Fake History #68  The Catalpa rescue sprang all remaining Fenian prisoners from Freemantle prison in Western Australia?



Relations between Irish people and Australians tend, on the whole, to be excellent – even though our respective impenetrable accents and their occasional use of odd expressions like ‘strewth’ and ‘ripper’ make conversation virtually impossible. But we still manage to get on. in part, it must be recognised, this is because of our mutual antipathy to whinging poms. However, even though a goodly percentage of Aussie DNA originated in Ireland, good relations between the people of our two great republics … oops, sorry, Australia still has the monarch, doesn’t it? Let me rephrase that so … good relations between our two great nations was not necessarily a given. That’s because, for many years, Australia was little more than a massive prison camp for Irish persons who had a jaundiced attitude towards said monarch ie. Irish rebels.

This weekend, one hundred and twenty-four years ago, a rather unusual Irish emigrant ship arrived off the coast of Western Australia. It was a bit different because it wasn’t bringing any Irish emigrants to Australia, it was removing half a dozen of them. The ship, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was called the Catalpa and it was probably the most extraordinary sea-going vessel in Irish republican history, until the Asgard landed weapons in Howth in 1914.

The function of the Catalpa was to transport a number of former Irish rebels from Freemantle to New York. The difficulty was that these six gentlemen, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had not actually been formally released from prison. They had to be sprung first!

The Catalpa was a whaling ship that had been purchased by the great Irish-American Fenian John Devoy, leader of Clan na Gael, with the intention of bringing off this outrageous coup. Only the captain, George Anthony, had any idea that the ship wasn’t setting sail from New Bedford in April 1875, to kill defenceless whales.

In tandem with the covert sea voyage, two Fenian agents, John Breslin from New York and Thomas Desmond from San Francisco, were sent to Western Australia to pose as American businessmen and to do the groundwork that would allow the six Fenian prisoners to escape from a work detail and make it to the Catalpa. Breslin even  managed to befriend no less a personage than the governor of Western Australia. Not bad for an undercover Fenian. Desmond’s job was to organise transport and to make sure news of the escape did not emerge until the convicts were safely on board their rescue ship.

The Catalpa arrived off the coast of Western Australia in late March 1876, dropped anchor in international waters, and waited. Onshore the six Fenian prisoners, having managed to slipped away from their work detail,  were escorted by Breslin and Desmond to a small boat that would take them to the rescue ship. Desmond had organised that all telegraph communications were to be cut.  Captain Anthony was waiting with the boat, whose departure was delayed by appalling weather. Crew and convicts spent a number of tense hours waiting to be discovered before the rowing boat could be taken off the beach. By the time that happened word of the escape had got out and a British military vessel, the Georgette, had been sent to intercept the skiff and/or the Catalpa itself.

But the prisoners managed to reach the Catalpa before they could be intercepted. In doing so they played cat and mouse with a police cutter carrying thirty armed men on board. They barely managed to win the race to the whaling ship anchored just outside the three mile limit.

When the Georgette drew alongside the Catalpa it attempted to manoeuvre Anthony’s ship into Australian waters. Warning shots were fired. It was only when Captain Anthony raised a US flag that the Georgette backed off and allowed the Catalpa to begin its journey to New York with its six freed prisoners. It arrived there, to a tumultuous Irish-American welcome, on 19 August. A grateful Clan na Gael made a gift of the ship to George Anthony.

But there was a seventh prisoner who didn’t make it. A Fenian named John Kiely was left behind in Freemantle. Why? Because his compatriots had concluded that he was working as an informer for the prison authorities. So, although the Catalpa did rescue half a dozen IRB prisoners from Freemantle prison, it did not, technically,  carry off all the Fenians  left in captivity in  Western Australia.


Fake Histories #66  Eggs laid on Good Friday will never go bad? 



Let’s start with a quiz. Name as many Christmas movies as you can in ten seconds.

Easy. White Christmas, Home Alone, Love Actually, The Muppet Christmas Carrol, The Santa Clause, Elf, Trading Places, Arthur Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and the greatest of them all, Bad Santa, starring Billy Bob Thornton as someone you never want to see coming down your chimney.

