A ship, a report, a presidential affair and a poem like Lorca.


I am going to take you on a journey from Belfast to New York, then to Washington and Greece before returning to Ireland but just brushing against the coast of Spain.  It is a tale that spans from 1912 all the way to the present, whenever the present is for you the reader.

My story begins with a ship, the SS Vestris. And it begins in the Belfast shipyard where she was launched, only a month and a day after another Belfast ship, the Titanic, sank on her maiden voyage.  Vestris did better than the Titanic.  She made it all the way across the Atlantic on her maiden voyage.  She then plied her trade on the route between New York and the River Plate.  Those were great days for business in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

The SS Vestris became a troop transport during the Great War and recrossed the Atlantic to France.  Along the way she had a close run thing with a German Torpedo.  After the war she returned to passenger duties running between Liverpool, Buenos Aires and New York.  In 1990 she suffered a four day fire in her coal bunkers and survived the ordeal.  But her luck finally ran out in 1928.  One day out of New York, bound for Argentina, she sprang a leak, developed a fatal list and eventually sank with a loss of life of 111 souls.

So that is the ship.  Now we move to the report.  The New York Times printed the report of the sinking, written by Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickock.  It was the first time the NYT printed a report under a female reporters name.  Lorena Hickock was nothing if not a ground breaking woman.  If you want to look for FIRSTS in journalism you need look no further.

Hickock was appointed by AP to cover the story of Eleanor, the wife of the Presidential Candidate Frankin D Roosevelt, in 1928, the year of the Vestris sinking.  The two women fell in love and had an affair.  This is the presidential affair of my story.  On the inauguration of her husband as president of the USA Eleanor wore a sapphire ring that was a gift from Hickock.  It does not take a great deal of imagination to see that Sapphire is a symbol for Sappho the Greek Poet and symbol of lesbianism.  Indeed the very word lesbian derives from the Island home of Sappho, Lesbos.

If there were ever any doubt about the presidential affair (many conservative apologists have tied themselves in knots to try to prove it was just a friendship)  the contents of the correspondence between the women, published as “Empty Without You” by Roger Streitmatter attests to a deeply romantic and physical relationship.  Given that the collection of letters was heavily edited to remove the most explicit, there can be very little doubt about the nature of the “friendship”.

One might as easily say that the poem below is about reading meters and the appointment of the Archbishop of Dublin.  Durcan’s detours around the female topography of his interlocutor are pointedly erotic, a celebration of female flesh and a worship of the sexuality of the fertile earth mother.  In that regard his poem reminds me of Serenata by Federico Garcia Lorca, which you can also find on this blog if you care to search it out.

And so in circular fashion, like a voyage of the SS Vestris, we have returned to the home port of Dublin.  I hope you enjoyed the trip and come again soon.

The Day Kerry Became Dublin ; by Paul Durcan

I was reading gas meters in Rialto
– In and out the keeled-over, weeping dustbins –
When, through the open doorway of the woman in the green tracksuit
Who’s six feet tall and who has nine kids,
I heard a newsreader on the radio announcing
That the Bishop of Kerry had been appointed Archbishop of Dublin.
I couldn’t help thinking that her bottom
Seemed to be independent of the rest of her body,
And how nice it would be to shake a leg with her
In a ballroom on a Sunday afternoon
Or to waltz with her soul at the bottom of the sea.
“Isn’t that gas?” – she sizzles –
“Making the Bishop of Kerry the Archbishop of Dublin!”
Under her gas meter I get down on my knees
And say a prayer to the side-altars of her thighs,
And the three-light windows of her breasts.
Excuse me, may I beam my torch in your crypt?
I go to Mass every morning, but I know no more
About the Archbishop of Dublin than I do about the Pope of Rome.
Still, I often think it would be
Uplifting to meet the Dalai Lama,
And to go to bed for ever with the woman of my dreams,
And scatter the world with my children.

Gunboat Diplomacy


On July 8th 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo bay (now Tokyo) with a flotilla of ships.  He had the ships sail past the nearby town and fire blanks “in celebration of US Independence day”.

He ordered his ships boats to commence survey operations.

He refused requests by the Japanese to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to Europeans.

He insisted on delivering a letter of introduction to treat, with a white flag, a symbol of intent to destroy any armed resistance.

In the face of such overwhelming firepower the Japanese had little option but to treat with the Americans.  The incident ended 200 years of medieval Japanese isolation and led to the rapid industrialisation of Japan.

It is a perfect example of gunboat diplomacy, negotiating in a “friendly” manner under the guns of your ships.

It came with the threat of a waning moon
And the wail of an ebbing tide,
But many a woman has lived for less,
And many a man has died;
For life upon life took hold and passed,
Strong in a fate set free,
Out of the deep into the dark
On for the years to be.

Between the gloom of a waning moon
And the song of an ebbing tide,
Chance upon chance of love and death
Took wing for the world so wide.
O, leaf out of leaf is the way of the land,
Wave out of wave of the sea
And who shall reckon what lives may live
In the life that we bade to be?

William Ernest Henley