Singing Wren 46 (Michael Finn)  ” We made it!  We made it!  Safe for another year!”

Wren on rock

“Shut up, you idiot!  The day’s not over yet!”

Meanwhile, not far away ….

Wren Boys SligoMummers Sligo maybe










In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”.  Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.

It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren.  The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys.  The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.

The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces.  In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups.  The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song.  In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.

The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren.  The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former.  There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.

By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts.  Nowadays fake wrens are used.  Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours.  It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German.  St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.

The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”.  It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre).  There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one.  In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish.  Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.




Patsy O’Connor: The lonely grave of a Fianna scout

EXCELLENT ARTICLE BY JASON WALSH-McLEAN (and posted by Éamon Martin on Irish Volunteer.org). Reproduced here by kind permission of both.

The article would be worth reading for the research methodology alone, from which anyone thinking of carrying out research can learn and apply.

This individual definitely needs a memorial and a proper grave marking.



The History of Na Fianna Éireann

Patsy O'Connor grave

The final resting place of Patsy o’Connor at Plot UE 18 St.. Paul’s Glasnevin.

The following story and research is by local Dublin historian Jason Walsh-McLean. Thanks to Jason for sending in this excellent account of the life and death of Patsy O’Connor and his own journey in uncovering the remarkable tale of this brave Fianna scout. We have featured Patsy before on this page a number of times. Here is his story:

It was during the Lockout centenary year of 2013 that I finally got around to reading Pádraig Yeates’ seminal work on the subject Lockout – Dublin 1913. It had been purchased as a birthday present for me some years previously by my Mother. Being a bit of a “trivia buff” when it comes to these things, I noticed upon completing the book that there was no mention of Patsy O’Connor of Na Fianna Éireann, whose name…

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A CHRISTMAS STORY (with the participant’s own stories)

Diarmuid Breatnach (with initial contribution from another Breatnach)

(Extracts from interviews reprinted variously by kind permission of The Palestinian Prophet, Judean Eye, Jerusalem Sentinel and The Samaritan Times)

The Shepherd’s story:

“Hey, man, we’d just settled the sheep down and were settling down ourselves, chilling out with a bong before sleep, you know? Then there was this light in the sky, and a bloody heavenly choir of angels, I swear to God!

“No, man, we weren’t tripping; the bloody sheep all woke and wouldn’t go back to sleep. So in the end, we couldn’t get any sleep either, what with strange light in the sky, angels singing, and sheep baa-ing. So we went down into town, and that’s where we found the Travellers, with their newborn baby.

“We didn’t have anything to give them except a draw or two and we didn’t know whether they were into that, so we brought along a lamb for the grown-ups’ dinner.

“They said the baby was a King, and him in a stable! Well we didn’t like to contradict them or anything, so we played along with it. And while we were there, didn’t this caravan come by with these three old geezers, who said they were looking for the baby King! Yeah, that was kind of strange, all right.”

Mary’s story:

“It was before my first wuz born. That Gaybriel, he came to tell me I was going to be pregnant – didn’t he Joseph?”

“Yes, dear, so you told me”.

“Yeah, he minces in out of nowhere, appears in my Mum’s living room, and tells me I’m going to have a baby! And I hadn’t even been with a man, had I Joseph?”

“No dear. So you …. No dear.”

“So when I was near my time – I was huge by then, you know – we had to go off to Jerusalem. It was a long journey and I was knackered and so was poor Joseph. I said to him, I said ‘Joseph, you’ve got to sit your arse down somewhere warm, and so have I.’ So Joseph went and asked in a few bed and breakfast places, but they was all full. Wasn’t they, Joseph?

I said, Joseph, they was all full, wasn’t they?

“Yes, Mary, they was all full”.

“So after a while, someone let us stay in his stable! Well, it was warmer than outside, and it was great to sit down, but the straw was scratchy, you know what I mean? Well we wasn’t there more than half an hour when me waters broke. I started to cry, and I said to Joseph: ‘Our first child is going to be born in a stable; what kind of a start is that in life for a child?’ I was really upset you know. So that was where he was born. And they called him names is school years later, like ‘Donkey’, and ‘Stable Boy” – didn’t they, Joseph?”

“Yes, Mary, they did”.

