SARSFIELD’S RIDE

In 1649, Cromwell’s Puritan army overpowered all resistance in Ireland. He introduced the Cromwellian Settlement, by which all land belonging to Irish Catholics were forfeit to pay the debts incurred by the war. The land was sold to loyal Englishmen, and the Irish land owners were told to relocate or dies – To Hell or to Connaught – the most agriculturally poor province in Ireland. Over 40,000 Irish were relocated beyond the Shannon by the end of 1654. Those who didn’t were hunted down and press-ganged into the British Navy, or sold as slaves to Barbados. There was one group however, who refused to relocate. They eluded capture in the hills and glens near their ancestral homes, and raided the new settlers on the lands of their clans. They led an outlaw existence, and were called Rapparees after the half-pike, which was known in Irish as rapaire, that they carried as weapons. They were a concern to the English for many years.

The new owners of the land refused to stoop to menial labor, so some native Irish east of the Shannon were allowed to provide services as tenant farmers and laborers, but the Rapparees continued to strike from hiding. By the time Parliament invited William of Orange to usurp the throne of King James II, there were many Rapparees in Ireland. When James promised religious freedom to those who would support him in defending his crown, many Rapparee riders joined him. After William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne however, James fled to France leaving his Irish supporters in the field. Patrick Sarsfield eventually took command of the remnants of the Irish forces and withdrew to defend the only remaining Gaelic land in Ireland – the portion to which the Irish had been forced by Cromwell 36 years earlier; in hot pursuit was William’s vastly superior army. Sarsfield decided to make a stand at the walled city of Limerick, but he needed help, and he turned to the local Rapparees of which there were at least 5 different bands controlling the glens and mountains around Limerick, but the Rapparee rider who was to ride into history with Sarsfield was Michael “galloping” Hogan, who controlled the mountains of Tipperary and Clare, southwest of Nenagh.

King William’s forces reached Limerick ahead of his artillery. His demand for surrender was refused, and an assault on the town was repelled. He bellowed for his artillery which, he was informed, was on its way from Cashel. Hogan’s riders, who had been scouting the siege train, said it was the biggest collection of artillery ever seen in Ireland – 153 wagons drawn by 400 horses. Hogan proposed a daring plan. He would lead Sarsfield and a detachment of 500 men out of Limerick under cover of night, travel north along the Clare side of the Shannon to a point where men could cross with ease, and attack William’s siege train from the rear. Sarsfield agreed, and Hogan led the detachment to a point just north of Killaloe where the Shannon was narrow and shallow. They crossed and began south toward Ballyneety, where the Siege train was camped for the night, using the Silvermines Mountains as cover. Their route covered 90 miles through mountain glens, with burlap covering the horses’ hooves to silence their approach. At dusk the siege train halted a few hundred yards from Ballyneety Castle, in the parish of Templebraden, 12 miles south-east of the city. The Williamite soldiers settled in for the night, sentries were posted, a password arranged, and in a short while all was quiet. It was then Sarsfield decided to strike. His men, in darkness, stole down from the hills. In the area, Hogan met an old woman he knew; she had been selling apples in the Williamite camp and had learnt the password. Ironically it was Sarsfield.

Around midnight on 11 August 1691, Sarsfield approached a sentry who challenged: Who goes there? Sarsfield, his horse rearing, answered: Sarsfield is the word, and Sarsfield is the man. The sentry was dead before he hit the ground. In a flash the Irish swarmed into the camp, and dispatched and scattered the enemy. The siege train contained six twenty-four-pounder cannon; two eighteen-pounders; eight brass ordinances of eighteen inches; 800 balls; 120 barrels of powder; 1,600 barrels of match; 500 hand grenades and numerous other munitions. Sarsfield ordered the guns into a circle, muzzles inward. They were filled with gunpowder and the muzzles driven into the ground. The remaining shells, powder and supplies were put in the middle of the circle, and a powder trail laid to the edge of the woods. The troops were ordered into the wood, and Hogan was given the honor of putting a match to the powder. The resulting explosion shook the earth with the loudest man-made sound ever heard in Ireland, and lit up the sky with a flash that was seen from the walls of Limerick City. There was quiet for several seconds and then came a different, crumbling sound. The walls of nearby Ballyneety Castle were so shaken by the explosion that they came crashing down.The destruction of the siege train was a severe blow to William, but six cannon were salvaged, and others were brought up from Waterford. With these, William began a fresh assault on Limerick in mid-August. For days the guns kept up a constant bombardment and a breech was made in the walls near St John’s gate. The Williamites stormed in and a murderous struggle went on for several hours. Men and women joined the Jacobite soldiers in the defence of the city. Finally, after suffering severe casualties, William withdrew his men. The weather broke and heavy rains caused much damage to his army, and a plague broke out. When his ammunition began to run short William decided to raise the siege. William realized that he could not take Limerick, so he offered terms to the Irish. Those who had fought in James’s army would have to leave Ireland, but their families who remained would get their lands back, and the free practice of their religion. The terms were accepted, and the treaty of Limerick was signed on October 3, 1691. True to its terms, 14,000 Irish left Ireland, and among them Sarsfield and the Galloping Hogan. The Flight of the Wild Geese had begun. They would distinguish themselves in the Irish Brigades of foreign armies, but they never saw Ireland again. As for those left behind, they never saw the promises of the Treaty fulfilled. In 1693, the Papacy changed its policy and supported James against William, and William’s policy moved from a degree of toleration for Catholics to greater hostility. In 1703, when the threat of Irish retribution was gone, the Popery Act was passed which denied Irish Catholics the right to own land and introduced the Penal Laws.

Today, many memorials exist to that time in Irish history; the most notable of which is the road along both sides of the Shannon from Limerick to Killaloe. It is called Sarsfield’s Ride, but there are many who think it should be called the Hogan Highway, after that superb horseman and early guerilla fighter – the Galloping Hogan.

