Centenaries. Alexander’s War.

It appears that Donetsk Airport has been recaptured yet again. You have probably seen the pictures on the news, of men hosing the site with sub-machine guns. Unfortunately the airport is a ruin. It will be a long while before a traveller will be able to get a cup of coffee and a muffin, to while away the time until the next flight. In years to come, this event will be marked by some as a major defeat and by others as a great victory. It depends on your point of view. Whatever the cost in lives and suffering and the rancour that will live for generations, there will be a hell of a job in reconstructing the place to make it fit for Starbucks or Costa. All that jiggery-pokery with strainers and steam, just to get a cup of coffee. It would make you reach for your Kalashnikov.

For most of us, our introduction to history has been dominated by battles and wars, usually in bold type: The War of Jenkins’s Ear; The Grasshopper War etc. Causes of, Events of, Results of…Write them out neatly with numbers in the margin.  2015 is a good year for centenaries. The first poison gas attack of WWI took place near Ypres in April 1915. Observers saw a green cloud rolling from the German trenches. (The wind was from the east) The watchers took it to be a smoke-screen and hurried to their firing positions .

2008_0808daffs0301

The results were hideous in human terms…but there was no destruction of property. A triumph for science then? This is the great advantage of gas and biological warfare. With artillery and high explosive bombs, there are no spoils for the victors, just a god-awful mess to clear up. The disadvantage of course, is that the wind can change. Germs don’t discriminate between friend and foe. Nuclear weapons could settle all disputes for once and for all…everywhere. I recall a story that I read as a child, about two warring nations. They agreed to have the peace treaty before they started. They calculated the likely costs and numbers of casualties of the potential war and then handed over the appropriate number of citizens, mostly young men of military age, to the enemy to be sacrificed. This avoided the huge disruption caused by war and the devastating loss of property. Nearly everyone was a victor. There was no collateral damage.  And they all lived happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lilliputians went to war against Blefuscu over which is the correct end of an egg to crack open. It can be messy.

kids,sarah 009

In the excellent television series, The Sopranos, a gangster tells a story about a funeral, where the clergyman, new to the parish, was at a loss for words. He asked if any of the assembled mafiosi could think of something complimentary to say about the deceased. After a great deal of shuffling, one of them offered: “His brother was worse.” With regard to the Bruce brothers in Ireland, Robert and Edward, this eulogy would fit either of them. Seven hundred years ago, this coming April, a cold north-easterly wafted Edward Bruce and his army to Ireland. The island was in the grip of a particularly cold and wet climatic cycle. Successive harvests had failed. Dead sheep littered the hills. Cattle murrain was widespread. The rivers drowned the fields. What the island needed was a wise and benevolent ruler but we got King Edward Bruce, the last High King of Ireland, by his own say-so, crowned on Saint Brigid’s pleasant hill near Dundalk. He went out from there to ravage his new kingdom, bringing fire, murder and famine to his subjects for three disastrous years. He came to grief on this same hill, stunned by an ‘idiot juggler’ and decapitated by enemies lying in concealment.  The chronicler Friar John Clyn recorded: “There was not done in Erin a better deed…’ Ireland bore the scars of his expedition for many years but there was worse to come. Some few bits of this vile creature lie in Saint Brigid’s churchyard, lamented by nobody. I hope we don’t issue a stamp in his memory.

2013_0406picsroadrush0005

Two hundred years ago, in March 1815, Paris newspapers announced over several days, Napoleon’s escape from Elba. ‘The Corsican monster has escaped from his lair. Bonaparte has landed in France. Napoleon has arrived in Fontainebleau. Tomorrow The Emperor enters Paris.’ This charismatic war-lord stated, after the loss of yet another army at Leipzig: “In a cause such as mine, the lives of a million men are of no account.” Was he counting the young boys conscripted to win glory for their emperor? He met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo. What were the odds on that? It appears that he was suffering grievously from haemorrhoids. He spent many of the preceding days in the saddle.  A good vascular surgeon, travelling with the army, might have changed the course of history.

