The Uncelebrated Irish

In the build-up to St Patrick’s Day on Monday we take a look at some less well-known Irish people who still managed to leave their mark on world history

"Many good stories have been lost over the years due to immigration, often because it is too challenging to keep track of who was who and where they started their lives.  The historical figures on this list of unsung Irish men and women did most of their work outside of Ireland itself or, at least, just off its coasts. They played sports, hacked out a living in the colonies, fought pirates or were pirates themselves, and survived society scandals. The only common trait of the six is that they were born in Ireland. Just as the railroad baron in the 1939 film Dodge City tells his workers: “Well, it takes all kinds of men to build a railroad.” They swiftly reply: “No sir, just us Irish.”

– By Alexis Kunsak


Behind the Presidential Power

An Irish architect, who was born in County Kilkenny and trained at the Dublin Society’s Drawing School, won the competition to design the White House in 1792. President George Washington had already seen Hoban’s work in South Carolina and greatly admired his Charleston County Courthouse of 1790. Hoban’s winning design for the competition looked very much like the courthouse: a three-storey building with nine bays, or recessed areas, going across. Washington preferred a two-story building faced entirely in stone, with 11 bays across, and so the design was changed accordingly. In August of 1814 the British invaded and set fire to the White House. After the war, Hoban was assigned the task of restoring it to its original design. Although commemorative stamps have been released in America and Ireland and James Hoban’s Irish Restaurant and Bar sits on the embassy-lined streets of the capital, no detailed portrait of Hoban exists. In the 1880s most of his documents were destroyed in a fire, including his designs and personal letters. The only image surviving from his lifetime is a profile in wax made by an itinerant German artist.


The Infamous Spider Dancer

Lola Montez was the stage name of one of the 19th century’s most infamous characters. She herself encouraged conflicting reports on the facts of her life, so although her real name definitely was Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, she may have been born in 1818 or 1821, either in Limerick or in Grange, County Sligo. Her documented travels, performances and love life were extraordinary enough to inspire rumours by themselves, though she remains most famous for her ‘Spider Dance’, a kind of tarantella that offered revealing glimpses of her body as she shook rubber spiders out of her dress. Eliza Gilbert distinguished herself early on with her dark beauty, fierce temper and wild ways. Her family moved to India when she was a toddler, but sent Eliza back to England for school when she turned 10. She eloped with an army officer when she was 16, but separated with him five years later in Calcutta and created her act as a dancer. Under the name ‘Lola Montez’ she debuted on the London stage as a dancer, but was recognised as Mrs Eliza James, causing a scandal. She became known publicly as a courtesan, accepting favours from wealthy men, and moved widely within European cultural circles, which included Franz Liszt, George Sand and Alexandre Dumas. Her affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria won her the title Countess of Landsfeld, but created such a scandal she had to flee as the king abdicated his throne. Working as a dancer and actress, she resurrected her reputation in the United States with her ‘Spider Dance’, entertained miners in Australia, and tried to settle down again in San Francisco, before dying of pneumonia in New York in 1861. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn under the name ‘Mrs Eliza Gilbert’. In 1955 German director Max Ophüls made her story into a critically-acclaimed film called ‘Lola Montes’, starring Martine Carol and Peter Ustinov, and she is one of the central characters in Royal Flash, the second book in the Flashman series by George Macdonald Fraser. 


First Olympic Champion

John Mary Pius Boland was a spirited Irish nationalist and parliamentarian, who is most remembered for being in the right place at the right time. An avid traveller and tennis player, Boland happened to be in Athens at the same time as the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. He was visiting his friend Thrasyvoulos Manos, who was part of the organising committee, and was persuaded to enter the tennis singles and doubles competitions. He defeated Friedrich Traun of Germany in the first round, the Greeks Evangelos Rallis in the second and Konstantinos Paspatis in the semi-finals, and then Dionysios Kasdaglis of Egypt in the final round. Afterwards he partnered Friedrich Traun to gold in the doubles as well. Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom at the time, so the medals were credited to the UK, but Boland asked the committee to raise the Irish flag in honour of the achievement. Unfortunately, they did not actually have one at hand for the awards ceremony. Boland went on to represent the Irish Nationalist Party in the British Parliament for the constituency of South Kerry from 1900 to 1918.