From Dublin Drunk to Servant of God

In June the world celebrates Bloomsday, a day in the life of James Joyce’s fictional character – Leopold Bloom, as he walks the back streets of Dublin. Some seem to know why, but most do it for the craic (merriment) – an exercise in self indulgence. Incredible as it may seem, in 1856, a man was born into those very same dirty Dublin streets who deserves more to be honored and revered than all the characters in Joyce’s book; more than even Joyce himself. His name was Matthew Talbot. One of 12 children he was reared in absolute poverty in north central Dublin at a time when there were no social services, and even water was fetched from public horse troughs. Semi-educated by the Christian Brothers who put him in a class for poor boys not likely to attend school for long, they were right for his schooling ended as soon as he found a job.   A 12-year-old illiterate is lucky to find work at all, but young Matt took a job as a messenger for a wine and beer bottling company. He soon learned it was easy to help himself to a drink whenever he wanted, and by age 13, Matthew Talbot was a confirmed alcoholic!

He earned a reputation as a hard worker, and for the next 15 years went from dock worker to brick layer and through it all he never stopped drinking. Alcohol claimed most of his wages, and he resorted to stealing and pawning to support his addiction. Then in 1884, Matt stayed away from work for an entire week, drinking heavily. Penniless and in debt to the local Pubs, he waited for his friends after work; surely they would buy him a drink as he had bought them many times before.   But they didn’t want to know him.   He found himself physically, mentally, and spiritually bankrupt. He went home sober for the first time in years. He reflected on his life and concluded that it was out of control because of drink. He remembered his early religious teaching and a Pledge of Sobriety offered by the Temperance preacher, Father Theobold Matthew, some years before; he decided to attempt it for three months to regain control of his life. It was a battle he was not ready for. The terrifying withdrawal symptoms of Alcoholism were not understood in those days, and Matt battled nausea, hallucination, and depression. Lost for a place to spend his non-working hours, he turned to the Church. It was the beginning of an intimacy that would last his entire life. He attended daily Mass and communion before work. When his parish changed its first Mass from 5 A.M. to 6:30, he quit his job and got a new one so that he could still start his day with a Mass. With great effort, he completed three months of sobriety. He immediately renewed the pledge for six more months, and then renewed it for life.

His willingness to work hard, assured him of work when there wasn’t much around. His spare time was spent in church or religious reading. The heavy drinking of his father and brothers showed him a side of drink he had never seen, and he left home to live alone in a one-room flat. When work and church were done for the day, Matt would retire to his room to read and pray. His sister Susan recalled that in his free time he was never off his knees. Though privately he was a very serious and penitent person, at work he was pleasant and outgoing. Co-workers remember him as a conscientious, strong, yet gentle man who smiled at everything except a dirty joke.

His work habits earned him above-average wages, which he gave away to his poor neighbors and to charities as far away as Father Drumgoole’s Catholic Orphanage in New York. He kept only 50 pence a week for his needs were few. As history was being recorded around him, Matt Talbot prayed for his fellow man. During the violent Tramworkers Strike of 1913, he shared his wages with the families of the men on strike, and during the Easter Rising of 1916, he made his way through the bombs, bullets and barricades to attend daily Mass.

In 1920, at age 67, he was hospitalized with a heart condition. Placed on light work through the intercession of friends, he continued to work, sharing his wages until June 7, 1925. While on his way to Mass, Matt Talbot suffered a massive heart attack and died on a Dublin street. At the hospital, while undressing his body, attendants found a heavy chain wrapped around his waist, another around his arm, and yet another around his leg; he had worn them beneath his clothes as a constant reminder that he was a slave to Jesus and Mary. This remarkable discovery prompted an inquiry which disclosed his secret life of devotion, penance, and charity. His room contained no more than the bare necessities of a monastic cell – an iron bed, a slab of wood for a mattress and pillow, covered with a half-blanket, a chair, a table and a crucifix. His meals consisted of dry bread and cold tea or cocoa taken three times a day, with some cold fish added for dinner; he spent his leisure time in prayer and study. Had he died at home, he probably would have remained unknown. Instead, the one-time hard-drinking Dublin dock walloper became an inspiration to those who think they can’t make it alone or are too weak to turn their backs on earthly pleasures.

Today, there is a Matt Talbot Movement, under the direction of the Redemptorists, which consists of more than 160 retreat groups of more than 144,000 people in Ireland, America, and Canada. And the source of that inspiration is Matt Talbot, a Dublin drunk who grew up in Leopold Bloom’s Dublin and was declared Venerable by his Church in 1973 because he saw God’s way of life instead of the self indulgent way.

A Trio of Circumstances

The year was 1741, and a trio of circumstances unfolded to bring a masterpiece into existence in Ireland.  It was a time when an artist’s survival depended on the generosity of patrons, and for 40 years one particular musician, named George, enjoyed the favors of many high placed patrons as he composed classical music for the aristocracy of Europe.  Then George suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed and unable to write.  The fickle Court society spurned the former master, and he was all but forgotten.

But George was not a quitter; he went to health baths and gradually regained his strength.  In a surge of inspiration, he composed four operas, which once more won him favor in Court circles, as England’s Queen Caroline became his patroness.  But just as his star was on the rise again, tragedy struck.  The untimely death of Queen Caroline in 1737, coupled with a severe winter which kept people from the theater, left George deeply in debt.  At the age of 60, he was a broken and lonely man living in a dingy London flat.

The first in a trio of fortunate circumstances occurred one night, when a bulky packet was delivered to his shabby dwelling.  It contained a letter from an obscure poet named Charles Jennens relating that he had been inspired by God to write the enclosed manuscript.  He begged George to put it to music. George was outraged at the affront.  His talent and energies were not to be wasted on religious hymns, but to be expended on high opera that would return him to his former prominence, and who did this second‑rate poet think he was kidding with his “inspired by God” nonsense.

About to throw the manuscript away, the second circumstance occurred as George decided to leaf through the pages, and a passage caught his eye.  “Despised and rejected of men; he trusted in God, and God did not leave his soul in hell.”  The words held meaning for George in his own despair.  As he read on, wonderful melodies began to come to his mind; he grabbed for his pen and paper, and began writing.

In a fit of inspiration, he labored frantically for 24 days, with barely a few moments of sleep and a few morsels of food.  When it was finally completed, he lay exhausted on his bed.  He knew that he had composed his greatest work, but without patrons he could not afford to promote it.  Since London society no longer accepted him, George was in need of a third fortunate circumstance.

It came as George remembered an old invitation from the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, to conduct one of his works in Ireland, with an Irish Choir.  George inquired if the invitation still stood.  It did.  The date was set, and George was so delighted at this opportunity to snub the Royal Court that he agreed to donate the proceeds to charity.

