Historical Summer in New York – Week 1: Top of the Rock

Historical Summer in New York – Week 1: Top of the Rock

I’ve just moved to New York and it’s the height of summer. So I decided to make it my mission to visit to one new historical site here every week while the weather lasts!. Week 1 wasn’t intended to be the subject of a historical attraction post, but I really enjoyed reading about it’s construction, so here we are!

So one of the first attractions I visited in NYC was Top of the Rock. I’d already been on the Empire State Building, so now it was time to experience something new. I hadn’t bargained that I’d learn a hell of a lot more about the circumstances of the construction of 30 Rock Plaza as part of the process. In fact, if the 1929 Wall Street Crash hadn’t happened, it’s possible that the iconic building might not exist at all.

Rockefeller Center

For those of you that don’t know, Top of the Rock is a building in the Rockefeller Center complex, which has no fewer than 19 commercial buildings. Situated just off the famous 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, the complex consists of 14 iconoic Art Deco buildings (and a private street called Rockefeller Plaza). Five more buildings were later added, bringing the total to 19.IMG_20170113_174059

Rockefeller Family

And the name? Yep, you guessed it, named after the eminent investor John D. Rockefeller (Jr). In 1928, the site was owned by Columbia University. They leased the land to Rockefeller, envisioning that it would be the site for the new Metropolitan Opera Building. But things didn’t go quite according to plan…

The Great Depression

The site (which was originally a botanical garden in the early 1800s) was cited from 1926 as a potential place for the new Met Opera Building. In 1928, Benjamin Wistar Morris and Joseph Urban were hired to come up with blueprints for the Opera Building. When it became clear that the Met couldn’t fund their plans itself, John D. Rockefeller Jr was recruited as an investor (though his father John D. Sr was not involved). New designers were hired, and Columbia agreed an 87 year lease for the plot to Rockefeller.

The principal architect was Raymond Hood, a student of the Art Deco movement which was gaining pace in the late 1920s. By December 1928, was all-systems-go, but two factors were to trouble the plans…

The Great Depression

The first of these factors was the fact that Met was becoming increasingly worried. It didn’t think the proposed site for it’s new opera house was going to be profitable.

And 10 months later, everything came to a halt with the 1929 stock market crash. A few weeks later, on December 6, 1929, the Met confirmed it could not afford a new opera house afterall. Plans were halted. The era of the Great Depression had begun. 

It was a dilemma for Rockefeller, however, who had signed an 87-year lease on the site. He needed to act quickly. Within a month, he had devised new plans to make the site profitable. He entered into talks with Radio Corporation of America, to build a mass-media entertainment complex on the site. Radio City was born. 

And thus, building began – well, that was, after a few plans fell by the wayside, mainly due to the public giving negative feedback. Four small retail buildings and a 41-story tower earmarked the beginning of Rockefeller Plaza in 1931. This was despite the fact that Rockefeller initially did not want the Rockefeller family name associated with the commercial project, but was persuaded on the grounds that the name would attract far more tenants.

After more plan changes, the plan for the building that was to become 30 Rockefeller Plaza opened in 1933.

Building the Tower

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

(Photo from https://www.rockefellercenter.com/blog/2014/03/12/rock-history/)

“Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper” is on the of the most famous photographs ever taken in New York City. It was taken on September 20, 1932, showing The Rock construction workers having their lunch with no regard for Health and Safety! According to the Rockefeller Website, the photo was taken 840-feet above the ground – about the 69th floor, during the final months of construction in 1932. And the website confirms that these men are not actors – they are genuine construction workers. Whether or not the photo was staged is another debate!

The website gives a very accurate description of what this photo represents historically:

“Regardless of the specifics, this image came to represent a specific time in modern New York’s history. There’s a nod toward the Depression, when workers were happy to have a job (despite the lack of safety harnesses), as well as a strong representation of the exciting period when New York City grew vertically at a rapid rate. A 2012 film called Men at Lunch explores the immigrant backgrounds of the men in the photo, identifying some as Irish and Swedish.”

‘Men at Lunch’ – documentary

In 2010, two Irish brothers happened upon the photo in a pub in Co. Galway. Upon learning that two men from the region were claimed to be in the photograph, the brothers began researching a documentary on the origins of the men, discovering that they were mainly Irish and Swedish. In 2012, their documentary ‘Men at Lunch’ was released. 

