Welcome to this week’s version of Why Nenagh, our look at different reasons to come to Nenagh and the North Tipperary area. Last week I looked at different famous film and television characters who have connections to the Nenagh and North Tipperary area. This week I am going to look at some other people who have connections to Nenagh.
First up is one of the greatest contemporary song-writers of the 1980s right through to the 90’s and noughties. Shane MacGowan and his music is world famous with some of his more famous tracks including Fairytale of New York, A Rainy Night in Soho, Summer in Siam and The Sunnyside of the Street. Shane was born in London, but spent his youth in his mother’s family home in Carney, which is just outside of Nenagh. He regularly visits Nenagh each year, as he has a dwelling just outside of the town, so you are very likely to bump into an Irish musical legend at anytime down in old Nenagh town.
Well you have your good characters and bad characters that are connected to any town or parish and Nenagh is no different, so lets have a look at John Toler, the ‘Hanging Judge’. John Toler, the 1st Earl of Norbury, was born on the 3rd December in 1745 in Beechwood, Nenagh. He went onto become one of the most hated figures in power in Ireland during the late seventeen hundreds and the early eighteen hundreds. He was appointed Chief Justice of Ireland in 1800 and his most famous trial was that of Irish nationalist leader and patriot Robert Emmet. Norbury interrupted and abused Emmet throughout the trial before sentencing him to death. Throughout the 27 years he held the post of Chief Justice he was known to joke even when the life of a human being was hanging in the balance; this resulted in Norbury becoming known as ‘The Hanging Judge’. Throughout his life Norbury had a strong belief in the Protestant ascendancy and he had a number of run-ins with the Irish Catholic Leadership, including Daniel O’Connell on several occasions, and also the British establishment after the Napoleonic Wars, when they there was a new aim of establishing a better relationship with the Catholic majority. Norbury died at 85 years in 1831 and was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Mary Street, Dublin.
John Desmond Bernal, who was born at Brookwatson Nenagh on May 10th 1901, was one of the foremost scientists of the twentieth century. He was a controversial figure because of his communist beliefs and connections, but the work he produced throughout his lifetime as a scientist is hugely impressive. He is considered a pioneer of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology. In 1924 he determined the structure of graphite and he also did work on the crystal structure of bronze. His strength was in analysis as much as experimental method, and his mathematical and practical treatment of determining crystal structure was widely studied. Later on, he worked for the British War Ministry during World War II, where his main contribution to the Normandy Landings was the detailed mapping of the beaches. After assisting in the preparations for D-Day with work on the structure of the proposed landing sites as well as the bocage countryside beyond, Bernal landed at Normandy on the afternoon of D-Day +1 in the uniform of an instructor-Lieutenant RN to record the effectiveness of the plans. During his lifetime, Bernal was awarded the Royal Medal (1945), Guthrie Lecture (1947), the Stalin Peace Prize (1953), Grotius Gold Medal (1959), the Bakerian Lecture (1962) and he was a Fellow of the Royal Society. John Desmond Bernal died on the 15th September 1971, aged 70 years, and is buried in Battersea Cemetery, Morden, in a grave that is unmarked.
Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill wasn’t born in Nenagh town or outside it, but he lived most of his life in a town that became a protector and an adopted home for an individual who actually changed Irish history. So who was Sonny O’Neill? Well, he’s none other than the person who shot the Irish patriot and Leader Michael Collins. The story goes that the anti-treaty forces had set up an ambush at Béal na Bláth on August 22nd 1922 to assassinate Collins. The ambush squad consisted of Tom Hales, Jim Hurley, Dan Holland, Tom Kelleher, Sonny O’Neill, Paddy Walsh, John O’Callaghan, Sonny Donovan, Bill Desmond and Dan Corcoran. Seemingly the squad had decided to disperse and were clearing the road as well as diffusing a roadside bomb, when the convey of vehicles that included Michael Collins came upon them. A gun battle ensued and as the anti-treaty forces retreated, a shot rang out from O’Neill’s weapon that entered Collins forehead and blasted a hole at the back of his head. Michael Collins was dead and Sonny was soon on the run. He eventually made it to North Tipperary and before long he took lodgings in Queens/Mitchell Street in Nenagh town, where he remained for the remainder of his life. His secret was kept safe by those that knew who he was in the town and he was even one of the founding fathers of the Fianna Fail party in North Tipperary. Sonny O’Neill is buried in Tyone Cemetery, Nenagh.
Donal Ryan’s debut novel The Spinning Heart was nominated on the Man-Booker Prize Long-List for 2013. An amazing achievement for a debut novelist, he has being quoted to have said he received approximately 50 rejections from publishers, before he eventually found a publisher who were willing to back him. Ryan’s publisher Transworld Book (Doubleday) tweeted that it was “thrilled” that his “stunning debut” had been longlisted. Donal is a born and bred Nenagh man.
Not a bad collection that we have linked to the town. Of course there is an actual connection to President John F. Kennedy also. You see back in the Norman times, before they decided they wanted to build the Nenagh castle and plant their own knights here, the land around Nenagh was O’Kennedy country and remained so for several centuries after the Norman conquest. So you see, although John F. Kennedy’s family roots may have been linked to Wexford, his ancient clan’s roots are here in Nenagh and North Tipperary. In fact the ancient treaty that was presented to President Kennedy on a visit to Ireland in 1962 and is now housed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Massachusetts was signed between the invading Normans and the Kennedy’s in Nenagh Castle. More next week when I will have a look at festivals that are connected to the area.
Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee