Historical Happenings for February 2017

 THE BOB AND MOLLIE MONTEITH STORY (Part II)

For Part I of this story, go to AOH.COM and link to Historical Happenings

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

On the run in the hills of Kerry since the ill-fated AUD debacle, Volunteer Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Monteith reflected on the failure of the arms shipment. He blamed Devoy for the coolness of the German Staff to Casement since Devoy told the German ambassador in New York that Clan na Gael was to be the only contact. The militants in Dublin also kept Casement uninformed since they felt that he was opposed to an insurrection without significant German assistance and the German Admiralty’s plans differed from theirs. The Admiralty planned that AUD would arrive on one of four nights from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, allowing for storm, flood or  English patrols. They requested a pilot boat to be in position each of those nights and that two green lights be shone periodically to guide AUD into Fenit. The plan was sent to Dublin, but the militants insisted that the ship should come on schedule on Sunday night. Casement felt that was foolish and when AUD arrived off the Kerry coast on the night of Holy Thursday, 1916, there were no lights and no pilot boat!  Kerry Volunteer leader Austin Stack had also been ordered that there was to be no shooting before Easter Sunday night.

Stack knew nothing of the ship’s winches and unloading gear nor how to operate them. This was the information Casement wanted to bring in advance. Every stevedore needs such data before he starts to work cargo; men unused to ships cannot be turned into dock workers at a moment’s notice. Stack would need 300 men for the job: a 150-man working party and a 150-man armed covering party since the police would arrive in short order. On AUD were 4,000 cases of rifles, 2,000 cases of ammunition and other material. Stack would need every Volunteer in Kerry and a supervisory staff capable of directing them. Casement’s request to come ahead was denied. The Military Council knew that the landing of arms would have touched off the Rising and they insisted that the Proclamation of the Republic must be read first in Dublin to make the landing of arms a legitimate act of a nation at war rather than a rebel act.  Monteith felt that the Military Council’s ignorance of the logistics of dock work led to their decision that the Proclamation be read first. Although it wouldn’t have frightened the British as much as 20,000 rifles in Irish hands, it made ‘great theater’ and most of the rebel leaders were poets and playwrights!

After eight months in the hills, Monteith was given a false name and fireman’s papers to work on the ship, ADRIATIC, bound for New York.  However, he was so weak that he was unable to endure the work of stoking boilers and carrying coal; he suffered a burst blood vessel in his stomach and severely blistered hands; carrying false papers, he was unable to seek a doctor and so suffered until they docked in New York in mid-December, 1916. The freezing cold after the heat of the boiler room brought on chills and fever. He jumped ship as it docked at 14th Street, walked across town to catch the Third Avenue elevated train to the 116th Street address he learned from Clan members. He barely made it to the third floor.  The children opened the door and Mollie ran to catch him as he fell forward. The wandering patriot was home!  She put him to bed and contacted John Devoy who sent a Clan na Gael doctor to attend the returned patriot. That night, Devoy came to see him and they talked for hours to reconcile their differences.

When Bob was well enough to travel, Mollie rented a house on 120th Street off Lexington Ave with no stairs to climb.  When the word got out that Monteith was in New York, a mass of newsmen wanted the story of the survivors of the submarine landing. One man called it Three men in a boat, the smallest invasion in history. Monteith gave no interviews as it might endanger men in Ireland. They rented a three-storey house with tenants at 157 East 119th Street to provide an income but the block was condemned by the city for garages and they relocated again, this time to 117th Street.

Meanwhile Republican Sinn Fein won a majority of seats in the December 1918 election and established their own dissident parliament called Dáil Eireann and set up a Bond Drive to support the new government. Eamon deValera, as President of the Dail, asked Bob to campaign for the Drive in America.  Bob agreed and took off on a nation-wide fund drive. When Bob was out west raising funds, the children suffered several  bouts with whooping cough and had their tonsils removed.  The doctor told Mollie that if young Patricia were to survive, she needed fresh air. Mollie relocated once more, this time to Schooleys Mountain, New Jersey where she rented a 5-room house on a 3-acre farm. Bob returned on weekends whenever he could but by 1922, his health was failing and he spent a month recuperating in the mountains with the family. Anxious to get some work, Bob moved to Detroit – a boom town at the time.  He found a nearly finished bungalow and sent for the family. They joined the Gaelic League and were popular among the many Irish in Detroit.  Bob worked at the Ford Motor Company. The financial crisis of 1929 hit and the WPA assigned him to a road gang.  Mollie worked at a cleaning plant and then as a teacher.  When the economy recovered, Bob was rehired by Ford and joined the Gaelic League’s Irish Rifle Association as an instructor. With retirement on their mind, Mollie found a small 2-1/2 room house in Goodells, Michigan and sold the house in Detroit. Bob retired in 1943 and in May 1947, they returned to Ireland settling in a house in, Donneycarney, Dublin.

Mollie attended the opening of Roger Casement Stadium in Belfast in June 1953 as Bob was too ill to attend.  He published a book, Casement’s Last Adventure in 1953 and they both agreed to return to Detroit in December 1953 to be with their children. As Bob and Millie grew older, they became progressively ill. One night in February 1956, as Bob tended to Mollie, he tripped on a rug beside their bed. Mollie jumped out of bed but couldn’t lift him. He asked to be left there and Mollie covered him with blanket and pillowed his head. The following day daughter Patricia helped lift him into bed. He refused to let them call a doctor saying he’d be fine after a rest. On February 18 he turned his head and asked, Where are you, Mollie?  She replied, I’m right here, by your side.  He muttered, You would be, and turned his head back toward the wall and fell into eternal sleep. General MacArthur said that Old soldiers never die, they just fade away and Captain Monteith did just that after a life spent in service to the Ireland he was converted to love. He was buried in Holy Sepulchre cemetery in Southfield Michigan after a massive procession of Gaelic League and other Irish societies.

Later in Nov 15, 1956, the Long Island Advance newspaper carried the notice that Mrs. Mollie Florence Burke Monteith, the widow of Captain Robert Monteith, flew here recently from Detroit and is spending several weeks visiting her daughter, Mrs. Florence Lynch of Blue Point Avenue in Blue Point, New York. She returned to Detroit and joined Captain Bob on May 7, 1966, three weeks before her 95th birthday.

No mention was made of Captain Bob and Mollie during the official ceremonies commemorating the recent Easter Rising, except by the Gaelic League and AOH in Detroit, Michigan, but they belong right up there in Republican memory with Tom and Kathleen Daly Clarke for few couples gave more to Ireland than they!

