The History Show

The History Show

Sunday, 6pm

The History Show Sunday 16 February 2014

The History Show

The History Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past

Fethard Lifeboat Disaster

The Fethard Lifeboat Disaster claimed the lives of 9 local men and one Norwegan 100 years ago this week. In a brief respite from last week’s storms, Orla Rapple travelled to the village of Fethard in Co. Wexford to hear this story of bravery and tragedy.   

 Helen Blake Lifeboat

On Friday, 20 February, 1914, a Norwegian schooner, The Mexico with a crew of ten went aground off the Keeragh Islands off the Wexford Coast. Within a short time, the Fethard Lifeboat was at the scene - but it was lashed by a mighty wave and smashed to pieces. Nine of the fourteen crew members perished while their five remaining companions and the crew of The Mexico clung to nearby rocks. And this was the beginning of a three day ordeal for the survivors and the local communities who attempted to rescue them. Author, Liam Ryan and Brian Murphy from the Rosslare Lifeboat Memorial Committee took up the story. 

Crew of Tug Boat Wexford

 The Cullen Family 

Dunmore Lifeboat


 Rosslare Fort Crew

The James Stevens  


Survivors of the Fethard Lifeboat

 James Wickham

Commemorative Events - Fethard

Friday 21 February  

8.oopm in St Mary’s Hall Fethard on Sea

Lecture By Liam Ryan On the Tragedy of the Helen Blake Lifeboat

Followed By a concert where local singers and great great grandchildren of the Helen Blake crew will  sing the songs written about the loss of the Fethard lifeboat crew. The Hooks and Crooks will sing Sea-Shantys from Waterford.

Saturday 22 February

Weather Permitting.

Kilmore, Dunmore, Rosslare and Fethard lifeboats will meet at Fethard Dock at 10.00.

They will proceed to the Keeragh Islands to lay wreaths at  sea on behalf of the relatives and the RNLI.

2.00pm  A procession from the new boathouse in Fethard to the monument where an ecumenical service will take place at 2.30 pm and relatives will lay wreaths at the monument.

The Norwegian. Ambassador will also lay a wreath as will relatives of Captain Eriksen. 

  William Duggan

 Commemorative Events - Rosslare 

For over thirty years, the Trustees of the Lifeboat Memorial in The Burrow, Rosslare, County Wexford, have laid a wreath in memory of those who lost their lives at sea.

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the “Mexico” disaster which the monument commemorates. During this heroic rescue nine lifeboat men from the Fethard lifeboat and one crew member from the Norwegian schooner “Mexico” lost their lives.

On the 23rd of February 2014 at 3pm the trustees are laying a wreath at The Burrow.

There will be a photographic and memorabilia exhibition in association with Rosslare Maritime Enthusiasts, highlighting the rescue of the “Mexico” and the “Fort” settlement, which disappeared into the sea in 1920’s.

The exhibition will be held in Scoil Mhuire National School, Rosslare, on Saturday 22nd February, between 12noon and 7pm and again on Sunday 23rd February, between 10am and 5pm. All are welcome.

Go Ye Must film at Kelly’s Hotel on Tuesday at 8pm 


 Monument to the people who lost their lives 

Members of the crew of

the lifeboat “Helen Blake” who lost their lives

 Christopher Bird (Cox)

William Bird

Thomas Handrick (Bowman)

James Morrissey,

Michael Handrick

Patrick Butler

William Banville

Patrick Roche

Patrick Cullen

Antonio Live, a Portuguese subject, and a member of the crew of the three-mastered schooner “Mexico” died on the South Keragh Island from exposure to the weather. 

Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient World

Despite the protests of animal rights activists, animal sacrifice is still prevalent in many parts of the world.   This involves the ritual killing of an animal to appease the Gods. Such forms of sacrifice are practised in many religions around the world and have appeared historically in almost all cultures.   Dr. Suzanne O’Neill from the Department of Classics with Trinity College Dublin discussed this practice and how  someone living in Roman time have been surprised at the modern outrage against blood sacrifice. 

