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

 

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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.

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

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On This Day – 23.3.1893   Birth in Dublin of Cedric Gibbons

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There are numerous anecdotes about how the Academy Award statuette got its name. One story has it that Bette Davis named it after one of her husbands, the band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. The more probable narrative relates to the executive secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick who is supposed to have exclaimed, when she saw the statuette for the first time, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’.

All of which is apropos of the man who was given the task of designing the golden trophy, one of the founding members of the Academy, Cedric Gibbons. He was born Austin Cedric Gibbons in Dublin in 1893 and his family migrated to the USA in the early 1900s. His father was an architect, which must have influenced his future career as a Hollywood art director. Cedric, after graduating from Art school, began to work for his father before joining the Edison studio in New York in 1915. This was at a time when the movie industry still hadn’t quite made up its mind whether it was going to be a west coast or an east coast phenomenon.

The lack of year-round sunshine, and proximity to the litigious holders of film-making patents, like Gibbons’s first employer, put paid to New York as the spiritual home of La La Land by the 1920s and Gibbons, like most of his talented peers, headed for Hollywood.

In 1918 he started working for Samuel Goldwyn, the father of such celebrated Goldwynisms as ‘A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ and ‘Can she sing? … why she’s practically a Florence Nightingale.’ When, in 1924, Goldwyn’s company became the ‘G’ in the MGM sandwich—the ‘M’s, of course, being ‘Metro’ and ‘Mayer’, Gibbons had arrived.

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In negotiating his MGM contract, he insisted that he be credited as Art Director on every single movie the studio produced during his tenure. Which meant that Gibbons was credited on over fifteen hundred movies between 1924 and 1956. He probably had direct involvement in around a tenth of that number. Still, being art director on one hundred and fifty movies over three decades is quite a career.

As it happens he was one of the earliest winners of the award he had been asked to design. He won his first Uncle Oscar at the second awards ceremony in 1930. Altogether he received thirty-nine nominations and won eleven awards. His first award came in 1929 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his final nod was almost thirty years later, in 1957, for the Paul Newman boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me. He was also nominated for The Wizard of Oz, a film you would have thought was a triumph of art direction, but didn’t win. Similarly with the likes of National Velvet, and the more visceral The Blackboard Jungle, in 1957,  the film that launched the song ‘Rock Around the Clock’.

His marriage to the actress Dolores del Rio was probably not one of the best decisions either of them made. She was going through a divorce AND splitting up from her lover around the time they were introduced by William Randolph Hearst and his wife Marion Davies. The marriage lasted a decade, by which time Del Rio had taken up with Orson Welles – so no chance of any more matchmaking from Hearst or Davies there.

Gibbons died in 1960 and is buried in Los Angeles, in 2006 he became one of the earliest inductees into the newly formed Art Director’s Guild Hall of Fame.

Austin Cedric Gibbons, one of the first and one of the greatest Hollywood art directors was born in Dublin, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, on this day.

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On This Day 9.3.1931  Birth of Jackie Healy Rae 

 

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He actually shares a name with one of Ireland’s best known journalists, the great political columnist John Healy, a noted champion of rural Ireland. Which is oddly appropriate, because the man we know as Jackie Healy Rae had similar affinities, albeit largely to his own small part of the Irish countryside.

He was born in 1931, one of six children who grew up on a farm in Kerry. The ‘Rae’ in his surname, the bit after the unlikely hyphen, comes from the area in which he grew up, Reacaisleach. He was a prominent member of the local GAA in his youth. But his prowess would be of little use to him when it came to winning votes at elections. Because Jackie Healy-Rae, as well as sporting an aristocratic hyphen, was a hurler. Now who would vote for a hurler in Kerry? Who can even name a single Kerry hurler?  He was also an accomplished musician. Accordion perhaps? Maybe the flute? Neither. Jackie Healy-Rae, always a contrarian, shared a passion for the instrument made famous by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Lisa Simpson. He was a saxophone player.

Starting in the early 1970s Healy-Rae was a dedicated member of the Fianna Fail party, working assiduously and effectively at election times to get local supremo John O’Leary into the Dail over and over again. Under his guiding hand as director of elections and a county councillor Fianna Fail regularly claimed two seats out of three in his South Kerry bailiwick.

