Category Archives: History

Sixty-seven years

Very few dates stick in my ever decaying memory. But I know where I spent much of the day on 2nd June, 1953.

The story starts much further back. By my calculation in the late 1920s.

Two young demoiselles — let’s call them Betha and Mollie —  took the train each morning to Fakenham Grammar School. They looked forward to Monday mornings when a certain Harold Davidson would travel on that early morning train, and do their Maths homework for them. Harold Davidson? Ought to ring a church bell as the infamous (and arguably unfairly so) Rector of Stiffkey.

Betha and Mollie grew up, but remained friends. One became a midwife in London, and later my mother.

The other, once a Miss Fickling, later Mrs Marshall, continued to live at the family pub, the Carpenter’s Arms in Wighton.

So, on Coronation Day, 1953, I was with the Marshalls at the Carpenters Arms, where they had one of these new-fangled television receivers. Black-and-White, of course, very grainy and distinctly iffy — the East Anglian transmitter at Talcolneston (phonetically ‘Tacklestun’) didn’t come into service until the following year.

And that’s how I come to remember Coronation Day, 1953, Tuesday 2nd June, 1953.

The Carpenters Arms still survives and — despite rapacious brewers — prospers, more of a gastro-pub (but that reflects the change of population). For many years it was closed. Then it reopened under an assumed name, The Sandpipers, or something similarly fanciful. I’ll remember it when the choctaw bars, recently ‘off ration’, stood beside the till.


Filed under History, Norfolk, Wells-next-the-Sea

Good old-fashioned gush …

BBC1 News was doing a piece on do-it-yourself dentistry. And I’m profoundly squeamish.

A flick of the controller brought up Film4: The Way to the Stars. Just in time to get John Mills reading John Pudney:

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

A tear-jerker, undoubtedly. But put it in its proper context — a context shared by the film itself. The film’s release date was June 1945, so the context of a bomber station ‘somewhere in England’ (in fact, North Yorkshire)  was already — just — historical. We therefore need to read it as post-War and compensatory.

The Pudney lines are not great literature. Yet they survived for many years and through the 1950s as unavoidable ‘modern poetry’ in school anthologies. They are easily-memorable. For those of us of a certain generation (i.e. currently perch-dropping-off) they are indelible.

Equally, one can see why the film didn’t made any impression in America. It’s just a trifle the wrong side of plucky Brits teaching the raw Yanks how to behave properly.

Zeitgeist is all

The script of the film came from Terence Rattigan, and owes something to his Flare Path of 1942. We got to see the 2011 revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Sheridan Smith doing the business as Doris, Countess Skriczevinsky.

Those who say The Way to the Stars is merely a filming of Flare Path are mistaken. The mood, and contexts are three years and many mind-shifts apart. The casual opinion also ignores the considerable input of and script-doctoring by Anatole de Grunwald (who pointedly chose the title theme from The Way to the Stars for his Desert Island Discs favourite).

In passing, the National Theatre Live production of James Graham’s This House (this week on YouTube) has a moment when the young Tory Whip is put in his place by the Old Buffer over the small matter of “Which War?” We have, after all, had so many.

Focus, then, on that 1945 moment

By now the spirit is ‘the boys coming home’, even ‘time to get over it’. Certainly, ‘console those who need it … but renew, re-build’.

Suddenly Hope (and certainly Crosby) is in the air. Just as 1943 had been, for the US audience, Jimmy McHugh/Harold Adams:

Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer
With our full crew on board
And our trust in the Lord
We’re comin’ in on a wing and a prayer

So, by December 1944,  it’s Don’t Fence Me In:

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences,
Gaze at the moon until I lose my senses,
Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences —
Don’t fence me in.

Though the notion of urbane Cole Porter celebrating rawhide and buckskin stretches the envelope.


Filed under Cole Porter, films, History, Terence Rattigan, Theatre, World War 2

Dark deeds by a dark daughter

Over on there has emerged a thread about an excavation at Valladolid. The original story appeared in the Irish Times on Tuesday. I assume the ‘Constitution Street’ of that report is properly Calle Constitución, which runs near the Plaza Mayor and is a premier shopping zone.

