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.

 

 

The Death of Rail

Rail

Sally Thomsett, Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins on set in 1970.

When the Railway children was filmed in 1970 the death knell had already sounded for fully integrated local rail system in both Britain and Ireland.  The nostalgic romance of the rails of Victorian Britain was already a distant fantasy of a time that never was.  The axeman was Richard Beeching who published his first Report on Rail Cuts in Britain on this day in 1963.

Over 2,000 stations and 8,000 km of rail were designated for the chop.  Where the British led the Irish followed and the Irish Civil Service lobbed off most of the branch lines in the 1960s.

Looking  back today we can see how foolish these moves were.  If I have learned one thing in my life it is not to let go of public infrastructure.  Canals, Railways, Fixed line telephony, Roads, Bridges, Gas Networks and Public Water.  The bones of a nation take centuries to build and can be squandered in a decade by vested business interests.

Oil was calling the shots in the 1960s.  The chequebooks flowed, roads were built and the car was king.  Rail was sacrificed on the altar of the oil industry.

Rail may have been seen as outdated in the 1960s but today it is a gift to commuters.  Rail is vastly more efficient in moving large numbers of people in and out of cities to work.  It is also far more environmentally efficient than cars.

The Beeching report was a stich up.  The decisions had been made long before the report was written.  His cutting of local branch lines was supposed to improve the efficiency of the core, and profitable mainline rail.

Often it is a cartoonist who can best expose the lie and I wish I could find you an image of the cartoon I like best.  It shows Beeching himself lobbing off his own arms and legs to improve the core.

The truth is that if you don’t have the branch lines feeding the main line what you are hoping for is that commuters will get into a car and drive to the nearest railway station on the main line.  But they don’t.  Mostly once they get into a car they no longer use public transport.

Today if you travel Ireland and wonder why so many areas have abandoned railways and stations you can blame Beeching.  Blame the British Government.  Blame the Oil industry.  Blame an Irish Government that had no imagination to take a different direction and no confidence in their own decisions.

Milltown

 

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!

The Eternal Sea

Image result for ge2020

Politics is the “sea that consantly rages with turmoil and revolution”, and is interpreted by Biblical Theologians as the medium from which the anti-christ will come “I looked and saw a beast coming up from the sea” (Revelations 12:13).

Most people have become far more au fait with this quote which is taken from a poem recited by the priest Father Brennan in the film “The Omen”

When the Jews return to Zion
and a comet rips the sky
and the Holy Roman Empire rises,
then You and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
creating armies on either shore,
turning man against his brother
‘til man exists no more.

Yesterday in Ireland we had a General Election.  Today the votes are being counted.  Storm Ciara rages across the country and knocked out our electricity for an hour.  It has just come back, but it does all feel a bit ominous and biblical.

I’ll take a break from all the madness and watch Italy host France in Rome in 6 nations rugby.  Rome, isn’t that where the Omen began?

Image result for burned priest the omen

Happy Birthday Hadrian

Busts of Hadrianus in Venice cropped.jpg

Roman Emperor Hadrian is probably best known for his walls and his beard.  He sits right in the middle of the good times as the 3rd of the five “good” emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

One of the reasons the emperors were considered good is because they chose good successors, not family.  On this measure Aurelius failed and the lot is reduced to four.

Hadrian was the second Spanish emperor after Trajan, he was born 24th January, 76 AD   in Italica, which is just outside modern day Seville in Spain.  I visted in the summer of 1978.  It was hot.  There was no shade and I am no daywalker.  Bring water – wear sunscreen and a hat!

After the expanision of the empire to its greatest extent by Trajan there was a period of consolidation by Hadrian – hence the walls.  The most famous of which spans northern England.  Less famous but equally impressive are the walls erected in Africa.

Hadrian is responsible for naming Palestine.  His reputation amongst the Jews is not very nice and his name in Jewish texts is often followed by “may his bones be crushed”.  This is because Hadrian put down the final Jewish uprising in the Province of Judea – the Bar Kokhba revolt.

If you look at it from Hadrian’s point of view it is clear that the Jews were a major problem and the empire had been fighting revolt after revolt since 66AD and the reign of Nero.

