and Susan Cleary from the US embassy.