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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing

Across the Atlantical Sea

But he never tried to go railing

From Ennis, as far as Kilkee

 

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

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

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

 

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On this day – 6 May, 1882 The Phoenix Park Murders

 

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Had it not been for a tight and uncomfortable new pair of boots late 19th century Irish history might have been very different. The boots belonged to Superintendent John Mallon, head of detectives at Dublin Castle. He was on his way to meet an informer near the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park on the afternoon of 6 May 1882. It was warm, and his feet were sore. When he was met near the eastern entrance to the park by one of his officers who told him not to walk through the Park as he had spotted some well-known Fenians in the area, Mallon succumbed to the offending footwear, and the warning, and headed home instead of going to meet his informant.

 

Had he strolled on into the Park, however uncomfortably, his presence might have prevented one of the most vicious and notorious murders in Irish history. A short while after Mallon did his about-turn the new chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, a nephew by marriage of prime minister William Gladstone, decided, on his first day in Dublin, to walk from his office in Dublin Castle, to his new lodgings in Phoenix park – today it’s the U.S. Embassy. While en route he was passed by the carriage of his under secretary, the Galwayman Thomas H.Burke, effectively the head of the Irish civil service.Burke was a figure not greatly beloved in his own country at a time of repressive measures during the so-called Land War which had bedeviled the country for the three years.

 

When Burke recognized the lone walker as the new Chief Secretary he stopped his carriage and offered Cavendish a lift. The Chief Secretary declined and Burke sealed both their fates by offering to walk with him instead. As the two men approached the Viceregal Lodge they were accosted by a group of four men who produced surgical knives and proceeded to attack Burke. When Cavendish intervened to defend his Under Secretary he, in turn, was attacked and murdered. Burke’s killers had no idea of the identity or the importance of the man who had tried to defend their intended target.

 

The intervention of the new Chief Secretary and his brutal murder undoubtedly elevated the status of the crime and increased the intensity of the subsequent investigation. Later that night notes were posted through the letterboxes of the main Dublin newspapers claiming that the assassinations were the work of a shadowy new organisation, the Irish National Invincibles. This was a small, ruthless covert group that emerged from the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood but which maintained no specific ties with that organization.

 

The timing of the atrocity could not have been worse. It came a couple of days after an agreement between the British government and the Irish party leadership to end the Land War and almost sabotaged the secret diplomacy that promised to terminate that rancorous conflict.

 

It took almost a year to apprehend and punish the killers of Cavendish and Burke. Six men were hanged for the crime, including two of the main ringleaders, Joe Brady and Daniel Curley. One of the other masterminds behind the assassination escaped with his life by informing on his colleagues. James Carey was one of a number of informers produced by the Crown in the case against his fellow Invincibles, but his evidence was crucial. Superintendent Mallon had essentially hoodwinked Carey into confessing and turning states evidence. While Brady, Curley and their associates were either hanged or jailed for lengthy terms Carey was freed and given a new identity.

 

Carey’s freedom, however, was short-lived. He was smuggled out of Ireland destined for South Africa a few weeks after the six Invincible hangings. Recognised on board the ship taking him and his family to their new lives he was shot dead by one Patrick O’Donnell when they reached dry land. O’Donnell, was, in turn, hanged for his own crime.

 

The Phoenix Park murders took place 131 years ago on this day.

 

 

 

 

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On This Day – 22 April 1905 William O’Shea dies

 

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We don’t use the word cuckold much these days. Neither do we use the expression ‘criminal conversation’ very often. As it happens the two are related. A cuckold is the victim of criminal conversation. He – and it’s always a ‘he’ – is a wronged husband. The fact that the term for the female equivalent, ‘cuckquean’ is utterly obscure, though probably more common numerically, says a lot.

The most famous Irish cuckold – in truth ‘notorious’ is probably a better word – was undoubtedly William Henry O’Shea. His estranged wife, Katharine, entered into a relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell in 1880 that ended with his death in 1891. In the interim O’Shea, who of course played the part of the injured husband in the sensational divorce trial of 1890, turned a blind eye to what was, in effect, a second marriage for Katharine.

