In his new book, The Irish Diaspora, Turtle Bunbury explores the lives of men and women whose pioneering journeys beyond the Irish shore played a profound role in world history. Here, he shines a spotlight on figures from County Clare.
COUNTY Clare contributes some of the earliest stories to ‘The Irish Diaspora’ through the story of St Donat (Donagh), also known as Donatus of Fiesole, who is said to have both studied and taught at the monastic island school of Inis Cealtra in Lough Derg. “Donat and St Andrew Scotus, a fellow Irishman, were returning from a pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles in Rome,” writes Bunbury.
“They called into Fiesole, a town north of Florence, where the citizens were just preparing to elect a new bishop. As Donat entered the cathedral, all the bells began ringing and the lamps and candles burst into light. The congregation, not unreasonably, deduced that the intrepid Irishman should become their bishop. Given that they had drowned their previous bishop, it is possible that demand for the job was not high.”
Shortly before his death in about 876, Donat reputedly founded a hospice at Piacenza, in Italy’s present-day Emilia-Romagna region, for the use of Irish pilgrims and dedicated to St Brigid of Kildare. Donatus remains one of the most popular saints in Tuscany where his name is to be found in numerous churches and place names
While the O’Brien’s ruled the kingship of Munster in the 12th century, they were also patrons of the Benedictines in Bavaria and paid for the rebuilding of the splendid church at Regensburg in 1166, cloister, viaduct and all. Such patronage was honoured by the Regensburg scriptorium where the Benedictines produced the stories of two new County Clare saints, namely Flannán mac Toirrdelbaig of Killaloe and Mochuille of Tulla. For good measure, they had Flannán travel all the way to Rome in 640 to be consecrated as the first Bishop of Killaloe by the short-lived Pope John IV.
The missionary zeal would continue into the 17th century when Anthony O’Hicidh (Hickey), scion of a celebrated bardic family from County Clare, became one of the first lecturers at the Irish College in Rome, the subject of another chapter in this book. Fortunately there is no statue in Ennis to Richard Brew, one of the most notorious slave-traders of the 18th century. His father, a Protestant gentleman, ran a malthouse and brewery in Ennis in partnership with Nicholas Bindon, High Sheriff of County Clare.
Clare has produced its share of fighting men over the centuries. When the 87th, known as the ‘Faugh a Ballaghs’, overwhelmed their French opposition with a series of grim but effective bayonet charges at the battle of Barossa in 1811, many of its men were from the Banner County. When Sam Houston defeated the Mexican general de Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto in 1835, his army included the four Bryan brothers of County Clare.
A chapter of the book is dedicated to John Phillip Holland, the bespectacled, moustachioed submarine inventor who was raised in a humble cottage, still standing today, at Liscannor, near the Cliffs of Moher.
A lesser known Clare connection was Margaretta Eagar, who served as governess to the doomed young daughters of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his German wife, Tsarina Alexandra. She was 17 years old when her parents moved to the West End, Kilkee, a popular seaside resort. She had her first encounter with royalty when the young Prince of Siam (later Rama VI, king of the country now known as Thailand) came to visit in the 1890s. The Shannonside town was also abuzz in the wake of a visit by Prince Louis of Battenberg (grandfather of Prince Phillip), whose wife was an older sister of the Russian Tsarina. Prince Louis, a naval officer, called by Moore’s Hotel in Kilkee one night when his ship was anchored in the Shannon. Not realising who her guest was, Mrs Moore shovelled him into a twin room with a passing commercial traveller. When the prince requested a room of his own, Mrs Moore grumpily directed him to an empty cottage nearby. When the prince signed the visitor’s book the following morning, Mrs Moore finally twigged. She nearly fainted on the spot and apparently spent the remainder of her days convinced that she would be arrested at any moment for her discourtesy. Many years later, Margaretta met Prince Louis who confirmed the tale.
Annie Moore was the first immigrant to the United States to pass through federal immigrant inspection at the Ellis Island station in New York Harbour. In 2008, her small grass-covered grave in New York was marked with a monument of Irish Blue Limestone by master carver Francis McCormack of Tubber.
Much the loudest speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention was the attorney and former Fox News presenter Kimberly Guilfoyle, the partner of Donald Trump junior, whose father emigrated from Ennis in 1957. Donald Trump has no Irish blood although he, of course, owns the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel at Doonbeg. By a remarkable coincidence, Doonbeg is the very same village from which two of Mike Pence’s great-grandparents emigrated in the 1890s.
Among the other Americans of ‘Clare’ pedigree in this book are Jackie Kennedy (whose mother Janet Lee was the granddaughter of Thomas Merritt and Maria Curry from County Clare) and Muhammad Ali (whose great-grandfather Abe Grady was reputedly from Ennis, which is why the three-time World Heavyweight Champion travelled to the County Clare capital in 2009 and became its first Honorary Freeman.)
The Irish Diaspora: Tales of Emigration, Exile and Imperialism by Turtle Bunbury is published by Thames & Hudson www.turtlehistory.com