The thing about martyrs

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Kevin Barry in his Belvedere Rugby Shirt

Born today in 1902 Kevin Barry was the most perfect of martyrs.  A smart lad, educated by the Jesuits in Belvedere College Dublin.  He played on a championship winning junior rugby cup winning team and also represented the school on the senior cup team.

He went on to study medicine in University College Dublin.  Aged only 18 he was involved in a shootout with British Soldiers and was the only member of his squad caught.  He refused to give up his comrades under torture.  He was tried, found guilty and hanged by the British like a common criminal.

For Sinn Féin (the IRA) the events could not have been orchestrated more favourably.  The British immediately found themselves on the losing side in a world-wide PR campaign.  In Ireland tempers were already high.  The hanging of Barry occurred in the same week when Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died on hunger strike.

The British had plenty of ammunition to fight a counter PR campaign but they failed miserably.  For instance the soldiers attacked by Barry’s squad were about the same age as Barry himself.  Barry was armed with dum-dum bullets, banned by Geneva convention.

Described as a “sensitive poet-intellectual” MacSwiney was presented to the world as a pacifist playwright intellectual forced by the brutal British to take up arms in defence of his rights.  Killed by a callous and cold-hearted monarchy.  Barry was presented as little more than a child, a young gentleman of great potential, beaten, tortured and hanged by violent beasts.  Who could not shed a tear?

Money flowed in from abroad for the cause.  The IRA guerilla campaign went into all out war and within a year the British Government found their position in Ireland untenable.  They went to the negotiating table.

The thing about martyrs is never to create them.  The British were slow to learn this lesson.  The execution of the 1916 leaders should have opened their eyes to the power of martyrs.  But the British were still creating martyrs in 1981 when 10 Provisional IRA prisoners died on hunger strike in the Maze prison in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher.  The leader of that strike, Bobby Sands, was elected to the Westminster parliament while on hunger strike.  The British Government suffered a dreadful loss of face and had to pass legislation to prevent nomination of prisoners for election to prevent a repeat incident.

The hunger strike is a very ancient tradition in Ireland and goes all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and Celtic Hospitality laws.  It was compulsory for a host to feed a guest under his roof.  As a protest against injustice a subject might starve himself outside the hall of his lord.  Such an action usually led to resolution of a dispute because the lord could not bear the shame of a man starving himself on his doorstep.

The IRA began active use of the hunger strike in May 1917 to protest their status as political rather than criminal prisoners.  Under international pressure the hunger strikers were released.  Thomas Ashe was subsequently re-arrested and went back on hunger strike in Sept 1917.  The British Government initially ordered the forced feeding of fasting prisoners.  When Ashe choked to death during force feeding in 1917 his funeral became a major IRA recruitment drive.  The hunger strike as a modern weapon of non-violent resistance was born.

The world paid due attention and in India Mohandas Gandhi saw its potential.  As a form of non-violent protest it complied with the philosophy of satyagraha.  In 1929 Jatin Das died after 63 days on hunger strike.  On the same strike Bhagat Singh set a hunger strike record of 116 days and ended the strike when demanded concessions were granted.

Prison authorities have become more scientific about the force feeding of hunger striking prisoners.  As a result of direct stomach feeding via a Ryles tube Irom Sharmila was able to remain healthy despite 16 years refusal to ingest either food or water through her mouth.

One final thing about martyrs, they need to be special.  A good martyr every ten years or so serves as a beacon of defiance, bravery, resistance to oppression.  It serves as a rallying cry, a call to recruitment , an incentive for contributions to the cause.  In the middle east today Islamic groups create a handful of martyrs every month.  Too many martyrs for any individual martyr to stand out from the crowd.  Martyrdom is no longer special, it just become the norm and eventually it becomes meaningless.  A pointless death.  A waste of life.

 

Kevin Barry: Anonymous

In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty
But a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high

Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The names of his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
“Turn informer or we’ll kill you”
Kevin Barry answered, “no”

Calmly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free

Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But can’t keep their spirit down
Lads like Barry are no cowards
From the foe they will not fly
Lads like Barry will free Ireland
For her cause they’ll live and die

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Enter a Pilgrim

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On this day, Dec 11th, 100 years ago, 1917, General Allenby entered Jerusalem.  In doing so he became the first Christian to take effective control of the city since Bailan of Ibelin surrendered the city to Saladin  in 1187.  (Excluding a limited negotiated return by Frederick II in the 6th crusade 1229-1244).

