James Edmund Handley (Brother Clare).

Times Past: The Wrong Burial

It may not be Halloween quite just yet but there's a spooky air or a ghost story in the making around Jonathan Smyth's latest instalment of Times Past...

A strange occurrence took place in November 1885 after the body of a dead gentleman was retrieved from the Liffey, at Usher’s Island, Dublin. In a case of mistaken identity, the deceased was ‘positively’ identified by his sister from Cootehill and her friends, only for them to discover afterwards that he was not the same man at all.

Three weeks previous to the report in the ‘South Wales Daily News’, on December 26, 1885, the body of a respectably dressed individual was taken from the Liffey and brought to the morgue. The coroner, having assessed the remains, returned a verdict of drowning. A woman named Mrs Leddy from Cootehill who had been temporarily living at Hardwicke Street, Dublin, arrived at the morgue, identifying the deceased as her brother John McDonnell, a magistrate at Crossmaglen, Co Armagh. He had been staying with her and had mysteriously disappeared about two weeks before the discovery of the body.Adding to the confusion that later arose, was that Mr Jordan of Rathgar and Mrs Anne Bruton of Dorset Street had identified the deceased whom they wholeheartedly believed to be McDonnell. The clothes they stated were those of McDonnell, although they had some doubt about the stockings and shoes. Footwear aside, the authorities felt there was enough reason to direct that the body be handed over to Mrs Leddy.

The funeral was held, with the internment taking place afterwards at Glasnevin Cemetery, which was attended by a large circle of distraught family and friends. Some weeks later, the relatives of Mr McDonnell were to contact the police by letter to say that ‘the gentleman who was supposed to be duly interred in Glasnevin’ had suddenly turned up alive and well after his ‘premature burial’.

Not happy to be out a small fortune, Mrs Leddy wasted no time in looking for a refund of the funeral expenses, as she didn’t consider it fair to pay for a stranger’s funeral. However, she was refused a reimbursement and told that there was no ‘fund’ available in the event of such a phenomenon taking place. The true identity of the dead man remained an unsolved mystery. Some thought he may have floated in by the tide from abroad - a ‘waife from the sea’. For Mrs Leddy however, the man’s remarkable likeness to her brother caused her much grief, as well as the hefty bill incurred by the stranger’s funeral.


James Edmund Handley (Brother Clare), a prolific author of many academic books, was born in Swanlinbar in 1900. Amongst his published works was a history of Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club. By profession he was a Marist Brother, teacher and headmaster at St Mungo’s Academy, Glasgow.

When James was very young, the Handley family moved from Swanlinbar to Enniskillen, before finally emigrating to Glasgow City, Scotland. There he joined the Marist Order as a student teacher in his late teens. The Marists had established themselves in the city with a focus on the east end, where they ran several schools bearing the name of the areas’ patron saint, St Mungo.

Handley’s academic qualifications were considerable, an MA in history from the National University of Ireland, a Bsc in 1924, and a PhD from Cambridge in 1933. Handley, who became Brother Clare, as a novitiate, was sent back to his native Cavan to complete his training at the Marist Order’s house in Bailieborough. His return to Cavan may have stirred up memories of his grandfather, who being something of a legend, was known as ‘Mason of the Moy’, a Catholic JP who made his name during the Land League days. Brother Clare joined the teaching staff of St Mungo’s Academy, Glasgow in 1933.

Brother Walfrid, a fellow Marist Brother, is famed the world over for starting Glasgow’s Celtic FC, founding it for the purpose of helping to fund free ‘Sunday meals’ for the city’s impoverished parishioners. In 1960, James E. Handley wrote a history of Celtic, titled ‘The Celtic Story: a history of the Celtic Football Club’. Handley was a historian of considerable output, writing amongst others, ‘The Irish in Scotland’; ‘The Irish in Modern Scotland’; and ‘The Navvie in Scotland’.

He was appointed headmaster of St Mungo’s in 1944. And, during those years until his retirement in 1960, he still managed to produce books of high academic quality. William Murphy of the ‘Glasgow Observer’ once recalled of Handley: ‘After completing a busy work day, he would walk across Glasgow to the Mitchell Library to begin his academic labours, stopping on the way for a cup of tea and a chat at the paper’s offices in Waterton Street.’ Having spent all that time researching, it is no wonder that Andrew Bielenberg, writing in ‘The Irish Diaspora’, thought Handley’s writing to be ‘extensively and thoroughly researched’.

Handley was described in the ‘Irish Independent’ on July 16, 1958, as a man with a ‘benign and genial countenance, accompanied by his ‘scholarly shock’ of white hair. Behind the soft-spoken Cavan accent, and his easy conversation, we are reminded by the newspaper that here was a person of ‘high academic’ distinction, an eminent historian who was at the time was chairman of the Catholic Historical Society, which published the respected ‘Innes Review’ periodical.

Handley died in 1971, and his obituary in the ‘Tablet’, February 13, 1971, summed up the loss then felt by his adopted country. According to ‘The Tablet’, Scotland had ‘lost one of its most distinguished scholars’.

Brother Clare (James E. Handley) seems to be a fitting candidate for a statue in his native county.

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