On This Day – 26 February 1797 Bank of Ireland suspends gold payments




There used to be an expression ‘it’s money in the bank’ but in the wake of the fiscal, financial and credit crises of 2008 we don’t use redundant and inaccurate phraseology like that anymore. That axiom that has gone the way of ‘it’s as safe as houses’ or ‘I’m a markets trader, trust me’. Today we think more in terms of

‘It’s money under the mattress’ or ‘It’s as safe … as this large amount of cash I’m carrying around in my pocket because the interest rate is higher on my backside than with an investment account’ .


Where did it all go wrong? Well maybe it started, in this country at least, in 1797, when the Bank of Ireland took an unprecedented step. In those days cash was King, and cash was gold, or silver. No gold, no goods, unless you were a member of the 10,000 or so landed aristocratic families who were allowedto run up debts. But you still had to settle those with gold at some point … didn’t you?


Anyway. It’s the end of the 18th century and, as usual, Britain is at war. Which is really to say that England is at war and everybody else is expected to chip in and help pay for it. In this case the opposition was provided, pretty much as usual – or comme d’habitude – by France. Where would England have been without France? Clearly, at war with somebody else.


What the British government required above all to conduct its war with Napoleon, was gold. There wasn’t enough to go around. There certainly wasn’t enough in the vaults of the Bank of England to be sending any of it over to the Irish. So, in 1797, the Bank of Ireland was obliged to stop issuing gold it didn’t have and rely on banknotes – already well established at that time – to keep money in circulation.


A few weeks later the stance taken by the Bank was approved of by Irish legislators in the Irish Parliament. Anyone starting to get a feeling of déjà vu here?


One of the noticeable patterns prior to the withdrawal of gold and the increased issuing of notes in its stead was the establishment in Ireland of a number of private banks who were allowed to issue their own notes. In 1799 there were eleven. In 1803, the year Robert Emmet was hanged, drawn and quartered for the sake of the economy, this number had increased to forty-one. That’s not forty-one branches mind you, that’s forty-one banks! Many of these subsequently went bust and destroyed the lives of their customers. In those days the partners who ran those financial institutions were identified on the banknotes they issued. This meant their clients could see the names, but unfortunately not the addresses, of the men who had screwed them when they went into liquidation.


Perhaps we should thank the Bank of Ireland for the fact that we are no longer weighed down with gold whenever we go to the supermarket or the pub. Their action in withdrawing the precious metal from circulation was certainly to the benefit of men’s clothing. Pockets are no longer subjected to excessive strain. Jackets are not weighed down by heavy metal, except in the case of men who wander around carrying Motorhead CDs. But, as we don’t have much to thank our banks about these days, let’s not bother.


The Bank of Ireland relieved itself of the necessity to issue payment in gold two hundred and nineteen years ago, on this day.




On This Day – 19 February, 1921 Percy Crozier quits the Auxies in disgust


He’s the author of one of the most tastelessly titled autobiographies ever published The Men I Killed. He was a career soldier, a martinet, bounced a few big cheques in his day and then, in one of the great ‘Road to Damascus’ stories of the early twentieth century ended his life as a convinced pacifist. Frank Percy Crozier was nothing if not a mass of contradictions.


But probably his main contribution to Irish history came in 1921 when he confirmed what everybody in this country had known for at least twelve months, namely that the fine body of men he commanded, the RIC Auxiliary Division, was a haven for some of the lowest scum to have represented the interests of the King in Ireland. In essence he substantiated the axiom that the only creature lower than an ‘Auxie’ was a ‘Black and Tan’ by resigning from the force in disgust and returning to tend to his garden, write some books and give a few lectures.


So just who was this delicate flower whose stomach was turned by the extra-curricular activities of his own men? Well, it has to be said that, in the past he had not displayed a notable sensitivity or delicacy of feeling.


Crozier, born in Bermuda of British stock on New Year’s Day 1879, had served through the concentration camps of the Boer War before taking charge of one of the battalions of the 36th Ulster Division in the Great War. He became commanding officer of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, covenanting loyalists from Protestant West Belfast. While Colonel of the battalion he took a particular interest in excessive drinking in the ranks – he was a reformed alcoholic – and the sexual antics of his charges. In the latter instance his concern was not merely puritanical, a soldier with venereal disease was a soldier out of the trenches and not doing his job, the job of dying horribly for King and Country.


A small pudgy figure with a thin wispy moustache he was, in many respects, the epitome of the cartoon-British officer class. Crozier had the honour, if that is the word I’m after, of leading his men – he called them ‘my Shankhill boys’ – into battle on the infamous 1 July 1916 at the village of Thiepval on the first day of the greatest cock-up in British military history, the Battle of the Somme. Of course he shouldn’t have been in No Man’s Land at all, commanding officers were given strict instructions not to go ‘over the top’. Crozier was one of two Colonels in the 36th to ignore the order. In the heat of battle he recorded that he was obliged, on more than one occasion, to threaten the lives of sensible combatants whose response to the murderous German fusillade, was to turn tail and run back to their own trenches. Crozier, waving a revolver in the air, turned these potential deserters around and sent them back to almost certain death or injury.


