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.

 

 

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.

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!

Cailleach

Augusta,_Lady_Gregory_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19028

The Cailleach was a celtic goddess associated with creativity and with natural events such as weather and tides.  The Cailleach appears as an old woman, a mystical and knowledgeable hag.  The poem below demonstrates how many of the ancient Celtic deities later came to be Christianised.  The Hag of Beara is often referred to as a wise old mendicant nun.  There can be no better symbol for Augusta Lady Gregory then the Cailleach.

Born this day in 1852 Lady Gregory was the creative impetus behind the foundation of the Irish National Theatre, the Abbey.  She was a leading figure of the gaelic revival, the nationalist Irish movement of the Arts that moved hand in hand with the cultural, political and military struggles for Irish Independence.

Lady Gregory preserved many ancient poems and stories, recording them by hearing them told in Gaelic, documenting them and translating them.

The Irish Cream Liqueur Drink “Coole Swan” is named after the W.B. Yeats poem; The Wild Swans at Coole”.  Yeats wrote the poem at Coole Park, Gregory’s home.

The Hag of Beare; (Trans) Augusta Gregory

It is of Corca Dubhne she was, and she had her youth seven times over,
and every man that had lived with her died of old age, and her
grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races. And through a
hundred years she wore upon her head the veil Cuimire had blessed.
Then age and weakness came upon her and it is what she said:

Ebb-tide to me as to the sea; old age brings me reproach; I used to
wear a shift that was always new; to-day, I have not even a cast one.

It is riches you are loving, it is not men; it was men we loved in
the time we were living.

There were dear men on whose plains we used to be driving; it is good
the time we passed with them; it is little we were broken afterwards.

When my arms are seen it is long and thin they are; once they used
to be fondling, they used to be around great kings.

The young girls give a welcome to Beltaine when it comes to them;
sorrow is more fitting for me; an old pitiful hag.

I have no pleasant talk; no sheep are killed for my wedding; it is
little but my hair is grey; it is many colours I had over it when I
used to be drinking good ale.

I have no envy against the old, but only against women; I myself am
spent with old age, while women’s heads are still yellow.

The stone of the kings on Feman; the chair of Ronan in Bregia; it is
long since storms have wrecked them, they are old mouldering
gravestones.

The wave of the great sea is speaking; the winter is striking us with
it; I do not look to welcome to-day Fermuid son of Mugh.

I know what they are doing; they are rowing through the reeds of the
ford of Alma; it is cold is the place where they sleep.

The summer of youth where we were has been spent along with its
harvest; winter age that drowns everyone, its beginning has come upon
me.

It is beautiful was my green cloak, my king liked to see it on me;
it is noble was the man that stirred it, he put wool on it when it
was bare.

Amen, great is the pity; every acorn has to drop. After feasting with
shining candles, to be in the darkness of a prayer-house.

I was once living with kings, drinking mead and wine; to-day I am
drinking whey-water among withered old women.

There are three floods that come up to the dun of Ard-Ruide: a flood
of fighting-men, a flood of horses, a flood of the hounds of Lugaidh’s
son.

The flood-wave and the two swift ebb-tides; what the flood-wave brings
you in, the ebb-wave sweeps out of your hand.

The flood-wave and the second ebb-tide; they have all come as far as
me, the way that I know them well.

The flood-tide will not reach to the silence of my kitchen; though
many are my company in the darkness, a hand has been laid upon them
all. My flood-tide! It is well I have kept my knowledge. It is Jesus
Son of Mary keeps me happy at the ebb-tide.

It is far is the island of the great sea where the flood reaches after
the ebb: I do not look for floods to reach to me after the ebb-tide.

There is hardly a little place I can know again when I see it; what
used to be on the flood-tide is all on the ebb to-day!

3.14159265359

Image result for Giotto circle

There is an apocryphal story about the artist Giotto.  The pope wanted a new artist and organised job interviews.  Giotto inscriped a perfect circle freehand and got the job.

Today is Pi Day because March 14th in the USA is annotated as 3/14 and these are the first three digits of Pi.

Pi is important because it is the number that describes a circle.  You need Pi to calculate the Radius/Diameter and the circumference of a circle.

Pi is a beautiful number because it seems to have no end.  A bit like a circle.

The eternal circle has become the symbol of a perfect marriage, as reflected in a wedding ring.

A more mystical symbol of eternity is the  ouroboros, a snake/dragon eating its own tail.  A symbol of life, death and rebirth.

Image result for ouroboros

 

 

 

 

Heard about the Horde Hoard?

Image result for goths city night

In the early 5th Century a horde of barbarians were led by their King, Alaric, to the City of Rome.  These were the Goths.  Just to be clear the Goths did not look exactly like the people in the photograph above, but I looked online for a representation of the Barbarian Goths.  Most of the images of the Sack of Rome are romantic fantasies of the 19th century.  They are about as accurate a depiction of Alaric and his people as the photo above.  So if you can’t be historically accurate then at least be funny.

So you have now heard about the horde, but what of the horde hoard?  When the Goths sacked Rome in 410 AD, it was on August 24th, about 2:30 PM and it was not at all the barbarian rampage that the romantics like to conjure up.  Alaric and his people were largely if not wholly Christian, albeit Arian Christians, who were considered to be heretics by the Niceans.  But let’s not go there.

Anyhow, Alaric told the Romans, and his own folk, that Christian Churches were safe.  Any Romans hiding in a Christian Church were safe.  But private residences and pagan temples were fair game.  So the Goths went methodically through the city and amassed a hoard of treasure worthy of Smaug; the dragon from the Hobbit.

Then Alaric decided to march south to Calabria.  He had the idea to sail his people to Africa and create a Gothic Kingdom there years before the Vandals got the idea.  But he was unlucky with the weather and his fleet of ships was wrecked.  Alaric himself picked up an illness and died shortly afterwards in the town of Cosenza, and here is where the tale of the treaure hoard gets really interesting.

Laden down with treasure the Goths wanted to honour Alaric with a grand tomb.  But they felt that the locals would loot any mausoleum the moment they marched North.  So they hatched a plan.

They enslaved a work gang of local Italians and forced them to change the course of the river Busento.  The riverbed was excavated and a tomb was built into the bed of the river.  Alaric was placed in the tomb with his burial treasures piled high around him.  The tomb was sealed, the river was returned to its course and hey presto the treasure was hidden.

The Goths then slaughtered the slaves to ensure the location of the tomb was never revealed, before marching off to a new home in Southern France.

To this day the tomb of Alaric has not been found.  Where is Indiana Jones when you need him?

Alaric_entering_Athens

Dodgy depiction of Alaric and his Goths

 

A hateful son

apocalypse

Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.

The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.

In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army.  Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts.  Death of course is the bride of war.

So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.

Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him.  Such a thing to say to your own son!

The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion.  They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness.  In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality.  Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.

Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four.  Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord).  Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war.  But that’s a different story.

Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).

The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible.  Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.

Rome took a different line.  Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods.  The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity.  Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.

So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.

And now back to the painting.  In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale.  When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.