Tag Archives: History

All you need is…Paul McCartney in a car

A short post is in order this week. But it’s a good one.

Like most people, I’ve long since tired of the 24-hour news cycle, the depressing tumble of event-reaction-counter-reaction-analysis-argument that surrounds most major news events. (And this from an ex-journalist, too – I should probably just look at less online news.)

There are times, then, when I simply want to go online and see something that lifts me up, that brightens the world for a moment. For a brief 23 minutes this week, I’ve found it.

You’ve likely heard of “Carpool Karaoke“, a series in which late night host James Corden rides around with celebs, singing, quipping and gurning (he’s something of an acquired taste, and I’m not 100 per cent sold).

I’ve enjoyed some segments I’ve seen, but his piece with Paul McCartney, released yesterday, is one of the most heartwarming clips I’ve seen in a long time. It’s simple – McCartney and Corden driving around the former’s old Liverpool haunts, meeting old dears, shaking hands and kissing babies (McCartney mainly), culminating with a great reveal.

Death, ageing, the past – they’re all covered. But, because this is Paul McCartney, it’s all very “get on with it, always look on the bright side”. I could write more – not least about the bit that had me tearing up – but I figure you best watch it for yourself.

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The other fighters of Easter 1916

rebels gpo

Rebels in the GPO

FOR the past four months I’ve heard voices. Some scared, some hopeful, some excited and some disillusioned.

They’ve been the voices of, for the most part, young men. Or the echoes of young men in the accounts of their older selves.

I’ve encountered dozens of them in recent months as part of my work compiling The Herald’s 1916 ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage. Many of the voices are contained in the archives of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History (BMH) – fighters’ accounts of what they did and saw, who they shot and who died in front of them, in the Easter Rising. Other information came from family members.

The statements given by these rank-and-file Irish Volunteers provides a street-level account of the events of Easter Week that parallels the grand narrative, which usually focuses on actions of the leaders, their last stand and subsequent executions.

While some Volunteers – like Harry Walpole, who raised the ‘Irish Republic’ flag at the GPO – were present at key moments, others fought out their Rising on the sniper-ridden sidestreets of Dublin. Annie Grange, for one, performed first aid and came under fire at City Hall. Mamie Stephenson ferried concealed weapons between safehouses and rebel outposts.

Some survived despite being injured – like Leo Casey, who sustained eye damage in a firefight in the Grand Canal Street area.

Rebels at a barricade during Easter Week

Insurgents at a barricade during Easter Week

Others did not. John Dwan, whose brother was in the British Army, was shot by British troops on the last day of the Rising at North King Street – his friend pulled him from a barricade but he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Richard O’Carroll was shot in the chest by a rogue British officer after being captured at Camden Street, and passed away nine days later. His death was recorded as murder.

Statements given to the BMH by those who survived give an indication of the confusion and violence that marked Dublin’s streets that week, 100 years ago.

Joseph Dolan, who took part in the occupation of the South Dublin Union hospital recalled: “The nuns enquired from me if we’d come to read the gas meters”.

Helena Molony, who fought at City Hall stated: “The women had no uniform…I had an Irish tweed costume, with a Sam Browne [belt]. I had my own revolver and ammunition”.

Mamie Stephenson

Mamie Stephenson

Robert Holland, an insurgent in the Marrowbone Lane area, told how: “She was only about 35 or 40 yards away from me and I fired on her. She sagged halfway out of the window. The hat and the small little shawl fell off her and I saw what I took to be a woman was a man in his shirtsleeves”.

The accounts of desperate, dangerous and often grubby streetfighting – punctuated by constant sniper fire, prayer sessions and boredom – are some way from the story of noble sacrifice that was taught to generations of Irish schoolchildren, or the Government’s politically correct, watered-down Rising.

They are worth reading though – if only to remind us of the full story behind the birth of a nation.

The Herald’s ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage can be found here

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My grandfather the teenage rebel

John Cardiff, 1948

On the morning of April 27, 1916 John Cardiff – my grandfather – was one of a group of Irish rebels who mobilised in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. A member of nationalist youth organisation Na Fianna Eireann, he was 13 years of age.

In the hours that followed the group took control of their hometown – which they held for four days – as part of an uprising against British rule.