Historical Happenings for January 2017

A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

World War II brought change to Northern Ireland as Loyalists and Nationalists who shared the same bomb shelters broke down the barriers of prejudice erected by the Unionist Ascendancy to keep them divided. The war also created jobs and the small measure of prosperity experienced by the nationalists satisfied many grievances. After the war, England rebuilt the barriers to maintain control of the north. Churchill publicly blasted the Irish Free State for neutrality during the war despite the cooperation extended to the allies by the Irish and the tens of thousands of Irish volunteers in the British military – all of which was well known to the government though not to the general public.

Anger grew in Ireland in an era of post-war high taxes, and unemployment.  In 1948, the Irish Free State abolished its Commonwealth status and passed the Republic of Ireland Act.  The date for it to go into effect was not announced, but it was signed on December 21. On January 20, 1949, northern P.M. Basil Brooke, called a general election for February 10. Southern Prime Minister John Costello urged support for anti-partition candidates in the upcoming northern election and pamphlets describing the discrimination and gerrymandering in the north were published. Unionists retaliated with a torrent of anti-Republic and anti-Catholic propaganda that worked on sectarian fears declaring that if the border went, loyalists would be victims of IRA gunmen urged on by Catholic clergy in an effort to establish the Pope as the ruler of Ireland. The propaganda, as well as years of conditioning by the Orange Order, had the desired effect as record numbers went to the polls to return the Unionists to power!

New Year's Eve

In the south; Dail Eireann brought the Republic of Ireland Act into effect on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949 – 33 years after Pearse’s declaration at the GPO. On May 3, British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee declared, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of Her Majesty’s Dominions without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.  The new Republic of Ireland protested Britain’s continuation of partition, and mass meetings  urged action, but the new Republic was not prepared for anything stronger than a protest. With tempers at a fever pitch, a call for action was heard, and the rebirth of the IRA was underway.

Depleted in assets after the war, the IRA began reorganizing. They gathered support by standing against the mistreatment of Republican prisoners and emerged in their traditional role of spokesmen for the Irish people with the rallying cry: The Border Must Go!  On June 5, 1951, the Derry unit of the new IRA raided Ebrington Barracks and captured a quantity of guns and ammunition. As raids continued, the situation in the north became more tense and nervous B-Special patrols became more violent. The Irish Times urged the northern government to curb its patrols noting that, para-military forces are an anachronism in a democratic society, but to no avail. On August 15, 1955, four men attacked a Royal Artillery Training Camp, but fled as a sentry gave the alarm. Citing the attack, the Minister of War made a special report to the Cabinet, and P.M. Anthony Eden ordered mobilization to deal with the new IRA campaign. It was later abandoned when four British Officers confessed to the raid to make things hotter for the IRA.  An embarrassed War Office sent a communique to the police apologizing for the trouble caused and the matter was dropped. 

Then, on the night of December 12, 1956, IRA volunteers assembled in 10 different areas along the border in an arc from Antrim to Derry. On a signal from the campaign center in Monaghan, the morning quiet of December 13 was broken by numerous explosions. Operation Harvest – the border campaign to retake the six counties – had begun. Reaction was swift! By December 15, the Special Powers Act was revived allowing arrest and internment without warrant or trial, a curfew was imposed and police forces strengthened.  On December 22, the RUC spiked or blew up every border crossing road and bridge that had no customs post. By the end of the year 3,000 RUC and 12,000 B-Specials were called into action, and the north was an armed camp.

On the morning of January 1, 1957, an IRA raiding party set out for the RUC barracks in Brookborough, Co. Fermanagh. They parked their truck in front of the barracks in the town center and opened fire with rifles and a Bren gun while an assault group attempted to set off a land mine against the building. The mine did not explode and the assault group returned through a hail of bullets, for another one. This also misfired. As the raiders began to run out of ammunition, guns from the barracks returned a deadly rain of fire. Misfortune continued to plague the raiders as one threw a grenade toward a barrack window to cover their retreat. The grenade bounced off the building, and rolled under the truck where it exploded, blowing the tires, and damaging the gears. Somehow the raiders made it back to the crippled truck and limped away.

Near the town of Roslea, the truck gave out, and the badly shot up raiding party sought refuge in an abandoned barn. Six of the party were wounded, two were unable to travel – 19-year old Fergal O’Hanlon of Monaghan and 27-year old Sean South of Limerick. Both were unconscious. One of the party, volunteered to stay behind and hold off the pursuing RUC so the others might escape, but it was felt that such an action would endanger the lives of their unconscious comrades. It was decided to leave South and O’Hanlon to be captured so they would at least get the medical attention they needed. The rest of the raiding party retreated toward the border.

 The RUC arrived just after the IRA had left and the retreating IRA men heard a burst of gunfire.  They prayed it was just the warning shots associated with an assault on a military target, but they later learned it was the murder of their two unconscious comrades. This was a source of unforgiving bitterness for years to come. Author Tim Pat Coogan wrote, In a sense the Brookborough ambush explains everything about the IRA, and its hold on Irish tradition. It shows the courage, the self-sacrifice, the blundering, and the emotional appeal that have characterized and kept alive the IRA spirit for centuries. The two young men who lost their lives in the Brookborough affair were given two of the biggest funerals in living memory – but during their lives there was never sufficient public support for their aims for them to receive proper military training or even or even to be correctly briefed on the target that claimed their lives.

The two men killed in the raid, who had resolved to free their countrymen behind the artificial border, now took their place among the martyrs to Ireland’s cause and their memories were kept alive by a monument erected in 1982 at Moane’s Cross between Roslea and Brookborough. It is the site of an annual Republican ceremony.  The memorial has continually been vandalized by suspected hardline unionists.  The shed where South and O’Hanlon were murdered was also pulled down years ago to the distress of locals who used the stone to build this Memorial.  Though the memorial may be defaced or even obliterated regularly, there is yet another memorial that cannot be defaced and that is the strongest memorial of all; the two patriots have entered the world of Republican ballad in the songs Sean South of Garryowen and The Patriot’s Game.

Historical Happenings for December 2016

NEWGRANGE

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

 

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     On a hill in County Meath stands a monument to the early settlers of Ireland, and their civilization. It is a remarkable structure built more than 5000 years ago. At first it appears to be just a huge mound on a hilltop in the Boyne Valley, but closer investigation reveals a man-made structure surrounded by enormous standing boulders. A magnificently carved kerbstone lies before the entrance to a 65-foot passage which runs to the center of the mound and three chambers of interlacing stones. The passage is the most interesting part for it is positioned and inclined at precisely the proper angle to align astronomically with the rays of the rising sun at one specific time of the year – the winter solstice. At dawn on December 21, the shortest day of the year and the point at which the power of the sun begins its annual return, the rising sun’s rays shine through a portal above the entrance, travel along the inclined passage and illuminate the central chambers. This only happens on December 21. The mound was called Bru na Boinne by the ancient Irish; today it is called Newgrange.

