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 – Drivetime – 13.3.1856 Birth of P.W.Nally

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In September 2003 the redevelopment of Croke Park led to the demolition of the old Nally Stand and the creation of the Nally Terrace, adjacent to Hill 16. While people would be well aware that the stadium’s Hogan stand was called after the best known victim of the Black and Tans’ unwelcome visit to Croke Park in November 1920 on Bloody Sunday, and that the Cusack Stand was named in honour of one of the GAA founders, how many people would know the story behind the man for whom the old Nally Stand was dedicated in 1952?

Patrick W.Nally, as you might expect, was one of the motive forces behind the creation of the GAA in 1884, though for reasons that will become clear, he was not present at the pivotal meeting in Thurles that established the new body. He was, himself, a well-known athlete who began discussions with Michael Cusack in the 1870s about forming an organisation devoted to the promotion of Gaelic Games.

However, his motives were not entirely sporting in nature. Nally was, at the time, a member of the Supreme Council of the revolutionary nationalist organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood which he had joined in his early twenties. He managed to keep his republican activities – his job was to import firearms into Connaught – secret from the local Mayo RIC by condemning agrarian outrages. This was, somewhat surprisingly, perfectly consistent with IRB policy. So much so that when he applied for a gun licence the local RIC Inspector advised his superiors that it was safe to grant the request, asserting that Nally ‘would lead a useful and loyal life’. Indeed he did, but not quite in the way the senior policeman anticipated.

With the Land War raging in 1880, Nally’s IRB activities came to the attention of spymasters in Dublin Castle and London. To avoid arrest he left the country for two years, returning in 1882. He was arrested on conspiracy to murder charges the following year – this was a favoured Dublin Castle ploy for jailing people it didn’t much approve of. He was implicated by an informer, another common procedure at the time. Nally was convicted, and sentenced to ten years penal servitude.

Half way through his sentence his father, W.R.Nally, sought assistance from an apparently unlikely source, Captain William O’Shea, husband of Katharine and later Parnell’s nemesis. However, O’Shea, though a conservative nationalist and a bona fide charlatan was a political opportunist with a history of murky associations with the IRB. O’Shea’s self-serving efforts to secure Nally’s early release came to nothing.

Nally did not, in the end, actually serve his full term. But that was only because he died, aged 36, in Mountjoy Prison, days before he was due to be released in November 1891. Efforts had been made by Dublin Castle, with a promise of clemency and other rewards, to get him to implicate Charles Stewart Parnell in the organisation and encouragement of agrarian crime at a Special Commission of Inquiry tasked with investigating such allegations. He is said to have responded to these blandishments “not all the gold or honours that the Queen could bestow would induce Patrick Nally to become a traitor.”

The official cause of Nally’s death was typhoid fever – some, however, suspected foul play. A Dublin coroner’s jury held that his ‘naturally strong constitution’ had been broken by ‘the harsh and cruel treatment to which he was subjected … for refusing to give evidence … at the Special Commission.’

He was pre-deceased by four weeks by the man he had refused to betray to secure his release. At his funeral the same green flag was draped over Nally’s coffin as had enveloped that of Parnell himself a month before.

Patrick W.Nally, revolutionary nationalist and sportsman, was born 159 years ago, on this day.

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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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