Irish reactions to the Velvet Revolution in 1989

Here in the Czech Republic, it is no ordinary Tuesday. Today in the Czech calendar is Freedom and Democracy Day. November 17th 1989 marks a significant day in the modern history of the Czech Republic. November 17th 1989 occupies a position in the narrative of Czech history,  like October 28th 1918, of the beginning of a hopeful new era. It marks the emergence from the oppression of regime foisted on Czechs from outside. In 1918, it was casting off the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the First Czechoslovak Republic. In 1989, it was casting off a calcified Communist regime which had since the beginning of the 1970s enforced ‘normalization’ following the crushing of the Prague Spring. These are the parallels between 1918 and 1989, and as with any narratives of national freedom, they are highly seductive. But, the truth of the events of 1989, the ‘velvet revolution’, and the end of Communist rule beginning with the student protests on November 17th that year are decidedly more complicated. Continue reading

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“No hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic”: Irish reactions to Czech Independence

Today marks the 97th anniversary of the declaration of independence and the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. This declaration, and the formation of this new state took place just weeks before the general election in Britain and Ireland that saw the Irish Parliamentary Party become a spent force, and Sinn Féin securing a mandate winning almost all seats. Not surprisingly then, the developments in the former Habsburg Empire, the creation of this new sovereign state and the acceptance of this by world powers did not go unnoticed in the Irish press. Nor did it go unnoticed by some who were running as candidates.

This last point is best proved by this leaflet from one general election candidate in Waterford in 1918:

Source: Waterford History Group Facebook page.

Source: Waterford History Group Facebook page.

While there is a touch of hysteria about this poster, the wider implication isn’t totally wide of the mark. In her examination of the various permutations of Czechoslovakia, Mary Heimann notes that:

At the beginning of the First World War, the notion that the Czechs and Slovaks might one day live in their own sovereign state, seperated from other countries by international borders, had not been seriously contemplated by anyone. Nevertheless, a new republic, named for the Czech and Slovak peoples… was about to take its place at the centre of a freshly redrawn map of Europe. [1]

In Ireland the press reaction was similar to that of Dr. White and his leaflet. One anonymous letter writer, “Asquinas” – combining Asquith and Aquinas – wondered in the Irish Independent whether or not that since, among many other things:

No religious differences divide Bohemia from Austria, to the Crown of which it voluntarily united itself by intermarriage of the Sovereigns. Far be it from me to suggest that such considerations should retard the national revival of the Czechs. Yet I bring them forward to prove that whether from the standpoint of geography, race, religion, economics or politics, Ireland has a prior claim to independence. [2]

Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

According to the Irish Times in the lead up to Czech independence there was even a suggestion that the Duke of Connaught might become a new king of Bohemia. [3] The Irish Times, a strong unionist paper, only matter of factly reported on the recognition of the Czech council as a ministry, with Benes as Minister for Foreign Affairs and future Czechoslovak President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk as Finance Minister. The paper, however, when reporting on the launch of a pro-Sinn Féin campaign in Mayo by a Rev. M O’Flanagan recorded how, during his speech to the crowd, O’Flanagan apparently remarked that:

Poland and Finland and the Ukraine were today free from the subjugation of the Russian yolk,and the man who five years ago who would venture to predict that would be told that he was rainbow chasing, like Sinn Féiners. In Austria the Bohemians and the Czechs were also free, and there were no hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic, for they all know the successful movement which she started for the revival and spread of her language. [4]

A sense of shared national struggle is palpable in these words and contrast quite strongly with Dr. White’s sense that no one knows who these people are. The reality is evident that politically clued in Irish people were well aware of the differing positions of the Irish and the Czecho-Slovaks. The last word perhaps should belong to Bulmer Hobson, who noted in his Bureau of Military History witness statement:

[Roger Casement] wanted to get Irish Freedom out of the quarrels of the European powers. Of the Czech leaders Masaryk came to London and Benes to Paris with exactly the same intent for their own country. They wanted to take Czecho Slovakia. out of the Austrian Empire. In London Casement was denounced as a traitor and Masaryk was hailed as a great patriot. Doubtless in Vienna the position was exactly reversed.

Casement got an undertaking from the German Government that if the course of the war enabled them to do so they would help to establish an independent Ireland. Masaryk got the same promise in London. Masaryk appealed to the victors, Casement to the vanquished. That was the precise difference between them. Masaryk became the first president of Czecho Slovakia, Casement was hanged in Pentonville. [5]


[1] Heimann, Mary, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven: Yale 2011, p.48.

