by James Durney


Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish patriot

James Durney

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born on 20 June 1763 at St. Bride’s Street, Dublin, but spent his childhood at Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street), in Dublin. His father, Peter Tone, was born at Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, on the estate of the barrister and politician Theobald Wolfe, Tone’s godfather. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Tone was called to the Bar in 1789, but was more interested in politics. When Tone published an argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland under the pseudonym ‘A Northern Whig,’ he was invited to Belfast to assist in founding the Society of United Irishmen, which first met on 18 October 1791. A Dublin society was formed a month later. At the start the society drew its support from Presbyterians in Ulster, and from Protestants and liberals seeking parliamentary reform. There were others like Wolfe Tone, who inspired by the French Revolution, sought to establish a republic. As he later wrote, he sought to break the connection with England, and ‘to substitute the common name of Irishmen, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’.

In April 1794, Rev. William Jackson, arrived in Ireland to assess for the French government the likely success of a French invasion. Tone unwisely wrote a memorandum for him; when Jackson was betrayed and arrested, Tone was fortunate to escape arrest and prosecution. He was allowed to sell his possessions in Ireland (a cottage on an acre of land near Bodenstown) and exile himself to America. Tone arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, on 1 August 1795, with his wife, Matilda, their children and his brother, Arthur, and sister, Mary. He purchased a farm of some 180 acres near Princeton, New Jersey, but left the following year after the French minister in Philadelphia encouraged Tone to take his invasion plan to revolutionary France.

An invasion fleet left Brest in December 1796, but bad weather prevented a landing. Tone persuaded the French into new expeditions, but by the time General Jean Humbert landed in Co. Mayo in August 1798, the United Irishmen’s rising in Ulster and Leinster had failed. The repressive measures by the Crown had driven Ireland into revolt in May 1798, but the rising was suppressed with great savagery and the United Irish movement destroyed.

Gen. Humbert was soon defeated, and Tone was captured aboard a French ship in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal, on 12 October. At his trial in Dublin he admitted treason and, when his request to be shot as a soldier, rather than be hanged, was refused, Tone cut his own throat on 12 November, dying in prison on 19 November 1798. His body was brought from Dublin to Naas, Co. Kildare, where legend has it he was waked in a house belonging to his cousins, the Dunbavins, on the Sallins Road. Theobald Wolfe Tone was buried in the family plot at Bodenstown Cemetery, outside Sallins, Co. Kildare, on 21 November 1798. Only two people were present, one of them his cousin, William Dunbavin. Matilda Tone died on 18 March 1849 at Georgetown. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

The ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen continued to be a potent force in Irish history. From 1842 his grave in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, has become a place of pilgrimage for nationalists and republicans.


William Ponsonby at the Battle of Waterloo

James Durney

An aquatint drawn by Manskirch and engraved by M. Duourg (1817), titled the ‘Death of Major General Sir William Ponsonby, 1815,’ shows the fatally wounded Irish general on the ground surrounded by enemy lancers. William Ponsonby commanded the Union Cavalry Brigade at the battle of Waterloo. He rode too far after their charge against Marshall Drouet D’Erlon’s I Corps. His horse became mired in mud near the enemy lines and he was killed by Polish lancers during a French counter-attack.

William Ponsonby was born on 13 October 1772, the second son of William Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby, and his wife Louisa (née Molesworth) fourth daughter of Richard, 3rd Viscount Molesworth. After attending Eton and Kilkenny College, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1795. Commissioned into the 83rd Foot, he was promoted to captain, and then major, in the Royal Irish Fencibles (1794). He transferred to the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1798 and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel two years later. His family’s political influence contributed to his rapid military advancement.

His Dublin-born father, William Brabazon Ponsonby, was a landowner, MP, and speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He was a leading opponent of the union and voted against it in 1799 and 1800. During his career William Ponsonby was MP for Bandon Bridge, Co. Cork (1776), and also MP for Co. Kilkenny (1783). He retained his Kilkenny seat until he was raised to the peerage in 1806. A keen horseman and foxhunter William Brabazon Ponsonby kept what was perhaps the best hunting establishment in Ireland at his seat in Bishopscourt, Co. Kildare.

Bishopscourt was once owned by the Bishops of Kildare and came into the hands of the Ponsonbys when Sahara Charlemont married Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Earl of Bessborough. John Ponsonby, who succeeded to the estate on the death of his father, was a leading Irish politician of his day. He entered Parliament in 1739 and was later elected Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Apart from taking a prominent part in the political welfare of the country he was also a keen sportsman, and kept the finest pack of hounds in Ireland at that time, which were known as ‘the Bishopscourt Hunt.’ It seems that the ownership of Bishopscourt passed to Frederick, the youngest of the five Ponsonby brothers.

Young William Ponsonby was also MP for Bandon Bridge (1796-7), and Fethard, Co. Tipperary, which he held from 1797 until the Act of Union in 1801, and Co. Londonderry (1812-15). His main residence was at Goldsmith’s Hall, Co. Londonderry. Despite his military commission, he followed the family line and voted against the act of union in 1799 and 1800. In 1811, as colonel, he took his regiment to Spain, where he was present at numerous actions and played a prominent part in the victory at Salamanca (22 July 1812). He became a brigade commander and was promoted to major-general but took leave of his brigade in France in January 1814.

The French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, had subverted the idealism of the French Revolution and transformed its republican government into a dictatorship run by himself. However, he posed a threat to the whole European order and was forced to abdicate in 1814 and exiled to the island of Elba. Napoleon escaped the following year and returned to France in triumph. He staked all on one last desperate gamble. A European alliance called the immediate mobilization of the Continental armies and Britain’s greatest military commander, the Duke of Wellington, was appointed commanding officer. Arthur Wesley (the family later changed the name to Wellesley), the Duke of Wellington, was born in Ireland in 1769. His father was a descendant of an English family that had lived in Ireland for generations. The Wellesley’s country house was Dangan Castle, in Co. Meath, and their town house in Dublin’s Upper Merrion Street. The family also owned thousands of acres of land in Meath and Kildare.

On 13 June 1815 Napoleon crossed the Belgian frontier making for Charleroi. His aim was to defeat Field-Marshal Gebhard Blϋcher’s army of 120,000 men and drive him to retreat eastwards; he would then turn on Wellington before entering Brussels. Napoleon hoped for a Belgian rising – the Belgians were pro-French and hostile to the Dutch alliance – a France united behind him, the fall of the Tory government in England, and that his father-in-law, the Austrian Emperor, deprived of British subsidies, would sue for peace.

The French attacked Blϋcher’s Prussians at Ligny driving them from the field with heavy loss and sending them in retreat eastward towards Wavre. Napoleon detached Marshal Grouchy with 30,000 men to follow the Prussians while he dealt with Wellington. The two armies met at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Having thrashed the Prussians Napoleon was confident that he would finish off Wellington’s Allied army on the day and be in Brussels by nightfall.

