A visit to Glasnevin cemetery

My two days in Dublin were busy, both catching up with friends and doing research in the National Library of Ireland and Royal Irish Academy. But I was determined to get outside too and walked the 3km or so from town to Glasnevin cemetery on the northside. The cemetery opened in 1832 and in the 1840s several towers, like this one below, held nightwatchmen who guarded the graveyard against “resurrectionists” who supplied the medical profession with corpses for anatomy students.

My immediate aim was to find the grave of Thomas Meagher MP (1796–1874), the father of my research topic, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher senior was important in his own right as Waterford’s first Catholic mayor in 200 years and a staunch Pro-Repeal Westminster MP for 10 years between 1847-57. He was born in Newfoundland, and I had earlier assumed he was buried in the family tomb at Faithlegg, Co Waterford. However in later years he retired to Bray and was buried at Glasnevin.

The cemetery archivist gave me his grave number “NC47” but admitted I wouldn’t find it without her help. She walked with me to a grave she believed was the correct one and I thanked her profusely. After she left I closely read the faded inscription and realised it was not Meagher but someone from Tipperary. After a search of a few minutes scrambling past other plots, I found Meagher’s grave in the vicinity. The inscription is too faint to read in its entirety but the bit I could make out read “Thomas Meagh… ESQR, formerly MP for …ford” and I could also read “died at Bray 28 February 1874”. However I could not make out the text of two lines underneath. Given Meagher’s importance, the neglected grave could do with a bit of love from Waterford Council or a local historical society.

With the investigative part of my mission complete, I had time to check out some of Glasnevin’s better known (and better maintained) graves. I was immediately drawn to the dominating O’Connell tower in the middle of the cemetery. Before Glasnevin, Irish Catholics had no cemeteries with repressive Penal Laws forcing them to conduct services in Protestant graveyards. After an 1823 funeral when a Protestant sexton reprimanded a Catholic priest for conducting mass in his graveyard, Daniel O’Connell launched a campaign saying there was no law forbidding praying for a dead Catholic in a graveyard. In 1828 O’Connell established the Dublin Cemeteries Committee, to provide dignified burial space “for those of all religions and none”. Glasnevin (initially Prospect Cemetery) was opened four years later. O’Connell’s achievements were huge and spanned half a century but he was most closely associated with two movements, Catholic Emancipation which he achieved in the 1820s and Repeal of the Union which he failed to achieve in the 1840s. When the Liberator died in 1847, he was buried here. In 1855 Dublin architect Patrick Byrne completed the O’Connell Tower and in 1869, O’Connell’s remains were reinterred in an ornate crypt at the base of the tower. The tower is 55 metres tall and is still one of the highest structures in Dublin.

In the O’Connell circle surrounding the tower lie many well-known graves. Most poignant is Thomas Davis, Protestant founder of the Young Ireland revolutionary movement and the Nation newspaper that inspired it. Davis and others were dissatisfied by the pace of reform of O’Connell’s Repeal Association. Young Ireland split off after O’Connell struck a deal to support the Whig government in Westminster in 1846 and launched a failed rebellion in 1848 amid Ireland’s worst Famine (Glasnevin has hundreds of thousands of famine victims in unmarked graves). Davis saw none of this. He died of scarlet fever in 1845, aged just 30 and was mourned across the nation, almost as much as O’Connell was two years later.

Also buried in the O’Connell circle is a more controversial figure, William Martin Murphy (1845-1919). When his father, Cork building contractor Denis William Murphy (1799-1863) died, William took over the family business and his enterprise and business acumen expanded it. He was elected an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1885. When the party split in 1890 over Charles Stewart Parnell’s leadership, Murphy sided with the majority Anti-Parnellites. However, Dublin remained a Parnellite stronghold and in the bitter general election of 1892, Murphy lost his seat. In 1900, he bought the insolvent Irish Daily Independent merging it with the Daily Nation. In 1905 he re-launched this as a cheap mass-circulation newspaper, the Irish Independent, which became Ireland’s most popular nationalist paper. His anti-union attitude in the 1913 Dublin Lockout gave him much notoriety as did his calls for the execution of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders. He also opposed the 1918 rise of Sinn Fein but died in 1919 aged 74 just before the war of independence took hold.

Also in the circle is another Young Irelander and one with strong Australian connections, Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy was the son of a Monaghan Catholic shopkeeper and edited newspapers in Belfast before becoming the first editor of The Nation. He is acknowledged as one of the newspaper’s three founders in 1842 along with Davis and John Blake Dillon. Though arrested for sedition in 1848 he survived five trials before being released. Although he restarted the Nation in 1852 he became disillusioned with Irish politics and moved to Melbourne four years later. He entered the politics of Victoria on a platform of land reform. He served as deputy premier under another Irish Catholic, John O’Shanassy and in 1871-72 served as the colony’s 8th Premier, though disliked by the colony’s Protestant majority. He died in Nice, France in 1903, aged 86.

Buried nearby is, in my view, the greatest Irishman of the 20th century Roger Casement. He was an Irish patriot, poet and revolutionary, and an important human rights advocate who was also a British diplomat. His Foreign Office investigations into outrages committed against indigenous people in the Congo and Brazil enslaved to supply rubber for a new age of western manufacturing, brought him respect and renown. In 1911, he was knighted for his courage and integrity and his reputation was associated with the long struggle against international slavery. Yet in 1916 Britain hanged Roger Casement for treason. He was arrested in Kerry after trying to smuggle in 20,000 guns from a German U-Boat for the Irish republican cause. Casement got the death sentence despite being a knight of the realm with a 30 year career in the British Foreign Service. His trial unearthed diaries of his homosexual sexual conquests in Africa and Brazil and Casement was hanged, as much for his sexuality as his political attitudes, at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916. He was 51 years old.

The mortuary chapel at Glasnevin was designed by J.J. McCarthy (1817 -1882), Ireland’s pre-eminent architect of Catholic churches. The church is Hiberno-Romanesque in style, a symbol of Catholic Ireland of the late nineteenth century. Outside is a monument to the Great Famine, an Gorta Mór, unveiled by Irish president Michael D. Higgins in 2016 on the 170th anniversary of the famine. Some one million people died in six years from 1846-52 and another one million people emigrated. The combined population of the island of Ireland today is seven million, still a million less than lived here in 1845.

Unsurprisingly, Catholic prelates have a dominant position in the cemetery. One of the more imposing monuments is that for Edward McCabe (b. 1816), Archbishop of Dublin from 1879 until his death in 1885 and a Cardinal from 1882. The six years in which he was Archbishop were the years of the Land League and of the National League, of violent agitation including the Phoenix Park murders and savage coercion. Like his more famous predecessor Paul Cullen, McCabe distrusted popular movements and supported the British government against agitation. Nationalist newspapers and public men attacked him as a (Dublin) “Castle” bishop. His life was threatened and for a time he was under the protection of the police.

Because of the Easter Rising and its aftermath, the Irish tend to under-commemorate the First World War. That is a pity because Irish lives – Protestant and Catholic – were sacrificed in enormous numbers during the 1914-18 war. Over 200,000 men from Ireland fought in the war and 30,000 died serving in Irish regiments of the British forces and as many as 50,000 may have died altogether. President Higgins dedicated this cross of sacrifice in 2014 along with the Duke of Kent “to the memory of all the soldiers from Ireland who died in the World Wars”.

This poignant memorial honours those who died in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. The 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland mostly left the 26 counties aside but Protestant paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force brought the war to the Republic on May 17, 1974 during the Ulster Workers Council strike, detonating four bombs without warning. Three bombs exploded in Dublin during the evening rush hour and a fourth exploded in Monaghan 90 minutes later. They killed 33 civilians and injured almost 300. The bombings were the single deadliest attack of the conflict and the deadliest attack in the Republic’s history.

Back on O’Connell circle is another man with statue on O’Connell St, Sir John Gray (1815-1875). Gray was a doctor and owner of the Freeman’s Journal and MP for Kilkenny from 1865 until his death. He supported O’Connell’s Repeal movement, and later, Parnell. Gray was elected Dublin Corporation councillor in 1852 and as chairman of the committee for a new water supply to Dublin, he promoted the Vartry Reservoir scheme to dam the Vartry river in County Wicklow, and build water pipes and filtering systems to carry fresh water to the city. The Vartry Scheme improved sanitation and helped reduce outbreaks of cholera, typhus and other diseases associated with contaminated water.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (Diarmaid Ó Donnabháin Rosa) 1831-1915 was an Irish Fenian leader and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A west Cork man, he established the Phoenix National and Literary Society in 1856 “to liberate Ireland by force of arms” and his organisation merged with the IRB two years later in Dublin. In 1858, he was jailed without trial until July 1859. In 1865 he was arrested again on charges of treason felony. He was sentenced to penal servitude for life due to previous convictions. He served his time in Pentonville, Portland, Millbank and Chatham prisons in England. In an 1869 by-election, he was elected MP for Tipperary but the election was declared invalid because Rossa was an imprisoned felon. Released in 1870 he went to America where he joined Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood and established his own newspaper. Rossa organised the first ever Republican bombings of English cities in the “dynamite campaign”. The campaign lasted through the 1880s and made him infamous in Britain. His death in 1915 and graveside oration by Patrick Pearse was one of the major catalysts for the Easter Rising the following year.

Near Rossa’s grave lies another crucial Irish-American revolutionary. John Devoy (1842-1928). In 60 years of activism he played a role in the 1867 Fenian Rising, the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence 1919–1921. Devoy was chief Fenian organiser in the British Army in Ireland. The British got wind of a revolution plan and Devoy was arrested in February 1866. After serving five years in English prisons he was released and emigrated to America along with Rossa. He was one of the organisers of the Catalpa escape from Western Australia and was the single most important Irish nationalist fundraiser in America. He fell out with De Valera on his American visit in 1920 and he supported the pro-Treaty forces in the civil war.

