The last voyage.

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This is my favourite photo of my cousin Orla with her two boys Eoin and Aidan, but you know how I love all things nautical.  Yesterday Orla departed on her last voyage from this plane and now it is up to us to send her off with all the pomp and drama of a Pharoah boarding a solar barge or a viking on a funeral ship.

What can I say about Orla?  Nothing better can be said than these words from another of my cousins, Mark C. O’Flaherty  and if you follow the link on his name you will see he is a genius with a camera.  Not content with his visual genius he puts me to shame with the quality of his writing too.  I have read this quite a few times and it makes me tear up every one.

-o0o-

I hate today

One of the best things about being part of a huge and amazing Irish family is that you are gifted, as a birthright, a lot of ready-made best mates. I spent a lot of time in Dublin growing up, and all my friends there were also my cousins. Every summer was full of the most brilliant adventures. My first memory of Orla was as a brattish little girl, five years younger than me, absolutely petrified of the Devil mask I had persuaded my uncle to buy me to go trick or treating with. I took delight in chasing her around the house while she screamed her head off and wept … if she was a brat, I was a horrible little shit. But, you know … *kids*. As we grew up, she became really special to me. A five year difference doesn’t mean much when you are in your 30s and 40s. I remember being SO happy when she finally had the family she had wanted for so long – with monstrous pain and disappointment along the way. I sat in her house in Clonakilty and felt a tinge of jealousy at how great her life was – her first little boy, Eoin, was being the most adorable little weirdo, playing with Neil and two giant cuddly Bert and Ernies, and muttering incoherent hilarious nonsense, and for one afternoon I totally “got” why people have kids. Orla was SO HAPPY. But then she always seemed so happy. Which was one of the reasons why she was always my favourite cousin and why I loved her so much. Her joy and wit was infectious. When she walked in the room for her surprise 40th birthday party in Roganstown and everyone cheered the loudest cheer possible, I realised all of us felt the same way about her … She, meanwhile, found it utterly hilarious that I was hemmed in by so many riotous obnoxious children that I was in some way related to. “Ha, Mark! You must be loving this!” And actually I was.

Orla was always the person I wanted to spend time with the most when we were all together in Dublin as a family. I thought I’d always feel like that. But today she is gone. At 42. Leaving two young boys and all of us heartbroken, with half a lifetime or more taken away from her, and us. I feel heavy and numb and weird and a unique mixture of loss and frustration. I am far from home and I can’t comprehend how awful our family feels in Ireland right now, after spending the last few days with her. It is unjust and unfathomable. I am trying to find some solace in the fact that Orla absolutely knew how loved she was, but I can’t really, and I just want her back, waiting for me, with her madly bright smile, beside the bar with her boys Eoin and Aidan, my Auntie Phyllis and Uncle Frank, her brothers Conor and Garrett and her husband Ian at the next family party in Dublin.

We are all heartbroken today and I hate it

-o0o-

In memory of my mother; by Patrick Kavanagh

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
you walking down a lane among the poplars
on your way to the station, or happily

going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –
you meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle – ‘
among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
of green oats in June,
so full of repose, so rich with life –
and I see us meeting at the end of a town

on a fair day by accident, after
the bargains are all made and we can walk
together through the shops and stalls and markets
free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
for it is a harvest evening now and we
are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
and you smile up at us – eternally.

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Leda

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The latest addition to my family, my grand-niece Leda.

My first concern is that she not get too friendly with Swans.  Last time that happened a pretty little girl was born, and married Menelaus the Mycenean King of Sparta.  Helen of Sparta is not how we remember her, for Paris, son of Priam, stole her away to his home city.  And so we remember her as the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium.

Illium was the ancient name for the city of Troy, so Helen of Troy was daugher of Leda.  But who was the father of this child with the dreadful fate?  It was Zeus himself, who raped Leda, in the guise of a male swan.

And the brother of Menelaus?  The dread Agamemnon King of Mycenae itself, ruler of all the Achaeans as the Greeks called themselves in those days.  From this followed ten years of war.  Ajax and Achilles, Hector and Aeneas, wily Odysseus and his Trojan Horse.  Death and destruction as the Gods themselves engaged in the battle of the great Homeric Epic.

Calling a daughter Leda can come to no good I say.  But I am Cassandra and they shall not listen.

Leda and the Swan; by W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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Stormin’ Normans

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The marriage of Aoife and Strongbow

May 1st 1169 is traditionally given as the day the Normans came to Ireland.  It was a tradition in Ireland for ousted kings or princes to run abroad to seek support to retake their crowns.  Belgium was a popular place to go because Flemish mercenary spearmen had a good reputation.

