Le Martyr Irlandais

Cork Mayor

Born on this day in 1879 Terence MacSwiney was one of two Cork Lord Mayors who had a significant impact on the struggle for Irish Independence.  His death was a triumph for the Irish Cause and a complete Political and Propaganda failure by the British Government.

McSwiney was an IRA volunteer, a soldier prepared to die for the cause.  But he was presented to the world by Sinn Féin as a “sensitive poet intellectual”.  That is a brilliant piece of spin.  In Catholic communites he was presented as a modern day martyr.

MacSwiney was an early adopter of hunger strike, following the lead of Thomas Ashe in November 1917 going on hunger strike 3 days prior to his release after his arrest for wearing an IRA uniform.

In the 1918 General Election he won the Mid Cork seat.  In 1920 the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, was assassinated by a Royal Irish Constabulary murder squad.  This was a symptom of the collapse of the British civil administration in Ireland.  When the police become murderers you know things have gone wrong.

MacSwiney was elected Lord Mayor of Cork.  Five months later he was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton Prison in England, after a trial in a military, not a civil court.  In protest MacSwiney immediatly went on hunger strike.  In response the Sinn Féin publicity machinery went into overdrive and made MacSwiney a cause célèbre on the international stage.

For the 73 days to his death his case played out in the USA, on the continent and in the British Colonies.  A small determined man in India in particular was paying close attention.  In London a Vietnamese independence campaigner named Ho Chi Minh said “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.”

The greatest empire in the history of the world was unable to retain control of it’s closest possession in such circumstances.  Within a year the British agreed to Irish Independence.

Dig No Grave Deep; by Terence MacSwiney

Lay not the axe to earth;
love does not sleep.
If yet thy thought esteemeth mine of worth,
for it dig no grave deep.

Let it put forth its power,
aside the surface sweep;
then will leap forth the long-desired flower
which thou mayst reap.

 

 

Ye goode olde dayes.

Myles_Birket_Foster_-_The_Country_Inn

The Country Inn: Myles Birket Foster

Born on this day in 1859 AE Housman was too old to serve in Flanders Field but he was a poet ahead of his time.  The sentimentality of his poetry conjures up the nostalgia of a bucolic idyll of an England that never was.  His verse was the poetic equivalent of the chocolate box art of John Constable and Myles Birket Foster.  His nostalgia for a simpler and more wholesome life is reflected in JRR Tolkien’s image of the Shire from Lord of the Rings.  I like the lyric from the Kinks “Muswell Hilbillies” which says “Take me back to the black hills where I ain’t never been”.

World War One began with the Jingoistic and Triumphalist doggerel of music hall verse singing of the glories of adventure:  It’s a long way to Tipperary!

It then moved towards sacrificial verse like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and of Housman which said “This is what we are fighting for”.

Eventually it descended into the true war poets like Sassoon, Owen and McCrae who expressed the absolute futility of young lives thrown away.

 

A Shropshire Lad 53; by A.E. Housman

The lad came to the door at night,
when lovers crown their vows,
and whistled soft and out of sight
in shadow of the boughs.

‘I shall not vex you with my face
henceforth, my love, for aye;
so take me in your arms a space
before the east is grey.

‘When I from hence away am past
I shall not find a bride,
and you shall be the first and last
I ever lay beside.’

She heard and went and knew not why;
her heart to his she laid;
light was the air beneath the sky
but dark under the shade.

‘Oh do you breathe, lad, that your breast
seems not to rise and fall,
and here upon my bosom prest
there beats no heart at all?’

‘Oh loud, my girl, it once would knock,
you should have felt it then;
but since for you I stopped the clock
it never goes again.’

‘Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips
wet from your neck on mine?
What is it falling on my lips,
my lad, that tastes of brine?’

‘Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,
for when the knife has slit
the throat across from ear to ear
’twill bleed because of it.’

Eurydice the muse

Edward_Poynter_-_Orpheus_and_Eurydice

The great love story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told many times.  It is a classic love tragedy and we see echoes of it in works like Romeo & Juliet.  Orpheus is given a magical lyre by his father Apollo and can charm the world with his music, bending anyone to his will.  When the love of his life, Eurydice, dies and goes to the underworld Orpheus descends to Hades and begs permission to bring his love back to life.  Hades and Persephone, charmed by his Lyre, agree to her return.  But Orpheus must lead her out without glancing back.  Unable to hear her footsteps his resolve breaks at the last moment and she is sucked back to the underworld.

HMS Eurydice was a British Navy ship which sank off the Isle of Wight on March 24th 1878, and represents one of the greatest peacetime disasters of the Royal Navy with the loss of 317 of the crew of 319.  The ship had one literary quirk being designed by Admiral George Eliot (not the writer).  Gerard Manley Hopkins, who returned to poetry with the “Wreck of the Deutchland” in 1875 at the direction of his superior was happy to pen “The Loss of the Eurydice” in 1878 to mark this event.

