For Whom The Bell Trolls

A short while ago a group of authors got together to write an anthology of humorous and dark work, called For Whom The Bell Trolls. The authors receive no financial reward for their work. Net profits go to the charity, Equality Now. However, that’s not the reason to read this book – the reason  to read it is because it is hugely entertaining and  brilliantly illustrated.

Each story or poem is based around the theme of trolls. You will find some great writing inside, trust me on that. Here is a snippet of my own short story, Boiling Point, which I’m proud to have had included in this great ‘antrollogy’…

troll noun: troll; plural noun: trolls (in folklore) an ugly cave-dwelling creature depicted as either a giant or a dwarf.

John Darby stood by the front door and steeled himself for the weekly ordeal. He adjusted the peak of his baseball cap and waited, trying to still his breathing and control the shake in his large hands. When he was ready, he opened the door and stepped out onto the pavement.

It was dark. The moon was hidden behind a thick bank of cloud, and for that John Darby was grateful. The streetlights had long since ceased to work. Well-directed stones from the gang of teenagers who hung out in these parts had seen to that. And Darby was glad of that, too, because the darkness covered a multitude of sins.

He shuffled towards the dim speck of light in the distance, the sack he held in one overlong arm trailing on the ground behind him. Darby’s breathing was laboured; it always was ever since he’d been a boy, back in the day. He could feel the mucus heavy on his chest. He tried to clear it but couldn’t, so he huffed his way towards the light of the supermarket.

It was nice to have these few moments of peace, to feel the light breeze on his face as he walked unmolested. It wouldn’t last. It never did.

He saw them up ahead, waiting — the boys gathering for the show. He kept moving, head down, his large shoulders slumped forward. With each step the tension grew, but he kept going; he had to.

There were six of them, sitting on the low wall of what had once been the Mason family home. He could see the red glow of their cigarettes, like tiny warning beacons in the night.

As he came parallel the abuse began.

“Oh man, look at the head on him… Jeeze put a bag over that thing would ya, it ain’t Halloween.”

Cackles from the others, but he kept moving.

troll“Hey, Joey, I think he fell outta the ugly tree and hit every damn branch on the way down!”

Hoots this time.

One of them walked alongside him, but not too close. They weren’t stupid. The boy contorted himself and dragged his leg like it was a heavy log. “I’m not an animal… I’m a human being.” He slobbered out the words as his friends fell about laughing.

Darby had heard that one before. It was a poor imitation of Joseph Merrick — the so-called Elephant Man.

He felt a sharp sting in his thigh as a coin was flung at him — then another. Ten cent coins hurt.

“Go on Sasquatch… get your food. It’s feedin’ time at the zoo!”

“Man, he’s pig ugly… Can you imagine what his mom musta looked like? I wouldn’t hump her with yours Freddie!”

That hurt. Darby tensed his muscles. He could snap these boys in half like twigs, but what good would that do? It would only bring more trouble on his head.

He reached the supermarket, making sure to pull the rim of the baseball cap lower over his eyes. He didn’t want to scare anyone. Mr. Pargeter gave him a troubled nod as he swung the door open and shuffled inside.

This wouldn’t take long. Pargeter was a helpful man that way. He always made sure to have the order ready — ten tins of meatballs, eight tins of beans, fourteen mini pizzas, a tub of condensed milk and two slabs of Coke, his weekly ration.

Darby paid the bill, noting how the storekeeper avoided looking at him throughout the entire transaction. Then he filled the huge sack with the rest of the items, tucked the slabs under his arm and went back outside.

He waited for the taunting to start up again, but everything was quiet. The boys had gone.

Darby made his slow progress down the ruined streetscape towards home. Home… an ill-lit hovel that had somehow survived the developer’s wrecking ball… for now. His was the only house left on the row. A colony of bats had taken residence in a huge old shed out back and had saved him the inconvenience of moving. The regulations said that they could not be disturbed, so Darby stayed, too.

He opened the front door and stepped back into the welcoming darkness. He didn’t notice the smell; it had been there for so long. Around him the detritus was overwhelming, but he didn’t see it. All Darby saw was his La-Z-Boy amid a mountain of magazines and old newspapers. There was a coffee table somewhere, too, surrounded by dozens and dozens of plastic bags stuffed to the brim. They engulfed him like a comfort blanket, blocking out the world beyond.

He heard giggling. Darby stiffened. He was tired and it was one thing for them to jeer him in the street, but this was his home so he let out a roar and smiled as he heard their panicked cursing, their mad scramble as they tripped through his hoarded life and struggled out the back door.

You’ll find the rest of the short story here… http://goo.gl/DmnONk

The good thing is that all net profits from the ‘antrollogy’ go towards Equality Now.

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Class acts – The Irish Sisters who helped bring Communism to the World

Friedrich Engels’s name will forever be associated with that of Karl Marx. Together, they would write The Communist Manifesto, and in doing so would change the world.

