On This Day – 19 May 1798 Francis Magan betrays Lord Edward Fitzgerald

 

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Today neither a birth nor a death, but an act of supreme betrayal.

Everyone knows that a variety of Irish revolutionary organizations were, over the years bedeviled by informers. Contrary to Brendan Behan’s famous axiom, it would appear that the first item on the agenda of such groups was not ‘the split’ but the decision on who would be the most effective government spy.

One of the most enthusiastic of those was Francis Magan—his most distinguished victim was the charismatic and highly romanticized United Irishman leader, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the almost anonymous Magan’s polar opposite, aristocratic, idealistic and captivating. He had fought in the British Army in the American War of Independence, journeyed down the Mississippi river with an escaped African-American slave, Tony Small, who had saved his life on the battlefield, was elected to the Irish parliament as a supporter of the ‘Patriot’ leader, Henry Grattan, and joined the United Irishmen. Fitzgerald, despite his elevated social status, was pledged to the establishment of an Irish Republic, along French lines. In the planned rebellion of 1798 Fitzgerald was to lead the Dublin-based rebels.

Magan, born in 1774, was a lawyer who had come into a decent inheritance and was a man of independent means, but not fabulously wealthy like Fitzgerald, son of the Duke of Leinster. However, Magan didn’t exactly want for money, so his betrayal of the United Irishmen’s cause cannot be explained away simply by the pursuit of thirty pieces of silver. He joined the United Irishmen in 1792, and became a prominent member of the organisation’s Dublin committee.

Magan’s conduit to the government was the infamous Francis Higgins. Known as ‘The Sham Squire’ Higgins was the proprietor of Dublin Castle’s favourite newspaper, The Freeman’s Journal, and a long-standing government agent. Higgins informed the Under Secretary, Edward Cooke, Britain’s spymaster in Dublin, about Magan’s availability and his unrivalled access to the revolutionary plans of the United Irishmen. Cooke immediately recognized that the lawyer could prove to be an invaluable asset. He wasn’t far wrong. After negotiating a nice little earner for himself—£1000 for information leading to the arrest of Fitzgerald—Magan went to work.

In order to help him locate Fitzgerald, Magan organized a meeting of the Dublin United Irishmen in his own house, on the night of 17 May 1798. Lord Edward may even have spent the night in Magan’s home, at No. 20 Usher’s Island on the south quays. The authorities failed to apprehend Fitzgerald on that occasion, however. Time was running out for the Castle. On 19 May Fitzgerald was due to lead more than a thousand rebels in an attempt to seize the capital city. Enter Magan one more time. He kept the Castle informed of Lord Edward’s whereabouts—he wasn’t too far away from them, on Thomas Street—and this time they got their man. Fitzgerald was wounded in the attempt to arrest him, lingered for a few days, and died in Newgate Prison, on 4 June. The rebellion of the United Irishmen, as a consequence, failed utterly in Dublin.

The spies, however, fell out amongst themselves. In 1802 Higgins died without having handed over the £1000 that had been promised to his protégé. The Castle had been under the illusion that Magan had been paid off, and were dismayed when he sued the Higgins estate. They did not particularly want their machinations being discussed in open court, so the erstwhile informer was bought off with an award of £500.

Magan got away with it in his own lifetime. He died in 1834, and prior to that had been an active member of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. There is no evidence that his career as a ‘spook’ was extended into the 19th century, though he did offer to rat out a few more rebels in 1801. He was not outed as an informer until 1859, by the historian William J.Fitzpatrick, who also exposed Francis Higgins as a gifted but corrupt ‘supergrass’. Fitzpatrick, unaware that Magan was a relatively wealthy man, assumed that his actions had been prompted solely by greed.

Francis Magan successfully betrayed Lord Edward Fitzgerald to the British authorities two hundred and nineteen years ago, on this day.

 

 

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 – 5 May 1916 William Evelyn Wylie and the court-martial of William Corrigan

 

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There were many unsung heroes of the 1916 Rising. The courageous Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, for example, who risked her life to carry Pearse’s flag of truce along Moore Street, and then took his surrender note, under heavy fire, to the remaining Volunteer garrisons. Or Sean McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’, promoted to that rank by James Connolly, who was twenty years of age when he played a pivotal role in the evacuation of the GPO.

William Evelyn Wylie may be ‘unsung’, ‘deeply flawed’ or just an anti-hero, depending on your point of view. He was a successful barrister who, when the Rising began, helped to seal off Trinity College, and deny that strategic position to the rebels. As it turned out the Volunteers didn’t really have much interest, whether they should have or not.

