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    In his new book Tom Wall tells the story of Roscommon’s John McGrath, the one-time Dublin cinema and theatre manager who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII

    In the graveyard adjoining St Patrick’s Church in Elphin, in County Roscommon, lies the remains of John McGrath, possibly the most extraordinary of the thousands of Irishman who joined the fight against the Nazis during Second World War.
    The inscription on his gravestone records that it is the resting place of his father, John, and mother, Mary, and of ‘Colonel John McGrath OBE’ who died on the 27th November, 1946.

    No tombstone can encapsulate a deceased’s life story, but this inscription is as inaccurate it is inadequate. He was never officially a Colonel, and there is no record of him ever having been conferred with an OBE.

    Even his Christian name is misleading: he was baptised Michael Joseph McGrath in the same church, in 1894. But none of this can take away from the fact that he was an immensely brave officer who twice became unwillingly immersed in bizarre Nazi intrigues.

    McGrath was a veteran of the First World War, where he was wounded twice. After being decommissioned, he returned to Ireland and secured work in cinema management before becoming manager of the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal, in Dublin, in 1936, then the largest theatre in Europe.

    On the opening night he was introduced on stage by Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Alfie Byrne, who told the audience that “it gave him the greatest pleasure to reintroduce Mr. John McGrath, whom they formally knew at the Savoy, and who had now come back to Dublin to manage this wonderful new theatre”.

    Three years later, the Roscommon man went off to war again.

    His active service in the Second World War didn’t last long, for he was among those who didn’t make it across the channel from Dunkirk. Nevertheless, he must have distinguished himself with the British Expeditionary Force, for he won a field promotion to Major.

    After being wounded and captured at Rouen, he joined thousands of others in a horrendous 350-mile trek from Normandy to captivity in Germany. He was placed in an officers’ POW camp in Laufen near Salzburg, but his real problems only began when he was transferred to a special camp for Irish POWs.

    The Germans, following their victory in France, had begun a process of segregating military prisoners along ethnic and national minority lines, with a view to winning recruits to their cause.

    As part of this strategy, a secret camp for selected Irish POWs was established near the village of Friesack north of Berlin.
    The project was the responsibility of German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, whose aim was to form an Irish Brigade, along the lines of Roger Casement’s in WWI, although their ambition moderated when the level of cooperation proved lower than expected.

    The revised plan was to train willing candidates for espionage or sabotage work, for which they were to be parachuted into Ireland or Britain.

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      No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stanley Kramer/United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885956bg) Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly High Noon - 1952 Director: Fred Zinnemann Stanley Kramer/United Artists USA Scene Still Western Le Train sifflera trois fois

      Classic Westerns by Anthony F. Hughes

      In my younger days there was a breed of man that young and old referred to as ‘a singing cowboy’. Among those who fitted into that particular category were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter whose voice features in the opening clip of the magnificent movie that is High Noon (85 mins.)

      As Ritter sings “don’t forsake me, oh my darling on this our wedding day”, there are a couple of happenings occurring simultaneously in and around Hadleyville, New Mexico, that set the tone for what is to come.

      For starters there’s an unsavoury-looking character called Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef) sitting on a rock in open countryside close to the settlement itself. His gunbelt has two holsters attached and each of them carries a shooting iron.

      Two other men soon rendezvous with Colby. The pair – Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley) and James Pierce (Bob Wilke) are like Colby in the sense that they too have the look of desperados about them. Without much ado the trio swing their mounts around and head for town.

      The three riders arrive in town and pass by the offices of the local Peace Commissioner just as a bride and groom are exchanging wedding vows. The room in which the civil ceremony takes place is adjacent to and under the same roof as the Town Marshal’s Office.

      The office’s incumbent is a man called Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and it is he who is getting married to one Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Amy, a Quaker, has a strong dislike of guns, or rather what guns can do when it comes to people’s lives.

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        Ibar Quirke examines traditions associated with the Merry Month of May

        May Bush
        The custom of decorating a hawthorn bush to celebrate the arrival of summer has its origins in Celtic reverence for and worship of nature. May Bushes were commonly decorated with ribbons, cloth streamers and tinsel – although more adventurous people included the painted eggshells of Easter, as well as candles!

        These wishing trees were left outside houses or in communal areas, around which people tied rags, or clotties, symbolising their hopes and prayers. Stealing from a wishing tree was a taboo borne out of the fear of na Sídhe, malevolent fairy spirits said to be active during this time of year.

        Despite being most prevalent in the counties of Leinster, May Bushes could be found in Galway, south Ulster and Donegal.
        To this day, people preserve this ancient custom by visiting the wishing trees at the Hill of Tara and St Bridgid’s Well, Kildare.