There’s a saying that behind every good man is a great woman — well, Friedrich Engels had two… sisters by the name of Mary and Lizzie Burns. The interesting thing about them is that they hail from the Irish slums in Manchester. Engels was wealthy — the son of a mill owner — and yet he seemed to be in touch with the needs of the working class.

How was that possible? Well, that’s where the sisters come in. I know little about Engels or the birth of Communism, but I know a man who does. Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs Engels, focuses on a fascinating partnership that helped bring Communism to the wider world — not the partnership of Engels and Marx, but that more private one of Engels and his working class Irish lovers, the sisters Mary and Lizzie Burns.

There is little recorded about the sisters, so Gavin had to bring them to life, and in doing so he gave Lizzie, in particular, a strong and vibrant voice. Here, Gavin highlights the importance of the two women in the political and psychological development of Engels. Over to you Gavin…

In 1842, at the age of twenty-two, Friedrich Engels was sent to Manchester to do a two-year internship at his father’s cotton mill. It was hoped that this training would prepare the young Engels for a career in the cotton industry. Instead, Engels’s experience in Manchester, his exposure to its mass poverty specifically, was to awaken his class consciousness and lay the foundations of his future communist philosophy.

Back in his native Barmen in 1844, Engels wrote his exposé Condition of the Working Class in England. He did so with a bourgeois German audience in mind. His aim was to lay bare to the literate, property-owning and industrialist class of his homeland — the class he himself was born into — the privation and degradation suffered by the workers as a direct consequence of the capitalist system. He wanted to show the bourgeoisie that capitalism was, in fact, theirs.

It was they, and they alone, who benefited from it; they were responsible for its form and ensured its continuance; and it was they, now, who must be made to see its effects.

Gavin McCrea

Gavin McCrea

‘Let us hear,’ Engels implored repeatedly in Condition. ‘Let us hear, let us hear,’ over and over again. It was thus, by the force of his rhetoric, that he accused the bourgeoisie of turning a deaf ear to the cries and protestations of the people who suffered under capitalism. The bourgeoisie, he was implying, were choosing to ignore the grievances of those who, to their own disadvantage, sustained capitalism and its corrupt order of privileges.

Yet only rarely — on a couple of occasions in more than two hundred pages — did he actually ‘let us hear’ the voices of the suffering workers themselves. Instead, he devoted the vast majority of his text to the comments and opinions of middle-class observers.

It was the bourgeoisie, and not the workers, whom, in the final event, Engels called upon to speak. ‘Let us hear Mr. G. Alston, preacher.’ ‘Let us hear the London Times.’ ‘Let us hear J. C. Symons, Government Commissioner.’ ‘Let us hear Thomas Carlyle.’ ‘Let us hear the bourgeois.’

He did this for a reason. He believed that the bourgeoisie would listen only to voices familiar to their own, voices that they already recognised as worthy of their attention. Faltering or inarticulate voices, on the other hand, would repel them, bore them, alienate them. Thomas Carlyle on the discontent among the cotton spinners, yes. An illiterate worker on the maiming he received on the factory floor, no. J. C. Symons on the squalor of lodging houses for the Irish immigrants, perhaps. A poor Irish woman on the loss of her child to disease, definitely not.

Lizzie Burns

Lizzie Burns

‘Let us hear,’ Engels wrote again and again, by which he meant, ‘Let us hear ourselves until we actually do.’

But — and this is what makes Condition so unsettling to read today — Engels wasn’t always clear about who ‘we’ were. He painted an uncertain picture about which class he belonged to. For while he undoubtedly directed his attack at the class he was raised in, the class with both the education to read and the political and economic power to respond, he was also at pains to align himself—if not by birth then certainly politically, philosophically and emotionally — with the working class he observed in Manchester, the class which had no access to his words.

Which is to say, while he catered to an implied bourgeois audience by keeping the workers themselves silent, he also dedicated the book to the workers themselves, addressed them throughout as if they were his compatriots, and claimed to be fighting with them against a common enemy. Indeed he often spoke as if his middle-class public wasn’t even there:

[Having] ample opportunity to watch the middle-classes, your opponents, I soon came to the conclusion that you are right, perfectly right in expecting no support whatever from them. Their interest is diametrically opposed to yours, though they always will try to maintain the contrary and to make you believe in their most hearty sympathy with your fates.

 Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

So why should the middle classes have listened to Engels’s appeals? What made him so special that he could demand their attention while at the same time keeping a distance from them? If, as his book suggested, the working class and bourgeoisie were unreconcilable enemies, then what gave him the capacity — or indeed the right — to position himself between these two camps and to profess to see the circumstances of each with equal perspicuity?

The answer lay in his private life — where else? During his internship in Manchester, Engels had a relationship with an Irish working woman called Mary Burns. It was Mary who escorted him on excursions through districts which would otherwise have been unsafe for a stranger to enter. She was Engels’s source of information about the factory and domestic conditions endured by the working people of the city.

She helped to provide him with the material for his communist theory. In 1850, when Engels returned to Manchester to take up full-time employment at the mill, again he took up with Mary, and they remained lovers until her death in 1863. At that point — or perhaps even before — he started a relationship with Mary’s sister, Lizzie.