The Wise Men’s from the East story:

Balthazar: “We had met up, the three of us, at the previous year’s Annual Conference of the AWM … Oh, you don’t know? That’s our association, the Association for Wise Men! You’ve heard of us, of course? No? How peculiar! Where did you say you were from?

“Anyway, we had met up, and we’d had such a great time together, that we arranged to meet up again. And when we did, we were discussing this interesting prophesy, about a sign in the heavens, and the birth of a King, etc., and then what should we see but this strange star in the night sky. So we decided that could be it and we should at least go and see. So we packed up our camels and horses, hired some help, and set off.

“It was weeks later when we came to this little town, Bethlehem the locals called it, and eventually tracked the couple and newborn baby down, and there they were. Well they looked quite grubby, you know, and in a stable, too!”

Melchior: “It wasn’t the most hygienic place to have a baby, and hardly appropriate for the birth of a King. But that was where the star brought us to, and there was already a crowd of shepherds in there paying him homage. So we discussed it in private, and decided that this must be the King whose birth would be predicted by a sign in the heavens, and we gave him our presents.”

“What presents? Oh, frankiscence and myhrr, that kind of stuff.”

Gaspar: “And gold, of course – so they could pay for some proper lodgings.”

Balthazar: “Herod? King Herod Antipas? Yes of course we’ve heard of him. Met him? No, never.”

Melchior: “No, not on the way to Bethlehem nor anywhere else.”

Gaspar: “Sorry, but are you crazy? We didn’t meet him or any other kings – we try to stay well away from them … and from Roman Consuls too!”

Joseph’s story:

“Well, I was getting on and I’d missed out on all the eligible women except for Mary and she was out of my class, if you know what I mean. I didn’t have a chance with her.

“But then she got pregnant and whoever it was didn’t stay around. So I jumped at the chance, of course I did. I even made up a story about being visited by an angel and all that, so as to match hers. Well, I didn’t want them saying she was a slut, you know? Or later, that Jesus was a bastard. Yes, Jesus, that’s my boy. Bad enough them calling him ‘Donkey Boy’ or ‘Barn Boy’ or ‘Hayborn’ … People can be very cruel – even children.

“Well we had to go to my home town Bethlehem to register for the census since Caesar Augustus decreed it. It was bloody cold and the town was full, except for the luxury suites and I’m just a carpenter. I mean, it’s a good trade but doesn’t pay for luxuries.

“Anyway, we got the stable for what they call a “cut rate” (‘cut-throat rate’ would be more like it) and then her waters broke and she had the baby right there. Well from that moment on, there wasn’t a moment’s peace, what with an angelic choir somewhere, smelly shepherds crowding in, wise men, curious passers-by …. We were glad to get our registration over with and be back on the road, I can tell you.

“The baby? Jesus, my foster-son. He’s a good boy but a bit dreamy. I can’t seem to get him interested in my trade. I do worry about him – I don’t know what will become of him when he grows up, honest. His mother says he has her crucified.”


Herod’s story:Herod engraving

“Oh please! Not that old ridiculous slander and libel again! Slaughtering the babies, indeed. Wasn’t it Jehovah himself who did that to Pharaoh’s people? No, no I never – why would I?

“Because of a prediction he’d be King of the Jews? Oh, puleeeeze! Nearly every fucking village in Judea has someone in it they’re predicting will be a King. If I went around slaughtering the children in every village we’d soon have no population in Judea – and, more to the point, no taxes. Not for me OR for Rome.

“Wise men? I never meet any, not in my court anyway. Wily, cunning, even clever, yes …. but wise? No. Well, maybe that’s a definition of wise men: men who make sure not to meet me. Heh, heh, heh!”


The Donkey’s story:

“It got to be a very crowded in that stable.”


The Cow’s story:

“Mmmmmm! Yes, it did – but warmer too, except when the door kept being opened as more people arrived. Mmmmmm!”

The lamb’s story:

“I didn’t like leaving my maaaaammy. And I thought I heard one of the shepherds mention kish kebaaaaab.”

The dog’s story:

“I really objected to being turfed out of the manger”.




Diarmuid Breatnach

Reading Salvage The Bones, a well-written novel by Jesmyn Ward, all but the last chapters of which are set in Louisiana during days of the impending hurricane Katrina in 2005, I started thinking about looters.

