From The Archives

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1918 General Election gives insight into the tactical genius of the ‘Big Fella”

T. Ryle Dwyer charts an overview of the activities of Michael Collins from the stirring oration he gave at Thomas Ashe’s graveside to his role in the General Election of December 1918

Thomas Ashe’s death from injuries suffered while being forced-fed, had a profound impact on Irish public opinion. Michael Collins was particularly upset. “I grieve perhaps as no one else grieves,” he wrote.


Dressed in the uniform of a vice-commandant, Collins delivered the graveside oration, which was stirring in its simplicity.


“Nothing additional remains to be said,” he declared following the sounding of the Last Post and the firing of a volley of shots over the grave. “That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian.”
On October 7th, 1917, Collins went back to speak in Ballinalee, Co. Longford, where Ashe had made the speech that led to his death.


“In the circumstances,” Collins wrote to his sister Hannie, “I came out on the strong side.” Some of what Ashe had said that day was falsely represented by the two policemen at his trial. “I see some more of these potential perjurers about this platform to-day,” Collins added.


Although the Longford Leader’s report did not mention it, Collins noted that there was “a bit of unpleasantness with a policeman who was taking notes”. When confronted, the policeman thought it best to surrender those notes, and there was no further problem.


“You will not get anything from the British Government,” Collins concluded his address, “unless you approach them with a bullock’s tail in one hand and a landlord’s head in the other.”


Following the death of Ashe, President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Collins, and other members of the IRB supported de Valera when the various separatist organisations came together under the Sinn Féin banner on October 25, 1917. De Valera was obviously appealing to the militancy of young activists like Collins.


“England pretends it is not by the naked sword, but by the good will of the people of the country, that she is here,” de Valera declared. “We will draw the naked sword to make her bare her own naked sword.”

Collins campaigned enthusiastically for de Valera and gave members of the IRB a list of twenty-four people to support for the party executive. Most on his list were defeated, but Collins and his IRB colleague, Ernest Blythe, tied for the last two places.

Next day, at a separate convention of the Irish Volunteers, de Valera was elected president, again with the enthusiastic support of Collins, who was appointed director of organisation of the Volunteers. A twenty-six-man executive was established, but this proved too cumbersome.

In March 1918, seven members of the executive – Collins, Mulcahy, Dick McKee, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Diarmuid O’Hegarty, Rory O’Connor, and Seán McMahon – met to select a chief of staff.


Even those close to Collins were “wary of entrusting him with anything like complete control,” Mulcahy noted. They turned instead to Mulcahy, who recognised the tremendous organisational talents of Collins and was prepared to give him full rein, without being upset at what others might have considered meddling.


Collins was appointed adjutant general in addition to Director of Organisation. He travelled around the country re-organising the force, and speaking at various meetings. On April 2nd, 1918, he was arrested in Dublin for a speech in Longford some days earlier. He was bound over until in July and was jailed in Sligo because he refused to post bail.


While Collins was in jail, Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, announced that his government intended to introduce conscription in Ireland. “If he goes for it, he’s ended,” Collins wrote to his sister Hannie next day. The bill was rushed through parliament, and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) walked out of Westminster in protest.


This was another major turning point for the independence movement. The IPP was irreparably damaged by the conscription crisis.
Its withdrawal from Westminster in protest against the new act was tantamount to endorsing the abstention policy advocated all along by Sinn Féin.


“The conscription proposals are to my liking,” Collins wrote. “I think they will end well for Ireland.”


He posted bail in order to partake in a massive anti-conscription campaign that was largely organised by the Catholic Hierarchy.

The country’s bishops virtually sanctified the anti-conscription campaign by ordering that a special mass be said the following Sunday “in every church in Ireland to avert the scourge of conscription with which Ireland is now threatened.”
Church leaders also called on people to take a formal pledge “to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.”


With the country in uproar, the British dared not implement conscription, but they did try to remove Sinn Féin from the scene on the night of May 17th, by rounding up around 150 of the party’s more active members for supposedly being involved in a German plot against Britain.


Collins was warned of the impending arrests by his intelligence network. He notified de Valera, Griffith and some of the other leaders, but they decided that there was more to gain politically by allowing themselves to be arrested.


