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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King John, Oysters, Carlingford, The Wash and Sibling Rivalry

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There is an Irish belief, promulgated by the endlessly entertaining sports journalist, Con Houlihan, that no matter how good a sports star may be, he has a brother who would knock him into a cocked hat………….if he bothered. This brother  lives a quiet life, possibly on a small farm in the mountains, emerging only in times of grave emergency to dazzle the onlookers with natural brilliance. He doesn’t have to train, like lesser athletes, or eat high protein foods. He eats spuds and drinks buttermilk, with the occasional ‘feed’ of pints. Neither does he haunt gymnasiums, developing his abs, pecs, biceps and dorsal muscles. His ability is a gift from God. He could conquer the world…..if he bothered. The contrary theory, perpetrated, I think, by Freud, is sibling rivalry, where brothers and sisters are engaged in a lifelong struggle, even into dotage and old age. It comes from sharing the nest and squabbling over food. (Freud’s brother  was a much better psychoanalyst….. but he wasn’t bothered.)

King John was the runt of the litter, in a very dysfunctional family, the Plantagenets. He was his father’s favourite, largely because his brothers revolted against their father and eventually disposed of themselves in different ways. He had the misfortune to succeed a superstar, Richard the Lionheart, a man who bankrupted his kingdom and territories. He is probably England’s favourite king, although he spent less than six months in the country during his ten year reign. His activities on crusade left a lasting legacy in the Middle East, that stirs hatred of Westerners to this day. He never bothered coming to Ireland, for which we can be grateful. His ransom of 150,000 marks to the Emperor, impoverished his people. John offered 80,00 marks to the Emperor if he would hang onto him. Now that’s sibling rivalry.

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The Normans came to Ireland in 1169. They proceeded to subdue the eastern half of the country by force, instituting new laws and stone castles. They were great castle builders but time has reduced most of them to picturesque ruins. I love this one at Carlingford, still standing defiantly on its rock, commanding the entrance to the fiord. It’s a pity about the Civil Defence building in the foreground. Would you put a helipad on top of Mont San Michel or a fire station in front of  Notre Dame?  Rule nothing out. The evening light softens everything to a romantic silhouette.

Sixteen years after the first invasion, John came to Ireland as a nineteen year old youth, to serve a brief apprenticeship as Lord of Ireland.  He brought with him a retinue of arrogant young noblemen.  He was five feet and five inches tall and enjoyed throwing his weight around. He insulted and antagonised the native Irish, setting the pattern for rock stars and celebrities down the ages. It was not a good start. He was back again, as king, in 1210, having spent the intervening years in warfare, losing most of his French possessions and in wrangling with his turbulent barons.

Richard was a great castle builder. John liked to claim castles as he went on his never-ending progress around his kingdom. Richard’s castles were better.  John has left us a legacy of old Norman buildings that house jackdaws and legends, going back eight hundred years.

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This place is no stranger to war. It was burnt down by forces sent by Archibald the Grim of Galloway, in 1388. ( Archibald’s brothers, Angus the Vaguely Amused  and Duncan the Reasonably Okay, did not take part in that expedition… as they weren’t bothered.) The earliest war recorded here was the great cattle raid of Cooley when Queen Maeve of Connacht came into conflict with Cú Chulainn, sometimes referred to as the Irish Achilles. Tradition has it that Cú Chulainn was a small man but that his hair stood upright in a crest, when the rage of battle was upon him. Rustling is not unknown in that part of the country in modern times. In 1979 the IRA killed 18 British soldiers in two massive explosions just across the lough. Retaliatory fire across the narrow water killed a Buckingham Palace coachman who was on a bird-watching holiday.  It will take some time before all the brutalities and sad ironies of the recent conflict will be shrouded in a romantic haze.

We peered over the harbour wall. The mud looked soft and treacherous, with no firm footing. There were jellyfish stranded at the tideline. I felt no pity for them. There were adventurous children in kayaks, braving the deep waters of the lough. An army of paintballers in combat gear was heading for the mountain. Let battle commence. We strolled about. We went for oysters.