And you just know I’ve left out about five hundred more.

Now, name as many Easter movies as you can in ten seconds! Eh ….. ![Pause]

Thought so!

If you racked your brain hard enough you might come up The Long Good Friday and Easter Parade, the quintessential Easter movie that starred Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, with music—including the title song and’ Steppin’ Out with my Baby’—by Irving Berlin. A piece of utter trivia, Gene Kelly was supposed to have taken the lead male part but he injured an ankle playing volleyball and persuaded Astaire to come out of retirement and star opposite Garland. It was, surprisingly, the biggest grossing film either of them ever made.

From a religious perspective Easter may be just as important as Christmas, but it’s a harder sell as far as the public is concerned when the only payoff is chocolate.

It probably doesn’t help that we can never be quite sure exactly when it’s going to happen. Good Friday, for example, can fall anytime between 20 March and 23 April. They don’t call it a moveable feast for nothing.  Easter Sunday is scheduled to fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. So, in Ireland it could be midwinter or high summer. For the record, two historians have worked out that the very first Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, fell on 3 April.

Given what we’re actually commemorating—a public execution—where does the day get its name? Exactly what was so good about Jesus Christ being nailed to a cross by the Romans? One theory has it that the name is a corruption of ‘God’s Friday’. The more commonly accepted notion, of course, is that the ‘good’ comes from its observation as a holy day in the western Christian calendar. Eastern orthodox Catholics go one better and call it ‘Great Friday’. Some Christian denominations refer to it as Black Friday—though that has subsequently been appropriated by Mammon as a shopping day of observation—or indeed Sorrowful Friday, which is current in Germany. Others, however, don’t hold much store by Good Friday and honour Good Wednesday instead, the day most Christians refer to as Spy Wednesday.

Now, although organised religions don’t exactly encourage superstition there are a number of piseogs related to today. It is said, for example, that an egg laid on Good Friday will never go bad,  Apparently a child born today, who is then baptised on Easter Sunday, has the gift of healing. So have a good think about that if you’ve just given birth, but don’t dally. Your window of opportunity to produce the next great faith healer closes in two days.

Bread or cakes, or indeed hot cross buns, baked on this day are said not go mouldy. And, by the way, if you let hot cross buns go hard they are supposed to protect your house against fire. So, if you’re listening in California or Australia, start baking.  The planting of crops, however, is not advisable, as an old saw has it that no iron should enter the ground on Good Friday. So, please step away from that spade or garden fork, and don’t drop any iron supplement tablets either.

The one I like best of all the superstitions is the idea that having your hair cut on Good Friday is a sure fire way of avoiding toothaches for the rest of the year! Trying teasing out the logic there. A barber with a grudge against a dentist probably came up with that one.

But, to return to our first mentioned Good Friday superstition, that an egg laid today will never go bad. Why don’t we engage in some interactive radio? Let’s try an experiment. If you have hens, when you collect the eggs today, leave one in the coop. Don’t touch it for, say, twelve months, then get back to me in about a year after you’ve cracked it open and we’ll see whether that’s fake history or not.


FH #66  Was Abraham Lincoln inducted into the Wrestling Hall of fame?



In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a US election year. You could be forgiven for some confusion as the incumbent has been running a vigorous re-election campaign for more than three years.

Let’s face it, the choice on offer to the American electorate is less than inspiring. It doesn’t quite compare with Kennedy v Nixon, or even Reagan v Carter. US voters are currently being asked to choose between three septuagenarian white men. They might just as well be voting for Pope.

You may recall one of the great election put downs of recent years when, in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate the Republican contender, Dan Quayle, made a dubious comparison between himself and John F. Kennedy. This drew the stinging rebuke from his opponent Lloyd Bentsen, ‘ Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’ You could hear the intake of breath in the room and the communal ‘Ouch’ all over the world. Sadly, it can safely be said of all the continuing candidates in the 2020 US Presidential election, ‘You’re no James Buchanan Jr.’