Crozier survived the opening day of the Somme campaign and was recommended for a Victoria Cross. The men who had sought the safety of the trenches during the battle didn’t have a vote. He was told, through channels, that it was touch and go whether he would get a VC or a court martial for insubordination. A compromise was reached and he got neither! A highly successful recruiting officer for the 36th he once promised the family of one young soldier, with whom he happened to share a surname, that he would look after their son James. He discharged this obligation by subsequently officiating at the execution of young James Crozier for cowardice.


After the war, where he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, he assumed control of the force of British ex-servicemen sent in 1920, to stiffen the opposition of the Royal Irish Constabulary to the IRA. The RIC Auxiliary rapidly became just as unpopular as the better-known, but no better loved, RIC Special Reserve, or the infamous ‘Black and Tans’. He quickly became disillusioned with the levels of indiscipline and the predilection for drunken retaliation among the members of his force. In February 1921 he dismissed 21 Temporary Cadets, as they were officially known, for their depredations during raids on Trim and Drumcondra. When he was overruled by his own commanding officer, Chief of Police Henry Hugh Tudor, he submitted his resignation. Not the first time a Percy was slapped around by a Tudor.


This principled gesture cost him dearly. England expected … and Percy had not lived up to expectations. He was forced to resort to writing and lecturing to earn a living. He also became a convinced pacifist and supporter of the anti-war Peace Pledge Union established in Britain in 1934. Crozier died in 1937 at the age of 58.


Francis Percy Crozier, commanding officer of the RIC Auxiliary Division, resigned from his post in disgust at the behaviour of his own men, ninety-five years ago, on this day.








On This Day – 12 FEBRUARY 1848 – John Mitchel publishes first United Irishman newspaper




He was one of the great propagandists of his day, although the causes he espoused often placed him on the wrong side of the angels. He was loved and loathed in equal measure. He was one of the few Irishmen to have incurred the wrath of the British government and of the Federal administration of the USA.


John Mitchel was born near Dungiven in Derry in the year of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. He probably would have been on Napoleon’s side if only because the opposing Army was largely British. Son of a Presbyterian clergyman Mitchel created his own pulpit in a series of journalistic enterprises in Dublin, Tennessee, Virginia and New York.


Mostly raised in Newry in Co. Down Mitchel’s first political association was with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and the famous Nation newspaper, founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon in 1842. But long before the abortive Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 Mitchel had moved on, finding the editorial policies of the Nation rather too bland for his tastes. He founded his own rival nationalist weekly newspaper the United Irishman which, in its inaugural edition, claimed that ‘the world was weary of Old Ireland and also of Young Ireland’ thus attacking both Daniel O’Connell and his younger antagonists with the same broadsword. Mitchel aimed to be an equal opportunities offender and succeeded admirably.


The United Irishman however, was not responsible for the destruction of many trees as it was closed down by the British authorities after a mere sixteen issues. Mitchel was later tried before an elegantly and efficiently packed jury, found guilty of treason-felony, and deported to Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. The result was one of the greatest works of Irish political history, The Jail Journal, in which Mitchel wrote about his own experience of deportation and advocated a far more militaristic approach to Ireland’s ‘English problem’ than would have been popular heretofore.


He followed this up, in 1861, with a white hot diatribe The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in which he accused the British government of operating genocidal policies in its Irish colony during the Great Famine. The latter work was written in the safety of the USA, as his escape from Tasmania had been engineered in 1853.


So far so good, at least if you are an Irish nationalist, especially one of more militant stripe. But it is from here on in that Mitchell’s career becomes problematic. Settling in New York he established the radical newspaper, The Citizen. He used this publication as a platform for continued attacks on British policy in Ireland but also employed its columns for flood-blooded assaults on advocates for the end of slavery. An abolitionist he was not.


When the American Civil War began he moved lock, stock and barrel to the South, settling first in Knoxville, Tennessee where he published the Southern Citizen. In its pages he attacked the Union, once describing Abraham Lincoln as ‘an ignoramus and a boor’. He also had a go at Irish-American political and military leaders, like his erstwhile Young Ireland ally Thomas Francis Meagher, who fought on the Union side. He compared the South to Ireland and suggested that black slaves experienced better economic and social conditions than Irish tenant farmers. He didn’t reserve all his vitriol for attacking the North either. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a frequent target, Davis was far too much of an old softy for Mitchell. One of the ironies in all of this was that his advocacy of the Confederacy put him on the same side in the conflict as the British government, which was officially neutral, but for the South.


After the war, however, Mitchel shared the fate of Jefferson Davis, spending a short time in jail for his anti-Union spleen. His imprisonment would have given him plenty of time to reflect on the deaths in the war of two of his sons. A third lost an arm. The latter years of his life were spent in the service of the Fenian movement for whom he worked in Paris, and in standing successfully, albeit in absentia, for election in Tipperary in 1875. His success at the polls was nullified by the authorities on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. In those days you could commit all the felonies you liked AFTER you were elected but not before. Mitchel died suddenly in 1875 at the age of 59. His grandson, John Purroy Mitchel, later became Mayor of New York.


John Mitchel published his political manifesto, in the shape of the first issue of the United Irishman newspaper, one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, on this day.



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.