The British contingent of 34,000 men was part of a massive Coalition army that included Dutch, Belgian and Prussian troops. At that time between 30 and 40 per cent of the British line regiments were Irish, so on this basis at least 10,000 Irishmen stood on the battlefield at Waterloo. During the Waterloo campaign Irishman William Ponsonby commanded the Union Brigade, so called because it was made up of English, Scottish and Irish regiments – the 1st Royal Dragoons, the Scots Greys, and the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. He wrote a letter to his mother, Louisa, seven days before the fatal battle:

‘… There seems to be in England a decided feeling for war & perfect confidence as to the successful result. How far this confidence is well founded a few months will show. Bonaparte will certainly have need of all his extraordinary abilities to resist the immense force about to attack him & I should think it impossible for him to do so, unless he is backed by the cordial & nearly general support of the population of France… The Duke of Wellington, however, considers himself very strong & is very confident…’

Early in the battle Ponsonby’s Union Brigade were bunched together in close columns to the left of the Brussels road when shot and shell began to wreck havoc among them. They had only moved position to avoid cannon fire bouncing over the ridge and a frustrated William Ponsonby yelled, ‘Greys, they have found us again!’ The cavalry dispersed into open columns of half squadrons to reduce vulnerability, but it was in vain as the cannon continued to seek them out.

Around 2 pm the Union Brigade made a dramatic charge which routed the remains of D’Erlon’s I Corps. Carried away by their initial success the brigade continued on across the valley and seized two French batteries, but their momentum began to peter out as they crossed the bottom of the valley basin, which was slippery with deep mud. Some horses sank to their knees as they crossed the edge of a ploughed field, but the cavalry struggled on until they were right into the French gunners hacking them down left and right. The British officers quickly lost control of their men, whose bloodlust was up. Major de Lacy Evans, extra aide-de-camp (ADC) to General Ponsonby, recalled, ‘The enemy fled as a flock of sheep across the valley, quite at the mercy of the Dragoons. In fact, our men were out of hand. The General of the Brigade, his staff, and every officer within hearing, exerted themselves to the utmost to reform the men. The helplessness of the enemy offered too great a temptation to the dragoons, and our efforts were abortive.’

From his vantage point Napoleon watched the Scots Greys plunging into the French gun line. ‘These terrible Greys,’ he conceded with some awe, ‘how theyfight!’ But Napoleon saw the confusion, and sent two regiments of Cuirassiers and one of Polish Lancers to attack the disordered cavalry.

The Union Brigade had advanced too far and by this time their horses were completely exhausted. A high price would be exacted for their recklessness. They fled in disorder as the French cavalry counter-attacked, vainly trying to fight their way out of a trap. Nearly 2,400 French lancers and cuirassiers, on fresh horses, rode into the disorganized and exhausted British cavalry. The Union Brigade suffered 617 casualties out of 1,186 men, being effectively destroyed, and played no further part in the battle. Ponsonby, like many of his men, rode too far and his horse became bogged down in the heavy ground. Realising that he would be overtaken he called out to his ADC to take his watch and a miniature portrait of his wife. He was set upon by Polish Lancers, who recognizing his rank and worth as a prisoner beckoned him to surrender. However, when a group of Ponsonby’s own Union Brigade spotted him and rode to his rescue, the Lancers were left with no option but to kill him. Both Ponsonby and his ADC were speared on the spot.

Colonel Bro de Commères, leading the 4th French Lancers in the counterattack, said, ‘Sergeant Urban killed General Ponsonby with a lance thrust. My sabre cut down three of his captains. Two others were able to flee.’

Several survivors later reported passing William Ponsonby as he lay dead in the mud, still clutching the miniature portrait of his wife. His body was afterwards found with seven wounds, over which his faithful charger kept guard. The Union Brigade again encountered the Polish Lancers, almost every one of whom was killed, so that their commander did not fall un-avenged.

The Duke of Wellington in his report on the battle expressed his ‘grief for the fate of an officer who had already rendered very brilliant and important services, and was an ornament to his profession’. Ponsonby’s remains were returned to England and were buried in the Molesworth family vault in Kensington. A memorial was erected to him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is a small collection of his papers in the National Archives (Kew). A son, William, was born some months later. He succeeded his uncle, John Ponsonby, as 3rd Baron Ponsonby.

William Ponsonby’s death highlighted some pertinent points about cavalry charging, but it also occurred because of a simple enough matter. According to some accounts, on the morning of the battle the groom in charge of Ponsonby’s best horse, a chestnut charger, could not be found. Other accounts state that Ponsonby deliberately did not take his best horse, as it was worth more than the government compensation price that he would have been paid if it were killed. Instead he chose a small black bay. It is certain, however, that he went into battle on an inferior mount, and this proved a fatal choice.

A second cousin, Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, son of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta Spencer, also fought at the Battle of Waterloo. He commanded the 12th Dragoons and was sabred from his horse, then speared by a passing lancer. As he lay severely wounded on the battlefield Ponsonby was robbed of valuables on several occasions, used as a makeshift firing platform by a French skirmisher and rode over by Prussian cavalry. ‘I thought the night would never end,’ he remembered. At last he saw an English soldier from the 40th Foot who had lost his regiment. Ponsonby offered him a reward if he would stand guard over him. The soldier picked up a discarded sword and stood over him until help arrived. Frederick Ponsonby survived his wounds and later became a major-general. He died in Basingstoke, in 1837.

Frederick Ponsonby, fifth son of William Brabazon, and the last of the family, died in 1849, and was buried in the little graveyard on Oughterard Hill. He was the last master of the famous Bishopscourt Hounds and had retired to Dublin after selling Bishopscourt to pay his brother’s debts. The bridge over the Grand Canal at Baronrath, Straffan, is named after the family and is known as ‘Ponsonby Bridge.’

It is stated in old family documents that Sir William Ponsonby’s faithful horse which had remained with him on the battlefield, was brought back to Bishopscourt after the battle of Waterloo. Captain Gerald Ponsonby, who wrote a paper ‘Bishopscourt and its owners,’ for the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society (1915) stated: ‘There is an old man still living in County Kildare who says his grandfather remembered the groom bringing Sir William’s charger back to Bishopscourt after the battle.’

Gerald Ponsonby also recalled an old man named Curran, a resident of Kill village, singing a song at a Tea Party given at Palmerstown House, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, in 1887. The song described a run of the hounds, in which Sir William Ponsonby, the then Master of the Bishopscourt Hunt, followed the hounds, swimming his horse across the Liffey, at Poulaphouca.


Robert Charles Hepburn in the Spanish Civil war

James Durney

Only two Kildaremen fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War – Frank Conroy and Robert Charles Hepburn. Frank Conroy was killed in action on 28 December 1936, two weeks after arriving in Spain, while Robert Hepburn had a more discomfiting military career.

Robert Charles Hepburn was born in Kildare Town on 13 March 1913, the son of Charles Hepburn and Rosalie Henshaw. Charles Hepburn was born in Co. Antrim in 1883 and in 1901 and 1911 was living in McClean’s Lane, South Dock, Dublin. His trade was recorded as a carpenter and his religion as Church of Ireland. Mary Rosalie Henshaw was the daughter of James and Rebecca Henshaw, from Co. Clare. James Henshaw was a bricklayer from Scariff, Co. Clare. A Roman Catholic, James married Rebecca Pidgon, who was twelve years his senior and Church of Ireland, in 1891. They had three children – James, Rebecca and Rosalie. In the 1911 census all the children are recorded as being Irish Church, but Rosalie was baptized as a Catholic. She was born in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, in 1895, and in 1911 was recorded as a domestic servant. James was born in Carlow, while Rebecca was born in Dublin. James Henshaw obviously travelled wherever he could find work and in 1911 is living in Stafford Street, on Dublin’s northside. Two years later the family were living in Kildare Town where Robert Charles Hepburn was born. Charles Hepburn’s profession was recorded as a carpenter.

