On This Day 24 February 1841 – Birth of John Philip Holland

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The next time a Royal Navy submarine engages in one of the force’s favourite pastimes, namely ‘snag an Irish trawler’, its crew might pause to reflect on the fact that the man who invented their vessel was brought up speaking Irish, and was once a Christian Brother.

John Philip Holland didn’t start to learn English until he went to national school in Liscannor, Co. Clare, just as the Famine was beginning to take hold in the west of Ireland.

His father, an employee of the British Coastguard Service, would probably not have approved of the first intended use of his new invention—it was built at the behest of the Fenians to blow up British shipping.

Holland was born in 1841 and left Ireland in 1873, after a stint as a schoolteacher in a variety of locations, including the North Monastery in Cork. It seems that he had already been working on his invention before he left Ireland. He settled down in Paterson, New Jersey and started to develop a patent, which he first offered to the US Navy in 1875. They rejected it as ‘a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman’.

Holland’s brother, who lived in Boston, happened to be a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and it was through his sibling that Holland met John Devoy and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Devoy was impressed by Holland’s nationalism, and by the potential for havoc of his invention. Money was appropriated from O’Donovan Rossa’s infamous ‘Skirmishing Fund’—collected from Irish-American nationalists for use in freeing the ‘old sod’—and Holland was engaged to build a prototype.

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Holland was enabled by the Fenians to give up his teaching job, and work on the project full time. He used Rossa’s fund to develop his first model in 1878, the Holland 1, a one-man, fourteen-foot craft, with a two-cylinder engine.

By 1881 he had refined his original design, and produced a three-man vessel, thirty-one feet long, which became known as The Fenian Ram, but which could not sustain extended periods of use underwater.

While he was working for the Fenians, Holland could never seem to get it absolutely right. If he designed a submarine that could remain underwater for long periods, it would develop engine trouble. He also got into difficulties with port authorities in New York and New Haven, who considered him, quite literally, a danger to shipping. After an investment of sixty thousand dollars, with little or nothing to show for it, other than three interesting models, the Clan and Holland parted company. Fortunately Clan na Gael had no Comptroller and Auditor General among their ranks to issue a negative report about the waste of good Skirmishing Fund money, funds that might have been better used in the dynamite campaign then going on in London.

Holland continued to experiment. He developed a fourth prototype, which didn’t seem to excite anybody too much either, until he attracted the attention of a wealthy lawyer, J.B.Frost, who staked him until he got it right. He hit pay dirt with ‘Model No. 6’. It was fifty-three feet long, had a six-man crew, could dive to sixty feet, and stay under for nearly two days. It was also armed with torpedoes. The US Navy gave him one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for it, named it the USS Holland, and asked for six more please. Oh, yes—then they really annoyed the inventor by selling the plans to the British Navy.

Holland died in 1914, barely a week after the beginning of the global war that was to see his invention kill thousands of people, including women and children, on board commercial vessels like the Lusitania.

John Philip Holland, Clare man, ex-Christian Brother, native Irish speaker, and inventor of one of the most lethal weapons in military history, was born one hundred and seventy-six years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 17 February 1857 Birth of Samuel McClure

 

 

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Campaigning investigative journalism, or ‘muckraking’ in American parlance, came into its own in the USA during what is known as the Gilded Age, towards the end of the 19th century. As with all halcyon eras, it was ‘gilded’ only for the privileged few. Such fabulously wealthy individuals often had few compunctions about how the acquired their gold.

Newspapers and magazines uncovered and exposed the excesses of corrupt politicians, and the illegal and unethical activities of the so-called ‘robber barons’ of the period, staggeringly rich men, as well as major corporations, who wished to become even wealthier. The ‘muckrakers’—the term was originated by President Theodore Roosevelt, he meant it as a compliment—held corporate and political America up to close scrutiny, and generally found it wanting.

At the centre of this tsunami of investigative journalism, was a magazine called McClures, which employed some of the greatest campaigning writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was owned and edited by an Irishman, Samuel McClure. McClure was from Ballymoney, County Antrim. He was the son of a carpenter, whose mother was forced to take him, and his siblings to the USA, after her husband died in an industrial accident when young Sam was nine years old. McClure had a tough childhood, but his mother was determined that he would get a good education. This eventually brought him to one of the best liberal arts academies in the USA, Knox College in Illinois, and after that into a career in New York journalism.

