Category Archives: History

Ill-fated Irish Convention opened 100 years ago

Delegates to the Irish Convention outside Trinity College Dublin in July 1917.

A British government-backed convention to resolve “the Irish question” opened 25 July 1917, in Dublin. Delegates met through March 1918 as World War I continued to rage on the continent.

Sometimes called “Lloyd George’s Irish Convention,” after the British prime minister, it “was marked by his characteristic defects as a statesman,” County Cork’s William O’Brien wrote in his 1923 history, The Irish Revolution. “It was improvised, it was uncandid, and it was open to be changed into something quite different at a moment’s notice.”

And It failed.

I wanted to read U.S. newspaper coverage of the convention opening, especially in Pittsburgh. My maternal grandparents and other relations from Kerry arrived in the city shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered this 26 July, 1917, editorial assessment:

There will be no disappointment if the Irish Convention which opened in Dublin yesterday to try to formulate a Home Rule plan fails of agreement, for there is no hope that anything like a conclusion acceptable to all can be reached. … If [politicians of opposing views] can meet once and part without having engaged in a fist fight and widening the breach between the factions … they can meet again. And the oftener they meet … the better chance there is that there eventually will be a meeting of the minds leading to concessions, compromise and a willingness to give a trial to some scheme of self-government that will put an end to the factional fight of centuries’ duration.

The convention’s effort to deliver Home Rule, which had been promised just before the war began in 1914, was derailed in spring 1918, as London linked the deal to enforced conscription in Ireland. (Many Irishmen voluntarily served in the British military.) The death blow came after the war, as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson abandoned the Irish at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Irish War of Independence began soon after.

The 4-minute video below contains soundbites from several speakers at a Trinity College Dublin centenary symposium about the convention. In addition to their various historical points, it’s worth listening to the diversity of Irish accents.

Ballot & Bullet: Remembering Dev and Danny Boy

Two July 1917 events in the west of Ireland shaped the county’s struggle for independence from Britain. A century later, however, both seem to have be mostly forgotten, prompting criticism from at least one historian.

The first and most significant event was the election of Sinn Féin candidate Éamon de Valera in County Clare. The by-election was called to fill the seat left vacant when Irish Parliamentary Party member Willie Redmond was killed in World War I. The IPP represented the late 19th century effort to secure limited domestic autonomy for Ireland, called home rule. de Valera, one of the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising who was released from prison in June 1917, belonged to the new generation of Irish republicans seeking a clean break from Britain, even if it required violence ahead of politics.

As John Dorney explains on The Irish Story website:

His victory marked a decisive breakthrough for the Sinn Féin party and the beginning of the eclipse of the constitutional nationalists of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The following year, 1918, Sinn Féin, headed by de Valera, won a crushing victory in a general election and early the following year, declared independence, leading the Irish War of Independence.

The post also features Dorney’s 35-minute podcast interview with Clare historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, who details the election and sets the context for this period between the Rising and the War. It’s a great listen.

O Ruairc raises the second event toward the end of the interview. While celebrating Dev’s victory in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, local man Daniel Scanlon was shot and killed by an officer of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Scanlon belonged to the Irish Volunteers, at the time transitioning to the Irish Republican Army. O Ruairc describes Scanlon’s death as one of the first of the War of Independence. (Read an account in the Bureau of Military History Witness Statement of William McCabe, page 3.)

The 100th anniversary of Scanlon’s death and Dev’s election appear to have been largely ignored by the Irish government and media. The historian complains:

We hear a lot talk from politicians about how important this period of our history is commemorated … As far as I can see the 100th anniversary of this guy’s death was not commemorated.  … This period of history is passing us by because the government’s official Decade of Centenaries [1912-1922] was disbanded after the last election a year ago, after the big 2016 centenaries. … It’s an indictment of the Decade of Centenaries that it was four years long; we went from 1912 to 1916 and then we stopped. I think what we are going to see for the rest of the Decade of Centenaries is that stuff that happened outside Dublin is not [considered] important. … It will be left to the people that always commemorate it, local historians, relatives, with not much state support behind it.

In fairness, the official Decade of Centenaries website does note de Valera’s by-election win in its 1917 timeline. He is hardly forgotten in Ireland, given the large role he played as the 26 counties became the Irish Free State and eventually the Republic. By 1963, the elder statesman was still on the scene to welcome John F. Kennedy to Ireland.

