On This Day – 30.12.1691 – Irish scientist Robert Boyle dies


You’d think that someone who published a work with the words ‘touching the spring of the air’ in the title was probably some class of a poet. But in the case of Robert Boyle you would be wrong. The full title of what was actually a scientific paper was New experiments physico-mechanical, touching the spring of the air and its effects

Boyle was one of the most extraordinary and influential Irish-born scientists – in the paper with the semi-poetic title he was experimenting with a vacuum chamber and assessing the impact of the withdrawal of air on light, flame and living creatures. Not very healthy in the latter case would have been one of the conclusions, no doubt.

Boyle was the fourteenth child and seventh son of the Great Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, buccaneer, con-man, adventurer, consummate politician and soldier. Born in the picturesque surroundings of Lismore Castle in Waterford the young Boyle was dispatched to Eton at the age of eight and, thereafter, spent only a few years in Ireland. While Dad was cheating, lying, bullying and finagling his way to a huge fortune and almost unparalleled political influence young Robert was playing with his chemistry set. Out of this work came recognition as the first modern chemist and the formula for which he is best known and which is named after him, Boyle’s Law – of which more anon.

Boyle, along with a private tutor, Robert Carew, with whom he could converse in Irish, did the Grand Tour of Europe in his mid-teens in an era well before the Grand Tour became the norm for aristocratic families. In the course of his extended vacation he visited Florence in 1641 where he may have met an elderly Galileo Galilei. As an aspiring scientist he did try to live and work in Ireland but gave up in 1654, describing the land of his birth as ‘a barbarous country where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable that it was hard to have any Hermetic thoughts in it.’

From the early 1650s Boyle devoted himself to science and to a variety of potential inventions – according to his own notes his experiments included research into  ‘the prolongation of life’, ‘the art of flying’, ‘perpetual light’, ‘a certain way of finding longitudes’ and ‘potent drugs to alter or exalt imagination’ – had he been able to paint he might have been a new Leonardo da Vinci, had he been born a few hundred years later – given the latter topic –  he might have been Timothy Leary.

In 1662 he used an air pump built by his assistant Robert Hooke to come up with the axiom that bears his name – It goes thus –  ‘For a fixed amount of a gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional.’ – and that’s as deeply as we are going to go because I’m already well outside my comfort zone. In coming up with Boyle’s Law he got in fourteen years ahead of the French scientist Edme Mariotte who came to the same conclusion, otherwise the principle would today be known as Mariotte’s Law and Robert Boyle would be familiar only to chemists as an early innovator.

As if all that wasn’t enough Boyle was also a philosopher and theologian – though his work in those areas did attract a certain amount of opprobrium. His 1665 Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects was lampooned by Jonathan Swift in his own Meditation Upon a Broomstick.

But of probably greater significance was the work he produced in 1661, the year before the publication of Boyle’s Law, this was called The Sceptical Chemist in which he hypothesized that matter consisted of atoms and clusters of atoms in motion. Not bad for someone writing more than three and a half centuries ago. The Boyle Medal for Science has been presented in his honour since 1899.

Robert Boyle, the Father of Chemistry, died three hundred and twenty five years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 23.12.1864 Death of Chartist James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien





It was Brendan Behan who is supposed to have observed that the first item on the agenda of any Irish radical movement was ‘the split’. But it wasn’t just true of the Irish. The great British quasi-revolutionary organisation of the 1840s, the Chartists, also fell victim to vicious factionalism. But Behan wasn’t too far wrong, because at the centre of the dissension were two Irish journalists.


James O’Brien was born near Granard, Co. Longford in 1804 or 1805. Feargus O’Connor, born in 1794 or 1796, was from West Cork. Both studied at Trinity College and both are noted for the radical English newspapers they helped establish. In O’Brien’s case it was the Poor Man’s Guardian to which he contributed articles under the pseudonym ‘Bronterre’, before eventually adopting the nom de plume or nom de guerre as his middle name. O’Connor was the long-time editor of the much more celebrated Northern Star, named in tribute to the famous newspaper of the Ulster United Irishmen and for its home town of Leeds. Both men became central to the organisation and campaigning of one of the most important radical movements in British 19th century history.


The Chartists sought six basic demands –  universal male suffrage for all men of sound mind over the age of twenty-one, the secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, the payment of parliamentarians, constituencies of equal size and annual elections.


The organisation drew its name from the 1838 People’s Charter, the document that encapsulated the six demands. Public meetings and demonstrations were held around the country but the original petition – with 1.3 million signatures – was rejected by parliament in 1839. A second petition, this time with three million signatories, followed in 1842. It too was rejected. An economic depression then led to strikes and violence, both of which became associated with the Chartist movement. In 1848, with a wave of revolutions taking place across Europe Chartism re-emerged in England and Wales as a vibrant radical force. The previous year Feargus O’Connor had been elected as MP for Nottingham. A new petition was prepared, the Chartists claiming it contained five million signatures. It may, however, only have amounted to around two million and many of those were proven to be bogus.   The movement foundered when repressive legislation was introduced by the government and many of its leaders were arrested and deported.


