Tag Archives: Irish history

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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Filed under Death, Events, Irish History, Labour History, Nineteenth Century, Social History

Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940

Cormac Ó’Gráda’s book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, was a ground-breaking work for looking at religious and ethnic minorities in Ireland historically. I recently heard Ó’Gráda speaking as part of the UCC Historical Society’s History Week. Ó’Gráda spoke about the potential of the 1901 and 1911 census, especially in relation to the study of minorities in Irish life from that period. With that in mind, and following on from some tentative work which I had done for my PhD thesis, I’ve decided to sketch a portrait of Waterford’s Jewish community from the end of nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War.

The Beginnings of the Jewish Community in Waterford

According to Louis Hyman, in his history of Irish Jewry up to 1910, ‘At the close of the seventeenth century, the Council of the Waterford Corporation encouraged the settlement of foreign merchants.’ One man who applied to trade freely in the city was Jacob Nunes who was given the freedom of the city to conduct trade in 1701.[1] Thus Nunes has a fair claim to being Waterford’s first Jewish settler. Again, Hyman notes that ‘individual Jews resided in Waterford in the eighteenth century, and some were there in 1805, one of them, surely Josias Jacob, registered with the Dublin Goldsmith’s Company in 1809. About the middle of the nineteenth century, the grandparents of the late Professor James Desmond Bernal settled in the town.’[2] According to the census of 1871, there was still only a solitary Jew in Waterford, however that was all about to change. With the introduction of what are popularly known as the May Laws, many Jews in Tsarist Russia made their way to Britain and Ireland. As Hyman notes, this movement of Jews from what was sometimes called Russian Poland, and Lithuania, had the effect ultimately of strengthening the communities of Jewish settlers in places other than in Dublin and Belfast.[3]

One of the earliest mentions of the new Jewish community in Waterford comes from 1893 with the death of Joseph Diamond at the age of 68, who lived on 8 Manor Street in the city centre, a street in Waterford that would in time form a central part of the Jewish community in the city.[4] Many of the Jews then settled in Waterford were Welsh, and were part of the Jewish community in Britain that were middle-class emigrants from Central Europe, what were known in Ireland as “English Jews”. The lives of these Jewish people were in stark contrast to those who would come to make up the bulk of Britain, Ireland, and Waterford’s Jewish communities in time, those fleeing pogroms and persecution in Russia.

Shortly after the death notice of Joseph Diamond, the Jewish Chronicle noted that a congregation had been established in the city, with Mr R Smullian as president, and so prayers were held for the  Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for probably the first time in Waterford’s history.[5] A year later, the Jewish Chronicle again mentioned the new congregation noting that:

Mr and Mrs Goldring presented a Scroll of the Law to the newly-established congregation. In the evening they gave a party to which every Jewish resident of Waterford was invited. Mr M. Simon presided  and great satisfaction was expressed by the Chairman, Mr Hanasan[sic], President of the congregation, Mr R. Smullian, Mr Levy, Mr Diamond and others at the formation of the congregation.[6]

With the congregation up and running in Waterford city, the Jewish community there could do perform rites of their faith in their new home, rather than travelling to other cities in Ireland with synagogues. The development of the congregation breathed life into the city’s Jewish community and it wasn’t long before the city saw its first Jewish wedding, something which attracted a great deal of interest from Waterford people generally:

On Wednesday 14th inst the first Jewish wedding that has been solemnised in Waterford took place in the synagogue 88 the Manor. The couple were Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jack Lappin. The ceremony was performed by Rev J. E. Myers of Cork assisted by the local minister Rev Simon Aarons. The wedding created a great deal of interest  in Waterford and the synagogue was filled with Christians. Rev J. E. Myers  preached on Sabbath morning and also at a special service on Sunday evening, the latter attended by several Christians. Mr Goldring, President, and his wife have made handsome presents to the synagogue. Mr Robinson is Treasurer and Mr J. Levy is Hon Sec.[7]

The development of the community was of interest in particular to JE Myers, who ministered to the Cork congregation, and who visited Waterford on a number of occasions.[8] The community was growing in strength and in no time, there was a plan to open a Hebrew School in the city.[9] As the Jewish community grew and developed, children were born into families in Waterford, like the Sherowitz family. The progress of the community in Waterford was followed closely by the Jewish Chronicle, and many notices, no matter how small, relating to the city’s community, appeared throughout its pages. And so we know that some of the members of Waterford’s Jewish community got involved in politics, like Harris Sherowitz who sent a letter to John Redmond MP on the Aliens Act in 1905, signed by many, in the hopes that he would seek amendments to it. There was a significant difference between the size of the community in 1901 and by 1911. The interwar period was the peak of the Jewish community in Waterford, built as it was by the community that had developed and was captured in the census of 1911. Waterford’s Jewish community was at its most numerous in the city then: there were around 62 Jewish people in Waterford at that date. It was never bigger, before or since. While these numbers obviously pale in their significance when placed next to the Jewish communities of Dublin, Cork or Limerick, nevertheless the Jewish community in Waterford left their mark on the city. These maps show where Waterford’s Jewish community settled in the city (click images to enlarge them):