He was already well-established when he started the monthly magazine McClure’s, in 1893. It sold for ten cents a copy, or a dollar a year. Among his achievements was the nurturing of new literary voices, like Jack London and Willa Cather. He also introduced the teaching methods of Maria Montessori to the American public. But McClure’s enduring significance lies in the fact that he championed an entirely new form of writing, the well-researched exposé. McClure was almost unique among editors in not demanding instant and regular copy from his employees. Instead, he was prepared to finance painstaking, thoroughly researched reporting, that would reveal the corruption and injustice of late 19th century American society. He did this with the help of the so-called ‘Big Four’, the talented, tenacious and courageous quartet, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker.

Steffens, once said of his editor that:

 

He was a flower that did not sit and wait for the bees to come and take his honey and leave their seeds. He flew forth to find and rob the bees.

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The bees McClure robbed were amongst the wealthiest, most ruthless, and powerful individuals in early twentieth century America. Men like John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil company was a particular target for Ida Tarbell in a series of articles between 1902-04. Rockefeller dismissed her as ‘Ida Tarbarrel’, a sure sign that she was getting under his skin. Or Andrew Carnegie, the activities of whose U.S. Steel Corporation were laid bare by Ray Stannard Baker in 1901.  Steffens, who became editor of McClures in 1902, tended to focus his attention on crooked politicians and corrupt civic administrations, many of whom were in the pockets of the ‘robber barons’.

The muckrakers challenged the overt and the hidden power of an apparently invulnerable class of super-rich industrialists, and their allies in urban machine politics. The turn of the 19th century in the USA was a period, on the one hand, of unregulated capitalism, but on the other of a burgeoning progressive reform movement. McClures magazine was in the vanguard reform, providing progressive politicians with the ammunition they needed to curtail the power of a monopolistic oligarchy.

None of which made the mercurial Sam McClure easy to work with. He was often idiosyncratic and inconsistent, though highly supportive of his invaluable contributors. Finally, in 1906, Tarbell, Baker, White and Steffens, having had enough of his eccentricities, departed from what they called McClure’s ‘house of bondage’, and founded the equally radical American Magazine. To the astonishment of all, McClure, who parted with his stars on generous terms, simply dusted himself off, and started over again, as a dangerous pest to the elites he had already been stinging for years.

At its height McClure’s was selling four hundred thousand copies a month. Gradually, however, its influence started to decline, as did McClure’s personal interest in his pet project.  By 1914 he had moved on to other things. These included three philosophical musings on the workings of democracy, two of which were published in the 1930s. McClure lived on to the age of ninety-two, and died in 1949.

Samuel Sidney McClure, scourge of the American entitled, was born in Co. Antrim, one hundred and sixty years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 10 February 1889 Richard Piggott is exposed as a forger

 

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Born plain Charles Russell, in Newry, Co.Down, the man who would become Baron Killowen, and who would torment the infamous forger Richard Pigott in the witness box, in his defence of Charles Stewart Parnell, was one of five children. He was also the only sibling in the Russell family who did not enter the religious life. His three sisters all became nuns, his brother a Jesuit priest.

He was a highly successful Queen’s Counsel in London, a moderate nationalist MP, and rose to become Lord Chief Justice of England, the first Catholic to hold the office in centuries. However, it is for his forensic grilling of the dubious journalist, turncoat, and pornographer, Richard Pigott at the Times Commission hearings in 1889 that he is justly celebrated.

Pigott had fallen on hard times by the 1880s—he had, at one point, been a relatively prosperous newspaper proprietor who, in 1868, went to jail on a point of principle after a defence of the Manchester Martyrs in one of his newspapers. He had been affiliated to the Fenians, but accusations of his embezzlement of IRB funds put paid to that association. In 1881 he sold his newspapers to Parnell, but went through the four thousand pounds he received from the Land League, in short order.

Pigott had sold the Times a pup … at least twice over.  He had passed on, for payment, a letter that suggested Parnell supported those who carried out the brutal Phoenix Park murders of the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Under Secretary, Thomas H.Burke, in May 1882. Parnell vehemently denied the veracity of the letter. A Commission was established which, in essence, pitched the Times newspaper against Parnell, and most of the senior members of his party.

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The letter in question, published in facsimile by the Times in April 1887, was one of a number that had been forged, quite cleverly, by Pigott himself.  He had, however, left a couple of hostages to fortune in the material he had supplied to the Times. Pigott was not quite as literate as one might have expected a former newspaper editor to be. He was a dreadful speller.  Observers who closely examined the cache of correspondence he had provided to the Times noted a couple of howlers.  In one case, for example, he had spelt the word ‘hesitancy’ as h-e-s-i-t-e-n-c-y.