Blood sacrifice was at the heart of Greek and Roman religion. For the most part, without butchery there could be no piety. In fact if a Greek or Roman found any fault with the scene it may have been the strange lack of provision for butchery in the garden of the said house and the lack of an altar in that garden. Also, they would have wondered why the blood was allowed to be wasted down a drain and not collected and poured on the altar!

Each animal was offered to a deity for a specific purpose with the hope of a reasonable return. Ancient Greek religion was not about love or warm altruistic feelings for a deity; rather, it was about a relationship or contract between unequals, where the human hopes for some sort of good or advantageous reciprocity for his (or her) offerings to the powerful god. Also, the Greek gods were not paragons of virtue (as the gods of Christianity and the other great monotheistic religions are) Greek gods were lustful and vengeful and ancient mythology tell us that many of them indulged in rape and murder!


There is plenty of historical or textual evidence for animal sacrifice in the ancient world, and the great works of Epic and Tragedy from ancient Greece also tell us about the possible practice of human sacrifice.

There is a remarkably full description of animal sacrifice in Homer’s Odyssey, which dates from around 700 BC. In book 3 of the Odyssey, Homer describes the sacrifice of a cow by Nestor in honour of the goddess Athena. This description corresponds closely with what we know was the general ritual of all animal sacrifice in ancient Greece.

Firstly, the animal was chosen, and because the gods rejoiced in splendid gifts, the animal had to be undamaged had most importantly, it also had to be domesticated. The victim (animal) was then adorned with ribbons and garlands and if it was horned – sometimes these would be covered with gold - depending on the wealth of those making the offering.

The sacrificers (priests and attendants etc) would then bath and put on festive white clothes and often wore wreaths.

There was then a procession to the cult place and the altar. At the front of the procession there was usually a young girl who walked with a bucket on her head – this contained the sacrificial knife which was covered with barley groats or corn. Other sacrificial assistants carried jugs of lustral or holy water. Male adolescents then led the animal victim along – while pipers played music to dictate the walking rhythm.

When the procession reached the altar the chief sacrificer (priest or magistrate for public sacrifices – the father of the house for private sacrifices) would then wash his hands in the holy water and sprinkle some water on the attendants and the sacrificial animal in a purification ritual. The animal victim had to be seen to acquiesce – or nod – it was imperative that the animal appeared to WANT to be sacrificed. As such, the sprinkling of lustral or holy water also served as a practical reason as this often made the animal nod – big animals were often given a drink – and this served as the nod of approval! The barley groats were then thrown on the altar and the sacrificial knife revealed.

A few hairs were cut from the animals head and thrown in to the fire on the altar. Large animals were then stunned with a blow to the head - before their heads were lifted towards heaven and their throats slit. At this moment the women present let out a scream known as the sacrifice cry. This ecstatic release of emotion broke the tension. A bowl was used to catch the blood and it was placed on the altar. In the case of small animals, they were held over the altar as their throats were cut and their blood poured on to the altar. 

Different animals were sacrificed to different gods.   This is true for both the Greek and Roman world. Firstly, there was an economic hierarchy of animals, an ox or a cow were the most expensive form of sacrifice, followed by pigs, sheep, goats, rams and piglets. One of the cheapest animals that could be offered to the gods was a cockerel or chicken. White cockerels were a common form of sacrifice to the healing god Asklepios – they were generally offered in the hope for having a pain free death and the philosopher Socrates most famously shouted on his death bed (after being forced to drink hemlock) “a cockerel for Asklepios!” The grandest form of sacrifice was the hecatomb – which was a hundred bulls or cows.

The animal victims were often chosen to match the sex of the deity and (as I said before) they were always domesticated animals. According to the Roman rite in particular all male gods received castrated male victims (except for Mars Neptune and Janus) and goddesses received female victims. In principle, deities of the upper world, such as Jupiter (Zeus) and Juno(Hera), received white victims whilst those of the lower world, such as Hades or Pluto received victims with dark coats. The god Vulcan (Hephaistos in Greek) who was associated with metal working and fire – was offered red haired animals.

