Historical Happenings for December 2018

CHRISTMAS IN IRELAND

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

The Christmas season in Ireland was 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 small towns and villages where people still celebrate the holy feast as their ancestors had for generations.

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 an outgrowth of an Irish tradition that 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.  Some of those customs, by the way, were older than the race that ruled them, originating back to pre-Christian days, like 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.  After all, holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, so 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. During the Penal days when the Catholic religion was outlawed, 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. When an especially brave family agreed to host the celebration, 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 windows of every house 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 wreath serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors 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 cast a magical glow over the hillside like scattered jewels on Erin’s cloak of evening, the largest were the churches dotting the landscape and beckoning the faithful to Midnight Mass.  After Mass people returned home and retired for the night leaving their doors slightly ajar as a sign 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 named 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 December 26th  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.  Dressed in in old clothing and flour sacks with colored ribbons in as many combinations as imagination allows, they set off carrying the `victim’ and musical instruments centering around the Bodhran (a one sided drum) which is beaten with a wooden stick. 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’.  They are practicing a ritual that was old in western Europe before the Christian gospel was preached in the hills of Galilee. Originally of Celtic origin, 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

January 6 is Little Christmas, when the visit of the Magi, or the three wise men, is celebrated by extended family (in-laws etc.) coming to visit. It is also the day for Christmas decorations to come down, not before, or risk bad luck for the rest of the year. Another custom has been formally attached to January 6. In recognition of all the baking, cooking and preparation for Christmas done by the woman of the house, in some small-towns, women would gather on that day in each other’s homes for a few stolen hours of relaxation while the men looked after the home. Today it is recognized as Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas and is becoming more wide-spread to include all women regardless of their effort at Christmas, but for their caring devotion all year long.

Christmas is celebrated in various ways 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).

Historical Happenings for November 2018

The November Ending That Became A Beginning

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Theobold Wolfe Tone and French Fleet in Lough Swilley, County Donegal, Ireland

Inspired by the American Revolution, the United Irishmen, made up of Protestants and Catholics, rose in May, 1798 to free Ireland from England. On 21 June, France was at war with England and sent a force to aid the Irish. On 8 September, General Cornwallis met the Irish and their French allies at Ballinamuck, County Longford. Hopelessly outnumbered by a British army of 30,000, French General Humbert surrendered his 850 troops and 1000 Irish supporters. The French were repatriated back to France while the Irish were slaughtered to a man. Humbert was dismissed to a position in the French colony at New Orleans. Meanwhile, the southern part of the Rising had already been defeated at Vinegar Hill in Wexford on 21 June. Then, on 5 October, Lord Nelson defeated Bonaparte’s fleet in Egypt and Ulster Loyalists celebrated that France must now abandon all military ventures in Ireland. However, on October 12, Theobold Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, arrived off Lough Swilly with a fleet of French reinforcements in yet another attempt to jump start the revolution. They ran directly into a waiting British fleet. After a 6-hour battle, the French fleet was destroyed and Tone was captured. On 16 October, James Napper Tandy, arrived with yet another fleet of 270 French reinforcements, and landed on Rutland in Donegal where he learned that Humbert had surrendered and Tone had been taken. He wisely returned to his ship and sailed back to the continent. The four and a half month conflict had ended – or had it?

As Tone was taken to Dublin in chains, he declared, “For the cause which I have embraced, I am prouder to wear these chains than if I were decorated with the Star and Garter of England.” At his court-martial on 10 November, he said, “I have sacrificed all in life; courted poverty; left a beloved wife unprotected and children whom I adore fatherless. After such sacrifice in the cause of justice and freedom – it is no great effort to add the sacrifice of my life.”  Wolfe Tone made that sacrifice on 19 November, 1798. He was buried in Bodenstown, in the grave which Ireland cherishes as a precious possession and which future revolutionary leader Padraic Pearse called ‘the holiest place in Ireland’.

The end of the rising was followed by a brutal pattern of vengeful death and destruction. The streets of Ireland were mobbed with widows and orphans of those who had fallen in battle as Catholic homes were burned to the ground. The violence continued into 1799 with disturbances in Galway, a rising in Clare, and shootings and church burnings in Wexford and Wicklow. Unemployed British yeomen took to robbery and no one prosecuted them as long as their victims were Catholics. A wave of emigration, reaching 50,000, headed for the slums of Glasgow and Liverpool where many fell victim to successive typhus epidemics and their children went to labor in the mills and mines of England. Political prisoners sent to the penal colonies in Australia and the Indies fared even worse as many died on the voyage. Others were pressed into service in the British Navy and Army and spent their lives on foreign battlefields. Those who remained in Ireland fared no better.

As winter came and Atlantic gales lashed the coast, Irish families who’d lost all they possessed huddled together in caves and bogholes as famine followed in the wake of revolution.  The remaining rank and file of the United Irish organization were pursued and eliminated. There was so much anger over British vengeance that Robert Emmet, brother of United Irishman, Thomas Addis Emmet, led another rising five years later, although it too failed miserably. Now with the military threat removed, the British showed their true colors. They demanded a union of Ireland with England, dissolving the Irish parliament completely, even though that parliament had limited ability.  Further, there would be no more talk of concession to Catholics. Author Seumas MacManus wrote: “people were coaxed, threatened, and bribed into signing petitions in favor of Union; under promise of pardon, felons in the jails signed; everyone holding a government job had not only to sign, but was compelled to make his relatives sign.”  British Historian Lecky noted that, “though defeated session after session, the Act of Union would always be reintroduced, and that support for it would hereafter be considered the main test by which all claims to government favor would be determined.”  Finally it passed and the grimmest joke of all, according to MacManus, was that the millions paid for bribes and favors was added to Ireland’s national debt – thus was Ireland made to pay for the razor with which her own throat was cut!

