Sunday, November 25, 2018


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Christmas comes but once a year, and sadly the same can be said of Local History Day in the Dublin City Library and Archive (DCLA) in Pearse Street.

It is a wonderful, enjoyable and stimulating day for all those with any wisp of an interest in local history. And, of course, as I keep telling myself, much local history is also national history as everybody comes from somewhere and also needs a place to be historical in.

I'm up again myself this time round and I can't comment on my own performance other than to say I was satisfied with it and the turnout, and I think the audience got the message.

Pól Ó Duibhir
No Blood on the Ceiling
The Story of Edward Ball.

Edward put a hatchet in the Mammy's head in Booterstown and disposed of the body in the sea in Shankill. That was in 1936, before my time, but I managed to dredge up a few personal connections with the case.

I lived in Ballybrack for 20 years and at my youngest played in the battery on the cliffs at Shanganagh, not far from Corbawn lane where the Mammy's body had set sail. I was born in the same house as Edward, and would not rule out the same bed. And, my uncle may have played cricket with Edward during his (Edward's) detention in the Central Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Dundrum. Surely I am approaching the status of a second class relic at this stage.

I didn't spare my audience the grue and the literal grizzle, the animal sex and the rumour of post-mortem-incestual courting, the feat of motor car (Baby Austin) engineering, and more. So far nobody has complained.

But it was not without its funny moments, heterobonking and unrequited homosexual advances, funny in retrospect but a source of frustration and embarrassment at the time to some of those involved.

Now, see what you missed if you weren't there.

James Scannell
Service Terminated: the Last Trams
from Dartry & Miltown, October 1948

James is a reliable regular here, and this time he gave us a potted history of the trams and a vivid version of the termination of two of the routes in the general post-war shut down of the system.

The early part was new routes and corporate amalgamations. Then there was the advent of buses which used to vie with each other for passengers. The last time I heard a reference to this practice was in Jimmy Meenan's class in UCD in the early 1960s.

CIE rationalised this area but its preference for buses over trams and the depreciation of the trams' infrastructure led to a general tram shutdown.

CIE preserved the logo and the route numbers. The number 14 and 15 bus routes on which I used to travel in the early 1950s, when we lived in Orwell Gardens, inherited their numbers from the earlier Dartry and Terenure tram routes. The CIE logo was one we used to draw in our copybooks in school. Sadly it was surrendered to the modern culture of graphic design, which has its occasional merits, but of which I am not an uncritical fan.

James gave us a graphic desciption of the last trams being stripped of their fittings by eager souvenir hunters en route. The Howth tram lasted a further decade as it was run by the Great Northern Railway (GNR) until that company's operations in the South were merged with CIE. The closure of that tramline in 1958 was better policed. Lessons had been learned.

That tram used to go up the back of our house when we lived in the Gem in Howth in the late 1940s. There was a certain romance in the trams: the passing points along the route, reversing the trolley for the return journey, and the reversible wooden slatted seats of which there is an example in Dublin's Little Museum.

When I was small I wanted to be either a tram driver or a bishop, or so I'm told. The tram driver I can understand but have no idea where the bishop bit came from.

Cecelia Hartsell
"I live a New Life":
Frederick Douglass in Ireland

It hadn't struck me until I sat down to write this but this was the first talk I was ever at given by an African American. Amazing at my age. But it does go to show how homogeneously white Irish society had been up to relatively recent times.

It certainly added punch and poignancy to the content. Had I been around in 1845 I just might have heard Frederick Douglass speak as that was the time when this educated not-yet-free black, though of mixed race, slave came to Ireland.

I can't remember the precise percentage but I think Cecelia said she was 10% Irish. I think that came out of my remarking on Irish participation in slave ownership in America, particularly in the Caribbean.

Douglass was amazing. Born a slave and got himself educated while still in slavery. Escaped northwards but still at risk of recapture, he took up the cause of anti-slavery, women's rights and democracy generally.

His trip to Ireland & Britain got him temporarily out of the way of possible recapture and he was bought out of slavery on his way back to the USA. Ireland seems to have been his first taste of real freedom, free from the danger of recapture but also of the petty harassment of blacks even in the supposedly free Northern States. He was amazed at being fully accepted into the society in which he mixed here.

He was highly influenced by Daniel O'Connell and has recorded his astonishment at the power and appeal of the Liberator's oratory.

Cecelia made the point that Douglass's dress, education and manners acted as a bridge to white society and gave lie to the malicious belief that negroes were some sort of lower class humans, totally inferior to their then masters.

She was asked why the qualified term Afro-American is so often invoked in the States. Are they not just Americans like everyone else over there?