With most of the leaders in jail, Collins later gained effective control of both the IRB and Sinn Féin itself. He became “the real master” of the Sinn Féin executive, according to the party’s National Secretary, Darrell Figgis, who described the Big Fellow as “a man of ruthless purpose and furious energy, knowing clearly what he wanted and prepared to trample down everybody to get it.”


No evidence of the supposed ‘German Plot’ was ever produced, so people inevitably concluded the arrests were really in retaliation for Sinn Féin’s role in the anti-conscription campaign. The party therefore gained enormous political capital from of the arrests, and those who were still free continued to act defiantly.


On July 5th, when the British banned all public gatherings, such as football matches and political rallies without a police permit, Collins encouraged the GAA to defy the ban. Football and hurling matches were held throughout the country on August 4th, in open defiance of the ban.


Eleven days later, on Assumption Thursday, Sinn Féin held some 1,800 public rallies throughout the country in a mass display of open defiance.


The Armistice, ending the First World War in November, 1918, was warmly welcomed throughout the British Empire, but there were some very ugly incidents in Dublin.
Collins was attending a meeting at the time, so he was not involved, but he seemed to take vicarious delight in writing about the attacks on celebrating soldiers.


“As a result of various encounters there were 125 cases of wounded soldiers treated at Dublin hospitals that night,” he wrote to a colleague in jail. “Before morning three soldiers and one officer had ceased to need any attention and one other died the following day.”

When the British government called a general election, Sinn Féin put up candidates throughout Ireland. With so many leaders still in jail, Collins played a major part in the campaign. He, Harry Boland, and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, were mainly responsible for the selection of Sinn Féin candidates, and they nominated many who were in prison.
The whole thing was essentially a propaganda exercise, as far as Collins was concerned.


His own election address to Cork voters was brief and to the point: “You are requested by your votes, to assert before the nations of the world that Ireland’s claim is to the status of an independent nation, and that we shall be satisfied with nothing less than our full claim – that in fact, any scheme of government which does not confer upon the people of Ireland the supreme, absolute, and final control of all this country, external as well as internal, is a mockery and will not be accepted.”


Sinn Féin performed magnificently at the polls, winning seventy-three seats, against twenty-six for the Unionist Party and only six for the once powerful Irish Parliamentary Party.


Shortly after the election Collins, Robert Barton, Seán T. O’Kelly and George Gavan Duffy, went to England to explain the Irish situation to the US President Woodrow Wilson, who had arrived in London on a short visit on December 26, 1918.
When Wilson was unwilling to meet them, Collins was so annoyed that he suggested kidnapping the American President to make him listen. “If necessary,” he said, “we can buccaneer him.”

Fortunately, nobody took the suggestion seriously, but the proposal gave insight into why some friends thought Collins sometimes allowed his desire for action to cloud his judgment.


Realising that there was little chance of getting recognition at the Peace Conference, Collins set about preparing for a war of independence. While Dáil Éireann met, Collins was absent, busy arranging de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Gaol.


The ‘Long Fellow’ had been held in England since his arrest on the night of May 17th over the aforementioned ‘German Plot’ during the conscription crisis. Collins was now looking for de Valera to ‘draw the naked sword’ as promised in October 1917.


“All ordinary peaceful means are ended and we shall be taking the only alternative actions in a short while now,” Collins wrote to Austin Stack after the escape. “We mean to make a public declaration before starting.” In short, they would soon be declaring war on the British.

Read the history of 1918 in Ireland in our 1918 Centenary Special – on sale now!

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Maureen O’Hara appeared as Mary Kate Danaher in the 1952 romantic comedy ‘The Quiet Man’. The film was based on a 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story written by Irish novelist Maurice Walsh, and it would provide Maureen O’Hara with the most iconic role of her long career, writes CYRIL McHALE

 

Where should one start with Mary Kate Danaher? There are probably as many answers as there are fans of the lady who played her. I first encountered Mary Kate in 1952, when the movie ‘The Quiet Man’ burst into life, and she with it, as portrayed, of course, by the late, great Maureen O’Hara.


Maureen’s life has been well chronicled over the years, of course, and older movie fans like myself will readily recall many of the great cinematic contributions she made, depicting a variety of feisty, strong-willed heroines, who would never allow their dignity, or principles, to be compromised.


