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More Strongbow Connections

The Historical Ragbag blog’s Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions today features another place with great significance in the history of Ireland and Strongbow’s presence there.

His wife’s uncle, (St.) Laurence O’Toole, was Abbot at Glendalough, installed there by her father, before becoming Archbishop of Dublin.

I first visited Glendalough when working on a month long assignment in Dublin in the spring of 1970. I’ve been there several times since coming to live in Ireland and it is without doubt one of the most beautiful and magical places you could ever visit.

via Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 13th: Glendalough


From Page to Print


Take a look at the menu above and, if you have been here before, you will notice something missing. A Purgatory of Misery has gone. That is because it is now a print and digital book. The digital version is available to pre-order right now. Print and digital will be released on 20th November. Click the link above to go to Amazon.


Here are a few of the things you will discover by reading the book:

  • How a request for help from an Irish King led to 800 years of enmity and distrust between Ireland and her larger neighbour
  • How subsequent contests for land and power on the British mainland spilled over into Ireland with terrible consequences for that nation’s inhabitants
  • How religious fanaticism, following the Reformation, resulted in the massacre of Irish people and the banning of religious observance
  • How Irish Catholics were forbidden to practice certain professions or serve in the British army
  • How Irish men enlisted instead for the armies of Britain’s enemies
  • Why William of Orange’s success at the Battle of the Boyne was not the victory for Protestantism that some would have you believe
  • How the peculiar geography of Ireland made it especially suitable for the cultivation of the humble spud
  • How patterns of land ownership and control left Irish people particularly vulnerable to economic crises
  • How attitudes to poverty, and the chosen means of alleviating it, proved utterly inadequate to deal with a crisis of monumental proportions
  • How British arrogance and self belief contributed to the idea that Irish peasants were inferior
  • How annual food shortages, caused by the exhaustion of one year’s crop before the next year’s harvest, may have caused an observed lack of intelligence among the peasant class
  • How politicians’ ideologies prevented them from introducing the most appropriate measures to deal with the crisis
  • How journalists and independent ‘investigators’ witnessed the horrors and reported them but were unable to offer solutions
  • How the citizens of British, American and Canadian cities responded to a nineteenth century refugee crisis
  • How Irish orphan girls were transported to Australia to serve the needs of pioneering bachelor farmers
  • How an attempted revolution, emulating those taking place elsewhere in Europe, descended into farce
  • The origin of the Irish tricoleur

All of that, and more, in a book being sold at the lowest price permitted on Amazon (0.99 in most currencies for the digital version although the price you see may be different because of local sales taxes).

Watching Spiderman

You can see it from a long way off as you drive over the ridge from the East into the valley, up the valley from the southern end, or down it from the northern end. Pointing skyward, it rises from among the trees that surround it and the village. Few visitors in the twenty first century realise that it is made of plastic – glass fibre reinforced resin to be precise.


Peterchurh church with its spire. Philip Halling [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

To me it symbolises my struggles with belief in Christianity. It is also a reminder of my first efforts at setting my thoughts down on paper and publishing them to the world. I’ll come back to the story of the plastic spire in a moment. Bear with me whilst I recall my first ever published piece of writing.

In the late nineteen fifties and early sixties Easter was the time of the Aldermaston Marches. Organised by a group of pacifists under the leadership of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and known as The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the idea was to spend the four days of the Easter weekend walking from the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, in Berkshire, to London’s Trafalgar Square, a distance of around 50 miles. At the end of the march a mass rally took place proclaiming the participants’ rejection of nuclear warfare.

In 1961 this movement attracted the ire of one particular Church leader in my home county of Herefordshire. His letter, denouncing the participants asBertrand Russell traitors, was published in our weekly newspaper, the Hereford Times. My reaction – I was aged nineteen at the time – was to wonder what had become of the Christian concepts of “turning the other cheek” and “loving your enemies”. Whilst Russell was a well known atheist, there were politicians and Church leaders among the organisers, and those making impassioned speeches at the rally.

