Another story for ‘The Irish Story’

The Irish Story published another of my stories this week. The website features articles, interviews, ebooks and podcasts about Irish history. I had the pleasure of meeting TIS chief editor and independent historian John Dorney this summer in Dublin. John does an excellent job of managing the website along with his own excellent research and writing projects. We enjoyed some non-history craic, as well.

James Brophy, of Dublin or New York?

Mrs. Brophy’s Late Husband” joins my other work exploring how ordinary Irish and Irish American lives were overshadowed by large historical events. In this case, the Irish War of Independence of the early 1920s. My earlier piece for TIS, “Nora’s Sorrow – The Murder of John Foran, 1888,” deals with the Land War period. My blog serial and book “His Last Trip,” about my Kerry-born grandfather, also fits this category.

Such stories “humanize and enrich history by reminding us that the study of the past should include the study of the lives of ordinary people, their attitudes, beliefs, motives, experiences and actions,” Bill McDowell wrote in “Historical Research: A Guide for Writers of Dissertations, Theses, Articles and Books.”

I certainly haven’t invented a new technique for historical exploration, much less perfected the approach. But I intend to purse it, especially while I have access to the U.S. Consulate in Ireland records at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

In addition to managing commercial interests and the major political and social issues of the day, consulate officials also handled more routine matters, including notes and letters asking about missing people and the dead; emergency passport applications; and inquiries about estates and pensions. These records are a primary source for the stories of Anna Brophy and Nora Foran … and others I hope to find in the future.

Guest post: ‘Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them’ has an Irish-American backstory

I’ve published several guest posts on the blog this year, but nothing could make me happier than to welcome my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, to this space. Angie has her own excellent blog, and she is also quite the Harry Potter fan. MH


Even most Harry Potter fans may not realize there’s an Irish connection in the new movie, “Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them.”

The film takes place in New York City in the 1920s. That’s before Harry Potter was born, but his future headmaster Albus Dumbledore was then at the magical school Hogwarts, where he taught a budding zoologist named Newt Scamander. The movie is about Scamander’s search for magical beasts, a search that takes him to the United States.

It turns out there’s a thriving magical community in the States, complete with a U.S. school of magic. That school is called Ilvermorny, and it was founded by an Irish immigrant to America.

Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is mentioned in the film only in passing, but Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling — who wrote the screenplay for “Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them” — provided a detailed backstory for the school on her website Pottermore. (Read the lengthy story in full on the Pottermore website; registration required.)

The story begins in County Kerry. There, a young witch named Isolt Sayre is born in 1603. (Read the real history of Ireland in this period.) Isolt is part of a magical family, but her parents die, leaving her in the care of an eccentric and malevolent aunt. The aunt, a practitioner of dark magic, hates non-magical human beings and tries to make Isolt hate them as well.

Rowling describes Isolt as growing up “in the valley of Coomloughra,” and notes that her father “was a direct descendant of the famous Irish witch Morrigan, an Animagus [a wizard who can turn into an animal] whose creature form was a crow.” The aunt, Gormlaith Gaunt, takes Isolt to “the neighbouring valley of Coomcallee, or ‘Hag’s Glen.’”

Coomloughra is a real place, located about 20 miles west of Killarney. The area offers one of Ireland’s best ridge walks, a strenuous 4- to 5-hour hike over several mountain peaks in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks range.

The Coomloughra Horseshoe Loop Walk in Kerry.

The Coomloughra Horseshoe Loop Walk in Kerry.

To get away from Gormlaith, Isolt runs away, first to England and then to America, disguising herself as a boy and traveling on the Mayflower. Hiding in the forests of North America, Isolt befriends magical creatures and has many adventures. She meets and marries a non-magical man, they start a family and eventually open their own school of magic: Ilvermorny.

But the aunt eventually learns of Isolt’s whereabouts and come to find her, seeking to punish the niece for both running away and marrying a man who is not a wizard. A great battle ensues, and Isolt’s family eventually wins the day. To train and teach magical children in more peaceable ways, they open the school of Ilvermorny.

Ilvermorny, located in Massachusetts, grows and flourishes, accepting wizards and witches from around North America into one of its four houses: the Horned Serpent, the panther Wampus, the Thunderbird (one is seen in “Fantastic Beasts”) and the magical creature the Pukwudgie.

The story of this Irish-American witch has a lot of classic elements of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding stories. The story encourages open-mindedness, bravery and adventure, and it calls for peace between magic and non-magic people.