[2] Irish Independent, 22 October 1918.

[3] Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

[4] Irish Times, 16 November 1918.

[5] Bulmer Hobson, Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, WF Ref # 1365. pp. 6-7.

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Privilege in Academia: An Extended Note

Today, while scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I spotted a post by Third Level Workplace Watch about a storify on what it means to be from a less well-off background today in academia being done by Caroline Magennis. Reading the storify, I had to add my own small contribution: Continue reading


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From Civil Rights to the Bailout

From Civil Rights to the Bailout: Social movements, workers agitation, and left-wing activism in Ireland, 1968-2010


Conference organised by the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour & Class this Friday and Saturday 19-20 June, featuring papers on a diverse range of topics from a range of speakers from academic and activist backgrounds. There will be a special session devoted to how to record history through oral history and archives, and we are especially pleased to announce a discussion in the Mechanics’ Institute on Friday evening, 19 June, in which activists from the west of Ireland will talk about campaigns they have been involved with from organising administrative workers in UCG, to Gaeltacht civil rights. The programme can be seen below, and more information is available at the following website:

All welcome, please share widely!

Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class

NUI Galway

Moore Institute,

Hardiman Research Building

19-20 June 2015


Fri 19 June

13.00-13.45 Registration

13.45 Welcome address

14.00-15.30 Panel 1: The context of Northern Ireland

15.30-15.45 Break

15.45-17.15 Panel 2: Varieties of Protest

19.30 Mechanics Institute, Middle Street: ‘Civil Rights and Union Rights: Veteran Voices from the West of Ireland’

Sat 20 June

10.00-11.30 Panel 3: Radical Politics

11.30-11.45 Break

11.45-13.15 Panel 4: Challenging legal and cultural constraints

13.15-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Panel 5: Engaging Beyond Ireland

15.30-15.45 Break

15.45-17.45 Panel 6: Preserving History: Oral History and Archives


Friday 19 June


1. The context of Northern Ireland

‘The People’s Democracy and the struggle for Civil Rights’

Matt Collins (University of Ulster)

‘”You can’t be neutral on a moving train”: Trade union responses to violence and sectarianism in Northern Ireland’

Seán Byers (Queen’s University Belfast and Trademark)

‘Responses in the West of Ireland to civil rights protest in Northern Ireland, 1968-72’

Gerard Madden (NUI Galway)




2. Varieties of Protest

‘Rural Identity and Protest Mobilisation: the case of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association’

Trish O’Flynn (Open University)

‘Save the Roundstone Bog’: the Environmental Activism of Tim Robinson

Derek Gladwin (University of British Columbia)

‘An interrogation of the character of protest in Ireland since the bailout’

Mary Naughton (University College Dublin)

19.30: Mechanics Institute, Middle Street, Galway

‘Civil Rights and Union Rights: Veteran Voices from the West of Ireland’

Tish Gibbons will talk to Liz Walsh, Mary Cooke and Brid Carr about their efforts in unionizing their fellow administrative workers at UCG in the mid-1970s in the teeth of opposition from University management.

Cllr Declan Bree (Connolly Youth Movement / Sligo-Leitrim Independent Socialist Organisation) and Cllr Seosamh Ó Cuaig(Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, independent socialist republican) will discuss their careers as activists with John Cunningham. Audience questions welcome.

Saturday 20 June


3. Radical Politics

‘When Irish anarchists faced the hangman’s noose – the case of Marie and Noel Murray’

Alan MacSimoin (Independent scholar and activist)

‘Youth in Revolt, Youth in Retreat: Labour Youth and the expulsion of Militant 1978-1989’

Cathal Malone (Independent scholar)

‘Saor Éire Action Group, 1967-1975: The vanguard of Trotskyist revolution in Ireland?’

Séan Ó Duibhir (NUI Galway)




4. Challenging legal and cultural constraints

‘The Political Economy of Workers’ Liberty in 1980s Ireland: On the right to strike, union solidarity and the Talbot car workers’ factory occupation.’

