Chuka Ár Lá? Umunna and the Irish connection
An Irishman’s Diary: How the Milmo name revealed a varied past
Former British Labour party MP Chuka Umunna at the Independent Group Party launch and press conference in London, on February 18th, 2019, where seven MPs announced their resignation from the Labour Party, and the formation of a new independent group of MPs. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA
In the border city of Laredo and other parts of Texas, you may come across the surname Milmo, and be forgiven for presuming it Spanish. It’s not. It’s an old Irish name, now rare here, but with a long and storied history.
The man who started the American branch was Patricio Milmo O’Dowd, who left Ireland in 1845, and established a commercial empire along the Rio Grande that over time included everything from sheep and cattle ranching, to cotton, mining, steel production, transportation, and banking.
The livestock husbandry, at least, may have been in his genes. Milmo is an anglicisation of Maol-na-mBó: “devotee of the cattle”. And the surname’s Irish history can be traced back a millennium, to a time when cattle were hard currency here.
The Annals of the Four Masters record in 1061, “the son of maol na mbó, Lord of Leinster, and of the foreigners, proceeded into Munster about Allhallowtide, and made a bloody slaughter of the Munstermen at Cnamhchoill, and burned the plain of Munster, both houses and corn.”
Alas for him, “on Tuesday, the seventh of the ides of February, 1072,” he was in turn slain and beheaded, by “the Meath men”, near Navan. He had been, according to John O’Hart’s Irish Pedigrees (1892), the “47th Christian King of Leinster”.
Several centuries later, the surviving Maol na Mbó clan earned another distinction that, unappreciated at the time, has since become a badge of honour.
After the Cromwellian wars, they were among the Leinster families forced to relocate to either Hell or Connacht. From then on, Sligo seems to have been their stronghold. It was from Collooney that Patricio Milmo O’Dowd emigrated, to found what half a century later O’Hart called “his present colossal fortune”.
another branch of the family had put down roots in Limerick. That, in 1908, is where the remarkably named Helenus Padraic Seosamh Milmo was born, before spending early childhood in the Galway Gaeltacht, at Furbo.
In time he would move to England, and via Cambridge University, launch an illustrious legal career that brought him to the bench of the High Court. It’s said he might even have become Lord Chief Justice had it not been for a Catholic background.
His many distinctions included being a prosecutor at Nuremburg. But having worked for British Intelligence during the war, he was also the man chosen in 1951 to interrogate a former superior, Kim Philby, by then (rightly) suspected of being a spy for the Soviet Union.
Milmo concluded the suspicions were justified, but try as he might, he couldn’t crack Philby, who was not finally outed for another 12 years. A contemporary later suggested the interrogator had been “perhaps too much of a gentleman for that daunting task”.
As for the English branch, as recently as this week, it too has been recalling links with Ireland. If you watched Monday’s press conference at which seven Labour MPs announced they were leaving the party over Brexit and other things, you may have heard one of them, Chuka Umunna, introduce himself as having Nigerian, English, and Irish ancestry.
The African part comes from his late father, and is one of the reasons why, when he became an MP in 2011, he was dubbed the “British Obama”. But as the Four Masters would have said, he is also one of the sons of Maol na Mbó, because the Irish bit comes via his mother, Patricia Milmo, daughter of Helenus.
A lawyer himself, Umunna once seemed guaranteed an illustrious future, to match his inheritance. That has now entered an uncertain phase, as have politics on these islands generally. But as he braces himself for interesting times, he does at least seem to have plenty of genetic experience on which to draw.