May the 4th be with you.


David Guterson was born on May 4th before it became famous as Star Wars day.  He is a Buddhist I guess, as I find a lot of his poetry on Buddhist sites and blogs.  Dharma Bum would maybe support that contention.  Dharma is the concept of cosmic law and order in Buddhism, although it has other meanings in different Indian religions.  Hinduism holds it to be the sine qua non of cosmic order and Jainism see it as a form of moral purification.  Sikhs also have a similar term and it alludes to righteousness.  In the USA it is a hit TV show when Dharma is paired with Greg.

Born this day in 1956 Guterson is probably better known for his novel “Snow falling on cedars”.  But I haven’t read it………..yet.

Dharma Bum; by David Guterson

Boat on the water —
a treble note, fading.

In the new light, it’s clear:
We’re moving toward rain.

Fallen flowers on the table —
night has laid them under.

Already I’m foolish enough
to have hopes for the coming hours.

My morning tea’s rich,
superior to other things.

I cling to the dancers
and the cruel remark.

I haven’t overcome the applause
or the hearse.

My waste bin’s full of pleas.
I think about my needs.

Deposited on the shore of waking, alive,
a mayfly, like me, has all day.

Battle of Plassey


Robert, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey

On this day in the year 1757 Robert Clive led his army of 3,000 soldiers against an Indian and French army of 50,000 at the village of Palashi, north of modern day Kolkata.  On the morning of this day the British position in India was highly uncertain.  The French or the Dutch could easily have ended up as paramount European power in India.

After the battle of Plassey the French were neutralised.  Two years later the British were able to consolidate their position by defeating the Dutch at the battle of Chinsurah.

The Battle of Plassey was won by two secret weapons; bribery and tarpaulins.  Clive negotiated a deal with Mir Jafar and a group of senior Indians.  Jafar commanded the left wing of the Indian forces at Plassey, and defected to the British for a bribe.  There was also an issue of two different sets of treaties that were drawn up to hoodwink certain of the conspirators.  Sadly this type of double dealing is all too common in the history of British diplomatic dealings.  Beware perfidious Albion.

On the military side the victory was not assured.  The early stages of the battle were a stalemate as the French and English artillery pounded at each other with little strategic effect.  Then the rain came down.  The French and Indian artillery saw their powder drenched.  Their fire rates plummeted.

This was the signal for the massive Indian cavalry contingent to sweep the British from the field.  They charged the British guns only to be decimated by a hail of grapeshot.  The British had tarpaulins and they deployed them to keep the powder dry.  This simple expedient turned the course of the battle and gave the day to Robert Clive.  The ennobled Clive built his Estate in County Clare in Ireland and named it Plassey Estate.

Across the Shannon River Thomas Maunsell, scion of another General of the British Army on the day named his Limerick House after the battle, Plassey House.  These lands now house Limerick University.  Students nickname the building “The White House”.


Bucket List #4


These are the collection buckets we used to raise money for the Hope Foundation.  Gavin, Jerry, Esha and I have variously waved these buckets at the very many generous people of Cashel, Thurles and various Tipperary townlands.  We brought them to Rugby matches in Dublin and Limerick, and to Hurling games in Semple Stadium.  They have seen the warm days of summer and the cold dark days of winter.

They have earned a proud position in my “Bucket List” as they contain many great memories of a good year.

Four years ago my oldest son Jerry participated in the trip to Kolkata with Rockwell College.  He documented his journey on his blog:

This year it was all about my younger son, Gavin, who made his own trip, which he recorded on wordpress, twitter, snapchat, etc.  His fundraising exploits are on his  wordpress site:

PLEASE DO NOT SEND THEM MONEY.  They have finished their trips and made their visits to Kolkata.  But if you would like to support the fabulous work of the Hope Foundation feel free to do so at their site:

What I like about the Hope Foundation is that it is a charity that strives to make itself useless.  What do I mean by that?

Some charities operate in a way that perpetuates dependency.  Their business is to “help” disadvantaged people.  But if they are “too successful” there will be no poor people left to help and they will effectively be out of business.  Self-perpetuating charities are not things I like, or appreciate.

I am very much of the mind to take people out of dependency.  This is where Hope operate.  They focus on educating kids to escape the cycle of slum living.  They help the parents to escape the cycle by supporting small enterprises, and by freeing up the parents to work by caring for the kids in crèches.  The greatest day for Hope Foundation will be when they can happily close down their facilities in Kolkata because their job is done.

That is not a pipedream.  It can happen.

As my son Jerry reminds me frequently “Give a man a Hamburger and he eats for a day.  Teach him to Hamburger, and that metaphor only works for Fish”.

