Tag Archives: Leitrim

Many Swallows make a Summer


The annual arrival of the Swallow is one of the surest signs that Summer is on its way. We have had them since the beginning of April. The first weeks are spent securing their nests, building new ones and repairing old ones. You can find them anywhere but they seem to like farmyards and their byres, haysheds and barns. We have two permanent nests on our dwelling house, the oldest of which is here at least ten years now. I have managed to affix some plain corrie board from an old  poster directly underneath the nests to catch the droppings. The swallows might be cute but they have little respect for a freshly painted or whitewashed wall. One of our nests is high up under the eave on the Western Gable of the house whilst the other is squeezed in between an eave and a drainpipe. I’m reminded of the  The Wind in the Willows, where the swallows discuss with relish their impending return to “the house of the perfect eaves”. Not only are these tiny birds amazing flyers but they are great architects and precision builders too.

By now the birds are paired off, well settled in, with eggs laid and soon to hatch. The swallow practices love in a cold climate. The male and female will build the nest together. The long evenings are now spent darting and diving in the acrobatic pursuit of insects. It was the swallow after all who first invented the concept of in-flight dining. They say that the swallow is so adept that they can even swoop low along a watercourse and drink water without stopping. The skill and athleticism of these little birds are a sight to behold in the dying hours of the day. They are also very brave little birds and will swoop low like an F16 fighter pilot on any man or beast getting too close to the nest. I have vivid memories of the swallows teasing an old sheepdog we had at home, dive bombing him and turning him around in circles in the farm yard, in what for them must have been a source of endless amusement and mischief. The rest of their summer will now be spent rearing the insatiable chicks.

swallow 2

I always find it amazing to think that these little birds will next year return to this same place, the place of their birth and in some ways I feel honoured..

Billy Flynn, an ecologist for the Irish Wildlife Trust said , “Swallows travel in families, with the younger birds following their parents when they migrate for the cold months. What is incredible about them, Flynn explained, is that young swallows are still able to make the journey themselves, even if their parents have died or got lost before they had a chance to show them.

No one is exactly sure how they manage this but it is thought instinct plays a big part, as well as magnetism. Most animals have the mineral magnetite in their skulls and this gives birds a kind of internal compass. It’s an amazing journey, they pass over deserts, seas, they fly through all sorts of weather and when you see the tiny size of them, you can fit two in the palm of your hand.[i]

Migration map

Migration map

The swallow doesn’t seem to do retirement and is constantly on the move, He simply cannot sit still, a consummate workaholic. As if inventing in flight dining wasn’t enough he also promoted the classic long distance commute. As much as I look forward to them coming I hate to see them going; their departure signals the end of the summer. If they are gone before the Hurling final you can watch out for a bleak winter, if they linger on until October then it mightn’t be too bad. In the months following this I will curse again the price of oil, whilst Comrade Swallow has retired five thousand miles to the south, to his dacha in sub-Saharan Africa. Observers say the numbers of swallows are depleting and I sincerely hope that this can be reversed. It will be a very sad day if ever the swallow does not return.

The Swallow Song

Come wander quietly and listen to the wind
Come here and listen to the sky
Come walking high above the rolling of the sea
And watch the swallows as they fly

There is no sorrow like the murmur of their wings
There is no choir like their song
There is no power like the freedom of their flight
While the swallows roam alone[ii]

[i] http://www.thejournal.ie/swallows-summer-2067147-Apr2015/

[ii] Richard farina – Chapell music

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

 William Butler Years was born on this day in 1865. Although born into the Anglo-Irish ascendancy Yeats could arguably be said to have done more to reshape the modern Irish identity than any if his contemporaries. Yeats drew his inspiration from ancient Irish myths and folklore and as an ardent cultural nationalist, valued the classical past as an inspiration for a modern pluralist society. He has so many great poems and this is one of my favourites that simply has to be read aloud.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

A Loop in the River

The Weir at Jamestown

The Weir

This Blog’s title owes itself to the River Shannon. The river meanders its way through the countryside and provides us with some beautiful backdrops. Today the sun was shining brightly which can be rarity hereabouts, at least of late. I was smiling to myself after a friend told me a little anecdote about Rick Santorum the US Republican Senator. Apparently Santorum had said that Pope Francis ought to leave climate change to the scientists! Poor Rick however was apparently unaware that the Pope, prior to taking orders was a trained chemical lab technician. Little matters like Ricks oversight can make you feel happy sometimes. As I was passing through Jamestown the river came into view.  I just had to stop the car to admire the beautiful Weir and the sound of the cascading waters. I was reminded of those beautifully crafted lines of Kavanagh:-

“Where by a lock Niagariously roars

The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence

Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose

Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.”