While Ilvermorny is mentioned only briefly in “Fantastic Beasts,” Rowling and the filmmakers have promised more movies to continue the story of Newt Scamander. The movie out now shows how Scamander befriends the American witches Tina and Queenie Goldstein, who are both alumnae of Ilvermorny. Perhaps we will learn more about the magical school started by an Irish immigrant in subsequent installments of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

Ireland moves toward legalizing medical marijuana

Medicinal marijuana could be legal in Ireland by the spring.

The governing Fine Gael party declined to block the first reading of the “Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill,” which is backed by all other parties in the Dáil. It now moves on to committees for further consideration. Health Minister Simon Harris has said he would seek to tighten the proposal as it moves through the legislative process.

More than 90 percent of Irish people support the legalization of the drug on medical grounds, the Irish Independent reported. Critics say the proposal opens the door to recreational use.

There is a “back to the future” element here, Gordon Hunt writes in SiliconRepublic:

In 1839, Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy brought cannabis into Europe from India. Seeing beneficial effects the drug seemed to have on relieving pain while in the subcontinent, O’Shaughnessy, having written numerous papers on the drug, thought it well suited for western medicine.

The drug took off and, for around 100 years, its widespread use (crossing the Atlantic, too) was notable throughout the streets of major cities, largely thanks to its pungent smell.

However, in the 1930s, U.S. lawmakers decided against it, instigating a ban that spread throughout much of the western world up until recent years.

October 2014 image from

October 2014 image from


Titanic Belfast named world’s top tourist attraction

Titanic Belfast, the museum dedicated to the ill-fated liner and city’s maritime heritage, is the world’s leading tourist attraction for 2016. The honor was announced 2 December by World Travel Awards, a travel tourism and hospitality industry marketing effort.

The Northern Ireland attraction is located on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, in the city’s Titanic Quarter, where the RMS Titanic and other ships were built. Titanic Belfast has attracted more than three million visitors since opening in 2012, the centennial of the disaster.

“The Titanic story captures hearts and minds throughout the world and at Titanic Belfast, this is no exception,” Tim Husbands, Titanic Belfast’s chief executive, said in a release. “Our interpretation of the story and ability to engage with visitors on many different levels has been fundamental in winning this award.”

I spent several hours at Titanic Belfast in July. It is a well-designed blend of traditional museum elements and modern, interactive features and amenities. I highly recommend a visit to the attraction, and to the city.

This is the first time any attraction on the island of Ireland has won in the 23-year history of the World Travel Awards, dubbed the Tourism Oscars. The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin was among eight global finalists.

The view from inside Titanic Belfast look out across the dry dock where the ship was launched in 1912.

The view from inside Titanic Belfast looking across the dry dock area where the ship was launched in 1912.

From the waterfront look back across the dry dock at the museum, which is designed to evoke the Titanic.

Looking back across the dry dock to the museum, which is designed to evoke the Titanic.

Sinn Féin: Diaspora has role in Ireland’s reunification

Irish republican political party Sinn Féin has released its Towards a United Ireland “discussion document” to renew debate about ending the nearly 100-year-old partition of Ireland. The party’s effort is spurred by the Brexit vote earlier this year.

The 60-page paper, in English and Irish, says the Irish diaspora has a vital role in accomplishing reunification of the island. Of note to Irish Americans, it says:

In the United States, the number of Irish and those of Irish descent numbers in the tens of millions and they enjoy significant political strength. … Many are openly supportive of a united Ireland. So, in any conversation about Irish reunification we need to involve the Irish Diaspora, to reach out to it and to marshal its political strength in support of our goals.

More on reaction to the document in a later post.


Evolving Ireland: This 1937 map shows the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland 16 years after partition. The Republic of Ireland was created from the Free State in 1948.


Pope Francis to visit Ireland in 2018, maybe the North

Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018, according to statements by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who has just visited the Pontiff in Rome.

Catholic bishops in the Republic of Ireland had extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Dublin in August 2018 for the World Meeting of Families.

The BBC reports that some Northern Ireland political leaders are already saying Francis will cross the boarder to visit somewhere in the six counties.

The last Pontiff to travel to Ireland was Pope John Paul II in 1979. Pope Francis will turn 80 on 17 December.

Enda Kenny and Pope Francis. Image from RTÉ.

Enda Kenny and Pope Francis. Image from RTÉ.

First history of GAA published 100 years ago


I heard from Vincent Carmody of Listowel, a local historian and author. He writes that Thomas F. O’Sullivan and his book are not forgotten. Story of the GAA received at least five mentions in The G.A.A., A People’s History, a 2009 book by Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse.