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

As you can see from Fig. 1 above, the very small community that existed in 1901, was centred in the main around John Street and Manor Street. This concentration would remain in 1911, as you can see from Fig.2, below:

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

To get the full effect, Fig.3 below shows both the 1901 and 1911 settlements overlaid on each other:

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

These few streets then, encompassed Waterford’s Jewish community until the beginning of the Second World War.

The Figure of the ‘Jewman’ in Popular Imagination and Memory in Waterford

Once the community strengthened, and became a more visible presence in the city, centred as it was around John Street and Manor Street, the figure of the ‘Jewman’, in that peculiar Irish turn of phrase, was a figure of curiosity and later, folk memory. In Waterford a song was sung called ‘The Jewman’, and according to Dermot Power was popular at one time with workers in Denny’s Bacon curing factory back in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the community was at its height. If as Hyman’s history of the Jews in Ireland has it ‘they knew no trade but peddling’, a fact contested in Ó’Gráda’s work, then this aspect of Irish Jewry is well summed up in the opening verses of ‘The Jewman’:

 At the top of town, Anne Street, a lady does dwell,

Her name I won’t mention, I dare not tell,

One cold winter’s morning the Jewman did call,

And unslung his bag outside of the hall.

He knocked at the door with his usual grin,

Saying good morning, missus, is your husband within

Says she no he’s not I want nothing today,

Ah take something said the Jewman don’t send me away.[10]

In the song, the woman takes some blankets on the promise of payment the following week, and duly the following week no payment is forthcoming, so the Jewman makes a grab for his goods, is hit over the head with a can by the woman before both are brought before a court, the song finishing with the testimony of ‘a big red nosed Bobby’ and a suitably amdmonished Jewman:

Said the Jew oh your Worship my poor head is sore,

And I’ll never go look for me wool anymore.[11]

As Cormac Ó’Gráda notes of such songs, and this particular one seems to have existed in a variety of versions Dublin as well, were indicative of views among Irish people that were ‘more xenophobic than strictly Anti-Semitic.’ Indeed, he contends that ‘the outlook of most Irish people of all persuasions was blinkered, parochial, and prejudiced by today’s standards.’[12] Such was the power over the local imagination of this figure, the ‘Jewman’, that one of Waterford’s lanes, Kneeff’s Lane, was popularly known as ‘Jewman’s Lane’. Indeed, the popular folk memory of the ‘Jewman’ and ‘Jewman’s Lane’ were revisited in a recent documentary about the Barrack Street area in the heart of Waterford city (the relevant segment is from 36:00 to 38:45):

As we’ve seen, the first Jewish marriages and other occasions were of deep interest to many locals, and something of this interest first present in the 1890s remained in the 1930s, as when the Munster Express carried a small notice relating to the Jewish Day of Atonement in September 1931.[13] Members of Waterford’s Jewish community found themselves in court on occasion, and in a rare display of anti-Semitism, a local District Court judge told a member of the family that he should count himself lucky, given what was happening to his people in Hitler’s Germany, though many rushed to defend the judge saying his comments were not meant in such a way.[14] There was also this joke which appeared in the pages of the Munster Express:

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Still, whether this properly reflects the relationship between the Jewish community and their hosts is difficult to ascertain for certain, perhaps like the figure of the ‘Jewman’ this was more parochial than anti-Semitic. One of the more unusual stories involving Ireland’s Jewish community and Waterford comes from the late 1930s as well. Frank Edwards, a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and rugby player with Waterford City RFC and teacher in Mount Sion, took a leave of absence from his teaching duties in the school to join the International Brigade  to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Upon returning, Edwards was refused his old job and barred from teaching in any Catholic school. Rev. Herzog, the Chief Rabbi in Ireland, gave Edwards a job teaching in Zion Schools, recently established on Bloomfield Avenue in Dublin, where Edwards would work for the next thirty years.[15]