Ireland remained a depressed country for another generation until Daniel O’Connell raised the cry for Catholic emancipation once more, creating an audience for the voice of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders who revived the doctrines of Wolfe Tone who was finally recognized as the Father of Modern Irish Republicanism. As Tone’s spirit of nationalism began to beat in Irish hearts once more, a poem by Davis appeared in the April 1843 edition of the nationalist newspaper, The Nation.   It was called the ‘Memory of the Dead’, and it read:

“Who fears to speak of ‘98?  Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate, who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave, or half a slave who slights his country thus;
But true men, like you men, will fill your glass with us.

And the November 1798 death of Wolfe Tone did not end the message, but only caused it to silently smolder until it burst forth in a new beginning – a beginning that has yet to end! 

Historical Happenings for October 2018

Joseph Poole

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Joseph Poole

The 1800s was a time when Fenian activity was causing both outrage and fear among England’s political establishment.  Charles Stewart Parnell had become active in the Land League and in politics after the 1874 execution of three Fenians  known as the Manchester Martyrs, believing their execution to be a gross injustice.  In October 1881, 137 years ago, the Brits declared the Land League illegal and Parnell and other leaders were arrested prompting widespread violence.  Parnell was released on 2 May 1882 after agreeing to curtail the violence.  He also secured a promise from PM Gladstone to replace the hated Chief Secretary of Ireland and to adjust rents.  Gladstone appointed Lord Cavendish as new Chief Secretary.  However, Cavendish and Under-secretary Thomas Burke were attacked and killed by a splinter group of militants known as the Irish National Invincibles in Phoenix Park, Dublin, only 4 days after Parnell’s release causing major outrage against Parnell and the nationalist cause.  Parnell condemned the murders and brought the radicals in the movement under control, although with a good degree of difficulty.  Five members of the Invincibles were later hanged for the Phoenix Park murders.

Joseph Poole, armorer for a Dublin Fenian circle, was arrested in July 1882 and charged with killing John Kenny, a Fenian, who was suspected of informing on the Invincibles.  It was alleged that Poole was a member of a Fenian group known as the Vigilance Committee, tasked with eliminating informers, though he denied this.  Poole admitted drinking with Kenny on the night of his death but denied any part in his murder and was released for lack of evidence.  However, Poole’s roommate later alleged that Poole returned to his lodgings that night saying, ‘Kenny will tell no more’.  Poole was re-arrested in December 1882 and charged again with Kenny’s murder.  The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) sought the death penalty as they suspected that Poole also had a hand in shooting dead one of their constables earlier that year. The shooting had occurred as a result of a clash between two rival Fenian factions in a dispute over control of weapons caches in Dublin.  Shots were exchanged but the only casualty was a DMP man who was inadvertently shot when he tried to intervene.  A Fenian named Dowling was later charged with the shooting and served ten years in prison.

When Poole stood trial for the killing of John Kenny, the Crown produced his brother-in-law, William Lamie, a former Fenian, who testified to the factional divisions within the movement and Poole’s role in the ‘Vigilance Committee’.  However, evidence was circumstantial and the jury was unable to reach a verdict.  A second trial was quickly arranged and the jury was ‘packed’ with government supporters to ensure a conviction.  Despite no new evidence being presented, Poole was sentenced to death on 20 November 1883. To his father who wept at the verdict, Joseph said, ‘Keep up father, keep up, I am ready to die’.  He then told the court: ‘I believe it is on account of being an enemy, humble as I am, of the Government under which I have the misfortune to live, that I have been persecuted in the manner I have been. Still I am not afraid to die, or ashamed of what has brought me to the scaffold. It is not for murder, it is for being a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that has brought me to the scaffold, and I am prepared to die for it’. Then from the dock he called for ‘Three Cheers for the Irish Republic and to Hell with English tyranny!

Poole was hanged in the Richmond Bridewell on 18 December 1883 and Father Donnegan, the priest who attended him, reported that he showed, ‘the utmost fortitude’ on the scaffold.  A black flag was raised over the walls of the prison and the watching crowd gave ‘a wailing cry’, according to the press.  His body was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison.  Poole’s case became a notorious example of injustice in Ireland in the 1880s, as it was believed he was innocent and that the verdict had been achieved by ‘packing’ the jury.  The Irish Parliamentary Party even brought up Poole’s innocence in the House of Commons.  However, public opinion was really aroused when it was learned that Poole’s conviction was attempted by perjury.  Frank Grundy, a Fenian and friend of Poole, on completion of a two year prison sentence in August 1884, claimed that he had been twice approached by authorities and offered freedom if he falsely implicated Poole in the killing of John Kenny.  Grundy refused.  It was also learned that Lizzy Kearns, Grundy’s sweetheart, had also been approached by DMP Superintendent John Mallon and offered her boyfriend’s freedom if she swore falsely; she too refused.

