Ovid on Abortion


Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us today as the Latin poet Ovid, was born March 20th 43 BC and died in 17 or 18 AD in exile from Rome in Scythia Minor which today is Constanta on the Romanian Black Sea coast.  The Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to this dark, remote backwater for “a poem and a mistake” and that is just enough to fuel speculation.  If there is any truth to the exploits detailed in his love poetry we may guess what his mistake was.

Historians point to the exile of Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus, grandchildren of Augustus, at around this time.  Julia’s husband was executed for conspiracy against Augustus.

Ovid was born in the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  He grew up in a Rome torn asunder by one Civil War after another.  First the republicans under Brutus and Cassius fought Anthony and Octavian.  Then war with Sextus Pompeius, the Sicilian Revolt.  Then the conflict between Anthony and Octavian.  Ovid came to maturity in the early days of the Roman Empire, where imperial favour was a pre-requisite for success.

Often ranked alongside the older pair, Virgil and Horace, as one of the big 3 of Roman poetry.  I found this elegy interesting because of the relevance of the topic to the big political hot potato in Ireland this year, the 8th Amendment.  In Ireland we do not permit abortion.  So we have an Irish solution, the outsourcing of our abortions to the UK.

Because the right to life of a foetus is enshrined in our constitution the government cannot pass sensible laws without a constitutional referendum.  Without sensible laws doctors are unable to make rational medical decisions.  They are bound instead by Catholic Dogma.  As a result we get situations like the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

Ovid was against abortion, and abortion was a far more dangerous procedure in Roman times.  Dangerous or not it was still practiced, and that is as true today as it was then.  You cannot prevent abortion, but you can strive to ensure that it is practiced as safely as possible.

Verses 4 and 5 refer to Priam (King of Troy) and Aeneas, in a nod to the ancestral lineage of the Emperor Augustus.  As you can see, in the Rome of that day every topic had the potential to be political.

Book II Elegy XIV: Against Abortion; by Publius Ovidius Naso

Where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars,
unwilling to follow the army and their shields,
if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons,
and arms unsure hands to her own doom?

Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus,
deserved to die by her own warlike methods.
No doubt you’d chance your arm in that dismal arena
just to keep your belly free of wrinkles with your crime?

If the same practice had pleased mothers of old,
Humanity would have been destroyed by that violation.
and we’d need a creator again for each of our peoples
to throw the stones that made us onto the empty earth.

Who would have shattered the wealth of Priam, if Thetis,
the sea goddess, had refused to carry her rightful burden?
If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.

If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.
You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done.

I myself would be better to die making love
than have been denied the light of day by my mother.
Why rob the loaded vine of burgeoning grapes,
or pluck the unripe apple with cruel hand?

Let things mature themselves – grow without being forced:
life is a prize that’s worth a little waiting.
Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?

Medea is blamed for sprinkling the blood of her children,
and Itys, slain by his mother, is lamented with tears:
both cruel parents, yet both had bitter reason
to shed blood, revenge on a husband.

Say, what Tereus, what Jason incites you
to pierce your troubled body with your hand?
No tiger in its Armenian lair would do it,
no lioness would dare destroy her foetus.

But tender girls do it, though not un-punished:
often she who kills her child, dies herself.
She dies, and is carried to the pyre with loosened hair,
and whoever looks on cries out: ‘She deserved it!’

But let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!


William Allingham’s Birthday


Born 19th March 1924, not 19th of May as I previously mistook for his birthday.  That is why he has two birthday entries.  I think the fairies were fooling with him.


A Seed ; by William Allingham

See how a seed, which Autumn flung down,
and through the Winter neglected lay,
uncoils two little green leaves and two brown,
with tiny root taking hold on the clay
as, lifting and strengthening day by day,
it pushes red branchless, sprouts new leaves,
and cell after cell the power in it weaves
out of the storehouse of soil and clime,
to fashion a tree in due course of time;
tree with rough bark and boughs’ expansion,
where the crow can build his mansion,
or a man, in some new May,
lie under whispering leaves and say,
“are the ills of one’s life so very bad
when a green tree makes me deliciously glad?”
As I do now. But where shall I be
when this little Seed is a tall green tree?

Happy Birthday Wilfred Owen


Born on this day in 1893 Wilfred Owen died aged 25, on November 4th 1918, one week before the end of the Great War.  This is his 125th birthday.

A thoughtful poet before the war Owen was denied a proper education by his family poverty.  He did not attain sufficient marks to win a scholarship.  When the war began he was a reluctant participant, but saw it as his duty to enlist which he did in October 1915.

He was commissioned as an officer in June 1916 and spend the months when the Battle of the Somme was raging in a training camp at Étaples.  He was brought up to active duty on the Somme in January 1917.  He underwent heavy shelling in January, was injured in March from a fall into a cellar.  Returned to duty in April, was hit by a shell in May.

Suffering from shell shock he was repatriated to Edinburgh to recuperate.  It was in Craiglockhart War Hospital that he met Siegfried Sassoon who became his mentor.  The pair went on to write some of the best anti-war poetry in history.  They saw it as their duty to expose the awful reality of war.  For me the poem below achieves this better than any other.