Firmer than any castle is John’s legacy Magna Carta, seen as the foundation stone of English law and constitutional monarchy. It was extracted from him by force. His barons did not keep to its terms and neither did he. War continued. Shortly before he died (from dysentery or cholera) he sent his baggage train across the quaking sands and mud flats of The Wash. All was lost, his horses and wagons,his stores and equipment, his treasure, his travelling chapel and relics  and famously, his collection of jewels.

I don’t know how long he lingered in Carlingford. I wonder if he tried the oysters.

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They are very good, although they can’t manage a decent pearl, unlike their siblings, the pearl oysters. Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered.

The Assyrian came down, like a wolf on the fold…

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I went to Mass yesterday to mark my parents’ anniversary. It was the feast of St. Dominic of the Order of Preachers, scourge of heretics everywhere. My father’s cousin, Fr.Vincent Ryan, was a Dominican, an affable man whose great delight was to go down to Yarra Bank, in Melbourne, near the cricket ground, on a Sunday morning, to engage the heretics in discussion. He enjoyed the Australian sense of humour, ‘but,’ he warned, ‘you have to give as good as you get.’  Theological discussion was lively. He often got a roasting, he said, but nobody was burnt at the stake. He went on to Rome, to teach at the Angelicum University. I thought fondly of him yesterday.

But I also thought about Saint Dominic, a man whose body-count would rival that of Pol Pot. The pun on the Dominicans in mediaeval times, was Domini Canes, The Hounds of The Lord. Their job was to seek out heretics, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, The Poor Men, Manichaeans, and burn them. Sometimes, in surgery cautery is the only treatment. Dominic used it extensively. He preached a crusade against his fellow Christians. The towns of southern France were blackened with the soot of burning heretics. Did it work? Did it ensure  a single, unified church? Not quite.

One point of dispute was the nature of God. Some argued that there are two gods, a good one and an evil one, locked in a cosmic struggle. All the evil in the world is the work of the evil god. One clarification offered was that the good god created man down to the waist, (‘Man’ in this context embraces  ‘woman.’) while the evil god made all the bits below the waist…..Ah!….       Wise words on the subject from Saint Paul [women must cover their hair in church]: ‘It is better to marry than to burn…’ (Amen to that.) and from Ogden Nash, on the subject of women wearing trousers: ‘You may clothe your nether limbs in pants/Yours are the legs, my sweeting./ You look divine as you advance,/ but…. have you seen yourself retreating?’  Nash introduces a fore and aft element to the heresy. What would the Domini Canes say to that? The mind wanders in church. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel down. Stand up. Catholics get a good work-out at Mass.  Muscular Christianity, the Victorians called it.

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The Old Testament reading was from the Prophet Nahum. He frightened the life out of me:- wars, gleaming swords, shining spears, corpses everywhere, Nineveh in ruins, the anger and vengeance of God. Some say that Nahum prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 615 B.C. before the event, while others claim that he foretold the destruction of Nineveh, in 612 B. C.  after the event. Prophecies after the event are more certain. ‘There! What did I tell you?’  If I were a prophet, I wouldn’t dwell with wild beasts in the desert, eating locusts (yecchh!) I would win untold wealth on the horses and go about the world doing good works, alleviating suffering  and bringing peace and love to all, (except the bookies.)

Peter O Toole, speaking of the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia, said: ‘Open your morning paper. Open the Bible. It’s still the same news.’ Sadly, Nahum was right on the money. He describes the Middle East as it is today. The swords still flash. The weapons gleam in the blistering sun. The smoke rises from burning towns. The followers of various gods and of the same god, inflict suffering on one another and on the innocent. Creeds and sects go to war with their own kind and with ‘unbelievers.’  Dissent, (heresy) results in hideous punishment.

