Corsairs

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Corsairs were a peculiarity of naval warfare who acted like pirates, but had the protection of Letters of Marque to give them a legal standing.  Also called privateers, if captured they could claim prisoner of war status instead of being hanged as pirates.

Corsairs had the protection of being recognised combatants without having to carry out orders that might put them in danger.  They could behave as legitimate traders, but if they saw a target ripe for the picking they could sieze it and sell it at auction giving a portion to the crown, but retaining a portion of the “prize” for the Captain and crew.

Robert Surcouf from Saint-Malo in Brittany was the most famous of the French Corsairs of the Napoleonic wars.  He began his life as a slave ship sailor, rising to the captaincy.  During the revolutionary war and the subsequent Napoleonic wars he operated in the Indian Ocean.  He amassed a great fortune by capturing 40 British and Allied ships.

Napoleon awarded him the Légion d’Honneur and offered him a senior Naval posting.  Surcouf refused the commission, preferring his independence of action.

in 1796 as Captain of Émilie, a small schooner rigged corvette with 4 6-pounder guns and a 32 man crew Surcouf captured a number of prizes in the Bay of Bengal.  One was the Pilot Brig Cartier.  Brigs are sturdy two masted vessels rigged with square courses on both masts.

Surcouf had already detached 9 of his men to sail his captured prizes home, and boarded the Cartier with his remaining 23 men, bringing his four guns with him.  He renamed the capured vessel “Hasard”.  He then encountered the Triton, a British 26 gun East-Indiaman with a crew of 150.  Against all odds the French corsairs boarded the larger vessel and engaged in a hand to hand fight on the deck.  The British crew lost their captain and first officer in the savage fighting and surrendered to the French.

 

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Happy Birthday Horatio

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Horatio Nelson needs no history lesson here, you know who he is.  Today is his birthday and he was born in 1758.  Despite leaving parts of himself all over Europe this tiny man had a huge impact.  He clearly liked his sun holidays did Horatio, and he used to get up to some crazy antics.  He left his arm behind in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 after one holiday.  He lost his eye in Corsica in 1794 and rumor has it that he lost his heart in Naples in 1798 to Lady Hamilton.

Nelson was ennobled as the First Duke of Bronté and it is this title that gave us the famous Brontë family, Anne, Charlotte and Emily.

The father of the three Victorian writers was born Patrick Prunty from County Down in Ireland.  Patrick attended Cambridge University and perhaps found that his Irish Heritage was a handicap.  These were the days when Europe was in turmoil as Napoleon demolished the Ancien Regime and spread concepts such as the rights of man, enlightenment and republicanism.  Ireland rebelled in 1798 seeking independence from the United Kingdom.  There is even a theory that his own brother was a rebel.  This highly political environment must have been a concern to a young protestant Irish student of divinity.

So Patrick Prunty changed his surname and adopted the name of Nelsons dukedom to become Patrick Brontë.

Fall, leaves, fall; by Emily Brontë

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
lengthen night and shorten day;
every leaf speaks bliss to me
fluttering from the autumn tree.

I shall smile when wreaths of snow
blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
ushers in a drearier day.

Tanegashima

On this day in 1543 a group of Portuguese travelling on a Chinese Junk were blown off course and became the first Europeans to land in Japan.  They anchored at the island of Tanegashima.  While on the island they demonstrated their firearms to the local lord Tanegashima Tokitata who was clearly an astute and entrepreneurial individual.

Tokitata immediately purchased two matchlock  arquebuses from the Portuguese and had his smith break them down and reverse engineer them.  The smith was able to replicate all the parts except for the helical drill to create the hollow barrel.  The technology did not exist in Japan and the Portuguese travellers did not bring that technology with them.

Tokitata arranged for a return visit and next time the Portuguese brought their own smith who demonstrated the technique to the Japanese.  As a result the musket was introuced to Japan.  It quickly revolutionised the Japanese battlefield.  Tanegashima prospered on the manufacture and sale of muskets.  Sales averaged 30,000 per year over the following 10 years.

The Japanese went on to customise and develop firearms on a track independent from other nations, and introduced innovations not found elsewhere.  For instance a lacquer rain cover on the firing lock to allow firing in the rain.

The arrival of firearms changed Japanese society.  A farmer could be trained to become a soldier in a few weeks, whereas traditional Samurai spent decades learning the craft of sword, bow and staff.  The Sengoku period saw 35 years of internecine chaos fuelled in part by the arrival of firearms.  This was brought to a conclusion in 1600 by the Battle of Sekigahara when Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the dominant shogun and established the 250 years of stable peace of the Edo period of Japan.

The other great technology introduced by the Portuguese to Japan was fried food.  The technique was unknown in Japan before the Europeans arrived.  To this day Tempura is known in Japan as the “Portuguese Method”.  As with the firearms the Japanese experimented using local ingredients and created something quite different from the original introduction.

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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

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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.