The legacy of Waterford’s Jewish Community

Ray Rivlin’s Jewish Ireland: A Social History, contains a chapter on sport and entertainment.[16] The chapter opens with the story of Maurice Woolfson, a Jewish Waterford man who led local club Evergreen, when they achieved great victory on the field in the 1930s. The Woolfson name is an important one in the early history of Waterford soccer. Isaac Woolfson, was in the 1930s, chairman of the Waterford and District Association Football League and a key figure in establishing the first Employer’s League in 1931, forerunner to the factory leagues. Like many of the figures explored in Anthony Clavane’s Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, men like Isaac, Maurice and later ‘Duffy’ Woolfson, emigrant Jews from the poor edges of Russia, who were not of the middle-class “English Jew” origins of earlier Jews in Waterford, used sport, and soccer in particular as a means of integration and acceptance. Cormac Ó’Gráda, discussing the wide variety of sporting and other bodies established by Ireland’s Jewish community noted that success in the sporting arena ‘fostered communal pride’ but he also noted that it wasn’t long before many Irish Jews, and the membership of their sports clubs, moved beyond the community itself. [17]In 1938, with Maurice Woolfson as chairman, Evergreen won the FAI Minor Cup, beating Sligo United 2-1 in a game held at Kilcohan Park in the city. On his leaving for Dublin 1940, the loss was lamented by all involved in the club.

The Woolfson family dispersed from Waterford but returned in 1971 for the inauguration of the Maurice Woolfson Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the local Schoolboy League at half time during a League of Ireland game between Waterford and Finn Harps. However, as was noted by a journalist at the time, the contribution of the Woolfson family to Waterford soccer amounted to a lot more than just a silver trophy, ‘no matter how magnificent’.[18] The same might be said of the entire Jewish community, who breathed life into the streets on which they lived in Waterford, leaving a long lasting impression on the city and its people.


[1] Hyman, Louis, The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the year 1910, Shannon: Irish University Press 1972, p.22

[2] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p.79

[3] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p156 and 161

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 1 September 1893

[5] Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1893

[6] Jewish Chronicle, 20 October 1894

[7] Jewish Chronicle, 23 November 1894

[8] Jewish Chronicle, 27 March; 17 July 1896

[9] Jewish Chronicle, 6 November 1896

[10] Power, Dermot, The Ballads and Songs of Waterford from 1487, Waterford: Munster Express 1992, pp.10-11

[11] Power, Ballads and Songs of Waterford, p.11

[12] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socio-economic history, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006, p.180

[13] Munster Express, September 25 1931

[14] Munster Express, Septembr 27 1935

[15] Rivlin, Ray, Ireland: A Social History, Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2011, p.110

[16] Rivlin, Ray, Jewish Ireland, pp.209-210

[17] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland, pp.186-187

[18] Munster Express, April 23 1971

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Filed under Irish History, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Spanish Civil War, Sports History, Twentieth Century

The Sash by the Seaside: A Brief History of the Republic of Ireland’s Only Orange Parade

A Donegal tourist website, listing some of the events and attractions in the county, draws special mention to the annual Rossnowlagh Orange Order Parade, held every year before the 12th July commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne: ‘It is a moment of high weirdness, once very year – orangemen and -women descend upon the sleepy seaside town of Rossnowlagh to parade from the church to the beach. What has the trappings of an outing to the seaside (complete with ice cream vendors, food stands and tacky souvenir stalls) is in fact the only parade of the Orange Order in the republic of Ireland. Peaceful and a family affair. And colourful, though blue, white and red are the pre-dominant shades. [1]

The idea of an Orange Order parade in the South will likely seem odd to some, especially given the violence that occurred when Willie Frazer and Love Ulster marched in Dublin some years back. Many would also be surprised to know that there are, in fact, some 44 Orange Lodges in Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan, Donegal and Wicklow. The Rossnowlagh Parade represents the most important event in the calendar of Southern Unionism and has, with the notable exception of a gap in the 1970s, taken place annually on the Saturday before the 12th of July with little fuss for more than a hundred years. This post will examine the history of this curious annual event.

Unionism in Donegal

The Orange Order has its origins in the intense sectarian violence that plagued mid-Ulster in the 1790s, evolving from anti-Catholic, agrarian secret societies that were active in the affected areas. The organisation’s stated aim was to promote and defend Protestantism in a country where Catholics formed a significant majority. The organisation was highly active in the early nineteenth century in opposition to Daniel O’Connell’s repeal agitation and was involved in many acts of sectarian violence. By the late nineteenth century, the movement was in decline. However, William Gladstone’s attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland saw the Order re-emerge stronger than ever before. In the Unionist state that emerged after the turmoil of the revolution, the Orange Order became the most significant organisation in the six counties. Indeed, between 1921 and 1969, every prime minister of Northern Ireland, and all but three cabinet members, were members. Unsurprisingly, the organisation didn’t fare as well in the Southern State. The annual twelfth of July parades, celebrating the protestant William of Orange’s victory at the battle of the Boyne, is the movement’s most important and widely celebrated tradition.