Looters” is the name usually given to those who sometimes operate in areas in the wake of a disaster, stealing items, occasionally also killing and/ or raping. They are generally reviled in discourses, characterized as savage opportunists taking advantage of misery and breakdown of law and order to prey on the weak and defenceless.

Alleged looters sit handcuffed under police guard in Oklahoma after storm May 2013.  Nearby, neighbours whose homes were destroyed and who accused the men of looting.
Alleged looters sit handcuffed under police guard in Oklahoma after storm May 2013. Nearby, neighbours whose homes were destroyed and who accused the men of looting.


Although “looting” is also used to describe many of the activities of advancing victorious troops on ground won in war (and on occasion too, activities of retreating troops), those troops themselves are never called “looters”. 

Yet plunder of treasure and goods was in fact one of the main reasons for invading forays or war for centuries: the Irish word “creacht” (from which, according to one theory, the colloquial Hiberno-English word “crack as in “the crack was great” — is derived) means, among some other meanings, loot taken from the victims of a raid – in their case, usually from another clan and the loot or “booty” often cattle, the main measure of wealth for centuries in Ireland.

Many Native American tribes raided others for horses and women (and sometimes male slaves). Groups among the Vikings, Saxons and Celts frequently sailed to other lands from which they took away slaves (probably the main booty and external trade goods for the Vikings, who made Dublin one of their slave markets). The hordes of the Mongols, the Vandals, Huns and Goths all raided and looted. They were mainly non-Christian hordes of course and what could one expect of the like?

The Christian Crusades were fought for control over the eastern spice and silk caravan routes and for land but loot was the main prize for the individual soldiers and officers. The first city attacked by the Crusaders was Damascus, a mostly Christian city. Charlemagne, that great soldier of Christendom, invaded Arab Spain in 778 ostensibly to aid three rebellious Arab chiefs against their Arab overlord, the Caliph of Cordova (Córdoba), during which he would also strike a blow against the Muslims; however he took one of his allies hostage (the Arab Governor of Barcelona) and only gave him up to another, the Governor of Zaragoza, a city Charlemagne besieged for a while, for a huge ransom of treasure. Departing then, Charlemagne took what he considered his quickest and safest route with his loot into the lands of his Frankish kingdom and went over the Pyrenees.

But some of his forces had already been near there when they sacked the Basque city of Iruña (Pamplona); in revenge the Basques (possibly aided by Asturians and Occitanians) mauled Charlemagne’s rearguard and killed most of the nobles with them. One of these was Hroudland, military governor of the land bordering Brittany, who was later romanticised as the great warrior Roland who died fighting the Muslims of Spain who threatened the Christian Europe. Unfortunately for this story, the fact is that the Basques, Asturians and Occitanians were …. yes, Christians. They just happened to have good relations with Muslim Spain (the reverse of what they were to have later with its Christian rulers).

 The Shooters

Modern warfare is also fought for loot but not usually by the soldiers in the army. Soldiers in modern armies are paid, as indeed they were in older times but looting is not usually encouraged. Their officers will no doubt turn a blind eye to a trophy, such as a Nazi luger or bayonet or some item of Saddam’s Iraqi Army equipment, but cart or jeep loads of such items would not be tolerated and even less so personal possessions of people in invaded countries.

The Nazi armed forces, despite their apparently rigid “morality”, were a famous exception, with senior officers looting famous paintings, sculptures, gold and diamonds and corruption extending downwards to concentration camp guards. The US and especially the ARVN (the South Vietnamese government forces) invading Cambodia and Laos in 1970 and 1971 respectively were well documented sending back lorry-loads of loot. And the war-band Kurds of Barzani and Talabani, the so-called “peshmergas”, in 2003 swept into Iraqi towns and looted whatever they could — even from hospitals — as the USA invaded. But these are exceptions among modern armies.

So modern wars are not usually fought for loot then, one might think – but one would be wrong. Modern wars were and are certainly fought for loot – rubber, oil, gas, coal, metals and minerals, wood, crops, water, markets – as well as for land, strategic bases and tactical supremacy. The main difference, apart from the loot being of a grander scale in modern warfare, is that it is not the soldiers who will be collecting the loot, nor even the officers, but the capitalists and politicians (often interchangeable terms) who ordered the war. In so far as senior officers may share in the loot, it will not be through their military rank as such but as members of the ruling elite from which they are often drawn or to which they have gained accession.

