People of West Cork

Posted on: 3rd November, 2014

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Samuel Kingston

Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.

This column marks my penultimate column for the West Cork People. December’s column will unfortunately be my last; I, along with my colleague Eamonn Ó’Cualáin, recently secured funding to make a documentary so the next few months will be a busy time for me. My last article will explore what the documentary is about. In this column, I want to briefly mention some of the West Cork historical figures I didn’t get time to write about. These are people I’ve either come across in research or have been mentioned to me by readers of the column.

Dr. Martin Crofts – from Timoleague, after attending Queens University Cork to obtain a medical degree, he joined the Indian Medical Service. His first ten years in India were with the British Army as medical surgeon for the 10th Bengal Lancers. He was involved in many battles. In 1886, the state of Gwalior was grieving the death of its Maharajah Jayajirao Sindhia, who had made Gwalior the most advanced city in India. His son and heir, Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia, was ten years-old. As Gwalior held a strategic position between north and south India, the British considered it one of its most important strongholds in the country. Dr Crofts was appointed residency surgeon of Gwalior and tutor to the new Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia. Crofts became close with the boy and a great respect developed between the pair. Dr Crofts passed away in 1915 due to heart disease. In the early 1920s, the Maharajah financed the completion of mosaics in memory of his friend. Inside the beautiful Anglican Church of Ascension in Timoleague is an elaborate treasure of Byzantine style mosaics that envelop the walls and chancel. On the south wall, among the Indian flower designs, is inlaid a tribute to Dr Crofts.

Patrick Keohane – born in Courtmacsherry. Keohane is West Cork’s own version of Tom Crean. He was a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910–1913, the Terra Nova Expedition, a trip Crean also made. Keohane was part of the group sent out to find Scott’s group when they began to fear the worst. On 12 November 1912, the group found the frozen bodies of Scott and the others. To compound this, Scott was beaten to the Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. After his Polar adventures, he joined the Coast Guard becoming District Officer for the Isle of Man.

Donn Byrne – was a writer of considerable fame in the 1920s. He claimed to have been born in New York but grew up in Armagh. He was known for his flights of fancy, his early works were mediocre but he soon turned to crafting hero sagas that became immensely popularly. Books such as ‘Blind Raferty and his Wife Hilaria (1924)’ and ‘Hangman’s House(1926)’ were big sellers. He became accustomed to a grand lifestyle with a big house in the States. He got into money troubles and he had to sell his American house. He bought Coolmain Castle outside Bandon. In June 1928, he was killed in a car accident in Kilbrittain, his car had faulty steering and plunged into a river. His works are pretty much forgotten now, but in the 1920s he was one of the leading popular authors.

hisEdith SomervilleEdith Somerville – was an Irish novelist who wrote in collaboration with her cousin ‘Martin Ross’ (Violet Martin) under the pseudonym ‘Somerville and Ross’. Together they published a series of fourteen stories and novels, the most popular of which were ‘The Real Charlotte’, and ‘The Experiences of an Irish RM’, published in 1899. Somerville was born on Corfu, where her father was stationed, the eldest of eight children. A year later, her father retired to Drishane, Castletownsend, County Cork, where Somerville grew up. In January 1886, she met her cousin Violet Martin, and their literary partnership began the following year. Their first book, ‘An Irish Cousin’, appeared in 1889. In 1898, Edith Somerville went to paint at the Etaples art colony, accompanied by Violet and they profited from their stay by conceiving together the stories gathered in ‘Some Experiences of an Irish RM’ in the following year. By the time Violet died in 1915, they had published fourteen books together. Her friend’s death stunned Edith, who continued to write as ‘Somerville and Ross’, claiming that they kept in contact through spiritualist séances. She was in London still recovering from the shock when the 1916 Insurrection broke out. On May 9, she wrote a letter to the ‘Times’, blaming the British Government for the state of affairs in Ireland. She tended towards Nationalism afterwards and, an adept musician, at parties specialised in Irish tunes and Nationalist songs. Somerville was a devoted sportswoman, who in 1903 had become master of the West Carbery Foxhounds. She was also active in the suffragist movement. Her brother Henry Boyle Townsend Somerville, a retired RN Vice-Admiral was killed by the IRA at the family home of Castle Townsend in 1936. She died at age 91 in Castletownshend, County Cork.

hisDanno O'MahonyDanno O’Mahony – was a professional wrestler. Born in Ballydehob, the young O’Mahony joined the Irish Army becoming its record holder for the hammer throw. He came to the attention of Paul Bowser who wanted an Irish wrester for the Boston/New York markets. O’Mahony would find success becoming the National Wrestling Association’s World Heavyweight Champion at one point. His surname was usually spelled ‘O’Mahoney’ during his wrestling career. His signature move was the Irish Whip, which acquired its name due to its association with O’Mahony. His successes unfortunately didn’t last long as rival promoters double crossed him. Eventually his career faded. O’Mahony died in a road accident November 2, 1950, at the age of 38.

