Tuesday, 30 August 2011

TP MP - the Irish Nationalist MP for Liverpool

Thomas Power O'Connor's election to the House of Commons as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1885 was not unusual. He was one of 86 Irish nationalists elected that year, a strong result that built on the 63 Home Rulers elected in 1880. What was unusual was that O'Connor represented a constituency in England. He had also been voted in by the electors in an Irish constituency. And, to add to the confusion, his seat in England was the Merseyside constituency of Liverpool Scotland (so called as it was centred on Scotland Road).

T P O'Connor (also known by his initials as Tay Pay) had been elected as an MP for Galway in Ireland on a Home Rule platform in 1880. In 1885 he stood for both Galway and Liverpool Scotland, and was returned by both. He opted to take his seat as the representative for Liverpool Scotland, and Galway was then represented by a succession of Irish Parliamentary Party MPs. 

Most notable of these was his immediate successor, Captain William O'Shea, whose divorce proceedings in 1890 (on grounds of his wife's adultorous affair with the Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stuart Parnell) would divide the loyalties of the Irish block sitting in the House of Commons and taint Parnell's reputation in Ireland.

T P O'Connor would remain as the only Irish Nationalist MP in Great Britain, and retained his seat long after Ireland secured independence in 1921. His seat only became vacant on his death in 1929, when it was taken up by David Logan. Logan was heavily involved in the Irish Nationalist movement, and had represented the party on Liverpool City Council. By the time of his 1929 election he, however, joined the Labour Party and therefore left his mentor O'Connor his position in the history books as the only Irish Nationalist MP in Britain.

An unfortunate tête-à-tête - De Gaulle meets Pershing

General John J. Pershing was the great commander of the American forces in World War I. He led the US efforts on the western front alongside Maréchal Pétain (Commander-in-Chief of the French Army) and Field Marshal Haig (Commander of the British Expeditionary Force) and under Generalissimo Foch (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces). In 1919 he was promoted to General of the Armies, the highest rank ever attained within a lifetime. 

At the same time Charles de Gaulle finished the First World War as a captain - a world away from the top brass. It was therefore understandable that, when visiting Washington D.C. in 1944, de Gaulle was keen to meet the great American warrior. Pershing was 83, and lived in the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in the north of the nation's capital. He had only four years left to live, and had entered his dotage with a time-fogged mind. 

De Gaulle arrived at the hospital on 7 July 1944 in the military dress of a French general. Something, perhaps the green army uniform, peaked kepi or the sound of French voices, stirred memories deep in Pershing's somnolent brain:
"Ah! How is my old friend, Marshal Pétain?" The question was met with a brief, stunned silence.
The honest answer would have been that Pétain was barely holding onto power in the collaborationist regime of Vichy France. Barely three months later he would be relocated by his Nazi masters to Sigmaringen in south west Germany to lead a 'French' government in exile. A year later from Pershing's innocuous inquiry and Pétain would be on trial for treason.
It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the two men. On 2 August 1940 de Gaulle had been sentenced in absentia to death for treason to the Vichy Republic. Just a little over five years later, and Pétain faced the same penalty. Convicted to die by a majority of one, the 'saviour of France' was himself saved by de Gaulle's presidential decree, living his remaining six years in prison.
But de Gaulle was enough of a gentleman to appreciate that the ancient warrior did not need to be troubled with such disconcerting news. His reply was the honest, if somewhat evasive:
"La dernière fois que je l'ai vu, il se portait bien" (the last time I saw him he was doing well). 
Further reading

Friday, 26 August 2011

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted

The story is irresistible, and, as such, has become part of the BBC’s unofficial history. It is repeated on countless websites, news stories and anecdotes. It is the story of how the BBC returned to television broadcasts in the aftermath of the Second World War.

As Europe teetered perilously on the edge of cataclysmic conflict, BBC television was still in its infancy. The service could not continue in war time – its transmitter at Alexandra Palace would have been a powerful beacon for enemy planes.  So, with only days to go until the declaration of war, the television signal was cut off on 1 September 1939 half way through a Mickey Mouse’s Gala Premiere. It would only resume in 1946, picking up at the same point in the cartoon but only after the announcer had witheringly intoned: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.”

Unfortunately, as well as being a great story, it is also a complete fabrication. There is a kernel of truth, in that they relate to the resumption of a media institution in peacetime. William “Bill” Connor, the legendary Daily Mirror writer, began his first post-war Cassandra with that phrase. The full quotation was: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted ,it is a powerful hard thing to please all of the people all of the time.”