Another man on an O’Connell St statue, Jim Larkin (1878-1947) was an Irish unionist and implacably opposed to William Martin Murphy in the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Born in Liverpool to Irish parent, he got involved in unions on Merseyside docks and in 1907 took his organising skills to Belfast and later to Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Larkin founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1908 and helped found the Irish Labour Party in 1912. In 1913 Murphy then chairman of the Dublin United Tramway Company refused to allow the ITGWU to unionise his workforce and dismissed 340 workers leading to a tramway workers strike. Murphy got 400 of the city’s employers to require their workers to sign a pledge not to be a member of the ITGWU. The strike was the most severe in Ireland’s history and lasted seven months. Larkin was arrested for sedition and served seven months. Afterwards he left for America where he joined the Wobblies and other socialist organisations. He was sentenced to five to 10 years in Sing Sing for his left-wing activism and later came back to Ireland to continue to advocate for the Labour party and unionism.

Maud Gonne (1867-1953) was one of the great heroines of the Irish revolution. Born in Aldershot she moved to Ireland when her army officer father was posted to Dublin in 1882. She became independently wealthy in 1887 on the death of her mother and met WB Yeats two years later, the poet falling hopelessly in love with her, though his love was unrequited. She was more in love with Irish nationalism won over by the plight of evicted people in the Land Wars. In 1903 in Paris, Maud married Major John MacBride, who had led the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British in the Second Boer War. Their son Seán MacBride (also buried here) was born a year later. McBride senior was executed in May 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising. Still in Paris in 1921, Gonne opposed the Treaty and she moved to Dublin in 1922 before being arrested a year later, serving 20 days. Gonne was a leading figure in the Catholic monetary reform movement in Ireland in the 1930s and a member of the Irish Social Credit Party committed to reforming Ireland’s financial and economic systems.

Probably the single most-visited grave in Glasnevin is that of Michael Collins (1890-1922). Another Cork man, Collins moved to London where he played GAA and got involved in the IRB. He returned to Ireland to fight in the Easter Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp in the GPO and became a leader of the interned Irish after that revolution. In the 1918 Sinn Fein landslide election, Collins was elected MP for South Cork but took his place in the first Dublin parliament instead and was appointed Minister for Finance in the First Dáil. In the War of Independence, he was Director of Organisation and Adjutant General for the Irish Volunteers, and Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army. He was a brilliant guerrilla warfare strategist, planning many successful attacks on British forces. After the July 1921 ceasefire, Collins was a key plenipotentiary sent to negotiate peace terms in London. The resulting Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921, established the Irish Free State but depended on an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Collins viewed the treaty as offering “the freedom to achieve freedom”, and persuaded a majority in the Dáil to ratify the treaty. He was chair of a provisional government in early 1922. In the Irish Civil War, Collins was commander-in-chief of the National Army. He was shot and killed in an ambush by anti-Treaty forces on August 22, 1922.

Collins’ alter ego and frenemy is Eamon De Valera, buried a discreet distance away in the De Valera family plot. Born George de Valero in Brooklyn, and known to all as Dev, he was a senior leader in the 1916 Rising but his American birth saved him from a death sentence. De Valera spent much of the war that followed in America raising money (and making an enemy of Devoy). He opposed the Treaty but sat out the civil war. He eventually rehabilitated himself, founding the Fianna Fail political party and the Irish press newspaper. He would dominate Irish politics for 60 years. He was influential on both sides of the border, a thorn in the British side and also had a massive impact on American affairs between 1918 and 1945. Ireland was such a pain to White House administrations, the country was left out of the Marshall Plan that revitalised allies and enemies alike. By the late 1950s de Valera’s economy naivete left the Irish economy in deep trouble. By then he was an almost totally blind caricature of the remote and exotic president of the Irish Republic he helped create and shape in his deeply religious image. Yet he clung onto power until 1959 when aged 76 he was forcibly retired upstairs as president in “the Park”. There in a supposed ceremonial role, he wielded enormous influence for 14 more years in two terms. He died in 1975 aged 92.

There was one last grave I wanted to visit, an imposing stone slab well away from the other notables. That was the grave of Charles Stewart Parnell. If Casement was the greatest Irishman of the 20th century, fellow Protestant Parnell was my greatest of the 19th, just shading O’Connell. Parnell emerged from a powerful Anglo-Irish Protestant landowning family in County Wicklow to become the most effective Irish nationalist politician of his era and an MP from 1875 to 1891. He led the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882 and transformed the Irish Parliamentary Party into the first modern political party, holding the balance of power during the Home Rule debates of 1885–1886. He was imprisoned in Kilmainham in 1882, but he was released after renouncing violent action. His party discipline forced Gladstone to adopt Irish Home Rule as Liberal Party policy. The Irish Parliamentary Party split in 1890, following the revelation of Parnell’s long adulterous love affair. He never recovered from the scandal and he died a broken man a year later. Pro and anti Parnell feelings ran high for next 20 years and was second only to the civil war in divisiveness in Irish politics. His gravestone of unhewn Wicklow granite, erected in 1940 reads only “Parnell” and is all the more impressive for its stern brevity.

Ballingarry Famine Warhouse 1848 and the Young Ireland rebellion

The Famine Warhouse of 1848

Deep in the hills of the Kilkenny – Tipperary border country lies the Ballingarry Famine Warhouse of 1848. This imposing house was the scene of the ill-fated 1848 Young Ireland rebellion. Though the revolution barely deserves that name as it was little more than a skirmish where just two people died, the house is an under-recognised but important site of Irish history. The Famine Warhouse is now a state-run museum under the stewardship of 76-year-old John Webster and John was kind enough to show me around on my recent visit. I was there as part of my research into Young Ireland leader and later American civil war general, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher was not present at the house on the day of the battle of July 29, though John assured me he had been in the area the night before.

The rolling hills north-east of the warhouse.

The Young Ireland movement emerged as a dissatisfied clique unhappy with the pace of reform of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association which was aiming to repeal the 1801 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. Spurred on by the European year of revolution in 1848, the Young Irelanders tried to raise the Irish population but were watched closely by British authorities. Westminster suspended habeas corpus in Ireland on July 22, 1848. Led by Westminster MP William Smith O’Brien, they went on the run to foment rebellion in south-east Ireland amid the country’s worst ever Famine. A million died of famine fever (typhus spread by lice), and dysentery and dropsy caused by lack of food. The Young Irelanders could no longer wait for harvest-time and had some success in raising willing rebels in Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir but each time they moved on, priests would discourage the locals from fighting.

The monument at The Commons

O’Brien had some success in the Mullinahone-Ballingarry coalmining region of northern Tipperary and on July 28 he and his fellow leaders Meagher, John Blake Dillon, Terence Bellew MacManus, James Stephens, John O’Mahony, Michael Doheny, Maurice Leyne, James Cantwell, Patrick O’Donohue, and Thomas Devin Reilly met for the last time in The Commons to discuss strategy. They then scattered to try to raise more troops but the only action was among those who remained a day later at the nearby Warhouse. At Ballingarry there were 600 peasants but only 50 had muskets and 150 had scythes, pitchforks or pikes. O’Brien exercised the men in the streets practising firing their muskets into hedges while Dillon drilled them in charges.

Helen Walsh at the gate of the house in the early 1900s.

The Warhouse was built in 1844 around an older house as the home of mine owner Thomas McCormack and his wife Margaret. There they farmed 65 acres but Thomas died in the Famine leaving Margaret to raise seven children alone. The house is at Farranfory, a townland 5km from Ballingarry, set in what is now beautiful woodlands. But in 1848 it was unwooded and clearly visible from the closest settlement of The Commons, a small coal mining town just north of Ballingarry. There O’Brien gathered three hundred people to construct a barricade to repel the expected police force. Liverpool wool broker Terence Bellew MacManus handed out a small amount of guns as well as powder and ball.

Curator John Webster at the Warhouse.

A force of 47 Royal Irish Constabulary officers from Callan was seen heading north near Ballingarry. The rebels steadied themselves at the barricade under the cover of coal dust. At the last moment police veered off right on the road to Farranfory. According to rebel eye witness John Kavanagh the police “ran like cowards”. The rebels thought they were heading to Kilkenny and gave chase. Suddenly the police turned up a byroad where they found the Warhouse. They barricaded themselves in using furniture and beds in a “very strong position” according to Kavanagh.

Smith O’Brien accompanies the Widow McCormack to the window of the house. (London Illustrated News)

When the rebels arrived at the house it was pouring rain. O’Brien and MacManus reconnoitred and their men occupied the outside walls, outhouses and haggard (hay) stand. MacManus called on rebels to set the hay alight to smoke out the police but O’Brien overruled him. Five of Mrs McCormack’s children were in the house. Mrs McCormack had gone to The Commons to collect the other two from school. Eldest daughter Catherine, 12 was in charge of the smaller children and the Illustrated London News of August 12 quoted her saying, “we all set up a cry when the police came in”. Youngest child Maggy, 2, put her head in Catherine’s lap and asked “Will they kill us?” The guns went off “like thunder” and the children screamed. Suddenly Mrs McCormack appeared from behind in tears and pushed through the cabbage patch past the rebels demanding to see her children. O’Brien followed her to a window.

The plaque outside the front door of the Warhouse “Remember 48”.

Police refused her request to release the five hostages while O’Brien demanded they give up their arms. While the lower ranked police inside the room gave him a cheer, their leader Sub-Inspector Trent was less welcoming believing they could last 48 hours without provisions. As rebels threw stones, Trent ordered a volley of shots. Kavanagh was hit in the thigh and injured. Local man Patrick McBride fell dead beside him. A second man, Thomas Walsh was also shot dead as he dashed across the yard though O’Brien and Mrs McCormack were untouched beside the wall. Stephens pulled O’Brien out of the line of fire. The two sides exchanged fire for three hours according to Kavanagh. Local priest Fr Philip Fitzgerald thought it was two hours and he tried to make the peace but neither side would compromise. After they heard another police force were on the way from Cashel he strongly advised the rebels to disperse saying “enough mischief had been done”. The rebels fled ahead of the police reinforcements who relieved the house. The rebellion, “so much talked of for years. seemed at one blow to have been utterly and forever extinguished”, the priest said. In the days that followed troops under General McDonald arrived and arrested 21 locals.

