On This Day – 30 September 1598 – The English poet Edmund Spenser is appointed Sheriff of Cork



When someone uses the word ‘sheriff’ we tend to think of a tall, grizzled man with a wide brimmed hat and a revolver. Gary Cooper in High Noon. Now there was a sheriff. But closer to home the word itself originally comes from ‘shire’, meaning county and the role has had many different definitions over the years. Think ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ – Robin Hood’s antagonist – at one end of the spectrum and the man who sends the bailiffs to take back that couch you can’t pay for, at the other.


Probably the most unfortunate sheriff in Irish history is a man who had a distinguished literary career in England. In his most celebrated work he spent six books brown nosing Queen Elizabeth 1. This was a very healthy thing for a poet to do. Less healthy was being an English planter in Ireland in the late 16th century living on land confiscated from Irish rebels.


The sheriff in question was the writer Edmund Spenser whose long poem, The Faerie Queene, is still one of the most highly regarded works in the English language.


But Spenser had a whole other side to him, far removed from poetic sensibility. Born in London, probably in 1552, he came to Ireland at the age of twenty-eight in the service of the Lord Deputy, Lord Grey. He fought alongside Walter Raleigh at the siege of Smerwick in Kerry during the rebellion of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald in 1580. At the end of the siege Grey had five hundred of the Spanish and Italian defenders of Smerwick fort butchered. Only the officers were spared. Noblesse oblige, don’t you know.


Like and enterprising carpetbagger Spenser benefitted from the subsequent plantation of Munster. He settled on the Kilcolman estate near Doneraile in Cork. He also acquired land overlooking the Munster Blackwater where he is said to have written some of the Faerie Queen under an oak tree. The oak was destroyed by lightning in the 1960s.


Spenser published the first three volumes of his most famous work in 1590 and duly received a pension of £50 a year from the Faerie Queene herself. If he was hoping to get a job out of sucking up to Her Majesty he probably shouldn’t have antagonized her hatchet man Lord Burghley with his next piece of work Mother Hubberd’s Tale. Getting into Burghley’s bad books meant that it was back to Ireland for Spenser. There his first wife died in 1594 and he married Elizabeth Boyle, a relative of Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork, one of the great survivors of Irish Elizabethan history.


Just because most of Spenser’s income came from his Irish estates rather than his pension or his poetry didn’t mean he had to like the native Irish. And he duly obliged by disliking them and almost everything about them. In a pamphlet entitled A View of the Present State of Ireland he essentially adopted the position that the peasants were revolting and the only way to stop them revolting was to destroy their language and customs. He also had a high opinion of a scorched earth policy in the event of war with the Irish. This would helpfully deprive said revolting peasants of food and sustenance.


So it was ironic that Spenser himself was the one who was scorched in the Nine Years War. Shortly after his appointment as Sheriff of Cork in 1598 the forces of Hugh O’Neill burned the poet’s castle. He was obliged to return to London. There he fell on hard times and died at the age of forty-six. He is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Although the author of many celebrated works he’s possibly best remembered for a quatrain written when his annual pension was overdue, it goes …


I was promis’d on a time,

To have a reason for my rhyme:

From that time unto this season,

I receiv’d nor rhyme nor reason.


Edmund Spenser was appointed Sheriff of Cork four hundred and eighteen years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 23 September 1875 – Billy the Kid is arrested for the first time


While he has Irish connections of his own it is the involvement of William Henry McCarty in an Anglo-Irish war that is of most Irish interest. Not THE Anglo-Irish war, also known as  the War of Independence, you understand but AN Anglo-Irish war – of sorts. This one was fought out in New Mexico in the 1880s.


So who is William Henry McCarty? Well he also went under the name of William Bonney. And if that doesn’t ring any bells his nickname probably will. He was best known as Billy the Kid.  It’s hardly unusual in the USA that a violent antihero and probable psychopath should be viewed with reverence. But the Kid has had more books written about him,  more films made about him, and more porkies told about him – some by himself –  than any other Western outlaw.


He was born in New York City, probably in 1859, to an Irishwoman, Catherine McCarty, whose maiden name was Devine. No other parent’s name is listed on his birth certificate though his father may have been a Patrick McCarty.  Billy was brought up in the lower east side of the city in the area known as the Five Points – made famous in the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs of New York.