        The tradition of dancing around decorated poles placed in town centres or village greens has its origins in Germanic celebrations which heralded the arrival of spring.

        Introduced to the British Isles by Germanic tribes, maypoles developed in their modern form during the Middle Ages as single poles began to be used instead of whole trees.

        Oliver Cromwell banned the tradition of maypole-dancing during the Protectorate, as he considered its origins sinful. This tradition fell into obscurity until John Ruskin revived it during the late Victorian Era. On May Day, people don Medieval garb and dance to the sounds of fiddle and concertina. Ireland’s only maypole can be found in Holywood, Co Down, a gift given to the townspeople by a crew of Dutch traders in gratitude for the hospitality and assistance they received when their ship ran aground offshore by Belfast Lough in 1620.

        The maypole stands at a height of 16.74 metres.

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          Michael Dwyer tells the story of pauper Georgina Frost, discriminated against in the workplace because of her sex, who took on The King of England in the House of Lords in April, 1920.


          Georgina Frost was born in 1883 and lived her entire life in Sixmilebridge, Co. Clare. In the 1901 Census, she is returned as an eighteen-year old scholar living with her father and sisters. Her mother died when Georgina was five years old.
          The small town had two significant public buildings: The RIC barracks and the Courthouse, where The Petty Sessions were held. Here the relatively modest post of Clerk of Petty Sessions had been held by her family for two generations. Her maternal grandfather, John Kett, and later, his son-in-law, Thomas Frost (her father), had held the clerkship between them since the 1840s.

          Petty Sessions were similar to the modern District Court. The Clerk recorded its proceedings, issued summonses, had charge of fines and was required to keep abreast of all relevant changes in legal administration. It required an educated person of the utmost exactitude for the post. The magistrates who presided then weren’t always lawyers. They were men of integrity and common-sense.

          About 1909, Georgina’s father’s health became problematic. She first assisted and soon took over, becoming clerk in all but name. Deteriorating health made it impossible for Thomas Frost to continue, and he retired in 1915.

          By law, the magistrates sitting in petty sessions for the united courts of Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus were obliged to assess applicants and propose a replacement to the Lord Lieutenant. They duly did on 13th July, 1915: Georgina Frost. The magistrates knew their acting female clerk had acquitted herself with distinction.

          Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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            Hugely popular singer Paddy O’Brien recently met with Con McGrath to discuss his life and to relive some of his experiences in the entertainment business, which began for him professionally some 33 years ago.

            To encounter Paddy O’Brien is to meet with a truly gentle soul, a complete gentleman, and a man who always puts others before himself. He is very humble and is surprised that there would be interest in his life story, let alone his music career. Yet the facts speak for themselves: numerous No. 1 hits, performances on stages all over the world, and by 2017, an incredible 32 albums and 16 DVDs under his belt.

            Yet the extraordinary thing about Paddy O’Brien is that, even if he had never achieved fame as a singer, his life story would none-the-less be remarkable and worthy of telling. This is because he has overcome numerous life experiences and setbacks, more than enough to break any man. Twice, in fact, he was at death’s door. Yet Paddy is a man possessed with great courage and inner strength, which has seen him overcome all these obstacles. It is the appreciation of these facts which make him a true icon, not just in country music, but in life’s long struggle too.

            Paddy was born Patrick Finbar O’Brien on 6 November, 1954, in Aglish, Co. Waterford. As is obvious from his middle name, Paddy has Cork connections: “My father, John O’Brien, was from Clonpriest, outside Youghal, Co. Cork. My mother, Elizabeth, nee Hickey, was from Glenville, Co. Cork.”
            Paddy was born the youngest of five children. “Before me were my sisters Norah, Carmel, and Mary, who sadly died in 1978, and my only brother John.”

            From an early age Paddy knew that his vocation in life was to be a singer, and his musical influences were Marty Robbins and Slim Whitman – both of which he listened to on a dry battery radio. His mother and father also gave him a lot of encouragement, and his father would sing occasionally at social occasions.
            Paddy’s upbringing was one of simplicity and humbleness, a trait he still retains to this day.

            He worked on farms at weekends and during school holidays. He taught himself to yodel by singing into a big steel 600-gallon diesel tank, which produced a perfect echo across the valley. Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call was the first song he perfected, and yodelling remains one of Paddy’s trademarks to this day.

             Paddy will be the first to tell you that he is very lucky – not just in his career, but lucky to be even still alive. Given two very close encounters he has had with death – ‘close calls’ which could have put an end to his singing career before it had even begun.

