‘The White House’ – a cautionary novel

The White House – Now available on Kindle 

myles dungan final copy

 

Now available in paperback and on Kindle.

 

 

 

Here’s a slightly longer preview. Strictly between ourselves. Don’t tell anyone. 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

A future, of sorts, in a barely tangential universe…

 

The spaniel heard the limo approach and stopped licking his testicles. Fleetingly it occurred to him not to bother giving chase. After all only vassals pursued cars, and he was a feudal Lord. A High King. But the limo was sleek, interminable and enigmatic. Despite the intense cold, and his aristocratic lethargy, the chance to assert his mastery over a chrome and steel Titan was irresistible.

Agamemnon had a rigid modus operandi when it came to chasing cars. Some dogs bark and never leave the kerb. But where was the fun in that? Aggie had an appetite for physical and moral hazard. He really should have been shorting the euro on Wall Street, with his dealer on speed dial.

Agamemnon—his human was a history professor— had inherited his technique from his mother, Athena. Her style was an homage to her own mater, Aphrodite. Both had long since made the journey across the Styx, aged, obese and diabetic, but unmarked by a single car track. So why try and reinvent the hubcap?

As the limo swept past, its black windows impenetrable, splashing brackish water onto the hedgerows of his County Meath domain, Agamemnon sprang into action. He was the Hound of the Baskervilles. He was Cujo. He was Vishnu’s familiar, Death, destroyer of tyres. At least he would be if he ever caught one.

He set off after the vehicle with a surprising turn of speed for an animal who, with a certain physiological inevitability, was tending towards the avoirdupois of his ancestors. His neglected skills quickly reasserted themselves and his enthusiasm for the chase mounted. As the limo approached a pair of imposing gates it slowed down and, to his astonishment, he began to gain ground. Then it stopped altogether. He now held the monstrous beast in thrall. For Agamemnon, the prospect of imminent victory posed a dilemma. He had no idea what to do next. What do you do with an overpowered Leviathan whose body parts were composed entirely of aluminium, rubber, glass, tungsten and PVC?

As Agamemnon pondered his next move, the door opened on the front passenger’s side. A man with a crew cut and designer sunglasses emerged. He began talking aggressively to his sleeve.

‘Hey, dumbass. Why isn’t the gate open? Godammit, POTUS is a sitting duck here.’

Agamemnon became excited at the mention of ducks. Then a rasping voice came from the driver’s seat.

‘Stop with the POTUS, Schmidt. We’re not even supposed to be here.’

‘Sorry sir,’ said the sleeve-talker. He resumed the tête-a-tête with his clothing. ‘Repeat. Golden Eagle is a sitting duck here.’

Agamemnon was puzzled. How could an eagle be a duck, he wondered? He knew he was only a dog, but still, the proposition sounded absurd. Sleevetalker, who clearly had an interest in birds, now approached the entrance and began to press the buttons of a silver pad on the gate’s pillar. After punching the same four keys half a dozen times he reached into an inside pocket, took something out, and pointed it at the pad. He spread his feet a shoulder length apart, extended his arms, and secured his right wrist with his left hand. Then he had second thoughts. He abandoned his awkward stance, reached his left hand into another inside pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He studied it for a moment, then tried some more buttons. There was an immediate response.  A bored voice issued from the metallic grille underneath the buttons.

‘Welcome to Beltra Country Club, how can I help you?’

‘You can open these goddamn gates and get POT … Golden Eagle out of harm’s way, numbnuts.’

Just then the rear window of the limo opened a few inches and a new voice, strident and high-pitched, intervened. To the superstitious dog, it sounded like the whine of the Banshee. An anxious Agamemnon began to whimper and look around for an escape route.  ‘What the merry fuck is going on here?’ rat-tat-tatted the Banshee. ‘Is this a negotiation?’