He and Lizzie were lovers until Lizzie’s death in 1878. It was through these remarkable sisters that Engels became acquainted with the ‘undiscovered’ working people of Manchester, its struggles, its sorrows and its joys. It was Mary and Lizzie who gave him the confidence to shed his purely bourgeois identity and feel kinship with a class that, according to his own scheme, was naturally hostile to his ilk.

Mrs Engles blog tourTo the lives of Mary and Lizzie, we have no guide. Because they were illiterate and left no diaries or letters of their own, they remain ghosts in the historical record. They are the silent voices in Engels’s Condition. They are the spokeswomen who call out to be heard. But how can we hear those who are barely there? Our fantasies alone must satisfy us. Our imaginations must do the work of transforming these slight historical figures into the massive fictional characters that they deserve to be.

Gavin McCrea is the author of  Mrs Engels, published by Scribe (£14.99). In shops 1 May.

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Gallipoli’s Breakfast of Champions

It’s almost one hundred years ago to the day that a disastrous invasion plan was put into effect which would lead to eight months of horror, the deaths of 145,000 men and the complete failure of the enterprise.

The idea was to break the stalemate that had developed on the Western Front during World War One. The Gallipoli Campaign, which was thought up by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, started as a bid to take Turkey out of the conflict by launching an attack on its capital, Constantinople. Opening a second front 1,000 miles away would weaken the Kaiser and aid Russia, which was cut off from the Allies, or so the thinking went.

anzac-coveThe Allies couldn’t take the Turkish straits by sea alone, so a land attack was planned. It began on April 25, 1915. Over the next eight months 559,000 Allied forces would join the battle – 420,000 British and Empire troops, 80,000 French, 50,000 Australians and 9,000 from New Zealand.

Almost half of these men would become casualties, with around 58,000 of them dying. More than 87,000 Ottoman and German forces were killed, out of more than 300,000 casualties. The figures are truly mind-blowing.

Such high casualties are due to a number of factors – troops were both poorly trained and poorly equipped, a lack of artillery, a lack of decent maps of the area, poor sanitation and poor tactical decisions by the commanders on the ground. Poor all round really.

Amid the shambles and the profligate losses, though, were acts of incredible bravery. In the first hours of the invasion, six Victoria Crosses would be won by men engaged in a life and death struggle – the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ as they became known at the time.

The attack on the peninsula at Gallipoli began at 6am on April 25 when the First Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers landed on a mined sandy cove amid murderous gunfire from the Turks who were waiting on the high ground above. Despite the hail of bullets and men falling dead before they even left the beached invasion ships, the attack continued.

Bodies piled upon bodies, but still the men advanced onto the beach and up the cliffs where, eventually, at terrible cost, they cleared the Turks out.

Let’s leave aside the small fact that the Allies failed to secure their hard-earned beachhead and, instead, allowed the Turks to regroup and hold them there for most of the campaign that would follow. Instead, let’s look at the bravery of those six men who won the ‘Six Before Breakfast’ – men who exemplified the bravery of all those others who fell by their sides.

VC William KeneallyI’m happy to say that there was an Irishman among the six. Corporal William Keneally (28), from Wexford, was a company runner with the First Battalion. He noticed that his company’s advance on the beach was being hampered by barbed wire. He took a pair of cutters and crawled through deadly gunfire to cut it. It turned out that the cutters he used were faulty and he was unsuccessful, but his bravery earned him a VC. He died two months later.

VC Alfred Richards

Sergeant Alfred Richards had his leg almost cut off by bullets when he hit the beach, yet he continued on, crawling over the barbed wire and urging on the men around him. He ignored his injuries and led by example. When things quieted down somewhat he was evacuated to Egypt, where his leg was amputated. He died in 1953 at the age of 73.

VC Richard WillsCaptain Richard Wills led C Company at Gallipoli. AS the boats prepared to beach themselves on the sandy cove, he stood in full view of the enemy waving his cane and shouting ‘Come on boys, remember Minden’… a reference to a battle in 1759 n which the Fusiliers distinguished themselves. He died in 1966, having lived to the ripe age of 89.

VC John GrimshawCorporal John Grimshaw (19) clearly didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. As a signaller, it was his job to keep contact with the invading force and the commanders on board HMS Euryalus. Grimshaw urged on the men without considering his own safety.

The fact that his backpack and water bottle were riddled with bullets and his cap badge sot to pieces  is testament to the danger he was in. Remarkably, he remained uninjured. Grimshaw was sent home in November, 1915, suffering frostbite. He served in France in 1917 and only retired from the army in 1953. He died in 1980 at the age of 87.

VC Frank StubbsSergeant Frank Stubbs (27) led his platoon through heavy fire to link up with D Company at tree on top of a hill. Stubbs was killed just yards from the tree, but his bravery and leadership earned him the highest military honour in the British army.

