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    This year marks the centenary of the death of William Percy French, who was one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters. He is perhaps best known as a writer of humorous songs, but he was also a legendary entertainer, a talented author, an editor, concert promoter, sketch writer, poet, banjo player and an accomplished landscape painter, writes Gerry Breen.

    Percy French was born on 1st May, 1854, at Clooneyquin House in Co. Roscommon, where his family had lived since the seventeenth century. He was the son of landowner Christopher French and his wife, Emma, and from an early age, his creative talent became apparent.


    He was educated in Windermere College and later in Foyle College, Derry, before he entered Trinity College Dublin at the age of eighteen in 1872. After completing a BA degree, he began to study Civil Engineering. The truth is he wasn’t very studious, but he certainly enjoyed his time in university.


    It took him seven years to complete his studies, and he said of himself: ‘I believe I still hold the record as the student who took the longest time to get the Civil Engineering Degree….I think taking up the banjo, lawn tennis and watercolour painting instead of chemistry, geology and the theory of strains must have retarded my progress a good deal.’


    He is also reported to have said that he was finally awarded his engineering degree because the Trinity Board of Governors feared that if he stayed any longer, he would qualify for a pension before achieving it.


    While he was in Trinity College, he wrote one of his most famous songs Abdullah Bulbul Ameer for a smoking concert. The song was a satirical account of the Russo-Turkish War and it became a worldwide hit.

    At that time, smoking concerts were live performances, usually of music, before an audience of men only. These concerts were popular in the Victorian era, and those attending would smoke and speak of politics while listening to live music.
    Knowing little about copyright, Percy French sold the song for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher. He was not credited as the writer at the time, and he received almost nothing for this composition because it was plagiarised. It earned considerable sums for others who claimed it as their own. Many names have been suggested as the author of the song, but there is not a single doubt that Percy French wrote it.


    After leaving Trinity College, he became an apprentice with George Price who was Chief Engineer of the Midland Board, and after a short time, he got employment with the Irish Midland Railway, and then he taught art at Foyle College.
    He then joined the Board of Works in Co. Cavan, and he was employed as a surveyor and engineer on a drainage scheme, assessing applications from farmers for grants to improve drains. He was very pleased to be appointed as a self-styled ‘Inspector of Drains.’

    Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

      0 78

      By Vincent J. Doherty

      “Pull up a chair to the front of the fire and warm yourself,” was always the welcome in my Great Uncle James’s place.
      Gathered around the hearth, supping strong tea or sometimes a glass of stout or something a bit stronger and enjoying a slice or two of soda bread, whoever had just dropped in to pass the time would mull over the vagaries of their crops and the ways of birds, beasts and neighbours in the ever-changing seasons, the ways of the world and how they would put it right and chuckle or shake their heads in disbelief at the daily doings, real or imagined, tragic or farcical of people thereabouts.


      Sometimes we heard stories about something that somebody had heard on the wireless or discuss a letter from an uncle in New York or a cousin in Kilburn. Or we might ponder what the priest had given out from the altar the Sunday before. There was news about people coming into the world and about others leaving it.


      There were reflections on unlikely happenings and stories about people who’d heard banshees or seen ghosts no further than a hedge or field away, tales that made the hair on this young boy’s hair stand on end.


      Maybe in the course of an evening we would discuss the relative lives, characters and achievements of anybody from St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, to ‘Half-hanged McNaught’ being hanged or about the night the Germans bombed Derry and the sky was lit up fourteen miles in our direction.


      I remember Uncle James, a regular Saturday night filmgoer, looking at a picture of St. Patrick once and saying, “Didn’t he have a great beard, like Noel Purcell. I wonder if the two of them were related.”


      Young James, my uncle’s middle-aged son, returning from his labours in their fields or one of the farms around about would position himself on the hab, a comfortable ashy place next to the fire.


      Sometimes by the light of the flickering paraffin lamp and the flames from the burning peat he would read the ‘paper to us especially if there was a story in there about somebody or something we were acquainted with.

      Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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        David Mullen takes an admiring look at Opel’s rise in Ireland from minnow to major player

        Opels were sold in Ireland in the Thirties in respectable numbers before trailing-off in 1939 when the war ended sales here. The German company, like Vauxhall in Britain, had been bought by the American giant General Motors in 1929, though it could trace its roots back to 1862 when it was founded by Adam Opel.


        Despite the German economy being ravaged by the First World War and Great Depression, the late-Twenties, early-Thirties weren’t a bad time for Opel and in 1928 they held 38% of the German market, as well as being the country’s largest car exporter and the first, in 1935, thanks to its mass-production techniques, to build more than 100,000 cars in a year.
        The Opel Blitz light truck saw extensive use in the Second World War but bombing and the subsequent Allied carve-up of Germany, which saw a large part of the company’s facilities fall into the hands of Soviets, nearly wiped-out Opel. Recovery would be tough, but, in time, recover it did.

        Opel Rekord
        By 1956, Opel was back in Ireland. Its large Kapitän saloon wasn’t sold here, so the first Opel to sell in Ireland after the war was the Olympia Rekord. This was a medium-sized car and in Germany in competed against the Volkswagen Beetle. Its position in Ireland was a bit more muddled. It was neither a small, cheap car like the Ford Popular nor a big car like the Ford Zephyr. It didn’t matter much anyway – in 1956, Opel only sold thirty-two.


        1957 saw a new Rekord, the P1, which didn’t set the Irish market alight either. Strangely, Opels were assembled in Ireland by two firms at the same time. O’Shea’s in Cork assembled and distributed cars for Carlow, Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford whilst Reg Armstrong Limited in Ringsend in Dublin covered the rest of the twenty-six counties. The quality of the Cork-built cars was reportedly poor, with water leaks a common problem. According to Bob Montgomery’s excellent book Motor Assembly in Ireland, one employee brought the topic to the attention of senior management only to be told that customers suffering from water leaks should “buy wellington boots”. A broken Rekord, indeed!


        A 1962 Irish advertisement for the Rekord P1 shows a price of £695 for the saloon and £735 for the estate or “Car-a-van”. A note on the ad says “We apologise to those who have been unable to secure delivery of the Opel Car-a-van but are glad to state that, following Opel’s increased production, plentiful supplies will be available again shortly.” Shortages notwith-standing, sales didn’t exceed 100 until 1961.


        A new Rekord, the P2, arrived in 1960 and was sold as a two-door and four-door saloon, three-door estate, convertible, coupé and even a van and pickup. In Ireland, this was a natural competitor for the likes of the Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford.


        In 1963, a saloon would have set you back £699 with the Car-a-van costing £789. Problems with the O’Shea cars meant that by the mid-Sixties, all Opel assembly had switched to Reg Armstrong.

        Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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          By Paula Redmond

          Before being overshadowed by the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the wreck of the RMS Tayleur in 1894 had been one of the worst maritime disasters in the British Isles. The ship ran aground on her maiden voyage off Lambay Island, Dublin with the loss of approximately 370 lives.


          The ship was built in 1853 for Charles Moore and Company and chartered to the White Star Line. It was planned that the vessel would serve the Great Britain to Australia route. Discoveries of gold ‘down under’ at the time meant that there was a growing demand for this service. The vessel was kitted out to serve wealthy five-star passengers as well as low cost steerage travellers.


          Built in the Bank Quay Foundry, Warrington, the fully rigged clipper ship was the biggest of her day. Most vessels at the time were made of wood but the Tayleur had an iron hull. She was launched on October 4th, 1853.


          The ship left Liverpool bound for Melbourne on January 19th, 1854 with over 650 passengers and crew on board. Problems were encountered with the ship’s instruments before she had even left port.


          The Liverpool Port Pilot noticed a one point difference between the vessel’s three compasses while she was being led to the Irish Sea by tug boat. She also handled badly as soon as the tow ship was cast off. Despite this, the vessel continued on her voyage. It later transpired that the problems with the instruments were caused by the ship’s iron hull.


          Due to the inaccurate compass readings, Captain John Noble believed the vessel was headed due south, when in fact it was advancing westwards towards the Irish coast. On January 21st the ship encountered stormy weather and fog.
          When rocks were sighted both anchors were dropped but broke off. The crew couldn’t control the sails to turn the ship, as the ropes for the masts were not properly stretched before being fitted.