Never heard of James Buchanan Jr.? Precisely. But he was the fifteenth President of the United States and reckoned to have been by far the worst. At least until 2016.

All of which should make us think more fondly of Abraham Lincoln, probably the greatest US President, and ask what they did with the mould after they buried him. Maybe they didn’t break it and it’s still around somewhere.

If it can be said in support of the current incumbent of the White House, that at least he isn’t bland, the same was true of Lincoln. He had, for example, a number of unusual, or even bizarre, hobbies and accomplishments. One of his many occupations, before he entered politics, was rail splitting. In case you’re unfamiliar with this profession, that’s probably because it’s died out a bit. There’s not much call these days for men with axes who split logs to create wooden sleepers on which metal rails can be placed. When he entered politics he gave up rail splitting for hair splitting.

His youthful party piece, already discussed on this programme, was to recite, from memory, Robert Emmet’s 1803 speech from the dock. Lincoln, however, was under far less pressure than the Irish patriot whenever he intoned the address. He knew he wasn’t going to be hanged and beheaded the following day.

But one of the of the sixteenth President’s most unusual pursuits was wrestling. He is reputed to have fought over three hundred bouts and to have suffered only one defeat. There is no doubt that his height and reach would have given him a tremendous advantage in that sport. He stood six foot four inches tall, at a time when the average American male would have been nearly a foot shorter. He used both height and reach to great effect in 1842 in a duel with an Irish-born Illinois politician James Shields. Lincoln had been challenged by Shields and so had choice of weapons. Because he was a large and easy target for a bullet it was a no-brainer to opt for broadswords. As the two men squared up to each other Lincoln casually reached over the head of Shields and chopped the branch of tree far above them. Shields, conscious of what his opponent could do to him, was persuaded to abandon his challenge.

But let’s get back to the wrestling. The activity, as practised in rural America was more ‘wrastling’ than the elegant, rules-based Greco-Roman variety. Neither was it an organised sport, although it was far more real and dangerous than anything dreamed up by the pumped up faux belligerents of the WWE. And there’s no doubt that Lincoln was a proficient wrestler who liked to show off his prowess. That fact is mentioned in a number of biographies.

But as to the question of whether he was ever inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, it would be a fun fact, if it was true. And, believe it or not it almost is. In 1992 he was given that organisation’s ‘Outstanding American’ award and a mural of one of his legendary bouts appears on a wall in the Wrestling Hall of Fame museum.

But, technically, he is not an inductee – we’re not talking about The Rock here. Dwayne Johnson has nothing to worry about. That’s fake history.




FH#65 Did Typhoid Mary cause the deaths of hundreds of people?



Today, at a time when we are in the grip of a major pandemic, we’re going to look at the impact of a name change on a significant outbreak of typhoid in the eastern United States in the early 1900s.

Why did Mary Mallon, born in Tyrone in 1869, and who emigrated to the USA in the 1880s, change her name to Mary Brown in 1915? And why did she lay down a marker in medical history?

Perhaps if we call her by her notorious nickname all will become clear. She was better known as Typhoid Mary and was the first asymptomatic carrier of the potentially deadly disease. Put simply, what that means is that Mary Mallon was a carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever who did not exhibit symptoms of the disease herself. Neither, as far as is known, did she ever suffer from typhoid fever, although she managed to pass on typhus to dozens of others.

Mary Mallon was a cook, which was part of the problem. Appropriately enough she was born in Cookstown, though it’s unlikely that the members of the families she infected, would have appreciated the irony. She held a variety of positions in the kitchens of wealthy families in upstate New York and Long Island in the early 1900s. She admitted when she was finally caught that she wasn’t overly fond of washing her hands while she prepared food, she just didn’t see the point. When members of her employers’ families began to drop like flies, with salmonella or typhoid symptoms, she was generous in offering assistance in nursing them. Everybody might have been better off if she’d stayed in the kitchen, or even better, the laundry.

She must have had some sense that either she was the source of the problem, or that her cooking wasn’t very good, because she spent much of her working life giving notice and moving on, leaving a trail of infection behind her.