Charged with sedition in 1840 James O’Brien served eighteen months in jail, during which time his wife and four children were virtually destitute. Feargus O’Connor was charged with seditious libel via the pages of the Northern Star in 1839 and also served eighteen months in prison. The split between the two men came about after their release from incarceration when O’Connor advocated support for the Tories against the incumbent Whig government in a general election of 1841. Their differences became intensely personal and were conducted in the columns of their respective newspapers. O’Brien referred to his compatriot as ‘The Dictator’-  which was actually not a grossly unreasonable assertion –  while O’Connor cruelly dubbed O’Brien, ‘The Starved Viper’.


Neither came to a good end. O’Brien died in his late fifties an impoverished alcoholic. O’Connor suffered poor mental health, possibly exacerbated or caused by syphilis. When he physically attacked a fellow MP in 1852 he was committed to an asylum. He died three years later, also in his late fifties.


Although Feargus O’Connor’s impressive ego was blamed by many contemporary commentators for the collapse of the Chartist movement few modern historians accept that the personality of one man could have had such a malign influence.  By the end of WW1 all six points of the People’s Charter of 1838, other than annual elections, had been implemented, with the considerable bonus of female suffrage thrown in for good measure.


James Bronterre O’Brien, radical journalist and Chartist, died one hundred and fifty two years ago, on this day.


On This Day-16.12.1987 FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK



Back in 2001, on the 75th anniversary of the establishment of 2RN, forerunner of Radio Eireann and RTE Radio, this station conducted two separate polls to make some fist at finding the 75 most beloved Irish songs. One was a poll of music professionals conducted through IMRO, the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the other was a reader/listener poll conducted through the RTE Guide. The results were varied but there was absolute unanimity about the number one song.


Written by Shane McGowan and Jem Finer of the Pogues and sung by McGowan and the extraordinary Kirsty MacColl, ‘Fairytale of New York’ has become a Christmas anti-classic all over the world. In the UK it is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century.  It’s also, arguably, the greatest song not to have reached Number One in the British pop charts.

The song had its origins two years before its release. As with most of the mythology surrounding the ‘Fairytale’, there is disagreement about how it began. One version suggests that Elvis Costello jokingly challenged the Pogues, the least sentimental group of all time – outside of the Clash – to write a Christmas hit. Another story has Pogues manager Frank Murray coming up with the idea. Either way the work was started by the group’s banjo player Jem Finer in 1985 and finally completed by Finer and McGowan two year’s later. Sleighbells, powdery snow, peace on earth and ‘ho ho ho’ would make way for the more realistic Christmas fare of alcohol induced recrimination and blazing family rows.

A couple of things are fairly certain. At the time the song was being recorded Jem Finer was reading J.P.Donleavy’s novel A Fairy Tale of New York and thus the great Irish-American author unwittingly lent his title to an even more celebrated work. In addition McGowan was probably destined to write a great Yuletide song as he was born on Christmas day in 1957. Though when he began to make his contribution to the song he’d never actually been to New York. But he had watched Sergio Leone’s film Once Upon a Time in America repeatedly – and that seems to have done the trick.

The song, of course, is an antagonistic dialogue between a New York couple fallen on hard times, and the first female vocal – with rather different lyrics – was laid down by the Pogue’s bass player Cait O’Riordan. But when the time came to finish the recording O’Riordan had left the band. Some thought was given to approaching Chrissy Hynde of the Pretenders or Suzy Quatro to do the needful. Instead Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite – a frequent U2 collaborator – asked his then wife Kirsty MacColl to lay down a new guide track. Whether it was actually Lillywhite’s intention or not that MacColl should get the gig  – and let’s assume that it was for the sake of credibility and posterity – the Pogues decided to leave the female vocal stand. McGowan then re-recorded the male part. The two only got together to make the memorable video whose opening shot features Matt Dillon as one of ‘New York’s finest’ escorting McGowan, none too gently, to the drunk tank.

In the song the drunken, down and out couple share their recriminations on Christmas Eve – ‘I could have been someone’ he sneers, clearly blaming anyone but himself for a life of failure. ‘Well so could anyone’ she retorts in one of the great musical putdowns. It’s all relentlessly embittered, though the ending offers some hope but its  rather more believable than ‘So here it is merry Christmas everybody’s having fun / look to the future now we’ve only just begun’.

