On both sides of the Liffey, former cinema buildings dot suburban Dublin. They have taken on new lives, often as bingo or snooker halls. The old Astoria Cinema (later the Oscar) by Ballsbridge has become a Sikh temple, while Ballyfermot’s  Gala Cinema became home to a carpet shop, Chinese takeaway and more besides.

One I’d walked by several times before noticing is The Casino in Finglas village. Sitting between Supervalu and the Shamrock Lodge, The Casino was perhaps a victim of its own ambition, boasting a remarkable 1,910 seats. To put that in context, a nearby church could hold 1,500 parishioners. The misfortune of The Casino was the timing of its arrival on the scene,  opening in 1955 as the spectacle of television was beginning to loom large over suburban Dublin. Looking at it from across the street, it retains the very distinct appearance of a suburban cinema, despite its entrance being swallowed up by new development.

Constructed by Maher and Murphy, a building company based on Dublin’s Aughrim Street, the new cinema became an integral of a suburb that was very new, much like Artane and Ballyfermot on the other side of the Liffey.  Almost overnight, it seemed to the Evening Herald that Finglas, “a picturesque Dublin village, has become one of the largest housing estates in the city.” New suburbs required churches, schools, shops and cinemas.

The Evening Herald praised the building, noting that “the front of the three-story Casino is done in red brick relieved with reconstructed stone and is a most imposing structure with two shops, one on each side. A feature of the entrance is the fact there are doors leading to the foyer.”


Evening Herald report on opening of cinema.

The new suburbs saw an influx of families from the inner-city, where tenements remained a subject of worry to many, and which continued to pose a grave threat to the welfare of Dubliners, with four lives lost to tenement collapses in 1963. In the below RTÉ feature from 1964, it is clear that some were quite content to move to Finglas. One youngster interviews mentions there being “plenty of fields to play in”,while another talks of her joy of having hot water in her household. Still, local amenities were often slow to pop up in new suburbia, creating alienation and boredom. The actor Brendan O’Caroll remembered the positive impact of The Casino in the area in the absence of other amenities, recalling that “I loved the fact you could go to the pictures and imagine you were the boy up there on the screen. I never thought that one day I’d ever be in a movie, that would be crazy, but the films allowed you the chance to dream, to use your imagination.”

What nobody could predict when the doors of The Casino opened was the impact of television in the following decade. In a city and county that boasted no fewer than 56 cinemas in 1956, the arrival of television into the living rooms of suburbia heralded their death kneel. Cinemas sometimes took on a new lease of life as concert venues, with The Ramones  famously playing in Cabra and Phibsboro cinemas, while The Casino hosted concerts of its own.


Evening Herald, 1968.

What suburbia felt it needed now was not cinema, but shopping centres. By 1970, The Casino was a memory,  replaced by Superquinn. Still, the facade remains today, reminding many locals of simpler times.


In January 1978, the Dublin Well Woman Centre opened its fifth clinic in the city at 63 Lower Leeson Street under the directorship of Anne Connolly. The aim of the organisation was to help “Irish women access family planning information and services”.

Four right-wing Catholics picketed the opening of the centre with placards reading: “Parents! Contraception means Promiscuity & Abortion” and “No Abortion or Abortion Referral! Defend Our Youth”.

Well Woman Centre picket. Evening Herald, 17 Jan 1978.

The four individuals were Brigid Bermingham, Maureen Fehily, Mine Bean Uí Chroibín/Chribín (Mena Cribben) and John Clerkin.

Well Woman Centre picket. Irish Press, 18 Jan 1978

Bridget Bermingham (or Brigid Bermingham) of 25 Lombard Street West, Dublin 8 was Secretary of Parent Concern in the 1970s/1980s and was also connected to the Concerned Christians’ Group in the early 1980s. She wrote dozens of letters to the newspapers from 1975 until 1986. In November 1977 she handed out leaflets, with Máire Breathnach (Irish Family League) outside a Cherish conference, that stated that there was “no such thing as a single parent” and that the term was invented by the “contraceptives-divorce-abortion-lobby”.

Brigid Bermingham. The Irish Times, 19 Nov 1977.