After Pearse’s surrender Wylie was tapped to participate in the court martial process as lead attorney. He prosecuted ‘Prisoner No. 1’, Pearse himself, and was hugely impressed with the Volunteer commander’s conduct at his brief trial. At the court martial of one of the most tragic figures of the rebellion, Thomas McDonagh, Wylie pulled up the presiding Judge, whose name was—I kid you not—General Charles Blackader.  Blackader sought to use the 1916 Proclamation as conclusive evidence against the prisoner. Wylie, who actually had a copy of the document in his possession, pointed out that it was inadmissible. Although McDonagh’s name was appended to the printed version, the court would require the presentation of the original signed copy in order to convict him.

As the courts martial proceeded Wylie, a unionist and a strong opponent of the principles underlying the rebellion, became increasingly concerned at the overriding of due process. He wrote a memoir of that week, which was left to his daughter after his death. In this he described how he took matters into his own hands. Although no defence attorney had been appointed in any of the one hundred and sixty abbreviated trials—an illegal procedure  in itself—Wylie took it upon himself to act as both prosecution and defence. While the three presiding military judges were considering their verdict in a case, Wylie would step outside to see who was coming next. He would then advise the accused of their rights, and inquire whether or not they wanted any witnesses to be present. Pearse, McDonagh and Thomas Clarke had not been made aware that such a facility was available.

It was while engaged in this Janus-like activity, on the fourth day of the courts martial, that Wylie realised, to his intense surprise, the next prisoner was a Dublin solicitor, William Corrigan, who had briefed him on many occasions in the recent past.  Corrigan had been taken prisoner at the South Dublin Union. When the court-martial began, with Blackader presiding, Wylie took the unusual step of arguing the case for and against the prisoner. When Blackader asked why Wylie had adopted this unorthodox  approach, the barrister revealed the nature of Corrigan’s profession. He then added that he had an uncashed cheque from the accused Volunteer in his pocket which might be void were he to be executed.

Corrigan was one of more than ninety prisoners to be sentenced to death, but in his case the court martial recommended clemency, and Wylie’s brief fee was thus secured.

Later, according to his own account, Wylie was consulted by the commander of Crown Forces in Ireland, General Sir John Maxwell, about the need to carry out the death sentence passed down on one Eamon de Valera, Third Battalion commandant. Wylie told Maxwell that he didn’t see any need to execute de Valera, as he was unlikely to cause trouble in the future. ‘I don’t think he’s very important’ said the clearly misinformed barrister.

Wylie, a keen cyclist, who is mentioned in this context in James Joyce’s Ulysees, went on to defend Sinn Fein prisoners during the War of Independence, despite his strong unionist sympathies. He was appointed to the High Court by the first Free State government, and served there until 1936.

William Evelyn Wylie prosecuted and defended Lieutenant William Corrigan of the Irish Volunteers, before a court martial in Richmond barracks, one hundred and one years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 28 April 1920 – ‘Not a proper person’: The tribulations and triumphs of Georgina Frost

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Georgina Frost was both an unremarkable, and yet a quite remarkable woman. She was the daughter of a Petty Sessions clerk from County Clare. She helped out her father in administering two of the courts presided over by the Resident Magistrates of the county before the advent independence in 1922.

Born in 1879, and motherless from the age of eight, Georgina Frost was no Countess Markievicz, nor a Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington. She would be royally shafted by the ‘conservative revolutionaries’ of the Free State government. But, in 1920, she struck her own small blow for Irish women, when her tenacity and perseverance, as well as the justice of her cause, extracted a minor but highly significant concession from the male-dominated establishment.

She was known to one and all as ‘Georgie’, and when her father, Thomas Frost, retired in 1915, as Petty Sessions clerk for Sixmilebridge and Newmarket on Fergus, the County Clare Resident Magistrates sensibly decided that, as she had already been doing the job for a number of years, Georgie was the right person to take over from her Dad. The position was the equivalent of a District Court clerk today

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But when their decision was conveyed to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, he objected on the grounds that ‘Georgie’, was actually Georgina. It wasn’t that she couldn’t do the job, clearly she was very good at it. But, according to Wimborne, there were issues of decorum at stake, what was described in a court case ‘the unfitness of certain painful and exacting duties in relation to the finer qualities of women’

Now, undoubtedly Georgie Frost had many fine qualities, but she was keen to retain those qualities, as well as the job, for which she was eminently suited and experienced. So, she sued, and lost. The case was entitled Frost v The King, which has a certain meteorological flavor to it. It was heard in 1919, and the judge agreed with the Lord Lieutenant that court work was not appropriate for such a delicate flower as a woman.