Conclusion

So that’s how a supposedly panoramic view of the city I’m calling home for the next three months left me realising there is always a much bigger story behind such iconic buildings. Who knows what might be on the Rockefeller Center site today if the 1929 Crash hadn’t happened? 

I’m setting myself the challenge of visiting 1x new historical scene in New York every week that I’m living here. Follow more of my historical NYC trails on Twitter: @blogger_history.

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100 years since the first female MP was elected to Westminster

28 December 2018 marks the centenary of the election of the first female MP to the British Parliament. Countess_MarkiewiczImprisoned at Holloway Prison upon the time of her election, she didn’t take her seat in parliament…but her imprisonment was not the reason…

1918 was a revolutionary year in many respects. In November, the First World War finally came to an end, and almost immediately, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George called a General Election. And it was a revolutionary election. Women over 30 were allowed to vote. But more than that – women could now stand for election.

Miles away from the Western Front, it had been a turbulent few years in Ireland. The long-running struggle for independence was reaching a head. The 1916 Easter Rising failed, but the nationalists were not ready to give up yet.

Most Irish nationalist were members of a party called ‘Sinn Féin’ – who had a policy of ‘abstentionism’. This meant that they took their seats in the Irish Parliament – Dáil Éireann in Dublin.

So when Markievicz was elected, she didn’t take her seat in Westminster. When the Irish Parliament first met in January 1919, she was still in Holloway Prison. When her name was called out at the meeting of the Dáil, she was described, like many of those elected, as being “imprisoned by the foreign enemy”.

The first women to take her seat was Nancy Astor (Viscountess Astor), after a by-election in December 1919.

December 26th: It’s historic origins in England and Ireland

The day after Christmas Day is celebrated in many different ways around the world, and has many different names with distinct historical origins…

Boxing Day (Britain, Australia, Canada)

In 17th century Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This was later to become Boxing Day.

The Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen

St.Stephen’s Day (Republic of Ireland, and various other European countries)

The Feast of St.Stephen is believed to be the first Christian martyr, stoned to death sometime around the year 33 CE having been accused of blasphemy. It is claimed that his relics were recovered on Dec. 26, 416 CE, and that is why we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen on Dec. 26.

Wren Day (Ireland)

The Republic of Ireland actually celebrates St. Stephen’s Day in another context – Lá an Dreoilín, meaning ‘Wren Day’ (pronounced as “ran” day). Wren Day is linked to St.Stephen in a variety of ways, namely the claim that he was betrayed by a wren while hiding form his enemies.  Although now a dying-out tradition, for many years it was customary for people to dress up in very old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake (previously: dead) wrens. 

Wren Day
Wren Day in Ireland

 

 

Four Irish-Australian convicts that may surprise you

 

You don’t need to be Irish to know the story in the lyrics of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ – a father being transported on a ship to serve hard labour on the other side of the world for petty crime. We all know the story of Ned Kelly, himself not a transported convict, but rather, his father John Kelly, allegedly for having stolen two pigs. Between 1788 and 1868, around 162,000 British and Irish convicts were transported to the penal colonies of Australia, often for very small crimes. Figures vary, but it’s believed that somewhere between 12 and 24 per cent of those convicts were Irish. And while the stereotypical case was that of Michael from Athenry, the profiles of some of those Irish transported may surprise you. To mark the anniversary of it being 160 years since the end of British transportation to the colonies, below are the stories of four surprising Irish convicts transported to Australia.

 

WILLIAM SMITH-O’BRIEN

Many rebels were transported to Australia in the aftermath of various famous uprisings in Ireland: the 1798 rebellion, 1803, 1848 and 1868 – 1868 being the last year of transportation to the colonies. And among them was William Smith O’Brien.

