Another Road

Syria Team

Syrian Terror Squad

I can’t let the recent Paris and Belgian terror attacks pass without making some comment.

The seed of French difficulty lies in the Sykes-Pichot agreement after the Great War, when Britain and France carved up the Levant between them.  France took possession of Lebanon and Syria.

Under Turkish Ottoman rule the middle east was stable.  Perhaps not exactly happy, but stable and mostly content.

Since Western powers took control of the Levant the Middle East has been a disaster.  At what stage do Western “Powers” hold up their hands and admit they are unable to achieve anything positive in the region?

Hate causes many problems, but it solves none.  The French solution to the Paris attacks is yet another bombing campaign.  Do they expect that to succeed in stabilizing the region?  Truth is bombing campaigns are a short term solution.  Politicians thrive on short term solutions.  The voting public has no patience for long slow strategies that eventually deliver the desired results.

We, the voters in the democracies of the West are individually and personally responsible for what is happening in Syria.  We have caused the misery and conflict that has fostered the rise of terrorism.  We have raped these countries of their resources.  We heat our homes and fuel our cars with their oil.

Do you want to feel safe from terrorism?  What do you believe will “cure” terrorism?

Option 1: Attacking Syrians and making them poorer, more fearful, killing their children, razing their homes and driving them into refugee camps, or

Option 2:  Rebuilding the Syrian nation, making the economy prosper, raising the standard of living, rehousing the population, building schools and libraries.  Western nations actively buying up the products of Syrian production including their agricultural produce and their industrial output.

Option 1 involves spending a lot of Western money on bombs and missiles which we drop on Syria.  This is good for weapons manufacturers.  They are lobbying for this option by paying lots of money to the “right” political candidates.  It is also good for the rich capitalists who hold shares in the weapons companies.  In Syria it creates a new generation of ‘terrorists’.

Option 2 involves spending Western money too.  But it is actually a whole lot cheaper than option 1.  Unfortunately it delivers no value to the companies who make weapons.  The rich shareholders of the weapons companies see no return.  The money is just ‘wasted’ on a lot of poor Arabs.

People who have jobs, who own their own homes, who have food on the table and who can envisage a future for themselves and their families, those people are not terrorists.  Terrorists are not born, they are created.  We create them when we take their homes, their food, their lives.  If you want to recruit terrorists I suggest you look in a refugee camp.

In the next election, when the candidates come knocking on your door, ask them how they are going to make you safe from terrorism.  Ask them will they choose Option 1 or Option 2.  Let’s take another road.


Paris Winter; by Howard Altmann

That we can breathe and not forget
our dreams entirely. In the cold sun

the warmth of timelessness. There is
panic, rest assured, so much beauty

stirring, I want to touch all that
contains me. We know the questions

and the light shifts without a word.
In the clouds, a philosopher’s chair

rocks. In the riverbed, the buff
and lathe of stones, change glistening

past. And from the afternoon, drops
of her monthly blood drip down

the stairs, the kitchen table, all of her
unopened bills, a cold floor that timed

us. O, the ins and outs of memory
breathe, too, images at rest in the dark

chambers, the gilded daylight whir
a heart’s dusting—one walkup,

one post storm quiet blinking at
infinity. Who shot the moon

and claimed victory in the morning?
The constellations touch down;

the years collapse; the boom
and bust of love lowers the crane

at dawn: in what earth, in what sky
will the soul find its keeper?

The Mummy’s Curse


November 26th, 1922 Lord Carnarvon asked Howard Carter “Can you see anything?” and Carter replied with those famous words; “Yes, Wonderful Things.”

The discovery of an almost intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings generated an explosion of interest through the media.  The press arrived in their droves to Luxor to visit the site.

“Almost Intact” refers to the fact that the tomb was burgled twice, shortly after it was sealed.  It is a small tomb, hurriedly constructed due to the early death of Tutankhamun.  The boy pharaoh ruled from the age of 9 to 19 and his short reign did not allow enough time for the construction of a magnificent tomb.

After being burgled the tomb was resealed by priests.  The entrance was then covered by stone chips either from a flood or the spill from the excavation of another tomb.  Later some workers houses were built on the site, completely sealing off the entrance.

As the other tombs in the valley were systematically plundered in antiquity the tomb of the boy king lay unspoiled, forgotten and pristine.

Egyptology became the must have fashion accessory of the 1920’s.  It made its way into art, furniture, design, clothing and entertainment.