Allenby clearly understood the deep significance of his arrival in the holy city.  For this reason he elected not to enter in triumph as a conqueror.  Instead he entered as a pilgrim.  He walked in via the Jaffa gate in what was a low key affair, as depicted by the photo above.

I contrast this with the recent decision by Donald Trump to overturn decades of US foreign policy and order the removal of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Trump has done exactly what Allenby sought to avoid.  He made a clear political statement favouring one community over all others.

The result of Donald Trump’s announcement is widespread rioting in the Middle East, not only in Palestine but also extending into neighbouring countries.  The usual flag burning is taking place outside US embassies all over the muslim world.

This manic and destructive act neatly focuses US media attention away from his tax bill, which rewards the super-rich at the expense of the middle class and poor Americans.  So what if a few muslim youths are shot, buildings torched and the people of Israel face a violent backlash?  The important thing is that US Oligarchs can look forward to even greater expansion of their wealth.  And let’s not forget, Trump is one of them.

 

 

Talking Turkey

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Since today is USA Thanksgiving it is a good time to talk about Turkeys, their origin, their names and their use in language.

The Turkey had a strange introduction to the English language.   The Mexican turkey was domesticated by the Aztec’s.  When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World they found a new type of domestic fowl.

To them it looked something like a peacock, so they gave it the Spanish word for the same:  Pavo.  The Peacock is now called the Pavo Real in Spanish, or the Royal Fowl.

When the Spanish brought the Turkey back from Mexico it spread rapidly across North Africa to the Ottoman Empire.  The Turks named the bird a “Hindi” or an Indian Fowl, because they then believed the New World was part of the Indian sub-continent. Hence we call the islands of the Caribbean the West Indies.

The French who purchased the bird from the Turks adapted the name “Hindi” to French.  They called it Volaille d’Inde (The Indian Fowl) which was shortened over time to Dindon.

The English called traders with the Ottoman Empire “Turkey Traders”.  When this new bird arrived they called it the Cock or Hen of Turkey.  So we get the name Turkey as a bird.

When English colonists set off to Virginia Colony and New England they included domesticated Turkeys in their compliment of farm birds.  When they arrived in the New World they were surprised to see a wild bird species remarkably similar to the fowl they believed came from Turkey.

The North American wild turkey ( Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) has not been domesticated, and is a different sub-species to the Aztec domestic turkey.

To ‘Talk Turkey’ is a synonym for talking real business.  It appears to originate in a joke where a white man suggests to a red indian that they share the spoils of their hunting as follows: ‘I can take the Turkey and you can take the crow, or you can take the crow and I can take the Turkey’ to which the Indian replies ‘you no talk turkey to me”.

To go “Cold Turkey” means to give up a habit or an addiction completely.  The phrase comes from the fact that drug or alcohol addicts to completely cease using can get cold clammy sweats and goosebumps on their skin, so their flesh looks like refrigerated Turkey.

A Turkey Shoot is a situation where a person or group has an unfair advantage over others.  In business it is a situation where unexpected demand creates an environment for supernormal profits and frequently arises in disaster situations or in times of war.  If you have the product the consumers will pay through the nose for it.  In military situations a classic case of a turkey shoot was the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, when union soldiers ran into the crater created by the detonation of a huge mine.  The sides were too steep for them to exit the hole and the Confederate troops were able to shoot down on them with ease from the rim of the crater.

The origin of the term ‘turkey shoot’ is uncertain.  Many rifle clubs in the USA hold pre-thanksgiving turkey shoots where the prizes are frozen turkeys.  What characterizes these competitions is that skill is replaced by luck.  Most of them involve blasting a target at short range with a shotgun.  Older versions involved shooting rifles at staked live turkeys, requiring slightly more, but not a huge amount of skill.

Crowded field

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A very auspicious day today, very popular with the celebrity birthdays.  It is a crowded field, but for me it will always be Pompey day.  Not only was he born today but he also got leave from the senate to celebrate his third triumph today in 61 BC.  The Senate celebrated Pompey for his war against the pirates, which made him fantastically rich.  He was already rich when he started, but this was the icing on the cake.

He also slipped in at the end of Lucullus’ war against Mithridates VI in the East and claimed the win for himself.  Cheeky!

This was undoubtedly the high water mark of Pompey’s career.  In 59 BC Pompey harnessed his significant senatorial weight to the wealth of Crassus and the populism of Caesar to form the first triumvirate.  From this point the trajectories in the careers of Caesar and Pompey were a reflection of each other as the Elder statesman declined and the young pretender rose in prominence.