     According to carbon dating, the structure was built between 3700 and 3200 BC making it the oldest, still-standing, man-made building on the planet. Ancient Irish manuscripts say it was built by the Tuatha De Danann, early settlers of Ireland who were so advanced that Celtic settlers who followed them considered them possessed of magical powers and guided by the heavens. Today, we know that their “guidance” came in their advanced knowledge of astronomy — a knowledge unsurpassed in the known world at that time. To the Celts, Bru na Boinne was a domain of the gods, a palace of the otherworld, and a place of festivals.

     Reinforcing this belief was the fact that approximately 1 kilometer on either side are two slightly smaller mounds, Knowth and Dowth, which are also astronomically aligned with celestial events. Knowth, the oldest mound of the three was built some 500 years before Newgrange and is aligned with the setting sun on the solstice.

     With the coming of Christianity, many pagan forts and monuments fell into disrepair, were eventually overgrown, or eroded by time and weather. In 1142, the land on which Bru na Boinne stood became part of the Cistercian Abbey at Mellifont. Fields were called granges and Bru na Boinne simply became the new grange. During the Williamite confiscation of church property, the land was given to a Charles Campbell who used the mound as a source of stones for fences. In 1699, as workers were carting stones from the base of the mound, they discovered the magnificent entrance stone with its carved spiral designs. Further digging revealed the opening to a long narrow passage which led to the center of the mound and its three chambers. Authorities were notified and Welsh Naturalist Edward Lhuyd came to investigate. It is he who is credited with the discovery of Newgrange despite the fact that the Irish had been telling of Bru na Boinne for centuries. The locals were ignored and Mr. Lhuyd and several of his colleagues concluded that the great monument was the work of visiting Danes since nothing requiring such skill and intelligence could ever be attributed to the Irish.

     In 1750, General Charles Vallencey, a British Army Engineer and professional surveyor, discovered its astronomical alignment with the sun, moon, and planets and first advanced the theory that Newgrange was an astronomical observatory. He explained the standing stones in front of the entrance as sun stones positioned to cast shadows on the carved entrance stone to indicate the seasons. He ascribed considerable astronomical skill to its early Irish architects, but was ridiculed by his colleagues who had never even seen the mound. In spite of local tales which verified this phenomenon, references to the solstice lighting of Newgrange in the writings of George (AE) Russell, the writings of astronomer Norman Lockyer and anthropologist Evans Wentz, no archaeologist took the time to investigate it until 1969, when Michael O’Kelly entered the chamber before sunrise on the winter solstice and became the first modern archaeologist to witness that exciting event.

     In spite of the amount of verifiable information available on this historic site, some still stand with their backs to Newgrange, and stare at Stonehenge, marveling at the antiquity of a site constructed 1,000 years later. Or they wonder at the pyramids which were only started hundreds of years after Newgrange was completed. Finally, in 1989, the New York Times, which is ever slow to credit Irish accomplishments, noted that a British journal had announced that the astrological alignment of Newgrange appeared to be “by design rather than by accident.” Welcome aboard! It’s now December and on the 21st, the mound at Bru na Boinne will again receive its annual message from the heavens telling man that the days will now get longer and the long night of winter is coming to an end. Hopefully the long night of ignorance about Irish accomplishments is ending as well. So, this year as you are decorating the tree with lights for Christmas, consider that the Almighty is lighting up Newgrange for the same reason and wishing a Happy Christmas to all.

 

 

Historical Happenings for November 2016

THANKSGIVING

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

thanksgivingThis story was offered several years ago, but in view of recent news it deserves repeating.  History is written by the winner, which accounts for revised versions of past events.  Some rewrite 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.  A study of recent politics can provide some striking examples.  In recent years several 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, particularly appropriate at this time of year, is the holiday known as Thanksgiving.  According to the popular story, 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 wasn’t new; it was in thanks for a bountiful harvest and harvest festivals were celebrated in many lands for centuries before the pilgrims ever buttered their first corn on the cob. But, who were the 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 their trip was to escape persecution, for they 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 later to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Both groups wanted to purify the church, yet they differed about the 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 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 more than a harvest festival 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.  Under suspicion by false accusations, 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 for Thanksgiving.

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 Revolution.  And the turning point in that battle 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!

Historical Happenings for October 2016

NEW YEAR’S EVE

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

SamhainThe last day of October is New Year’s Eve! At least it was to the ancient Celts.  Like their economy which was based on planting, growing and harvesting, the Celtic Calendar was centered on the Sun and agriculture. The four major feasts were Imbolc on February 1 which introduced the season of planting; Bealtine on May 1 which honored the god of cattle and crops and was associated with growth; Lughnasad on August 1 which signaled the harvest; and the final and most important feast of the year: Samhain (SAH-win) on November 1.  Samhain observed the end of one pastoral year and the beginning of another.  To the Celts, Samhain was the point where the power of the sun began to wane, and fall under the growing power of the gods of darkness, winter, and the underworld. It was a day of bonfires lit to encourage the return of the sun, and to celebrate the fact that Oiche Samhain (EE-ha SOW-na), or the eve of Samhain – October 31 – had passed for another 12 months, for Oiche Samhain was a dangerous night indeed.

It was on that night that the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds was lowered, and residents of the underworld, both good and evil, were free to roam the earth.  It was the holiday of the dead and the sidh (shee): the supernatural residents of the fairy kingdom, both fun-loving and fearful.  It was a time sacred to the moon, and called for sacrifices to Crom Cruagh, Lord of the Mound, a golden idol surrounded by 12 stones on the plain of Moy Slecht in Cavan.  Any who wandered out that night were in danger of being accosted by spirits, so most remained indoors.  However, if one had to go out, he or she was advised to wear the skin of a sacrificed animal to disguise themselves from the spirits.  If an animal skin was not available, then the traveler would be wise to carry a candle in a hollowed-out turnip so that they would be mistaken for a Will-o-the-Wisp and be left alone.

With so many things to fear, the obvious question is why would anyone venture out at all, and the answer lies in the very same lowering of the veil.  It’s a night when supernatural things are possible; when hidden things are visible; and, if one knew how to read the signs, a night when the future can be read si–nce omens are clearest on Oiche Samhain.  If, for example, a maiden were to wash her dress in a stream on Oiche Samhain and hang it on a bush to dry, the image of her future husband will appear beside it.  It’s also a time when one can catch a glimpse of recently-departed loved ones, and perhaps secure some information from them – like where did they hide the money!

