Heritage Mural Trail part of PRISM arts Project with input from Ennis Chamber
The ‘Memory Lane’ group, comprising Cllr. Mary Howard and Cormac McCarthy (Tidy Towns), Larry Brennan, local historian and Margaret O’Brien, CEO Ennis Chamber came together last year to brainstorm ideas for a heritage mural trail in Ennis, to celebrate the lives and colourful stories of characters born in, or associated with Ennis, who earned a place in history.
There are many such characters who fit the bill, who to date have not been celebrated in a visible way within the town.
Cllr. Mary Howard chair of the group said, “Some of the characters whose names cropped up in our early brainstorm were unknown, and yet we were amazed by the colourful lives they led. Choosing a starting shortlist was a challenge.”
Margaret O’Brien added, “Many years ago I was involved in scripting a Heritage Trail App for Ennis in conjunction with Clare County Council Heritage Office. While research on the project included places of interest it also included people of interest, and I was surprised by the wealth of characters who hailed from Ennis and its surrounds who went on to lead adventurous and influential lives, some of whom are now celebrated on this trail.”
Funding for the project was via submission to Clare Arts Office under the PRISM mural project, funded by Creative Ireland.
Cllr. Howard said, “The group agreed to employ local artists to depict these local heroes. The artists chosen are, Joe Kelly, Robert Downey, and Helen Lowe.”
She added, “The group shortlisted four characters to feature on the trail, but funding limited us to three. By coincidence artist Rachel McManus, separately funded under Clare County Council Arts Office PRISM scheme, created a mural to celebrate Tom Steele, one of the four on our original list, which has allowed us include a fourth mural in our themed mural trail.”
The other three lives celebrated are, The O’Gorman Mahon (Halloran’s Lane, by artist Joe Kelly), Harriet Smithson Berlioz (Post Office Lane, by artist Helen Lowe) and James Bartholomew Blackwell (Westby’s Lane, by artist Robert Downey).
“The group’s ambition was not only to create a mural trail but to also create linkages and opportunities for further discussion or celebration. For example, the real life version of the duelling gun depicted in Joe Kelly’s tribute to the O’Gorman Mahon on Halloran’s Lane can be seen in Clare Museum and therefore gives visitors, and indeed locals an added reason to visit our fantastic local museum,” said Margaret O’Brien.
Clare Arts Office will shortly position a QR Code at each location to give locals and visitors access to the story behind each piece. Cllr. Howard said, “This is an important part of the overall mural scheme, especially when it comes to telling the full story behind the characters depicted in our mural trail.
or further information on the characters included in this mural trail celebrating the rich and colourful lives of characters associated with Ennis, please see details below.
Background to the characters:
The O’Gorman Mahon: Duellist, Politician, Soldier and Adventurer
James Patrick Mahon was born in Mill Street (now number 40 Parnell Street), Ennis, on 17 March 1802. Educated at Trinity College, he later went on to become a barrister but never practised. He joined the Catholic Association and was the driving force behind O’Connell’s 1828 victory in the Clare election.
Mahon was elected M.P. for Clare in 1830 but was unseated following a charge of bribery. He contested the 1831 election but was defeated by the candidate backed by Daniel O’Connell. This led to a rift between himself and O’Connell which never healed.
In 1835, he set out to tour most of Europe, in particular France, where he worked as a journalist and moved in most influential circles. He also travelled to Africa, to east and south America.
He returned to Ireland in 1847 for the general election but was defeated by 13 votes. He then returned to his foreign travel. It was at this point that his outstanding career as a soldier began. The Czar of Russia appointed him lieutenant in his international bodyguard, a position above many of his generals. He held the rank of captain or general under most of the flags of Europe and colonel in the French army under Napoleon III.
In the 1860s, he was a general on the side of the Uruguayan government in their civil war and fought in the American civil war on the side of the North. He returned to Ireland in 1871 and joined Parnell’s Home Rule party. He was elected M.P. for Clare in 1879 and again in 1885, and for Carlow in 1887.
Mahon was the most notorious adventurer and duellist of his time. His reputation as a swashbuckling Irishman was as well known in Berlin, Paris and London as it was in Ireland, and his adventures in south America have given rise to legends about him.
James Patrick Mahon created the title “The O’Gorman Mahon” to create the impression that he was the head of the ancient Mahon clan. This was however untrue. His family were landlords in a very small way. However, this combination of his mother’s and father’s name is no doubt a fitting title for such ‘a great man’ and he is without doubt one the most colourful, infamous sons of Clare.
Mural location: Halloran’s Lane, opposite the Cinema on Parnell Street/ also opposite the blue wall plaque commemorating the birthplace of ‘The O’Gorman Mahon’. Artist: Joe Kelly (Ennis).
Harriet Smithson Berlioz: 1800 – 1854
Harriet Smithson Berlioz was born in Ennis in 1800. Her father managed a theatre in Cook’s Lane off O’Connell St. and her mother performed minor acting roles. Harriet took up acting and made her first appearance on stage at the Cron Street Theatre, Dublin.
In 1817 she went to England and although lacking in experience, attracted attention and by 1818 she was appearing in Drury Lane Theatre. It was in France, however, that she achieved great acclaim.
In Paris, as leading lady in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, she played to packed audiences which included leading celebrities of that time such as Hugo, Delacroix, Deschamps, Gautier and Dumas, and, the rising young composer, Hector Berlioz, who was not only enchanted by the play, but was later to fall in love with the leading lady. Berlioz did not try to hide his feelings. Harriet, however, did not initially return his affection and the two were not to meet again for some years. It was during this time, having failed to win her over, that Hector Belioz composed his world renowned ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ (with Harriet as his muse).