The BBC’s real return to the airwaves was, in many ways, just as charming a tale. The first words uttered on 7 June 1946 were “Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?” Jasmine Bligh was one of the original three BBC announcers from their pre-war service.

It is true that they then played the same Micky Mouse cartoon from 1 September 1939, but they were sensible enough to realise that seven years and a world war would test people’s memory, and so started it from the beginning. In any respect, it is part of the myth that the cartoon was cut off half way through – in reality the BBC finished the programme and then broadcast test signals until its suspension. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Acknowledging the Prime Minister

The office of the Prime Minister is at the heart of the Westminster system of government. In any other country so central a role would be clearly defined and delineated in the constitution. But in the UK, it existed for centuries without official acknowledgement.

The first mention of the post of Prime Minister in legislation was in the Chequers Estate Act 1917, which saw the Buckinghamshire estate of Chequers bequeathed to the nation for the use of the “British Prime Minister”. The position, having no legislative precedent, was further defined as the official “now popularly known as ‘Prime Minister’”.

Through history there have been many influential ministers of state (including Elizabeth’s Lord Burghley and the Duke of Buckingham under Charles I), most agree that the first ‘Prime Minister’ was Horace Walpole. Walpole, whose ‘premiership’ retains the record for the longest lasting (1721 – 1761) would vehemently denied such a title which, in the cabinet system, was a term of abuse at a single minister who had overreached his colleagues.  Walpole held the title of First Lord of the Treasury, and this was the official ‘front’ and title for every succeeding Prime Minister.

Henry Campbell-Bannerman was the first ‘official’ Prime Minister when a Royal Warrant of 10 December 1905 placed the Prime Minister in the order of precedence in England immediately after the Archbishop of York. Today’s Prime Minister has risen no higher in precedence, still ranking below members of the Royal Family, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

The Prime Minister’s role is now firmly entrenched, backed by the Prime Minister’s Office and identified by one of the most recognisable metonymic expressions – Downing Street.

See also - Prime Ministers on holiday

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Father and son - iconic architects

Two of London’s most iconic buildings were respectively the work of a father and son, Charles and John Barry. Sir Charles Barry was the architect of the Houses of Parliament, including the globally recognised St. Stephen's Clock Tower (home of Big Ben). His son, Sir John Wolfe-Barry (7 December 1836 – 22 January 1918) was responsible for the construction of Tower Bridge.

Sir Charles Barry also had a role in another of London’s iconic structures with his remodelling of Trafalgar Square around Nelson’s Column. The Column itself was constructed between 1840 and 1843 to a design by William Railton. The other globally recognisable London constructions include St. Paul’s (Sir Christopher Wren), the London Eye (David Marks and Julia Barfield) and 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin by Lord Foster of Thames Bank).

Whether Renzo Piano’s Shard London Bridge, or any of the other towers being built in the City, enter this exclusive club is yet to be seen.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Take down "that murdering bastard"

In his book following Oliver Cromwell's murderous rampage through Ireland (God's Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland), Micheál Ó Siochrú relates the following anecdote to highlight the Great Protector's 'poisonous' legacy.

Robin Cook had recently assumed the position of Foreign Secretary, and decided that a physical manifestation of his ethical foreign policy would be the removal of a monumental portrait of portrait of Maharaja Sir Bir Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana that hung in his private office. As this gentleman had served as Prime Minister of Nepal at the time of the Raj, it was felt to convey an overly imperial impression. In its place was hung solid, sensible and republican Oliver Cromwell.

Unfortunately, one of the first visitors following the replacement was the Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (the prime minister of Ireland). Straightaway, he noticed the painting of Oliver Cromwell. His reaction was instant and explosive - he walked out and refused to return until the portrait of “that murdering bastard” had been removed.

Or did he? This was too good an anecdote not to be repeated in newspapers, magazines and across the internet. But it may never have happened. Bertie Ahern strongly denied the story, telling the Irish Times that: "I can honestly say there was no walkout." Still, the Taoiseach was not best pleased, and left Robin Cook in no doubt as to his opinion on the 'great Englishman', and leaving the Foreign Secretary somewhat surpised by the strength of feeling.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Albert Göring - the good brother

The Göring family name is indelibly associated with Hermann Göring (1893 – 1945). Hermann was one of the leading lights of the National Socialist movement, and, until the regime was consumed and destroyed in the reaping hubris of Allied military advances, held some of the highest offices of state in Nazi Germany.

