The RNLB Mary Stanford out of Ballycotton rescues the crew of the Daunt Rock Lightship, February 1936


Gribble’s painting of the rescue of the crew of the Daunt Rock Lightship by the Ballycotton-based RNLB Mary Stanford in February 1936.

(This post was amended later on 12 February to include some new details)

Ballycotton, a small fishing village and holiday destination situated on an east-facing headland in East Cork, is an old village that was once an estate of the Bishop of Cloyne.  Settlement in the area goes back many centuries.  We know who lived there in the 1200s because the text of the Pipe Roll of Cloyne has survived and been re-edited and republished most recently by Paul MacCotter and Kenneth Nicholls. Unfortunately anyone searching for Ballycotton’s medieval remains will be disappointed, since the medieval village was eroded into the sea centuries ago.  One extraordinary discovery there in the 19th century was a cross brooch from the 8th-9th century.  This gold brooch has a central inset with early Arabic script on it which seems to be the earliest Islamic inscription found in Ireland!  Clearly Ballycotton was an important harbour in the early medieval period – probably replaced by Ballinacorra as the port for Cloyne at a later date. The present village of Ballycotton dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ballycotton Cross

The Ballycotton Cross is a brooch found in a bog near Ballycotton in the 19th century. Dating from the 8th or 9th centuries, it contains a black gemstone at the centre with an Islamic inscription in early Arabic script, which is clearly visible in this image! Image: Trustees of the British Museum.

Ballycotton’s links to the sea include its valuable service as the base of a lifeboat station of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution since 1858.  Nearby Crosshaven (on the western shore of Cork Harbour) and Youghal also boast lifeboat stations – which gives an idea of the dangerous nature of the shore on this stretch of County Cork’s coastline.  What makes this shore particlarly treacherous are the shoals or rocks lying just below the surface, for at low tide the viewer can see shelf of rock stretching out to sea – a nasty prospect for any vessel caught in a southerly or south easterly wind blowing hard ashore.  This same shelf can provide splendid beaches where there is sand, but it is the rocks that pose a serious threat. To make matters worse, there are a number of rocky islands – two at Ballycotton Head and one at Knockadoon Head.  Only one of these islands has a lighthouse – it stands on the larger of the two islands off Ballycotton.  In addition, there are lighthouses at Youghal and Roches Point.

On 7th February 1936 a huge storm drove a south-easterly gale on to the coast of Cork.  This storm developed into something approaching a hurricane. The wind was so strong that the spray from the waves breaking of the cliffs was sent over the lantern of the Ballycotton Lighthouse – over 196 feet above sea level!  The mighty stones that made up the breakwater of Ballycotton harbour were ripped up and tossed about. Slates were ripped from the roofs of the houses – and the telephone cables were cut. The fishermen of Ballycotton spent 10th February securing their vessels as best they could in their small harbour.


Kevin Dwyer’s aerial image of Ballycotton and its two islands. The lighthouse stands on the island at the bottom of the picture. The storm of 1936 sent spray over this lighthouse – 196 feet above sea level! The small harbour of Ballycotton is visible beyond the smaller island. The Mary Stanford slipped between the two islands on her outward voyage to her famous rescue mission.

About 8.00 am on the morning of 11th February, the lifeboat station in Ballycotton received an SOS delivered by car. The station was notified that the Lights Vessel Comet had broken her moorings off Daunt Rock and was drifting towards Ballycotton.

The LV Comet was a lightship – a floating lighthouse – on station off the Daunt Rock.  This is a dangerous undersea rock that comes perilously close to the surface some miles due south of the resort of Fountainstown (on the western side of Cork Harbour).   Lightships were tough, very heavy ships designed to withstand severe storms at sea.  Usually lightships were moored above or near a marine hazard to warn shipping of the danger lurking below the waves.  A previous lightship at the Daunt Rock had been lost in 1896 – the bodies of the crew were never recovered.  However, if a lightship should break her moorings and drift, then because of her strong construction, she would pose a serious hazard to other ships.  This wasn’t quite the situation in February 1936 – but it was perilously close to it.  The Comet managed to secure an anchor to the sea bed, but it was uncertain how long that would hold in the appalling seas.  The lives of eight men were now in grave peril.

The Coxswain of the lifeboat, Patrick Sliney, took immediate, but careful action. Conscious of the suicidal nature of the task ahead, and wary of upsetting the villagers, he prohibited the use of maroon flares to alert his volunteer crew. Instead he visited them quietly and asked them to assemble at the lifeboat station. They would take the Mary Stanford out before anybody realised that they were gone.

Apart from Patsy Sliney, the Mary Stanford‘s crew that day included:Second Coxswain John Lane Walsh, Motor Mechanic Thomas Sliney, Crewmen Michael Coffey Walsh, John Shea Sliney, William Sliney and Thomas Walsh. To reduce the time it took to get to the Daunt Rock, Sliney took his vessel through the narrow sound between the islands, cutting a half a mile from the journey. As the huge seas crashed over his boat, Sliney counted his men to make sure that nobody had been swept overboard.  There was no sign of the lightship, so the Mary Stanford slipped into Cobh to get information on the Comet’s whereabouts.  Despite the worsening weather, Sliney took his vessel back out to sea and found that the Comet was now drifting and was just a half a mile from the shore. And she wasn’t alone.

At that time, Cork Harbour was still an operational base of the Royal Navy, in accordance with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The destroyer HMS Tenedos had stationed herself close to the Comet to assist, but dared not come too close in the wild seas.

On reaching the Comet, Sliney’s crew tried to attach a steel cable to the lightship to allow her to be towed to port by the Tenedos – but the cable parted each time.  At nightfall, the Mary Stanford returned to Cobh to get a stronger cable. The B & I Lines packet Innisfallen now stood by with the Tenedos to render assistance.  Meanwhile the famished crew of the Mary Stanford finally got their first bite of food all day as well as three hours of sleep, and a change of clothing.

The storm continued to rage the next day, 12th February, as the Mary Stanford returned to the lightship.  By now a fog was making visibility difficult.  The Tenedos departed her station and was later replaced by the Irish Lights Vessel Isolde.  Rescue was impossible under the weather conditions at the time, so the Mary Stanford stood by for the next twenty-four hours to warn off any shipping. Running low on fuel, the Mary Stanford was obliged to return to Cobh about 7.00 am the next morning, 13th February. Despite the salt burns and seasickness suffered by the crew and an injury to Patsy Sliney’s hand, the Mary Stanford returned to the rescue after refuelling, and permitting her crew a short rest.  On arrival, they found that the Irish Lights Vessel Isolde had arrived to tow the lightship to safety, but by now the weather had got even worse, and Isolde was unable to help.

As darkness fell, Sliney had the lifeboat’s light beamed on Comet, but the storm now threatened a new danger – the wind changed direction and the lightship was now in danger of being blown onto Daunt Rock itself.  The situation was extremely dangerous for the lightship crew, so Patsy Sliney was obliged to take drastic action.  The men on the lightship would have to jump aboard the Mary Stanford – if they missed, they would very likely drown!  Moving his vessel to the leeward side of the lightship, and having poured petrol on the sea to calm it (to no effect), Sliney placed his heaving boat alongside the lightship and urged the men to jump.  One man got aboard on the first attempt.  Five got aboard on the third attempt. The fourth attempt actually damaged the Mary Stanford – and neither of the two men aboard the lightship had jumped. They were too exhausted.  The fifth attempt also failed.  Sliney then took drastic action for his sixth attempt – he had some of his crew stand at the bows and, literally, grab the men from the lightship.  The procedure was as dangerous to the lifeboatmen as it was to the rescued men. Both the rescued men were injured in the attempt, but they were now safe, and received immediate first aid.


The RNLB Mary Stanford returns to Ballycotton after the Daunt Rock lightship rescue.