Now this convict might surprise you – he was far from the stereotype of the  impoverished farmer who stole some corn to feed his children. He was actually the son of Sir Lucius O’Brien, and was born in 1803 in Dromoland Castle, County Clare. Despite being descended from Brian Boru, the Gaelic O’Brien’s were then part of the Protestant landed elite, and William was educated in public school in England, and later Cambridge University. Taking his seat in the House of Commons in 1828, he was a strong supporter of Catholic emancipation, but not of Irish self-government. He stance changed however when the British government imprisoned his rival Daniel O’Connell. Now Deputy-Leader of O’Connell’s Repeal Association, he led the Young Irelanders out of it in 1848 when O’Connell advised against the use of force. In 1848, he led the Young Irelanders into rebellion in Tipperary.

Convicted, he was originally sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life transportation to Tasmania. But political prisoners in the colonies had a different status to most convicts. They got special ‘ticket-of-leave’ treatment, largely due to the efforts of Colonial Secretary Earl Grey who felt that the Young Ireland rebels deserved gentlemanly status. ‘Ticket-of-leave’ was a type of parole issued to convicts, who could be trusted with certain freedoms.

O’Brien initially refused the ‘ticket-of-leave’ status, because that meant he couldn’t try to escape. So he lived on Maria Island, the most remote outpost of the penal settlement. A bungled escape attempt in 1850 let to him being transferred to Port Arthur. He was fairly isolated there, and wrote lots about his experiences to his family, especially his wife Lucy.After three months at Port Arthur, he successfully applied for a ticket-of-leave.

He was to spend 2.5 years in lodgings near Hobart, and play a big role in drafting a model constitution for the Tasmanian Legislative Council.

Conditional pardon came his way in summer 1854. He departed Tasmania after five years away and lived in Brussels until his full pardon in 1856, when he returned to Ireland to a heroes welcome, passing away in 1864.

LAURENCE HYNES HALLORAN

From nationalist rebel, to unordained clergymen, the list of unusual Irish convicts just grows. Laurence Hynes Halloran was to become famous as a controversial writer and schoolteacher in Sydney, but not before leading a life of crime and false claims. Born in Co. Meath in 1765, Halloran was orphaned at a young age, so he ran away to join the Navy. Aged 17, he was jailed for stabbing a fellow midshipman in 1783 (to death). He was acquitted the next year, moving to Exeter where he married and ran a school. It was during this time that he began to make his first steps on the literary stage, publishing Odes, Poems and Translations (1790), and Poems on Various Occasions.

Claiming to be an ordained minister, he managed to re-enter the navy though as a chaplain, and was installed at the Cape of Good Hope. But after running afoul of his boss, he was removed from his position. He then published a satire Cap-abilities or South African Characteristics. Proceedings were taken against him and he was banished from Cape Town and returned to England, not before the governor of the colony had to declare valid those marriages conducted by Halloran during his time there. Back in England, and once again posing as a clergyman under various aliases, in 1818 he was convicted of forging a tenpenny frank and transported to Sydney.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Halloran’s rebellious streak had run out by then – but no. Upon his arrival, he was given a ticket-of-leave by the local governor. Despite having a wife and six children back in England, he decided that he and his niece would pose as his wife, and they are alleged to have had issue. Upon his niece’s death in 1823, he married bigamously, fathering even more children.

But that didn’t stop him getting embroiled in even more lawsuits. Bankrupt, he served a prison sentence for debt, some of which was petitioned to found a Public Free Grammar School – for which he had called for the establishment of. Upon the opening of the school, the Sydney Gazette reported that Halloran was constantly drunk, constanlty swearing, and telling student stories about fighting and his perpetual drunkenness. Halloran was jailed once more, and the responsibility of running the school passed elsewhere.

His story doesn’t stop there, however – upon his release, Halloran started his own newspaper – which failed – largely because he wrote most of the articles himself, and they were mainly about he libel suits issued against him. Upon the fail of that business, he was briefly appointed as Sydney’s coroner. He was removed from that position when he threatened to start publishing more libelous articles. He died soon after that, in 1831, having led a varied and colourful life.

 

HENRY BROWNE HAYES

William Smith O'Brien

(A big thank you to the authors of http://www.sirhenrybrownehayes.com/foreword.html for their wonderful site which helped me greatly with my research on Henry Browne Hayes).