That the Orange Order was active in Donegal is not surprising. The county has historically possessed a significant Protestant population. In 1861, for example, nearly a quarter of the County’s total population came under the category of ‘other religions’, of which Church of Ireland adherents and Presbyterians formed the great majority. By 1926 relative numbers had declined, though less dramatically than in other parts of the country, and they remained a significant minority, compromising 18% of the population of Donegal. Indeed, of the twenty-six counties that formed the Saorstát, Donegal had the third largest non-Catholic minority, edged out only by County Dublin (excluding the city) and Monaghan.[2] Even today there are a number of Orange lodges in the county, though the Rossnowlagh lodge itself has long been inactive.

Members of the Leitrim Loyal Orange Lodge marching in 200

Members of the Leitrim Loyal Orange Lodge marching in 2000

The Rossnowlagh parade appears to have merited little mention in the pre-revolutionary period, being just one of dozens of Orange parades held in the South at a time when the idea of ‘Northern Ireland’ had yet to come into existence. One of the few times the Rossnowlagh parade attracted attention was in 1906 when the Raphoe bands were returning home from the march. On reaching the town, the Orangemen paraded through the streets ‘though the hour was late.’[3] A Catholic navvy got caught up in the procession before being beaten badly. A ‘scene of wild violence’ then occurred between local Catholics and the Order with the marchers using bayonets and deacon poles as weapons, resulting in several Catholics being ‘seriously wounded’ by bayonet and sword thrusts.[4] The fact that this one outbreak of violence merited mention indicates that the parade was, otherwise, just a regular part of life in Donegal.

Rossnowlagh only became notable after the revolution. After partition, Orangeism became a more or less purely Ulster phenomenon, while Southern Unionism adjusted to the reality of minority status in an independent Irish State. While the Orange Order managed to maintain its structures reasonably well in the border counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, the Rossnowlagh march quickly became the only major Boyne commemoration in the Free State, though some smaller events did continue to be held in other parts of the country. A newspaper report of the 1936 Rossnowlagh parade described an event greatly similar to the contemporary parade, with the day passing off ‘without a single unpleasant incident’, no political meetings being held and the crowd ‘contenting themselves with the usual features of a seaside outing.’[5] Other pre-1969 parades followed a similar pattern.

Troubled Times

With the outbreak of the troubles in 1969, the future of the Rossnowlagh commemoration was called into question. With the conflict less than a year old, there were well-grounded fears that the marching season would represent a sectarian flash-point. It was in this context that Fianna Fáil senator and Donegal native Bernard McGlinchey warned that there would be trouble were the parade to take place. There was an undeniable sectarian tinge to McGinchey’s comments, made at a meeting of Donegal County Council, accusing Donegal Protestants of ‘separating themselves from the community’ and ‘paying lip-service to Dublin.’[6] When confronted over his statements, the senator was unapologetic, claiming that Donegal Unionists had crossed into Northern Ireland ‘to help the B-specials in their foul work’ and accused them of aiding the UVF in the blowing up of an RTE mast near Raphoe.[7]

The Donegal News reported that McGlinchey’s comments were not well received in the County and represented a view that was ‘alien to normal attitudes in Donegal, where all sections of the people live in reasonable harmony, respect and friendship.’[8] Support came from unexpected quarters. The Ancient Order of Hibernians condemned McGlinchey’s ‘deplorable’ threats while Sinn Féin encouraged the Orange Order to continue with the parade regardless and suggested that they seek Garda protection from ‘sectarian bully gangs.’[9] In spite of this, the Orange Order decided to call off the parade in the interests of maintaining the peace. It was not until 1978 that the parade was again revived.

Orangeman and Orangeboy at the 1981 Commemoration

Orangeman and Orangeboy at the 1981 Commemoration

One of the most striking features of the parade from the mid-1980s onwards was its spectacular growth. In the period before the troubles, the numbers attending the parade rarely rose above 1,000 while, after the restoration of the event in 1978, they tended to be a fairly humble affair. This is not surprising, given the context of the continued tensions that existed across the border. The 1981 parade, for example, saw just 500 or so Orangemen parade through Rossnowlagh ‘amid . . . black flags and walls daubed with H-block slogans.’[10] However, the popularity of the event was growing steadily and, by 1987, numbers had risen to 800. Interestingly, one of the participants that year was Gordon Graham, secretary of the Dublin and Wicklow lodge, who proudly boasted of being ‘the only Connaught-born man in the Orange Order.’[11]

‘A Family Day Out’

It was the nineties that the parade truly came into its own. The 1993 parade saw an unprecedented attendance of 10,000, twenty times the number that had marched on the revival of the event in 1978.[12] By 1997, the estimated attendance was 15,000, including Orangemen from as far afield as Canada and New Zealand.[13] These figures may not be entirely accurate. The Donegal Orange Order’s deputy grand master, for example, felt that the small size of the village may have led to overestimates of crowd size.[14] However, the fact that a significant increase in attendance took place cannot be questioned. That the explosion in popularity of the parade coincided with the peace process is not surprising. Indeed, the scale of the celebrations has tended to ebb and flow with the degree of tensions on the other side of the border.