The Mary Stanford could now return to Cobh – but with additional drama, as one of the rescued men lost his nerve and had to be restrained from jumping overboard.  After spending the night in Cobh, the RNLB Mary Stanford returned to Ballycotton in fine weather having departed from her home base seventy-nine hours earlier.  It was, of course, 14th February – St Valentine’s Day.  For their extraordinary rescue of the crew of the Daunt Rock Lightship the volunteer crew of the Mary Stanford were honoured by the RNLI: Patsy Sliney was awarded the RNLI Gold Medal, John Lane Walsh and Thomas Sliney were awarded the Silver Medal and the crewmen, Michael Coffey Walsh, John Shea Sliney, William Sliney, and Thomas Walsh were presented with the Bronze Medal.

mary stanford abandoned

Looking forlorn and abandoned in dock in Dublin. At least she survived!

The Mary Stanford served the RNLI until 1959, when she was retired as a reserve lifeboat.  In 1969 she was sold to the Limerick Harbour Commissioners to serve as a pilot launch.  In the 1980s she was acquired by a trust to preserve her at Grand Canal Docks in Dublin.  This venture fell through and she was effectively abandoned until a group in Ballycotton decided to rescue her.  The RNLB Mary Stanford, after a short stop in Midleton, returned home to Ballycotton in the autumn of 2014 to await restoration.

MaryStanford returns

Home at last! Now placed overlooking the route she took to rescue the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship, the Mary Stanford awaits restoration. This image shows how high the Ballycotton lighthouse actually is – now you know how bad the storm of 1936 was! The Mary Stanford’s present location marks the start of the Ballycotton Cliff Walk which runs along the cliff that the vessel had to sail past in February 1936 to reach the Daunt Rock Lightship.  It is hoped that this cliff walk will eventually extend from Ballycotton to Roches Point, at the entrance to Cork Harbour.

To donate to the Mary Stanford restoration fund:

The Ballycotton Cross (now in the British Museum) is discussed here:

,  :

Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas – a Christmas tradition with an Irish twist.

Muiredach's cross

The Adoration of the Magi on the 9th or 10th century Muiredach’s Cross in Monasterboice in County Louth. Four Magi are depicted venerating the Christ Child and the Holy Mother. Note the star of Bethlehem over the child. This scene, like the others on the cross was almost certainly painted in brilliant colours when first unveiled.

Nollaig na mBan is the name given in Irish to the important Feast of Epiphany, which is celebrated by the Church on the 6th January. In the English tradition the term Twelfth Night is used – as immortalized by Shakespeare in his eponymous play. The evening of 6th January was twelve days after Christmas so it was the last chance to have some serious merriment before serious work began again on Plough Monday. The first Monday after Epiphany was the day the fields were ploughed in anticipation of the spring planting.  That is, if they hadn’t been ploughed already following the autumn harvest – a very sensible idea in case of a long hard frost or snow. Sometimes it was necessary to plough the land a second time to break up the soil following freezing weather.  Another name for Epiphany was Little Christmas – for it marked the end of the Christmas season in the Church liturgy.  Admittedly some places ended the Christmas season on the Feast of Candlemas on 2nd February – or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Ardmore sculptures

Ardmore in County Waterford was founded by St Declan prior to the coming of St Patrick. It bacame a diocese briefly after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. The small ruined cathedral has stonework dating to the 9th century but the west front may date to the early 12th century. This contains a very important sculpture cycle including this depiction of the Magi venerating the Virgin and Child. Menacingly placed above it is the Judgement of Solomon. Curiously, the Virgin and Child are flanked by an ox, symbol of St Luke, who doesn’t mention the Magi in his gospel. Again, there are four figures for the Magi – but it is possible that the fourth figure is actually the angel who warned them to return home by a different route. This figure could also stand in for the angel that symbolizes St Matthew, who gives the story of the Magi in his gospel.

Epiphany celebrated two events – the arrival of the Magi to venerate the Christ Child and the Baptism of Christ.  It is probably more important than Christmas Day in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.  When I was a schoolchild, Epiphany marked the last day of the Christmas school holiday – we returned to class on the 7th January.  This has now changed with the centralization of the Irish school calendar – the kids went back to classes today (5th January), and they no longer get the Church holiday off.

However, back to Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, as it translates into English.  Nowadays the name is translated as Women’s Little Christmas – which is incorrect, for they are two different terms.  Little Christmas would be An Nollaig Bheag.  This is basically a straightforward reference to the last day of the Christmas season proper.  But what is this business of Women’s Christmas?  Surely Irishwomen celebrate Christmas on 25th December like all the men?

Well, Women’s Christmas was a way of saying that traditionally women had the day off, or rather the evening off, to enjoy themselves and the men were left guarding the home fires.  It seems to have originated as a reward for doing all the cleaning, cooking and organizing of the main Christmas festivities. On the evening of 6th January (in some places 5th January) the women of the community would prepare a meal for themselves to which no men were invited.  The women would gather in a selected house from which the men were evicted for the evening to have this meal and they would spend the evening singing, dancing, playing cards, storytelling and generally enjoying themselves.  And yes, drink would be available.  In reality this was probably the only day of the year in which women could let their hair down, forget the housework and enjoy a girls’ day out.

So today in Ireland, some women take the evening off, and head out with the girls – their sisters, friends, and adult daughters.  They might go for a meal in a nice restaurant, take in the theatre, a trip to the cinema or join someone at a party.  It can be an important source of business for restaurants and pubs, since January can be a lean month due to over expenditure at Christmas. Because Epiphany can fall in the middle of the week and is not a public holiday, this imposes some restraint on the modern observance of Women’s Christmas – especially if the women concerned have to work the next day. Nowadays, the tradition of Women’s Christmas is most widely observed in counties Cork and Kerry – but it is spreading again.  I think we should also rename 6th January as Irish Women’s Day, just to be logical.

Unfortunately, 6th January 1839 was also the Night of the Big Wind – when a hurricane swept through an unsuspecting Ireland and caused immense damage throughout the country.  Some Irish follklore claimed that 6th January would be the Day of Judgement – so on that particular night some people actually believed that the world was about to end. Humorously, when the old age pension was introduced in 1906, one question asked of applicants who could not supply documentation of age was whether or not they could remember the Night of the Big Wind….and they say ’tis an ill wind that blows some good!

Night of the Big Wind

The hurricane of 6th January 1839 – the Night of the Big Wind. This record is from the Armagh Observatory. It reads – Tremendous gale in the night.  I imagine it was the understatement of the year.

And what of the men on Women’s Christmas?  They probably had to make do with bread, cold cuts of meat and strong tea for one night.   Nowadays they resort to readymeals – unless they learned something from all the cookery shows on TV. Oh, and one more thing – the men probably had to take down and pack away all the Christmas decorations that the women had so carefully put up! Tough!

Women's Christmas

To all the women following this blog – A happy Women’s Christmas to you.

Twelve Christmas traditions in Ireland.

Christmas bauble

All too often today in Ireland the complaint about Christmas is that there is too much pressure – to spend, to drink too much, to eat too much, to ‘be merry’ when inwardly you are suffering from loss, to outdo one’s relatives/neighbours/friends in extravagance and originality. Indeed one of the maddest phenomena in Ireland is the stampede to the grocery stores in the days leading up to (and including!) Christmas Eve. A visitor from Mars (or anywhere else for that matter) would be forced to concluded that all the shops were closing – FOREVER! Much of this is a relatively new phenomenon in modern Ireland.  And the real point of Christmas so often gets lost in the bustle that leads up to it. The truth is that we’ve bought into the whole Anglo-American version of the commercial Christmas, with a few twists of our own.

What are the traditions of Christmas in Ireland? The original traditions are very few and rather simple. But we’ve added some new ones!

