Stone lettering from Nelson’s Pillar – exiled from O’Connell Street to Kilkenny

Stone lettering from Nelson’s Pillar – exiled from O’Connell Street to Kilkenny

Recently I came across Butler House, the former dower house of Kilkenny Castle. In its topiaried gardens I came across this:

Not sure how legible that is. I recall Nelson’s Head being exhibited in the Dublin Civic Museum so I am not quite sure if the remains were really so “unwanted” as all that.

Here are of the lettering:


Architectural urban myths: mixing up the plans in Dungannon and Enniscorthy

Reading the Wikipedia page on Dungannon, Co Tyrone I came across this:

An interesting feature of the town is the former police barracks at the top right-hand corner of the market square which is quite unlike any other barracks of a similar vintage in Ireland. A popular but apocryphal story relates that the unusual design of this building is due to a mix-up with the plans in Dublin which meant Dungannon got a station designed for the Nepal and they got a standard Irish barracks, complete with a traditional Irish fireplace.

There’s a picture here at Geograph (the project to photograph every OS grid square):


The plans-mix-up story rang a bell, for I have heard the same said of St Senan’s Psychiatric Hospital. Supposedly somewhere in the Raj an asylum designed for County Wexford was erected. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is having none of it:

A lunatic asylum erected to a design by James Bell (1829-83) and James Barry Farrell (1810-93) representing an important component of the nineteenth-century built heritage of County Wexford with the architectural value of the composition, one unusually deviating from the Tudor Gothic standard seen across the country, confirmed by such attributes as the near-symmetrical footprint centred on an elegant arcade; the construction in a vibrant red brick offset by silver-grey Kiltealy granite or yellow brick dressings producing a lively polychromatic palette; the slight diminishing in scale of the openings on each floor producing a feint graduated visual impression; and the Osborne House (1845-51)-like Italianate towers embellishing the roofline as prominent eye-catchers in the landscape: meanwhile, aspects of the composition clearly illustrate the continued development or “improvement” of the lunatic asylum to designs by Charles Astley Owen (c.1855-1922) of Marlborough Street, Dublin (Irish Builder 15th September 1895, 218; 15th August 1900, 451). Having been reasonably well maintained, the elementary form and massing survive intact together with substantial quantities of the original fabric, both to the exterior and to the interior, thus upholding the character or integrity of the composition. Furthermore, adjacent outbuildings (extant 1903); a chimney (see 15604055); and a nearby burial ground (extant 1903), all continue to contribute positively to the group and setting values of a self-contained ensemble making a dramatic visual statement overlooking the River Slaney. NOTE: The firm attribution to Bell and Barry puts to rest the local legend that the designs for the lunatic asylum were mixed up with those for an army barracks in Pretoria or a palace in India during, variously, the Crimean War (1853-6) or the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1).

Hmmm, I wonder where else this urban legend has spread? Perhaps any unusual building from a certain era was assumed to be incongruous to the locality .. and I note were buildings linked with social control in different ways, so perhaps this allowed a certain mockery of intimidating local institutions (and linking them with Imperial power)

I wonder if it ever worked the other way and local traditions in India of in South Africa claim a building was “actually” intended for far off Ireland.

On a less exotic scale there is an (uncited) story of a Newry-Dundalk mix up:

Incidentally, Thomas Duff also was the architect for the Cathedral in Dundalk, a town just over the border in County Louth, and it is said that he mixed up the plans for both cathedrals and sent Dundalk Cathedral to the builders in Newry, and Newry Cathedral to the builders in Dundalk.

Perhaps Newry and Dundalk are more foreign to each other than Enniscorthy and the Raj after all…Something not dissimiliar is reported in “local tradition” in Lincolnshire



New Geneva, a (failed) Genevan colony in Waterford, designed by James Gandon

Recently I came across the placename Geneva Barracks, near Passage East in Waterford. Obviously a slightly unusual name, I wondered was it an Anglicisation of something – but in fact it turns out to be quite a literal name with a very interesting story, totally new to me.

