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TALES OF CHRISTMAS PAST - FROM RED HUGH O'DONNELL TO JAMES FINTAN LALOR

Leinster Leader January 1 2009
 
Tales of Christmas past – from Red Hugh O’Donnell to James Fintan Lalor
by
LIAM KENNY
 
 
The last fortnight of the calendar year is often a time of reflection and nostalgia. Aside from the fuss and rush of Christmas, there is time too for recollection and reminiscence as the winter reaches its darkest phase. Newspapers join in that spirit of nostalgia by publishing articles which step aside from the usual torrent of news and current affairs and instead deal with stories from the past.
The Leader in the last week of December joined in the trend by taking a look back at landmark events in the story of Ireland which occurred around the Christmas period. ‘Christmas has many memories of historic Ireland; it was on Christmas eve that Red Hugh O’Donnell ‘the eagle of the north’ escaped from the dungeons of Dublin Castle and it was on Christmas Eve, 1916 that the first prisoners of the Rising came home to restart the movement that continued the War of Independence.’
On a more sombre note it recalled that the Christmas of 1848 was one of the blackest in our history. ‘Black 48’ as it was termed was the worst of the two disastrous years and in that year alone a million and half died of starvation. That year, ten days before Christmas, the situation became desperate in Dublin. The hospitals, such as they were at the time, were overcrowded and the Dublin workhouse was packed to the door with famine and fever victims.
The Lord Mayor and Corporation appealed to the citizens of Dublin and all other cities within ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ to subscribe generously towards the funds of the Dublin relief committee, set up by the Lord Mayor and supported by the Lord Lieutenant and other members of the community.
But as Christmas came nearer, the extent of the suffering became worse. The cholera was spreading and the Famine showed no signs of abating. Refugees from counties Wicklow. Meath and Dublin were pouring into the city by the thousands. Many of them died on the way. On November 18th according to the ‘Freeman’s Journal’ fifteen bodies were picked up on the road between Celbridge and Dublin. Among the cholera victims on December 4th were three nuns of the Mercy Order, Sisters M. Teresa Moore, Angela Fleming and Elizabeth Wade. The three had been members of Mother Catherine McAuley’s Baggot Street community. Dubliners had termed them the ‘walking nuns’ because they moved outside the cloister to work among the sick poor.
However amidst all the suffering and tragedy there were individual stories which inspired those who still clung to the ideal of an independent Ireland. Six days before Christmas 1848 a man was released from prison in Dublin because of ill-health. His name was James Fintan Lalor and he was later to be described by Padraig Pearse as one of ‘the four evangelists of Irish nationality’. Earlier in the year another of the ‘evangelists’ John Mitchel had been arrested and transported to Australia. In his weekly paper ‘The United Irishman’ he had told the people to hold on to their cattle and sheep and to eat them rather than sell them to pay the ‘absentee landlords’.
His paper went out of existence but Lalor stepped in to found yet another paper with a strong nationalist tone known as the ‘The Irish Felon’ which preached the same independence doctrine as that preached by John Mitchel.
After his release from gaol Lalor had taken lodgings in Capel Street, Dublin. He was very ill that Christmas as a severe attack of asthma kept him in bed. However by mid-January 1849 he was back in action planning another Rising. Many have heard of the Rising of 1848 yet most are unaware that there was a second rising planned in 1849 led by Lalor. It too failed and, his health broken, Lalor died three weeks later.
The Leader’s look back at Christmastide in those troubled years concludes by pointing up the contrast between the various layers of society over the seasonal holiday. ‘ It was a Christmas of contrasts; there was gaiety at Dublin Castle and banquets in the homes of the aristocracy. Yet there was hunger and cholera on the streets of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford.’
Times have changed greatly since that Christmas of 1848 when people had little or nothing of the seasonal comforts which we in the modern era are enjoying this Christmas 160 years later.  
 
 Series No. 99.

 In his regular feature 'Nothing new Under the Sun, Liam Kenny finds The Leader, in the last week of December 1958, taking a look back at landmark events in the story of Ireland which occurred around the Christmas period, one of which was the escape of Red Hugh O’Donnell ‘the eagle of the north’from the dungeons of Dublin Castle.


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