Monthly Archives: September 2014

‘KEENANS CHARGE’ The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

Chancellorsville

Captain Peter Keenan was born in 1834 to Irish parents at the town of York in the rural North West of the State of New York. By 1861 he was living in Philadelphia. He helped recruit the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was appointed Captain, Company C, 19 August 1861. He was promoted to Major of the regiment 15 October 1862. According to the Pleasonton version, at the Battle of Chancellorsville,

“he was ordered by General Alfred Pleasonton, after the rout of the 11th corps on the right wing, to charge the advancing enemy in a wood, and hold them in check until the artillery could be got into position. He charged with his regiment, which numbered fewer than 500 men, so impetuously that the Confederates were startled, and hesitated to advance from the wood, until the guns were ready to rake the column as it emerged. Keenan met an inevitable death at the head of his men, many of whom fell with him, but the sacrifice enabled General Pleasonton to hold Stonewall Jackson’s corps in cheek and save the army from rout.”

His life is the subject of ‘To the Knife: The Biography of Major Peter Keenan, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry’ by Charles C. Kelsey. His famous charge which is on a par with the Charge of the Light Brigade a decade earlier is also immortalised in the following poem by George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898).

KEENANS CHARGE

The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

The sun had set;

The leaves with dew were wet:

Down fell a bloody dusk

On the woods, that second day of May,

Where Stonewall’s corps, like a beast of prey,

Tore through with angry tusk.

“They’ve trapped us, boys!”

Rose from our flank a voice.

With a rush of steel and smoke

On came the rebels straight,

Eager as love and wild as hate;

And our line reeled and broke;

Broke and fled.

Not one stayed—but the dead!

With curses, shrieks, and cries,

Horses and wagons and men

Tumbled back through the shuddering glen,

And above us the fading skies.

There’s one hope, still—

Those batteries parked on the hill!

“Battery, wheel!” (‘mid the roar)

“Pass pieces; fix prolonge to fire

Retiring. Trot!” In the panic dire

A bugle rings “Trot!”—and no more.

The horses plunged,

The cannon lurched and lunged,

To join the hopeless rout.

But suddenly rode a form

Calmly in front of the human storm,

With a stern, commanding shout:

“Align those guns!”

(We knew it was Pleasanton’s.)

The cannoneers bent to obey,

And worked with a will at his word;

And the black guns moved as if they had heard.

But, ah, the dread delay!

“To wait is crime;

O God, for ten minutes’ time!”

The General looked around.

There Keenan sat, like a stone,

With his three hundred horse alone,

Less shaken than the ground.

“Major, your men?”

“Are soldiers, General.” “Then

Charge, Major! Do your best;

Hold the enemy back at all cost,

Till my guns are placed;—else the army is lost.

You die to save the rest!”

By the shrouded gleam of the western skies,

Brave Keenan looked into Pleasanton’s eyes

For an instant—clear, and cool, and still;

Then, with a smile, he said: “I will.”

“Cavalry, charge!” Not a man of them shrank.

Their sharp, full cheer, from rank to rank,

Rose joyously, with a willing breath—

Rose like a greeting hail to death.

Then forward they sprang, and spurred, and clashed;

Shouted the officers, crimson-sashed;

Rode well the men, each brave as his fellow,

In their faded coats of blue and yellow;

And above in the air, with an instinct true,

Like a bird of war their pennon flew.

With clank of scabbards and thunder of steeds

And blades that shine like sunlit reeds,

And strong brown faces bravely pale

For fear their proud attempt should fail,

Three hundred Pennsylvanians close

On twice ten thousand gallant foes.

Line after line the troopers came

To the edge of the wood that was ring’d with flame;

Rode in, and sabred, and shot— and fell;

Nor came back one his wounds to tell.

And full in the midst rose Keenan tall

In the gloom, like a martyr awaiting his fall,

While the circle-stroke of his sabre, swung

Round his head, like a halo there, luminous hung.