From An Taisce:

New Geneva Barracks was identified as the proposed site for a planned colony for artisan and intellectual Genevan settlers, who had become refugees following a failed rebellion against a French and Swiss government in the city. Ireland had been granted a parliament separate from London in 1782 and it was thought that the creation of the colony would stimulate new economic trade with the continent. James Gandon, who designed the Custom House, was comissioned to create a masterplan for the site overlooking the Waterford Estuary. The plans for the colony eventually collapsed, however, when the Genevans insisted that they should be represented in the Irish parliament but govern themselves under their own Genevan laws. It then became a barracks following the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798.

Wikipedia has a bit more on Gandon’s plan:

James Gandon, the celebrated architect, was commissioned to prepare a plan for the town which would have been almost rectangular in shape with a vast shallow crescent 2,700 ft long overlooking Waterford Estuary. A rectangular site for a church was to be positioned at each end of the crescent which was to be backed by streets and terraces of houses. A central square was to have been overlooked by a central church with an apse and was surrounded by terraces of houses which were said to have been ‘under construction’. There were to be two other open squares, one to the south overlooked by the Academy with the Market in the south west corner of the ‘city’. Another courtyard to the north was to be overlooked by the Town Hall. A prison or hospital was to be located at the north west corner of the city. The city has many similarities with the French city of Richelieu. The Barracks wall which exists today bears little resemblance to this ambitious plan. The original James Gandon drawing of the proposed city still exists.

There is even more on Padraig Rooney’s site:

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

There’s more at the Wooly Days blog. I am looking, so far unsuccessfully, for an illustration of Gandon’s town plan online.

The site became a barracks, one of some notoriety in the memory of the 1798 rebellion. Here is a local story from the National Folklore Collection’s Schools Collection :


In the year 1798 when the soldiers were in Geneva Barracks, there was a cowboy working with a neighbouring farmer named Pat Gough. There were some Croppies prisoners at the time in Geneva Barracks.

One night the cow-boy made a rope ladder and went out to Geneva Barracks and got up on the wall and lowered the ladder down and helped eight Croppies to escape.

When he had the last one up he shouted down, “Is there any other down there”, and a voice answered “There is one other.” This was an officer and he wanted to shoot the eight Croppies and the cow-boy.

He had a gun under his coat and when he was half way up the ladder the cow-boy saw the gun and let the ladder drop and he and the eight Croppies escaped.

The Croppy Boy , one of the famed ballads of 1798,  features Geneva Harbour in its last verse – although a lot of versions I have come across seem to replace it with Duncannon (or, quite geographically incongruous, Dungannon):

At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy

Among the Dungannon versions seem to be the Dubliners’ and the Clancy Brothers. Here is Delia Murphy giving Geneva Barracks  it’s due:


“The Apollo Mission”, David X Wiggin, Alt Hist #2

It’s from way back in 2012 and the second issue of the now sadly defunct Alt Hist, but David X Wiggins’ “The Apollo Mission” is a story that has stayed with me.

The full story is available with a purchase of Alt Hist 2. Here are the opening paragraphs:

The legionnaire awoke, surprised to see that he was still alive. He had dreamt of fire and pain and an endless fall that filled the blue void with screams. Pink light from the rising sun oozed over the darkness of the hut around the edges of the window shades. A knock came at the door. It was time.

He dressed slowly, keeping his mind focused on each individual task. He meticulously double-checked every strap of his armour and carefully avoided the thoughts that made his heart beat like a sparrow’s. A smartly dressed regiment of Rome’s finest awaited him outside. They saluted him in the manner befitting a patriot and he returned their salute in the manner of a man too proud to show his terror. They lead him—silent but for the clank of their weapons and the beat of their sandals upon the dust—and he let himself be led like a docile ox to the slaughter. He looked up at the dawning sky as they marched and saw puffs of cloud aimlessly hanging above like Jupiter’s lost sheep. Soon he would be high above them, looking down at their backs with an eagle’s disdain. Would they look so soft and gentle then? None but the gods and Icarus had ever beheld such a view until now.