In spite of the temptation to see the future, the curious are cautioned, if you must venture out, be wary.  You might hear the most beautiful music ever to come from fiddle or flute, but do not investigate, for the spirits will entice you away to the dance and keep you entertained until dawn breaks and you will be trapped behind the veil.  Tales are told of those lost behind the veil, who were not seen again until the following year when the veil lowered again and they were seen on the other side. Some have been enticed back to tell their stories, but they are few and usually came to a violent end shortly after their return.

Another custom associated with Oiche Samhain was the leaving of food and drink on a doorstep to appease the wandering spirits so that they would trespass no further into a dwelling.  If the offering was gone in the morning, it was a good sign that the spirits had accepted it, for no mortal man would dare steal a gift left for the dead.  It was also a fortunate time for the hungry and homeless who wandered the roads and were willing to take that chance.  Needless to say, there was great rejoicing when dawn broke, and the threat of Oiche Samhain had passed for another 12 months.  The fear and the celebration associated with Samhain made it one of the hardest of the old Druidic feasts for the young Irish Church to dispel in the early centuries of Christianity, so it was decided to sanctify its meaning.

Henceforth, November 1 would be All Hallows Day – a day to honor the souls that had achieved heaven, followed by All Souls Day, a time to pray for the deceased who were still awaiting redemption.  To the Irish however, All Hallows evening retained the connotation of a time dedicated to the spirits and many of the ancient customs lived on.  In time, the Christian meaning became accepted, at least on the surface.  In many areas, the parish priest was given a polite nod of the head in acquiescence to the Church’s definition, while a wink of the eye signified that the ancient traditions were still being observed, just in case.

Stories of witches, goblins, and fairies persisted and the cautions proscribed as protection against the spirits of the netherworld remained as All Hallows Evening became Halloween – the only Celtic feast still observed on the modern calendar.  Costumes are still much in evidence, only they are the dime store variety instead of animal skins; pumpkins have replaced turnips as the Jack o Lantern; and the token food or candy given to visiting ‘ghosts and goblins’, who shout Trick or Treat, is a reminder of the food and drink freely given as a ransom against harm.  I’d say the spirit of the occasion (no pun intended) is still intact.  In recent years, a heightened awareness of the origins of Halloween has led to Celtic New Year celebrations in some areas, but there are still many who are not aware of the rich cultural heritage of our ancestors, who based their pastoral activities on a sophisticated celestial calendar fostered by knowledge of astronomy unequalled in their time.  As for the traditions associated with Halloween, well, think about it.

What happens after the demons in the dime-store costumes are tucked safely in bed with their treasure of candy bars and pennies secure in plastic pumpkins?  What happens late at night when the streets are silent? What are those strange sounds carried on the wind each year and what of the eerie occurrences reported each Halloween.  Of all the Celtic feasts, why is it that only Oiche Samhain has survived.  Is it because there is some substance to it after all?  I can’t say for certain, but I know I’m staying at home.  And if you must go out, please, whatever you do, be careful.

Historical Happenings for September 2016

John Devoy

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

John DevoyWith the 1916 Rising commemorations behind us, it may be time to reflect on those who played a major part, but were not mentioned many of the ceremonies. One of those was John Devoy, who was called the greatest of the Fenians by Padraic Pearse. Devoy was born near Kill in Co. Kildare, on Sept 3, 1842. When still a small boy, his family moved to Dublin where they enjoyed a modest prosperity. Devoy’s father had been an active nationalist in the 1840’s and John naturally absorbed a nationalist inclination to his character, but of a more advanced kind.

In 1861, he joined the 3-year-old international revolutionary society known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and the Fenian Brotherhood in America. Seeking military experience, the 19-year old youth joined the French Foreign Legion and served in Algeria for a year before returning to Ireland to bring his military learning to the brotherhood and work as an IRB organizer in Naas, County Kildare. James Stephens, founder of the IRB, appointed Devoy chief organizer with the important and dangerous assignment of recruiting among the Irish serving in the British Army. Constantly risking arrest, his success was nevertheless considerable. In 1865, the British took action against the IRB and, through spies and informers, identified and arrested many of the leaders including James Stephens. In November, 1865, Devoy led a group which successfully arranged the escape of Stephens from a Dublin jail. Devoy believed that the IRB should rise in arms against the Crown while the organization was at its strongest and began planning for that event. In February 1866, an IRB Council of War called for an immediate uprising, but Stephens refused, much to Devoy’s annoyance since he had calculated the loyal Irish force in the British Army to number 80,000. The British learned of the plan through informers and moved the compromised regiments abroad, replacing them with loyal British regiments from England. Early in 1866, Devoy himself was betrayed, arrested and interned in Mountjoy Jail before being tried for treason and sentenced to 15-years penal servitude. In Portland Prison, Devoy organized prison strikes and was moved to Millbank Prison. While in prison, he learned that the rising he had planned took place in 1867 and had failed.

Freed in January, 1871, under a general amnesty, he sailed to America into an exile that was part of the amnesty agreement. Arriving on the ship CUBA with four other IRB men hailed as the “Cuba Five”, they were met by local and NY State politicians and even received an address of welcome from the House of Representatives. Devoy made his home in the United States where he continued his fight for Irish independence as part of the American counterpart of the IRB – the Fenian Brotherhood. When the Fenians changed their direction and sought to invade Canada and swap it to England for Ireland, those who remained committed to the original Fenian idea of a rising in Ireland broke with them and formed the Napper Tandy club. The Napper Tandy club grew larger in time as the Fenians Canadian invasions failed and adopted the name Clan na Gael. Devoy, living in New York, apart from a short time in Chicago, eventually became the dominant force in Clan na Gael. Under Devoy’s leadership, the Clan became the most important Irish Republican organization in the United States and Ireland. While actively leading Clan na Gael, he became a journalist for the New York Herald and learned the publishing business.

In 1875, Devoy and John Boyle O’Reilly organized the daring rescue of six Fenians from the British Penal Colony at Fremantle in Western Australia aboard the ship Catalpa. In 1878, He financed the development of the first submarine built by Co. Clare-born John Holland to attack British shipping. In 1879, Devoy secretly returned to Ireland to inspect Fenian centres and met Charles Kickham, John O’Leary and Michael Davitt on route in Paris. It was on this trip that he convinced Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell to co-operate in the “New departure” during the growing Land War. In 1877, he had strengthened ties between the Clan and the IRB in Ireland and urged the IRB to subscribe to his ‘New Departure’ and move Irish nationalism into the arena of Parliamentary debate. This position was unpopular with the more militant faction who favored an armed rising and Devoy was severely criticized. Yet he stuck to his position for he realized, like all true revolutionaries, that tactics must change with circumstances and it was his opinion that in a shrinking world the support of other nations could be mustered to pressure England into terms.