Shopping fast

Can’t stop, must shop! A frantic way to spend Christmas Eve.

The first ‘tradition’ is fairly new, It’s the Christmas Eve panic. Panic shopping for ‘essentials’ that you already have or really don’t need! This is coupled with the last minute shoppers – they felt there was enough time to go shopping for gifts especially that they forgot the sheer scale of the endeavour in the first place! There are people who swear that it isn’t Christmas unless they’ve had their adrenalin rush of panic or last minute shopping on Christmas Eve. I am reliably assured this is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. It’s very much an Anglo-American-Irish er, ‘tradition.’

Share collectors

Bishops Buckley and Colton join the SHARE collectors in Cork. Charity fundraising is VERY big in Ireland at Christmas.

For a second tradition I select charity. This is BIG in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Honestly you can hardly move on the Main Street in Midleton without having to pay tolls to the collectors every hundred yards – on both sides of the street!  Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Charity collections at Christmas are serious matters for the fundraisers. Cork City has an important and wonderful collection for Advent call the ‘SHARE Collection,’ SHARE is a body set up by secondary school children in Cork in 1970 to help elderly people with their basic needs. They have funded the repair of houses, the provision of foodstuffs, meals and, for many people this is most important, the youngsters provide company through regular visits to simply sit and chat, run errands, even cook meals for the senior citizens of Cork. The presence of the yellow-jacketed fundraisers on Patrick’s Street is a fixture of Christmas in Cork.

Adi Roche and Chernobyl Children

Adi Roche greeting some of the Chernobyl Children who will spend Christmas in Ireland. Roche’s charity has brought thousands of children to Ireland from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to give them respite and healthcare in a different environment. They may not be Irish emigrants, but some of them have been to Ireland so often that they see the place a second home. (Published in the Evening Echo, Cork.)

The third one on my list is rather new. This is the welcome at the airports for returning emigrants. I have no idea how much money Aer Lingus (our national airline) makes at Christmas, but their business at this time of the year must be the envy of other airlines around the world. The news broadcasts usually cover the scenes at the airports as emigrants are greeted by family and friends. It seems to be compulsory to hold up homemade ‘Welcome Home’ banners and for everyone to wear a red Santa hat. The scenes are both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but sometimes the broadcasts get a little too maudlin. I suspect that only the Chinese have a similar movement of population for their New Year. ‘Coming Home for Christmas’ is the theme song of this ‘tradition.’ Although this tradition is rather new, it is linked to the long-standing idea that Christmas is a time for family gatherings. It may be the only time of the year in which the whole family gathers together to have a meal and catch up on the ‘sca!’  ‘Sca’ is not ‘scat’ or scandal, it’s derived from the irish word ‘sceal’ or ‘story’….hence the immortal phrase ‘what’s the story, Rory?’ Tell us what you’ve been up to and leave NOTHING out, especially the embarrassing bits! (‘Rory’ does not mean Mr McIlroy, it just rhymes with ‘story.’)

Spiced Beef

Spiced Beef is traditional fare on Christmas Day in Ireland, but it has lost out to the turkey. It’s still popular with families in Cork, and there are attempts to revive its popularity.

Fourth, the lunch or supper on Christmas Eve and dinner on Christmas Day. Traditionally in our house it was a fish day. Fish in Ireland was seen as something of a penance mainly because we really didn’t know how to cook it properly, and this in a country surrounded by rich fishing grounds! By long standing tradition fish was eaten on Fridays (it certainly was in our house). This was a hangover from the medieval Church law that ruled out consuming meat on Fridays in honour of the crucifixion. Later, Wednesday became a ‘fish day’ too….and don’t even mention Lent and Advent! (Curiously, Queen Elizabeth I legislated for the retention of Wednesday and Friday as ‘fish days’ despite the Reformation – remember, she really wanted to restore her daddy’s liturgy – polyphony, smells, bells, vestments….the whole works. Now you know why the Puritans fled to New England during the reign of her successor! The Established Church was a bit too fishy for their tastes.) So the fourth tradition of Christmas in Ireland is fish for a light dinner or lunch on Christmas Eve – except today it is no longer a penance and we (usually) have learned how to cook it properly. Add to this the tradition of having spiced beef on Christmas day. Once widespread, this custom is now generally confined to the area around Cork, although other areas are reviving it as an alternative to turkey. Beef was an expensive dish into the late nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. So it was only eaten by many families on special occasions, such as Christmas. Despite my Cork heritage, I’ve never had it for Christmas dinner.

Harry Clarke Nativity

Harry Clarke stained glass window of the Nativity in Castletownbere, West Cork.

The fifth tradition among Irish Catholics is confession – the churches were busy with people slipping in to confess their sins (or repeat them ad nauseam as if they’re not certain that God REALLY forgives!).  You have to remember that until recently Christmas was a distinctly RELIGIOUS occasion in Ireland. And despite the claim of one bishop recently that shopping has become the new religion in Ireland, people will go to Mass/Church even if only to meet old friends and neighbours afterwards.  Furthermore, on Christmas morning after Mass it was the custom to visit the graves of loved ones and place a wreath or flowers there. This is still a very widespread custom, especially in parishes where the cemetery is next to the church. There is nothing morbid about this custom, it’s our way of including the whole family, living and dead in the festivities. We Irish can be a bit more forthright about this than some cultures that shy away from any mention of death at Christmastide.

Wexford carols

The Wexford Carols are probably the remnant of an older carol singing tradition in Ireland – fortunately they have been recorded and are gaining a wider recognition as a uniquely Irish contribution to the Christmas carol repertoire.

Carols are the sixth tradition. Yes, I know, EVERYBODY sings carols. But in Ireland Catholics limit themselves to a very narrow selection of carols from the vast number available. Better to be a member of the Church of Iireland – the congregations use hymnbooks with lots of carols, and EVERYBODY sings!  We actually have our own carols here in Ireland. One of the finest of all carols (and not just because it is Irish) is the Enniscorthy Carol, usually called the Wexford Carol. This starts with the words ‘Good people all this Christmas time….’ Check out Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir from the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin singing it on Youtube (see below) – exquisite!  And, still in County Wexford, the fishing village of Kilmore Quay has a fine collection of thatched houses and a special tradition of unique local carols going back at least to the seventeenth century. The local custom is that a six man schola sings the carols through the twelve liturgical days of Christmas. The carols were effectively preserved for three or more centuries by a single family who make up the schola. These are local fishermen, not professional choristers. There is a different carol for each day, usually sung during Mass in the local church. A few years ago Tom Jones (yes, THE Tom Jones!) joined a group of other musicians to record these carols for popular publication by Heresy Records. It is thought that the distinguished Irish Franciscan friar Luke Wadding OFM composed or redacted the lyrics in the seventeenth century. You know, I am convinced that we Irish really don’t realize how wonderful our native carols are. We should make it compulsory to sing at least one of the Wexford carols in every carol service or concert – perhaps people would get to know them better.

Feeling stressed out at Christmas?  Just listen to this and you’ll be put right again. Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir singing the Enniscorthy Carol:

Ballintotis Church

I once attended Christmas Day Mass in St Colman’s Church in Ballintotis (Midleton parish). It was remarkably short – the sermon was ‘Happy Christmas, and be sure to make it a happy one for somebody!’ Sums it up really.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is the seventh tradition. Now I know this is universal but there is an Irish twist. Usually packed, this can sometimes provide unexpected entertainment if a member of the congregation has come straight from the pub and starts singing aloud at the wrong moment. I’m not necessarily talking about singing hymns or carols either! Or maybe he (it’s usually ‘he’) likes/dislikes a point the priest has made in his sermon and broadcasts his opinion to the whole congregation. Excruciating embarrassment ensues for his nearest and dearest, or for those seated next to him. It certainly isn’t pleasant for any children allowed to stay up after bedtime in order to attend Midnight Mass. This is one reason why so many parishes brought forward ‘Midnight Mass’ forward to about 9.00 pm – the pubs don’t close on Christmas Eve until 11.30 pm. The drunks would still be ‘filling up’ whilst the congregation could celebrate Mass without interruption or embarrassment.


