On This Day 21 September 1827 birth of General Michael Corcoran

 

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He’s the voice of Irish rugby on RTE radio, a passionate Munster man who would never dream of allowing any provincial preference to become apparent in his broadcasts. Allegedly.  But today we’re talking about the other Michael Corcoran, Fenian, soldier and confidant of Abraham Lincoln.

The story begins in 1860. The occasion is the proposed visit of the Prince of Wales to New York. The Prince had been gracing Canada with his presence and was invited south. In order to avoid the attentions of Irish desperadoes he journeyed to New York incognito. Being a member of the royal family, however, he chose not to travel as plain old Mister Smyth (probably with a ‘y’), but selected the assumed name of Baron Renfrew. He had a perfect right to do so as it happened to be one of his many titles. Doubtless for the sake of brevity and anonymity he chose to forego the rest of the Renfrew name, which goes ‘Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland’.So quite a comedown really for poor old Bertie.

The plan was that on his arrival the Prince was to be greeted by an honour guard of New York Militia Regiments. This, in theory, was to include the famous ‘Fighting 69th’, a regiment of committed Irish nationalists. When its commanding officer, Colonel Michael Corcoran, from Ballymote, Co.Sligo, was informed of the plan he refused absolutely to parade his regiment before the heir to the throne of England. The fact that he was a member of the growing Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, was likely to have influenced his attitude.

His insubordination in the face of the man who would be Edward VII (but not for another forty years or so) caused him to be arrested pending a court martial. Fortunately for him Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, intervened on his behalf. Well at least he did so in the sense that the Confederate army fired on Fort Sumter and the American Civil War began.

It was deemed wise to release Corcoran without the need for a court martial. In return the Sligo man offered to recruit new Irish members to the 69thto bring it to full strength. He sought 1000 men. He could have got five times that number. It was a period of profound innocence. No one knew what war was really about. It was all a big adventure.

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The 69th found out very quickly what exactly it was all about. They went into action in the defence of Washington, DC, on 21 July, 1861 on the banks of a Virginia river in the first major battle of the war. It was Bull Run if you were fighting for the Union in the Civil War – Manassas if you were with the Confederates in the War Between the States. It was a battle in which the Union army offered a powerful demonstration – of exactly how much it had to learn about warfare. The Union forces were overwhelmed by the greycoats. The 69th, abandoned and isolated, attempted to beat an orderly retreat in the midst of the shambles that surrounded them. Corcoran was wounded in the leg. He, and a number of his men were taken prisoner. When the Union threatened to execute a captured Confederate naval commander for piracy the Confederacy selected Corcoran to be shot in retaliation. It was quite a tribute to his leadership qualities and his importance. Fortunately for the Irish Colonel both sides backed down.

The Confederates offered to release Corcoran on parole. All he had to do was guarantee not to rejoin the Union Army and continue to fight against them. On those terms Corcoran preferred to stay in prison.  Then, in November, 1861, a Union ship intercepted an English steamer on the high seas and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, who were on their way to England. Her Majesty’s government was livid and, for a brief period, there was a genuine threat that Britain would enter the war on the Confederate side. Of course, this did wonders for Irish recruitment in the North, though probably not as much in the South. Corcoran, who had been promoted to Brigadier General while he was in prison, was exchanged for the two southern diplomats. So impressed was President Lincoln with the Irish officer’s refusal of parole, that he invited him to dinner in the White House.

Corcoran, far from opting out of the war, as the Confederacy would have preferred, raised a force of eight Irish regiments, in a Legion that was called after him. He himself rose to become a Corps commander until he was thrown by his horse and died, tragically and pointlessly, in 1863. As far as we know the Prince of Wales sent no flowers to the funeral.

Michael Corcoran from Ballymote in Co. Sligo, American Civil War General and dedicated member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was born, one hundred and ninety one years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 12 May 1916 Execution of Connolly and McDermott

 

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They couldn’t have come from more different personal and political backgrounds. One was born in an urban Scottish slum, the other in a small rural Irish village. One was a lifelong socialist, committed to proletarian revolution. The other was an equally committed Irish nationalist, and a member of the conservative Catholic organisation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians. But both died on the same day, and in the same cause. James Connolly and Sean McDiarmada were signatories to the 1916 proclamation of independence.