At eighteen years of age Robert Charles Hepburn joined the British Army and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1931-34. His Irish address was given as 78 Iveagh Gardens, Crumlin, Dublin, and his trade as a tailor’s presser.  He arrived in Spain from London on 6 February 1937 and was sent to the Jarama front twelve days later. Three days of fighting from 12-14 February had dealt the British Battalion, of the International Brigade, a near-mortal blow. Of the 630 men who had gone into action on 12 February, only eighty or so were left unscathed when the battle ended three days later. To help replenish the battalion’s numbers, some eighty new volunteers from Madirueras were rushed to the front, even though most of them were yet to receive training.  Some had not even handled a rifle. At the front morale was at an all-time low. Heavy casualties, lack of sleep, bad food and constant living in unsanitary conditions at the front took its toll on the British and Irish volunteers and there were many desertions.

Robert Hepburn suffered a nervous breakdown after six days at the front and was sent to the cook-house to rest. After a week he refused to return to the front and battalion commander, Captain Jock Cunningham, sent him to the base at Albacete for a medical examination. Doctors found him fit for the front, but Hepburn still refused to return and was arrested on 3 March 1937. Sentenced two days later to one month in the labour battalion on 8 March he requested to return to his unit in the line. Hepburn served in an anti-aircraft unit, but soon deserted. He was caught on a ship in Alicante in June 1937 and sent back to the International Brigade at Brunete and then for punishment to Camp Lukacs. The camp had been established in order to offer deserters an opportunity for rehabilitation, as an alternative to more draconian forms of discipline. However, most volunteers said it was more like a prison camp. Hepburn was in Denia Hospital in late June 1938 and was proposed for repatriation before the withdrawal of the International Brigade in September 1938. He deserted again by stowing aboard the S.S. Wisconsin in Alicante and landed at Marseilles on 18 July 1938. Hepburn was repatriated home with the help of the Irish Legation and British Embassy in Paris.


John Devoy. Forgotten hero, unrepentant rebel

By James Durney

In 1865 James Stephens, the founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), appointed John Devoy Chief Organiser of the Fenians in the British army. John Devoy was born at Greenhills, between Kill and Johnstown, near Naas, in 1842. His father was a tenant on the nearby Palmerstown estate and John Devoy attended school in Kill village. His maternal grandfather, John Dunne, took part in the Battle of Naas, during the 1798 Rebellion, when 350 rebels captured an artillery piece, forcing the British to retreat to Ballymore-Eustace.

John Devoy joined the French Foreign Legion when he was nineteen to gain military experience. He was posted to Algeria, but deserted a year later and returned to Ireland, joining the IRB, or as it was commonly known, the Fenian Brotherhood. Devoy concentrated on the Dublin barracks and the Curragh Camp, recruiting hundreds of men into the Fenians. Of the 26,000 regular troops stationed in Ireland, sixty per cent were Irish with an estimated 8,000 of these being Fenians. Of the militia force of 12,000, half were Fenians, while the army in England had some 7,000 men bound by the Fenian oath. Devoy based all his hopes of a successful insurrection on a mutiny in the British army. He argued that lack of arms and trained men were the cause of past failures. Now, there were many inadequately guarded arsenals and thousands of well-trained soldiers ready to change sides.

In 1865, the Fenians began preparing for a rebellion. They had about 6,000 firearms and had as many as 50,000 men willing to fight. In September 1865, the British moved to close down the Fenians’ newspaper The Irish People and arrested much of the leadership, including James Stephens and Thomas Clarke Luby. In 1866, habeas corpus was suspended in Ireland and there were hundreds more arrests of Fenian activists, among them John Devoy. The rising took place in 1867, but it proved unco-ordinated and fizzled out in a series of skirmishes. When it became apparent that the rising that had been planned was not transpiring, most rebels simply went home.

Sentenced to fifteen years John Devoy served five years until an amnesty in 1871 allowed him to leave for America. With four other pardoned men,Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Henry Mulleda, Charles Underwood O’Connell and John McClure, he received an address of welcome from the US House of Representatives. Devoy became a journalist for the New York Herald and was active in the secret Clan Na Gael (Family of the Irish).  Under Devoy’s leadership, Clan na Gael became the most important Irish republican organisation in the United States and Ireland. He aligned the organisation with the IRB in 1877. Barred from returning to Ireland Devoy travelled to Europe, where he conferred with Charles Stewart Parnell in Boulogne. A basis for the New Departure was reached and at subsequent meetings details were planned and implemented. Devoy and Michael Davitt planned the Land League, which organised rent strikes and agitation on estates throughout the country. By 1880, the New Departure was in full swing: Parnell, Davitt and Devoy rallying Home Rulers, Land Leaguers and Fenians in a united camp.

Devoy lived in New York and had important allies among the Irish-American community. From the moment he woke up in the morning until he slept at night John Devoy worked tirelessly for the cause of Irish freedom. In his offices of the Gaelic American, where he was editor from 1903 to his death, he wrote letters and articles and stoked in every way possible his hatred for England. He organised the Catalpa escape; assisted in fund-raising efforts for the Irish Volunteers and other Irish organisations; and negotiated for arms from Germany for the 1916 Rising. A tough pragmatic man, Devoy argued with Éamon de Valera when he arrived in America in 1919 to secure funding during the Irish War of Independence.

Devoy later supported the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formative Irish Free State. As an honoured guest of the Irish Free State in July 1924, he visited Naas and his birthplace near Kill.John Devoy died in New York City on 29 September 1928, aged eighty-six. His body was returned to Ireland and buried with full honours in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery on 26 June 1929. The Times of London, the voice of the British establishment, unwittingly saluted John Devoy by saying he was ‘the most bitter and persistent, as well as the most dangerous, enemy of this country which Ireland has produced since Wolfe Tone’.



At the most critical moment: The death of Brig. Gen. Charles FitzClarence, VC.

James Durney

By the end of September 1914 fighting between the Allies and the German army had reached a stalemate in France. Prevented from going through to Paris, the Germans sought an opening further north, and each side then began trying to turn its enemy’s western flank, with the object of winning the war rapidly and economically. The ensuing manoeuvres, during late October and early November, as the two sides tried to outflank one another, are known as the ‘race to the sea,’ that is, to the Belgian seaports. For the Germans seizure of the Channel ports would create an overwhelmingly powerful strategic position from which to negotiate a peace. Equally matched, neither side proved capable of a decisive breakthrough. After a series of encounter battles the two forces clashed again at the Belgian city of Ypres. On 29 October six German divisions, examined by the Kaiser Wilhelm himself, launched an all-out attack on the outlying town of Gheluvelt. Suitably inspired, the Germans almost punched a hole through the British lines. In fact, only the determined leadership of Brigadier Charles FitzClarence (VC), prevented collapse and rout. FitzClarence commanded the élite Guards Brigade. Moreover, because an enemy shell obliterated the British battle HQ, he was the senior surviving officer at the point of the German breakthrough. Marshalling a scratch force, FitzClarence routed the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (the unit of an obscure private named Adolf Hitler) at Château Gheluvelt, in the process sealing the potentially fatal breach in the British lines.

