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