Archive for the History Category

Evicted – Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler)

Posted in Art, History with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2020 by telescoper

I was listening to an interesting radio programme the other day about artistic depictions of Ireland and Irish history. One of the paintings discussed  was a work called Evicted which was painted in 1890 by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler). I haven’t seen the actual painting – the original (oil on canvas) is apparently somewhere in University College Dublin – but i found the discussion intriguing and decided to see if I could find a representation on the internet. Here it is in reasonably high resolution.



I’m not a proper art critic or anything, but I found this a remarkably powerful work of art made all the more interesting when I read a little bit about the artists. Elizabeth Thompson married Lieutenant General Sir William Butler after which she became Lady Butler. She made her name as an artist painting heroic depictions of British soldiers in, for example, the Crimean War. When her husband retired from military service the couple moved to Ireland, and at the time this painting was made they were living in Wicklow where one of their neighbours was none other than Charles Stewart Parnell. The late 19th Century was the time of the Land War, a period of intense social unrest in rural Ireland caused by the exploitative practices of landlords and the unfair treatment of tenants. Parnell was a vigorous campaigner for land reform and the Butlers became staunch supporters of the cause.

One day Elizabeth witnessed the eviction of a Irishwoman from her cottage in the Wicklow mountains and was so moved by it that she made this wonderful painting. When it was exhibited in London it was met with disapproval for being “too political”. The British establishment of the time did not appreciate anything too critical of the Empire.

In the painting itself there are some striking touches. The eviction party, its job done, can be seen to the left disappearing back down the valley. By all accounts the people who did this sort of thing were sadistic brutes who very much enjoyed their work. Tenants were not only evicted, but their homes  and possessions completely destroyed in order to prevent them returning.  The standing figure of the woman seems to form a group with the pieces of her cottage that are still standing, her own devastation mirroring that of her home. A few glowing embers can be seen among the wreckage.

But it’s the depiction of the woman herself which in my opinion gives the painting most of its power. You might have expected her to be shown in obvious distress, hunched, perhaps crying or wringing her hands. Instead she is standing up with her hands by her sides, looking up at the sky. Is she praying? Resigned to her fate? Or perhaps just traumatized? The painting seems to ask the viewer: how would you react if this happened to you?



Lucia Joyce

Posted in History, Mental Health with tags , , on June 16, 2020 by telescoper

Lucia Joyce photographed by Berenice Abbott (date c.1925-1930)

On Sunday I listened to a programme on the radio about Lucia Joyce a celebrated dancer who just happened to be James Joyce’s daughter. Lucia was born in Trieste in 1907 and subsequently moved with him to Paris where she made a big impact in the field of modern dance. W.B. Yeats was an admirer and wanted to cast her in one of his `plays for dancers’.

Lucia’s early years were filled with artistic promise but shadows gathered around her and by the the middle of the 1930s she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was eventually taken away in a straitjacket and forcibly detained in a psychiatric clinic. She spent the rest of her life (until her death in 1982) in various institutions. The programme provides a fascinating insight into her creative early years but the latter part is desperately sad. One can’t escape the conclusion she did not deserve to be locked away the way she was (against her will) and the men in her life (her father, brother and very lovers, including Samuel Beckett) share a large part of the responsibility for her decline. Psychiatric institutions have a long history of being used to dispose of `inconvenient’ women.

Anyway, do listen to the programme which you can find here.

Pepys Tweets the Dutch Raid on the Medway

Posted in History with tags , , , , on June 13, 2020 by telescoper

The Dutch burn the English fleet at Gillingham

I couldn’t resist doing a quick post inspired by the fact that I follow the Twitter feed of Samuel Pepys, whereon excerpts from his famous diaries are posted as if live. The year currently being tweeted is 1667 and there is great excitement because of the Raid on the Medway in which a Dutch fleet sailed up the River Medway and destroyed many ships of the Royal Navy.

Much has been written about the background to this event (and, unsurprisingly, the version taught in Dutch schools is somewhat different than from the English side) so I’ll just post here how it panned out from the point of view of Samuel Pepys.