On this occasion though the ousted King of Leinster Dermot MacMurrough decided to go to Aquitane.  100 years on from the Battle of Hastings the Norman invaders were well settled in England, Wales and parts of Scotland.  In Wales the Normans intermarried with the Welsh Marcher Lords and created extended families of troublemakers.

Henry II, based in Southern France, the lands of his wealthy wife,  maybe thought he could get rid of a few Welsh troublemakers by sending them to wild Ireland.  Or else Dermot, rebuffed by Henry, went independently to Wales, and pitched his case to Robert DeClare (Strongbow).  Dermot dangled the promise of his daughter and the kingshop of Leinster in front of Strongbow, who reached for the prize.  So Robert Fitzstephen was despatched to lead an expedition.  He brought three ships, thirty mounted knights and about 300 Welsh and Flemish footsoldiers to Bannow Strand in Co.  Wexford in the south west of Ireland.

Two days later they were followed by two more ships led by Maurice de Prendergast and a further 300 soldiers.  There they were met by 500 Irish supporters of MacMurrough.  They marched on Wexford and successfully took the Danish city.  For a time it seems that matters stabilised or went against the invaders.  McMurrough begged Strongbow for more troops and a year later another force landed at Baginbun led by Raymond le Gros.  They routed an army of Irish and Norse from Waterford.

In August 1170 Strongbow himself arrived with thousand men and now the Normans had a critical mass of troops.  First they took the stoutly defended city of Waterford.  There Strongbow married his promised prize, Aoife MacMurrough, in the wedding pictured in the painting above from the Irish National Gallery.  They swept rapidly up the coast and siezed Dublin.

In May 1171 with the death of Dermot the Norman knight Strongbow became King of Leinster and was threatening to expand to the rest of Ireland.  Henry II the Angevin King of lands from Southern France all the way up to Scotland had reason to fear a rival Kingdom in Ireland.  He brought his army to Ireland and rapidly established some of his own knights in lands here.  It then appears that he did a deal with the remaining Irish of Ulster, Munster and Connacht.  At the Rock of Cashel he met the Kings and appears to have set out a stable peace.  No doubt this involved their support for Henry to deny Strongbow any further power.

Henry installed his younger son, John Lackland, as Lord of Ireland.  This is the John we see frequently represented as the weakling younger brother to Richard Lionheart.  The evil prince of the Robin Hood tales depicted in the Disney movie as a spoiled thumb sucking juvenile lion.  The craven who ended up capitulating to the powerful Barons when he signed the Magna Carta at Runnymeade.

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Harun al-Rashid

Sinbad

Born on St Patricks Day, some 300 years after St. Patrick lived, Haroun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest Caliph of the Islamic world.  He presided over the Abassid Caliphate in its golden age when it was the centre of learing, enlightenment, literature, arts and science.

He corresponded with rulers as far away as France, presenting Charlemagne with a clock that was so ingenious the Franks believed it to be possessed, so many and complex were the chimes it sounded.  A good an generous friend he also proved a stern and powerful enemy.  He brought the Byzantine empire to heel and his name was feared throughout his own empire.

His name may translate as the “orthodox” or the “right guided” and for Sunni Muslims he represented a powerful bastion of the islamic faith.  So powerful indeed that the Christian world suffered the crisis of iconoclasm at this period.  Seeing the success of the armies of Islam orthodox christians questioned if religious icons, images and statues were in fact idols.  Heads were smashed from church altars, icons were thrown onto fires and emperors were dethroned based on their belief.

Legend has it that al-Rashid would don a beggars cloak and walk the streets of Baghdad or Raqqa and eavesdrop on the conversations of the ordinary folk to better understand how they perceived him and his rule.

In the West we know of this great Sultan because of a book.  “A thousand and one nights”, or the “Arabian Nights” is a collection of tales from the Asian world, originating in Arabia, India, China and Persia.  They include characters known by every Western child, The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali-Baba and the forty thieves, magic flying carpets and many many more fantastic and magical tales.

At the heart of the tale is the evil sultan, thought to be modeled on Al-Rashid.  Each night he takes a bride from his harem and after taking his pleasure has her killed.  The interlocutor of the 1001 nights is Sheherazade, the wife who beguiles him with storytelling instead of pleasures of the flesh.  Instead of killing her he spares her for one more night, for one more story.  And so the tales unravel over the course of many years until he of course falls madly in love with her.

From this book we have a wealth of art, music, dance and not a few pantomimes.  It was the inspiration for hundreds of childrens authors from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling.  Poetry of Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson and Archibald Macleish stories of O. Henry, James Joyce and Charles Dickens.  Al-Rashid is a thread that runs trough every weave in the fabric of literature.

