What’s it all about?

Juggernaut

Seasons come and seasons go, fortunes rise and fall, the tide is a constant ebb and flow, what is up will soon be down and what is down will rise again.  Laugh loudly in your joy and celebrate before the good times wither.  Weep to the full while sadness reigns because that too is a season and soon will pass.  Give your all to the moment, live in the now, the past is done and the future will arrive like a juggernaut and will crush the unwary beneath its wheels.

The Darkling Thrush; by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

The Anarchy

Normans

On this day in 1120 Henry 1 of England was departing from Barfleur (near Cherbourg) in Normandy to return to England.  The Captain of the White Ship, Thomas Fitzstephen, offered his vessel to the King.  Henry did not sail on the vessel, but he placed his only legitimate son, William Adelin on board.

William decided that a party was in order and broke out some barrels of wine for the crew and passengers.  Accounts say there were 300 on board when the ship sailed.  They hit a rock and the ship sank with the loss of all but two lives.

The result was a constitutional crisis in England.  Henry nominated his daughter Matilda as his successor.  But Stephen of Blois, a nephew of Henry, usurped her rule.  The result was 18 years of civil war from 1135 to 1153 and the devastation of the economy of southern England.

The son of Matilda and Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Henry Curtmantle, went on to become Henry II of England, the first Plantagenet king.  He married the most powerful woman in Europe, Elanor of Aquitaine.

The moral of this story is simple:  Don’t drink and sail!

“Any damn fool can navigate the world sober. It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk.” – Sir Francis Chichester

“To the question, “When were your spirits at the lowest ebb?” the obvious answer seemed to be, “When the gin gave out.” – Sir Francis Chichester

Missing the target

Tasmanroutes

It was on this day in 1642 that Abel Tasman discovered the island that bears his name.  Tasman is an explorer that I feel sorry for.  He is not remembered as a ‘great’ explorer like Captain Cook.  In his own lifetime his employers, the Dutch East India Company, expressed their disappointment with his findings.  They thought that a more diligent explorer might have made a better fist of mapping and exploring the territories that he found.

On his first voyage of discovery he sailed right around Australia, and managed to miss it!  Quite a feat.

When you see his track in 1642 it does seem very much like a sail by and not a discovery trip.  And when he did hit Tasmania, was he not curious to see how far north he could map the land?  But bear in mind the sailing technology of the time!  He was doing his best with what he had.  It was a huge task for them to land at all in Tasmania.  One of his crew had to swim to shore in a storm to plant a flag.  He tried to sail north but was blown away by the weather.  Even today the Bass Strait has a bit of a reputation with sailors.

He found New Zealand and he did not discover the Cook Straight which divides the islands, he thought it was a long inlet.  But then he thought that he was on the west coast of South America.  Remember that the charts were not very accurate in those days.  Also, they were under constant attack by the Maori on the coast of New Zealand, and had to use their cannon more than once to defend themselves.

The East India Company were not interested in maps.  They were looking for trade goods to bring back to Europe or areas to exploit and colonize.  They were disappointed because he found neither.  Had the weather been more favourable Tasman might have stumbled upon Botany Bay 100 years before Cook.

It is easy to criticize the failings of past explorers when we have the complete map in front of us.  But given the Charts and directions that were available to Tasman would we do any better?  He had no way to calculate longitude, only dead reckoning.  And yet he rounded the Australian continent on his first voyage and found his way safely home.  On his second voyage he confirmed the existence of the fabled ‘Terra incognita australis’ and mapped most of its north coastline.  He filled in a lot of knowledge gaps and gave subsequent explorers a far better idea of where to look.

Discovery of the New World: By Carter Revard

The creatures that we met this morning
marveled at our green skins
and scarlet eyes.
They lack antennae
and can’t be made to grasp
your proclamation that they are
our lawful food and prey and slaves,
nor can they seem to learn
their body-space is needed to materialize
our oxygen absorbers –
which they conceive are breathing
and thinking creatures whom they implore
at first as angels or (later) as devils
when they are being snuffed out
by an absorber swelling
into their space.
Their history bled from one this morning
while we were tasting his brain
in holographic rainbows
which we assembled into quite an interesting
set of legends –
that’s all it came to, though
the colors were quite lovely before we
poured them into our time;
the blue shift bleached away
meaningless circumstance and they would not fit
any of our truth-matrices –
there was, however,
a curious visual echo in their history
of our own coming to their earth;
a certain General Sherman
had said concerning a group of them
exactly what we were saying to you
about these creatures:
it is our destiny to asterize this planet,
and they will not be asterized,
so they must be wiped out.
We need their space and oxygen
which they do not know how to use,
yet they will not give up their gas unforced,
and we feel sure,
whatever our “agreements” made this morning,
we’ll have to kill them all:
the more we cook this orbit,
the fewer next time around.
We’ve finished burning all their crops
and killed their cattle.
They’ll have to come into our pens
and then we’ll get to study
the way our heart attacks and cancers spread among them,
since they seem not immune to these.
If we didn’t have this mission it might be sad
to see such helpless creatures die,
but never fear,
the riches of this place are ours
and worth whatever pain others may have to feel.
We’ll soon have it cleared
as in fact it is already, at the poles.
Then we will be safe, and rich, and happy here forever.

Playing our part

Masks

Nov 23rd in 534 BC is the first documented instance of Acting.  According to Aristotle it was an Icarian by the name of Thespis who first took on the character of others as an actor, instead of simply narrating their story.  He used different masks for different characters, used different voices, and even had conversations with himself, acting the parts of multiple characters at the same time.

All of this was revolutionary at the time.