But these are not called “looters” either, except maybe by people in the occupied or invaded countries and they of course are biased, aren’t they? And maybe by some socialists and communists – but that’s the kind of propaganda statements you might expect from them, right? In fact, the soldiers in modern armies are often required to shoot looters!

A protester shouts at the National Guard standing on duty outside the Ferguson Police Department after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. (photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)
A protester shouts at the National Guard standing on duty outside the Ferguson Police Department after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. (photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)


In the USA, the soldiers shooting looters have usually been the National Guard, or State Troopers. But the police are armed there and they have also shot looters. When it comes to such a situation in Britain, it will probably be the British Army doing the shooting. If it were to occur in the Irish state, it would perhaps be firstly the Armed Response Unit of the Gardaí, who have a number of kills under their belts already (none of them in riot, looting or shootout situations, by the way) but in any large-scale looting scare, it would be the Irish Army. It is doubtful if the FCA would be trusted to do the shooting but they might be called out as guards on some centres and to staff roadblocks. 

Shooting looters might be a bit extreme, especially in countries without a death penalty, but extreme situations require extreme responses, citizens might say. We need someone to stop looters breaking into our homes, stealing our money, laptops and television and maybe killing and raping us into the bargain.


The Looters

Let’s take a look at the looters, for a minute or two. They generally fall into one of two groups: the ones who are opportunistically stealing whatever is easily available without violence to person, on the one hand and those who are prepared to fight, to hurt and possibly even to kill, on the other. Sprinkled across both groups, there are two main motivations: 1) to take food, drink or smaller luxuries such as today would be TVs, Ipads and laptops or 2) to steal large amounts of money, valuable jewelry etc.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people who were starving and dehyrating and therefore searching destroyed buildings for food and bottled water and soft drink cans were shot by police and National Guardsmen. In Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, rioting and looting were reported in the western media but strangely, one might think, given the level of poverty of most of the Haitian population, it turned out that actually there had been very little. What there had been were demonstrations of protest against the authorities’ slow response and against opportunists appropriating freshwater sources and selling the water. However, the reports justified the first practical response of Haiti’s strongest neighbour and main backer of its political regime – the sending of US Marines to the island. They of course could shoot looters … and perhaps demonstrators too if they got too numerous and ambitious.

Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans signaling for help
Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans signaling for help

In the wake of a national disaster, the hardest hit are usually those further down the economic scale. The poorer one is, the less possible it would be to get far away from the disaster area and yet be able to eat, drink, wash etc. The less likely too that one’s living quarters are going to be well-built to withstand hurricane, earthquake, flood; the less likely that one has access to alternative power sources, alternative transport, food and water stocks, medicine ….1

So where will people who are without shelter, warmth, food and drink go to find these things? If the emergency relief is sufficient and very quick, most of the disaster victims will go to relief camps and centres. If it is not, or in areas for which such emergency response is difficult to reach, the people are thrown on their own resources. There will be some communal mutual aid but let us not forget we have been discussing areas of poor people – most will have little beyond what they need for themselves and their own families. So what about shops, houses of the rich and those perceived as being better off ….? Of course, their owners will be in no danger if the armed police or troops turn up to shoot the cold, the hungry, the dehydrated, the ill.  

But what about those marauding opportunists, the looters who mainly want money, jewelry, expensive electronic equipment, cars …..? And murderers and rapists? We won’t shed a tear to see them shot down as the wild dogs that they are. Nasty predators on the victims of disasters!  And they are, no doubt about it. One of those comes through your door or window, don’t think twice about shooting him if you’re lucky enough to have a gun or stabbing him if you don’t. Although it might be difficult to differentiate them from the ones who just want a blanket, or clean drinking water, or some food …. Anyway, luckily, those violent predatory looters tend to exist in small numbers and their victims are likely to be numbered in dozens or at most in hundreds ….  

There are people who actually make money – and lots of it – from disasters. These are speculators who flock to disaster areas but they are not called “looters” — they are instead referred to as “entrepreneurs”, “niche investors” or, at worst, as “disaster capitalists”. These are often already organised into corporations and, according to Naomi Klein, one of their major chroniclers (read “Shock Doctrine”), they are organised and waiting for natural disasters and major political changes, anything that leaves most of the population in shock, to move in, privatize state services and property, impose legal and political changes allowing them to make quick profits and strip whatever assets can so be stripped.