Eurydice continues to be a muse and her fate has become a theme for female poets.  The tale told from the perspective of Eurydice is of a woman escaping a relationship where Orpheus, with his magic lyre, held all the power.  In the painting by Poynter above Eurydice does not seem to be a willing participant.  Hades has been her liberation from Orpheus.  Eurydice becomes a symbol for women the world over who are escaping abusive relationships.

I give you two poems below, one from H.D. and another from Margaret Atwood.  I could also add Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive  “Go, walk out the door, don’t turn around now, you’re not welcome anymore”.

Eurydice; by H. D.

I

So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;

so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;

if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.

II

Here only flame upon flame
and black among the red sparks,
streaks of black and light
grown colourless;

why did you turn back,
that hell should be reinhabited
of myself thus
swept into nothingness?

why did you glance back?
why did you hesitate for that moment?
why did you bend your face
caught with the flame of the upper earth,
above my face?

what was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
what was it you saw in my face?
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence?

What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white.

III

Saffron from the fringe of the earth,
wild saffron that has bent
over the sharp edge of earth,
all the flowers that cut through the earth,
all, all the flowers are lost;

everything is lost,
everything is crossed with black,
black upon black
and worse than black,
this colourless light.

IV

Fringe upon fringe
of blue crocuses,
crocuses, walled against blue of themselves,
blue of that upper earth,
blue of the depth upon depth of flowers,
lost;

flowers,
if I could have taken once my breath of them,
enough of them,
more than earth,
even than of the upper earth,
had passed with me
beneath the earth;

if I could have caught up from the earth,
the whole of the flowers of the earth,
if once I could have breathed into myself
the very golden crocuses
and the red,
and the very golden hearts of the first saffron,
the whole of the golden mass,
the whole of the great fragrance,
I could have dared the loss.

V

So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth,
and the live souls above the earth,
and you who passed across the light
and reached
ruthless;

you who have your own light,
who are to yourself a presence,
who need no presence;

yet for all your arrogance
and your glance,
I tell you this:

such loss is no loss,
such terror, such coils and strands and pitfalls
of blackness,
such terror
is no loss;

hell is no worse than your earth
above the earth,
hell is no worse,
no, nor your flowers
nor your veins of light
nor your presence,
a loss;

my hell is no worse than yours
though you pass among the flowers and speak
with the spirits above earth.

VI

Against the black
I have more fervour
than you in all the splendour of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark grey
I have more light;

and the flowers,
if I should tell you,
you would turn from your own fit paths
toward hell,
turn again and glance back
and I would sink into a place
even more terrible than this.

VII

At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;

and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

-o0o-
Orpheus (1); by Margaret Atwood

You walked in front of me,
pulling me back out
to the green light that had once
grown fangs and killed me.

I was obedient, but
numb, like an arm
gone to sleep; the return
to time was not my choice.

By then I was used to silence.
Though something stretched between us
like a whisper, like a rope:
my former name,
drawn tight.
You had your old leash
with you, love you might call it,
and your flesh voice.

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

I was your hallucination, listening
and floral, and you were singing me:
already new skin was forming on me
within the luminous misty shroud
of my other body; already
there was dirt on my hands and I was thirsty.

I could see only the outline
of your head and shoulders,
black against the cave mouth,
and so could not see your face
at all, when you turned

and called to me because you had
already lost me. The last
I saw of you was a dark oval.
Though I knew how this failure
would hurt you, I had to
fold like a gray moth and let go.

You could not believe I was more than your echo.

Gary Whitehead, a mouse and Covid19

Glendalough

Carpark in Glendalough during Lockdown

Monday morning Week 2 of Coronavirus lockdown.

Spring is upon us and the weekend discarded its shroud of rain and wind and blessed us with some sun for a change.  Here in rural Tipperary we were released to walk the quiet country roads.  Dublin was somewhat different.  Given a sniff of good weather Dubliners all collectively head for the same spots:  Glendalough, the Sally Gap, Howth Head, Dollymount Strand, Bettystown, the Phoenix Park etc.  As a result you get crowding, traffic jams, queues for the coffee truck or the chip van.  The opposite of social distancing.

As a result the council steps in and shuts down car parks, exacerbating the problem in the ones that remain open.

Huge cities are not human places.  Now that many of us can work remotely what is the point of crowding millions of people into boxes of glass and steel? So much valuable time is lost commuting too and from the workplace.  Today that time is being used for exercise.  A fit workforce is a productive workforce.

If Covid-19 teaches us one thing it is that we can reverse the flow of people from country to city.  In the modern world it is not necessary to cram your employees into a factory where you can supervise them.  Technology can do that for you.  I predict that many of those working from home today will continue to work from home long after the crisis is past.

 

Mouse In The House; by Gary Whitehead

For two nights now it’s wakened me from dreams
with a sound like paper being torn, reams

of it, a scratching that’s gone on for hours.
Blind in the dark, I think of my father’s

letters, the ones composed but never sent.
They were addressed to his sister, my aunt,

a woman I never met but whose voice,
slurry and calling from some noisy place,

introduced itself one New Year’s eve, late,
before my mother came and silenced it

with a click. She was one of many things
we never spoke of. But when the phone rang

at odd hours, I’d wonder if it was her.
That voice had resurrected the picture

in the silver frame, my parents’ wedding
day: on the church steps the woman throwing

rice, blond and beautiful, showing no trace
at all of malice in her youthful face.