Born as Maureen FitzSimons on 17th of August, 1920, and reared in Ranelagh, Dublin to a Catholic household, she showed immense talent for acting and performing from a very young age, and won many Feis awards. She was also a talented soprano, and aspired to become an operatic performer.


Her achievements led to Abbey Theatre training at the age of fourteen. By chance, actor Charles Laughton saw a screen test she’d made and was so captivated by her beautiful eyes, contrived to land her the starring role opposite him in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Jamaica Inn,’ in 1939, aged nineteen.


The one condition was that she had to change her name to ‘O’Hara’, a concession she made reluctantly. In the same year, she played the young gypsy girl in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ again starring opposite Laughton, and gained a contract with RKO Pictures.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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By Dave Flynn

A comedy series, featuring a family of liberal parents and children with opposite viewpoints, made for interesting and very humorous storylines back in the 1980s.


Family Ties main star when it began was actress Meredith Baxter, who had several hit sitcoms to her name. The programme was set in Columbus, Ohio, and Meredith played Elyse Keating and her husband, Steven was played by actor, Michael Gross.
The couple had two daughters, Mallory (Justine Bateman) and Jennifer, (Tina Yothers) and a son, Alex played in a breakout performance by Michael J. Fox!


Family Ties premiered on NBC in America in Autumn 1982, at the late time of 9.30 pm on Wednesday nights. Its main competition was The Fall Guy, starring Lee Majors on the ABC network and for the spring of 1983, Family Ties was moved to Monday night at the earlier time of 8.30 pm.


Shortly after it began in America, it was screened in Ireland on RTE2 on Tuesday nights, where it gained a popular viewership.


Steven and Elyse were still liberal from their 1960s days, which was a time that they spent protesting on ‘Ban the Bomb and ‘Save the Whale’ marches. Great comedy usually ensued between the Keaton parents and in particular the conservative Alex.
The two girls, dizzy Mallory and brain-box Jennifer gave the parents headaches in different ways.


As the first season got going, producers realised that Fox was proving popular, and they began to write more storylines with him at the centre. Alex was a supporter of President Ronald Reagan and it was widely reported in the 1980s that Reagan called Family Ties his favourite programme.


After first season its ratings weren’t major, but it was successful enough to be picked up for second and third seasons.

In the third season, Elyse became pregnant with a fourth child, reflecting Meredith Baxter’s real-life pregnancy. A second son was born to the Keatons, named Andy, and in the next few seasons, he quickly grew up to be played by child actor, Brian Bonsall.
Michael J. Fox was invited to be lead in the movie, Back to the Future in 1984. His tv and movie production teams facilitated him as much as possible, and he worked practically around the clock on the movie and on Family Ties.


Back to the Future became a huge hit, and a sequel and other movies came in the offing for the 25 years old actor. The movie success of Fox had a benefit for Family Ties because from very low ratings, it bounced into No. 5 in the ratings for the 1984/85 season.


There was tension in the series with other cast members when storylines became more focussed on Alex, (according to a 2011 book by Meredith Baxter) but Michael J. Fox didn’t leave the series even after his movie career took off.


In its fifth season, Family Ties went to No. 2 in the ratings in America, even though it was now screened early on Sunday night, directly opposite the drama series, Murder She Wrote, on the CBS network.


Also in the fifth season a new character, Nick (boyfriend of Mallory) joined the hit comedy series, and proved to be very popular. Nick, played by Scott Valentine was a happy-go-lucky type of guy who was unambitious but proved to be Malory’s soulmate. The character was liked by viewers and producers, and was even approached to be the star of a Family Ties spin-off series. However it never got off the ground.


At the height of its fame in 1985, the cast and crew flew to London to do a tv movie, Family Ties Vacation. It was a critical failure, and didn’t reflect the magic that the series had on its home ground in America.


When the series was coming to an end in 1989, Michael J. Fox won a Golden Globe for Best Actor. He had been nominated three times before, and the series had been nominated for three Best Series Golden Globes.


Fox won three Emmy awards as Best Actor for Family Ties, and the series also won two Emmys for camerawork and for writing.


Michael J. Fox met his real life wife, Tracy Pollan, on the series back in its early years, when she played his girlfriend. Courtney Cox, from the hit sitcom Friends, played his girlfriend for the final two years of the series.

