Tag: Arthur Conan Doyle

The long life and after-life of ‘Mick McQuaid’

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As previous posts have discussed, some of the Irish story papers ran for decades – in fact for well over a century now in the case of Ireland’s Own. But even aside from that astonishing instance of longevity, the Emerald ran for more than 20 years, the Shamrock for over 50 years, and Our Boys lasted for almost 80 years. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, there were also some serial stories which ran (and re-ran) for years and decades as well. All of these stories had certain common characteristics – they all featured a recurring central character whose name was always in the title of the story, and although some of them ran for many series, each story or series of stories was a self-contained episode which meant they could be read in any order. The most successful and long-running were also all strongly Irish-themed – and with a heavy reliance on village life, stock Irish ‘characters’ such as landlords, tenant farmers, gombeen men and comely maidens.

One example which would still be remembered by some readers today was the Kitty the Hare series – sub-titled ‘the Famous Travelling Woman of Ireland’, the elderly Kitty recounted her tales episode by episode, including adventures and strange tales from all over Ireland, many of them blending rural social realism with aspects of the supernatural including banshees and pookas. They were written by Victor O’Donovan Power, a popular and extremely prolific writer now almost completely forgotten, and were first published in Ireland’s Own in 1914, before moving to Our Boys (a story paper run by the Christian Brothers and intended as an Irish Catholic alternative to the very English Boys’ Own Paper) from 1924, where they continued to be printed regularly for decades – despite the fact that O’Donovan Power himself died in 1928, thus ending the supply of new Kitty the Hare stories.

Arguably even more popular and long-running however were the tales of Mick McQuaid. They were written by William Francis Lynam – a soldier, writer and editor who was born in Galway in 1833 and died in Dublin in 1894. Little is known about his background (or his military career), but by the 1860s he was living in Dublin and was – it appears – the owner and editor of the Shamrock story paper.   One of the earliest Irish story papers, it was established in 1866 as a penny weekly ‘companion’ paper to the Irishman newspaper. The Irishman, a very advanced nationalist paper, was established in 1859 by Richard Pigott – a very colourful character in Irish journalism who would acquire infamy as the forger of the damning letters supposedly written by Parnell in the 1880s. The exact editorial and proprietorial relationship between the Irishman and the Shamrock is rather murky – some sources imply Pigott owned them both, while others insist that Lynam owned the Shamrock, in which case the precise nature of their connection is unknown. Pigott and Lynam may have been actual business partners, or simply had an informal alliance.

The 1860s was of course the era of the Fenian movement in Ireland and abroad, and under Pigott’s editorship the Irishman was a very popular voice for Fenianism. If the Irishman was aimed at an adult readership seeking radical political news and commentary, the Shamrock was its more entertaining younger sibling, intended to instil a sense of national pride and identity in its boy (and occasional girl) readers. To do this, it specialised in exciting Irish historical fiction serials, set at key moments of Irish nationalist history such as the 1798 Rebellion or the Jacobite Wars, and usually centred around an ordinary Irish boy who readers could identify with as he became swept into political and military excitements and encountered historical figures such as Wolfe Tone or Redmond O’Hanlon. But as well as historical fiction, the Shamrock also published romances and vernacular tales of Irish life.

The most successful of these vernacular tales were, by a very long way, the Mick McQuaid stories. A series of comic tales (although to be quite honest the modern reader might take some convincing of that description) set in what was then contemporary Ireland, they all featured the adventures of central character Mick McQuaid – a quick-thinking, wise-cracking chancer who nevertheless usually managed to save the day and prevent the more straight-forward villainy of figures such as agents for absentee landlords, or local gombeen men. Each story saw Mick in a new role and setting, such as ‘Mick McQuaid, Money Lender’, ‘Mick McQuaid, Member of Parliament’, ‘Mick McQuaid, Detective’, and ‘Mick McQuaid, Evangelist’. Each story was long, with (overly) complex plots, many characters, comic tangents and multiple narrative threads to be resolved, so they were serialised in short instalments over several months of weekly issues. These kind of serial stories were crucial to story papers, designed to bring readers back week after week and build a loyal and regular readership, and the Mick McQuaid stories were a classic example of their type.

It has to be admitted it would be difficult to that claim the stories deserve to be ‘rediscovered’ by modern readers. They are an interesting window into popular fiction of the era, especially in terms of their representations of Irish life and society – however their plots are unwieldy, their humour has not aged well and they are written in an almost impenetrable ‘Irish’ dialect which was obviously part of their appeal in the 1860s but which is extremely difficult to read now. Instead what is most interesting about the Mick McQuaid stories is their extraordinary popularity across many decades. Lynam reportedly became bored with the stories after just a few years, and indeed replaced them with tales of another very similar ‘charming Irish rogue’ anti-hero, the Darby Durkan series, which in their turn were also fairly popular. But popular demand for continued Mick McQuaid stories forced him to write more of them (a common experience for authors of popular fiction, most famously in the case of Conan Doyle’s reluctant resurrection of Sherlock Holmes). Indeed, the circulation of the Shamrock reportedly dropped sharply when he attempted to end the McQuaid stories, so they had to be revived and reprinted. It is difficult to be sure exactly how many stories there are in total (perhaps ten or so), each one lasting up to 6 months of weekly instalments – but for a youthful audience this was enough to keep printing and reprinting them over years and eventually decades. Rather like the endlessly circulating repeats of television sit-coms in our own era, which happily rewatched by fans and watched for the first time by successive generations (Faulty Towers being the obvious example, with just twelve episodes ever made in the 1970s, but which are still being screened 40 years later) these very popular serials played on an endless loop in the story papers.

