On This Day – 24 November 1713 Birth of Lawrence Sterne



In this autobiographical novel—in an incident which typifies its lewd humour—the protagonist is accidentally circumcised when a sash falls as he is urinating out a window. The book is full of digressions, to the extent that the author doesn’t get around to describing his own birth until volume three. One page is entirely black. A post-modern classic of some kind? Actually, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was published between 1759 and 1767.

It is the master work of, perhaps, the greatest, but most eccentric, novelists of the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne. He’s one of the most accomplished English writers of that golden era. Except, of course, that like many other literary giants of the period, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, for example, he’s not English, but Irish.

Sterne was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in 1713, the son of a British Army officer with Irish family connections. The Sterne family moved around the country a lot—at different times Sterne lived in Clonmel, Wicklow, Dublin, Drogheda, Castlepollard and Carrickfergus. That’s an awful lot of blue plaques for one man. During these peregrinations Sterne lost four siblings in an era of horrendous child mortality.

Sterne eventually moved to England, at the age of ten, where, in the 1738, he was ordained as a clergyman. In 1759 he intervened in a row among clerics in Yorkshire by publishing a satirical work on the subject, entitled A Political Romance. This turned out to be both a wise, and unwise, move. On the positive side, it revealed Sterne’s comic and literary talents. However, the novel aroused so much animosity amongst his clerical peers that it ensured he would never become a bishop. Furthermore, at the behest of some of his scandalised and influential colleagues, copies of the book were burnt. Only a handful survived and most of those did not emerge until long after his death.

Sterne, who had tried to supplement his clerical income by farming—he was no good at it—now concentrated on writing. Despite suffering from tuberculosis from his mid-forties, he managed to write at prodigious speed, and produced more than a volume a year of the lengthy Tristram Shandy, until it was completed in 1767. The book brought him international renown. However, when it was discovered that the, often bawdy, novel, was the work of a parson, Sterne was subjected to opprobrium in equal measure.  Even the publication of two books of sermons failed to satisfy his prurient critics. This may have had something to do with the fact that a mischievous Sterne chose to publish them under the title The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, the name of a priest in Tristram Shandy.

For the good of his health, he left England for France in 1762. It can’t have been an entirely healthy move, because Britain and France were at war at the time. Nonetheless, Sterne’s reputation preceded him, and he was treated as a celebrity, rather than a spy, wherever he went. Some of his travels were incorporated into the later volumes of the life of Tristram Shandy, and into his last novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.

After his death, Sterne became the central character in a macabre gothic tale not of his devising. He died at the height of the era of the grave-robber, or ‘resurrectionist’. These were men whose business it was to provide corpses to the growing number of medical training establishments. Aspiring surgeons could only legitimately practice their anatomical skills on the bodies of hanged men and women. Because of the popularity of transportation as a humane alternative to capital punishment, legally acquired corpses were in shorter supply.

Sterne died in 1768, at the age of fifty-four, shortly after A Sentimental Journey was published, and was buried in the churchyard of St. George’s in Hanover Square. But he didn’t rest in peace for long. His body was stolen by grave-robbers, and sold to the University of Cambridge. There, however, it was recognised by a surgeon, and quietly re-interred in an unknown plot in the original cemetery. A skull, believed to be that of Sterne, emerged when the churchyard was re-developed in the late 1960s, which is highly ironic for someone who extracted so much humour from the name Yorick.

Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy and probably a century and a half ahead of his time, was born in Clonmel, two hundred and four years ago, on this day.





On This Day – 17 November 1930 The first Irish Hospital Sweepstakes draw takes place



For decades it offered people the hope, or the illusion, of potential riches. It appeared to be a benevolent charity that was channelling vast sums into an underfunded Irish medical system. Granted, it caused ructions around the globe because it was a popular but illegal lottery, but there was something poetic, or ironic at least, in the idea of British and American gamblers funding the Irish health service.

Of course, like so many apparently altruistic Irish institutions, it was mostly a sham, a money-grabbing masquerade designed to enrich a small number of already wealthy individuals. The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, bears out the axiom that if something is too good to be true, it’s probably not true.

The first draw, in November 1930, was, in retrospect, utterly distasteful, but wonderfully stage-managed by the organisation’s own P.T. Barnum, Spencer Freeman. Two young boys from St. Joseph’s School in Drumcondra, both blind and wearing placards bearing the names ‘Willie’ and ‘Peter’, were supervised by Garda Commissioner, and future Fascist, Eoin O’Duffy, in drawing the winning tickets. Later the blind children would be replaced by smiling nurses. Three delighted Belfast men shared an astronomical and life-changing prize fund of £208,792. The Sweepstakes was well on its way to becoming the employer of up to four thousand people. The surplus was destined, after the deduction of appropriate administration costs, of course, to heal the sick. Everyone was a winner.

Except that everyone wasn’t. Less than ten percent of the turnover—still a considerable sum of money— found its way to the funding of Irish hospitals. Employees, mostly female, were badly paid, and much of the turnover enriched the stakeholders in the private company that ran the enterprise.