          Natural fibre ropes of that time had to be stretched to make the fibres less elastic and stronger. Stretching also helped to prevent fraying, which could interfere with the smooth running of ropes through pulley blocks. In addition, the ship’s rudder was too small for her tonnage and she could not manoeuvre around the rocks.


          The vessel ran aground about five miles from Dublin Bay on the east coast of Lambay Island. The first lifeboat that was launched smashed against the rocks so it was deemed too dangerous to launch any others.

          Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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            By Sally McEllistrim

            I wonder if their ghosts come to visit? On wild, wet and windy days in Barrow, in the Kerry Parish of Ardfert, do the Slatterys, Harmons and O’Connells feel the need of the warmth of their old house and its black range, and come in and rest awhile.
            I wonder if they pop into the old haggard where the Hollyhock stood tall and proud, rather like the dwellers themselves.
            Do they sit and wonder at the little steam at the bottom of the gate or gaze at the bay and mountains that are the unchanged landscape they would have always enjoyed?


            On shimmering hot summer days do they miss Poul Gorm, or take shade under Crosty, the rock that has stood over generations of locals for aeons or ramble around the Warren, the local names for the expanse of sea and strand that hugs the stunning coastline.


            Do they, on balmy summer evenings walk back to Fenit or Ballyheighue, cycle to Ardfert or pick blackberries from the roadside hedges of their beloved Barrow.


            It was after all, the centre of their lives. The ‘old house’ as it is still known was the epicentre.
            As a child I wasn’t mad about the house; it had loads of trees; oak and ash and sycamore which almost formed a curtain around it and coupled with its situation, in from the road, lent it an almost eerie feeling. In winter those trees shook, waved and whistled in the wind. However, I loved the apple trees in the orchard. Grandma was generous. She took great care not to allow me eat the ‘sour’ apples, fearful they would make me sick.
            I loved her stewed apple jam, spread thickly on fresh white batch bread and try as I might, can never recreate anything to match hers.

            In Spring, the trees were lush and verdant and full of promise.


            The daffodils stretched in rows in from the gate into the house and my love for them endures to this day. Daffodils, to me, have no pretention. They are beautiful, they remind me of a young foal, haughty yet simple. Majestic in their simplicity.
            Barrow too is majestic. I adore the place, always have done. Ever since I was a child growing up there it cast its spell on me, it’s an ethereal place.


            As a child I loved when the tide was in, across the road, cutting us off and cutting off those who couldn’t grapple with the water.
            Crosty is almost a symbol of their dead generations; strong, stoic and with a long shadow. Their likes will truly never be seen again. My family had a respect for, and appreciation of those that walked before them, and as a result their relations were given life by being recalled and remembered.


            Even though I didn’t meet so many of them, I feel as if I did. And so I wonder if Catherine O’Connell Harmon, my great grandmother, visits the ruin of the old national school at Chapeltown where she taught.


            Family lore had it that she was shot at by the Black and Tans en route from her home in Barrow back to Chapletown as she made her way on her pony and trap; Thankfully they missed.


            Does my beloved Grandmother, Sarah Harmon (Slattery) pop in to see how the old stone cut Barrow National School, where she was one of two teachers, has been restored. She was a lover of learning and sharing that learning.
            My family loved reading. Books were a currency they loved, exchanged and fought over! I never knew a family that could fall out over books but mine did!


            The famous Writer Brinsley McNamara, famous for his searing polemic on Irish life in the 50s, was a family friend; indeed my Grand Aunt Mary, later Sr. Enda, ‘walked out’ with him to use the parlance of the day. She took off though to join her three Sisters at the Convent in Leavenworth in Kansas.

            Famed for her beauty and brains she became a Pharmacist while the other three were teachers and writers. Their other Sister, Auntie Annie, whom I never met, was the one who stayed at home and was legendary both for her warmth, sense of fun and huge generosity.


            Apparently she won the Sweep (a share!!) and spent it all on her family, both in Barrow and America.
            I still have the trunk she brought back from her travels. Their only brother, John, was a Jesuit who was handsome and known as the ‘Star of Mungret’, such was his grasp of difficult equations and mathematics.