1994 photo

1994 Parade

Eric Kaufman writes of the Rossnowlagh commemoration that the nature of the parade in ‘this depoliticised setting demonstrates that Orange marches are about culture as well as power.’[15] To say that the Rossnowlagh marches were always apolitical is not strictly true. At the 1960 march for example the southern government were criticised for not doing enough to prevent IRA raids during the border campaign, while in 1980 the crowd were warned against ‘misleading and divisive ecumenism.’[16] However, in general, these were the exception rather than the rule. The parade in recent times has tended to be more of a ‘family day out’, with all the features of a seaside festival, including tacky souvenirs and chip-vans. In 2000, a local Garda, who had policed the gathering for over a decade, commented that the parade was ‘very much a family affair . . . there is never any hassle.’[17] The order itself appears to have taken care to ensure that the parade remains so. For example, the Sash is always played though more overtly political songs are not, while Ulster flags, rather than Union Jacks, are typically carried by the marchers.

Conclusion

So, why has the parade tended to remain so free from tension? A significant factor must be the healthy community relations that have prevailed there. In 2001, a poll of Donegal Protestants found that 86% identified with ‘Irishness’ and the Irish state, demonstrating pride in national achievements, while 96% mixed socially with the Catholic community.[18] The fields where the parades are held, for example, are Catholic-owned while one local Orangemen commented that they and the local lodges of the Ancient Order of Hibernians ‘co-operated closely’, often loaning each other instruments for their respective parades.

The other reason for the trouble-free nature of the parade is their political setting. The Orange Order in the north was indelibly associated with the overtly sectarian Stormont state that emerged from partition. The order was seen to be (and usually was) tightly bound up with institutions like the B-specials and the Northern state itself. Thus, Boyne commemorations there had an entirely different meaning, being an expression of power and control, often of overt sectarianism, as well as a cultural event. In the republic however, the state, though dominated by the ethos and corporeal power of the Catholic church, was not an overt tool of sectarian repression. Thus, Orange marches held in the south were neither an expression of resistance nor of domination, and lacked the potency of meaning that they generated in the North.

In the context of the southern state and an area that has traditionally boasted healthy community relations, the Rossnowlagh commemoration perhaps represents another side of Orangeism, an expression of a more benign Unionist identity, stripped of the sectarianism and triumphalism that is so often characteristic of Orange parades in Northern Ireland. The geographical distance between Drumcree and Rossnowlagh is not large, but the political, historic and cultural gulf between those two places is immense.


[2] Report of the 1926 Census (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1929), Vol.3, Table 9.

[3] Donegal News, 21 July 1906.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donegal News, 18 July 1936.

[6] Donegal News, 4 July 1970.

[7] Irish Press, 11 July 1970.

[8] Donegal News, 11 July 1970

[9] Ibid.

[10] Donegal News, 18 July 1981.

[11] Irish Times, 13 July 1987.

[12] Irish Times, 12 July 1993.

[13] Irish Times, 7 July 1997.

[14] Irish Times, 26 May 2000.

[15] Eric Kaufman, The Orange Order: A Contemporary Northern Irish History (Oxford, 2007), 237.

[16] Donegal News, 23 July 1960 and 19 July 1980.

[17] Irish Times, 26 May 2000.

[18] Irish Times, 14 August 2001.

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Ghosts of Imagination: A Journey through Landscape, the Land League and the Search for Memory

The modest plaque marking the site of the Irishtown meeting

The modest plaque marking the site of the Irishtown meeting

On a recent research trip I spent a week travelling the N17 each morning and evening. This arterial route stretches North from Galway city, passing through the plain East of Lough Corrib, into County Mayo and on into Sligo. To those from outside the region it is perhaps best remembered as the subject of a song by Tuam band and early nineties hit machine the Saw Doctors, although, then again, perhaps not. It is two and half years since I left Galway and headed South to the sunnier climes of Cork and, while the archives I needed to visit on were quite a while outside of Galway city, it provided an ideal base camp for the week long trip. Waking on a mattress on a friends’ floor in Salthill, most days I would be on the road before the worst of the rush hour traffic and an hour and a half later find myself at the museum in Knock, Co Mayo, just before it opened at 10am. On other days the trip only took me as far as Tuam, a more reasonable 40 minutes north of Galway city.