‘Did you hear that, asshole?’ Sleevetalker shouted at the pillar. There was a smooth whirring noise and the gates began to open. The engine of the car started up again. As it did so, Agamemnon feared that his quarry was about to elude him. Before Golden Eagle had time to disappear the black spaniel cocked his leg and urinated on the gleaming hubcap of the limo’s rear wheel.  Then the vehicle sped off down what looked to Aggie like an interesting driveway, one with lots of rabbit holes to either side and no obvious badger setts—badgers were trouble. Contented with his lot the little dog strutted back down the country road. He was returning home for another session with a copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  It belonged to his history professor and, so far, hadn’t been missed. He had already chewed his way through a superior chapter on the gruesome reign of the guillotine and the depredations of Robespierre.

 

BOOK ONE – THE SEA

‘Cast thy bread upon the waters …’

Ecclesiastes 11:1

That smug patrician, Adrian Breakspear, had plenty to smirk about, thought President Trout. His face must be permanently fixed in one of his lop-sided leers. It was as if he had conjured the waters himself, like some tweedy Anglo-Irish Sea God. This thought, however fanciful, served to increase Trout’s agitation. He imagined Breakspear, a flop-haired Neptune, directing the acquiescent waves of the Irish sea, across the sands of Beltra beach, towards the fescue grass of the ‘White House’ green.

‘There must be some sort of blacklist I can put the bastard on?’ the President mused, staring vacantly out the window of the Oval Office at the bare branches of the crabapple trees in the Rose Garden. They were being pruned by a small army of well-muffled gardeners.

While he doodled on yet another unread daily CIA briefing, Trout couldn’t help feeling that, in spite of everything, Breakspear might ultimately have triumphed. The thought exasperated him. All the more so because the Breakspears, in all their horsey decrepitude, had oozed buttery condescension.  They liked to remind everybody that they were descended from the only English Pope. They had seized the Beltra lands by force majeure after their saintly ancestor sent his fellow countrymen to invade Ireland in 1169. In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the natives hadn’t taken kindly to the Breakspears. The disdain was entirely mutual and the twain rarely met. An inevitable consequence was centuries of spectacular in-breeding, exemplified by the ubiquity of the famous Breakspear unibrow. While their neighbours were impervious to the Breakspear pheromones, they had a stimulating effect within the extended family. Such a rate of consanguinity meant it was inevitable that a genetic glitch—someone like Adrian— would eventually lose the plot. In fact, he had managed to squander all four thousand acres of it.

Only someone as hapless as a Breakspear, however, Trout pondered with quiet satisfaction, could have fallen foul of pirates in the 21stcentury. Adrian had wagered the entire County Meath estate on a precarious Lloyds syndicate, being spectacularly mismanaged by some of his chinless old Etonian schoolmates. In 2010 the consortium took one punt too many on the insurance of cargo ships sailing off the Horn of Africa. The Breakspears, who had survived the Black Death, Cromwell, the Land League, a plethora of IRAs, and a substantial shareholding in Anglo Irish Bank, finally succumbed to Somali buccaneers with speedy motor boats, garish headbands, and a persuasive arsenal.

Then, from the west, a white knight had galloped to the rescue. Tyrone Trout was a humble New York billionaire hedge fund manager. He had amassed his wealth by failing to lose the entire fortune bequeathed him by his father, and by avoiding tax like most avoid stepping in dog shit. The Fall of the House of Breakspear had coincided with an epidemic of status anxiety on Wall Street. Clifton Cathcart III had begun the stampede of bankers and traders anxious to avoid the social stigma associated with the failure to acquire some heavily encumbered Irish real estate. Warren Buffet’s tide had gone out, and Ireland’s bankers had been caught swimming in the altogether. Wall Street’s Finest were snapping up Irish properties like crocodiles. If the degenerate Cathcart was buying Irish, then so was Tyrone Bentley Trout. The acquisition of the Beltra demesne (‘fabulous sea views, ripe for development’ – Real Estate Alliance) became a sacred mission.

