My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen….Sir Walter Raleigh

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 “My Lords….Ladies …..aaaand…..Ge….e…..ntle…….e….en.   When you hear that phrase you assume that there will be a fight. What is a lord? What is a lady aaaaand what is a gentleman?  To the Anglo Saxons it was a bread and butter issue: Hlaf  a loaf.  Hlaford,   a lord, the man who ensures a supply of bread. Hlafdie, the lord’s wife, the lady who distributes the bread. It paid to know on which side your bread was buttered.  A gentleman was defined in later mediaeval times, as one entitled to bear arms and thereby entitled to wear a coat of arms. He followed the noble calling of arms. He was expected to follow his lord into battle. The last thing he was expected to be was gentle. Raiding, and conquest secured the supply of food. ‘An army marches on its belly.’ (Napoleon). Julius Caesar saw the year as consisting of winter quarters, grass growth for the horses and weather for campaigning and finally, harvest for either capturing or destroying the crops of the enemy. It’s a straightforward annual cycle, determined mostly by the weather. Greed,  megalomania, fanaticism and madness can play a part in this too. ‘You look after the enemy and I will take care of the winter.’ (Adolf Hitler).

Nothing so becomes a gentleman as his sword. The sword is a symbol of power and authority, an extension of the arm, a device for sundering limbs, for slicing windpipes and internal organs and for spilling blood. It is also a work of art, a thing of sinister beauty.  To the Samurai it was an object worthy of veneration. Wieland and Vulcan were blacksmiths to the gods. The Scythians prayed to the sword and to the North Wind. If one doesn’t get you, the other will. Conquered people are ‘put to the sword,’  a final solution.  The sword is integral to a ‘guard of honour.’ A knight or a gentleman, uses his sword only to defend the weak, to defend ‘womanhood,’ to defend his country and his own honour.  Or does he?

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Sir Walter Raleigh is presented to us as a ‘dashing’ Elizabethan gentleman. Throwing his good cloak over a puddle to protect the queen’s shoes, assured him a place in popular imagination as a gallant gentleman. It was a good investment, unlike some of his other ventures.  Like many another, he came to Ireland to win fame and fortune with his sword. He did well here….eventually.  Elizabeth’s young gentlemen were referred to as mastiffs, on account of their ferocity.  Raleigh’s half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was accustomed to making  an avenue to his tent at the end of each day’s campaigning, from the heads of his victims. “Nothing so cows a man as the sight of his children, his wife, his brothers….”  Fear and revulsion. You can see the logic of his tactic.  Perhaps the name, ‘Fort of Gold’ was what lured Raleigh to west Kerry, a region in one of its sporadic revolts against Elizabeth. In the conquest business, it is important to be in at the kill. To the victor the spoils.

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This small declivity on a clifftop is The Fort of Gold, a bloody awful place to be  as the nights lengthen and the rain sweeps in from the Atlantic.  A small Spanish/Italian force landed here in the autumn of 1580. They had magnificent armour and swords. They had little or no artillery. Their line of retreat was to the rocks below. They came to assist the Irish rebels and to place an illegitimate son of the Pope on the throne of Ireland.  The Pope’s bastard wisely stayed at home, waiting for news. The mastiffs closed in. Lord Grey, Elizabeth’s Deputy, pounded the fort with his cannon. The young gentlemen distinguished themselves in the trenches.  Lord Grey offered terms and safe conduct out of Ireland. The invaders agreed.

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(Cannon in Youghal, a town later granted to Raleigh.)

Even a lord can break his word. Raleigh took charge of the surrender and the pillaging of the armour and weapons. The few Irish taken prisoner, male and female, were executed in the most hideous manner. Under Raleigh’s direction, almost eight hundred foreign soldiers were beheaded by the soldiers in the fields below the fort, The Field of the Cutting and The Black Fields. There was an enquiry into Grey’s breach of faith. His star faded. Raleigh defended his actions on the grounds that he was merely following orders. That has a contemporary ring to it. Anyway, he was the queen’s favourite dancing partner. He gained a town, some castles and forty thousand acres of confiscated land. Young Ned Denny, who coined the nickname ‘mastiffs’, became Sir Edward Denny, lord of extensive estates in Kerry. His Lady wife, eight years later, personally counted the heads of shipwrecked Spaniards from the Armada, two hundred in all, and was paid for each one. Raleigh went on to failed ventures in the Americas, in pursuit of fortune and eventually lost his own head in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. He trembled from ague. “I would not have mine enemies think that I quaked from fear.” He tested the edge of the axe. His personal courage was never in doubt. If the axe hadn’t got him, the tobacco, his constant companion, surely would have.

The sword is the staple of popular films and television programmes. It is everywhere in children’s stories and in legend. The Sword of Light. Excalibur. Gladiators spill blood and maim, always in slow motion. Film critics use the term ‘gore fest’ as a recommendation.

The time of fear and revulsion has come round again with ISIS, the sword as ‘the key to Heaven and Hell.’  This is not a new thing. With modern media it no longer happens somewhere far away.

The lord Katsu, one of the greatest of the Samurai, never drew his sword in anger.

He adapted his scabbard to make it almost impossible to draw the weapon.

He never killed anyone—- for which he was greatly criticised.