Uniquely Irish and  lovely, simple tradition, and no need to go overboard with it.

The eighth tradition which is distinctly Irish, is the candle in the window – just the one, mind!  Nowadays some people have EVERY window in the house lit. But the whole point of the candle in the window is not to show off, but to offer an invitation to the Holy Family (the Christ Child, Mary, and Joseph, presumably the donkey would be along too!).  It was an act of charity, since the idea was to invite the Christ Child to lay his head in a warm bed rather than a cold manger. Some claim that the tradition was intended to light the way to Bethlehem for the Holy Family, but I suspect this is a misunderstanding. But why only one candle? Well, candles were once quite expensive. Most people got by with home made rush lights or tapers.  Rush lights were strands of rush dipped in tallow (pig fat) in imitation of a beeswax candle. They smoked terrifically, and someone had to constantly tend them so that the flame did not get extinguished by the melting fat. Tapers were a wick dipped in animal fat. Smokey and requiring constant care, they melted fairly quickly. Candles proper, of wax or paraffin, were shop bought and were more expensive. Thus only ONE candle was lit to guide the Holy Family into a warm house. There are people alive today who recall Christmas Eve before rural electrification in the late 1940s. The most delightful thing was standing on a nearby hill and watching as, one by one, the neighbours lit their candles. When President Mary Robinson lit a candle in the window of her official residence Arus an Uachtarain, she gave the most distinctive Irish Christmas tradition a new secular twist, since her candle represented a welcome home to all the Irish emigrants (and their descendants) around the world.

Christmas day swim

Brave or brazen? Well, it’s fun in a good cause.

Although not unique to Ireland, the tenth ‘tradition’ is also rather new but increasingly popular. So much so that the Irish Water Safety Board issued a health warning to prospective participants. It is, of course, the Christmas morning swim! This takes place in the open sea – not in an indoor heated swimming pool, which would completely miss the point. If you live in the middle of the country, a trip to a local lake or river might suffice, but this is really a coastal tradition. The Irish catch is that the participants usually do it for charity – notice how this theme keeps cropping up!  I really don’t know how many Christmas Morning Swims are taking place in the beaches and coves of East Cork, but there seem to be quite a few. The essential requirements are a bathing costume and an ability to swim a few strokes (that’s all you need do).  Zany costumes are strictly optional. It’s a heck of a way to wake up on Christmas morning, especially if the night before had been somewhat indulgent! Oh, and the health warning from the Irish Water Safety Board – beware of hypothermia! They suggested wearing a wetsuit. Very sensible, in my opinion. In Dublin, some people are so sensible that they prefer to stay warm by running the Goal Mile. This is a run, not a race – think vigorous morning jog – around an athletic track to raise funds for the third world charity Goal.


On Christmas Day? Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.

The eleventh tradition will probably surprise you. No pubs. Yes, that’s right, the pubs are shut by law on two days of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The law does not say ‘no alcohol’, it says you may not drink alcohol in a pub. And the pubs may not open on those days. There are rare exceptions. In 2010 the publicans of Limerick won an argument in the local district court to be permitted to open on Good Friday for a major European Cup Rugby match.  By all accounts they did a roaring trade! But that was a unique exception. This does not mean that every pub actually obeys the law – for years it was rumoured that on one of the Aran Islands the pub served alcohol on Christmas Day, because there wasn’t a single Garda (a policeman) on the island to enforce the law. Their excuse? The pub wasn’t really open and the place was full of family friends around for a drink. And everybody kept quiet about the festivities. Now you know why patrons ‘filled up’ at the pub on Christmas Eve before staggering in to Midnight Mass. Closing the pubs on Good Friday is, perhaps, still understandable, but why close the pubs on Christmas Day? Simple, to allow the staff to celebrate Christmas at home with their families. There IS a point to the immortal barman’s query ‘Have you no homes to go to?’

Wren Boys

Once a frightening tradition, the Wren Boys now perform for charity on St Stephen’s Day.

The final tradition (well it had to be twelve!) is one that happens on the day after Christmas Day.  Many people use the English term Boxing Day for the 26th December. In Ireland it is popularly called St Stephen’s Day, being the feast of the first Christian martyr. And no, we didn’t get the idea from the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – it’s a genuine feast of the church going back well over a millennium. The custom in Ireland was for the Wren Boys to call around on this day. These were local youths in disguise, accompanied by a musician. They wore costumes made of straw and carried a bush with a dead wren tied to it.  This recalled the tradition that Stephen was betrayed by a wren and so the wren was killed to avenge the saint’s death.  It’s possible that the custom had a pre-Christian origin. The reason the ‘wren boys’ wore disguise is that they expected a warm welcome in every house and if they felt the welcome wasn’t good enough (not enough drink or food) they would upset the house by overturning furniture, letting animals out of their byre/stable and opening the gates of the farm. People were often quite perturbed if they heard that the ‘wren boys’ were approaching.  I suspect the whole business may be linked to the idea of the Lord of Misrule – a medieval Christmastide custom of appointing a ‘lord’ of the household to the person who drew the longest straw. This person organized the revels and nobody was permitted to disobey his instructions, not even the real master of the house. Some cathedral choirs appointed a ‘boy bishop’ as their Lord of Misrule. The ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia had similar customs. The Wren Boy tradition almost died out in Ireland because it got out of hand. Except in the extreme south west (West Cork and Kerry), but it is now being revised in parts of Dublin and elsewhere. The good news is that the ‘wren’ used today is a fake bird, or maybe even a toy, and the ‘Boys’ (grown men, mostly) usually perform a song or dance and collect money for charity (there’s that theme again!).

Christmas market Cork

The Glow Christmas Market in Cork – a new ‘tradition’. We borrowed this from the Germans…just like our Christmas trees!

Like everybody else, we have a the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and the presents and Santa (or Santy, as he is often called here in Ireland – it’s a diminutive). But the list I’ve given above is my twelve traditions of the Irish Christmas.  It’s good to see new ‘customs being added to the list. And they say tradition is dead? Not in Ireland, at Christmas!

A Happy Christmas to you and your nearest and dearest!

The Winter Solstice and Newgrange – a new old approach to Christmas in Ireland

Newgrange about 1880

The entrance to Newgrange about 1880 – not a ‘window’ to be seen.

Some people in Ireland start their Christmas celebrations with an ancient pagan ceremony – if they can get tickets!

Over five thousand years ago the inhabitants of the Boyne Valley in modern County Meath built a great passage tomb to contain the bones of their ancestors.  Curiously the remains of just five individuals were found inside the burial chamber when it was excavated by Professor Michael J Kelly in the 1960s.  Perhaps these individuals were especially significant to the community that built Newgrange and the mound was actually a temple to the ancestors. During the excavation, Kelly and his team made a bizarre discovery. There was an unusual ‘window’ over the entrance to the tomb and they speculated what its purpose was.  Suspicion fell on the alignment of the ‘window,’ or lightbox, as it is now called.  It seemed to be facing the direction of sunrise on the winter solstice.  There really was only one way to test it…..

Newgrange entrance

The reconstructed entrance to Newgrange, with the lightbox above the doorway. The superbly carved stone can be seen in the previous image from the 1880s.

On December 21st 1967, Professor Kelly and some colleagues were the first people in modern times to witness the sunlight enter the lightbox and illuminate the entire interior of the tomb right to the very back of the passage.  The whole event lasted just seventeen minutes but it confirmed the extraordinary skills available in Ireland five thousand years ago.  More recently it has been noted that the Newgrange alignment with the solstice sunrise appears to be more precise than similar alignments elsewhere, such as at Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands.  Our ancestors valued this moment because it marked the turning point of the year and the assurance that spring was not far off.

