On This Day 27.4.1827 Birth of Mary Ward




What do the aristocratic amateur scientist Mary King Ward, and the working class Irishwoman, domiciled in London, Bridget Driscoll, have in common? The answer has something to do with the manner of their deaths, which took place twenty-seven years apart.

Mary King Ward was born in 1827 in Ferbane, Co. Offaly, then known as King’s County. The fact that her maiden name was King was a mere coincidence, though her extended family did own quite a lot of the county. She was home educated to a very high level by a family obsessed with the sciences.

Mary King was the cousin of William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse, the man responsible for the building of the huge telescope ‘Leviathan’ in Birr Castle in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time of its construction it was the largest in the world. Mary shared her cousin’s interest in astronomy, but she was also an accomplished artist. Her sketches of ‘Leviathan’ were used long after her death in the restoration of the telescope. She was also fascinated by the other end of the ‘scope’ scale as well. She was obsessed with microscopes.

She was, of course, born into the wrong era. Half a century later, and she might have been able to study physics or biology at university. But Mary King had to rely on the scraps that fell from her association with Parsons. Through him she met, and later corresponded with, a number of scientists. She published her first book, Sketches with the microscope, privately, reckoning that no publishing house would accept a scientific work by a woman. It did so well that it was taken on board by a London publisher, and was reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880. Before her death, in 1869, she wrote and illustrated numerous other scientific books and articles.

And that is how she would be remembered today, as a gifted amateur scientist born years before a time when she might have gained more recognition,  were it not for the manner of her tragic and untimely death at the age of forty-two.

William Parsons, inveterate inventor and tinkerer, had built a steam-driven car. They were briefly popular but were huge, impractical and dangerous. They went into decline when speed limits of—wait for it—four miles an hour on country roads  and two miles an hour in cities, were imposed. Never again complain about the extension of the thirty-kilometre an hour speed limit in Dublin city centre. On 31 August 1869 Mary Ward was travelling in the Birr Castle steam-powered car with two of Parsons children, and her own husband, when she was thrown from the vehicle on a nasty bend, and killed almost instantly when the wheels of the car broke her neck. She thus became the first recorded fatal victim of a traffic accident anywhere in the world.

So where does her fellow countrywoman Bridget Driscoll come in? She was only forty-four years of age when she met a not dissimilar fate in the grounds of the Crystal Palace in London in 1896. She was crossing a road with her daughter Mary, when she was struck by a car that was being used to give demonstration rides. She thus became the first pedestrian death by automobile in the United Kingdom. One witness described the car, owned by the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company, as being driven at a reckless speed, ‘in fact, like a fire engine’. The car’s maximum speed, however, was only eight miles an hour, so it cannot have been travelling that fast. The verdict of a coroner’s jury was one of ‘accidental death’ and no prosecution followed the tragedy. The coroner expressed the hope that ‘no such thing would ever happen again’—that was around six hundred thousand British road fatalities ago. Mary Ward had three sons and five daughters. Her great grand-daughter, the actor Lalla Ward, was once a regular on Doctor Who. Bridget Driscoll was a mother of three, two boys, and the daughter who witnessed her tragic and unnecessary death.

Mary King Ward, astronomer, biologist, author, and the very first of many millions of traffic fatalities in automobile history, was born one hundred and ninety-one years ago, on this day.


On This Day – 20 April 1946 – The death of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington



She is famous today as one of the widows of 1916 – which is unfortunate and extremely unfair, as, by that date, she had long been a highly significant figure in Irish political life in her own right.  It was the nature of her husband’s death, as much as the fact of her widowhood, that gave force to this particular association.

Johanna Mary Sheehy, better known as Hanna Sheehy, was born in Kanturk in Co. Cork in 1877. Her mother was Elizabeth McCoy, known to all and sundry as ‘Bessie’, depicted cruelly by James Joyce in Ulyseesas a ‘social climbing matriarch’. Her father, David Sheehy, was an ex-Fenian and a leading member of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, who served as an MP for thirty years. Shortly after his election to the House of Commons in 1885, the family moved to Dublin. One of her sisters, Mary, lusted after by Joyce, ended up marrying the poet and politician Thomas Kettle. One of her uncles, Father Eugene Sheehy, was known as the ‘Land League priest’ and had been tossed in prison for his activities during the Land War of 1879-82. All in all, an exceptionally interesting family. So, no pressure on young Hanna there.