Thomas Murray (University College Dublin)

‘Deconstructing the Irish Propensity to Constitutionalise Abortion: A Leftist, Feminist Critique’

Charles O’Sullivan (NUI Maynooth)

‘Why inequality Persists- Racial Stratification in the Labour Market’

Ebun Joseph (University College Dublin)


Lunch (provided)


5. Engaging beyond Ireland

‘Challenging Empires – EU Critical Activism & Emerging Identities’

Peter Lacey (NUI Maynooth and activist)

‘Performing Activism: Theatre as a Political Space’

Tracy Ryan O’Flaherty (University of Sussex)

‘Solidarity Forever: Irish Workers and the Miners’ Strike in Britain, 1984-5’

Daryl Leeworthy (Cardiff University)


6. Preserving History: Oral History and Archives

‘The Irish Left Archive: creating the informal Archive’

Ciarán Swan (Irish Left Archive)

‘I knew nothing about the thing that I constantly declared myself to be – a socialist.’ Oral History and Left-Wing Activism

Mary Muldowney (Alternative Visions Oral History Group)

This final panel will take the form of a workshop with the two speakers introducing the session on how best to conduct oral history and preserve documentation, both providing case studies of projects they are involved with. Audience participation and discussion is strongly encouraged once the speakers have concluded.


Registration: €5

This will help cover the costs which include coffee, tea and biscuits to be provided at all breaks, and a lunch of sandwiches to be provided on the Saturday.

In order to provide for catering, we need an estimate of the number of attendees. If you would like to attend, please contact David Convery at and please also make us aware of any special dietary requirements. If you would like to attend but feel you cannot afford the registration fee, please let us know.

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Book Launch alert: Soccer in Munster, 1877-1937

I know I’ve been quiet on this blog for some time, but that’s due to the imminent release of my first monograph, and a move of country. Next month, I’ll be celebrating the publication and launch of my monograph, Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937published by Cork University Press.

This book is based in part on the work completed for my PhD thesis but also includes material and research first presented in rough form on this blog, which has been an integral part of the formulation of myself as a writer and historian over the past number of years.

So, if you find yourself in Cork this June, I’d love if you could join me at my launch, details of which are below.

And, if you’d like a sample of some of what’s coming in the book, you could do worse than visit Irish Garrison Towns blog, pick up the most recent issue of Lookleft (available in Eason’s and other good newsagents), on or buy Issue 2 of Póg Mo Goal.

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“The disparity in years between you”: A random letter about marriage from nineteenth century Philadelphia

In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man.

While combing through collections in archives I often come across random letters and documents that may be interesting independent of their relevance to the project at hand. One such letter was in the Malcolm Hay Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I came across it during a fellowship with the Library Company and decided to transcribe the letter and present it here in its entirety for those who might be interested in questions related to marriage, reputation and social etiquette in nineteenth century Pennsylvania.

The letter in question was sent by Peter Hay in July 1858 to his son Henry Hay. The collection is named after Henry’s brother, Malcolm. A prominent family of lawyers, the Hays were influential Democratic Party members at both a local and state level. Elegantly written, the letter is essentially a warning to Henry from his father to break-off a whirlwind romance with a much younger girl, aged seventeen. Peter warns his son that this blossoming romance and the imminent wedding might be a “mistake”, a possible “false step”, and that the disgrace of such a marriage would not only reflect upon the couple, but also upon Henry’s children and “indeed on all your relatives”.

His father’s reflection on the union grows ever more pessimistic as the letter continues and he dwells further on the age gap between the pair. He notes that his son, aged forty-two, was a full twenty-five years older than his seventeen-year-old fiancée. Despite the girl’s mother having given her approval of the marriage Peter appeals the their greater life experiences stating that both he and his future mother-in-law should understand the differences in ages means there will be difficulty on the physical side of their relationship, if not immediately then in the near future. He cleverly explains this in a story about another colleague who married a woman twenty years younger, and, when asked if she is happy she reportedly replied she was as happy as could be expected “considering the difference in our ages” (emphasis in original), a fairly overt, if polite, reference to their sex lives.

Peter saves his most devastating argument for last noting that “Mrs. R” will be his children’s mother as well as his wife and questions how she is expected to fulfil this duty when his own children are as old as her. How can a young and inexperienced girl act as “their moral instructor and the guide and director in household matters”? He continues and writes that:

…the willingness of a girl of that age after a few weeks acquaintance with a gentleman nearly old enough to be her grandfather, to assume such a fearful responsibility, would of itself satisfy me, that she has no adequate conception of the position she decrees to occupy…

Upon first reading the letter might seem overly harsh, and though the message was delivered in a blunt manner, it was also couched in affectionate and diplomatic language. The letter opens with the father acknowledging that he cannot dictate his son’s actions simply advise him as “a father and a friend”. The final paragraph is quite touching and he tells his son the letter is not designed to “wound your feelings” and if there was anything in the letter that caused offence, “I trust you will forgive me”. It is hard to imagine that his son was not hurt by the letter, but still, Peter simply seems to be telling him what everyone else in society was thinking, trying to make him aware about the reality of their situation.

