Ceremonial saddle, from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to President Eamon de Valera, 1972

The Gaddafi saddle, 1972

The Gaddafi saddle, 1972

The National Museum of Ireland has a gathering of wildly diverse objects within its historical and decorative collections – The Presidential Collection.  These items are a selection of the gifts presented to the Irish President from both visiting foreign dignitaries and national organisations since the foundation of the State, the earliest items relating to Douglas Hyde.

Ethics in Public Office regulations state that gifts over a certain value (currently set at €500) received by a servant of the Irish State remain the property of the Irish State.

While most gifts remain in Áras an Uachtaráin as state property, a selection was transferred to the museum in the early 1990s, including a recent gift – a rug given to President Patrick Hillery (1976-1990) by Saddam Hussein.

However, the gift that took my interest is the ceremonial horse saddle presented by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to President Eamon de Valera in 1972, at the height of The Troubles and arms smuggling from Libya into Northern Ireland.

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The gift is comprised of a saddle, a bridle, riding whip and saddle cloth, all elaborately decorated in the traditional North African style. Sporting a leather seat and harness laced with silver embroidery designs, coloured stitching and silver stirrups attached from red leather straps, the saddle rests on a wool blanket, providing some comfort for the horse, which is also decorated in traditional style with a coloured leather patch and multi-coloured wool pom-poms.

 

 

 

 

Saddle cloth, Saddle saddle, 1972

The saddle cloth is bordered with gold embroidery and fringe, with blue and silver designs on a field of rich red. The set was gifted with a matching bridle and riding whip. Such saddles are handmade by artisans who pass the skill from generation to generation, and were widely used at occasions such as weddings and horse racing competitions as well as official state ceremonies.

 

While the gifting of a traditional emblem of the visiting dignitary’s country to the host country is a very common custom worldwide, it is the circumstances and timing of this gift from Libya to Ireland that makes the saddle intriguing, as is revealed in the official state papers from 1972 held by the National Archives.

de Valera 1973 RTE

President Eamon de Valera, 1973 (RTÉ)

By 1972 Éamon de Valera had already led a long life in Irish politics. He had been a leader in the recruitment of men to the Irish Volunteers in the Irishtown and Donnybrook area from 1914, the commander of the Boland’s Mills Garrison during the 1916 Rising, narrowly escaping execution by the British authorities, a leading figure in the War of Independence, President of Dáil Éireann and the leader of the anti-Treaty forces during the Irish Civil War. He founded a new republican party – Fianna Fáil – in 1926), and was the President of the Executive Council and Taoiseach of Ireland four times from 1932 to 1959. He was later elected as President of Ireland – the non-political figurehead – from 1959 to 1973, retiring at age 90.

 

Muammar_Gaddafi,_1973 (PD Libya. The Telegraph)

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, 1973 (Public Domain Libya. The Telegraph)

Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi, known simply as Colonel Gaddafi, was born in 1942 to a Bedouin family near Sirte, west of Tripoli on the Mediteranean coast. He was a political activist from an early age, and having decided a career in the military would best serve his political ambitions, he attended the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi and later in England.

In 1964 he had established a revoluntionary cell within the Libyan Army – the Free Officers’ Movement – which Gaddafi led to overthrow the monarchical government in a coup in 1969 to establish the Libyan Arab Republic, based on the principles of ‘freedom, socialism and unity’ and led, essentially, by Gaddafi himself. He and his Revolutionary Command Council began a series of reforms to bring Libya in line with the revolution; such reforms included stimulating economic growth such as the agricultural sector production, free health care and a reassertion of women’s equality in Libyan society, though they also included retaining a ban on political parties, banning trade unions and workers’ strikes and suppressing the press. The intellectual classes were imprisoned, and many fled Libya’s new regime, some settling in Ireland as refugees.

Libya’s main export was oil. Gaddafi claimed the trade agreements regarding its sale were unfavourable to Libya and began to control its production, leading to a rise in oil prices worldwide, leading to an inevitable increase in tensions between Libya and the Western nations over the next decades, despite Libya’s efforts to build diplomatic relations.

In March 1972 Galal Daghely, the Libyan ambassador to West Germany, was officially in Ireland to meet with a foreign trade committee, and requested to meet President de Valera.  This request was turned down, as it was felt that the purpose of such a meeting was to start the process of establishing an official diplomatic presence in the Republic of Ireland. However, on St Patrick’s Day, Daghely contacted Áras an Uachtaráin saying he had a gift from Colonel Gaddafi to President de Valera, and there would be great disappointment if it were not accepted. The Áras agreed to a short meeting to receive the gift, on the condition that the meeting not be publicised and the visit not be seen as part of an official programme.

 

Bridle, Gaddafi saddle, 1972

De Valera wrote to Colonel Gaddafi shortly after the meeting saying ‘Recently I had the pleasure of receiving his Excellency the Libyan Ambassador in Bonn, Mr Galal Daghely, who had expressed a wish to call on me during his visit to Dublin. On that occasion, he delivered to me the saddle, bridle and riding whip which your Excellency so kindly sent to me. For this gift, which richly reflects Arab skill and handicraft, I wish to convey to your Excellency my sincere thanks. In expressing my appreciation of your kindness, may I add my good wishes for your personal well-being.’