In Dublin, George merged two choirs and rehearsed his new work.  Newspaper critics, who were allowed to view the dress rehearsal, called it the “finest composition of music ever heard.”  It was dubbed impressive and inspired, and the demand for tickets was intense.  Gentlemen in attendance were asked not to wear swords, and ladies not to wear hoops so that more could be fit into the hall.

Then, on April 13, 1742, a record audience crowded Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street, Dublin as hundreds of less affluent citizens stood by the open windows of the theater to hear the new masterpiece which was to debut in Ireland.  At Noon, the anxious audience watched as George Frederick Handel appeared, and personally conducted, for the first time anywhere, the score of MESSIAH, recognized today as the greatest sacred oratorio ever written, and a standard of our musical canon at both Christmas and Easter.

You will undoubtedly hear the Hallelujah chorus, one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, this Easter.  If you don’t, go to Youtube.com and look for the Hallelujah Chorus of Messiah and imagine yourself crowded into a Dublin theater.

 

 

March Memories

March 17 is a special day on our calendar because it marks the return to God of our beloved patron saint in the year 461 AD.  It was in that year that a humble missionary, destined to become the most prominent of all our Saints, passed to his eternal reward.  Today he is revered around the world as Saint Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, the Archdiocese of New York, the nation of Guiana, and hundreds of towns and parishes across the globe.  It is a source of pride to see international landmarks bathed in green light such as Niagara Falls the Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pizza, the Empire State Buildings and other world famous historic icons in recognition of the Irish.  There are many other events which occurred on this day throughout history which should make it memorable; for example on March 17:

in 1963, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified

in 1900, the Montreal Shamrocks won the Stanley Cup

in 1899, An Claideamh Soluis (The Sword of Light), the official newspaper of the Gaelic League first appeared;

in 1897, Bob Fitzsimmons beat Gentleman Jim Corbett for the Heavyweight championship

in 1889, Harry Clarke, the most celebrated stained glass artist of the age, was born in Dublin;

in 1877, Irish patriot and 1916 martyr Micheal O’Hanrahan was born

in 1871, the first professional baseball league – the National Association of Professional Baseball Players – was founded at Collin’s Saloon on Broadway and 13th St in New York;

in 1858, in a Dublin back room, James Stevens and Thomas Luby founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which led the growth of Fenianism in America;

in 1852, novelist Rev Patrick Augustus Sheehan was born in Mallow, Co Cork;

in 1804, Jim Bridger, American scout, fur trader, and mountain man, was born;

in 1776, the British evacuated Boston leaving the city to the American patriot army. General George Washington made the password of the day “Saint Patrick”;

in 1766, a Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner in New York invited local Irish regiments to attend and they marched in military manner to the banquet with fifes and drums and all, and a parading tradition was born.  Twenty toasts were offered that evening, the nineteenth of which declared “may the enemies of Ireland be tormented with itching, without the benefit of scratching“;

in 1762, before the United States was even established, the first St Patrick’s Day celebration was held in New York City at a dinner hosted by John Marshall near St Peter’s Church in New York City;

in 1737, the first St Patrick’s celebration in America was a dinner sponsored by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston;

in 1014, High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, marched from Kincora, his stronghold at Killaloe, Co Clare, bound for Clontarf, and the battle that would break Viking power in Ireland;

Despite the many memorable events that have taken place on this special day, the entire world pays attention to only one.  With the possible exception of Christmas and New Year’s there is no other feast so universally celebrated.  Regardless of the demeaning antics of some amadons, the recognition afforded our heritage in March is enough to make us walk a bit taller on that day and to respect our patron saint even more.  It is up to us to polish, not tarnish, that image.  Beannacht na feile Padraic duit.

America’s First Superstar

February is the month of Saint Brigid, but it is also the month in which Victor Herbert was born.  The  grandson of Irish composer, painter, and novelist Samuel Lover, he first saw the light of a Dublin day on February 1, 1859.  Young Victor spent much of his childhood at the home of his famous grandfather who influenced him greatly.  After his father died, Lover suggested that his widowed daughter send her son to Germany for an education.  His musical education began as a piccolo player, but he soon took up the cello in which he made rapid progress, playing in orchestras conducted by Liszt, Brahms, and other greats.  He became first cellist of the Stuttgart Court Opera, and engaged to marry Theresa Foerster, its leading soprano.  In 1886, a representative of the New York Metropolitan Opera came to Stuttgart in search of talent.  He offered a contract to Ms Foerster, and she insisted that her fiancé also be hired.  So it was that Victor Herbert came to America.

Victor  made quite an impression on New York Society, conducting concert performances and directing and playing in an excellent string quartet.  Although the darling of the elite, he always had an Irishman’s love for the music of the people.  In 1893, that love led him to be appointed leader of the famous 22nd Regiment Band of New York, which had been founded by another Irish musical great, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, author of When Johnny Comes Marching Home.  Herbert later became conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and while in this position, began composing light operettas and musical comedies.  His first operetta Prince Ananias was published in 1894 and it showed enough promise to bring him a commission which resulted in The Wizard of the Nile In 1895, still a newcomer, he ventured into musical comedy composing a song called My Angeline.   In 1896, he produced The Gold Bug and by 1897, when he came out with The Serenade and The Idol’s Eye.  A tradition had now been established and a new standard of light opera was created in America by an individual whose love for music led him to apply his incredible talent toward bringing more refined music to the common people.

Before Victor Herbert, popular music was either ragtime, vaudeville parodies or folk music.  He became the first to write pop music.  Sigmund Spaeth in his work A History of Popular Music in America, wrote, Victor Herbert was actually the first highly-trained musician to take an active part in the creation of popular music.  He was in fact the best trained, for his predecessors in this country had been mostly instinctive, often unable to play an instrument, and totally lacking in the ordinary technique of composition. Even Stephen Foster, who was another true (Irish-American) genius, could only work by ear.   Herbert had the double advantage of Irish birth and German training.