At which point Georgie should have taken her ‘finer qualities’ and gone back to the family kitchen.

But she was made of sterner stuff. Obviously one of her ‘finer qualities’ was a refusal to kow-tow to the authorities, all of whose members happened to be men. She appealed. And lost again. Surely now she would get the message and not pursue her attempt to inflict those ‘painful and exacting duties’ on her feeble feminine frame?

No such luck. Georgie wasn’t having any of it, and appealed to the House of Lords! At this point the British government threw up its hands and cried ‘mercy’. In December 1919, the King signed a new piece of legislation called the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act into law. The first section of the new legislation read as follows:

A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial Office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society.

What that meant in proper English was that Georgina Frost had won. Not that the law had been introduced because the government feared that Georgie might impress their Lordships, and win her second appeal. Perish the thought!

The Lord Lieutenant relented, and the appointment of Miss Georgina Frost as Sixmilebridge Petty Sessions clerk was confirmed, and made retrospective. Her tenure was brief but exciting, and included an IRA raid where she was held at gunpoint.

In 1923 the new Free State government abolished Petty Session courts and Resident Magistrates. Out with the RMs went the clerks. Georgina lost the job which she had fought so hard to secure. Although District Courts replaced the Petty Sessions she didn’t get her job back. Of course, this had nothing whatever to do with the fact that she was a woman. Perish the thought! She was a mere lackey of the British establishment. The one she had taken on and beaten. She did get a pension of four pounds a week, which she enjoyed up to her death in 1939 at the age of fifty-nine.

The unassuming, but obviously steely Georgina Frost, became, retrospectively, the first woman to hold paid public office in the UK, ninety-seven years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day -21 April 1874  Birth of tank designer Walter Gordon Wilson

 

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A century ago the Great War was still raging, still deadlocked. Two inventions would play a huge role in the resolution of the conflict, and both were originally designed by Irishmen. John Philip Holland, a Fenian sympathiser from Clare, had invented the submarine in the late nineteenth century as a way of attacking British shipping. Walter Gordon Wilson, on the other hand, developed the tank with a view to assisting the cause of his adoptive country against Germany in World War One.

Wilson was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin in 1874. The son of a barrister, he trained as a British naval cadet, before completing his education at King’s College, Cambridge, where he got a first in mechanical science.

His story includes one of the great ‘what ifs’ of aviation history. In 1897 he formed a partnership with Percy Pilcher, a gliding enthusiast. Their aim was simple, to be the first to achieve controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight, by developing an aero-engine. They nearly made it, and might have done so had Pilcher not been killed in a glider accident in 1899. Shocked at the death of his charismatic partner, Wilson abandoned the project, although he had already designed a prototype engine.  Four years later Orville and Wilbur Wright made aeronautical history with their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

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Wilson next moved into the burgeoning automobile industry, adapting his aeronautic engine for the new ‘horseless carriage’. Although Percy Pilcher was dead, Wilson paid homage to his partner in naming the Wilson-Pilcher motor car in 1900. He continued to develop the design—which included a revolutionary gearbox—until the outbreak of World War One.

Wilson re-joined the Navy in 1914. He was sent to Belgium and France to protect British aircraft using armoured vehicles. He was also expected to build them. He was then taken on by the highly secretive Landships Committee, to develop what would become the tank. The Committee wanted nothing more or less than an armoured vehicle capable of withstanding German machine guns and small arms, sailing through barbed wire, and over trenches. So no pressure there.

But Wilson, and his new partner, fellow engineer, William Tritton, were up to the task. Their first effort was nicknamed—no sniggering at the back, please—‘Little Willie’. It was called after Wilson or the Kaiser—depending on who you believe—and was chronically unstable. So probably the Kaiser then.  A high mid-section meant it had a tendency to keel over when sent into experimental action. Wilson went back to the drawing board and developed an armoured vehicle with a lower centre of gravity, and tracks running around the whole body. It’s official name was ‘The Wilson’. Then it was renamed ‘The Centipede’. But it was better known by its nickname, ‘Big Willie’. I kid you not. It went into production in February 1916, and the first models were ready for action during the second phase of the Somme offensive.