Newgrange Solstice

A five thousand year old phenomenon restored – the light entering the passage at Newgrange at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Clearly our ancestors valued the winter solstice.  The reason is not difficult to discern – they were farmers and the solstice marked the point of the year when the sun stopped slipping further and further down towards the southern horizon with each passing day.  It would now begin to climb higher in the sky.  This heralded the promise of spring and the new season for planting crops. Today the winter solstice in Ireland gives us a bare seven and a half hours of daylight!  So the increasing brightness and (hopefully) warmth of the sun is still a welcome sight.

Today, if you are lucky, you can enter a lottery to obtain tickets from the Office of Public Works Heritage Service to enter the passage at Newgrange before sunrise on 21st December and wait expectantly for the eerie and spectacular event.  The space inside the passage is very limited so only a small number of people are admitted on the winter solstice.

Back when it was built, the light entered the lightbox at Newgrange at exactly sunrise, but today, because of a wobble in the earth’s axis (called precession), the sunlight enters about four minutes after sunrise.  The whole phenomenon is fraught because the weather in Ireland does not always guarantee a clear sunny morning – cloud does obscure the whole sky in some years.  However the phenomenon is so popular that large crowds gather outside the mound to witness the sunrise.  When you live this far north of the Equator, the assurance that the sun has stopped sliding towards the southern horizon is something we look forward to!  The Newgrange experience is now part of the run-up to Christmas for many people in twenty-first century Ireland.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!

A celebration in Longford – with a Midleton link.

Longford Cathedral Fire

St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, burned down on Christmas Day 2009.  The cathedral’s museum was located in the former presbytery built into the back of the structure (on the right side of the photo).

In the early hours of Christmas morning 2009 the people of Longford woke to the horrific sight of their cathedral on fire.  They had celebrated Midnight Mass just a few hours before in the grandest building in the town, and now it was violently consumed by flames which left the building a gutted shell by daybreak.

Longford Cathedral Fire 3

Not the famous Roman basilica of Leptis Magna in Libya, but the devastated interior of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford. The heat from the fire was so great that the blue limestone columns seen here were structurally weakened and every single one of them had to be replaced!

Apart from the loss of the liturgical space, Longford also lost its important diocesan museum which was located in the former presbytery.  Such diocesan museums are an extreme rarity in Ireland.  The presbytery was built into the back of the structure according to the original plans.  Among the treasures damaged and there were items of national importance – the so-called ‘crozier of St Mel’ and the Shrine of St Caillin.  The thousand year old crozier was severely damaged but the Shrine of St Cailin survived despite considerable damage.  The collection of historic vestments was completely lost. For genealogists, there is some relief in that although the old church records were destroyed, they have been microfilmed.

St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford was begun in 1840 under the direction of Bishop William O’Higgins.  It was designed by John Benjamin Keane, a Dublin-born architect who had worked as an assistant to Richard Morrison.  Morrison’s father, John Morrison, also an architect, was based in Midleton in the 1770s and 1780s.  But that’s not the real Midleton connection with St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.  (Note: John B Keane is the name given by the Irish Architectural Archive, but recent news reports give the name as Joseph B Keane!  I’ll stick with the IAA version until I am reliably corrected!  And, no, I’m not aware of any family connection between the architect and the more recent Listowel publican and author, John B Keane.)

Anyone who knows their Irish history will be aware that 1840 was not the most auspicious timing for starting such a large project, much of it financed by the pennies of the poor.  From the autumn of 1845 to 1850 Ireland was stricken by the Great Famine caused by widespread potato blight, and the money for building the cathedral was diverted to more urgent causes.  Once the famine ended, the work resumed, but Keane had long left the scene and died in debt in 1859.  His successors included John Bourke who designed the cathedral’s belfry that has presided over over the town since 1860.

Longford Cathedral

The pride of the Irish midlands, Longford Cathedral took from the 1840s to the 1890s to complete. The tower was added in 1860, and Ashlin’s grand portico was added thirty years later.

Then in the 1880s it was decided to embellish the rather plain front, and the architect of the fine portico was none other than George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921). From 1888 to 1893 the portico was built and some interior furnishings such as altars were designed and supervised by Ashlin. This is where the Midleton connection comes in.  Ashlin was the third son of John Musson Ashlin JP (of Rush Hill, Wandsworth, Surrey, England) and Dorinda Coppinger, who came from Carrigrenane House in, Little Island near Glounthaune, County Cork.  Sadly this house no longer exists.  Dorinda was part of a clan of very influential Catholics who supplied a Bishop of Cloyne in the person of William Coppinger, and the curate of Midleton, Stephen Coppinger, who introduced the Presentation Sisters to the town.  And, yes, Dorinda Coppinger was related to the Joseph Coppinger discussed in a previous post.

George Coppinger Ashlin

George Coppinger Ashlin (1838-1921), Augustus Pugin’s son-in-law, and prolific church architect, had a brother living in Midleton. George went on to design two prominent buildings in the town.

George Ashlin became apprenticed to Edward Pugin, the son of the more celebrated Augustus WN Pugin (the man who designed the interiors of the Palace of Westminster and its clock tower (also popularly called the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben).  Primarily considered an architect of the gothic revival, it turns out that Ashlin was accomplished enough to work in the classical style too.  He went on to become Edward Pugin’s business partner, and even married Edward’s sister, Mary – so he was the son-in-law of the more celebrated Augustus Pugin, who had died in 1852. With Edward Pugin and Thomas Coleman, Ashlin designed St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh (then Queenstown), one of the last sights Irish emigrants saw when they left the country from Cork Harbour.

GC Ashlin’s mother held property in Midleton, where she had several relatives living.  Indeed the Coppingers were the wealthiest Catholics in the town in the early and middle nineteenth century.  Ashlin’s oldest brother was John Coppinger Ashlin, who lived at Castleredmond House on……Ashlin Road (!).  I walked to school along that road every day!  It was these family connections to Midleton that led Ashlin to be commissioned to design Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 1893, and to supervise its construction from 1894 to 1896, and then again when the spire was completed in 1907-1908  Between these dates GC Ashlin designed the finest bank building in Midleton – the redbrick Dutch renaissance style Munster and Leinster Bank, now the Allied Irish Bank at the northern end of Main Street.

Holy Rosary Church Midleton after 1908

Ashlin’s Holy Rosary Church in Midleton, shortly after the completion of the spire in 1908.

Midleton Main Street 1900-1918

Completed in 1902, the Munster and Leinster Bank (on the right) marks the northern end of Midleton’s Main Street. It is a distinctive red brick building in Dutch renaissance style, by George Coppinger Ashlin. Holy Rosary Church overlooks the other end of the street. I can assure you that Main Street is not this quiet today!  The point of grass in the foreground is part of the Goose’s Acre, a plot where the townspeople set their geese out to graze.  The site depicted here is now occupied by the Clonmult Monument designed by the sculptor Seamus Murphy.    

Today, Saturday 20th December 2014 will be long remembered in Longford town as the day the people of the town were allowed to enter and view their newly restored cathedral.  Five years after the fire, the Cathedral of St Mel also saw the celebration of its first Mass.  Although the interior was damaged, Ashlin’s great portico seems to have suffered only minor damage.  It now welcomes the people of Longford back into their resurrected cathedral.

Longford Cathedral Restored

The ‘Longford Phoenix’ after five years of restoration. The interior of St Mel’s Cathedral has been superbly restored and new works of art have been installed.  Prior to the fire the plaster ceiling had been painted in various colours to ‘add interest’ but I think the plain white stucco looks splendid.

 Well done to everyone who contributed to the restoration of the ‘Longford Phoenix!’