O’Shea, son of a Dublin lawyer who bought up a lot of bankrupted estates after the Famine – making him a sort of mid 19th century client of NAMA – was educated in England and then at the Catholic University (later UCD). There he was the despair of the celebrated cleric John Henry Newman who later escaped to become a Cardinal.

The young O’Shea joined the Hussars and was encouraged by his father to spend a lot of money on entertainment. I’ll repeat that in case you think you misheard. He was encouraged by his father to spend a lot of money on entertainment. What’s a young man to do when a parent is foolish enough to say ‘go waste my fortune on wine, women and song and make as many influential friends as possible.’ Of course it ended in tears when the young O’Shea nearly sent his old man to the same bankruptcy courts which had helped him acquire the basis of his fortune in the first place.

O’Shea never really succeeded at anything very much, other than being an accomplished cuckold and a pompous, self serving politician. In his twenties he tried banking and breeding horses. He failed at both. Then he went into politics, standing as a candidate in Clare in the 1880 general election. After he won a seat in the House of Commons he insisted his wife, from whom he was long separated by then, should invite influential MPs to a series of soirees over which she would officiate.

In 1881 the gallant Hussar found out about his wife’s newly established relationship with Parnell and challenged the Irish Party leader – his political boss – to a duel. When Parnell accepted with a tad too much enthusiasm O’Shea suddenly changed his mind about pistols at dawn and let it slide. From then on he milked as much advantage as he could out of the relationship while waiting for Katharine’s rich aunt to die and leave her a fortune from which he assumed he would benefit.

Between 1881 and 1889 he managed to overlook the fact that his wife and Parnell had three children together and that the Irish leader even moved his horses and beloved scientific equipment into the establishment he kept with Katharine.

It was only when the aged aunt died and left her money to her niece in such a way the he couldn’t touch a penny of it that O’Shea ‘discovered’ – to his utter shock and horror – that Katharine had been carrying on behind his back. Who knew? Well actually half of London knew but we’ll let that go. He sued for divorce on Christmas Eve 1889.

As we know Parnell’s career was destroyed by the divorce case, though he was able to marry Katharine a few weeks before he died unexpectedly in October 1891.

O’Shea lingered on for another fourteen years. His funeral in 1905 was attended by two people, one of whom was his son. He died one hundred and eleven years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – Drivetime – 15.1.1825 Suicide of banker Thomas Newcomen

 

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In case you thought Irish banking failures and inquiries were peculiar to the 21st century – think again. As Woody Guthrie pithily put it …

 

Some men rob you with a gun

And some with a fountain pen

 

… and the Irish banker has been ruining himself and his customers as well as cleverly socializing his losses since the early 1800s.

 

Let’s look at a few of the most spectacular Irish banking collapses of the 19th century. Most of them involve politicians as well. Strange that.

 

For example, there was the scandal of the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank in 1856. It was run by the Irish Liberal MP for Carlow John Sadlier, and his brother James, MP for Tipperary. When it ran out of money John Sadlier took the easy way out and committed suicide on Hampstead Heath, leaving James to face the music. This he did for a while before he absconded. He ended his days in Switzerland, the natural home of the dodgy banker. Investigations revealed that the reason for the collapse of the bank was that John Sadlier had been embezzling on an outrageous scale. Before he shuffled off his mortal coil he’d removed nearly £300,000 from the vaults. The whole episode is said to have provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration to create the dubious financier Mr. Merdle in Little Dorritt. The book was being serialized when the scandal erupted.

 

Fast forward to 1869 and yet another example of Ireland’s capacity to forgive a scoundrel. In this instance it was another MP, James McNeale McKenna who, in the 1850s and 60’s was Chairman and MD of the National Bank of Ireland – so he combined in one person the roles later held by Sean Fitzpatrick and David Drumm in Anglo Irish Bank. Either Seanie and David were total slackers or James Mac Mac was an absolute hive of fiduciary energy.