Dulce Et Decorum Est ; by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
and towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
but someone still was yelling out and stumbling
and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
as under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
behind the wagon that we flung him in,
and watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory,
the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

St Patrick by Harry Clarke

St Patrick

St Patrick depicted on Stained Glass Window by Harry Clarke.  Commissioned for St Michaels Church Ballinasloe.  Harry Clarke was born on St Patrick’s Day in 1889. He was a leading figure in the Irish Arts & Crafts movement, an illustrator but best remembered for his work in stained glass.

He worked on illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.

Plagued by ill health he moved to Davos in Switzerland seeking a cure for TB.  He died, aged only 41.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Excerpt) : by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.
And some in dreams assurèd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Earworm: Big River

Mark & Jimmy

Mark Knopfler & Jimmy Nail

From Jimmy Nail and Mark Knopfler:  Big River on Youtube

Jimmy Nail, born James Michael Aloysius Bradford on this day in 1954, actor, singer and successful song writer.  A native of Newcastle upon Tyne his song, Big River, has become an unofficial anthem of that city.  Happy Birthday Jimmy.

Big River: by Jimmy Nail
Walking on cobble stone, little bits of skin and bone
jumping on a tram car for a ride.
I can remember then, I was just a boy of ten
hanging around the old quayside.
Now all the capstans and the cargo boats
and stevedores are gone
to where all the old ships go
but memories just like the seas live on
 ’cause that was when coal was king
the river a living thing
And I was just a boy, but it was mine
The coaly Tyne.
For this was a big river
I want you all to know that I was proud.
This was a big river, but that was long ago
that’s not now, that’s not now.
My father was a working man
he earned our living with his hands
he had to cross the river every day.
He picked up a union card out of the Neptune yard
mouths to feed and the bills to pay.
Then came a time for him to sail across the seas
and far away
finally when the war was won
you brought him home and home he stayed
and when his days were done, under a golden sun
you took him back to where he longed to be
back to the sea
For this was a big river
I want you all to know that I was proud
This was a big river, but that was long ago
that’s not now, that’s not now
that’s not now.
The Neptune was the last to go,
I heard it on my radio
and then they played the latest number one.
But what do they do all day?
What are they supposed to say?
What does a father tell his son?
If you believe that there’s a bond between our future
and our past
try to hold on to what we had
we build them strong, we built to last
 ’cause this is a mighty town
built upon solid ground
and everything they tried so hard to kill
we will rebuild
For this was a big river
I want you all to know I’m so very proud.
This was a big river, but that was long ago
That’s not now
and this is a big river
and in my heart I know it will rise again
the river will rise again.

Lady Gregory’s Birthday


March 15th the Ides of March and that fateful day for one Julius Caesar in the year 44 BC.  After the death of Caesar his adopted nephew, Octavian, rose to power in Rome and became the first Emperor.   The senate awarded him the title “Augustus” in 27 BC, meaning “The illustrious one”.

In 1852 on Roxborough Estate in Galway a young girl was born to to Frances Persse and was named Isabella Augusta Persse.  She grew up and married Sir William Henry Gregory and became Lady Gregory.  She Co-founded and Managed the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre with William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn, John Millington Synge etc.

Lady Gregory was a prolific playwright but her greatest legacy to Ireland was as a folklorist.  She learned the Irish language and established a school on her estate.  Then she collected and published a huge body of folk material.  She was the Irish version of the Brothers Grimm.

Here is one of her translations, a sinful, sexual and blasphemous piece of beauty:

Donal Óg; Anonymous 8th Century Irish poem.

Translation by Isabella Augusta (Lady Gregory)


It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!


We are the music makers.


Today, the 30th anniversary of Pi day is sad for the passing of Stephen Hawking.  The Cambridge physicist is a legend in his own lifetime and, like Einstein, I believe his fame will expand, just like our understanding of the universe under his analysis.  In a strange twist of fate he died on the birthday of Albert Einstein, born 1879.

Hawking is a music maker, a dreamer of dreams.  So it is fitting that he passes away on the very birthday of the man who wrote those words.

Arthur O’Shaughnessy was an Englishman of Irish descent, born on this day in 1844.  He worked as a Herpetologist in the British Museum Zoology Department and has several species named after him.  His first love was literature and he achieved fame with his poem “Ode” and those perfect opening words.  He also gave us the term “movers and shakers” from the same poem.

Ode; by Arthur O’Shaughnessy

We are the music-makers,
and we are the dreamers of dreams,
wandering by lone sea-breakers
and sitting by desolate streams;
world losers and world forsakers,
on whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
we build up the world’s great cities.
And out of a fabulous story
we fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
shall go forth and conquer a crown;
and three with a new song’s measure
can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
in the buried past of the earth,
built Nineveh with our sighing,
and Babel itself with our mirth;
and o’erthrew them with prophesying
to the old of the new world’s worth;
for each age is a dream that is dying,
or one that is coming to birth.