The two met some years later at a concert in Paris. This time a closer relationship developed. They were quietly married in Paris, with composer Franz Liszt as witness. The following year they moved to Montmartre where their son, Louis, was born on August 1834.
However, some years later, their marriage became strained, largely due to Harriet’s waning career. As she aged, leading lady roles started to elude her, it was also said she became jealous of her husband’s success and popularity with women. They eventually separated. Harriet began to suffer from a paralysis which left her unable to talk or move. On 3rd March 1854, Harriet, the actress who gained international renown, most notably in her role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, died. The inscription on the vault at Montmartre reads as follows:
‘Henriette Constance Berlioz Smithson, nee a Ennis en Irlande, mort a Montmartre le 3 mars 1854’
The Ennis woman, an acclaimed and accomplished actress, inspired many of Hector Berlioz’s works, including Symphonie Fantastique, Neuf Mélodies Irlandaises, La Mort d’Orphélie and Romeo et Juliette.
Mural location: Post Office Lane (off Abbey Street) Artist: Helen Lowe (Quin)
James Bartholomew Blackwell (1763–1820)
Born in Barrack Street, buried in Paris (Père Lachaise Cemetery).
James Bartholomew Blackwell was born in Barrack Street, Ennis in 1763. He was closely related to Dr Bartholomew Murray, a generous benefactor of the Irish College in Paris. At the age of eleven James left Ennis for Paris, where he entered the Collège des Lombards on a bursary funded by his late granduncle, Dr. Murray, and began ecclesiastical studies.
However, he discovered early on that he had no vocation to the priesthood, and later studied medicine at the Bicetre Hospital. He later entered military service.
Blackwell and the storming of the Bastille
According to the Irish historian and politician Richard Hayes, “Before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blackwell had associated himself with the reform party, becoming an intimate friend of Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and the other leading spirits of the clubs who helped to precipitate the insurrection of July 14th, 1789.”
On that morning twelve cannons and 40,000 muskets were seized from ‘Les Invalides’ for the new militia. The Bastille, a state prison, containing a sizeable quantity of ammunition, including 250 barrels of powder, posed an irresistible temptation.
Hayes relates that: “Early on that day of July 14th a section of the Faubourg Saint Antoine – a district noted as the nursery of Paris revolutions – chose James Bartholomew Blackwell as their leader for the attack on the Bastille. “When the attackers reached the Bastille that morning this contingent was the first to move against the formidable fortress with its 30-metre-high (98 ft) walls, its turrets and its mounted cannon.” The taking of the Bastille constituted the first great journée of the French Revolution, marking the collapse of absolute monarchy.
Mural Location: Barrack Street/ Westby’s Lane (linking Barrack St to O’Connell Street) Artist: Robert Downey (Ennis)
Tom Steele, also known as “Honest Tom Steele”, was born in Derrymore, on November 3rd, 1788, the only child of William Steele and Catherine Bridgeman.
Tom Steele received elementary classical training from Rev. Dr. Fitzgerald at Ennis Grammar School. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and Magdalene College Cambridge. He graduated with an M.A. in 1820. He was said to be one of the best Greek scholars of his day, and was also an engineer of some note having designed a more efficient type of diving bell, in which he descended off the coast of Wexford.
He was an idealist, who dreamed of romance. Attracted to Miss Matilda Crowe of Abbeyfield House, Ennis, and convinced she held similar feelings for him, despite the advice he received from his friends, he would stand or sit on a rock, now known as Steele’s Rock, on the bank on the river Fergus opposite her house. However, she never acknowledged his presence.
Unsuccessful in love he set out for Spain in 1823 to join the Spanish people in their revolt against Ferdinand VII, fighting at Cadiz and Trocedero. He later wrote an account of his Spanish activities entitled “Notes of the War in Spain”.
Upon his return to Ireland he threw himself whole heartedly into the agitation for Catholic Emancipation. Although a Protestant, he was one of the earliest members of the revived Catholic Association and became its vice-president. In 1828 he seconded Daniel O’Connell’s nomination for Clare against Vesey Fitzgerald. Steele’s position as a Protestant and a landlord made him particularly valuable to O’Connell. In that election O’Connell defeated Fitzgerald by 1,820 votes to 842 votes. The first round in the fight for Catholic Emancipation was won and Tom Steele had a major part in the victory.
Tom Steele was an eccentric. He often dressed as an undertaker and drove a hearse drawn by six black-plumed horses. He generally carried a coffin marked “Repeal” in the hearse when he attended political rallies. His trousers, often mud-spattered, scarcely came halfway below his knees. Occasionally he would stop on the streets of Ennis and address a speech to his followers, to which they would loudly cheer and applaud.
Tom Steele toured the country encouraging the people to unite. He addressed hundreds of after-mass meetings. He had a total disregard for the value of money and his involvement in politics meant his financial ruin. His transparent sincerity earned him the name “Honest Tom Steele.”
By 1847, when his great friend Daniel O’ Connell died, Ireland was a country of fever and famine. Tom Steele was broken-hearted and penniless. Under great strain in London in 1848 he threw himself into the Thames off Waterloo Bridge. He was rescued and taken to Peel’s Coffee House in Fleet Street. He died a few days later on June 15th, 1848.
“Honest Tom Steele” is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, beside his life-long friend, Daniel O’Connell. A tribute to him in the London Standard read – “Fare thee well, noble, honest Tom Steele! A brave spirit in a gentler heart never left earth”.
Mural location: Eamon De Valera Park (to the fore of The Court House).by artist Rachel McManus (the mural wraps around a large services box)