The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg saw the trials of 24 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany. Following the suicides of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring was perhaps the highest ranking survivor of the regime.

He was one of Nazi Germany’s most senior military commanders. He had been Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe since 1935 and was made Reichsmarschall of the entire armed forces in 1940 by a grateful Führer . His power was not confined to military matters, and his civilian portfolio of positions includes the Presidency of the Reichstag and he was Minister President of the Free State of Prussia, Reichsstatthalter of Prussia and Reich Minister of Aviation and Forestry.

The hangman was cheated of this most glittering of the golden pheasants (Goldfasanen was a derogatory term used by many Germans for high-ranking Nazi Party members inspired by their brown and red uniforms draped with golden braid and medals) when Hermann committed suicide by consuming cyanide on the night preceding his execution.

But this is not the story of Hermann Göring. It is the story of Albert Göring – the good brother who defied the Nazi regime and may one day be honoured at the Yad Vashem memorial as righteous amongst the gentiles.

Albert had shared Hermann’s privileged upbringing. Albert was one of five children of Heinrich and Franziska Göring. Because their father spent much of his time abroad, they were largely brought up with their godfather of Jewish heritage, Ritter Hermann von Epenstein, in his Veldenstein and Mauterndorf castles.

Whilst Hermann went on to become a leading figure in the National Socialist movement, his younger brother developed an antipathy to the regime which developed into active resistance.  His familial connections with one of the most powerful figures in Germany gave him the ability to resist from the inside, and, amongst his reported endeavours, included
  • Inducing and permitting acts of sabotage at the Škoda Works in Czechoslovakia;
  • Forging his brother’s signature on transmit papers to allow the escape of dissidents;
  • Sending trucks to concentration camps with request for labourers, and then letting the prisoners escape into isolated areas; and
  • facilitating the freeing and flight from Germany of his former boss, the Jewish film financier  Oskar Pilzer and his family.
His notorious family name ensured he was investigated for war crimes, first during the Nuremburg Trials and later in Czechoslovakia. Both times he was freed following widespread and spontaneous testimony that highlighted his brave and resolutely anti-Nazi activities.

See also

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A sort of moral Coventry - the first boycott

Please visit the new website at www.vaguelyinteresting.co.uk

Towards the end of the 1870s the Irish Party in the UK and Clan na Gael in the USA agreed on a campaign for land reform and tenant farmer protection. The Irish National Land League was formed in October 1879, just as a succession of poor harvests, the reappearance of potato blight and harsh weather brought many subsistence farmers once more to the brink of starvation.

Charles Parnell MP, leader of the Irish Party and president of the Land League set out his stall for non-violent action (or, perhaps more properly, inaction) at a rally in front of 12,000 on 19 September 1880 in Ennis, Co. Clare. His own words are far more eloquent than mine, and this extract from his speech that day clearly outlines the Land League’s plan

“Now, what are you going to do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbour has been evicted? Now I think I heard somebody say, “Shoot him”, but I wish to point out to you a very much better way, a more Christian, a more charitable way which will give the lost sinner an opportunity of repenting.

When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him at the shop counter, you must show him in the fair and at the market place and even in the house of worship, by leaving him severely alone, by putting him in a sort of moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his kind as if he were a leper of old, you must show him your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

The first person to be subjected to this treatment was a land agent for the Earl of Erne who took over a farm in Co. Mayo. His name was Captain Charles Boycott.

His name, transformed into a noun and verb, was widely used in newspaper reporting around the world (even being rendered as boikotto in Japanese) and soon entered the dictionary. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Guns versus butter

Please visit the new website at www.vaguelyinteresting.co.uk

The Great Famine in Ireland of 1845 - 1852 (An Gorta Mór) saw the island's population fall by between 20 - 25%. One million would perish of starvation or the related epidemics that swept the country. A further one million emigrated, enlarging the already significant Irish diaspora. 

A striking fact is that approximately £7 million was spent on famine relief by the British authorities. This, according to Peter Gray in the Irish Famine, represented less than half of one percent of British gross national product over the five years (under 0.1% of GNP per annum). Just one year later, with the outbreak of the Crimean War, over £70 million would be spent fighting Russia between 1853 and 1856.