From a composing standpoint, Herbert debuted his Irish Rhapsody on April 20, 1892 at the annual Feis Ceoil of the Gaelic Society.  Upon hearing this piece, J.G. Huneker referred to Herbert as the “Irish Wagner.”  In 1897, Victor showed his skill as a composer of light orchestral works in Badinage which is still a standard.  His music to The Fortune Teller belongs to the serious, as well as the popular list of 1898.  The familiar Gypsy Love Song, as its top hit, has a refrain which was called a lullaby of real individuality and musical distinction.  In 1899, he wrote The Singing Girl, Cyrano deBergerac, and The Ameer.   By the end of the century, his name was on everyone’s lips for bringing music to the masses.  In 1900 he produced The Viceroy and in 1903 Babette, and the one for which he would be forever known, the incredibly popular and enduring Babes in Toyland.  Hollywood even benefitted when his greatest success Naughty Marietta, which he wrote in 1910, was later turned into a vehicle for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Victor Herbert was as American as they come, but he was also an Irishman, and a dedicated patriot.  He joined the Friends of Irish Freedom, the Gaelic Society, Cumann na Gaeilge, and founded the Irish Musical Society with Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th as well as the Glee Club of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.  His first opera Natoma debuted on Feb 25, 1911 in Philadelphia and at the Metropolitan Opera on Feburary 28, 1911 starring a new Irish tenor, John McCormack in his opera debut.  In 1917, he realized his long-standing intention to compose an Irish operetta, Eileen.

Victor Herbert contributed to American popular music until his death on March 27, 1924.  He left a great void, but it was filled with new composers for whom he had opened the way.  Men like Cohan, Hammerstein, Rogers & Hart, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and a whole street known as Tin Pan Alley benefitted from his genius.  He also founded ASCAP – the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers – and won the historic decision of Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes that a composer’s creation could not be played without his permission.  Herbert was working on some music for the Ziegfeld follies on May 26, 1924 when he suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. America had lost an adopted son, one of the worlds most respected composers and who at least one contemporary author called, the king of America’s music. After his death sculptor Edward T. Quinn produced a magnificent bronze bust of Herbert which was placed on a stone pedestal in New York’s Central Park Mall.  Herbert was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and lies in a grand mausoleum there. His life story was memorialized in the 1939 movie, The Great Victor Herbert and the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in 1940 with his image honoring him. The musical legacy of Victor Herbert goes beyond that of many composers, in fact he was America’s First Superstar.  His contribution to the development of the American comic opera or operetta can be considered his greatest accomplishment. The establishment of ASCAP and the effect he had on ensuring that laws were in place is undeniably his greatest legacy.

There have been many compositions, songs, and merry evenings between then and now in the halls of the Friendly Sons, and the Glee Club is still singing and  maintaining the high standard of excellence set by the great Victor Herbert – a true son of Ireland, and a loyal adopted son of this republic.  Perhaps his most enduring legacy came after joining the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1908.  The Friendly Sons had been organized just after the American Revolution to assist  homeless and penniless fellow Irishmen returning to post-war New York.   By 1911, he was second Vice President of the Friendly Sons, and in 1915, its President.  One of the first things he did upon becoming a member was to form a Glee Club with the assistance of then President Joseph Clarke in 1913.  Since that time, the Glee Club of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick have gone from strength to strength, and have become renowned for their lyrical achievement.  With Victor Herbert composing for them as well as directing them, they couldn’t fail.  He and Clarke composed the now-famous Hail of the Friendly Sons – a tune the Glee Club has taken to many prestigious venues across the United States and Ireland.

The Battle of Kinsale

If any one battle in Ireland’s search for independence was pivotal in nature, it was the Battle of Kinsale that ended the Nine Years War of the Three Hughes against the Crown.  The battle took place in January, 1602 and through tactical blunders, it put an end to Ireland’s hereditary Gaelic clan system.  On a larger scale it was part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585 -1604) of Protestant England against Catholic Spain.

Beginning in 1594, England’s colonial ambitions in Ireland suffered significant resistance from three Ulster war chieftains: Hugh O’Donnell, Hugh Maguire and Hugh O’Neill.  It was a war of fort and forest against England’s attempt to establish frontier strongholds and Gaelic rule.  The Irish used hit and run guerrilla tactics of ambush and harassment followed by withdrawal into the widespread forests.  English armies seeking to relieve or supply forward garrisons suffered constant casualties.  At the battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598, the English suffered their greatest defeat on Irish soil in which the commanding officer was killed along with over 20 officers and several hundred men.  British forces were further reduced by desertion and disease arising from the wet climate and poor nutrition. When the Earl of Essex arrived in Ireland in 1599 at the head of 12,000 troops, he made a truce with O’Neill and his army melted away without fighting a single battle.  What had started as a rebellion of Ulster Chieftains seeking to defend their ancient rights, attracted support from discontented Chiefs and Lords across Ireland.  Elizabeth was not in danger of losing Ireland; she had lost it and would spend a fortune to recapture it.  She found the ferocious leader she sought to command her forces in Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, and appointed him Lord Deputy of Ireland with unlimited resources to bring the Irish to heel.

A policy of favors for those who aided the English and the construction of forts behind Irish positions increased pressure on the Ulster Chieftains and stopped their advance.  O’Neill understood that while his troops excelled in hit-and-run tactics, they would be defeated in a formal battle and the new forts limited his ability to use best tactics.  With suitable inducements, rival Irish chieftains began to return allegiance to the Crown.  O’Neill sought  military aid from Spain and it was offered in the expectation that the Irish would draw English support away from the Netherlands, which were rebelling against Spanish rule at the time.  Spain sent Don Juan del Aguila to Ireland with 6,000 men, arms and ammunition.  Bad weather separated the ships and nine of them, carrying the majority of veteran soldiers and gunpowder, had to turn back. The remaining 4000 men disembarked at Kinsale, just south of Cork on 2 October 1601 and rushed to fortify the town to withstand the approaching English armies.  However, they failed to occupy the surrounding area and were vulnerable to a siege by English forces.  Further, they had landed too little, too late in an area where O’Neill did not have much support.

Lord Mountjoy rushed to Kinsale with as many men as he could take and laid siege to the town.  Reinforcements brought his army’s strength to 12,000 and the British Navy bombarded Kinsale from the sea.  The Gaelic Chieftains considered their positions.  The Spanish had landed far away from the areas under their control and in order to aid them, O’Neill would have to lead their troops into regions where support for their cause was doubtful.  As autumn turned into a  wet and stormy winter, the besieged Spanish began to suffer privation and O’Neill’s hand was forced.  He could abandon the Spanish and write off any further help or march 300 miles through enemy territory to relieve them.  To their credit, the Irish marched south and managed to evade all attempts to stop them.  They arrived at Kinsale in November with 6,180 men and immediately surrounded the English forces.  O’Neill had to abandon his successful hit and run tactics and risk open confrontation.  A large force would be necessary; larger than they could afford to lose.