Poole, the last man to be hanged in the Richmond Bridewell, became a potent symbol of misgovernment in 19th century Ireland.  During work on the prison in the 1890s, as part of its conversion into Wellington Barracks, Poole’s body was discovered in a casket marked ‘J.P.’.  His father recently dead, Poole’s mother and sisters petitioned Dublin Castle to reclaim the body and give it a proper burial.  John Mallon of the DMP denied their request and the body was reburied in another anonymous site within the Barracks.  The Poole family maintained their republican tradition and four of his brothers served in the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising.  In 1958, three of Poole’s younger brothers, by that time quite elderly, approached the Irish Army garrison at what was by then Griffith Barracks, with an exhumation order from the Department of Defence to exhume Poole’s remains for a belated decent burial.  However, despite a day of digging, nothing was found.  So, a plaque was erected to his memory in Griffith Barracks in 1968 by the National Graves Association.  Later put in storage, the plaque was re-intalled in 2007, following correspondence between the Poole family and Diarmuid Hegarty, President of Griffith College. Though we may never be able to lay a wreath on his lost resting place, we are not prevented from remembering him in our prayers as one of the patriots of his native land.

Historical Happenings for July 2018 – “America’s Irish”

AMERICA’S IRISH

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

Signing of the Declaration of Independence – 1776

Independence Day, July 4, is America’s biggest holiday. It’s her birthday; but it doesn’t mark the day she won her independence, it marks the day when it was declared. And the Irish were there! We’ve often heard of the Irish in America’s Patriot Army, but there were also those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier yet contributed in other ways. The military won the war, but who supported the march to the battlefield? It was the settlers, merchants and community leaders who were the real shapers of our destiny, for they dreamed the dream, organized its creation, and financed its success.

In the late 1700s, England’s American colonies suffered increased Crown exploitation driving them to protest; among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. And there were many Irish in the American colonies; they had been coming since the 1650s. The first major influx came to New England in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as servants. From then on, the shipment of men, women and children as indentured servants was common practice. Among the first to come of their own volition were those who fought the English theft of their lands and ended up hunted men. They were followed by Catholics and Presbyterians who fled discrimination by the Church of England and lastly, by businessmen escaping the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown to benefit their British competitors. The destruction of the Irish wool trade ruined countless families all over Ireland, while destruction of the Irish linen trade reduced the population of Ulster by tens of thousands. They came to America with their looms and spinning wheels, before the start of the American Revolution, bringing an industry that would be important to the nation awaiting birth.

In the beginning, they came in such large numbers that one Massachusetts Court, fearing the “malignant spirit that has from time to time been manifest by the Irish against the English,” prohibited the Irish from its jurisdiction and fined anyone who should buy an Irishman and bring him in. But they came anyway. Some altered their names and settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down. They also settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord and where Capt. Maginnis commanded the militia; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish-American John Stark and Wicklow-born Matthew Lyon; in Maine, home of the O’Briens, who would capture the first British ship in the war that was yet to come; and in Pennsylvania, founded by Wm Penn who grew up in Co. Cork and where Thompson’s Rifle Battalion became the First Regiment of the new Continental Army as Wexford-born William Thompson was appointed its first Brigadier-General on 1 March 1776.

They became the majority in many communities in Pennsylvania where a 1729 table of immigrants shows: 267 English, 43 Scots, 243 Germans, and 5,655 Irish. In 1728, it was reported that most of the 4,500 who landed at New Castle, Delaware were Irish. Philadelphia likewise reported that 3,500 people from Ireland had arrived in the first two weeks of August, 1772. The city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was Stephen Moylan of Co Cork ─ soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 1773, Irish immigration to the American colonies was more than 18,500 and most were anxious to be rid of British colonialism.

There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Patrick Henry, Thomas McKean and other Irish-American orators used their eloquence to urge separation from England. When confrontations became frequent, it seemed that the Irish were always in the middle of it. Among those killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr; Boston Tea Party participants met at an inn owned by man named Duggan; and the tea was dumped at Griffin’s Wharf by a group dressed as Indians, some of whom had a notably Irish accents. While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, raised money to feed and clothe the army and advance the credit of the new government. Tyrone-born Oliver Pollack personally donated more than $300,000. (close to 4.5 million today), only France and Holland gave more.

On July 1, 1776 after a year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. Some wanted to settle grievances and resume amicable relations with the Crown; others opposed them, including four Irish-born members of the Constitutional Convention and six members of Irish descent. A resolution was presented which read, “Be it resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” After much heated debate, the vote was indecisive. They met again on July 2 to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question. On July 3, John Adams wrote to his wife that: July second was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever. However, approval of the final draft of the document did not occur until two days later. On 4 July, the Philadelphia State House was packed, despite a sweltering heat, as Secretary Charles Thomson of Co, Derry read the formal document that Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Livingston had composed, and that he (Thomson) had drafted. It was a declaration explaining why their action was justified. After a full day of debate, modifying copy and amendments, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete.

The formal copy would not be ready for signature until August, but the public first heard that document read on 8 July 1776 by Col. John Nixon, son of a Co. Wexford immigrant. Philadelphia printer Charles Dunlap of Co. Tyrone rolled out copies that were snatched up before the ink was dry. And that is the event marked by the 4th of July ─ not the winning, but the declaring of our independence on a document. There would be many more years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on 10 March 1783, but America had made her stand. That last battle, by the way, saw Wexford-born Commodore John Barry defeat the British ship Sybil. He had been carrying a cargo of gold with which Congress would establish the new Bank of North America with the help of Wicklow-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.

Yes the Irish were there, and the fact that that they made loyal Americans was evidenced by François Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux, a Major General in the French expeditionary force led by general Comte de Rochambeau. After the Revolution, Marquis de Chastellux wrote: An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, English and Scots were treated with distrust even with the best of attachment for the cause, but the native of Ireland stood in need of no other certificate than his accent. While the Irish emigrant was fighting for America on land and sea, Irish merchant’s purses were always open and their persons devoted to the country’s cause, and on more than one imminent occasion Congress itself, and the very existence of America, owed its preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.