Timothy Jerome O’Mahony – Born in Rosscarbery, TJ is considered the greatest pre-Olympic Irish athlete. He ranked as the GAA’s Irish champion in the quarter-mile (400 metres) for three years (1885, 1887 and 1888) and as the Irish Amateur Athletic Association’s (IAAA) national champion in 1886. The GAA organised a promotional and fundraising tour of the US in 1888, Mr O’Mahony became the star of the show, defeating all the American champions he faced. He returned home as the uncrowned world champion. His exploits at a gala meet in New York’s Madison Square Garden made all the US newspapers, with one American paper describing him as the ‘Steam Engine’ for the manner in which he defeated all US middle-distance champions.

The Hungerford family – They were a prominent family in the Clonakilty/Rosscarbery area. They owned Inchydoney house on the island and had the Cahirmore Estate outside Rosscarbery. They were very much of the English landed class. They originally settled in Rathbarry with Richard Hungerford moving to Inchydoney in 1690. Another Richard a century later became unpopular in Clonakilty for his treatment of the 1798 rebels. He was commissioned as Captain of Ibane and Barryroe Infantry of the Yeomanry. He also built the present day Inchydoney House close to the site of the original house built a century earlier. A number of the Clonakilty Hungerfords mark their mark in Australia; the first to emigrate was Emanuel Hungerford who left was Sydney in 1827 at the age of 42. Thomas Hungerford (1789 to 1861) established the Cahirmore estate, which by 1851 covered 2780 acres. Due to mismanagement, the estate was practically bankrupt by 1900 mainly due to Henry Jones Hungerford’s foolish spending. William Hungerford was a prominent figure in Clonakilty during the second half of the 1800s. He lived in what is now known as Emmet Square and he owned a number of properties in the town. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford married into the family. It was her second marriage and she was not approved of by leading Hungerfords so the family lived in Bandon. To support the family she took up writing and is credited with the saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. In 1905, the Hungerfords attempted to block all people using a public path through their estate that lead to the beach. Mary Hungerford refused to back down, which resulted in a group of angry locals tearing down the gates and asserting their rights to the public path. By this time, the Hungerford family were in decline. Thomas Henry Hungerford inherited the estate but had little interest in it, he had moved to Canada, all the other sons also emigrated, mainly to Australia and thus ending the family’s connections with the area. Cahirmore House was burned in 1921 by the local IRA who believed it was a base for British soldiers.

Colonel John Warren – Born in Clonakilty, he moved to the States as a young man. He was a US Civil War veteran and a Fenian. He was involved in the ‘Erin’s Hope’ incident in 1867. On 12th of April, 1867, a party of forty or fifty men, almost all of whom had been officers or privates in the service of the American government, and had distinguished themselves in the recently concluded American Civil War left from New York to  Ireland in an attempt to start a Fenian uprising. Unfortunately for the men when they arrived in Ireland at Sligo, nobody was aware of a Rising occurring. The ship travelled along the coast. They eventually landed at Dungarvan and twenty seven of the men were arrested, three of these were sentenced to penal servitude, among them was John Warren who got fifteen years.

Michael Minihan – Michael was from Castletownsend. He served as a member of the British army in the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment (2nd Warwickshire). He fought at the battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British and the Zulu’s in 1878. This battle is retold in the classic film ‘Zulu’. Michael was a private in the army, he didn’t win any rewards but he is remembered having fought at Rorke’s Drift. He later returned home and passed away in 1891 and is buried in a small graveyard in Castlehaven. I didn’t realise there was any connections between West Cork and this battle, so was intrigued when the story was mentioned to me by James Walsh, a reader of the column.

These are just a few figures from around West Cork who have been remembered in history. There are many more, every town and village has their own historical figures and it’s important that this history is not forgotten.


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