Sailing alone around the world

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Joshua Slocum’s yacht “Spray”

 

Today is the birthday of Joshua Slocum, who invented a new type of literature.  The autobiographical adventure book.  In his travelogue “Sailing alone around the world” the Nova-Scotian come American describes in detail the sourcing and rebuilding of his boat “Spray” and the journey he took around the globe.

The highlight of the trip for me was in South Africa where Slocum was approached during his speaking tour by a group of Boer flat earthers.  They asked him to confirm that the Earth was indeed flat.  Slocum laconically suggested that a circumnavigator was not their best advocate.

Born on Feb 20th 1844 Slocum disappeared with his yacht in 1904, aged 65.

 

February 20 was my birthday, and I found myself alone, with hardly so much as a bird in sight, off Cape Froward, the southernmost point of the continent of America. By daylight in the morning I was getting my ship under way for the bout ahead.

The sloop held the wind fair while she ran thirty miles farther on her course, which brought her to Fortescue Bay, and at once among the natives’ signal-fires, which blazed up now on all sides. Clouds flew over the mountain from the west all day; at night my good east wind failed, and in its stead a gale from the west soon came on. I gained anchorage at twelve o’clock that night, under the lee of a little island, and then prepared myself a cup of coffee, of which I was sorely in need; for, to tell the truth, hard beating in the heavy squalls and against the current had told on my strength. Finding that the anchor held, I drank my beverage, and named the place Coffee Island. It lies to the south of Charles Island, with only a narrow channel between.     

Sailing Alone Around the World;  Chapter 7, near Punta Arenas, Tierra del Fuego in Chile

 

Happy Birthday Moby Dick

Essex

It was on this day in the year 1820 that the Whaling Ship out of Nantucket called The Essex was rammed by an enormous Sperm Whale.

What followed was a dreadful tale of survivors adrift on the Pacific Ocean in small open boats.  Dehydration, starvation, cannibalism and survival.

Two of the crew wrote accounts of the ordeal and it was from these that Herman Melville fashioned his novel, Moby Dick.

And now a small quiz………how many Whales appear in the Bible?

 

 

Answer

None.  P.S.  Jonah was swallowed by a “Great Fish”.

And “Leviathan” could be any Sea Monster.

 

 

Bold Boy

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Sir Francis Drake was a Bold Sailor

There is a wealth of history in how we use the word “Bold” in Ireland. It is a word that draws a line between the oppressor and the oppressed.

As a child I remember my English cousins being confused when they heard my Mother admonishing myself and my brother for being “bold boys” when we were clearly being naughty. In England it was a positive thing to be “Bold”. Sir Francis Drake was a “bold” sailor. Sometimes Pirate who became the Queens Admiral. He demonstrated that a Good Englishman could get away with walking on the wrong side of strict legality. For English boys boldness embodied all the qualities desired in a strapping young lad who was being raised to rule the British Empire. Bold boys were brave on the rugby field. Bold boys were confident, outgoing and made good leaders of men.

Boldness was not a quality the English wanted exhibited in their Irish, Scottish or Welsh subjects. A bold Irishman was a rebel. He was dangerous and a threat. Irish were expected to be obsequious and subservient. They were expected to take orders, not give them.

Irish mothers raised their sons in a manner to keep them safe. Being bold would not make you safe. Being bold would get you in trouble. So in Ireland being a bold boy was a bad thing.

The bold buccaneer: by John Le Gay Brereton

One very rough day on the Pride of the Fray
in the scuppers a poor little cabin-boy lay,
when the Bosun drew nigh with wrath in his eye
and gave him a kick to remember him by,
as he cried with a sneer: “What good are you here?
Go home to your mammy, my bold buccaneer.”

Now the Captain beheld, and his pity upwelled:
with a plug in the peeper the Bosun he felled.
With humility grand he extended his hand
and helped the poor lad, who was weeping, to stand,
as he cried: “Have no fear; I’m the manager here.
Take heart, and you’ll yet be a bold buccaneer.”

But how he did flare when the lad then and there
doffed his cap and shook down a gold banner of hair.
Though his movements were shy, he’d a laugh in his eye,
and he sank on the Captain’s broad breast with a sigh,
as he cried: “Is it queer that I’ve followed you here?
I’m your sweetheart from Bristol, my bold buccaneer.”

On an isle in the west, by the breezes caressed,
the bold buccaneer has a warm little nest,
and he sits there in state amid pieces of eight
and tackles his rum with a manner elate,
as he cries: “O my dear little cabin-boy, here
is a toast to the babe of the bold buccaneer!”