After the Bar Kokhba revolt was put down the Romans pulled down the fortifications from 50 Jewish cities, leaving their populations exposed to danger.  The Roman provinces of Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were reformed and renamed as “Syria Palestina”.  This is seen as a calculated insult, to rename Jewish lands for their ancient enemies; the Philistines.

The Jews date the Diaspora from the end of the war with Hadrian, and it was the spread of the Jewish people accross the Roman Empire that led indirectly to the flowering of Christianity in the Empire.

Hadrian was also openly gay in the modern sense.  He loved all things Greek, earning him the nickname “The Greekling”.  This love extended to his boyfriend Antinous, a Bythinian Greek Youth who was deified by Hadrian when he drowned in the Nile on an Egyptian holiday (not joking).

The poem below is said to have been inspired by a poem of Emperor Hadrian: Animula, vagula, blandula.

Animula; by T.S. Eliot

‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
to light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
in the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
and running stags around a silver tray;
confounds the actual and the fanciful,
content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
what the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
perplexes and offends more, day by day;
week by week, offends and perplexes more
with the imperatives of ‘is and seems’
and may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
curl up the small soul in the window seat
behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
unable to fare forward or retreat,
fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
denying the importunity of the blood,
shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
for Boudin, blown to pieces,
for this one who made a great fortune,
and that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

 

 

The wretched way.

bowery-new-york-city

Below is the poem of the week courtesy of the Guardian from Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay.  Ireland settles into a second week of political campaigning for the 2020 General Election on February 8th.

In the USA Andrew Yang continues to push his model for Universal Basic Income.  For me this has to be the model for the future.  As robots relieve us of the requirement to carry out boring, disgusting or dangerous work how will we fund the lives of those who lose their jobs?  Without low level workers paying their taxes how will we fund public works?  I believe society is on the cusp of a new economic model.  Tax robots perhaps, and deliver a universal basic income to every citizen.

The old constant growth model of economics is dead.  Climate change and resource depletion are seeing to that.  But also we are seeing a plateauing of population growth.  China is concerned that their one child policy has been too effective and they need to raise their birth rate.  The Chinese are not having it.

We need a move to economic planning on the donut.  Kate Raworth’s economic model has us living in a planned band that lies between delivering on the basics for life without consuming beyond a sustainable rate.  That is a good template on which to plan the global economy.

Most of all we need to move society away from the current capitalist dystopia where the majority are exploited to serve the unfettered desires of the few.  Which reminds me that this week the World Economic Forum gets underway in Davos.

 

Harlem Shadows; by Claude McKay

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
in Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
to bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
of day the little gray feet know no rest;
through the lone night until the last snow-flake
has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
the dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
the sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
in Harlem wandering from street to street.

First Gay Novelist?

Image result for james bayard taylor

James Bayard Taylor was born Jan 11th 1825.  A poet, a writer, travel writer, diplomat and a most fantastically travelled man.  Many of his travels were made on foot.  He explored the White Nile, he reported on the Californian Gold Rush and he was at the opening of Japan with Perry’s fleet.  Mark Twain was envious of the quality of Taylors German when they travelled together to Prussia.

A highly successful writer in his own lifetime he has seen a rebirth of sorts.  His book “Joseph and his friend: a story of Pennsylvania” is by many considered to be the first American Gay Novel.

Storm Song; by James Bayard Taylor

The clouds are scudding across the moon;
a misty light is on the sea;
the wind in the shrouds has a wintry tune,
and the foam is flying free.

Brothers, a night of terror and gloom
speaks in the cloud and gathering roar;
thank God, He has given us broad sea-room,
a thousand miles from shore.

Down with the hatches on those who sleep!
The wild and whistling deck have we;
good watch, my brothers, to-night we’ll keep,
while the tempest is on the sea!

Though the rigging shriek in his terrible grip,
and the naked spars be snapped away,
lashed to the helm, we’ll drive our ship
in the teeth of the whelming spray!

Hark! how the surges o’erleap the deck!
Hark! how the pitiless tempest raves!
Ah, daylight will look upon many a wreck
drifting over the desert waves.

Yet, courage, brothers! we trust the wave,
with God above us, our guiding chart.
So, whether to harbor or ocean-grave,
be it still with a cheery heart!