Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Ship that bombed its birthplace

muirchu (1)On Wednesday morning of Easter Rising week the British began in earnest the counter-attack to retake the City of Dublin. Artillery was brought up from Athlone and the gunship the ‘Helga’ was brought up the Liffey from its moorings in nearby Kingstown. Not long after the ‘Helga’ anchored in the Liffey at dawn, it began to target the buildings controlled by the rebels using artillery and incendiary shells to devastating effect. The gunship initially took up a position near the Custom House. De Valera seems to have obtained a brief relief from the barrage by hoisting a tricolour atop an empty distillery adjacent the Boland’s Mills and fooling the gunners as to the location of his garrison.

Over the coming days the ‘Helga’ assisted by additional field artillery firing from the Prussia Street and Phibsboro areas pummelled the city centre. Liberty Hall was quickly destroyed. Ironically the gunners had to take great care in firing as with the low elevation of the building and the location of the Railway bridge (Tara Street bridge) if the shells missed they would have travelled as far as the Phoenix Park. It is said that this actually happened with some shells landing near the Vicregal lodge and forcing the Helga to relocate further up the quays.

Soon the GPO and many buildings in Sackville Street and nearby were in flames. The remaining days of the rebellion would be a cauldron of smoke, flame and cordite for the rebels. Once the Helga began steaming up the Liffey the end was in sight for the Easter Rising in central Dublin. Soon they would have to abandon their posts and eventually surrender. It seems the rebels thought that the British would not destroy the economic heart of the second city of the Empire. In this they were very much mistaken. The majority of the action in the Rising, with some notable exceptions, was defined by sniper fire and artillery shells, rather than hand to hand fighting. The tragic result was more civilian casualties than combatants.

It was ironic then that a gunboat built in the City of Dublin and designed for the protection of Irish coastal waters would inflict so much damage on her home city. 

The Helga ll was built in Liffey Dockyard in 1908 and its principal function lay as a fishery protection yacht under a wing of the Department of Agriculture. With the onset of the Great War she was taken over by the Admiralty converted to an armed steam yacht and became known as  “H.M.Y. Helga”. She patrolled the Irish Sea looking for enemy submarines.

Post 1916

In April 1918 The Helga was credited with the sinking of a submarine off the Isle of Man.

In October 1918 she was one of the first ships to the scene of the sinking RMS Leinster off the Kish Light. The Helga managed to save over 90 passengers but in total 600 people lost their lives that night. She was later used to transport troops in the War of Independence and reputedly the infamous Black and Tans. This was at a time when large troop movements were not possible due to risk of ambush or mines.

After the Truce the “Helga” was handed over to the Irish Free State and was renamed “Muirchu” or Sea Hound. She resumed her life as a fishery patrol vessel before seeing service again during the ‘Emergency’ as the Second World War is known as in Ireland.  In 1947 the “Muirchu” was sold to Hammond Lane Foundry for scrap. It seems the ship didn’t agree with her fate and while on her final passage on the 8th May, 1947 she sank off the Saltee Islands but without loss of life.It is also ironic that as she sank beneath the waves she bore the flag she had tried to destroy.


‘Nipper’ Geelan and the ‘Yankee’ invasion

01c42ca9c458cf9c228d6e8222633a676511f84816On Sunday the 8th of August 1948 it was standing room only at St. Manachans Park, Mohill, County Leitrim. The grounds were by now the premier football ground in the County since their opening in 1939. They hosted many inter-county games and County Finals but this day saw an unusual pairing. It was a game that captured the imagination of all Leitrim Gaels, home and abroad.  The crowd was estimated at in excess of 8,000. The reason, the visit of the Leitrim Club from New York, led by their mercurial Manager and Mohill native, Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan.

Geelan had been a star player with his native Mohill and lined out for the County at Junior and Senior level whilst still in his teens. His nickname apparently arose when a Galway mentor enquired from a local who was the ‘Nipper’ playing havoc in the full forward line. Geelan was born in Laheenamona in 1901 where his father, a native of Cashel in Bornacoola had settled. Whilst the Nipper is probably better known for his on field exploits he was also a member of Fianna Eireann and later of  ‘A’ Company, 3rd Battalion, Leitrim Brigade of the Old IRA. He debuted for Mohill at the age of 15 and played for Leitrim from 1921. He was a regular until in the spring of 1926 he decided to emigrate to New York. He teamed up with many Leitrim emigrants and helped get the club competing for the New York Championship then dominated by the famous Tipperary Club. One of the great GAA organisers at the time was another Mohill native, John McGuinness of Tulrusk/Drumhanny. McGuinness was formerly Leitrim County Board Chairman who was elected to the same position in New York in 1932, a rare achievement. Had Nipper Geelan not emigrated when he did it is certain that he would have been part of the Connacht Championship winning team of 1927.