Connolly was born in the dismal Cowgate district of Edinburgh, of Irish parents, in 1868. He lied about his age—fourteen— and joined the British Army. He served in Ireland for seven years. He was to become involved with Keir Hardie in the Independent Labour party, and James Larkin in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He lived in the USA for seven years during which time he worked with the famous  trade union organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies. He co-founded the Irish Labour Party in 1912, and the Irish Citizens’ Army during the 1913 Lockout. It was this small group, of about 200 men and women—both genders enjoying equal status—that he led into the 1916 Rising alongside those members of the Irish Volunteers who showed up on Easter Monday after the debacle of Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order.

Connolly, as well as being a man of action, was also a prolific writer and a Marxist intellectual. His most influential work, Labour in Irish History, is a clear-headed socialist assessment of the Irish narrative from the late 17th century. It contains the following gem.

 

The Irish are not philosophers as a rule, they proceed too rapidly from thought to action.

 

Sean McDiarmada was born in Kiltyclogher in Co. Leitrim in 1883. He moved to Dublin in 1908 where he became involved in a number of cultural and political organisations, including Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein, and the Gaelic League. He also became a covert member of the revolutionary nationalist organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

At an early stage in his revolutionary career he was taken under the wing of the old Fenian Thomas Clarke, and it was these two men, more than any others, who plotted and planned for the insurrection in 1916.

The manner of James Connolly’s death was probably the last straw for many Irish people who had initially opposed the Easter Rising. Connolly had been wounded in the fighting and was kept in an emergency medical facility in Dublin Castle after the surrender. He was probably within a few days of death when the British military commander, General Sir John Maxwell, aware that Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was on his way to Dublin to put an end to the executions, ordered that the court martial’s death sentence be carried out on the last surviving signatories of the proclamation.

Connolly was brought to Kilmainham jail in an ambulance, carried to the execution yard on a stretcher, and shot by firing squad while tied to a chair. It was the least astute political move on Maxwell’s part, in a week that can most generously be described as ‘counter-productive’.

McDiarmada, owing to the debilitating effects of polio, played little actual part in the Rising itsef. In fact he almost escaped detection and execution. He might not have been identified as a signatory of the proclamation, and one of the prime movers of the rebellion, had he not been spotted by a Dublin Metropolitan Police detective, Daniel Hoey. Hoey was later shot dead by members of the assassination squad of Michael Collins.

Other than their Irish nationalism the two men had little in common. Had they survived a successful Rising—rather a big ‘what if’—they might well have found themselves on opposing sides in a subsequent European-style class conflict. But that was not permitted to happen, due to the desire of Maxwell to eliminate any future threat from the leaders of radical and militant Irish nationalism and socialism.

James Connolly and Sean McDiarmada were executed separately in Kilmainham Jail one hundred and one years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 27.3.1839 Birth of Antrim-born John Balance – PM of New Zealand

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If I told you that an Irish Prime Minister was born in 1839 you would doubtless respond, correctly, by pointing out that a) we don’t have a Prime Minister we have a Taoiseach and b) that anyone born in Ireland in 1839 would have spent his entire working life as a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland of which there nearest thing to an Irish Prime Minister was the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century.

Except, of course, that John Balance, born in Co.Antrim in 1839 went on to become 14th Prime Minister of New Zealand. Born into farming stock Balance wanted to do anything but farm and left for Belfast at the age of 18. From there he migrated to Britain, working in the ironmongery business in Birmingham. At the age of 24 he married Miss Frances Taylor and migrated to New Zealand in 1866 for the betterment of her health. The move had little effect as, tragically, she died two years later.

An educated and bookish man he indulged his literary side by establishing a newspaper, the Herald, in the town of Wanganui, where the couple settled. He was man of independent views. For example, while participating in a military campaign in 1867 against a local Maori uprising he criticized the conduct of the same campaign in his newspaper.

