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MOn This Day — Vol­ume 2

ANY of us will be fa­mil­iar with broad­caster and his­to­rian Myles Dun­gan’s weekly On This Day slot on RTE ra­dio’s Drivetime pro­gramme. This book — the sec­ond vol­ume; his first was pub­lished two years ago — col­lects seg­ments broad­cast since Vol­ume 1 ap­peared in 2015. And if there’s such a thing as a one­size-fits-all his­tory book, then this comes pretty close.

The On This Day ra­dio slot, for the unini­ti­ated, is a short seg­ment pre­sented ev­ery Fri­day evening in which the an­niver­sary of a sig­nif­i­cant Ir­ish his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter or in­ci­dent of note is broad­cast — with a hefty dose of hu­mour — by Dun­gan. This book is a kind of “best of ”, if you like; some strange char­ac­ters, some funny, some tragic and some in­fu­ri­at­ing — all of them real — are sand­wiched be­tween these cov­ers.

One can’t help but be im­pressed by the scope of Dun­gan’s re­search and I imag­ine the task of de­cid­ing what to dis­card was as oner­ous as that of what to in­clude. And then there’s the tricky busi­ness of pre­sent­ing his­tory as a kind of en­ter­tain­ment. Dun­gan has writ­ten sev­eral schol­arly tomes that for­tify his po­si­tion as one of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent his­to­ri­ans, but this book isn’t one of them, nor is it in­tended to be. It is not for zeal­ous his­tory buffs and that only con­trib­utes to its ap­peal.

Ev­ery­one loves dis­cov­er­ing a juicy scan­dal or learn­ing of a thrilling heist or blood­thirsty mur­der; such is the stuff of best-sell­ing fic­tion. How much bet­ter to read about fac­tual ac­counts of such things, fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries which might have sat aban­doned on dusty li­brary shelves, or have been left stranded for­ever in ne­glected boxes of mi­cro­film.

I was tick­led by the ori­gins of some old “Ir­ish” songs. My mother used to sing Come Down from the Moun­tain Katie Daly to me when I was lit­tle. I doubt if she knew the Katie of the song was Ir­ish-amer­i­can Kather­ine Daly, a no­to­ri­ous boot­leg­ger who ended her days as the only fe­male in­mate of Al­ca­traz prison.

An­other song from child­hood is Are Ye Right There Michael. What I didn’t know was that Percy French wrote it as a re­sult of be­ing de­layed for four hours on the dis­as­trously chaotic West Clare Rail­way. He missed an im­por­tant en­gage­ment and suc­cess­fully sued the firm for loss of earn­ings “…thanks,” Dun­gan writes “to the rather re­laxed at­ti­tude of the rail­road em­ploy­ees to­wards the joys of timetabling”.

And how many peo­ple know that songs such as When Ir­ish Eyes Are Smil­ing and My Wild Ir­ish Rose are not even re­motely con­nected to any­one Ir­ish? But it wouldn’t do to spoil the real story... Myles Dun­gan New Is­land €10.95

There’s many a Ker­ry­man who, with a small drop on him, might in­sist on ren­der­ing all 40 (or so it seems) verses of The Wild Colo­nial Boy at any ran­dom au­di­ence in the pub. So it might come as a ter­ri­ble shock for those croon­ers to learn that Jack Dug­gan was in fact called John Dono­hue and was ac­tu­ally from Dublin. He was trans­ported to Aus­tralia in 1824 “for the heinous crime of do­ing ab­so­lutely noth­ing. He was charged and con­victed with ‘ in­tent to com­mit a felony’,” writes Dun­gan.

These snip­pets are just a teeny soup­con of what is on of­fer. There are dozens of in­ter­est­ing nuggets, like the ar­chi­tect of the White House in Wash­ing­ton be­ing an Ir­ish­man, like the sub­ma­rine be­ing prop­erly in­vented (not just sketched) by an Ir­ish­man. We find out how Dol­lar Bay in Wex­ford got its name and about the no­to­ri­ous Night of the Big Wind of 1839, which — with­out any as­sis­tance from global warm­ing that we know of — lit­er­ally blew half of this coun­try down.

The blood-soaked knives of po­lit­i­cal in­trigue are here, too, and the chron­i­cles of par­lia­men­tary be­tray­als are as vig­or­ous and plen­ti­ful in the 18th and 19th cen­turies as they cur­rently are in Kil­dare Street. Ir­ish pol­i­tics has al­ways been a smelly busi­ness, whether ad­min­is­tered from Lon­don or Dublin. The cuck­olded Captain Wil­lie O’shea, neme­sis of Par­nell, was a par­tic­u­larly slimy char­ac­ter, al­though they are plenty of oth­ers. Some cold com­fort might be gleaned from learn­ing that only two peo­ple at­tended O’shea’s fu­neral, while over 200,000 at­tended Par­nell’s.

The Ir­ish he­roes and anti-he­roes in these pot­ted his­to­ries are lo­cated ev­ery­where, across five con­ti­nents. And it fre­quently ap­pears that if there is skul­dug­gery afoot, then it’s not so much a case of “cherchez la femme” as it is of find­ing the Ir­ish­man. Some of our em­i­grants be­came spec­tac­u­lar ne’er-do-wells and all-round chancers while abroad. Oth­ers be­came world ci­ti­zens who have done us proud. Sweep­ing from 1170 AD right through to 1997, Dun­gan of­fers us a sec­ond chance to board his whis­tle-stop his­tory tour of the good, the bad and — most os­ten­si­bly — the Ir­ish.

Charles Ste­wart Par­nell, from an

1881 post­card

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