Eric Villiers investigates Armagh’s forgotten celebrities
Evidence that the success stories of up to 20 Armagh heroes, scholars and celebrities were deliberately written out of history will be unveiled at Armagh and District History Group next month.
The project, which has taken ten years to research, details the biographical histories of the writers, actors, painters, musicians, explorers, poets, soldiers, scientists and one or two villains, whose names have generally disappeared from British and Irish historiographies.
Patrick Magee was an Irish actor and director known for his collaborations with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. He was born Patrick George McGee in English Street, Armagh and educated at St. Patrick’s Grammar School.
Several generations of historians of the period from the mid-19th century to 1960 have unwittingly or wittingly excluded faces that did not fit their particular narrative. In consequence remarkable Armagh people from Irish Street, Scotch Street, English Street, the Seven Houses, Mill Row, Navan, Loughgall and Kilmore have never been properly celebrated.
Many of their lives intertwined with some of the world’s great literary figures including WB Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and TS Eliot, while others connected to cultural icons as diverse as Charlotte Bronte, George Bernard Shaw, John F. Kennedy and Joseph Quincy Adams, the US intellectual and scion of a family that produced two Presidents.
The most sensational story is the secret liaison between the Armagh wife of a British War Minister and a German Baron inside a POW camp. Throughout WWI prison guards, who suspected she was bringing in fine wines and caviar to the Baron and two Counts, were prevented by War Office orders from searching her, opening her parcels or supervising her visits. Towards the end of the war, after nearly four years of secret meetings, the story was broken by a whistle-blower, and reverberated around the world.
Another remarkable tale was uncovered during research into the life of William J. Lawrence, a one-time Armagh drinks salesman who represented Michael Collins during his 1921 election as County MP. Now, for the first time the exact moment Sinn Féin/IRA made manifest their philosophy of taking power with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other, has been identified. It happened on a night in May 1921 when Collins, instead of being on the steps of Armagh Courthouse to accept his election, was in a field outside Dublin test firing state-of-the-art Tommy guns – the first batch successfully smuggled in from America.
By then Lawrence, who never went to university, was the world’s leading expert on Shakespeare. Having been driven from Dublin by jealous academics, Harvard University discovered him washing dishes in New York hotels to survive, and gave him a professorship. However he couldn’t settle in America and returned to impoverishment in his beloved Dublin, before giving up and moving to London, where, in spite of winning a Civil List Pension, he died in poverty.
Of the Armagh figures, the one who made the most impact – socially, culturally and politically – was Willie Lawrence’s friend George “AE” Russell, a poet, painter, playwright, writer, politician, co-operator and mystic. Although he was born in Lurgan he maintained that Armagh City was his spiritual home. His contemporaries regarded him as significant to Ireland as his life-long friend WB Yeats, but history has never given him credit as one of the architects of modern Ireland.
The most spectacular rise in Edwardian theatre happened to Armagh’s Mary Connolly, an ex-coal miner and street singer born in Irish Street. In the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising she swept to overnight fame as a mezzo soprano after being discovered by Dublin opera lovers, including Dr Vincent O’Brien, director of the Palestrina Choir and music tutor to James Joyce and Count John McCormack.
At the height of her concert fame she starred alongside Walter McNally, the lead baritone from San Carlo Opera House, Naples, in a double bill that was a highlight of the Dublin social calendar. McNally went on to become a friend of John F. Kennedy, and was made European Head of RKO Pictures by Kennedy’s father Joseph, the movie mogul, whose mistress was the film star Gloria Swanson.
Three of the forgotten celebrities, John King, a 31-year-old explorer, John O’Connor, a 39-year-old writer and Victor J. Daley, a poet, ended their days lonely and forgotten in Australia. In 1861 newspapers hailed King as the country’s first great hero after he became the sole survivor of the first crossing of the continent, but his Irishness saw him disregarded; O’Connor produced a novel that remains a forgotten Irish classic, and in 1900 Daley was Australia’s most popular poet.
Three other names worthy of note were immortalised by James Joyce in Ulysses: Barton McGuckin, an international opera star who was educated in Armagh; Frank Harris, the Armagh schoolboy who became Oscar Wilde’s closest and most loyal friend, and William Brayden, son of a Scotch Street newspaper manager.
Frank Edwards, the journalist character in the hit television series Mr Selfridge, is based on Harris, while Brayden became a cultural giant in Dublin. In Ulysses Joyce devoted more than a page to describing his ‘Godlike’ demeanour.
An Armagh link that has been written out of the record is that the fountain of Charlotte Bronte’s literary talent rose in the mountains and hills of South Armagh. England’s foremost female novelist Charlotte Bronte was a great-granddaughter of Patrick Bronte a renowned writer and story teller.
One of Charlotte’s Armagh relatives also deserves mention as one of the fathers of CSI (Crime Scene Investigations). The scientist, Max Bronte, known more formally as Dr Robert Matthew Bronte, was born in Market Street where his father ran a drapery business. After playing rugby for Armagh Max qualified as a doctor and became Ireland’s state pathologist before moving to London.
Max became a celebrity pathologist in some of the London High Court’s most famous murder trials. Today the FBI in America still references his exposure of the previously unknown phenomenon that pressurises CSI personnel to alter their findings to help prosecutions bring in guilty verdicts.
Details of the research will be released at the History Group when they meet in the Irish and Local Studies Library, Abbey Street on Wednesday October 14 at 7 30. Anyone interested in attending is welcome and admission is free.