“The town hall was seized and used as headquarters, outposts were placed throughout the town and sporadic firing occurred. A detachment of Volunteers kept the RIC [police] barracks in Abbey Square under fire from the turret rocks across the [river] Slaney,” Volunteer Thomas Dwyer recalled.

Enniscorthy was the only urban area outside of Dublin to be seized during the Rising. From the Thursday of Easter week to the following Monday it remained under the control of rebels (commanded by Capt Robert Brennan), until the surrender order given by Rising’s commander-in-chief Padraig Pearse was confirmed.

John Cardiff didn’t leave a public record of his activity during the Rising, having died a decade before the Bureau of Military History took statements from its ageing participants, in the late 1950s.

It is known that he was one of 35 teenagers who drilled at the Irish Volunteers headquarters at Mary Street in the town in the year preceding the Rising, as a member of Na Fianna. At this time he, along with others, covertly monitored Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) movements in the town.

During the four-day Rising it’s likely he carried dispatches between units of the older Volunteers, as a number of Na Fianna members did. After the Rising he was not arrested – probably on account of his young age – and likely worked with others to collect and conceal weapons that were abandoned by the Volunteers after the surrender.

Cardiff remained active in Na Fianna in the years from 1917 onwards, as a section commander, maintaining firearms and ammunition and drilling.

Enniscorthy in the years before The Rising

Enniscorthy in the years before The Rising. Pic: NLI

It’s recorded that in 1920 he was Intelligence Officer for Na Fianna in the town, during the War of Independence. His comrade Thomas Dwyer recalls that Cardiff was the co-leader of a group of 25 who raided on a merchant’s store in Enniscorthy that year to search for arms. This was one of a number of raids for arms spearheaded by Cardiff in his role as Intelligence Officer.

But no full account of his revolutionary activities exists, to my knowledge. Like many of his generation all that exists – on the public record at least – is a number of mentions of his name in the statement of a fellow Volunteer (in this case Thomas Dwyer), and a brief account in his 1950 obituary (below).

The latter, published in the Wexford Echo, states: “As a mere boy Sean Cardiff joined the ranks of Fianna Eireann…He was a keen student of Ireland’s history and language. He rose to the rank of Adjutant of the Wexford Brigade, and only his associates fully understand how much his enthusiasm and painstaking work meant in building up the organisation”.

John Cardiff’s rebel story didn’t end in 1920. In 1921 he was arrested by the Devonshire Regiment of the British Army and was imprisoned for a period in Enniscorthy Courthouse. He joined the IRA in 1922 at the rank of assistant adjutant.

Opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he took part on attacks on Free State posts in Enniscorthy during the Civil War. After a period ‘on the run’, he was arrested and imprisoned in Newbridge, Co Kildare and The Curragh. In 1923 he spent a period on hunger strike in prison.

Cardiff’s 1921 arrest effectively ended his career as a schoolteacher. On release from prison in 1923 he became a journalist, eventually basing himself in Wexford town and working for the Echo newspaper. He married and had two children. John Cardiff died in November 1950, at the age of 47.

He will be remembered, along with other participants of the Rising in Enniscorthy, at a State commemoration in the town on Easter Monday next.

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Obituary of John Cardiff, Wexford Echo, November 25, 1950 (Click for larger version)

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My old self came knocking at 4am

Notes taken

Notebook keeper

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

In an era of relentless self-improvement, of life-affirming social media shares and leaning in, we can be quick to forget our former selves.

If only they felt the same. Or kept sociable hours. Instead they return, as Joan Didion points out, unannounced and in the small hours, demanding our attention.

Sometimes this means attractive company. Who wouldn’t want to meet the courageous, if shaken, mountaineer who stumbled off Mont Blanc after a successful ascent? Can I hear his story? Again?

But for every Jekyll in crampons there’s his alter ego, the past self we’d prefer didn’t exist – or stayed incarcerated in whatever mental chamber we imprison our inner Hydes, our Walter Mittys or Ignatius J Reillys.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner realised. The same sentiment runs through Didion’s essay ‘On Keeping A Notebook’ (anthologised in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and quoted above). She suggests writing down ideas and observations; the information, reviewed years later, will provide us with clues and details about who once were, and who were are now.

Past self

Past self

It’s 50 years since Didion’s essay was published. For most, notetaking in 2016 takes the form of social media posts, and reviewing idle scrolling, or clicking Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ button. The difference now is that our notes are public and, usually, sanitised. The 4am callers tend not to appear.