Trout successfully gazumped an attempted purchase by the Irish state, when he offered the Breakspears twice what the Office of Public Works couldn’t afford anyway. This minor coup had added the all-important hint of lemon juice to his mayonnaise. The word ‘public’ offended him, and he had promised his billionaire father on the latter’s death bed that he would never flinch in the fight against briefcase socialism. What clinched his triumph was the ‘sweetheart’ deal he dangled before the Breakspears. The family could remain in situ in Beltra House, while their knight errant doffed his armour and constructed two championship golf courses in the demesne land around them.

Breakspear and Trout had sealed the transaction with a gentlemanly handshake. Unhappily for Breakspear, however,  he neglected to count his fingers after pressing the flesh. Had Trout been a man of his word he would have been a mere hedge fund millionaire.

The official photographer who recorded the happy event had difficulty framing his shot. The Anglo-Norman Breakspear was tall and slender, yet to manifest the famous family stoop. The cross-bred Trout was squat. His father and mother had been squat, his younger brother was squatter still. Trout was also a sixty-something, cantankerous, florid alpha male who liked to tell photographers—and most other service providers—how to do their jobs. Trout’s priority was a favourable camera angle, this was essential to avoid drawing unnecessary public attention to the jaw-dropping wig whose very existence he consistently denied.

At first, the deal had worked unexpectedly well for the Breakspears. The discovery of a thriving colony of protected whorl snails on their former estate delayed the start of course construction. After a congenial visit to New York, however, the incumbent Taoiseach, Austin Purcell, had come to see things from the billionaire’s point of view. His considered judgment was that having a ‘signature’ Trout leisure development in Ireland was well worth the inconvenience of flouting the European Union Habitats Directive—at a cost to the state of €20,000 a day.  There were unpalatable, and unprovable rumours that Purcell had been well recompensed for his own inconvenience.

Having now accounted for the wildlife, Trout had built his two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses—Beltra (Links) and Beltra (Park)—while the Breakspears slumbered. But as soon as the designer’s helicopter had taken to the air at the end of the exhibition match marking the opening of the two courses, the Breakspears had been unceremoniously shunted out. A couple of ostentatious suits of armour were imported for the lobby and their Beltra mansion became a ‘Blue Book’ country house hotel, specialising in upmarket weddings.

After their humiliating eviction, there was one final, despairing throw of the dice from the Breakspears. A shadowy organisation calling itself the New Irish Land League emerged from the snooker room of the Merrion Street Club to fight the eviction. In response, Trout International hired half a dozen sinewy members of the Drogheda Mixed Martial Arts club to act as their champions. Facing a dialogue with six ‘wannabe’ Conor McGregors, the New Irish Land League had discretely ‘called stumps’ and had never been heard of again.

Then, just a few weeks after the disaster of the Presidential victory, came more bad news from Ireland. Nature had chosen to demonstrate its abhorrence of a vacuum, and its support for climate change science, by sending a tempest against his property. The ‘signature’ seventeenth hole of Beltra (Links) had been in the eye of the storm. This was Nicklaus’s personal favourite. He had named it the ‘White House’ in honour of Trout’s maverick run for the Presidency. After an impressive winter storm, all that remained of his verdant ‘White House’ was a partially submerged flagstick. Even this had quickly been claimed by an enterprising souvenir hunter in a kayak.  Defying the wishes of the Secret Service, Trout, in the midst of the presidential transition, had gone to have a look for himself. What he saw on his clandestine mission dismayed him. Having started life as a classic dogleg left—with three fairway bunkers in the shape of a shamrock—the ‘White House’ was now an expensive water hazard.

Trout recalled to mind a lesson that his father had once taught him after ‘Junior’ had crashed one of ‘Senior’s’ Mercs. Someone would pay for the damage, and it was not going to be Daddy.

 

 

Edward Rothko, United States Commerce Secretary, was a trim, elegant, vigorous looking athlete of early middle age. The former merchant banker was a grizzled, non-smoking, Marlboro’ Man, squeezed into the sharpest of Armani suits. In his previous life, for which he was beginning to yearn already, he had haunted the gym of the New York Athletic Club. His daily 6.00 a.m. workout—always accompanied by two competing personal trainers—was the chisel that had chipped out the angles and shallow recesses of his attenuated face. He liked to think of his body as a temple, though, in truth, it was little more than a modest synagogue.  He encouraged both Angelo and Jalen to call him ‘The Beast of the Bourse’ hoping that the nickname would reach the executive washrooms of Wall Street. So far, it hadn’t caught on, and now that he had relocated to DC he would have to start from scratch.