Now the awful sound, waking me again
like a secret, calls to mind the poison

I left out, and my mother on their bed
tearing a box of letters into shreds.

Lockdown Week 1

Image result for phyllis mcginley

It has been nothing short of bizarre this week and reminds me a lot of the Phyllis McGinley poem below.  We now have the subject matter for a hundred such poems.  Phyllis was born on this day in 1905 in Ontario, but was not a Canadian.  There is a town called Ontario in Oregon, USA.  There’s a trick question in there for a table quiz!

I worked from home all this week, with a break on Tuesday which was St. Patrick’s Day.  The Irish national holiday passed free of parades, with pubs and restaurants closed.  Tourists stranded in Dublin by the rapid pace of events wandered empty streets like lost souls.

Our heating broke down.  We spent the day shuffling a hot air blower and an oil filled radiator from room to room to alleviate the cold.

The plumber did come and spent the day with us on Thursday fixing the system.  He was pursued about the house by Louise wielding anti-bacterial sprays and sterile wipes in case he had been repairing a heating system in an infected house.

The three kids are working/studying from home also.  Esha sat her first exam of the semester, remotely from her bedroom on Friday.  It’s at times like this that you recognise wants from needs; electricity, wi-fi, heating.

Today Jerry and I did the weekly shop.  A bizarre experience.  Supermarkets filled with socially distanced shoppers.  None of the usual friendly chat and greetings.  No touching.  Everyone super polite, standing back to let others pass by.  No rushing at the checkouts.

You know instinctively that all this distant politeness will come to a violent end if the supply lines dry up.  The most important thing today for goverments the world over is to continue to provide confidence to citizens that the food, and drink, will continue to arrive on the shelves.  A hint of panic and there will be blood in the aisles.

 

Daniel At Breakfast; by Phyllis McGinley

his paper propped against the electric toaster
(nicely adjusted to his morning use),
Daniel at breakfast studies world disaster
and sips his orange juice.
the words dismay him. headlines shrilly chatter
of famine, storm, death, pestilence, decay.
Daniel is gloomy, reaching for the butter.
he shudders at the way
war stalks the planet still, and men know hunger,
go shelterless, betrayed, may perish soon.
the coffee’s weak again. in sudden anger
Daniel throws down his spoon
and broods a moment on the kitchen faucet
the plumber mended, but has mended ill;
recalls tomorrow means a dental visit,
laments the grocery bill.
then having shifted from his human shoulder
the universal woe, he drains his cup
rebukes the weather (surely turning colder),
crumples his napkin up
and, kissing his wife abruptly at the door,
stamps fiercely off to catch the 8:04

Empire of Plague

On this day, March 20th in 235 AD the Barracks Emperor Maximinus Thrax was acclaimed emperor of Rome by the Praetorian Guard.  His three year reign began in the year of the 6 emperors and is considered to herald in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century”.

Traditionally historians have viewed the crisis as a failure of leadership combined with a degrading of moral fibre as the goodly yeomen farmer soldiers gave way to effete and debauched libertines who would not bare a sword to defend the borders.

This is quasi-religious moralistic pontification as far as I am concerned.  As I sit in lockdown in a self-imposed isolation to limit the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 let me tell you how the Roman Empire declined.

In the years 165 to 180 AD the Antonine plague ravaged the Roman Empire.  Maximinus Thrax was born in the early 170’s right in the period when the plague was raging.  The disease wiped out a third of the population of the empire and in particular devastated the Roman Legions, where it spread first.

Legions needed to recruit warriors from the outside of the borders to make up the numbers.  “Barbarians” were settled on depopulated farms in border regions.  The family of Maximinus Thrax were of Dacian origin, replanted into the Empire.

The senate reacted against the elevation of a soldier who had no family from either the Senatorial or Equestrian classes.  The senate worked actively against Thrax by recognising other candidates.

Ten years after the reign of Thrax the Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire from 249AD to around 262AD.  To have a single plague that kills one third of the population is an event that can destroy a regime, a nation or an empire.  To have two such events within the span of a single lifetime must have been devastating in the extreme.  In this context I don’t find the decline of the Roman Empire surprising, the thing that astounds me is that the Roman Empire survived.

 

A Litany in Time of Plague; by Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, Earth’s bliss;
this world uncertain is;
fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
none from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
gold cannot buy you health;
physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
the plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
which wrinkles will devour;
brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
worms feed on Hector brave;
swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
hath no ears for to hear
what vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
to welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Dabbling Duck

Image result for mallards flooded field

On my walk I passed a flooded field where Mallards were exploring ponds that only exist when the land floods.  Dabbling Ducks, of the family Anatinae, they feed on the surface instead of diving.  This equips them better to exploit shallow temporary water sources like flooded fields.

It reminded me of this enigmatic poem by a poet who celebrates his birthday today.  Better known for his Faerie poems of the Irish Little people.

Four ducks on a pond; by William Allingham

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring,
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years-
To remember with tears!