Archive for the History Category

The Strand at Lough Beg – Seamus Heaney

Posted in History, Poetry, Television with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2020 by telescoper

Last night I watched a harrowing but compelling film called Unquiet Graves which is about the activities of the Glenanne gang, a loyalist paramilitary group which carried out in excess of 120 murders during the 1970s including the horrific bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. Many members of this gang were serving members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment which ensured that these heinous crimes were never properly investigated and in many cases the families of the victims are still waiting for justice.

The film makes very difficult viewing but is a timely reminder of a terrible period in Irish history and gives reason to reflect on the importance of the Belfast Agreement that brought peace to a part of the world that so recently stood on the brink of civil war.

One of the victims of the Glenanne gang was a young man called Colum McCartney, a cousin of the poet Seamus Heaney. Colum’s car was stopped not far from Armagh by men in army uniforms. He was made to get out and kneel, and then he was shot in the back of the head. His companion, who tried to run away, was shot in the back as he fled. Seamus Heaney composed this poignant elegy to his murdered relative.

In Memory of Colum McCartney

All round this little island, on the strand
Far down below there, where the breakers strive
Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.
–Dante, Purgatorio, I, 100-3

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields
You climbed the hills toward Newtownhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath the stars–
Along the road, a high, bare pilgrim’s track
Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads,
Goat-beards and dogs’ eyes in a demon pack
Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing.
What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?
The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down
Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.

There you used hear guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
For you and yours and yours and mine fought the shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

The Ghost Room in Maynooth

Posted in History, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , , on September 9, 2020 by telescoper

I stumbled across this rather macabre post about Maynooth University and thought I’d share it….don’t have nightmares!

That reminds me of this poem by Emily Dickinson:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

Come Here To Me!

Path leading down to the College Graveyard at Saint Patrick’s College. (Carax)

Just on the outskirts of Dublin lies the historic university town of Maynooth. It is the home of Ireland’s main Roman Catholic seminary, St Patrick’s College, which has been churning out priests since 1795.

One particular room in the college has been associated with demonic apparitions, suicide and paranormal activity for over 150 years.

In the mid 19th century in Room Two of Rhetoric House, two young seminarists took their own lives, nineteen years apart, and the room has been the source of many tales ever since.

Rhetoric House in the South Campus, built in 1834, was formerly a residential house for trainee priests. It now hosts the Department of History.

Rhetoric House, Maynooth (

On 1 March 1841, a young student from Limerick by the name of Sean O’Grady (b. 1820) jumped out of room and fell…

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Eddington in Cardiff 100 years ago today: the first proposal that stars are powered by fusion

Posted in Cardiff, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 24, 2020 by telescoper

Here’s a fascinating bit of astrophysics history by former Cardiff colleague Bernard Schutz: one hundred years ago today, Arthur Stanley Eddington gave a talk in Cardiff in which he, with great prescience, proposed the idea that stars might be powered by nuclear fusion.

The Rumbling Universe

One hundred years ago today, on 24 August 1920, with over 1000 people gathered in Cardiff for the annual meeting of the British Association, Arthur Eddington gave his address as the incoming president of the physical and mathematical sciences section. He elected to speak on the subject of the “Internal Constitution of the Stars”. When I first came across the text of the address last year (published in Nature in 1920), I was amazed to find as early as this such an insightful proposal that stars are powered by the synthesis of helium from hydrogen. But what really brought me up short was this sentence:

If, indeed, the sub-atomic energy in the stars is being freely used to maintain their great furnaces, it seems to bring a little nearer to fulfilment our dream of controlling this latent power for the well-being of the human race – or for…

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A Revolutionary Manhole Cover

Posted in Architecture, History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 20, 2020 by telescoper

I must have walked dozens of times past the above manhole cover on Maynooth University’s North Campus without paying too much attention. Then I noticed a post on Twitter of another such cover in County Kerry, in the thread following which someone mentioned one on Maynooth campus so I thought I’d take a picture of it. They must have been made for the centenary commemorations in 2016. There’s more than a hint of Soviet-style design in the artwork.

The figure depicts Eamon Bulfin raising the flag of Irish Republic above the GPO on Easter Monday 1916, the start of the Easter Rising. After the end of the rising Bulfin was condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted and, after being imprisoned in Britain for a time, he was deported to Argentina. He returned to Ireland when the Irish Free State in 1922 where he lived until his death in 1968.


Forgotten Fires at Maynooth

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , on August 17, 2020 by telescoper

I’m taking the liberty of reblogging this fascinating bit of local Maynooth history. I did know about the 1878 fire on South Campus, having read about it here, but for some reason I had imagined it happened elsewhere in the College. St Mary’s Square, which was designed by Augustus Pugin,  is actually behind St Patrick’s House as you look at it from the larger St Joseph’s Square.