            Back to Brinsley and Mary, (Sr Enda); years later she is said to have visited Brinsley at his home in one of Dublin’s grand squares. My wonderful Aunt Kathleen, no slouch when it came to drama, often recalled that Brinsley, a tall and imposing figure stood at the top of his sweeping stairs and declared, “Mary, Mary, you came back!”. However, of course, Mary, Sr. Enda, was not staying, she was just paying a courtesy visit to her dear friend.


            While their courtship was short, it was often spoken about in my family who were happy to add first editions of his ‘Valley of the Squinting Windows’ to their large book collection.


            All gone now, but to quote James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry, ‘The Savage Loves his Native Shore‘ and they loved theirs. So do their ghosts come to visit…I like to think they do. n

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              Miriam O'Callaghan (2003)

              Kay Doyle meets with RTE’s ‘queen of broadcasting’ Miriam O’Callaghan, who looks back on her early life, her outstanding broadcasting career and also hears about her hopes for 2020

              With an explosion of fireworks and the popping of countless bottles of champagne, the curtain has been raised on 2020 and as we enter not just a new year, but a new decade, RTÉ’s ‘queen of broadcasting’ Miriam O’Callaghan is looking forward to what the year has to bring with her trademark infectious enthusiasm.


              “I’m not one for making New Year resolutions as I believe that people make them to break them,” says Miriam as she chats to Ireland’s Own over the festive season, “but every year on the morning of January 1st I thank God and Our Lady for everything that is good in my life, and hope that me and my family stay healthy for the coming year, and that I continue to try to work hard and be kind to people.


              “I often get asked to speak to schoolchildren and I tell them that there is no silver bullet or key to success. But if you continue to work hard and be kind to people, things will eventually fall into place for you. I am a firm believer in that.”


              Miriam grew up in the Foxrock area of south County Dublin, the second child in a family of five, and the daughter of a Kerry man and Laois lady. Her late father, Jerry, came from near Castleisland in ‘The Kingdom’ and, while Miriam says he was a very intelligent man, there wasn’t enough money to spare for him to go to university. Instead he became a civil servant, and worked for many years in the Department of Energy. Miriam’s mother – also Miriam – is alive and well, however, and still living in the family home in Foxrock.


              “My mother was the daughter of a garda sergeant. She was a school teacher and was principal of St Brigid’s Girls’ National School in Cabinteely for years. She reminds me that I was very quiet and studious as a student, in fact I was ‘always a swot’!
              “We grew up in a three-bed semi-detached house, where my mother still lives today, and I went to the local national school. I attended the Sisters of Charity in Milltown, and went on to study law in UCD.


              “I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I was in school. I remember being on holidays in a rented house in Dingle and the conversation turned to what I was going to do with my life. Various careers were being thrown around including becoming a doctor, which I couldn’t have done as I don’t like blood. Being a vet was proposed, but that wouldn’t have been good for me either. Eventually law came up, and I opted for that!

              Having qualified with a law degree from UCD, Miriam then qualified as a solicitor in Blackhall Place in Dublin, and it was while she was working there that a television crew from the BBC arrived to make a programme about ‘law’.


              They were looking for a young solicitor to interview, and Miriam’s name was put forward. Shortly after filming, the producer got in touch and told her that she looked good on TV, and she should consider it as a career move. Though it started the wheels turning in her brain about a life on the small screen, it wasn’t Miriam’s first time going in front of a television camera!
              “I was doing some shopping with my dad in Quinnsworth in Stillorgan, which is now Tesco, and there was a film crew there making an advert for Avonmore,” she recalls. “There were a few models around, but they spotted me buying some Avonmore milk and came over and asked me to explain why I was buying their milk. I was only sixteen at the time, and I just said my piece off the top of my head and they rolled with it. And that was my first TV ad!”


              The BBC producer’s compliment wasn’t lost on Miriam, and she soon made the move to London. Replying to an advertisement which she saw in The Guardian newspaper looking for a ‘researcher for television’, the successful candidate was delighted to land a plum role researching on This Is Your Life with Irish broadcasting legend, Eamonn Andrews.