In June 1980, Bermingham wrote a letter to the Taoiseach Charles Haughey expressing concern about family planning centres and suggesting that they “are no more than prostitution centers (sic) for orgies with … the commercial advocacy of contraceptives and abortion”.

Maureen Fehily, of 2 Leopardstown Avenue, Dublin 18, seems to have been an independent operator. A 1980 letter of hers advocated that Irish children needed a sex education based around the concepts of chastity and moral training and “not assistance in fornication and killing“. She passed away in 1982.

Letter from Mrs. Maureen Fehily to The Irish Times, 06 Mar 1980

Mena Cribben of Santry Avenue, Dublin 9 was a vocal spokesperson for an array of ultra-conservative Catholic groups from the late 1960s until the late 2000s. We covered her political history in a 2012 post on the site. She passed away that same year.

John P. Clerkin of 35 Wellington Road, Crumlin, established the Children’s Protection Society in late 1978. Throughout the 1980s, he rallied against contraception, homosexuality and liberal values.

John P. Clerkin fined. The Irish Times, 27 June 1980.

In 1991, he published a pamphlet entitled ’67 reasons why condoms spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome’.

While they have similar names and have been confused in the past, it would seem that John P. Clerkin is a different individual to Sean Clerkin who ran for the Christian Principles Party in the Cabra ward in the 1991 Dublin City Council Local Election polling 1136 votes (10.4%).

Clerkin mix-up. The Irish Times, 25 July 1991.

Bizarre leaflets from the Children’s Protection Society using the same address and signed by John Clerkin appeared in 2015 and 2017. Further unhinged literature calling on the Irish public to Vote No to retain the 8th amendment also appeared in April 2018 pasted to lampposts and bus-stops. The original John Clerkin, aged 34 in 1980, would be around 72 today so it is quite possible that he or a close relation are behind the most recent circulars.

2018 anti-Repeal material from the Children’s Protection Society. Credit – Irish Election Literature blog


The Irish Times image of Sunstroke, 1994.

Times change, and with it so does public taste. It is certainly fair to say that Irish music festivals in recent years have been dominated by electronic acts and hip hop, which of course is not in and of itself a bad thing. Kendrick Lamar headlines Electric Picnic, Forbidden Fruit sees acts like Four Tet. Those complaining that these festivals are moving away from their so-called roots should note that this has always been the case, with festival line-ups reflecting contemporary charts and tastes. For as long as there have been festivals, there have been people moaning about their line-ups.

In Ireland, the festival came late. The first ever outdoor rock festival in Dublin, and one of the first in Ireland, happened on the hollowed-turf of Richmond Park in 1970, headlined by Mungo Jerry supported by upcomers Thin Lizzy. The thing was a spectacular flop, largely because of scaremongering in the run up to it, especially around drug use.  “I’ve been to better wakes” was a quote from one discontented young punter in The Irish Times, which ran with the headline ‘Open Air Festival Hardly Pops’.  In some ways, and as historian Diarmaid Ferriter has noted, the 1970s were Ireland’s 1960s, and as the decade went on we got better and better at festivals, producing some of the finest in the world for diversity. One could hear a New Wave band like The Atrix and folk giants like Moving Hearts at the same festival in Ireland, proper diversity if ever it existed.

Today, we’re looking at Sunstroke – an incredibly optimistic name for an outdoor festival in Ireland, where pneumonia is generally a greater threat that sunstroke to any paying punter. Running in the early 1990s, it rode the wave of grunge, a real youth culture phenomenon in its day. The festival took place on another League of Ireland pitch, this time Dalymount Park, and had a capacity of 15,000 people. It brought music back to a venue with a prestigious musical history, Dalymount had previously hosted acts like Bob Marley, Thin Lizzy and The Specials.

Sunstroke geared itself towards fans of a heavier sound, young people who were drawn in particular to the distinctive Seattle sound that had become both popular and marketable. It was hard to define just what ‘grunge’ was, The Boston Globe had a go in 1992:

The Seattle-based ‘grunge’ movement is a loosely defined amalgam of guitar-heavy rock music, retro-hippie fashion, laid-back attitude and cafe culture. While nobody can define what grunge is exactly other than a youthful rebellion against pop culture’s slicker aspects, musical, sartorial and otherwise, devotees know it when they see it. And from espresso bars to wool caps, from Alice in Chains on the radio to students in plaid on the streets…the trappings of grunge culture are popping up everywhere.

