Sidelines

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Volume 23

Ireland is shaped like a pancake if a 1468 map is to be believed. Drawn by Italian cartographer Grazioso Benincasa, it has 57 identifiable modern place-names, such as Porto Rosso (Portrush), Drogda (Drogheda) and Bre (Bray), along with some rivers and offshore islands. Benincasa did not draw the map based on his own survey but probably relied on other sources. It is to be found in an atlas once owned by the princes of Trabia in Palermo. Perhaps the most significant feature of the map, however, is that it shows Ireland alone as a separate country and not merely as part of the British Isles.

The government may say that the recession is over but the heritage sector continues to feel its effects, as the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht continues to cut financial support for our national institutions. Things are so bad that recently the National Museum announced that it was considering the introduction of entry charges. Resources and staff numbers have been affected by the 40% reduction in the museum’s funding in 2008, which has never been made up since. The museum’s board is seriously considering asking for permission to charge for entry into its four branches in Kildare Street, Collins Barracks, the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Country Life, Castlebar.

When a 300-year-old silver chalice was returned to its old home, it was a reminder of unhappier times. It was commissioned for Monaghan’s Franciscan friary by Anthony MacMahon in 1724, the same year in which four Franciscans were prosecuted for saying Mass under the penal laws of the time. The chalice was thought lost for centuries but turned up in a sale in England last year, where it was bought by Belfast barrister Philip Magee, who donated it to Monaghan County Museum.

A mystery is one step closer to being solved with the discovery of aluminium debris on a South Pacific beach. Researchers are convinced that it came from the lost airplane of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In 1937, aged 39, she was attempting to circumnavigate the world when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished without trace. This discovery bolsters the possibility that a sonar blip off Nikumaroro Atoll in Kiribati is the fuselage of her ill-starred Lockheed Electra, since the piece of aluminium strongly resembles a patch installed on the Electra during a stopover. An expedition is planned for later this year, which will send a remote-operated underwater vehicle to investigate the unexplained sonar anomaly.

A dubious piece of history passed away with the announcement that Gallaher’s cigarette factory was closing down. It was once one of the biggest industries in Ireland and among the oldest surviving. Tom Gallaher set up the business in 1857, originally in Derry, where it became the largest factory in the world making cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products. The current owners of the business, Japan Tobacco, cited the fall-off in tobacco sales and more advantageous production costs elsewhere as the reasons for closing the factory.

Historic Franco-Irish relations were recalled and commemorated recently at a ceremony in Athis-Mons cemetery, south of Paris, when Private Stephen Kennedy was honoured. From Ballina, Co. Mayo, he served in the Connaught Rangers, was killed within days of the outbreak of the First World War and was buried in Athis-Mons cemetery. His two brothers also died in the war. The Irish and French towns were twinned in 1993 but this further connection was only discovered recently, prompting the event that commemorated Stephen Kennedy’s death. The historic links with Ballina were emphasised by the guard of honour being provided by French historical re-enactors dressed as soldiers of the First Republic. They were consciously evoking the landing in 1798 of the French force led by General Humbert to aid the United Irishmen.

It is often overlooked that France’s greatest president of modern times, Charles de Gaulle, had Irish ancestry. On his mother’s side, de Gaulle was descended from John MacCartan from Kinelart, Co. Down, a Jacobite officer who went to France in 1710 and joined an Irish regiment in French service. Although he had a family and grandchildren in France, MacCartan returned to Ireland in old age. He died aged 96 and was buried in the MacCartan chapel in Loughinisland. De Gaulle himself was much taken with his Irish ancestry and invited twenty MacCartans to dine with him during his visit to Ireland in 1969.

An interesting dispute has arisen over the origins of handball (no, not the Olympic kind). We Irish regard it as our game and it is played under the auspices of the GAA. Americans, however, now claim the game as theirs and argue that it was played in America as early as, or even earlier than, in Ireland. They have enlisted President Abraham Lincoln to argue their case. An exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution last year featured a handball owned by the president with the information that as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln would often play handball between cases.

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