Once the animal was killed it was time to skin the victim and carve it up. Generally, the two thigh bones were taken out and all the meat removed from them – they were then wrapped in fat and then burnt on the altar as an offering to the gods. In addition to the thigh bones and fat, the gods also received the gall bladder and tail – if the tail curled up in the fire, it was a sign that the gods were best pleased. The rest of the meat (the good lean meat) was then cooked and eaten by the participants in the sacrifice. In the cases of a huge sacrifice, for instance a hecatomb (100 bulls) offered at a great festival, meat was also distributed to bystanders and the public. Much ink has been spilt over exactly how much meat the citizen body would actually receive at a great public sacrifice, but it is significant that the humans got the best part of animal

Despite the fact that the sacrifice was in honour of the gods, they got the poor meat portions of the sacrificed animal (the bones, fat and tail)

The Greeks explained and justified this division of the meat with the legend of Prometheus, the man who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans. Interestingly, Prometheus was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’ novel about Frankenstein. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a great friend to mankind, and when the gods and men first dined together, he butchered and prepared a bull for cooking and then divided the portions into two piles. In the first bigger pile, he concealed the bones under the fat and the second smaller pile contained the lean meat. Prometheus asked Zeus, the head god, which pile he wanted, Zeus was tricked and chose the larger pile which contained the bones! Angry at this deception, Zeus then decreed that mankind would never know the secret of FIRE to cook his food. Prometheus waited till Zeus was asleep and stole the spark of fire and gave it to humans – from thenceforth humans had both fire and the best portions of meat from the sacrifice!

Prometheus was tied to a rock for eternity and by day an eagle would rip out his liver. At night the liver would grow back – only for it to be torn out again next day! The Prometheus myth has been an inspiration for so many fantastic paintings, plays and films throughout history (we mentioned Mary Shelley before) also, there was a sci- fi film last year about the origin of man, and yes, it is entitled Prometheus!

There is plenty of literary evidence of the Greeks indulging in human sacrifice in Homer, Greek tragedy and Greek mythology to say they did. Most famously, Iphigeneia – a young princess who was sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon so that the goddess Artemis would provide the ‘fair wind’ to carry the Greek fleet to attack Troy! She had her throat slit and a lock of her hair was thrown into the fire on the altar before the sacrifice, just as happened with animal sacrifice.

Archaeological or material evidence for human sacrifice in ancient Greece is problematic and rare - and they do not appear to have been sacrificing humans on a regular basis – if it did happen it would seem to have been an exceptional or remarkable act.

Interestingly, archaeological remains of a human sacrifice have been discovered in Crete, in a small temple in the the mountains above Heraklion. This evidence dates from the Bronze Age (c.1700 BC) – the skeleton of a young man was found lying on an altar with his feet bound and a sacrificial knife resting on his chest area. Other bodies (possibly the priest and an attendant) were found nearby. There had been an earthquake as the sacrifice was performed and the whole episode was frozen in time and left undisturbed for millennia - until archaeologists excavated the site at Anemospilia (cave of the winds)in the late 1970s.

This upset some people at the time because there was a school of thought which, unsurprisingly, did not like to think that the founders of so much of our European culture, democracy, law, philosophy, reason etc etc indulged in human sacrifice – it was ok for other world cultures to have indulged in human sacrifice (tribes in Africa, various civilisations in South America – and even the pagan northern Europeans in ancient Briton and Ireland)but certainly not the ancient Greeks! 

In a sense, the Greeks still pracitce animal sacrifice.  For instance, every year on the Island of Lesbos a bull is sacrificed. It is adorned with garlands and ribbons and paraded around the street in a musical procession. Men touch its horns for virility (spiritual Viagra i call this!) and then the bull is taken to the Christian church were the Greek orthodox priest blesses the animal. At this point the animal is then killed by modern abattoir methods, once butchered the meat is then cooked in pots overnight. The next day the beef is eaten by the people of the village in a communal feast.

