Death of the Republic

Actium, Egyptian ship with battering ram

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Actium, the final major conflict of the civil wars that wracked the dying Roman republic from 133BC (if you ascribe to the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus origination) or   from 49BC (if you take it from the Rubicon Crossing) to 31BC.

The poet Virgil was effectively a propagandist working on behalf of Octavian, to counter popularity for Marc Anthony and solidify the transition to Empire.  Virgil worked with Maecenas, the agent of Octavian.  The poem below is clearly propaganda.  Octavian and the Romans are portrayed as the home team supported by the “right” gods.  They are bright lights against the gathering darkness, Anthony is portrayed as deviant, relying on a gaudily dressed ill fated woman, a rag tag coalition speaking a babble of tongues.  They bring strange animal gods from the East.  They are the foreigners, the others, interlopers.

The Battle of Actium; by Virgil (trans. John Dryden)  

Betwixt the quarters, flows a golden sea;
But foaming surges there in silver play.
The dancing dolphins with their tails divide
The glittering waves, and cut the precious tide.

Amid the main, two mighty fleets engage:
Their brazen beaks opposed with equal rage.
Actium surveys the well-disputed prize:
Leucate’s watery plain with foamy billows fries.

Young Caesar, on the stern in armour bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar;
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.

Agrippa seconds him, with prosperous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails.
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.

Ranged on the line opposed, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of eastern kings,
The Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:

And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him–the Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight: with oars and forky prows
The froth is gathered and the water glows.

It seems as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.

Fire-balls are thrown, and pointed javelins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbal tossed, her fainting soldiers warms–

Fool as she was! who had not yet divined
Her cruel fate; nor saw the snakes behind.
Her country gods, the monsters of the sky,
Great Neptune, Pallas, and love’s queen, defy.

The dog Anubis barks, but barks in vain,
Nor longer dares oppose the ethereal train.
Mars, in the middle of the shining shield
Is graved, and strides along the liquid field.

The Dirae souse from heaven with swift descent;
And Discord, dyed in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the press: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.

This seen, Apollo, from his Actian height
Pours down his arrows; at whose wingèd flight
The trembling Indians and Egyptians yield,
And soft Sabaeans quit the watery field.

The fatal mistress hoists her silken sails,
And shrinking from the fight, invokes the gales.
Aghast she looks, and heaves her breast for breath,
Panting, and pale with fear of future death.

The god had figured her, as driven along
By winds and waves, and scudding through the throng.
Just opposite, sad Nilus opens wide
His arms and ample bosom to the tide,
And spreads his mantle o’er the winding coast;
In which, he wraps his queen and hides the flying host.

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Battle of the Cabbages

FamineWarhouse

The Famine Warhouse, Ballingarry, Tipperary.

In March 1848 the train station in Thurles, County Tipperary opened in Ireland.

In the same year the Young Irelander Rebellion took place in a country riddled by the Great Potato Famine.  The rebellion was a failure.

The largest action of the rebellion was the Battle fought in the village of Ballingarry between a group of 47 armed police constables and a gang of rebels let by William Smith O’Brien.  The police, seeing themselves outnumbered, took cover in Mrs McCormacks house, taking her children as hostages.

The rebels were unable to oust the police from their stronghold and a siege ensued.  As the day wore on word came that reinforcements were on the way from Cashel to support the police, and the crowd dispersed.  Because of the field they occupied during the siege the rebels were mocked by calling it the Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Plot.

The battle took place on this day, July 29th, 1848.  William Smith O’Brien remained in hiding for a few days and on August 5th he made his way to Thurles to make his escape by train.  He was recognised in the train station and was arrested.

Sentenced to death by hanging for treason a huge petition was raised to commute his sentence.  He was deported along with the other Young Ireland leaders to Tasmania.  He failed to escape and served his sentence in full, finally returning to live in Brussels for much of his life.

His fellow Young Ireland rebel Thomas Francis Meagher did succeed in his escape to America.  There he raised an Irish Brigade to fight for the Union in the Civil War.  Apparently, when she read about this in the newspaper Queen Victoria wanted to know why one of Her Majesty’s Prisoners was leading troops in Virginia instead of rotting in a cell in Port Arthur.

Gettysburg

Littlesorrell

On this day in 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg began.  For a brief time it looked like the Confederacy  could break out of Virginia and bring the war to Northern soil.  After Gettysburg the South was on a permanent retreat.  The Battle represented the high water mark for the Confederate States, and for Robert E Lee.

Shortly before Gettysburg at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson lost his life to friendly fire.  Robert E Lee lost his right arm, his best General and leader of his cavalry.  It was the lack of intelligence from the replacement, Jebb Stewart, which led to the accidental meeting of North and South at Gettysburg.