              “I loved working on This Is Your Life, and I learned so much from working with Eamonn Andrews,” reveals Miriam. “There is a statue of him in RTÉ to this day and every time I am leaving the building after an edition of Prime Time I always say ‘goodnight Eamonn’ when I pass. I stood there so many times with Gay Byrne, who was a huge fan of Eamonn’s, just reminiscing about how good he was.”

              Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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                Patrick Brennan looks to the skies and wonders if someone is looking back.

                At 6.47 A.M. on November 9th, 2018, the pilot of a Boeing 787 flying near the Kerry coast made a call to Shannon Air Traffic Control (ATC).
                “Is there any military traffic you’ve got right now?”
                The ATC responded there was nothing on their radar.
                “Okay, it was moving so fast,” continued the pilot. “In fact we can no longer see it but yeah, thank you.”
                “Alongside you?” enquires ATC.
                “Just two came up on our left-hand side and then rapidly veered to the north. We saw a bright light and then it disappeared at a very high speed. We were just wondering…what that could’ve been!”


                A nearby airliner reported a similar sighting. The Irish Aviation Authority has opened an investigation into the incident.
                So what had happened? It was yet another close encounter with an Unidentified Flying Object.


                The UFO phenomenon seems thoroughly modern, and yet incidents we would now consider UFO sightings reach back thousands of years. A Chinese text from the fourth century BC describes a “moon boat” that appeared every twelve years and in the second century BC, “gleaming round shields” were spotted in the sky by the Romans. Even the Bible is said to contain a description of a UFO, where Ezekiel has a vision of a chariot of God consisting of a “wheel within a wheel”.


                Sightings continued throughout history but any association of these objects with beings from other planets only began around 1947 with an explosion in UFO sightings in the United States, the most famous being the Roswell Incident.

                In early July, a homestead foreman named William Brazel found clusters of debris strewn across a large area about thirty miles north of Roswell in New Mexico. Brazel had heard some reports about “flying discs” and wondered if that was what he had found.


                The debris included tin foil, rubber strips, paper, and sticks. Brazel took the material to the local sheriff, who contacted the nearby army air field, who sent a man to collect the debris. The debris was unusual but not otherworldly.
                And yet, because of the on-going UFO craze, the incident couldn’t but helped to be linked to them. The air field issued a press release saying they had captured a “flying disc” which greatly added to the fervour.
                But when the military examined the debris, it was quickly determined to be a balloon of some sort.

                The true nature of the object – that it was part of an experiment to see if high-altitude balloons could detect nuclear explosions – was kept secret, and the public were informed the debris was from a weather balloon.

                Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

                  0 104

                  A series by Anthony F. Hughes

                  It was thanks to the radio that I first learned of the existence of the novelist James Fennimore Cooper. Back in the early 1960s, Radio Éireann occasionally aired dramatisations of some well-known novels that held a special appeal for me.


                  Those radio adaptions went out around 5 p.m. on weekday evenings. They were in series format with each episode lasting for 30 minutes or so. Lorna Doon was one of the novels that featured back then, as did Ivanhoe. The dramatisation that really left a lasting impression on me, however, was Cooper’s tale about a tribe of Indians on the verge of extinction. Technically speaking The Last of The Mohicans (1992 movie version) is not a ‘Western’ as such. Put pure and simple it’s an Indian movie. The same could be said for A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves. The difference is that the latter two have their settings west of the Mississippi in the 1800s.


                  Prior to the coming of The Last of The Mohicans all regular Western film-goers were aware of the existence of the Red Man, most notably the Apache and those tribes who were collectively called the Plains Indians. There were literally hundreds of different native American clans however who never got a mention in any production back then. The Michael Mann directed film adaption of Fennimore Cooper’s masterpiece changed things slightly in that respect.


                  The first British colonists to set up home in the New World did so in the year 1608. By the mid 1700s the Crown had a firm foothold on that continent’s eastern seaboard. Those White colonists had plenty of Red neighbours whom they referred to as Indians, but they had their own identities. The Shawnee people, and the Creek, to name just two.