More of the premise can be gleaned from this interview with David X Wiggin. Here he is on the genesis of the story:

Apollo, being the Greek & Roman deity of the sun and archery (not to mention a symbol of the triumph of rational civilization over nature), is really the most logical choice for a program that involves shooting giant arrows into the sky. Originally this story was going to be about the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory (not something I believe in but I think there’s some wonderful potential there) and in the course of doing research on space travel I came across the story of Wan Hu, a minor Ming Dynasty official who tried to fly into space using rockets attached to his chair. Immediately this turned to thoughts about earlier civilizations starting up space programs and a program for Rome – with its expanding empire, advanced technology, loyal soldiers, and actual worship of Apollo – suddenly made way too much sense. I’m surprised we don’t see more ideas for flying machines or lunar travel in ancient texts, frankly, but I guess that was seen as pretty far fetched for even those advanced civilizations.

Was Charles Hughesdon the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral?

A few years ago I came across this obituary in the Daily Telegraph. It seems a little parochial to wonder if, in the midst of a busy and incident-packed life, one of Charles Hughesdon’s achievements was to be the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral:


During the First World War the family moved to a flat above the Johnny Walker offices, and Hughesdon was educated at the nearby Raine’s Foundation Grammar School. A notion (soon abandoned) that he might be suited to the priesthood allowed for a short spell in 1922 at a seminary near Dublin, where he attended the funeral of Michael Collins.

Surely he was the only attendee at Collins’ funeral to have an affair with Shirley Bassey (amongst others):

[His] marriage, however, was informed by a flexible attitude to fidelity: extramarital liaisons were considered “medicinal”. Hughesdon had flings with both the first and second wife of his friend Tyrone Power. In 1955 he was introduced to Shirley Bassey, then in her late teens, who was at the time lighting up the West End. The pair conducted an affair for several years, meeting up in Britain, America and Australia. The singer even joined Hughesdon and his family for a Boxing Day party at which she and Florence Desmond duetted. “It was riotous,” recalled Hughesdon. “Finally after much laughter and Shirley dancing barefoot on the billiards table a few of us finished in the sauna bath.”

As with William Seabrook and Talbot Mundy, the opening line of Hughesdon’s obit says it all:

Charles Hughesdon, who has died aged 104, was a daredevil aviator, champion ballroom dancer, insurance broker and airline executive who married the film star Florence Desmond and boasted of affairs with Shirley Bassey and Margot Fonteyn.

Hughesdon was 13 or so at Collins’ funeral, and presumably there were younger children present at what was a vast occasion. But how many retained some memory of the event in later life? When he died in 2014 even a day old infant at Collins’ funeral would be 92. At the very least, Charles Hughesdon was among the last.

Scientific enquiry in the early Middle Ages: “Medieval Visions of Modern Science” in Belfast

A Queens University Belfast study on medieval knowledge of astronomy touches on a recurrent theme here: the false myth of the Dark Ages:

The idea for this study came about from the strong desire to challenge the common assumption and perceived lack of scientific enquiry in the early Middle Ages, or commonly referred to as ‘Dark Ages’. This was the spark that ignited the intellectual collaboration between a medievalist and an astronomer.

An exhibition “Medieval Visions of Modern Science” informed by this research is currently running in the Ulster Museum.

“The Unbelievers” – short fiction by G Scott Huggins

At the now defunct Sci Phi journal, here is an interesting story by G Scott Huggins, “The Unbelievers”.

The story has a fairly clear theological point, but also reminded me somewhat of the Philosophical Investigations of the later Wittgenstein. A not at all pretentious sentence, that.

As Sci Phi is now defunct, I have taken the liberty of posting the full text of this story below – in case it disappears into the void as Nthposition and Shelf Life Magazine have…

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.

“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”

The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”

“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”

“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.

“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”

“Self-evidently,” said the android, “we evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans.’”

“But if such things existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”

Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”

The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”

“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”

“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.

“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. “The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”

“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose…?”

“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”

“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”

“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his shirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.

“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.

“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”

“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”

“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”

“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this island’s petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”

The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”

Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”

“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”

“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”

The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”

“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”

“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”

“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”

“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”

“But they did it anyway.”

Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”

Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.

Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”

“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.

The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”

Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”

The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”

Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.

“What do we do?”

Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”

Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”

Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.

“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”

“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.

Schwei nodded.

“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”

Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”

Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”

Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”