It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington at a St Patrick’s Day dinner in 1828. He said: Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the day of our gloom, and of our glory, shared in our misfortunes and joined in our successes; With undaunted courage (they) breasted the storm which once threatened to overwhelm us; and with aspirations deep and fervent for our cause, whether in the shock of liberty’s battles, or in the feeble expiring accents of famine and misery, cried from their hearts ‘God Save America’. Then honored be the good old service of the sons of Erin in the war of Independence. Let the shamrock be entwined with the laurels of the Revolution, and truth and justice, guiding the pen of history, inscribe on the tablets of American remembrance ‘Eternal Gratitude to Irishmen.’ GWP Custis also asked the favor that when St Patrick’s Day is annually celebrated, that some generous Irishman would place a shamrock on his grave and say, God Bless Him. Up to a few years ago, a sprig of shamrock was planted on his grave by the Washington DC AOH as they said in chorus, God Bless Him!

Historical Happenings for June 2018

From Dublin Drunk to Servant of God

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

In June the world celebrates Bloomsday, a day in the life of James Joyce’s fictional character, Leopold Bloom, as he walked the back streets of Dublin – an exercise in self indulgence which most do for the craic (merriment). 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, Matt 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, a few years earlier; 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 an off-color 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 sharing his wages until June 7, 1925. On his way to Mass, Matt Talbot suffered a massive heart attack and died on a Dublin street. While undressing his body, hospital attendants found a heavy chain around his waist, another around his arm, and yet another around his leg; he had worn them beneath his clothes as a reminder that he was a slave to Jesus. This remarkable discovery prompted an inquiry which disclosed a secret life of devotion and penance. His room had no more than the bare necessities of a monastic cell: an iron bed, a slab of wood for a mattress, covered with a half-blanket, a chair, table and 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 may have remained unknown; instead, he became an inspiration to those who feel too weak to turn their backs on earthly pleasures. As his story spread, he became an icon for Ireland’s Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and soon became known to Irish communities and addiction clinics, youth hostels and more, from Nebraska to Warsaw to Sydney, have been named after him.

Today, there is a Matt Talbot Movement, under the direction of the Redemptorists, which consists of more than 144,000 people in Ireland, America, and Canada. And the source of that inspiration is Matt Talbot, a drunk who grew up in Leopold Bloom’s Dublin. A leader of Ireland’s Transport and General Workers Union, Stephen McGonagle, describes him as a beacon of light to Irish workers. A statue of Matt Talbot now stands at the south end of the Liffey by the bridge named after him. In 1931, a sworn inquiry was opened into claims of holiness; in 1947 the Apostolic Process at the Vatican began; in 1952 his remains were reinterred in a vault beneath the O’Connell monument at Glasnevin cemetery; and on October 3, 1975 Pope Paul VI declared him Venerable Matt Talbot, the first step on the road to sainthood – not bad for a one-time drunken Dublin dock walloper who finally found God.

Historical Happenings for March 2018

MARCH’S SIBLINGS FOR FREEDOM

By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Terence James MacSwiney (McSweeney) was born on 28 March 1879.  Playwright, author and politician, in 1901 he helped found the Celtic Literary Society and in 1908 the Cork Dramatic Society and wrote several plays. He also wrote pamphlets on Irish history. His writings in Irish Freedom brought him to the attention of the IRB and he became a founder of the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and President of the Cork branch of Sinn Féin. He founded a newspaper, Fianna Fáil, in 1914, but it was suppressed after 11 issues. In 1916, he was to be second in command of the Easter Rising locally, but stood down on the order of Eoin MacNeill. In the internment sweep following the rising, he was imprisoned in Wakefield, moved to Frongoch, called ‘The University of Revolution’ and finally to Reading Jail, where he remained until December 1916. On his release, he resumed activity with the Volunteers and was again lifted in February 1917.  He was in internment camps until in June 1917. He returned to Cork and in November 1917, was arrested for wearing an Irish Republican Army uniform. Inspired by Thomas Ashe, he went on a hunger strike and was released four days later. In the December, 1918 general election at the end of WWI, he was elected unopposed as TD for Mid-Cork and took an active part in the formation of the first Dáil Eireann serving on the Foreign Affairs committee organizing the Dáil loan to finance the Republican government. His friend Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor of Cork on March 20, 1920, but was murdered in his home by disguised members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. MacSwiney was then elected Lord Mayor of Cork to succeed him.

On 12 August 1920, he was arrested for possessing seditious documents, court martialed and sentenced to two years’ in Brixton Prison. He immediately started a hunger strike to protest being tried by a military court. Eleven Republican prisoners in Cork Jail went on hunger strike with him. On the 39th day of his hunger strike, he wrote in a letter to Cathal Brugha, If I die I know the fruit will exceed the cost a thousand fold. The thought of it makes me happy. I thank God for it. Ah, Cathal, the pain of Easter week is properly dead at last. The pain he referred to was his anguish at not having played a part in the 1916 Easter Rising. He also wrote, It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer. On 26 August, as Thomas starved, the British felt that the release of the Lord Mayor would probably lead to a mutiny of both military and police in Ireland. MacSwiney’s hunger strike gained world-wide attention. The British government was threatened with a boycott of British goods by America, while four countries in South America appealed to the Pope to intervene; protests were also held in Germany and France. An Australian member of Parliament, Hugh Mahon, was expelled from the Australian parliament after condemning the actions of the British.