Rumor abounded that Carter found a dreadful curse in the seals on the tomb entrance.  The first victim of the curse was Carters pet canary.  A messenger running to his home found a cobra in the cage of the deceased songbird.  This happened on the day the tomb was opened, and the Cobra is a well known symbol of divine authority in ancient Egypt.

When Lord Carnarvon died six weeks after the opening of the tomb, from an infected mosquito bite the media went into a frenzy.

Carter gave a gift of a mummified hand set in a paperweight to his friend Sir Bruce Ingram.  On the wrist was a bracelet inscribed with the text;  “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.”

Ingram’s house burned down and he rebuilt it.  Then it was destroyed by a flood.

Although skeptical of curses himself Howard Carter reported
that he saw jackals in the desert for the first time in his 35 years working there, of the same type as Anubis, Egyptian guardian of the dead.


The concept of the mummy’s curse rapidly became the stuff of book and film.  To this day the “Monster Mummy” remains firmly in the top rank of horror movie subjects along with the Werewolf, the Vampire and the Zombie.

In Memory of my Mother; by Patrick Kavanagh

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle – ‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life –
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is a harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us – eternally.

Missing Link


Nov 24th is a very significant day in the history of mankind for two reasons.  Firstly it was on this day in the year 1859 that Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species.

Darwin’s work was mostly concerned with his findings on Finches, Tortoises and other species he studied on the Voyage of the Beagle.  Darwin was rushed into publication because a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace published “On the Introduction of Species” in 1855 and came very close to many elements of Darwin’s theories.

Darwin avoided the explosive conclusions in relation to mankind, except for a hint of the possibility in the final chapter.  But it was this hint that drove the book to become one of the most famous scientific works ever published.  Darwin gave us the language of evolution, with terms such as survival of the fittest and the eponymous evolutionary theory we now call “Darwinism”.

Then, on this day in 1974 two anthropologists discovered the bones of an Australopithecus Afarensis.  Donald Johanson and Tom Gray had a party that night to celebrate the find of the Century, a 40% complete hominid skeleton.  They played the Beatles all night long and eventually named their missing link “Lucy” after Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

Lucy demonstrated that bipedalism came before increased brain size.

In a field of study which advanced by decades on the finding of a jawbone or a couple of teeth the impact of such a large portion of a skeleton was phenomenal.  Lucy became one of the best selling books in the world, another crossover from the world of science to the popular zeitgeist.

There are now many theories that focus on the move from small to large brain size.  Radiator theory (bipeds can cool their brains by being taller so standing up allows the brain to grow).  There is the theory that freeing the hands for manipulation rather than locomotion stimulates the brain to new heights and hence sizes.  There are theories that the changed head position supported the development of the voice box, verbal communication, cooperation and society.  There are many many theories.  But Lucy permitted these theories by showing that walking came before a big brain.



Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she’s gone

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

One of those days

Despite being a Friday it has just been one of those days.  I feel wrung out.  Too many late nights.  Too many pages of small numbers.

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.



Would you jump into my grave as quick?
my granny would ask when one of us took
her chair by the fire. You, woman,
done up to the nines, red lips a come on,
your breath reeking of drink
and your black eye on my man tonight
in a Dublin bar, think
first of the steep drop, the six dark feet.

Poem by Paula Meehan

Winning the war on terror

Improvised British Armoured Car

Improvised British Armoured Car

You cannot win a “war on terror” by military action.  Anyone who believes otherwise should look a the modern history of Ireland.

The Irish people wanted independence from Great Britain.  They moved between violent and political approaches over time.  Ultimately the Irish developed the dual strategy now nicknamed “the bullet and the ballot box”.  the British Empire was at the peak of its powers in the early 20th Century.  Ireland is not a large nation like India.  Ireland is not a powerful nation like the USA.  Ireland is not located far away from the centre of British power, like New Zealand.  Ireland is a small, weak country sitting right in Britains armpit.

Despite holding all the cards the British could not hold Ireland.  They could win every battle but never win the “war”.  The Irish learned that it was foolish to engage in fair fights against the British, so we fought dirty, the guerilla.

The IRA in the 1920’s made it impossible for the British to administer Ireland.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland moved from a guerilla war to a terrorist war.  They fought it on British soil.  It was even dirtier than the guerilla war of the 1920’s. The British evenually learned that they could not win this war.  Every victory they scored against the terrorists was a recruitment drive for the IRA.

The British learned at last that the way to end a war on terror was to build peace.  Engender understanding and respect for your foe, listen to their grievances, right the wrongs and work together to build a better society.