It would be no surprise were the remains to be those of Aodh Ruadh/Red Hugh O’Donnell. We know, according to the Four Masters, he was given a royal funeral and interred in the chapter house of the monastery of St Francis.

I’ve never been thoroughly convinced by the romanticising of Aodh Ruadh. He spent four years in Dublin Castle, as a result of a drinking bout and a set-up by Sir John Perrot. He was extracted from that predicament by Hugh O’Neill (a far more impressive character and leader). He got the reversion of the Ó Domhnaill clan largely through the machination of his formidable mother (see below). His control in northern Connacht came about only because of the betrayal of Sligo Castle — and Henry Docwra out of Derry eventually negated that threat. His advance to Kinsale, side-stepping Sir George Carew at Cashel by threading through the Slieve Felim Way, was a smart use of intelligence. Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh blew it at Kinsale: they had the enemies bottled up, sandwiched between the Spanish and the Ulster men, starving, diseased — and they lost all on that dawn assault.

Look to the lady

And so to Finola MacDonnell, a.k.a. Iníon Dubh. She was one of a succession of Highland Scottish ladies who married into the Ulster chiefdoms. The arrangements normally involved a dowry of mercenary light infantrymen, from the McDonnells, McLeods and their septs, — so called ‘redshanks’ from their bare legs blow kilts. These were maintained by the seasonal billeting on the buannacht system. Finola came with her honour guard of a hundred, mainly Crawfords.

There is no coincidence in names here: the Tyrconnell Ó Domhnaill and the Scottish McDonnells were cousins.

Long running animosities between the Ó Domhnaill and the O’Neill clans (we’ll leave that for another day) led to a decisive battle (1567) at Farsetmore, near Letterkenny. The O’Neills, unfortunately, were on unknown territory: they had drawn up along the Swilly, only to find the rising tide had cut off their line of retreat. The Ó Domhnaills sept down, and drove them into the sea. Shane O’Neill had to seek a peace with the Ó Domhnaills, but the Ó Domhnaills decided to remove Shane O’Neill from the equation. At some point in this, the link between Ó Domhnaill and the Scottish McDonnells was renewed.

So, in 1570 young brunette Fionnuala/Finola MacDonnell, the Dark Daughter or Iníon Dubh, was married off to Hugh McManus O’Donnell, the leader at Farsetmore.

Finola was the real power in Tirconnell when Hugh O’Donnell, her husband, went gaga, and before the son, Red Hugh could be extracted from Dublin. She didn’t do too badly in her own right: she arranged the murder of Hugh O’Gallagher (1588) and saw off her step-son by her husband’s first marriage, Donnell O’Donnell (1590). It was her power that delivered Red Hugh’s succession as The O’Donnell.

When Red Hugh took himself off the board to Spain, and Finola must have been into her sixties, she neatly pasted up Niall Garbh O’Donnell in Sir Cahir O’Doherty’s ballsed-up rebellion (1608) — which meant her chief enemy was henceforth immured in the Tower of London.

Her reward for this double-dealing was 600 acres in the plantation of Ulster.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Ireland, Irish Times,

No bigger than a constituent’s hand on the keyboard

There’s a fascinating aspect of the small furore going on in the Tory Party (itself a reflection of a national teeth-grinding outside those hallowed halls).

It’s all the fall-out of the Cummings Affair.

It is generally reported that upwards of forty Tory MPs are now on record to have said the man must go.

If so, we are well into double percentage figures of the 365 Tories returned just last December. The gilt is off the ginger-bread, and the guilt is definitely on. But over a hundred of those 365 have nominal (or better) posts in this government — they are the ‘pay-roll vote’. So far just the one of them, a junior Scottish Office bag-carrier, has jumped ship. At which point we re-calculate and find over 15% of back-bench Tory MPs are none too happy. That proportion will almost certainly escalate rapidly, unless the ship is stabilised — and especially when, next week, the Whips require a show of total loyalty.

So let’s do another calculation, based on no more than historic appreciation and experience.