Joseph Coppinger ‘of Midleton’ and two American Presidents

Sometimes it really pays to simply snoop around on the web.  And a couple of nights ago I came across something that astonished and surprised me.

The US National Archives has published online four letters from a correspondence between a Joseph Coppinger and President Thomas Jefferson and two letters in a correspondence with President James Madison.  Jefferson and Madison were, of course, two of the Founding Fathers of the United States as well as holding the office of President.  In the notes to the correspondence, Joseph Coppinger is described as having ‘immigrated to the United States in 1802 from Midleton, County Cork, Ireland.’  As you can imagine, this intrigued me and I decided to explore a little further before letting you in on the whole mystery.

Great fire of Pittsburgh 1845

The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in April 1845 destroyed the city that Joseph Coppinger had moved to in 1803. He entered into a partnership to run a brewery there, but did not get on with his business partner, James O’Hara.

The US National Archives commentary says that Joseph Coppinger settled first, for a very short while, in  New York.  Then in 1803 he moved to Pittsburgh where he entered into a partnership with James O’Hara to  set up the O’Hara, Reed and Coppinger Brewery (or the Point Brewery as it later became).  With his twelve years of experience in the business, Coppinger was the master brewer in the firm.  Sadly, issues with his partners and with the brewery’s financial backers led to his resignation and he quit the city and went to Lexington, Kentucky.  After that he went to St Louis (1807), Washington DC and Baltimore (1809), South Carolina, Georgia and New York City (1810).  In 1810 he tried to get James Madison to take an interest in the establishment of a national brewery in Washington DC, seemingly to no avail.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson corresponded with Joseph Coppinger whilst President and later when in retirement in Monticello, Virginia. His advice to Coppinger was always practical.

Joseph Coppinger’s correspondence with President Jefferson (as he then was) began early, in 1802-03.  Coppinger had come up with an invention he wished to patent, but US law required that patents be registered by US citizens and Coppinger wished to know how to go about this.  President Jefferson gave him some straightforward advice – and it was probably cheaper than consulting a lawyer!  Clearly Coppinger became a naturalized US citizen because he went on the patent several devices or inventions of his own design.   These included machines for splitting shingles, planing wood, threshing and cleaning grain, and many others.

James Madison

James Madison was solicited by Joseph Coppinger whilst President with a view to setting up a national brewing company in Washington DC.

Although unsuccessful in his 1810 correspondence with Madison, Joseph Coppinger went on to solicit the retired Thomas Jefferson to take an interest in his ‘national brewery’ project in 1815.  Thomas Jefferson again offered Coppinger some sound advice, but again nothing came of the project.  However, Jefferson WAS interested in a book that Joseph Coppinger was proposing to write on the subject of brewing, which the author hoped would improve the brewing of beer in America, even among the pioneers in the Louisiana Purchase territories.  Jefferson asked Nicholas G Dufief, a French bookseller based in Philadelphia, to acquire Coppinger’s book for him as soon as it was published.

The book eventually surfaced in New York in 1815 where it was published under the title ‘The American Practical Brewer and Tanner.’  Clearly Jefferson’s advice about the practical nature of Americans had struck home, hence the title.

Coppinger Brewing book title

The title page of Joseph Coppinger’s book The American Practical Brewer and Tanner (New York, 1815). The book is still in print as a classic of American brewing literature. This copy was obviously acquired directly from Coppinger in 1820.

Joseph Coppinger finally settled in New York City in 1817, where he published a book on flat roofed buildings and another on Catholic doctrine and principles (presumably to combat any anti-Catholic feelings among the Nativists, a political movement with a strong anti-Catholic stance.   In 1819, he published a book on whiskey distilling. The US National Archives suggests that Coppinger died in New York around 1825.  Needless to say he is unknown in Midleton, but his book on brewing is still considered a classic in brewing circles in the United States.

Coppinger Brewing book

One of the woodcut illustrations from Joseph Coppinger’s book The American Practical Brewer and Tanner.

If you examine Pigot’s ‘Directory of the County and City of Cork’ (1824), you will find a group of Coppingers named as inhabiting or doing business in Middleton (as they still wrote it).  Under the heading of ‘Nobility, Gentlemen & Clergy’, we find Edmund Coppinger, Esq, of Rosmore.  The others are listed as ‘Merchants’. These are John and Joseph Coppinger, brewers and maltsters, and Thomas Stephen Coppinger, merchant.  Now I’ve mentioned John and Joseph Coppinger in the context of brewing in an earlier post.

But I’m baffled by the Joseph Coppinger in the United States.  He clearly had plenty of experience in brewing before he went to Pittsburgh. It is very likely that he acquired this experience in Ireland prior to emigrating to the United States.  So where exactly did he fit in a family that spread from Cork to Midleton?  The answer seems to come in Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland.  If we look at the entry under Coppinger of Midleton, there is no Joseph Coppinger mentioned in the lineage.  But if we look under the entry for the principal stem of the family, we find that Coppinger of Ballyvolane (and Barryscourt!) produced TWO Joseph Coppingers. The first of these was Joseph Coppinger who married a Miss Arthur of Limerick. They had six sons and four daughters.  The sons were: Stephen, William (who became Catholic Bishop of Cloyne), Thomas, Peter, Joseph (our naturalized American) and John (who died in Sainte Croix in the West Indies).

The first Joseph Coppinger, being a third son, is likely to have been the brewer in Midleton in partnership with John Coppinger.  The brewery building still stands but is much altered. The business was sufficiently successful to allow Joseph to have a son educated abroad as a cleric, to give two of his four daughters into good marriages (two others became nuns), and to permit two of his sons to make good marriages.  What is revealed here is the usual pecking order in such families, the eldest son getting the lion’s share and the portions meted out to the rest of the family getting smaller and smaller. it also explains why two sons emigrated.

Old Brewery Midleton

Part of the surviving buildings of Coppinger’s Brewery in Midleton. The business had closed by the early 1840s. Now the premises is divided up into individual business units, such as these restaurants.

So there we have it – Joseph Coppinger of New York almost certainly learned the craft of brewing from his father in the brewery at Midleton.  Isn’t it a pity that Americans don’t have a choice between Budweiser and Coppinger beer?  Perhaps they could buy a copy of the book on the bicentenary of its publication – a nice little gift for Christmas!  Now, if anyone in New York could tell me where Joseph Coppinger was buried, I’d be grateful.

Note: There was another Joseph Coppinger from Midleton in the US about half a century later.  He was Lt Col John Joseph Coppinger of the US Army.  He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery as a hero of the US Civil War.  But that’s another story.

Links: The US National Archives has the following link to items pertaining to Joseph Coppinger and his correspondence with Jefferson and Madison:

Joseph Coppingers book The American Practical Brewer and Tanner can be bought:

Midleton’s Brodrick Street gets a History Board

Brodrick street c1900

Brodrick Street, Midleton, also called Coolbawn by the locals, seems to have been laid out around 1800. The fine terrace of five late Georgian town houses were owned by the Callaghan family in the first half of the nineteenth century. The second house from the right is now undergoing restoration. This photo was taken sometime between 1900 and 1918 and is the view eastwards towards the Main Street. The view is somewhat more cluttered now, with electric cables and buildings closing the view on Main Street. The motor car was a rarity at the time, but the more common ‘car’ is the tipped up covered jaunting car seen in the distance. I love the way the motor car has complete freedom to drive in the middle of the roadway!

Please note:  I just did a quick update on this post by including the early twentieth century photo from the National Library of Ireland’s collection.