The Shock Doctrine book

Milton Friedman, Professor Emeritus at University of Chicago, credited with the creation of the "Chicago School" of neo-conservative economists which legitmized disaster capitalism
Milton Friedman, Professor Emeritus at University of Chicago, credited with the creation of the “Chicago School” of neo-conservative economists which legitmized disaster capitalism

They flocked to Haiti in 2010 as they had to Chile after the coup there in 1973, to the Soviet Bloc as it collapsed from 1989 onwards, to South Africa as apartheid was abolished in the early 1990s, to Indonesia and surrounding lands in the wake of the Java Earthquake and Tsunami of 2006. They are also circling Ireland in its current financial institutions collapse. They are new only in their level of reach and organisation – they flocked to the former Confederacy as it lost the American Civil War in 1885 but in those days they were known as “Carpetbaggers”.  

These capitalists add to the disaster death toll by application of their doctrine of “the more and greater shocks the better”, by their dismantling of the safety nets of state health, welfare and education services, by their destruction of native industry and agricultures (except wherever it suits their plans to continue exploiting them), by the greater impoverishment of populations.  

The looter who terrorized some people in your neighbourhood and killed a few who resisted will almost certainly be gone within the year.  The disaster capitalist may well be gone in the same time or even sooner but he will have caused the deaths of hundreds or thousands in the short term and misery for millions for years to come.  

We should shoot him first, surely?  If you plan to do that, go well-armed, for standing guard for him and his kind are the Shooters: the police and the army.





1    In 2004, I was taking advantage of a really cheap flight and hotel deal to a quiet resort in Trinidad & Tobago. During my short stay, Hurricane Ivan, classified in that area as Category 3 (winds 50-58 knots or 111-129 mph or 178-208 km/h) struck the island. It knocked down trees, downed power lines, caused flooding and landslides. In my hotel, the guests had to make do with a repeat menu served by low lighting and later sandwiches and bottled water delivered to rooms. We experienced a short break in power before the auxilliary generator came on. Television reception was terrible – not worth watching except for trying to make sense of the hurricane diagrams on CNN.

Outside the hotel, a number of poorer people’s houses were destroyed by falling trees, landslides and flooding but I think that thankfully, only one person was actually killed on the island (elsewhere, from the Windward Islands to Latin America, Cuba [where it reached Category 5] and southern and eastern United States, it killed 191 people directly and caused indirectly the deaths of another 32, according to Wikipedia).

As the temperatures climbed back again after the hurricane, power was not restored to many houses and small businesses for days, during which refrigerated and frozen food was destroyed. Most of those houses were without air-conditioning too but then most of them had never had it anyway.


Diarmuid Breatnach

Younger James Connolly
A younger James Connolly than we usually see. Connolly published his songbook in New York in 1907 — included among the songs was We Only Want the Earth.


Incredibly, I only discovered this recording a few days ago. I first heard this song sung by Cornelius Cardew whom I knew in London through political activism and interest in revolutionary culture. Years later I learned the lyrics and sing it now to the same tune, more or less, i.e. that of A Nation Once Again. Admittedly, it sounds great with a reggae or ska backbeat. I came across this recording while looking for a recording of me singing the song at a talk by Portuguese socialists given in Dublin last year.

The lyrics were composed by James Connolly and were published in the James Connolly Songbook in 1907 in New York with a foreword by Connolly:
“No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and hopes, the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude”.

Cornelius Cardew was a respected composer as well as a revolutionary, a central member of the English Communist Party (marxist-leninist). This small organization had a good track record on a number of fronts, including solidarity with the Irish struggle.

Cornelius Cardew, from a Guardian obituary photo
Cornelius Cardew, from a Guardian obituary photo

I remember the shock when hearing of his death 13 December 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run driver near his London home in Leyton. The driver was never found. It might have been an accident but he was not the only political activist to die in mysterious circumstances in Britain in those years, particularly if involved in Irish solidarity.

Not a bad summary of his life here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelius_Cardew

The song We Only Want the Earth with reggae backbeat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTxVBsg4u30


Diarmuid Breatnach

Today is the anniversary of the death of Pat O’Donnel, an Irish patriot or a murderer, depending on one’s point of view. There are memorials to him both in his native village and in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, the latter paid for by US-Irish contributions.