Another breaker of the stereotype convict is Henry Browne Hayes, a captain of the South Cork Militia, a sheriff, a Freemason, and a Knight! This may be one of the most colourful of Irish convicts. Ironically, as Sheriff of Cork he processed the first shipment of Irish convicts to New South Wale. Knighted in 1790, and then widowed in 1797, and struggling to take care of his children, he decided to kidnap a wealthy Quaker heiress named Mary Pike and force her to marry him., even bringing in a man dressed as a priest to perform the ceremony. Pike was rescued by her family, and a bounty put on Haye’s head, so he had to go into hiding. Declared an outlaw, he could be shot on sight. A government reward of £200 was offered for his capture and ₤50 for each of his accomplices.

 

After three years hower, he gave himself up for trial. Knowing the price that would be awarded to whoever reported that Hayes had turned himself, Hayes offered himself up to his friend Charles Coghlan, a fellow freemason. Hayes was found guilty and was given a death sentence which was later changed to a life sentence in Australia.

 

Arriving in New South Wales in 1802, Hayes was immediately put in jail for misbehaviour on the ship, which included harassing the ship’s surgeon. He was linked to an uprising a few years later in 1804, after he successfully founded the roots of Freemasonry in Australia. Whether or not he actually had the authority to set up the Freemason’s is up for debate, but the meeting he held in Sydney in 1803 is nonetheless regarded as the founding of the Freemasons of Australia.

 

Hayes was to purchase Vancluse House, which was turned into a national monument and became known as a snake-free property thanks to an age-old Irish commodity – turf! It turns out turf was a very successful reptile repellent, and Vancluse House was surrounded with it. (You can read more about Vancluse House on this site: http://www.sirhenrybrownehayes.com/)

 

Finally pardoned in 1809, Hayes returned to Ireland in 1812, and died in 1832. In Australia, he was noted to be “a restless, troublesome character”…you can see why, in fairness.

 

GEORGE BARRINGTON

One of the earliest Irish transportees was George Barrington was transported to New South Wales in 1791, just three years after Australia became a convict colony. Barrington was infamous pickpocket with a very colourful track record.

 

Born in Kildare, his crime sprees began early when he stabbed a fellow student with a penknife at age 16. He later robbed his schoolmaster and ran away from school. After a period with a touring theatrical company in Drogheda, he arrived in England and was to became one of London’s most colourful pickpockets in the 1770s – managian to mix with the upper classes and the elite, getting arrested numerous times, but managing to get acquitted. One of his most famous exploits was the attempted theft of a diamond studded snuff box, allegedly worth £30,000 from the Russian Prince Orlow at Covent Garden, but he pleaded his case with such a display of emotion that the prince refused to press charges.

 

He also once posed as a clergyman and removed the diamonds from the clothing of a member of the Knights of the Garter.

 

But his luck ran out in 1790, when he was sentenced to transportation for theft of a gold watch. Arriving in Sydney in September 1791, he spent a year labouring on a Toongabbie farm. He could never stay at the same thing for long, with his ‘irreproachable conduct’ gaining him an absolute pardon after just a short time. He was then trusted with the job of watching over crucial supplies for the new government. Five years after his transportation, he became a police constable in Parramatta, Sydney. Quite a turnaround!

Sadly, he was declared officially insane in 1800, and died four years later. However he did leave a major legacy on the literature of the early colonies. Credited with writing a number of texts, including a history of New South Wales, his name is attached to many others that in reality he had nothing to do with, EG texts that were actually about political items but to make them more salesworthy they became attached to the pickpocket who stole diamond-encrusted snuff-boxes!

Remembering Cheiro, the Dublin man who became an infamous member of the Occult

82 years ago today, a man from Dublin passed away in Hollywood, California, having been one of the most famous figures of astrology of his time. Born in 1866, and also going by the name of Count Louis Hamon, ‘Cheiro’, as he is best known, was to become a symbol of the occult, a self-described clairvoyant and a world-renowned fortune-telling expert. Known for his ability to foresee world events, his clients are claimed to have included Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and even Joseph Chamberlain. So how did a man from Dublin become arguably THE symbol of the occult in the early 20th century?Cheiroy

BACKGROUND

It was while travelling in India as a teenager that Cheiro met the Indian Brahmans, who was to become his Guru. Cheiro wrote in his memoirs that he was permitted by Brahmans to study an ancient book that has many studies on hands. After studying thoroughly for two years, he moved to London and started his career as a palmist, becoming popularly known as ‘Cheiro’ (taken from ‘chirology’ meaning studying the hands to tell fortunes).