Scanlon, who was 24 in 1917, is easier lost in the Irish revolutionary period. The RIC officer charged with his death was soon acquitted. It also should be remembered that Scanlon’s death came 15 months after another Ballybunion native, Patrick Shortis, 26, was killed during the Rising in Dublin.

Both of these rebel deaths catch my attention since my grandfather emigrated in 1913, at age 19, from the same village. He joined several cousins and other North Kerry immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city’s daily newspapers carried numerous stories about de Valera’s victory, but not a word of Scanlon’s death that I can locate.

Both Shortis and Scanlon are remembered with small plaques on the sides of buildings in Ballybunion. A bronze statue of de Valera stands outside the courthouse in Ennis, Co. Clare, where his 71 percent to 29 percent ballot victory was tabulated a century ago.

The level of attention generated by last year’s 1916 centenary events would be hard to sustain over a decade. Through the end of 2018, there will continue to be more focus on the events of World War I. But O Ruairc has a point about the general decline of interest in historical events from the period between the Rising the start of the War of Independence.

The memorial to Daniel Scanlon in Ballybunion.

Happy Blogiversary: Five years, 500 posts

This is my 500th post since I launched the blog on 22 July 2012, with the goal of publishing “research and writing about Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.”

This post also coincides with the publication of my latest story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s about Ireland’s Great Famine, based on several letters written to a Catholic priest in 1847.

The Published Stories section of the blog contains all of my Irish-related work for outside newspapers, magazines and websites since 2000. Best of the Blog contains my annual round up of each year’s most significant stories, and other favorites exclusive to the site. See the list of St. Patrick’s churches I’ve visited, and check out other Irish interest places to visit.

Angie Drobnic Holan, my wife, has lovingly contributed to this effort as webmaster and editor. She has been unfailingly supportive, including the many evenings when she implored, “It’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.”

I also want to thank my readers, especially those who subscribe to the blog via email. I appreciate the “Likes,” shares and re-tweets on social media. Sure, this blog doesn’t get the traffic of commercial sites, but l am grateful to everyone who stops by for a look, especially readers in Ireland.

Himself, at Carrigafoyle Castle, North Kerry, 2012.

In pursing my Irish history interests, I’ve been fortunate to visit numerous archives and libraries, where I obtained much valuable assistance. Among some of the places I’ve been able to visit:

My research also has benefited from the always-expanding menu of online resources. My laptop has become a time machine. It has whisked me back to 19th century Ireland and America through digitized documents and letters, newspaper archives, maps, photographs and vintage video.

Thanks again for reading the blog and supporting my work. Please keep coming back.

U.S. Navy steamed into Ireland 100 years ago

With vital sea lanes to protect from German U-boats, the U.S. Navy arrived in Ireland 100 years ago as America entered World War I. The first ships reached the harbour at Queenstown (now Cobh) on 4 May 1917, and included six destroyers from the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Division Eight, led by Commander Joseph K Taussig on board the USS Wadsworth.

“They braved rough waters, gale-force winds, and German U-boats to protect commercial ships around Great Britain and France,” Tim Forsyth, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ireland said during a centennial  commemoration. “Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans was a huge threat and the sinking of the Lusitania and several other U.S. merchant ships was on everyone’s minds.”

Other conferences, exhibits and articles about the American naval presence in Ireland include:

The U.S. Navy arrived in Queenstown in May 1917. Story and more photos at Visit Cobh. The church in left background is St. Coleman’s Cathedral.

Irish labor built Pennsylvania’s famous Horseshoe Curve

ALTOONA~As the Great Famine began to ease in the early 1850s, about 450 Irishmen began working on an extraordinary engineering project in south-central Pennsylvania. Their accomplishment remains in place today as a vital segment of the American economy.

Working with only picks, shovels and some explosives–but no machinery–the men shaved the face of adjoining mountains to fill in two ravines and lay the grade for a railroad line. They built the Horseshoe Curve for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

A display at this National Historical Landmark, about 10 miles west of Altoona, offers only a few details about the men. They are said to have been recruited for the job because they were “former mine workers,” mostly from counties Cork, Mayo and Antrim. Keep in mind this project was completed 20 years before the Molly Maguire unrest began in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, some 200 miles to the northeast.

The 2,375-foot curve, which opened to freight and passenger traffic in February 1854, reduced the trip between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from 20 days by wagon to about 15 hours by train. It remains part of the nation’s critical east-west rail corridor.