VC Cuthbert BromleyMajor Cuthbert Bromley (36) was adjutant to the Commanding Officer at Gallipoli, Despite being wounded in the back, he refused to leave his men. It would be another three days before he reported to a medic after being shot in the knee. Throughout his ordeal, he is said to have distinguished himself under heavy enemy fire.

Two months later he was injured in the foot, but refused to leave his post until the action was won. Bromley was treated in Egypt and was being sent back to Gallipoli when his troopship was torpedoed. Eyewitnesses reported seeing him helping others before being hit by some driftwood and drowning.

Such magnificent men… risking all to obey some half-cocked orders dreamt up in a cosy office far from the front line. Men like these are testament to the loyalty, tenacity and bravery of all those others who fell around that deadly cove in 1915.

Six Victoria Crosses before breakfast might sound impressive, but at what a cost, what a terrible cost…

All VC photos courtesy of the Fusilier Museum

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Lozen, the Warrior Woman

AS a boy, I remember looking longingly through the window of Turner’s shop on Aughrim Street and wishing I had more in my pocket than the 50p that nestled there. Turner’s was our special shop, the place we went to for treats. It sold comics like Warlord and Victor, as well as Commando story books. I loved those little books.

The other thing about Turner’s that I liked were the cowboys and indians that danced and pranced on their horses in its window. The cowboys had their six-shooters and the indians wielded tomahawks and hallooed blood-curdling war cries… at least they did in my imagination.

Victorio

Victorio

These days the indians are called Native Americans. Whatever their name, my childhood fascination with them evolved over the years to encompass reading quite a few books about them and, a few years ago, writing my own book (yet to be published) about the Choctaw and their huge generosity to the Irish people during the Famine.

The Choctaw were one of the ‘civilised tribes’. They took on ‘white ways’ and proved to be very astute and successful in business. That’s not quite the image of the ‘indian’ that’s perpetuated in popular culture, however, where we like our ‘indians’ filled with blood lust and nobility.

But whichever way we paint Native Americans of the Old West – ‘civilised’ or ‘savage’ – one thing remains the same, the image is always of men. Any women are secondary, extras to the drama being played out in the foreground, despite the fact that tribes operated within a matriarchy. And that omission played out in popular culture, too. To put it plainly, I don’t ever recall seeing ‘squaws’ nestling in the window of Turner’s on Aughrim Street.

It’s a pity toy makers were so narrow-minded in their view because had they been a bit more aware they could have cornered the market and sold toy figures by the truckload – not of Geronimo or Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull, but of a hard-faced warrior by the name of Lozen, a woman who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the braves and who was a leader amongst her people, the Chiricahua Apache.

Here’s how one of her compatriots, James Kaywaykla, remembered her to Eve Ball in an interview for her book In The Days of Victorio: Recollections of a Warm Springs Apache:

“I saw a magnificent woman on a beautiful horse—Lozen, sister of Victorio. Lozen the woman warrior! High above her head she held her rifle. There was a glitter as her right foot lifted and struck the shoulder of her horse. He reared, then plunged into the torrent. She turned his head upstream, and he began swimming.”

In 1877, Kaywaykla was a child riding behind his grandmother as they fled US soldiers: According to him, the other women and the children followed her into the Rio Grande. When they reached the far bank, Lozen came to Kaywaykla’s grandmother. “You take charge, now”, she said. “I must return to the warriors”, who stood between their women and children and the approaching cavalry.

According to Kaywaykla, she “could ride, shoot, and fight like a man, and I think she had more ability in planning military strategy than did Victorio”.

She never married, and is said to have given as good as she got when it came to proving her strength and athleticism amongst the braves. She dressed and fought just like the male warriors.

Lozen

Lozen

And Lozen, who was born in the 1840s, had other talents, too. She was a shamen, able to use her powers to learn the movements of the enemy. Victorio said, “Lozen is my right hand … strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people”.

Victorio and his band of Apaches had fled the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona and sown terror amongst settlers as they rampaged across New Mexico’s Black Mountain. Lozen was fighting by her brother’s side through it all, rustling horses and joining raiding parties.

The band was ambushed by Mexican troops and defeated in 1880. Victorio was killed, but Lozen wasn’t there to witness his death. She was miles away escorting a pregnant woman to safety.

Her absence saved her, and allowed her fight another day… this time alongside the survivors of her band, led by Nana in 1881, in what became a two-month long campaign of bloody retribution.

But she wasn’t finished there. After being apprehended and returned to San Carlos she later broke out again, this time with Geronimo. He valued her, too, and is reported to have said of her: ‘there is no warrior more worthy than the sister of Victorio’. No small compliment coming from one of the greatest guerrilla fighters of all time.

Lozen used her powers to locate the American and Mexican cavalry who were pursuing Geronimo’s band. Outstretching her arms, she would chant and move in a circle, whereupon she would feel a tremor in her hands. Whatever direction those hands were pointing at the time would indicate where the enemy was. The level of tremor told her the strength of the pursuing party.