Enter Dr George Soper, medical Nemesis. He was hired by one of the infected families to trace the origin of the typhus. He became aware of an unusual upsurge in the disease in well-to-do households around greater New York. Now typhus then, as now, was a disease of poverty. People living in poor and unsanitary conditions were supposed to succumb to the disease, not the well off. What was the point in being rich if you could still contract typhoid fever in the 1900s? Soper quickly identified Mary Mallon as the common denominator and Mallon was forced, much against her will, to give up stool and urine samples (apologies if you’re eating at the moment). These established that she had a gall bladder which was a balmy island home to millions of happy microbes of typhoid salmonella, delighted at having found an understanding host prepared to allow them out into the wider world for an occasional adventure.


Mary Mallon was labelled public health Enemy Number One and placed in isolation in a cottage in the Bronx in 1907. It was suggested that her gallbladder—still a much sought after retirement home for bacilli—should be removed. Mallon loudly declined.  Three years later she was released, on condition that she would only work in the badly paid vocation of laundress and that she would never so much as boil and egg again for anyone other than herself.

You’ve probably already worked out what happened next. Mary Mallon, unhappy with the company of soap suds and steam, changed her name to Mary Brown and sought employment, once again, as a cook. With similar results. She left an entirely new trail of typhoid victims in her wake.  Because she was a serial employee who tended to abandon jobs rather than serving out notice and leaving a forwarding address, it took the New York public health authorities five years to catch up with her. When they did there was no going back this time. She was quarantined for the rest of her life on an island in New York’s East river. When she died, in 1938,  after a total of almost three decades in isolation, her body was cremated.

Because Mary Mallon (Brown) was not the most co-operative of individuals—she adhered to the Ulster axiom ‘whatever you say, say nothing’—no one knows exactly how many deaths she caused with her extra-curricular culinary skills. The official number is three, although some contemporaries, without producing any evidence, claimed it was as high as fifty. However, she was certainly not responsible for the death of hundreds, so that’s fake history. Do enjoy your evening meal.



FH#61 Didn’t Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year?



First off let me offer my most profound condolences to any ‘leaplings’ amongst you. To qualify you will have been born on 29th February. Many happy returns tomorrow and do enjoy your birthday party because your next one won’t be happening until 2024. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if you only aged one year in every four as well, but, of course, it doesn’t work like that does it? Does it?

Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb it doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days. It takes an additional six hours or so. As a consequence, with the creation of the Julian calendar in Rome, during the reign of Julius Caesar, an extra day was added at the end of February to keep everything in line. As the shortest month it needed all the help it could get. Later Caesar was stabbed to death in retaliation by a gang of ‘leaplings’  who bitterly resented the absence of birthday cards for three years out of every four. Maybe! No one actually checked their birth certs but it’s odds on they were all born on 29 February and had a grudge against Old Julie.

The problem, however, with the Julian calendar, is that there was a sting in the tail. Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb and doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days and six hours. It take a few seconds less than that. So, you lose about three days every four hundred years. This meant that, by the 16th century Caesar’s calendar was starting to get out of whack with the seasons. For example, the Spring Equinox, which should have been on 23 March, actually fell on the 11th March. That was when Pope Gregory took a hand, tossed out the Julian calendar and replaced it with his own, which accounted for the precise amount of time to takes the earth to revolve around the sun. To cater for those vital few rogue seconds, certain years, which were actually divisible by four, were to be designated as non-leap years. They had to be divisible by four hundred as well. So the first year that would have had a leap day in February, but didn’t, was 1700. The next one will be 2100. So, if you are born tomorrow, and live to be eighty-four, you won’t  have a birthday for the last seven years of your life. Bummer!

By the way, does anyone have any idea what the other three years in the cycle are called? Full marks if you said ‘common’ years.

Among those unfortunate enough to be born on 29 February are the actors Joss Ackland and Denis Farina – in the case of Richard Ramirez, born in El Paso, Texas on 29 February 1960 it’s the rest of humanity that was visited by misfortune. He went on to become the serial killer known as the Night Stalker who terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s and murdered more than a dozen people. Born on the same day four years earlier was one of the most notorious female serial killers in legal history, Aileen Wournos. Is there something we need to know?