She began to show promise at the Royal University in the 1890s, graduating with a Master’s degree in 1902, the year before James Joyce took time off from being a seminal literary genius, to introduce her to her future husband, his college mate Frank Skeffington. The two were married in 1903, adopting the surname Sheehy Skeffington, to start off their life together on equal terms, much to the annoyance of Frank’s family, who figured Hanna should have been happy enough not to start life with a hyphen.



In 1908 they established, along with Margaret Cousins and her husband James, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and the newspaper The Irish Citizen, both of which championed votes for women. In 1913 Hanna lost her teaching job after she was convicted and jailed for throwing stones in Dublin Castle during the suffragist campaign. While in jail she went on hunger strike, but was released under the terms of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act of 1913. As soon as her health had recovered, however, she was re-arrested. You can see why the legislation was nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. Unlike the British suffragist movement—and the famous Pankhurst family—which split over World War 1, the Irish equivalent—led by the Skeffington family—was unambiguous in its opposition to the Great War.

Hanna and Frank did not have much time together. He became the highest profile civilian casualty of the Easter Rising, when he was brutally murdered by firing squad on the orders of a demented British officer, Captain John Bowen Colthurst, from Cork. Hanna spent much of the rest of her life trying to secure justice for her murdered husband. Given that the criminal in the case was a British Army officer, and the victim was an Irish civilian, you can probably imagine how well that went. Put it this way, in 2016, the families of the men killed by Bowen Colthurst were still seeking an apology from the British government.

In 1917 Hanna was imprisoned in Holloway in London for Sinn Fein activities, one of many moderates who threw in their lot with that organization because of cack-handed British war-time policies in Ireland.

Hanna would have been immensely proud of her grand-daughter, the botanist Dr. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington who took on NUI Galway in a gender discrimination case in 2014. Had the university had the wisdom to consult its School of History on that occasion it might well have been advised to avoid taking on anyone of that name in a fight. Dr. Sheehy Skeffington won her case before the Equality Tribunal.

When Hanna died, in 1946, at the age of sixty-six, she joined her late husband in Glasnevin cemetery.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, firebrand, socialist, feminist and suffragist died seventy-two years ago, on this day.




On this day – 13 April, 1742 Première of Handel’s Messiah




It was something of a happy accident that one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written was first performed in Dublin two hundred and seventy-one years ago. The stirring Messiah, by George Friedrich Handel, heard for the first time in Mr.Neale’s Great Musick Hall on Fishamble street, should have been premiered in London, but Dublin happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Handel had been invited to perform a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741-42 by William Cavendish, the 3rdDuke of Devonshire, then serving as Irish Lord Lieutenant. After not one, but two, highly successful seasons at Fishamble  Street, Handel decided to arrange a charity concert for the benefit of prisoner’s debt relief, Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmiary. The piece he chose to perform was a little piece he had brought with him from London, an oratorio for massed choir and orchestra.

The text for Messiah had been written first, by one Charles Jennens, a great admirer of Handel. The music had then been composed, and the score notated in an astonishing twenty-four days. Jennens was really looking forward to first hearing his words set to music in a gala performance in London, and was rather miffed to discover that the piece would debut in the rather more provincial setting of Dublin instead.


Handel secured the services of the choirs of St. Patrick’s and Christchurch cathedrals for the occasion. He also engaged Christina Maria Avoglio for the soprano parts, and Susannah Cibber as contralto. The latter piece of casting could have aroused more controversy than it did. Cibber, daughter-in-law of the playwright Colley Cibber, was to all intents and purposes, hiding out in Dublin to avoid the consequences of a messy and scandalous divorce.  Handel would not have got away with engaging her for a performance in London.

A public rehearsal of the oratorio created a huge buzz around the city and it was clear that the concert hall would be packed for the actual performance. Word of mouth, then as now, was vitally important for the box office in Ireland. To accommodate as many patrons as possible men were asked not to carry their swords, and women were requested not to wear hoops under their dresses. Seven hundred people squeezed in and gave the oratorio an enthusiastic reception, far more positive than its subsequent London premiere. But perhaps they were just being provincial!