The battle became one of trench warfare.  Pressure was brought on O’Neill by the Spanish inside the city to attack the English forces and finally O’Neill relented.  On 24 December (English calendar), 3 January 1602 (Gregorian calendar) the Irish and Spanish attacked.  In three columns they marched toward a night attack, but they failed to reach their destination by dawn and the English were waiting for them.  The Irish were soundly defeated.  The Spanish  gave up the town to Mountjoy, and ‘on terms’ were allowed to sail back to Spain.  Another Spanish force was sent but never landed as news of Aguila’s surrender was received and they promptly turned back to Spain.  The decision to attack was a costly one, as a continued siege of the English would probably have resulted in victory.  But the size and power of the English fleet was pivotal in this battle.  The remaining Ulster forces returned home and after two more years of fighting the last of them surrendered in 1603, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth.  O’Donnell went to Spain to seek more aid but was poisoned by an English spy named Blake.  O’Neill went to Spain accompanied by other chieftains in what became known as the Flight of the Earls.  Their intention was to raise another army, but the lands they left behind were soon divided up in the Plantation of Ulster and they were never able to return for they left behind a power vacuum that the English eagerly filled.  The result of the Battle of Kinsale was devastating to the existing Irish culture as the old Gaelic clan system was finally broken.  The years ahead contained nothing but grief for England’s first overseas colony.

Christmas In Ireland

The Christmas season in Ireland is a happy combination of modern and ancient customs that combine to bring a unique meaning to this special time of year.  While Christmas shopping, decorated trees, and Santa Claus are evident everywhere, traditional customs that signify the true meaning of this holy season still remain, especially in the towns and villages where people still celebrate the holy feast as their ancestors had for generations.

In the early times on Christmas Eve, the windows of the house were decorated with garlands of holly and ivy, with candles centered in each – often in a hollowed-out turnip for support.  This holly-encircled candle should be familiar since the Christmas Wreath we know today is a reminder of that Irish tradition which began back in 16th century, when Penal Laws outlawed the Catholic religion and clergy.  The Irish kept their faith though, and secretly met outlawed priests to celebrate Mass in the woods and mountains whenever they could.  Mass might be celebrated once a month, or even less, but one time they never missed was Christmas.  In spite of persecution, Christmas still brought hope.  An alien power may have controlled the land, but they couldn’t control the hearts of the Irish; they still had their customs, faith, and pride, and by God they would have their Mass.  One of those customs, older than the race that ruled them, originated in pre-Christian days with the ringing of doors and windows with holly and ivy.  That came from the ancient Celtic custom of ringing the openings of a dwelling with those magical leaves to ward off the evils of winter.  Since holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, they were deemed immune to the killing force of winter.  The custom carried into the Christian era as a decorative function and the Brits marveled at the hope that still burned in hearts they had tried so hard to discourage.  The source of that hope was their faith; and in each community, courageous families would risk fine and imprisonment to attend a mid-night Mass celebrated by an outlawed priest, and one especially brave family would host the celebration.  Naturally, the house to be used was kept secret until just before the Mass was to begin, at which time a lighted candle was placed in the window to signal the faithful.  Once the signal was given, candles were lit in every house window to confuse any who might try to interfere with the celebration.  To the Irish, the meaning of the candle was clear, but to the stranger, it was merely an extension of the pagan custom of holiday decoration.  The candle eventually became part of the custom, remaining long after its need as a signal disappeared.  Today’s Christmas wreath is a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who placed a candle in a holly-encircled window to send out the message “The Lord is in this house tonight”

In later years, as evening fell over the Irish hills on Christmas eve, the candles in each window were lit casting a magical glow over the hillside like scattered jewels on Erin’s cloak of evening, the largest of which were the churches dotting the landscape and  beckoning the faithful to Midnight Mass.  After Mass the people returned home and retired for the night leaving their doors slightly ajar as a symbol of hospitality insuring that no wandering couple seeking shelter would be turned away as was Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas Eve.  A cup and saucer was placed on the table in each home with home-made soda bread for the wandering souls from Purgatory who were thought to come home for Christmas.  On Christmas morning, the candles would be snuffed out, preferably by someone with the name of Mary.

On Christmas day came the Christmas meal – assorted vegetables and potatoes deliciously prepared to compliment the Christmas goose or turkey, followed by the Christmas pudding.  After dinner, the children would play games while the adults sat about the fire, reminiscing about Christmases past until it was time to cut the Christmas cake amid much excitement.  The reverent celebration of Christmas in Ireland did not conclude with the setting of the sun on Christmas day.  The season would extend for a full twelve days, and any feast that fell within that period was considered a part of the overall Christmas celebration.

Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26, is one such feast.  In early times, the children of Ireland would begin the day with a hunt for a small wren which they would kill and place in a little box. Today, a box decorated with feathers simulates the victim satisfying bird-lovers as well as saving the boys the trouble of the hunt.  These Wren Boys, as they were called, dressed in old blouses, pajamas, flour sacks, sashes and colored ribbons in as many combinations as the imagination allowed. They then set off carrying the `victim’ and a collection of musical instruments centering around the Bodhran (a one sided drum similar to a large tambourine) which is beaten with a wooden stick as they make their rounds from door to door, singing the traditional Wren Song and collecting pennies as a reward for their deed, and to `bury the wren’.  The Wren Boys were practicing a ritual that was old in Western Europe before the Christian gospel was first preached in the hills of Galilee.  Scholars suggest that it is of Celtic origin and that, with the coming of Christianity, its meaning was Christianized.  What had the little wren done to be hunted down through history?  The ancient Druidic version is that the wren was condemned to persecution by his fellow birds because, he used trickery to oust the eagle from the kingship of all birds; the story was used as a lesson to children about the virtues of honesty.  The Christian version related that the wren flew from a bush betraying the hiding place of St. Stephen who was captured and martyred as a result, which explains the custom falling on St. Stephen’s day, and why it is the duty of all good men to hunt and kill the little beast.  The tale associated with St. Stephen adds one more measure of religious significance to the season which continues until Little Christmas on January 6, when the visit of the Magi, or the three wise men, is celebrated.  Years ago in some areas of Ireland, as in many areas of Europe, it was this day, rather than Christmas, when gifts were exchanged in remembrance of the gift of the Magi.