Gaelic-AmericanHe operated a newspaper called The Gaelic American which advocated his cause and, unfortunately, engaged in bitter and personal controversies with critics and opponents of his policy within the nationalist camp. He remained however, committed to nationalist principles and returned to militant nationalism as he saw a European conflict on the horizon that would involve Britain. He hired Thomas J. Clarke – the veteran Fenian – as an editor in 1898 and the two raised the consciousness of Irish America to Irish nationalism. In 1907, with Devoy’s approval, Clarke returned to Ireland from his Long Island home to rejuvenate the IRB with Devoy’s support from America. The IRB had grown dormant due to inactivity and poor recruiting and Clarke, the future 1916 leader, and John Devoy were thereafter closely involved with the revival of the IRB and the planning of the Easter Rising. In 1914, Padraic Pearse visited the elderly Devoy in America, and later the same year Roger Casement worked with Devoy in raising money for guns to arm the Irish Volunteers. Devoy even sent a plan to the German Embassy in New York outlining German support against England. In early 1916, he played an important role in the formation of the Clan-dominated Friends of Irish Freedom at the third Irish Race Convention, a funding organization whose membership totaled 275,000. After America entered the war on the British side, discretion proved the better part of valor and such activity would have been interpreted as anti-American so Devoy continued to work his cause as pro-Irish rather than anti-English. In all, Devoy did more than anyone to secure American support for the nationalists before, during and after the Easter Rising of 1916.

Devoy lived long enough to finally see the establishment of an Irish state although, like Michael Collins, he regarded the treaty of 1921-22 as not the end of a struggle but merely another step on the road to total freedom. He supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formative Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War, and was an honored guest of the new state in 1924 when he visited Ireland for the last time. On September 30, 1928, he died in Atlantic City, New Jersey and his body now rests in Irish soil in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. His life of struggle, prison, and exile had but one purpose – freedom for the Irish people and his native land. In pursuit of these goals he became one of the most notable revolutionaries in a century of revolution. He dedicated over 60 years of his life to the cause of Irish freedom and is one of the few people to have played a leading role in the rebellion of 1867, the 1916 Rising and the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921). In October, 2015, a statue of John Devoy was unveiled in Naas, Co. Kildare, aided primarily by the Kildare Association of New York, which partly funded the monument. The goal to keep his memory alive is a worthy one for he was a worthy Irishman!

Historical Happenings for August 2016

SIR ROGER CASEMENT

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Roger_CasementAugust is a significant month in Irish history for not only did Our Lady appear at Knock, but the Land League was formed and Padraic Pearse was born. While those happy events mark our August calendar, so too does the sad reminder of the hanging death of Roger Casement.  Born in Antrim on September 1, 1864 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, at 17 he went to work for a Shipping Company in Liverpool. Three years later he was sent to West Africa where he joined the British Colonial Service and was gradually advanced to a position in the Consulate there. Always a fair and honorable man, he was horrified at the inhumane treatment of native workers and wrote a report exposing those conditions. The story was published and when Casement returned to England in 1904 he was celebrated. He met historian Alice Green who denounced England’s similar exploitation of the Irish. She impressed Casement and in Ireland he looked up her friends: Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill, and Erskine Childers. He soon became a confident of these men and other nationalists as well.

Casement’s service earned him the post of Consul General at Rio de Janeiro and he sailed off to that enviable post, but even there his sense of fair play was to guide his actions. He wrote a scathing report on the cruelties practiced by whites on native workers on the rubber plantations there. It became an international sensation. He returned to England in 1911 and was Knighted for his public service. He retired from public service in 1912 and returned to Ireland where his sense of fair play was again aroused – this time by the conditions of his own people under the rule of the Crown. A man of strong nationalist sympathies, he joined the National Volunteers in 1913. He visited London in 1914, but on a different mission – to arrange for 1500 German guns to be brought into Howth. History shows just how successful he was for many a man marched into Dublin on Easter Monday morning shouldering his old Howth gun. When more money was needed for arms, Casement went to New York to see John Devoy who had been raising funds among the American Irish. While there, World War I broke out and he immediately contacted the German ambassador to America seeking aid to win Irish independence. On October 15, 1914 Casement sailed to Germany, carrying a small fortune to purchase more arms.

In 1916, the Germans dispatched the ship AUD with a cargo of arms to land in Co Kerry for the Easter Rising. However, they were half the amount ordered and Casement followed in a submarine, landing on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay on Good Friday, April 21, 1916. He hoped to warn the Volunteers to cancel the Rising as the shipment was inadequate. The British, alerted to the plans, intercepted the AUD and captured Casement. John Devoy stated that American President Wilson knew of Casement’s intentions and warned the British. (New York Times, April 27, 1916, pp. 1 & 4.) After his capture, Casement pleaded to be allowed to communicate with Volunteer leaders to prevent the Rising in which his comrades would be slaughtered. According to Michael McDowell in the Sunday Business Post, March 27, 2016, Casement’s interrogators intimated to him that they thought it better to allow a rising to happen so that its perpetrators could be excised from the British body politic. There, if you want to find it, was perfidious Albion at its most cynical. Found guilty of high treason, he was sentenced to be hanged. A world-wide furor erupted over the severity of the sentence.

Casement_GraveHere was a just man, recently praised and knighted by the Crown for his efforts on behalf of persecuted natives in far corners of the world, sentenced to death by that same Crown for daring to challenge the exploitation of his own downtrodden people. In an effort to reverse public opinion, the British government circulated copies of diaries alleged to be Casement’s, which recorded homosexual practices. Much controversy surrounded these Black Diaries, but coming so soon after the public condemnation of Oscar Wilde for similar actions, they had the desired effect. The public furor died down and Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916 – the last of the Easter Executions. For many years after the Irish government finally won its limited freedom from England, official requests were made to have Sir Roger’s remains returned to Ireland. It was not until 1965, that England finally relented, but only after circulating the questionable Black Diaries once more. This time they didn’t reckon on modern analytical methodology, and the diaries were declared to be forgeries. In spite of English efforts to sully the name of this dedicated Irish patriot, Casement’s remains were respectfully received by the Irish people, given a huge State Funeral and re-interred with Ireland’s Republican heroes in Glasnevin Cemetery on March 1, 1965 – just one year before the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. However it was not in accordance with his last wishes; he had requested to be buried in his home county of Antrim, but the government of Northern Ireland refused to accept his remains!

Editors Note: Years later, in conversation with another great patriot, Joe Cahill, who had once been apprehended bringing arms into the IRA, he asked if I knew the name of the ship he was caught on.  I replied ‘Yes, it was the CLAUDIA’.  He asked what was historically significant about that and I replied, Nothing that I could think of.  He just smiled and said “drop the first two and last two letters and what have you?”  He loved the irony!