Pat O'Donnel

Pat O’Donnel was a travelled man with an interesting life story (the little of it that is known). He was born in Gaoth Dobhair (which remains an Irish-speaking area today in Co. Donegal) in 1835 and emigrated to the USA where, among other things, he worked as a miner. He stayed with his cousins for a while, who were with the ‘Molly Maguires’ (a workers’ underground resistance organization), in the coal-mining area of the state of Pennsylvania.

His greatest claim to fame however is that he killed James Carey, a man who informed on his “National Invincibles” comrades who in 1882 had assassinated Lord Cavendish, newly-appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland and Thomas Henry Burke, Permanent Under-Secretary – i.e. both chief representatives of British colonialism in Ireland — as they walked through Phoenix Park.

Sketch-portraits of the Invincibles
Sketch-portraits of the Invincibles

The British made arrangements for Carey which bear most of the features of the “witness protection program” of the FBI as presented in a number of fictional Hollywood films. Carey was given money in payment for his treachery, a new identity and passage for him and his family to begin a new life in South Africa.

There is no dispute that O’Donnell shot Carey a number of times and killed him in the latter’s cabin on board ship. The rest has been the subject of discussion and even argument but it does seem likely that although O’Donnell did intend to kill Carey, he provoked him and gave him a chance to go for his gun. Carey’s son probably concealed the weapon when O’Donnell was arrested in Carey’s quarters. Had Carey’s gun been produced in the cabin, instead of being found later on the son, it would have given O’Donnell some chance of being convicted of manslaughter instead of murder.  

The biggest debate is about whether O’Donnell was sent to kill Carey or whether, after befriending him and his family, he learned of his identity and decided then to kill him. Evidence points in both directions although O’Donnell’s behaviour in the Carey family’s company tends towards the second interpretation, which is what most historians hold to. Most non-historians seem to prefer the story that O’Donnell was sent as an instrument of justice against informers and there is a Dublin folklore tradition to that effect. Curiously, the jury too preferred that theory — or that O’Donnell had shot an unarmed man — and found him guilty of “willful murder”.

Even most of those in Ireland who were horrified at the assassinations of the British colonial representatives despised Carey, who had been the one to actually give the signal for the fatal assaults and later seemed to delight in condemning six of his former colleagues to death — and others to prison sentences — by his evidence at their trials.

James Carey, National Invincible leading member who turned informer against his comrades. (Portrait by unknown engraver)
James Carey, National Invincible leading member who turned informer against his comrades.
(Portrait by unknown engraver)

My great-grandfather J. J. Walsh was one of the legal team defending the Invincibles but my feelings about Carey would have been the same even had I not known that.  It is recorded that eight great bonfires were lit in Ireland in celebration at the news of Carey’s death and that musicians led thousands in joyful processions.  

The Judge refused to allow O’Donnell to speak after passing sentence upon him but the convicted man shouted Three cheers for Ireland!  Goodbye, United States!  To hell with the British and the British Crown!

The President of the USA intervened to try to save his life, since he had become a US citizen, but Pat O’Donnell was hung this day in Newgate prison, one hundred and thirty-one years ago and is numbered among the hundreds of thousands of men and women who fell in the fight for Irish Freedom.

(* “Skin the Goat” was the nickname of the assassination group’s getaway cart driver, whose real name was John Fitzharris; he served a long sentence for refusing to give information on anyone).

Further information and songs:

Pat O’Donnell, the Invincibles and Carey also get a mention in one verse of “Take Me up to Monto” by Irish Times journalist George Hodnett (a colleague of my father’s):

“When Carey told on ‘Skin the Goat’*,

O’Donnell caught him on the boat —

He wished he’d never been afloat,

The dirty skite!

It wasn’t very sensible

To tell on the Invincibles —

They stood up for their principles

Day and night.

And they all went up to Monto, Monto, Monto …” etc

There’s a good article here by historian Shane McKenna in which he calls the event in Phoenix Park “killings”, unlike their usual description as “murders” even in articles from Irish writers — evidence that the hand of colonialism still rests on our brains. Elsewhere one reads in history about the “assassination” of Arch-Duke Ferdinand, of Lincoln etc. They are not usually described as “murders”.