MacSwiney died on 25 October 1920 after 74 days on hunger strike. His death brought him and the Irish struggle to international attention. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru took inspiration from MacSwiney’s example and Mahatma Gandhi counted him among his influences. Even future North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, who was working in London at the time of MacSwiney’s death, said of him, A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.

Nine years his senior, Terence’s sister Mary had also been born in March; on the 21st in 1872.  After the death of their mother, she became the maternal caretaker of her baby brothers and sister and was as much a patriot as they were in later life sharing MacSwiney values and courage. Educated in the Ursuline Convent, she trained as a teacher at Cambridge University. She taught in Cork where she became a founding member of the suffragist Munster Women’s Franchise League and a member of the Gaelic League. In 1914, she helped found Cumann na mBan and became President of the Cork branch and National Vice-President of the organization for which she was also interned after the 1916 Rising. As a result of her imprisonment, Mary lost her teaching job and in 1917 she and her sister Annie founded St. Ita’s School for girls in Cork City, a sister-school to Padraic Pearse’s St. Enda’s in Dublin, where all subjects were taught in Irish. In 1917, she joined Sinn Féin and in 1918 was elected to the First Dáil for Cork. She was Vice-President of Cumann na mBan when they voted against supporting the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. She was also appointed to the Cabinet of the Second Dáil in 1922 and was twice imprisoned during the Civil War fighting on the side of a full independent 32-county Ireland. Like her brother, she underwent a 21-day hunger-strike in Mountjoy Jail. On 21 November 1922, her younger sister, Annie, was refused permission to see Mary so she  encamped at the prison gates and went on hunger strike as well!  Mary was released, but retaken again and held in Kilmainham Jail where this time she went on a 24-day hunger-strike. After her release she continued to maintain a republican position until her death on 8 March 1942; by then she was vice-president of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan.

Their brother Seán, also born in March, on the 19th in 1878, was an officer in the IRA and Sinn Féin politician. During the Irish War of Independence, he served as an officer in Cork No 1 Brigade. Captured in 1921, he was sentenced to death, later commuted to 15 years’ penal servitude, but in April 1921, he escaped. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and during the Irish Civil War, was quartermaster for the 1st Southern Division of the anti-Treaty IRA and served on the IRA executive. He evaded capture until after the IRA called a cease fire. In 1933, standing on a Republican ticket, he was elected to the Cork Corporation and died at Glenvera hospital, Cork on 22 January, 1942.  The month of March was a big month for birthdays in the MacSwiney household and they all had a part in Ireland’s birthday.

Historical Happenings for February 2018

A PROMISE FULFILLED

By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Stagg Grave

Republican Plot Memorial, Leigue Cemetery, Ballina, Co. Mayo

On 12 February, 1976, Ireland lost a patriot son.  His name was Frank Stagg of County Mayo.  He was from a long line of Irish patriots as his father had fought in both the War of Independence and the Civil War.  In the 1970s, Frank emigrated to London, where he worked as a bus conductor.  He joined Sinn Féin in 1972 and shortly thereafter joined the IRA.  In April 1973, he was arrested in Coventry and, under archaic Conspiracy Laws used to convict IRA members when there was a lack of hard evidence, Frank Stagg, Father Patrick Fell, and five others were convicted of conspiracy to commit arson and given 10-year sentences.  Taken to Albany Prison, Frank was frequently punished with solitary confinement for claiming political prisoner status and refusing to don the uniform or do the work assigned to criminals.

In March 1974, he was moved to Parkhurst Prison, with fellow Mayo man Michael Gaughan.  Together, they joined a hunger strike in support of the fight begun by Marion and Dolores Price in Brixton prison demanding political prisoner status and repatriation to Ireland to be near family.  All were force fed by authorities, despite the fact that such methods had been condemned by Amnesty International and the Court of Human Rights.  Eventually, the strikers were repatriated to Northern Ireland except for a few that included Stagg and Gaughan.  Both men continued to suffer forced feeding.  According to the National Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee, six to eight guards would restrain the prisoner and drag him or her by the hair to the top of the bed, where they would stretch the (back of the) prisoner’s neck over the metal rail, force a block between his or her teeth and then pass a feeding tube, which extended down the throat, through a hole in the block.  After 64 days of this torture, Michael Gaughan died on June 3 at age 24 weighing just 84 pounds.  The Brits said he died of pneumonia, but it was found that he died from infection by food lodged in a lung punctured by a feeding tube.

His coffin, draped in the same Tricolor that was used for hunger-strike Mayor Terence McSwiney’s funeral 54 years earlier, was carried in solemn procession across Ireland to Leigue Cemetery in Ballina where he was given a full military burial and laid to rest in the Republican plot.  Thousands turned out to pay their respects in Dublin and along the route to his final resting place in Mayo.

Following Gaughan’s death, negotiations began and the hunger strike was called off.  But the talks were a ruse just to halt the strike and prevent more deaths which were being highly publicized.  Instead of meeting the prisoner’s demands, the authorities moved Frank Stagg to a solitary confinement punishment cell in Wakefield Prison, where he remained under 23-hour lockdown with no furniture, radio, newspapers nor cigarettes, and was prevented from sleeping by a bright light in his cell day and night.  On 14 December 1975, a worn Frank Stagg began his final hunger strike for repatriation.  He battled starvation for 62 days before he died on 12 February 1976 – again from forced feeding.  His last request was to be buried next to my republican colleagues and comrade, Michael Gaughan. Embarrassed by the public demonstration at Gaughan’s funeral, the Fine Gael/Labour Government moved to avoid the prospect of another high-profile funeral of an IRA Volunteer.