I wrote expressing my view that the writer of the original letter, though purporting to be someone charged with promulgating the Christian faith, was putting forward a demonstrably unChristian view of those opposed to nuclear weapons. The following week it appeared on the Hereford Times’s letters page. It was the first time I’d seen my name in print, associated with something I’d written. It brought a flush to my cheeks and set my heart racing.

It also brought an invitation to join an organisation called the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Years later I resigned from the organisation, explaining that, whilst I still held strongly to the belief contained in their mission statement that “war is incompatible with Christianity”, I had concluded that there are circumstances, such as those that pertained in Europe in 1939, in which war becomes necessary. To remain consistent, I must reject Christianity. Of course, there were and remain other reasons to reject, not just Christianity but all formal religious organisations.

I return now to the plastic spire on the church in the village in which I grew up, and, with it, another letter of mine that was published some years later in the Hereford Times.

I was seven years old and attending primary school in the summer of 1949 when it became the habit of my classmates and I to spend playtime standing at the bottom of the school playground staring skywards as a small band of steeple jacks dismantled the ancient stone steeple.


This photo of York St Mary’s Contemporary Art Space is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The excitement in our childish minds, seeing those men working at such a great height, is difficult to comprehend today. You have to remember that we did not have television, let alone the internet, on which to witness extraordinary events. Some of our number might have visited the cinema in Hereford to see cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers on the screen – conflicts that inspired our playtime games once the job was completed and the real life spidermen had departed to the next job wherever that was. By the way, the fictional character, Spider-Man would not make his debut in a comic book for another 13 years.

The dismantlers left behind a stump. Its top surface was covered with lead sheet to protect the interior. The weather vane, in the shape of a cockerel, that had perched atop the spire, was removed to storage. Every year for the next two decades it re-emerged to be displayed in a tent at the annual village Sports and Flower Show where people were charged to view it. All of the proceeds from that annual show, and many other fund raising activities over the period, were allocated to a special fund to meet the cost of a replacement spire. Every time a target was reached, inflation had pushed the estimated cost of erecting a stone spire way beyond it and a new target had to be set. It seemed that the stump that I and my contemporaries grew up with was there to stay.

My letter to the Hereford Times some time in the mid 1960s expressed my view that there were many more important things that a supposedly Christian community could do with the money, rather than the erection of a totem to human achievement. The official view, according to the Church’s website, is that the spire stands “as originally intended [when first constructed 700 years ago], to lift our eyes upward to remind us of the greatness of God.”

It was in 1972, with inflation pushing the target for fund raising ever higher, that the decision was taken to commission a plastic spire. This time there was no need for steeple jacks. The spire was fabricated off site and lifted into position by crane. The crane’s 240 foot jib made it the largest mobile crane in Europe at the time. No doubt the 1972 generation of school children watched with the same fascination that had gripped us 23 years before. Though this time the operation probably took only one day whereas the dismantling we witnessed continued over several days.

The weather cock, too, was lifted into place though it later blew off in a gale. As for me, I still am unable to resist the urge to express my opinions in writing and to publish them wherever I can. When I look skywards, it is not to be reminded of “the greatness of God” but of the futility of human attempts to appeal to a deity for the relief of their suffering when direct action is more likely to produce the desired outcome. And, in fairness, I ought to add that the village church now has a community centre operating from within its walls, suggesting that it does now minister to the material as well as the spiritual needs of the village’s inhabitants.

Saturday Sound-off: Religion and Politics

I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.

There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.

And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.

His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.

I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.

Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.

I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.

You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.

Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?

Meditations on Mortality

I was given this book by a stranger. Not a complete stranger as I almost wrote, for we had met twice over breakfast. Allow me to explain. If you saw my posts from the first couple of days in June you will be aware that I spent a few days in North Kerry taking in some of the events of Listowel Writers’ Week. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast establishment just outside Ballybunion. The other guests at breakfast on Thursday and Friday morning were Andrew, a professor of English from Santa Clara University in the last days of a six week sojourn touring around Ireland. In the course of conversation he revealed that Emma Donaghue’s father had been one of his professors.