The first inkling of what was to come is on 3rd June (note the Old Style dates were still in use in England at the time of the events in question; add 10 days to get the New Style dates the Dutch and other European countries were using then):

That was almost a week before the battle commenced and although he was clearly apprehensive, for the next few days life for Pepys carried on pretty much as normal:

It was not until 8th June that we find

Even this news did not seem to concern him unduly, however

Later that day preparations were stepped up

(The Hope is the name given to the stretch of the Thames from Tilbury to the mouth of the Medway). Pepys was sceptical of the likely efficacy of the military commanders

The following day the sense of urgency increases

Later that day it seems to have dawned that Chatham might be the target:

Pepys is annoyed at the slow preparations:


On 10th June the Dutch land 800 marines and attack Sheerness, destroying Garrison Point Fort. Pepys does not know this yet when he writes:

It is only the following day that he realises Sheerness has fallen and the way is open for the Dutch to attack the Royal Navy at anchor in the Medway at Gillingham and Chatham:

Every available soldier being sent to defend Chatham, Pepys is worried that London itself is now very vulnerable:

Meanwhile, on the Medway, the only thing protecting the British fleet is the huge chain blocking the river. Pepys’s optimism about this was short-lived

It gets worse:

The flagship of the Royal Navy has been taken as a prize – the humiliation! There is now panic in London:

On 13th June, fearing all is lost and that London will be attacked, Pepys makes arrangements to send his money to the country:

That’s how things stood on 13th June 1667, with a Dutch/French invasion of England seemingly imminent and widespread unhappiness at the indolence and incompetence of those in charge.

On 14th June Pepys notes that many English sailors are either refusing to fight or even fighting on the Dutch side because they have not been paid for some time (receiving tickets in lieu of cash):

In the event, the Dutch withdrew on 14th June and there was no invasion by either them or the French, but over the next days and weeks there were lingering fears of other raids. A peace treaty was rapidly negotiated on very favourable terms to the Dutch and thus the Second Anglo Dutch War came to an end.

There was in the mind of Pepys and others the possibility of a popular uprising against the King for the ineptitude of the military response to this Raid. The monarchy had only been restored in 1660. Would it be swept away again so soon?

We know the answer to this question now, but nobody knew it then, which makes a contemporary accounts like that of Pepys so very fascinating. You get a real sense of the mixture of confusion and despair circulating at the time.

About that Statue of Colston

Posted in History with tags , , , , on June 9, 2020 by telescoper

I don’t know Bristol very well. I’ve been there a few times, but mainly for work-related reasons, and I’ve never really explored the City.

I had heard of notorious slave trader (and Tory MP) Edward Colston because I had heard of the Colston Hall (though never been there). I didn’t know until this weekend however that there was a statue of him in the city. Now it is in the drink.

The statue concerned was apparently erected in 1895, one hundred and seventy four years after Colston died, and sixty two years after slavery was abolished. I’m not at all sorry to see it gone, as it should never have been put up in the first place. I was much more shocked to learn of its existence than of its destruction.

Please don’t try to argue that taught people about slavery. People have learnt much more about the horrors of the slave trade as a result of the destruction of this statue than they ever did by looking at it. The better way to teach people about history is in school, but British schools mostly avoid the uncomfortable truth of the imperial past. Mine certainly did. I wasn’t taught much about slavery at all, except that it conveniently provided one very profitable leg of the Triangular Trade, but that slavery was illegal in Britain at that time so that was somehow supposed to make it alright.

I don’t learn much about the Great Famine in Ireland at school either, but you can be absolutely sure that the Irish know all about it, and not by looking at statues of its architect, the genocidal Charles Trevelyan. Imagine what would happen if someone tried to put up a statue to him in Ireland, or to Oliver Cromwell.

So less of the phoney outrage about a lousy statue. It would be a better outlet for your energy to read some proper history and be outraged by that instead.

P. S. I’ve been busy marking examinations over the last few days which is why I’m late commenting on this.

D-Day 76 Years On.

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on June 6, 2020 by telescoper

Just a reminder that it was 76 years ago today, on June 6th 1944, that antifascists began landing on the beaches of Normandy.

The War of Independence

Posted in History with tags , , on June 3, 2020 by telescoper

There is an excellent magazine supplement with today’s Irish Times looking back at the Irish War of Independence, which was raging a century ago. There’s a lot to digest in the magazine and it will take me a while to read all the articles in it.

The War of Independence began in earnest at the start of 1920 but the cycle of violence ramped up rapidly with the arrival of the infamous Blank and Tans in March and, later on, the equally infamous Auxiliaries. It was the latter who burned the city of Cork to the ground in October 1920, the aftermath of which event which provides the cover picture to the supplement.

The War of Independence ended in summer 1921 with a ceasefire and subsequently the Treaty that led to Partition and a Civil War.

The centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence in Ireland have generally taken the form of the heroic narrative of a liberation struggle, but the Civil War is a matter that many still find painful to confront. It will be interesting to see what the mood of the country will be like when that centenary arrives.

See See Rider Blues

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , on May 23, 2020 by telescoper

There have been dozens of versions of the old song See See Rider and its origins are lost in the mists of time, but I’m pretty sure that the first ever recording was this one, made in October 1924 by the fabulous Gertrude `Ma’ Rainey (vocals) together with a stellar backing group including Louis Armstrong on cornet, Buster Bailey on clarinet and Fletcher Henderson on piano.