Another Irish Christmas link exists in the Church of St Nicholas in the village of Newtown, Co. Kilkenny wherein lie the partial remains of St. Nicholas, the fourth century abbot who inspired the legend of Santa Claus.  According to tradition, centuries after his death, a band of Irish-Norman knights traveled to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades, and upon their return to Ireland, brought with them the earthly remains of St Nicholas.  They had them re-interred in the Church of Saint Nicholas which now lies in ruins.  In fact, the nearby Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey was a launching point for Irish-Norman Crusaders and the Normans were keen collectors of religious relics.  The ruined church contains an unusual grave slab dating to the 1300s, carved with an image of a cleric and two other heads. The cleric is said to be St Nicholas and the other heads are the two pious crusaders, William de Dene and William Archid, who brought his remains back to Ireland.  The Church is a place of pilgrimage every Christmas and the website www.stnicholascenter.org, confirms the story with a photo of the grave slab and a verse which notes:

Devout wayfarer, cease your search,
for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulcher is found
enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus
secure beneath these marble floors.
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call
and may Saint Nicholas bless you all.

  Many are the customs and traditions that surround Christmas in various countries but nowhere is it more beautiful or meaningful than on God’s emerald Isle where the true meaning of the season is not forgotten.  Nollaig shona dhuit, (Happy Christmas to you).

Thanksgiving

History is written by the winner, which accounts for some revised versions of past events.  Another is that some  rewrote history to support a specific agenda, quoting facts out of context, citing only those which support conclusions they’ve already reached and exaggerating, minimizing or omitting those that don’t.  Some revise history to glorify or inspire support for a cause or to cover up transgressions of their predecessors.  In recent years a number of books have exposed some revisionist history, but sadly much is still presented as fact in our school texts.  One of the most revised is how the discovery and conquest of America was slanted to portray Europeans as the natural inheritors of the earth and justify colonization.  From the war with Mexico and the massacre at Wounded Knee to the very beginning of our nation, facts have been altered.

One example of that is the holiday known as Thanksgiving, and it really didn’t have to be altered at all.  According to the popular story that surrounds it, heroic Christian pilgrims arrived in America and shared what little they had with their poor Indian neighbors in thanksgiving for their successful arrival and harvest.  The truth of the matter is that the Indians weren’t poor, and if they hadn’t shared their bounty with the pilgrims, the pilgrims might not have survived.  After all, yams, corn, and the rest were all Indian dietary staples and the turkey was an American bird.  It was Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe who taught the newcomers how to plant, grow, and harvest the strange foods they hadn’t seen before.  As for the feast, it was nothing new; it was in thanks for a bountiful harvest and harvest festivals were celebrated in many lands for many centuries before the pilgrims ever buttered their first corn on the cob.  But, who were these pilgrims and why do they get the credit for originating Thanksgiving?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines pilgrim as one who makes a journey for a religious purpose.  The religious purpose of these pilgrims was to escape persecution, for they were a group who advocated a strict discipline according to their own interpretation of the bible.  Their aim was to purify not only the church, but individual conduct.  They were tolerated for their anti-Catholic bias, but when they demanded reforms to purify the  Church of England, they were hunted out of the country!  We use the term Pilgrim to identify the group who arrived at Plymouth in 1620 on the Mayflower, and Puritans to define the larger group, led by John Winthrop, who arrived ten years to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Both groups wanted to purify the church, yet they differed among themselves about the degree of changes.  Some who stayed in England favored Presbyterianism, already strong in Scotland.  Those who came to Plymouth considered the congregation the ultimate authority while those who came to Massachusetts considered a hierarchy elected by the congregation as the ultimate authority.  Despite these minor differences they all had one thing in common: they were among the most unreasonable and bigoted groups in history.  In 1649 – less than 30 years later – the Puritans who remained in England successfully fomented a civil-war under Oliver Cromwell, beheaded King Charles, and then turned their army of zealots toward Ireland.  British Major-Gen Frank Kitson in his book, Low Intensity Operations, wrote of this army, that two of its main reasons for existing were defense of their religion and suppression of Irish Catholics.

In Ireland, the Puritan Army is remembered for its brutal indiscriminate slaughtering of defenseless civilians.  After recording that at Drogheda, for five days men, women, and children were hunted down and butchered.  Cromwell recorded that In this very place (Saint Peter’s Church) a thousand of them were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety”.  On October 2nd, 1649, he declared a national day of thanksgiving in celebration of the deed –  thanksgiving was becoming a tradition with these people.  Meanwhile, in America in 1675, the sons of the Pilgrims who dined with the Wampanoag tribe that harvest day in 1621, began an 11-year war over land grabs and defeated them.  At the same time, Ann Glover who had fled the turmoil in Ireland, took up residence in the Puritan colony in Massachusetts.  One night, Ann was overheard saying her evening prayers in her native Irish and was accused by Cotton Mather of conversing with the devil.  When it was learned that she was an Irish Catholic, she was told to denounce her religion.  She refused and was hanged as a witch.  The year was 1688 – 39 years after the thanksgiving at Drogheda, and 68 years after the Puritan’s thanksgiving in America.

Fortunately, the concept of the congregation as ultimate authority allowed the election of more moderate leaders as time progressed and most of today’s religious congregationalists are more docile.  The idea of giving thanks to God remains a fundamental duty, be it for a bountiful harvest or a blessing bestowed, but the cruel, un-compromising, witch-burning Puritans of the 1600s are hardly the example to hold up to our children as role models.

Let us instead look to America’s first official national day of Thanksgiving proclaimed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777, “as a day of solemn thanksgiving and praise” for the “signal success” of our forces at the Battle of Saratoga – a turning point in the struggle for independence.  And the turning point in that battle, by the way, was the killing of General Frazier by Irish marksman, Timothy Murphy of General Charles (Co. Meath) Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.

In 1846 annual days of Thanksgiving were being celebrated in at least 14 states when author Sarah Hale began a campaign to make the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving.  In the 1860s, she wrote to every state and territorial governor urging the idea as one of national unity in a country torn by civil war.  On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln finally declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day bringing together all the past elements of the harvest festival, national patriotism, and religious observance.

This is the real story behind Thanksgiving day and the message it should convey is one of thanks for all our blessings,  both civil and religious.  This year, instead of just food and football, let us remember give thanks to the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on our families and on this great nation . . . and forget the guys in the funny hats with buckles on their shoes!