The pursuit was relentless and, inevitably, the renegade Apache were rounded up. Lozen would remain a prisoner at Mount Vernon in Mobile, Alabama, until her death of tuberculosis around 1887.

Her story is in many ways the story of all Native Americans of the time – that of a free spirit caged. Yet her fighting prowess and charisma proved an inspiration and insured that, in certain quarters, her reputation survived longer than that of her tormentors.

Next time you watch a movie about ‘cowboys and indians’ in manly combat think of Lozen – the warrior woman who knocked the notion of ‘the weaker sex’ firmly on the head, and most likely scalped it, too.

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The Magical Mythical Tour…

When it comes to telling stories, there’s an abundance of formats on offer, from crime and romance to horror and mystery, and everything else in between.

History is just another form of storytelling, and myths a more elaborate and creative form of history… stories of events that have been twisted and coloured over time as they pass from one mouth to the next.

Myths are important because they help shape how we view the world, through our belief in them or our dismissal of their message.

I got involved in a project a few months back, which had a little to do with myths, and which is finally coming to fruition. A group of very talented authors (and I do mean that) got together to write an anthology of short stories on the subject of trolls.

Why trolls were chosen, I don’t know, but it was a good choice, because each writer got to create their own myth, and all those myths have now been combined to form the book, For Whom The Bell Trolls (which will be published on April 1). In fact, the editors were kind enough to include my own very first short story in the anthology.

The nice thing about the  book is that the net profits from it will be donated to the charity Equality Now, an international human rights organisation dedicated to the social, civil, political and economic rights of women and girls.

trollI loved the idea of creating my own myth. The stories in this collection are scary, funny and literary tales, complete with brilliant cartoons (Lindy Moone, editor, artist, author and general-all-round genius take a bow!).

As strange as trolls may be, you’d be surprised what other odd beasties lurk in imaginations and folklore throughout the world. Below is a bare scratching of the surface of the ghouls and creatures that fill that other world from which we’re separated by a gossamer-thin layer of time, belief… call it what you will.

TROLLS: You probably know the term troll from those nasty buggers who leave horrible messages online about people. Or perhaps you know the word from those ugly/cute dolls with the mad multi-coloured hair. Well, the real trolls are far more interesting than that. Some people say they are mythological creatures, but I have my doubts – as I do about all the other weird and wonderful specimens in the list below. The troll first appeared in Norse Mythology.

They’re not the most handsome of creatures – okay, they’re not handsome at all, and, eh, nor are they smart. Basically, they’re big, stupid and ugly. I’m feeling sorry for them already.
troll doll   The myths tell of how they live high in the mountains, in castles carved of stone. They can also be found (if you look hard enough) in deep forests, and some even by the seashore.

Trolls come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the myths you read. Smaller trolls are said to live in burial mounds and in mountains in Scandinavian folk tradition. In Denmark, they’re are called troldfolk.

With the advent of Christianity in that part of Europe in the 1300s, the stories changed. Trolls could suddenly smell the blood of a Christian man, and basically they stood for anything of the old ways, which the new religion condemned.

Trolls are also said to turn to stone once they came into contact with sunlight. So  make sure to study large boulders carefully. At least now you know what to look for when you go looking for them.

A representation of a Clurichaun in T. C. Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland

A representation of a Cluricaun in T. C. Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland

THE CLURICAUN: In my troll of the internet for this article (sorry about that) I came across a strange Irish creature, of which I’d never heard. The cluricaun is said to be an elf-like being, which looks like a tiny old man, who is permanently drunk and who loves to play jokes on people (I like the sound of this guy).

W.B. Yeats wrote about them in his book, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry: “They are withered, old, and solitary, in every way unlike the sociable spirits…They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms… Some suppose he is merely the Leprechaun on a spree.” I’m sure I saw of few of these during the recent Paddy’s Day celebrations…

KAPPA: Japanese folklore has its own share of mythical creatures. The Kappa is one of them, and not a nice one at that. It’s said to live in rivers and lakes and to have the body of a tortoise, a beak, and the limbs of a frog/ Its head is concave and water rests there as it waits quietly for its prey. Oh, the prey – did I not tell you? Well, the Kappa (which means ‘river child’) likes nothing better than to eat disobedient children.

The Kappa is also believed to venture onto land, but that concave head must retain water or it loses its powers. You might think all this fanciful nonsense, but apparently, there are signs near some lakes in Japan warning people of their presence.

Alternatively, there is the theory that the Kappa is actually a giant salamander (‘hanzaki’), which is aggressive and can haul prey away in its strong jaws. Either way, be careful around those Japanese lakes…

Statue of a griffin at St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Statue of a griffin at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

GRIFFIN: If you ever come across one of these, don’t despair. Despite their strange appearance – the head and wings of an eagle, and the body, tail, and hind legs of a lion. In Greek mythology, it is considered a protestor from evil and witchcraft.

Griffin’s are said to have mated for life. If one died, the other never sought out another mate – hence the reason griffins are used in church architecture (the Church being opposed to remarriage).

