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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Triumphal Arches, Haircuts and Birdsong.

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An Eskimo dad sat in an igloo, reading nursery rhymes to his little son. Little Jack Horner/sat in a corner/ eating his pudding and pie. He put in his thumb/ and pulled out a plum/ and said what a good boy am I!  It’s a good rhyme. To which the puzzled little boy replied: Hey, dad, what’s a corner?

The Greeks built magnificent temples but there were so many pillars holding up the roof,  there was not much room inside.  So they transacted their business outside. They sat in doorways and porches, out of the glare of the sun. They knew about corners and all the other great questions of life. I have no doubt that on many occasions, the friends of Socrates hid around corners when they saw him approaching, with all his questions. Socrates had no small talk, an essential qualification for corner-boys. The image left to us of Greek architecture is rows of beautifully proportioned pillars on dusty hillsides, where the gods once sat and laughed at mankind.  Sometimes the pillars and columns lie in their component parts, shattered and scattered by earthquakes or the relentless force of gravity. Tennyson’s Ulysses says: Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever, when we move. To which his companions may well have asked, ‘What the hell is an arch?

The Romans take the credit for discovering The Arch. The principal is that of two drunks staggering home from the alehouse. They are locked together in mutual amity and esteem, at the shoulders. The weight is thrust downwards and sideways. The footing may not be too secure. Take one away and the other inevitably falls down.  The arch is a balance of all these factors. It enabled the Romans to span valleys with aqueducts and viaducts and send armies to dominate the known world.Through this arch, in the Colosseum, you can see some of the remains of Nero’s house. After the expenditure of staggering amounts of treasure and the lives of countless slaves, he was able to say that at last he could live as befitted a human being, in a decent house. The dome is simply a development of the arch.  Framed in the arch you can see tourists, who have come to gawk at the place where the Romans enjoyed recreational slaughter and execution. Rome 2012 021

What tributaries follow him to  to Rome, to grace in captive bonds, his chariot wheels?  Caesar drew bigger crowds than this. They came to cheer and to marvel at the plunder. The victors processed through triumphal arches, along the Sacred Way. The prisoners were sold into slavery or set to die in the arena on festive days. Admission free. This is the arch of Constantine, not the worst of the emperors. He went for three arches together. He used spolia, salvage, bits of older arches and sculptures, a man after  me own heart. You must put a road through it and then walk under it, pointless but no doubt symbolic of something, perhaps birth or rebirth. Everyone likes an arch. We got one by accident.

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It began as a bird house on a pole, not Doric or Corinthian, just a wooden pole from John Kingston’s hardware. I’m sure if we had requested an Ionic column, he would have had a couple out in the yard, but we are humble folk, unlike the Caesars. We have never conquered anyone and put them to the sword. We planted a clematis to take the bare look off the pole. The clematis throve and spread. It became necessary to get an arch to support the sudden growth. You can see how conquests can grow into empires, bringing further responsibilities. The arch was a spindly metal thing but it served for a few years.

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We had to put a road through it. The clematis was in sore need of a haircut. (Ronald Reagan’s hilarious Irish joke: What Irishman stands outside your back door all winter?  Paddy O’ Furniture. Boom, boom!) The arch turned deciduous. We tried spolia , a bit of wavin pipe, a strut from a lobster pot, cable ties. I couldn’t reach the top to give it a good cut. In the triumphal arch building trade, it is necessary to have a good head for heights. A philadelphus shrub grew up to take the weight on one side. The arch existed only in theory. The philadelphus, groaning under the weight, refused to flower. A plan was required. We went to Woodies to buy a barbecue and came home with a sturdy, build it yourself, wooden arch. Construction time 30 mins. The diagram showed two stylised  human figures. Their heads, appropriately, were not attached to their shoulders. The plan: construct the arch (30mins) and slip it under the clematis (5 mins).

However, after an hour or so constructing the arch, it became necessary to shorten it, dig some trenches and remove the supporting spolia. The mass of clematis began slowly to sag towards the ground.We became aware of a blackbird sitting on her nest in the depths of the vegetation. She was no more than two feet from the ground. She fled with loud protests to a nearby fence. We couldn’t leave the nest—and the eggs within reach of cats. We set about lifting the entire mass and inserting the arch with the minimum of disturbance (3hours).  A sturdy spouse, as indicated on the diagram, is essential, in the absence of slaves. We secured it and waited in some apprehension. She came suddenly, back to her nest. We waited some more. She didn’t forsake it. She is still there, in the thicket, sitting patiently.

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She came out this morning for her breakfast. Now, that was a triumph worthy of an arch. The haircut will have to wait.