Applications are being accepted for the commemorative re-enactment of The Battle of Waterloo in June. You must supply your own uniform and weapons. If you can rustle up a horse, preferably a grey, you can join Ponsonby’s famous game-changing charge. Get a medical cert from your proctologist, in the interests of health and safety. If you are already dead, that’s not a problem as there were about 24,000 dead bodies on the field by evening time. If you are not going to Brussels, you can still play a part, as 15,000 troops were reported missing. Have a boiled egg before you set out for the battle, but be careful how you open it. Break a leg!

Scotland_Forever!

Don’t forget Agincourt  (1415) just down the road. By the way, we missed Alexander’s centenary by four years…’he can play a bugle call/like you never heard before/so natural that you want to go to war./It am the bestest band that am’ (Irving Berlin 1911) Say no more.

Music and Murder in the Cathedral and elsewhere. Young Dublin Symphonia.

cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 018

 

It was Churchill who said, wryly, that The Balkans produce more history than they can consume. One hundred years ago they exported some of their history  and ignited a world war. Similarly in Ireland, we produce a lot of history. It is all around us, in the shape of our towns and villages and in the stones of our streets, pavements and buildings. We walk on top of it every day. It can turn to quagmire and pull people down into futile blame and recrimination. It permeates our songs and stories. It can set brother against brother and parent against child. It requires careful handling.

Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin is a good place to ruminate on history…and myth…and gossip…and legend… and rats… and forgetfulness. We went there last Thursday to hear our grand- daughter’s orchestra, The Young Dublin Symphonia and their Italian friends, a youth orchestra from Viterbo. Here’s a good one: back in 1278, the College of Cardinals  withdrew from Rome to Viterbo to elect a new Pope. They dithered for a year or so, much to the frustration of the good people of Viterbo. No doubt the cardinals were on expenses. Eventually the authorities stopped all deliveries,  took the roof off the palazzo in which the eminent churchmen sat and locked the door with a clavis (Cum clave—a key or bar for a door.) They got a result in three days.  Hence the locking of the door on the Sistine Chapel, until the white smoke comes out of the spout. (You couldn’t call it a chimney.)

cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 019      cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 017

Then I got distracted by  the meerkats. They are everywhere, in meerkat sunbursts in the floor tiling and incised into the backrests of the seats. The meerkat seemed to be the presiding spirit of the cathedral, the genius loci. He was looking over his shoulder There was something knocking at the back of my mind, from a visit long ago. It was something about a rat. I remember  seeing a rat in a glass case. He was tricked out in plus-fours and a tweed jacket. He carried a golf club, or was it a walking stick? This fellow seemed to be holding a pilgrim staff. That’s definitely a golf ball at his feet. I consulted the brochure. The rat and his associate, the cat, can be seen in the crypt. Was that the crafty cat that crept in the crypt? I would have to refresh my memory after the recital.

cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 015

This is Strongbow, leader of the invading Normans. The Dublin merchants paid over their rents and settled their debts on Strongbow’s tomb. He collaborated with Saint Laurence O Toole, on the rebuilding of the old Christchurch. Gossip says that the truncated figure to his left is the son whom he killed in a rage. The small figure is excluded by the shield. His son should have been to his right. It is no way to treat a child. The cathedral collapsed and destroyed his original tomb. This is, in fact a replacement, borrowed from some other noble knight. I wonder if he has a long lease on it. I hope that he is keeping up the rent and has made some restitution to his child in the Hereafter. Gossip also says that he is in fact buried in Ferns, in Wexford. Even historians come to blows over differences like that. Stalin removed Lenin’s widow from the Party and air-brushed her from photographs and from history, but he still needed her for appearances….so he appointed a new, “Official Lenin’s Widow.”  So where is the real Strongbow?

