This Week in the History of the Irish: December 18 - December 25

DOMHNAIGH -- On December 19, 1877, Land League organizer Michael Davitt was released from Dartmoor Prison. Davitt, revolutionary and agrarian agitator, was born in Straide, County Mayo. Davitt's family was evicted from their small farm when he was just a boy. After they emigrated to England, Davitt lost his right arm at the age of 11 while working in a cotton mill.

(Left: Michael Davitt (Note the empty right sleeve.)

He joined the Fenians in the 1860s. On February 11, 1867, he participated in their raid on Chester Castle. Through the late 1860s, he was one of the chief arms procurers for the Fenians until his arrest and conviction in 1870. Davitt served a typically brutal jail sentence. After his release in 1877, he began what would be his life's work, agrarian agitation. After a stay in the United States, where he met revolutionary John Devoy, Davitt returned to Mayo and became involved in the local land agitation there. This activity led to the formation of the Land League in 1879, using funds raised by John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the United States, and allied with Charles Stewart Parnell. This organization forced many reforms in the corrupt Irish landlord system and would result in Davitt serving a number of short jail sentences, courtesy of Her Majesty's government. Davitt was a member of Parliament for a time in the 1890s but resigned in protest against the Boer War. Michael Davitt died in Dublin on May 31, 1906.

LUAIN -- On December 20, 1865Maud Gonne was born in Aldershot, England. Her father was a wealthy British army colonel of Irish descent and her mother was English. Her mother died in 1871, and Maud was educated in France by a governess before moving to Dublin in 1882 when her father was posted there. Maud's father died in 1886, leaving her financially independent. While living in Paris, Maud was introduced to Fenianism by John "Pagan" O'Leary, a veteran of the 1848 Young Irelander uprising. In 1889, John O'Leary would also introduce Maud to a man whose infatuation with her would last most of his life: poet William Butler Yeats. Through the 1890s, Gonne began to work for the cause of Irish independence and was involved in the protests against the Boer War.

(Right: Portrait of Maud Gonne by Sara Purser-Hugh.)

In 1900, she married a veteran of the fight against the British there, Major John MacBride. Gonne continued to write and agitate for the republican cause through the 1916 Rising, during which her by-then estranged husband was executed. She was jailed as part of the "German Plot" that the British used to discredit the Irish anti-conscription movement in 1918. Gonne was interned at Holloway Jail for six months along with Kathleen Clarke, Constance Markievicz, and others. She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, causing her to later be jailed by the Free State government, but her immediate initiation of a hunger strike had her released in just 20 days. Maud stayed politically active until the end of her life. In 1938, she published "A Servant of the Queen," a biography of her life up to 1903. Gonne died on April 27, 1953, but her influence on Ireland and the world continued after her death through her son, Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride.

AOINE -- On December 24, 1601, Hugh O'Neill and his Spanish and Irish allies were defeated by the English at the Battle of Kinsale, one of the most important battles in Irish history. With the able assistance of his main ally, "Red" Hugh O'Donnell, O'Neill was fighting to defend Gaelic Ireland against the forces of Elizabeth I of England. For several years they had held the English at bay from the strongholds in Ulster, beating them at Yellow Ford in 1598 and Moyry Pass in 1600. But if they were ever going to drive the English back across the Irish Sea, they were going to have to come out from the hills and passes and meet them in open battle. In 1601 that day of reckoning came, as O'Neill's Spanish allies arrived in Ireland. They arrived in Kinsale on September 21, 13 miles south of Cork, which is not where O'Neill would have hoped. He had sent a message asking them to land further north, so they might join forces and march against the English, but that message either never arrived or arrived too late. Now O'Neill and O'Donnell faced a long march to join with their allies, and the English were much closer to Kinsale than they. Before the Irish could get there, Mountjoy's army had laid siege to the Spaniards at Kinsale. To leave their northern strongholds held many dangers for the Irish chieftains, but leave they did, moving down through the whole length of Ireland to put the future of Gaelic Ireland to the test on the battlefield. On the morning of the 24th, O'Neill moved to attack Mountjoy's army. There was no coordination between O'Neill's army and the Spanish in Kinsale, under Don Juan del Aguila. The Spaniards made no attempt to either attack in force or even create a diversion. O'Neill's army, especially his cavalry, which performed badly, was not ready to meet the English in this sort of combat. The critical battle of the Nine Years War had been lost. In a few years O'Donnell would be dead, O'Neill in exile on the continent, and the power of the Gaelic chiefs in Ireland would be a thing of the past.