The good news for Spain, however, is that their current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, won’t be distracted by having to throw elaborate annual birthday parties because he too is a leapling.

By the way, when it comes to the tradition that a woman can propose marriage to a man on a leap day—as if they aren’t allowed to do so on any of the other 1460 days in the cycle—there’s a sting in the tail. Apparently if the man refuses the proposal he must give the woman a sum of money, or buy her a dress. That is, let’s face it, something you could turn to your advantage tomorrow. Assuming you’re a woman and there’s a man of your acquaintance who really doesn’t like you. Just be careful. Men can be very fickle. He might say ‘yes’.

So, as to the starter question, did Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year? … decidedly not. If Pope Gregory hadn’t intervened and chopped out a few of them we’d soon be having Christmas in November.



FH#59  St. Valentine was beaten to death with clubs?



Cue the mushy music, break out the chocolates, take a wee moment to smell that garland of  roses, and count those cards again, because, if you didn’t know that it’s St. Valentine’s day you’re either out of luck, or an incurable grouch.

We’ll get to the sad fate of the man after whom the day is named, a little later.

One thing you can say about St. Valentine—purveyor of love and affection, hero to cardmakers, choclatiers, intimate restaurants, the Post Office, and maternity hospitals around the middle of November—is that the various Churches in which he is revered, work the man very hard indeed. The afterlife doesn’t necessarily mean a restful retirement for holy men. Valentine is not just the patron saint of lovers you see. He doesn’t get any downtime after mid-February. In addition to his patronage of love, amour, amore, liebe, STDs and lovebites, he is also the patron saint of beekeepers. He is charged with their protection and with the sweetness of honey. Not only that but he is patron saint AGAINST epilepsy, fainting and the bubonic plague. He’s been doing quite well on the latter in recent years.

The man himself was a Christian martyr who met a sad and violent end around the year 270 AD in Rome, where his skull is still exhibited to this day. But, fear not, apparently a small vessel containing some of his blood—which has survived remarkably well after one thousand seven hundred and fifty odd years—is on display in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street in Dublin. Hopefully it’s the blood of the correct Valentine, because apparently there are around a dozen saints and martyrs of that name who feature in regional Christian church lists. The most recent one was canonised in 1988. There is even a Pope Valentine, but he only lasted in office for forty days, in 827, so, wisely perhaps, no pontiff has assumed the name since the ninth century.

Is it significant, one wonders,  that, apparently, there are no churches dedicated to St. Valentine in buttoned-down England, while there are dozens in his name in amorous Italy? Which brings to mind the title of that long-running 1970s farce No Sex Please We’re British. It ran in the West End for sixteen years. One of the Italian churches named after him was situated in the 1960 Rome Olympic village, though, by all accounts, the presence of St. Valentine is not essential for lustful carry-on in Olympic villages.

The problem with Valentine and all the saccharine of the day associated with his name, is that he was a Christian martyr. There is no getting away from the fact, as you sip your first prosecco of the night and dive into the Quality Street, that poor Valentine, to whom you owe tonight’s date with your outrageously handsome or beautiful escort, came to a very bad end indeed.

As regards the poor man’s demise, there is some clubbing involved, but not of the type that you might hope to be indulging in later tonight if that romantic dinner goes well. As with most of the early saints and martyrs, the precise details of his passing are disputed. But the consensus seems to be that he fell foul of the Roman Emperor Claudius, not the I Claudius of the Robert Graves books, who was a good egg, but Claudius the Second, who was more of a hard-boiled type. Valentine, or Valentinus to give him his Roman name, was accused of marrying Christian couples, hence his designation as patron saint of lovers. But Claudius the Second was a tad unsentimental about Christian nuptials. In fact he didn’t approve of Christians of any stripe. Aiding and abetting Christianity was a capital offence in third century Rome.