A version of the Pat O’Donnell Ballad sung by Diarmuid Breatnach (at 19.40 minutes on the video), 23rd February 2013 as part of the Songs from the Docks event, preceded by Paul O’Brien, Seán O’Casey Centre, East Wall; video Rashers O’Reilly)
Lyrics: Traditional
Air: Traditional.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAjGR6ThjcE

Another version of the Pat O’Donnell ballad, sung by Martin Collins, a Traveller who got it from his father Johnny Collins, sung here at the Celebration of Irish Traveller Music event at the Cobblestone pub, Smithfield, Dublin on 11th December 2014:


There exists also a song about one of the Invincibles, Joe Brady, a Fenian Blade.


Diarmuid Breatnach

(The author is known as a traveller to many exotic places, including expeditions in search of mythical lands, most famously “The United Kingdom”, the “Republic”, “Norn Ireland” and “The Mainland.” Here he writes about the land of Dyslexia).

Dyslexia is, as the suffix “-ia” suggests, a country …. think of India, Mongolia, Russia, California [now relegated to a vassal state], Hibernia [also something of a vassal state], Narnia [er .. no, that is an imaginary land in a series of children’s tales]. The existence of Dyslexia strangely was not even suspected until 1881, when Oslawd Khanber claimed to have visited the land. His discovery was widely doubted until confirmed by Ludorf Linber in 1887. The people of this newly-discovered land were distinguished by all having a difficulty to varying degrees in spelling and/or in remembering sequences of numbers. Khanber and Linber both named this land (and the rest of the world agreed) “Dyslexia”, from the Greek root “dys” meaning “bad/ abnormal/ difficult” and “lex” meaning “word” (although in Latin it means “law”, understood as “written word”).

Dyslexia was, like many other lands and people, not named by the natives themselves, but by people from elsewhere. Such examples abound, for example “Australia”, “America”, “Scotland”, “Eskimo”, “Teddy Boys”, “Pagans”, “Celts”, “Saxons”, “Teagues”, “Gypsies”, “E.T.s” etc. Attempts to identify what the Dyslexics themselves called their land have so far collapsed in confusion, with different spellings and even pronunciations hotly argued for against others.

In fact, there have been accusations of racism aimed at those who named the land “Dyslexia” and the people “Dyslexics” — it seems particularly cruel to create a word itself so difficult to spell to name a people with a known disability in spelling. Previously, Dyslexics just called themselves “people” and the land “the land”, while those who came across migrants from there before Dyslexia was actually discovered called them other names such as “stupid”, “slow”, “thick” or “people with ADD or ADHD” (1) . However, most “Dyslexics” today have not only adopted the name and learned to spell it but are wont to proudly declare “I’m Dyslexic” (but rarely “I am a Dyslexic”).

When Dyslexia came to the attention of the rest of the World no-one seemed astonished that it should be discovered long after the North and South Poles, the Mariana Trench, the Matto Grosso Plateau and indeed a great number of planets. What did astonish the World was that Dyslexia had apparently independently within its borders invented television, radio, Ipads, microwave ovens, central heating and hot showers and of course the internal combustion engine and nuclear power.

This proliferation of technology would have been normally amazing (if anything normal can be said to be amazing, or vice versa) in a previously undiscovered country but what was really, really amazing was that everyone in Dyslexia had overcome a disability to climb to such industrial heights. The obstacles must have been tremendous. Imagine confusing, for example, sodium chloride, a common table salt, with sodium chlorate, which is used as a weedkiller (and also as an ingredient in making home-made bombs, a curious fact since nitrogenous fertiliser, with a directly opposite effect to sodium chlorate when spread on weeds, is also sometimes used in making home-made bombs). Anyway, shake sodium chloride in small quantities on your weeds and they probably won’t like it but most will survive – especially those that actually like a little of it, like relatives of the cabbages and such. Shake a little sodium chlorate on your food, however and …. well …. no, don’t try it – without urgent and skilled medical attention you will die quickly and painfully. For another example, imagine confusing “defuse” with “diffuse”: one goes to de-escalate a conflict and ends up spreading it around. Other confusions are possible between the noun or verb “ware”, the (usually) adverb “where” and the past tense verb “were”. And so on.