PREDICTIONS

Some of the phenomenons Cheiro is purported to have predicted include the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria. In 1925, he is alleged to have predicted the future partition of India. And he also claimed to have predicted the sinking of the Titanic, 13 years before it sank, while reading the palm of Harland and Wolff chairman William Pirrie. His office in the West End of London famously always had a queue of people waiting to hear about their future.

HIGH SOCIETY

But Cheiro’s unusual gift for the occult was not his only talent. He also befriended and read the palms some of the most eminent people of the day. Some of his clients included King Edward VII), General Kitchener, William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain as well as other leading military, judicial and political figures from both sides of the Atlantic.

He also read the hands of many literary and artistic figures such as Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde -and is alleged to have been a major source of inspiration along the way. Mark Twain included references to fingerprint identification in his novel Puddin’ Head Wilson, and Oscar Wilde is believed to have written the short story Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime based on his encounter with Cheiro. Mark Twain said of his visit: “Cheiro has exposed my character to me with humiliating accuracy. I ought not to confess this accuracy, still I am moved to do so.”

WRITER

And Cheiro was also a writer himself. He wrote numerous books on fortune-telling, some of which are still in print today. His books reveal something about his abilities. Although he undoubtedly had a gift for the occult, Cheiro was known to have ‘premonitions’ more so that actual reading things from people’s hands. In Confessions – Memoirs of a Modern Seer, it’s clear that Cheiro saw himself more as psychic than a palmist.

DEATH AND LEGACY

Moving to America is his later years, he read the palms of the Hollywood elite as the infamous neighbourhood was gathering pace. He is also alleged to have tried his hand at screenwriting. Upon his death on October 8, 1936, his widow claimed that he predicted his own death to the hour, the day before he died. Later that month, Time Magazine wrote: “On the night he died, said his nurse, the clock outside his room struck the hour of one thrice.”

CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW TO READ MORE ABOUT CHEIRO:


2,500 year history of the Irish language

2018 marks 125 years since Conradh na Gaeilge (or the Gaelic League) was set up, marking the birth of the Irish language revival (in 1893). In the previous 300 hundred years, but largely in the 50 years since the Great Irish Famine, English had long surpassed Irish as the main language spoken on the island. Yet, the 2016 census revealed that around 37% percent of the population can speak Irish (up from 16% in 1901), so certainly, things have changed in the 125 years since Conradh na Gaeilge was founded. But where did the Irish language originate, and for how long was it prevalent in Ireland?

From the first settlers to the Celts (circa 8000-1500BC)Archaeology can trace human settlement in Ireland back to at least 8000 years before Christ (that’s 10,000 years ago!). The origin of the first Irish settlers is hotly disputed, but the most accepted view is that they originated in modern-day Spain, on the Iberian peninsula. Without any written evidence however, linguists can only rely on the modern Irish language itself for clues as to what languages it replaced. It’s been suggested that perhaps the early settlers spoke a language similar to that spoken in North Africa, but we aren’t sure what exactly they spoke. These pre-Celtic languages are thought to have some influence on what is now called the Irish language.

Common Celtic (500BC-1500 BC approx)Around 2-3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, Irish developed from a dialect brought to the island by the Celts. The Celts originated in central Europe, but seeing as Ireland was invaded many times in that period, we can’t be sure exactly when they arrived with their language.. What’s known, however, is that the Celts eventually succeeded in conquering the country and their language became widespread through it. The first mention of the word ‘Gaelic’ came from the Welsh, by Christian times the language was prevalent not just in Ireland, but also on the Isle of Mann (Mannish), the south-west of England (Cornish) and Scotland (Scots Gaelic).

Old-Irish (500-900 AD):The first real examples we have of the Irish language written down are from the remains of Ogham stones from around 1,500 years ago. The Irish language is the earliest known vernacular language written north of the Alps. Ogham consisted of various strokes and dots representing letters, and was usually inscribed on upright stones. Believed to have largely been memorials dedicated to warriors, hundreds of these still survive in Ireland today.  