Line after line—aye, whole platoons,

Struck dead in their saddles, of brave dragoons

By the maddened horses were onward borne

And into the wavering vortex flung, trampled and torn;

As Keenan fought with his men, side by side.

So they rode, till there were no more to ride.

But over them, lying there shattered and mute,

What deep echo rolls?—’Tis a death-salute

From the cannon in place; for, heroes, you braved

Your fate not in vain; the army was saved!

Over them now—year following year—

Over the graves the pine-cones fall,

And the whippoorwill chants his spectre-call;

But they stir not again: they raise no cheer.

They have ceased. But their glory shall never cease,

Nor their light be quenched in the light of peace.

The rush of their charge is resounding still

That saved the army at Chancellorsville.

by: George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898)

‘LEITRIMS REPUBLICAN STORY’

Leitrims Republican Story

This week saw the launch of the long awaited ‘Leitrim’s Republican Story 1900-2000’ by Ballinamore native Cormac O’Suilleabhain. At its launch the Author confirmed that the work was thirteen years in the making. It certainly is an impressive hardback with lots of fascinating photographs and the book stretches to almost 500 pages.

The book deals in depth with the War of Independence period in Leitrim. It doesn’t shy away from dealing with controversial topics such as the killing of alleged informers and the curious tale of the killing of Dr. Muldoon. The latters killing is full of all sorts of intrigue as it involves a priests housekeeper becoming pregnant and ultimately the Doctor been killed by local IRA figures to protect the ‘Republican’ Priest. If only Miss Marple was on hand.

Some events are recorded that really have nothing to do with Leitrim’s Republican Story. One such incident is the killing of Paddy Reynolds, the Cumann Na Gaedheal TD by a former supporter. Other events are recorded, such as the burning of a Northern Timber lorry near Mohill, whilst similar events, such as the burning of a bus carrying English fishermen in Ballinamore, are not mentioned. There is a comprehensive account of the Don Tidey Affair in 1983 and the deaths of a trainee Garda and Longford born soldier. Nothing is unearthed concerning the whereabouts of the legendary racehorse ‘Shergar’ who was also rumoured to have been buried somewhere in Leitrim. One definitely gets the sense that Leitrim played a crucial support role in the Troubles for the provisional IRA. The County’s topography and isolation made it suitable as a place to hideout, train, test weapons and so forth. There is also an inference that the IRA enjoyed widespread ‘indirect’ support and sympathy during the troubles from Leitrim residents, including families with non-Sinn Fein inclinations and even some protestant families. None of these assumptions are explored or substantiated at any great length. It would also seem apparent that a lot of information is gleaned from unofficial sources by the Author which on the one hand can add credence to his assertions but on the other hand is very partisan and partial.

After the Civil War period the book deals primarily with IRA and Sinn Fein activities in the County. In this regard the Author’s definition of ‘Republican’ is in the narrow sense, and encompasses those who first of all were anti-treaty, and secondly those that did not follow De Valera into the Dail. The book could also be entitled Leitrim’s Sinn Fein Story in that it fails to take a panoramic view of Republicanism. This will no doubt confine its interest to a narrower group of people than was necessary.

The book is very well researched and great credit is due to the Author as this is the first attempt by anybody to explore this subject comprehensively. The overall feeling one has though, is that there is a lack of balance, and it may be that the Author is unapologetic in this regard and this is intentional. Despite the length of the book there is very little critical analysis of events and pertinent figures, nor any great attempt to deal with a wider mosaic of Republicanism. The publication is successful in recording events, but, at times it seems a shame that this is done with a particular bias and lack of objectivity. Despite this, most people with an interest in Leitrim history will enjoy the read. Great credit is due to Mr. O’Suilleabhain on his first publication, and hopefully some of the events he deals with can be the subject of more objective and critical analysis in the future by either himself or others.