Then came the 1997 general election and it was Jackie’s turn to stand for the Dail after John O’Leary announced he was retiring. Except that it wasn’t. Despite all his hard work over the previous thirty years he was passed over for selection. Fianna Fail would go on to rue the day they messed with Jackie Healy-Rae. He stood as an independent, was given no chance, but did what far too many politicians are doing today, and defied the pollsters, by taking a seat. Not only that but he topped the poll. The seat has been in the family ever since.

He got lucky—though in politics you make your own luck—when the putative Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition was a few nails short of a governing tool box. Bertie Ahern’s government needed the support of four independents. Jackie—by now becoming known to a wider and not altogether welcoming public for his impenetrable Kerry accent and glued on cap—drove a hard bargain for his constituents, and they loved him for it. He arrived in Dublin after the election stand-off with a shopping list of road-building, pier, harbour and hospital construction, spiced with a tincture of agricultural grants, and job creation projects, for South Kerry.

His reward, during the 2002 general election, was a surprise call for a recount when the second Fianna Fail candidate, Tom Fleming, finished just over two hundred votes behind him. That did not go down well in Healy-Rae-ville. He was returned to the Dail, but the new government didn’t need his vote any longer, so the shopping list went back into his pocket. He did not get to produce it again.

Never renowned as an orator, his contributions to Dail debates were infrequent, and his attendance rate at the Oireachtas committee which he chaired left a lot to be desired. But that didn’t greatly bother his constituents. And he was nothing if not colourful. Among his most memorable Rae-isms are his immortal threat to pull the plug on the FF/PD coalition with the observation that ‘the fellas inside there [he was referring to the Dail] can be getting oil for the chains of their bikes.’ On his less affluent constituents he remarked that, ‘some people coming to me are so poor they couldn’t buy a jacket for a gooseberry.’

Though seen as a conservative political force he was no backwoodsman, and often adopted a libertarian, ‘live and let live’ approach. His attitude to a proposal for a nude beach in Ballybunion, for example, was ‘If people want to go without clothes, why should they be made wear them.’ When asked about the fate of Bishop Eamon Casey, he pointed out that the prelate had ‘got a raw deal, and what the man did was very light indeed compared with things that emerged about other churchmen afterwards.’

Jackie Healy-Rae, an independent voice, but a politician from the Fianna Fail gene pool, was born eighty-seven years ago, on this day.

 

On This Day 2 March 1948  – Birth of Rory Gallagher

 

 

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He was the first Liam Gallagher, albeit with a hundred times more talent than the former Oasis lead singer. That’s because he was christened William Rory Gallagher. The William bit never caught on and we all know him simply as ‘Rory’.  In this country, if you just use his first name, everyone knows who you mean.

He was the Siamese twin of a sunburst 1961 Fender Stratocaster—Serial Number 64351—  purchased for around £100, second hand, in Crowley’s Music Store in MacCurtain Street in Cork in 1963, when he was fifteen.  He wanted a guitar like Buddy Holly’s. As a kid, he loved Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, graduated to Muddy Waters and the blues, and played the music of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, before he found his own unique voice. He couldn’t afford to buy records, so he listened a lot to Radio Luxembourg and the American Armed Forces Network, drifting in and out of coverage, on the family radio. Eventually, as a guitarist and, arguably, as a singer and songwriter, he would eclipse all his early influences. Because Rory Gallagher was the business. He was also shy, charming, engaging, modest, and an out and out gentleman.

Just to rewind a little. William Rory Gallagher was born in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal—I would be justifiably slaughtered if I omitted to mention that—but was raised in the city of Cork, from where he got his accent, as well as his first electric guitar, which, by the way, was once stolen from the back of his van, and found in a ditch a few days later.

As a music crazy teen-ager, he earned the money to pay for the Fender Stratocaster by playing with the Fontana showband, but pop music covers were not his thing and, in 1966 he formed the R&B trio Taste, along with Norman Damery and Eric Kitteringham, also from Cork. Two albums later, he went solo, and began a twenty-year association with bass player Gerry McAvoy. By 1971 he was topping the Melody Maker’s Guitarist of the Year list, ahead of someone called Eric Clapton.