Apologies for the quality of my scans.(Double-click for details.) They are copied from Nineveh  by Austen Layard, Murray’s Reading for the Rail, 1853, an abridged version of his eight volume edition,(Price 36 shillings) which you wouldn’t attempt to read on a commuter train. You could read one and sit on the other seven, as seats can be scarce. I bought it fifty years ago for half a crown, in Webbs at the Ha’penny Bridge. Layard excavated a city of vast winged statues, bas-reliefs and a clay library detailing the origins of law, writing, mathematics,accounting, science and the arts of war. They liked lions and fish. There are swimmers with aqualungs, in a depiction of naval warfare on the great rivers. Nahum saw a city filled with lies, robbers, unbelievers and prostitutes, ripe for destruction by a vengeful god.  He could say the same thing today. He is bound to be right somewhere, some time.

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Profoundly disturbed by the latest news from Nineveh and its environs, I went across to the fish shop and bought some prawns. They are the marine version of locusts, I imagine. Maybe I should try locusts in marie-rose sauce. Maybe I should go into the prophecy business. The first thing I will do is, respectfully, ask God to stop taking sides in disputes, pogroms, genocides, jihads, crusades, ethnic cleansings and massacres. Lay off the vengeance and wrath. Go easy on the plagues and locusts. Stop sending Medes and Babylonians and their modern equivalents, as scourges.  Calvin approved strongly of Nahum’s version of God. That’s not a good recommendation.

Layard described the Turkish Bey of Mosul, in Iraq, a man hated by his subjects for his cruelty and avarice. Every so often he would circulate the news that he was fatally ill. The subjects perked up. The news came that he was dead. The people broke out in celebration and feasting.  Laughter and song could be heard in the streets and in the market-place. At this point, the Bey and his cavalry galloped forth from his palace to punish his people for their disloyalty. After sufficient blood had been shed, they withdrew, until the next time. He’s dead now, thank God, not that Iraq is any better off.

The last words on good and evil, from Ogden Nash:

‘The rain it raineth every day/Upon the just and on the unjust fella/ But mainly on the just/ Because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.’

That Assyrian in the chariot has a nice umbrella. I wonder whence he plundered it.

p.s. I want my big, white umbrella back or verily I shall wreak a terrible vengeance upon thee, as God is my judge.

Carnival time. Bene merenti.

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Let me assure you that there are pink elephants under those tarpaulins. I have seen them. I have ridden upon them. They fly through the sky. They are not creatures of a heightened imagination or seasonal beverages. At some point in their orbit a gear slips and they go kerrrchunnkk  and all the elephants shudder. So do the passengers. My little grandson was alarmed. So was I. I hung onto him until the slipped gear became a familiar feature of the ride. ‘Do you want another go?’ I asked him. He shook his head.

We once sat in an aeroplane in Buenos Aires, waiting for departure. We waited and waited. There were noises off. Kerrrchunnkk. There followed some hammering and then some bashing. A slight technical problem was mentioned. ‘We will be departing very soon.’  That much was true. We departed back through immigration and on to a hotel. We watched some dismal Spanish language game shows and tried some restorative alcohol. We found Vatican Television. Big in Argentina at the time, probably mega-big nowadays. It explained the symbolic significance of the jewels in the various papal crowns and the different shapes of the papal hats. A papal beretta can signify a major shift in the Church’s attitude to social issues. You didn’t know that. Neither did I. Neither did the founder, a barefoot carpenter from Gallilee, Who never saw a Gucci shoe in all His life. A papal biretta is a different matter altogether. Think of the Vatican bank and poor Calvi dangling under Blackfriars bridge.

More refreshments were required to fend off dark thoughts. Pink elephants began to circle on the ceiling. Blackfriars! They have a higher body count than any other organisation in the mediaeval church, what with crusades and heretic burnings. It’s all a conspiracy. Send for Dan Brown. There was some bashing at the door. The Inquisitors? A voice cried out in the darkness: ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus under-carriage,’ or words to that effect. We were consigned, not to the dungeons of the Inquisition, but worse, we were condemned to check-in and security for a second time. There was weeping and a lot of teeth gnashing but the under-carriage stayed on. Ah, the glamour of jet-setting.