A few minutes later I stopped at one of the bridges that traverse the Albert Lock and Canal. This stretch of water is likely to be very familiar to the boating fraternity on the Upper Shannon.  It is also an area rich in history ancient and modern. The canal is also known as the ‘Jamestown Cut’ and it bypasses an un-navigable part of the river in the loop between the neat villages of Jamestown and Drumsna.

The Albert Canal

The Albert Canal

Jamestown itself was founded in 1622 as a walled plantation town and remarkably, as a recognised borough, it returned two MP’s up until the Act of Union in 1801 . The town itself never really flourished in the manner envisaged by its founders. Its prominence peaked in the mid seventeenth century when it was fought over during the 1641 Rebellion. In 1650 a famous Synod of the Bishops was held here but from then on the town declined although it retained a modest river trade and was still a significant fording point over the Shannon. The importance of the crossing point has long been recognised. The area marked the traditional fording area and point of demarcation between the ancient provinces of Connacht and Ulster. The ‘Doon’ of Drumsna stretched for over 1.6 km between the villages of Drumsna and Jamestown.The Doon consisted of a large earthenwork rampart up to six metres high on its northern side. The ramparts also had a fortified gate or entrance and was effectively an ancient ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. It is believed that the Doon was in use in the period 500BC to 400AD.

Drumsna is also a picturesque riverside village. Up until the mid Nineteenth Century it was of huge significance as the main postal town of the southern part of the County of Leitrim. The Novelist Anthony Trollope lived for a time in the Village and penned one of his earliest novels ‘The Macdermotts of Ballycloran’ here.



Another famous person associated with the area is the famous Surgeon and Explorer Thomas Heazle Parke who was born in nearby Clogher House. Parke made a name for himself in the relief of Gordon at Khartoum in 1885. He also worked with Henry Morton Stanley in the Emin Pash Relief Expedition. Whilst in Central Africa Parke is said to have purchased a pygmy girl, a strange act in modern terms but one which saved his life. When he contracted malaria the girl nursed him back from death. Unfortunately he could not bring her with him as her eyes could not adjust to the sunlight after coming out of the dark of the forest.

Thomas Heazle Parke

Thomas Parke

The Canal was first mooted in the 1600’s as part of an overall scheme to make the Shannon navigable. A canal was not constructed however until 1769. The original canal was much smaller and narrower than what we see today and its depth averaged only 1.2 metres. The Shannon Commissioners approved new works in 1844 and much of the construction work was carried out by Poor Relief Committees during the famine. On average 300 men worked on the Canal daily at this time. The new Lock was named after the Prince Consort and husband of Queen Victoria. The canal served the area well commercially until the late 1950’s by which time increased use of road haulage made the river barges obsolete. From a highway of commerce the river has now become a leisure route . I hope today’s  canal users take just a moment to think of the local labourers whose backbreaking toil, with hand tools, built this fine canal, all for the measly sum of six pence a day.

All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied

Ecclesiastes 6:7



A few years ago many of us would not have known what terms like Glamping or Supping meant. The cousin, JP, thought Glamping was a nocturnal activity himself and Eddie Joe did at the weekends with a large spotlight attached to the bullbars of his jeep, scanning the bogs for Foxes.  So you can imagine my surprise when JP announced recently that he and ‘the woman’ were SUPping over in Drumshanbo at the weekend. Being old school I thought supping was something JP did whilst shouting at a TV screen in the local whilst elucidating on the performances of his ‘beloved’ Everton. For JP, until now that is, a good sup, usually consisted of 8-10 pints of Smithwicks. This time though JP wasn’t having me on, he had just spent a few leisurely hours paddling down a canal in what is now known as Leitrim’s Blueway.

The Shannon Blueway is in fact the first of its kind in Ireland, an inland series of  water and land based trails. It facilitates paddling from Drumshanbo to Carrick-on Shannon via Battlebridge and Leitrim Village. JP isn’t the only one raving about it, numerous Travel Writers and journalists are focussing in on places like Leitrim and initiatives like the Blueway. In the coming years we will likely see the development of a number of Greenways in the County. One of these planned Greenways will traverse North Leitrim from Dromahaire to Glenfarne on the route of the old Sligo-Leitrim and Northern Railway. Another Rail Trail is planned for South Leitrim running from Mohill to Belturbet in Cavan along the former route of the Cavan-Leitrim narrow gauge railway. All of these projects are wonderful and all hope to emulate the success of the Greenway in Mayo.