The Fish:  by William Butler Yeats

Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.





Yacouba Sawadogo

Yesterday I learned about Yacouba Sawadogo, the man who stopped the desert!  A simple farmer from Burkina Faso, he noticed that modern farming techniques were ruining the land.

Northern Burkina Faso sits in the Sahel, a delicate arid region that lies between the Sahara and the tropical central African jungles.  For centuries the Sahel has been under attack by the Sahara and the communities who depend on farming have been decimated by drought.

Population pressure has led to deforestation in the region.  In the absence of trees the little rain that falls quickly runs off or evaporates.  Rain washes nutrients out of the soil, turning it into desert hard-pan that can break ploughs.  High winds drive sharp sand and grit at 100km/h over the surface, shredding young seedlings.

Yacouba experimented with some old fashioned farming techniques.  He updated them and made them more effective.

Cordons Pierreaux (Stone Bands)


These low mounds of stone don’t look like much.  But they serve a number of very important roles.  The wind blows dust and sand across the ground and it drifts up against the cordons.  When it rains the silt is stopped by the cordons and cannot wash easily away off the top of the soil.  This accumulation of silt and grit makes the cordon a barrier to the water which is held longer in place, allowing more rain to soak into the soil.  Over time seeds settle into the grit at the foot of the cordon.  Native plants grow and the roots bind the cordon and the soil, making the whole thing into a type of ditch.  These then serve as reservoirs for native plants and animals, improving the biodiversity of the area.

Zai Holes


A plough is highly destructive in the Sahel.  It breaks the delicate soils and allows them to blow away.  It provides channels for rain water to run off and take the good soil with it.  Zai holes avoid these problems.  They capture water in the place where it is used by the plant.  It protects the young seedling from winds until the plant is firmly established.

Yacouba found that by making the traditional Zai holes a little bigger he could improve upon them.  Then he started introducing a handful of manure to the zai hole over the winter.  Termites were attracted to the manure, and would burrow into the soil beneath.  This helped break up the hard pan and made the Zai hole even more productive when it was planted in spring.

Zai holes use less manure per crop, and the manure is less likely to blow away in the wind.  As a result the yields from Zai fields are 3 to 4 times higher than those in ploughed fields.  This ratio is even greater in drought years.

The other two techniques pioneered by Yacouba are reforestation and education.  Reforestation provides wind breaks, bio-diversity and supplies charcoal for cooking.  Forests provide shade, soil stability and a water sponge.  In the forest you get a variety of other plants between the trees providing good grazing for browsing animals such as goats and antelope.

Education spreads the message.  Yacouba started off by going to marts, markets and fairs to tell anyone who would listen.  As his techniques proved themselves the message spread.  Oxfam even brought Yacouba to Washinton DC to advise US and UN food programmes.

His techniques are being practiced all across the Sahel from Mauritania to Ethiopia and even as far afield as India.  Wherever desertification is a problem his techniques offer a solution.

So you would imagine a man like Yacouba would be a hero in Burkina Faso.  Sadly not.  In his early days of experimentation a village elder told him that “a man who digs holes is as useful as a man who hangs himself”.  This rejection of the new resulted in locals setting his fields and forests on fire while he was meeting government officials.  They considered him a madman.

But now, with his theories proven, surely these attitudes have changed?  Well, the Burkina Faso government decided to expand the city of Ouahigouya.  They are seizing the Sawadogo lands with a compulsory purchase order and they intend to pave his farm over with tarmac and concrete.  When Jesus said you can’t be a prophet in your own country really hit the nail on the head this time.

The following passage from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran could have been written for Yacouba himself.

On Human Unity:  I

Power sows in the depths of my heart, and I reap and gather in the grain, bestowing it lavishly upon the starving. Spirit revives this small vine, and I crush its bunches of grapes and pour out the juice for the thirsty. The sky fills this lamp with oil, and I light it and place it in the window of my house for those who pass by in the black of night. I do these things because I live thereby, and when the days prevent me from doing so and the nights shackle my hand, I shall seek death. For death most resembles a prophet who is without honor in his own land or a poet who is a stranger among his people.

Human beings clamor like a tempest while I sigh in silence, for I have found that the violence of the storm subsides and the abyss of time swallows it, whereas a sigh endures as long as God.

Human beings cling to matter that is cold as snow whereas I seek the flame of love so that I might place it in my breast, where it will devour my ribs and destroy my insides. For I have discovered that matter kills painlessly, but love revives us through torments.

Human beings separate into factions and tribes and adhere to countries and regions whereas I see my essence as foreign to any one land and alien to any single people. The entire earth is my homeland and the human family is my clan. For I have found human beings to be weak, and it is small-minded for them to divide themselves up; the earth is cramped, so that only ignorance leads people to partition it into realms and principalities.