Cecelia referenced other communities describing themselves in generic terms like Irish or Italian Americans. I take the point to a limited extent. With others the qualification is probably only invoked when relevant to what is going on. Its more widespread invocation in respect of African-Americans probably suggests that there is still a long way to go.

Frank Whearity
Aspects of the Skerries Irish Volunteer Company's reorganisation
& it involvement as "C" Company with the 1st Battalion 8th Fingal Brigade
as told principally from the papers of participants,
James & Charley Murray, Skerries, Co. Dublin

Frank's long title illustrates well that his presentation was a patchwork of incidents and relationships.

He invoked men coming home from Frongoch and other detention centres following the 1916 rising, right through to the vicious retribution of the Tans in the Sack of Balbriggan during the War of Independence.

Many activists in the area were marked men and they with others suffered torture and death at the hands of British forces. The Auxiliaries were supposed to be putting some restraint on the Tans but often as not the latter ran amok at will.

Frank has assembled a huge amount of local material, just some of which he presented with a promise of more to come next year.

As I understand it this material is an expansion of Frank's MA thesis of 2011 but with a greater focus on Skerries itself.

Mary Muldowney
Remembering Our Referenda:
the 1983 Referendum Campaign

Mary is a historian and an activist. The second one is important as it raises the question objectivity. Mary deals with this by firmly declaring an interest at the outset and presumably expecting that we adjust our perspective accordingly. As she says, all historians are coming from somewhere and will have preconceptions. I suppose the important thing is that facts are facts and the rest is up for debate.

She briefly outlined the background to the 1983 abortion amendment referendum, reminding us that abortion was illegal at the time and the purpose of those pushing the amendment was to use the constitution to prevent the law being changed to allow abortion in the future.

Much is made of the pro-amendment lobby's opposition to divorce, contraception and other issues on the "liberalisation" agenda. That may be true of many others but I see abortion as sui generis, both a health and a human rights issue but I'm not going to get stuck into that here.

Mary comments on the cowardice of Haughey in bending to the pro-amendment lobby to get votes, despite the advice of his Attorney General, and of Fitzgerald in following him. There was still at that time the institutional abuse of power of the Roman Catholic Church threatening eternal hellfire, a product over the distribution of which it claimed ownership. Apparently the other churches held their peace.

Fast forward to 2018 when the moral clout of the Roman Catholic Church has all but disappeared and the mood of society has changed so that people are more likely to speak out and also recount their own personal experience.

Meanwhile the steady trek of women to England for abortions has become less a moral imperative for the rest of us and its devastating effect on a significant cohort of women has become better known.

Mary is making intensive use of oral history and I am a great fan of this often neglected method of research since reading the work of Kevin Kearns.

It is very labour intensive and the question of confidentiality arises particularly in the case of subjects as sensitive as abortion. This means that transcriptions cannot be outsourced and current speech-to-type software is not much use when you're dealing with multiple inputs which vary in cadence and accent. So a funding problem arises pretty quickly.

Bring in Mary's current full time job as resident historian for Dublin Central and you have added a serious time constraint. I really don't know how this can be resolved.

Let me just compliment DCLA and the resident historians, some of whom I know, on this wonderful project. It is not only subsidising the spread of local history but the actual research of the resident historians themselves and stimulating that of others.

Enda Leaney

Occasions like this local history day are then a great outlet for presenting the results of the research for both the professionals and completely lay people like myself.

So it's thanks and compliments to Enda and his team for another great day.


Frank Whearity said...

Thanks Pólo, for your blog about the Local History Day on Saturday 24th instant, and it would not be the same without your final summation of the event.
However, I cannot get out of my head the picture you painted of Edward Ball chasing his poor mother all around the house while at the same time taking lumps out of her with a hatchet. I think that I would rather be murdered by a bunch of Black and Tans than to suffer her fate. It does go to show what human beings are capable of when certain conditions prevail upon them, and after all Edward must have loved his mother once upon a time.
Nevertheless, as you pointed out, he was more than content to have spent her money travelling the world while it lasted. In any case Pólo, thanks once again for your wonderful blog and accompanying kind words to those who shared the podium with you on last Saturday, it was an honour for me, as an ordinary independent historian to have been among them in the DCLA reading room. Best regards from Frank Whearity, Skerries.

Póló said...

Thanks Frank. That's kind of you.

I thought for a minute you were going to challenge my account and I was starting to review the pathologist's report in my head. :-)

DCLA is a great forum and Enda is a worthy successor to Máire though I'm not sure they are yet paying him the rate. :-(