Saint Laurence prostrated himself before the high altar here, to pray against a ‘serjeant’ who had struck one of his servants. The ‘serjeant’ fell down some steps, shortly afterward and broke his thigh. The injury became gangrenous. The ‘serjeant’ died in agony, proof to all of the power of the church. Saint Laurence was subordinate to Beckett who was murdered in Canterbury. He himself was attacked in a cathedral on his way to Rome and died in agony, proof to all of the power of the iron bar, (clavis) that the madman had borrowed from the door.

cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 022

Fortunately, the recital began, driving away dark thoughts. The sun came out and shone down through a high window, illuminating my granddaughter and her fellow musicians. It was a joy to hear. No doubt the old knights underground, tapped their toes and jingled their spurs with pleasure.  Bach, Boccherini, Bizet, rinsed the shadows from the gloomy vaults and raised the spirits of proud parents and ambling tourists. The sun shone for  the rest of the day.

I still had to say ‘hello’ to the rat. I went down into the crypt. He is not an insouciant fellow with the jaunty air of a cartoon meerkat. He carries no staff or five-iron. He is not togged out in hideous tartan slacks. The tableau shows a poor divil fleeing for his life. It is difficult to feel sorry for a rat. He took refuge in an organ pipe and the cat followed him in. Think, for a moment, of their nightmare predicament.  A cat’s retractable claws are perfectly designed for climbing up or down, guaranteeing him nine lives. Unfortunately, they have no reverse setting. The creatures were irrevocably stuck, locked in life and death by mutual hatred. They were discovered, over a century and a half ago, in a mummified state , achieving  posthumous fame and prominence on a par with that of Strongbow. {“The moral of this story/Is a very simple one:/Them wot’s up the bleedin’ spout/Don’t ‘ave no bleedin’ fun.Wilfred Bramble} In terms of slaying human beings, the rat and his fleas, leave Strongbow and his Normans in the ha’penny place.

cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 023

‘On the Feast of Tiburtius and Valerian,’ wrote Friar John Clyn, in 1334, ‘the burgesses and true men of Kilkenny began to pave their streets. ‘  They took the stone from the collapsed belfry in the cathedral of Saint Canice, while the turbulent bishop was abroad. The townspeople freed themselves from the mire and walked dry-shod, but the bishop returned and there was Hell to pay. Friar John saw the advent of the Black Death to Kilkenny in 1348. The rats did for him too. Enough of this remembering. It was time to forget and follow the orchestra to Malahide Castle for an afternoon recital. The sun stayed out.

cat and rat Christchurch. Compass cake, YDS 024

Here she is again, caught in a sunbeam, taking her turn as First Violin. Well done to YDS and to Il Centro Sperimentale  Musicale per L’Infanzia, from Viterbo, for raising the roof, this time in a good way and of course, to their conductors and tutors. Now that’s a better way to encourage young people, than Strongbow’s iron hand. Malahide Castle was built by a Talbot, one of Strongbow’s companions. He got the lease from the king for a rent of one mounted archer per year. The family held it for 800 years That’s a lot of archers. Oh, never mind. Now it is a great public space. Well done to Fingal County Council, for ensuring that it will remain so, at least for another 800 years.

Saint Patrick’s Footprint

              Saint Patrick's footprint 001

There is always water in Saint Patrick’s footprint, even at the lowest tide. This enables you to make a wish, but, of course, you must never tell anyone what that wish is. I have made a good many wishes there, since my father first showed it to me a long time ago. I recall him holding my left hand and lowering me down, to dip my fingers in the water and whisper the wish to myself and to Patrick. I can only conclude that a great many of those wishes came true, but I can’t remember them all. I didn’t make one yesterday, because my footing was precarious on the wet seaweed and there was nobody there to hold my hand. I had no wish either, to inadvertently join the intrepid winter swimmers of Skerries, the aptly named Frosties.