Human beings unite in destroying the temples of the spirit and cooperate in building the edifices of the body. I alone celebrate in elegies. For I listen and hear from within me a voice of hope saying, “Just as love restores life to the human heart through pain, so foolishness teaches the paths to knowledge. Pain and foolishness lead to great bliss and complete knowledge, for Eternal Wisdom created nothing under the sun in vain.”

Casabianca (not Casablanca)


Most readers will have been introduced to this poem through parodies, of which there are many. My favourite is Spike Milligan, who transposed the first two lines and finished off the poem with a single word in the third line…”Twit”.
What fewer people know is that the poem is based on a real life event and a real person.
The event was the 1798 Battle of the Nile, which cemented the fame of Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, who later became Admiral Lord Nelson. As with many battles it has two names. It is also called the Battle of Aboukir Bay. The latter is a more accurate name for the battle, as it occurred in Alexandria, which is some distance from the Nile. But the British public knew nothing of Aboukir Bay, but recognised the Nile. So for propaganda purposes it became the Battle of the Nile.
The battle exhibited the brilliance of Nelson and the shortcomings of Napoleon when it came to matters at sea. Napoleon invaded Egypt as a prelude to carving out a route to India with the intention of depriving Great Britain of that jewel. On land he was invincible. But he had no sense of naval tactics. He insisted that the French fleet station itself nearby in case he required an exit from Egypt.
This was far from ideal. Aboukir bay is open and exposed, impossible to defend. A stronger admiral would have refused Napoleon and taken his fleet to a secure bay in Crete or Cyprus. From the islands a fleet could command approach routes, and sweep down on a weaker enemy at will. More importantly it could defend itself from a stronger foe in a secure harbour.
Instead François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers was compromised into anchoring his fleet off Alexandria. In Aboukir bay he took his ships inshore as close as he dared and chained them in a defensive line. He reasoned that the British, if they found him, would be forced to keep to the open side of his line, and he could fight them on even terms. Chaining the ships together prevented the enemy from getting amongst them.
Nelson arrived, assessed the situation and made a quick decision. He sent his shallow draught ships into the channel between the land and the French. A brave and risky manoevre, and entirely unexpected. His heavier ships sailed in parallel on the open side of the French fleet. The British then unleashed a double broadside on the French. It is certain that the inland guns of the French were unprepared for the engagement.
The result was a devastating blow, taking the French apart. Of 13 ships of the line the French had 2 sunk and 9 captured.
The poem is a celebration of the eponymous young French boy who stood his station as his ship erupted in flame.
Casabianca by Felecia Dorothea Hemans

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm –
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He called aloud: – ‘say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair;
And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
There came a burst of thunder-sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!–
With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part –
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.



Aemilia (1631) Galleon of Dutch East India Company

This rude looking word is the name of a Dutch town.  It gets its name from a dike (dijck) built on the river Sloter or Slooter, to prevent flooding from the Zuider Zee.

In the 17th Century the name was adopted for one of the 9 Dutch Galleons which fought the Ming navy for control of the Taiwan strait back in 1633.  The Dutch lost.  Three galleons were sunk and Slooterdijck was boarded and captured by the Chinese.

Slooterdijck was notable because she was a “Kit Ship”, essentially a Flat Pack vessel that was shipped out from Holland and assembled in the Indies.

The Galleon was a development from two earlier ships of exploration.  The Caravel was a small, lateen rigged, shallow draught ship (think of the Niña & Pinta of Columbus).  The Carrack or Nao (Santa Maria for instance) was a larger, square sailed, less stable and unwieldy ship more suited for cargo.  The Galleon combined the best of both.  By lengthening the keel and lowering the forecastle the Portuguese developed a faster and more stable ocean going ship.  Smaller and more maneuverable than the Carrack, the Galleon rapidly developed a reputation as an effective all-rounder for exploration, trade and battle.  Big enough to carry significant armament and stable enough to fight, it became the battleship of its day.

From the mid 16th century Galleons were adopted by Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch and English fleets.  They remained in service until they were replaced by more specialised vessels in the 18th Century. Hence, the Galleon ruled the waves for 150 years more or less.  Though the early voyages of discovery were made in Naos or Carracks the great sea empires were built by the Galleon.

As time went by galleons developed for more specialised roles.  Some became larger and more suited to cargo carrying, and evolved into the East Indiamen.  Others were strengthened and became specialised military ships of the line.  Razed galleons were cut lower and lower to the waterline for increased speed and stability and evolved into frigates.