Every subculture of the twentieth century worried someone of course – before Grunge it was Punk, before Punk it was the Beats, before them the Teddy Boys. Bands from this scene found international success – Nirvana’s Nevermind was a game changer, less commercially successful but equally socially important were Soundgarden’s Superunknown and bands like Mudhoney. A ticket to Sunstroke was £23.75, a very significant sum of dosh in 1993.

To launch a music festival in Ireland in 1993 required a certain confidence. The opposition seemed unshakeable.  Feile in Thurles marketed itself proudly as “Europe’s biggest musical festival”, which some may dispute, but its line-up was absolutely stellar. In 1993 it boasted, to quote one regional paper, “top Australian rockers INXS, former bad boy Iggy Pop, supercool Chris Issak and crusty faves The Levellers.  Also being confirmed are The Shamen, Manic Street Preachers, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry rolls, Teenage Fanclub, Squeeze and Paul Brady.”


‘Pogo on a Nazi’ – The fashion of Sunstroke, City Tribune.

Sunstroke’s line up was reflective of the latest trends – Sonic Youth, the Red Hot Chili Peppers…. When RHCP drop out late in the day, they are replaced by Faith No More. There are brilliant images of the stage constructed on the League of Ireland pitch, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The Irish Press reported that “master of ceremonies Dave Fanning kept everything moving swiftly and this open air gig didn’t suffer from the long delays between acts so many others do.”Tony Connolly in the Independent wrote after that it was a sign of something:

It is clear that something phenomenal has been happening in Ireland over the past five years. By the standards of any economic argument a turnover of millions over just ten days in a summer and in predominantly sparsely populated areas is prodigious….It is clear that bands want to come and record here. Ireland is the new Mecca for rock and roll.

Sunstroke returned to Dalyer in 1994, happening on a Thursday which was peculiar in itself, but with a line up that included RHCP and Soundgarden. Just to give a sense how mainstream this kind of music is at that moment in time, some of the best reportage in the run up to the gig came from the regional press all over the country, who reported on how many youths in every corner of the island were expected to converge on Phibsboro. Like in 1993, there was a high profile drop out, this time Soundgarden; Ice Cube stepped into the breach –  leading the Evening Herald to write “there are as many people appalled at his bitter ranting as there are people who claim to be down with Ice.”

It seemed Sunstroke 1994 rocked a little bit too much – The Dalymount Roar – normally reserved for Block G on a Friday night, infuriated local residents. Mountjoy Garda station were quoted in the press the following day as saying “we were getting between 10 and 15 calls a minute protesting  at the noise levels. Some of the calls came from as far away as Coolock, Raheny and Clontarf.” Sunstroke 94 was a massive success, leading the inimitable Jim Carroll to say that “Sunstroke is now a well-established date in the Irish rock calendar. A one-day event without mud, mislaid tent pegs or the danger of an outraged crozier-bearing bishop, it’s got international kudos, bringing some of the best touring acts to Dublin.” There is something magic about images of crowdsurfing long haired young fellas, with the brutalist Phibsboro shopping centre and the battered terrace of Dalymount behind them.


Dalymount Park stage and Phibsboro shopping centre. From the excellent Classic Dublin Gigs Facebook.

Ironically, Sunstroke was probably too good at what it did. They promised rock music, they brought it, and they were in turn driven out of Phibsboro quicker than a man clad in a green and white football scarf. Councillors, even the normally hip and down-with-it Tony Gregory, kicked up a major fuss about the noise, and Sunstroke made its way to the RDS, where it died peacefully in 1995. Soundgarden headlined then, continuing a fine tradition of bands showing up a year after they were meant to.


Evening Herald coverage of Sunstroke 1994.