Speranza

Speranza is an Italian word meaning ‘hope’ and it was also the pen name by a most fascinating woman.  Her name was Jane Francesca Elgee, born in Dublin on 27 December 1821.  She later married Sir William Wilde and had a special interest in Irish Fairy Tales which she compiled.  Though she was from a loyal Protestant background, she became an ardent supporter of Irish independence and wrote for the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, publishing pro-Irish and anti-British poems in The Nation newspaper under the pseudonym Speranza.   When her writings called for armed revolution in Ireland, Dublin Castle shut down the paper and brought the editor, Charles Gavan Duffy, to court.  Duffy refused to name who had written the offending article and was about to be sentenced when Lady Wilde stood up in court and boldly claimed responsibility.

Her life was not easy.  She had three children: Willie, Oscar and Isola.  Her husband was accused in a sensational court case for seducing a co-worker who also brought an action against Lady Wilde for libel when she defended him.  The case cost the Wildes £2,000.  Then their daughter, Isola, died of fever at the age of nine and in 1876 Sir William died leaving her virtually bankrupt.  Lady Wilde went to London and joined her sons, Willie, a journalist, and the author Oscar Wilde.

She lived with her eldest son in poverty, supplementing their income by writing for fashionable magazines and books based on her researches into Irish folklore.  She contracted bronchitis and died at home on 3 February 1896.  Willie, her eldest son, was penniless and Oscar paid for her burial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.  A headstone was too expensive so she was buried anonymously in common ground.  A monument, in the form of a Celtic cross, was later erected to her memory by the Oscar Wilde Society in about 1999.

Lady Wilde was a patriot who should never disappear from memory for the legacy she left in documenting the folk and fairy lore of Ireland and most especially for her brilliant poetry.  No voice that was raised in the cause of the poor and oppressed,  Martin MacDermott wrote, none that denounced political wrong-doing in Ireland was more eagerly listened to than that of the graceful and accomplished woman known in literature, as ‘‘Speranza’’ and in society as Lady Wilde.  In a review of her poems in the Fenian Irish People in 1835, it was stated: No Irish writer of our time, except perhaps, Thomas Davis, has been praised so highly, nearly all the Young Ireland leaders offered incense at her shrine.  Fenian leaders added their praise: Doheny wrote an essay on her; Mitchel quoted her poetry in his Last Conquest and Meagher quoted her in his speeches and called his boat ‘‘Speranza.’’ Who cannot marvel at the emotion in her verse entitled, THE FAMINE YEAR:

Weary man, what reap ye? — “Golden corn for the stranger.”
What sow ye? — “Human corses that wait for the avenger.”
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see ye in the offing?
“Stately ships to bear our food away amid the stranger’s scoffing.”
There’s a proud array of soldiers — what do they round your door?
“They guard our master’s granaries from the thin hands of the poor.”
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? “Would to God that we were dead —
our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread!”

Little children, tears are strange upon your infant faces,
God meant you but to smile within your mother’s soft embraces.
“Oh! we know not what is smiling, and we know not what is dying;
but we’re hungry, very hungry, and we cannot stop our crying.
And some of us grow cold and white — we know not what it means;
but as they lie beside us we tremble in our dreams.”
There’s a gaunt crowd on the highway — are you come to pray to man,
with hollow eyes that cannot weep, and for words your faces wan?

“No; the blood is dead within our veins – we care not now for life;
let us die hid in the ditches, far from children and from wife!
We cannot stay to listen to their raving famished cries —
Bread! Bread! Bread! and none to still their agonies.
We left an infant playing with her dead mother’s hand:
we left a maiden maddened by the fever’s scorching brand:”
Better, maiden, thou wert strangled in thy own dark-twisted tresses!
Better, infant, thou wert smothered in thy mother’s first caresses.

 

“We are fainting in our misery, but God will hear our groan;
yet, if fellow-men desert us, will He hearken from His throne?
Accursed are we in our own land, yet toil we still and toil;
but the stranger reaps our harvest — the alien owns our soil.
O Christ! how have we sinned, that on our native plains
we perish homeless, naked, starved, with branded brow like Cain’s?
Dying, dying wearily, with a torture sure and slow —
dying as a dog would die, by the wayside as we go.

“One by one they’re falling round us, their pale faces to the sky;
we’ve no strength left to dig them graves — there let them lie.
The wild bird, if he’s stricken, is mourned by the others,
but we — we die in Christian land, — we die amid our brothers
in the land which God has given, like a wild beast in his cave,
without a tear, a prayer, a shroud, a coffin, or a grave.
Ha! but think ye the contortions on each livid face ye see,
will not be read on Judgement-day by eyes of Deity?

“We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
but God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now in your hour of pleasure — bask ye in the world’s caress;
but our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
from the cabins and the ditches in their charred, un-coffined masses,
for the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly spectral army, before great God we’ll stand,
and arraign ye as our murderers, O spoilers of our land!”

Robert Emmet

Two Hundred years ago on August 25 a tragic event befell Irish history.  It all began when the United Irishmen, a group of Catholics and Protestants united to work for Ireland’s independence, rose for that freedom in 1798.  The English put down the rising with extreme brutality and instituted a campaign of frightfulness, as Seamus MacManus called it, to break the spirit of the Irish that they should never dare to dream of liberty again.  They even banned the color green which was a symbol of the United Irishmen’s union of Protestant Orange and Catholic Blue and they annexed Ireland to England in the Act of Union in 1801, so that the Irish would no longer even have a country to fight for.  Terrible atrocities were reported as English militia ran down all who had belonged to, or had sympathies with, the United Irishmen.  In desperation, one young man emerged, contacted the leaders still at large and planned to fight back in another strike for freedom.  Entering into alliance with the Napoleon’s minister Tallyrand, he planned for another rising in 1803.

With promises of French support, cooperation of other revolutionary societies and money from men of high standing, the effort seemed more likely to succeed than the ill-fated attempt of five years earlier.  Further, he now had a secret weapon, not available in 1798, that he felt would make all the difference.  The weapon, developed with the assistance of his nationalist-thinking chemistry teacher, was quite simply a fireworks rocket capable of delivering a bomb.  Their chemical powder mix and a stabilizing shaft made it steadier in flight than anything that had been seen before.  The pair had built and stockpiled enough of the weapons to give them a military edge.  The young man conferred with the French in the fall of 1802 and returned to coordinate plans in Ireland.  His name was Robert Emmet.