The Presidential Transition Team had plucked him from Price Waterhouse Cooper and deposited him in a swimming pool-sized office on 1401 Constitution Avenue, a few blocks from the White House. Rothko had sat beside a Stanford academic at Trout’s inauguration. She chatted about the charms of eugenics, the elegance of the Bell curve, and her loathing for John Maynard Keynes (‘I’m told he was a compulsive onanist!’), while Rothko shivered in the dry freezing air and wondered what an onanist was. So far he had spent the first three days of his tenure doing little more than conducting job interviews with beetle-browed economists far to the right of the late Milton Friedman while nursing his attendant migraine, and sneaking a nostalgic look at the Hang Seng Index on Bloomberg TV. His tightening hamstrings reminded him of how much he missed Angelo and Jalen.

Today he had been peremptorily summoned to the White House. He had been greeted on his arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by the carnivorous Buchanan. Trout’s sentinel handed him a (temporary) laminated White House pass.

‘The first of many, I’m sure,’ said the Chief of Staff jovially, in the manner of one of Pavlov’s dogs who has heard a bell ring. The man made Rothko nervous, and it wasn’t just the infamous black eye patch either. The cadaverous Buchanan always looked as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks, and was sizing you up as a potential snack. He had, thought Rothko, the balls of Satan, and the charms of a funnel web spider.

‘Any idea what this is about?’ Rothko inquired, trying not to sound too diffident. He was, after all, tenth in line of succession to the Oval office. He’d looked it up on Wikipedia before agreeing to take the job.

‘It must be about you, I suppose. Just be yourself,’ replied Buchanan unhelpfully. ‘And an occasional display of fawning deference wouldn’t go amiss.’

The laconic Chief of Staff had then ushered Rothko into the Oval office without offering any further enlightenment.  As he entered the room the Commerce Secretary detected a musky but vaguely familiar odour. Trout was finishing off what looked like a helping of chicken nuggets. Rothko hadn’t seen a chicken nugget face to face since finishing a teenage internship in a Brooklyn McDonald’s at the insistence of his autocratic father. He immediately understood why the White House Chef had already handed in his notice.

Rothko was motioned by the Falstaffian Trout, his mouth brimming with capon, towards the opposite side of the huge Oval Office Resolute desk. The proffered seat looked extraordinarily like an electric chair with truncated legs. When the Secretary sat, his head barely appeared above the top of the oaken writing table. He was looking almost directly into a carving of a bald eagle with an E Pluribus Unum scroll billowing from its beak.

Without swallowing the remnants of his lunch the President had dived right in,  berating his Secretary of Commerce for obscure sins of omission. Rothko did his best to be sycophantic but lacked any bearings. Worse still he became fatally distracted by a sliver of white chicken lodged between the President’s yellowing upper incisors. He studied it attentively as the rant continued, wondering when it would dislodge. Should he say something? What if the President’s next meeting involved lots of hand-holding and congenial grins?  Deflected from the message by the medium, he missed the thrust of the President’s diatribe. He gathered that vital American commercial interests in Ireland were at stake, but then became confused by militaristic references to ‘flags’ and ‘bunkers’. His bewilderment had accumulated just enough octane to fuel an interruption when the President curtailed his tirade to swallow a mouthful of something dark and bubbly from a red aluminium can. It had no effect on the sliver of chicken, which still clung to greatness.

‘I’m sorry Mr. President but I wasn’t aware that we had bases in the Republic of Ireland,’ the Secretary ventured. His speech was so rapid that he feared his sudden lack of diffidence might be construed as insubordination. His dental preoccupation also meant that he had no inkling what a military crisis in the North Atlantic had to do with the Commerce Department.