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Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who condemned Jesus to death, eternally hovers somewhere between innocent-at-large, cornered in a no-win situation by the wily citizens of Jerusalem, and villain. But in some Christian churches, Pilate, and his wife, Claudia Procula, are revered as saints.
PAT POLAND considers the elusive figure who washed his hands of Christ.

According to the New Testament, when Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judaea, He summarized His mission in the following terms: “I came into the world…to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”


“What is truth?” (Quid est veritas?) said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer, we are told, thus consigning countless Christians to two millennia of frustrating speculation.


But just who was Pontius Pilate? We know that Pilate’s chief claim to fame is his role during the final stages of Christ’s ministry on earth. He was, in fact, a minor figure, just one of many hundreds of Roman officials tasked by the emperor to administer his far-flung dominions.


Pilate lived from c.20 BC until sometime after 36 AD, and served as governor, or Praefectus, of the Roman province of Judaea from 26 AD to 36 AD. Depending on which source one tends to believe, he was born in either Italy, Spain, Germany, or Scotland.


For many centuries, the legend has persisted that Pilate was born in Fortingall, Perthshire, the son of a Roman envoy sent by Caesar Augustus to establish diplomatic relations with British chieftains and the important Caledonian chieftain, Metellanus.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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Finbar Furey is back on the road again with his exciting new album Don’t Stop This Now. He tells Kay Doyle about his incredible life journey and how his family background, which is steeped in authentic Irish tradition, ensured that there was no way of escaping his musical destiny …

A few years ago Finbar Furey was standing in a hotel lobby in a New York hotel when a familiar piece of music began to waft its way through the air. The strains of When You Were Sweet Sixteen, now played to a different musical arrangement, instantly transported the second-eldest of the Furey brothers back three decades to the upstairs room in his mother’s house. It was here that he had first picked out those famous notes on his banjo, echoing with poignancy in the aftermath of his beloved father’s passing.
“I had found some lines of a song on a piece of paper that my father had kept,” he recalls. “The song was Sweet Sixteen. It had been written by a vaudeville performer, James Thornton, who thought up the song when his wife Bonnie asked him one day if he still loved her. He answered, ‘I love you like I did when you were sweet sixteen’.


“I brought the piece of paper upstairs and took out my banjo, which I hadn’t played for some time. I restrung it, cleaned it up and started to pick out some notes to create an introduction to go with the song. I knew immediately, and so did my mother who was listening downstairs, that this was something special. It went on to be a big number one for us here in Ireland and got to number 12 in the UK Top 40, and we got to perform on Top of the Pops. It went on to mean so much to not just us but to so many people around the world.”


Finbar Furey was born in The Coombe Hospital on September 28th, 1946, and spent his very early childhood in Dublin’s Liberties, before his family moved on to Ballyfermot. His parents were blessed with musical talent, his father, Ted, having first spotted his future wife, Nora, while she was busking on her banjo at the Kilorglin Fair.


Ted was the ‘fix-it’ man for many traditional fiddle players around Ireland, and as a result other musicians dropped their instruments off at the Furey house when in need of repairs.


“The house was always full of instruments,” he says. “When I was around five or six, my mother sent me off to buy some groceries and when I was at the shop I spotted a tin whistle. I bought it for a few pence and brought it home with me. The first tune I learned on it was Home Sweet Home, an old folk tune that I would have heard my mother singing as she went around the house.


“Then one day my father arrived in with a half set of uileann pipes and I was drawn to the sound straight away. When I turned six, he brought me to the famous piper, Tommy Moore, for lessons. Tommy taught me what I needed to know but he also encouraged me to free flow, and develop my own groove.


“He was a great influence on me and when we’d finish the lesson he’d sit with my father and they would have a glass of poitin or whiskey, just the one glass mind as none of them were big drinkers, and I would sit there falling asleep listening to them talking about music. But in the kitchen Tommy’s wife, Bridie, would cook the best potato cakes you ever tasted. I can still smell the melted butter on them and it makes my mouth water even now.”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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Actor Bela Lugosi (1882 Ð 1956) and actress Martha Mansfield (1899 Ð 1923) in the 1923 film 'Silent Command'. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Bela Lugosi;Martha Mansfield

The dark arts of the secret agent have always held Hollywood movie makers in thrall, writes Tom McParland.

