Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oliver Cromwell's Head

Centuries after his death, the name of Oliver Cromwell still arouses fierce feelings among many Irish people. The outrages at Drogheda and Wexford - accepted as historical fact by most historians with one courageous exception* - and his notorious order that the Irish go "to Hell or to Connacht" are still quoted with barely-concealed venom.

Cromwell died in 1658 and was honoured with a state funeral. Following the Restoration in 1660, his corpse was exhumed by vengeful Royalists and dragged through the streets of London to Tyburn where, according to a contemporary account, it was "hanged by the neck until the going down of the sun". The head was then hacked off, dipped in tar, and attached to a spike on the roof of Westminster Hall. There it remained, ravaged by the elements until, after a storm, it finally fell to earth. The story goes that it was found by a soldier, then disappeared again until the eighteenth century when it turned up, being hawked around markets in a succession of freak shows. Many years passed before Oliver Cromwell's head was finally - believe it or not, as recently as 1960 - laid to rest within a chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His alma mater.

Hearing that story**, a list of names sprang into my mind.... Hitler, Pol Pot, Fred and Rosemary West, Jeffrey Dahmer, Denis Nielsen.... The list is probably endless.... Is it less sinful to desecrate the body of a patently evil person than that of your average good citizen, the proverbial man in the street? And what about the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett (like Cromwell, hanged at Tyburn), still gazing from its glass shrine in a church in Drogheda? Should all human remains, irrespective of the lives they led, be allowed to rest in dignity and peace?

*Cromwell - An Honourable Enemy: The Untold Story of the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland by Tom Reilly.

**Cromwell's Head by Jonathan Fitzgibbons.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I'm Looking Through Ewe

Scientists at University College Dublin have concluded that infrared photography can capture the unique pattern of blood vessels in the retina of a sheep. The upshot is that Irish farmers will now be able to indentify individual animals by looking into their eyes. The results will presumably be stored on a computer (with loads of RAM?) somewhere in the Department of Agriculture, but the practical use of this discovery totally escapes me. Will every newborn sheep have to line up for an ovine mugshot? (Baad baad Larry Lamb). As it walks into the abbatoir, will it have to pass some boffin with a laptop?

Random Thoughts on Drummers

Apart from the occasional great song - mostly on UP - REM lost the plot when Bill Berry left.

Ringo Starr is vastly underrated.

Dave Grohl should stay behind the drums

John Bonham's thunderous playing on When the Levee Breaks is one of the few highlights of Led Zeppelin's overrated career.

Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh by Magma (led by drummer Christian Vander) is one of the most unusual and innovative albums ever made. Having lived with it for more than thirty years, I still hear new things in it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Blog Challenge. Songs That Mean A Lot To Me (The Mind of a Grocer's Assistant #3)

Trying to pick a definitive FAVOURITE SONGS OF ALL TIME is a fairly futile exercise, but here's twenty that mean a lot to me:

Baby You're A Rich Man. The Beatles
The Great Song of Indifference. Bob Geldof
River. Gary Dunne
Dante Tír na nÓg
The Revealing Science of God. Yes
Chicago. Sufjan Stevens
The Hills of Greenmore. Steeleye Span
Angelina. Bob Dylan
The Lord's Prayer. Roy Harper
Tom Traubert's Blues. Tom Waits
Lola. The Kinks
Last Stop This Town. Eels
The Vigil. Jane Siberry
The Answer. Pierce Turner
You Are the Everything. REM
Wasteland. Dan Bern
Slow West Vultures. The Mountain Goats
Sanities. John Cale
The Cygnet Committee. David Bowie
Do Wah Diddy Diddy. Manfred Mann
Take It Where You Find It. Van Morrison

Friday, November 07, 2008

In My Family History There's...

A Volunteer, who during the Irish War of Independence, dressed up as a woman and proceeded to 'befriend' the Black-and-Tan on guard duty at the local railway station. At the opportune moment, he/she produced a chloroformed handkerchief and... mission accomplished... took the key to the shed where arms were stored.

A nine-year-old girl who fell from a swing on a second-story porch. She lived for an hour and a half before dying in hospital from a fractured skull.

A shop-boy who, in 1932, sold "the first wireless that was ever bought in Timahoe"

A father of eight who abandoned his wife and family and disappeared, allegedly to the silver mines of Montana.

A young women whose emigrant's suitcase included eggs for her uncle in America. The fighting cock that eventually hatched gave rise to this riddle: "He was born in America, reared in America, fought in America and died in America but his parents never left Ireland. Who is he?"

A teenager whose first car was a "fawn-coloured 1927 Ford 14.9 Saloon with timber panels on the inside and petrol cans strapped to the outside."

A child who lost a finger in a turnip pulper in Ratheniska.

A nursing nun who fell in love and ran away with a young TB patient.

A farmer who sued a cattle dealer over the sale of a cow. He was assured by the dealer that it was a perfectly healthy animal but when he brought it home it became sick and died in two days. He claimed that the cow had pneumonia and was drugged on the day of the sale. The judge agreed and awarded the farmer £31 1s, 11d.

The organiser of the Robert Emmets, the first Gaelic Football team in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

An emigrant who stole a sack of corn at a threshing dance and sold it to the local malthouse to buy his passage to America.

A young man who won a smoking competition. He smoked two ounces of tobacco in the fastest time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


If I live to be a hundred, I know that I'll never have time enough to re-read all my favourite books, listen to my old LP's (something I've been promising to do for ages), undo the wrongs I've done, change permanently the things I hate about myself, learn to properly play the three Laois reels (something I'll never achieve as I simply haven't got 'the nyah'- that je ne sais quoi that distinguishes those with traditional music in their souls from secondhand players like myself), stop worrying about things I did or didn't do, learn to appreciate what others take for granted, realise that, through all the years I sneered at them, those corny pop songs spoke of fundamental truths. Time is the enemy. Every second hurts; the last one kills

In a Local Bookshop

ME: Have you Middlemarch by George Eliot?
ASSISTANT: The calendars are all upstairs.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Racquet's Revenge!

As a child, the nearest I ever got to a football team was being allowed carry a bucket of half-time oranges to those lucky enough to represent our school. (I've always felt that I danced on to the pitch with a certain athletic grace, but sadly never enough to be promoted to even last sub.) Over the years, I played the odd (in all senses of the word) game of tennis, and I recall that, for a couple of months circa 1965, I was a regular spectator at local rugby matches. A deep interest in the intricacies of the oval ball? Not a bit of it. A deep interest in the sister of the guy who threw the ball out of the scrum.

Anyway, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that I haven't a sporting bone in my body. (Though sometimes, for nothing other than pure relaxation, I do watch football on tv). So why am I writing about sport at all? Two reasons, both of which are somehow connected in my mind. First of all, for the last few months I have been afflicted with a very painful case of tennis elbow. I am receiving treatment, but I can't escape the feeling that there's poetic justice - if I were religious, I'd say divine retribution - in the fact that this, of all ailments, makes it impossible for me to play my beloved musical instruments. And the second reason? One of the big regrets of my life is that I failed to encourage and enjoy my sons' interest in sport; when their mother watched their matches, I should have been there, even carrying the oranges. I wasn't, and I have to live with that.