If only those old bones could tell their story

Irish Central‘s Cathy Hayes has posted two stories about how cholera epidemics in the 1830s claimed the lives of Irish citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.

In an odd coincidence, the resulting mass graves are each next to railways.

One story is about Duffy’s Cut, a stretch of railroad 30 miles west of Philadelphia. There’s an ongoing dispute as to whether the nearly 60 workers interred in the small plot next to the tracks died of cholera, were murdered for fear of carrying the infection, or a combination of both.

Dan Barry of The New York Times wrote an excellent piece about Duffy’s Cut in March 2013. An hour-long PBS documentary is posted below.

The other story details the recent discovery of a mass grave in Dublin city center, near a Luas tram line expansion project. The burial plot is believed to be overflow from a nearby hospital cemetery that was unable to handle the death toll as the disease ripped through Dublin’s squalid tenements more than 180 years ago.

Experts are still examining how much the planned construction will disturb the burial site, and it remains unknown how many people were interred in the mass grave.

Whatever you say, say nothing

The title and best known line of a Seamus Heaney poem has found its way into The Irish Timespolitical coverage of the east Belfast murder of Kevin McGuigan. Here’s the headline:

Fine Gael adopts ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ approach to NI murder

Police authorities have said some of those involved in the 6 August shooting may have ties to the Provisional IRA, even if the organization didn’t order the murder. Either way could cause problems for affiliated Sinn Féin. But as the Times story notes:

The Fine Gael side of the Coalition has adopted an uncharacteristic “whatever you say, say nothing” approach to the potential political fallout for Sinn Féin …

It is something of a delicate situation for the Government. Facing into a bruising general election campaign with Sinn Féin doing well in opinion polls, the temptation to milk political capital out of the situation must be strong.

On the other hand, as Sinn Féin frequently reminds it, the Government is a co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement. To allow itself to be portrayed as a player which jeopardised the continuance of the peace process would be damaging for Government TDs in the Border region and beyond.

Heaney, who died in 2013, wrote “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” in 1975, during the worst part of The Troubles. Here’s the relevant stanza:

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

My wife is fond of quoting the very next line: “Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us.”

Here’s the full poem.

Aer Lingus sale finalized

The Irish Times on 18 August 2015 reports:

It’s the end of an era as more than 95 per cent of Aer Lingus shareholders vote in favour of an acquisition by British Airways owner IAG, thus formally bringing to an end almost 80 years of state involvement in the airline. … The €1.5bn sale is now irreversible.

Old letter raises questions about Kerry’s Lartigue monorail

“I regret to say that some day you need not be surprised if an appalling accident is reported to you.”
      William Shortis letter of 16 August 1905 to Transport Ministry

The 1905 letter quoted above and reproduced below was written by Ballybunion merchant William Shortis. The building he operated from in the late 19th and early 20th century, pictured on his letterhead, still stands in the northwest Kerry town, now run as a pub.

Shortis was writing to Transport Ministry officials in London about safety concerns for the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway (L&BR), a unique 9-mile monorail that operated between the two towns from 1888 to 1924. The line was affectionately known as the Lartigue, after its French inventor, Charles Lartigue.


Shortis was the Lartigue’s Ballybunion station manager for some period during the line’s first decade or so of operation. The distance between the station and his shop was barely a 5-minute walk. Shortis wrote about the Lartigue in the January-June, 1898 issue of Strand Magazine, a popular London-based publication of general interest articles and fiction. His descriptions of Ballybunion were pure tourism marketing: “…for no finer place to spend a holiday could be selected–what with good hotels, splendid bathing and grand scenery, etc., there is nothing to be desired.”

Most of the article, headlined “A Single-Line Railway,” detailed the Lartigue’s odd-looking rolling stock, which draped saddle-style over 3-meter-high, A-shaped trestles, and other aspects of the monorail’s operation. The train traveled about 10 to 15 mph, and Shortis wrote that each piece of rolling stock was fitted with Westinghouse air brakes.

Which brings us back to his 1905 letter, which alleges “the trains were run without any brakes being on them.” Shortis was not the only one to make such a claim to the Transport Ministry. Jeremiah McAuliffe, a self-described former “general mechanic” of the L&BR for 18 years (approximately to the 1888 opening of the line) wrote to the ministry on 17 August 1905, the day after Shortis. “Thousands of lives on the mercy of the Lord traveling on a railway without a brake,” McAuliffe wrote. He said the train only had hand brakes, that the Westinghouse air brakes hadn’t worked “in years.” He also suggested the train had a recent accident.

Shortis store in approximately 1901.

Shortis store in Ballybunion, circa 1901, is still there today.