Trout grunted, opened a drawer and produced a toothpick. A tsunami of relief washed over the Commerce Secretary. He was off the orthodontic hook.

‘Who said anything about military bases?’ hissed Trout ‘ We’re discussing an endangered American facility on Irish soil – soil, I might add, which is eroding at an alarming rate and is rearranging the boundaries of a US overseas dependency.’

‘Eh … overseas dependency Mr. President?’

‘Yeh! Like Guam … or Hawaii. US sovereign territory is shrinking by the day and the Commerce Department is doing nothing about it.’

Just then Rothko felt a sharp pain in the meaty part of his right thigh. He jerked upwards. He’d been correct about the chair, he thought. There must be a button under the desk. How many more volts did Trout have at his disposal? The first jolt had only been a warning. Then, looking down, he spied what appeared to be a matted blob of orange marmalade perched on his lap. It had flamboyant whiskers and two malevolent walleyes.

‘Aww,’ murmured Trout affectionately, ‘I see you’ve made friends with Supreme Court.’

‘The Supreme Court, sir?’ Rothko was, by now, so far out to sea that he might have been a minor character in a Patrick O’Brian novel.

‘Not THE Supreme Court, you moron. MY Supreme Court. The cat sitting in your lap. A magnificent specimen, don’t you think?’ purred Trout.

Rothko couldn’t have agreed less, barring the probability that Supreme Court’s magnificence could be measured in litres of pure evil.  While Rothko eyed the cat warily, and surreptitiously rubbed his smarting thigh, the President had returned to the matter in hand.

‘You’re my Commerce Secretary, right? Rubenstein … or something like that.’

‘Rothko, sir.’

The President looked at him with sudden interest.

‘Rothko … didn’t my wife—not this one … Number Two … the one with the weird accent—buy some piece of crap painting from you, for my kitchen?’

‘I think you’re mistaken Mr Pres—’

‘You’re right. Maybe it’s the one in the john. Lots of straight lines and boxes.’

‘I think you’ll find …’

‘Doesn’t matter. Moved on already. So you ARE my Commerce secretary …?’

‘Absolutely, sir. However, might I suggest, Mr President, that this may not be within my bailiwick?’ He considered making a joke about waging a trade war but thought better of it. He had already heard rumours about how policy was being made in the Oval Office.

Trout speared a post-it note on his desk with the toothpick. He began to twirl it between thumb and index finger as if it was a square yellow cocktail umbrella.

‘Your … bailiwick?’ he inquired, menacingly. Too late, Rothko remembered that Trout had no grasp of multisyllabic English. He spoke what he called ‘American’, and carved short cuts through language like a Deliveroo cyclist.  Rothko took a deep breath and tried again. ‘My province.’ And again. ‘My sphere of responsibility.’ A slight upward movement of Trout’s jowls indicated that he had finally understood. Rothko wondered whether it was the ‘province’ or the ‘sphere’ that had captured the heights.

‘So, who do I need to talk to that can put the shits up the Irish?’ asked the President, stabbing the air with the toothpick, which, to the Secretary’s dismay, had yet to be applied to the purpose for which it was designed.

‘Probably the Secretary of State, Mr President.’

‘State? That scrawny motherfucker. Maybe I should just go straight to the Joint Chiefs of Staff?’

‘That might be a shade provocative, don’t you think, Mr President? I don’t believe Ireland has much of a standing army worth talking about.’

Trout laid the toothpick on the table and opened a second drawer. From this to Rothko’s surprise, he produced a packet of cigarettes and proceeded to light one. Instinctively the Commerce Secretary’s eyes sought out the nearest smoke alarm. Trout intercepted the glance and smirked.

‘They’re all gone. Sprinklers too. Obama got rid of them. Sly bastard.’

Rothko smiled wanly. That explained the strange but oddly familiar aroma, he thought.

‘OK, we’re done here,’ barked Trout. ‘You can go now. Put down Supreme Court and send in Buchanan. Chop chop!’