Snaking between Tuam and Knock the N17 takes you through what was the heartland of the Land War of 1879-82. The land, which once would have been mostly under tillage, is now predominantly pasture. It is not bad by the standards of Connaught, but is poor in comparison to the lush pasture of Leinster and parts of Munster. Stone walls divide the fields and while hedgerows, trees and bushes can hardly be described as rare they are by no means as frequent as they would be in richer, deeper soil. Overall the landscape has a windswept, sodden appearance but is still agricultural land. Modern bungalows and two story houses are reasonably frequent and the towns one passes through are free from the sort of sprawl and expansive estates that surround towns closer to larger cities. One gets the impression they have not expanded greatly in the past century and a half since the Land War when they were the towns which played a central commercial and social role in the life of the region. Improvements in transport and accessibility to larger towns have, if anything, diminished their importance.

A regular sight in the countryside of the area are the crumbling ruins of long abandoned farmhouses. Often standing alone in fields, windowless and roofless, these structures are sometimes reasonably large two story houses, the former homes of large farmers, middlemen or land agents, those who employed labourers and arranged good marriages for their children. In equal frequency, although they would have been more prevalent in the nineteenth century, are the ruins of small cottages. Their thatch roofs long missing, these homes would have been the type most associated with the Irish peasant. Here they are made of stone, in other, less rocky regions, they were more likely to be mud walled. They are a reminder of a period when this was one of the most congested rural districts in Ireland which lead to it being particularly hard hit by the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52. The smallholders who inhabited the area derived the bulk of their nutrition from the potato, which, up until that point had sustained them well on small patches of land. An outbreak of potato blight, brought to Europe from the United states on a shipment of seed potatoes, led to the failure of the potato crop beginning in late 1845, the consequence of which was the death of over one million Irish people in the period to 1852 and the migration of a further million and a quarter in the same period. However the attitudes of the landlord class and the British government are what ultimately turned a crop failure into one of the greatest social disasters to beset any European nation in a time of peace. Early efforts at relief included subsidised maize flour, until this was abandoned in favour of public works, which often worked starving people to death in exchange for a pittance. After this system was abandoned effective relief came in the form of soup kitchens which operated for a spell in 1847, however these were short lived as they flew in the face of the laissez faire economic ideology beloved of British Liberalism. The free hand of the market has never dealt a fair hand to the poor and, unwilling to shoulder the burden of poor relief, the British government cast the responsibility on to the poor law system which administered the workhouses, a system ultimately funded by the rates of landlords, who in order to lessen their contribution, cast tenants out of their homes. Criteria for entering these workhouses were stringent and their conditions were so deplorable entry into them was far from a guarantee of survival. There was food in Ireland as millions starved, some was even exported, but it was felt that state intervention was immoral when it challenged the inherent wisdom of economic liberalism. For many in government the famine was seen as providential, the actions of a just God, in response to the laziness and intransigence of the Irish peasant. It was also hoped that it might clear a little bit of space for more modern and capitalist orientated agriculture, a system which lent itself to free trade and export rather than a sentimental attachment to the land.

After my last morning in the archive at Knock, as I travelled to Tuam for an appointment in St Jarlath’s College, I saw a sign pointing from the road that said ‘Irishtown’. I had time to spare and made a quick decision to make a quick detour. A few kilometres later I arrived into a small town where a sign on the road in said, ‘Welcome to Irishtown, Cradle of the Land League.’ I wasn’t expecting an interpretative centre but felt that surely there must be something here to see, some monument to the monster meeting of 20 April 1879 which is regarded as the starting point of one of the greatest and most effective social movements ever to manifest on Irish soil. When a series of bad summers in the late 1870s once again limited productivity on the land, the famine was still a living memory. Tenant farmers of all sizes faced real fears. None wanted to return to a point where farmers had to choose between feeding their family or selling produce to pay their landlord.