 

 

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‘Irish Republican Army’, the words in the shape of an AK-47 rifle. Mural at Springhill Park, Strabane. Copyright Peter Moloney. https://tinyurl.com/ya83jl3n

Áras an Uachtaráin was likely to have been very relieved that the meeting to receive a simple gift had not been known publically when, the following year, the Irish Naval Service intercepted the cargo ship Claudia off Helvick Head in Co. Waterford and found it to be transporting a 5 ton arsenal of AK-47s and Semtex explosive to Northern Ireland for use by the Provisional I.R.A. This shipment had been arranged by I.R.A. chief Joe Cahill with the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli in late 1972.  Libya became a major supplier of arms into Northern Ireland over the next decades, providing rifles, machine guns, handguns, explosives and even RPG-7 rocket launchers into the late 1980s.

 

Gaddafi waves to a crowd as he rides a horse during a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the eviction of Italians from Libya. 1976(AP)

Gaddafi waves to a crowd as he rides a horse during a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the eviction of Italians from Libya, 1976 (AP)

Gaddafi never made any secret of his country’s role in supplying the arms to the I.R.A., seeing it as a fight against the colonialism he himself hated (Libya having been occupied by Italy from 1911 to 1947, when Italy lost its colonial territories under the Treaty of Peace with Italy after World War II).

 

After a bombing campaign in Britain in 1976, Gaddafi publically stated that the bombs used were Libyan bombs in retaliation for past deeds, and refused to state that he would stop sending arms to Northern Ireland.

 

For some years there were few political consequences for Gaddafi’ regime; the Irish Government decided in 1973 that taking official action over the arms risked provoking the regime into increasing their activities and providing more arms to the north.

There were also trade concerns regarding oil supply to the West. Great Britain did not break off relations with Libya until the 1984 shooting of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, who was on duty when she was killed by a bullet fired from the Libyan Embassy in London during an anti-Gaddafi protest.  Soon afterwards the US retaliated against the bombing of a Berlin disco in which an American soldier was killed with an air raid on Tripoli, killing over a hundred people. In 1988 the Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the death of 270 people caused the UN to impose sanctions on the Gaddafi Regime until 1999, when the Lockerbie bombing suspects were returned to Britain for trial. Gaddafi remained in power until the revolution of 2011, with his forces turning on the citizens who stood against them, eventually leading NATO to intervene on the side of the rebels.  Gaddafi went into hiding but was killed outside Sirte, his birthplace, ending his 42 year rule.

 

Colonel Gaddafi and Dom Mintoff (Times of Malta)

Colonel Gaddafi and Dom Mintoff (Times of Malta)

 

Mintoff saddle Matthew Mirabelli

Saddle presented to Dom Mintoff, Prime Minister of Malta, 1970s. (Photo Matthew Mirabelli)

The saddle gifted to de Valera and the Irish State was not unique. A similar saddle had been presented to Malta’s Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in the 1970s before relations with the West soured. Mintoff was later asked by Gaddafi to aid him in a purchase of a nuclear submarine, which he refused. On close inspection of the photograph of Mintoff’s saddle, one can see that the decorative saddle cloth is the same design as the one presented to Ireland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaddafi at his luxurious Bedouin tent near Tripoli after sanctions were lifted, 2007 (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire URN:9889966 (Press Association via AP Images)

Gaddafi also presented a saddle to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in March 2007, after their meeting in a Bedouin tent in the desert outside Tripoli. This meeting was part of the re-building of relations, with Libya having disarmed itself of weapons of mass destruction. BP Oil Chairman Peter Sutherland, who was also at the meeting in the desert, announced the signing of a new deal to the value of st£13 billion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both the Malta and UK saddles were sold at auction in the last few years.

The Gaddafi saddle in the National Museum of Ireland will remain in our collections as an artefact of a complex and multi-layered history.

3198 (16) copy

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The IRA ‘Big Gun’ and the Death of Matt Furlong, 1920

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Arming the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence was not an easy task; weapons, particularly modern ones, were not readily available. In the countryside shotguns were common, as most farmers owned one. The IRA also gathered firearms such as rifles, even Lewis machine guns, and ammunition from the many raids conducted on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks around the country. Arms were also smuggled into Ireland. In 1921 Harry Boland ordered over 650 Thompson machine guns (made iconic by the US Mafia during the 1920s and 1930s) from America, and though most were intercepted on the docks in New York, some did make it to Ireland via Liverpool in England.

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Such weapons made little impact on the armoured vehicles of the British Forces however, or the strong walls of barracks buildings, and heavier guns were necessary. Unable to acquire them, the IRA turned to improvising weapons to serve their needs. This home made ‘big gun’, or mortar, designed to fire mortar bombs at short-range targets, was described as the only piece of such artillery used by the Irish during the War of Independence when it was donated to the museum in 1937.

