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.