When he began his cross-examination of this crucial Times witness Russell puzzled the onlookers by handing Pigott a sheet of paper and asking him to write a number of words on it. One of those was ‘hesitancy’. He then casually took back the paper, glanced at it, and ignored it for most of the next two days.

Russell then proceeded to reduce Pigott to a gibbering wreck, catching him out in his elaborate system of deception. Before the future Lord Chief Justice was finished, most of the observers, and even the three learned presiding judges, had been reduced to tears of laughter, at Pigott’s many contradictions, and obvious lies.

Then, as a coup de grace, Russell returned to the mysterious page. After a few more barbed questions he pointed out that in one of the letters retained by the Times, and handed over to the defence under ‘discovery’, the word hesitancy had been mis-spelt. The erroneous spelling, he demonstrated, was precisely that chosen by Pigott the previous day, when asked to write the word on the enigmatic piece of paper. Pigott went a couple of stages beyond gibbering wreck, and no one in the court had the slightest doubt, but that he had forged all the letters upon which the Times depended to make its case.

Pigott fled shortly after the commission of inquiry adjourned, admitted his guilt in a letter to the tribunal, and shot himself dead in Madrid a few days later, in order to avoid arrest. Parnell subsequently sued the Times for defamation in a London libel court, and won £5000. In subsequent years, at public meetings, when a heckler wished to suggest that a platform speaker had ‘sold out’ or betrayed his cause, the aggrieved party would yell ‘spell hesitancy’ at the top of his voice.

Charles Russell, inquisitor extraordinaire, destroyed the credibility of the hapless forger, Richard Pigott one hundred and twenty-eight years ago, on this day.

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OTD – 3 February 1911 – The death of Robert Tressell

 

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He was something of a contradiction – he had a number of different names for a start, was an avowed socialist who sent his only child to private schools while he could afford it, and, despite writing one of the definitive working class novels of the early 20th century, once had a black manservant.

We know him as Robert Tressel, author of one of the most influential left-wing novels of the last 100 years, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. But his original name was Robert Croker. He was the product of an extra-martial relationship between his mother, Mary Noonan and a Royal Irish Constabulary Inspector, Samuel Croker, who died five years after his birth.

He was born in Wexford Street in Dublin in 1870 and, largely thanks to his mother, whose name he later adopted, he was well-educated up to the time he left Ireland, at the age of sixteen. By 1890 he was in South Africa, working as a signwriter, and writing articles for Cape Town newspapers.  He had one child, Kathleen, from an unhappy and short-lived marriage there. He moved them both to Johannesburg in 1897, where he became involved with the centenary commemoration of the 1798 rebellion. He also became acquainted with Irish nationalists John MacBride and Arthur Griffth in the Transvaal, and later helped to establish the Irish Brigade, which fought against the British Army in the Boer War. Whether or not he actually participated in the conflict himself, is one of the many imponderables of his short life.

He returned to England in the early 1900s, settling down on the south coast, and working as a signwriter and house painter. Here he joined the Social Democratic Federation, a forerunner of the Independent Labour Party. It was during this period that he began work on what was to be a hugely significant novel.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which may originally have been intended to be called The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists, was finished in 1910, and amounted to a virtually unpublishable 400,000 words. It was rejected by the first three publishing houses Noonan approached. Thoroughly depressed, and also suffering from tuberculosis, he is said to have attempted to burn the manuscript. His daughter Kathleen, who played a huge part in the novel’s eventual status, apparently rescued it from destruction.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is set in the southern coastal town of Mugsborough—Hastings in disguise. The names of many of the characters are as subtle as the naming of the location. They include Botchit, Grinder, Leavitt, Starvem, Crass and Slyme. The philanthropists in question are house painters—the nom de plume chosen by Noonan is a pun on one of their essential pieces of equipment, the trestle table. Their philanthropy, according to the main character, the socialist Frank Owen, lies in the offering of their services to their employers for such low wages—‘benefactors in ragged trousers who willingly hand over the results of their labour … to the rich’—as Frank Owen puts it himself.

Having failed to secure a publisher for his work, Noonan decided to emigrate to Canada in 1911, but only made it as far as Liverpool. He died en route, of pulmonary tuberculosis. He was only forty years of age.