Churching New Mothers

Churching is a blessing that was given to new mothers following childbirth.   It dates back to early Christian times and was abolished after Vatican II. The idea was that it allowed the “unclean” woman to re-enter the church in "a state of grace".  Historian, Lisa Marie Griffith joined Myles to talk about the history of churching. 

Churching - A Backgound

This ceremony was called ‘The thanksgiving of women after childbirth’ but became known more commonly as ‘churching’.

The church saw it as a way of thanking god for the safe delivery of women from childbirth and the ceremony was for the woman exclusively, rather than the child.

As soon as a woman was fit to leave the house she would undertake the ceremony with the local priest. The ceremony was enacted in church, away from the congregation and consisted of the priest reciting a prayer of thanks while the woman kneeled at the altar. She held a candle and the priest sprinkled holy water, in the form of a cross on her.

Although the church emphasised that the ceremony was one of thanksgiving, women could not receive communion or attend a mass again until they had undergone the ceremony so it was something that every catholic woman who gave birth in wedlock undertook (the ceremony could also be seen as the church recognising that the child had been born into a recognised Catholic marriage). The woman should not stay away for longer than 6 weeks but the time was usually shorter than this.

Churching came from a Jewish tradition and in the bible when Mary presents Jesus at the synagogue and is ‘purified’ after giving birth, her sin was being washed away. It was practiced in several religions including the Anglican faith and Eastern church. The church influenced every part of people’s lives in the past and there is a suggestion that women sought this ceremony and enjoyed it. 

 The practice of churching became the ceremony is linked with the purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The male church is imposing a ‘purification’ on a woman who has undertaken a natural, and necessary act. The problem with the ceremony was that it was linked with the idea that to have sex, even within a marriage, was sinful. After giving birth the woman must undertake this ceremony, not a man. The woman’s act of giving birth is sinful! During the ceremony the priest said ‘save this woman’ and the our father is performed which says ‘deliver us from evil’ so there is a strong message that the woman has done something sinful.

After giving birth women were not supposed to involve themselves in certain chores like cooking. Although this may seem like a welcome break, especially after the ardours of birth, this practice was really saying that women were so unclean that they could not perform day to day tasks!

This is not dictated by the church, rather imposed by society but it highlights the extent to which church teaching influenced every day beliefs and traditions.


The ceremony was performed until the second Vatican council (1965-67). The second Vatican council was aimed at updating the church and bringing it in line with modern practices. The role of women had changed greatly and throughout the 60s and 70s the rights of women grew and society moved towards equality. The Catholic Church had not kept in line with that. Women were usually the one’s who passed religion to their children and it was seen as important that they were not isolated. 

 Drama On One Sunday 16th February

 The Churching of Happy Cullen

Written by Louise Lewis and Simon Manahan

This atmospheric, thought provoking piece centres on one woman’s struggle amidst the poverty of 1913 tenement life in Dublin.  

Tragedy strikes and Happy Cullen is left waiting to be churched.   In her liminal state Happy, suspended in a moment battles with and entertains ghosts of past and present in order to step over the threshold and ultimately  to continue into her future.

The Churching of Happy Cullen  was initially presented as a work in progress as part of ‘The Theatre Machine Turns You On: Volume 3’ and as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival 2013 directed by Simon Manahan.

Performed by Louise Lewis

 The Radio Production for RTÉ Radio Drama

is directed by Gorretti Slavin

Churching’ women after childbirth made many new mothers feel ostracised


Louise Lewis co-writer of The Churching of Happy Cullen

I believe strongly in the idea that we are formed by our past, so I tried to understand how the practise of churching in 1913 Ireland affected the women cleansed of the ‘sin’ of childbirth, writes Louise Lewis.