In a career that lasted more than thirty years he sold an average of a million albums a year, but it was his live performances that got his juices going, and endeared him to a generation of air-guitar playing fans. Alongside Van Morrison and Phil Lynott—to both of whom lead guitar was anathema—Gallagher became a bona fide Irish rock superstar, without ever courting or exploiting that status. His check shirts, blue jeans, flowing hair, battered Fender, and passion, set him apart from the posers, pranksters and piss-artists who populated rock music in the 1970s and 80s, just as they do today.

Rory always remained true to himself and his music. He was asked to replace the legendary Ritchie Blackmore as lead guitarist with Deep Purple, and, allegedly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, but opted to stay solo. Throughout his career there is little doubt that, despite his notorious perfectionism, he placed far less value on his own abilities than did his legion of fans, and music industry admirers. Sometimes you can be just a little too modest and self-deprecating.

He also had time for everyone. One young guitarist recalls asking Rory how he achieved his unique sound. Gallagher sat him down and showed him. The young man went on become Brian May, so Queen owe at least some of their distinctive sound to Rory.

Although never your stereotypical recreational drug-taking rock star Gallagher had a fondness for alcohol which, over the years, adversely affected his liver. In 1995, he was admitted to King’s Hospital in London for treatment, and while awaiting a liver transplant contracted an MRSA infection, and died at the age of forty-seven.

Jimi Hendrix was once asked who was the greatest guitarist in the world, he responded, with becoming modesty, ‘I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.’

Ireland’s greatest guitarist, Rory Gallagher, was born in Ballyshannon—there, I’ve said it again—seventy years ago, on this day.

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On This Day 23 February 1943 – St. Joseph’s Orphanage fire in Cavan

 

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Long before the Stardust—where forty-eight young people lost their lives in the 1981—there was the Poor Clares fire in Cavan! This is a story very much in keeping with the illustrious Irish tradition of religious run orphanages, mother and baby homes, reform schools and Magdalene laundries.

It was a disaster that could so easily have been avoided, a tragedy of errors, and it cost the lives of thirty-five young orphan girls, and one adult employee, in February 1943.

St. Joseph’s Orphanage and Industrial School, run by the enclosed and contemplative order of Poor Clare nuns, had been a fixture in the centre of the town of Cavan since its establishment in 1869. By 1943 it was a grim, austere building where, on the night of 23 February, a small fire broke out in the basement laundry. This wasn’t noticed until after midnight on the morning of the 24th.

Once the alarm was raised, everyone in the building could have been evacuated immediately. There was still plenty of time to get all the girls, nuns and staff down to the street below. Instead the nuns decided to move all their young charges into one dormitory, and wait until someone put the fire out. The received wisdom at the time was that the Poor Clare sisters were prepared to risk the lives of more than eighty young girls, in order to avoid the embarrassment of them being seen in public in their nightgowns.

Two local men, John Kennedy and John McNally, took it upon themselves to attempt to put the fire out at source. They barely escaped from the laundry with their lives. McNally collapsed and had to be dragged out by Kennedy. As the fire took hold it now became impossible for the girls to be evacuated from their upstairs dormitory through the main entrance.

The town of Cavan in 1943 lacked a formal fire service. Dundalk Fire Brigade was notified, but by the time the fire tender had come from almost fifty miles away it was far too late. It appears that no one thought to contact Enniskillen fire station which was closer to Cavan than Dundalk.

What there was of a local fire service in the town in 1943 did not have ladders long enough to reach the girls in their dormitory. They were encouraged to jump. Three did so, incurring injuries, but surviving. The others, mostly younger children, were too scared to attempt the leap. A number of children managed to escape by a variety of hazardous routes, including a burning fire escape. Five were rescued when a ladder, adequate to the task, was finally found. The rest died when the flames reached the dormitory.

Afterwards there was a public inquiry, which found that the disaster had taken place due to an electrical fault. No one was held responsible. Locals, in the main, blamed the inaction, panic or rumoured prurience of the Poor Clare nuns. Secretary to the Inquiry was one Brian O’Nolan, a Dublin-based civil servant, better known as the writer Flann O’Brien. Along with one of the barristers at the inquiry, future Fine Gael TD and Presidential candidate, Tom O’Higgins, he penned a limerick which captured local feeling on the proper attribution of blame. It went:

 

In Cavan, there was a great fire

Judge McCarthy was sent to inquire

It would be a shame

If the nuns were to blame

So, it had to be caused by a wire.

