On This Day-Drivetime – 27.6.1846 – Charles Stewart Parnell, is born




No one could have predicted that the hesitant, almost inarticulate candidate for the Irish parliamentary party in the by-election in Dublin in 1874 would go on to be proclaimed as the Uncrowned King of Ireland and then brought to earth by the same people who had deified him in the first place.

For most of the first thirty years of his life Charles Stewart Parnell was a member of the family who were the benevolent landlords of Avondale in Co.Wicklow – an estate of 4000 acres that produced a modest income by the standards of the late 19th century. Parnell did what most of the members of his class did. He rode to hounds in the winter and played cricket in the summer – he was a decent batsman and wicketkeeper.

Then, suddenly, at the age of 28, he offered himself to the Irish parliamentary party, then led by Isaac Butt, as a candidate for the vacant seat in County Dublin. As he could afford to pay for his own campaign and didn’t have to worry about loss of earnings should he win the seat – ordinary MPs were not paid until the early 20th century – he got the nod from the party bosses. They quickly regretted their decision. The young Charles Stewart Parnell was a dreadful candidate. He could hardly put two words together and was so nervous as a public speaker that he could do little more than stammer on the hustings. The electorate was unimpressed and he was easily defeated.

He was given a second chance and did better the following year winning a by-election in Meath. For two years Parnell kept his own counsel in the House of Commons. He watched and waited. Then, in a move apparently out of character with his social status, he threw in his lot with a group of converted Fenians and blocked much House of Commons business by filibustering – making long speeches on very little indeed – much to the annoyance of the British MPs and most of the Irish ones as well.

Parnell would go on to lead his party, deliver some significant land reform, and significantly advance the cause of Home Rule before his involvement in the divorce of Katharine O’Shea brought him crashing to earth. She was, by the way, only called ‘Kitty’ by her adversaries, the name was a term of abuse reserved for Victorian prostitutes.

Parnell, though briefly beloved of the nationalist Irish, was not held in such high esteem by many of his party colleagues. He was seen as aloof, arrogant, and often lazy. Unlike, for example, other Victorian politicians, who were enthusiastic correspondents, Parnell would not have been good on email. He treated the reams of correspondence that arrived for him on a daily basis with utter contempt. He rarely opened a letter, leaving that to others to do on his behalf. He was very superstitious, with a particular aversion for the month of October. Naturally, that was the month, in 1891, in which he died at the age of 45. Bizarrely, for someone who led the Irish constitutional nationalist movement for a momentous decade, he also loathed and feared the colour green.

Charles Stewart Parnell, politician, Uncrowned King and chromophobe, was born 168 years ago, on this day.



On This Day -Drivetime -20.6.1210 – King John lands at Waterford.



King John has had a pretty bad rap from history. To some extent he deserved it but he was hardly worthy of the intense vilification of future generations. In popular mythology he is the villain-in-chief of the Robin Hood legends, in cahoots with the Sheriff of Nottingham to rob simple peasants of their livelihoods. He is the evil younger brother of the valiant Richard the Lionheart who spent most of his reign in the service of Christianity engaged in retaking the shrines of the Holy Land from Muslim invaders. In the movie about his rather interesting family, The Lion in Winter – he was one of the sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II– he tends to snivel and skulk quite a lot

That’s the mythology. The reality is quite different. For a start there probably was no Robin Hood and even if there was he was just as likely to have lived up to his surname as he was to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor. As for Richard the Lionheart he spent most of his reign as King of England ignoring his subjects while pursuing his hobby of killing Muslims. He got the money for this by selling public offices to the highest bidder. Eventually he cost his subjects a shed-load of money when he got himself captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and was ransomed by the German Emperor Henry VI.

King John’s reputation was acquired because he spent much of Richard’s ten-year reign plotting against his big brother. But then what’s a guy supposed to do? They weren’t particularly fraternal to begin with and then Richard abadons the family store and leaves it wide open to shoplifters. Then there was the whole ‘Lionheart’ thing. Red rag to a royal bull really.

Of course John was neither a popular nor a successful King. He managed to lose most of England’s French dominions and in trying to get them back annoyed the barons. This led to the Magna Charta being forced down his throat after a successful rebellion. The Great Charter, signed at Runnymede in 1215, was the first negotiated curb on kingly power in England.

Five years before he submitted to the barons he went after one of their number in Ireland. King John landed here with an army in 1210 in an attempt to put manners on the de Lacy’s – Walter, the Earl of Meath and Hugh, Earl of Ulster. He landed at Crook in Co.Waterford, giving rise to some confusion about the origins of the phrase ‘by hook or by crook’. One version has it that had John not landed in Crook he would have come ashore nearby at Hook Head – hence his invasion of Ireland would have taken place ‘by hook or by crook’. There are, however, umpteen other versions of how the phrase originated. John’s visit was fairly successful and the De Lacy’s ceased to be a major irritant for him as a result.

Six year’s later he died, after reneging on the Magna Charta and going back to war with his barons. He claimed that he had signed it under duress. He is said to have died of dysentery, not the kind of thing you associate with the deaths of Kings.

King John, the only English monarch of that name, landed in Ireland 904 years ago, on this day.