A couple of days ago, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman did an appreciation of The four Conservative groups that want Dominic Cummings out – and the two that matter. The four are (in my reading and in an unfair gloze of the excellent Bush):

  • the irreconcilable #Brexiteers, the hard men, John Major’s ‘bastards’, the died-in-the-wool and driest Thatcherites, who have soldiered on through one campaign after another, and still dream of seeing a Tory Party fashioned in their uncompromising purity;
  • the Chairs of the parliamentary select committees, who owe their position to the votes of other back-benchers. All have a brilliant future behind them.  But very little else to lose.
  • the men — and it is largely men — elected in 2015 or even 2010, who feel their talent remains unrecognised, and unrewarded. They see less-able types beating them in the cursus honorum, even when — or even because — they lack a Y-chromosome.
  • Prominent among this last group are those who see, and fear the light of the new Starmer dawn. They look at their majority, and wonder …

For many of those, all that glisters is the hope of a knighthood, ‘for public and political services’, at a vanishing point in the futi=ure. Though, that prospect might —just might  — be advanced by a modest and calculated show of dissidence. When the Whips run out of stick, there’s always such a carrot.

Here’s another thought …

Without doubt the Great British Public are pissed off by the lack of pubs, by the camaraderie there and the work-place, and even more so by the lack of hair-dressers and barbers.

We should be amazed tolerance has lasted this long.

But a significant motive has been sheer fear. This CoVid-19 has already achieved an attrition of one in a thousand. Today’s figure of ‘hospital deaths’ is over 38.000 — when we add in the concomitant numbers, those not primarily attributed to Covid-19 or because they chose to die elsewhere, the niumbers may well much greater.

So, a comparison. In 1940-41 the Luftwaffe pulverised British cities with forty to fifty thousand tons of high explosive and incendiaries. That achieved something not greatly above forty thousand dead civilians. In the crudest terms, this viral scourge has compressed the Blitz into less than a trimester (so far).

The Blitz, though, had a very visible cause. Not so with Covid-19.

Group solidarity, team-spirit, we’re all in this together (as the Tesco t-shirts have it) is not going to totally fragment. On the other hand, us-vesus-them was there in the Blitz, and is burgeoning forth now.

Which is the moment-of-danger for any democratically-elected government. Very quickly them-as-is in-charge lose respect. And with respect goes deference. And trust.

So let’s consider, did we need to, the decline in Boris Johnson’s ratings at represented by those infernal opinion polls. 6,041 YouGov interviews re currently giving him a +39% positive and -43% negative approval. Today’s poll was:

So back to the fourth group of Tory MPs, identified above. Does a 4½ per centre swing, in just a few days, make them sweat a bit?


1 Comment

Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., History, Labour Party, politics, Tories., ukpollingreport

The hole-y Denis Winston Healey

My alter-ego was a (twice) defeated Labour parliamentary candidate. In our second outing, Transport House sent us Denis to speak at an election meeting. We held it, quite deliberately, in the heart of the Tory fastness. As we expected, young Tories piled in to heckle. By the time the blood — that of the young Tories, that is — was all spilled,

And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.

For Denis was a warrior, in the classic mould. He was the Royal Engineer who served through the North Africa campaign, Operation Husky to invade Sicily, was beach-master at Anzio, and then through the long Italian campaign. He was the dashing Major, still in uniform, who addressed the Labour Conference of 1945:

Post-War, he was Ernie Bevin’s man in the Labour Research Department. We need to remember how crucial that was, in the first steps to reconstitute the federal West German republic — it was the likes of Healey and trades unionists (Walter Citrine, George Woodcock, Vic Feather) who helped Bevin ensure the FDR wasn’t formed from the fantasies of US Army flacks.


Long after he left the scene, one Healey truism resonates. It first appeared in a 1964 interviewer The Banker magazine:

Let me tell you about the law of holes: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

That was soon rubbed down by usage into the cogent:

When in a hole, stop digging.

As ever, American sources suggest theirs got it first:

Nor would a wise man, seeing that he was in a hole, go to work and blindly dig it deeper…

Of course, the original Book of Proverbs preceded them all (27.12):

A prudent man foreseeth the evil and hideth himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.