At ‘the most critical moment’ of the battle, on 31 October, Brig. Gen. FitzClarence directed the counter-attack of the 2nd Worcesters which recaptured Gheluvelt.  Remarkably, FitzClarence remains one of the war’s lesser-known Irish actors, even though a grateful Sir John French, BEF commander, later implied that by his actions he had saved Ypres, and with it the Channel ports that kept the British army alive. He was specially mentioned in Sir French’s Despatch of 20 November (London Gazette, 30 November) 1914 where he said: ‘Another officer whose name was particularly mentioned to me was Brigadier-General FitzClarence, VC, commanding 1st Guards Brigade. He was unfortunately killed in the night attack of the 11th November. His loss will be severely felt.’

When Lt.- Colonel G. H. Morris, Commanding Officer of the 1st Irish Guards,  was killed in the fighting of early September 1914 Brig. Gen. Charles FitzClarence, then commanding the 29th Brigade, 10th Division at the Curragh, offered to revert to lieutenant-colonel in order to command his regiment. However, it was expressly forbidden as FitzClarence was required for command of the 1st Guards Brigade. He left for France on 23 September and took command of the Guards Brigade four days later.

Charles FitzClarence was born on 8 May 1865, at Bishopscourt, Kill, the eldest son of Hon. George FitzClarence, Captain (Royal Navy), and his wife, Lady Maria Henriette, née Scott, eldest daughter of John Henry, 3rd Earl of Clonmel, and grandson of George FitzClarence, 1st Earl of Munster (eldest illegitimate son of King William IV by the celebrated actress Mrs. Jordan). He had a twin brother named Edward. Charles was educated at Eton and Wellington and gazetted lieutenant from the 3rd Militia Battalion, South Staffordshires to the Royal Fusiliers on 10 November 1886 and promoted to captain on 6 April 1898. He married Violet Spencer Churchill, the youngest daughter of the late Lord Alfred Spencer Churchill, M.P., and granddaughter of John, 6th Duke of Marlborough, in 1898. They had two children: Edward Charles, born 3 October 1899, and Joan Harriet, born 23 December 1901.

Charles’ twin brother, Edward, served in the Dongola Expedition (1896) and as Captain 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, attached Egyptian Army, was killed in action at Abu-Hamed, on 7 August 1897. Capt. FitzClarence was one of only two British officers of the Egyptian army to be killed in the entire campaign. Their cousin, Captain Augustine A. C. FitzClarence, was killed in action in Gallipoli on 29 June 1915.

Charles FitzClarence served in the South African War 1899-1900 (Second Boer War), as a Special Service Officer attached to the Protectorate Regiment. He was promoted to Brigade Major on Staff in August 1900. FitzClarence took part in the defense of Mafeking, was mentioned in Despatches, received the Queen’s Medal with three clasps and was decorated with the Victoria Cross for three specific acts of bravery. An extract from theLondon Gazette records the following:

‘On the 14th October, 1899, Captain FitzClarence went with his squadron of the Protectorate Regiment, consisting of only partially trained men, who had never been in action, to the assistance of an armoured train which had gone out of Mafeking. The enemy were in greatly superior numbers, and the squadron was for a time surrounded, and it looked as if nothing could save them from being shot down. Captain FitzClarence, however, by his personal coolness and courage inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and, by his bold and efficient handling of them, not only succeeded in relieving the armoured train, but inflicted a heavy defeat on the Boers, who lost 50 killed and a large number wounded, his own losses being 2 killed and 15 wounded. The moral effect of this blow had a very important bearing on subsequent encounters with the Boers.

‘On the 27th October, 1899, Captain FitzClarence led his squadron from Mafeking across the open, and made a night attack with the bayonet on one of the enemy’s trenches. A hand-to-hand fight took place in the trench, while a heavy fire was concentrated on it from the rear. The enemy was driven out with heavy loss. Captain FitzClarence was the first man into the position and accounted for four of the enemy with his sword. The British lost 6 killed and 9 wounded. Captain FitzClarence was himself slightly wounded. With reference to these two actions, Major-General Baden-Powell states that had this Officer not shown an extraordinary spirit and fearlessness the attacks would have been failures, and we should have suffered heavy loss both in men and prestige. On the 26th December, during the action at Game Tree, near Mafeking, Captain FitzClarence again distinguished himself by his coolness and courage, and was again wounded (severely through both legs).’

Capt. FitzClarence transferred to Irish Guards on their formation in October 1900. He was promoted to Brigade Major of the 5th Brigade, Aldershot (1904), and then Brigade Commander of the 5th London Infantry Brigade. At the outbreak of the war in Europe, in August 1914, FitzClarence was Lt. Col. Commanding Irish Guards. When the Irish Guards were dispatched to France he was appointed Commanding Officer 29th Brigade, 10th Division. On 27 September 1914 he took command of the 1st Guards Brigade with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

In October, FitzClarence played a significant part in the battle for Ypres when his Coldstream and Scots Guards, numbering 5,000 men, held off a German force of 24,000. In two days the Sots Guards lost ten officers and 370 men killed and wounded, but the result of the day’s fighting was that the British line stood firm and unbroken, while the Germans sustained enormous losses. Lord French, in his despatch of 30 November 1914, described the fighting at this time as: ‘Perhaps the most important and decisive attack (except that of the Prussian Guard on the 10th November) made against the 1st Corps during the whole of its arduous experiences in the neighbourhood of Ypres.’

Blackwood’s Magazine (of August 1917) carries an article describing FitzClarence’s part. Even though technically they were not under his command it was FitzClarence who gave the order for the vital counter-attack by the 2nd Worcesters of 31 October 1914. He ‘rallied the troops and directed the successful onslaught’. The Worcesters commander, Lt. Col. E. B. Hankey, said of FitzClarence: ‘… by shoving us in at the time and place he did the General saved the day’.

The final major German attack of the battle came on 11 November 1914 (battle of Nonne Boschem). Thirteen battalions of the Prussian Guard attacked British troops along the Menin road. By this time the 1st Brigade consisted of three battalions (one each from the Scots Guards, the Camerons and the Black Watch) and was down to 800 men. They were attacked by a regiment of the Prussian Guard, and forced out of their front line. FitzClarence played an important role in stopping the German advance. He was then determined to win back the front line trenches lost earlier in the day. Having lost most of his own brigade in the fighting, he returned to the rear to find new troops. The forty-nine year-old General decided to show his troops the way and paid for the decision with his life. He was at the head of 500 men from the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, the Irish Guards and a contingent of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, when he was shot and killed by a German rifleman at Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke. After his death the planned counterattack was abandoned.