Historical Happenings for May 2016

The Sorrows of May

 by Mike McCormack, NYS AOH Historian
Rising1916Executions

British firing squads executed leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 in Kilmainham Gaol (on this spot above). Executions took place here on : – 3 May: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke – 4 May: Joseph Plunkett, William Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan – 5 May: John MacBride – 8 May: Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Con Colbert – 12 May: James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada

 

The month of May is a special month in the roster of Ireland’s heroes.  It was in that month, in 1916, that some of Ireland’s greatest patriots were murdered by a British firing squad.  They had come together in a dream; a dream eloquently articulated by Padraic Pearse; skillfully organized by Tom Clarke; expertly planned by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh: brilliantly guided by James Connolly; and courageously executed by Sean McDermott, Ed Daly, Micheal O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston , Eamon deValera and the men under their commands.  The dream was for an independent Ireland and Pearse passionately wrote of that dream in his poem, The Fool:

The Lawyers have sat in Council, the men with the keen long faces,
and said This man is a fool, and others have said he blasphemeth;
and the wise have pitied the fool who strove to give a life to a dream
that was dreamed in the heart and that only the heart can hold.
O Wise Men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true,
What if the dream come true and millions unborn shall dwell
in the house that I shaped in my heart?

To bring that dream to reality, brave men joined the IRB, Irish Volunteers, Hibernian Rifles, and Fianna Éireann while equally brave ladies joined The Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan.  Following the formation of the Provisional Government, as outlined in the Proclamation, these organizations became the Army of the Irish Republic under the command of James Connolly.  The organization mustered into five commands: Ned Daly’s 1st battalion, Tomas MacDonagh’s 2nd battalion, Eamon deValera’s 3rd battalion and Eamonn Ceannt’s 4th battalion.  The 5th command was a joint force of Volunteers, Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan under James Connolly as part of the headquarters command which, in addition to Connolly, included four other members of the Military Council: President Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada and Joseph Mary Plunkett.

Last minute misfortunes upset the timetable of the Rising and after 6 days of fighting it became evident that the British had successfully isolated communications from Dublin and nationwide support would not materialize. In order to stop the killing of civilians in the scattered British shelling, Pearse ordered the surrender. Though only 1600 were involved in the Rising, the British arrested a total of 3,430 men and 79 women and General Maxwell, in secret Court Martial sentenced 90 to be executed.  One attempt to arrest members of the nationalist Kent family in County Cork on 2 May led to a Constable being shot dead in a gun battle. Thomas Kent was arrested and became one of only two rebel leaders to be executed outside of Dublin. The other was Roger Casement.

The Sorrows of May began on May 3 with the murder of Pearse, Clarke and McDonagh.  On May 4, Daly, Willie Pearse, O’Hanrahan, and Plunkett were shot and May 5 saw the killing of Maj. John MacBride.  Since May 6 and 7 were a Saturday and Sunday, the Brits gave their executioners the weekend off. On Monday, May 8 the slaughter commenced again with the homicides of Mallin, Ceannt, Colbert, and Heuston. Then, on May 9, Thomas Kent was slain at Cork Detention Barracks. A manuscript recently found in the Capuchin Archives in Church Street, Dublin revealed that Fathers  Murphy, Augustine, Albert, and Sebastian OFM Cap were allowed only a short time to administer to the prisoners. Father Murphy described the process as callously informal. The governor said a name and gave a signal. The prisoner’s hands were then tied behind his back, and a bandage placed over his eyes.  Two soldiers, one on either side, guided the prisoner, and the priest went in front. When the prisoner reached the outer door another soldier pinned a piece of white paper over his heart.  The procession went along one yard, then through a gate leading to the stonebreaker’s yard.  Here the firing squad of 12 soldiers was waiting, rifles loaded. An officer stood to the left; on the right were the governor and the doctor.  The prisoner was led to the front wall and was turned to face the firing-squad. The two soldiers guiding him withdrew quickly to one side.  There was a silent signal from the officer; then a deafening volley.  The prisoner fell in a heap on the ground — dead.  After the executions the priests were driven back to the friary where they celebrated Mass for the repose of the souls of those executed. The public were horrified at the slaughter.

In the House of Commons, MP John Dillon, demanded an end to the killing.  He intervened with Lloyd George to halt the remaining executions authorized by General Maxwell during the courts-martial. Prime Minister Asquith sent a telegram to Maxwell to halt the executions until he arrived on May 12 to investigate for himself.  On the morning of May 12, Maxwell defied the order and had Sean MacDermott brought to the Stonebreaker’s Yard at Kilmainham and shot. Then, after demands from the anti-labor employers whom he had fought during the Great Dublin Lockout, the wounded James Connolly was brought from hospital. His shoulder wounded and ankle, shattered by a bullet, had gangrened from a lack of treatment, he was carried, in great pain, into the yard on a stretcher, placed on a chair against the back wall which tipped over twice.  He was then tied to a stretcher and leaned against the wall nearest the entry gate to receive His Majesty’s lead for sharing a dream.  When Asquith arrived, he commuted the remaining death sentences to terms of imprisonment since Irish-Americans were opposing his overtures for America’s assistance in WWI, but it was too late; the fuse had been lit.

Following the Rising, the manner in which the trials and executions were carried out in secret, changed public opinion to sympathy for the rebels. The self-sacrifice of the leaders for the dream of a free Ireland, the bravery of the rank-and-file and the nauseating manner in which Connolly had been killed at last moved even the most liberal among the public to intense anti-British sentiment. Meanwhile, the 3,000 ‘rebels’ who had been picked up in the military sweep ordered by Maxwell, had been deported to Britain and consolidated in Frongoch POW camp which served as virtual academy of sedition.  When the government realized they could not afford to house and feed all those interned, the declared a general amnesty secure in the belief that the Irish had once again been duly spanked into submission.  On their return home, the Irishmen immediately set about building an army of opposition; it was called the Irish Republican Army and it would eventually fight the Brits to the treaty table after a brutal War of Independence.  The leaders may have died, but the dream did not.  And true to Pearse’s words, millions have dwelt in the house that he shaped in his heart in spite of the fact that the landlord still holds a small piece of the property!