Our first forthright spy was the magic mirror in Snow White, which could only relay to the Queen that she had become an also-ran in the beauty stakes. Later in childhood we learn – if not the noun, the verb – about the capabilities of my little eye. But perhaps our earliest awareness of deliberate duplicities is Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. One for money, the other for skin-saving. That’s why only the child of a cynic is called Judas, and why becoming a spy is never high on a child’s gonnabe agenda.

We were further inculcated into the black arts by everything from The Beano and Girls Crystal to the School Friend and Wizard. We learned from them how to easily identify spies. If a sneaky class prefect had an older male cousin with a van, most likely she had her eye on the school silver. Foreign spies stood out always wearing beards or a fez.


Also, although words like perspicacious or catastrophic caused foreign spies no problems, their pronunciation of the (zee), or this (zis) was a dead giveaway. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That in spite of this thorough grounding, what we know about spying could be written in code as duck awl.


It is on our – and their – thankful ignorance that the writers of spy fiction depend. For the unambiguous enjoyment of spy stories the reader or viewer must occupy the position of the totally incorruptible. And we do. Would we betray our country? No. Not even for money? Certainly not. If our life was threatened? Definitely still no. The wife’s life? – Em – Definitely still no! The mother-in-law? Em – OK, whaddaye offering?

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own

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‘Galway Bay,’ one of the most famous Irish emigrant songs, was written in 1947 and made famous by Bing Crosby and by its use in the film ‘The Quiet Man’.


It was once the third bestselling song in the world, according to the Billboard chart. It became one of the great Irish tunes of all time.


The creator of ‘Galway Bay’ was a quiet doctor who was born in Ireland, who died in England and was buried in an unmarked grave back in his beloved Irish homeland.


Doctor Arthur Colahan never lived to see the massive worldwide success of his song, which he composed in 1927 in memory of his brother Randolph, who drowned in the bay in 1912.


He was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the eldest child of Professor Nicholas Colahan (1853-1930) and Elisabeth Quinn of Limerick (b.c.1866). His family moved to Galway, and he grew up there.


After completing his secondary education at St Joseph’s College, Galway, he enrolled at University College, Dublin, in 1900, did an Arts degree and then studied medicine. He transferred to University College, Galway and graduated in 1913. He was a member of the college Literary and Debating Society and participated in drama.


He began his medical career in the County Infirmary in Galway, and then moved to Holles Street. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was badly affected by mustard gas in India. After the war he settled in Leicester, where he spent the rest of his career as a neurological specialist.


Theories abound as to where the song was written or where it was first heard. Some say it was in the home of Dr Morris at 1 Montpelier Terrace, while others believe it was in The Vicars Croft on Taylor’s Hill, from where one could see Galway Bay.


Other songs written by Colahan included ‘Maccushla Mine’, ‘Asthoreen Bawn’, ‘Until God’s Day’, ‘The Kylemore Pass’ and ‘The Claddagh Ring’.


The opening lines: “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland… and Maybe at the closing of the day” has brought many a tear to emigrant eyes.


More importantly, Colahan never knew Bing Crosby changed his lyrics from “speak a language that the English do not know” to “speak a language that the strangers do not know” because Crosby did not want the song to be too political.


The ‘Light a Penny Candle’ lyric from the song became the title of a Maeve Binchy book that proved very popular.


The song vies with four other great Galway songs. ‘The West’s Awake’, ‘My Own Dear Galway Bay’, Mundy’s ‘Galway Girl’ and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’.


In more recent times the Pogues revived its memory by including it in their incredible Christmas tune ‘Fairytale of New York’.


The Colahan family grave in Galway cemetery makes no mention of Dr Arthur’s burial and few of his family attended his funeral. The song was used in the 1952 movie ‘The Quiet Man’, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, but Arthur Colahan’s name does not appear in the credits. It seems this songwriter was forgotten by almost everyone.


The Irish Graves Association discovered that Colahan, who composed the song was buried in a multiple grave in Bohermore, the Galway city center cemetery.

