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?

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Plums

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Last year our tree produced one plum. It was our first-born from this tree, a cause for muted celebration. During the winter and spring, some surrounding trees were removed and suddenly, the plum tree stood in a sunny space. It responded, as we all do, when the light breaks through the gloom. It put out blossoms, but we had fallen for that before. It seemed to be a good year for bees. The blossoms struck. Suddenly, we realised that we had plums.  The branches drooped under the weight of fruit. We were not used to this. A fly appeared and some mould. We investigated remedies. Let us spray.  We covered the fish-pond. The labels carried dire warnings about the effects on aquatic organisms and on those who drink or inhale the insecticide/fungicide or neglect to wash their hands afterwards. There are no flies on us.  It worked,  although it entailed some nifty funambulism and aerial work on a wobbly step-ladder. Next year, if all goes well, I will invest in a knapsack-sprayer with a long spout or an agile youth who won’t shatter on impact with the ground.

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There is a catch. You have to repeat the process every two weeks, but not within fourteen days of consuming the fruit. I recall a fisherman suggesting that the (annual) blessing of the fishing fleet should only have to be done once. It’s not like scraping the hairy woar of the bottom of the boat and putting on anti-fouling– a messy job that has to be repeated every year. We took a chance. The plums began to ripen. We noticed little gashes appearing on some of them and wasps beginning to pay attention. We blamed the birds, unfairly, as it turned out. There is a belief that birds are deterred from fruit trees by the flashing of compact discs hanging on strings.The old method of placing a small child with a clapper, under the tree, probably works better, but this is no doubt, illegal nowadays. Anyway, they would eat all the fruit.

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Windows 95,– Ocean-Free.net,– Esat-B.T.– H.P. Photosmart Printer Set-Up, now defunct. (It was only a little plastic lug, but it snapped off and the paper shot out at the back.) A few CDs palmed off by Sunday newspapers. In bright sunshine the discs laser around the garden like demented lecturers emphasising important points. In a stiff breeze they chime like a herd of Alpine goats. Now, goats would make short work of the plums —and the tree. I have reservations about philanthropists sending goats to Africa, on the grounds that goats can survive in desert conditions. They make the desert conditions. The notorious Lord Leitrim, not the vanishing one of later years, would not tolerate a goat on any of his tenant farms, on pain of eviction. “Kill that gourmandiser,” he would say. We would need The 1812 Overture , with full artillery, to scare off a herd of goats.  Lord Leitrim himself, met with some artillery from disgruntled tenants, on a cold winter morning.

The hanging discs put me in mind of Billie Holiday’s chilling song Strange Fruit. Nina Simone sings it: ‘the ugliest song I ever heard.’ It’s about lynching. A delegation of black leaders from the Deep South, went to see President Truman in 1949 to ask for a law outlawing lynching. He explained that ‘the country was not ready for such a law just yet.’  A century ago, a Dublin cinema advertised a lynching film as entertainment. I will take down the discs. The birds are not impressed by technology anyway.

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We are getting a lot of fruit. Even the fallen ones and the mouldy ones, make a pretty picture. The worms are quite pleased. The wasps are buzzing with excitement. It doesn’t do to think too much, early in the morning. Put aside the sadness of the world for a little while. Carpe diem, as poor Robin Williams repeatedly quoted.  We will enjoy the plums and maybe make some jam. Maybe even play a little music to some Skerry goats.

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Like Virgil, we will have to talk about the pruning knife and next year.