On Friday last, 27th January 2017, the people of Peterborough and beyond came to remember the death and buriel of King Henry 8th’s first wife Katharine of Aragon. I saw little of the actual s…
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On Friday last, 27th January 2017, the people of Peterborough and beyond came to remember the death and buriel of King Henry 8th’s first wife Katharine of Aragon. I saw little of the actual service because a group of us in appropriate costume guided some 360 chidren from St John’s Church to the Cathedral, and after the service gave them brief descriptions of life of that time.
One thing I missed was toward the end of the service when Katharine’s last letter to King Henry VIII was read. I have, however, got a copy of the text – and this is what it says:-
My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and…
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I have never been to the Blasket Islands! Although I hope to very soon. Isn’t it queer that I have lived here for a quarter of a century and yet I had never even driven around Slea Head until last year, when an old school friend Ann visited me? I was so pleased with the journey that I made it again soon afterwards when my sister Susan came to stay! On that occasion we stopped for lunch in Dingle and I bought “Peig”. I knew, from various friends, that Peig Sayers, a famous story-teller from the Great Blasket Island, was compulsory reading, in Irish, for generations of school girls here.
Reading Peig’s book (translated into English I hasten to add) “An Old Woman’s Reflections”, which she dictated to her son, Micheál Guiheen (Sayers being her maiden name), gave me an appetite for more knowledge of the Blasket Islanders. According to the census records of 1901 and 1911, Peig, or “Margaret Guiheen” as you’ll find her, could both read and write, but this seems not to have been the case. From what I gather, a few of the islanders (and bear in mind that Peig came from Dunquin on the mainland and married into the island), learnt a little English during brief periods when there was a school on the island. Their own language though had been passed down orally, with their stories and poems. None could read or write in Irish. This is hardly surprising when you consider how under British rule, for several centuries, the language and religion were banned, discouraged and sent underground. The miracle is it survived at all! As “The Tailor” (Tim Buckley from Kilgarvan) observes in Eric Cross’ “The Tailor and Ansty” (a book which was banned when it was first published!) “All the schooling was in English. There wasn’t a syllable of Irish. It was against the law, and you would be beat if you used it. But the people had the Irish, and good Irish too, and they spoke it amongst themselves. Now the world has changed round, and you are paid to learn it and few people have it! It’s a queer state of affairs.” It has been observed by academics who are knowledgeable in these matters, that the Irish language that was spoken on The Blasket Islands, during the 19th and early 20th century, was a “pure” form of the language; unadulterated by foreign influences. It was for this reason that these academic gentlemen first went to the Great Blasket Island.
The first of these esteemed gentlemen was playwright (Edmund) John Millington Synge, best known for “Playboy of the Western World” (which caused riots when it was first performed in Dublin!) Synge didn’t receive a very warm welcome from the Islanders when he arrived in 1905. Memories of Bailiffs and Land Agents (attempting) to land on the Islands to extract rent and rates from the impoverished islanders were too recent in their minds. There is an account in Tomás Ó Crohan’s “The islandman” from his childhood, when a steamship was sighted, moored outside the island. It had put out a large boat full of uniformed officers with guns. These armed soldiers would have ‘sacked’ the houses of the islanders had they succeeded in coming ashore. They hadn’t reckoned on the women of the island though, who stood above the strand, on the cliffs and pelted them with rocks! The children gathered more ‘ammunition’ and the women continued to rain stones upon them until one had his head split open and they retreated back to their boat and rowed back to the safety of their steamship! In those days the islanders were supposed to pay £2 per cow in rates to the (Earl of Cork) which would be about £8 for the whole island; it may as well have been eight hundred pounds! Tomás Ó Crohan was born in 1856 and he was a boy when he observed the above event, so I am supposing it to have taken place in the 1870’s; just thirty years or so before Synge’s visit, so not surprising then that they were still very fearful of strangers!
The next of these academic gentlemen to dock was a Norwegian called Carl Marstrander in 1907. They called him “The Viking” (‘An Lochlannach’). Marstrander was interested in Celtic languages and visited Scotland and the Isle of Man as well as all the islands. He was already fluent in ‘Old Irish’ when he arrived on the Great Blasket. A Pole-vault champion from Norway, he succeeded in astonishing Tomás Ó Crohan by vaulting over his house using the oar of a naomhóg* for a pole! Marstrander, so the story goes, “worked and laboured on both sea and land” from the first day he arrived. Later he took up a position teaching Old Irish in the School of Celtic Studies in Dublin. One of his first students, a scholar named Robin Flower from the British Museum came to read Old Irish and was advised by his professor to visit the Blasket Islands. He arrived in 1910 and immediately struck up a rapport with Tomás Ó Crohan, who was chosen by the ‘King’ of the Ireland, (An Rí), Pádraig Ó Catháin, to help Flower learn ‘Modern Irish’. The whole island had great affection for Robin Flower and called him “An Bláithín” (meaning Little Flower).