Christianity arrived in Ireland in the 5th century, and in the succeeding years, Irish scribes would annotate Latin scripts with Old Irish. It’s from these ‘glosses’ that we known most about Old Irish.

Middle-Irish (900-1200 AD)Ireland was invaded many times in 900-1300 AD period, firstly by the Vikings, and later by the Anglo-Normans. It’s during the 900-1200 period that some Scandinavian words began to be adopted by the Irish language, and are still in use today. Words such ‘pingin’ (penny) and ‘margadh’ (market) and a number of nautical terms used in Irish today are believed to have originated with the Norse. But the syntax of the Irish language was largely unchanged by the Vikings.

Early Modern / Classical Modern Irish (1200-1600 AD)The Normans arrived in Ireland around 1169 and a started a period of multilingualism in Ireland. The vast majority of the Normans spoke French, but gradually, began to speak Irish as their main language, and it was to remain the main language of the country for a few hundred years. However there is significant evidence today of the French influence on Irish. Words such as cóta (coat/cloak), gáirdín (garden), seomra (room, chamber) and séípéal (chapel) are all words that are understood to have their roots in the Norman language. Additionally, the language itself went through many changes during the period 1200-1600, with many dialects emerging.

But although Irish was the most common language spoken by the ordinary people, it was during this period of English administration that English became more widespread, as it was necessary for administrative and legal affairs.

1600-presentThroughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish continued as the language of the greater part of the rural population, particularly in the West of Ireland. However English became the predominant language among the more prosperous members of the Irish-speaking community, and this increased greatly in the 19th century due a number of factors: after the Great Famine of the 1840s – English was adopted to prepare children for emigration to England, America and Australia in later life. The National Schools system, the first state system of primary education, was introduced in the 1830s, but one of it’s main aims was to teach Irish to children. Children wore a “tally stick” (the “bata scoir”) in the classroom, and a notch was carved into the stick if they spoke Irish. At the end of the day, they would be punished if they had notches carved on their tally stick.

And so, by the late 1900s, the Irish language was almost extinct. The 1901 census revealed that only around 16% of the population could speak Irish. With this in mind, some scholars became interested in preserving and reviving the language, and this was something that was to tie in greatly with the Irish Independence movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. A sort of renaissance of the Irish language ensued. Organisations such as the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (1876) advocated the need for the Irish language to be taught in schools. And as noted above, in 1893 Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was established to gather support or the resurgence of the language and to bring written and spoken Irish in line with each other.

The Official Standard (Caighdáin) Gaeilge was declared by the government in 1958. In 2016, 1.76 million people stated on the census that they could speak Irish, amounting to around 37% of the population. A sharp rise from 16% in 1901! And with more and more Irish language festivals taking place across the country from Belfast to Carlow to Donegal, with ‘meet-up’ groups such as Pop-Up Gaeltacht gathering ever more numbers, will Irish become a mainstream language once more?

Did Columbus really discover America?

ship-1433438960L8bIt’s one of the most celebrated moments in history – “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue”. It was on August 3, 1492, that the fateful voyage departed Europe. The next year, he returned to Europe proclaiming the land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But was he really the first European on American shores? What physical proof exists today? Did Columbus discover America?

THEORY 1: THE VIKINGS

PHYSICAL PROOF: L’Anse Aux Meadows

It is accepted among historians that around 500 years before Columbus sailed, the Vikings actually had settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland. The Norse Saga’s (stories about ancient Nordic history and travel) tell us that after the heroic expeditions and settlements of Erik the Red, founder of Greenland, his son Leif converted to Christianity and began making diplomatic voyages eastwards.

This is where the history gets hazy – the sagas give two differing accounts of what happened next. 1) He arrived in America after sailing off course while returning to Greenland from Norway, and 2) a trader had told him stories of a strange land west, and Leif decided to go in search of it. What’s not disputed is that Norsemen certainly did reach – and settle – and area of modern-day Newfoundland known today as L’Anse aux Meadows. The sagas tell us that Eriksson originally called the area he landed ‘Helluland’, Norwegian for “Stone Slab Land” – possibly present-day Baffin Island.

The Norsemen then voyaged south to a timber-rich location they called Markland, before finally setting up a base camp likely on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. They called the area ‘Vinland’.