William Smith O’Brien (seated) with Thomas Francis Meagher (second left) plus a sentry and the prison warden (right) await trial at Kilmainham Jail in 1848.

O’Brien was sheltered for a week after the rebellion. While Doheny, Stephens and O’Mahony escaped to Paris and then America, O’Brien was captured attempting to board a train in Thurles for his estate at Cahirmoyle in Co Limerick. MacManus made it to a ship in Cork bound for America but was recognised aboard and arrested. Along with Meagher and O’Donohue, they were tried for high treason in Clonmel and sentenced to death before their sentence was commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. All bar O’Brien later escaped to America. He was the only one to ever return to Ireland, though never again to political office. His statue is on O’Connell St. Dublin near his great rival Daniel O’Connell. As historian Tony Moore argues the Young Irelander success came after their departure from Ireland. Though the rebellion was a miserable failure dismissed as “the cabbage patch rebellion” by English newspapers, Young Ireland invented a new cultural vocabulary of nationalism, gifting Ireland the idea of an independent nation that Britain could never kill off. The words of the Young Irelanders inspired the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising to the view that Britain would only grant some independence through violent means.

William Smith O’Brien monument in O’Connell St Dublin.

As for the Warhouse, the McCormacks left for America in 1853 and it passed to the Walsh family and then the Morris family then the Connollys who sold it to the Irish state in 1998. It was renovated in 2000–01 and was renamed “Famine Warhouse 1848” in 2004. Today it houses a museum with informative exhibits on the Famine and the rebellion and its aftermath amid the upheaval that rocked Europe during that turbulent year.

Clonmacnoise monastic settlement

After a visit to Glendalough in Co Wicklow, it was time for another even older monastic settlement a day later. Clonmacnoise, meaning “Meadow of the Sons of Nós” is in the heart of the Irish midlands on the Co Offaly side of the Shannon River, south of Athlone. Arriving at the site a half hour before opening, I have time to admire the broad majestic Shannon as well as nearby Clonmacnoise Castle. In the 12th century the Anglo-Normans built a motte-and-bailey castle here with a wooden keep on a raised area of ground called a motte. The wooden castle was destroyed by fire and in 1214 the Justiciar of Ireland, Henry of London, built a stone castle on the motte to gain control over the midlands and guard the bridge across the River Shannon. This period marks the time when Clonmacnoise went into decline as a monastic city.

The monastic city next door is therefore of even older vintage to the crumbling ruin of the castle. These lands belonged to the abbot of Clonmacnoise before the Normans arrived. I initially enjoyed the view from outside the grounds.

Clonmacnoise was founded by Saint Ciarán (born c. 516, died c. 549). With Saints Columba and Brendan, Ciarán was educated by Abbot St. Finnian at the Monastery of Clonard on the Esker Riada, Ireland’s great east-west road. After studying under Abbot St Enda at Aranmore Island in Galway, he settled with eight companions at Clonmacnoise where the Esker Riada met the Shannon. In 548 he founded an abbey that subsequently developed into one of the most famous Irish monastic cities and by the 9th century it was a great centre of learning.

Outside the entrance is a sculpture by Jackie McKenna called The pilgrim. The subtext says Aedh, son of the chief of Oriel, died on pilgrimage 606 AD. In its World Heritage Site application, Clonmacnoise is listed as “the finest example in the world of an early medieval Insular city”. Unlike Iona or Lindisfarne which were abandoned after Viking raids, Clonmacnoise continued to develop. It did not grow into a modern metropolis like its medieval rival, Armagh, declining in the late twelfth century, but it left “a superb example of a relict monastic city.”

Inside I visit the museum first rather than the outside exhibits. The three high crosses now on display in the Visitor Centre originally stood at Clonmacnoise in a semi-circle to the west, south and north of the cathedral. Due to deteriorating environmental conditions damaging the stonework and because of their
importance as examples of insular art, the three upstanding crosses were moved inside in 1992. High quality replicas cast from resin were placed on their original sites. The best known is the West Cross, the Cross of the Scriptures. The Cross was mentioned twice in the Annals of the Four Masters and is 4m tall. The shaft and head is carved from one piece of sandstone and this is slotted into the sandstone base. A ring surrounds the arms and shaft but have a unique upward tilt which lends lightness and vibrancy.
The west face depicts scenes from Jesus’s life while the east face panel commemorates the foundation of Clonmacnoise.

The South Cross is also a ringed cross and it originally stood at the south-west corner of Temple Dowling. It bears a crucifixion scene on the west side of the shaft and a faint inscription suggests that it may have been commissioned by the father of King Flann, Maelsechnaill Mac Maelruanaid, High King of Ireland from 846-862. This cross is carved from one piece of sandstone. The entire surface is covered in panels of interlace, geometric ornament and spirals.

Only the shaft of the North Cross survives with the remains of a tenon at the top, over
which the head would have fitted. Three sides of the shaft are decorated; the fourth side on the east is blank possibly because it may have stood against a building. Its ornaments includes interlaced human figures, animals and panels and it has been been dated to around 800. The art work is typically insular with spiral motifs. The animals are similar to carved slabs in Scotland, while the human figures have parallels in the Book of Kells.

The round tower also known as O’Rourke’s Tower is one of 120 examples around Ireland thought to have existed, though only 18-20 are still in good condition plus three more in Scotland and one in the Isle of Man. They were principally bell towers as their Irish name cloigthech (bell-house) confirms. They imitated then then-popular European style of bell tower. Its door faces the west doorway of the church. The round tower is dated by annalistic evidence to 1124 when it was finished by Gillachrist Ua Maoileóin, successor of Ciarán, and Toirdelbach Ua Conchobar, king of Connacht, and aspirant to the high kingship of Ireland. It is 5.6 metres in diameter at the base and tapers evenly towards the top at 19 metres, but is missing one third of its original height and its conical cap. It was struck by lightening in 1135 and the reconstructed upper three metres probably dates to the later medieval period. It is composed of well-shaped rectangular grey limestone blocks quarried at nearby Rocks of Clorhane to the level of the bell-storey windows where the late medieval work uses smaller and more irregular stone. There are 10 windows, one above the doorway and another lintelled window faces north to the Shannon. The other eight reconstructed lintelled windows are at the bell-storey level facing the cardinal compass points. The tower was re-roofed in the 1980s and fixed ladders were inserted between the floors.

Temple Ciarán dates from the 9th-10th century and is one of only six examples of the unique architectural type of the early Irish shrine chapel, the earliest mortared stone structures in Ireland. The others are found at Iona, Ardmore Co. Waterford, Inishmurray, Co. Sligo, Inchcleraun, Co. Longford and Labbamolaga, Co. Cork. Temple Ciarán is the only one to have a true-arched doorway. This shrine chapel complements the cathedral or damliag and is an example of the deliberate separation of reliquary and liturgical space practised by Irish clerics of the eighth and ninth centuries. It was built over what was believed to be the burial place of St Ciarán.

At the heart of the monastic complex is the largest building, the Cathedral (damliag), also referred to as Temple Mac Dermot. It was built by Flann mac Maeleachlainn, (879-916) and Colmán (abbot of Clonmacnoise, d.926) as recorded in the 909 annals. This was a year after Flann’s defeat of king Cormac mac Cuilennáin of Munster, in the battle of Belach Mugna after which Flann became high king of Ireland. His erection of the cathedral and high cross at Clonmacnoise was an act of thanksgiving to God, and a symbol of royal power and patronage. The church is the largest pre-Romanesque church in Ireland and its core and unicameral appearance have been carefully and deliberately maintained, throughout the medieval and modern period.

Alterations to the Cathedral in the twelfth century included a new west door and east window, and a
sacristy added to the south. In the 13-14th century the south wall was demolished and moved northward by two metres, probably due to structural problems, leaving the west doorway off-centre. In the fifteenth century, the eastern end of the cathedral was vaulted and a spectacular north doorway was added which has fine limestone carving in perpendicular gothic style, with complicated mouldings around the pointed opening.

The cathedral is the resting place of Turlough Ua Conchobair, King of Connaught (buried in 1156) and his son, Ruairi Ua Conchobair, the last high king of Ireland (interred in 1198). Ruari abdicated and spent his final years in retirement in the Augustinian abbey of Cong. In 1207 his remains were disinterred and deposited in a stone shrine, and this may have been when the transitional west doorway and sacristy were added.

The doorway of the Cathedral is surmounted with high reliefs of three saints: Dominic, Patrick and Francis (Francis’s head is missing) each identified by inscription. An inscription reads: ‘DNS ODO DECANUS CLUAN ME FIERI FECIT’ indicating Dean Odo, who died in 1461, commissioned the work. This doorway is also known as the Whispering Door for a whisper which travels from one side to the other. Legend says this enabled lepers to get confession without priests having to get too close to them.

Temple Finghin, also known as McCarthy’s Church, is unusually integrated into a round tower. Thought to date from 1160-70 it is similar to Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel 1127-34, (usually considered the key building in the introduction of the Romanesque style to Ireland). The Romanesque chancel arch was damaged by fire and its inner order is a limestone replacement. Often called the second round tower of Clonmacnoise, it is 16.7 metres high with a diameter of four meters at the base. The conical cap, with its unusual herringbone pattern, was taken down and reset in 1879-80. The tower has a door at ground level with no indications that the usual raised door ever existed. Also unusual is the lack of the traditional four bell-storey windows, as there are just the two at this level – north and south – lower than the usual bell-storey windows of other towers. Vandalism of the crosses and Temple Finghin chancel arch led to a Kilkenny Archaeological Society investigation. In 1864, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland raised funds to prosecute John Glennon for “wanton vandalism”. The case failed but it was a key test case for legislation for the protection of public monuments in the United Kingdom, previously only used for museums.

Believers say St Ciarán’s burial at Clonmacnoise ensures all those interred with him will avail of his intervention and gain rapid entry into heaven. The Old Burial Ground dates from the mid-6th century.
The graveyards are a part of the sacral landscape especially for people from Clonmacnoise parish. As the old burial ground was full after 1200 years Offaly County Council closed it in 1955 and provided a new burial ground on the east side.