On the very sunny morning of Friday 5th December 2014 I joined Monica and Tony Moore for a press photocall at our new history board recently set up in Brodrick Street, Midleton.  The Moores have very kindly sponsored the production of this history board, which originated from an idea proposed by and encouraged by Anne McCarthy, who runs a gift shop on the street.  She really wanted to tell something of the history of the street to go along with the advertising that is so common in Midleton.  Anne told Tony and Monica Moore, who promptly offered to sponsor the history board.  I offered to do the text – which required some research, amendments and corrections until all parties were satisfied.  Mrs Mary Cott and Tony Moore contributed their own knowledge to the research. The photos and text of the history board were published in a local newsheet, Midleton and District News on Wednesday 10th December.

Coolbawn History Board

The Brodrick Street/Coolbawn history board in situ. From left to right are: Monica & Tony Moore, sponsors, and, squinting into the low winter sun, yours truly as the author of the text.  (Photo courtesy of Midleton & District News.)

Brodrick Street is also called Coolbawn by the locals – it must be very confusing if a visitor to the town stops to ask were to find a certain premises and the locals say ‘Coolbawn‘ when the correct address is Brodrick Street!  The title of the history board text was Brodrick Street/Coolbawn: one street two names?  I put forward the idea that the name Coolbawn was original name of the area stretching from the Roxborough River (or Dungourney River) in the south to the wall of St John the Baptist churchyard in the north and from Main Street in the east to the Owenacurra River in the west.  Coolbawn may mean ‘back meadow’ and the area is still liable to flood when the two rivers are high and the winds are right.  The opening of Brodrick Street into this area around 1800 was designed to provide a fine residential address in the middle of the town, as indeed it must have been in the early years.

Brodrick Street overhead full

A relatively short street, Brodrick Street didn’t actually lead anywhere until it was linked to the Bailick Road in the 1890s. The mast is part of the electrical grid system. The Midleton Gasworks were based on Brodrick Street from the 1850s to the 1950s. (Image courtesy of Midleton & District News)

One of the families associated with the street were the Callaghans – the descendants of a successful woolen draper, Mathias Callaghan, and his wife, Charlotte Fitzgerald, who married in 1815.  They had some thirteen or fourteen children, the eldest of whom, John Callaghan, became a major figure in the commercial life of Midleton.  The construction of the terrace of five late Georgian town houses is attributed to him by some authors.  However, although he was the immediate lessor of nine properties on the street in Griffith’s Valuation (1840s -1850s), it is not confirmed that he or his father built these.  Certainly the last of John Callaghan’s descendants to live on the street, Richard John, died in 1935 and the house was sold to the Coffey family, members of the biggest building firm in the town.

The firm of JJ Coffey & Sons operated from Brodrick Street in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  This firm built much of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Midleton, their masterpiece being the large Holy Rosary Catholic Church (1894-96).  They also built the spire of Holy Rosary Church in 1907-08.  I have reason to believe that my great grandfather worked for JJ Coffey as a stone cutter.  One of his descendants still lives in the house purchased after the death of Richard John Callaghan in 1935.

Brodrick Street overhead

The terrace of five late Georgian town houses is still inhabited, with the fourth house getting a much needed restoration. The small two story house next to the terrace was a local ‘taxi’ service (pony and trap) before motor cars became commonplace. This photo is taken from the multi-story carpark located behind Pugin’s pair of houses! (Image courtesy of Midleton & District News)

Another family that flourished on Brodrick Street were the Moores.  Two entrepreneurial sisters, Marie and Nora Moore ran a paid parking garage for bicycles and motorbikes next to the cinema during the 1950s.  For good measure, the Moore sisters also ran a sweet shop to satisfy the cravings of cinema patrons.   But more seriously the two ladies also stored coal (brought up by horse and cart from the port at Ballinacurra via the Bailick road) and raw wool from Australia for the Midleton Worsted Woolen Mills.  And they say that Irish women were repressed in the 1950s!  Not these two!

Sadly, I was obliged to be suggestive rather than totally prescriptive in my text for the history board, because, despite the valiant work of a very few individuals, the full history of Midleton has not yet been properly researched and published.   Hopefully the Brodrick Street history board (and the publicity about it!) will get people interested and we’ll be able to put up more such boards around Midleton.  Maybe then the demand for an accessible history publication will generate the momentum for research.  Signs are hopeful since I’ve had one comment about the history board – ‘I never knew there was so much history on the Coolbawn!’

I would like to thank Anne McCarthy for proposing the idea, Monica and Tony Moore for sponsoring the history board (and sharing some memories of the street),  Mrs Mary Cott for sharing her memories of the street – and showing me the original photograph of her formidable grandfather, the builder JJ Coffey.  Furthermore I should record my thanks to Ms Becky Grice at Midleton & District News for the publicity and for the images shown on this post. 


Midleton – why only one ‘d’?

One of the matters discussed by John Fenton during his lecture on Thursday night last was the spelling of the name of MIDLETON – why only one ‘d’?  The solution is remarkably recent – and not as obvious as might first appear.

If you do an internet search for towns called Middleton or Middletown, you will get a nice long list of towns located mostly in England, the United States, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries, usually former British colonies.

Here in Ireland we have Middleton in County Armagh.  But until the 1840s there was a Middleton in County Cork.  In 1685, Sir Richard Cox wrote a manuscript account of the county of Cork for the benefit of William Molyneaux who intended to publish a modern description of the whole of Ireland.  He calls the town Midleton – the date of this account is important, for the town was only named in 1670.  Dr Charles Smith, in The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork (vol 1, 1750), calls the place Middletown!  A slight variation of this name, Middle Town, is also used by John Rocque in his Map of the Kingdom of Ireland (1760).  Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) calls it Midleton.  The Ordnance Survey’s first edition map (c.1840) names the town as Middleton, and this is repeated in the second edition of c.1897.  So which is it?  Middleton or Midleton?

The source of the town’s name lies in the Charter of Incorporation issued by King Charles II in 1670.  But, sadly, the original charter document with its florid writing and royal seal does not survive.  What does survive is a leather-bound manuscript verbatim copy completed by the Rev. Verney Lovett on Saturday, 7th February, 1784. The embossed cover states that it contains the Charter of Middleton.  Two ‘d’s.  But the text of the charter on the inside starts off using the spelling ‘Midleton‘ – only ONE ‘d’.  The pages towards the end of the document spell the name ‘Middleton‘ – TWO ‘d’s!   But we must make allowance for seventeenth century spelling – you pretty much made it up as you went along and only in a Latin text did you dare to employ consistency of spelling! The text of the Charter of Midleton was in English.  Bizarrely, Samuel Lewis (see above) illustrated his account of the town with an engraving of the seal of the corporation, and the seal itself contained an original inscription which read Corporation of Middleton 1670.

When Sir Alan Brodrick was made Baron Brodrick of Midleton in 1715, the title employed only ONE ‘d’ in the town’s name.  Then he was promoted to Viscount Midleton in 1717, and the name of the town was still given with one ‘d’. Consistency had arrived at last, but only for the title in the peerage!

The matter of the town’s name was resolved, at least for the Post Office, by George Alan Brodrick, 5th Viscount Midleton (of Midleton in County Cork), in a correspondence with the Postmaster General in London on March 12th 1845.  Lord Midleton commented that there was some confusion in the delivery of letters to the correct destination (presumably letters to Middleton in Armagh or Middleton near Birmingham in England were misdirected.  The local historian Richard Henchion states that a letter addressed to someone in Middleton in County Cork was forwarded by the postmaster in that same post office to his colleagues in Middleton near Birmingham in England. That post office sent it back with the comment – ‘This is for YOUR office.‘  And they were right!  I do wonder if this misdirected latter was actually addressed to Lord Midleton himself, for there was also a Lord Middleton with a seat at Middleton, Warwickshire, England!  In his letter, Lord Midleton admitted that there would be some expense in getting the steel stamps changed for Midleton Post Office, and was prepared to accept this as a valid excuse for not changing the name.