Historical Happenings for April 2016

Leprechaun – Legend or History

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

 

Leprechaun Engraving (circa 1900)

Leprechaun Engraving (circa 1900)

Every year around March 17 we get the question: are there really such things as Leprechauns and I thought I’d put the record straight. The truth lies in Ireland’s ancient manuscripts describing her early settlers and since many have been partially corroborated by archeological evidence, we should consider the possible accuracy of the others. Among the early settlers of Ireland, lines of succession and titles depended on births, deaths and battles. Such information had to be preserved and without an alphabet it was committed to memory by those with a capacity for learning. Men were specially trained for that purpose and a learned class called Bards emerged. They were the official historians whose duty it was to retain this information for retelling when called upon. Historian Liam dePaor wrote that, They knew in detail the history of the making of Ireland. Their knowledge was full of colorful and minute detail. Great care was taken to insure the accuracy of these histories by bestowing blessings on those who would memorize and retell them with fidelity, in this form, and not put any other form to it. The feats of memory of these unlettered folk amaze those of us who rely on the printed word.  Historian Alwyn Rees wrote that a crofter-fisherman of Barra maintained that in his youth he went to listen to the same storyteller almost every winter’s night for 15 years and that he hardly ever heard the same story twice.

Told and retold, down through the ages in the form of epic tales and poems, the adventures were recorded for posterity by Irish Christian monks using the Roman alphabet. Although they altered the tales when they contradicted Church teaching, they were otherwise accurate. The monks who performed this work were recruited from the native Irish and were well aware of their obligation to preserve their histories accurately. Consequently, despite the biblical alterations, the scribes did not totally replace their own history and the various settlements described in the ancient manuscripts did take place and the seed of history lies therein. The Historian’s History of the World, volume 21, records that the pedigrees now began to be committed to writing, and, as they could for the first time be compared with one another, a wide field was open to the inventive faculties of the scribes. The result has been the construction of a most extraordinary legendary history which acquired a completeness, fullness, and certain degree of consistency which is wonderful.

The Lebor Gabala Eireann (the Book of the Taking of Ireland) is a collection of Ireland’s most ancient tales and describes her early settlers. Comparing this data with evidence by archeologists and recognized historians, the early history of Ireland emerges as The Historian’s History also noted that, with all their drawbacks, the Irish ethnic legends, when stripped of their elaborate details and biblical and classical loans, express the broad facts of the peopling of Ireland, and are in accordance with the results of archeological investigation. The earliest settlers were the Nemedians who eventually fled the island in the face of marauding pirates. After a few years, their descendants made their way back to Ireland in two separate groups – the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann. The Fir Bolg are described in the Book of Invasions as a short dark people of Mediterranean stock. They began tunnel mining operations which ultimately led to the manufacture of copper and gold implements and ornaments. Historian Estyn Evans recorded that in nearly every case where a copper deposit has been worked in more recent times, the miners have come across evidence of prehistoric mining. These prehistoric mines reveal that they were indeed excavated by people less than five feet tall which is not that hard to believe when one looks at the tombs they built; the entrance to 5,000-year old Newgrange was built for short men.  In addition, Historian Eleanor Hull wrote that the latest research in ethnology suggests that the earliest race of which remains have been found in Ireland was a short, dark, and long-headed people, correlated with the Mediterranean European stock, long before the arrival of the conquering race of tall, fair-haired people, who became dominant. Neolithic graves in France contained skeletal remains four feet tall and, according to P. Kermode and W. Herdman Scot. D.sc., F.r.s. in a lecture on Manx Antiquities, neolithic man in Britain, calculating from their bones, was no more than 5 ft. tall.  These then are the `short, dark, people of Mediterranean stock’ described in the ancient annals as the Fir Bolg who peopled the country until the arrival of their distant cousins – the Tuatha De Danann.

The De Danann had developed into a society so advanced in skills and crafts that the Fir Bolg, who were indentured by them, considered them god-like and the industrial potential of the island developed with the introduction of bronze.  The country entered a Golden Age (1750 – 1400 BC) and became the focus of Atlantic trade although still plagued by raiding pirates. The last settlers were the Milesians, who conquered the earlier settlers and banished them to a remote section of the country. The ancient manuscripts refer to the division as upper and lower parts, probably meaning north and south. Later generations to whom were handed down the tales of the wonderful people their ancestors had conquered, lifted them into a mystic realm and the great De Danann heroes became Gods and Goddesses immortalized in exciting folklore. The Milesian invaders were physically taller than the Fir Bolg and De Danann and their heroes eventually assumed the role of giants – after all, mortal men could not have dispossessed gods.  And the stories grew into legends which have come down through the generations describing the small, mysterious Fir Bolg, and the God-like Tuatha De Danann, whose magical powers were matched only by the strength and valor of the Milesian giants.

Putting folklore aside isn’t it possible that the Milesians and the raiding pirates, also larger in size, sought the gold being mined by these short, dark people, and that the Fir Bolg fled to the safety of their mine tunnels where the big guys couldn’t follow them. Would the raiders have carried the tale of a race of little people who lived under the ground protecting their pots of gold?  Add to that the fact that ancient tales told of the division of Ireland as the upper and lower parts and later generations interpreted that as above and below ground since after the arrival of the Milesians, couldn’t the vanquished people have hidden in caves far from Milesian tribal centers and were only occasionally seen?  Today, we recognize that as the basis of the legend of the Leprechaun, but it is an excellent argument for the theory that behind every legend is a germ of historical fact, though I would definitely discount the green top hat and tails!  Some say the name leprechaun comes from the old Irish leath bhrogan (shoemaker), but it could also derive from the old Irish luacharma’n which translates pygmy. As for the question, are there any left; well, there are plenty of caves in Ireland.  It is highly unlikely, but who knows?  At any rate, these stories provide Irish literature with enchanting tales of a magical fairy people and majestic sagas of a race of heroic giants. But, they also contain the key to Ireland’s past, for although they have been flavored through the centuries, most of these tales or legends may be based on fact!  The wonderful part is not that we have such fascinating stories, but that once upon a time, they might have really been true!

Historical Happenings for March 2016

Saint Patrick’s Escape

saint_patrick

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Tripartite Life of St. Patrick

Tripartite Life of St. Patrick

Many versions of the life of St. Patrick exist.  This includes The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick in the Book of Armagh which is made up of three homilies on St. Patrick by St. Fiacc, former Bard and Bishop of Leinster; Tirechan, a 7th century Bishop in Mayo; and Muirchu, a 7th century monastic historian as well as biographies by St, Evin and many others.  However taking facts from his own autobiographical Confessio, more than the writings of those who venerated him in later years and tried to glorify his reputation, we get a more intimate picture of the remarkable man behind the saint.