Carmody continued:

When in Listowel, [O’Sullivan] was the driving force, both as a player and administrator of the local G.A.A. club. He later served as an administrator at both County and National level of the Association. He is credited with the proposal of Rule 27, of the G. A.A.s rule book. This came into force in 1902 and it read, ” any member of the association who plays in any way, rugby football, jockey or any imported game which is calculated or injurious affect our national pastimes, is suspended from the association” . This rule was commonly known as, The Ban. It was for a long time rigorously enforced, indeed in 1938, the then President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, was banned from the G.A.A. , for his attendance at an International Soccer match in Dublin. The rule was deleted in 1971.


A journalist’s book about the early decades of the Gaelic Athletic Association this year quietly reached the 100th anniversary of its publication. Thomas F. O’Sullivan’s Story of the GAA was based on an earlier series of newspaper articles.

thomas-f-osullivan-1The book’s 1916 publication has been lost amid all the attention to the same-year Easter Rising. Even the 1916 entry of the special 1913-1923 centenary section of the GAA’s website overlooks the book, written by one of its own members. You can read the organization’s 28 May 1916 official statement after the uprising.

Michael Cronin of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester, England, briefly noted O’Sullivan’s book in a larger essay on “Historians and the Making of Irish Nationalist Identity in the Gaelic Athletic Association.” He wrote:

O’Sullivan was a GAA official and the book presents a highly simplistic notion of the Association’s past beginning with the seven pioneers who met in Thurles in 1884 to reawaken the Gaelic nation through sport and taking the narrative up to 1916 by recounting details of major personalities, decisions taken by the Central Council and recording the results of matches.

Although there is no explicit mention of the Easter Rising as such an inclusion would have meant that the book would not be approved by military censors, there is an implicit celebration of the Rising as those GAA men who took part are included in the list of GAA personalities.

Although not a widely researched history, as it is more of a contemporary account, O’Sullivan’s book is important as it sets out an accepted chronology that is rarely challenged by subsequent authors. This chronology, while celebrating the games of the Gael, primarily revolves around the role of the GAA in reawakening the national spirit.

O’Sullivan’s book does receive several mentions in The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923, edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, a 2015 commemorative publication specially commissioned by the GAA.

O’Sullivan was a Kerryman, born in Listowel, according to a short History Ireland bio. He wrote for the nationalist Freeman’s Journal. 

Remembering JFK … 3 … Caps over walls

On Nov. 22, 1963, The Irish Press featured a front-page story about U.S. President John F. Kennedy … but not what you are thinking. Published before the assassination in Dallas, the story reported how JFK cited Irish writer Frank O’Connor the day before to promote the U.S. space program.

In his 1961 autobiography, “An Only Child,” O’Connor wrote of how, as a boy, he and his companions would toss their caps over orchard walls, leaving them with no alternative but to scale the barriers, no matter how high or formidable.

In his Nov. 21, 1963, speech in San Antonio, Texas, Kennedy said: “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they must be overcome.” Read and listen to the full speech.

The Press story quoted O’Connor as saying it was “a very brilliant use of the quotation.”

A week later, amid ongoing coverage of the assassination, the Press returned to JFK’s literary interests. A story headlined “Kennedy had library of Irish works” mentioned two titles from his personal collection at the White House: “The Great Hunger,” by Cecil Woodham-Smith, and “The Irish Republic” by Dorothy MacArdle.

Remembering JFK … 2 … Eternal flame(s)

Shortly after being assassinated on 22 November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with an eternal flame. A group of 26 Irish Defense Forces cadets, who traveled to America with Irish President Éamon de Valera, performed a silent drill at the grave site, part of a tribute to Kennedy’s Irish ancestry.

Three years later, in March 1967, Kennedy’s body was re-interred a few feet away with a new flame at the spot now visited by millions of tourists. In June 2013, during celebrations of JFK’s visit to Ireland 50 years earlier, a light from the Arlington flame was carried across the Atlantic and incorporated into the Emigrant Flame memorial a the New Ross quayside, County Wexford.

I was touched to visit both JFK’s grave and the Irish memorial this year.




Remembering JFK … 1 … St. Stephen church

The 53rd anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is 22 November. I’m posting a few images and words to remember America’s first Irish-Catholic president over the next few days.

I walk past St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. on my way back and forth to work. JFK was a regular visitor to the church. The parish dates to 1866, the current building to 1961, during Kennedy’s brief administration.


This memorial plaque is on a pew inside St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

Undated photo of Kennedy leaving St. Stephen Martyr on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Undated photo of Kennedy leaving St. Stephen Martyr on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The church opened in 1961, during his term as president.