Further research reveals some interesting background to the letter and Henry’s decision on the engagement. Henry Hay’s first wife, Mary Ann Hay was only three years younger than himself. She died in her early thirties from an unknown and drawn out illness, probably tuberculosis. They had an Irish domestic servant in the US census of 1850 with the unlikely name Biddy Kline. There are two possible explanations, the first is that the census taker misheard her surname. Possibly he heard an Irish surname like Kane and wrote a name he was more familiar with, Kline. The second, and less likely explanation, is that the domestic servant is pretending to be Irish in order to gain employment in the household. Irish women, although caricatured for their tendency to work as domestic servants, were generally sought after because they spoke English, and thus held a significant advantage over other female continental European immigrants to the United States. The second explanation would also explain the weird appearance of the letter P on its own just before Ireland in the birthplace column for Biddy, and might indicate he was about to write Poland. A more likely cause is that the census taker was about to write Pennsylvania as he did for the previous six entries before he was corrected that Biddy was born in Ireland.

The next census in 1860, taken two years after the letter was sent reveals that the marriage went ahead despite Peter’s objections and the couple were living in Bristol Township in Pennsylvania. The census also reveals that certain details in the letter are accurate. Peter was not exaggerating when he said that the children would be older than their mother-to-be. Their ages in the census reveal that Henry’s eldest son, Henry Junior, was nineteen at the time of the letter, a full two years older than his fiancée. Emma, the first name of “Mrs R.”. She was actually pregnant at the time of the census and would give birth to another Emma (they weren’t very creative when it came to children’s names) in December of that year. This child grew up, married and eventually died in the same area, passing away at home with her husband, Otis Vroom, caring for her in a house a few short miles from where she was born. The cause of death was Uremia, and the date of her passing, aged 54, was almost one hundred years ago, on 14 June 1915. It would be nice to think that centenaries might allow us to contemplate equally on the lives of the vast bulk of humanity as well as the massacre of hundreds of thousands in a futile conflict. This letter, a random letter I came across by chance, would have meant the world to Emma Hay Vroom, whose existence hinged on the decision of her father and mother to fly in the face of familial reputation and social convention in the year 1858.

The letter in its entirety follows.

Philadelphia July 7th 1858

I felt it my duty, a few days ago, frankly to express my regret at your contemplated marriage, and have some of the reasons upon what that sentiment was founded. I have since concluded, in order to avoid misapprehension, to present them in a more condensed & desirable form, for your serious consideration. I assume no right to dictate to you on that or any other subject. I only claim the privileges of a father and a friend to offer my best advice. It is for you to accept or reject it. You are my first born son, and are the only surviving offspring of the wife of my youth. I have almost reached the ordinary limit of human life, and in the course of events, I expect soon to be called hence. I have looked to you as the friend and counsellor of my children after my death; and feel that any false step made or any disgrace incurred by you would cast its reflection on them- and indeed on all your relatives.

I repeat, what I said to you the other day that in my judgment your own happiness and that of your children required that you should be married – and the sooner the better; but that the utmost caution should be used in selecting a suitable person to occupy the position of wife and mother. A mistake on this point will be fatal. Your happiness and the present and future destiny of your children are involved in the issue. Do the conditions that are absolutely required for an able and satisfactory discharge of their duties, meet in Mrs. R.? I think, not. Look at the disparity in years between you. By the record you are nearly 42 years old; in constitutional vigor, not less than 50. Mrs. R. I have reason to believe, is under 17. In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man. This is a grave consideration for both parties.

Will she be willing to be tied for years to a man as good as dead? Are you willing, for the sake of a temporary gratification, to expose a young woman to the temptation, and your own honor to the risk of such a state of things? Consider the matter well. I have been told, in substance, that her mother has expressed it as her daughters sentiment, that if she loved a man she did not care about his age – even if he were 70! In the young lady this may be ignorance or romance, and a few short years, or even months would forever dissipate the illusion; but her mother and you know better…

A distinguished gentleman of this city, with whom you are personally acquainted, at the age of 46 or 48, married a beautiful and accomplished young lady of about 20, now deceased – A short time after her marriage, a lady acquaintance of mine called on her, and after the usual compliments, inquired how she liked married life? She relied that her husband was as kind, affectionate and attentive as possible, and that she was as happy as could be expected, “considering the difference in our ages.” The feelings, tastes and habits of early youth and mature age are different. Nature intended them to be so; and we cannot violate her laws with impunity. This lady was a faithful wife; has her children now nearly grown up; but I doubt whether she was ever happy. Her husband is, even now, a hale, vigorous old man.

