We all know about the impact of Guinness, Irish dancing and our literary culture, but we are responsible for some lesser- known mighty achievements as Christopher Winn reveals in his book
As a nation, the Irish have always punched way above our weight. With a diaspora of an estimated 80 million people, there is good chance that wherever you may be in the world you will find a hint of us — Guinness always; an Irish pub, probably; Irish music or dancing, perhaps; a soft Irish brogue, certainly; celebrations on St Patrick’s Day, of course. And for such a small nation, we can boast of some mighty achievements — nine of the people who signed the US Declaration of Independence were of Irish blood, as were 19 US Presidents.
The best-selling book in the world after the Bible is the Guinness Book of Records (below), the world’s most widely quoted person after Shakespeare is Dublin’s Oscar Wilde, Percy Ludgate from County Cork invented the world’s first practical programmable computer but didn’t have time to build it before he died of pneumonia after a walk in the Swiss mountains...
But we’re also responsible for some quirkier achievements. Did you know that...
Bavaria was ruled by an Irish woman from 1847 to 1848? Dancer and actress Lola Montez, born in 1821 in Grange, County Sligo, of a Limerick family, ended up becoming a Countess and running Bavaria — as mistress of King Ludwig I.
Downing Street, the home of the British Prime Minister, is named after an Irishman, George Downing from Dublin, the second person to graduate from Harvard.
In 1890 all three major titles at the Wimbledon tennis championships went to the Irish —the Men’s Singles to Willoughby Hamilton from County Kildare, the Women’s Singles to Lena Rice from County Tipperary and the Men’s Doubles to Joshua Pimm from County Wicklow and Frank Stoker from Dublin? (There was no Women’s Doubles in 1890.)
‘M’, the fictional head of the Secret Service in the James Bond stories was loosely based on Irishman William Melville, born in Co Derry in 1850. In 1904, Melville set up the first counter intelligence service in London, forerunner of MI5 and MI6.
The world’s best-selling book, the Guinness Book of Records, came into being to answer the question of which was Europe’s fastest game bird — the golden plover or the grouse.
Although Ireland has never suffered a bad earthquake, it was an Irishman, Robert Mallet of Dublin, who made the first study of the phenomenon — by detonating explosives on a beach near Killarney and measuring the time taken for the shock waves to travel through the sand — he also coined the terms ‘seis-mology’ and ‘epicentre’.
The ‘Father of Industrial Germany’ was an Irishman — Dublin-born engineer William Mulvany, who opened up the Ruhr Valley’s rich coal seams and constructed the area’s transport network to create Germany’s premier industrial powerhouse — the target for the Dambusters’ Raid in 1943 and the home today of ALDI.
One of the world’s great conundrums, which still perplexes the world’s greatest thinkers, was posed by an Irishman, William Molyneux, in 1693. Known as the Molyneux Problem it asks, ‘If a man who is born blind is taught how to recognise the shape of a globe and a cube by feel, could he distinguish them by sight alone if he were then given the ability to see?’
The dreaded penalty kick was invented by an Irishman, William McCrum from Co. Armagh. As goalkeeper for Milford Everton FC he devised the penalty not only as a means of discouraging hefty defenders from causing bodily harm while stopping goal-scorers, but also as a way of giving the unsung goalkeeper the chance to become a hero.
The song Teddy Bears’ Picnic was written by an Irishman, Jimmy Kennedy from Omagh. He also wrote the Hokey Cokey, We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line and Red Sails in the Sunset, the latter was inspired by a summer evening in Portstewart, Co Derry.
Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara was Irish — his father bore the Irish surname Lynch and his grandmother was Irish, from a Galway family. The iconic 1968 poster of Guevara that became such a powerful image of the anti-Vietnam War protests was created by Jim Fitzpatrick of Co. Dublin from a photo by Alberto Korda.
The dollar sign was invented by an Irishman, Oliver Pollock from Coleraine, Co. Derry. As commercial agent for the colonies in Louisiana during the American Revolution, Pollock obtained supplies and finance for the Americans — he conducted business in Spanish pesos, using the standard abbreviation, a large ‘P’ with a small ‘s’ above it which he simplified by using just the upward stroke of the ‘P’ running through the ‘s’ — hence $.
Christopher Winn’s new book I Never Knew That About The Irish is out now.