As an homage to the ‘father of tragedy’ we call those who tread the boards “thespians”.

The masks he used to portray characters have become a universal symbol for the theater.  They also entered our vocabulary of self-examination.  We will often speak of “wearing a mask” when we adopt a persona that may not be natural to us.  Effectively we are “playing a part” much as an actor does.  If my child fails an exam I may “adopt the mask” of the stern parent and give him a lecture on the need for study.

“All the world’s a stage”; from As You Like IT by William Shakespeare

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

JFK – 3 Random Facts

Victura

On the anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (I was almost 2 months old) I have prepared three lesser known facts about him.

1.  His favourite boat was “Victura” (pictured above).  She is a Wianno Senior, a 25 ft gaff rigged sloop given to John as a 15th birthday present by his father.

2.  The favourite part of his visit to Ireland was the military drill by the Irish Army Cadets at the graves of the heroes of 1916 in Arbor Hill Cemetery.  Kennedy wanted a similar drill to be performed for the fallen at Arlington.  When he died the Irish Government sent a squad of cadets to perform the drill at the burial of Kennedy.

3.  His favourite poem was “I have a rendezvous with death”.  Some people think he foresaw his own demise.  I like to think he remained grounded.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death ; by Alan Seeger

0
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Poetry Barn for sale

Billy Brennans Barn

Ask any Irish person over the age of 30 if they remember “Billy Brennan’s Barn” and they’ll start talking to you about bicycles going by in twos and threes and the half talk code and the wink-and-elbow language.

Well guess what guys, it’s for sale!  Yes, you could be the proud owner of a piece of poetry history.  I had a half thought of buying it myself.  It would be a good place to store my collection of the cloths of heaven, my Grecian urn, my two vast and trunkless legs of stone, my squat pen, the caged bird, a red red rose and a poison tree.  Where do I get all this stuff?

Anyway, for those who were not raised to the bard of the bog, here is the relevant poem.  A poet, like a philosopher, has no place in his own country.

Iniskeen Road – July Evening; by Patrick Kavanagh

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

An Irish Giant

Columbanus_at_Bobbio

Ireland is often called the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’.  The reason for this is Celtic Orthodoxy.  During the dark ages, and the 5th Century in particular, civil systems in Europe broke down.  The Roman Empire fragmented under the migrations of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Lombards etc.  The Christian Church in the West lost cohesion and direction in this period.  Heresies flourished in the vacuum of central control.

Continental reformists tried to hold it together, the most famous being St Augustine (who resolved the Faith Vs Belief dichotomy and established the “City of God” as an ideal that could withstand the loss of place) and St Benedict (who gave the best known of the Monastic rules).  Benedict died in 543 AD, the year in which St Columbanus was born.

Columbanus is the monk who most represents what people mean when they talk of the isle of saints and scholars.  Columbanus brought Celtic Orthodoxy to Europe.  The Irish Monks began a pagan conversion mission with Germanic tribes that can be argued to have persisted in one form or another until the Eastern and Western Churches met in the Baltic States in the 14th Century Northern Crusades.

The story goes like this.  Christianity came to Ireland in the early 5th Century, when Europe was in turmoil.  A strong Celtic monastic tradition was founded and the monasteries were the dominant clerical force in Ireland.  The Irish Monasteries were insulated from the turmoil in Europe, and the invasions of pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes experienced in England.  They acted as a reservoir for orthodox Christianity.  They also served as a well of education.  Nobles from all over Western Europe sent children to Irish Monasteries for an education in a safe environment.  Many of these children returned to their own lands as educated Christians.  They were a cohesive force for the development of Christian cooperation, and paved the way for the ascent of Christian kings in Europe such as Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.

Arianism was more pervasive than Catholicism in the Frankish courts when Clovis came to power.  His alignment with Catholicism was controversial and may have lost him some military support.  Ultimately it gained him allies from non-Frankish races, such as the Britons and the remaining Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

Without Clovis we would not have had a unified Frankish kingdom in the West.  Without the Franks Charles Martell could not have risen to power.  The Armies of Islam could have smashed Europe unopposed in the 8th Century.  We would never have had Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Irish Monastic Education system was the little acorn from which the Holy Roman Empire grew.

From Ireland St Columba established missions to Britain from his Monastery in Iona in Scotland, seeking to convert the pagan Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England.

At the same time St Columbanus took Irish missions to mainland Europe.   The significance of his mission might be suggested by the fact that he took 12 companions or ‘apostles’ with him.   Of these two Columbanus can be seen to have had the more significant effect on the wider stage.  In Europe he established Celtic monasteries in France and in Italy.  He challenged the emergence of heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism.  In doing so he was criticizing Papal Authority, because he questioned why the Papacy was allowing the dilution of orthodoxy.  He established an Irish monastic tradition on the European mainland which demanded a response from Rome.

Many Celtic practices differed from those in Rome.  The rule of Columbanus was stricter than the rule of Benedict.  The tonsure was visibly different, the Celtic monks shaving the front of the head and the Romans shaving the crown.  The date of Easter was calculated differently also.  All of these things brought the Irish monks on a collision course with Rome.

Columbanus, by coincidence, was born in the year Benedict died, and died on this day in the year 615AD.   Over the following decades the Papacy rebuilt its influence and Roman practices replaced those of the Irish.  It was 50 years before the clash between the Celts and Rome was fully and finally resolved by the Synod of Whitby in the Jute Kingdom of Northumbria, in England.

The legend of Ireland, as an isle of Saints and Scholars, was attributable to actions that happened largely in a period of only 50 years but had impacts over thousands of years.