The Irish music festival is an institution, it will no doubt continue into subsequent decades. New festivals, like All Together Now, should be welcomed, but particular praise should go to the small independent festivals, who embody the spirit of the pioneers of the 1960s and 70s.  The magic of any festival is diversity – in 1980, Seamus Ennis walked out onto the Lisdoonvarna stage and mesmerised long haired youths with the Uileann Pipes, in 1992 Primal Scream stole Chris de Burgh’s star at Feile. Magic moments.

The Man with the Hat


‘The Man with the Hat’ is not a name Seán Garland chose for himself. A code name bestowed upon him during a CIA investigation, it is an intriguing title for a documentary telling the story of one of the most important and controversial figures of Irish republicanism in the second half of the twentieth century. The Man with the Hat premieres May 15th in Dublin’s Sugar Club, with tickets on sale now from Eventbrite.

A veteran of the Operation Harvest campaign, which saw IRA units attacking British military interests on the north of the Irish border in a campaign directed from Dublin, Seán moved away from traditional republicanism and towards a Marxist perspective in subsequent decades. Republicanism is a broad church of course, and one of those who he had fought alongside in the so-called Border Campaign had been Seán South, an ultra-Catholic nationalist who secured his place in the nationalist pantheon thanks to’ Seán South from Garryowen’.


The funeral of Seán South.

Garland was prominently involved with both the Workers’ Party and the Official IRA,  which declared a ceasefire in May 1972, though the organisation became entangled in increasingly bitter feuds with rival republican organisations in subsequent years, resulting in the deaths of primarily young men on the streets of Belfast and Dublin on all sides, including Charlie Hughes, Seamus Costello and Liam McMillen. The various feuds tore the republican movement apart at moments when unity was badly required.

Garland’s story plays out in Dublin, Belfast, Moscow, Pyongyang and in other surprising places. It is both the story of a secretive parliamentary organisation (which remained active in various ways long after its supposed ceasefire) and a political party which sought Soviet guidance and political power in Ireland. By 1987, an explicitly Marxist party had eight parliamentarians sitting in Dáil Éireann. In 1992, as communism collapsed across Europe, seven of its parliamentarians had abandoned the party and established the social democratic party Democratic Left.

In 2005, a new chapter in Garland’s life began as the United States sought his extradition on the basis of alleged involvement in the distribution of counterfeited US dollars – widely known as “superdollars” – in 1998. American authorities alleged that the source of the banknotes was the government of North Korea.

This upcoming documentary promises to examine all of these issues and more. How a young man from Dublin’s north inner-city can later become entangled in a tale that involves Pyongyang and the U.S legal system is one of the most intriguing stories of twentieth century Ireland, and it is long overdue an airing.



The destroyed car of 1916 leader The O’Rahilly. A Dublin urban myth suggested it found its place buried below Hill 16. (Image Credit: National Library of Ireland)

I am a relatively recent convert to Gaelic football, but I’ve been enjoying cold evenings (and the occasional scorcher) in Parnell Park and Croke Park for a while now, thanks to the invitation of friends. Like with League of Ireland football, I’ve found that there is a strong sense of history and identity among Dublin’s support, which of course finds its best expression on the celebrated terrace of Hill 16.

The Hill is central to the way Dubliners see themselves and their city, synonymous with the packed terraces of the Kevin Heffernan days when Gardaí struggled to keep new young GAA fanatics off the pitch, and the chart storming ‘Heffo’s Army’ shouted that “we came marching in from Ringsend, and from Ballyfermot too”, as “Hill 16 has never seen the likes of Heffo’s Army.”

Yet the Hill doesn’t only represent the triumphs of the capital in GAA, it represents the defiance of Easter Week 1916. The Hill, it was often proclaimed, was constructed from the very rubble that the Helga created in her bombardment of the capital. In the 1980s the Irish Examiner proclaimed that it was “no wonder the Dublin football supporters make no bones about claiming possession on big match days”, as “the famous Hill 16 terracing was built from the stones which were all that remained on the capital’s famous street after the conflict of the 1916 Rising.” As Turtle Bunbury notes in his history of Ireland and World War One, “the items reputedly buried beneath the Hill ranged from the bricks of the General Post Office to a De Dion Bouton motorcar belonging to Michael O’Rahilly, one of the Rising’s slain leaders.”