Tomás Ó Crohan, with the help of visitors to the island, like Robin Flower, as well as his relations living on the mainland, learnt to read and write in his own native language.
One of these visitors was the son of a businessman from Killarney called Brian Kelly (Brian Ó Ceallaigh), who eventually persuaded a sceptical and reluctant Tomás Ó Crohan to write down his recollections. Kelly read him Pierre Loti’s “Pescheur d’Islande (an account of a Canadian fisherman) and stories by Maxim Gorky “My Childhood” about Russian peasants, which eventually persuaded him to put pen to paper. Tomás Ó Crohan began writing about his life, as a sort of diary, which he sent, almost daily, to Kelly in Killarney. These precious papers were subsequently sent to Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha “An Seabhac”. These were eventually published as “Allagar na hInse” (Island Cross Talk). Although they were written first, they were published after “An tOileánach” (The Islandman) – generally regarded as the greatest literary work to have come from these poetry-speaking islanders, and considered a classic.
After Reading Peig, I was sent Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s (Maurice O’Sullivan) Fiche Bliain ag fás (Twenty Years A-Growing**) by same sister, Susan (she had bought it at Kerry Airport after leaving me). Twas then I really fell in love with the Islanders! Maurice O’Sullivan was a beautiful writer: truthful and candid in his intelligent observations. His mother died when he was an infant and there being no-one in his home yet old enough to look after a baby, he was put into an orphanage in Dingle (part of the poorhouse). When he was about seven years old his father brought him back home. At that time he hadn’t a word of Irish, but he wasn’t long picking it up! When he first clapped eyes on the naomhóg, below the cliff he thought it was a giant beetle “twice as big as a cow” and as it was being carried by two or three men underneath it, as was the custom, one can easily see why!
The houses that they islanders lived in were tiny, (about 102ft) and built huddled together like a flock of sheep huddles to avoid bad weather. Originally the roof was made of rushes but later they copied the canvas and tar of the naomhóg and these were anchored with ropes and rocks holding them down and keeping them from being blown off during the many storms. The kitchen had an open fireplace and perhaps a few súgán chairs (woven straw) and maybe a settle that could be turned into a bed. Below the kitchen, another room for sleeping was formed by placing a dresser between the two apartments. The floor was just a dirt floor and the women went down to the beach for sand twice a day to keep it dry. By night the animals were brought inside. All the cooking was done on the open fire, and bread would have likely been made in a bastible (a large iron pan on legs with a heavy lid upon which you put red-hot sods of turf). Their diet was very simple. It consisted of whatever could be caught. They snared rabbits, which were very plentiful, hunted for puffins, scaled the cliff face for gulls eggs, caught thrushes nesting in the stone walls by night and of course fished. Sometimes they went off to another of the Blasket islands and found seals in caves. A typical meal would be a plate of potatoes, some salted fish and some milk over it. To drink they had skimmed milk, until the arrival of Tea.
In this way, people have lived since Neolithic times.
How sad that their number fell into decline. The young people emigrated to America. The fishing came to an end when huge French trawlers fished off the islands, depriving the islanders of their livelihood. Eventually, the handful of islanders remaining, were almost starving when the government finally evacuated the island in 1953. Very quickly the wind and rain tore the roofs off most of the houses and the stone walls began to crumble. Most houses now look as though they have been unlived in for centuries. In recent years one or two have been restored and visitors can now go and see them as they once were.
Looking back at historical documents, such as baptism, marriage and census records, the signs were there to see. In the early 1800s there were more than forty different surnames associated with the Great Blasket Island. By the early 20th century fewer than a dozen names survived on the island.
It is impossible (for me anyway) to read Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, Tomás Ó Críomhthain, Peig Sayers or Michael Carney (Michéal Cearnaigh)’s “From the Great Blasket to America” (subtitled The Last Memoir by and Islander) without weeping. I have a genuine love for these people and the deepest admiration for them.