The Pirate Queen

Grace O’Malley is the anglicised version of Gráinne Ní Mháille, and as chieftain of the O’Mháille clan, Queen of Umaill and as a fierce pirate in 16th century Ireland, she would have hated anything British. As a child she begged her father to let her join his trading expedition to Spain, and when he joked about her long hair getting caught in the rigging, she cut it off to shame him into taking her along. The nickname her father gave her afterwards was ‘Gráinne Mhaol’ or ‘Bald Grace’, which stuck in the anglicised version ‘Granuaile’. Despite being a staple character in Irish folklore – let’s face it, an Irish noblewoman leading a band of 200 raiders off the coast of Galway sounds like a fictional character straight out of the pages of Robert Louis Stephenson – she was anything but. She charged taxes to ships passing through her waters, fought other clans over her territory, and was a constant thorn in the side of the British. Ní Mháille was imprisoned twice and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, where they spoke in Latin and negotiated the removal of the British governor in Ireland. She gave birth to four children, the last one while at sea, and according to legend she fought Turkish pirates alongside her men the day after the birth. Her ships attacked other trading ships and fortresses along the coast of Ireland and yet she died peacefully on land in 1603. Irish historian Anne Chambers brought Ní Mháille’s story back to life with a series of contemporary books about the legendary pirate queen.

The Saint of the Sourdoughs

Nellie Cashman was a gold prospector and a nurse in the American West, described as being “pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails”. She earned a string of nicknames through her charity work helping other miners and her bravery in rescuing those stranded in the mountains. The ‘Angel of Tombstone’ was born in County Cork in 1845, but travelled to America with her family sometime in the 1850s. By 1865 she had arrived in San Francisco with her sister Fannie, who got married and settled there. In 1872 Nellie and her elderly mother moved to Pinoche, Nevada, a new mining town, and set up a boarding house. Nellie must have enjoyed the town atmosphere of gun fights and altercations because she continued moving to new mining areas for the rest of her life. First in Nevada, then north in British Columbia, later at the bottom of Arizona along the Mexican border, and finally she stayed in Alaska in the area around Klondike and Fairbanks. Her reputation as a courageous woman began with her rescue of 26 stranded miners in the Cassiar mountains in northern British Columbia. It took her and a search party of six men 77 days of searching through deep snow to find the miners, and she nursed those suffering from scurvy back to health with vitamin C. From 1880 to 1887 Nellie lived mostly in the silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona and became part of its outlaw lore. She ran a restaurant and hotel called Russ House, and together with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday has become as much a part of the history of the American West as those gunslingers.


A True Sea-Faring Man

William Hobson became the first governor and commander-in-chief of the British Crown’s new colony New Zealand in 1841. He had spent most of his life at sea, before becoming a representative of colonial interests on land. He was born into an old Irish family in Waterford in County Waterford, but lied about his age and joined the Royal Navy. He shipped out of London in 1803 at the age of nine, and spent years at sea, fighting Napoleon’s French blockade and pirates in the West Indies. After Napoleon’s defeat, Hobson was unemployed until Lord Auckland organised a surveying trip to Australia. Once there Hobson was charged with helping British interests in New Zealand where settlers reported being threatened by tribal warfare between the Maoris. In 1837 Hoban met with the British settlers and the warring Maori chiefs, Pomare II and Titore, warning them not to harm any British subjects. His work there won him an appointment as lieutenant governor in New Zealand and the task of obtaining land from the Maori people “by fair and equal contracts”, according to instructions from England.  The British recognised the sovereignty of the Maori people and asserted that the crown would protect their lands from European settlers through the Treaty of Waitangi, which Hobson prepared in 1840.  After threats of Maori uprising and two strokes, Hobson died in 1842 during his second year of office. Although intelligent and disciplined, the combination of inept advisers and the Colonial Office’s unrealistic policy towards New Zealand undermined Hobson’s efforts to keep the peace.