Not all tenants were smallholders, there were a variety of steps on the social ladder between landowner and landless labourer. Often the landlord might rent a large parcel of land to a reasonably large farmer. The large farmer, or middleman, then often subdivided the land between smaller farmers, at a significant mark up, who may in turn rent it out in even smaller parcels. Sometimes even the smallest of farmers would let out a small amount of land to a labourer, or cottier, who for either a cash payment or payment in labour would have a small piece of ground with enough room for a cabin, a small crop of potatoes and perhaps a cow and a pig. The pig was central to the household economy of the small farmer and the cottier. Fattened on potatoes and buttermilk, it was the sale of this animal which provided cash to pay rent or for necessary bought goods. While the tenantry were not a homogeneous mass, every tier felt they had something to gain from reform of the land system. The more moderate demanded what was known as the three f’s, fair rent, free sale (their right to sell their lease) and fixity of tenure. There was also a demand for compensation for improvements made to the land. The more extreme, and increasingly powerful, section of the movement called for peasant proprietorship, while on the far left of the movement a small minority called for nationalisation of all land. This group included Michael Davitt, one of the principal founders and leaders of the movement, but the problem with nationalisation was it was not desirable under British rule. While the system of land reform did not happen overnight the Land War played a significant role in ushering in a series of land acts, up to and including the 1903 Wyndham Land Act, which would oversee the transfer of ownership of the vast majority of land in Ireland.

Grievances with the landlord system were widespread throughout the nineteenth century and tenant right meetings were relatively common. However it was the meeting at Irishtown which came to be accepted as the beginning of the Land War and which led to the establishment of the Mayo Land League in August 1879 and the National Land League in October. We can see a certain level of opportunism in some of those who came to lead the Land League, in particular Charles Stewart Parnell who used it a springboard to establish his hegemony over the Home Rule Party, but it was at its very base a mass movement comprising principally of those whom it sought to represent. It featured an ad hoc mixture of a variety of shades of national opinion, including Home Rulers, Fenians and and even some Unionists. The New Departure, with which it is often associated, was an alliance between Fenians and Home Rulers but in reality the Land League never had the support of the leadership of either movement, yet, commanded the allegiance of the bulk of the membership of each.

The Land War was never a war as such and while officially it was a non-violent movement, violence often manifested itself. It used tactics such as mass meetings, a phenomenon which had been utilised widely by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century, the withholding of rents perceived to be unjust, resistance to eviction, and boycotts of landlords, land agents and those who took over evicted farms. Resisting eviction could often lead to violence and could on occasion be successful, not simply in preventing an eviction, but in garnering a PR victory and in galvanising support. Various secret societies had been active in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century and they usually manifested agrarian grievances in the dead of night with attacks on landlords and their properties. Throughout the Land War attacks on the homes and property of landlords and grazers were frequently carried out by these societies and could include the mutilation of cattle. Many landlords preferred to let out their land to large farmers for pasture as it paid better and involved less tenants. For the smaller tenants, the large cattle farmer was often seen as as much of a threat as the landlord, and there was a resentment towards seeing cattle fattened while people went hungry. These agrarian ‘outrages’ were well documented by the authorities and widely reported in the press. However, the new phase of agrarian agitation had taken the emphasis off such clandestine activities and while they still occurred in significant numbers it was the mass basis of the Land League which made it powerful. Grazers and large farmers became involved in the Land League and despite the efforts of some to have its efforts focus on the plight of the small farmer they were to benefit from the eventual land redistribution too.

According to the Connaught Telegraph of 26 April 1879 13,000 people attended the tenant right meeting in Irishtown. They came from Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, Irishtown being close to where these counties meet. The Royal Irish Constabulary were caught somewhat off guard by the scale of the meeting, despite placards being posted in advance. While some policeman were present Dublin Castle was never notified of the event and they communicated with police in the district demanding an explanation. Police in Roscommon seem to have been the most prepared for the meeting with Sub-Inspector Charles Shadwick at Roscrea communicating with his colleague in Claremorris to inform him of it. A report by police in Caslterea, dated 16 April, recorded placarding in advance of the meeting and a memorandum on 18 April informed the police in Ballinlough to post observers on the roads to monitor those attending.1

The lack of a visible police presence was remarked on by John O’Connor Power, Home Rule MP for Mayo,who said that they would be able to keep order themselves. Indeed the police reports say that the Nally family of Balla attended with a ‘contingent of 370 horse.’ P. W. Nally and J.W. Nally were prominent local Fenians and were to play an important local role in the Land War. The police also reported that ‘400 men marched deep into the field from the direction of Claremorris.’ and that there were marshals appointed who wore green sashes.2 One of these sashes, that of PJ Gordon, is now on display in the Knock Museum. While John O’Connor Power may have been present at this early stage of the Land War he did not press home his advantage and was to return to London to focus on his parliamentary activities. In doing so he left the field open to his great rival Charles Stewart Parnell, who having been approached by Michael Davitt and John Devoy was to take on the mantle of leader of the Land League.3 O’Connor Power would eventually lose the support of the Fenians, despite his having been a member of its supreme council, as they came to favour Parnell.