The other guest at breakfast on those first two days was a lady named Elaine, down from Dublin for a few days. On Friday morning we talked briefly about the book shops in Listowel and the importance of independent book shops generally.

Saturday morning she had departed before we arrived in the small dining room. Andrew handed a paperback book to me, saying that Elaine had left it for me. A surprising and delightful gesture. I’m truly sorry that I did not have the opportunity to thank her. More so now that I have read it.

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air” is both a memoir and a meditation on the meaning of life and death. The title is suggested by a verse from Baron Brooke Fulke Greville’s “Caelica 83”

Kalanithi’s family migrated from India to New York and thence to Arizona. They were a medical family but young Paul was more interested in literature than medicine. On obtaining a degree in English literature he realised his quest to discover the workings of the mind: the way it defines our personality and the way we relate to our fellow beings, required an understanding of how the brain functions. This, in turn, led him to neuroscience. Becoming a neuro-surgeon, he completed his residency and was ready to become head of his department when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

As a septuagenarian I am well aware that I have an ever reducing amount of time left. At the same time it is important to remember that death can arrive at any time. When I was in my teens three contemporaries lost their lives in tragic circumstances – a drowning, an accident with a shot gun and a motorcycle accident. Over the years since, too many friends have been taken by cancer. And yet there are people whose abuse of their bodies in their twenties ought to have finished them off decades ago but they are still living life to the full in their seventies.

Nevertheless, to be told in your mid-thirties that your life is about to end must be devastating. Kalanithi still harboured a yearning to write. In remission following treatment he is faced with a decision: have I long enough to go back to the work I love and that is changing lives or only long enough to write my book?

To say more would be to spoil the book for other readers.

There is medical jargon here, including words used in the USA to define the various levels of seniority in the profession that have different titles on this side of the Atlantic. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary. This, however, is a minor criticism.

People talk a lot about “bucket lists”: the things you’d like to see and do before you die. Too often these take on a selfish tone with a desire to see some of the wonders of the world, whether created by ancient civilisations: the Pyramids, say, or Machu Pichu; or by nature such as Ayer’s Rock or the Grand Canyon. Kalanithi’s book reminds us that it is what we leave behind us that is most important; what we’ve achieved, not where we have been or what we have seen. Life, he tells us, is essentially about striving. I would add that there are, in this 21st century world, far too many who are more concerned to avoid that struggle than to take part. Kalanithi was not one of those. He epitomises the work ethic that characterises Indian as well as the best of American and European culture. As such, his story is one of the most inspiring you are ever likely to read.

An Expert in his Trade

This was originally written in October last year ass a response to a prompt from our local writing group. I had been researching the background to The Reformation and the role of Henry VIII. I’m posting it here because today The Writing Reader has given her followers Henry VIII as her daily prompt #1981. It takes the form of an apologia from the man himself.

workshop_of_hans_holbein_the_younger_-_portrait_of_henry_viii_-_google_art_projectI thought long and hard before I made up my mind. If I was to justify my decision to all those who would condemn me, it was necessary that my case be as strong as was possible in the circumstances.

Permit me to explain. At my father’s bidding, I married my late brother’s wife. Though for reasons we need not go into here, the marriage did not take place until after my father’s death. He would have been as pleased as was I when she duly presented me with a son and heir. And he would have been as devastated when the child died before he reached but two months old. Our second child was a girl. I came to believe that my marriage was cursed. The bible passage that forbids such a marriage and foretells that it will be barren seemed to be coming true.

I had other children, with other women. One of these, a son, to whom I gave my own forename. But he would never be recognised as a legitimate heir. All this took place before I set eyes upon a young woman who was, at the time, a servant of the wife of the French king. Her many charms took my breath away. I was unashamed in my wooing of her. I begged her to be my mistress. This she refused. I needed to rid myself of the cursed marriage and the wife who had failed in her duty.