The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes was the brainchild of Dublin bookmaker Richard Duggan, War of Independence veteran Joseph McGrath, and Welsh-born Captain Spencer Freeman, a man with a flair for the theatrical. By 1932, after two years of clever marketing, illegal sales, and excessive point shaving, all three were millionaires.

The Sweepstakes also affected political relationships between Ireland and, in particular, Britain and the USA, where the sale of lottery tickets was illegal, but widespread. For their part, the British governments of the 1930s were not best pleased that millions of pounds were leaving the country illegally, bound for Eamon de Valera’s Irish Free State, in the midst of an economic war between the two countries.

In America McGrath’s erstwhile political ally, the veteran Republican Joe McGarrity, was in charge of operations. He wrote in his memoir that he used much of his own considerable personal profits from the venture, to purchase IRA guns. This was at a time when that organization was collaborating with Nazi Germany. Recently opened Secret Service files in London revealed that MI5 had fears that the same thing was happening in Britain.

Among the abuses of which the operators stood accused was a sort of ‘past-posting’ scam. Exploiting the time difference between Europe and the USA, the operators purchased shares in winning tickets from their unwitting holders, and claimed some of the prize money themselves. In 1936 Spencer Freeman, armed with the results of races, used this system to purchase half-shares in eight successful American tickets. He netted nearly a quarter of a million pounds in winnings from his own lottery. By the 1970s the directors had creamed off more than a hundred million pounds in profits.

And, surprise surprise, some of the proceeds from the Sweepstakes were allegedly used to fund the campaigns of friendly Irish politicians.

One distinctly unfriendly politician was Justice Minister Des O’Malley, who, in the 1970s, sought information on the allocation of the turnover from the lottery. So powerful was the Sweepstakes that he was pressurized into minding his own business. The government was reminded that any adverse publicity or punitive action against the directors would lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs. When, in 1973, the journalist Joe McAnthony finally exposed some of the dubious activities of the lottery in the Sunday Independent, all the Sweepstakes’ advertising in the newspaper was pulled.

When An Post was awarded the franchise to run the new National Lottery in 1986, that was the end of the Irish Hospital’s Sweepstakes. Its employees—mainly elderly women—were discarded, with virtually no provision being made for them.

The notion that it was all ‘great craic’ and, from a hospital’s point of view, better than a poke in the eye from a sharp stick, has its champions. However, at the very least, it is yet another example of the fledgling Irish State farming out vital services to bodies with an agenda of their own. In this case, that of making large fortunes for themselves.

The first winning tickets were drawn in the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes lottery, eighty-seven years ago, on this day.




[Read this book if you want to know more]


On This Day – 10 November 1861 The funeral of Terence Bellew McManus



Say what you like about the Irish republican movement since the 1860s but you’d have to concede, they do great funerals. There would have been no … ‘The fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead’, from Patrick Pearse in 1915, had the IRB not transported the body of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa from New York, to have him buried in Glasnevin. That was one of the reasons why the British authorities were quick to dispose of the bodies of the executed 1916 leaders ‘in house’. The last thing they wanted was fourteen Dublin funerals.

But the obsequies of Rossa were merely an expert copy, convincing but unoriginal. The first great Fenian funeral was that of a relatively obscure Young Irelander, Terence Bellew McManus. He was no Thomas Davis, no John Mitchel, not even a Thomas Francis Meagher. But he had occupied a prominent position in the mid-1850s generational conflict between the romantic nationalists of the Young Ireland movement, and the waning Daniel O’Connell. And he died, in San Francisco, at just the right time.

McManus was a friend of one of the founders of the Nation newspaper, Charles Gavan Duffy. He had made a fortune exporting wool, and then lost most of it in the mid-1840s investing in railroad stock. An enthusiastic British-based Young Irelander he travelled back to this country in 1848, after the authorities declared martial law in anticipation of a rebellion. He was one of the few members of the movement who actually took up arms. He participated in the only military action of the 1848 rising, the infamous skirmish at the Widow McCormack’s cottage in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. He eluded capture in Ireland, and returned to Britain. There he was declared bankrupt and just managed to get on board a ship bound for the USA before he was arrested.

The trouble was that the ship on which he was travelling was called back to port, he was hauled off, and tried for treason. His famous statement, that he had acted as he did, ‘not because I loved England less, but because I loved Ireland more’ cut no ice. He was sentenced, like most of his fellow leaders, to be hanged, drawn and quartered—an appalling penalty that remained on the statute books for the crime of high treason. A petition seeking clemency for the convicted Young Ireland leaders, with one hundred and fifty thousand signatures appended, was presented by the Lord Mayor of Dublin to the Lord Lieutenant. The barbaric capital penalties were diluted to transportation. By October 1849 he was settling into life in the penal colony of Tasmania, or van Diemen’s Land

Like a number of his colleagues, McManus managed to escape from captivity—in his case with Thomas Francis Meagher—and made his way, in 1851, to San Francisco. After which McManus disappeared from sight, abjured most political activity, and tried to build up a respectable business, though without much success.  He suffered a fatal accident in January 1861, died and was buried in San Francisco. And that should have been the last we ever heard of Terence Bellew McManus.

