Wednesday 17 July 2019

Frank Coughlan: 'Unlikely tales from history I could uncover'


The Lusitania, which was sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale
The Lusitania, which was sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

Historic research, in as much as I know a whole lot about it, is made up of long hours of drudgery leafing through dusty old boxes with the tedium occasionally interrupted by rare moments of revelation. That is if you have a keen and educated eye or if you just get lucky.

The best historians tend to be the ones who have the tenacity and the patience for endlessly sniffing about dark, forgotten corners while the rest of us studying the subject simply nourish ourselves off the fruits of their hard labours.

But undergrads at Trinity are slowly led by the hand so that by the time they ponder their final year, as I am about to, they have the rudimentary skills necessary to dig up primary sources on their own.

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If I ever unearth anything of any interest you won't be the first to know - that unlikely honour will be bestowed on my dissertation supervisor. But chances are I never will.

It certainly won't be faintly as fascinating as the revelation about the fish 'n' chips man and the battleship Potemkin which I read about last week. Although hardly new, it is not widely appreciated.

Caught up in that mutiny of June 1905 - a pivotal one in the tumult that would turn imperial Russia and the entire world order on its head - was young sailor Ivan Beshoff.

He would survive not only to tell the tale but to live a very long life in Dublin as owner of the city's most iconic chip shop.

I'd take that with a pinch of salt and vinegar, except it is absolutely true.

At the same time I came across a piece of historical ephemera about the Lusitania, sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale a decade later, which was also wildly at odds with what you'd expect.

Not unlike the Potemkin, the fate of this stately liner dramatically turned the tide of history and was the greatest single catastrophe to befall this island in the 20th century.

It was a young and callow German officer on U-boat 20 who fired the torpedo that sank the Cunard liner on that calm and sunny May Friday in 1915.

But the same sailor crops up to nudge Irish history in another direction only 11 months later, this time as a captain of U-boat 19 that landed gun-runner Roger Casement at Banna Strand, Co Kerry.

By chance rather than design, Raimond Weissbach played more than a walk-on part in Irish history, which perhaps explains his subsequent long fascination with the country.

As late in his life as 1966 he was reported in the 'Cork Examiner' as making a courtesy call on the city's lord mayor.

So here's the piece of un-excavated history that I would like to unearth in an archive or attic: a grainy photograph of these two old sailors enjoying a feed of cod and chips and recalling their remarkable witness to 20th century history.

There's the makings of a dissertation in that, professor.

Smug youth undone by their creature comforts

An amused friend showed me a WhatsApp ping-pong with his daughter who no longer lives at home but still uses the family letterbox:

"Hi, Dad. Did a package arrive today?"

"No. Is it urgent?"

"Naw. Shampoo."

"Shampoo. You shipped shampoo halfway across the world?"

"You can't buy this brand in the shops. Doh!"


An angry emoji came in swift reply and the exchange was terminated.

Generation Superior hates to be called out on how it casually exploits the planet while showboating its concern at the same time.

Baby Boomer: 1, Millennial: 0.

Irish Independent

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