I decided to investigate at the weekend and although it was damp and cold I was well wrapped up by the time I got out of the Jeep at ‘Beirnes of Battlebridge’. Set on the banks of the River Shannon, there is a charming caravan and camping park her, set in natural sylvan surroundings. The Pub at Battlebridge has being in the Beirne family for generations. The place was one of Ireland’s best kept secrets until the charming rural retreat was the proud recipient of several awards, including: Black & White Pub award and Irish Pub of Distinction. In 2014 Beirnes was nominated by “The Irish Restaurants Association” for “The best gastro pub award”. The Caravan and Camping Park has standard pitches as well as the opportunity for some Glamping and has been listed as one of the “10 best Irish camp-sites” by the Irish Independent. You can even do a bit of paint ball shooting here.

Battlebridge has in fact two bridges, one crosses the Canal and the other the Shannon itself. The Canal was built as to assist navigation south of Drumshanbo and I head for a walk that starts between the Canal and the river. The walk is a loop walk to Drumhauver. It is a pleasant walk and like all canal-side trails is easy going due to the level ground. The sun is starting to dip in the west and I can see the Shannon to my left and its flat ‘calloughs’ fields and plenty of ‘pools among the rushes’ as Yeats wrote. The halfway point is a set of locks at Drumaleague. Here the frost laden crest of Sliabh an Iarainn comes into view, it’s white crown unseasonal but not unprecedented.  The turning point in my walk is Drumhauver Bridge and I take a break after walking for an hour at this stage.  I have met a score of people walking on the canal bank both visitors and locals I surmise. The lack of fitness begins to tell on the southern return leg. At Drumaleague I am like a marathon runner who has hit the infamous wall. I curse my over-confidence but struggle on, get a second wind, and in the fading light I reach Battlebridge again. I reward myself with the wonderful restorative properties of a pint of plain in Beirnes. Whilst I didn’t meet any SUPpers enroute I can appreciate that a paddle down the canal from Drumshanbo to Carrick-on-Shannon is on my to-do list for when the long evenings ahead. There are certainly many more activities such as trails and walks in Leitrim these days as we strive to attract those interested in activity based holidays. Great credit is due to the Leitrim Development Company, Leitrim Tourism and funds such as Leader and the Rural Development Programme (RDP) which have provided practical advice and financial resources to people interested in developing tourism focussed projects.

Recently, Pol O’Conghaile, the Travel Writer wrote a heart-warming article in  the Irish independent setting out Ten Great Reasons to visit Leitrim. Pol opened with “It’s small, off-radar and home to just 32,000 souls. But Leitrim packs a serious punch… and lots of surprises for the visitor” and went on to list the County’s Literary connections, its natural beauty spots, adventure breaks, award winning restaurants and describes the place as an ‘adventure Eden’ and ‘walkers paradise’. The article went mini-viral and was shared, mostly by Leitrim residents and ex-pats, although few in number, we Leitrim folk are very proud of our little corner of God’s creation. The article had the capacity to instil a pride in a person’s home place in the way that a parent feels  all gooey inside when their young daughter wins first prize at the local feis. I was no different, anybody who reads this blog will quickly realise that for me Leitrim is one of the loves of my life. Hopefully such articles will be read by more than just sentimental Leitrimites around the world. Come visit we’re open. 


MATTHEW SADLIER – Leitrim’s ‘Titanic’ victim remembered


April can be considered ‘Titanic Month’ for even though the famous liner sank to the sea floor 103 years ago, people’s fascination with the story shows no signs of diminishing. Titanic is the ultimate story that just keeps on giving: it is romance, and tragedy, there are heroes and villains, there is superstition and most of all the folly of man underestimating the power of nature.