In 1932 the Leitrim Club won the New York Championship with a talented team that included Eddie Maguire, uncle of Packy McGarty. Commentators thought that this was a team that would go on and dominate the club scene in the Big Apple. Sadly the effects of the Great Depression and tighter immigration laws saw the club began to flounder. Starved of fresh blood off the boat the club folded.  It was not until after the end of the Second World War that a group of Leitrim exiles got together and started to put in action a plan to reform the club. The GAA was beginning a revival and the next few years were a golden period in North America. In 1947 the All-Ireland was played in the Polo Grounds, the only time it was every played outside of these shore.

‘Nipper’ Geelan also coached a successful minor team called Incarnation. At the time the underage structure in New York saw many teams associated with their local church. Incarnation was a team attached to the Church of the Incarnation on 175th St which drew its players from the Irish communities of Inwood and Washington Heights. The star of this minor team and future star with Leitrim and New York was a young Jimmy Geelan, the Nippers own Nipper so to speak. 1947 saw the Leitrim play for the first time in fourteen years. The Nipper even managed to get some game time at 46 years of age when he lined out against Down alongside his son Jimmy, the match report said that “the younger Geelan is certainly following in his after his father’s footsteps and in a few short years will be competent enough to compete with the best in the division.”

The Leitrim Club were also active off the field; the Irish Echo reported that a Dance would be held in Croke Park Pavilion (Gaelic Park) on the 2nd August 1947, where the musical entertainment was provided by “May Rowley of West 161st St, a recent arrival from Mohill, Leitrim, an accomplished pianist and soprano as well as being very easy on the eyes”. 

It is not known when the trip back to Ireland was first planned but the plan was widely known by December 1947 when the Club held its annual dinner dance in the Dauphin Hotel. All through winter and spring the fundraising continued. Geelan was in bullish form ahead of the Tour, telling one reporter ‘We’ll lick any team in the old sod’.

The Leitrim team sailed for Ireland in July 1948 aboard the SS Washington and docked at Cobh on the 1st August where they were met by Secretary of the County Board, Michael Reynolds NT and other officials. After settling into their lodgings in the County Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon the team headed to Manorhamilton where they drew 2-5 each with a North Leitrim selection. Sean McGowan from Cloonturk scored 2-1 for the visitors in an exciting game. The team also paid a visit to Kiltyclogher where a crowd of 1,000 people saw Geelan lay a wreath at the Sean MacDiarmada memorial.


The following night the County Board met to finalise arrangements for the big game in Mohill. The following stewards were requested to report at Mohill Park at 1.00pm ‘L. Moran, Robert Moran, Billy McGowan, J. Flynn, J. Gordon, James Canning , Charles Kilkenny, Charles Keegan, Sean Reynolds and Patrick McCrann’ and from Gortltlettragh ‘P. Reynolds, C. Reynolds, J. Milton, J. Booth and P. Gannon;  Bornacoola – T. Aherne, Michael McGowan, H. O’Brien, P. Greene, Bert Faughnan and J. Notley; Shannon Gaels – McNally, McGuinness, Newton and two from Carrick-on-Shannon; Aughavas – Carroll and Reynolds’.

Meanwhile Geelan took time out to write a telegram to John ‘Lefty’ Devine the GAA correspondent with the ‘Irish Advocate’ in New York. It read-

County Hotel
Co. Leitrim                                                                                          August 4th 1948

 Dear Lefty,

 A short line to let you know we are having a wonderful time here. Also to apologise for not getting a wire to you in time for Croke (Gaelic) Park. Communications are not the best in Leitrim. Of course you have already heard we tied our first game against a good selction from North Leitrim.