The story of this mortar is an interesting insight into the making of improvised munitions during the War of Independence, but it is also a tragedy which led to the death of Matthew Furlong.

Matthew Furlong (from irishmedals.org)The Furlongs of 19 South Main Street, Wexford town, had a Fenian family tradition. Matt and his brother Joseph were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) from 1908. He apprenticed as an engineer in the Wexford Engineering Company, but due to the labour wars and lockouts in Wexford in 1911 he and Joseph moved to London where they transferred to the London I.R.B., joining the same centre as Michael Collins. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in Ireland in November 1913, companies were also formed in the Irish centres in England. The Furlongs joined, and just after Christmas 1915, received word from Collins to quit their jobs in London and relocate to Dublin to prepare for the Rising. Matt and Joseph fought with G Coy, 2nd Battalion at Jacob’s Factory during the 1916 Rising, and were interned in Frongoch Camp in Wales until December 1916. They returned to Ireland and their home at 70 Seville Place, Dublin, took employment (with Matt working for a time at the National Shell Factory on Parkgate Street during the war years) and resumed their activities in the I.R.A.  Matt’s trade would prove useful, his engineering knowledge led to his involvement with the setting up of an underground munitions factory in 1918 by Michael Lynch of the Fingal Brigade, who had been charged with the task by Dick McKee.

The munitions factory was established in the basement of 198 Parnell Street, underneath the bicycle shop of Heron & Lawless; Archie Heron was Lynch’s Vice-Commandant and Joseph Lawless an Engineer Officer, both of the Fingal Brigade.

A munitions factory making hand grenades at Bailieboro, Co. Cavan

The munitions factory was fully equipped, including a forge and a lathe. It was here that they made the iron exterior bodies of hand grenades, based on the pattern of German egg grenades, and the brass fittings for the fuses, which were transported to another location to be filled with explosive and finished.

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp, 1921 (NMI Collection)Lawless was arrested in a raid on the bicycle shop by British Forces in May 1919, and afterwards felt that because of his connection with the premises it would be more closely watched. In order to keep the profile of the building low and protect the factory, he sold his interests to Lynch. Archie Heron had already left the business some time before. By June Lawless had set up a separate business renting cars, which was also used to provide car transport to Volunteer raid parties, and munitions became the sole business of 198 Parnell Street. (The story of Joseph Lawless’ later internment in the Rath Camp in 1921 can be found in a previous blog post here).

During mid 1920 it had been decided that there was a need for a portable heavy gun to aid in Barracks attacks, and work began on an experimental mortar. G.H.Q. Munitions branch decided to attempt to replicate the British Stokes, or Trench, mortar which had been produced during the latter part of WWI.

PSM_V92_D055_Stokes_mortar_for_trench_warfare_2 (Wikimedia)

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

Artillery of this type is smooth bore rather than rifled, and used to propel explosive shells at a high angle towards targets with a much greater explosive capacity then a hand grenade. Matt and Joe Furlong undertook the task, although detailed drawings and instructions were not available.

When the mortar was complete in October 1920, testing began. Experiments with dummy shells were successful, a test site in Co. Meath was selected, and Matt Furlong, Peadar Clancy, Tom Young, Sean O’Sullivan and Patrick McHugh began the trial, with Matt as the operator. Difficulties arose with the firing of live shells, and adjustments were planned. Another trial at Kells took place where, after a number of tests, Matt decided to use a live shell which fired but landed unexploded. After further adjustment another shell was tested; this time it exploded inside the base of the mortar, blowing off the bottom half of the cylinder. Matt Furlong was very badly wounded, particularly along the left hand side of his body which had been closest to the mortar. He was brought to the Mater Hospital where his left leg was amputated, but he later died of his injuries at the age of 28.

IRA 'Big Gun', October 1920 (NMI Collection, EWT.401)

With the loss of the mortar, the munitions factory at 198 Parnell Street, still operating under the name of ‘Heron and Lawless’, concentrated on grenade manufacture. It was eventually shut down by the Auxiliaries in December 1920, when it was accidentally discovered during a raid next door. The building that housed the munitions factory is now the location of King’s Inn House, beside the Parnell Centre.

British soldiers, two Auxiliaries and a DMP constable at the Heron and Lawless premises at 198 Parnell Street after the raid. (http://www.standingwellback.com/home/2014/12/30/ira-improvised-munitions-1919-1922.html)

The ‘big gun’ itself was hidden in the River Tolka for some years before it was recovered by John Connell of Lustown, Co. Meath, after his release from Arbour Hill Prison. He and Padraig O Huigin later deposited it in the National Museum of Ireland in 1937 for display in its 20th Anniversary exhibition in Kildare Street. It remains the only known example of an IRA Big Gun.

View of "1916" exhibition sign, central court, Kildare Street, 1941. Shot from the balcony looking towards the first floor stairway (from glass plate negative DF5406, NMI Collection)

View of “1916” exhibition sign, central court, Kildare Street, 1941. Shot from the balcony looking towards the first floor stairway (from glass plate negative DF5406)