Charles FitzClarence has no known grave, but his Memorial Reference is Panel 3, Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium. He is the highest-ranking officer inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial. His Victoria Cross is in the Lord Ashcroft VC Gallery in the Imperial War Museum, London


Captains two. Patrick O’Carroll and James Blackney in the Papal Army

James Durney

In 1860 when Pope Pius IX issued an appeal to all Catholic countries to come to his assistance 1,400 Irishmen answered the call. Among them were at least two Kildaremen, Patrick O’Carroll and James Blackney. At only three or four weeks’ notice, without any preliminary training, young Irish men and boys, from all walks of life, left Ireland for Vienna where they were to be trained before proceeding to Italy. The British Government supported the cause of Italian nationalism and issued a proclamation reminding all persons concerned that, according to the Foreign Enlistment Act, any man entering a foreign service was guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by fine and imprisonment, as was anyone helping him to do so, and that any master of a ship conveying such persons was liable to a fine of £50. Towards the end of May and the beginning of June, various detachments found their way to Italy from ports in Ireland to England and then northern Europe. From there they travelled by rail to Vienna, Trieste and Rome. The minimum height requirement was five feet seven inches. Each recruit was given £3.15s. on leaving to cover his travel expenses. No kit was issued on departure, each man having to travel in his own clothing. The Papal States were conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796 and restored to the Pope by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In 1848-9 there were abortive revolutions in Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples and Savoy, while in the south attempts were made to unite the country under one banner. After the Franco-Austrian war of 1859 the states of Parma, Modena and Tuscany joined the Union of Piedmont under the rule of Victor Emmanuel of the House of Savoy. Efforts were made during the early part of 1860 to induce Pius IX to surrender his claims to the Northern Provinces of Romagna, Umbria and the Marches, but without avail. When the province of Romagna voted itself into the newly formed State of Northern Italy, the Pope excommunicated all concerned, including Victor Emmanuel. Fearing an impending invasion of the papal frontiers the Pope appealed to the Catholics of Europe to come to his assistance. This appeal received support from the Irish hierarchy and resulted in the formation of ‘The Irish Battalion of St. Patrick’ for service in Italy. The Irish volunteers had been promised they would serve together as one unit, but in reality the shambolic organization of the Papal Army prevented this. They had also been told they would be compensated for making the financial sacrifice to travel to Italy. In Ancona matters came to a head and angry volunteers confronted their officers and expressed their anger at these false promises. In a brief melee two officers, Major Fitzgerald and Lieutenant Patrick O’Carroll, were slightly hurt. As a result, Maj. Fitzgerald, a veteran officer in the Austrian army, resigned his commission, while Lieut. O’Carroll was promoted to captain (Gazetted 7 August 1860). Patrick O’Carroll, was a native of Co. Kildare and had served in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, of the British army. Maj. Fitzgerald and Lt. O’Carroll were probably not recognized as it was late when they arrived and were wearing civilian clothes. They were soon fit for duty again. The Irish recruits also caused some problems when they arrived in Macereta Barracks in northern Italy. There were six other nationalities represented there and on pay day fighting, due to the availability of cheap wine, broke out between the Irish and Belgians. The civil authorities petitioned for the removal of the unruly elements and 600 Irish troops were marched across the Apennine Mountains from Macereta to Rome. As they were not giving adequate water, rations or camp equipment the troops had to fend for themselves en route, for which they received more bad publicity. It was only with the arrival of their own commanding officer, Major Myles O’Reilly, of Louth, that living conditions for the men began to gradually improve due to his strenuous efforts and representations on their behalf. It was his intention to form a battalion of eight companies to be known as the ‘Irish Papal Brigade.’ Maj. O’Reilly began to train his recruits into a professional force, but because he was starting from scratch the Irish Battalion never really became a fully equipped, or adequately armed force. The commanding officer had to commission officers, to tell off companies, and to appoint NCOs. Although he did his best to extract written promises of commissions, it was not until August that they actually gazetted as officers. Eight company commanders were appointed in June – four at Ancona and four at Spoleto. Lt. James Blackney was appointed officer commanding No. 1 Company at Spoleto, though he was not gazetted captain until 31 August. James Blackney was the son of James Blackney, Esq, of Kilmullen. He was a former officer in the county militia and a grandson of Walter Blackney, MP for Co. Carlow (1831-2). G. F. H. Berkeley in The Irish Battalion in the Papal Army of 1860, (published in Dublin in 1929) gave Blackney’s address as Co. Kildare, while his fellow officer Michael T. Crean said he was from Co. Carlow. Kilmullen is in Lea, Co. Laois, which at the time would have been Queen’s County, but is near to Monasterevan, Co. Kildare. One veteran, Lt. Michael Theobald Crean, said that in the month of August under the able leadership of Maj. O’Reilly, the Irish got down to training in earnest. ‘Discipline increased and improved beyond measure. The Company Commanders, Kirwan, Coppinger, Boschan and Blackney, got down to it and it was drill – morning, noon, and night – with a will as they knew time was short.’ At the end of August the men were requested to take the Oath of Fidelity to the Holy Father and sign on for four years. About 200 refused and left to return to Ireland. They had become disillusioned by the poor pay, bad food and living conditions they had to endure. Equipment and uniforms for the remainder was of poor quality. On 29 August 1860 Capt. Blackney’s company of 145 men was moved from Spoleto to Perugia. Capt. Kirwan’s company also left with General de la Moricière, the head of the Papal Army, leaving only two under-equipped Irish companies in the fortress. The war began on 11 September when Piedmontese troops entered the Papal States. Two days later they attacked Perugia and entered the city through a gate opened by residents who were in opposition to the Papal Army. Capt. Blackney’s company was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the day and lost three men killed and over a dozen wounded. Among the wounded was Capt. Blackney. The Irish volunteers were captured when most of the garrison simply downed arms and refused to fight. Gen. de la Moricière, a Breton,  lamented: ‘The Irish company and the majority of the 2nd Line Battalion [Italian] alone showed themselves determined to do their duty.’ With Perugia captured, the Piedmontese marched towards the port city of Ancona, on the Adiatric coast. Within days they had marched a force of 17,000 as far south as Spoleto, where Maj. Myles O’Reilly and 1,000 men – of whom 300 were Irish – awaited them. The Irish troops had been in Ancona since 5 July and had trained vigourously for two months, greatly assisted by the presence of experienced officers like Capt. Patrick O’Carroll, a veteran of the British army, Corkman Francis O’Mahony, a veteran of the Austrian army, and the French-born Count Francis Russell, an officer in the Papal army. The Irish volunteers were divided into four companies, one of which was commanded by Kildareman Patrick O’Carroll. He was described as an efficient officer by Gen. de la Moriciere. Spoleto, an old Umbrian walled city of 8,000 inhabitants, was attacked on the morning of 17 September by a superior force of veteran Piedmontese troops, and surrendered the next day after the loss of five Irish killed and twenty wounded and the rest taken prisoner. The attackers suffered sixteen dead and forty-eight wounded. The capture of Spoleto cut off Ancona from Rome. The remaining companies of the Irish Battalion were engaged at Castelfedaro – where over 100 were captured, along with twenty other casualties – and at the siege of Ancona, where they suffered a dozen casualties, with the remaining men also being captured. With the capture of Ancona the Piedmontese forces had gained total control of the Papal States, except for Rome and its environs. This effectively meant the end of the Papal Army and the Irish Battalion. The Ancona garrison was marched northwards for 200 miles to Genoa. On arrival in Genoa the officers were separated from their men, but were granted parole d’honour to visit the nearby town if they wished. The officers and men remained in Genoa for several weeks as POWs, where they were visited by British agents who offered free passage to Malta to any who would enlist in the British army. The papal treasury was depleted by the cost of the war, and the Pope was not in a position to maintain a standing army any longer. Most of his provinces were seceding to the new Italian state leaving the environs of Rome as the only territory under his control. The Irish Battalion was granted an honourable discharge from their commitments to the papacy, who, acknowledging the heroism which the Irish had discharged in their duty, also promised assistance with repatriation. In Ireland a national collection was organised to charter a vessel for the stranded exiles. On 20 October 1860 the Papal screw steamer Byzantine commenced transporting Irish survivors from Genoa to Marseilles. From there the 934 Irish veterans went to Paris and then to La Havre, from where the majority sailed to Ireland on 1 November. The first veterans arrived in Queenstown on 3 November to a tremendous welcome. After disembarking they were issued with food and clothing, and they marched to the railway station at Cork through cheering crowds. Special trains brought them to Dublin, where about 300 arrived at Kingsbridge Terminus at midnight, the greater number being dropped off at stations along the line. At Kingsbridge the men were greeted by a crowd of 10,000. The Irish Times referred to them as ‘the forlorn remnants of the Pope’s Brigade’ and reported that they were met by a ‘considerable mob of persons, composed of the lower orders’. The Times reported that the men ‘were dressed in every imaginable costume, some of them being attired in a mixture of Zouave and French coats, trousers and hats, and many of them in the ordinary dress of the laboring class. They presented altogether anything but a military appearance’. Cars were provided for the men who were brought to lodgings in the city. A further 100 arrived in Dublin at 7 a.m. The bulk of the men attended Mass in Marlborough Street chapel on Sunday morning, where Dr. Cullen presided. The Times reporting that they were followed by a mob of ‘the lower orders’. The idea of Irish Catholic soldiers fighting together in a cause of their choosing was not something the newspapers and the political classes were willing to accept, so every opportunity was used to castigate the Irish Battalion. The London Times even referred to them as ‘wretched creatures who were kidnapped by the recruiting agents of the Roman Pontiff’. In December twenty-seven wounded survivors reached Dublin and were cared for in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Irish casualties for the entire campaign were around seventy men. Despite the propaganda from the Italian and British press the performance of the Irish Battalion in battle was commendable, especially for men who had little military training. In due course sixty-four officers, NCOs and men of the Irish Papal Brigade were decorated for bravery. Ultimately, neither the Irish battalion nor the Papal army did anything to change the outcome of the war. By 1861 Italy was united and in 1870 Rome was declared the capital. The Papal government was lavish with decorations and the Battalion of St. Patrick did well, receiving more than any other Papal battalion. Capt. Blackney was awarded the Cavaliere (Knight) of the Ordine-Piano (Order of Pius). According to Michael T. Crean, who was wounded at Spoleto and was awarded the Knighthood of Pius IX, James Blackney on his return to Ireland ‘settled down to the life of a county gentleman’. Major O’Reilly returned to his home, Knock, Abbey, Co. Louth, and to his patriotic work. In 1862 he was elected MP for Longford. Another veteran, Carlow man Myles Keogh, emigrated to the United States, served in the Union army during the American Civil war and died fighting alongside George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.