Prior to becoming Hill 16, the terrace was popularly known as Hill 60, the last major assault of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 in World War One. British forces, with many Irishmen in their ranks, endured enormous losses on the so-called Hill 60, located south of Ypres in Belgium, something that was strongly felt in working class Dublin. Though the Royal Dublin Fusiliers did not partake in the battle, the Connaught Rangers endured very significant losses. In a memoir of growing up in north inner-city Dublin almost in the shadow of Croke Park, Brendan Behan remembered the very powerful local significance of the First World War:

When the singing got under way, there’d be old fellows climbing up and down Spion Kop til further orders and other men getting fished out of the Battle of Jutland, and while one old fellow would be telling how the Munster’s kicked the football across the German lines at the Battle of the Somme, there’d be a keening of chorused mourners crying from under their black shawls over poor Jemser or poor Mickser that was lost at the Dardanelles.

The terrace was completed in 1915, in time for that years All Ireland Football Final. The Rising remained an idea in the heads of men like James Connolly and Seán Mac Diarmada, keen to capitalise on the chaos of the on-going European war. The adopted colloquial name of the terrace was tied on to a very recent moment then, much like Anfield’s Kop was a nod towards the Boer War and the Battle of Spion Kop.

Of course, the terrace witnessed some scenes of drama during the subsequent War of Independence. IRA Intelligence Officer Daniel McDonnell remembered standing on it during the Bloody Sunday massacre in his statement to the Bureau of Military History:

We parked ourselves on the famous Hill 16, and the match had just started when, as far as we could see, there was a rumble and bustle going on around the entrance gate at the Hogan Stand side. I personally had no interest in the match. We suddenly realised that the whole,ground was under rifle and machine-gun fire. We scattered and separated from, one another on the Hill. My hat’ fell off and while I was picking it up the man in front of was shot. I was very fit in those days and I ran across the slob lands’ at the back of Hill 16 over to the Ballybough gate. I ran so fast that I was nearly the first to reach it. The gates were not open. I jumped for the top of the gate, caught it and went over the far side

Given the horror of Bloody Sunday, it sat badly with some that the Hill’s name reflected British military conquest. On the fifteenth anniversary of the Rising, the Chairman of the Munster Council of the GAA reportedly raised his objection that “it was sacred ground, which commemorated their fight for freedom and not a fight in a foreign country.  If they could not call it Hill 16 some more appropriate title should be found for it.” From the 1930s, the name Hill 16 was adopted colloquially, reclaiming the Hill for the green.


Irish Independent, 1931.

Along with the new name, came the myth of the rubble. Paul Rouse brilliantly examines this in his Sport and Ireland: A History, finding evidence from as early as the 1930s of the claim. When Meath made it to the 1939 final, ‘Two Gaels’ writing to a regional newspaper urged the men to victory, reminding them the Hill honoured “Ireland’s fallen heroes, whose blood stains the debris in that immortal Hill.” Rouse also points towards a 1966 claim by one man in a Dublin boozer who claimed to have been paid to transfer rubble to Croke Park. Not for the first time, “history was overwhelmed by the power of men in pubs telling stories.”

The myth of The O’Rahilly’s car being amidst the supposed rubble remained widely believed in Dublin into subsequent decades of the Hill. It has appeared in biographies of O’Rahilly, while as recently as 2003, with the imminent redevelopment of the Hill, it was noted in The Irish Times that:

The recent news that the GAA is to redevelop the historic Hill 16 at Croke Park led us to wonder if the contractors will encounter the remains of an early De Dion car reputedly buried there after the 1916 Rising. The car belonged to The O’Rahilly, one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers.

That the Hill is not created from the rubble of Easter Week does not take away from its magic in any way. Rather, the complex history of its colloquial naming and renaming says much about memory and the meaning of the revolutionary period in Ireland. Republicans sometimes struggled with the continued importance of World War One to many working class Dubliners post-independence. Frank Ryan went as far as to speculate that those who participated in commemorative events around the war were primarily “bank clerks and students of Trinity College”. In truth, there were nowhere near enough bank clerks and Trinity students to fill the space around the Wellington Testimonial in the Phoenix Park or College Green every November 11. Ryan’s astonishing statement ignored the fact that as Brian Hanley has rightly noted, “a section of working class Dublin continued to identify with its contribution during the First World War” in the years that followed independence.