So I was simply astounded yesterday listening to David Cameron crowing like a cock in parliament over the murder of “Jihadi John”.  Simply calling the man by this jingoistic nickname is an indication that the British Government have forgotten all the hard won lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process.

This morning as David Cameron surveys the wreckage of Paris I wonder how bullish he feels about “taking out” Jihadi John?  The important thing here is to take a deep breath and review the situation.

The “war on terror” is going to kill British and French people, and perhaps also Americans and Russians.  You don’t fight a war in Syria.  You care for the Syrian people.  You give them peace and prosperity.  You defend them from violence.  You stop selling them guns and start buying their melons.  You stabilise their economy and give the Syrian people what they want, a safe and comfortable home.  That’s how you defeat terrorism.

A ship, a report, a presidential affair and a poem like Lorca.


I am going to take you on a journey from Belfast to New York, then to Washington and Greece before returning to Ireland but just brushing against the coast of Spain.  It is a tale that spans from 1912 all the way to the present, whenever the present is for you the reader.

My story begins with a ship, the SS Vestris. And it begins in the Belfast shipyard where she was launched, only a month and a day after another Belfast ship, the Titanic, sank on her maiden voyage.  Vestris did better than the Titanic.  She made it all the way across the Atlantic on her maiden voyage.  She then plied her trade on the route between New York and the River Plate.  Those were great days for business in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

The SS Vestris became a troop transport during the Great War and recrossed the Atlantic to France.  Along the way she had a close run thing with a German Torpedo.  After the war she returned to passenger duties running between Liverpool, Buenos Aires and New York.  In 1990 she suffered a four day fire in her coal bunkers and survived the ordeal.  But her luck finally ran out in 1928.  One day out of New York, bound for Argentina, she sprang a leak, developed a fatal list and eventually sank with a loss of life of 111 souls.

So that is the ship.  Now we move to the report.  The New York Times printed the report of the sinking, written by Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickock.  It was the first time the NYT printed a report under a female reporters name.  Lorena Hickock was nothing if not a ground breaking woman.  If you want to look for FIRSTS in journalism you need look no further.

Hickock was appointed by AP to cover the story of Eleanor, the wife of the Presidential Candidate Frankin D Roosevelt, in 1928, the year of the Vestris sinking.  The two women fell in love and had an affair.  This is the presidential affair of my story.  On the inauguration of her husband as president of the USA Eleanor wore a sapphire ring that was a gift from Hickock.  It does not take a great deal of imagination to see that Sapphire is a symbol for Sappho the Greek Poet and symbol of lesbianism.  Indeed the very word lesbian derives from the Island home of Sappho, Lesbos.

If there were ever any doubt about the presidential affair (many conservative apologists have tied themselves in knots to try to prove it was just a friendship)  the contents of the correspondence between the women, published as “Empty Without You” by Roger Streitmatter attests to a deeply romantic and physical relationship.  Given that the collection of letters was heavily edited to remove the most explicit, there can be very little doubt about the nature of the “friendship”.

One might as easily say that the poem below is about reading meters and the appointment of the Archbishop of Dublin.  Durcan’s detours around the female topography of his interlocutor are pointedly erotic, a celebration of female flesh and a worship of the sexuality of the fertile earth mother.  In that regard his poem reminds me of Serenata by Federico Garcia Lorca, which you can also find on this blog if you care to search it out.

And so in circular fashion, like a voyage of the SS Vestris, we have returned to the home port of Dublin.  I hope you enjoyed the trip and come again soon.

The Day Kerry Became Dublin ; by Paul Durcan

I was reading gas meters in Rialto
– In and out the keeled-over, weeping dustbins –
When, through the open doorway of the woman in the green tracksuit
Who’s six feet tall and who has nine kids,
I heard a newsreader on the radio announcing
That the Bishop of Kerry had been appointed Archbishop of Dublin.
I couldn’t help thinking that her bottom
Seemed to be independent of the rest of her body,
And how nice it would be to shake a leg with her
In a ballroom on a Sunday afternoon
Or to waltz with her soul at the bottom of the sea.
“Isn’t that gas?” – she sizzles –
“Making the Bishop of Kerry the Archbishop of Dublin!”
Under her gas meter I get down on my knees
And say a prayer to the side-altars of her thighs,
And the three-light windows of her breasts.
Excuse me, may I beam my torch in your crypt?
I go to Mass every morning, but I know no more
About the Archbishop of Dublin than I do about the Pope of Rome.
Still, I often think it would be
Uplifting to meet the Dalai Lama,
And to go to bed for ever with the woman of my dreams,
And scatter the world with my children.