I viewed both these letters (and several earlier letters from Shortis making similar complaints) during my 24 July 2015 visit to the National Archives in Kew, outside London. The file, referenced here, contains material from 1887 to 1907, including the railway’s initial inspection report of 2 March 1888, and a follow up correspondence of 31 December 1888, which do raise minor concerns about the operation of the passenger carriage brakes.

I did not review this material as closely as I would have liked due to the limited time of my visit. Based on 30 years of reviewing government papers as a journalist, I feel safe in saying the file is an incomplete record. It raises more questions than it answers.

But the brake and accident claims are curious. A Transport Ministry note of 28 August 1905, which references the Shortis and McAuliffe letters, says the following:

“The company state that there was no collision on this line on the date named. I suppose no further action need be taken.”

In researching and writing about Kerry’s unique monorail for several years now, I have come across a few references to accidents on the line. These appear to have been caused by vandalism, such as concealing branches or other debris within the A-shaped trestles, as reported with an October 1907 accident near Listowel, two years after the Shortis/McAulffe letters. The line had its share of mechanical breakdowns, to be sure, but appears to have operated in relative safety, no doubt helped by the plodding pace.

I keep thinking about Shortis. The fact that he wrote all these letters on his own business stationary indicates to me that he no longer was associated with the Lartigue. He never mentions holding a position with the line. Or was he writing secretly, as a whistle blower? McAuliffe wrote that he quit the line in May 1905, three months earlier. When did Shortis leave, and why? Was he bitter about the circumstances?

Shortis was 36 years old in 1905, based on the 1901 census record. (There are three men named Jeremiah McAuliffe from Kerry in the same census. Their occupations are given as farmer’s son, tailor and “no occupation.”) Shortis was a founding member of the nearby Ballybunion Golf Club in 1893, according to this centenary history. The grocery store proprietor and fish merchant was the father of five children. As a Roman Catholic, he likely contributed to construction of nearby St. John’s Church, which opened in 1897.


William Shortis business card in the Lartigue file at the National Archives in Kew.

But matters took a turn for the worse for Shortis in 1905. His wife, Annie, died on June 7, according to dates on the family gravestone at the Killahenny burial ground near the golf course. An online genealogy posting suggests that Annie died during childbirth. She was the same age as her husband.

On the weekend before Shortis wrote his letter, Ballybunion would have held its annual Pattern Day celebration, a mix of secular activities blended with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Though long celebrated on 15 August, the Assumption did not become official church dogma until 1950.) The Lartigue would have carried hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to Ballybunion for the festivities. Shortis, a widower of just two months, must have dearly missed his wife at this holiday, which they surely had enjoyed together in earlier years.

His sorrow did not last much longer. William Shortis died 12 November 1905, according to the grave marker. The cause of death is unknown, though the genealogy posting suggests he died of a broken heart. (Eleven years later his oldest son, Patrick, would be killed in the fighting of Easter 1916.)

The Lartigue continued operating until 1924 without any significant accidents, at least that I’ve found in my research. The line, which never made much money, was repeatedly sabotaged during the Irish Civil War. It also was incompatible with the conventional railway system of the newly established Irish Free State. Automobiles were becoming a more common mode of travel across Ireland.

Is William Shortis one of the men standing next to Lartigue carriages at Ballybunion?

Is William Shortis among these men standing next to Lartigue carriages at Ballybunion?

Obviously, there is much more to this story than is presented here. There may be available details that I am unaware of, while other aspects of the story are lost to history and will remain unknowable to any of us. Perhaps some readers can help fill in a few of the blanks. I welcome additional information about William Shortis and the Lartigue.

Reconsidering Ireland’s centennial remembrances


More on the tone of centennial commemorations from Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter in the Times: “How do you prefer our long-dead Irish Fenians? Revered or reviled?”


The recent 100th anniversary of the Dublin funeral of Fenian O’Donovan Rossa is raising tough questions about how Ireland will recognize other events in the “Decade of Centenaries,” 1912-1922. Some events are more significant, or controversial, than others.

Marie Coleman, a lecturer in Modern Irish History at Queen’s University Belfast, says she was “perplexed and concerned by the nature and extent of the [Irish] State’s official commemoration” at Glasnevin cemetery, which was attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Michael D. Higgins. She writes in The Irish Times:

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising. If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland. …

I would question if either Rossa or his celebrated obsequies were of sufficient historical significance to warrant a full commemorative ceremony from the State. It would appear that the construct of the “Decade of Centenaries” has created a need to find events to commemorate every year until 2023, even if such events are not of equal significance. …

[Like other anniversaries North and South] [c]ommemorating events that predominantly involved men with guns is highly problematic in a society still going through a fragile process of conflict transformation.

The Slugger O’Toole blog also delves into this issue under the headline, “Can we ever lay 1916 to rest?” The column raises questions about remembering anniversaries associated with the violence of The Troubles in the North.