BLACK DOG: If you see one of these, then things are grim indeed. The black dog is said to be found in the British Isles and is believed to be a guardian of the underworld, and a portent of death. It is described in various forms but is said to be large, with glowing eyes.
Black dogs like to loiter about crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.

THE OWLMAN: Not all such tales stem from the ancient world. On April 17, 1976,  two girls, June Melling (12) and her sister Vicky (9), were walking through the woods near Mawnan church, in Lancaster, England, when they claimed to have seen a large winged creature hovering above the church tower.

Fast-forward two months, to July 3, when Sally Chapman (14) was camping with a friend in woods near the church. According to Sally, as she stood outside her tent, she heard a hissing sound and saw a figure that looked like an owl as big as a man, with pointy ears and red eyes. The girls said the creature flew up into the air and had  black pincer-like claws.

In 1989, there was another sighting. This time the creature was described as being about five feet tall… The legs had high ankles and the feet were large and black with two huge ‘toes’ on the visible side. It was brown and gray, wit glowing eyes.

Mawman church towerThere were also a sighting as relatively recently as 1995, when an American tourist wrote to the Western Morning News in Truro, Cornwall, claiming she saw a “man-bird… with a ghastly face, a wide mouth, glowing eyes and pointed ears” as well as “clawed wings”.

Spooky… Some ornithologists believe the creature was, in fact, an eagle owl. Their claw configuration matches the descriptions given, and it can grow to two feet long with a wide wingspan. Still there’s a bit of difference between two feet and five feet…

Whatever the truth of it, the interesting thing is that, even in this so-called sophisticated modern world of ours, such primal beings can still spark fear. It’s nice to know that myths are being made all the time, and that we don’t have to look to the distant past to read about them.

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Green with envy… to be sure, to be sure!

In the next few days a large chunk of the world will go green – not out of a love for the environment, but because that’s what you do on March 17.

Forget about any sense of style, every shade of green you can envisage will be flown, painted, worn and waved on St Patrick’s Day. All those inner Irishmen and women will surface for 24 hours of corned beef and cabbage, stout, whiskey and a few old songs about the Emerald Isle.

Paddy’s Day is an occasion for celebration, a day to maybe overindulge with drinking and singing… sure isn’t that what those Irish are famous for?

That’s true. Us Irish have a bit of a reputation when it comes to having a hooley or losing our tempers. The hot-blooded, big-drinking Irish… the Land of Saints and Scholars from which some of the world’s greatest writing has emerged.

But it’s not just O’Casey, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Kavanagh, Heaney and all the rest of those scribblers that have brought this little country to global prominence. Let me introduce a few other Irish who have changed the world in less notable but vitally important ways…

>> Paddy’s Day wouldn’t be Paddy’s Day, nor the Irish, er Irish, without ‘a drop of the crater’ or a few pints of stout to line the gullet. We have Arthur Guinness to thank for developing the country’s most successful and recognisable global export.

The brewing phenomenon that is Guinness had its origins in Leixlip, Co Kildare, before Arthur moved the operation to St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. In 1759, Arthur signed a 9,000-year lease for the site at £45 per year. You can’t beat a bit of forward planning…

Not so well known as Arthur, but just as important in his own way is one Aeneas Coffey, who came up with the world’s first heat-exchange device in 1830. Now, that may not sound particularly Earth shattering, but his brainwave proved to be a major development in the distillery business, including whiskey. Slainte Aeneas (hic!).

Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin

>> So, you’re in Ireland on Paddy’s Day and you want to phone the relatives in the States or wherever to wish them well. You probably wouldn’t be doing anything of the sort were it not for the wonderfully bewhiskered Lord Kelvin Thomson, who set up the Atlantic Telegraph Cable in 1865. His work helped to lay the cable which stretched from Newfoundland to Valentia in County Kerry, leading to the practice of trans-Atlantic calls.

The bold Kelvin didn’t stop there. He also had a huge interest in measuring temperature and in thermodynamics (as you do…), and gave his name to the ‘Kelvin Scale’, which is a measuring system used in physics.

>> Alright, you’re at the parade on O’Connell Street and you want to take some photos of the grand occasion (personally, I’d go to New York, it looks much better…). Well, you have John Joly to thank for that out-of-focus, head-cropped-off image you just snapped.  In 1894, Joly found a way to produce colour photographs from a  a single plate. In the process he changed the way we view the world.

Joly, from Hollywood, (not that obscure place in America, the one in Co Offaly) was a prolific inventor. He’s also responsible for meldometer (wonderful name!) for measuring the melting points of minerals, the steam calorimeter for measuring specific heats, and the photometer for measuring light intensity, as well as coming up with the small idea of using radiation for cancer treatment. Take a bow, Mr Joly.

Vincent Barry

Vincent Barry

>> As someone whose Gaelic name is O Leathlobhair (which literally means ‘half a leper’) I have a soft spot for one Vincent Barry (1908-1975), who managed to find a cure for leprosy by accident.