From reliable sources, we know that our patron Saint was named Maewyn Succat when raiders of Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages kidnapped him, at about age 16, from his home on the west coast of Wales.  He was sold to a Chieftain named Miluic near Ballymena in County Antrim.  As St. Patrick, Succat later wrote that he had worked as a slave, tending flocks on Mount Slemish (from the Irish: Sliabh Mis), sleeping in the cold, and often going hungry.  We know that he came from a Christian family for his father was a deacon and during his captivity, he turned to God, praying night and day.  One night, in a dream he heard the voice of God tell him that a ship was ready to take him away and, after six long years of penance, prayer and suffering, he escaped.  He wrote that God had humbled him in captivity and under His special guidance was able to return to his own country.  The details of his escape are sketchy and there has been a difference of opinion regarding the port from which he made his escape however, in his own later writings, St. Patrick tells us that the port from which he sailed was about 200 (Roman) miles from Slemish.

St. Patrick's Confessio

   St. Patrick’s Confessio

When writing his Confessio many years later, St. Patrick was well acquainted with distances in Ireland, especially between Antrim and Mayo, which in his mission he had traveled many times.  Further, 200 Roman miles is about 185 English miles, and the port of Killala in Mayo happens to be about that distance from Mount Slemish.  Wicklow is also that distance but he wouldn’t be likely to head south for that would bring him along the east coast through the most populated part of the country where a runaway slave would almost certainly be re-captured.  The Tripartite states that Miliuc pursued Succat to bring him back, but the light-footed youth was able to evade his pursuers.

Killala, Mayo Round Tower

Killala, Mayo Round Tower

Another reason to favor Killala is that the Wood of Focluth was there along the shore of the western sea.  The Saint tells us more than once that it was from that Wood of Focluth that a youth (angel?) named Victoricus brought him  letters calling him back to Ireland and it was the voice of those who dwelt by the Wood of Focluth that invited him, holy youth come once more and walk among us as before.  These words imply that he stayed among people who lived by Focluth Wood for a while and that can only have been when he was escaping.  We don’t know how long he stayed at Focluth Wood before he found a ship, but he must have lodged a while  with those who took him in after his escape.  Seemingly, he was received with genuine hospitality – a tradition among the Irish.  He was a fugitive, hungry, foot-sore, and friendless, when he came seeking food and shelter.  It may have been in return for work performed, but either way it was most likely here that the runaway slave befriended the children whose voices afterwards called him back to Erin.  Still full of religious fervor and gratitude to God who was guiding his escape, he was moved by the fact that these children would grow up without knowing the true God and it is likely that here the idea first came to him of one day returning to rescue those young souls from spiritual exile by teaching them about the true God.  Gratitude was a striking trait in the character of St. Patrick, and it is most evident here.  Ever after, they were on his mind and he never rested until he turned his steps back toward the western sea, to lead them into the light of the Gospel.  It is one of the most touching incidents in the whole history of our great Apostle. Focluth Wood is one of the most interesting places referred to in the biographies of St. Patrick and its name is reflected in the modern town land of Foghill, just south of Lackan Bay.  In olden times Focluth Wood extended from the head of Lackan Bay to Killala.  Killala was, and still is, a great harbor with many quiet coves where the lighter craft of the time could easily glide in and out with the tide.  The trees of Focluth Wood surrounded these quiet coves, for as yet there was no Killala until St. Patrick later founded a church there.  It was in one of those coves, that the ship was waiting, by Divine providence, to carry the most precious passenger ever to sail from the shores of holy Ireland.

The Life and Writings of St. Patrick

The Life and Writings of St. Patrick

About two miles north, near the point where the Rathfran River enters the bay; there is a low-lying ridge of rocks, still referred to as St. Patrick’s Rocks.  Just above these rocks is the small bay where French ships, under General Humbert, landed in 1798 and that may have been where Patrick’s ship was drawn up on the sandy beach.  The Most Rev. Dr. Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, in his Life of St Patrick in 1905, wrote that his research led him to believe that the place where the ship docked was in the inner harbor of Killala, close to the spot where St. Patrick long after built a church, a remnant of which still stands.  Either way, the coast around Killala seems to fit the bill.  St. Patrick wrote that on the day the ship was about to start on her voyage, he asked to be taken on board as a passenger, but the captain angrily rebuffed him.   He left to return to the hut where he was staying and on the way, began to pray and before his prayer was finished he heard one of the crew shouting, Come back quickly, they are calling you.  St. Patrick later wrote, I immediately returned and they said to me: ‘Come with us, we will take thee in good faith,’ which Archbishop Healy interprets as meaning on credit.  In St. Patrick’s writings he refers to an unexplained tradition of servitude which he refused to do but his prayerful plea must have touched them for he wrote, I had some hope that they might come to the faith of Christ; therefore I kept with them, and forthwith we set sail.  Much of the account of the incident is obscure for the original text is corrupt.

The Tripartite states that he was bound for the Roman Province of Britain in a 3-day voyage.  Any craft of the time could easily make the western coast of Scotland or Wales (then called Britain) in three days.  Though we don’t know exactly where they landed, we do know that they had many dogs with them.  It is possible they were a hunting party heading for the Scottish highlands and the great Caledonian Forest.  We know from the bardic tales of Finn MacCool that Irish warriors often hunted in Caledonia.  Another reason for the trip could have been the sale of wolfhounds which were valued by the Romans in Britain as combat animals in games.

In his Confessio, St. Patrick wrote, After three days we made land, and then for twenty-eight days traveled through a desert.  They had no food, and were sorely pressed with hunger.  Then one day the captain said to me ‘Well, now, Christian, you say your God is great and omnipotent.  Why can you not then pray for us, for we are in danger of perishing from hunger, and we can hardly see anywhere a single human being’.  Thereupon I plainly said to them, ‘Be ye truly converted to the Lord my God, to whom nothing is impossible, that He may send food in your way and you may be filled for He hath abundance everywhere’.  And so, through God’s help, it came to pass.  A herd of swine appeared on the road before their eyes, and they killed many of them, and remained there for two nights until they were well refreshed.  Then they gave great thanks to God, and I was honored in their eyes.

Chronical of the Picts and Scots

Chronicle of the Picts and Scots

Such is St. Patrick’s account of his journey.  The story is consistent with hunters losing their way in a great forest and, seeing neither game nor men, being reduced to the verge of starvation, but St. Patrick called it a desert!  There is no great desert anywhere on the west coast from Scotland to Wales.  However, in the early fifth century, the Caledonian Forest was not a forest of tall trees as we know a forest, but rather an immense extent of scrub and bush.  It was, in truth, a barren land, as the Tripartite calls it: empty and deserted.  The question was answered by an ancient description of Scotland found in the Chronicle of the Picts and Scots published by H.M. General Register House in 1867; it mentions the mountains and deserts of Argyle!   And Succat was on his way home.

Patrick tells us no more in his Confessio about his friends from Killala. We don’t know what became of them although it is significant that he did return, not only to walk among them once more, but to build them a church.