Saint Patrick's footprint 006

It is no surprise that a man of the stature of Patrick should have made such an impression. There can be no argument about the fact that his arrival was the most significant thing that ever happened in Skerries or indeed, in Ireland. There will be arguments, of course. Scholars argue. Was Patrick a Gaul, a Briton, or a Welshman?  Was he Patrick at all, or just somebody else called Patrick? Legends have grown up around him. He made a giant leap from his island and landed so forcefully on the rock at Red Island that his footprint remained in the stone. I prefer that version to the more prosaic suggestion that the people marked the spot where he set foot on the mainland of Ireland to begin his mission. That is an awesome thought Fifteen hundred and eighty two years ago, a man arrived from far away to preach the Gospel to the people who had held him in his boyhood as a slave.

early morning Fergus 002

The story is told that Julius Caesar, as a young man, was held for ransom, by Cilician pirates, the scourge of the Eastern mediterranean. It is likely that they enjoyed his company. He was noted for his ‘people skills’, but he promised that he would return some day and crucify them all. No doubt they laughed at his joke. He kept his promise. Patrick made the obverse of Caesar’s promise. He came without legions or  fleet.  He saw. He conquered Ireland. Who was the better man? There’s a subject for an argument.

Courage is the watchword of missionaries. Imagine approaching a Zulu kraal, armed only with a Bible. Think of David Livingstone, setting off for Africa with only an attache case of medicines to cure all the ills of that continent. On the Radharc  film series (it means ‘vision’) many years ago, I saw a young medical missionary sister on a round of her clinics among the Turkana people of  Kenya. She flew a little Auster aeroplane. The engine failed. She took out her tool-box, got the engine going again and took off  into the bush to find  her patients. I read about her in recent years. She was working in Burkina Faso, during a famine. She was in her nineties. What legend can adequately express such courage?

Saint Patrick's footprint 015

His leap took him from the island on the right, Inis Phádraig, to a point beside the white wall on the left. It is still a world record.  You may stand in his footprint but you could never fill his shoes.  His name went out from this point and  scattered ‘like a wildflower’ all over Ireland and all over the world, wherever Irish people have settled.  His image is everywhere.

from field 019       goat, st patrick's church, belfry 002    Alex, evening field, hewi Ferg.  Kids  Island and houses 041

Look closely at the ruined monastery on his island, Inis Phádraig, and you will see a white, ghostly figure in the window, the Bishop’s Window. It is the man himself, every inch a bishop.

window church island 003

(Image courtesy of  Image Depot, Skerries)

Go and make a wish at his footprint, but be sure to get someone to hold your hand.

”   ‘Did Brother Fergal ever tell you the one about the saint and the goat?’  It was worth telling again.

The friar nodded. he had heard it many a time,  how the saint took a great lep from his island and how his footprint can be seen in the rock to this day. Didn’t he demand his goat back and didn’t the people deny that they had it? It was true up to a point, because the goat was eaten.

The butcher from next door, joined them.

‘God save you, Friar John,’ he said. He lent his ear to the story.

‘The dirty liars’, went on the tanner. ‘And didn’t the goat inside in their bellies, hear them and didn’t he give a great maa out of him?’

‘What was that?’ asked the butcher. He loved a yarn. He was, in his own way, an artist. Whenever he put a carcass to hang on the row of hooks outside his shop, he made little nicks in the outer membrane.  As the days went by and the wind and sun did their work, the nicks widened and stretched to form pleasing floral patterns, a florilegium of shoulder, brisket and haunch. He knew, by the ripeness of the blossoms, when the meat was ready. He also had come for saltpetre to add to his steeping corned beef, the best corned beef in Kilkenny.

He folded his arms as the tanner, out of consideration, began the story again. The tanner fumbled in a satcheland took out a lump of dark bread. He tore a piece off and offered it to the friar.

‘No thank you,’ declined the friar, raising his hand. ‘Fasting.’

The tanner took no offence. The ways of the friars were inscrutable. They lived by denying themselves all the simple pleasures of life, God’s gifts to men in a hard and cruel world. He spoke with his mouth full. He chuckled at the humour of the story. ‘So the good saint put a curse on them It is a fact that the women of that nation, grow beards, like any goat.’

The butcher laughed. ‘By the Lord, that would be a sight to see.’  He apologised for the oath. ”That would be a sight.’

The Devil to Pay  Hugh FitzGerald Ryan    Lilliput Press 2010      ebook Amazon Kindle

DISCLAIMER I have lived in Skerries for almost three quarters of a century and I have never met a bearded woman. This must be a legend or a vile slander put about by envious people from elsewhere.

.DevilToPay2

http://www.hughfitzgeraldryan.com