For physics, knowledge of and accuracy in mathematics is essential – algebra, logarithms, binary codes, sines and co-sines, square roots (these last are mathematical constructs, not mythical regulated-shape carrots as propagated by anti-EU campaigners). In calculating distances, heights and depths, spaces and circumferences, ability in geometry, trygonometry and ordinary mathematics is required. Somehow, the Dyslexics, the inhabitants of Dyslexia, had overcome their disability or compensated for it in some way, so that they had as flourishing and environment-poisoning an industrial society as the most developed parts of the world, such as the United States of America (most developed industrially, that is).

Dyslexics are said, despite this disability with letters and numbers, to be of above-average intelligence. They had to be, to develop all those complicated benefits of industrial society despite their handicap.

Strangely, one may think, many Dyslexics have become literary figures famous throughout the world, Hans Christian Andersen, Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald and WB Yeats among them. Contrary to popular belief among non-natives, James Joyce was not from Dyslexia. This prevalence of Dyslexics among so many giants of literature and indeed of virtually every other field of human endeavour has given rise to a group of Dyslexians who call their disability “the gift of Dyslexia”.

The Dyslexics are often garrulous and sociable and this is especially true when in Dyslexia itself. The difficulty in remembering telephone numbers for example makes every telephone call an adventure. Say a native wished to phone another native called Cathy (also known as Cthy, or Ktay, Thyca etc), and the phone number was 731 1062 (please note, this is an imaginary telephone number by which Cathy or no-one else can be reached). The Dyslexic might phone 371 1026 – all the correct digits but in a different order (note, this also is an imaginary telephone number by which no-one may be reached).

The conversation, somewhat simplified, might go like this: “Yes, hello?” (female voice, breathless with anticipation of another adventure).

Our caller: “Hi, is that Cathy?”

Recipient (giggling): “No, it’s not. There isn’t any Cathy here. I’m Wanda.”

Our caller: “Oh, hi Wanda, you sound very nice. How about going on a wanda with me?”

Wanda (with a little giggle but playing cautious): “Maybe …. What’s your name?”

Our caller: “Terry.”

Wanda: “Where were you thinking of wandering with me?” (A moment’s pause while both mentally translate the last part of that into “wandering on me”).

Terry (clearing his throat which has suddenly gone dry): “Well, there’s a nice new Indian restaurant opened up in town. Do you like Indian food, Wanda?”

“Ohhh, Terry, I love it. So spicy!” (Very slight pause as both translate “spicy” as a description for food flavouring into a metaphor instead). “When were you thinking of?”

“Er … tonight too soon?”

“No, I happen to be free tonight.”

“Shall I come and pick you up? Say …. seven pm?”

“That would be lovely, Terry. I live off the Trans City Road, tenth left, first right, eighth left, in Hopeful Street, the seventh house on the left-hand side if you’re coming from town, with a brown and white door and a hydrangea bush in the garden.”

“Got it – tenth left off the Trans City Road, tenth left, first right, eighth left, Hopeful Street, seventh house on the left-hand side, brown and white door and a hydrangea bush in the garden. At seven pm. I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

Most Dyslexics are always open to adventure, ‘going with the flow’. One never knows what a simple telephone call may bring or to what an appointment or written address may lead. But as a result, Dyslexics are also philosophic about missed appointments, forgotten birthdays and so on; they waste little time mourning something lost and instead look forward to something gained. Terry might or might not make it to Wanda’s but they both know the world is full of other possibilities. Cathy, for example, who failed to receive a call from Terry to congratulate her on her gaining a dystinction in her dyploma, received later that evening what non-natives would term “a wrong number” call from a Sofia who had meant to call a Geraldine. Sofia had intended trying to patch up a long-running difficult relationship with Geraldine and instead found herself making the aquaintance of Cathy, who seemed much nicer and more understanding than was Geraldine. Sofia soon put her problems with Geraldine aside and agreed to Cathy’s suggestion that they meet for a late coffee (which they both knew could lead to an early drink and who-knows-what from there). Cathy had by now forgotten that she was hoping Terry would call.

Dyslexia is not just another land, nor even just a strange one – it’s an entirely different way to live.



1.   A supposed disability the existence of which is hotly debated but has exonerated many teachers accused of bad teaching methods and states accused of having too large classes in their schools and which has been profitable for some educational psychologists and extremely so for some chemical companies.