Galway Bay

If you ever go across the sea to
Ireland,
Then maybe at the closin’ of your day
You will sit and watch the moon rise
over Claddagh
And see the sun go down on Galway
Bay.

And if there’s to be a life in the
hereafter —
And somehow I’m sure there’s going
to be —
I will ask my God to let me make my
heaven
In that dear land across the Irish sea.

Just to hear again the ripple of the
trout stream
And the women in the meadows
making hay,
To sit beside the turf fire in the cabin
And watch the barefoot gossoons at
their play.

For the breezes blowin’ across the
sea from Ireland
Are perfumed by the heather as they
blow.
And the women in the upland diggin’
praties
Speak a language that the strangers
do not know.

For the strangers came and tried to
teach us their way.
They scorned us just for bein’ what
we are.
But they might as well go chasin’ after
moon beams
Or light a penny candle from a star.

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Popular Radio One presenter and accomplished musician Ronan Collins is back on the road reliving happy memories for Irish music fans with his hit show ‘Reeling in the Showband Years’ . He tells Kay Doyle about his life as a long-serving radio and television presenter as well as his drumming career, and how after his recent health scare he is looking forward to whatever opportunities 2018 brings his way.

 

Ronan Collins has begun 2018 feeling fit and well after a recent health scare that he feels may have had a less happy ending had it not been for the excellent care he received at the hands of our medical professionals.


“I feel very well now, and back to my old self,” says one of RTÉ’s longest serving day broadcasters. “It was in the autumn of last year when I started to feel unwell. I had lost the feelings in my legs, there was no pain, but I couldn’t stand properly. My brother took me to my GP and from there I was rushed into A&E. I went into Connolly Hospital as an emergency case, through the public system, and spent about thirty hours there being examined.


“It wasn’t immediately obvious what was wrong with me so I was taken by ambulance to Beaumont Hospital. They did an MRI and they described it as a cyst pressing against my spinal cord, and it needed to be removed immediately. I was operated on early on Sunday morning and by Sunday afternoon I was sitting up in bed feeling much better.


“The care I received was excellent, and the priority from the outset was my health. If they had waited for another twelve hours, I could have ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I have a lot to be thankful to them for.

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Jim Fogarty takes a look at the wondrous book that is the Old Moore’s Almanac, making curious predictions since 1764

The first day of any year is a favourite for physics, fortune tellers, astrologists, and many others said to have the gift of predicting the future in the fast lane. By covering a wide range of subjects, they often get a few correct! Probably by luck, rather than and untold gifts. We all like to take a brief look into the future!


But one of the most famous predictors is Old Moore’s Almanac which has stood the test of time. Its founder, Theophilus Moore, (Offaly-born) was aged about 30 when he went to Dublin and ran a classical academy at Milltown on the outskirts of Dublin. He became known as a clever mathematician and a veritable wizard of astrology, and taught mathematics and classics as well as astronomy and astrology.


He published his Old Moore’s Almanac for the first time in 1764. It was such a success that it outshone other such publications of the era. He is buried in the Drumcondra Churchyard, in Dublin.


The perceived accuracy of the predictions gave Old Moore’s Almanac its staying power. Theophilus Moore himself was said to have had a great skill in prophecy, and subsequent editors made sure that whoever did the predictions was good at it.

There are famous examples of predictions coming true in the past which made readers take notice. The present in-house psychic remains anonymous, preferring to stay away from the public glare.


The many copycat editions raised the ire of the real Old Moore’s Almanac publishers. In fact the editors of the time often wrote to newspapers complaining about it.

Continue reading in the New Year Annual 2018

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By Liam Nolan

The gun should never have been left lying around in the first place. Making the carelessness even worse was that it was loaded. With two unsupervised eight-year-old boys messing with it, something catastrophic was bound to happen. It did.
Young Brignon squeezed the trigger. There was a loud, sharp, crack, a whiff of gun smoke, a gush of blood, and an eruption of high, hard screechy-screaming.


Placide Cappeau, a son of winemakers and barrel makers, was suddenly and excruciatingly on his way to becoming permanently one-handed. The bullet destroyed his right hand, which had to be amputated. That put paid to any idea that when he grew up he would become a cooper like his dad. Jacques Brignon, father of the boy who accidentally shot Placide, was distraught. In an attempt to make amends, he offered the Cappeau family financial support for the education of their amputee son.
The handgun incident happened in 1816 in the small town of Roquemaure, about seven-and-a-half miles north of Avignon in the south of France.