You have a family of seven children – one of whom is little more than an infant, and three of them will require the constant and vigilant supervision of a discreet, intelligent and experienced woman, during the next few years, the most critical period of their lives, within which their character, for good or evil, is to be found.

The long continued illness of their mother and your inability from absence to devote the necessary time and attention to their education (I mean education in the largest sense) have greatly increased the difficulty of the task that will devolve on the lady to whose care they may be committed – a task, which I repeat without the fear of contradiction, no girl of 16 or 17, unless possessed of very extraordinary mental and educational endowments is at all competent to fulfil; [sic] and the willingness of a girl of that age after a few weeks acquaintance with a gentleman nearly old enough to be her grandfather, to assume such a fearful responsibility, would of itself satisfy me, that she has no adequate conception of the position she decrees to occupy, and is so anxious to be secure and comfortable home as to risk every thing else, regardless of consequences. I presume that Supt. R. Is a respectable, industrious, and attractive in appearance; but still she is a mere girl, who instead of being places at the head of a large family of children, some as old as herself, ought to be at school- a girl not a whit superior if indeed she is equal in intellect and experience to several of your children, of whom you are thinking of selecting her as their moral instructor and the guide and director in household matters. I should suppose, that by the time you were so far awake to the sober realities of life, as to be in no danger, in view of all of your responsibilities of being fascinated by the smiles or the pretty face of a mere girl- so far at least as to be driven to abandon all the proprieties of life. Am I mistaken?

So far as I can learn, all your relatives by blood or affinity, without exception, regard the step you propose taking, with the deepest regret and mortification. They view it as in every way unsuitable, and fraught with disaster to yourself and your children; and in this sentiment, it appears to me that every right minded man or woman, not blinded by prejudice or passion, will concur.

I have written to you thus, my dear son, with a sad heart- not to wound your feelings, or to inflict or injury on any human being; but under a solemn conviction, that it is my duty to warn you of what I verily believe is an impending danger, and to implore you not to do an act which, I feel opposed, will be a continual source of the deepest regret and remorse as long as you live. This is the first time in your life that I have ever appealed to you on any subject. You know that it is not my course to do so, and that I am not easily moved. If I have said any thing that you may think harsh of unkind, I trust you will forgive me. I have no motive in addressing you but to guard you against a threatened evil and to promote your best interest and that of your family, with which my own [cross] and that of these I love are closely identified. Your affectionate father, Pete Hay To Henry Hay esq.


Malcolm Hay Papers #1788 Box 104 Folder 3. 1850 U.S. Census, Middletown Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 307. 1860 U.S. Census, Bristol Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 33. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, File No. 13762.

This research was facilitated by the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

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Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.

[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.

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Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland

Moving on from my last ‘reading history’ post, I’ve decided to speed forward a little in time to a book I read in my first year as an undergraduate in University College, Cork. This book has had a profound influence not alone on me, but on my field of specialist research since it was first published in 2007. Continue reading

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Jarveys, Jarveys, Gerry Mac Arowner: Hackney Carriages in late nineteenth century Cork

From The South of Ireland illustrated: with descriptive letterpress and maps. Cork: Guy & Co., 1904(?). Source:

From The South of Ireland illustrated: with descriptive letterpress and maps, Cork: Guy & Co., 1904. Source:

When we think of way transport shaped the modern city, we usually think of light rail like trams, of undergrounds or else the railways. We almost never seem to think though of the hackney carriage. In addition to the role of these forms of transport, the hackney carriage similarly had a role to play in cementing the increasing ability of Cork’s middle classes to loosen the previously necessary proximity between home and work. Indeed as Angela Fahy notes:

Members of the predominantly Catholic middle classes lived in the suburbs in substantial terraced and detached houses; set in neat gardens, behind walls, safe they hoped from poverty, crime and ill-health associated with much of the city’s population.[1]

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Reading History: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland

In a now famous injunction, E.H. Carr in his classic text What Is History? suggests that if you want to know the historian, then you should know their history. While Carr meant this in terms of the politics that will have informed the historian, I’m using it in this post, as a jumping off point for an extension of Carr’s injunction. More than just knowing the historian’s history, it might be worth knowing their reading history. And so, here’s a short look at one of the history books that I can both recall reading in a vivid way, but which has also survived in a way that many other books I was given over the years has not. Continue reading

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Filed under Book History, British History, Irish History, Labour History, Memory, Social History