BITE-SIZED HISTORY

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2020), News, Volume 28

BY TONY CANAVAN

 

Centenary of an unusual kidnapping

Above: Brig. Gen. Cuthbert Lucas with his wife, Poppy, following his ‘escape’ from IRA captivity on 30 July 1920.

One hundred years ago the IRA captured Brig. Gen. Cuthbert Lucas while he and two other British army officers were fishing on the River Blackwater in County Cork. Letters between Lucas and his wife (addressed ‘c/o the IRA’), along with Lucas’s secret captivity diary, have now been digitised and made available on-line by his granddaughter, Ruth Wheeler. The capture of the general—who commanded the British garrison at Fermoy—on 26 June 1920 made international headlines. For 34 days Lucas was spirited across Limerick and Clare, while the British army scoured the countryside looking for him. Lucas and his captors struck up a rapport. He exercised by playing tennis and croquet and by saving the hay; he insisted on having a regular tipple of whiskey. Two of his captors later went on to have high-profile careers. Liam Lynch became the leading anti-Treaty general in the Civil War and was killed in 1923. Seán Moylan went on to serve as a cabinet minister in later Fianna Fáil governments. Extraordinarily, Lucas wrote to—and received letters from—his pregnant wife, Joan. Better known as Poppy or Pip, she was so alarmed when she heard about his kidnapping that she went into premature labour, and so their first child was born while he was a prisoner. Lucas wrote of his captivity, ‘I am being well looked after and well treated, but very bored’. On 30 July the IRA allowed Lucas to escape, as he was proving to be a hindrance in the carrying out of their operations. The general later declared that he had been ‘treated like a gentleman by gentlemen’, a remark which did not go down well with the British military establishment. The letters and diaries can be viewed at chtl.co.uk.

Another historic victim of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has seen the suspension of one of Ireland’s oldest fisheries, the multimillion-pound eel-fishing of Lough Neagh. Traditionally the eel-fishing season begins on 1 May and runs through the summer, but operations have been suspended because of the pandemic. Lough Neagh is home to Europe’s largest wild eel fishery, and 80% of the catch is flown daily to the Netherlands to be processed and sent on to markets across Europe. The remainder goes to England. As the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles and the fifth largest in Europe, Lough Neagh is steeped in history and folklore. Archaeologists have found evidence of commercial eel-fishing dating back to the Bronze Age. The men who fish them today use traditional methods passed down through the generations. Prior to the Nine Years War (1594–1603), the Lough Neagh fisheries were under the control of various Gaelic lords. After Hugh O’Neill’s defeat, the Bann fishery was taken over by James I in 1604. The rights were leased to a series of landlords up to the twentieth century. In parallel with the Land War, from the late nineteenth century on, the fishermen campaigned for ownership of the rights. Only after protracted legal disputes were the eel-fishing rights finally ceded to the fishermen in the form of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative.

France sells off some of the nation’s antique furniture

France is selling off some of its antique furniture to support the country’s hard-pressed hospitals. The Mobilier National, the national furniture collection, has drawn up a list of objects in storage that will be auctioned off this September. French media report that about 100 objects dating from the nineteenth century, particularly from the reign of Louis-Philippe (1830–48), will be selected. The sale of ‘declassified’ objects from the national collection is not unknown, but it is rare for such a large number to come on the market at the same time. The Mobilier National, which is responsible for furnishing official buildings, including the Élysée Palace, contains more than 130,000 rugs, chandeliers, chairs, ceramics, porcelain, furnishings, desks and other objects.

Historic ceremony put on hold

A traditional ceremony to swear in recruits to the Vatican City’s Swiss Guard has been put on hold because of COVID-19. The event is usually held on 6 May, in memory of an event in 1527 during the Sack of Rome by the largely Protestant German Landsknechts of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Mutinying over unpaid wages, they sacked Rome alongside Spanish soldiers and Italian mercenaries, forcing Pope Clement VII to take refuge in Castel Sant’ Angelo. The Swiss Guard made their last stand in the Teutonic Cemetery within the Vatican. Their captain, Kaspar Röist, was wounded and later killed in front of his wife by Spanish soldiers. Immensely outnumbered, the Swiss fought bravely but were almost annihilated. The 42 survivors fell back to the basilica steps and managed to hold off the Habsburg troops pursuing the pope’s entourage. The ceremony has been rescheduled for 4 October.

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