 

Two of the dead girls, Mary Elizabeth and Susan McKiernan, had been placed in the Orphanage at the insistence of a local priest, after the death of their mother. The alternative was being raised by their father, or willing Protestant neighbours. The youngest orphan fatality was Elizabeth Heaphy from Swords, aged four, the eldest was eighteen-year old Mary Galligan from Drumcassidy in Cavan. None of the members of the Poor Clare order died in the fire, despite their own reluctance to leave the building. As members of an enclosed order many of the nuns apparently felt that to do so was a violation of their vows. The only adult fatality was the eighty-year old cook, Mary Smith. Rescuers found enough remains to fill eight coffins, these were then buried in a mass grave.

A fire that claimed the lives of thirty-six people, mostly young orphan girls, began to take hold in the laundry of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan, seventy-five years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day- 16.2.1902  Birth of Delia Murphy

 

 

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She was ‘The Ballad Queen’ whose voice and presentation would probably not conform to modern tastes, but, in a parallel and hazardous life, she also helped save hundreds of Jews and Allied soldiers from imprisonment, or the gas chambers. Delia Murphy may not have been Enya, but she was a courageous and remarkable woman nonetheless.

She had a relatively privileged upbringing in rural Ireland in the early 1900s. She was born in Mayo on the Mount Jennings Estate in Hollymount, in 1902. Her father, John Murphy, was one of those rarities, a returned emigrant who had made a fortune in North America. He had struck it rich during the Klondike gold fever of the 1890s, married a woman from Tipperary, and came back to Mayo. Despite his wealth, John Murphy was an exceptional individual in his own right, not least because he was happy for members of the travelling community to camp in the grounds of his newly acquired estate. This had beneficial consequences for his daughter, who learned many of the ballads that would later make her famous, around the campfires of the travellers.

Delia was fortunate, and somewhat unusual for a woman in those days, in receiving an education up to, and including, third level. She studied Commerce in University College, Galway, where she met and married fellow student, Tom Kiernan when she was twenty-two years old.

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Kiernan then joined the Irish diplomatic service and was posted to London. That was where Delia’s career really began to take off. The huge Irish emigré population in pre-war London took to her singing, and her rise in popularity led to the recording in 1939, by His Master’s Voice—shortened in more recent days to the more familiar HMV—of some of her best-known songs, such as, If I Were a Blackbird, The Spinning Wheel and Three Lovely Lassies. Her popularity was probably based as much on her personality and charm as it was on her singing, because, truth be told, she was no female John McCormick.

And that might have been all there was worth saying about Delia Murphy, had Tom Kiernan not been transferred in 1941, by the Department of External Affairs, from London to Rome, as Irish Chargé d’Affaires (or Minister) to the Vatican. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and US entry into the war, the Irish legation in Rome became the only English-speaking diplomatic mission left in the city.

In 1943 Mussolini was deposed and Allied POWs in Italy were released. Nazi Germany, however, rapidly reasserted fascist dominance, and the POWs were in danger of re-capture. Enter the extraordinary Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest based in the Vatican City. For the next two years, he led a network which sheltered Allied soldiers on the run, and Jews in danger of being dispatched to Nazi death camps. They were hidden in dozens of safe houses in Rome and elsewhere. Delia Murphy was one of O’Flaherty’s closest associates in this hazardous enterprise. When in Rome O’Flaherty did as the Romans did, assuming a variety of disguises so that he could pass as Italian. But, as the SS grew more aware of his activities, and attempted to assassinate him, he was compelled to remain inside the confines of the politically independent enclave of the Vatican City, where the Germans couldn’t touch him.

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After the war, Delia Murphy travelled with her diplomat husband to Australia, Germany, Canada and the USA where she continued to record and perform. In 1962, she recorded her only LP, The Queen of Connemara, in New York. Two years after the death of her husband, she returned to Ireland, and lived in Chapelizod outside Dublin. She died there in 1971 at the age of sixty-nine.

Delia Murphy, friend of the Irish traveller, ballad singer, and audaciously altruistic people smuggler, was born one hundred and sixteen years ago, on this day.

 

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