 

He successfully ran the bank into the ground on foot of a number of unwise investments in pursuit of growth and greater market share. Aren’t we fortunate that our bankers shrugged off that bad habit a century and a half later. By the time he resigned, accused of cronyism and paying himself too much – other habits utterly alien to the modern equivalent – the National Bank of Ireland had debts of almost £400,000. Miraculously it survived. McKenna, MP for Youghal, lost his seat, but much later re-invented himself as a Parnellite and was re-elected in South Monaghan This bears out the suspicion that if Parnell had nominated a pile of pigeon droppings for a nationalist constituency they would have won the seat with a thumping majority.

 

Another flawed banker, however, was not so lucky where the Uncrowned King of Ireland was concerned. William Shaw, briefly, held the leadership of the Irish party after Isaac Butt died. But then in 1880 he got the bum’s rush when Parnell stood against him. Interestingly Shaw was supported in the leadership vote by one James McNeale McKenna. These banker/politicians stick together. Shaw, was also founder and Chairman of the Munster Bank. In 1884 he resigned, having received loans to the value of £80,000 – twice the exposure of the rest of the directors combined. Again, we are fortunate that this practice was completely stamped out before the 20th century. The bank didn’t outlive his Chairmanship long. It went bust the following year.

 

Finally we quickly rewind to the 1820s and Thomas Newcomen, a Viscount and, surprise surprise, a politician. He inherited the Newcomen bank, voted for the Act of Union in 1800, spent much time in his bank’s fine new headquarters – now the rates office beside Dublin Castle – and proceeded to drive the family business into the ground, taking many depositors with him. Newcomen was described as a reclusive Scrooge-like figure who ‘it was widely whispered, gloated over ingots of treasure with no lamp to guide him but the luminous diamonds which had been left for safe–keeping in his hands.’

 

Thomas Newcomen, driven to distraction by the collapse of his family bank, took his own life 190 years ago, on this day.

 

 

On This Day – Drivetime – 30 January 1846 – Birth of Katharine O’Shea (Parnell)

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To this day she is known as Kitty, though her friends, family and London society in the late 19th century knew her as Katharine, or Kate. Although the name is innocuous today during the Victorian era it was meant to sting – in those times ‘kitty’ was a euphemism for a prostitute.

She is at the heart of one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Irish history, as in ‘what if Katharine O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell had never met?’

But they did. She was the wife, probably estranged, of one of the great Irish chancers of Victorian London, Captain William Henry O’Shea, once a dashing Hussar but more familiar today as a talentless political opportunist. Had O’Shea not been a failed banker he might well have found other ways in which to discommode his native country. As it was it was his failure as a politician that was to have more serious ramifications than his inadequacies as a financier.

In 1880 O’Shea was a rookie Irish MP, Parnell was the new leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. O’Shea had an attractive wife and he obliged her to make herself useful in the advancement of his political ambitions. She was instructed to invite Parnell to a number of political soirees she organized on her husband’s behalf, or, more likely to keep the dodgy O’Shea at a disrtance. He pronounced his name O’Shee by the way, presumably to distinguish him from his common or garden countrymen of the same name. Parnell, however, was not one for the banality of opening invitations, or indeed letters in general, so to press her invitations she went in person. That, according to her own account, was when they fell in love. Parnell didn’t leave any account. He was as good at writing letters as he was at opening them.

The relationship blossomed rapidly and soon, they were, in effect, man and wife. She became his ‘Queenie’, he became her ‘King’. O’Shea rarely darkened the door of his wife’s boudoir but found out about their trysts rather quickly. He challenged Parnell to a duel but when, to his surprise, the Irish party leader accepted the challenge, the former Hussar backed down. He contented himself thereafter with squeezing every drop of political nectar he could from his wife’s lover and partner.

He looked away as the couple had three children together. His incentive, in addition to political advancement, was a hefty share in a large sum of money his estranged wife stood to inherit from an aged aunt. When the elderly lady finally passed on, and he was neatly cut out of the inheritance, he stopped looking away. He sued for divorce, no doubt full of the festive spirit, on Christmas Eve 1889.