                  Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

                    0 109

                    By Liam Nolan

                    When he died of a heart attack in 1793, they buried him at St Martin-in-the Fields, London. But they dug him up again in 1859 and put him in the ground in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey. That, they said, reflected his importance to the country.


                    John Hunter was no low-life body snatcher, but a hugely distinguished surgeon and scientist, one of the most famous of his day. From whom, you may ask, did he steal the Irish Giant?  Answer: from the Giant himself.
                    And who exactly was this Irish Giant?

                    He was born in 1761 in Littlebridge in County Tyrone, was reportedly conceived on the top of a haystack, and his name was Charles Byrne. The top-of-a-haystack legend is a local makie-upper to explain the cause of Charles’s extraordinary height.

                    Disputed is Charles Byrne’s actual height. It used to be claimed that he stood either 8 ft 2 ins or 8 ft 4 ins. Either of those is more impressive than 7 ft 7 ins., which is the actual height his skeletal remains showed him to have been.
                    Charles’s parents were average sized people. No size peculiarities there.

                    His abnormal height naturally drew attention to him, and by the time he was 19 he had made up his mind to capitalise on it. He’d put himself on show, charge people for the privilege of gaping and gawping at him.
                    He first toured Scotland, and then worked his way southwards to London.
                    Edinburgh’s night watchmen were fascinated by the sight of him lighting his pipe off a streetlamp’s flame, and not having to stand on his tiptoe to do it!


                    He was gentle and courteous, and reporters called him “the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant.”
                    Now to John Hunter, the doctor who stole Charles Byrne.

                    Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

                      0 146

                      Conor Reidy tells the true story of an animal attack at a travelling menagerie in Tipperary in 1871.

                      In October, 1871, a travelling menagerie owned by a man named Whittington arrived in the West Tipperary village of Emly. This was a fusion of a zoo and a circus but without the usual trappings of the Big Top, or any sort of performance element.
                      Whittington’s Menagerie was on tour in Ireland at the time, and Emly was one of its many stops.


                      The menagerie company was based at Carr’s Lane in Birmingham. Apart from the entertainment value, the travelling menagerie was seen throughout Europe and America as a way of educating the poor masses about the existence of creatures that they would only ever encounter in books.


                      For the duration of the stay in the village it is said that the locals thronged the area around Whittington’s caravans, poking at the animals in awe.


                      It is likely that there were big cats, camels, monkeys, kangaroo, deer, wolves, racoons, jackals and donkeys.
                      The arrival of Whittington’s Menagerie brought a world of magic to a village where, as with most parts of Ireland, the people would seldom have had such an opportunity to spend time in the presence of such rare and mysterious creatures.
                      We can only imagine the sense of wonderment of ordinary rural Irish people in the second half of the nineteenth century who would have had little or no opportunity to visit a zoo or take a safari.

                      During the early evening of Wednesday, 25th October, a group of locals gathered around the cages and the various elements of the display in Emly. They paid an admission fee to enter the exhibit. Among the curious was a four-year-old girl.
                      A bit more curious than everyone else, the child placed one of her arms through the bars of a cage housing what was described as an ‘enraged jaguar’. Many accounts of this incident refer to the ‘Big Cat’ either as a jaguar or a leopard. In the true spirit of Chinese whispers, another described the offending animal as a bear!


                      The beast reacted badly to the intrusion and tore off the child’s hand and part of her arm.


                      A local doctor named Ryan was forced to perform an amputation. A mass of confusion erupted and many of the spectators gathered nearby fled in terror while others did their best to extract the child before she was killed. Somebody shouted that the animal had escaped, so this naturally heightened the panic.


                      Attempting to appease the crowd, the owner, Mr Whittington, sealed up the cage. At some point during those minutes as he tried to secure himself and his animals he was struck by the angry mob and ended up with two black eyes. One of his keepers was also struck.


                      Whittington fled the scene to go to the local police station but as it turns out, there was none. According to one account, this was a strange fact because Emly did not have what could be called a ‘peaceable’ reputation during these years.
                      It was said he was given refuge in the pub until things calmed down. As the village became silent, Whittington locked himself in his caravan for fear of further reprisal. All remained quiet for the next few hours.

                      Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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