‘ALL THAT’S GREEN IS NOT GOLD’

Kerry Donegal

In the GAA there are four Counties who wear Green and Gold for their County jerseys. One is the most successful team in the history of the GAA. Kerry won their 37th All-Ireland Title yesterday. The victory was something that seemed unlikely at the start of the summer. The retirement of several experienced players and a terrible injury to their talismanic forward Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper had dampened expectations even in the Kingdom. The Kerry team led by Eamonn Fitzmaurice persevered and as the evening light lengthened so did their confidence and belief. Yesterday they were also in the happy position that they were not favourites going into an All-Ireland final. Ever since Donegal strangled the life out of the ‘invincible’ Dubs, the sons of Conall seemed to have had their name already etched on the Sam Maguire Cup. In the semi-final Donegal dictated the terms on which the game was to be played and Dublin couldn’t deal with this dictatorship. Kerry is a different proposition and Donegal simply couldn’t impose their will on the Kingdom yesterday. People say Donegal looked laboured, lacked the usual intensity or aggression but maybe when they analyse the game they will see that for long periods Kerry simply dominated them, holding on to the ball, tackling hard, forcing errors and turnovers, taking their chances when they came. It was not a great spectacle of a game for a neutral but it was intriguing all the same.

This week also saw change in another County that wears the Green and Gold. Shane Ward, a Donegal native, was appointed Manager of the Leitrim Senior team. I’m not sure that many people other than the die-hard anoraks would even have noticed this managerial announcement. If Kerry is the most successful County in GAA then Leitrim occupy the complete opposite end of that spectrum. Leitrim’s paltry two Provincial Titles pales into insignificance compared to Kerry’s seventy six Munster Titles. Leitrim have never won an All- Ireland Senior Championship and never managed to even grace a final day. Leitrim have had three little ‘Golden Periods’ since they first entered the Championship in 1907. In the mid-1920s they were a match for any in Connacht. In 1924 they drew with Mayo and then refused to play in the replay. One Connacht Championship in 1927 was scant reward for this group of players. They had the beating of Kerry in the semi-final, going down by two points in the All-Ireland semi-final. Within a year or two the team had been broken up by mass emigration. It would be sixty seven years before Leitrim would win another Connacht Title.

Perhaps the best Leitrim team of all was that of the late 1950’s led by the mercurial Packy McGarty. They lost four Connacht finals to Galway 1957-60 and without the crucial breakthrough this team too began to break up. In the early 1980’s I also saw some promising teams fail to get the rub of the green. In 1982, ’83 and ’87 they were unlucky against Galway and Mayo. By 1989 though things were pretty bleak again with the County’s finest young men more interested in winning Donnelly Visas than Connacht medals.

Leitrim_fans_subwayLeitrim Flag

Then along came a Cavan man called P. J Carroll and he took no prisoners. He demanded honesty of endeavour and didn’t countenance inferiority. Soon performances in the pitch began to improve but alas a championship breakthrough proved elusive. By 1993 Carroll was gone, replaced by John Maughan. Beating Galway in Tuam was a huge turning point. The following year Leitrim won a Provincial Title beating Roscommon, Galway and Mayo on the way. They under-performed against the Dubs in the Semi and should have won another Title. In the twenty years since that famous victory in Hyde Park there have been few highlights. The back door system which was designed ostensibly to give weaker counties more games has not worked out for Leitrim. They have an abysmal record in fact and have shipped some very heavy defeats. Their most recent manager Sean Hagan was perplexed by how dis-interested the Leitrim players were in the Qualifiers. Maybe it is because the player’s ambition is to win a Connacht Title and you can’t do that via the Qualifiers.

Leitrim and Kerry operate in two completely different spheres. If anything the gulf is widening. There are only a handful of the thirty three teams that start the year capable of winning the All-Ireland. Making the breakthrough is nearly impossible and behind the scenes it requires incredible resources. Up until recent years, and despite Leitrim’s paltry return of silverware, one always felt that they could compete with any of the Connacht counties and occasionally cause a shock. Over the years these shock wins sustained the County’s supporters and inspired the young. Nowadays the wins are even rarer, resources scarcer and initiatives like the County Centre of Excellence still awaiting completion.