I was beset on all sides by those who would advise me. On the one hand were those who insisted that marriage was for life, that, despite having been contracted against the old bible injunction, it was still an irrevocable contract. On the other side were those who deemed the old laws of the Church to be outdated. Among them were some who desired that the laity be given the opportunity to read the holy bible in their own language. I deemed this a dangerous idea that would take power away from the clergy.

At first I ignored these latter, preferring to cling to the old traditions. I engaged learned men, masters in theology and matters of precedent, to search texts and garner opinions that would strengthen my case. My wife insisted that her marriage to my brother, which lasted but a short while owing to his untimely death, was never consummated, so that the charge of incest leveled against her was false. Wolsey, who was supposed to secure her conviction, instead took her side and stopped the trial. I had no option but to divest him of his position.

I might as well not have bothered. His successor, Thomas More, was no better. My love was as eager to become my bride as was I to take her. It was by her hand that I received a book, written by one of those who had dared to distribute copies of the New Testament translated into English. In this treatise he presented the case for the supremacy of a king in his own realm. It was his contention that such a man ought to be governor of the Church as well as the state.

It was a tempting proposition. But to resurrect a dispute that had plagued previous kings of England filled me with dread. It had led to the assassination of Arch-Bishop Becket and the subsequent penance of Henry II. It had led to the excommunication of that king’s son, John. This, then, was my terrible dilemma. My Chancellor, Thomas More, was condemning and burning heretics. My love’s father and his friends were arguing that the Pope in Rome did not properly have jurisdiction over a sovereign state. God, they insisted, had always intended kings to be rulers of their own churches.

I prevaricated. I still hoped to convince the Pope of the justice of my case, that my marriage was illegal and should be annulled. I commissioned my own English translation of the bible and announced my intention to distribute it, should Rome not accede to my demands. Those among the English clergy who insisted that Rome carries the supreme power, I charged with the crime of Praemunire – infringement upon the right of the king, punishable by imprisonment and confiscation of property. The fools sought to placate me with money, as if I had not already all the wealth a man could possibly desire. My only unmet desire, that of my heart for the hand of the lovely Anne.

The clergy, with their oath of allegiance to the Pope and the money they submit to Rome were, it seemed to me, indeed traitors. And so it was that I demanded, and got, their submission.

I asked not that they change any of the important practices of the Church. Unlike others who sought wider reforms, I had no desire to end the celibacy of priests or to deny the presence of Christ in the mass. I sought only the right to be master of the Church within my own realm. In that capacity I could declare my marriage null and void and take the hand of my true love.

As I said at the beginning of this explanation of my actions, I thought long and hard. It took many years of listening to the counsels of others. I had no desire to bring about the events that followed. The sacking of monasteries, the redistribution of Church lands to loyal citizens, that was the work of others. I wanted only to legitimise my marriage to Anne and the opportunity it afforded to secure a male heir to the throne.

Our first child was a girl. Anne’s second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Had it lived, that child would have been a boy and I know now that God was still punishing me, that I was to be denied a male heir. The curse had not been lifted. And, now, I discover that my own true love has been unfaithful to me. Cavorting, it is said, with many in my own entourage. Even the court musician. I know this for he has confessed it.

anne-boleyn-execution-woodcut-e1368463087813-300x217The very one for whom I made so many far reaching changes, incurring the wrath of the Pope and sacrificing the lives and livelihoods of many a good man, turns out to have been nothing but a scheming whore. She is guilty of treason. Our marriage is surely dead. Yesterday it was annulled. Today she shall die. She will feel no pain, the swordsman I have secured from France is an expert in his trade. It will be short and swift. Tomorrow I will marry Jane.

Henry VIII Photo Credit: Workshop_of_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_-_Google_Art_Project on Wikimedia

Terror and Liberalism: a book review

Should we be worried? (My answer is at the end of this post)

Should we be worried? (My answer is at the end of this post)

A few days ago one of my Facebook friends shared a meme that listed all the towns and cities in Britain that have Muslim mayors. The clear message was that this is a trend that ought to worry us. I thought of that message whilst reading Paul Berman’s 2004 polemic Terror and Liberalism. He has a lot to say about the complacency of Liberals and their failure to recognise the true nature of past manifestations of totalitarianism.