Cast away, the People We Used To Be are surely unhappy to be erased from our histories. “It all comes back,” Didion repeatedly warns, hinting that, even if we live peacefully with ourselves, we can continue to expect those early morning visitors.

And so I’m on nodding, if not conversational, terms with a young man sick and very tired in an Amtrak waiting room in San Francisco, or the same person, a year or two older, who tore off his time, unused, around Dublin in the early Noughties. And with my other, older, Hydes and Mittys and Reillys, all of whom linger at times in the morning gloom.

It’s just as well that they do. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget,” Didion cautions. And if I won’t remember my past selves, who will?

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The most famous forgotten corner in Ireland

parnell1
Recognise this Dublin street corner?

It’s the site of one of the most significant events in modern Irish history – not that you’d know it.

Nowadays the corner of Moore Lane and Parnell Street, in the north inner city, is the site of closed-down pub and an insignificant t-junction for pedestrians. But it was here, almost a century ago, that Irish revolutionary Padraig Pearse surrendered to British General William Lowe, ending the Easter Rising.

At 3.30pm on Saturday April 29, 1916, five days after Pearse and his fellow rebels launched an abortive uprising against British administration in Ireland, the rebel leader symbolically handed over his sword. He was executed four days later.

Pearse surrenders to Gen Lowe, April 29, 1916. Pic: National Museum of Ireland

Pearse surrenders to Gen Lowe.
Pic: National Museum of Ireland

Next year Ireland will commemorate the 1916 Rising. Events are planned at or near many significant landmarks – the General Post Office (which the insurgents occupied), 16 Moore Street (the rebels’ final headquarters),  Kilmainham Gaol (where Pearse and 13 more were executed), and others.

But there’s no plan – officially at least – to mark the place where the Rising quietly ended.

Why memorialise a surrender? Why indeed, but given that the history of the Rising has been written by many (past Irish governments included) as a story of glorious failure it seems odd there’s no marker at the place where the event itself ended and the concept of a glorified Rising was born.

No marker, except for a decaying notice pinned to the wall by a past landlord of the shuttered pub.

History may be written by the winners but they have long since departed Great Britain Street (as Parnell Street was then known).

As millions of euro are spent on an interpretative centre at the nearby GPO perhaps it’s time to erect an official marker at a derelict street corner which played a significant, if largely unrecognised, role in Irish history?

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Standing in darkness, sunk in time

Newgrange. Pic: Waku

Newgrange. Pic: Waku

There’s no 4G service at Newgrange.

In fact you’ll be lucky if your phone works at all. The renowned Neolithic site may be situated on a hill above flat, rolling countryside but at times you’ll be lucky to get a signal.

That’s fitting. Newgrange is an antidote to distraction culture, carrying or checking devices. At Newgrange modernity and its trappings cease.

Visiting the monument, as I did for the first time this week, offers temporal context. Put bluntly, you’re in awe of how old the place is.

The passage tomb dates back more than 5,200 years. It’s older than the Great Pyramid of Giza or Stonehenge. Used for 1,000 years as a burial site and place of worship it was abandoned around 2,000BC, left to time and thieves and eventually, in the wake of the archaeologists, tourists.

View from passage.  Pic: Jimmy Harris

View from passage.
Pic: Jimmy Harris

Standing inside the darkened tomb, having squeezed in through the narrow passageway – and despite being surrounded by other visitors – one feels a deep isolation, an immersion in time.

That Newgrange exists at all is remarkable. That one can stand in the same chamber as the nameless people who built it, reaching across five millennia to feel as they felt and inhale the dry, stony air as they did, is a unique experience.

Unique because, in a 21st century where the concept of experience is often flattened to something on a screen, Newgrange requires presence; it demands that you stand in one of the oldest roofed structures in existence. You must be there.

The astronomical significance of the tomb is well documented. A tour includes a brief light show, illustrating how the sun creeps across the floor of the chamber on the Winter solstice.

But the beautiful moment is the instant before that light appears, as you stand in the total darkness of the tomb, sunk in time.

Because the strain
in the wounded minds of men
Leaves them no peace; but here where life is worn out men should
have peace. He desires nothing but unconsciousness,
To slip in the black bottomless lake and be still.

from Robinson Jeffers’ ‘In The Hill At New Grange’

Bru_na_Boinne_Squire

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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.

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