This month a small town in the North West of Ireland took centre stage as its own connection to the Titanic disaster was recalled and a commemorative seat unveiled to its own maritime victim. Mohill is the home of Matthew Sadlier a 19 year old lad who set out for New York to start a new life for himself. Over a year ago a Committee was set up in the town involving the local youth group, Foroige. They were joined by some more experienced hands and they got to work preparing a plan to commemorate the life of young Matt Sadlier. They decided upon a commemorative seat to be located in a prominent position in the town and also set out to contact any living relatives of Matthew. The Committees work came to fruition in a wonderful weekend of events associated with the Titanic, the highlight of which was the unveiling of the memorial in a newly renovated plaza.


Who was Matthew Sadlier?

Matthew was born in 1892 to Matthew & Catherine Sadlier at their house at Clooncoe on the shores of beautiful Lough Rynn. The house was located on the famous Lough Rynn Estate, home of the Clements family, the Earls of Leitrim. The Sadliers were members of the Church of Ireland and Matthew was baptised at Farnaught Church on the 8th October, 1892. Matthews Civil Birth Record shows his birth was recorded just over two weeks later on the 26th October. The Civil Record gives his date of birth as the 8th October also, the same date as his baptism, something which seems extraordinary today. The informant is Dr Henry Pentland from Mohill who it says was present at the birth. This would suggest that Matthew may have been brought to the baptismal font on the same day as he came into this world. The fact that the Sadlier home is located so close to Farnaught Church means this would not have been a long journey but would have been, at the very least, be a great imposition on poor Catherine. Matthew Seniors occupation is recorded as an Agricultural Labourer. Catherine’s occupation is not given but as she was to bear Matthew Senior 9 children, 7 of whom would survive infancy, it is likely all Catherine’s time was taken up with child rearing and keeping house.

Matthew and Catherine did not always live at Lough Rynn. They married on the 25th February, 1881 at St. Marys Church of Ireland, Mohill. The church is reputedly built on the site of the original monastery, Maothail Manachain which was the precursor to the modern town of Mohill. The founder of the monastery was St. Manachan and his feast day is the 25th February, the same day that Catherine & Matthew Senior took their vows.

Matthew Senior and Catherine were both born in the same townland on small tenant farms just a mile west of the town of Mohill. Matthew Seniors father was Henry Sadlier, who was born circa 1810, but unfortunately the location is unknown. As well as farming his small holding Henry also for some time was a weaver. The fact that he was engaged in weaving might suggest that the family may have migrated to Leitrim from a more north eastern location where the linen trade was predominant. Henry Sadlier died on the 25th November, 1885 at the age of 75. He was buried in Mohill Church of Ireland Cemetery and we also know he died a widower, his wife having predeceased him. Present at his death was a Sarah McCombs.

Griffiths Valuation (1857) shows Henry as holding a tenancy on the Crofton Estate in the townland of Tamlaghtavally. His holding is just shy of 15 acres in size which would have been well above the average holding in the area at that time.

 Tamlaghtavalley 1857 Griffiths

Sadlier Holding No’s 5,6 & 7 Tamlaghtvalley, Mohill, 1857.

 Catherine Sadlier, the mother of tragic Matthew, was born to Thomas and Anna Duke, also in Tamlaghtavally, Mohill in 1852. She was baptised in St.  Marys Church of Ireland on the 22nd December that year.

The 1901 Census will show Matthew Senior and Catherine Sadlier living in Clooncoe with their 7 surviving children Thomas (19), William (18), Jane A (16), Fanny (15), Henry (11), Kate (9) and young Matthew (8). 10 years later when the enumerators called again to the Sadlier household only Kate and Matthew remained at home. Catherine would go on to marry a William Boddy and live out her days in Mohill.

William the second eldest appears to have been the first of the Clooncoe family to cross the Atlantic circa 1904. The following year, the elder brother Thomas made the crossing, stating on the ship manifest that he was travelling to William at 49 Grove St., New York.

It is clear that young Matthew was intent on joining his siblings in America as soon as he possibly could. Matthew purchased a 3rd Class ticket (Ticket No. 367655 , £7 14s 7d) on the White Star Line to New York. It was a considerable sum of money at the time. Senan Maloney recounts some local lore about Matthews final days in Clooncoe;-

‘His parents didn’t wish him to leave , his mother being particularly attached to her youngest, having already see offspring William, Thomas and Fanny take the American boat. On the morning he was to leave, a cockerel came to the doorstep and crowed three times. His mother, seizing on superstition for her own ends, declared,‘That’s enough now!’ grabbing Matthews suitcase from his hand. It was unspoken knowledge that a cockcrow at the door meant sad news. Matthew patiently retrieved his case from his mother’s grasp, said farewells and went about his journey’[i]

Matthew made the long journey to Cork and then boarded the illustrious liner ‘Titanic’ embarking from Queenstown, Co. Cork on Thursday the 11th April, 1912.