 On behalf of the team I again want to thank you and also please convey again my thanks to John (Kerry) O’Donnell for the inspiring support he gave us. Its men like O’Donnell that make it easier for us all to keep the Gaelic games alive. I did not forget the ball for Jacky. I may not be able to get the shoes as they seem to be very scarce in Ireland. I am enclosing a few cuttings and will forward more as time goes on. Incidentally the score was 2 gl. 5 pt to 2 gl. 5 pt, McGowan 2 gl. 1 pt, Brennan 4 pt. Regards to Mrs. Devine.

Sincerely yours,

 “Nipper” Geelan

Manager of the touring Leitrim Club.

A few days later the scene was set for a grand homecoming for Nipper in his home town where his exiles would face the full Leitrim team. The town was buzzing from early in the day. Two fife and drum bands led the teams out to a wall of applause and excitement. Dan O’Rourke, the President of the GAA was even in attendance. The game was refereed by Peter O’Rourke, Tully (Carrigallen) who was also the Chairman of the Leitrim County Board. Canon Masterson threw the ball in and a rip-roaring game ensued. Jimmy Geelan, still a minor was amongst the scorers. Leo McAlinden was the star of the home team. The final score was a draw, 2-3 each and everyone thought it a fair result. It can be well imagined that the celebrations went on well into the night around the town.

The tour continued the following week and entered its most controversial phase. The team was scheduled to play Armagh in Davitt Park, Lurgan on the 15th August. The team cars proceeded to Lurgan on the Saturday night festooned with Tricolours and Stars and Stripes. Some of the cars and players were attacked and attempts made to grab the ‘Free State’ flags but the game proceeded before a crowd of 4,000. The exiles lost 1-6 to 0-5 but gave a good account of themselves against an Armagh team who were preparing for the All-Ireland Junior final. In press reports mention was made of the American’s ‘forceful’ and ‘unorthodox tackling style’. On the way back to Leitrim the team played an exhibition game in Garrison against a Fermanagh select. Thus the touring party achieved one of Geelan’s aims by playing in the ‘occupied part of the country’.


Armagh v Leitrim New York Team at Lurgan

Geelan wasn’t prepared to let the roughing up of his team of US Citizens in Lurgan go and wrote to the American Consulate in Belfast. He received a polite and courteous reply which reminded him that –

‘the United States government does not wish its nationals to take part in political affairs or events in foreign countries. When American Citizens acquire allegiance to the United States it is intended that they shall give up all allegiance to any other country. Failure to do so certainly impairs the right of this individuals to claim the protection of the United States Government while abroad’.

In other words one cannot claim the benefits or protections of US Citizenship when attacked whilst flying the flag of another nation. Geelans reaction is not recorded but can be surmised.

The final game of the tour was against the Dublin club St. Caillins, recently formed in the Capital and made up primarily of Leitrim players. The game was played in Fenagh but the result is unknown. There then followed a reception and dinner held at the Vocational School in Mohill (then ‘the Castle’ former residence of the Crofton family). Peter O’Rourke, Chairman of the County Board proposed a toast to the exiles saying that ‘they gave a very fine display’ and he hoped that their visit would be ‘an encouragement to the younger generation of Leitrim to go ahead and win an All-Ireland’.

The Exiles were then presented with miniature shields sponsored by the Connacht Council, silver medals from the County Board and cigarette cases from the Armagh County Board. Nipper Geelan presented the County Board with a special gold cup, the McTague-Galligan Cup which was played for in the drawn game earlier. The Cup was subsequently presented to the winner of the Leitrim Senior Championship until the onset of the current Fenagh Cup. Finally a farewell dance for the travelling party was held in the ballroom at Fenaghville.

The tour was undoubtedly a success on the field. The Leitrim Club were subsequently unlucky to lose two New York Finals in 1948 and ’49. The ‘Irish Advocate’ concluded ‘perhaps the greatest feat in the history of the local Leitrim Combination was made when they decided to sponsor a tour to Ireland, where they made a meritable showing against men of experience and full training. They were happy to record the fact that seven native born American boys were included in their line-up of players which gives them the right to say that Leitrim was the first to ever send back to the old sod the lads who learned the fine points of the game on the sidewalks of New York’.