From a bacteriological point of view, he realised that tuberculosis and leprosy were quite similar. Leading a team of nine scientists, Barry synthesised a compound called B663 (Clofazimine).

The compound became part of the multi-drug antibiotic therapy used around the world in the treatment of leprosy, one of the world’s most debilitating diseases. Barry’s work would lead to 15 million people being cured of the disease.

>>
Today’s farmers should take a moment out of their busy schedules and spare a thought for Harry Ferguson (1884-1960). If it wasn’t for Harry they’d find their work a whole lot tougher.

Harry’s love of  engineering first came to the fore in 1908 when he  became the first Irishman to fly and the first citizen of the United Kingdom to build and fly his own aeroplane.

This creative genius from Co Down  also invented his own motor cycle and the first ever four-wheeled Formula-One racing car… not bad going  for someone who was originally a bicycle repairman.

However, his work on the Ferguson System became the basic design of the modern tractor that is used today. His name lives on in the Massey-Ferguson company.

John Philip Holland

John Philip Holland

>> On May 17, 1897, something remarkable happened in the field of maritime history – the first submarine with power to run submerged for any considerable distance was launched. It was also the first underwater vessel to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface.

A former Christian Brother from Liscannor, in Co Clare, John Philip Holland was responsible for that. In doing so, he became the first person to successfully launch a submarine.

His vessel was formally commissioned by both the US Navy and the Royal Navy in 1900. Holland died in 1914 at the age of 74.  His work paved the way for a new phase in underwater warfare and oceanography.

>> Two other Irishmen also made their mark when it came to warfare. Walter Gordon Wilson, from Blackrock, in Dublin,  developed a real battlefield game-changer.

In 1911, Britain’s  then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill commissioned the design of a vehicle “capable of resisting bullets and shrapnel, crossing trenches, flattening barbed wire, and negotiating the mud of no-man’s land”

In 1915, Wilson, a naval officer, was put in charge of the task. He worked with agricultural engineer William Tritton.Their efforts resulted in the first British tank, called ‘Little Willie’. There followed more experiments and a new tank – ‘Big Willie’, ahem, and thereafter ‘Mother’, which became the prototype for the Mark I tank. What Freud would have to say about the choice of code names is anybody’s guess…

Wilson also found time to invent the self-changing gearbox which was used in a whole range of cars, buses, rail cars and boats.

Another Irishman with a talent for developing military equipment was Louis Brennan, from Castlebar, Co Mayo. Brennan just happened to invent the guided missile as far back as 1874. His steerable torpedo was patented in 1877 and sold to the British Navy for £100,000 used as a coastal defensive mechanism.

Brennan also did much work developing the helicopter, as well as a gyroscopic-based monorail system, which worked in tests but which the British government decided not to adopt due to concerns over the reliability of the gyroscopes. Brennan died in 1932 when he was hit by a car in Montreux, Switzerland. He was 79.

>> And let’s hear it for Dublin-born Francis Rynd, whose contribution to the medical world is really quite huge. It was Rynd who invented the first hypodermic syringe.

Rynd believed that if he could inject a sedative into the bloodstream of the patient, their pain would be relieved much quicker than if they had taken drugs orally.

With this in mind, he invented a hollow needle which he used to put the drugs into the patient’s bloodstream. In 1844, he first used a drip needle to inject drugs directly into the vein. Medicine was changed utterly that year…

>> Finally, let’s not forget Co Down man James Martin, who together with  Capt Valentine Baker invented the world’s first ejector seat. The first live test of the seat was held in 1946 when human guinea pig Bernard Lynch, was launched into the air landing without injury.

From then on, everyone had to have one – even James Bond used an ejector seat in his Aston Martin. Today, every fighter jet is equipped with one to safely propel the pilot out of the plane at great velocity in the event of an imminent crash.

So, ’tis a great day to be Irish. We’re a great little country… just don’t mention the economic collapse and the mountain of debt now sitting on the shoulders of every Irish citizen for decades to come, thanks to our greedy bankers and stupid politicians.

Where’s that ejector seat when you need it!Green shamrock. Vector eps-10.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.

 

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Escapes Even Houdini Would Be Proud Of…

A passenger plane clipping a taxi before crashing into the Keelung River in Taiwan

A passenger plane clipping a taxi before crashing into the Keelung River in Taiwan

I recently wrote a post about some great escapes from prison, however yesterday’s air crash in Taiwan has prompted me to revisit the topic but from a slightly different angle. If you haven’t seen the Taiwan footage, you can find it online, suffice to say that it is both tragic and spectacular all at once.

The photo above shows the passenger plane seconds from impact. That yellowish vehicle with the dust around it is a taxi, which was clipped by the plane’s wing as it headed over a motorway overpass before crashing into the Keelung River.

At the time of writing 31 bodies have been recovered, 12 are still missing and 15 passengers somehow survived. That anyone could live through such an accident is remarkable but even more so is that the driver of that yellow cab survived too.

