MICHAEL D Higgins’s visit this week to the UK is an historic first for an Irish president and highlights the notion of what it is to be Irish.
While to some people we are an island of frolicking leprechauns dancing crazily to a Boyzone single, to others we are the wicked combination of magic and mania that gave birth to Father Ted, Dracula and U2. Regardless of your Irish tribe — and there are dozens — there’s just no denying we’ve produced some of the brightest, most bizarre, and frequently annoying concoctions of humanity on the face of the Earth.
Ireland is famous for booze. On January 7, 1943, a flight en route from Foynes (Co Limerick) to Newfoundland turned back due to filthy weather. Dragged from his bed at 3am, head chef, Joe Sheridan, was instructed to prepare “something warm” for the passengers. Filling glasses with freshly brewed coffee, he topped it off with a generous measure of whiskey and a dollop of cream. When a lip-smacking Yank asked if it was Brazilian coffee, Joe jokingly replied, “No, that was Irish coffee.”
Today, the USA leads the world in submarines — thanks to John Holland, from Liscannor, in Co Clare. In February, 1899, the world’s first sub, the USS Holland, made its maiden voyage, and changed history. A year later, Holland designed the first Royal Navy sub — the Holland 1.
When Pope Francis gave his first audience in Rome, on March 16 last year, he could have chosen to perform the ceremony in Kilfenora. A peculiar Papal dictate of 1883 allows His Holiness to oversee both the Vatican and this Irish outpost — the only bishop allowed a dual mandate.
On April 21, 1995, the world was introduced to the residents of Craggy Island — and nothing has been the same since. One of the funniest Irish TV exports, Fathers Ted, Dougal and Jack, along with Mrs Doyle, have become an Irish answer to global ills.
The name Cedric Gibbons might not ring a bell, but his invention is one of the world’s most recognised trademarks. Creator of the Oscar statuette, which was unveiled in May 1929, the Dublin designer left a cultural footprint watched by two billion people every year. Intriguingly, his nephew, Billy, plays guitar with ZZ Top.
The notion that an Irish monk, St Brendan, beat Columbus to America by 1,000 years was always a hotly disputed historical theory, until seafarer, Tim Severin, proved it was possible by recreating the Brendan Voyage, using a similar craft, in June 1977.
Back in 1792, the White House was far from grand; in fact, it was downright pokey. Then occupant George Washington held an international architectural competition to build himself better digs. James Hoban, from Kilkenny, won the prize in July of that year, using designs inspired by Leinster House.
Proving that sheer cheek and a plunging neckline can open all kinds of doors, Eliza Gilbert, from Sligo, reinvented herself as ‘Lola Montez’ on the London stage — and counted Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas amongst her admirers. So taken was Prince Ludwig of Bavaria by her charms, he made her a countess in August, 1847.
Next time you find the answer you need on Google, give a moment’s thanks to George Boole, professor of mathematics at UCC. His groundbreaking paper, ‘The Laws of Thought,’ published in September 1854, forms the basis of modern computer technology.
Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, First as a Surgeon, and then as a Captain of Several Ships was surely not the world’s catchiest title. However, shortened to Gulliver’s Travels, Dubliner Jonathan Swift’s epic novel, published in October 1726, became a global sensation that’s never been out of print.
On November 25, 1984, Bob Geldof became so affected by television pictures of the African famine, he penned ‘Don’t They Know It’s Christmas’ — and made it the biggest-selling single in UK history. The disc earned €4m — a figure dwarfed the following year by Live Aid.
To most of us, December is a time for reflection, excess and gifts. Not so the Maigue Poets of Limerick — a group of artists constantly at odds to produce the most side-splitting ditty. From their base in Croom Castle, they gave rise to a whole new method of lyrical expression, which continues to influence writers up to the present day.
The definition of their art — the ‘limerick’ — found a global audience with the publication of Edward Lear’s ‘A Book of Nonsense’ in 1845.
* 365 Reasons To Be Proud To Be Irish, by Richard Happer, €9.99