By 1873 Catherine McCarty and her new husband, William Antrim were living in New Mexico. In 1874 Catherine Antrim died. The following year her son became involved in petty crime. In September 1875 he robbed a Chinese laundry in Silver City, New Mexico, was arrested, escaped from jail and went on the run. He was fifteen years old. He didn’t have long left.


The most celebrated and persistent myth about the Kid is that he killed a man for every year of his short life (he was dead by the age of twenty-one). This tall tale may have come from the Kid himself to counteract his youthful appearance and enhance his aura of invincibility but it is well wide of the mark. He is known to have been personally responsible for the deaths of four men and was complicit in the killing of four more.


His first victim was a thirty-two-year-old Irishman, Frank Cahill, a native of Galway.  The two men met, and fought, in Arizona. Cahill came off worse. The Kid was immediately arrested but, once again, displayed his knack for escaping custody. Facing a murder charge in Arizona, he returned to New Mexico. There he became involved in what is known today as the Lincoln County War. This was a power struggle for economic and political domination of southern New Mexico fought out between a group of dodgy Irish businessmen, farudsters and rustlers, Lawrence Murphy, John Riley and Jimmy Dolan on the one side, and an equally dubious young English opportunist  John Henry Tunstall as well as his Scottish-American partner Alexander McSween. The Kid enlisted on the ‘British’ side of the conflict when he took a job as one of Tunstall’s hired thugs.


His career as a practicing psychopath reached new depths in February 1878 when Tunstall was murdered by members of a posse sent out by the Sheriff of Lincoln County, William Brady from Cavan. The Kid claimed his second Irish victim a few days later when he, and at least two more of Tunstall’s former employees, gunned down Sheriff Brady in Lincoln.


The Kid went on the run again but after numerous brushes with the law, and a lot more violence, he was captured by the new Lincoln County Sheriff, Pat Garrett. He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Brady in April 1881. He was taken to Lincoln jail to await hanging but escaped yet again, this time killing two of Garret’s deputies, Bob Ollinger and James Bell as he made his getaway.


New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, put a $500 reward on Billy the Kid’s head and Garrett went in pursuit again. He tracked the Kid down in July 1881 and shot him dead in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Later Garrett, who had been a friend of McCarty – or Bonney, or Antrim – capitalized on their association by writing a suitably self-serving biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. As with Jesse James, Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, there were many reports of sightings of the Kid after his apparent demise. As he would now be more than one hundred and fifty years old we can be fairly confident that he is actually dead. But his legend lives on. So far he’s been played by Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson and Emilio Estevez, among many others.


Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time after robbing a laundry one hundred and forty one years ago, on this day.




UCD History Course – The American West -presented by Myles Dungan



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






Yes there was Billy the Kid – but he wouldn’t have become a legend but for Murphy, Dolan and Riley!


Nellie Cashman did a lot more for Tombstone than Wyatt Earp!


George Custer was a dashing cavalryman but Phil Sheridan was his boss!


Tom Fitzpatrick had more of an impact on the ‘real’ West than Buffalo Bill!


Come and find out about the dozens of Irish adventurers, entrepreneurs and lawmen who helped create the American West


You’ll find out about Sitting Bull, the Union Pacific, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Battle of the Little Bighorn but also about Belinda Mulrooney, William Mulholland, Myles Keogh and a host of other extraordinary Irish characters.

On This Day – 9 September 1831 – Irish National Education



Education in Ireland at primary and secondary level has traditionally been the preserve of the main religious denominations in the country and one in particular. That was not quite the intention of the prime movers back when a formal education system was first established in this country in 1831. That year £30,000 was allocated to establish a national system of elementary education in Ireland.

There is a myth that prior to this date Irish children were largely taught in what were known as ‘hedge schools’. While such informal and occasionally al fresco establishments did exist in the 1700s education had become rather more professionalized by the 19th century.  The Society for Promoting Elementary Education among the Irish Poor, better known in its much shorter form as the Kildare Street Society was in receipt of government funds from 1812 and ran almost fifteen hundred schools with over one hundred thousand students by 1825.

Despite the fact that there were allegations made against the Society of proselytism the influential Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, James Doyle – an ally of Daniel O’Connell – saw nothing objectionable to Catholics in the schools. Doyle was more concerned with low educational standards elsewhere than he was with any perception that the Kildare Street institutions might be trying to convert Catholics to Protestantism.

Others were not quite so sanguine and deprecated the practice in Kildare Street schools of scripture reading or ‘unaided private interpretation of the Sacred volume’ which was ‘peculiarly obnoxious’ to other members of the Catholic hierarchy.