Lynam died in 1894, but his serials lived on without him. The Darby Durkan stories appeared in the Shamrock’s rival story paper the Emerald in the early 20thC, and after the two papers merged in 1912 the McQuaid stories also continued in the new paper until its demise in 1919 – and may well have continued to appear in other publications after that although I have yet to find them. Their popularity was such that in 1889 Carroll’s Tobacco company in Dundalk named a new brand of pipe tobacco after Mick McQuaid, who often smoked a pipe in the stories as he held forth with his distinctive folk wisdom. The brand was itself a great success (presumably the tobacco and the stories amplified each other’s standing among readers and smokers in ways that benefitted both), and by the 1920s Carroll’s had commissioned a cartoon version of Mick McQuaid for their packaging and advertising – the photograph accompanying this post is of a tobacco tin from the mid-20thC. So while the stories had not had significant illustrations during their 19thC hey-day, the Mick McQuaid character took visual form years after his author’s death, and in fact became one of mid-20thC Ireland’s most successful brands, only being discontinued in 2016 – a strange afterlife for a fictional character first invented in 1867.

References

Margeret O’Callaghan, ‘Richard Pigott’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Patrick M Geoghegan, ‘William Francis Lynam’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

The Curious Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Crown Jewels (or not)

In 1907, in what remains one of the great unsolved jewel thefts, the Irish Crown Jewels were stolen from inside Dublin Castle. None of them have ever been recovered, and no one was ever arrested for the theft. It was one of the mass media sensations of its day, in Ireland and beyond – the combination of spectacular royal jewels, an apparently perfect crime, and rampant speculation about the possible involvement of senior figures of the Irish and English establishment meant that it received enormous press coverage, resulting in at least one libel case as a result of over-enthusiastic theorising about the culprits.

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The jewels themselves consisted of two star and badge regalia of the Order of St Patrick (one of which was reserved for the Sovereign) and five collars belonging to Knights of the Order. They were large pieces of ceremonial jewellery, consisting of diamonds, emeralds and rubies, and were collectively valued at more than £30,000 (well over £3m today). They were kept in a safe inside the office of Arthur Vicars, the Ulster King of Arms and therefore a senior government official at Dublin Castle. The jewels’ disappearance was discovered just 4 days before the arrival of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra for the Irish International Exhibition, and prompted enormous royal embarrassment, an official commission of enquiry and by 1912 had become the subject of acrimonious exchanges in the Westminster parliament when it was alleged (under cover of parliamentary privilege) that the solution to the theft had been covered up by authorities because it was connected to “criminal debauchery and sodomy being committed in the castle by officials, Army officers…of such position that their conviction and exposure would have led to an upheaval from which the Chief Secretary shrank”. Over the century since the theft, accusations have been made against individuals including the Lord Lieutenant’s son Lord Haddo, and the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s brother Francis as well as Vicars himself (like Vicars, Shackleton was employed in the Castle and had access to the safe from which the jewels disappeared). It has been described variously as a conservative plot to discredit and embarrass the Liberal government (represented in Dublin Castle by Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant) and as an IRA plot to embarrass the entire British administration and raise funds by selling the jewels in America. While it seems most likely the jewels were smuggled abroad immediately to be broken up and sold, as late as 1927 some official Irish sources appeared to believe they were still extant and available for sale on the black market, whereas yet another version of the story suggests that the British royal family secretly bought them back not long after they were stolen, again in order to hush up a homosexuality scandal most likely involving Francis Shackleton and another Castle official with access to the jewels. Neither they nor anyone else was ever arrested or charged with the crime, although Shackleton was imprisoned and disgraced some years later for another theft. After dominating newspaper stories in Ireland and England in 1907, the story has continued to reappear every few years for more than a century, whenever a new theory emerges as to the culprits or the jewels’ fate. My personal favourite can be found here, but a cursory search will produce many more, and there have also been fictional versions (including a very salacious novel called Jewels, published in 1977) and a 2003 television documentary.

