Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2(March/April 2012), News, Volume 20

  • Cricket, lovely cricket! It saved us during the Great Famine—well, some men in County Laois anyway. Newly discovered documents reveal that in the darkest days of the Great Hunger Viscount Ashbrook paid poor, starving peasants to play the game. Castle Durrow club consisted of good Protestant gentlemen, but when they needed to make up the numbers Ashbrook gave local peasants as much as two shillings per game to tog out for the team. Rules and Regulations for the Season 1847 reveal this and much more about non-gentlemanly participation in cricket in Durrow. It may be that the viscount was trying to relieve local hardship, but the rules and regulations make no mention of the failure of the potato crop.


  •  Good news for Mícheál Martin in trying to revive his party’s fortunes? There are no plans to remove the words ‘Fianna Fáil’ from the national anthem, the Minister for Finance recently confirmed. Michael Noonan gave quite a lecture, going all the way back to Fionn Mac Cumhail, on the story behind Amhrán na bhFiann. And his source? History Ireland, of course! (See HI 4.1, Spring 1996, pp 39–43.) The long and the short of it is that the FF words were translated from the English long before the political party existed and so will stay. This is a far cry from previous attempts by Fine Gael-led governments in the 1950s to remove the offending words.


  • There’s nothing like blood in horses, dogs and men, according to Thackeray, and it seems he was right. Irish scientists have isolated a ‘speed gene’ in racehorses. Analysis of the genetic make-up of hundreds of horses, including twelve thoroughbred stallions born between 1764 and 1930, reveal that they all have a genetic link to a British mare from the eighteenth century. The team from UCD and TCD have developed a sophisticated test to identify the speed gene for different distances. The test is commercially available to breeders so that they can identify the best racing distance for individual thoroughbreds.


  • The empress of Austria who featured in these pages recently (HI 19.3, May/June 2011, pp 30–3) is in the news again. A portrait of Elizabeth of Austria thought to have been lost turned up in Meath, stuffed behind a wardrobe. Just how it ended up there is a mystery. It was originally commissioned by the empress and given to the Ward Union Hunt as a thank-you following her famous visits to Ireland. Done in oils, it depicts the empress kitted out for the hunt on her horse Domino. Decades behind a wardrobe did not do the painting much good but it has been restored to its former glory. The plan is to hang it in the private members’ area of the RDS, but it may be put on public display at some stage.


  •  Speaking of royalty, it seems that not all prominent Irish citizens were as wowed by the British monarchy as some today. Recently released documents reveal that a number of prominent Irishmen refused honours from the British state. Seán O’Casey, C.S. Lewis and Harry Ferguson (he of tractor fame) all refused awards, from an OBE to a knighthood. It wasn’t all for political reasons. Lewis thought that making him a CBE would be too controversial, while Ferguson, as a mere industrialist, thought that he did not deserve a knighthood.


  • A new series to be aired on TG4 (starting 16 Feb. @ 10.30pm), Ealú, starts with Limerick man and self-confessed anarchist Seán Bourke, who in 1966 sprang spy George Blake, then serving the longest sentence ever handed down by a British court. They hatched a plan to escape from Wormwood Scrubs that left intelligence agencies around the world baffled. Programme two continues with the story of Paddy Fleming, who escaped from seventeen different strait-jackets while in Maryborough prison, and subsequently escaped from Mountjoy prison in broad daylight in 1919 along with nineteen others. The final programme tells the story of Francie McGuigan, who was interned in 1971 but became the first man to escape from the newly built Long Kesh camp, dressed as a priest.


  • We don’t like to boast, but it cannot be a coincidence that within days of this column’s drawing attention to the theft of two crosses from Holycross Abbey, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, they were recovered. Parish priest Fr Tom Breen believes that this was in answer to the prayers of many Catholics who wanted the crosses returned. Of course, the other explanation is that the thieves are History Ireland readers, but surely that cannot be . . .


  • One bank literally went under last October, when floodwaters invaded the Bank of Ireland in Ballsbridge to a depth of a metre and a half. The bank’s safe contained some historical documents belonging to Mary Alicia Post, who thought that they would be secure there, but they were badly damaged. Among the papers were deeds to her home dating back to 1840, her US marriage licence and her late husband’s war records. He was a US marine whose last posting was to Iwo Jima. To make matters worse, the bank did not tell her about the flood until December, with no mention of water damage. Consequently, when she went to collect them in January they had been rotting for almost three months. She is hoping that an expert may be able to salvage at least some of the documents. It seems that it’s not just our money that’s not safe in banks anymore.

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