However the tour did leave considerable debt and ultimately nearly sank the club. By the end of 1950 the club had lost over 22 players and had to rebuild again. One of the casualties was ‘Nipper’ Geelan himself who was uncompromising in defending the Tour against detractors. The Nipper left and was soon involved in coaching teams such as Kildare and Tyrone. The Leitrim club did recover though and one of its proudest days came when they won the 1958 New York Championship. One of the stars of the team was the now veteran Jimmy Geelan. The younger Geelan had already represented the New York Senior team that won the National League in 1950, defeating Cavan. “Nipper” Geelan had plenty more good days in football. He trained the New York Senior Teams from 1955 to 1963 in what was a hugely successful period for the exiles. He even trained a New York team that played In Wembley. In 1968 he was honoured by the New York Association for a lifetime of service. He passed away suddenly in December 1974.

Whatever about the financial success of the 1948 Tour it had a hugely positive effect on people throughout Leitrim. Emigration had tended to be one way traffic but this team in their bright suits and New York tans must have seemed a little exotic in a place where war rationing was still the norm. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the game in Mohill and its record attendance. It must surely have been one of the proudest moments of Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan’s career.



When Good Friday fell on Easter Monday

It is a question that is sure to get all trivia lovers animated; ‘When did Good Friday fall on Easter Monday?’ The answer, or one of the many answers, is of course that ‘Good Friday’ was a horse and his fall was at one of the many daunting ditches at the Irish Grand National. The famous race which celebrates its 156th anniversary this year is ran annually on Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse Racecourse in County Meath.


The proximity of the racecourse to the City of Dublin and its fall on the public holiday meant it has always been a popular race with the citizens of the Capital.  This was of course no different a century ago when thousands of people abandoned the City for the lush rolling green fields of Meath and the highlight of the Irish racing calendar.

The meeting was a break for the working classes and the higher echelons of Anglo-Irish society alike. In attendance would have been many British Army Officers and Tommies either form the Dublin or the Curragh garrisons or on furlough from the War. In fact for those on such leave the pageantry and gaiety of Fairyhouse must have been a welcome relief and escape from the horrors of modern trench warfare.

The Racecourse was also a mere twenty miles from the some of the finest Georgian squares and also the worst tenements in Europe. Fairyhouse was the ‘Dubs day out’ and the roads leading to the course would have been clogged with every mode of transport available motor car, omnibus, tram, bicycle, trap, carriage and sidecar not discounting those who would have made it there on foot.


No one present that day could have predicted that events unfolding back in the City would change the course of history for their country and define the relationship between these neighbouring Islands for the next century and beyond.

One man with more pressing things on his mind was a young jockey from Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford called Jackie Lynn. That day Jackie would be riding ‘All Sorts’ a horse owned by James Kiernan of Dysart Co. Westmeath and trained by Richard ‘Dick’ Cleary of Bishopstown House, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. The betting had the midland horse at 5/1.

The Irish Field in its 22nd April edition carried a preview of the Grand National;

“The Irish Grand National should provide a most interesting race, for, even in the absence ‘Templedowney’ the competitors will be up the usual standard. The field may include two previous winners in ‘Civil War’ and ‘Punch’ but in the interval, the latter of these, who generally runs well on this course, has maintained his form the better”

The favourites for the race were ‘Ballyneety’ and  ‘Ruddygore’ but the preview did mention that “the better of the pair trained by Mr. R G Cleary, ‘All Sorts’ and ‘Turkish Maiden’, both of whom appear nicely handicapped, must have a big chance”. Because of the Rebellion the ‘Irish Field’ did not publish for several weeks but in its May 13th edition it does give an account of the race saying that the favourites floundered and the race was “reduced to a duel between ‘Punch’ and ‘All Sorts’ as they entered the straight. Over the last fence the favourite flattered, but when called upon ‘All Sorts’ quickly shook him off and in the end scored easily enough”.

The winner was described as follows:

“’All Sorts’ is not very much the matter in make or shape, but Mr. R G Cleary had him very workmanlike and well, and it is evident the improvement son of ‘Avidity’ was making last back end has been maintained (*he had won in Limerick in November 1915)

Whatever about his appearance ‘All Sorts’ had clearly ran the race of his life an cantered home winning by several lengths. Incidentally the 1914 winner with the apocryphal name ‘Civil War’ came in third.

By the time the meeting was coming to a close, word was spreading from the City that there were something serious afoot, graduating to confirmation that ‘Sinn Feiners’ had commandeered a number of prominent buildings and gunshots were heard. The atmosphere must have been tense and rife with rumour.