            It was soon after he began his first job at the age of 16, in a bacon factory in Cappoquin, that Paddy was the victim of a really bad motorbike accident. Fortunately he survived, having spent five months in hospital, and in 1972 Paddy formed a group which played mainly on the local scene.

            Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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              By Arthur Flynn

              Children and pets have always been a successful format for films. One such film was the musical Annie, adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meechan. It in turn was based on Little Orphan Annie, the 1924 comic script by Harold Gray.

              For several years producer Ray Stark wanted to bring the forever popular story to the screen. From an early period, he wanted both John Huston and Joe Layton to work as the director and choreographer on the project. He also wanted Huston to be executive producer on the film, because it was too large a project for one person.

              Many people in the industry were surprised and wary of Huston directing as this would be his first and only assignment on a musical in his 40-year directing career. His projects had mainly covered adventures and classics. Regardless he took on the task and challenge.

              Screenwriter Carol Sobieski stated that “hiring Huston is an outsider risk, but Stark’s a major gambler. He loves this high-risk situation.”

              A strong production team was assembled for the $50 million film for Columbia Pictures headed by cinematographer Richard Moore, musical director Ralph Burns and editor Michael A. Stevenson.
              Many leading actors were considered for principal roles. They included Sean Connery, Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson for the role of Daddy Warbucks that finally went to Albert Finney. Many young actresses were auditioned for the leading role of Annie that finally went to Aileen Quinn.

              Other leading members of the cast included Carol Burnett as Miss Agatha Hannigan, Tim Curry as Daniel Hannigan, Bernadette Peters as Lily and Regis and Ann Reinking as Grace Farrell.

              Several singer-actresses made their debuts in this film as Annie’s fellow orphans and principal dancers.
              The film was set during the Great Depression of 1933 and told the story of Annie, an orphan living in an orphanage in New York. It is run by Miss Hannigan, a cruel woman.

              Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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                JIM REES marks the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States of America, connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, which took place on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.

                Few inventions have had such an impact as the steam engine. When the power of compressed steam was understood and harnessed, tasks once deemed impossible could be carried out with relative ease.
                It transformed the way things were made and distributed, leading to the Industrial Revolution. It was in transport that the greatest leaps forward were made – first at sea and then by railway.

                Throughout Europe and America, rail fever became the order of the day and would last throughout the nineteenth century.

                Immigrants had been pouring into the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, the Irish being particularly prominent. Many had settled in coastal cities, usually their ports of arrival, but most had known only rural life.

                They were small farmers and agricultural labourers and they wanted to move into the fertile plains of the Midwest.

                For many, this meant a gruelling journey by wagon train, but others found another way to get there and be paid for their trouble. They joined the expanding network of railroads as general labourers – navvies.
                These men had known hardship at home and were prepared for the back-breaking toil that would get them to where they wanted to go. Their harsh working conditions left them little chance to appear ‘respectable’, and it has to be said that they played every bit as hard as they worked.

                They were often considered dirty and untrustworthy, heavy drinkers and generally people of low intelligence and lower morals. They were usually treated with suspicion and disdain.

                Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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                  By Shane Cochran

                  In April 1919, the people of Roscommon town fell under the spell of a very strange preacher.
                  It’s said that he had an “unusual range of voice” and that he spoke with “extraordinary eloquence” on everything from religious matters to the threat of another war. And everyone was welcome at his sermons, which he held outdoors in a thickly wooded part of Carrowroe Park.

                  But while many made their way there and heard his words and prayers, none ever saw him. For the Roscommon preacher – we are told – was invisible.

                  The sermons began in the first week of April. And while it’s not clear how they got started or how people knew about them, it seems that, quite quickly, hundreds were gathering each night to hear him speak.
                  And amongst the faithful were the Royal Irish Constabulary, who were very keen to get a private audience with the preacher.

                  With his fame growing rapidly, the preacher declared that he was going to hold a ‘special lecture’ in the park on Sunday, 6 April.

                  They came from all over Roscommon to hear the ‘special lecture’. And huddled in the small wooded area, flanked by armed police, they waited. After quite some time, the silence was broken by the unmistakeable voice of the preacher, reciting the Rosary in Irish.

                  The crowd surged towards where they thought his voice was coming from. The police followed – and immediately began searching the woods.
                  They found nothing.
                  The preacher had stopped praying during the search. And while many stayed on after the police had left, his voice wasn’t heard again that night.

                  A few days after the aborted ‘special lecture’, there was a rumour that he would return on the following Sunday night.

                  So, on 13 April, 1919, hundreds of people once again gathered at Carrowroe Park – and waited. Then, just after 9 pm, the preacher began speaking, his voice seemingly coming from a small grave.
                  He opened this sermon with a number of predictions. He said that there would be a major earthquake that would ruin a great part of the world; that there would be another major war; and that some of the world’s most powerful empires would experience internal struggles.