As Rothko gingerly extracted himself from underneath the ginger tom and beat a welcome retreat, the President suddenly changed his mind and called him back. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Rothko returned to the huge oaken desk, by now denuded of everything other than a phone, a hideously mutilated post-it note, and a leaf of discarded iceberg lettuce from the President’s chicken nuggets that had been pressed into service as an ashtray.

Rothko knew instinctively that he was about to be fired. Angelo and Jalen beckoned. He wondered what the previous record was for the shortest tenure as Commerce Secretary.

‘I remember now’, said Trout. In his head, Rothko was already composing his resignation letter. Abrupt or apologia? Terse and enigmatic, he decided. Mostly verbs.

‘It was the john,’ said Trout, thoroughly pleased with himself.

‘Eh … what was, sir?’

‘Where I hung that painting of yours. The reason I remember is that bar a couple of random lines of beige, it was the colour of shit.’

With a flourish, he extracted the sliver of chicken with the nail of his index finger, studied it for a moment, returned it to his mouth, and swallowed it.

As the last shard of Presidential nugget slipped down the Commander in Chief’s throat he turned his attention, once again, to the man he took to be an abstract expressionist.

‘Do you play golf?’ he asked.

 

 

 

Fake Histories #29   The lunar landings of the 1960s and 70s were all faked by NASA?

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It gave us satellite TV, laptops, carbon monoxide detectors, the Black and Decker Dustbuster, Teflon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—not the one who was left cooling his heels while the real action was taking place a few hundred miles away, that was Eamon de Valera.

I’m talking about the space race of the 1960s between the USA and something called the Soviet Union. It culminated fifty years ago this week in the landing of two Americans on the surface of the moon. Or did it? Was the whole enterprise an elaborate fake? For years dedicated fake scientists have argued that the entire Apollo programme was one gigantic hoax.

Exhibit A for the conspiracy theorists is the planting of the American flag by Buzz Aldrin. Like many expensive Dublin restaurants, the moon has no atmosphere worth speaking about. But when Aldrin stuck the Stars and Stripes in the lunar surface it appeared to move. This, the Apollo Eleven deniers conclude, indicated the presence of wind. As anyone who did Junior Cert science can tell you, there is no such thing as a breezy vacuum. Not only that, the flag managed to stay aloft throughout the lengthy extra-vehicular activity of Armstrong and Aldrin.

Therefore, Dr. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick filmed the whole thing in the Hollywood Hills for NASA. Why? because the USA was miles behind the Russians in the space race, and if they lost that they would lose the Cold War, six-love, six-love. They also wanted to distract American citizens from the ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ War with some good news about the billions being spent on their behalf to land a dozen astronauts on a dust-covered rock. Furthermore, Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee were murdered by the American aeronautic ‘deep state’ when Apollo 1 went on fire before take-off in 1967. They were executed because they were going to spill the beans about this massive conspiracy and cause huge embarrassment to the Johnson administration.        NASA’s spurious insistence that the movement of the flag was caused by the very act of planting it in the moon dust, has been dismissed out of hand by all right-thinking conspiracy theorists. They also reject the proffered explanation for the continued erect state of the flag. The best NASA could come up with, was that it had been equipped with a traversal pole along the top in order to prevent it from hanging loose. Phooey!

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The whole flag episode was dusted off for different reasons in 2018 when ultra-patriotic Americans, always on the lookout for cheese-eating surrender monkey slurs—men like the Florida Republican Senator, Marco Rubio—went out of their way to be outraged that the planting of the flag was ignored in the film First Man. This was the biopic of Neil Armstrong, starring Ryan Gosling. So now we know why. The director, the highly suspect French-American, Damian Chazelle, just wanted to avoid a lunar Twitterspat. If he depicted the planting of the flag, he was damned if there was no breeze, and he was damned if there was.