(I suspect that Lord Midleton didn’t refer back to the charter of 1670, perhaps he was aware of the variable spelling in that document.)

The Postmaster General’s reply was written on 26th March, 1845.  He said he had looked up the title of his correspondent and found that he was the ‘Viscount Midleton of Midleton in the County of Cork!’  He directed that the spelling on the stamps be changed to MIDLETON to avoid further confusion.  So it was Viscount Midleton’s title in the peerage that confirmed the name of the town – Midleton with ONE ‘d’!    So, by direction of the Postmaster General in London we have our name spelled as it is today!  The new spelling of MIDLETON didn’t catch on for several years, but now it is clearly fixed. And no, we’re NOT changing it!


Another anniversary: the Burning of Cork City, 1920.

On the morning of 12th December 1920, the people of Cork woke up to the sight and smell of smoke.  A large part of Patrick Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, was gone.  The City Hall was a burned out shell, and even the city’s Carnegie Library was destroyed.  Several acres of the city had been deliberately  set alight during the night.

The culprits were British forces based in Cork.  The Auxiliaries (men brought in from Britain to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary) the Black and Tans, and even, it is alleged, regular British troops had run amok and torched or blew up selected premises in the city to teach the inhabitants a lesson.

The trouble had been brewing for over a year.  From November 1919 the IRA had been conducting a guerilla campaign against Crown forces in Ireland, with the county of Cork being at the heart of the action.  On 28th November 1920 the IRA had ambushed a column of Auxiliaries near Kilmichael.  Seventeen auxiliaries were killed in the ambush – the single biggest loss of life sustained by the British since the start of the war.  On 10th December, martial law was imposed on county Cork, and a curfew was declared in Cork city from 10.00pm each night.

On 10th December the IRA ambushed a regular convoy of Auxiliaries who had just left Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) with the intention of killing or capturing the intelligence officer, Captain James Kelly.  The ambush was successful but it angered the Auxiliaries because it happened so close to the barracks.

Patrick Street early 1900s

Patrick Street in the years before the Great War. Despite the trams, it was still partially paved with wooden setts (cobbles). Victoria Barracks was located over the crest of the hill in the background.

Later that night groups of Auxiliaries, Black and Tans, and even regular troops went into the city center (remember, it was under curfew) and began to mine and burn premises on Patrick Street, especially the three major department stores of Roches, Cash’s and Grant’s.   The troops also burned down City Hall, and, for good measure, the Carnegie Library next door.

Cork City Hall (old)

Old City Hall in Cork, set alight by Crown forces in December 1920.

It is reliably reported that the troops threatened and shot at the fire brigade as the tenders tried to dowse the flames.  Indeed, they even cut the fire hoses to prevent the firemen bringing any fires under control.  The city’s fire chief had to send messages to other towns for assistance.  Dublin Fire Brigade even loaded a fire-tender on a train to assist their colleagues in Cork.  The fact that many of the St Patrick’s Street had wooden setts (cobbles) could have proved disastrous for if they had caught fire the conflagration could have spread even further afield.


Ruins of burned out businesses on Patrick Street. Citizens of Cork woke to this sight on 12th December 1920.



A few days after the burning, Patrick Street looked like a war damaged town on the Western Front.

The next morning revealed an appalling scene on Patrick Street – it looked like the town had endured the horrors of bombardment on the Western Front in the recent Great War.  Some five acres of the city center had been burned out. Over forty businesses and some 300 residential properties had been destroyed. Many people were left homeless and 2,000 people were left unemployed, just weeks before Christmas. Many of the city’s trams had also been damaged or destroyed. The loss of stock was never properly quantified but the loss of property was calculated at £3,000,000, a huge sum at the time.  Fortunately few lives were lost – despite houses being torched while the inhabitants were still inside – two IRA volunteers had been shot dead and a woman had a fatal heart attack when the Auxiliaries burst into her home.

Burnt out city hall Cork

The burned out shell of the old Cork City Hall.

Even worse for the historian and genealogist was the loss of the city’s historic records, a loss comparable only to the loss of the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922.

Carnegie Library Cork

Cork’s Carnegie Library before the fire. This stood next to the City Hall and housed some of the city’s historic records. It was never rebuilt.

The British authorities in the person of Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, denied that any crown forces were involved.  He actually blamed the IRA! However, in January 1921 the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress published a report to refute this.  It was written by Alfred O’Rahilly, the President of University College Cork, and drew on hundreds of eyewitness testimonies which showed clearly that Crown forces had indeed committed the crime.

It took many years to make good the damage of December 1920.  Patrick Street’s department stores were rebuilt in a much grander style, do doubt taking inspiration from the splendid rebuilding of O’Connell Street in Dublin, which had been wrecked during the Easter Rising of 1916.  A splendid new City Hall replaced the burned out ruins of the old city hall, opening in 1936.

Cork City Hall (new)

Cork City Hall, opened in 1936 to replace the building burned in December 1920. Ironically it is built in the style of neo-classicism used by the British to build the last of their grand buildings in Ireland.

Despite the events of December 1920, Cork was the only city in Ireland deemed safe enough for Queen Elizabeth to conduct a public walkabout during her visit to Ireland in 2013!

I wonder how many citizens of Cork will recall this particular anniversary on 11th and 12th of December?

The Sale of Midleton Town announced 50 years ago.

On 10th December 1964, the Cork law firm of Wm Montgomery & Sons announced that the second Earl of Midleton was putting his entire estate in that town up for sale, with a preference to having it purchased by an Irish buyer.  The news became public in Midleton on 11th December – and you can imagine the impact, not just in Midleton.

Midleton in early 1900s

Plenty of cars – but no motorcars! Main Street, Midleton, around 1900.

The idea that a whole town in Ireland would still be ‘owned’ by an English landlord went down very badly.  But people in Midleton had been paying ground rents and leases to Lord Midleton since his ancestors bought the town when it was offered for sale by the Encumbered Estates Court in the 1850s.  The 5th Viscount had committed suicide in 1848 and left estate in serious debt, and the inheritance in some disarray.  Eventually the Irish estate was split and parts were sold off, with the descendants of Charles Brodrick, Archbishop of Cashel, purchasing the portion that included the town of Midleton.  This branch of the family had inherited the title Viscount Midleton on the death of the 5th Viscount and they felt that the title was meaningless without possession of the town.

The first Earl of Midleton died in 1942, and his son sold up the estate at Peper Harrow in Surrey and decamped to the tax-friendly environs of Jersey.  With no direct heir, he decided to sell up the last of his Irish holdings in 1964.  The plan was to auction off the holdings in the early spring of 1965.  The Earl had hoped that the housholders would buy the freehold of their properties and thus become free of ground rent.

What exactly was on offer?  Nothing less than 300 houses, 100 acres of land, and the ground rents of almost all the urban area of Midleton!  Even Midleton College, founded in 1696, only held the freehold of its original buildings and one acre of land – it still paid rents on its playing fields!  Admittedly ground rents were fairly nominal, but for people on low incomes they were a cost.

But on the 9th of February, the inhabitants of Midleton discovered that the entire Midleton estate had been bought as a single lot by a newly formed group of Cork businessmen calling themselves The Midleton Estate Company Ltd.  This further upset the locals who simply didn’t have a chance to buy the freehold of their properties.

Thus began a two year battle by the inhabitants of Midleton to acquire the actual ownership of their town.  The former Cork hurler and native of Midleton, John Fenton, completed an MA in Local History on this topic and has since published a book describing the whole affair.

Fenton Book

A celebrated piece of controversial modern history in Midleton.

Tomorrow night, 11th December, to mark the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the sale of Midleton, John will give a lecture entitled ‘When Midleton Town was sold‘ in the GAA Hall in Midleton at 8.00pm.  This is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the sale, and to raise funds for the Irish Kidney Association.  I’m looking forward to it.