As Stagg’s widow and friends waited at Dublin airport to receive his remains as instructed, the plane carrying Frank’s body home flew right over them.  It had been diverted to Shannon where Gardaí Special Branch seized the coffin.  It was removed by helicopter to a small cemetery near Ballina and buried far from the Republican Plot under massive state security, on Feb 21, 1976.  1,600 police and soldiers couldn’t stop the IRA from firing a volley of shots over the grave in Frank’s honor as 6 to 7 thousand people threw rocks at the police and soldiers at the funeral.  As far away as America, 3,000 people marched through New York City and over 1,000 attended a special mass in Boston for the martyred patriot.

In Ballina, the grave was filled with six feet of concrete and a 24-hour guard was posted to prevent the removal of the coffin and the fulfillment of Stagg’s last wish.   A Requiem Mass was allowed to the family, but they boycotted it in protest.  The following Sunday, the Republican Movement held its own ceremony at the republican Plot, despite a massive police presence.  A volley was fired following an oration by the late Joe Cahill who made an emotional promise to the fallen patriot.  He said: I pledge that we will assemble here again in the near future when we have taken your body from where it lies.  Let there be no mistake about it, we will take it, Frank, and we will leave it resting side by side with your great comrade, Michael Gaughan.

For six months, all was quiet and the government, finding it hard to justify the expense of a 24-hour guard on a dead IRA volunteer, removed the guard.  Then, on the night of November 6th, 1976, a group came to dig a grave in the plot next to the Stagg grave, presumably preparing for a new burial.  The plot had actually been purchased months earlier by Frank’s brother, George.  When the grave was deep enough, they tunneled horizontally, beneath the concrete covering Frank Stagg’s coffin, and quietly removed it.  Frank Stagg was re-buried as he had wished, next to Michael Gaughan in the Republican plot, where a Catholic Priest led a litany of prayers and his comrades fired a volley of shots over him.  In his honor, Seamus Robinson of Belfast, who had written the song TAKE ME HOME TO MAYO for Michael Gaughan, composed a song BRAVE FRANK STAGG. Today there are 3 graves with the Stagg name on them: The empty concreted grave with the original tombstone, an empty grave bought by his brother, and a Republican grave next to that of Michael Gaughan where Frank now rests and where Sinn Fein annually makes pilgrimages.  Joe Cahill had kept his promise.

Historical Happenings for January 2018

JOHN O’NEILL

by Mike McCormack, AOH Historian

On 8 January, 1878 – 140 years ago – General John O’Neill breathed his last in Omaha, Nebraska.  Today, his memorial is greater than a tombstone and even greater than a monument – it’s an entire City!  O’Neill, Nebraska is the county seat of Holt County and Nebraska’s Irish Capital; it also has the world’s largest permanent shamrock, made of green-tinted concrete, covering the entire main intersection of the city. Who was this man that he be remembered so proudly?

John O’Neill was born in Drumgallon, Co. Monaghan, on 9 March 1834 to John and Mary O’Neill. His father died six weeks before he was born. His mother, unable to make a living in Ireland, emigrated to the United States in 1835 with two children, settling in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  John stayed with his grandfather, a staunch supporter of Irish Nationalism with a deep hatred of Englands presence in Ireland.  The grandfather saw to it that his grandson received a good education and made sure that he knew Irish history.  In December 1848, at 14, filled with his grandfather’s views on England, John left to join his mother.  After arriving in New Jersey he completed his education and took a job with a Catholic publishing company as a salesman.  He traveled throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. 

In 1855, he settled in Richmond, Virginia and opened a bookstore.  To meet other Irish exiles who shared his antipathy toward England, he joined the local branch of the Emmet Monument Association founded to train men who would free Ireland.  In 1857, he enlisted in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons and served in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), afterward moving to California where he met his future wife Mary Crow, an Australian of Irish parentage.  He later joined the 1st Cavalry and from March to July of 1862 served as a sergeant in the American Civil War’s Peninsular Campaign.  On 27 June, O’Neill was promoted from sergeant to second lieutenant for gallantry.  In 1863 he was promoted to first lieutenant in the Fifth Indiana Cavalry for his courageous leadership.  In December, he received a citation for bravery at Walker’s Ford, where he was wounded in the leg.  In the summer of 1864 he was appointed Captain in the 17th United States Colored Infantry, but was forced to resign due to the wound received the previous year.  Later that year he married Mary and settled in Nashville where they had three children over a span of ten years.

While in Tennessee, O’Neill reconnected with the Emmet Monument Association which had now become the Fenian Brotherhood.  When the Fenians split over the best way to free Ireland, he aligned himself with the group who wanted to invade Canada and hold it hostage for Ireland’s freedom.  He said, I have always believed in striking at England wherever we could reach her, and wherever the English flag floats and the English government is recognized and there are English soldiers in arms to defend the flag and maintain the government.  I hold that the Irish people, particularly the Irish Exiles whom her oppressive laws have driven from their native land, have a right to go there and make war on England.

General Tom Sweeny, a native of County Cork, was in charge of a plan which included a series of co-coordinated raids from Chicago, Buffalo and Maine.  Command of the Buffalo expedition was entrusted to O’Neill who crossed the Niagara River at the head of 800 men on the night of 31 May 1866 and captured Fort Erie.  He moved to Ridgeway where he defeated a British and Canadian force.  In the end the invasion was stopped by U.S. authorities who blocked supplies and reinforcements at the border.  The other crossings were also stopped.  Ridgeway made O’Neill a Fenian hero as it was the only success in the many Fenian campaigns against Canada.  The Brotherhood appointed him ‘General of the Irish Republican Army.’ and he became president at the end of 1867.  After two more failed attempts in May 1870 and October 1871, he turned his attention to his other great passion – the resettlement of Irish families from the slums of eastern cities.