But that’s just Exhibit A. There’s much much more. Some of it is really exciting. Where are the stars, for example? All that dark lunar sky and not a single star to be seen.  You can safely ignore the astronomical fabrication which claims that the reflection of the sun’s light on the lunar surface would have been intense enough to eliminate all traces of starlight. Then there’s the rock with the letter ‘C’ painted on it. This was clearly left lying around by a set dresser or a ‘best boy’ – whatever they are. It features in one of the photographs released by NASA. Pay no attention whatever to their desperate explanation that it’s merely an imperfection on the photographic negative. Baloney.

Finally, there’s the unmistakable appearance in the top right-hand corner of another photograph of Brian O’Driscoll in hiking boots. OK, I just made that one up.

Apparently, it would have required up to 400,000 people to maintain silence for any or all of these conspiracy theories to be true – and what’s so incredible about that? There must have been at least that many people working in the Irish banking sector in 2008

So, were all the Apollo moon landings grotesque, but artistically successful fakes, directed by Stanley Kubrick and perpetrated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Oh, for God’s sake, grow up!

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Fake Histories #28   Did King Billy give the Pope a bloody nose on 12 July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne?

 

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Today was a day for celebrating a two-hundred-year-old tradition in Northern Ireland. The Orange Order, founded in 1795, has been celebrating the Twelfth of July since 1796. They don’t hang about when it comes to a good march. Mostly, in the two hundred and twenty three years since the first parade, they have gone off peacefully enough, with the worst unrest taking place at the notorious clash at Dolly’s Brae, near Castlewellan, in 1849, when a contested procession led to a skirmish which resulted in an unknown number of dead Catholic protestors, possibly as many as thirty, though this figure is disputed by historians.

Orange marches are usually seen by one side as an expression of their culture, and by the other as a blatant sectarian provocation. But the event they commemorate should be known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ because of its very own glorious complexities.

The fact is that when members of the Orange Order parade on 12 July in honour of the victory of King William at the Battle of the Boyne, they should keep a couple of things in mind. First, they might ask themselves are they commemorating the scuffle at the Boyne in 1690, or the far more significant Battle of Aughrim in 1691? Because Aughrim, the battle that finally ended Jacobite resistance in Ireland, was actually fought on 12 July, whereas the far less important Battle of the Boyne was fought on 1 July.

This is because of a Pope and a Roman Emperor. At the end of the 17thcentury, Ireland still went by the old Julian calendar, a survivor from the halcyon days of the Roman empire. The British Protestant administration which governed the country had rejected the new Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1582 because it was the brainchild of a servant of the antichrist himself, Pope Gregory XIII.

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So, initially at least, celebrations of the ‘Glorious Twelfth’— not to be confused with the open season on harmless Scottish grouse with which it shares its name—were meant to commemorate 1691, not 1690. Then, sometime around the middle of the 18thcentury, Ireland finally adopted the Gregorian calendar and suddenly the anniversary of the Battle of Aughrim fell on 22 July. No problem to the highly adaptable Orange Order, we’ll celebrate the Boyne instead, because its anniversary now falls on the Twelfth!

Then there’s the second more awkward consideration for revelling Orangemen. Technically they should find some room on their banners for Pope Alexander VIII, because, back in 1690, he was an ally of William of Orange! Let me repeat that in case it was drowned out by the beating of a Lambeg drum … the Pope and King Billy were on the same side.

Allow me to explain this mightily inconvenient fact. The Battle of the Boyne was actually part of a much larger global conflict known as the Nine Years War. This began in 1688 and, no prizes for guessing ended in 1697.  It was also called The War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the League of Augsburg and, in North America, King  William’s war. It was fought between France and … just about everybody else. James II of England, being a good Catholic, was an ally of the French. William, a good Protestant, and an even better Dutchman was King Louis XIV’s sworn and implacable enemy.

So where does the Pope come into all this? Well Pope Alexander VIII, ruler of the Papal States, was an enemy of King Louis XIV. As we all know the most basic mathematical equation in realpolitik and war is, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. That made King Billy and Pope Alex very big buddies indeed. The corollary of that equation is ‘the friend of my enemy, is my enemy too’. This meant that King James II, for all that he was a staunch Catholic, was not on the same side of the quarrel as his own Pope. It also meant that the Catholic Irish opponents of William of Orange were not only fighting for an English King, but they were also doing so in opposition to the Pontiff in Rome.