The Garth Brooks debacle and the disquiet over moving the Mayo-Kerry replay to Limerick has further widened the gap between the modern corporate aware GAA and its grassroots followers. The GAA is at a crossroads and it must decide if its future lies in promoting the elite and aspiring to some sort of a global brand or in trying to build a more equitable organisation. It does not seem possible to achieve both. Perhaps the strict adherence of both the administration and the fans to the County and provincial systems means the GAA was hobbled from the start. The primacy of a knockout completion over the league format is also an anomaly in modern TV driven sport. The GAA was founded in ‘Hayes Hotel’ one hundred and thirty years ago. The famous Hotel was sold at an Allsop Auction this week. It is time for us all to realise that even in the history of our beloved national games, everything ultimately has a price commercially irrespective of sentiment.

Leitrim Qualifiers

It’s Smart to take a break from your Dumb Phone

smartphone-make-stupidI ‘upgraded’ to the iPhone 5S last week. I highlight the word upgrade because it was not really an upgrade technologically speaking. The truth is I am just about keeping touch with what is in the Gadget market. I feel like a middle distance runner after been lapped by an Ethiopian or Kenyan Athlete knowing that if I don’t keep up I’ll be lapped again before too long. Another thing that made me think about how I’m losing in the tech gizmo race was the launch of Apples new watch and iPhone 6 recently. It made me ask what is becoming a common question; As our phones are getting smarter, are we getting dumber?

Apple Phone It is only a few short years ago that we were all giddy with the fact that our phones now had a camera. We now look on those old phones nostaligically and sentimentally even though it was just a decade ago. It didn’t take long before our phone became our office organiser, camcorder, email and music centre. Now the talk at coffee breaks is whatever great App we just purchased. Now our two pieces of Weetabix for breakfast are recorded on our Food Log App, our twenty minutes on the treadmill logged on the fitness App etc etc.  How can we survive without our smartphones and tablets? What did we do before they came into our lives? I sincerely believe that Smartphones are depriving many us of sleep by making us over-stimulated at night time. Smartphones are depriving more of us of real human interaction, smartphones are destroying the art of conversation, smartphones are eating away at good manners and etiquette in the company of others, smartphones are changing the way we see the world and our place in it.

DumbandDumberA friend of mine regaled me with a story at the weekend. He had just left his office in London and was walking down the street towards a Tube Stop. The street was busy with commuters heading home. A  twenty-something man walking ahead of him caught his attention. At first this man he looked drunk as he swayed awkwardly on a couple of occasions. A few feet further on he walked straight into a lamppost. He gathered himself for a few moments and my friend stopped to see was he okay. He had a cut just on his eyebrow which had started bleeding. My friend asked him was he okay and he said yes without making eye contact. My friend couldn’t believe what he was looking at, here this man was bleeding from a deep cut and still texting on his phone. What a dumb self-absorbed person I thought. Is this what all these smart gadgets have turned us into? Blind, heedless clowns wandering around more concerned with the virtual worlds of gaming and the fake realities of Facebook and Twitter than caring about our own self-preservation! Many of us literally could, without been conscious of it, walk out in front of a bus or train. How many road accidents are caused by texting? Is technology killing us?

7-smartphone-cameras-smart-phones-make-us-dumbWe are now almost entirely reliant on our smartphones in everyday life and less reliant on our brains. Smartphones are making us dumber even though I’m not aware of any scientific evidence of such an impairment. It doesn’t have to be that way if only we could strike a balance between how beneficial smartphones (and the thousands of Apps that exist) can be in our lives and full on addiction and over-reliance. Maybe I can download a Life-Phone Balance App? Or maybe I’ll just have a phone free weekend by dropping my iPhone over to my mothers house. It just mightn’t be as daft an idea as it sounds at first.