The Nuns’ Church was completed by Derbforgaill (1109-93) in 1167. Derbforgaill was the daughter of the king of Mide (Meath), and wife of Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Bréifne. Her abduction by the king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, in a 1152 raid was one of the key reasons for the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, and the end of the Gaelic order. According to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, Mac Murchada “kept her for a long space to satisfy his insatiable, carnall and adulterous lust”. She was returned to her husband the following year but in 1166, Ua Ruairc and his allies drove Mac Murchada out of his kingdom into exile. Mac Murchada enlisted the aid of Henry II of England and precipitated the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169.

High crosses exist from the 7th century in Ireland, and were later seen in Scotland and Northumbria. High crosses are Ireland’s greatest contribution to Western European art of the middle ages, along with illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. Most Irish high crosses have the distinctive shape of the ringed Celtic Cross, feature figural decoration and are usually larger and more massive than those elsewhere. High crosses were status symbols, either for a monastery or for a sponsor or patron. Most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed after the Reformation.

Pope John Paul II visited Clonmacnoise on Sunday, September 30, 1979 during his Irish visit. In a supposed “private” devotion, the Pope was joined by a crowd of 30,000 who thronged outside the graveyard, many sleeping on the nearby slopes in overnight wait. According to the local newspaper the pope knelt in prayer before the open air altar and admired diocesan treasures brought to him. In his speech he wanted to “recall and honour the great monastic contribution to Ireland that was made here on this revered spot for one thousand years and whose influence was carried all over Europe by missionary monks and by students of the monastic school of Clonmacnoise”.

While the buildings promote reverence, it is the River Shannon that truly inspires. As well as being a major transport route (which the Vikings exploited), Ireland’s longest river provided the monastery with food and raw materials. Salmon, eels, sturgeon as well as geese and ducks were important food sources. Monks used reeds to thatch roofs and lime-rich shell marl as fertiliser. Winter and summer flooding also enriched the land creating a rich mosaic of flora and fauna.

Glendalough monastic settlement

In a return visit to Ireland, one itch I wanted to scratch was the famous monastic settlement at Glendalough Co Wicklow, a place I’d somehow managed to avoid in all my years living in nearby Dublin. Glendalough combines stunning scenery with evocative ruined architecture, including distinctively Irish styles such as its famous round tower. Gleann Dá Loch is Irish for valley of two lakes. The valley was carved out by Ice Age glaciers and the two lakes were formed when the ice eventually thawed. The valley is home to one of Ireland’s most impressive monastic sites founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century. St Kevin’s austere life attracted many followers leading to a monastic city and eventually a site of great pilgrimage.

Glendalough is a monastic settlement known as the city of the seven churches. Saint Kevin, or Cóemgen, died in 618 or 622 at the supposed age of 120, and his story is preserved in three Saints Lives, all composed many years after his death. Saint Kevin was a Leinster nobleman turned priest who retreated into the wilderness to be closer to God. Initially he spent his time in isolation at the shores of the Upper Lake, but after seven years he founded the main monastic complex at the eastern end of the Lower Lake in the late sixth / early seventh century. The monastery rose to a position of pre-dominance before subsequent decline. Most buildings that survive today date from the 10-12th centuries. Despite attacks by Vikings, Glendalough thrived as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214.

Glendalough was enclosed within a circular wall. Early medieval monastic enclosures were enclosed for defence but also defined sacred space. The gatehouse marks the formal entrance to the complex, although the steps are a recent addition. The entrance arch is Ireland’s only surviving example of a medieval gateway to an early monastic city. The Roman style columns have the stones cut specifically to scale and they held themselves up without mortar. This structure was originally two-storied with two fine granite arches.

St. Kevin’s Church, better known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen, is a nave-and-chancel church of the 12th century. People believed the bell tower was a chimney to a kitchen but no food was cooked there. This stone-roofed building originally had a nave only, with entrance at the west end and a small round-headed window in the east gable. The belfry with its conical cap and four small windows rises from the west end of the stone roof in the form of a miniature round tower.

Monasteries were not just places of contemplation, but also centres of political and economic power. As Glendalough grew in significance, it became entangled in broader political conflicts. The importance and wealth of the monastery saw it targeted by Viking raids in 836. The destruction of the “dertrach” (“oak house”, probably meaning timber church) is noted in the Annals. Through the late tenth and eleventh century it was repeatedly attacked by Viking and Irish raiders, with several records of the area being burnt.

West of St Kevin’s Cross lies a small Romanesque building known as the Priest’s house with a decorative arch at the east end. The name derives from an 18th century practice of bringing the priests to be readied for burial and also burying priests in the floor. The house was almost totally reconstructed from the original stones, based on a 1779 sketch made by Beranger. Its original purpose is unknown although it may have been used to house relics of St. Kevin.

The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is the largest of the seven churches in Glendalough. It was built in several phases from the 10th through the early 13th century.

Large mica schist stones, which form the foundation of the cathedral to the height of the west doorway, were re-used from an earlier smaller church. The earliest part is the nave with antae for supporting the wooden roof. The chancel, sacristy, and north door were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as was the north doorway. Inside there is a wall cupboard, a stone font, grave slabs, and the remains of a decorated arch. The original cathedral was probably built c1100 as Glendalough became the seat of a bishopric. The walls of the cathedral include distinctive stones reused from an earlier stone church, which appears to have been entirely removed and rebuilt.

The round tower probably dates to c1100 and is 30 metres high, with an entrance 3.5 metres from the base. It was built of mica-slate interspersed with granite. The tower originally had six timber floors, connected by ladders. The top storey has four windows facing the cardinal compass points while the four storeys below have one small window. The roof was reconstructed in 1876. Round towers were built as bell towers to summon the monks to prayer, but also served as store-houses and as places of refuge during attacks.

Near the cathedral is the large St Kevin’s Cross of uncertain date. This unpierced ring cross combines Christian and pagan motifs with a circle representing the sun.

By the later eleventh century, Muirchertach Ua Briain, High King of Munster promoted Glendalough as a rival to Dublin. In 1111 Dublin was subsumed into the Diocese of Glendalough. Many of the ecclesiastical buildings valley date to this period – the height of its power and influence in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. However, by the later twelfth century Glendalough’s influence declined as Munster’s influence waned: Glendalough was burned again in 1163. In 1214 the Archbishop of Tuam reported that “although anciently held in great veneration (Glendalough) became waste and desolate, and has been so for years past, instead of a church it became a den of thieves and a nest of robbers, occasioned by its being a vast and solitary desert”. By 1216 it was incorporated into the Diocese of Dublin.

The graveyard, which is still in active use for burial, contains examples of reused early medieval cross marked grave slabs. The graveyard contains over 2000 grave markers. The earliest graves are east of the Priest’s House, where plain slabs date to the 11th century. The earliest grave marker commemorates Murlagh Doyle and dates to 1697.

There are many fine examples of Aughrim granite gravestones which date from the late 18th century. The inscription on this one is “Here lieth ye | body of The | Reverd PHELIN | BRYAN Decd Ma | y 3rd 1759 aged | 57 yrs”.

The popular walk along the north shore of the Upper Lake follows the miners road, and the remains of miner’s cottages are found along it. The miners planted a million trees in the mid-nineteenth century
alone, mainly to use as pit props but also as a commercial crop.

The Upper Lake is closely associated with the story of Kevin’s retreat into the wilderness. The lawns east of the lake were formerly known as Kevin’s Desert (Disert Chaoimhghin), supposedly a wilderness and place for the classic early Christian retreat into nature. However there was little good archaeological evidence for early activity at the Upper Lake. Some simple mica schist crosses and cross slabs are likely early medieval, but there was nothing that could be associated with the supposed period of Kevin’s presence apart from the ‘caher’ near the lake – a circular stone and earth wall – which UCD researchers have radiocarbon dated early activity to c. 428–593.

Situated in the Glendalough Woods Nature Reserve is Poulanass waterfall. It marks a sudden drop where a hanging valley meets the main Glendalough Valley. During the last Ice Age a glacier flowing down the small valley was cut off when a larger glacier carved a deeper channel in the Glendalough Valley

Prehistoric communities were present in the area and excavations have recovered small amounts of prehistoric artefact such Neolithic/Bronze Age stone tools and possible early Neolithic carinated bowl pottery. Over 100 charcoal production platforms are recorded around the Upper Lake mainly
now located in woodland. These sites are platforms cut into the hill slopes, providing a flat surface on which wood could be stacked, covered and then fired during summer time.

The Wicklow Way follows the old pilgrimage route down the valley to Glendalough and the flagstones of the old pilgrimage road are visible in sections. It’s hard to believe this beautiful site is just 50km from Dublin.

St Kevin’s Way follows the footsteps of St Kevin to Glendalough. Medieval pilgrims came from far and wide to visit his tomb after his death in 618. Main routes come from Hollywood and Valleymount and they join at Ballinagee Bridge before climbing to the highest point on the route at Wicklow Gap, a classic wind gap (a dry valley once occupied by a stream or river, since captured by another stream).

A walk around Binna Burra’s Coomera Circuit

On Sunday, I joined a group for a walk of Binna Burra’s Coomera Circuit. Billed as one of the great day walks by Australian Geographic, it was the second major walk I’ve done there in the past 12 months after doing the 10km Dave’s Creek circuit last year. At that time, many of the other walks were closed due to storm damage and while they were open this time, there was plenty of water about after South East Queensland’s big La Nina season. After a 90 minute drive (slightly longer than expected due to the closure of Beechworth Rd), I got to Binna Bunna before my walking companions and enjoyed the view down to Advancetown Lake (Hinze Dam) and the high-rise buildings of the Gold Coast beyond.

When the others arrived we set off south down the Border Track, a 21 km U-shaped walk to O’Reillys that traverses the border with New South Wales. Binna Burra and O’Reillys remain private operations adjacent to but not part of Lamington National Park. Our walk was scheduled to be a 17km loop off the main track but in the end it was 21km also. The track was wet after recent rains and slippery and extremely muddy in places. It also meant the creeks were up. Conditions are remarkably different now then when they were in September 2019, when the area was devastated by bushfires and the historic lodge Binna Burra Lodge was destroyed.