And that might have been the end of the road for The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, were it not for Noonan’s devoted daughter. Kathleen managed to persuade the writer and journalist Jessie Pope, infamous for some awful patriotic WW1 poetry, to look at the manuscript in 1913. She recommended it to her publisher, and undertook to edit the volume herself. In the process, she redacted much of the socialist content, and produced a highly bowdlerized version of the material. A second edition, published in 1918, was also abridged, but was closer to the original source.

A 1940 Penguin edition of the work, was widely read by British soldiers of the Second World War, and is said to have influenced the outcome of the 1945 General Election, which returned Labour to power. Though that’s quite a claim for a mere book. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists didn’t appear in its original form until 1955. Since then it has been adapted many times for radio and TV.

Noonan, or Tressel if you’d prefer, was buried in an unmarked grave in Liverpool, and his final resting place was not identified until 1968. It now bears a memorial, as does the house of his birth in Dublin.

The author of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists died one hundred and six years ago, on this day.

 

Drivetime podcast 3/2/2017

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/drivetime/podcasts/

 

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27 January 1885 
- Parnell turns the first sod on the West Clare Railway


 

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In extenuation for his many crimes, it was once suggested that at least Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader, ‘made the trains run on time’. It’s hardly enough to erase the invasion of Abyssinia, and his alliance with Nazi Germany, nor the liquidation of a number of inconvenient political opponents.

But you can’t even offer that excuse, in the case of one of the great villains of Irish history, Captain William Henry O’Shea. The reason O’Shea didn’t make the trains run on time, was that he was one of the great parliamentary champions of the notoriously dilatory West Clare Railway. This narrow-gauge iron road ran, if that particular word doesn’t suggest far too much urgency, between Ennis and Moyasta, and thence west to Kilrush, or east to Kilkee, whichever was your preference. It travelled the route via Ennistymon, Lahinch and Milltown Malbay. It was the last operating narrow-gauge passenger railway in the country. The problem is that it just wasn’t very reliable.

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Despite its lack of length—it was only twenty-seven miles long when it opened in 1887—it was actually two railways, the West Clare and the South Clare, which met at Milltown Malbay. Hardly comparable to the iconic junction of America’s Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory Point in Utah, but very exciting for the good citizens of Clare nonetheless, who now found it much easier to get around and to connect with the country’s main rail network at Ennis. The line was later extended to forty-eight miles in overall length.

Although work had already started the previous November, the sod was not officially turned on the original construction site until January 1885. O’Shea, the semi-detached Nationalist MP for Clare, wanted his pound of flesh, after months of lobbying parliament to ensure that funds were made available for the project, so the party leader himself, Charles Stewart Parnell, was recruited to pop over from his unwedded bliss with O’Shea’s wife Katharine in London, and do the needful with a shovel. Also in attendance was the man chosen to build the railway, one William Martin Murphy, who would have his own days in the sun during the infamous Dublin Lockout of 1913.

Of course, the railway was immortalized by its hilarious brush with the songwriter and performer Percy French. He successfully sued the line for loss of earnings, after arriving four and a half hours late for an engagement in Kilkee, on 10 August 1896 thanks, he alleged, to the rather relaxed attitude of the railroad employees to the joys of timetabling. He won £10 and costs at the Ennis Quarter Sessions in January 1897.

Now most sensible corporations, when in a hole, stop digging. But not the West Clare Railway. They appealed the decision at the next Clare Spring Assizes, held before the formidable jurist, Chief Baron Palles. French might have forfeited the case, as he arrived an hour late for the hearing. But his explanation—‘I took the West Clare Railway here, your honour’—probably sealed the case in his favour, though unless he was travelling from coastal Clare it was a humorous porky.

In the course of his contribution French offered a couplet that suggested he had a certain composition in mind already. He informed the Chief Baron that, ‘If you want to get to Kilkee / You must go there by the sea’. The lines didn’t actually make it into his final revenge on the hapless railway line ‘Are you right there Michael’ which begins:

 

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing

Across the Atlantical Sea

But he never tried to go railing

From Ennis, as far as Kilkee

 

Incidentally, on the same day as Percy French’s court appearance, one Mary Anne Butler from Limerick was also suing the railway, alleging that she had been attacked by a malevolent donkey on the platform in Ennis.

The line closed down in 1961, but thanks to a group of local enthusiasts the West Clare Railway lives once more. Part of the line, between Moyasta and Kilkee, has been restored, and one of the original engines, the exquisite Slieve Callan, is back in use.

The national press reported, that the first sod of the West Clare Railway was turned by Charles Stewart Parnell, one hundred and thirty-two years ago, on this day.