I would love to have the mental capacity to learn Irish and read these books, and a lot more besides that haven’t been translated into English at all! But I find it impossible to learn from books and most the CDs are Ulster Irish with is so very different from the beautiful, soft Munster dialect spoken in Kerry along its west coast. What a pity I wasn’t born a hundred years ago and could have gone, like Robin Flower and George Thompson, to live on the island, where only Irish was spoken! Perhaps then even I might have picked it up!
Do have a look at this website:
And if you ever find yourself in Dingle, drive on a little further to Dunquin (Dún Chaoin) and visit the Blasket Exhibition Centre. There, watch the short documentary, take your time to stroll through the exhibition, and if you have time, and the weather and tide are with you, take the Blasket Island Ferry over to the Great Blasket Island, as I will, myself, very shortly, God willing! Booking is advisable, and the telephone number is 066 9156422 or from outside Ireland 00 353 66 9156422
*Naomhóg (sometimes called a curragh and pronounced ‘knave OhG” (hard G) is described by Maurice O’Sullivan as “A canoe of wicker covered with canvas and tarred”
**The title comes from an old Irish saying that Maurice learned from his grandfather: “I dare say a man grows weak when he reaches you age, daddo?” “Oh, musha, he does, my heart. Did you never hear how the life of a man is divided?
Twenty years a-growing (Fiche bliain ag fás)
Twenty years in blossom Fiche bliain faoi bhláth
Twenty years a-stooping (Fiche bliain ag cromadh)
And twenty years declining (Agus fiche bliain ag meath)
Maurice O’Sullivan’s friend, George Thompson, who translated Maurice’s book into English, and wrote the preface, also wrote a brief postscript in 1951. He tells us that his dear friend, from whom he learnt to speak Irish, drowned while swimming in Galway in 1950, leaving a widow, a son and a daughter.
One cannot help thinking back to the words of “Mirrisheen”s Grandfather, “Daddo”:-
“Musha, my heart, a man of the sea never had a good life and never will, as I know well, having spent my days on it, and I have gone through as many perils on it as there are grey hairs in my head, and I am telling you now, wherever God may guide you, keep away from the sea”
Thinking of Debbie
“Those LEGS!” My sister exclaimed as we drove through Mildenhall. I turned to look, seeing a group of girls walking ‘up town’. I smiled as I recognised my friend Debbie; tight jeans hugging her super-model figure: legs up to her armpits! I felt a strange pride, as though admiration for my friend somehow reflected on me.
She did do a bit of modelling too! For David’s Hairdressers. She was his model and went to fashion shows and competitions with him. She had the most silken hair. Long and brown and unimaginably soft and shiny; like a shampoo ad. I compared it to my straw-like blonde mop! I could pin mine up with a pencil, but no hair clips would stay in Debbie’s hair. They slithered down her sleek hair, finding no imperfection on which to get any sort of grip.
The most efficient person I’ve ever seen. Watching her work was a sort of poetry to me. I, an awkward oaf in comparison. Her nimble fingers clicking away at the keyboard as she typed, lightning fast and word perfect. Click click click went the stapler as she grasped bunches of documents; more sections that she had fingers for it seemed! I would have helped her, she was always on some Marketing deadline, but my clumsy hands could never perform such magic tricks, I’d slow her down!
She ‘owned’ the Rank Xerox 9400 photocopier: an aeroplane of a machine, every bit as noisy, in a room all to itself. She’d stand supervising as it devoured boxes of paper, spewing out reams and reams of material. Copying, collating, stapling. When it jammed as it was want to do, usually when she was trying to get a mailing out to her Reps in today’s post, she’d crack open lids and doors, pull out trays, manipulate, manoeuvre, free the smallest piece of torn paper or a scrunched up sheet. Where other mortals would have to call Paul Kippen, Chief Engineer, she’d just get on with it herself! Replacing ink and toner posed no problem to her and unlike most of the other secretaries who didn’t want to dirty their hands, she’d get stuck in; nothing would hold up her progress!
Paul Kippen, a chauvinist I suppose, but we had different values back then. He’d trace the outline of her figure; never touching, just outlining. “Looking for the string!” He’d say to our confused faces. “You two are joined at the hip!” he’d say, laughing at us.
Debbie was “always” in Reception, drinking coffee and chatting to Peggy Colacchio, Receptionist for decades, trans-Atlantic accent and chain-smoker! Enormous ashtrays would adorn her desk; a great advertisement for a pharmaceutical company!