A westbound freight train climbs the grade through a light rain in this July 2017 image. Below, trees obscure the entrance of the road tunnel.

 

An Gorta Mor exhibit going to Ireland in 2018

A large portion of the art and artifacts from the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., will travel to Ireland in 2018. The “Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger,” exhibition will be on view at Dublin Castle from March to June, and at the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen from July to October.

In addition to displaying paintings, sculpture and other items from this one-of-a-kind collection, the touring exhibition also will include a program of poetry and literature readings, concerts, theater and lectures.

The Ragpickers,, 1900, by Henry Allan, is part of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum collection.

The estimated cost of the exhibition is $800,000, according to the official website. Of this amount, Quinnipiac has committed $200,000, with the balance to come from corporate, foundation and individual donations, including one $250,000 “presenting sponsor” and three $100,000 “lead sponsors.”

It will be interesting to see who or what organizations pony up.

In March 2013, I spent a day at the museum and related collection of printed materials at the Lender Family Special Collection Room at the University’s Arnold Bernhard Library. The combination of narrative and visual materials made for a moving and engrossing experience.

I am sure these images and materials will have an even more profound impact back “home” in Ireland.

Northern Ireland ‘Journey’ nears critical bend in road

“The Journey,” a fictional “imagining” of the real-life partnership between unionist firebrand Dr. Ian Paisley and former IRA man Martin McGuinness, recently debuted in Washington, D.C., as part of its wider U.S. release.

The movie isn’t as awful as early reviews suggested last fall, though there is merit to that criticism. It’s worth seeing for those who follow Northern Ireland politics. The long, twisted history of the Troubles, and the actors’ thick accents, are probably too much for more casual viewers.

A line near the end of Colin Bateman’s screenplay caught my attention and could prove to be prescient in the coming weeks. It is spoken by McGuinness (Colm Meaney) to Paisely (Timothy Spall) as they are about to agree on the power-sharing deal that resulted in the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly:

This is our only opportunity to build something that will last, at least for our lifetime.

The real-life duo got the Assembly off the ground and developed such a close working relationship that they become known as  the chuckle brothers. Peace and progress flourished in Northern Ireland. But Paisley died in September 2014, and McGuinness died in March.

Now, the suspended Belfast Assembly is facing a 29 June deadline to reorganize, or the north could return to direct rule from Westminster. This matter is complicated by the Paisley-founded, pro-unionist DUP entering a Tory coalition to control the London Parliament, which will put Irish republicans on the defensive. This comes as the U.K. also begins to negotiate its exit from the European Union–Brexit–which threatens the return of a “hard border” between the north and the Republic.

At the same time, the annual Orange Order marching season, in which Protestants celebrate a 1690 military victory over Catholics, is getting underway and approaching its 12 July peak. The season always raises tensions between the two cultural and political communities in the north.

What could possibly go wrong?

What you need to know about Knock’s vision visitors

The Virgin Mary recently appeared–believers say–in the sun and clouds above Knock, the County Mayo village where she first presented herself to the faithful in 1879. Unlike that 19th century debut, viewed by 15 witnesses on a rainy evening, the latest vision at Ireland’s national Marian shrine is documented in video and photographs, quickly and easily disseminated around the world.

According to Catholic Online:

The sun appeared as an elongated shape in the videos, not as a circle. Rays of light were also captured on camera. As clouds passed before the sun, filtering out the brightest light, people were able to look directly at the vision. They reported the vision moved, and spun, a classic miracle of the sun, often associated with apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Among the handful of secular news outlets that covered Our Lady’s alleged appearance, the tone was more skeptical, even cheeky. “Clouded vision,” said the headline in the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

This wasn’t the first digital-age sighting of the Virgin at Knock. Scores of videos claiming to show Mary’s image are posted online, in addition to sympathetic histories and pilgrimage travelogues, including a trailer for the 2016 independent film Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village.

The pilgrimage business is good for the West of Ireland. Knock airport’s 9.1 percent first quarter growth–more than 134,000 total passengers–was the highest year-over-year gain among five airports in the Republic, The Irish Times reported. Monsignor James Horan, the late priest who built the airport in the 1980s on the “foggy, boggy site” near the shrine, must be smiling from about the same altitude as the latest Marian appearance.