The college chapel was not completed until 1891 so can’t be seen on the picture of the aftermath of the fire shown in the blog post; the spire wasn’t built until 1895. St Mary’s is part of the national seminary, as opposed to Maynooth University.

New House, site of the later fire in  1940 , forms the North side of the quadrangle enclosing St Joseph’s Square which is to your right as you look towards St Patrick’s House. It is home to the Law Department of Maynooth University.

MU Library Treasures

by Sarah Larkin, Archivist, St Patrick’s College Maynooth

Dublin fire brigade attending the fire at New House, 29 March 1940.

This yearSt Patrick’s College, Maynooth celebrates 225years since its foundation in 1795. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting some of the interesting and lesser known events and facts of the College’s history. This postlooks attwo occasions when fire broke out in the College, and how tragedy was avoided.

On 1 November 1878, at 8am in the morning, fire broke out in St Mary’s inMaynooth College. The College fire engine proved to be inadequate. An attempt to summon help from the Dublin fire brigade failed, as the local telegraph failed to work and a message had to be sent from Celbridge. A special train was immediately laid on in Dublin to bring the fire engine to Maynooth. It was thendrawn to the College…

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To Fool the Faeries

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , on August 16, 2020 by telescoper

I follow a fascinating little Facebook group which features old pictures of Maynooth. The above picture is not from there – it’s a private group – but I found it on the net after seeing one of the posts there on the same subject.

The point is that the little kids wearing skirts and dresses in that old photograph are all boys.

Apparently it was a tradition in some parts of rural Ireland until relatively recently (at least until the 1930s) to dress young boys (up to the age of about 12) as girls. The reason for this is both strange and sad.

In poorer communities infant mortality was high. The tragic and otherwise inexplicable deaths of young children were attributed to the malicious actions of the faeries – aos sí – supernatural beings believed in Gaelic tradition to be descendants of the people who built the burial mounds, tumuli and other prehistoric structures found all around Ireland. According to the tradition, the faeries prefer to make off with the souls of male rather than female children. Dressing boys as girls was an arrempt to protect them by fooling the faeries.

The sad fact behind this is that boys are significantly more likely to die young than girls, even in affluent societies where infant mortality is generally low, though it is probably more noticeable where infant mortality is high. The belief in faeries preferring to take boys reflects a kind of folk knowledge of this statistical fact. The reasons why boys are more likely than girls to die in infancy are complex and, as far as I know, not fully understood.

I find these traditional beliefs fascinating because they are not simply quaint superstitions – they are attempts to understand real phenomena.

The world of Gaelic mythology itself is, at least partly, built on folk memory of very ancient history. There were, after all, people in Ireland who built places like Newgrange, long before the arrival of Celtic people from somewhere in Iberia, and nobody really knows what happened to them. In mythology they turned into the little people and went underground, but are still here. Which, in a sense, they are…

Watch “The Eddington Eclipse Experiment of 1919” on YouTube

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , , on August 6, 2020 by telescoper

I’d forgotten about this little video made after I appeared on the Pat Kenny show on NewsTalk radio last year. It was just me and the camera in a little room, but it turned out less like a hostage video than I’d feared..

Two Hundred Years of Tyndall

Posted in Beards, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 2, 2020 by telescoper

Just a short post to mark the fact that celebrated Irish physicist John Tyndall was born 200 years ago today, on 2nd August 1820.

Tyndall made his name initially for his research on diamagnetism but then worked on the scattering of light by atmospheric particles, and on the absorption of infrared radiation by gases. In the latter context he is generally credited with having discovered the Greenhouse Effect.

One should also mention his rather splendid beard.

John Tyndall was born at Leighlin Bridge, near Carlow in Ireland. After a little formal schooling, he gained a practical education by working as a surveyor and engineer. He entered the University of Marburg, Germany, in 1848 and earned his doctorate two years later. His dissertation research interested Michael Faraday, who later brought him to the Royal Institution of London. In 1867 Tyndall succeeded Faraday as superintendent there. He retired in 1887 and died in 1893.

The excellent Tyndall National Institute in Cork is named in his honour.

“I think the Devil shits Dutchmen…”

Posted in History with tags , , on July 22, 2020 by telescoper

Just time for a short update on the aftermath of the Dutch Raid on the Medway as recounted by Samuel Pepys which I blogged about last month.

The Dutch fleet withdrew from the Medway in mid-June of 1667 (Old Calendar) but they did attempt further raids later that month and in early July. Fed by wild rumours about the intentions and whereabouts of the Dutch, London was a jittery place. Pepys summed up the mood in his Diary, ending with a quote which has become famous:

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?