But Debbie wasn’t idle as she sat there. Her hands were busy always, stapling, labelling, stuffing envelopes, wrapping videos in silver paper to save the precious film from the scanning machines that were known to wipe them clean. It was sensible. The alternative would be to bring everything all the way back upstairs and into the Portacabins, which were the Marketing department. Crazy when the 9400 was just along the corridor from Reception. The post room too adjoined reception. That was my area, so I had “genuine” reasons for being in reception. Also it was my job to give Peggy her coffee breaks.
If Debbie wasn’t in Reception, then I was up in Marketing. Armed with huge catalogues of office equipment and stationery, I’d write down this week’s orders. Debbie’s grey area made more colourful by shocking pink files for Product Manager Chris Dewes (Palacos R with Gentamycin) and turquoise for Product Manager Paul Clinch (Intron A Interferon). It was ironic that Chris plugged Palacos when he could scarcely walk himself and badly needed hip replacements in both hips! He kept postponing it though because of his love of Squash! Truly! He was “slaughter” the young managers, wet behind the ears who gleefully accepted his challenge! They thought he’d be a walk-over! He was nothing of the kind! He had the eyesight of an eagle and lightning fast reactions. From where he stood he would send that small rubber ball flying in all directions, the youth running round the court sweating and breathless as Chris massacred their hubris!
Her other boss a handsome Rugby Playing Irishman; Captain of Lansdowne Rugby Club. He said to me once “I’d love to get in Debbie’s knickers!” Naturally, I told her what he’d said. She blushed pink but rose to the challenge in her unique and fabulous way! Next morning she brought in a pair of knickers and put them in a brown envelope and put them on his desk with his post. “What’s this?” he asked. “You said you wanted to get in my knickers; well here they are!” She had a brilliant sense of humour. A put down certainly, but all good clean fun!
She would pop to the canteen in the afternoon and bring us both a Cadbury’s Twirl and bring her handsome Irishman a Toffee Crisp as I remember. She liked KP Discos too as I recall! I’d get fatter as she’d stay as slim as a whippet!
She used to bring us in sandwiches too; cheese and chutney! And a yoghurt from her dad who worked for Bridge Farm Dairies. Sometimes we’d go round hers and she’d whistle up some scrambled eggs. She did them differently from anyone else I’ve ever known. Instead of whisking them and cooking them in a pan with the inevitable burning of the bottom, she’d put them into a non-stick frying pan with butter, using two wooden spatulas to blend the whites and yoke and move them round the pan. A buttery and delicious lunch! No-one’s ever cooked me eggs as nice since!
On Friday’s we finished at two. We’d head off to Bury St. Edmunds in her British Racing Green, canvas-topped MG Midget. In the summer with the roof down and our tape player blaring! The Midget needed a good bash from a hammer to get the starter motor working, and she had an enormous crook-lock which she fastened between the steering wheel and the clutch pedal. We had no idea what speed we were doing as the speedometer didn’t work either! “Get off the road” she’d say to pedestrians crossing our road “I don’t take passengers!”
A flash of M & S white knickers as she swung her long brown legs out of the low seats. Graceful and feminine. Her chubby friend scrambled out less elegantly!
We’d park on the Butter Market and go for a late lunch in her favourite Italian restaurant. Pizza and a cafetiere of strong, delicious coffee: NOT widely available back then!
Then we’d go shopping! We had store cards for all the best shops, Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and we’d run up terrifying bills! I would try and exercise some restraint but Debbie would say “Oh, get it!” and I’d willingly obey!
Once when we were shopping in Mildenhall, in a little boutique called “Gaywear”, we both tried on the same dress: in different sizes I hasten to add! It had a fitted bosom , and was a lovely, feminine, floral, floaty thing. We nearly pissed ourselves laughing inside that cubicle! On Debbie the dress hung empty across her flat chest. On me, my breasts burst out over the top; Nell Gwynn with buxom bosom bulging! All I needed was the oranges! When we’d stopped laughing she said one day when we’re rich we would have joint surgery! She’d have half my boobs!
I remember her telling me that when she was at Newmarket Upper School her mum bought her a ‘training bra’. She wore it once. She was playing netball and when she raised both arms to shoot for the net, it came rolling up to her throat! Nothing to stop it! She never wore a bra again after that! (Or at least, she may have done during her two pregnancies!!)
It seems cruelly ironic that it should be she who got breast cancer.
