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

Click to access Adult%20Education%20Brochure%202016-2017.pdf



‘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.






On This Day- 12 August 1773 – Robert King X 2 and the murder of Henry Fitzgerald



Mary Wolsttonecraft  – peripheral to the story but more famous than the protagonists – hence the pic

When the members of the Irish House of Lords tried a fellow peer they did it in style. Such was certainly the case with Robert King, tried for murder in 1798. His proper title was the 2nd Earl of Kingston and he was being tried for the killing of the nephew of his wife. Elsewhere, his son, also called Robert was tried for the same offence, the murder of Colonel Henry FitzGerald.

The 2nd Earl had married well. His wife, Caroline Fitzgerald, was one of the wealthiest heiresses in Ireland when she was married off to Robert King, who was worth a few shillings in his own right, when they were both 15 years old, in 1769.  They settled into the family home in Mitchelstown, Co.Cork. The couple was probably more distinguished for one of their governesses than for anything they every accomplished themselves. Hired to educate their children was Mary Woolstonecraft, novelist, historian, 18th century feminist and the mother of the woman who wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.

She would have been hard put to devise the narrative that saw her employer and one of her  pupils arraigned for murder.

This all came about because of the acceptance into the King family of a nephew of Caroline Fitzgerald, one Henry FitzGerald, a child born out of wedlock. There were, indeed, rumours to the effect that Henry was not actually Caroline’s nephew, but her illegitimate half-brother, the result of a liaison involving her own father.

Henry Fitzgerald, who went on to become a colonel in the military, rewarded the generosity of the King family by seducing one of Caroline’s daughters – who may of course, have been his half-niece. When Henry Fitzgerald’s body was discovered and the truth of the seduction came to light, Robert King junior and senior were both charged with his murder.

The Dad, as a peer of the realm, faced his own peers in May 1798, in the Irish House of Lords, a building still preserved intact in the Bank of Ireland in College Green in Dublin.  The symbolism of the occasion, to paraphrase, W.S. Gilbert, fitted the crime. During the trial an executioner stood beside Kingston with an immense axe, painted black except for two inches of polished steel. This served to remind their Lordships of the fate the Earl of Kingston faced, should they find him guilty. Though his actual fate would have been to be hanged by the neck until dead. Only afterwards might his head have been separated from his body. However, it never came to that. No witnesses appeared for the prosecution, and Kingston was acquitted. One can’t help suspecting that while the Kings had actually done in the bounder Henry anyone who was anyone figured that he’d got what was coming to him. The aristocracy is a another country, they do things differently there.

An interesting footnote. The Directory of the United Irishmen had discussed using the occasion of the trial to kill key members of the government. But the vote of one Francis Magan, a leading member of the organisation, caused the scheme to be abandoned. Magan, it later emerged, was a government agent.

While Robert King Senior was tried in splendor by his peers R.King Junior, was arraigned before the more mundane Cork Assizes on the same charge. Once again no witnesses came forward so the future Viscount Lorton of Boyle, Co.Roscommon was duly acquitted. The magnificent Boyle Museum, King House, is named after the family

The dramatic and colourful trial of the 2nd Earl of Kingston took place two hundred and eighteen years ago, while his son and fellow accused, also called Robert King was born, was born two hundred and forty three years ago, on this day.


Mitchelstown Castle – one time home of the Earls of Kingston – below is King House on Boyle, now a museum and well worth a few hours of your time.

OTD – 5  August 1901 Peter O’Connor sets the first World Long Jump record



Long jump records often stick around for quite a while. On May 25 1935 Jesse Owens jumped over twenty-six feet eight inches (8.13 metres) in Ann Arbor, Michigan creating a new world record. It stood for twenty-five years. For good measure within an inspired spell of forty-five minutes Owens also broke two other world records and equalled a fourth.  At the Mexico Olympics in 1968 Bob Beamon leaped a phenomenal twenty-nine feet two and a half inches to break the previous record by almost two feet. When he was told what he had done he collapsed in a heap and had to be helped to his feet by fellow competitors. That record stood for almost twenty-three years before being broken by Mike Powell.


So a record that lasted a mere two decades isn’t a lot to get excited about. Unless you’re Irish. And even if you are you’ve probably never heard of Peter O’Connor. But he won two Olympic medals in 1906, one of them gold. As far as O’Connor was concerned he won them for Ireland but they are down in the record books as United Kingdom medals.


O’Connor was from Ashford in Wicklow, though he was born in England to an Irish family. A talented athlete he joined the GAA as a twenty-four year old in 1896 and three years later won All Ireland medals in the long jump, high jump and triple jump – then called the ‘hop, step and jump’. In those days the GAA did not just cater forwhat we now call Gaelic Games. Over the next decade O’Connor beat all comers, including the best Britain had to offer. In 1900 he was invited to join the UK Olympic team. He declined to invitation as his wish was to represent Ireland internationally.


His opportunity finally appeared to come in 1906. In that year the International Olympic Committee organized what were formally called the Intercalated Games in Athens. This was because the 1900 and 1904 Olympics in Paris and St. Louis had both been overshadowed by the parallel international expositions or World Fairs. The first games in 1896 in Athens had been the only truly successful ones up to that point. The idea was that the Olympics would return to their spiritual home in Greece every two years and would then be staged at some other international venue two years later. It never quite worked out and the experiment was only tried in 1906.


But it looked as if the Intercalated Games would accept the inclusion of an Irish team. So the rival GAA and Irish Amateur Athletic Association jointly nominated O’Connor, along with two other athletes, Con Leahy and John Daly, to compete under an Irish flag. This was a golden harp and shamrock on a green background bearing the legend ‘Erin go Bragh’. However the IOC reneged and permission for the three men to compete for Ireland was withdrawn. When they travelled to Athens and registered they were told they would have to represent the United Kingdom. With great reluctance the three athletes bowed to the inevitable.


O’Connor went to the Games as long jump world record holder. He had leaped almost twenty-five feet in Dublin in 1901. In the Athens event, however, he was opposed by the previous holder of the world best mark, Myer Prinstein of the USA. The only judge at the event just happened to be the American team manager. O’Connor protested but was ignored. Prinstein won the gold, O’Connor finished second. At the medal ceremony O’Connor saw red … white and blue as the Union Jack was raised to mark his silver medal. Carrying the Irish banner he had brought to Athens he climbed up the pole and replaced the offending Union flag with the ‘Harp and Shamrock’. His compatriots Con Leahy and John Daly stood at the bottom of the pole just in case anyone might try and stymie the gesture.


Later O’Connor competed against Leahy in the hop, step and jump, his teammate having taken gold in the high jump. Here O’Connor won a gold medal of his own, Prinstein, champion in 1900 and 1904 was not placed.


O’Connor, by then thirty-four years old and clearly past his best, did not compete in any further Olympic Games. Undoubtedly his nationalism, which did not permit him to represent the United Kingdom until forced by circumstances to do so, denied him numerous Olympic medals in 1900 and 1904.


He settled in Waterford working as a solicitor and became a founder member of the Waterford Athletic Club. He died there in 1957 at the age of 85. His long jump world best set in 1901 stood as an Irish record until 1990, when it was finally broken by Carlos O’Connell. The first British competitor to beat O’Connor’s mark was the legendary Welsh athlete and Olympic gold medallist Lynn Davis, who didn’t lower it until 1962.


Peter O’Connor set a new long jump world record of twenty-four feet, eleven and three-quarter inches at the RDS in Dublin one hundred and fifteen years ago, on this day.