The military personnel present commandeered all available modes of transport and hurried back to their posts unsure of what was going on. The rest of the race goers, equally confused, had to make their way home on foot. Soon the railways were closed, a military measure to prevent more ‘rebels’ making their way to the city. The majority of racegoers were stranded in the Meath countryside and began to slowly drift away on foot.

The winner ‘All Sorts’ and his stable mate ‘Turkish Maiden’ who also ran in the main race, had to be walked home over 100km to the Bishopstown Stud.

Cleary was an interesting character. He had been a well-known jockey in his younger days and became a famous trainer and breeder in his own right. Shaun Spada and Serent Murphy who both won the Aintree Grand National came from the Bishopstown Stud. In 1895 he had bought Bishopstown House and developed it into a successful stud. His granddaughter Connie Cleary who will be attending at Fairyhouse tomorrow said her grandfather would later incur the wrath of the IRA, who attempted to assassinate him on two occasions. A story is also told that two armed men also made an attempt to shoot the national winning horse also. When asked where the horse was a quick thinking groom pointed the men to an old stallion and the men shot him instead.

Cleary would run for the National Party in the General Election in 1927 for the National League, a short lived party founded by Willie Redmond in 1926. The party supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and advocated a close relationship with the UK and a conservative fiscal policy. There was a bit of the old Irish Party about the short lived group who nevertheless won 8 seats in the June 1927 election.

Richard Cleary was not successful however in Longford-Westmeath but it does illustrate his Anglophile leanings and explain why he might clash with the local IRA members. Richard Cleary died on the 1st February 1937 and is buried in Walshetown Cemetery. He was 67 and left 10 children surviving.

We shouldn’t forget the jockey, Jackie Lynn. He was born in Edgeworthstown in 1876 and sadly died of cancer in 1938 at the age of 52.

The family had its share of tragedy over the years and sets out starkly the dangers in horse racing particularly National Hunt. Jackie Lynn’s son Mickey was killed in a fall at Sandown Park on the 5th April 1955. He was a great horseman and predicted to be a champion jockey. Micky Lynn worked at Weyhill for Gerald Balding’s stable.

 “He had the perfect build for a jump jockey, he was intelligent and brave, and a brilliant all-round horseman who especially enjoyed riding all the difficult horses that no one else wanted to ride” (jockepedia)

It appears that in order to make the weight some jockeys forego the standard skull cap as their weight was included in the overall weight. Instead jockeys used headgear that looked like a skull-cap but might only have been made of cardboard or similar and offered no protection.

“In such headgear, Micky, then 23, took a dreadful fall at Sandown on April 5, 1955 in The Spring Handicap Chase. He landed headfirst, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness and died from his injuries two days later. A brilliant young talent and the life of a wonderful Christian young man had been snuffed out in an instant. The boy who would undoubtedly have become champion jockey was gone forever”

Incidentally the Gerald Balding referred to above was the Grandfather of the Sport Presenter Clare Balding. Young Lynn was in good company at the Balding stables as he roomed with one Dick Francis, later to be the famous novelist.

Sadly another member of the family, Willy Lynn was also killed at Gowran Park in Kilkenny. Willys son also John Lynn was killed in a fall at Southwell on the 8th December, 1945.

John Lynn junior emigrated to the UK and promised his mother he would never become a jockey.  He went on to captain the London Gaelic Football team when they won a Junior All-Ireland title in 1956

Tomorrow the Ward Union Hunt will re-enact that famous 1916 Irish Grand National after this year’s race. John Lynn and Connie Cleary will both be present at the famous old racecourse where there Grandparents proudest day occurred 100 years ago, on the same day a certain Padraig Pearse cleared his throat and began to read the Proclamation from the steps of the GPO. Let us hope they won’t have to walk home this time.



Leitrim 1916 

  Every County has a connection with Easter 1916 but Leitrim can be rightly proud of its connections with Sean MacDiarmada and Thomas Clarke – two of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of Independence. 

Before his execution, Mac Diarmada wrote: “I feel happiness the like of which I have never experienced. I die that the Irish nation might live!”

He was executed by firing squad at Kilmainham on May 12. 

Sean McDermott Street in Dublin is named in his honour as is Mac Diarmada rail station in Sligo, and Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada, the GAA ground in Carrick-on-Shannon. 

Sean MacDermott tower in Ballymun, which was demolished in 2005, was also named after him.

Incidentally, the Lord Mayor of Dublin at the time of the Easter Riskng was also a North Leitrim man, James Gallagher.