However, a campaign began to raise money to put a monument over his grave in Lone Mountain cemetery. But the IRB had a better idea. Instead of a monument, McManus got a two-month one-way trip back to Ireland, via Panama, New York and Cobh. This was followed by a huge funeral in Dublin, skillfully organised and exploited by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The organisation had not existed when McManus was in his pomp, but included some of his former Young Ireland chums, like James Stephens.

The Cardinal-Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, was allergic to Fenians, and refused to allow McManus’s coffin to lie in the Pro-Cathedral. So, instead, he lay in state in the Mechanic’s Institute, from where his remains were taken, in solemn procession, to Glasnevin cemetery, watched by thousands of Dubliners.

Whether or not this indicated growing support for the nascent Fenian movement, or just confirmed the Irish attachment to a good funeral, it emboldened the IRB and greatly vexed their constitutional nationalist opponents as well as most of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

McManus eventually got his monument, but not until well into the twentieth century. Funds had been raised to build it by 1895 but the inscription was considered too political and the Glasnevin Cemetery Committee refused to allow it to be erected until 1933. He now shares his grave with, among others, Patrick W. Nally, after whom the Nally Stand in Croke Park was named.

Terence Bellew McManus, emerged from relative obscurity to become the central figure of the biggest funeral in Dublin since Daniel O’Connell’s, one hundred and fifty-six years ago, on this day.






On This Day – 3 November 1831 Birth of Ignatius Donnelly



Talking about the Aryan race was actively discouraged until recently. Then we discovered the so-called ‘alt.right’. It could become unpopular all over again if the ideas of Ignatius Donnelly are correct. His theory was that Aryans were from the lost island of Atlantis, and that their red-haired blue eyed descendants were Irish. So, eat shamrock Breitbart.com!

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly was born to an Irish father, and Irish-American mother, in Philadelphia in 1831. He became a lawyer in his twenties, but devoted most of his life to politic,s and to what would today be described as ‘pseudo-science’ but which, in the nineteenth century, had a significant constituency.

Donnelly was something of a utopian socialist. In the 1850s he co-founded a commune in Minnesota which went spectacularly bust after one of the cyclical financial downturns of nineteenth century America. This was the ‘panic of 1857’ – son of the ‘panic of 1837’ and father of the ‘panic of 1873’.  You could almost set your alarm clock by them.

After that Donnelly, who had acquired something of a reputation for financial impropriety, entered politics, the last refuge of the scoundrel. He was a Congressman for the Minnesota Second District from 1863-69, an advocate of female suffrage, and a radical champion of freed slaves. So, not that much of a scoundrel after all. We’ll come back to the politics later.

But he was also celebrated, in the late nineteenth century for his writing, especially his explorations of the legend of the lost city of Atlantis in his book Atlantis: the antediluvian world. He had an intense Platonic relationship with his subject, as in, he took as gospel everything the Greek philosopher Plato had written about the place. Atlantis wasn’t a fable to Donnelly or Plato, it was real.  It was where man first rose from barbarism to civilisation. It was destroyed by a natural disaster that gave rise to the biblical stories of the Flood. There’s a lot more besides. It’s all very ‘New Agey’, and led to Donnelly being dubbed by some ‘The Prince of Cranks’. In a subsequent work he speculated that the cataclysmic event that had destroyed Atlantis had been caused by a meteor strike. While his work may have been wacky and alternative it sold very well.

Donnelly also had a bee in his bonnet about William Shakespeare. He was one of many who tried to debunk the notion that the plays ascribed to Shakespeare, had actually been written by the humble thespian from Stratford upon Avon. His theory was that they were actually the work of Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century English philosopher. He theorised that Bacon had inserted a code in the works of Shakespeare, which only clever people like Ignatius Donnelly were capable of deciphering. The ‘Bacon as Shakespeare’ theory had a lot of enthusiastic adherents at the time.  It still does today.

In 1891 Donnelly wrote a dystopian science fiction novel which predicted the invention of radio, TV, the internet and poison gas. Caesar’s Column is set in 1988, in an America ruled by a ruthless financial oligarchy. So, well off the mark there! The book is about an insurrection against capitalism.

Politically, Donnelly moved leftwards as he got older, from the anti-slavery Republican party of the Civil War, to the People’s Party of the 1890s. The latter was a coalition of mid-western agricultural and labour interests which sought an eight-hour working day, the abandonment of the gold standard, and the reining-in of the massively wealthy and predatory railway interests. Donnelly was responsible for much of the formulation of the political platform of this short-lived ‘third’ party.

In 1900, a few months before his death, he was nominated as the Vice Presidential candidate for the People’s Party in that year’s general election.

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, who, despite being called after the founder of the Jesuit Order renounced his Irish Catholicism early in his life, was born one hundred and eighty six years ago, on this day.