He traveled throughout the west in search of the best place to settle and decided on Nebraska as it possessed an abundance of pure water, fertile land and millions of acres of free government land.  In 1874, O’Neill embarked on a lecture tour along the east coast, offering his impoverished countrymen a better standard of living if they would resettle with him in Nebraska.  He was convinced they could succeed in rural America better than in the poverty of the miserable slums in which they then resided.  In his lectures, he quoted from the writing of the Reverend Stephen Byrne, OSD, Let the crowded tenement houses of eastern cities, where the very atmosphere is poisoned by the occupancy in one house of 20 to 40 families and where morality itself is greatly endangered on account of association that cannot be avoided, answer.  Let the unnamed and unnumbered graves along the canals and railroads of the United States, answer.  Let the forlorn and forgotten creatures who, having neither homes nor friends, lie down and die in the common hospitals of the country, answer.  The response comes home to us in a hundred forms that as a people, while doing more than any other to build up this great Republic, we have been negligent, not to say reckless, in regard to our individual interests.

O’Neill set up the first Irish colony in Nebraska in Holt County in the city that today bears his name – O’Neill, Nebraska. His second colony in Greenley County was seen by him as just the start of many that would cover America’s plains with Irish families.  His legacy still exists in those successful farming communities especially in the spirit of Irish generosity that is part of their culture today.  In 1877 while on a speaking tour, John O’Neill the consummate Irish and American patriot, became ill and returned home to Nebraska.  His condition continued to deteriorate and after being admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Omaha in November, he suffered a stroke and died on 8 January 1878.

Historical Happenings for December 2017

SANTA CLAUS SLEEPS IN IRELAND

by Mike McCormack, AOH Historian

St. Nicholas was a fourth century native of Patara which, at the time was Greek and is now on the south coast of Turkey. He was very generous and devoted his significant inheritance to works of charity B especially to orphaned children. He became a monk, an abbot, then an Archbishop. In December, 342, he went home to God and was later canonized by the Church. His unselfish life was so inspiring that in his memory people continued his generosity each year on the anniversary of his passing. Thus was kept alive his spirit of giving and the legend of Santa Claus (sant niclaus) was born. As long as his spirit of generosity lives on, so too does Santa Claus as his story spread across Europe and eventually the world. Centuries after his passing, the bones of St. Nicholas were re-interred in Bari, Italy where they are honored to this day. However that is not the end of the story.

Centuries after St. Nicholas passing, the Normans invaded and settled in Ireland. When Pope Urban II called for volunteers to join a crusade to free the Holy Land, Norman knights who had settled in Kilkenny were among those who answered the call, joining Normans from many other lands, including Italy. Upon their return to Ireland in the 1300’s, two of the Normans brought with them all or part of the earthly remains of St. Nicholas and had them re-interred in the Church of St Nicholas in the village of Newtown, according to stories in the 1997 issue of the Co. Kilkenny Review; the December, 2002 issue of the Cork Holly Bough; and website www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/ireland.

Church of St Nicholas

Church of St Nicholas

The church of St. Nicholas fell to ruin by the 17th century. However, it is known that the Normans were keen collectors of religious relics supporting the story that Irish Normans could have bartered all or part of the relics for their own Church of St Nicholas. Further, Newtown was the home of Jerpoint Abbey, a launching point for Irish-Norman crusaders and the ruined church, just west of the Abbey, contains an unusual grave slab dating to the 1300’s. It is carved with an image of a Bishop and two heads. The Bishop is said to be St. Nicholas and the two heads are the two Crusaders who brought his remains to Ireland. We may never know the names of the Crusaders, but this famous poem by Bill Watkins commemorates the story:

Tomb of St. Nicholas

Tomb of St. Nicholas

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus?
To what holy spot each pilgrim draws?
Which crypt conceals his pious remains
safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?
It’s not in Rome his body lies
nor under Egypt’s azure skies;
not in Constantinople nor Madrid
his reliquary and bones are hid.
That saint protector of the child
whose relics pure lie undefiled;
his casket safe within it’s shrine
where shamrocks grow and rose entwine.
Devout wayfarer, cease your search
for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulcher is found
enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.
So traveler rest and pray a while
to the patron saint of orphaned child
whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore
safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.
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.

Historical Happenings for November 2017

The Boys of Kilmichael

By Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

Tom Barry of the Third Cork Brigade

On 21 November 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, Tom Barry O/C of the Third Cork Brigade of the Republican forces, sent word to mobilize for a major attack.  Those mobilized into Barry’s flying column numbered 36 and were armed with an assortment of weapons; Lee Enfield rifles bought or stolen from British troops, Canadian Ross rifles taken from the coast guard, an assortment of revolvers, shotguns and some grenades. They had about 35 rounds per man which, by Flying Column standards at a time when guerrilla tactics were still being defined, was a large, well armed unit.

Their target was a company of the ruthless paramilitary unit of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) known as Auxiliaries – tough veterans of the First World War, sent to Ireland to put down the spreading republican insurrection. Auxiliary ‘C Company’ was based at Macroom Castle and since their arrival in West Cork, they had brutalized much of the local population with their aggressive raiding and arrests of local men. They also shot and killed one local civilian as he fled from one of their sweeps. They were clearly in the sights of the Cork Brigades.

