Sons of Érin

PP

An image instantly recognisable to everyone who grew up in Ireland.  Patrick Pearse in this iconic photograph, the hero shot!  He is our national messiah, the sacrificial lamb who was slain so our nation could be born.  Born on this day in 1879.  Teacher, Poet, Writer, Orator, Barrister and the Military Commander of the Easter Rising in 1916.  Pearse was executed in May 1916.

His brother Willie was executed the very next day for his part in the Rebellion.

Patrick wrote the following lament through the eyes of his Mother.  It is Ireland’s version of the Bixby letter from President Abraham Lincoln to the mother of five fallen union soldiers of the Civil War.

 

The Mother; by Patrick Henry Pearse

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge
my two strong sons that I have seen go out
to break their strength and die, they and a few,
in bloody protest for a glorious thing,
they shall be spoken of among their people,
the generations shall remember them,
and call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
in the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary
of the long sorrow-And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.

 

Willie & Pat

Willie & Patrick Pearse

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Perils of translation

Pomegranate

I came across this translation of a poem:

YOUR FACE AND THE TOLLING OF BELLS; by Ayten Mutlu

it was just like spring to laugh with you
and to touch the chimes of your face
lecherous and tranquil like a naked pomegranate

your face was the intimations of forenoon

at the meeting place of autumn
in the closed seas of your face
the birds flew like poisoned arrows
the summer blindfolded at the bottom of a wall

what is left of your face, a rusty shadow
the receding forest, the flower in mourning
pieces of broken glass the colours of spring

how do birds get accustomed to losing a sky?

ah, I’m late in getting to know the rain
like a naked pomegranate I am defeated and offended
where like the deteriorating autumn your old face
vanished with the tolling of the bells
(Translated by Suat Karantay)
(The Turkish PEN, 1995)

You can translate a poem but can you translate the meaning?  From this poem I will take one symbol, the “naked pomegranate”.  Coming from Ireland we have no symbology associated with this fruit.  It made an appearance every year at halloween as an exotic,  something out of the ordinary.  Most Dubliners called it a “Wine Apple”.

In more recent years the pomegranate has been more widely available and has crept in to a more regular role as an ingredient or a garnish in cookbooks.  But it has no deep meaning for us.

If you speak to people educated in the classics they may remember the tale of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who was whipped off by Hades to his kingdom where she ate six seeds of a Pomegranate and hence we are condemned to 6 months of growth and 6 of death and winter was born.  This Greek tale begins to hint at a deeper symbology to the fruit.  The fact that the seeds represent a calendar, a marker of time or age.

The symbology of the pomegranate in the middle east runs very deep.  Because the tree is evergreen it was used as a symbol of immortality by the ancient Persians.  I can imagine middle eastern children playing a game of counting the seeds of a fruit to represent the years of their life.

Iranian mythology celebrates the ancient hero Esfandiyar who is easily a match for the DC Comics or Marvel superheros.  In one tale he eats a pomegranate and gains super strength like an ancient version of Popeye with his spinach.

The pomegranate appears in ancient Jewish architecture as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.  The fruit was one of the seven species brought by the 12 spies to Moses as proof of the fertility of Canaan.  It has been used as a teaching tool by Rabbis who say the fruit contains the number of mitzvot, 613.

Islam adopted the Jewish symbology of fertility.  Muslims consider the tree one of the four holy fruits along with dates, figs and olives and they depict it in representations of the garden of Eden.

In modern day Turkey as part of new year celebrations a pomegranate is cracked on the floor in a blessing ritual for prosperity in the coming year.  At wedding a bride may be asked to throw a whole pomegranate on the floor and will bear as many children as the seeds that fall out.

The Prophet Mohammed told his wives to eat the fruit so they would bear beautiful children.  From this hadith arises the notion that the fruit is a symbol of beauty.

So when the Ayten Mutlu speaks of a naked pomegranate in her poem she brings a rich weight of symbology of the fruit as a marker for beauty and for the hope of a new beginning and the disappointment of the declining of a life in the winter of years.

Unless you come from the Middle East, or do a lot of research into symbology, it is very difficult to grasp the meaning the poet is trying to convey.  Language and culture erect barriers that are very difficult for the translator to surmount.  Google can translate words, it takes a poet to translate meaning.

Ayten Mutlu is a Turkish Academic, Poet, Writer and Women’s rights activist.  Born this day in 1952.

How to choose a college course.

College Choice

As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year.  Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.

In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office.  So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.

For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic.   It is a points based scoring system.  If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college.  There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation.  There are some sensible exceptions.  Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio.  Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes.  But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.

So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”.  For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received.  It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?”  A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law.  Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.

These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education.  But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.

Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article.  Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life.  It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love.  It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison.  The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.

Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge.  When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay.  My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.

Which brings me to the TV jobs farce.  When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?

Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career.  Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues.  It all seems such a rush.  For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career.  There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners.  For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.

Law is categorised (Freakonomics:  Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament.  You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid.  Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams.  It is a microcosm of the capitalist system.  You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff.  Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win.  Not so great if you lose.  Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.

Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments.  Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul.  20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.

TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay.  TV is filled with interior design shows.  It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers.  But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer?  What?  You didn’t use one?  Why ever not?  Oh, they cost too much.

So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves.  You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries.  Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.

My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.

  1. Use the Venn diagram above.  Be honest with yourself.  If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
  2. Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat.  That is your base working assumption.  Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks.  Look at the courses in that points range.
  3. Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have.  Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
  4. If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career.  Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV.  For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
  5. Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life.  What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific.  If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way.  If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
  6. Finally, don’t stress about it.  Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course.  Life takes you in some strange directions.  Whatever you do choose, stick with it.  Complete the course and get the degree.  Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.