On This Day -Drivetime – 13.6.1865 – Birth of W.B. Yeats in Dublin





William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s first Nobel Literature laureate – he received the award in 1923, two years before George Bernard Shaw – was born in Sandymount in Dublin in 1865. However, he spent much of his early life in County Sligo, which he considered to be his spiritual home. Painting rather than poetry was more in the Yeats bloodline. His father and brother, both called John, were distinguished painters as was his ancestor Jervis Yeats, a Williamite soldier who benefitted from the defeat of King James in 1690.

Despite his impressive corpus of poetry and the fact that people constantly quote some of his best lines – how many ‘Terrible Beauties’ have been born since he wrote Easter 1916? – Yeats is probably best known, in popular consciousness at least, for his doomed relationship with Maud Gonne.  They met in 1889. According to Yeats she brought into his life ‘a sound, as of a Burmese gong’. Presumably that was intended as a compliment but it was hardly designed to set the pulses of the 23 year old beauty racing. He first proposed to her in 1891. Sh refused him. He waited for another eight years before trying again. With the same result. He popped the question for a third time in 1900. Again, her answer was ‘no’. Proving that he was a perennial optimist or someone who didn’t take no for an answer he tried again in 1901. He got no for an answer. Instead, a few years later she horrified Yeats by marrying fellow Irish nationalist John McBride and, to his additional chagrin, became a Catholic into the bargain. The marriage, to Yeats’s intense satisfaction, was a disaster.

In 1908 Yeats had the even greater satisfaction of finally, after almost twenty years of forbearance, consummating his relationship with Maud Gonne. How well it went from her point of view can possibly be surmised from the letter she sent him in January 1909 suggesting that artists who abstained from sex would reap the rewards in their work. Either way they never re-consummated their relationship.

Yeats was very much a public figure throughout the early part of the 20th century. His co-founding of the Abbey Theatre, his aristocratic nationalism – which apparently included membership of the revolutionary organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood – and two stints as a Senator of the newly formed Irish Free State, ensured that he lived much of his life far from the stereotype of the secluded, reclusive poet.

After the execution of  Major John McBride in 1916 he proposed to Maud Gonne for a fifth time. Again he was rejected. He then turned his attention to her daughter Iseult with the same result. Eventually Yeats did find happiness in his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees, who, although only half the poet’s age, became his accomplice in some strange spiritualistic  experiments and an excellent partner for the ageing artist.

W.B.Yeats, a man whose tangled love life inspired some wonderful poetry, was born 149 years ago, on this day.


On This Day – Drivetime – 6 June 1944 – Irishmen in D Day



It was the biggest seaborne invasion in military history. Preparation for Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Europe in June 1944, began three years beforehand. The planning was utterly meticulous. Knowledge was confined to an elite group and never seeped outside of that close circle.

Thousands of Irishmen were involved in what would become known as D-Day. Many of those were from the neutral Irish Free State. The Royal Ulster Rifles was the only regiment with two battalions in operation on the day of the invasion of Normandy itself. The 1st battalion went in on board gliders and landed behind enemy lines, the 2nd battalion took the more traditional route.

One Irishman centrally involved was the future Lord Killanin. He was a staff officer in an armoured division. Despite being completely ‘in the know’ about the invasion plans he was allowed back to Ireland on leave a fortnight before D-Day. A few sherries too many in the wrong place and the entire plan might have been betrayed unknowingly.

The Sweeney family, who ran the meteorological station and lighthouse at Blacksod in Mayo played their own small but significant part in proceedings. The invasion had originally been planned for 5 June but the weather was so vile it was cancelled. If it could not happen on 6th or 7th June it would have to be postponed for a number of weeks so that the moon and the tides aligned to maximum benefit. Would the weather break sufficiently to allow for the invasion to take place. It was confirmation from Edward Sweeney at Blacksod lighthouse in Mayo that there was a brief window available that prompted Eisenhower to order the operation to proceed. The temporary improvement in the weather took the Germans completely by surprise.

The commanders of the invading force expected a renewal of chemical warfare on a scale not seen since the Great War. Paddy Devlin from Galway, waiting on board a glider with the rest of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, remembers being ‘issued with new suits of battle dress that were as stiff as planks and had a white residue on them.’ They were told that they had been soaked in a solution to prevent lice. In fact they were designed to counteract gas – Devlin chose to believe the story about the lice.

The greatest loss of life was suffered at one of the American beaches, codenamed Omaha – the tragedy is graphically depicted in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Dubliner David McCaughey operated a landing craft at Omaha. He was hit early on in the landings and was forced to sit out most of the day on the foreshore sheltering in his stricken vehicle. He became conscious of two oddities. The first was the figure ‘one’ in red on the backs of the helmets of the dead US soldiers who had pitched forward when struck by bullets or shrapnel. This was the insignia of the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed, the Big Red One. The second memorable feature of the day was an odd transparent material blowing across the beach in huge quantities. McCaughey remembered seeing this wrapped around the soldiers’ guns. They had removed it when they reached the beach. He found out later that he was looking at polythene for the first time. It is a sad fact of life that war tends to spark scientific innovation.

Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of German-occupied France, took place seventy years ago, on this day.