To which others have added various corollaries:

When your opponent is in a hole and digging, why would you want to take away his shovel?

Though that looks like a variant of the (allegedly) Napoleon Bonaparte view:

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Good to see Healey, or whoever, still guiding the Leader of the Labour Party. Particularly so, at a moment when the whole (Geddit?) Cummings affair is well down into and undermining the Tory foundations.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Labour Party, leftist politics.

One of the great and the (arguably) good …

Way back I did a couple dozen (or more: I lost count) posts on The Not-so-great and the Not-so-good. Out of nowhere, one of those came back to haunt me.

Today a small coincidence caught my attention.

One of the more enjoyable posts — while things are rattling along smoothly —  in the Irish Civil Service must be ‘secretary-general to the President’. When things get a bit sticky (a split General Election, perhaps) this will be the Main Man’s go-to guy for ungluing the machinery. An endearing Boss, a civilised environment, the palatial ex-Viceregal Lodge — it’s isn’t surprising that Art O’Leary has stuck the berth for much of the decade.

But that’s not my subject for today. It’s his historic name-sake.

Airt Ó Laoghaire

I’ll work backwards from his tombstone (above)  in the burial ground of Kilcrea Friary:

Lo Arthur Leary, generous
Handsome, brave, slain in
His bloom, lies in this humble
grave. Died May 4th, 1773.
Aged 26 years.

The O’Leary family held substantial lands, leased from Lord Kenmare, between Macroom and Gougane Barra — not the best lands, of course, but the most decent available to a Roman Catholic. The family home was Rath Laoi, often represented as ‘Rathleigh’, and now modernised as Raleigh. Those lands would have been bounded by two rivers, the Sullane to the north, and the Lee to the south.

And, also of course, as a Roman Catholic, the young Art had limited-to-none opportunities for education or advancement in Ireland. So, like so many, he offed and entered military service on the continent — the Hussars of the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa. Since I have no image of O’Leary, let’s have the last of the Habsburgs (as right).

A Hungarian Hussar, looking the part! In short order, a captain of Hussars, no less.

Back home with wife and family …

He married in 1767: she was Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, a young widow. Her previous marriage was in her mid-teens: but notice that surname — she would have been the aunt of Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator. An elopement was involved. The O’Leary household, by the time of his death, would have included two sons, Cornelius and Fiach, with a possible third infant.

According to one version of the story, the horse which was the motive for O’Leary’s murder had been brought by him from his cavalry days.

The cause of the killing

A version has that O’Leary joined the Muskerry Hunt, and out-stripped the field, to be in at the kill and take the fox’s brush. A local magistrate, a Mr Abraham Morris (which some versions render as ‘Morrison’) of Dunkettle, Cork, living at Hanover Hall, was a local worthy of some distinction: a JP by 1757, High Sheriff of County Cork in 1760. He demanded O’Leary’s horse for the payment of five guineas. That was the Penal Law from  1695 — 7 William III c.5: An Act for the better securing the government, by disarming papists; Section 10 —

No papist shall be capable of having or keeping for his use, any horse, gelding or mare of five pounds value. Any protestant who shall make discovery under oath of such horse, shall be authorized with the assistance of a constable, to search for and secure such horse and in case of resistance to break down any door. And any protestant making such discovery and offering five pounds five shillings to the owner of such horse, in the presence of a justice of the peace or chief magistrate, shall receive ownership of such horse as though such horse were bought in the market overt.

This led to acrimony, an exchange of blows, with deployment of horse-whips. Morris convened his fellow magistrates, and O’Leary was declared an outlaw.

The Killing

On 4th May 1773 Morris had been at Drishane Castle. Returning home, O’Leary was lying in wait near the village of Carriganima. Morris made sure he had armed guards.

One version is that shots were fired. O’Leary, it seems had a pistol. Morris gave an order to fire, and O’Leary was hit below the ear by a musket bullet. It seems O’Leary’s body was first buried in a field, and only removed to Kilcrea some years later.