The reasons for these evolutions have more to do with the guns than with the Galleons themselves.  The primary ship to ship battle tactic of the Galleon was boarding.  The guns on board were slow to load and fire.  During the battles of the Spanish Armada it is calculated that each Spanish Gun fired on average only once per day.  By contrast the smaller English ships and their lighter guns could fire once per hour.

As gun technology advanced the gunners designed specialised trucks to carry shipboard guns, which the gun team could haul inboard for reloading, and push outboard for firing.  As the rate of fire increased ship to ship actions developed more into shooting matches than boarding actions.  This culminated in the invention of the broadside, firing of all guns simultaneously to disable an enemy both physically and mentally.

By the Napoleonic wars the Royal Navy had given up on the idea of firing accuracy in favour of reloading speed.  While the French and Spanish ships wasted their effort targeting the masts of British ships to disable them for capture, the British concentrated on closing up to bring the full impact of the broadside to bear.  Once beside their foe the British ship had the advantage of a higher rate of fire.  Even with smaller guns that was often enough to carry the day.

In a gun to gun action the high fore and stern castles of the Galleons, so useful for boarding,  became a liability.  They presented larger targets and made the ship more susceptible to cross winds than a lower vessel.

The only surviving original galleon is the Vasa in Stockholm which sank in 1628 all of 1,400 yards into her maiden voyage, in full view of her audience.  In an incident similar to the sinking of that other famous preserved wreck, the Carrack Mary Rose, it seems she had her lower gun ports open to fire a salute.  A gust of wind caught her by surprise and the gun-ports dipped below the waterline, flooding the ship.

If you have read this far, well done you salty old sea dog.  You are clearly a lover of all things nautical.  So here is another treat for you.

Psalm 107:23 (KJ V)

 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.

 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.

Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.

He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.

Psychic Distance

Assorted 017

My brother Rory lives in Calgary, Alberta.  Last night he emailed photos of his flooded home and the surrounding streets.  It is nothing short of a disaster.  His home is ruined.  His belongings are destroyed, musical instruments, books, photographs, all personal and highly sentimental.

This morning I switched on Sky News to see the footage.  They are reporting that 75 thousand homes have been evacuated.  Four people may have died.  The news report dedicated about 5 minutes to the story.  That is no small allocation of time for a story in a foreign country.

But then Canadians speak English.  They are part of the British Commonwealth.  They are a predominantly anglo-saxon protestant society, and this is especially true of Western Canada and Alberta.  So the British and Irish audience of Sky News can readily empathise with the flooded Albertans.  We have little aesthetic or psychic distance from these people.  They are like us.

Also on the news report this morning is a one line spoken report of 550 deaths in Northern India due to the early arrival of the Monsoons.  Stop press!  they have updated it to two lines and added a shot of a mule being pulled to safety across a raging river.

Well, there is a lot of psychic distance between us and those folk in India.  They don’t speak our language.  They don’t look like us.  Let’s face it, we really don’t want to look at dead poor people.  Which is why the newsroom selected the mule footage.  We can empathise with a poor frightened innocent animal better than we can empathise with the 550 dead and their bereaved families.

Now it would be very easy to blame the person in the newsroom over in Sky and rant about how they devalue the lives of those Indian people.  But that would be missing the point.  Sky news broadcasts for ratings.  They know we want to see Calgary and that we do not want to see India.  They understand a lot about psychic distance.

The question is, what does it say about us as people?  We have concern for those we identify as “us” or “of us”.  When we identify people as “other” or “them” a different set of dynamics comes into play.  They are not us.  They do not behave, look, sound or smell like us.  In many cases this engenders suspicion and even fear.  We want to set up barriers between ourselves and those people who are not us.  We do not want to empathise with their deaths, because at a certain level the world will be a more secure place if there are not so many of those “other” people  in it.

By contrast, to those facing an exogamous impulse there is an attraction to the “other”.  In simple terms exogamy stimulates tribe members from mating within the tribe and broadens the gene pool of a race.  This is why gap year students are motivated to travel long distances from home and engage in courtship with strange people.  But even then gap year students tend to have their fling with other gap year students, or with other people from developed western nations.  Even when we are most open to those from “other” cultures we have limits on how far we will comfortably stray in terms of psychic distance.

I feel sorry for my brother and the loss of his personal effects.  But I am glad I am not an Indian living in London who has heard that my brother is dead and his home has washed down a river valley.  I am glad that my brother is alive and safe and that his greatest worry is that the insurance company won’t pay.  And Rory, if you read this, stop wading around in that water, you will contract giardiasis.  That water is full of Beaver crap!


The Listeners; by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.