A game of thrones: Leinster versus Munster at the Battle of Clontarf

James Durney

This 23 April is the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. For a long time it was generally thought that at Clontarf Brian Bórú chased the Vikings from Ireland. However, the events are not that simple and are much more complex. Both sides were locked in alliances with other thrones and kingdoms. While Leinster was allied with the Vikings, Bórú also had Viking allies. The main opponents of the High King were the brother and son of his estranged wife, Gormlaith, while Bórú’s daughter, Sláine, was also married to Viking king of Dublin, Sitric Silkbeard.

Máelmórda mac Murchada held the title ri Airthir Liphi – ‘king of the Eastern Liffey Plain’ – at the time of the Battle of Clontarf and was Brian Bórú’s principal Irish opponent in the fight. The Battle of Clontarf was not only the climax of Leinster’s rebellion against the Munster king Brian Bórú, but was also the culmination of the Uí Dúnlainge overkinship of the province after 300 years of rule.Máelmórda’s sister, Gormlaith, had married Brian Bórú, and both Irish and Norse sources paint her as a malign force, who became embittered with Bórú and helped to initiate the Battle of Clontarf by urging her brother Máelmórda to rebel against her husband.

Gormlaith was born in Naas around 955, the daughter of Murchadh mac Finn, Lord of Naas, King of Leinster. As head of the Uí Fháeláin, a powerful dynasty based at Naas, and one of the three branches of Uí Dúnlainge that alternated the overkingship of Leinster between them, Murchad had four sons – Faelán, Máelmórda, Muiredach and Máel Carmain – and one daughter, Gormlaith. The identity of her mother is unclear, but Celtic scholar Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin believes that she was a Norse servant or slave, probably taken by an Irish raiding party and perhaps forcibly baptised. This might explain her undying support, and also Máelmórda’s support, to her first-born, half-Viking son, Sitric. It would also explain the animosity towards Gormlaith in Irish and Norse literature. The medieval Icelandic Njáls saga described Gormlaith as ‘a most beautiful woman who showed the best qualities in all matters that were not in her power, but in all those that were, people said she showed herself of an evil disposition’. In Irish literature she is painted as an evil, vengeful queen and the instigator of the Battle of Clontarf.

It is believed that Gormlaith had been married three times to three famous kings, attesting Uí Fháeláin’s involvement at the highest level of dynastic politics during this period. These marriages were political contracts rather than love matches. Gormlaith first married the Norse king, Olaf Cúarán, with whom she bore a son, Sitric Silkbeard; she then married  Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, the king of Tara – with whom, it was thought, but not confirmed, she also bore a son, Conchobhar; she then Brian Bórú, with whom it is also thought she bore a son, Donnchad. All three marriages are remarked upon in a witty stanza preserved in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland:

Gormlaith took three leaps,

Which a woman shall never take [again],

A leap at Ath-cliath, a leap at Teamhair,

A leap at Caiseal of the goblets over all.

Gormlaith’s first husband was Olaf Cúarán – known as ‘Olaf of the Sandal,’ because he liked Irish footwear.  Olaf had come to Dublin in 952 when he lost his throne in Northumbria. At that time Ath-cliath, or Dublin, founded by Vikings as a permanent raiding-camp, was Ireland’s first genuine town with an economy based primarily on craft-working and trading, both locally and internationally. According to the Irish annalists Olaf was a Christian. Dublin Vikings had been converting to Christianity since 930 and the city Olaf ruled had timber churches where Christ was worshipped instead of the gods of the Norse and Danes. As part of a contractual alliance with the Leinster kingship Olaf married Gormlaith, probably in the late 960s, when she was in her mid-teens and he was possibly in his fifties. In this period girls were married early, probably as soon as they were capable of bearing children. Her father, Murchadh, may have arranged this marriage. Gormlaith bore Olaf a son, Sitric, and in all accounts, she appears to favour him above the others.

In 979 the Dublin Vikings were defeated by the Ardrí (High King) Máel Sechnaill, son of Domhnall Ua Néill a prince of the Southern Uí Néill, at Tara(Teamhair). The following year Máel Sechnaill(also known as Malachy the Great, or Malachy II), marched on Dublin and following a siege that lasted three days, captured the city, took much plunder and freed 2,000 Irish slaves. Máel Sechnaill made it plain that Dublin was now under his authority and that the Vikings would have to pay him tribute as the High King of Ireland. Olaf, the old Viking, could not stand for this. He abdicated and went off to the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides on pilgrimage. Máel Sechnaill occupied Dublin, and installed Olaf’s son, Sitric, as its ruler in return for paying him considerable tribute. Olaf died at a monastery on Iona in 981, at which point Gormlaith returned to Ireland. (It is also possible that Gormlaith never left Dublin and stayed to protect her own and her son’s interests.) In a possible strategic move, Máel Sechnaill married Gormlaith, around 984, becoming Sitric’s stepfather. Sitric may have expressed a willingness to do the High King’s bidding, but he still considered himself an independent king. Whatever, the course Dublin continued to remain a Viking stronghold.