It may even have attracted the attention of Sherlock Holmes, as it has been suggested that Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’ (published in December 1908) was inspired by the theft of the Irish crown jewels, an argument that is certainly plausible. While no details of the story reflect the case, its basic structure (the theft and smuggling abroad of top secret military plans from a government safe, which turns out to have been the work of a trusted establishment figure) is similar in its main points. It is beyond the scope or expertise of this blog to adjudicate on whether the case was an influence on Conan Doyle, though the timing of the story’s publication eighteen months after the jewels’ disappearance does add credibility to the idea. What is certain however, is that the theft’s resemblance to a Sherlock Holmes story was clear to others at the time. In March 1908, a story entitled ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ireland, or The Diamonds of St Patrick. From the French’ had appeared in the story paper Ireland’s Own. The faithful Dr Watson who narrated most Holmes stories was here abandoned in favour of an unnamed French narrator, who nevertheless recounts the tale in the typical first person style of other Sherlock cases. According to this (very) short story, Holmes was asked to investigate the jewels’ disappearance, prompting his first visit to Ireland, of which the narrator comments, “he resembled in that nine-tenths of the English, who are keen travellers, but Ireland, poor and unhappy Ireland, in place of attracting them, repulses them. Without doubt they feel themselves culpable in this place, and they fear to see the pleasures of travelling spoiled by their regrets”. Having arrived in Dublin, Holmes and his narrator attend a levee at Dublin Castle, which provokes some republican disapproval from the French narrator, who is proud to describe himself as a ‘citizen of a Republic’. The plot then follows (extremely rapidly) a series of fairly standard Holmes detection techniques, including Holmes faking a faint outside the strong-room from which the jewels were stolen in order to be carried inside to inspect it, and then appearing in not one but two apparently convincing disguises (as both a country squire and a plumber). Finally he announces to the narrator that he knows who stole the jewels – but when asked to name the culprit, he responds “Wait until tomorrow evening…There is a great ball at the Viceroy’s Castle. At the particular moment when Lord Aberdeen, accompanied by his court, shall make his entry into the hall…I shall unmask the robber”. However, the next evening Holmes shows the narrator a telegram he has just received from some unnamed but senior member of government, begging him not to reveal the thief’s identity ‘for the safety of your country’. Holmes complies, explaining “I strongly suspect that there is underneath some affair of the State. If I made public my inquiry terrible calamities would happen. Perhaps we would have war with Germany”. And there the story ends, Holmes and our mysterious French narrator returning to London and the jewels remaining lost.

The story is thin, especially by the standards of Conan Doyle’s own prose, but its invention was in itself very clever – the theft of the Irish crown jewels from inside Dublin Castle, the failure to recover them, and the rumours and accusations swirling around several suspects who would normally have been considered above suspicion was itself highly reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes case, and whoever wrote the story had obviously understood this very well. The story’s resolution of Holmes knowing the culprit’s identity but withholding it at the request of a very senior member of the establishment in order to protect matters of State also sailed tantalisingly close to some of the rumours about the theft which would have been widely-known in Ireland by the end of 1908, while remaining vague enough to avoid charges of libel from the individuals concerned. Of course, by 1912 some of those rumours would be publically stated in Parliament, but those statements had the benefit of parliamentary privilege, which Ireland’s Own did not.

But to modern readers, perhaps the most remarkable feature of this story was not its avoidance of libel accusations, but instead its cheerful breach of copyright law. In 1908, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the best-selling writers in the world, and Sherlock Holmes was so popular that Doyle had famously had to bring him back from the dead in 1903. The stories had always been serialised in the Strand magazine, for whom they had been exceptionally lucrative, and were then collected in book form which also sold in enormous numbers. The publishing of a story using Holmes’ name, persona and distinctive detecting style was therefore an obvious attempt to take advantage of readers’ enthusiasm for Conan Doyle’s work – and was blatantly illegal. International enforcement of copyright claims such as this was still difficult, if not quite as impossible as it had been for most of the 19thC, when for example the American publishing industry had been largely founded on the wholesale pirating of English material. But Ireland and England operated under effectively the same copyright regimes in 1908, and had Conan Doyle or his publishers been aware of ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ireland, or The Diamonds of St Patrick’, they would have been in an unquestionable position to sue Ireland’s Own and its publisher, John Walsh. Given that Walsh ran the story paper so successfully – and indeed owned several newspapers and a large printing works – it is inconceivable that he and his staff did not know that their ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story was an actionable breach of copyright. By contrast, it is not entirely certain that the Ireland’s Own readership (many of whom were barely out of school) would all have understood that the story wasn’t actually by Conan Doyle, a point which would surely have enraged the author all the more had he ever known of it. The story’s publication is therefore an indication that the editorial staff of Ireland’s Own felt secure that it would not be seen by anyone with a professional interest in the authentic Sherlock Holmes stories – a sign perhaps that despite their occasional attempts to promote sales among Irish emigrants in Britain, in reality the paper did not circulate significantly outside Ireland.  This appears to have been an accurate prediction on their part, as the story seems to have generated no legal action – and remains the occasion of Sherlock Holmes’ only visit to Ireland.  And the Irish crown jewels remain missing.

References

The Theft of the Irish ‘Crown Jewels’ Online Exhibition 2007, National Archives of Ireland http://www.nationalarchives.ie/digital-resources/online-exhibitions/the-theft-of-the-irish-%E2%80%9Ccrown-jewels%E2%80%9D-2007/

Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’, His Last Bow and the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin Classics, 2008).

Robert Perrin, Jewels (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977)

The Strange Case of the Irish Crown Jewels (dir. Gerry Nelson, 2003)