Mr Zhou, for that is the cabbie’s name, emerged from the car with some serious head injuries but was still able to tell rescuers about his ordeal… not bad going for someone who had just been hit by a passenger plane.

Such hair-raising escapes leave us shaking our heads in bewilderment, but Mr Zhou is not the only one out there in possession of nine lives.

Klara Markus

Klara Markus

Klara Markus is one lady who certainly falls into that category. Last New Year’s Eve she celebrated her 101st birthday. For anyone to achieve that heady milestone is quite impressive but to do so after what Mrs Markus has been through is nothing short of miraculous.

Dachau… Ravensbruck… Auschwitz… the names alone make our blood run cold. Klara Markus, a Jew from northern Romania, was in all three Nazi concentration camps.

There are other Holocaust survivors, of course, but what makes Klara stand out amongst them is that she survived the gas chamber itself.

The nightmare began for her in August 1942 when she was deported to a Jewish ghetto in Budapest, Hungary where she started work in an umbrella factory.

Klara remained there until she was forced on a month-long march to Dachau on October 20, 1944. A week later she was sent to the women’s’ camp in Ravensbruck, before being transported to Auschwitz.

Shortly before the evacuation and subsequent liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, Mrs Markus, then 30 years old and weighing around 70lbs (32kg), was sent to the gas chambers.

She said: ‘I was chosen towards the end of the day with a large group of other women and we were made ready for the gas chamber.’

Once inside the gas was turned on, but nothing happened… incredibly, the Nazis had run out of gas.

‘One of the guards joked that it was our lucky day because they had already killed so many they didn’t have any gas left for us. God was watching over me that day.’

Clem ClementI’m sure paratrooper Lt. Percy ‘Clem’ Clements (left) would empathise with that story. As far as escapes go, ‘Clem’ would seem to have cornered the market. Not only did he survive a firing squad, but he also escaped a PoW camp and was shot four times in battle, but still managed to make it home.

‘Clem’ was a founding member of the airborne SAS and was involved in the first British paratroop drop over Italy in 1941. Unfortunately for ‘Clem’ he and 34 others were captured after their mission to destroy an aquaduct.

Stripped and lined up against a wall in front of 20 shotgun-toting locals, ‘Clem’ prepared to meet his fate. However, just as the order to fire was to be given, an Italian officer appeared and ordered a stop to the execution as it would have been in breach of the Geneva Convention.

Lt Clements then spent over two years in a PoW camp, before managing to escape in 1943, and walked more than 100 miles to reach the advancing Allied forces in Italy.

He rejoined his unit and was soon in the thick of things in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

The Germans launched a surprise attack and ‘Clem’ had to lead his men in a retreat. As he did so he was shot four times – in the stomach, arm and leg. Even his two stretcher bearers were killed as they carried him away. Nevertheless he continued to issue orders until he passed out from blood loss.

Lt Clements was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Cross and Military Medal for his bravery.

Escaping with your life is one thing, but there are other sorts of escapology. After World War Two, the threat of fascism was replaced by that of communism. Berlin once again became a battleground, but a political one in which the city was divided between the allies and Russia.

GREAT ESCAPE: The  Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

GREAT ESCAPE: The Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

There are many, many stories of those who risked their lives for a free life in the West, none better captures those times than one escape across the Berlin Wall by two families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, who built their own hot-air balloon (as you do), powered by an improvised flame thrower and floated over the Berlin Wall to freedom in 1979. As escapes go, that one ranks pretty high on the list of most spectacular.

Finally, I’ll end with a conundrum: When is an escape not an escape? Irish republican rebel leader Ernie O’Malley can answer that for you.

Ernie O'Malley

Ernie O’Malley

In his book, The Singing Flame, O’Malley recounted one extraordinary incident when he was a PoW in Mountjoy Prison, during the Irish Civil War. He tells of how PoW Paddy Coughlan, the wing’s OC, wrote a letter to the Governor to complain about the treatment of prisoners. The Governor returned Paddy’s letter with some sarcastic comments added in red ink.

Paddy was a bit put out by this and wrote another letter to the Governor in which he complained about the Governor’s bad manners.

That appeared to inflame the prison chief who sent police to Paddy’s cell to have him arrested. But Paddy wasn’t there, in fact Paddy couldn’t be found anywhere.

The Governor was certain that Paddy was still in the jail. Searches were instigated, but Paddy avoided them all. He slept on different landings, changed his appearance and clothing, grew a moustache and went ‘on the run’… inside prison.

Paddy didn’t let the small matter of being a wanted man behind bars deter him from his duties. He dealt with the routine work of C wing, held his Spanish class regularly, then disappeared at night to sleep in the next wing, with which he had a means of communication.

Eventually, though, Paddy was discovered and imprisoned in the basement of another wing of Mountjoy.

But not for long…

The men in the cell above broke through the floor and hauled him up using roped blankets. Paddy was, as O’Malley puts it ‘again at liberty in jail’.

I know I’m biased, but I think only an Irishman could manage to escape and remain in prison all at the same time. As they say in these parts: ‘you couldn’t make it up’.

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