So overcome was one audience member, Rev.Patrick Delany, at Cibber’s rendition of ‘he was despised and rejected of men’ that he leapt out of his seat and shouted ‘woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven’. It might have been more consoling if it had come from her ex!

The performance raised over £400, that would be worth not far off a million pounds today. The distribution of the proceeds resulted in the release of over one hundred and forty debtors from prison.

Handel went on to stage a second show entirely for his own financial benefit, but the premiere of Messiah took place on 13 April, 1742, 271 years ago, on this day.





On This Day – 6.4.1830 James Augustine Healy, the first black Roman Catholic bishop



There is an ugly word for it in the American vocabulary, where a person is said to have ‘passed’. This occurred, not when they died, or were successful in examinations, but when their skin was light enough, despite their mixed race, to enable them to ‘pass’ as white.

The Healys of Macon, Georgia were accomplished at ‘passing’.

It all began with Michael Morris Healy of Roscommon, born in 1795, who emigrated from the west of Ireland to the USA in 1815 and settled near Macon, Georgia, Gone With the Wind country. There he became one of the more prominent cotton planters in the area and acquired, in addition to his land, a number of slaves, probably around fifty, at a time when the average planter owned less than half that number. One of his slaves was a mixed-race woman by the name of Mary Eliza Clark or Mary Eliza Smith. She caught the eye of Michael Healy, and became his common-law wife. Legislation in the state of Georgia banned interracial marriage, so although Michael Healy never wed anyone else, neither was he allowed to marry Mary Eliza Clark, although that didn’t stop them having ten children together. Legally, Michael Healy, could not give his wife her freedom. Technically, all his children were also born into slavery, as, in the South, children always followed the condition of their mother.

Most of the children were remarkable individuals. It helped that their Irish father insisted that they all get a proper education, and sent them north to Catholic schools above the Mason-Dixon line.

Patrick Francis Healy, for example, became a Jesuit priest. Ironically, the Jesuit order had held slaves of its own in many southern states. Patrick Healy was the first American with African ancestry to win a PhD, and became president of Georgetown University. The growth of that east coast college is largely owing to his efforts in the late nineteenth century.  Eliza Healy became Mother Superior of a convent in Vermont, the first person of African-American descent to attain such a position. Michael Healy had a 20-year career with the United States Revenue Cutter Service. He is reckoned to be the first person of African-American descent to have commanded a federal ship. He’s the only one who might not have been all that popular in the land of his father, because the Revenue Cutter Service is responsible for armed customs enforcement. So, in Irish terms, he was a ‘Revenue Man.’

But probably the most noteworthy Healy sibling was James Augustine Healy. James wanted to be a priest, but because of his ancestry couldn’t study for the priesthood in the south. He was educated, therefore, in Canada and France. In his first posting, in Boston, because of the lightness of his skin colouring, he was accepted as a white Irish-American Catholic, although he made no secret of his mixed-race ancestry. During the Famine years he worked extensively among poor Irish immigrants in the city. Later he became Bishop of Portland, Maine, and subsequently was created Assistant to the Papal Throne, by Pope Leo XIII, with a rank just below that of Cardinal. Healy, despite his background, was, however, no radical. He was the only American bishop, for example, who would excommunicate Catholics for joining the growing nationwide trade union, the Knights of Labour.

Of course, there remains the controversial question as to whether the Healys can be viewed as ‘black’, or whether their three-quarter European origins meant that they should be seen as white. In the north, where they all studied, lived and worked, they were accepted as, and occasionally abused as, white Irish-American. In the south however, the ‘one drop’ philosophy prevailed. This held that if you had a single drop of African blood in your veins, that you were black. They even had a word to describe someone who had a black great-grandparent. They were known as ‘octoroons’, only one eighth African-American, but still black enough to suffer all sorts of discrimination and abuse. Had the Healys remained resident in the south they would not have been educated, and could never have hoped to hold down the exalted positions most of them attained. They were, after all, in the eyes of the law, all slaves.

James Augustine Healy, eldest member of an extraordinary family, and the man who is recognised as the first African-American Roman Catholic bishop, was born one hundred and eighty-eight years ago, on this day.

62594246_1474716304.jpgJames A Healy portrait- Hathi Trust- from Representative Men of Maine by Henry Chase.jpg