The 1879 apparition at Knock was a crowded affair, with the Virgin Mary joined by Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, the Lamb of God (representing Jesus Christ) and adoring angels appearing on the gabled wall of the local church. This didn’t get much immediate press attention. Word of the vision and miraculous cures spread quickly among believers, however, and published accounts began to appear by a year later. The Irish Examiner reported crowds of up to 20,000 were trekking to the village.

“A deeper and more touching outpouring of sincere faith and religious fervour it would be impossible even to conceive than what I witnessed at Knock,” an unnamed “pilgrim” wrote in a 25 September 1880 letter to the newspaper.

The same year, The Nation carried advertisements for “The Illustrated Record of the Apparitions at Knock,” a free booklet that included witness depositions, a list of miraculous cures and six images. A 1 3/4-inch diameter medal also was available for sixpence, plus postage.

Pope John Paul II visited Knock in 1979. He said:

Since I first learnt of the centenary of this Shrine, which is being celebrated this year, I have felt a strong desire to come here, the desire to make yet another pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Mother of Christ, the Mother of the Church, the Queen of Peace. Do not be surprised at this desire of mine. It has been my custom to make pilgrimages to the shrines of our Lady, starting with my earliest youth and in my own country.

John Curry was the last of the 1879 witnesses to die. In 1943, at the age of 68, he was buried without a headstone in a communal cemetery plot owned by the Little Sisters of the Poor on Long Island, New York. Recently, he was re-interred at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan.

“What you choose to believe is up to you,” Dan Barry wrote in a lovely piece for The New York Times. “This is merely the story of an Irish immigrant who died without means in Gotham obscurity, then rose to such post-life prominence that, amid considerable pageantry, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, will celebrate his requiem Mass and pray over his new earthly home.”

I visited Knock not long after the 2001 terror attacks in America, during a month-long journalism fellowship that took me to both sides of the Irish border. I arrived at the shrine on a rainy Monday afternoon, “the busloads of believers nowhere in sight,” I wrote in my Oct. 1 journal entry. As a believer, I said the requisite prayers, but there were no apparitions that evening. In fact, my “sincere faith and religious fervour” was exhausted from having hiked to the summit of Croagh Patrick the day before. No visions up there, either, but a fantastic view and fulfilling experience.

I slept well that night at the Belmont Hotel in Knock and awoke to a bright day. I bypassed a second visit to the shrine and pressed on to my next appointments. I am glad that I made the pilgrimage, however, and followed in the footsteps of John Curry and John Paul, and millions of other believers; past, present and future; with or without digital recording equipment; with or without seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Undated photo of the original church at Knock where the apparition appeared in 1879.

How U.K. election outcome impacts Northern Ireland

BBC results map.

UPDATES:

This is how the UK election may destabilize Northern Ireland,” an excellent “what you need to know” piece from The Washington Post.

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“The tiny DUP, with its newly elevated status, has become an improbable factor in global geopolitics. All over Europe, dusty books on Irish history are coming off the shelves,” The New York Times reports in a story that offers the background.

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DUP cooperation in forming a new conservative government in London could come with a steep price tag, writes John Campbell, the BBC’s Northern Ireland economics editor. “One demand could be that E.U. funds, that will be lost as a result of Brexit, are replaced in full.”

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s failed election gamble has cast the Democratic Unionist Party in the role of kingmaker, giving the province an unexpected chance to have a big say in Britain’s divorce from the European Union, Reuters reports. “We will continue to work with our friends and allies in the DUP in particular,” May said.

ORIGINAL POST:

Irish nationalist Sinn Féin and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party have gained seats in Westminster, while the moderate Ulster Unionist and Social Democratic and Labor parties are now shut out of the London parliament.

Results of the 8 June United Kingdom election are still being sorted. Below is one early analysis of the impact on Northern Ireland. I’ll update with more coverage over the next day or so. MH

The election outcome  “put a huge question mark over the future of Brexit,” Pat Leahy writes in The Irish Times.

There will be an immediate period of high uncertainty, as British politics comes to terms with the shock result. The pound fell sharply on the news of last night’s exit poll, creating fresh problems for Irish exporters to the UK, paid for their goods and services in less valuable sterling.

[The DUP could be] in a strong position to soften a future May Government’s line on Brexit, at least insofar as it affected Northern Ireland. It also, however, raises the intruiging question of whether Sinn Féin might be prepared to abandon its policy of refusing to take its Westminster seats if it meant it could deny Ms May a DUP-supported majority.

The remaking of the political map of the North – the election has carved it up between the DUP and Sinn Féin – will surely clarify this question.

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

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The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

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