The population of Ireland has still not fully recovered over 150 years later. The island's population  peaked at c. 8,175,000 (as recorded in the census of 1841), had fallen to c. 5,800,000 by 1861 and reached its lowest ebb of 4,230,000 in 1926. By 2011 it had recovered to 6,250,000, although recent gains may be reversed in the wake of the financial crisis and a rise in emigration. 

Ireland was not the only country affected by the potato blight. The highlands of Scotland also experienced a blight which saw up to 1.7m leave the highlands and crops across northern Europe were wiped out in the European Potato Failure. But a tragic combination of ideology, bigotry, climatic, social and economic factors ensured Ireland's particular suffering. 

Nasty, brutish and short – the north-south divide and health

The north-south divide is one of the most frequently debated economic, social and political issues in the UK. Politicians and academics argue over its precise boundaries, its implications for social policy and how to mitigate its impact. Some (including Tony Blair) have gone so far as to question whether the divide exists at all.
One of the most striking aspects of the divide is its impact on health. Experian compiled data on admissions for type II diabetes, creating a data set that was instantly christened the Obesity League Table. Whilst the table is an imperfect indicator of obesity, it does highlight the stark divide between those most or least likely to develop type II diabetes.
The top five locations where Type 2 diabetes is most prevalent are Hull, Knowsley (Merseyside), Blackburn (Lancashire), South Tynside and Easington (County Durham). All of the top twenty locations are north of the traditional Severn Estury – Humber dividing line.
The five areas least likely to be home to those afflicted with Type 2 diabetes were all in Greater London (Kingston, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Richmond and Wandsworth). The only place north of the line to feature in this healthier top 20 was the City of Edinburgh.

Casting the stone

Ostracism is one of the harshest punishments meted out in a social group. Today it is taken to mean exclusion or banishment from a particular group or society. Many groups have, through history, sought to keep particular groups away from mainstream society – the Cagots in medieval France and the Dalit class in India were both outcasts. Prostitutes, heretics, Jews and adulterers have all suffered edicts requiring them to wear particular clothes to mark them out from the rest.
The term ‘ostracise’ comes from the ostraka, broken pieces of pottery upon which names could be scratched. Athenian democracy held a procedure by which individuals could be expelled for up to ten-years. During the ostracism the citizens would stratch the name of the individual they wished to expel onto the shard and toss this ostrakon into an urn. If enough fellow-citizens agreed, the individual would be banished.
There were safeguards, requiring certain numbers of votes, but the historical reports do not quite agree on the hurdles. According to Philochorus a person could only be  ostracised if they had obtained at least 6,000 votes whilst Plutarchus wrote that the ostracism was valid if the total number of votes cast was at least 6,000.

I forbid

The term ‘veto’ today means the power or right vested in one branch of a government to cancel or postpone the decisions of another branch. It is frequently found in the right of the executive (e.g. a president, governor, monarch etc.) to reject bills passed by the legislature.
It has one of the simplest etymological explanations, deriving directly from the Latin “I forbid”. The process was common in the Roman Republic, when it was known as the intercessio. The intercessio was a power that enabled tribunes to protect the interests of the plebs, and would be invoked by the tribune uttering veto. In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords once held the power to veto legislation passed by the House of Commons, but the Parliament Act 1911 reduced this to a power of delay.
The monarch has the power to veto by withholding the Royal Assent. This was last exercised in 1707 when Queen Anne withheld consent to the Scottish Militia Bill. The technical process of refusing consent was to write La Reyne s'aviserathe Queen will take advice – at the head of the Bill. Since then, all Bills have been granted Royal Assent using the following formulae:
·         La Reyne remercie ses bons sujets, accepte leur benevolence, et ainsi le vault (The Queen thanks her good subjects, accepts their bounty, and wills it so) – for a supply bill;
·         La Reyne le vault (the Queen wills it) – all other public or private bills;
·         Soit fait comme il est desire (let it be as it is desired) – for personal bills.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Bearing the weight of the world

In Greek myths the giant Atlas was punished by Zeus to hold the heavens apart from the earth for eternity. His crime was to side with his brother Titans in their war with the Olympians. A small compensation maybe his modern day fame as the etymological source for the word describing a collection of maps.

Most dictionaries agree that Atlases get their name because they were frequently adorned with an illustration of Atlas carrying the earth. The Farnese Atlas became an iconic image, repeated on many Dutch cartographical collections and thus lending the tortured giant’s name to the whole work.