Catherine Sadlier had already lost 2 children out of the 9 she brought into this world. Another local tale recalled by Maloney tells of a man called Easterbrook who was cycling home at night on the long sylvan Avenue leading to Lough Rynn House. This man claimed he met the ghost of Matthew Sadlier’s sister who had predeceased him. The ghost’s hair was dripping wet as if it were submerged in water. With fright he lost his balance and when he regained his nerve the ghost was nowhere to be seen. Apparently when this apparition occurred word had not yet made it to Leitrim that the ‘Titanic’ was lost.

In an interesting postscript, on the 25th September 1922 Matthew Sadlier Senior leaves Mohill and headed for New York on board the ‘Cedric’ of the same White Star Line that owned the ‘Titanic’. He purchased his ticket through Thomas J. Gannon Agent in Mohill and boarded at Liverpool. His next of kin is stated to be his daughter Mrs William Body of Tawlaghtavalley, Mohill and he was travelling to his son Thomas Sadlier of Fairfield, Connecticut. Matthew Senior arrived in New York 2nd October 1922.

For Matthew Junior there is no burial plot but the sea, his body if ever found has never been identified. Thanks to the Matthew Sadlier Committee there is however a place to remember him and to contemplate the incredible tragedy he was destined to become part of. The memorial is just a few feet from the final resting place of his dear sister Kate, to whom he was so close too. When you see the beautifully crafted seat commemorating Matt Sadlier you cannot but think of the words of Patrick Kavanagh.

“O commemorate me where there is water,

Canal water, preferably, so stilly

Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother

Commemorate me thus beautifully”[ii]

Committee IMG_1827

[i] Senan Molony ‘The Irish onboard the Titanic’ Mercier Press (October 24, 2012)

[ii] Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin -Patrick Kavanagh © Estate of Katherine Kavanagh

Bishop Edward O’Rourke and the Nazis of Danzig

Bishop Edward O'Rourke 2O'Rourke_coat_of_arms_large

Count Eduard Alexander Ladislaus O’Rourke was born October 26, 1876 in Basin near the city of Minsk in modern day Belarus. At the time the area was part of the Russian Empire and the O’Rourke’s were an aristocratic family. They had large estates acquired no doubt on the basis of several generations of loyal and successful military service to the Czars. Edward’s father was Michael Graf O’Rourke and his mother a Angelika von Bochwitz who was of Baltic-German descent. The O’Rourkes had never forgotten their Irish and Leitrim Heritage and had petitioned the Czar to retain their Irish Titles

Leitrim Heritage

Eduard was a direct descendant of Ualgarg Mor Ui Ruairc of Breifne. Ualgarg’s descendants became known as the O’Rourkes of Clooncorrick and they were the major landowners in the modern Barony of Carrigallen in East Leitrim on the Cavan border. The O’Rourkes were greatly reduced in both wealth and influence from the end of the nine years war 1594-1603 but the O’Rourkes of Clooncorrick retained much of their lands until after the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland in the early 1650’s. In the ensuing land confiscations many of the O’Rourkes fled to the continent with many of them achieving fame on the bloody battlefields of Europe.

Brothers Brian, John and Cornelius O’Rourke, were grandsons of Count Brian O’Rourke of Cloncorrick Castle. According to Anthony Kudryavitsky:-

‘John was born in 1728 in a village near the ancient castle of Woodford. At the age of twenty-five he left Ireland for London and entered the military service. He remained in the English capital for about five years, experiencing many disappointments, but ultimately fixed on the military profession as the best suited to his genius and disposition. In the First Tropps of Horse Guards he received the rudiments of arms; however, being a Roman Catholic, he was forced to resign.

John O’Rourke then went to France. Travelling to Versailles in 1758 he petitioned King Louis XV for a military commission, specifying his princely origin and praying for a regiment. The impressed King had O’Rourke installed as the Captain of the ‘Royal Scotch’ Brigade, much to the chagrin of the French officers. As a few instances of irregular promotions had been made in the brigade, the lieutenants were hurt at his appointment and resolved to contest the matter with him.