SATHAIRN -- On Dec. 25, 1808, Stephen Clegg Rowan who would serve in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and later be promoted to admiral, was born in Dublin. Rowan immigrated to America with his family in 1818, settling in Ohio. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1826, and by 1837 he had been promoted to Lieutenant. Rowan served as the executive officer on the Cyane, off the coast of California during the Mexican War.

(Right: Library of Congress - Commodore Stephen Rowan.)

He commanded several detachments of sailors and marines in shore actions, including the recapture of Los Angeles. Rowan was in command of the Pawnee at the beginning of the Civil War and was credited with directing the first naval shot of the war during the efforts to end the Confederate blockade of the Potomac River. He also commanded the first amphibious assault of the war, which captured Alexandria, Virginia. Rowan commanded a squadron during Gen. Ambrose Burnside 's operations in North Carolina, during the capture of Roanoke Island. By mid-July 1862, he was promoted to Commodore. During operations against Charleston in 1863, his ship, New Ironsides, was hit over 150 times. For much of 1864, Rowan commanded all naval forces in North Carolina. When the war ended, Rowan's career in the Navy continued to flourish; he was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1866 and Vice-Admiral in 1870. He retired from the navy in 1889 and died near Washington, D.C. in 1890.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth

SATHAIRN -- On December 25, 1832, Thomas A. Smyth, one of the finest Irish-born Union generals of the American Civil War, was born in Ballyhooley, Co. Cork. Smyth worked on his father's farm in Ireland until 1854, when he immigrated to the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. He worked in his uncle's carriage business for a while but the young man's thirst for adventure led him to join in William Walker's revolutionary excursion into Nicaragua. He survived that escapade and returned to the U.S., moving to Delaware and once again working for his uncle. When rebels fired on Fort Sumter, Smyth did not hesitate -- he raised a company that joined the Irish 24th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The regiment saw little action, and when the regiment mustered out after 3-months, Smyth was not satisfied that he had yet done his part in the war. He got an appointment as a major in the newly formed 1st Delaware Volunteer Infantry. The 1st Delaware would eventually join the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, arguably the hardest fighting corps in that army's history. The 1st was mauled at Antietam on September 17, 1862, suffering 30% casualties. In December, Smyth became Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, and in February 1863 he took command as colonel. Smyth's regiment fought in all the major battles of the Army of the Potomac in 1863, and at Gettysburg, Smyth commanded a brigade. In February 1864, Smyth was given command of the famous Irish Brigade in the absence of Col. Richard Byrnes.

Byrnes returned in May and Smyth moved to command of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Corps, but during his command of the Brigade, he won the admiration and respect of many in its ranks. Smyth finally got a long-deserved star in September, as he was promoted to Brigadier General for his gallant performance at Cold Harbor. During the Petersburg campaign, Smyth was in command of a division at various times through the final days of the Appomattox Campaign, including April 7, 1865, at the battle of Farmville. During the fight, Smyth was shot through the mouth by a Confederate sniper. Smyth held on for two days, finally dying on April 9, the same day Lee surrendered. He was the third officer who had commanded the Irish Brigade to die in combat. An Irish enlisted man had been the first soldier killed in the Civil War and Irish-born Thomas Alfred Smyth was the last Union general killed during that long, bitter struggle. Truly the Irish had given the last full measure of devotion to their adopted land.