Placide was accepted by the College Royal d’Avignon. There, at the age of 17, he won first prize in drawing. Subsequently he studied literature in Nimes, and in 1831 he obtained a law degree in Paris. But he never practiced law. Instead, in Roquemaure he became a wine merchant whose main hobby was writing verse.


A competent enough poet, he never achieved widespread literary success or fame, though he was well known enough locally to get himself elected mayor of the town.
Born and brought up a Catholic, he had drifted away from religion, only rarely attended Mass, and in conversations with people directed a lot of biting criticism at the Roman Catholic clergy in general.


The parish priest of Roquemare was close to giving up on him, especially when Cappeau began to publicly espouse socialism.


However, in what proved to be a last throw of the dice in attempting to draw Cappeau (right) back into the bosom of Mother Church, in 1847 the priest asked him to write a Christmas poem for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The priest also asked him to take it to one of France’s most famous and successful composers, Adolphe Adam, for a musical setting.


Cappeau felt both puzzled and flattered, and told the priest he would do his best to come up with something suitable. For reference, he turned to Luke’s gospel about the birth of Christ, reasoning that it would give him an authoritative framework on which he might base his poem.


Then, on December 3rd of that year, during a long, bumpy and swaying journey by coach from Roquemare to Paris, he began the task of putting words on paper. It was on the section between the cities of Macon and Dijon that he did the bulk of the work. By the time the coach trundled into Paris, he had completed it. He gave it the title Cantique de Noel (Song of Christmas).


What he had done was to imagine what it would have been like to witness the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. When he read and re-read what he had written, he felt deeply moved by the words.


Now he had to get the poem to Adolphe Adam, whose theatrical successes included the ballets Faust, and Giselle, and La Fille du Danub. Adam (pictured below) had been commissioned to compose orchestral works and ballets that were performed in faraway St Petersburg, and in Berlin and London. He was at the height of his fame.
Into his hands now came Cappeau’s poem, and, given its subject matter and the beautiful style of is writing, it presented him with a challenge unlike any he had been presented with before.


He spent three weeks perfecting his composition, and ended up with what is frequently called a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of music.


Cappeau took the song back to Roquemare and handed it over to the parish priest, who was overcome with awe and gratitude.


He contacted a Parisian opera singer who lived locally, and at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, she gave the first public performance of the carol that would become known as O Holy Night, and would be (and is) sung tearfully and with reverence all over the world.


The congregation at that Midnight Mass loved the carol, and within a short time it won the hearts and approval of people all over France. The Catholic Church in France originally endorsed its use in Christmas ceremonies.


And then something strange happened. The church authorities denounced the carol. Placide Cappeau had denounced the Catholic Church and joined the socialist movement, and Adolphe Adam was found to have had Jewish ancestry. The reasons given by the church authorities for banning Cantique de Noel were: “its lack of musical taste”! and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”! But the common people disregarded the denunciation. They wouldn’t let the song die. Cantique de Noel continued to be sung at Christmas ceremonies all over France.


An extraordinary happening during the 1870/’71 Franco-Prussian War was allegedly the reason the Catholic Church authorities received the song back into religious ceremonies. During a lull in battle, a French soldier jumped up out of his trench, stood in full view, and sang Cantique de Noel. Not one shot was fired at him. The Germans were so moved that one of their soldiers then stood up and sang one of Martin Luther’s hymns. Nobody fired a shot at him either. It resulted in the armies of both sides honouring a 24-hour Christmas truce.


The English words of O Holy Night were written by an American named John Sullivan Dwight who introduced the song to America.


And on Christmas Eve, 1906, O Holy Night became the first song ever broadcast over the radio when Reginald Fassenden played it when experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph.


I first heard the song as a youngster on a crisp starry night in Cobh when boy soprano Jack Kelly sang it in the cathedral. I can still hear in my head his beautiful, clear, true voice, and it breaks my heart, as O Holy Night will this year again, and I’ll cry when I listen to Jussi Bjorling, and precious memories from all the years flood through me.

From our Christmas Annual 2017

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