ALL THROUGH MY childhood I was told stories of how my family and the many generations before us lived in the tenements, and how the strength of the women at this time was what held families together in what at times were horrific conditions.

So, for a long time, I wanted to create a one woman theatre piece based around life in 1913 Tenement Dublin with a strong emphasis on physical theatre as a means of storytelling.

Collecting stories of my grandmother was the beginning of this journey. Our family history is rooted in the Dominic Street tenements, and the research I and my co-writer, Simon Manahan, conducted both through the national archive and in family interviews brought us to the creation of our character, Happy Cullen.

Myself and Simon’s exploration of the lives of women in the tenements introduced us to the difficulties of their daily lives from unemployment to child mortality, hunger, disease and abject poverty as well as introducing us to the idea of the ‘churching’ of women after childbirth.

The ‘sin’ of childbirth was washed away

From the point of view of knowing nothing about the ‘churching’ of women it became apparent to us, through our research, that this was a practice that sat uneasy with some of the women at the time and in doing so fuelled our imaginations as theatre makers. The fact that in 2012/2013 few of our generation knew of the practice of ‘churching’ this became the catalyst for the telling of Happy’s story, and that of so many Irish women throughout the following decades.

Churching’ refers to a blessing that mothers were given following recovery from childbirth. After remaining at home for 4-6 weeks after giving birth, the woman would go to church where she would thank God for the safe delivery of her child and receive a blessing from the priest.

Only married women were eligible for the blessing. They were to be appropriately dressed, and would carry a lighted candle. The priest would then mark the woman with the sign of the cross in holy water.

Churching is thought to derive from a Jewish purification rite, where the sin of childbirth was washed away. Many people considered that childbirth made a woman unholy or unclean because it resulted from sexual activity; sexual abstinence and virginity being equated to holiness. People considered the purification rite, or rite of churching to be very important as it allowed the ‘unclean’ woman to re-enter the church in a ‘state of grace’.

The rite was dropped by the Catholic Church after the second Vatican Council of 1967-65.

The stigma of being labelled as ‘tainted’

I know there are a lot of women who enjoyed the ceremony of ‘churching’ and saw it as a “thanksgiving ceremony of women after childbirth” and I respect that but for some that really was not the case.

A lot of women we interviewed and testimonies we read from the early 1900s to the 1970s of practising Catholic women, did not support the ceremony or the idea of being ‘churched’.

A lot of them felt the stigma of being labelled as ‘tainted’ or ‘dirty’ after going through an often difficult but the no less life-affirming joy of childbirth as something that affected them for the rest of their lives. Their questioning of it was often ignored by family members or neighbours if they dared vocalise it at all.

Testimonies from the early part of the 1900s where women talked of feeling ostracised from everyone until they were churched, for they were not allowed to ‘even pick up a knife to prepare food as they would taint it’. Some felt over time this distanced them from their faith.

We are formed by our past, so we must understand it

As theatre makers we were drawn to the stories of the women who struggled with this ceremony and we set about staging that struggle so as to provide space for a modern audience to interrogate that. It is the fictional story of a woman struggling through a difficult situation in 1913 while waiting to be ‘churched’, this is just part of her story.

The stories we’ve collected over the years from family members and other sources had one thing in common the spirit and strength of the women of this time was inspiring. The challenges they faced on a daily basis did not defeat them, if anything from my knowledge of them, it pushed them on.

I believe strongly in the idea that we are formed by our past, and in trying to understand who we are now and in order to move forward we must look to these; the personal stories of who we are and not allow them to be forgotten.

Viola Organista

Almost five hundred years after his death, the ideas of Leonardo Da Vinci continue to inspire painters, engineers and even musicians.  In recent months, a Polish musician gave the first public performance of a musical instrument he built based on a design by Da Vinci as we heard from Lorcan Clancy. 


 The Viola Organista

By Lorcan Clancy

Listening to the Viola Organista, you could be forgiven for thinking that what you hear is the performance of a string quartet.