Binna Burra means “where the (Antarctic) beech trees grow” in a local Aboriginal language, a hint of the rainforest’s Gondwana origins. There were glimpses of the wider national park through the dense foliage as we diverted off the border track to the Coomera Circuit around the 2km. As well as the beech, the forest is full of giant brush box Lophostemon confertus. The brush box evolved from a common ancestor as the eucalypt and have similar fruit.

Many of the Binna Burra tracks were designed and built by Romeo Lahey (who helped found the National Parks Association of Queensland in 1930) during the Great Depression, deliberately to have a gradient not greater than 10%, something we’d appreciate on the way back. But for now we were going down. After descending for a few kilometres we come to a viewing spot of Coomera Falls. These are cantilevered falls where the Coomera River cascades into a 160m deep gorge. The Coomera River heads north-east down the range and empties into the Gold Coast Broadwater near Coomera Island and Paradise Point.

The view at the bottom of the falls.

Below we are faced with the first of many tricky river crossings as we follow the Coomera up towards its source. On several occasions we had no option but to get wet, in my case up to my upper thigh, to navigate the crossings.

There were many smaller waterfalls along the way such as Bahnamboola Falls. There is a deep pool under the plunge falls though swimming is not recommended along the track.

A little further on is Kagoonya Falls.

Followed by Gwongarragong Falls.

And then Moolgoolong Cascades.

There were several more cascades to come including the spectacular Neerigomindalala Falls, one of the last ones before we rejoin the Border Track.

Back on the high ground we stop for lunch and a chance to dry out a bit after all the creek crossings. There’s also a view of the Woggunba Valley from Joalah Lookout. This is the view east towards Natural Bridge.

It was a tough eight-hour-plus day of walking made more difficult than usual thanks to the wet conditions. Though at least it wasn’t raining on the walk so leeches weren’t an issue as they were in October when we did O’Reillys day walks. But it was raining somewhere as this lovely rainbow showed near Beechworth, a highlight of a long, tired drive home.

Raving on with Andy White

It’s a long way in space and time from a frenzied and sweaty concert hall in Dublin in 1986 to a languorous and warm afternoon in a Brisbane backyard in 2022, but that’s my 36 year gap between my attendance at Andy White gigs. “Rave on Andy White” might be almost four decades old but always remained a favourite album so when a friend said Andy White was playing at a house concert in Brisbane early last year I was definitely in. COVID got in the way and there were several cancellations but last weekend I finally got to see him again playing in front of the Ukrainian-flag themed washing line in deepest south-east Queenslander suburbia. It was low key but a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

It was a long way from where either of us grew up, at either end of Ireland. White was from the north, a Belfast boy, something still obvious when he spoke and I was grateful that after the gig he gave me 16 minutes on the record about his records. The singer-songwriter burst on to the scene in the mid 1980s with his EP Religious Persuasion followed by the full length album Rave on Andy White.

The album contained instant classics such as the aforementioned Religious Persuasion and The Soldier’s Sash which brilliantly skewered Northern Ireland’s religious divide in the middle of the Troubles: “It was born in London Paris New York SOUTH AMERICA Randalstown Enniskillen and the Boyne”. Aged just 24, White had announced himself as a Bob Dylan with a Belfast accent and a splendid pox-on-both-your-houses punkish attitude that was electrifying (in every sense) to my young Irish ears. White grew up in the mighty shadow of George Ivan Morrison, “he was just there”, he told me. But it was people like John Peel playing records of bands like Stiff Little Fingers that carved out an alternative Ulster for White. “It gave us a lot of confidence that if you wanted to do it you could do it yourself,” he said. Peel’s fellow Radio 1 DJ Janice Long was quick to pick up on the new talent and a major record label deal followed.

By the time he played in Dublin (I can’t remember where, possibly the TV Club where most new music landed), Andy White was hot property and the gig was a sellout. The punks were out in force but so were the folk fans and others who enjoyed his music and quirky rhymes. There was simply no one else doing what he was doing, and you had to admire the audacity of someone taking the mickey out of “Archbishop whatever his name was and John Player Number Two”.

The album was a constant on the car cassette player as I travelled around England in the couple of years that followed. But then I left for Australia and in those pre-Internet days I promptly forgot about Andy White. It wasn’t just my fault. As he explained to me he was transferred off the major label “like a soccer player” and while being an indie artist suited him, there was less airplay. While I forgot about him, I’d never forget the punch of Religious Persuasion.

White continued to make records, 20 in all now, and he too moved to Australia in the years that followed. But it was only after I heard about the Brisbane gig, did I catch up with his back catalog. There was much to admire and his quirky talent for a good rhyme remained undimmed. I liked “James Joyce’s Grave” which continued his literary bent combined with the knack for a good tune (plus a sentimental reason – I too had sought out the author’s final resting place in Zurich).

There was plenty to enjoy too on the latest album This Garden is Only Temporary which the Irish Times called “effortless and captivating”. While I could agree it was captivating, I knew it was hardly effortless. That was because White put out an accompanying podcast called This Podcast is Only Temporary with each episode devoted to a single song on the album, which I listened to on the long drive to Brisbane. White is a great communicator and he explains well the creative process behind making an album. It’s easy to see how he also lectures in a music artist degree course and Music Production music artist degree. That academic career also helped pay the bills when COVID hit. But live music is what he loves doing best. It was a joy and a privilege to hear him play in front of the Ukrainian blankets. As he said “that’s what art is and what telling a story is and that’s beautiful.”

White is a better storyteller than I am a music reviewer. So here’s the full text of our interview when we sat down after the house concert. I apologise for my interruptions as I can see now Andy was trying to take me in certain directions when I should have shut up and listened.

DB: Andy, congratulations that was a great gig

AW: Thanks, Derek

DB: Have you been to Brisbane before?

AW: Yes I played at the Woodford Festival, I played and read at the Queensland Poetry Festival, a long time ago, nearly 10 years. So I haven’t been for a while.

DB: Look, just a bit about where I know you from. I know you from Religious Persuasion, I grew up in Ireland in Waterford, it came out in 86 or 87 I think it was,

AW: 86

DB: 86, it was a huge achievement for such a young man, it was the confidence of it, I guess.

AW: Well that’s an interesting word,

DB: Did you feel confident?

AW: Did I feel it at the time, I guess, yeah, I had that rough confidence –

DB: (interrupting) How did you have that, that’s a rare gift?

AW: That’s a really interesting question. I’ve often looked back at that young man and thought, what went into all that. I was really knew that nobody was saying something about where I was from.

DB: Yeah, that was one of the reasons the album hit home, not just saying it, but the way you said it. Not just pox on both their houses, but taking the piss on both their houses, and very refreshing to hear. Politically this was a very charged time?

AW; The Soldiers Sash, track one was the Soldiers Song mixed with the Sash…

DB: (interrupting) I know, so you would have possibly had people from both sides hating you?

AW: Yeah. A pox on both your houses is exactly right. And to do it with humour. If you grew up in the North, humour was there all the time. At the same time we hated it we laughed at it. It was the only way, to be sarcastic or make jokes about it. It was part of dealing with the situation we were living in.

DB: Another way you dealt with it was music obviously? One of the things I like about your podcast is you talking about the Berlin years of David Bowie. What was it about that kind of music?

AW: Well at that time I really understand even nowadays people who hear or see themselves in TV or radio or streaming. They hear themselves because they see someone who speaks like them or looks like them and they feel they can do it themselves. For me that was when I was about 13 or 14. Punk happened in Belfast. It wasn’t just a fashions exercise, it was really political. We also had the fact that (BBC) Radio 1 were playing records which were made by people a little bit older than me but they had your accents so I could hear my accent on the John Peel Show. It gave us a lot of confidence that if you wanted to do it you could do it yourself. I had that punk attitude. But I also listened to folk music. The first big concerts I saw were by folk musicians John Martyn, Roy Harper. And, of course, Horslips.

DB: What about Van Morrison, was he much of an influence?

AW: Well, he was, because he was just there. He was like an institution. It was great to hear his accent. But as a young man who I really thought I couldn’t sing, he was such a good singer, I was like, I can’t sing like that. But all the stuff in his music, talking about places in Belfast that was really beautiful. All that literary content in his songs, that was a really big deal as well. Listen to Working Class Hero and John Lennon saying “fucking”. Those big artists give you the way to be and the local Irish artists gave you confidence, ‘Oh I can do this as well.’ There was the Boomtown Rats, everybody came to Belfast to play. I saw all those by the time I was 16 or 17. By the time I was 22 I felt I could do it myself. I just thought nobody else was doing this.

DB: Do you have a sense of Irishness? Do you feel Irish?

AW: Yes. Mum’s family is from Tipperary. Mum was born in Roscrea and her side of the family was from Cavan. She grew up in the north.. My father –

DB: Was your mother Catholic or Protestant?

AW: It’s all a mixture. Things could have got mixed up a long time ago – they were McDonaghs.”

DB: I don’t want to talk too much about religion. But it was clear, your songs were dripping with the whole angle of religion

AW: And also knowing how good religion could be and how badly it was being used by people. I’d seen the best religious people in Belfast. This guy who my mum knew who founded the Samaritans and did soup kitchens for people and looked after homeless people. And then when you see religion being used by other people. We were really angry, we were disgusted, they were so hostile.

DB: Who’s “we”?

AW: People like myself. People ask which side are you on. Well we’re not on either side. That’s what we want.

DB: I was born a Catholic but rebelled it fairly young. It’s good to see someone say, “no, forget Catholic, forget Protestant, what about all these other things”

AW: Okay, Derek, you totally got it then because that’s what it was about. And punk was a bit like that because you really didn’t ask about religion. Who cares? It was the same in the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra, by the way and it was the same whether it was classical music or punk, it didn’t matter if people came from the other side –

DB: (Interrupting) How did your music go down in the UK?

AW: They got it. Janice Long played it all the time on the BBC.

DB: Did it lead to commercial success?