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How low can you stoop? Health and Safety

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A man on the radio sang, in that plaintive, far-away-train voice of Country and Western : ‘The light at the end of the tunnel is a burglar’s torch.’  That was a good start to the day. How is it that Country and Western music, from the wreckage of marriages, prison sentences, broken families, mawkish love stories, old cars, dogs, drink and lonesome journeys, can so often produce an image that sums it all up so succinctly?  It can also produce joy and exhilaration to counterbalance all the woe. It’s a varied tapestry. I heard about that light originally, as the light of an oncoming train. That’s about as pessimistic as it gets. Maybe there is a C&W song in that too.

There was further news. Tobacco companies are warning that they will seek massive compensation for loss of earnings, if the Minister for Health forces them to put their products in plain packets, with details of the many diseases caused by cigarettes. Burglars, drunk drivers and serial killers, may consider a class action against the police and the Minister for Justice, for unreasonable interference in their activities. As many of them work at night, they could also have a case against the local authorities, for inadequate street lighting.

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Below the railway embankment, two streams meet, one from the north and one from the south. This is a place of ivy, long grass and white -thorn trees. There were always blackbirds’ and thrushes’ nests there in summer. At evening time the birdsong filled the air. It still does. It was a wonderland for children.  The two streams join together and dive into a tunnel, to emerge as the Mill Stream, on the other side of the embankment. It was the best place in the world for pinkeens and possibly, still is.

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Science calls them minnows. In Tipperary, (a long, long way away,) they are called gudgeons, but they are neither. They are pinkeens. A morning’s work could be rewarded by a two-pound jam jar full of pinkeens. (Health and safety men would not be happy with children carrying glass jam jars.) You brought them home and put them on the window-sill.  The glass magnified them. They went round and round, iridescent, glistening in the sunlight. You could see their insides. Their enormous eyes regarded you accusingly.  You fed them bread crumbs. In the morning they were dead. Their colours were gone. They lay on the bottom of the jar. They hadn’t touched the bread crumbs. Some people are never satisfied.

I always remembered them in my teaching days, during parent-teacher meetings. Most mothers looked like real people, but some came in full war-paint: eyebrows immaculately pencilled in, make-up impeccable, lipstick, mascara, eyeshadow, even false eye-lashes.  At close quarters, it was all a distraction. When they blinked, the eyelids glistened like pinkeens. How is it done? How long does it take? And in a mirror too!  Billy the Kid, reputedly, could shoot fellows over his shoulder, while looking in the saloon mirror, but then, that was his full-time job. The cosmetics trade is bigger than the narcotics trade, but at least, it’s legal. Do you remember Helena Rubinstein?  She advertised her anti-ageing cream, with her own photograph. She was in every pharmacy window, a haughty, wizened, old lady. It didn’t work. She called it Cold Cream. I suppose it was exactly what it said on the jar. Blink!  There they go again.  Ah yes! Of course. Your daughter. English homework. Let me see. Let me see. Hmmm. Very good. Very good. I’m a bit worried about her carrying two-pound glass jam jars. Very dangerous , you know. Are those things stuck on, or is it just the fabulous new volumiser mascara, as seen on television? Don’ ask. It’s supposed be indistinguishable from the real thing.

A little boy of my acquaintance told his mother: ‘Mammy, there are ladies on television who are gorgeouser than you.’   ‘Oh yes?’  She may even have been a bit miffed. ‘But I still love you the best.’ Accept no imitations.

I bought a big fish tank. Better than a jam jar. I put frog spawn in it. Highly illegal. We got tadpoles and tiny frogs. I put in some stones so that these newly arrived amphibians could haul out and laze around on the rocks. They didn’t laze anywhere. They used to jump and stick to the glass.I put a lid on the tank. They were ninjas. They climbed up the sheer surface and disappeared. I have no idea where they went. Maybe they are still in the house, coming out at night to raid the fridge. I got tropical fish, a pump, a sunken pirate ship and some coral. Neon tetras brought flashes of Amazonian glamour to the corner of the room. Cardinal tetras paraded in scarlet robes. Guppies hovered and darted between the weeds. A coolie loach , in a football jersey, hoovered  the algae off the glass, an essential, if not very exciting, task. All was well, until a visitor’s little boy dropped a cigarette butt into their idyllic world. Within minutes they began to fail. The neons flickered and faded, as the joy went out of them. The cardinals became bishops. They became monsignori and then dowdy village curates. They became Greyfriars. They sank to the bottom, among the defunct guppies and the poor old coolie loach.He had to be helped off the pitch. Have I a case against Big Tobacco? It would be no more absurd than their case.

More than sixty years ago, when the streams were low, we used to walk through the tunnel under the railway bridge and emerge on the other side of the embankment.  It was necessary to bend almost double and try not to let the water get into our rubber boots. It was exciting and doubly so, if a train went past, far above, making the tunnel reverberate and echo. We walked, like Quasimodo,  towards the light at the other end, to emerge in triumph from the underworld. I can’t do it now, because I can no longer stoop so low and furthermore, the road has been widened and the health and safety men have put a cage over the exit.

My daughter told me only today, apropos of something else entirely, that she and her friend, Milly, used to mitch from ballet class and hide in a drainage pipe that developers were installing to divert a nearby stream.  They would crawl about a hundred yards to the little disc of light at the far end. The possibilities of what might have happened, make my blood chill, even now, thirty five years later.  Thank God there was light at the end of that tunnel.  Nevertheless, I will have some stern words to say to Milly also, the next time I meet her. Two ballet careers went, literally, down the drain. I earnestly hope they weren’t smoking as well.