 

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Subterranean Barack Blues or Hey Mister Tangerine Man

 

 

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Ten years ago, I found myself living for six months in Berkeley, California. A recently announced candidate for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination was due to hold a rally in nearby Oakland, on St. Patrick’s Day. Like most people living in the USA in 2007 I was intrigued by this young, gifted and black politician (actually, as half-white and half-black he could just as easily be described as ‘white’). Of course, he hadn’t a hope against the Clintonafia but he was definitely one for the future.

 

It was a toss-up. The San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or Barack Obama. Curiosity won out. I put my ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ tee-shirt back in the drawer, and took the BART to Oakland. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

 

There is no need to describe how electrifying he was. Everybody knows the man is a rhetorician non pareil. He stood on a dais projected into the crowd, and introduced himself. He spoke for about twenty minutes without notes. Afterwards he shook hands with anyone who wanted to press his flesh. There were green tee-shirts on sale bearing the legend ‘🍀’Bama for President—St. Patrick’s Day, 2007, Oakland, California.’ I’m a sucker for commemorative tee-shirts, so I bought one. I still have it, though I was a bit surprised when the young vendor insisted on getting my email address before she sold it to me. Since that day I’ve had a decade of personal emails from the man himself. Where does he get the time?

 

He inherited a nightmare dreamed up by neo-liberals and deficit Republicans. He leaves with approval ratings touching sixty-percent (George W. Bush was at thirty-nine). His finger has been in the dike for eight years. When he withdraws it—forced into doing so by the twenty-second amendment—his successor’s fist will gleefully smash through the hole Obama has been protecting.

 

Granted, he campaigned in dizzying poetry and often governed in leaden prose. He has disappointed his progressive constituency. He acted as judge and jury on a number of Middle Eastern radicals, left the vultures of Wall St alone or strengthened, kept Guantanamo open, disregarded the misery of Aleppo.

 

Perhaps his greatest achievement—aside from the now-imperilled Affordable Care Act—was incumbency. While he was in the White House, albeit gelded by a resentful Congress, he was a bulwark against the regressive forces that have now been released.

 

If we apply the Monty Python test—‘What has Obama ever done for us’—he has bled, read, healed, smiled, cried, soothed, embraced, turned the other cheek repeatedly (perhaps too often) and exercised a level of adult self-control unfamiliar in once and future presidents. His grace, example, open-mindedness, charm, articulacy, folksiness, intelligence, humour and calmness were provocations to those affronted by the sight of a black man in the White House.

 

And what about that jump shot?

 

On 9 November 2016 anyone with even vague pretensions to progressivism or leftism experienced the pain felt by Breitbart-man on 2 November 2008.  We can only hope that four years from now (please let it not be eight) the right will be as disappointed with the actual results of a Trump presidency as the left is with Obama’s. They certainly won’t be disappointed by Trump’s style. I wonder. Is this the first time an incoming President has read fewer books than his predecessor has written?

 

As usual Shakespeare has it covered. Act 3 Scene Four of Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark is closeted with his mother. He presents her with a picture of the late King, her husband. Simply substitute the word ‘President’ for ‘husband’ and away we go.

 

Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear …

 

Let’s hope for some 2020 vision. Best case scenario, four years from now Barack Obama returns to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as consort of the first woman President.

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Glasnevin Winter Lecture series -Francis Ledwidge and Head Wyn – ‘Poets of the Black Chair’

 

 

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There is no evidence they ever met, or knew of each other, but the Meath poet Francis Ledwidge and the Welsh language poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (Head Wyn) have much in common and shared a similar fate.

Both were born in rural communities in 1887 and died on the same day, 31 July 1917, at the start of the Battle of 3rd Ypres (Passchendaele). They are buried a few rows apart in the Artillery Wood Cemetery in Flanders. Both were influenced by the great Welsh epic poem The Mabinogion. Both, for different reasons, came to resent their involvement in the war machine of 1914-18.

They will be the subject of a talk to be given by myself, and Dr. Nerys Williams of the UCD School of English, in Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, as part of their Winter Lecture series, on 9 February. The talk will include translations of the work of Hedd Wyn by Dr. Williams, who is also an award winning English-language poet (Sound Archive, 2011, winner of the Strong Poetry Prize 2012)

The series also includes talks on a variety of subjects related to 1917 to be given by Brian Hanley, Michael Kennedy, Conor Kostick, Liz Gillis and Kate O’Malley.

All lectures start at 7.00 pm at the Museum’s Milestone Gallery.

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