Challenged by a number of these enraged officers, John O’Rourke was forced to demonstrate his regal military deportment in a series of fencing duels, four in two days. He emerged victorious in all those duels and so gained a great reputation – not more by his gallantry in the field, than by his honourably confessing that he thought it an injury to the national regiment that he as a foreigner should be thrust upon them. He therefore gave up his commission, informing the French monarch that it was too dear a purchase to fight for it every day. After receiving a certificate of recommendation from the French King he was off to Russia and the court of Tsarina Elizabeth 1 in St. Petersburg.

In Russia John O’Rourke met up with his younger brother Cornelius, who like himself had emigrated from Ireland in search of a foreign military career. Cornelius was as regal minded as his brother and had allied himself dynastically in marrying the niece of Count de Lacy, descendant from the Norman Co. Meath family and a field marshal in the service of Austria. Both O’Rourkes became prominent Russian military leaders. They retained their titles of Irish Counts as they entered the Russian military service.

John O’Rourke finally demonstrated his military prowess during the siege of Berlin. In 1761 he was appointed First Major of Horse Cuirassiers in the regiment of Body Guards. During the course of the war he greatly distinguished himself, in particular, by storming the City of Berlin, which he laid under contribution. When the war with Prussia was over, word reached O’Rourke that the Prussian King, Frederic the Great, impressed with his gallantry, sought his counsel.

Advised by his fellow Russian officers not to go to this meeting with the enemy, O’Rourke remarked that “A man who was a brave enemy could not be a dangerous friend.” So he picked his way towards Berlin where he was graciously received by Frederick and presented with a diamond-studded sword. Frederick inquired how the Count could possibly have believed he could defeat Berlin, to which O’Rourke replied, “If ordered by my commanding officer to storm the heights of Heaven, I would have made the attempt.”

At the end of that war John O’Rourke returned to France with certificates of his gallant conduct from Peter the Third, Prince-General Volkonsky, and Prince-General Souvorov. He was appointed by King Slanislaus as one of his chamberlains in the year 1764. In 1770 he was appointed a Colonel of Horse by the French King and was enrolled among the nobility of France. He was also granted a pension from the French civil list and in 1774 was honoured with the order of St Louis.

John O’Rourke eventually returned to London and published his ‘Treatise on the Art of War’ and attempted to secure a position among the English military elite. The English however, were not as susceptible to O’Rourke’s charms and he was viewed with much suspicion despite being introduced to the King by Lord Stormont himself in 1779. The English doubted O’Rourke’s credentials forcing the Count to produce his now large collection of titles and certificates of regality. He, in turn, was disdainful of those he termed ‘the upstart families of England’; however, he was nevertheless made a Knight by them in 1782, four years before he died. Upon his death in 1786, a large obituary appeared in The London Times, highlighting his career. Before that, The Hibernian Magazine for March, 1782, published a picturesque description of some incidents in his life.

John’s brother Cornelius remained in Russia where he was made first a Captain, then a Colonel of Horse and finally a General Major. His son Joseph (Josif Kornelievich) O’Rourke was born in 1772 in Dorpat, Estonia. His portrait hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

O'Rourke Joseph Cornelius

General Joseph Cornelius O’Rourke

According to Kudryavitsky:- “Being enlisted in his childhood into the elite Izmailov life-guards Regiment in the rank of sergeant, Joseph O’Rourke started his actual service as a Captain (Rotmistr) of cavalry in 1790.He took part in the Russian-Swedish war in Finland and later in the campaign against the Polish Confederation. At first he served in the Pskov Dragoon Regiment but in 1797 he was transferred to the famous Pavlograd Houssar Regiment. In 1798, he became a Major of same regiment.

During the Italian Campaign of General Souvorov he participated in the battles at Austerlitz and Praslau where he greatly distinguished himself and was soon made a Colonel. His service record was adorned with numerous awards. In 1805 he was decorated with St George Order (the 1st level), five years later he was awarded the St Anna Order. Between 1809 and 1812 Joseph O’Rourke took part in the war with Turkey and was appointed commander of a cavalry corps. In 1812 he was entrusted to command the vanguard of the Western Army. He led the cavalry in pursuit of the remains of ‘The Great Army’ from Biarezina to Kouna and Warsaw. For his part in the battle of Leipzig he was made General-Lieutenant and decorated with Order of Alexander Nevsky.