#PoetryDayIRL: ‘Quarantine’, by Eavan Boland

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , on April 30, 2020 by telescoper

It is a remarkable fact that when the poet Eavan Boland passed away a couple of days ago, the sad news of her passing led the main TV bulletin here in Ireland. I struggle to think of another country where the death of a poet would be deemed so important.

Anyway, today is National Poetry Day in Ireland so I decided to post a poem by Eavan Boland as a tribute on this day. This is Quarantine a moving contemplation of the tragedy of the Great Hunger.

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

The ‘Great Debate’ of 1920 – Shapley vs Curtis

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2020 by telescoper

I was so busy at the weekend that although I had the date in my diary I forgot to write a post on 26th April, which was the centenary of the Great Debate that took place on 26th April 1920 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The principal protagonists on the US debate were astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis. It concerned the nature of so-called spiral nebulae (such as the Andromeda Nebula M31 shown above) and the size of the Universe.

Shapley argued the case that distant nebulae were relatively small and lay within the outskirts of Earth’s home galaxy, while Curtis held that they were in fact independent galaxies, implying that they were exceedingly large and distant.

The two scientists first presented independent technical papers about “The Scale of the Universe” during the day and then took part in a joint discussion that evening. Two papers outlining their opposing positions were subsequently published by Shapley and by Curtis in the May 1921 issue of the Bulletin of the National Research Council. The published papers each included counter arguments to the position advocated by the other scientist at the 1920 meeting.

Many at the time felt that Shapley had won the debate, interpretating the Milky Way as the entire Universe rather than just one of many galaxies. The spiral nebulae were relatively nearby, possibly solar systems in the process of formation.

A key piece of evidence in favour of the Shapley argument was provided by Adriaan van Maanen, who claimed to have measured the rotation a spiral nebula which implied the object had to be nearby. Van Maanen’s measurements were later shown to be incorrect. Moreover, within a decade, Edwin Hubble and others had established that the spiral nebulae are in fact large and enormously distant; they galaxies like our own Milky Way.

Two things struck me about this story. One is that it illustrates that its not unusual for a majority scientists to be wrong about something. Debates like this are really not very good for settling scientific arguments. In the end it the data count far more than opinions.

The second is that it is remarkable to think that just a century ago we knew so little about the Universe. Our modern view of the Universe may well turn out to be wrong in some important respects but I still think we can say we know more now than we did then!

I’m reminded of this quote:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

The Oldest Tree in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2020 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know that I’ve developed a habit during the current lockdown of talking walks around the South Campus of Maynooth University in order to get a bit of exercise.

I’ve noticed a bit of a side effect of strolling around the environs of the old College, though, which is that I always return home sneezing. I’ve never really been susceptible to hay-fever before, but I reckon this is a reaction to tree pollen. It’s the right season for that, and there are many trees about.

Last night I was idly googling around in an attempt to identify the types of tree I would encounter on my wanderings and during the course of that I accidentally came across something fascinating.

This Yew tree stands near the main entrance to Maynooth University campus.

It’s not a particularly tall specimen and I’ve walked past it hundreds of times without paying attention to it. It is however generally believed to be the oldest tree in the Republic of Ireland (there is one tree, another Yew, possibly older, in County Fermanagh.) The tree in Maynooth germinated (or was planted) around the year 1267 ± 50, which makes it around 753 ± 50 years old.

The timing is interesting because it means that the tree is roughly the same age as Maynooth Castle and the old church. In this picture you can see the Yew tree on the left, with the church on the right and the remains of the Castle in the background:

Here’s a better picture of the Castle from another direction. Only a few bits of wall, the gatehouse and solar tower remain. The Castle was damaged and subsequently surrendered after a siege in 1535 (see below) then reoccupied only to be largely dismantled in 1647, whereafter it fell into ruin.

The tree is often called the “Silken Thomas Tree” after Thomas Fitzgerald, the 10th Earl of Kildare, who led a rebellion against the English authorities during the time of Henry VIII. He acquired the nickname “Silken Thomas” because of the ribbons of silk worn by his supporters. Needless to say, the rebellion failed and his family castle was destroyed. Thomas surrendered, throwing himself on the mercy of the King. That went exactly as well as you might have expected: Thomas was executed, along with several members of his family, in 1537.

The tree, of course, pre-dates Silken Thomas by three centuries, but legend has it that he played a lute under the boughs of the tree the night before he surrendered to King Henry VIII.

All that is quite interesting but doesn’t answer the question of which trees make me sneeze…