Tall tales and Marathons

John Treacy (IRL) Silver in LA Olympic Marathon, 1984

John Treacy (IRL) Silver in LA Olympic Marathon, 1984

The battle of Marathon was fought between a greek army and the Persians on this day in 490 BC.

In the days leading up to the battle the Athenian and Plataean Hoplites had the Persians pinned in a holding action on the Plain of Marathon.  The lightly armed Persians did not want to go toe to toe with the Greek heavy infantry.  The outnumbered Greeks for their part had no wish to go on the offensive.  They were happy to remain in stalemate while they sent runners to seek more reinforcements.

One of their runners was Pheidippides.  His mission was to run  to Sparta, 140 miles away.  In heroic manner he completed the journey in two days.  The Spartans said they were in the middle of a “religious festival” and couldn’t come until it was over.

For some reason (perhaps concerned that reinforcements would arrive) the Persians decided to bring the Greeks to battle.  The Persian army favoured the use of ranged weapons, archery, slinging and javelins.  They prepared to engage the Greeks from a distance.  For their part the Greeks had little interest in being shot at as they marched into battle.  For the first time in history they decided to mount a charge on foot.  The Persians were taken by surprise.  Their lightly armed infantry was decimated.  The wings collapsed and the Greeks began to envelop the centre of the Persian line.  The Persian withdrawal turned into a race for the ships and quickly became a rout.

After the battle the Athenians were concerned for their city.  They had left Athens defenseless to bring as many troops as possible to battle in Marathon.  As the Persian fleet set sail for Athens the Hoplites made for home in haste.  They covered the 25 mile distance in rapid time.  When the Persian fleet saw the Athenian army arrive overland they turned away from the City.  Victory was complete for the Athenians.

Over time the stories of Pheidippides run and the forced march of the Athenian army became confused.  From the confusion was born the concept of the Marathon  race.  When the first modern Olympic games was staged in Athens in 1896 the idea of a Marathon race was proposed and accepted.  It has become one of the enduring pillars of the Olympic ideal, the ultimate distance race and a cauldron of legends.

Running ; by Raymond A. Foss

She was running this morning
early Sunday morning
while we drove by on the way to church
black top, black shorts,
once white running shoes
toned features,
purposeful face,
black bands on her biceps
hair bouncing in the breeze
It seemed she was arguing
with herself, the way her head
jerked from side to side,
her face grimaced
with the footfalls down the hill,
off the bridge, like she was debating
and losing the point
propelled on, downward
by gravity, by the flow of the sidewalk,
as she was running this morning
Whatever joy led her to the work,
catching the beauty of the morning,
freedom from other cares,
they were lost, in the puffing,
the contorting, the hurtling
down the hill by the river
Running was the only thing,
the only thing left.

Sunken Treasure

Shipwreck

Back in 1641 at a time when the English and the Spanish were getting along well a pair of English ships spent three years trading in the Caribbean.  The Galleons, Dover Merchant and Royal Merchant sailed back to Cadiz on their way home.  In the port of Cadiz there was a fire which damaged a Spanish vessel that was due to carry the payroll to the army in Flanders.  The English captain stepped in and offered to transport the gold and silver.

The two English ships were the worse for wear after a season at sea in the tropics.  There is no doubt that they were heavy with weed, and had bulging seams and rotten caulking.  Three years in the West Indies, under a punishing sun, can wreak havoc with planking and decking above the waterline.  They may also have been infested with ship-worm.  These days with modern steel ships, fibreglass and epoxy yachts we expect boats to be dry.  Leaks are something that must be fixed.  Traditional boat owners have a better sense of the realities of 17th century sailing.  Wooden boats must be filled with water on the inside if they are wintered on the dockside.  The timbers and caulking must be kept moist to prevent drying, which opens gaps in the seams.  I have sailed in a Galway hooker for the first outing of a season, to see cataracts of water cascade through the seams above the waterline as we heeled over in the wind.  Bailing and pumping out are part of the daily grind on a wooden ship.

Royal Merchant was leaking badly as they sailed through Biscay, being pumped out all the way.  Off Lands End the weather took a turn for the worse.  If your decks are leaking then rain and waves breaking on the deck add to your flooding woes.  The overworked pumps broke down and the leaking ship began to sink.  She went down off the Isles of Scilly, with the loss of 18 men.  The other 40 men managed to board the ships boats and were rescued by the Dover Merchant.

Royal Merchant was the most valuable ship ever to sink.  The salvage company that finds her stand to share in the region of one billion US dollars, once the legal teams figure out who owns the wreck.

Here is a poem about a sinking ship by Dora Sigerson Shorter.  Dora was one of the leading lights of the Irish literary revival and the explosion of Celtic Culture and 19th Century mysticism.  Given the context I think a closer reading may yield clues that it is not a Ship that is sinking, but something else.  But what?  Is this a poem in the vein of Yeats “September 1913” criticizing the bourgeoisie and the loss of direction in the struggle for Irish freedom?  Is it a paean for the stagnation of the art movement?  What is “the struggle” and who are “they” that shun it?  I would welcome your thoughts in the comments section.

The Sinking Ship; by Dora Sigerson Shorter

The ship is sinking, come ye one and all.
Stand fast and so this weakness overhaul,
Come ye strong hands and cheery voices call,
“Stand by!”

The ship is sinking in a summer sea,
Bless her but once for all she used to be,
Who rode the billows once so proud and free,
If you but loved a little, with a sigh,
“Stand by!”

Gone, all are gone, they neither hear or care,
The sun shines on and life is ever fair.
They shun the struggle, laughter lurks elsewhere.
The ship is sinking, passing echoes cry,
“Stand by!”

The little ships that pass her in the night,
Speed from the darkness in their eager fright.
From troubled dreams they take refuge in flight.
Why should they then, who know they too must die,
“Stand by”?

Then get you gone, desert the sinking ship,
O faithless friends, who on her pleasure-trip
Clung close with gentle words and smiling lip,
And still as ever on your own joys cry,
“Stand by!”

The ship is sinking, parting in a smile,
The sunset waters mark the last sad mile
In dimpling play and in a little while
The waters close, Death and his angels cry,
“Stand by!”