Fresh new love

One of my guilty pleasures in having teenage children is that I get access to their English poetry syllabus.

Tonight I discovered a whole new poet lurking in the recited words of my daughter.  I shall get to know him well.  Introducing Paul Durcan!

Why should a foolish marriage vow ; by Paul Durcan

Dear Nessa – Now that our marriage is over
I would like you to know that, if I could put back the clock
Fifteen years to the cold March day of our wedding,
I would wed you again and, if that marriage also broke,
I would wed you yet again and, if it a third time broke,
Wed you again, and again, and again, and again, and again:
If you would have me which, of course, you would not.
For, even you – in spite of your patience and your innocence
(Strange characteristics in an age such as our own)
– Even you require to shake off the addiction of romantic love
And seek, instead, the herbal remedy of a sane affection
In which are mixed in profuse and fair proportion
Loverliness, brotherliness, fatherliness:
A sane man could not espouse a more faithful friend than you.

Guy Fawkes Day

King Billy landing at Torbay

King Billy landing at Torbay

Nov 5th is celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day in the UK.  These days many people simply call it “Bonfire Night” and in truth that is probably a better name for it.

The burning of bonfires was, and in Ireland still is, a tradition associated with Halloween.  Celebrated on Oct 31st in Ireland the original feast of halloween was the Celtic Pagan New Year.  The feast was celebrated on the third harvest.  Harvest 1 is the grain (Lughnasa) involving summer bonfires.  Harvest 2 (Fomhair) is the fruits, nuts and vegetables.  Harvest 3 is Samhain, the blood harvest, when the breeding stock were selected for over-wintering and the losers were slaughtered and preserved.  You can see how all this flowing blood translated into our modern view of Halloween.

The Christian church did its best to transmogrify pagan rituals into Christian counterparts.  One area where the Catholic church failed utterly was with Halloween.  It persisted as a pagan celebration despite the best efforts of the church.

In England the protestants had better luck subverting the pagan rites.  Two events contributed to this.  Firstly the Gunpowder Plot when Catholic rebels tried to blow up the houses of parliament on Nov 5th 1605.  The Catholic rebel Guy Fawkes was found in possession of the gunpowder, was arrested and tortured.  Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered he avoided that terrible end by leaping from the scaffold and breaking his neck.

Fawkes became a protestant symbol for the catholic rebels, a convenient whipping boy.  Effigies of Fawkes were burned on the Halloween bonfires, making it a more protestant celebration than heretofore.  However, given the puritan nature of Protestantism at that time we must question how overt these celebrations could be,

Nov 5th became solidified as bonfire night when William of Orange landed in England on Nov 5th 1688 launching the Glorious Revolution.  Bonfires greeted William in his progress through the land, and the more relaxed mores of Britain permitted overt celebrations.

In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the bonfires are lit on the 12th of July, when William arrived there.

Indian Country

For a short time it appeared possible that the Native American People would have their own country.  The proposed land encompassed the area lying between the Ohio river and the Great Lakes and takes in the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

We can only imagine what a different world it might be had this plan come to fruition.  Today, in between the USA and Canada you would have a huge tract of country with a status similar to Lesotho and Swaziland.  In economic terms it had the potential to become a powerhouse.  The proposed nation straddled the Mississippi and could have acted as a market exchange between the nations of Canada in the North, the USA in the East, French Louisiana in the South and the Spanish territories in the West.

The idea emerged after the American Revolutionary War.  The British came up with the idea of supporting their Indian allies and creating the new state as a barrier between the USA and Canada.

The USA treated the Native Americans as defeated powers.  The Native Americans did not accept this position and rose up against the American annexation of their lands.  On November 4th, 1791 a group of tribes led by Blue Jacket (Shawnee), Buckongahelas (Delawares), Little Turtle (Miamis) and with a large contingent of Potawatomis inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the US army led by Arthur St.Clair.  Popularly known as the Battle of the Wabash the indian victory made the idea of an Indian Nation all the more tangible for the British.

Then Napoleon began to conquer his way across Europe.  The British Government found itself isolated.  Rather than further antagonise the fledgling American State they abandoned the notion of an Indian Barrier State.

It is interesting to think, in an alternate reality, what North America could be like today.

Hell on the Wabash; by Carl Sandburg

When country fiddlers held a convention in
Danville, the big money went to a barn dance
artist who played Turkey in the Straw, with
They asked him the name of the piece calling
it a humdinger and he answered, “I call it
‘Hell on the Wabash.'”
The two next best were The Speckled Hen, and
Sweet Potatoes Grow in Sandy Land, with