Next year the centenary of the Easter Rising will be marked by many commemorative events and the publication of articles and books on numerous aspects of this significant event in the history of modern Ireland. A book recently published depicts the life of a little known participant in the rising on the British side, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, who was responsible for the murder of innocent civilians, including the well-known newspaper editor and Dublin eccentric Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. A Terrible Duty: The Madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst (Thena Press, 2015) by Bryan Bacon is available online from Amazon. Bowen-Colthurst’s story has significance for Australians as some of his crimes were witnessed by an Australian soldier, who was in Dublin on leave when the rising broke out and who had reported for duty at Portobello Barracks, Rathmines. The soldier wrote a letter home describing his participation in a patrol led by Bowen-Colthurst during which an innocent young man was shot in the street and a number of civilians, including two journalists, were arrested and taken back to the barracks. The next morning Bowen-Colthurst ordered that Sheehy-Skeffington and the two journalists be shot by firing squad. The Australian soldier’s letter was published in the Age newspaper causing a scandal, particularly amongst the Irish-Catholic community in Australia. I tell the story of the Australian soldier’s involvement in these events in Anzacs and Ireland (pp. 68-72). Ultimately, Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled and found guilty of murder but because he was also found to be insane he was sent to Broadmoor Asylum. Released in 1918, he travelled to Canada in 1921 where he lived a long life, dying in 1965. A Terrible Duty provides a valuable insight into Bowen-Colthurst’s life and character.
The centenary of the start of the military phase of the Gallipoli campaign on 25 April 1915 will be well commemorated in Australia and New Zealand, as might be expected. Although many thousands of Irishmen served at Gallipoli and died there, the campaign is not well known in Ireland and has not been widely commemorated there. In recent decades ex-pat Australians and New Zealanders have conducted ceremonies in Dublin on the anniversary of the landing at Grangegorman Military Cemetery and at St Ann’s Church in Dawson Street. This year, however, with the centenary of the campaign, a number of events in Ireland will mark the occasion.
One in particular should attract considerable interest. At 3pm on 25 April 2015 at the Dublin City Library and Archive, 138-144 Pearse Street, Philip Lecane will give a talk entitled “Beneath a Turkish Sky: The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Assault on Gallipoli” This is the title of Philip’s forthcoming book which is scheduled for publication in June by The History Press Ireland. It is not widely known that during the landing at V Beach at Cape Helles the Irish suffered more casualties than did the Australians and New Zealanders in their landing at the beach at Anzac Cove.
Other events include the “Gallipoli 100” conference In Kells, County Meath, on 24-25 April 2015 in St Columba’s Church of Ireland church in Market St and a wreath laying ceremony at the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar. No doubt there will be many others.
In addition, the History Hub at University College Dublin is publishing a six-part series of podcasts on the Irish at Gallipoli which I recorded during my time as the Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History in 2014.
I have just received a copy of a new eBook Ireland – in a new light by Chris Hill and Colin McCadden. Published by eBooks Ireland it is a most wonderful illustrated book that takes you on a virtual tour of Ireland. The images – 400 in all – are enchanting with an amazing depth of colour. It’s a delight to flick through them on the iPad. The text is short, to the point and not intrusive, in most cases just identifying the scene but in others providing valuable context. There are also galleries of images that allow you to dispense with the text altogether. The arrangement is logical with chapters for the provinces and sub-chapters for the counties in each province. Navigation is easy, whether you want to browse seriatim or to jump to your favourite province or county. In a nutshell it’s a coffee-table book for the iPad – truly a great read/view. As yet Ireland – in a new light is available only for the iPad and through iBooks. In time that will change so that those with Kindle and Android devices can share the experience. At about $A15 it is a real bargain. Try it out with a free sample at the iBooks store or take a look at eBooks Ireland‘s Facebook page.
Sydney played host this weekend (23-25 August) to the 5th International Famine Commemoration, marking the occasion with a dinner, a seminar and the annual gathering at the monument to the Great Irish Famine in the grounds of the Hyde Park Barracks. Previously, the event has been held in Toronto (2009), New York (2010), Liverpool (2011) and Boston (2012). The guest of honour was the Irish Arts and Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan, who is the chair of the Irish National Famine Commemoration Committee.
The Great Famine (1845-52) had a profound impact on Ireland, which is still felt today, not the least in the fact that population has never recovered to the pre-famine level of 8 million 170 years ago. By the early 1850s a million had died and a million emigrated. The draining of Ireland’s population continued for a century afterwards, with the population declining to about 4 million in 1940.
But Ireland’s loss was the world’s gain with the émigrés settling in various countries around the world, including Australia. In particular, Australia received just over 4000 single young women, most of whom were teenaged orphans. These “famine orphans” are the focus of the annual commemorations at the Hyde Park Barracks, where many of them were housed when they first arrived in this new and strange land. Much has been written about the famine orphans, but a recently-published book, which I had the privilege of launching at the seminar on Saturday, provides an intimate insight into what these young women experienced. (Click here to read my launch speech.)
Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon, one of Ireland’s foremost novelists and short story writers, tells the story of a group of orphan girls, who, recruited from workhouses and given the “choice” of emigration or starvation, came to Australia on the Thomas Arbuthnot in 1850. Although Not the Same Sky is a work of fiction it is based on thorough historical research. In launching the book, I observed:
Grounded in detailed research, in part it reads like history. But it is much more than that. Historians are constrained by the facts as they find them. A novelist, while still being faithful to the essential facts, can go that one step further using imagination to elaborate, embellish and entertain; to bring raw facts to life; to vest the characters with a humanity that brings them closer to us. As an accomplished novelist and short story writer, Evelyn does this brilliantly, tapping into our emotions as we follow the progress of the orphan girls’ on their journeys.
The time and place of the novel’s launch could not have been better for Not the Same Sky is a fitting tribute to the orphan girls that bridges the temporal gap of understanding to bring them to life for us, complementing the evocative monument which stands in the grounds of the Hyde Park Barracks.
The Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee and, in particular, its chair Dr Perry McIntyre, are to be congratulated on what was a truly memorable weekend of commemoration and celebration for Irish Australia.
Not the Same Sky (Wakefield Press 2013, RRP $24.95)