So, what happened to the car?

simmslogobwtrnspMy grá for Herbert Simms is well known. Dublin’s Housing Architect from 1932 until 1948, this year marks the 120th anniversary of his birth, as well as the 70th anniversary of his tragic suicide. We have previously examined Simms on the blog. He understood the complexities of public housing and public needs, telling a housing committee in 1935 that “you cannot re-house a population of 15,000 people, as in the Crumlin scheme, without providing for the other necessities and amenities of life.” His beautiful Art Deco housing schemes dot both sides of the River Liffey today, a reminder of his vision.

Along with a Committee that includes some remarkable academics and friends, I am happy to present the Call For Papers for #Simms120 here. Please do get involved. We will be fine-tuning it all in the weeks ahead, but the conference looks set to happen in October and it will be open to the public. If you live in a Simms scheme, or are just generally curious about the history of housing in Dublin, you’re more than welcome. Details to follow.

Housing and how it is provided remains a vital issue across the city of Dublin today. Where and how we should provide housing for a changing population are some of the most pressing issues facing the city. Housing builds community and it develops a sense of place for these communities. As the current challenges in housing show, building houses is more than just an adequate number of rooms. It is one of the main ways that the city’s population retains a sense of itself.

2018 marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Herbert George Simms. Through his work with Dublin Corporation, Simms was responsible for some of the most elegant and highest quality housing that remains in Dublin city to the present day. From Cabra, Crumlin and in the heart of the city, Simms’ work and vision for Dublin are still present. Their presence is not just about housing, but fostering communities.

To recall his work, and in light of the significant challlenges that face housing in the present, this set of events will draw together some of the main ideas about Simms’ work in and legacy for Dublin city. Through seminars, oral histories and visual representation, the conference will examine Simms’ legacy to the city of Dublin, assess his contribution to the development of communities across Dublin and provide a lens through which to view current contexts.

We are seeking contributions from all to help remember the work of Simms but particularly from:

  • Residents of Simms-designed housing
  • Architectural historians
  • Geographers
  • Planners
  • Local history groups
  • Photographers
  • Poets and other artists
  • Housing policy workers
  • Community workers

Email: simmsdublin@gmail.com

Twitter: @Simms120

Conference committee:

Mary Broe, PhD candidate, Maynooth University

Donal Fallon, Come Here To Me, Historian in Residence Dublin City Council

Erika Hanna, Department of History, University of Bristol

Rhona McCord, Contemporary Irish History, TCD

Eoin O’Mahony, School of Geography, UCD (chair)

Paul Reynolds, Stoneybatter History Group


North Cumberland Street flats, designed by Simms.


Hester Dowden (1868-1949)

There is a curious hidden history surrounding early Irish spiritual mediums, who tended to be women of considerable influence. Hester Dowden, daughter of Irish literary scholar Edward Dowden, claimed to be in contact with the spirit of Oscar Wilde and other illustrious figures. Geraldine Cummins, a distinguished playwright, convinced the American Ambassador to Ireland during the Second World War that she was in direct contact with President Roosevelt’s late mother and former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Ambassador Gray took it all seriously enough to write home from Dublin that that “assuming these comments do come from friends who have passed on, I think they should be treated exactly as advice from friends who are still here.”

The late nineteenth century witnessed a global wave of interest in occultism, spiritualism and in mediumship. In an Irish context, William Butler Yeats is undoubtedly the most celebrated figure to have indulged in it all, as a firm believer in automatic writing and a member of the ‘Ghost Club’ in London. The idea that the dead both had the ability and inclination to speak with the living was a powerful one. The great Harry Houdini would later set out to debunk those he believed were little more than “vultures who prey on the bereaved”, but in the second half of the nineteenth-century converts to the concept of mediumship included leading chemists, physicists and the occasional Nobel laureate. The Evening Herald didn’t buy it, telling readers:

Don’t waste time on spiritualism, for if you wish to demonstrate that you are a first class imbecile you can give no better proof than by parting with your money to so-called professors of occultism who pretend to hold communication with the dead. What strange foolishness sends men and women to ignorant, illiterate, fraudulent mediums in search of ghosts and spirits!