Caoineadh Airt UÍ Laoghaire

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (or someone in her name) composed the long ‘keen’ in his memory. It may well have been delivered at the re-interment at Kilrea:

Mo ghrá go daingean tu!                   My steadfast love!
Lá dá bhfaca thu                                 When I saw you one day
ag ceann tí an mhargaidh,                by the market-house gable
thug mo shúil aire dhuit,                  my eye gave a look
thug mo chroí taitnearnh duit,        my heart shone out
d’éalaíos óm charaid leat                  I fled with you far
i bhfad ó bhaile leat.                          from friends and home.


Leave a comment

Filed under County Cork, History, Ireland, Military

The election campaign of 1945: 1

Nowhere were the issues of the campaign more starkly represented than in this, instructive, cartoon by the great Philip Zec:

In essence, the politics were traditional.

The Tories had been in power, except for two brief moments in 1924 and 1929-31, continuously since 1918. Even those short-lived Labour governments were nominally so — in office, but not in “power”: they relied on support from other parties. Hence the odium of a dismal epoch fell on the Tories. However, 1945 had to be an election about change: the change offered by the Beveridge Report and all those White Papers And the Tories certainly didn’t want to talk about their record over those inter-War decades.

M’Lud, Ladies an’ Gennelmen of the Jury, I present you two pieces of evidence:

First, Ronald Blythe’s delicious romp: The Age of Illusion, England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919–1940. I was delighted to find that, half-a-century on from publication still being recommended reading for University courses in history. It’s once-over-lightly, but it hits all the buttons:

All the events of the inter-war years took place against a huge, dingy, boring and inescapable backcloth—unemployment. By 1935 it had existed for so long and had proved to be so irremediable that it came to be regarded as a normality. The chronically unemployed had learned how to make a pattern of idleness and had become conditioned to hopeless poverty. The streets in which they lived breathed an apathy which in the worst areas was a kind of nerveless peace. Paint flaked from woodwork, doorsteps were ritualistically whitened, delicate undernourished children in darned jerseys and clothing-club boots flocked to see Shirley Temple and Tom Mix on Saturday afternoons for twopence, young men, many of whom had reached their mid-twenties without ever having a job, walked or bicycled in groups over the neighbouring hills and meadows; older men crouched on benches on their allotments and gossiped. The women suffered in a different way. It was they who were exhausted by the constant preoccupation with mean economies, they who under-ate so that the children had sufficient, they who answered the door to the debt and rent collectors, the Means Test spies and seedy touts of all kinds — for the extreme scarcity of money and the meaninglessness of time filled the slums with hawkers and spongers — and they who preserved the maleness of their menfolk when everything conspired to turn them into so many little cloth-capped negatives in the dole queue.

The strange thing is that it was both their plight and their salvation that no one came to their aid. Humiliated, degraded and intimidated by the Labour Exchanges, the Means Test, the Poor Law and the police, the British unemployed were a vast malleable force which only needed a leader for it to become a threat. When it marched on London, as it frequently did, like a dark, singing worm, there was an immediate but quite unnecessary tension. The worm, grudgingly allowed its civic rights, would be met and escorted through side-streets if possible to Hyde Park by foot and mounted police, where it would chop itself up into smaller — and safer — pieces and listen to Wal Hannington or Aneurin Bevan. Occasionally it was entertained by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, a predominantly middle-class movement which was big enough on November 1st, 1936, for its leader to boast that it would put up a hundred candidates at the next general election.

Read that, and see why Zec’s cartoon resonated.

The second snippet is shorter. W H Auden was in New York when Hitler invaded Poland, and the flavour here was the mood of the time:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …

September 1 1939 is not Auden’s greatest. He himself came to see its weaknesses (and Ian Sansom, very subjectively, dissected them — and its enduring strengths).

In short, the Tory campaign of 1945 had to contend against the party’s history: the misery of the Thirties and the stench of appeasement. It had one antidote: adulation of Churchill, the War leader, in the pious hope that would decontaminate the rest.

Except, of course, Churchill’s own history came laced with remembered poisons: his opposition to women’s suffrage, Ulster Unionism, the Tonypandy Riots, the Battle of Sidney Street, the Dardanelles, the Gold Standard, the General Strike …

1 Comment

Filed under Conservative Party policy., History, reading, Tories.