                  Shortly after it began, the sermon ended with another police raid. Despite coming from two sides simultaneously, they still failed to catch the preacher.

                  Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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                    By Calvin Jones

                    Few Irish birds have a song that lends itself to description quite as well as that of the yellowhammer. It’s ‘little bit of bread and NO cheese’ arrangement used to be a familiar sound of Irish farmland and hedgerows not so long ago. Alas today, like so many of our farmland birds, the yellowhammer’s song is heard much less often.

                    The yellowhammer is a colourful member of the bunting family and, as its name suggests, its plumage is dominated by yellow. Males in particular are a very striking bright yellow, and in breeding plumage can appear almost canary–like, but with narrow black lines around the eyes and cheeks and a rustier breast. Females are much duller than the males, but are still obviously yellow, with brown face markings and brown streaking on the body, while juveniles tend to be a streaky brown with very little yellow showing. They can however be separated from most small brown birds by their combination of a rich chestnut rump and white outer tail feathers.

                    This robust little bird reaches between 15cm and 17cm (c. 6-7 inches) in length, has a wingspan of 23-30cm (c. 9-12 inches) and weighs 25-36g (c. 1-1.25 oz). It has a heavy-set body and the typically thick bill of a seed-eater. Their diet consists mostly of seeds, although they also hunt high-protein prey like insects and spiders, especially when feeding their young.

                    Yellowhammers breed and overwinter in hedgerows, open farmland, woodland margins and rough scrub. They particularly love gorse and hawthorn thickets. Over the winter they form flocks, often mixing with other seed-eating birds to roam farm- and scrub-land in search of food before retreating to communal roosts at night.

                    In spring and early summer the male yellowhammer perches high in a tree or hedge and fills the air with his distinctive song: a series of repetitive notes that sounds like “chiz-iz-iz-iz-iz-iz-zeee” – or, with a healthy dollop of imagination, “a little bit of bread and NO cheese”. It’s call is a less memorable rasping “zit” or “dzuh”.

                    The female builds the cup-like nest on the ground, usually in thick cover on a bank or under a bush or hedge. The nest is made of grass and moss, and lined with animal hair or fine grasses. In this cup she lays 3-5 white eggs with purple blotches on them. They are often covered in dark markings that resemble scrawled handwriting.

                    Eggs hatch after 11-14 days and the young yellowhammers stay in the nest for a further 16 days or so before they fledge. Yellowhammers raise two or sometimes even three broods of young per year.

                    Yellowhammers are widespread and common throughout much of Europe, but have become much less common in Ireland than they used to be. The species is red-listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland (BOCCI) list, jointly compiled by Birdwatch Ireland and RSPB Northern Ireland, having suffered a 25%-50% decline in the 20 year period from 1972-1992. More recent surveys suggest that numbers continue to decline rapidly.

                    The main cause for the yellowhammer’s plummeting numbers is the intensification of agriculture and the dramatic decline in arable and mixed farmland (more than 91% of Irish farmland is now under grass). Other contributory factors are the destruction and over-management of our hedgerows, and the widespread use of herbicides to kill weeds, robbing seed-eating birds like the yellowhammer of their natural winter food supply.

                    Yellowhammers are known by at least 20 other names, including yellow bunting, yellow amber, yellow ring, scribbler, goldie, yellow yoit and guler.

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                      By David Flynn

                      A happy and light-hearted comedy-drama tv series that was popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early to mid-1980s featured two wild male characters who liked fast cars, and were always trying to keep on the right side of the law.

                      Actor Denver Pyle had finished up playing mountain man Mad Jack, on The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, when he agreed to play a similar role, Uncle Jesse in the new series, The Dukes of Hazzard.

                      Uncle Jesse was the paternal figure in the lives of his nephews, Bo and Luke Duke, played respectively by John Schneider and Tom Wopat, and niece Daisy Duke, played by Catherine Bach.

                      The Duke family lived on a farm in the US south, and the three orphans seemed to have been brought up by their uncle. Bo and Luke had been previously arrested and charged with importing illegal moonshine, but they were freed and put on probation after their uncle pleaded their case in court. The boys drove around in an orange stock car, popularly called the General Lee.

                      Boss Hogg, (played by Sorrell Brooke) a corrupt local businessman, and the harmless Sherriff Roscoe (James Best) were usually run into a tailspin due to the antics of the Duke boys. Bo and Luke keep a close eye on Boss Hogg, and with the help of their friends and family, and the General Lee, they managed to thwart the kangaroo lawmakers at every turn.

                      Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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