Dubliner Hester Dowden published Voices from the Void (1919) and Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde (1923), receiving significant international attention for the later. Dowden’s father was a much respected literary critic and academic, which had provided her access to a world of writers. Beginning her career as a medium in London, her introduction to Voices form the Void was not by any means sensationalist, informing readers that:

Those who are willing to devote some of their time to the study of what is commonly called spiritualism should bear in mind that results are slow, uncertain, and cannot be forced. Indeed, one asks on self whether time is well spent seeking for the few grains of gold one finds in the huge dust heaps of disappointment and dullness.

There was nothing dull in Dowden’s Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde, a collection of claimed automated correspondence with Wilde. Within its pages, she stated that Wilde took a poor view of Joyce’s Ulysses when quizzed on the recently published and then hotly debated work:

Yes, I have smeared my fingers with that vast work. It has given me one exquisite moment of amusement. I gathered that if I hoped to retain my reputation as an intelligent shade, open to new ideas, I must pursue this volume. It is a singular matter that a countryman of mine should have produced this great bulk of filth.

 She claimed too that Wilde told her “being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.” Joyce, not to be outdone, parodied it all in Finnegan’s Wake, where Wilde talks gibberish through a medium.


Geraldine Cummins (1890-1969)

Perhaps the most widely known Irish medium was Geraldine Cummins, a Corkonian born in 1890 who was many things in one life time. A very capable and talented writer, she wrote three plays for the Abbey – including a comedy – and published a novel, but gradually focused more and more on mediumship. Her influence was significant enough to perhaps impact on US foreign policy. When US Ambassador to Ireland David Gray participated in a number of seances with Cummins, he believed her claims to be in communication with spirits that included former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland and resided in the same home. Balfour provided his own analysis of contemporary events, which were forwarded to the US President by Ambassador Gray. President Roosevelt’s reaction was not dismissive; he informed Gray that to his mind “these are real contributions and I hope you will continue.”

Unsurprisingly in Catholic Ireland, there was frequent denunciation of those who engaged in such behaviour, with the Ouija board specifically denounced on more than one occasion. Created by American lawyer and inventor Elijah Bond, the ‘Talking Board’ launched in February 1891, first marketed as a parlour game. The more common name, it was later claimed, came from an ancient Egyptian word ‘Ouija’, meaning ‘Good Luck’. A flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, the letters 0-9 and the words ‘Yes’ , ‘No’ and ‘Goodbye’, Elijah’s grave actually includes the markers of a Ouija Board carved into its stonework.

That the board exploded in commercial popularity around the time of the First World War says much about the tremendous hurt of the time, when men were dying in their hundreds of thousands on foreign battlefields and the very idea of a body to bury was out of the question for most. In November 1919, the Freeman’s Journal wrote of how against the backdrop of such trauma on an unprecedented scale, “one might be tempted to transfer one’s allegiance to crystal gazers, palmists, table-rappers, the manipulators of Ouija boards, and such like exponents of the new credulity.”

The leading opponent of all of this in popular culture was the great Harry Houdini, a legend in his own lifetime and ours, remembered for his escape acts and as the greatest illusionist of all time. There was seemingly nothing the man couldn’t work his way out of, and he had drawn large crowds to see his performances in person in Belfast in 1909. Like many people, Houdini wanted to believe. Before his death he had actually agreed with his wife that if he somehow did find it possible to communicate with her after death, he would and that they would have a secret code, with the message being simply ‘Rosabellebelieve’. His widow held a yearly séance on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death, in the hope he’d make contact. In his lifetime, Houdini, like a lot of people who approach this field, had gone into it with a broken heart with the death of his mother in the 1920s, and he became convinced that those telling him he could communicate with her had no way of doing it and were merely frauds. When he toured America in 1925, he offered $10,000 to anyone who could exhibit supernatural phenomena that he could not replicate himself. By the time of his death, he had done much to undo the reputations of mediums the world over. Yet some, like Ambassador Gray in the Phoenix Park, continued to believe.


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