During the Congress in Vienna he was, in the suite of Tzar Alexander 1, amongst the most distinguished Russian generals. Soon he was helping to ensure Napoleon’s demise at Waterloo. In 1819 General O’Rourke retired and subsequently settled down in Navahradak region of Minsk province. He was quite a prominent landowner in Byelorussia and had in his possession about 20,000 acres of land including a small town called Usialub and five villages”.

The Population Census of 1858 stated that his family owned 236 serfs. In 1848 he petitioned Tsar Nicholas 1 for permission to retain the title of Irish Count. The Tsar granted the title to him and his descendants in November 1848. In December 1897, Tsar Nicholas II confirmed that the O’Rourke family of Byelorussia were entitled to be called Irish Counts. By the time Joseph O’Rourke’s died in 1849 all of his sons had thriving military careers. The volume “Titled Nobility of Europe” lists the officers Major Alexander P O’Rourke, Lieutenant Patrick A O’Rourke and Lieutenant Constanine M O’Rourke as serving in the Russian Imperial Army. Apparently, it was Lt. Patrick O’Rourke to whom John O’Donovan was referring when he wrote, “It is curious to see how this fallen Irish family has found its proud level in the present Prince O’Rourke of Russia.” Documents regarding the military service of this family can be found in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and also in military archives in Vienna.

Early Life & education

The young Edward would have grown up in a multi-lingual environment and it is likely that his first language would have been German. He attended the famous Jesuit College in Chyrów (then in Austria-Hungary, now modern Ukraine).. In 1903 he graduated from the Trade and Mechanics Faculty of the University of Riga In 1903 he moved to Freiburg, Switzerland where he continued his studies at the University’s faculty of law. The following year O’Rourke moved to the theological faculty at the University of Innsbruck in Austria-Hungaria.

On October 27, 1908 he was ordained a priest in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) and became a professor of ecclesiastical history, German and French language at the seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev in Saint Petersburg Between 1912 and 1915, he became the priest of the multilingual congregation of St. Stanislaus in Petersburg.

 Religious Life

After the February Revolution in Russia, the church decided to re-establish the diocese of Minsk; O’Rourke was appointed as its administrator and the interim head of the Catholic Church in Russia. He met Achille Ratti for the first time, the Apostolic Visitor for the Baltic Countries and later, Pope Pius XI. Due to the proposed independence of Latvia, in 1918 the diocese of Riga was established. O’Rourke was appointed the bishop of Riga on recommendation of Ratti on 29 September 1918.

O’Rourke’s position in Riga was problematic as German forces occupied the city in early 1919.[1] By the end of World War I, the ecclesiastical organisation was largely destroyed, and only a few priests were active. O’Rourke did not speak Latvian but tried to encourage Latvian priests. He resigned after a new government in Latvia was appointed and there was a popular movement calling for an ethnic Latvian bishop. Released from Riga in April 1920, O’Rourke was appointed the titular bishop of Canea and Apostolic Delegate for the Baltic States. In November 1921 he was also appointed as the Pontifical Delegate for Russian refugees in Danzig and East Prussia, and in 1928 for Russians in Germany.

Danzig 1920-1939

In the post war settlement the City of Danzig (modern day Gdansk) was problematic. The City was overwhelmingly a German city. Its population, history, culture and language were German. However, the River Vistula in all except the few miles which ran through Danzig was in Polish territory, and the natural part of Danzig was as a trading city to serve the basin of the Vistula; that is, to serve as the trading centre for Poland. Danzig was therefore a German city with a Polish trade.

Danzig, Die Mottlau mit dem KrantorDanzig 1939

The Poles wished to have free and direct access to the Baltic Sea and so were given a corridor through the former German lands of Pommerania and Prussia. Danzig was too German and too large to be incorporated in the Polish State, so the Peace Conference in 1919 made it a Free City under a Commissioner appointed by the League of Nations—an office occupied by an Irishman, Sean Lester. The Free City experiment was not a success, the Poles set about reducing their reliance on what they still considered a German run Port and began constructing  a massive new port called Gydnia, just North of Gdansk. The Poles then starved Gdansk of Trade which had the effect of increasing the Danzig Germans hostility to the League of Nations, due the double in justice of been denied union with their mother land and denied trade by their polish neighbours. Danzig became a hotbed ripe for exploitation by the Nazis.

Edward O’Rourke was witness to all these tensions in the Free City as in 1923 he took up the post of ‘apostolic administrator’ (quasi-bishop) in the Free City of Danzig where he would remain for the next fifteen years. In 1925, as a separate political entity, the Free City was given its own diocese with its seat in Oliwa cathedral with O’Rourke becoming its first Roman Catholic bishop.