 

 

The missing Menorah

Titus.png

On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.

 

Big Dog

Castelveccio

Can Grande translates as “Big Dog”.  Interesting name for the Scaliger family who ruled Verona with an iron fist in the middle ages.  Can Grande II della Scala was also nicknamed Can Rabbioso or “The Rabid Dog”.

It was he who built Castelveccio and the Castelveccio bridge to protect himself and his family from the people he exploited so heavily that they fell into penury.  The castle turned out to be a wasted effort because in classic Italian style Can Grande found his end at the point of his brothers knife.

How much you can learn from an obscure reference in a line of a poem.  What did we ever do before Google?  Happy Birthday Richard Aldington who did his own “googling” in the British Museum.

 

In the British Museum; by Richard Aldington

I turn the page and read:
“I dream of silent verses where the rhyme
glides noiseless as an oar.”
The heavy musty air, the black desks,
the bent heads and the rustling noises
in the great dome
vanish …
and
the sun hangs in the cobalt-blue sky,
the boat drifts over the lake shallows,
the fishes skim like umber shades through the undulating weeds,
the oleanders drop their rosy petals on the lawns,
and the swallows dive and swirl and whistle
about the cleft battlements of Can Grande’s castle…

Gondola

Happy Birthday Maxine Kumin

Snowwhite

The true feminist knows that the fairy tale wedding is just a beginning.  In the aftermath of those tales how many of those tall, dark and handsome narcissists could you genuinely tolerate for more than a few years.  Dina Goldstein addresses the idea in her scathing set of “Fallen Princesses” photos.

Academic, feminist, horse breeder and mother of three Maxine Kumin was born Maxine Winokur on June 6th 1925.

The poem below is interesting as my daughter just told a joke on the same theme.  How do you drastically shorten a Shakespeare play?  “Oh Romeo, oh Romeo, hast thou found Jesus?”

 

Purgatory : by Maxine Kumin

And suppose the darlings get to Mantua,
suppose they cheat the crypt, what next? Begin
with him, unshaven. Though not, I grant you, a
displeasing cockerel, there’s egg yolk on his chin.
His seedy robe’s aflap, he’s got the rheum.
Poor dear, the cooking lard has smoked her eye.
Another Montague is in the womb
although the first babe’s bottom’s not yet dry.
She scrolls a weekly letter to her Nurse
who dares to send a smock through Balthasar,
and once a month, his father posts a purse.
News from Verona? Always news of war.
Such sour years it takes to right this wrong!
The fifth act runs unconscionably long.

Now for Rónán Mullen

Yes

 

I voted against the 8th referendum in 1983.  I was in the minority and it passed.  I was 20 years old and I felt out of touch with my own country.  I could not understand how the holy Joe brigade won on that day.

I clearly remember them handing out lapel badges with tiny feet on them, to represent the feet of foetuses.  I remember the praying women, bearing their crosses and their rosary beads, marching up and down the central reservation in O’Connell Street, saying the rosary.

I remember the convents being cleared out on the polling day to make sure that nuns who had not been outside their walls in decades were engaged to cast their votes.

Thirty years on the climate has changed in Ireland.  The winds from Rome have weakened considerably.  They iron hard grip of the church on society has slackened.  The hand of the church is liver spotted, wrinkled, veined and atrophied.  The church has failed to move with the times and faces dissolution.  It is losing control of its two strongest bastions, education and health.  Ireland is well on its way to becoming a fully secular nation.

I am not anti-christian.  I actually think the Christian church was in its day the greatest force for positive change on the planet.  The preaching of a message of peace and love was a giant leap forward from some truly awful religions.  The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine as votive rites are much more civilised than chaining virgin girls to rocks, stoning sinners to death or slitting the throats of sheep and goats.

My issue is not so much with Christianity as it is with organised religion.  My position is summed up by a speech from the film “Kingdom of Heaven” where the Hospitaller knight says to Balian:

 I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of God. Holiness is in right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What God desires is here [points to head] and here [points to heart] and what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man – or not.

In summary:  Regardless of your intentions, we are what we do.

In the Repeal the 8th campaign we saw, yet again, what the Religions Right actually do.  They lie.  They cheat.  They bully.

These are people who hold themselves up as the model of morality in our society.  Their intentions are all good.  But their actions are a disgrace.  They intentionally distort facts to make their point.  Sometimes they lie through omission and they have been caught in outright overt lies.  When they are called to account on their lies they employ the tactics of “Deny, Delay, Defend”.

Uniquely in this campaign the social media giants like Facebook and Google decided they would not accept political campaign postings in the lead up to the vote.  OK this is anecdotal but I did notice a fall off in “Repeal” material on my social network feeds.  On the eve of the election I was still seeing “Vote NO” material.  The no campaign exploited every loophole they could find to keep their campaign going.  I classify this as cheating.

The bullying was overt throughout the campaign.  Removal of Repeal posters.  Attacking campaigners in the streets.  Toppling their tables.  Throwing their leaflets to the ground.  Shouting down debaters in public discussion.  It was all ugly behaviour and none of it was reflective of what I think of as the Christian ethos.

These are people who took the lesson of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and use it as a model for how to wage every campaign.  They weaponize religion.

They lost this campaign.  They lost the same sex marriage referendum.  They lost the right to travel referendum.  They lost the divorce referendum.  But every loss makes them smaller, tighter, closer and more and more fanatical.

Rónán Mullen is the tip of this spear.  Elected by my own Seanad constituency.  Who, who, who is voting for this Smeagol, this Gollum, this hobgoblin.  Out, out, out I say.  This must not stand.