AW: The first person who got it was Dave Robinson of Stiff Records. I went to him and Religious Persuasion was the B-side of what I thought was the first single –

DB: Which one?

AW: Rembrandt’s Hat. But he immediately said Religious Persuasion is the A Side. He gave me a pen and said draw the cover and that little squiggle is the cover. Dave Robinson is amazing. I’d listened to Ian Dury and Elvis Costello and I loved their records so when he said I want to sign you, I said great, So I got signed by them and Janice Long played it all the time. Then Stiff Records fell apart. I got signed up by a big record company, Polygram. But the first record was already made and that’s why it went so far. So a really big company put out Rave On Andy White. Nowadays you’d think no chance, this’d be an indie release but MCA signed it up in a heartbeat –

DB (Interrupting) – So what happened after?

AW: Well they give you about two records and then I got transferred like a soccer player with Michelle Shocked. Michelle Shocked was on Cooking Vinyl, I was on Polygram and they swapped us because I thought, and my management thought, it was better for me to be on an independent label. Because I’m never going to give them a hit single and that’s what they wanted.

DB: Are you familiar with the film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers, the artistic life of a folk singer and how the manager goes “I’m not hearing lots of money here”.

AW: Yes, Tom Petty says that in one of his songs, “I don’t hear a single here.” And that’s what they always say. And in a way it was great to be in a big record company but it was great to have an independent release as well, because it meant Europe opened out to me. If you’re in a big company your record goes to Polygram Germany or Warner’s Germany and they’ve also got Madonna’s record coming out, so you might get some good reviews but all the time is taken up by Madonna’s record.

DB: I’m conscious I asked for 10 minutes and 10 minutes are up and there’s other people here who’d love to speak to you but I have to talk about the transition to Australia. You tell that story in Another Sunny Day, arriving in Melbourne. Have you got over that sense of wonder about Another Sunny Day? I don’t mean the weather, I mean the culture.

AW: Yes and no. It’s very deep and rich and different. And people forget the smells are different in the morning when the sun comes up and the light. And the birds! I live in the hills outside Melbourne, I don’t live in the city.

DB: Do you have a national identity these days? Do you call yourself Irish or Australian?

AW: I always think I’m Irish. I’ve never really thought I’m Australian. Maybe because where I’m from is so much to do with my work. But yeah…pause.. being Australian is, I don’t really feel it, to tell you the truth.

DB: Are you an Australian citizen?

AW: Yes, it used to be much easier and it was cheaper! But for my son, who’s grown up here that’s a big deal. Rather than Belfast, which was an easy decision to make.

DB: Have you seen the film Belfast?

AW: No, I’m waiting to see the film with him (his son).

DB: I won’t talk about it then, I won’t spoil it.

AW (American accent) “no spoilers”

DB: Andy, what I loved about the podcast (This Podcast is Only Temporary), was understanding the creative process and the deep dive into all the things that go on in making an album. One of the things I loved was this song you had to do in under three minutes. Because that’s a creative limit that’s going to force you down a particular way. You obviously teach music –

AW: Yeah. Especially in the pandemic. Online music is great. It’s wonderful to spread your music all over the world but the only thing left to make money was performing and when that disappeared that left (teaching). What was good is that these courses started in America and then in England and I taught singer/songwriters for WOMAD all over the world and there was a degree course in Melbourne that asked me if I would lecture for them and that got me through COVID.

DB: You’re a good explainer.

AW: Thank you. As a musician or a writer, it’s a cliche but yeah you want to give back and you want to be a mentor because the music business needs to (find mentors) and give people this amazing support.

DB: Two final questions. One, this garden is only temporary, is that because of the goat or something else?

AW: Yes, Amy (the goat). I’ve got a friend up the road who lends out Amy. Whenever she’s finished one garden she’s goes to another. It’s so funny, this garden is only temporary because I didn’t know of Amy’s existence when I called it that.

DB: So it wasn’t the goat?

AW: No, this garden is only temporary because this Earth is only (trails off)…

DB: I had a feeling it was deeper than the goat. (laughs)

AW: When you think what is the worth of me singing these love songs and stories about my life on records, okay then you zoom out and think, and the world’s spinning round, and then you zoom out further and there’s the sun is that big and the planet is this big. That’s what the cover is. In the end you think it is worth it because that’s what art is and what telling a story is and that’s beautiful. It’s temporary and it’s going to go but you’ve got to do what you can before it goes.

DB: Now COVID’s over, are you going to do more touring?

AW: I want to. It’s really slow, Derek. It’s not like (clicks fingers) and suddenly it goes on. I went back to the UK at Christmas to do shows and because of the new variety of COVID, they all cancelled. I hope to do Australia bit by bit this year and maybe all of UK/Ireland at the start of next year. But who knows? I did the podcast, because so much goes into a record. I couldn’t do that about every record but I could about this one because this one’s got these layers some of them are spontaneous.

DB: What about the last one Time is a Buffalo in the Art of War (pointing to his t-shirt which has the name of the album on it).

AW: It was interesting. It was more spontaneous, it was more jammy. And the words – I could talk about the words for a long time – but not the writing and recording of the record. I knew something really big was going to happen but I thought it was Brexit – but it turned out to be COVID! And the war, because time is a buffalo, and this war at the moment, time is the only thing that will heal it.

DB: How is that a buffalo?

AW: The buffalo moves very slowly. (Pause) And eventually it’s very strong and time will heal war but it takes a long time.

DB: Andy, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a pleasure.

AW: Thank you Derek

Around Ingham, Wallaman Falls and Balgal Beach

A couple of weeks ago, I decided on a quick trip down to the coast. The excuse was to do the Tyto Wetlands parkrun course in Ingham early on the Saturday. After spending 10 hours in the car on Friday travelling from Mount Isa, I arrived late on a still hot and humid afternoon and after checking into a nearby motel I decided to stretch my legs at the wetlands.

Tyto Wetlands is a 90-hectare natural wetland with lookouts and viewing points for many birds, native Australian wildlife and numerous tropical plants. The area is named for the endangered Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto Longimembris). The Hinchinbrook Shire is one of the few places in the world where this owl can be spotted regularly leaving their grassy habitat on dusk. The view below looks towards the Cardwell Range to the north.

With four kilometres of designated walking tracks, four bird viewing platforms, seating and a multitude of different ecosystems, I decide to go for a deeper walk within the wetlands. Thanks to some signposts I found the track where I would do the parkrun the following morning. It’s a trail run with two loops around a lake. As well as the Eastern Grass Owl that gave the wetlands its name, it is home to over 240 species of birds and many agile wallabies.

After my walk it was time for dinner and a beer and despite the name the best place in town for that was the pub with no beer. I was under the impression that the original pub with no beer was in Northern New South Wales at Taylor’s Arm but apparently that one is the imposter. The official Pub with No Beer made famous by Slim Dusty’s song of the same name is this one, Lee’s Hotel in Ingham. The song is based on the poem A Pub Without Beer written by Ingham sugarcane farmer and poet Dan Sheahan in what was then called the Day Dawn Hotel (now Lees Hotel) here in 1943.

Only after I’d eaten and wanted to walk off my dinner did I find this second watering hole, the impressive looking Royal Hotel. The original Royal was built by hotelier couple, James and Mary Shewcroft who moved south from Cardwell in 1883 to build the pub. But new owners in the 1920s didn’t like it and rebuilt it from scratch to the current configuration. In the 1950s the Quagliotto family bought it and have run it since. They are among the half of Ingham’s population of Italian descent. Many came to work in the sugar cane industry after the town was settled in 1864.

The following morning I was up early to do the parkrun. Trail runs are tough at the best of times but the combination of mid 30s heat and high humidity made it a very sweaty exercise. Happy enough with a 26.48 time and despite my grimacing I did enjoy the views.

After freshening up and breakfast it was time to head to Wallaman Falls, some 50km west of town. The road heads out on the flat past fields of sugar cane but as I approach the Seaview Range it is clear some climbing lay ahead. As well as hosting the Falls, the range is the headwaters for the Burdekin and Herbert Rivers.

The last 20km are winding roads up the mountains. Because of all the bends I’m not going very fast anyway but there are signs warning me to be cautious of cassowaries who inhabit the area. The southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) live in tropical forests in southern New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and the Aru Islands. There are around 2000 of the flightless birds in Australia mainly around here and the Cassowary Coast just to the north but sadly this sign was as close as I got to one.

After an hour’s drive from Ingham I got to the carpark for the Falls. And there they were, right in front of me – the highest, permanent, single-drop waterfall in Australiam with the main drop 268 metres. Wallaman Falls is part of the traditional lands of the Warrgamaygan Aboriginal People and are in Girringun National Park. The falls descend over small cascades before the 268m horsetail drop for a total of 305 metres. They were formed 50 million years ago by the uplift of the continental margin. The Herbert River previously flowed west but cut through the terrain towards Coral Sea. The gorge produced by this erosive action gradually retreated inland but tributaries were left suspended forming their own gorges.

It’s a stunning sight but I wanted to know it looked like from the bottom. There was a 2km walk down to the bottom which was quite difficult in the heat especially the return leg uphill.

But it was worth the trudge through tropical rainforest to get up close to the falls. There is a swimming hole beneath the falls but I didn’t fancy climbing over the slippery rocks to get to it.

The Wallaman Falls area is part of Queensland’s Wet Tropics area, which is world heritage-listed. These lands are the oldest continually surviving rainforests on earth and are home to rare animal and plant species. In Warrgamaygan culture Yamania came down from the sky in the form of a rainbow, transforming into the great rainbow serpent and creating the hills, rivers and creeks. Yamanie rested in the waterhole at the bottom of the falls and the Warrgamaygan try not to make him angry as he then shows his displeasure by making the waterhole overflow.

Afterwards it was back to Ingham for lunch and then the hour or so drive to Townsville. But half way through at Rollingstone I took an unplanned diversion to the beach. Balgal Beach is a pleasant unspoiled place looking out to the Palm Island group and Magnetic Island to the south. There was a protected swimming spot so it was a great place to cool down on a hot day.