Such tensions also spilled over into the local Roman Catholic Church where the German-speaking majority resisted attempts by Danzig’s small Polish community to found their own Polish parish. During his first decade in the city O’Rourke sided with the German-speakers, even proposing in June 1931 to the Danzig Senate’s German nationalist president that there should be a ‘stepping up of anti-Polish propaganda in the Church.’

Bishop Edward O'RourkeSean Lester

Bishop O’Rourke of Danzig                                                             Sean Lester

However, once the Danzig Nazi Party had taken control of the Senate in 1933, O’Rourke became one of the strongest allies of the Polish community in Danzig. With the Church now facing persecution by an external enemy, internal ethnic divisions in were set aside and the attitude of Bishop O’Rourke and part of the German-speaking clergy became more favourable towards the Polish community. Along with Irishman Sean Lester, the League of Nations’ High Commissioner in Danzig, O’Rourke was one of the very few independent voices prepared to publically criticize Nazi policies in the Free City. Of particular concern to O’Rourke were attempts by the Nazi Senate to absorb Catholic youth organizations and charities into Nazi structures and its pressure to completely ‘nationalize’ the Church in Danzig.

Despite the fact that Sean Lester was a Protestant and they initially had no common language except French, the two men became close friends and political allies. Both considered personae non grata by the Danzig Nazis, O’Rourke and Lester found a common affinity in their respect for human rights, their opposition to Nazism and their Irishness. Indeed, O’Rourke was intensely proud of his Irish ancestry, with Lester recalling in his diary how on their first meeting in 1934 the bishop came into the room ostentatiously carrying an Irish magazine and patriotically forcing himself to smoke ‘Irish’ cigarettes over his preferred Russian brand.

Once, however, Lester had been forced from his post in February 1937, O’Rourke’s became the last independent voice left in the so-called ‘Free’ City. With a section of the German-speaking Catholic clergy, along with the Nazis, openly opposing his support for the foundation of a Polish parish, O’Rourke finally resigned in October 1937, and moved to the Polish city of Poznan.

From then on, O’Rourke’s connections with Poland became stronger and stronger. Indeed, in 1939 he renounced his Danzig citizenship and became a Polish citizen.

When Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939 O’Rourke was forced to flee Poznan. In Brest-Litovsk he met the famous German General Heinz Guderian who gave him safe passage by car to Stettin from where he made his way to Berlin and then to Rome. He did try to return to Poznan during the war but the Germans would not grant him a visa. In a letter to a friend in Ireland from February 1940, O’Rourke outlines his escape from the war zone:-

 “I have been three months in Rome awaiting in vain for a German visum to go back to Posen. The most part of September I was in Poland; practically all the time of the warfare there. I was in Warsaw and in Siedlce during the bombardment of these cities, and came out of Poland with the help of a sympathetic German General, who sent me, with a motor car, to Eastern Prussia, and from there by sea I reached Stettin, and then Berlin and Rome.

The Germans were very kind to me, but they did not, and do not, wish me to go back to Posen. The rumours, spread in the papers, that I was killed by the Bolshevists, were probably caused by the fact that my cousin, Count Charles O’Rourke, was arrested by the Bolshevists, and it was said that he was killed. But he was only put in prison, and is till now detained, in horrible circumstances, in a cell with 30 other prisoners. He is 78 years of age, ill, and very weak. The President of Lithuania, Mr. Smetana, is trying to liberate him, but till now without success.

I was very amused by the cutting of the English paper. I am sorry I cannot confirm the good news it brought about me. But, fortunately, the bad news in the ‘Sunday Independent’ was not true. In Ireland there are many happy people and I hope Ireland will remain neutral and not take part in that terrible trouble the Continent is going through.”

Although O’Rourke died in Rome in 1943, in recognition of his defence of the Free City’s Polish community during the Nazi period, his bones were reinterred in Gdansk’s Oliwa Cathedral in 1972. Edward O’Rourke may the only member of his illustrious family to ever visit the birthplace of his ancestors. In the 1920’s he visited Leitrim and his enquiries led to him compiling “Documents and Materials for the History of the O’Rourke Family’ published in Danzig in 1925 (by Count Edward O’Rourke, Bishop of Pergame).

Plaque to bishop Edward O'Rourke in Oliwa Cathedral in Gdańsk