Strange stories from the (animal) Kingdom of Kerry

I’m always partial to stories from Kerry, my ancestral homeland. Lately, there’s been a run of unusual stories about animals.

  • Giant seagulls have reportedly attacked and killed mature mountain ewes in south and west Kerry; and a swimmer was bitten near the beach at Fenit, “part of a pattern of unusual behavior by gulls.”
  • Animal rights activists are raising concerns about the welfare of the wild male mountain goat selected to reign over the annual Puck Fair at Killorglin.
  • Gardaí in north Kerry say 20 cattle, mostly cows and their calves, died after ingesting lead from batteries thrown into a field near Tarbert.
  • Two new species of amphipods, small shrimp-like creatures, have been discovered in deep waters off the southwest coast of Ireland.

An 82-year-old clipped copy of Pearse’s graveside oration

A few years ago I inherited some family-related personal items upon the death of one of my mother’s sisters, my aunt. She had saved many of the items for decades, including correspondence from Ireland, and the U.S. citizenship papers of her father (my grandfather Willie Diggin) and mother, and her mother’s brother and sister. All four emigrated from Kerry a few years before the 1916 Easter Rising, each sailing separately to Pittsburgh.

Also among the items was a copy of “History of Ireland,” a text book written in 1903. Stuffed inside the book were several yellowed newspaper clippings, mostly poems cut from The Gaelic American, an Irish nationalist weekly published in New York from 1903 to 1951 (Limited scanned issues available online from Villanova University.) One clipping, dated 13 December 1941 and headlined “America First, Last and All the Time,” says the new war with Germany and Japan “will have the fighting support of every worth-while drop of Irish blood in the United States.”

Willie died four days later, 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack. It is the inclusion of an Irish Times editorial from 19 June 1974, that makes me believe the book and its collection of clippings belonged to his brother-in-law, John Ware. I knew “Uncle John” to be an avid newspaper reader and follower of Irish politics. I was 15 at the time the editorial was written, which was two and a half years after Bloody Sunday. The piece begins, “Loyalists and Republicans are marching around in the North, like lost legions, in the dark.” We know a lot more darkness followed.

pearseclipAll this is the background to the clipping shown at left, a 19 August 1933 reprint of Pádraic Pearse’s oration at the graveside of Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa. The clip dates 18 years after the 1 August 1915 funeral and Easter Rising, which soon followed in April 1916. It is 11 years after the creation of the Irish Free State and four years before the 26 counties adopted a Constitution in 1937. In America, the Great Depression was four years old. Roosevelt was just past his first 100 days in office.

In August 1933 John Ware was 47 years old, a veteran of World War I who fought in France. I wonder what Pearse’s stirring speech represented to him? What did he think of the history of Ireland to that point, especially the partitioned North the Times would write about 41 years later?

The oration “has been published more than once in The Gaelic American,” the newspaper’s editors wrote by way of introduction. “At the earnest request of a reader we give it again. Repetition cannot take away from it and it cannot be read too often. A great many people have memorized it.”

John Ware clipped the speech from the newspaper and carefully placed it in the history book that contains not one word about O’Donovan Rossa in a three-page section titled, “The Fenian Movement in America.”

Here’s an online link to the speech that’s easier to read.

Centennial of Pearse’s oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral

One of the seminal events of Irish republican history marks its 100th anniversary 1 August: the Dublin funeral of Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa. As the Irish Independent recalls, “it was a brilliantly choreographed pageant of separatist propaganda.”

Rossa died 29 June 1915 in New York. The revolutionary’s body was returned to Ireland a month later for five days of public viewings. The political highlight was the masterful graveside panegyric delivered by writer and poet Pádraic Pearse, with its stirring climax:

“They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

The entire speech is read aloud in the video below by an unknown narrator. It contains actual footage from 1915 funeral, plus images from the Easter Rising, which occurred nine months later.

“One of the most shocking murders … in Ireland”

LONDON — During my trip here I was able to spend time at the British Library researching the 29 July 1888 murder of Kerry farmer John Forhan. The document below (which mistakenly uses the date 30 July and gives the wrong first name, James, plus a common surname variation without the letter “h”) is from an 1891 government report about agrarian crime in Ireland.

In the weeks ahead I’ll be updating my timeline of the story and adding other research details in the Forhan/Scanlon Project section of this blog.


St. Patrick’s Church in London’s Soho Square


LONDON — Irish Catholicism is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the historic sweep of this great city of the world. But it holds a small corner of Soho.

I wanted to visit St. Patrick’s Catholic Church here, as I have in other cities. Now I have.

“St Patrick’s is the first Church in England, at least since the Reformation, dedicated to St Patrick,” according to this parish history. “It was also one of the first Catholic parish Churches established after the passing of the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791, which brought freedom of teaching and worship.”

St. Patrick and the sanctuary.

St. Patrick and the sanctuary.