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I knew glamour in my early days. I  knew Tofts’ carnival when it was big, Man. Bigger than the glum remnant that now occupies the site. Okay, it’s winter. Who doesn’t look a bit glum in winter? Everything was big, to a five year old. There were chair-o-planes as high as the clouds. There were swing boats, where both occupants pulled on a rope and screamed as the boat went higher and higher, threatening to catapult you up and away, out over the entire fairground. There was a carousel with horses that went around and around and up and down, in time to the music. There were dodgems, with sparks flashing from the pole overhead. There was a lot of screaming from the girls and a lot of hair oil on the nonchalant boys who drove like mad men, with one hand on the wheel and one arm protectively around the girlfriend’s shoulder. My sister minded me well. I was old enough for slides and the mini-roundabout with the cars, trains and motorbikes. No matter how much you turned the wheel or revved the throttles, it made no difference.  I vowed that as soon as I was old enough for hair oil and girls, I would be a daredevil on the dodgems. I look forward to that.

There were prizes for shooting at targets, but I was too low to take part. The big boys strutted and blazed away. I know that they were trying to impress my sister. Maybe they did. There was stuff going on there that was above my head…again. The centre of my desires was the Wheel of Fortune, with its bank of treasures. You could pick your own prize. There were dolls and crockery, teddy bears and sets of glasses, mirrors and knick-knacks, all the riches of the Orient.  One spin of the wheel could satisfy the dreams of avarice. I know that avarice is a sin, but I coveted the pair of china lions. I wanted them with a passion. Ming dynasty, Han dynasty, Hector Grey dynasty, It didn’t matter. I didn’t want them as an investment in Chinese artefacts. I didn’t know that the resurgent Chinese, along with buying the world, would probably have paid double figures for them in the twenty first century. I just wanted them because they were shiny. I wanted to bring them home as trophies, and look at them on the mantlepiece, testament to my incredible gambling skill.

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Una Fox won them. She bore them away in delight. Although my dream was shattered, I was quite pleased for her. I owed her. She put them in the fanlight over her door, flanking a stuffed pheasant. They crouched there for sixty five years, guarding that pheasant. I looked at them every time I passed. Sometimes the door got a new coat of paint. In summer it wore a striped canvas screen, like a vertical deckchair. But the lions never changed.

My landlord, many years ago, asked me if there was some major industry in Skerries that used large quantities of dark red and dark green paint. ‘Why?’ I queried. ‘Well,’ he replied,’every house in Skerries has either a dark red or a dark green door. I just wondered if people were stealing it.’ I was affronted at this slur on the good people of Skerries. ‘No offence,’ he went on,’ but I lived in South Shields, near a naval dockyard and every house in the town was painted battleship grey.’  Bloody cheek!

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There was another limestone slab parallel to the one in the photograph. There  were a couple of inches between them, forming a gully and a ramp. My sister wasn’t minding me very well on the day I stuck my foot in the gully. I was looking up at the, as yet unattended, pheasant. (I suspect those hair-oil boys again.) I screamed. I was trapped forever, outside Foxs’ butcher shop. She pulled and tugged, but it was no use. I heard the butcher sharpening his knife. Knives speak their name in Irish, scian, scian, scian.  I was terrified. So was she. How was she to explain that she had taken 100% of of me out for a walk and had come back with a mini Long John Silver? Scian, scian, scian. Una heard the commotion. She came out, uttering soothing words. She assessed the situation, then unbuckled my sandal and slipped my foot out, intact. Brilliant! Great God Almighty! Free at last! I owed her. I didn’t begrudge the lions. Her sister, Pat, received an honour from the Pope, for long years of service to church music. It was in a case, embossed with the keys of Saint Peter. Bene merenti. Fair play to both sisters.

The second slab has been removed by road menders, maybe in the interests of safety. I still retain a talent for putting my foot in it, nonetheless. Una’s heraldic fanlight is empty…. no lions couchant with pheasant rampant. The shopfront is listed. It stays as it always was. It has a nice coat of dark red paint. Hmmm! I wonder…..