After a day’s marauding, the Auxiliaries had been taking the same road back to Macroom – passing through a townland named Kilmichael. Barry chose Kilmichael for a fight to the death with these Auxiliaries; the positions he chose allowed  no retreat… As Barry said, the alternative was to kill or be killed to see to it that these terrorists die and are broken.  The place selected for the ambush was a bend in a narrow road running through marshy land with no fences but back a bit off the road were fairly large rock formations. This was not to be a hit and run attack. The Flying Squad, poorly armed and barely trained, would surprise the Auxies’ lorries and sweep them with fire at close range. With no getaway route, it was do or die.

Monument in memory of the Kilmichael Ambush site in County Cork

Barry’s force marched in pouring rain through the night to the ambush site.  Barry divided them into squads; one facing the enemy force as they approached and two others pouring in fire from the flanks at each of two expected lorries. Another squad of six riflemen was kept in reserve, at a point from which they could fire on both ambush sites.  Three unarmed scouts nervously kept watch at the approaches to the site. The drenched men had a long and uncomfortable wait in the biting cold. They had  no food since the day before apart from a ‘bucket of tea’ sent down by a local household. They lay in wait all day and were chilled to the bone by the late afternoon. As the gloom of the winter’s night began to draw in at about half past four, two Auxiliary lorries were spotted by the scouts.

What happened next was a remarkably well executed guerrilla action on the part of Tom Barry. Yet the Auxiliaries, commanded by Lt. Francis Crake, who had served in WWI, should have known better than to let their movements become so predictable they could fall into an ambush.  But they fell into a very carefully prepared trap.  Kilmichael was a brutal close-quarters fight, as fierce in intensity as anything in a conventional war. When the first lorry reached the bend in the road, Barry threw a grenade into the cab, killing the driver. Simultaneously, it was blasted at point blank range by the hidden riflemen. The surprised Auxiliaries in the first lorry stood no chance at all. In close range fire and hand to hand combat, all nine Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed.  Revolvers  at point blank range and at times, rifle butts were used. In less than five minutes they were all dead or dying sprawled around the road.

At the same time the second lorry had been engaged by the other ambush party and was taking heavy fire at close range. The men in this position had let the first lorry pass and opened up on the second. The ‘Auxies’ who survived the initial fusillade flung themselves to the side of the road and were desperately trying to fire back.  Barry had given orders to fix bayonets and charge the road when he gave three blasts on his whistle. Jack Hennessey heard the three blasts and got up from his position, shouting “hands up” to one of the Auxies who had thrown down his rifle as if surrendering.  Suddenly the Auxie drew his revolver; Hennessey shot him dead and got back to cover.  According to Tim Keohane, some of the Auxies faked a surrender only to open fire when Barry’s men emerged from cover to take them prisoner.  Barry called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands; but when the squad moved on to the road, the Auxiliaries opened fire wounding John Lordan and Jack Hennessy.  Tom Barry in his memoir makes this ‘false surrender trick’ the kernel of his narrative of the fight. According to him, this was a deliberate action on the part of the Auxiliaries and two Volunteers were killed as a result of it. He later wrote that at this point,  I gave the order “rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you!  Several more Auxiliaries were killed, two while trying to flee the scene, before others shouted ‘we surrender’.  But, Having seen more than enough of their surrender tactics, Barry wrote, I shouted the order, “keep firing on them”. ‘ According to Barry, they kept firing until none were left alive.  After brutal hand to hand combat, 3 IRA and 17 Auxiliaries lay dead.

The aftermath of the Kilmichael ambush, were two burnt out Crossley tenders and 16 Auxiliary bodies (the IRA took their slain with them).  The reaction of British troops and Auxiliaries coming on the scene was intense; by way of revenge they burned all the houses in the surrounding area.  The Kilmichael ambush came just a week after Bloody Sunday, in which Michael Collins’ Squad in Dublin had shot dead 14 British spies and the British retaliated by opening fire on a football crowd, killing 14 innocent civilians.  This was a profound escalation of the War of Independence.

Kilmichael sparked a war of words ever since. To the British it was a ‘brutal massacre’; to Irish nationalists it was a well-deserved victory. Popular ballads still sing of The Boys of Kilmichael and the movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley was based on it.   However, Barry’s tactics at Kilmichael  were highly risky and the IRA could not afford to gamble in this way with the lives of its relatively few experienced fighters. It was much more common for ambushes to take place at distance with good escape routes into rugged country. And though there were other cases of the IRA shooting prisoners, it was far more common for them to disarm captured British troops or police and let them go.  Nor was wiping out enemy detachments something that only the IRA did.  At Clonmult in February 1921, an IRA column of 20 men was captured after being surrounded in a farm house. Twelve were killed (at least seven after surrendering) and 8 only survived because a British officer stopped the Auxiliaries from shooting them.  Similarly at Selton Hill in Leitrim in March 1921, an IRA camp was surprised on a hilltop. Six Volunteers were killed. According to IRA leader Ernie O’Malley, two of the dead were beaten to death with rifle butts while wounded.  There were also four bound prisoners shot dead on Killaloe Bridge in November 1920.

The controversy over whether or not there was a ‘false surrender’ at Kilmichael or whether Barry massacred the surrendering Auxiliaries is still being argued, but the fact remains they were an alien force terrorizing a country in which they didn’t belong!

Thanks to John Dorney whose account in The Irish Story provided the basis for this presentation.