In 982 Brian Bórú, then secure as king of Munster, marched his armies out of the province for the first time and launched an assault on neighbouring Osraige. A Leinster alliance would have proved useful at this point and he found an ally in Máelmórda mac Murchada. His father, Murchad, overking of the province, was treacherously killed in 972 by Domhnall Claen, after they had eaten and drank together, at which point the kingship went to the second branch, Uí Muiredaig, and then in 978 to the third branch, Uí Dúnchada, after which the conventional expectation was that the next overking would be Máelmórda. But when the Uí Dúnchada incumbent died in 984 Máelmórda failed to secure it for his line. An alliance with the king of Munster might just hand the kingship back to Máelmórda.

Máel Sechnaill marched on Dublin again in 989 after he learned that the Leinster men had formed an alliance with his rival, Bórú, for the highkingship of Ireland. After a siege of twenty days Sitric capitulated and recognised his stepfather as overlord of Dublin, and promised to pay an ounce of gold for ‘every garden’ in the city, payment to be made annually on Christmas night. It is unknown if Gormlaith was in Dublin at the time of the siege, but it seems likely that she was then estranged from Máel Sechnaill. Some time later, Máel Sechnaillagain visited Dublin and to make Sitric’s humiliation complete carried off the ring of Tomar and the sword of Carlus, two heirlooms of the 9th century much valued by the Norsemen. The position was stalemated, but Sitric and his maternal uncle Máelmórda, along with Gormlaith, plotted against the high king.

When Brian Bórú brought his army into Leinster in 998 he secured the submission of its overking, Donnchad of Uí Dúnchada. (An overkingship consisted of a king’s power being recognized by another kingdom. This would usually be established by a military campaign. An overking had power over other lesser kings, like the king of Naas, etc.)However, Donnchad was taken captive by the Norse king of Dublin, Sitric, and Máelmórda, his rival for the Leinster overkingship. Donnchad was deposed for the time being, while Máelmórda took the title in his place. Máel Sechnaill was in no doubt that Gormlaith was part of the conspiracy and her repudiation, under the Brehon law, must have followed swiftly on the events in Kildare.

Both Máel Sechnaill and Brian Bórú decided to undertake a major military advance into Leinster. Their combined armies met the Leinstermen and Norsemen at the Battle of Glenn Máma (between Rathcoole and Kill) on 30 December 999. The battle was the greatest triumph of Bórú’s career to date and the slaughter on both sides was immense. Sitric’s brother, Haraldr, next in line to the Dublin throne, was among the dead. The day after the battle Máelmórda was captured, hiding in a yew tree and dragged from it by Bórú’s son Murchad. His life was spared, a mistake Bórú would live to regret.

Bórú and his new ally, Máel Sechnaill, stormed the dún, or fortress, of Dublin on New Year’s Day 1000. They burned the dún (present day site of Dublin Castle) carried off its gold, silver and captives and expelled its king, Sitric, who fled by ship to the east Ulster kingdom of Ulaid. Sitric negotiated a return to Dublin, only by making formal submission to Bórú and handing over his hostages, including Donnchad, king of Leinster. The Norseman was reinstated as king of Dublin, but Sitirc was now Bórú’s vassal and owed him military service in return. Bórú further cemented his alliance with Sitric by marrying off one of his daughters, Sláine, to the Norse king. Máelmórda, was kept in captivity until all the hostages of Leinster were freed at which point he was released.

To make his position, and his ambition, perfectly clear to Dublin, Leinster and Meath, Bórú took Gormlaith, mother of Sitric and repudiated wife of Máel Sechnaill, as his second wife. Bórú, nearing sixty, was still an active man and Gormlaith, in her mid-forties, was undoubtedly an attractive woman. The union was a sound political move. Gormlaith reputedly had one son for Bórú, Donnchad, who lived until 1064 and succeeded his father immediately after Clontarf. He died in Rome as an old man, but would have only been fifteen at the time of Clontarf, so was possibly the son of Brian’s wife, Dubhchobhlaigh. Under Brehon law it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife and it would appear that Bórú was married to two women at once. Dubhchobhlaigh would have been Bórú’s ‘lawful’ wife, while Gormlaith a secondary, perhaps temporary wife, fully recognised by law and everyone at the time.

Bórú had set his eyes on the Ardrí of Ireland and with an army drawn from Munster, Dublin, Leinster and Connacht marched on Tara. He made short work of Cathal of Connaught on the way and sent a messenger to Máel Sechnaill, asking for his abdication. Máel Sechnaill, aware of Bórú’s strength had appealed to the northern Uí Néill, but help was not forthcoming. The inability of the north to put aside personal jealousy and join in a united front against Bórú, or the Norse and Leinster incursions, led to Máel Sechnaill having no choice but to abdicate the highkingship in favour of the Munster king.

The new High King was declared ‘Briain Imperatoris Scotorum’ – Brian, Emperor of the Irish – Scots, or Scoti, being the name given to the Irish until the following century. In 1003 Bórú deposed Donnchad and hoping to keep the Leinstermen in check, installed Máelmórda as king of Leinster. Ireland endured a decade of peace, but in 1012 Bórú imposed a fresh tribute, or Bóramha, on Leinster. The Bóramha had long caused bitterness in kings and people and the Annals of Clonmacnoise record the annual tribute as being 150 cows, 150 hogs, 150 coverletts (to cover beds), 150 cauldrons, 150 couples (men and women) in servitude and 150 maids, including the king of Leinster’s own daughter.

Dubhchobhlaigh, Bórú’s wife had died in 1009, which left Gormlaith residing at Bórú’s court in Kincora. Medieval scholar Roger Chatterton Newman believes that the re-imposition of the Bóramha on Leinster could have been because Gormlaith, snubbed and isolated by her step-sons, might have left Kincora for her brother’s court and Brian, prompted perhaps by his favourite son, Murchadh, reimposed the hated tribute. Bórú knew that Leinster looked down on him as an interloper in the matter of kingship and he imposed a much heavier tribute on the rebellious province-kingdom. When the tribute was not forthcoming Murchadh was sent to plunder Leinster.

Bórú tried to mend the rift with Máelmórda, but Gormlaith was at the centre of a conspiracy, inciting her brother to rebellion, out of shame felt at the subordination of her province of Leinster to Bórú’s overlordship. Leinster withdrew its official submission to the High King and prepared for battle. Sitric of Dublin promised support to his uncle, who also sought aid from the Uí Néill in Aileach and other Irish princes. Máelmórda’s allies attacked Bórú’s loyal ally, Máel Sechnaill in Meath. The king of Tara retaliated leading an army into the Norse-controlled territory of north Co. Dublin and burning Sitric’s heartland from Fingal to the Hill of Howth, but a contingent of his army was overtaken south of Swords and defeated by Sitric and Máelmórda. The two kings continued their attacks on Máel Sechnaill’s kingdom of Meath, from which they brought back plunder and captives to Dublin. Sitric travelled overseas to gain more aid and support from Vikings outside Ireland, most notably Earl Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of the Isle of Man. Sitric promised Sigurd his mother’s hand in marriage and overlordship of the eastern kingdoms on the death of Bórú. The conflict Gormlaith engineered now came to a climax at the Battle of Clontarf.

