The Cross. Agincourt 6oo. October 25th 2015

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It would be remiss not to comment on the 6ooth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (25th of October 1415). If I were to neglect the opportunity I would have to wait another century to get a similarly significant date. Because of its place in literature, this battle took on an importance not accorded to other English victories of that dismal war. ‘Gentlemen in England now abed…..will think themselves accursed they were not here to share this day with us…  It’s stirring stuff, the template of martial valour, no matter where you come from.  And then a hero comes along….according to an ad on television. It could be an ad for pizza or mobile phones or, as in this case, for a video war game for nerds. The knight wears golden armour and rides an armoured steed, a classic hero. A hero leads and inspires. Sometimes he achieves the almost impossible, over-riding considerations of right and wrong, self preservation and most of all, common sense…Once more into the breach, dear friends…….for Harry, England and Saint George. King Henry carries the Cross of Saint George, the flag of England, secure in the knowledge that he has been chosen by God. His men wear the broad red cross on their coats. God and the saints supported this raid. No doubt  the French called on God to assist their efforts also, as do most armies in time of war. There are no atheists in foxholes.

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Eleven centuries before Agincourt, Constantine’s soldiers inscribed the cross on their shields, following a vision in the sky… In this sign you will conquer.  He conquered and the cross became the most powerful symbol in European history. As part of his new dispensation, sovereignty over all islands was granted to the Pope. This had implications for Ireland in later years. Everywhere you look in Ireland you will see crosses. There are Celtic, Coptic, Greek, Maltese, Lorraine, Saint Brigid’s, Russian and many other variations on what was originally a Roman device for torture and execution. The ‘tree’ on which the convict was killed, became a symbol of triumph.

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It was the symbol of the Crusades, a symbol that still inflames enmity in Muslim societies. You see it in the national flags of many nations. The Red Cross organisation uses the reverse of the Swiss flag as its symbol. In some countries it shares its principles with The Red Crescent organisation, although the humanitarian impulse is the same. There has been an tendency in societies influenced by the Christian heritage, to put crosses on mountain tops  and in prominent places. In more recent years there has been a push to remove such symbols in the name of secularism and parity of esteem. It comes across as an attempt to erode the past, to blot out the things that gave western civilization, for all its faults, much of its identity. The Taliban,when they destroyed old statues, did not do it in the name of parity of esteem and tolerance.

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It was customary after the annual Blessing of the Boats, for the crews to bring all comers on a trip around the bay. It was an adventure for small children to embark on a fishing boat for a free trip. One fisherman commented to me that he couldn’t understand why the blessing had to be done annually. “It’s not like anti-foulin’. It should only have to be done the once’t.” The blessing held anyway, as the gravely overloaded boats returned safely every time. The late Jimmy Duff took it upon himself to erect a tall cross on Saint Patrick’s Island for the Holy Year 1950. He loaded it onto a trawler and we small boys went aboard for the ride. Unfortunately we sat on the cross as it lay on the deck. “Get off! Get off! Show some respect. Good Christ! Good Christ! Get ashore at once.” He muttered some less than pious remarks under his breath, about young people and their lack of respect. We were sinners, it appeared. We went ashore smartly. The cross stood tall on the island for some years. The owner of the island frequently railed against Jimmy’s impertinence in not asking permission. “He should be effin crucified on it,” he was inclined to remark to anyone who would listen. I don’t know what became of it. It was gone before the Hippies arrived in an attempt to settle on the island in the late 1960s. Maybe an easterly gale knocked it down. I don’t think the Hippies would have survived there either.

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The cross on Holmpatrick Church was originally  Celtic, with a circle in the centre. When it was replaced, during repairs to the steeple, the story goes (Apocryphal of course, after so many years,)a contribution was made by a Catholic  publican and his customers to pay for ‘a Catholic cross on a Protestant church.’ It was said in jest, but maybe he hit on what the cross should stand for, good neighbourliness and a good landmark. Kevin Duff did the work, carrying the stones from the quarry on his bicycle and lifting them into place by block and tackle. Except for the bicycle, he worked in the tradition of the master masons of the soaring mediaeval cathedrals.  The cross has outlived Jimmy’s wooden one on the island by a generation or two.

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The relentless rain and frost erode the stone crosses, washing away the depictions of the Christian story, just as the modern world erodes the imprint of the Christian story. My daughter’s friend went into a jeweler’s shop in London to buy a cross and chain as a present. The assistant was most helpful.  She had a wide selection. “Do you want one wiv’ a little man on it?”  Where do you go from there?

