Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July/August 2012), News, Volume 20

Eighty years ago, on 21 May 1932, American aviator Amelia Earhart crash-landed in a field outside Derry after crossing the Atlantic. Footage of Earhart while she was in Derry has just been unearthed in the Northern Ireland Public Record Office. Belfast flying enthusiast Grenville Mackie heard about Earhart on the radio and flew up in his own plane to see her. He brought along his 35mm camera and filmed Earhart in Gallagher’s pasture, where she landed, and while her plane was being dismantled for shipment back home.

  •  India has shaken off another vestige of its colonial past with the abolition of batmen in the army. There are about 30,000 such soldiers, whose job it is to look after an officer by doing household chores, running errands and so on. The post is a hangover from the days of the Raj, when every Indian army officer (a true-born Briton) had a native personal servant. Changing the name of the post from batman to sahayak some years ago could not hide the colonial nature of the arrangement. Unease has increased to the point where the army has agreed to phase them out, releasing these men for frontline duties and employing civilians instead.
  • The hunt is on for film shot by Leni Riefenstahl, in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, of the Irish hammer-throwers training. At the time our hammer-throwers were the best in the world and the Fuehrer wanted to know how they did it so that the Germans would be just as good. He dispatched Riefenstahl to film the Irish training techniques so that they could be copied. Unfortunately the film has been lost. And the irony was that Irish hammer-throwers, such as double Olympic gold medallist Pat O’Callaghan, could not compete in 1936 owing to the split in Irish athletics (see pp 30–3).
  • The 1908 London games raised embarrassing questions for the United Kingdom. The Irish athletic authorities lobbied for Ireland to be there as a nation in its own right. The British Olympic organisers rejected this but when faced with an Irish boycott changed the team name to Great Britain and Ireland. This compromise lifted the threat of a boycott and Irish athletes took part in the games.
  •  ‘The name is Flynn, Errol Flynn.’ If he had had his way, the Hollywood heartthrob might have got to utter those words. A recently discovered letter reveals that Errol Flynn wrote in 1942 to President Roosevelt, offering to spy for America in neutral Ireland. Of Irish descent and with his father a professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, Flynn claimed a unique insight into Ireland. Convinced that he was worshipped by the movie-loving Irish, he was sure that government officials and military men would tell him secrets that no one else could discover. In the end Roosevelt ignored the offer, as he thought that Flynn had Nazi sympathies.
  •  Is it not enough that the Chinese are going to dominate the world without their also wanting to colonise history? We are already familiar with their claims to have invented everything from the clock to the compass, but now they claim to have invented golf. As the game of golf becomes increasingly popular in China, players say that it is being promoted as part of Chinese heritage. They say that a 1282 book called Manual of ball games contains the rules of golf or chuiwan and that the Mongols brought the game to Europe. So that’s how they passed the time in between pillaging, looting and destroying . . .
  •  Technology continues to transform the study of history, as Trinity College, Dublin, puts on the web 20,000 documents that were thought to have been lost when the Four Courts were bombarded at the outbreak of the Civil War. Forty years of meticulous research have uncovered copies of records of the Irish chancery dating from 1244 to 1509. The chancery was responsible for royal correspondence and letters were copied onto long rolls of parchment. These chancery rolls were destroyed in 1922 and thought lost until Trinity found the other copies. These precious historical documents can be viewed at
  • The legacy of the Anglo-Irish Treaty has left a bad smell on the Donegal/Derry border. Plans by Donegal County Council to place a sewage discharge pipe in Lough Foyle at Moville have been challenged by the residents. The court case has thrown up the interesting question of who owns the lough and the seabed. Griffiths, Collins and co. neglected to include territorial waters in the treaty establishing the Irish Free State. Since then the United Kingdom has claimed Lough Foyle and its seabed as part of the Crown Estate. If so, Donegal CC has no right to commandeer the seabed on Lough Foyle for its sewage. The court has been asked to decide where ownership lies. If it finds in favour of the Crown Estate, it will raise interesting questions about Irish territorial waters, especially in Carlingford Lough, the other border inlet.
  • Good work is never rushed and that is the case with the latest Irish-language dictionary. John O’Donovan, Irish scholar and Ordnance Survey pioneer, began the dictionary in 1859. He meticulously collected and defined as many Irish words as he could find but never completed the lexicon. A stab was made at publishing it in 1976 with 35,000 words included, but now Prof. Gregory Toner of Queen’s University, Belfast, has completed the definitive edition more than 150 years after O’Donovan started it. It covers the Irish language from AD 700 to 1700 and can be accessed at

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