It is, he acknowledges, easy, perhaps too easy, to attribute the actions of Islamist terrorists to some rational cause. A reaction, perhaps, to injustices inflicted by Western capitalist exploitation. Berman contends that the rise of Islamism is not that simple. Instead, it is yet another manifestation of the totalitarianism that was thought to have come to an end with the fall of the Berlin wall and the spread of democracy into Eastern Europe.

His book traces the history of totalitarian movements throughout the 20th century. The Fascists in Italy, Spain and Germany; the Communists in Russia and its post-WW2 satellites; in China, South East Asia and North Korea. All are characterised by the insistence that the ideology espoused by the state must be maintained at all costs. Millions of lives are sacrificed in pursuit of the establishment of a worldwide system of control.

Liberal democracy stands against such single-mindedness, insisting on freedom of thought, speech and religion, and respect for the rights of others. No single religion or ideology is permitted to have excessive influence over the state. Elections, parliaments with two or more houses, strong opposition parties able to resist unpopular policies, all ensure that the people are governed by consent. It’s not perfect, often subject to the influence of special interest groups, but debate and dissent are permitted, even encouraged. Most importantly, there is total separation between state and Church.

In Britain and Ireland, the two jurisdictions with which I am most familiar, this separation dates back to the years after the English civil war in the mid-17th century. But it is a debate that is much older. Henry II’s dispute with arch-bishop Becket, in the 12th century, was about the most appropriate distribution of power between the Church and the king. The king believed that his will was supreme within his realm. Becket insisted that the king should defer to the Pope. Although Becket was murdered for his views, he won the argument and Henry made penance and sought the Pope’s forgiveness.

Berman cites a number of Islamist texts in support of his argument that it is a totalitarian philosophy, determined to spread a pure form of Islam across the world. A fundamental aspect of this form of Islam is that religion is an integral part of the state and that religious laws are the only laws permitted to prevail. For the true follower of a totalitarian philosophy the greatest honour to which one can aspire is to kill and be killed in the struggle to achieve this objective. That, according to Berman is the only explanation for Islamic terrorism. It is no use looking for rational explanations for the guiding belief is completely irrational.

The book was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and revised shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq which Berman supported for reasons very different from those given by lying politicians like G W Bush and Tony Blair. He believed then, and apparently still believes, that it was necessary because Saddam Hussein was a dictator who exhibited the same totalitarian behaviour as the Fascist and Communist dictators of the past. His hope was that the removal of Saddam would provide an opportunity for democracy to take hold in Iraq. The evidence of the years that have elapsed since the invasion suggests that the opposite happened – the totalitarian Islamist tendency, in the shape of ISIS, has been the gainer. There is little sign of democracy arriving in Iraq or in any of a raft of Middle Eastern countries.

Five years ago, the so-called Arab Spring, with the overthrow of dictators like Qaddafi, might once have been looked upon as a triumph for democracy. Again, however, the result is escalating civil strife in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and, of course, Syria and Iraq.

I googled around to try to see what Berman has had to say about these events and found surprisingly little. His most recent article concerns the French ban of the ‘burqini’ (now lifted). There is one other thing I need to say about this book and its author. My googling revealed many admirers and a few detractors. Most of the latter argue that because he is a Jew, nothing he says about the Middle East can be trusted.

It is not Berman’s Jewishness that ought to concern us. Of far greater importance is his liberalism, a philosophy that I share. Somehow we have to find a way to further the idea contained in his final two sentences: “… freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for freedom for others.”

It is in that spirit that we should respond to the idea that a handful of the people holding elected office in British local authorities are Muslim. We should be proud that it is more than 120 years since the first Asian was elected to the British House of Commons. He was, after all, a member of the Liberal Party.