Trinity College, Dublin
An Irish knight from the time of O'Neill and O'Donnell.

'If the nationalists want me [the Irish farmer] to believe in and labor a little for independence, they must first show themselves willing and strong enough to stand between me and the power which a single Englishman, a landlord, wields over me.'
          -- Michael Davitt, giving voice to the attitude of the small Irish farmer toward Irish independence, December 1878

How many loved your movements of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled.
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

                   -- From "When You Are Old," a poem by William Butler Yeats, referring to Gonne

Will you come again, O Hugh, in all your olden power,
In all the strength and skill we knew, with Rory, in that hour
When the sword leaps from its scabbard, and the night hath passed away,
And Banba's battle-cry rings loud at dawning of the day?

        -- From 'The Princes of the North' by Ethna Carberry.

No coward in the ranks is seen,
When gallant Smythe (sic) appears,
Men kindle at his voice and mien,
And move on with gay cheer.
Smyth's spirit moves the glowing mass,
Deeds past their power to do;
Yet while such things you bring to pass,
There's not a star for you, Tom Smyth,
There's not a star for you!

        -- From "There's not a star for you, Tom Smythe" by Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, the poet laureate of the Irish Brigade, written before Smyth finally got that star. Apparently, Reynolds did not know the correct spelling of Smyth's name.

December - Nollaig


20, 1865 - Maud Gonne MacBride (Revolutionary - Aldershot, England)
22, 1862
 - Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy (“Connie Mac,” American professional baseball player, manager, and team owner - East Brookfield, Massachusetts)
22, 1879 - Lucy Burns (Woman’s rights advocate – Brooklyn, NY)
25, 1808 - Stephen Rowan (USN Admiral - US Civil War - Dublin.)
25, 1820 - Thomas Sweeny (Union General - Co. Cork)
25, 1829 Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (Bandmaster, Co. Dublin.)
25, 1832 - Thomas Smyth (Union General - Ballyhooley, Co. Cork)
25, 1844 - Rev. Rev William Steel Dickson (Presbyterian minister, United Irishmen supporter - Ballycraigy, Co Antrim)
25, 1844 - Jennie Hodgers (As Albert Cashier she served as a Union soldier in US Civil War - Belfast)


19, 1803 - Count Philip George Browne, general in the Austrian army, son of Field Marshal Browne, dies in Hubertusburg.
19, 1877 - Land League organizer Michael Davitt is released from Dartmoor Prison.

21, 1919
 - Eamon de Valera as President of Ireland at the first meeting of the Dáil Éireann.
21, 1940
 - Author F Scott Fitzgerald dies of a heart attack at the age of forty-four.
22, 1691
 - Patrick Sarsfield and 'The Wild Geese" sail out of Cork harbor for France.
22-7, 1796-97 - French invasion fleet, with troops and Tone on board, in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork; landing prevented by bad weather.
22, 1944 - At Bastogne, Belgium during WWII's "Battle of the Bulge," Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe of the U.S. 101st Airborne gives the Germans his famous "Nuts!" reply to their demand for his surrender.
23,1688 - James II flees England for France.
23, 1920 - The British Parliament passes the Government of Ireland Act, which would be used to establish the 6 county parliament at Stormont.
24, 1591 - 'Red' Hugh O'Donnell escapes from Dublin Castle.
24, 1601 - Battle of Kinsale.
24, 1691 - Act of British Parliament bars Catholics from public office in Ireland.
24, 1889 - Capt. William O'Shea files for divorce, naming Parnell as co-respondent.
25, 1824 - William Lawless, United Irishmen and officer in Napoleon's Irish Legion, dies in Paris.
25, 1916 - Irish prisoners interned at Frongoch are released.
25, 1920 - Major John McKinnon, commander of H Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC kills Irish Volunteers John Leen & Maurice Reidy in Ballymacelligott, Co. Kerry.

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Tags: American Civil War, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, On This Day, United States


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