From campaigning journalism he moved inexorably into politics – elected for Wanganui from 1879 as an Independent he quickly entered the New Zealand cabinet as Minister for Customs and then Minister for Education. Balance had witnessed religious riots in Belfast. The spectacle turned him into a life-long secularist. He inherited his politics from his mother, a Quaker, and went on to found the New Zealand Liberal party – the first organized political party in that country.

In 1881 he lost his seat by four votes after a carriage containing 7 of his supporters broke down and they were unable to vote. Re-elected in 1884 he held three further ministerial positions until the government he supported fell. In 1889 he became leader of the opposition and in 1890, after a successful election campaign he became Prime Minister at the head of a Liberal Party government.

Ballance was responsible for introducing highly progressive systems of income and property tax and under his leadership the New Zealand economy expanded. He also cultivated good relations with the country’s Maori population, settling a lot of their nagging land issues. He was also responsible for the introduction of female suffrage. New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women to vote.

He was at the height of his powers and popularity in 1893 when, tragically, he died after an operation for an intestinal ailment at the age of 54.

Balance has been described as ‘unassuming and unpretentious’ in style and personality, quiet, polite, tolerant and patient. How he ended up as a politician, therefore, is a complete mystery.

John Balance, the Antrim-born 14th Prime Minister of New Zealand, was born, 176 years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – Drivetime -17 October 1738 – Arthur Rochfort, duellist and the Jealous Wall

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In 18th century Ireland if you considered yourself to be a gentleman and you were insulted by someone of similar status you didn’t a) take it lying down b) bring him to court and sue his ass – you challenged him to a duel and tried to shoot or stab him to death.

One of the more quarrelsome gentlemen of the first half of the 1700s was Arthur Rochfort, a Westmeath grandee whose family had occupied land around Mullingar since the 13th century. The town of Rochfortbridge is called after them.

Arthur Rochfort was a justice of the peace, a man who exercised considerable power over the lesser orders from the bench. In 1737 he was challenged to a duel by one Thomas Nugent. Nugent’s beef was that Rochfort had jailed one of his servants for poaching and carrying arms. Proper order really. Nothing came of that particular challenge because the authorities got wind of it and prosecuted Nugent before he could do any damage. They weren’t having one of their magistrates shot up by an argumentative aristocrat.

Rochfort, however, did make it into the lists the following year when he had another quarrel, this one with an influential member of the Freemasons, Dillon Hampson Pollard. In the shoot out that followed the challenge Rochfort came off better, hitting his opponent in the stomach. Fortunately for the JP Pollard recovered. He died of natural causes two years later.

Rochfort’s own end was quite ignominious. As it happened he was the proud owner of two irascible, litigious and obnoxious brothers, Robert and George. Robert would go on to become the 1st Earl of Belvedere and build Belvedere House outside Mullingar.

Robert had married a beautiful young Dublin heiress, Mary Molesworth. They didn’t get on – few people did see eye to eye with the arrogant future Lord Belvedere – but she produced three children for him before he became bored with her and aribitrarily accused her of having had an affair with Arthur. Arthur denied all carnal knowledge of the alleged relationship. However, either cowed or convinced by friends that an admission of guilt would get her a divorce, Mary admitted adultery. For her supposed sins she was incarcerated for most of the rest of her life in one of the houses on the Belvedere estate while Arthur was forced to flee the country. When he came back Robert sued him for criminal conversation anyway, won a massive judgment of £2000 and when that was not forthcoming had his brother committed to the Marshalsea Debtors prison in Dublin, where he died. They took their sibling rivalries very seriously in the 18th century.

Later the charming Robert fell out with his other brother George. The latter had the effrontery to build a bigger and finer mansion and plonk it within sight of Belvedere House. Robert erected a folly – looking something like a ruined monastery – to cut off his view of George’s new manor. It became known, and still is, as The Jealous Wall. Neither Robert nor George, two utterly disagreeable gentlemen, were ever heard to express any regret at the passing of their brother Arthur.

Incidentally among the apparent descendants of the Rochforts is a certain former Kerry TD, the extremely agreeable Jackie Healy Rae.

Arthur Rochfort almost killed Dillon Hampson Pollard in a duel 276 years ago on this day.

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