Born on March 4, 1778, he was the 17th and final child of Dr. Robert Emmet and his wife Elizabeth.  He was the fifth to bear the name of Robert since four previous attempts to carry on the father’s name had died in infancy1.  A Chemistry student at Trinity College before the ’98 rising, he had been expelled for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to King George.  His older brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was one of the ’98 leaders, jailed and exiled by the English, who subsequently settled in America.  Young Emmet was to organize volunteer cooperation with the French when they landed.  He contacted surviving fighters of ’98, and was told that 19 counties stood ready.  He then confined his activities to Dublin with three other leaders.  Alas, today we know that one was a Castle spy who relayed the plans to the English.  Emmet received a report that Tallyrand was only using Ireland for his own political ends and began to doubt French support.  On July 16, an explosion in an apartment he was using as an arms depot, destroyed most of his rockets.  Convinced his plans were near discovery; he moved the date of the rising up to July 23.  Assurances came that if Dublin rose, the rest of Ireland would speedily follow.

On July 23, as Emmet awaited his men at an assembly point, word reached him that soldiers were on their way.  Confident that the rest of Ireland would follow his lead, Emmet drew his sword and led a ragged army of little more than 100 men into the Saturday night streets of Dublin.  Contradicting orders (authored by the Castle spy) left the revolution that Emmet had planned little more than a street riot that cost 30 lives.  Emmet went on the run into the Wicklow Mountains, where he would be safe from Crown forces, under an alias of Drake, as arrangements were being made for his passage to France.  Meanwhile, English Major Sirr, sought Emmet with a vengeance.  He arrested Emmet’s young housekeeper, Anne Devlin who, though brutally tortured in Kilmainham Jail, never revealed his whereabouts.  Her story is most inspiring and she remains one of Ireland’s greatest heroines.  Emmet daringly came down from the hills to visit his dying mother and his sweetheart, Sarah Curran.  Sirr was waiting and on Aug 25, 1813, (200 years ago), Emmet was captured, and cast into prison.

At his trial, Emmet secured his place in Irish history with a stirring and defiant speech denouncing the oppressors of his land, and denouncing those who would not vindicate him for doing what he felt every true patriot should do.  He said that since no man spoke up to vindicate his actions it was obvious that no man understood his reasons.  Therefore, he asked, until my country takes its place among the free nations of the world, let no man write my epitaph.  On September 20, the 25-year old rebel was taken to Thomas Street where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.  It was a horrible death, and it endeared the spirit of Robert Emmet to the Irish.  They took to wearing a leaf, a plant, or a sprig of shamrock in their lapel or hat band in defiance of the government’s ban on green, and to show support for Emmet’s ideals.  And the poets wrote of him with passion.  Even though such sentiments were censored, they simply used an old Irish trick and referred to Ireland by one of her many metaphors.  When it was illegal to write in praise of Ireland, her poets wrote in praise of Dark Rosaleen, Kathleen ni Houlihan, or Nell Flaherty – all understood to be Ireland.  Now a metaphor was used again to damn the British without them being any the wiser.  A verse was written, which became a popular song denouncing the murder of Nell Flaherty’s Drake – a reference to Emmet’s alias.  The Brits thought it a silly ditty about a woman who lost a barnyard fowl while the Irish knew they were singing about the King when they sang:

May his pipe never smoke, may his teapot be broke, and to add to the toil may his kettle not boil,

May he lay in the bed ’till the moment he’s dead.  May he always be fed on spoiled food and fish oil,

May he swell with the gout, may his grinders fall out, may he roar, bawl and shout, with a horrid toothache.

May his temples wear horns, and his toes all grow corns, the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s drake.

 

It goes on for many more similar verses and other ballads continued to be written up to the 1916 Rising when Tom Maguire, IRA Commandant in Co Fermanagh, wrote the moving ballad, Bold Robert Emmet – the Darling of Erin.   The great Irish musicologist  Josephine Patricia Smith, believed that there were more songs about Robert Emmet than any other Irish hero.  Author Terry Folan said it best when he wrote His speech from the dock is the center of Republican sentiment to this day.  Poets often make indifferent generals, but, at least in Ireland, they make wonderfully articulate rebels.

An interesting addendum to this story is that the Brits seized the remaining iron-cased gunpowder rockets in Emmet’s apartment and sent them to the Royal Arsenal where Sir William Congreve was the Comptroller.  He gave them to his son, William Jr, who worked on them and subsequently claimed Emmet’s innovations as his own.  Junior first demonstrated a solid fuel rocket,  40.5 inches long, with a stabilizing stick 16 feet long and a range of 2,000 yards, at the Royal Arsenal in 1805 (just two years later).  It was that Congreve Rocket, as it was now called, that produced the ‘rockets’ red glare’ in America’s national anthem when they were fired on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.  The saddest part of the whole affair is that many books and articles like the History of Rockets by Mary Bellis have taken research from the Notes and Records of the Royal Society, and the Encyclopedia Britannica which claim that an English chemist named William Congreve invented the modern rocket as a weapon with a significant advance on earlier black-powder versions.2 Not only does the Bold Robert Emmet get no credit, he is still waiting for his epitaph to be written!

Equally interesting is the Emmet legacy in America.  Robert’s brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, the exiled leader of the United Irishmen, had come to America where he became a remarkable American legal mind.  He was described by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as the most respected Irish American of his generation.  Ironically, he was serving as the Attorney General of New York State when his brother’s rockets were falling on Fort McHenry.  Thomas left a legacy of remarkable family members as well, from Medal of Honor recipient Robert Temple Emmet to Sister Brigid who was the 9th child in a family of 9 born on the 9th day of the 9th month of the 9th year of the 20th century (she was 90 in 1999).  While other descendants left their marks as prominent lawyers, doctors and artists, none left their mark as visibly as architect Devereaux Emmet, great, great grandson of Thomas, who designed Long Island’s Garden City Golf Course, the Red Course at Eisenhower Park, the Green course at Bethpage, and the courses at the Huntington, Glen Head, Rockville, Seawane, St. George’s, Wheatley Hills and Port Jefferson Country Clubs.

 

 

1. Robert Emmet – A Life by Patrick Geoghegan, 2002

2  Sir William Congreve from Encyclopedia Brittanica