Claudius ordered that Valentine should be beaten to death with clubs—not the sort of end that we would associate with such a mushily romantic figure. The good news is that the beating failed to kill him. The bad news is that he was then beheaded, which did. Spare a thought for his dreadful end as the maitre d’ escorts you to your table tonight. Actually … maybe save your reflections until tomorrow. Contemplating beatings and beheadings as you order the starter might spoil your appetite, or ruin that all-important frisson as you gaze rapturously into the eyes of your dinner date.

But as to the ultimate fate of St. Valentine, patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, was he beaten to death with clubs? No, he was decapitated, so that’s fake history. Do enjoy your evening.


FH #58  Did the first lynching take place in Galway in 1493?



As Galway has been Ireland’s Capital of Culture for decades it’s only fitting that it becomes Europe’s official capital of Culture for 2020 this week. One wonders though if the year-long celebration will encompass the enduring myth (or even history) of a former mayor of the city James Lynch Fitzstephen, who, according to local legend, in 1493, invoking his magisterial powers, condemned his own son to death for the murder of a Spanish visitor who was a rival for the affections of a local woman. Legend has it that when no one could be found to execute his son Fitzstephen performed the sorry task himself by hanging the young lad from a window in Market Street.

It may be history, it may simply be legend but one thing is certain, it has given rise to an enduring parallel mythology that credits James Lynch Fitzstephen with inadvertently originating the term ‘lynching’, as in an extra-judicial hanging. The Fitzstephen story doesn’t even have to be true for the alleged incident to have become the basis of the coinage of that ugliest of words. Neither does it really matter that the execution of the young Fitzstephen was not an illegal act—he had actually been condemned to death— nor that, logically, if the word followed the deed we should be talking about the unfortunate victims of ‘Fitzstephening’ rather than ‘lynching’.

However, we need to visit the more natural habitat of this barbaric practice, the American South, to establish whether a late fifteenth century Mayor of Galway’s name has been gruesomely immortalised or not.

The word itself may well have had a relatively benign genesis. American sources claim that it comes, not from fifteenth century Galway, but from the American revolution of the late eighteenth century. It appears that a Virginia Quaker named Charles Lynch took it upon himself during the US War of Independence, to incarcerate loyalist supporters of British rule without the proper authority. When the British abandoned their unruly colony, Lynch sought retrospective legal jurisdiction just in case he was sued by any of his former prisoners. The resulting legislation became known as ‘Lynch’s Law’, which morphed into ‘Lynch Law’ and gradually began to mean the assumption of extra-judicial authority.

It became a verb in the aftermath of the American Civil War as white southerners fought to reassert some of their authority over millions of freed slaves who now, perish the thought, even had the right to vote.

One of the great heroes of nineteenth century American journalism, Ida B. Wells, born into slavery herself in 1862, just before emancipation, became editor of a newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. That same year a friend of hers, who had set up a business competing with white-owned concerns in Memphis, Tennessee was lynched by a white mob. That set Ida Wells on the journey for which she is most celebrated, documenting the incidences and the rationale behind the evil practice of lynching in the post-Civil War South

She exposed the lie that most black men were lynched for sexual assaults on white women – instead she found that most black men were targeted for challenging southern white supremacy in the economic or political field. Lynching, far from being a response to inter-racial rape, was a form of social control. The worst example of the practice was the so-called Great Hanging of Gainesville, Texas in October 1862 where forty-one black men were hanged by a white mob. Ida Wells published her findings in Southern Horror: Lynch Law in all its Phases in 1892. In the book she was unequivocal in her advocacy of self-defensive measures

‘A Winchester rifle,’ she wrote, ‘should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. ‘

After the book appeared the offices of her newspaper were torched and she was forced to flee to New York which hadn’t lynched too many African-Americans since the 1863 Draft Riots.

In 1915 the epic silent movie, Birth of a Nation, highlighted the gruesome practice, except that the director, D.W. Griffith, seemed to think it was a good idea.  Between 1880 and 1951 independent research has recorded almost five thousand lynchings in the USA. Most took place in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana and around 70% of the victims were African-American men and women.

So, when it comes to the dispute over where the word lynching comes from, fifteenth century Galway, or revolutionary America … does it really matter?