Other speakers on the day included James Daly, editor of the Connaught Telegraph, and Matt Harris, Chairman of the Ballinalsoe Tenants Defence Association and a prominent local Fenian. Daly called for rent reductions and pointed to the poor harvests and rising costs with which the people were faced. He told those assembled to ‘Organise your tenant defence meetings in every parish and let your agitation be- the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.’ Daly went on to say

it is not on the floor of the English house of commons that the real struggle for independence must be fought (cheers); but as Irish nationalists we should be glad to see the enemies of liberty obstructed and harassed- no matter where or by whom- whether it be in Westminster or in Zululand- whether the attacking party be commanded by a Parnell or a Cetewayo.4

These references to Parnell’s obstructionism and the Anglo-Zulu war were well received and the crowd responded with cheers. Throughout the summer of 1879 land meetings were held throughout the west and began to spread into other regions. By 1880 the Land League had become a fully fledged mass movement which, while beset by flaws and divisions, played a crucial role in implementing one of the most fundamental social and economic transformations ever to take place in Ireland.

Irishtown google map

This screen grab of a google map shows Irishtown as it now stands. The blue area is the site of the land meeting. It is now divided into four fields with a farm yard in the middle. The blue marker is the location of the plaque.

On arriving in Irishtown in December 2012 I did not see much in the way of reminders of the watershed of the Irishtown land meeting. The village had those usual things, a new estate on the way in, a primary school, a church, and in the centre a junction, a pub on one side and a petrol station and shop on the other. As I pulled into the petrol station I realised it was not the first time I had stopped there to ask directions. In a previous life, when I had merchandised for a confectionery company, I had travelled these roads visiting supermarkets and not realising that one day I would be viewing the landscape in an entirely different way. Traversing these roads as a merchandiser I had an interest in history but no in depth knowledge to map on to the landscape, although, the thankless and underpaid work did encourage me to follow my dreams and return to University to undertake a Ph.D. in history. As a historian one sees ghosts everywhere, not in a supernatural sense, but as we try to imagine the past from the scraps of information available to us we transpose it onto the landscape and sights around us. When people view ruins they do not view them just because a ruin is in itself impressive, they view it because it is an impressive reminder of what once was. But not all history leaves ruins, and not all historical figures leave monuments in their wake.

An old ordinance survey map showing the field where the Land meeting took place. Note the village as it now stand stands is absent. There are several buildings in this map which are no longer standing.

An old ordinance survey map (c. 1841) showing the field where the Land meeting took place. Note the village as it now stand stands is absent. I am not sure as to the extent of the village at the time of the meeting.  There are several buildings in this map which are no longer standing.

I entered the shop at the petrol station and asked the lady behind the counter if she could direct me to the site of the land meeting. She, not knowing, asked her colleague who likewise did not know. A customer, a farmer, was asked, he could not tell me either. Just then another man entered, a younger farmer. He was asked and he brought me outside and directed me down a road where, some five hundred metres from where we stood, I found a stone wall on the side of the road with a small plaque bearing the words, ‘Cradle of Land League: Site of Tenant Right Meeting 20 April 1879 which led to Foundation of the National Land League’. In the village a small obelisk stands to commemorate the event, a very small obelisk by the standards of obelisks, standing at less than two metres, but here at the site I found myself looking into a field that looks like many others. There is no sign of spectacle, no sense of thousands of people walking for dozens of miles in a downpour to air their grievances. This site leaves no trace, just as the vast majority of people who participated in the land war left no trace. Leaders and the literate will leave behind papers, documentation which may give us some clue to their lives, methods and motivations but with the mass of people in an age of little property and little literacy all we have are scraps. These people may be our forebears and, for a large section of the Irish population, they most certainly are, but generations have passed and silently they have slipped into history. The streets and squares of cities and towns contain statues of generals and politicians. Often representing the opposing sides in the various struggles fought between different conceptions of nationhood, but here, on a site where a people began to fight for their livelihoods, just a couple of dozen miles from where my own paternal grandparents were born, I stood looking into an empty field, viewing the ghosts of my imagination.

The plaque and the field behind it, originally part of a larger field which was the site of the meeting.

The plaque and the field behind it, originally part of a larger field which was the site of the meeting.

1National Archives of Ireland, Chief secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1879, 8039

2NAI, CSORP 1879, 8039

3Donald Jordan, ‘John O’Connor Power, Charles Stewart Parnell and the Centralisation of Popular Politics in Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 25 No. 97 (May, 1986), pp. 46-66

4Connaught Telegraph 26 April 1879

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Filed under Irish History, Landscape, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History