The resulting court proceedings destroyed Parnell’s career. In the middle of a year of huge controversy in 1891 he only made things worse for himself politically when he married Katharine after the divorce was finalized. Humiliated by a series of futile and debilitating by-election campaigns an exhausted Parnell died in their house in Brighton in October, a month the highly superstitious Parnell always considered ill-starred.

Katharine Parnell, as she now was, then did a great service to a country she had never visited and much of whose population considered her to be a scarlet woman or an English spy who had destroyed their leader. In an act of generosity she waived her right to have Parnell buried in a south of England graveyard where she could join him when her own life ended. Instead she allowed him to be returned to Ireland and interred in Glasnevin cemetery in perhaps the biggest funeral the country had ever seen.

Katharine O’Shea, or Katharine Parnell as she chose to be called, was born five months before her second husband, Charles Stewart Parnell, 169 years ago, on this day.

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On This Day-Drivetime – 27.6.1846 – Charles Stewart Parnell, is born


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No one could have predicted that the hesitant, almost inarticulate candidate for the Irish parliamentary party in the by-election in Dublin in 1874 would go on to be proclaimed as the Uncrowned King of Ireland and then brought to earth by the same people who had deified him in the first place.

For most of the first thirty years of his life Charles Stewart Parnell was a member of the family who were the benevolent landlords of Avondale in Co.Wicklow – an estate of 4000 acres that produced a modest income by the standards of the late 19th century. Parnell did what most of the members of his class did. He rode to hounds in the winter and played cricket in the summer – he was a decent batsman and wicketkeeper.

Then, suddenly, at the age of 28, he offered himself to the Irish parliamentary party, then led by Isaac Butt, as a candidate for the vacant seat in County Dublin. As he could afford to pay for his own campaign and didn’t have to worry about loss of earnings should he win the seat – ordinary MPs were not paid until the early 20th century – he got the nod from the party bosses. They quickly regretted their decision. The young Charles Stewart Parnell was a dreadful candidate. He could hardly put two words together and was so nervous as a public speaker that he could do little more than stammer on the hustings. The electorate was unimpressed and he was easily defeated.

He was given a second chance and did better the following year winning a by-election in Meath. For two years Parnell kept his own counsel in the House of Commons. He watched and waited. Then, in a move apparently out of character with his social status, he threw in his lot with a group of converted Fenians and blocked much House of Commons business by filibustering – making long speeches on very little indeed – much to the annoyance of the British MPs and most of the Irish ones as well.

Parnell would go on to lead his party, deliver some significant land reform, and significantly advance the cause of Home Rule before his involvement in the divorce of Katharine O’Shea brought him crashing to earth. She was, by the way, only called ‘Kitty’ by her adversaries, the name was a term of abuse reserved for Victorian prostitutes.

Parnell, though briefly beloved of the nationalist Irish, was not held in such high esteem by many of his party colleagues. He was seen as aloof, arrogant, and often lazy. Unlike, for example, other Victorian politicians, who were enthusiastic correspondents, Parnell would not have been good on email. He treated the reams of correspondence that arrived for him on a daily basis with utter contempt. He rarely opened a letter, leaving that to others to do on his behalf. He was very superstitious, with a particular aversion for the month of October. Naturally, that was the month, in 1891, in which he died at the age of 45. Bizarrely, for someone who led the Irish constitutional nationalist movement for a momentous decade, he also loathed and feared the colour green.

Charles Stewart Parnell, politician, Uncrowned King and chromophobe, was born 168 years ago, on this day.

 

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Russell v Pigott – Times Commission, 1889 – On this day – 10 November, 1832 the birth of Russell

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

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

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

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

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

It was only after reducing Pigott to a gibbering wreck and catching him out in his elaborate system of lies, that Russell returned to the mysterious paper. After a few more barbed questions he pointed out that in one of the letters retained by the Times the word hesitancy had been misspelt. The erroneous spelling, he demonstrated, was precisely that chosen by Pigott the previous day when asked to do so by Parnell’s counsel. Pigott went a couple of stages beyond gibbering wreck and no one in the court had any doubt but that he had forged all the letters upon which the Times depended to make its case.

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

Charles Russell, inquisitor extraordinare and nemesis of the hapless Richard Pigott was born 181 years ago on this day.