Rollingstone is named for the smooth rounded stones in the creek bed. It was originally called Armidale but renamed in 1915 to avoid confusion with the NSW town of the same name. The railway came through the same year. It was founded as an overnight stop on the mail coach from Townsville to Ingham. Rollingstone Beach was founded in 1947 but renamed Balgal Beach later. Balgal is an Aboriginal word for stone. The beach remains a popular spot for fishers, daytrippers and weekend visitors from Townsville

Author of new book claims to have discovered Lasseter’s Reef

A new book claims to have solved the long standing mystery of the supposed Lasseter’s Reef. The existence of a fabulously wealthy gold-bearing reef somewhere in the Australian outback has always been doubted since Harold Lasseter first put forward the idea in the 1930s. During the Great Depression Lasseter claimed he had known about a “vast gold bearing reef” in central Australia for 18 years and convinced the federal government for him to mount an expedition into an area west of Alice Springs. Sadly the expedition ended in tragedy. Lasseter died in the desert and the reef was never found.

However the idea there was an Aladdin’s Cave of wealth somewhere in the Red Centre did not die with Lasseter despite the commonly-held view it only existed in his imagination. Ion Idriess’s bestselling novel Lasseter’s Last Ride: El Dorado Found kept the idea alive and although since then over 80 parties went through “Lasseter’s country” without a single authenticated gold discovery, there remains those who believe the reef does exist.

Among those is veteran explorer Bill Decarli. With the help of author Kristin Lee, Decarli has documented his findings in a new book called “Lasseter’s Reef: One Man’s Journey Uncovers the Truth”. As the subtitle suggests, Decarli boldly states the reef does exist and he has seen it. Decarli said he had known about Lasseter’s story most of his adult life and he (Decarli) had first gone searching for the Reef in 1991. He said he found the reef on that first trip noting the “three tall circular hills” that Lasseter said were in the vicinity which Decarli said he found by going “in the opposite direction”. He said since then he has visited the site nine times and found an important link with another bushman.

These were strong claims and Decarli begins the book by looking at important elements of Lasseter’s story. They include the story that in 1897 Lasseter, aged 17, rode on horseback from Cloncurry to the MacDonnell Ranges to look for rubies. Failing to find the gems, he kept going towards Western Australia and somewhere in this journey, he claimed to have found the 10-mile long gold reef. Almost out of food, he is rescued by an Afghan cameleer who takes him to a government surveyor named Harding who takes him to Carnarvon, WA. The pair then relocate the reef in 1900. But they could not get any funding to explore it and Harding dies shortly after.

Lasseter kept up the dream until the infamous 1931 journey in which Lasseter constantly argued with fellow expedition members before striking out on his own, which took him to his death and into legend. Decarli followed in Lasseter’s footsteps in 1991 travelling in a 4WD with his nephew. They went to Alice Springs but on a hunch instead of going east, they went east towards the old mining town of Arltunga. Beyond that was tough 4WD country to Boulia and the Queensland border. He claimed to have found the distinctive hills 480km east of Alice. Elated they drove on to Boulia to share the news of their discovery though few believed him.

Back home Decarli continued to research Lasseter’s life. He found many anomalies including documents that showed he could not have been in the outback in 1897 as he was in the navy at the time. He found Lasseter had lived in Adelaide in 1917 close to where a former Arltunga miner Joseph Harding also lived. Harding was familiar with the eastern part of the Territory and was a competent surveyor. He was also a renowned cattle thief who would run a duffing route in Queensland along the area Decarli had explored. Decarli believes Lasseter met Harding in Adelaide, perhaps by chance, and heard the story of the reef from him.

Lasseter’s first letters to his family about the reef date from after 1917. Harding died in 1928 and it was not until the following year that Lasseter went public with his claims. Decarli believes Lasseter claimed he discovered the reef to secure the funding for the expedition. Decarli then followed up with his own syndicate for a second three-man expedition in 1993. They found it again before returning to Alice. There Decarli looked at a map and noticed Carnarvon (Ranges) in Queenland almost directly opposite Carnarvon, WA as travelled from the reef. Decarli used this clue to determine from Lasseter’s writings he had got his east-west coordinates the wrong way round and that his writings referred to the wrong Carnarvon.

In 1994 Decarli told his story to People Magazine though his life took a setback when the family deli caught fire. Insurance would not pay all the costs and they discovered a partner had stolen money from the business. With the help of Niche Exploration he took samples from the reef which found gold and silver. Decarli then told his story to Bush Tucker Man in 1996 though Les Hiddens was unconvinced it existed. Decarli packed his evidence away again saying he was “Lassetered out”.

In 2005 he published a book A Dead Man’s Dream: Lasseter’s Reef Found which generated brief interest. Filmmaker Luke Walker interviewed him for his “Lasseter’s Bones” documentary in 2012 though Decarli’s material did not make the final cut. However Walker did shed some light on a mysterious man named Olaf Johanson whom Lasseter hoped to meet on his final ill-fated journey.

Nothing more happened until 2016 when Decarli appeared on an American Travel Channel documentary about the reef. The producers flew him out to the region for filming from the air and the publicity encouraged another expedition to visit the site. Two members went missing west of Boulia and when Decarli joined a pilot looking for them they went low on fuel and had to land on the Donahue Hwy. Boulia councillor and nearby grazier Sam Beauchamp helped them out with fuel and they flew back to Boulia. Eventually the other two were found bogged near the border.

The group later set up another syndicate and applied for an exploration permit. Meanwhile Decarli traced the mysterious Johanson to Adelaide around the same time as Lasseter and Harding were there in 1917 while he found Johanson was in central Australia at the time of the 1931 expedition. Flying from Mount Isa to Boulia, Decarli also noticed resemblances between a “sphinx-like” feature named by Lasseter and a rock formation at the Monument, near Dajarra.

Decarli claims he has found the “haystack” which lies between Alice and Boulia, not west of Alice as most post-Lasseter explorers have searched. But he has not yet found the “needle” which he said could be in Ethabuka Reserve west of Bedourie. He said the search goes on for a partner mining company. He would like to see a monument in Boulia telling the reef story and how it originates from this region. And though he believes Harding discovered it, not Lasseter, it should remain as Lasseter’s Reef, because he was the one who brought it to public attention, “then died for his efforts”. It’s another intriguing addition to the Reef mythology with a convincing explanation for many of Lasseter’s errors. But like all the others before, Decarli and Lee have not definitively laid the matter to rest. The search for Australia’s El Dorado will go on.

The escape of the Catalpa

Wild Geese sculpture at Rockingham, WA to commemorate the escape by sea in 1876 of six Irish Fenian convicts aboard the U.S. whaler Catalpa

Australia’s convict era lasted 80 years from white colonial founding in 1788 to the final ship sent to Western Australia in 1867. Transportation to the east coast lost its lure after the government realised it was assisting passage to the New South Wales and Victorian gold rushes, though WA then dragged the chain for another two decades before Britain began to house criminals at home in new prisons such as Dartmoor and Pentonville.

When the Fenians looking to launch another rebellion in Ireland in 1865 many leaders were arrested under the Treason Felony Act brought in to deal with the Young Irelanders in 1848. Alarmed at a possible conspiracy within the British Army, military police then arrested another 150 soldiers in irish Barracks believed to be Fenian members in 1866. The remaining leaders organised a rebellion in 1867 but it was quickly put down. Those who took part were tried for treason by Special Commissions and after death sentences were commuted most got five to 10 years, though some got lifetime sentences. Three men were hanged for a raid in Manchester where a policeman was killed.

Though most convicted served time in Ireland or Britain, authorities were anxious to send the leaders as far away as possible. Western Australia was the only colony still accepting prisoners though even there resistance to transportation would bring it to an end. The last convict ship was the Hougoumont which set sail for Perth on September 12, 1867. It has 280 convicts aboard including 62 Fenians. The captain treated the Fenians better than the regular prisoners and called their behaviour “exemplary”. Western Australians were more hostile especially with rumours pirates might try to free the Fenians and the recent attempted assassination of Prince Alfred in Sydney by a deranged Irishman. Perth was guarded with a gunboat on Hougoumont’s arrival.

The Fenians were dispersed around the colony to stop them conspiring though they still had plenty of freedoms including the ability to get a ticket-of-leave. There were amnesties in 1869 and 1871 which some took advantage of to go home, though the army “mutineers” were not eligible. Just like the Young Irelanders before them, there were escapes including the journalist and poet John Boyle O’Reilly who escaped to Philadelphia aboard a whaler in 1868. O’Reilly resumed his journalism in Boston and wrote a memoir of his time in WA.

By 1876 there were only seven “lifer” Fenian convicts left in WA all at Fremantle prison. Army commander in chief the Duke of Cambridge was hostile to any release plan and insisted they should “die in chains”. The desperate men led by James Wilson wrote to John Devoy in America where the Fenians were regrouping. Devoy had come up with the original strategy of infiltrating the British Army with Fenians and with the help of O’Reilly he came up with a plan to rescue them. They purchased a 200-ton, 27-metre ship called the Catalpa and outfitted it as a commercial whaler under captain George Anthony, a Bostonian Protestant sympathetic to the Irish cause. Only a handful of his crew knew the real reason for the Catalpa’s voyage and it set sail for Australia on April 29, 1875 as a genuine whaler. It caught its first whale in the Mid Atlantic on May 6 and continued to tour the whaling fields as it sailed south to the Cape of Good Hope.

Devoy also dispatched an agent named John Breslin to Perth where he pretended to be a wealthy Nevadan seeking business opportunities. Breslin fooled local authorities who even gave him a tour of the prison and invited him to dine at government house. Breslin alerted the Fenian prisoners to the plan, most of whom had trustee jobs. In January 1876 the Colonial Office warned WA governor William Robinson they had heard of a Fenian plot to rescue the prisoners. The police told Robinson they were watching the men closely.

On March 29, Breslin saw the news he was waiting for, a telegraph at the shipping announcing the imminent arrival of the Catalpa. However he was alarmed by the sight in Fremantle of the Georgette, a state-of-the-art government steamship which had arrived in local waters. When Anthony made it to Fremantle he sought out Breslin who suggested Rockingham Bay, 32km south of the prison, as the rendezvous. Word went out among six of the prisoners to get ready, the seventh was not informed as he was heavily depressed and a suicide risk.