The two armies met at Clontarf on Good Friday, 23 April 1014. Bórú had an army of around 5,000, mainly Munster men, but also his allies from Tara and Meath, and Vikings from the south. Facing them was an army of around 3,000 Leinstermen, ‘foreign’ Norsemen and Dublin Norsemen. At the head of the Leinstermen was Máelmórda mac Murchada, king of Leinster. Sitric did not take part in the battle, remaining within the dún of Dublin to ensure it did not fall into Irish hands, as it had after the Battle of GlennMáma. He watched the course of the fight unfold from the wooden battlements of Dublin.  With him was his wife, Sláine, daughter of Brian Bórú, and possibly his mother Gormlaith, wife of Brian Bórú.

Clontarf was the bloodiest battle in Irish history up to that time. The battle saw the Norse and Leinster army annihilated. Every one of their leaders, Máelmórda, Sigurd, and Brodir were slain; Sitric’s brother, Dubgall was killed leading the Dublin contingent. Máelmórda fell on the battlefield, but it is unknown how. There also fell an Uí Muiredaig prince, Tuathal mac Augaire, who was a potential king of Leinster, and the son of Brogarbán mac Conchobair, from whom the Uí Conchobair Failgi (O’Connor Faly) descend. Although victorious Brian was killed by Brodir of Man, who was fleeing the battle. Brodir gathered a few warriors and burst through the thinned pen of shields guarding the seventy-three-year-old High King and killed him with a blow of his axe. He was instantly captured and subsequently suffered a very long, cruel, and grisly death.

The Irish paid dearly for their victory though, with the death of Brian Ború, his son Murchad, grandson Turlough, brother Cuduiligh, and nephew Conaing. In addition ten Munster kings and many other nobles also perished. Bórú’s army was too depleted to attack Dublin where Sitric was in a better position to repel any onslaught. Donnchad, as senior over his brother Tadhg, succeeded Brian and lead the survivors of Clontarf home to Kincora.

The Norsemen of Ireland were not seriously affected in their position by the Irish victory at Clontarf, but it did signal the end of paganism among them. The national distinction between the Irish and the Vikings, however, continued until after the Anglo-Norman arrival. In many instances the Norse sided with the Gaelic chieftains against the Normans.

From Máelmórda’s son Bran (d.1052) the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty adopted the surname Ua Brain (O’Byrne). He became king in 1016 after the deaths in quick succession of two other rulers of Leinster. Four years after Clontarf Sitric blinded, in Dublin, Bran – his cousin – and within a few decades the Uí Dúnlainge were permanently ousted from the overkingship of Leinster by the long-overshadowed Uí Chennselaig in the south of the province. The annals record that Gormlaith died in 1030, aged in her seventies. What happened Gormlaith after Clontarf is open to conjecture – she could have lived within the protected walls of her son’s kingdom, or returned to Naas and a quiet end within monastic walls, as other women of her mould had done. In the end, Gormlaith’s intrigues had led to the weakening and, eventually, destruction of the power of her own family in Leinster and that of her son in Dublin.

In 1028 after a much publicised pilgrimage to Rome Sitric Silkbeard gave a grant of gold and treasure and a site to build a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, establishing what would become Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Sitric’s death is recorded as 1042, but his burial place is unknown. It may reasonably be assumed to have been in the Dublin colony in Gwynedd, Wales, where his descendents constituted the ruling dynasty. His daughter, Cailleach Fionáin, died in the same month, but it is unsure if she was the daughter of Sláine, who had watched the rout of the Leinstermen and the Norsemen by her kinsmen, the Munstermen, from the walls of Dublin.


Private James Durney, Royal Irish Regiment: a soldier of the Great War

By James Durney

My great-grandfather James Durney served in what was called ‘The Great War for civilization,’ and had the scars and medals to prove it. He died in 1957, four years before I was born, so I knew basically nothing of his life. That is until I got ‘old’ enough to be interested. By this stage, my father, James Durney, had also passed on so I asked my uncle, Paddy Durney, about James the Great War soldier. He told me that James had been in the British army during WWI and had been wounded by a shell explosion while pushing an artillery piece across a bridge somewhere on the Western Front. All James could remember was an explosion and then waking up in a hospital where they took seven pieces of shrapnel from a head wound and inserted a metal plate in his skull. The shrapnel pieces were displayed in a glass on the mantelpiece in his house at Skeaugh, Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

All British servicemen received at least two medals – the British War Medal and Victory Medal – so I decided to have a look for James Durney on the UK National Archives website ( for the Medal Rolls Index Card which contains an entry for each person who received one or more medals. The card will usually show the name, regiment, rank, number and medals awarded. It may also show the ‘theatre of war first served in’ and the date of entry therein. The remarks column may note if a soldier was killed in action. The address is not usually recorded. There is a small sterling charge to get a copy of the index card, which is emailed to you.

I assumed James Durney was in the Royal Field Artillery or Royal Horse Artillery, because of the story of the artillery piece and the Medal Rolls are particularly useful if you do not know the service number, regiment, etc., of the person you are looking for. Durney, however, is a unique name so I found James Durney quite easily. There were several other Durneys on the rolls and the National Archives sent these along, six records in total, on an A4 page. I now had James Durney’s service number (5779) and unit (Royal Irish Regiment). However, no address was provided, so I was not totally sure this was my great-grandfather. In 2012 Niall Brannigan and John Kirwan published Kilkenny families in the Great War, compiling a nominal roll of Co. Kilkenny WWI veterans. There were five Durney entries in the book, including James Durney, service no. 5779, Royal Irish Regiment.

Herein lies the value of local histories as this book contained James Durney’s address, probable birth date, age, occupation, parents names and that he was reported wounded in September 1917. It also recorded that his two brothers Patrick and Matthew had also joined the British army. Their details were also provided. Both Patrick and Matthew had appeared on the medal card index I earlier received from the NA. I now had a lot of information and searched for James Durney’s personnel service record, but found nothing. Unfortunately, about sixty per cent of the WWI personnel records were burned during the London Blitz in WWII and James Durney’s record was more than likely one of them.

I located James Durney in the 1901 and 1911 census, but basically that was that. There did not seem to be much more to do. However, my father’s anniversary mass fell on 15 March 2014 and during the day, over a pint, of course, I asked my uncle Paddy about James Durney the Great War soldier. Did he know him, were there any other details? Paddy recalled that he and my father used to visit from Newbridge, Co. Kildare, to their grandfather James, in Skeaugh, Callan. He also said that both James and his brother, Mattie, had died on the same day, an hour apart – James in Callan and Mattie in England – and that there was a report in the newspapers. This revelation led me to search and lo and behold I found, in the Kilkenny People on 8 June 1957, a headline: ‘Brothers die on same day.’

This entry gave me some wonderful family information that you could only wish for: James Durney was seventy-two and a ‘respected member of an old and well-known Callan Family. Deceased was an ex-British soldier, who had served with the forces in France during the first world war. He is survived by a widow, a member of the Keogh family, Ahenure, and leaves five sons and three daughters…’ A list of chief mourners – names and addresses –  was given, which included his son and my grandfather, Patrick, Newbridge. The final resting place of James Durney, a soldier of the Great War, was recorded as the family burial ground, Newtown, Callan, Co. Kilkenny.