But this overlooks another figure from classical mythology who also has a claim for naming rights. King Atlas of Mauretania was a wise philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and supposed creator of the first celestial globe. One of the greatest map makers of the age, Geradus Mercator, certainly subscribed to this version. The Mercator-Hondius Atlas of 1605 eschews the Farnese Atlas and, instead, depicts King Atlas flanked by figures represent the continents.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Land of winter


Hibernia, the classical Latin name for Ireland, can be loosely translated as the Land of Winter. More poetically, it has been rendered as the island of the eternal winter. And anyone who has stood in a face of a driving Atlantic storm in the far west of the island will understand that description.
Hibernia is a geographical term that is today consigned to the descriptive or poetic. The island of Ireland is rarely referred to by its Latin name and the term is now used in the same way that ‘Anglo’ describes something that is English (e.g. Hiberno-English, Hibernophile).
Greek geographer had labelled it Iouernia (written Ἰουερνία), adapting the old Celtic name Īweriū. The Romans took this root, and noticed its useful similarity to the Latin word hibernus (wintry). Possessing a cooler and wetter climate than that enjoyed to the south, and being a murky, misty and unconquered island the name obviously chimed with the Romans and stuck as Ireland’s Latin name.

And, although sounding entirely dissimilar, this etymology shows the shared roots with the present Irish name for the island - Éire (via the old Irish Ériu). And, far from meaning wintry, this proto-Celtic word is likely to mean the abundant land. One man's winter is another's feast. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

An ill wind blows east

Popbitch is not my usual source for this blog, but this week it had a little gem of a fact:

“The west of cities in the Northern Hemisphere are posher than the east because the winds blow west to east - i.e. back in the Industrial Revolution pollution drifted eastwards.”

The theory was set out in more detail on the Januarist blog. Prevailing winds would blow industrial stink over the slum housing in the east, driving the pollutants away from the upscale areas out west. On closer inspection, this theory doesn’t stack up well when applied across the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. It is especially flawed when applied to the US – think South Central, L.A., Southside, Chicago, the south-east quadrant of Washington D.C.  and the Bronx to the north of Manhatten.

But, there is obviously a grain of truth to the east/west divide. The Pet Shop Boys sang of West End Girls and East End Boys, and comparing EastEnders  with Made In Chelsea shows which side is the salubrious end of town.

London is the most obvious example of an east/west wealth divide. Heading east past the City brings you to Whitechapel, Poplar, Stratford and Canning Town. Going to the west end might take you to Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Marylebone or Notting Hill.

But it is not the only example. Glasgow has its own East End, almost as infamous in poverty and standing in stark contrast to Hillhead, Dowanhill, Kelvingrove, Kelvinside, Hyndland to the west of the city. Manchester and Leeds also have an east end of sorts – Manchester East and East End Park respectively.

In Bristol, grimy St Paul's, Easton, Eastville face Clifton, Cabot, Stoke Bishop to the west. In Sheffield the Peak District embraces westerly Hallam whilst east of the city lie the decidedly dicey Burngreave and Nether Edge. In Birmingham, Sparkbrook, Sparkhill, Duddestone are east, Edgbaston and Harbone are west.  The rule even applies to my home city of Preston, with Frenchwood, Deepdale and Ribbleton stretching east from the city centre and comprising some of the poorest parts of town.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some of London’s poorest areas are in the south, and north Kensington has historically been rough as docker’s palms. In Leicester the rule is reversed, with Leicester West being poorer than Leicester East and in Edinburgh the poorest areas are to the north.

I decided to investigate whether the historical rule applied today by inspecting the Guardian’s impressive data set mapping poverty in England. Set out in forensic and colourful detail, a patchwork quilt of deprivation and wealth emerges, stretching down to ward level and revealing stark patterns across the country. And it confirms that the ‘east is poor’ rule still, by and large, applies to the UK’s major cities.

One recent trend is to promote east end urban development and regeneration through major sporting events. The London Olympics in 2012 are the most obvious example, centred on Stratford and encompassing some of London’s poorest (and easterly) boroughs. But it is preceded by East Manchester's successful hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and the regeneration of Sports City and New Islington that accompanied it. It will be followed by Glasgow hosting the same event in 2014, with events and developments centred on its own East End.

So, as far as the UK goes, east is east and west is west. But, increasingly, the two do meet and often end up living in a brand spanking new apartment near a sports complex in a previously derelict side of town. 

If you liked that, try http://bitofhistoryrepeating.blogspot.com/2011/08/panic-on-streets-of-london.html for a historical view of the London riots.