Blog Entry written in a Country Churchyard

Grave of IRA Volunteer Joseph O'Beirne, Mohill Graveyard

Grave of IRA Volunteer Joseph O’Beirne, Mohill Graveyard

Sunday was a beautiful late summer day and I was back visiting the home turf. Noon found me showing my eldest boy my old Secondary School. The old Alma Mater is now looking very dingy and dilapidated.  The fact that it is overshadowed by the ultra-Modern, uber-cool Community School that replaced it a few years ago probably doesn’t help. Across the road from the dirty Old and the pristine New school is the parish graveyard. I recall one time long ago, when a group of us as teenagers, planned to use an Ouija Board on top of a ‘haunted’ grave here. We never did play the infamous board game there. I think secretly everyone was glad the idea just slowly died away and despite our external bravado, inside we were petrified of what might happen. It illustrated that deep down there is a primal fear of the unknown in us all. Graveyards no longer hold such fear for me. Some final resting places are very peaceful places to spend time in. Glasnevin cemetery is one of Dublin’s premier sightseeing locations and gives one a fantastic tour through Irish History. I have also enjoyed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx where one can easily spend hours walking amid the beautiful manicured parkland-like graveyard. Mohill graveyard is not on the same scale obviously but it has its own little narratives waiting to be discovered. I decided to bring my son for a walk around the graveyard to show him the resting places of his relatives. Soon I was standing amid the old graves beside the seat of learning where I first read Thomas Gray’s famous lines,

‘beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid’

Soon we were reading the names of my sons Great-Great-Great Grandparents. I’m not sure the Eight year old mind can appreciate the generations that have gone before or the fact that without their existence, we wouldn’t exist. I know that he now knows where his people lie and that is good. I’m sure he will come back some day on his own initiative, and hopefully with the next generation too. We said a little prayer together for these people whom we never met but who gave us their DNA.

I also came across the grave of Joseph O’Beirne, an IRA Volunteer killed at Selton Hill in the spring of 1921. Selton Hill is about 5 miles north of Mohill on the road to Fenagh and Ballinamore. I had often heard about the ambush as a young boy from my grandmother who was born just a few townlands away. The general consensus was that the flying column of which O’Beirne was a member were betrayed by loose talk which passed to the local GP, Dr. Charles Pentland. The doctor was a popular man locally but he was also loyal to the Crown. He passed the information on to Inspector Gore-Hickman of the RIC and very quickly a British Army Unit was mobilised. The eleven volunteers in Flynn’s house at Selton had no idea that their fate was sealed. Some sat around drinking tea whilst cleaning their guns and others rested up, tired after an early morning march cross country. When they realised that they were found out it was too late. The main body of nine men who were in Flynn’s house spread out across the marshy bottoms. Quickly they were mowed down by two well-placed Lewis machine guns set up on the high ground on the main road above the house. The column was also undone by a small group of British Soldiers who had outflanked them and set up an enfilading position. Been fired at from two sides in mostly open country the veteran troops of the Bedfordshire Regiment had created a killing zone. In a few minutes six of the nine men who were in Flynn’s house were fatally wounded. Two more were badly wounded but survived. Only one, Andy McPartland escaped the bloody scene. Another man, Bernie Sweeney lay undetected in a drain where the cold water must have helped to stop the haemorrhage of blood from his wounds. The two men who were the luckiest of all were Pee McDermott and Paddy Guckian who were posted to a neighbouring house. They escaped around by Selton Lough. Joe O’Beirne hailed from Currycramp in Bornacoola but his family had a plot on Mohill graveyard. One of his sisters later married Ben McGuire who for many years was a Fianna Fail TD for Leitrim until he fell out with De Valera. McGuire and his wife Josephine (nee O’Beirne) are buried beside Joe whose beautiful gravestone proclaims  that he ‘died for Ireland’. Only a few yards away lay three graves close beside each other of men who may also have thought that they were dying for Ireland. These men though died in the First World War wearing the khaki green of the British Army. The first is Joe Salmon who was in the Army Services Corp and died in Belfast; the other two are brothers, the Reynolds from Treanmore. These are the only war graves identified in Mohill cemetery and in many ways they are unique in that they are only three of perhaps up to fifty Great War casualties  who are interred in their native parish. In the Great War the slaughter was so rapid that you were buried where you fell. Some who didn’t make it home are interred quite a distance away. Private John Cunion was from the Green Road where he was the eldest of the seven children of Bernard and Bridget. Bernard worked as a baker in town. John before signing on was an apprentice coach-maker. Today John lies thousands of miles away from his native Mohill. His grave is in a dusty town called Amarah on the bank of the Tigris in Iraq. In 2003 Amarah became a centre of resistance against the US led invasion. Just like in 1915 it was the British who fought their way into the city and took control block by block, street by street. The current instability in Iraq means that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is finding it difficult to maintain the graveyard in Amarah.