I wish I could see you again before you go off on that journey that you must face on your own. We none of us can know what lies ahead of us, but I feel certain that your dad will be there waiting for you. He’ll hug you as tightly as he did at the airport when you left to start your future in America.
God speed Debbie. Don’t linger and shrivel and suffer long. When you get there, look down at me and smile. Know that I love you so much my dearest friend.
HOLLYWOOD has always excelled in those acid films that eat away at least something of the glamour of institutions which at other times they have asked us to admire – American politics, Big Business, even Hollywood itself. This last was recently taken apart in the Gloria Swanson film, Sunset Boulevard; and now, with All About Eve (script and direction: Joseph Mankiewicz), a similar dismantling takes place among the emotions, ambitions and vanities of that suffocating little alley – Theatre Street. And this film is not, as one might have thought, about a wide-eyed young actress desperately struggling to the top through the hazards of recurring amorous crises and leering producers; but about a brilliant though ageing star of the theatre, Margo Channing, who realizing for the first time what life will be like after the glory has departed, is beginning to lose her self-confidence. Into her life comes Eve, a lovely stage-struck young girl, with, so it seems, a tragic past; and Margo, to help her, employs her as a secretary. But Eve becomes rather more a reflection than a secretary … and to tell you more might spoil the film.
Admittedly it is hard to believe this story, which I must keep from you, but it’s nevertheless interesting and gripping; and the clever dialogue reflects plenty about life in the cut-throat circles of this vain, tight little theatre world. We meet Addison De Witt, an unpleasant but fascinating dramatic critic, clever enough even to scotch the plans of the villain of the piece – an unscrupulous actress whom Margo advises to put her Sarah Siddons awards where her heart should be. George Sanders – always happiest at his most offensive – plays this offensive fellow, who has neither award nor heart, to the life. And there’s Margo herself, witty, jagged, bitter, but as least generous and grown-up. This part is especially convincing because Bette Davis – a compelling and dazzling actress herself – plays it perfectly. Anne Baxter is just right for Eve, and I liked Gary Merrill as Bill, the theatrical producer. The film is considerably more talkie than movie but because the talkie is so good I’ll overlook the lack of movie.
That the part of Eve is as unbelievable as the story detracted little from my enjoyment of All About Eve; though without the character of Margo it would have been altogether too much of an orgy of malice. It is Margo – and Bette Davis, of course – who gives it proportion. And if it doesn’t give us anything like the last word on Theatre Street we certainly have a striking view of the vanity, ambition run to seed, brilliance and even humanity that one often finds in these highly competitive circles. You must leave your children at home and see the film from the beginning, and if anyone tries to tell you the story beforehand, don’t listen.
We know well enough by now that the human characters in Disney’s fairy-story cartoons don’t come to life in the brilliant way of the animals; but I think we should make allowances for them, as an experiment. In his new Cinderella, though the Prince is lifeless, Cinderella herself seems to be an advance on Snow White; though no-one would pretend that the animals haven’t the best of it, especially Cinderella’s friends, the mice, who call her most engagingly, “Cinderelly”. There’s less music than usual in this cartoon; but as it would, undoubtedly have sprung from modern dance music, which doesn’t match Disney’s work, I wasn’t sorry. The prettiest scene, when the colour’s at its best, is Cinderella’s drive in her pumpkin coach to the Ball. The film is obviously ideal for all children and most grown-ups.
There is a superficial resemblance between Crisis (Director: Richard Brooks) and the recent State Secret, for both films show the predicament of a doctor forced to operate on a dictator. But while State Secret was a comedy-thriller, Crisis is serious. The plum of the film is the portrait, by Jose Ferrer, of the dictator – excitable, handsome, cynical, greedy for power. And the direction is good, particularly in the crowd scenes, and in atmosphere. For example, the closeness to death of the dictator – from his political enemies without, from his brain tumour within – was extraordinarily well brought out. The film dwells too long on operating theatre procedure, but one must admit that the point – the dictator’s very natural fear of the knife getting the better of his conception of himself as a superman – is equally well made.
Crisis lasts long enough for us to witness the threatened revolution, and leaves us with the easy message that this will establish a tyranny just as bad as the other. Nevertheless, the power of the central situation is undeniable, and Crisis is well worth seeing. But don’t go if you only want pleasant entertainment.
This article was first published in March 1951 for the Federation of the Women’s Institute magazine “Home & Country”, Home Counties Edition, Volume 33, Number 3, and priced threepence.
Peter’s piece appears on page 77.