In fact, there's just one performer on stage.  He's playing a keyboard instrument that looks a bit like a Baby Grand Piano. 

The instrument's design is based on a sketch from one of Leonardo Da Vinci's many surviving manuscripts.  The sketch appears in the Codex Atlanticus, a twelve volume set of his writings and drawings.  

Da Vinci's 13,000 pages of journals and notebooks are a great insight into his inner world.   His writings include everything from shopping lists to designs for flying machines. 

His notebooks are difficult to read.  Most of them are written backwards, in Da Vinci's distinctive mirror script. 

He was a prolific inventor.  His drawings include plans for primitive helicopters, diving bells, and even robots. 

The creator of the Viola Organista is a Polish musician named Slawomir Zubrzycki.  He spent three years building it, basing the design on the diagrams and description from Da Vinci's notebooks.  

The way the Viola Organista works is a bit different from other keyboard instruments.  In a piano, pressing the keys cause hammers to fly up and strike steel strings, producing the sound.

Inside the Viola Organista, four spinning wheels wrapped in horse hair are kept in constant motion by a foot pedal. 

When the keys are pressed, it moves the strings themselves into contact with the rotating wheels, creating the effect of a bow moving across the strings of a cello, or violin. 


Fanny Jennings

Regan Hutchins uncovered the story of his aristocratic neighbour in Dublin's Stoneybatter - Fanny Jennings. She lived at the apex of the Stuart Court in London but ended her days impoverished and in retreat with the Poor Clare sisters of North King St.


The Story of Fanny Jennings

by Regan Hutchins

 In 1730 an 81 year old widow died in a small convent on Dublin’s North King St. Her body was taken, across the river and to St Patrick’s Cathedral.  I cycle along that street every day on my way into town and can no longer do so without thinking of Fanny Jennings, the Duchess of Tyrconnell, our widow in question.

Born in England, Fanny was a famed beauty at the Royal Court there. She was a fun-loving wilful girl who once disguised herself as a fruit seller only to be discovered by her expensive shoes.

In 1681, Fanny married Richard Talbot. He was her second husband and a favourite of King James II who styled Talbot, the Duke of Tyrconnell. He was appointed viceroy of Ireland and the couple moved to a house on North King St, then a fashionable Dublin residence. Even the King visited them there.

However, fortunes rose and fell like stockings in those times, and Fanny Jennings didn’t escape misery. King James’ fall at the Battle of the Boyne, also toppled Tyrconnell who died of apoplexy. Fanny was thrust into poverty and exile. She was alienated from her family, stripped of her title, exhausted by the times, I’m sure, and with no one to care for her some historians say she gave the Duke’s house over to the nuns of Poor Clare and lived with them there, until they found her one morning, dead on her bedroom floor.

I have read conflicting accounts saying her house was elsewhere in Dublin, not on North King St. and that Fanny Jennings lived and died there and not with the nuns. Allow me my story though. It adds romance to a bike ride, recalling to life this lonely duchess in her convent and, who knows, this version might even be true. 


Holocaust Memorial Lecture

The Annual Holocaust Memorial Lecture at TCD 

on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Guest Speaker:  Dr Renée Poznanski (Ben Gurion University)

Topic:  Being Jewish in World War Two France

Time: 7:30pm

Venue: TCD, Arts Building, Burke Theatre

About The Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past.

We want to help explain ourselves to ourselves. We will search out fresh angles on familiar topics, seek out the unfamiliar and will not shy away from bizarre or controversial issues. Our ultimate goal is to make The History Show the primary port of call for those with an intense or even a modest interest in the subject. We want to entice the casual and the curious to join us in celebrating the past.

Our aim is to create informative, reflective, stimulating and above all, entertaining radio.

Join us on Sundays from 6.05pm for The History Show with Myles Dungan on RTÉ Radio 1.

A Pegasus production for RTÉ. 



Contact the Show

Presenter: Myles Dungan

Producer: Lorcan Clancy


Ways to Listen

Radio Player