Sex, Lies and Gunpowder.

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In the run-up to the last Iraq war there was much talk of ‘sexing up’ a report on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix, the U.N. investigator, said that there weren’t any. What kind of sex did these people engage in? Patient and rigorous investigation isn’t ‘sexy’, especially if it undermines the case for war. Did you find George Bush, Tony Blair or Alastair Campbell, ‘sexy’? By this reckoning, smart bombs, helicopters, plutonium-tipped projectiles and all the paraphernalia of war, impart a perverted sexual thrill, at the thought of all the people who can be killed. Power, it is said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The reality takes place perhaps far away or far below. Arafat, (definitely not ‘sexy’,) spoke of his one hundred young girls selected to be suicide bombers, as his ‘army of roses.’ Maybe they had to hurry on ahead to Paradise to get ready for the martyrs. ‘Sexy’ or what?

There’s O Connell, the Liberator, still dominating the bridge. He relied on words and brains to achieve his ends. He lost his street cred in old age when he cancelled a ‘Monster meeting’ at Clontarf, largely because the guns of The Pigeon House fort across the water, had been trained on the crowd. Think of the martyrs he could have rallied to his cause with a good massacre. Hundreds slaughtered in famine-stricken Ireland!! If he had had a good press secretary, like Mr. Campbell, he would have been home and dried. The baton passed to the ‘physical force’ tradition. As that smiley man, Chairman Mao,asserted: ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’ Nelson, an ardent lover with what was left of him, would have agreed. He stood just around the corner from The Gunpowder Office on Bachelors’ Walk. Was that a phallic symbol he was standing on? Can’t have that in holy, Catholic Ireland. Draw your own conclusions and no sniggering, please.

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The Chinese, of course discovered gunpowder, a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and brimstone in certain proportions, to bring about an explosion. They used it for fireworks and for war. The 13th century Franciscan, Berthold Schwarz gets the credit for introducing it to Europe and everything has been great ever since. You can use the stuff to move mountains, celebrate Hallowe’en or dominate your neighbours. You can become a hero, a great statesman, a rebel/anarchist/revolutionary, giving the two fingers to those you don’t agree with, if you have enough of it. You can become a bloody menace to society if you mishandle it, as the dreadful explosion in Tianjin shows. Pearse admitted that  some of the wrong people might be killed at first….Lenin went for mass slaughter. It takes practice to get the hang of it. Interestingly, Lenin listed the bourgeoisie, school teachers and other intellectuals as candidates for liquidation in this mass extermination. I don’t know, as a former school teacher, if I should feel flattered.

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It may well be apocryphal but the story is that, at Agincourt, the French High Command, directed that any English archers taken prisoner, should have the index and middle finger of the right hand chopped off. This was to avenge the scandal that a low-born man could strike a noble knight dead from afar. Comparable punishments were to be inflicted on gunners using the detestable material, gunpowder. The only respectable way to slay an enemy is in hand to hand combat, according to the customs of Chivalry. Ee I Addio….we won the war. It seems that these low-born varlets delighted in showing their two fingers to the defeated French. Considered to be very rude nowadays…rude peasants…rude forefathers. There are some families in Wales still drawing a pension for their forefathers’ service at Agincourt, but keep that under your hat… where the same ancestors kept their bowstrings in wet weather. Did Shakespeare ‘sex-up’ Agincourt 1415?  The Herald of France put it more succinctly…’, No, great king/ I come to thee for charitable licence/ That we may wander o’er this bloody field/ To book our dead and then to bury them/To sort our nobles from our common men…’ Agincourt 2015. Sounds like a festival, with gurning politicians speaking about heritage and tradition and soldiers rattling sabres and gesticulating with rifles. Guards of honour and artillery salutes….the works.

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God save the mark!

An interesting suggestion was made in America, where people love their guns. Arm the teachers. That would put a stop to the random massacres in schools and colleges, perpetrated by people unbalanced with a sense of power or grievance. Fortunately I never carried firearms to school. There were days….There were days….youghal doneraile spenser's castle 049

I think I would have fancied one of these.

When Gulliver boasted to the King of the Giants, that he could show him how to compound gunpowder and make cannon to blast down the walls of the mightiest cities and tear apart the bodies of the wretches hiding therein, the King was enraged. He warned the ‘insect’ Gulliver never to mention it again, on pain of death. Seemed like a sexy idea to Gulliver.

No need for it now anyway, since Tony Blair became Peace Envoy to The Middle East. How did that go, have you heard? Probably count his successes on the two missing fingers of some Welsh archer.