Eriksson returned to Greenland the following year for supplies; and although he himself never returned, there remains evidence of a Viking settlement there. In the 1960s, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad discovered Viking remains at L’Anse aux Meadows. The remains of the Viking village are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

So whether or not you believe the story of the Sagas¸ what’s not disputed is the fact that Norsemen settled in North America at least 500 years before Columbus.

THEORY 2: THE IRISH

PHYSICAL PROOF: Tim Severin’s 1976 voyage in the Currach

Anyone who grew up in Ireland (like me!) will know the story of St. Brendan which comes from Navigatio, a ninth-century account of Brendan’s travels in the Atlantic Ocean. Many versions of the story exist, with much crossover in other mythology (especially Welch).

St Brendan allegedly travelled tirelessly to establish monasteries, continuing the work of Ireland’s patron Saint, Saint Patrick. He is told to have frequently sailed to places such as Scotland, Wales, and Brittany to preach the Gospel. And the, one winter, he is told to have embarked on a mission that would remain in historic memory for more than 1500 years. For 40 days St. Brendan fasted and prayed atop a mountain on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, before going in pursuit of a fabled land over the horizon. He is told to have crafted a traditional Irish boat called a ‘currach’, with square sails and leather skins stitched together to create a watertight seal over the vessel’s wooden skeleton. Then along with a crew gleaned to be somewhere between 18 and 150, depending on the account, he sailed out into the Atlantic, encountering towering crystal pillars afloat in the oceans, an island of sheep, among other fabled encounters.

Finally, as the boat drifted through a fog – landed was cited – Paradise! A lush land of vegetation, fragrant flowers, and an abundance of fruit. After staying for 40 days, an angel told the men to return home. When St. Brendan came back to the Emerald Isle after the seven-year voyage, pilgrims who heard the sensational story flocked to his side in remote County Kerry until he died around 577 A.D.

The story comes with an immediate word of caution – Navigatio was written some five hundred years after the purported voyage took place. Yet that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t highly revered – it became so widely known that cartographers began to include Paradise, recorded as “St Brendan’s Island”, on maps. Columbus himself is said to have taken note of the elusive island as he embarked to on his own voyage in 1492.

Could St. Brendan have influenced some of Columbus’ voyage? Similarities on what St. Brendan saw – and where they might have been. Think of what Columbus’ crew claimed to have seen on their journey – ‘towering crystal pillars’ could have been icebergs. The ‘island of the sheep’ could have been the Faroes, and foul-smelling fireballs have been sulfuric dioxide spewed by Iceland’s volcanoes.

But would a trans-Atlantic voyage have even been possible in the sixth century? In 1976, modern-day adventurer Tim Severin attempted to answer the question – and succeeded.

So whether or not you believe the story of St. Brendan finding America before Columbus – one thing is known – it’s not entirely impossible.

THEORY 3: THE POLYNESIANS

PHYSICAL PROOF: The Chicken Bone

Moving to the other side of the world, we can’t forget the Pacific neighbours of America – those of the Polynesian Islands. It’s known that they definitely sailed as far afield as Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island in relatively small boats. These navigators had the tools and knew how to sail using only the starts and their ability to detect land nearby. So is it in inconceivable that they reached South America?

In 2007, an ancient chicken bone was discovered in Chile – chickens aren’t native to America and they can’t fly, so they could only have been brought there by other settlers. The bone was dated anywhere between 1304 and 1424 – so well ahead of Columbus’ era and the subsequent European settlement of the southern part of America. DNA extracted from the bones also matched closely with a Polynesian breed of chicken, rather than any chickens found in Europe. The bone was a close match for chicken bones found in Pacific Islands such as Tonga, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Easter Island.

And arguers for the case claim that’s not the only tangible evidence: Scientific arguments based on linguistic evidence and fish-hook styles suggest increasing evidence of multiple contacts with the Americas. And in the style of Tim Severin, in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian anthropologist, made the voyage from Peru to Polynesia aboard his Kon-Tiki raft to prove that the trip was doable in a rudimentary vessel.

So again, whether or not you believe that the Polynesians could have reached American land before Columbus, one thing that’s known for sure is that it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

The one thing we do know for sure, is that Columbus was NOT the first non-native American to reach the continent.