Well, sort of anyway. They just weren’t very good in 1916. They were unbelievably hot, and noisy, and tended to break down long before they got near the enemy trenches. Wilson and Tritton kept at it, and continued to improve the design, until the tank, by 1918, was a vital and integral part of the Allied victory over Germany. Its most successful appearance was probably at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. One of Wilson’s great contributions was something called epicyclic steering, which allowed the tank to turn, a rather useful characteristic in a war.

Wilson transferred from the Navy to the Army in 1916, was promoted to Major, mentioned in dispatches twice, and, in 1917, was appointed Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, or a CMG to you and me.

After the war he continued his career as an innovative engineer, developing and exploiting the Wilson self-changing gearbox, and setting up his own company in Coventry to manufacture it.

Walter Gordon Wilson, the man who designed one of the most lethal and decisive weapons of the Great War, the tank, was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 7 April 1926 – Violet Gibson tries to assassinate Mussolini

 

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The former Italian international soccer player, Paolo di Canio, may be a fan, but the modest Irishwoman, the Honorable Violet Albina Gibson, was certainly not. In 1926 she linked Irish nineteenth century land purchase with twentieth century Italian fascism when, around the time he assumed absolute power in Italy, Violet Gibson unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini.

At the time Il Duce was saluting his public in the Piazza del Campodoglio in Rome. He had just addressed the International Congress of Surgeons, so he was probably in a good place had Violet Gibson been a better shot. As he sat in his Duce-mobile, waiting to be whisked away, the car was approached by a petite, bespectacled, and somewhat shabby fifty-year old woman. Instead of smiling and waving at the Italian prime minister, she took out a gun and shot him at almost point blank range.

Gibson, a member of an Irish aristocratic family, was, unfortunately, not a particularly good shot, and pistols are notoriously inaccurate in the hands of a novice. She hit Mussolini in the nose, twice, causing a spectacular nosebleed, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. At least one bullet went right through both nostrils.  A third attempt to fire led to the gun jamming. Had Mussolini not turned his head at the wrong moment—or the right moment if you’re a lover of Fascist dictators—Violet Gibson might not have failed in her one and only attempt at killing someone other than herself. Mussolini’s recorded reaction was one of surprise, that his assailant was a mere woman.

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Gibson was immediately set upon by enthusiastic Fascist spectators, eager to demonstrate their devotion to Il Duce, and was almost lynched. The police intervened, and she was quickly overpowered and arrested. She can probably consider herself fortunate. A few months later a teenager tried to kill Mussolini in Bologna, he was captured by a vengeful mob, strangled, knifed, and then shot.

The middle-aged Irish aristocrat was from a celebrated Anglican and Unionist family, but had converted to nationalism and Christian Science, before eventually becoming a Catholic, in 1902. Her Catholicism, however, did not prevent her from once threatening to shoot the Pope, whom she accused of betraying her beloved Italy. The year before her attempt to end prematurely the illustrious career of Il Duce, she had tried to kill herself with a gunshot to the chest. She missed on that occasion too, her inaccuracy probably explaining her inability to kill the Fascist leader from the much greater range of a couple of feet, the following year.

After the attempt to take her own life she had spent her days living quietly in a convent in Rome, mostly doing jigsaws. She gave no indication of what she had in mind when she stepped out on 7 April 1926. Neither did she tell any of the nuns that she was armed.

Although she claimed to have been ordered to kill Mussolini by God himself, in the case made to the Military court that tried her, the prosecution held that ‘the deed was not attempted in an unconscious frenzy of delirium, terror or hallucination’. However, when she was released on Il Duce’s orders, and deported to Britain, she was committed to the same asylum where James Joyce’s daughter Lucia spent the last thirty years of her life. She died in 1956 at the age of seventy-nine, and is buried in Northampton in England.

Violet’s action would actually not have gone down too well in official circles in Britain in 1926, as the King of England had just awarded Mussolini the Order of the Bath. But his own lynching in 1945 prompted calls for her to be released. By then, however, her mental state had deteriorated, and she suffered from the delusion that her moods were responsible for the weather. With most of us it’s the other way around. On her return to England she had written many letters to Winston Churchill, and much later, to the future Queen Elizabeth. None were ever posted.

Incidentally, the obscure reference in the first paragraph to Irish land purchase was based on the fact that Violet Gibson was the daughter of Edward Gibson, Baron Ashbourne, the Tory Lord Chancellor whose 1885 legislation speeded up the acquisition of the land of Ireland by its tenant farmers, in what became known as the Ashbourne Land Act.

The Honourable Violet Gibson came within inches of changing European history ninety-one years, on this day.

 

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