Of course in a world where genius frequently plays second fiddle to utter mediocrity the song failed to become the UK Christmas number one. It was kept off the top of the charts by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover version of a mawkish 1973 Elvis torch-song ‘Always on my mind’.  It did make Number 1 in Ireland, however, which greatly pleased Shane McGowan. ‘I wouldn’t have expected the English to have great taste’ he told the Guardian on the song’s 25th anniversary re-release.

‘Fairytale of New York’ – far more Christmassy than ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ –  reached its highest position in the UK charts twenty-nine years ago, on this day.





On This Day-9.12.73 Sunningdale agreement signed



In 1998, after the signing of the Good Friday accord in Belfast, which promised a power-sharing executive to include all the elected Northern Ireland parties, Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP memorably referred to the deal, as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Those of a certain age nodded sagely in agreement and chuckled knowledgeably at his phrasemaking abilities, while many more, particularly in the Republic, wondered why Seamus had invoked a posh English golf course in the context of the Belfast Agreement.


But they probably got distracted by the sheer joy of the complexities of the previously unheard of d’Hondt method of ministerial selection and just put it all down to Mr. Mallon’s legendary fondness for the game of golf.


But the soon-to-be Deputy First Minister didn’t actually have a sporting context in mind at all. He was referring to the December 1973 Sunningdale agreement which, lo and behold had established … a power sharing executive, almost a quarter of a century before the Good Friday deal.


The background to Sunningdale was the attempt by the British government to end direct rule of Northern Ireland from London. The Stormont Parliament, established under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, had been suspended on 30 March 1972. That institution had almost, but not quite, been described by Sir James Craig- first Northern Prime Minister – as ‘A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. So it wasn’t greatly missed by Northern nationalists.


In March 1973 elections took place for a new Northern Ireland assembly and this was followed by negotiations between the SDLP and a divided Ulster Unionist party with a view to forming a power-sharing executive and bring about the ending of direct rule. In November, the UUP leader, Brian Faulkner, agreed to take his increasingly fractious party into government with the SDLP, under Gerry Fitt, and the Alliance party, led by Oliver Napier.


The next step was the negotiation of a North-South arrangement, with the formation of a Council of Ireland that had actually been envisaged by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, but had never come to pass.  Talks were held in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale, which does indeed have a championship golf course. This led to the establishment of a cross-border Council which would include a 60 member North-South Assembly and would have 32 county responsibility for ‘tourism, conservation and animal health.’ But the right wing of the Ulster Unionist party wasn’t even prepared to countenance ‘Rome rule’ over hotels, exhaust fumes and deadly clostridial diseases and the day after the agreement was signed by British Prime Minister Edward Heath and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave all hell broke loose.


In January 1974 Brian Faulkner was forced to resign as UUP leader but remained in position as Prime Minister at the head of the executive. In May of that year loyalist opponents of the deal formed the Ulster Worker’s Council and called a general strike. This was seen at its most effective in the closing down of the main Northern Ireland power station in Ballylumford. A 1974 poll, which helped shepherd the power-sharing executive towards oblivion, included the use of an election poster bearing the pithy slogan ‘Dublin is just a Sunningdale away – vote Unionist’


The Executive collapsed on 28 May 1974 and Sunningdale returned to being the home of two picturesque 18 hole parkland golf courses.


It took almost twenty-five years and three thousand deaths for the Good Friday agreement – the grown-up big sister of the infant casualty Sunningdale – to start to bring an end to the politics of violence in Northern Ireland. Something which, of course, it has yet to achieve completely.


The Sunningdale agreement – which promised much but delivered little – was signed forty-three years ago, on this day.


The Muppets, The Grinch and Bad Santa come to the Old Courthouse in Kells!


From the disgraceful antics of the worst ever Santa, to the unexpected childminding skills of a former novice nun, Christmas comes early to Kells.

The Old Courthouse becomes a cinema for the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, 17/18 December with four great family movies, as well as Billy Bob Thornton in the original Bad Santa (strictly for the Mums and Dads)

Hollywood greats James Stewart and Julie Andrews feature in two of the family movies, the magical It’s a wonderful life and timeless The Sound of Music – everyone is encouraged to dress up for the latter, and even singalong with the seven young von Trapps et al.

The Grinch and the Muppets will also be making an appearance in How the Grinch Stole Christmas – starring Jim Carrey, and The Muppet Christmas Carol,  in which Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the gang do some damage to Dickens.

The Kells Cultural Hub, which combines Kells Type Trail, Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival, and the Hinterland Festival (previously Hay/Kells). is pleased to present this weekend of family entertainment. Tickets for the daytime presentations will be €5 for adults €3 for children. The screening of Bad Santa on the evening of Saturday 17 December (tickets €10) will include a free glass of wine, (quite possibly mulled).