Four and a half months after the battle a dedication was held to consecrate the Soldiers National Cemetery.  Abraham Lincoln came along and made a short speech, which has gone down in history as one of the finest orations ever made.  It serves as a model for all politicians since.  Ten sentences.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Federico Garcia Lorca

Lorca

June 5th 1898 to 1936 when he was executed by the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War because his pen was worth a regiment.  Happy Birthday Federico Garcia Lorca, feliz cumpleaños.

El Balcón; by Federico Garcia Lorca

Si muero
Dejad el balcón abierto

El niño come naranjas
(Desde mi balcón lo veo)

El segador siega el trigo
(Desde mi balcón lo siento)

Si muero
Dejad el balcón abierto

 

Happy Birthday Countee Cullen

countee-cullens-quotes-2

African Americans had a brief flowering of liberty and creativity in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War in the USA.  This was brought to a sharp end by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of the Jim Crow laws.

In the 1920’s there was a cultural, social and literary flowering of creativity by the grandchildren of the reconstruction era negroes.  Known at the time as the New Negro Movement it is now called the Harlem Renaissance.  Countee Cullen was one of the leading lights of this movement.

This poem is interesing to me because it is so evocative of the WB Yeats “He Wishes for the cloths of heaven”.  While Yeats wrote of the lovers angst Cullen’s poem speaks of discrimination and racism.  Here we are today 100 years on from the Harlem Renaissance and it seems that the struggle for equality for African Americans has seen little advance.  Despite the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X the USA still appears to be dangerous ground on which to be a black person.

For a Poet; by Countee Cullen

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.

Strange bedfellows

Relations between the Irish and the Blacks in America have often been at odds.  When hundreds of thousands of poor Irish fled the great famine and emigrated to America they found themselves at the bottom of society.  Between 1845 and 1852 the starving Irish boarded coffin ships and threw themselves on the mercy of America.

We Irish need to remember this as we observe the flood of refugees and economic migrants who daily put their lives at risk in Libya, boarding unsuitable vessels in their droves and casting their lot on the waters of the Mediterranean.

There are anecdotal tales from America of wealthy landowners hiring Irish workers for dangerous jobs because they didn’t want to risk a valuable slave.

Irish people living in slave states found themselves in competition for work with Negros.  They opposed the freeing of slaves as this would release a workforce in direct competition to them.  Even in the free states of the north the Irish immigrants found themselves in competition with Negros for the lowest and most menial jobs.  These Irish were in ill health, uneducated and many could not even speak English.  The only advantage they held over the Negro was the colour of their skin.

At the same time the Irish could identify with the plight of the American Blacks.  The Irish were no strangers to transportation and slavery.  Many of the original slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations were Irish and Scottish petty criminals or indentured labourers.  The tiny island of Montserrat reflects this influx, most of the inhabitants have Irish names despite their dark skin, and the island holds St Patrick’s day as a holiday.

The Irish who arrived in America emerged from a culture of persecution by Absentee British Landlords and their local Bailiffs.  Unlike farm tenants in England the Irish cottagers were little more than serfs, subsisting in a non-monetary economy with no rights of tenure, rent control or free sale of their property.  They understood much about the life of a slave.

This conflict between sympathy and competiton resolved itself in the Civil War of 1861 to 65 when Irish elected to fight on both sides.  Indeed at the battle of Fredricksburg the 69th New York Infantry (The Irish Brigade) was decimated at the Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights.  Their opponents were the 24th Georgia regiment, comprising McMillans Guards, an Irish regiment.

After the civil war the fate of the Irish in American diverged sharply from that of the Negro.  The Irish became educated and worked their way into positions of political power.  Many Irish gravitated to careers in law enforcement and public service.  While the men worked hard the mothers drove their children to education and improvement.  Lace curtains went up on the windows and the Irish integrated.  Eventually, in the 1960’s the scion of an Irish immigrant family became President of the United States.

There was no ‘risk’ of a black president of the USA in the 1960’s.  This was the age of the struggle for civil rights.

In a perverse twist of fate it was the black struggle for civil rights in America that ignited the Catholic struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland.  The Irish learned from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.  Peace protest marches began, and they ended similarly to the marches in Birmingham Alabama, in violence, persecution and death.

Here is a piece of footage and a highly poignant moment from that time.  Muhammad Ali reciting his own poem on an Irish TV show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNrNpw7hmcE

Sullivan Ballou Letter

800px-Sullivan_Ballou

Watched the first episode of the PBS series on the Civil War directed by Ken Burns last night.  Wonderful series, and the letter below demonstrates the lost art of Letter Writing.  Especially poignant as Ballou was mortally wounded at the battle of Manassas/First Bull Run, and died before his wife received the letter.

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Sullivan