 

 

Damnatio memoriae

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Emperor Domitian was assassinated on this day in the year 96 CE at the age of 44.  He reigned for 15 years, the longest imperial reign since Augustus and Tiberius, the first two Roman Emperors.

Domitian was condemned on his death to be forgotten by the Senate who hated him deeply.  They passed a sentence of damnatio memoriae upon him, in an attempt to condemn him to oblivion.  Their punishment largely worked.  The writers of the day such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny the younger recorded that he was an evil, cruel and paranoid tyrant.  Until the modern era he was lumped in with the bad boys of the early empire such as Caligula and Nero.

Third and final ruler of the Flavian dynasty, who gave us the Coliseum and famously destroyed the Jewish Temple.  Vespasian, his father, survived a close association with the emperor Nero when many of his compatriots lost their heads.  After the fall of Nero he emerged as the winner in the year of the four emperors.  Domitian, aged 17 was in Rome when hostilities broke out and was placed under house arrest by Vitellius, the runner up for Emperor of the year.

Vespasian ruled for ten years and died aged 69 from an illness that inflicted him with diarrhea.  He was the first emperor to be succeed by his natural son, Titus.  Since Titus was young, fit, healthy and already a renowned military commander it is thought that Domitian was not groomed for the top job.  But Titus ruled for only two years before he too succumbed to a fever leaving his younger brother as Emperor.

Modern analysis of his reign, and by scouring sources not aligned to the Senate, paint a picture of a highly organized and autocratic ruler who was unsubtle in managing the pride of the senators.  He was loved and revered by the public and by the common soldiery but hated by the Senate and the officers of the patrician class.  He did not indulge in the usual game of according the Senate nominal authority and they hated him for it.  His lack of training in this balancing act was his ultimate undoing, and he was assassinated by officials in his court, stabbed in the groin and a further seven times in the struggle that ensued.  Domitian killed one of his assailants.

Domitian was further pilloried in the press in claims by the writer Eusebius in the 4th century that he persecuted Christians and Jews.  Christians put him in the naughty emperor box along with Nero and Diocletian and painted graphic portrayals of him feeding martyrs to the lions.  In fact the Flavians were highly tolerant of Eastern religions and the claims by Eusebius are possibly founded on lies that originate in the senatorial curse.

The atmosphere is clear for a reevaluation and a cleanup of the tarnished reputation of an Emperor who achieved much good in his reign and came to a sad and sorry end.

 

 

9/11

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A great day for Scotsmen, who celebrate the victory of William Wallace over the British at the Battle of Sterling Bridge in 1297.

A great day for Maltese, who celebrate the lifting of the Great Siege of Malta when the Knights Hospitallers defeated the might of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power in 1565.

A remarkable day in the history of New York, when Henry Hudson discovered the Hudson River and Manhattan Island in 1609.

A mixed day for the Duke of Marlborough and his allies in the war of the Spanish Succession.  They defeated the French at Malplaquet in 1709 but it was something of a pyrrhic victory as the allies lost twice as many men as the French.

A better day for the Americans in 1814 at the battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain when they defeated the British in the war of 1812.

A bad day in 1916 when the central span of the Quebec Bridge collapsed with the deaths of 11 men.

A worse day in 2001 with the loss of 2,296 people in terror attacks on the Twin Towers.

Today we are not sure yet how bad a day it has been for the people of Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

This ebb and flow across one date in history reminds me of the following sonnet.

 

SONNET 64; by William Shakespeare

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
the rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
and brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
and the firm soil win of the watery main,
increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
or state itself confounded to decay;
ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

 

Happy Birthday Rupert Brooke

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Described by none other than W.B. Yeats as “the handsomest man in England” Brooke is the quintessential war poet.  A product of Rugby school and Cambridge University, a confused bisexual, steamy good looks, went skinny dipping with Virginia Wolfe, associated with the Bloomsbury set of poets.  He had a nervous breakdown in 1912 and toured the world as part of his recovery process.  He may have fathered a child with a Tahitian woman along the way.

When the first world war began Brookes poems “The dead” and “The Soldier” captured the mood of the nation and brought him to the attention of Winston Churchill, first Lord of the Admiralty.  He was commissioned as a naval officer and sailed for Gallipoli.  He died of an infected mosquito bite before the fleet reached Turkey.  He is buried on the Greek Island of Skyros.

Here is a funnier and less heroic poem from the pen of someone who is way too godlike for his own good.

A Channel Passage; by Rupert Brooke

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing — YOU!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice — heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ‘Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ‘twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.