The escape was timed for Easter Monday, April 17, 1876. By then Catalpa was 26km off shore just beyond territorial waters. The six prisoners absconded from their work groups and gathered together and joined Breslin in a wagon which made a run for Rockingham beach. Within an hour authorities knew the six had absconded. Fenian agents cut off telegraph wires to delay pursuit. Anthony piloted a whaleboat to shore to rescue Breslin and the prisoners while a small government cutter in the area gave chase. Aided by strong winds Anthony got the men aboard and beat the police vessel back to the Catalpa. However now they had to deal with the Georgette which was sent in. On April 19, it intercepted the Catalpa, fired a warning shot across its bows and demanded the convicts be handed over.

The Catalpa was outgunned but was in international waters. Captain Anthony hoisted the American flag and told the master of the Georgette Britain had no jurisdiction over his vessel. The British officer replied by loud-hailer with a demand to hand over the six prisoners. Anthony denied he had prisoners saying they were all crewmen. ”If you don’t give them up I will fire into you and sink you or disable you,” the Georgette’s master replied. Anthony pointed to the flag and said “I don’t care what you do, I’m on the high seas and this flag protects me.”

Georgette menaced the Catalpa for an hour but the British were not prepared to gamble and provoke an international incident. They backed off and the Catalpa set sail for America and into legend. They arrived in New York on August 18, 1876 to heroes’ welcome. O’Reilly wrote a triumphal article and the rest of the press was overwhelmingly on the side of the escapes and their brave whaler captain. All Anthony wanted to do was get home and unload his whale oil.

Only three of the prisoners were still alive for 20th anniversary celebrations in Philadelphia in 1896. By 1920 when president of the unofficial Irish Republic Eamon De Valera toured the States on a fundraising drive, he was greeted by 82-year-old James Wilson the only survivor of the adventure 44 years earlier, and the one who wrote the letter to Devoy starting the rescue plan. Wilson died a year later on 6 November 1921, just a month before the Anglo-Irish Treaty made the independent Ireland he fought for a reality.

Thomas Muir and the Scottish Martyrs

A detail of Thomas Muir of Hunters Hill by David Martin, 1790, chalk drawing from life, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland

To commemorate last week’s Burns Night, the Scottish paper the National looked at the influences on the life of the poet Robert Burns. The National said Burns faced significant risk by supporting the cause of liberty, a seditious act at the time, noting he was inspired by the radical politics of fellow Scot Thomas Muir. The experience of Muir (sometimes known as Thomas Muir the Younger of Huntershill) is a classic counter-argument to those who paint Australia as “lucky” to have been colonised by the “civilised” British rather than any other uncouth European military power.

The mythic idea of English law as a libertarian force has roots in Magna Carta of 1215, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the 1689 Bill of Rights. But by the late 18th century laws and customs were atrophying in the United Kingdom while in the American colonies liberty began to be associated with republican ideas and the “rights of man”. British conservative leaders were horrified by these seditious notions and quick to stamp it out in the homeland. Particularly in wartime, British leaders acted with authoritarian zeal current dictators such as Vladimir Putin would admire.

Muir paid a high price for his sedition being transported to Australia in the 1790s. I first came across Muir’s name only recently in Tony Moore’s book Death or Liberty: Rebels and radicals transported to Australia 1788-1868. That book also featured a chapter on the 1848 Young Irelanders who suffered a similar fate, but like some of the Young Irelanders Muir made a dramatic escape to America.

Muir was a 28-year-old lawyer with no criminal record when he faced the High Court of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1793. He was accused of sedition, “wickedly and feloniously inciting, by means of seditious speeches and harangues, a spirit of disloyalty and disaffection to the King and the established government.” His right to free speech was on trial.

A year earlier Muir was elected vice-president of the new Glasgow Associated Friends of the Constitution and the People, which campaigned for reform. They wanted universal suffrage, annual parliaments, fair electoral representation, and fair taxation. They distributed information to the public and held conventions to discuss their demands. At one of the these conventions in December 1792 Muir distributed the outlawed best seller The Rights of Man by Tom Paine and made the seditious speech which attracted the ire of authorities, thanks to paid spies at the convention.

Muir and others had been radicalised by events across the channel – the French Revolution ignited by the Fall of the Bastille prison three years earlier. Now the French Convention was offering support to “all subjects revolting against a tyrant”. The government of prime minister William Pitt was alarmed and in May 1792 prohibited “wicked and seditious writings” and suspended habeas corpus.

Muir was arrested in January 1793 but broke his parole and fled to France. He arrived in time to see Louis XVI guillotined and France declared war on Britain on February 1. Muir was declared an outlaw and struck off the advocate register. The French granted him a passport to get to America but he naively went back to Scotland first to farewell his family. He was duly arrested and Westminster wanted to make an example of him to teach a lesson to those who would stir up rebellion in wartime.

The trial in August 1793 was presided over by five judges led by arch-Tory Lord Braxfield. Braxfield told the jury Muir’s intention was “to overturn our present happy constitution” and said the books Muir distribution such as Paine’s made people believe the government was “venal and corrupt” and incited a rebellion. A fellow judge called Muir’s actions high treason “which, if proven, must infer the highest punishment the law can inflict.”

Muir’s fate was sealed before the trial began but might have had some mitigation with a diplomatic barrister and a show of contrition. Instead he defended himself in court saying he warned the people “of the danger of that crime, exhorted them to adopt none but measures which were constitutional, and entreated them to connect liberty with knowledge, and both with morality”. In a three-hour oration he claimed to be a loyal defender of customary rights and was an advocate of equal representation, “a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail.”

Muir was proved right though it had no effect on his verdict. He was quickly found guilty and Braxfield passed the sentence “Thomas Muir be transported beyond Seas” for 14 years. The severity of the sentence shocked Muir’s supporters. Fourteen years was effectively a life sentence and to a faraway prison colony that was only five years old. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, Australia was as remote and alien in 1794 as the Moon is for us today, except we can see the Moon. Muir took the judgement calmly. “I have acted agreeably to my conscience,” he said.

Britain was fighting a “war on terror” with France and its national paranoia allowed for little defence of liberty. Muir was the first of a group of seven political reformers, inspired by the revolutions in America and France who were tried in Scotland in 1793-94. They became known as the Scottish martyrs, though not all were Scottish. One of them, Robert Watt was hanged for treason, but the others all ended up in New South Wales. As well as Muir there was fellow Scots William Skirving and George Mealmaker and the Englishmen Thomas Fyshe Palmer, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald. All were educated professionals.

The Martyrs were political prisoners accused of “poisoning the minds of the lower orders”. However once in the colony their social status and celebrity would give them privileges denied those lower order criminals, a fate they shared with fellow upper-class Young Irelanders, a half century later. Muir, Palmer, Skirving and Margarot were transported together on the Surprize and Palmer was allowed to bring a servant while Margarot brought his wife. They were treated as gentlemen and were free to move about the colony though Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose was ordered to keep a close eye on them. Two of them, Skirving and Gerrald, died early but Muir bought a 12 hectare farm at Milson’s Point and as an intellectual his society was valued, as long as he steered clear of politics.

Muir purchased rum, tobacco and sugar from overseas which he used to barter for farm produce and livestock. With free settler John Boston he formed the trading company Boston and Co and they built their own trading ship using instructions from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The 30 tonne Martha then plied the route to Norfolk Island. They also built a windmill, made wine and sold fish from Lord Howe Island. It was in these activities they ran into trouble with the monopolists of the New South Wales Corps which cornered the market in rum, which they sold at enormous profit.

Exile had not softened Muir’s political views and he plotted escape to America. When the American fur trader the Otter landed in Sydney in 1796 he made a deal with captain Ebenezer Dorr. The night the Otter was due to depart, Muir rowed out through the harbour heads and rendezvoused with the ship in the open ocean. The Otter visited Polynesia landing at Anamooka, Niue, Tahiti and Motu. In the Cook islands they landed at a new island they called Muir for their illustrious stowaway, an island now called Pukapuka.

The Otter then sailed for north-west North America and Muir was among a landing party at Nootka Sound. Though intended to stay on the Otter till it got to New York he was concerned by a nearby Royal Navy ship and swapped to a Spanish naval vessel which took him to Monterey in California. The governor there was suspicious of Muir’s intentions and sent him to Vera Cruz under military escort. Muir tried to send a letter to George Washington requesting asylum but it was intercepted by Mexico’s governor.

When Spain entered the conflict against Britain, Muir became a prisoner-of-war and was sent to Cuba. It was as close as he got to America. Authorities decided the Briton was to be sent back to Europe for trial. Near the coast of Spain the British fleet intercepted the ship and gave battle. An exploding shell smashed Muir’s face and he lost his left eye. His face was so mutilated a British search party did not identify him.

Still a Spanish prisoner in a Cadiz hospital, Muir wrote letters to friends in France. French foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord answered the call and secured his release. Talleyrand personally conveyed him to Paris in 1797. Here Muir was anointed leader of a revolutionary government of Scotland in exile. Wearing an eye patch he was a familiar figure around Paris in his final days. Weakened by injuries he died a pauper in Chantilly on January 26, 1799, the date Australians would later celebrate as their national day. Of the Scottish Martyrs only Margarot ever saw Scotland again, and that likely because he was a double agent.

Moore said Muir’s mutilation and death was a metaphor for the fate of the British democratic movement. Ruthless wartime suppression set back the cause of parliamentary reform for a generation. But the Martyrs sacrifices, and those of their United Irishmen contemporaries, continued to inspire. In his final words in court in Edinburgh Muir he said “the impartial voice of future time will rejudge your verdict.” He was borne out partially by the 1832 Great Reform Bill and 50 years later by universal manhood suffrage (women had to wait until after the First World War ended). The Martyrs are honoured with a monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill but in Australia where most of them died, as Moore says, they are “neither mourned nor commemorated”. It is one of our many historical blind spots.