Turtle Bunbury“They had this Venetian red pigment and with that they created – invented – the Redcoat.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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If you’ve ever wanted to know why the British armed forces wore red for much of the last four hundred years, keep reading. But the first thing Oliver Callan – sitting in for Ryan Tubridy – wanted to get out of the way when Turtle Bunbury came into studio, was, well, where his name comes from. Turns out Turtle is not his given name, but rather a nickname that derives from his father’s habit of counting his sons in for dinner in Latin. Turtle is the third son.

“And it is tertius in Latin, is third. And so when I used to follow my two older brothers into the room, he would count us in, ‘Primus, Secondus, Tertius’. That’s not our names, but Tertius landed on me.”

The name got mangled by his two older brothers into Turtle. So, Turtle Bunbury. He grew up in Carlow – he’s traced his family settling there to the late 17th century. The former travel writer has produced a history book, Ireland’s Forgotten Past, and Oliver asked him how he got bitten by the history bug.

“I was always hooked on historical epics and swashbucklers and those big sweeping biblical things that used to be on RTÉ all the time when we were young. I loved all that. I grew up in this house which had portraits and paintings all over it.”

Ireland’s Forgotten Past retells a lot of historical stories that have been forgotten – obviously – or misremembered. Oliver picked out a few of his favourites, beginning with Cromwell’s tailor, Daniel Byrne. Turtle gave him the executive summary:

“He had a workshop with about 40 apprentice tailors up beside Christchurch Cathedral and they were creating uniforms for Cromwell’s army, the New Model Army, when it came over… and dying it red. They had this Venetian red pigment and with that they created – invented – the Redcoat.”

Oliver wondered why red. The answer?

“It was the cheapest pigment going and they needed 43,000 uniforms quite swiftly.”

Fair enough. Byrne – Cromwell’s Catholic, as Oliver called him – got rich from his tailoring business, buying, as Turtle put it, “a huge chunk” of country Laois.

There are lots more stories from the book, including gold fever in Avoca, the origin of Murder Window in Castle Roche, Co Louth and Operation Shamrock from World War II. You can hear about them – and more – in the full interview, here.

Ireland’s Forgotten Past by Turtle Bunbury is published by Thames and Hudson.

Niall Ó Sioradáin

© The Listener 2020

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