It was, in part at least, to, as he put it himself,  ‘banish … even the suspicion of proselytism’ that in October 1831 the Chief Secretary Earl Stanley – later British Prime Minister Lord Derby –  wrote a letter to the Duke of Leinster outlining a system of education more closely associated with the state than the looser regime that prevailed at the time.  The government, the Chief Secretary informed the Duke, would fund the building of schools (with a small amount of local financial input), and would pay the salaries of teachers. Stanley’s letter was meant to convey to the Duke and to the Kildare Street Society that the government was no longer prepared to farm out education to an organization that was, in part, privately funded. It then proceeded to do just that all over again.

The main object of the new regime was to ‘unite in one system children of different creeds.’ The Board of National Education was told to look most favourably on applications for assistance from schools jointly managed by Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the policy of introducing a system of non-denominational, religiously integrated education was quickly abandoned as the Commissioners of Education caved in to demands from the main churches for rigidly denominational, segregated education. Within twenty years only 4% of national schools were not associated with a single religious denomination. The Dublin Castle administration didn’t always buckle to the realities of Irish life but in this instance it opted for pragmatism over principle.

The sum of £30,000 was allocated for the development of a new system of national education one hundred and eighty five years ago, on this day.


On This Day –2 September 1865, birth of William Rowan Hamilton






It was perhaps the most important example of anti-social behaviour in scientific history. What today might merely have merited an ASBO for the scraping of a piece of incomprehensible graffiti, back in 1843 was the breakthrough that William Rowan Hamilton needed to come up with the concept of something called the quaternion.


No one could have predicted at his birth that the son of Sarah Hutton and Archibald Hamilton, a Dunboyne, Co. Meath solicitor, would emerge as Ireland’s  most significant mathematician – other than Eamon de Valera – and one of the world’s foremost scientific minds.  But pretty soon after his birth it was clear to the extended Hamilton family that young William was a bit different.


He was sent at the age of three to live with his uncle James, a teacher and cleric, in Trim and there began to collect languages as a hobby. Before his teens he had already acquired a dozen. In addition to the predictable European tongues he had also picked up Hindustani, Sanskrit and Malay. Clearly the curriculum in Uncle James’s school was an interesting one.


It was a sobering experience at the age of eight that caused young William to wise up and stop messing around with foreign languages. Also something of a whizz at mental arithmethic in 1813 he was pitted against the visiting American mathematical genius Zerah Colburn in a head to head contest. Half the rakes of Dublin probably had money on the outcome. But it wasn’t a happy experience for young Hamilton. In this early Ryder Cup of Hard Sums – or ‘math’ as the young American would probably have called it – he lost out to Colburn. Realising he needed to up his game if he wanted to wanted to become a famous mathematician William Rowan Hamilton abandoned the acquisition of languages in favour of the solving of equations.


He entered Trinity College in 1823 and was appointed Professor of Astronomy in 1827. This was pretty rapid progress as he had yet to even graduate. That same year he took up residence in Dunsink Observatory and spent the rest of his life there.


Which brings us to his famous walk. It took place on 16 October 1843 when he and his wife left Dunsink to go for a stroll along the banks of the Royal Canal. We can only assume that they either walked in silence or that Hamilton, as is sadly the case with a lot of husbands, was paying little or no attention to what his spouse was saying, as they neared Broom Bridge in Cabra. Now while most men, in such circumstances, might have been idly poring over in their heads the advisibility of Manchester United, Chelsea, Kerry or Dublin acquiring a new head coach, Hamilton’s mind was concentrated on higher things – something called quaternions. These I am forced to concede, I know nothing whatever about and can’t even comprehend sufficiently to offer a passable Idiot’s Guide.


As the couple approached Broom Bridge Hamilton began to behave in a fashion that must have caused his wife some concern. He took out a penknife and carved

the following legend in the superstructure of the bridge


i² = j² = k² = ijk = -1


And, no, I’m very sorry but I don’t understand it either. This, it transpired, was the discovery of the quaternion, which apparently extends the range of complex numbers. One can only agree with the use of the word complex. The knowledge that her husband had discovered quaternions and was not simply vandalizing the bridge must have come as a great relief to Mrs. Hamilton.


Of course the moral of the story is, if you are a budding astronomer or mathematician who wants to make a difference, you should never leave the house without carrying a knife.


William Rowan Hamilton, mathematician and astronomer, died one hundred and fifty one years ago, on this day.