The Irishman who stole the crown jewels, a US army hero, a real-life Robinson Crusoe, dueling with a billiard cue...sure why not!

"Foster's Irish Oddities: A Miscellany of Strange Facts", by Allen Foster, delves into some truly wonderful stories about incredible Irish people. 

This addictive and fascinating little book is an indispensable collection of Irish trivia, history, uncommon knowledge and vital irrelevances. Below we curated just some of the wild stories Foster chose in his compendium.

Colonel Thomas Blood – stole the Crown Jewels

Only once in history has anyone ever stolen the Crown Jewels of England and, wouldn’t you know it, it was an Irishman.  In broad daylight on May 9, 1671, the Meath-born daredevil and adventurer tried to steal the jewels.

Unfortunately, he was caught. However, King Charles II was so impressed that he was pardoned and rewarded with a large annuity. 

Thomas Sweeny – US Army hero

Cork-born Thomas Sweeny joined the American army and distinguished himself during the US-Mexican War. He was badly injured at the Battle of Charubusco in 1847 and his arm was amputated.

Despite this, he remained in the army serving throughout the American Civil War. He retired in 1869, as a Brigadier General. 

Paddy O’Connell – real-life Robinson Crusoe discovered by Americans

When Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, of the US exploring expedition of 1838 to 1842 stepped ashore on one of the islands of Fiji, they were greeted by who they thought was a local. It was, in fact, a Clare man called Paddy O’Connell who had lived there for 40 years.

O’Connell told the bewildered crew that he had been living in Fiji for forty years. He proudly told them that he had fathered 48 children and hoped to reach 50 before he died. 

Mike Meaney – buried alive voluntarily

In 1968 Mike Meaney, from Ballyporeen, County Tipperary, was voluntarily buried alive for a total of 61 days. The amazing feat was carried out under Butty Surgue’s public house in Kilburn, North London.

Patrick and Eleanor Grady – mirror lives

On July 27, 1700, Patrick and Eleanor Grady were born in the same house in Crookhaven, County Cork. They married on the same day and then 96 years later they both took ill and died on the same day leaving a total of 96 descendants.

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Bryan Maguire – dueling with a billiard cue

Fermanagh-born Bryan Maguire found a duel armed with a billiard cue while his opponent, Captain Thurling, had a sword.

After this Maguire became addicted to dueling and his wife encouraged the hobby so much so that she helped his practice with his pistol aim by holding our a lit candle for him to shoot.

Thomas Legge – India fakir in the 1700s

During the late 1700s, Irish adventurer Thomas Legge left his native Donaghdee, County Down and traveled to India as a mercenary for hire.

Legge fell in love with Indian alchemy and divination and ended his days as a fakir, living naked in an empty tomb in the deserts of Rajasthan outside Jaipur.

Sean Gale – steered with pliers

In 1995 the police stopped Sean Gale on the road as he was driving erratically just outside Clonmel in Tipperary. The police reported that he was steering with a pair of pliers.

He had told police “The steering wheel came off when we were visiting the mother-in-law”.

Eddie McAlea – the world’s worst holdup

Irishman Eddie McAlea rushed into a jewelers in Liverpool, in 1980, and shouted “This is a stick-up. Get down”. No one bothered as they immediately realized there was a red stopper on the top of the gun.

After a scuffle McAlea escaped, however, he was soon caught as the jeweler recognized him. The day before the robbery McAlea had attempted to sell him his watch.

He was jailed for 30 months.

Stories source: “Foster’s Irish Oddities”

*Originally published in January 2017, updated in May 2024.