Commonwealth War Graves in Mohill

Commonwealth War Graves in Mohill

There are men from Mohill lying in Commonwealth Graves all over the World. Thomas Bell is buried in Allahabad in northern India. Francis Canning fell at Gallipoli. John Fitzgerald survived Gallipoli before his unit was later overrun by the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kosturino in modern day Macedonia. John’s remains were never found. and his death is simply recorded on a communal plaque.  John’s brother Patrick had already died in the opening months of the War. Another brother Thomas would die just three weeks before the Armstice that ended the war. In 1923 yet another brother Edward, a private in the Free State Army, died in a shooting incident in Longford. Mrs Fitzgerald was indeed unfortunate to lose four sons in uniform. Another Mohill born combatant, Patrick Nooney died at sea. The majority of war dead from Mohill  lie buried in Flanders or France where most of the Irish Units served. It is certainly unusual for soldiers to be buried in the graveyard of their home town. In Michael Reynolds case it is particularly poignant. Michael was gassed on the front and although he lingered on for months afterwards his demise was inevitable. He did however live long enough to make it back to hospital in Ireland and that is why his remains lie here. The landed gentry were also not immune from the bullets and shell fire. Hugh Crofton, a member of the landlord family who owned the town of Mohill died in Gallipoli. He is buried in Twelve Tree Copse overlooking Cape Helles, where the Dardanelles meets the Aegean Sea. Just another short journey from the war graves is an impressive headstone to a Sergeant Joseph Bruen of the RIC. Bruen was from Drumraghool and was stationed at Henry Street Barracks in Belfast around the time of partition. He was a Catholic in what was an increasingly sectarian force. He was shot in an apparent robbery in April 1922.  This would have been one of the bloodiest months in Belfast at the height of the Pogroms. The atrocities committed around these times are still remembered to this day in that city. Some of the worst acts of violence were committed by the ‘Cromwell gangs’ who killed many innocent people, including children, in an effort to religiously cleanse parts of the City. It was said that many of the gang were members of the RIC and that Michael Collins had managed to get all their details. It is also said that Collins had planned a similar attack to the one that took out the Cairo gang in Dublin. Fate intervened however to these plans in the guise of Beal na Blath. The atrocities weren’t all confined to one side of the religious divide of course but one can’t help but think that this was not a nice place to be for a Catholic policeman in an RIC Uniform.

Sgt Joseph Bruen, RIC Belfast d. April 1922

Sgt Joseph Bruen, RIC Belfast d. April 1922

So as the sun shone down over the rolling drumlins of South Leitrim, and I find myself, janice –like, looking back through the medium of the names engraved on these grey stone slabs, I can’t but conclude that one doesn’t have to go to Glasnevin to experience Irelands troubled past. There is a lot of history to be found in the graveyard of every small town and village up and down this Island.  Alas for the unfortunate actors in this particular play I can only recall one more line from Thomas Gray’s famous poem – “For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn”.