When news of the Williamite victory over the Jacobites reached Rome, the Pope ordered that the bells of the Vatican City should be rung in celebration. It’s just possible this may not have come up in the speeches of various Grand Masters after today’s parades.

So, in answer to the question did King Billy give the Pope a bloody nose on the 12th July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne? N,o he didn’t. It was 1 July, and they were on the same team. That’s fake history.

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BTW – King Billy didn’t go into battle on white charger either. That’s fake history too!

Fake Histories #27  Christopher Columbus discovered America?

 

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Yesterday America did what it does best, parades. Lots and lots of them. It’s hard to beat an American parade, whether it’s celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the Chinese New Year, or Independence Day, with marching bands, baton twirling and expressions of love and loyalty to motherland, or fatherland, depending on your gender preference.

So with the focus on the USA this week it’s worth asking the thorny old question, was Christopher Columbus the first to locate America, and if he didn’t why does everyone give him credit for the discovery?

First of all, let’s sort out what we mean by ‘discover’. After all, it’s not like he found it down the side of the couch. There were plenty of people there before him. In the Eurocentric world of the fifteenth century you ‘discovered’ something when you were the first European to get there and begin the process of eliminating any indigenous peoples who had been around for the previous few millennia and had the cheek to assume ownership.

As is well known, when Columbus sailed out into the Atlantic in 1492 he was hoping to hit the eastern suburbs of Asia. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas, travelled on to Cuba and Hispaniola, kidnapped a few natives, and headed back to Spain to figure out how to exploit his good fortune. This is why America isn’t called Columbia, and the best the USA could do for him was call Columbus Day (12 October), and a few cities, after him. A later Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, figured out that what Columbus had ‘discovered’ was nowhere near Asia. He realised it was an integral land mass and won the naming rights – hence the Americas, north AND south are called after Amerigo. Roll over Columbus. I suppose Americans should consider themselves lucky, Amerigo could have insisted on the place being called North and South Vespucci.

Of course, neither of those peripatetic Italian gentlemen even came close to being the first Europeans to land on any part of the continent of America. There are numerous prior claimants, some fanciful and some proven beyond doubt. Let’s take them in order of appearance, or invention. Starting with our own St. Brendan the Navigator, the world’s most famous Kerryman. Brendan, a sixth-century monk, is reputed to have built a variation of a traditional currach and sailed westwards with a crew of fellow monks to what is described in an 8thcentury text as the Isle of the Blessed.

Until 1976 it was generally believed to be impossible to sail something as relatively flimsy as a currach across the Atlantic Ocean until the explorer Tim Severin did just that. Severin didn’t prove that Brendan had got there–the possibility that he reached Iceland is more likely—but he did demonstrate that it was possible.

Which brings us to the Vikings. Their ancient sagas told of an adventurer named Erik Thorvaldsson, or Erik the Red who became the first permanent European settler of Greenland. Obviously, he hadn’t ventured too far inland before he gave the new snow and ice covered landmass a name.

Erik the Red had a son named Leif, assumed to have been born in Iceland. Leif Erikson was as adventurous as his father and journeyed even further westward, to a place he called Vinland because of the profusion of wild vines and grapes. In the 1960s the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, and his wife Anne, an archaeologist, identified a site on the northern tip of Newfoundland which showed evidence of Norse settlement five hundred years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. According to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Erikson didn’t remain long in Vinland, relations with the indigenous tribes of the area were not good, the Norsemen felt outnumbered and insecure and abandoned to settlement. Who knows, some of them may even have made it all the way back to Dublin in time for the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The work of the Ingstads in uncovering the Viking settlement offered confirmation of the Icelandic sagas and the European ‘discovery’ of North America around the end of the first millennium. In 1969 the United States Congress conferred recognition on the Norse role in the settlement of North America by establishing 9 October as Leif Erikson day.

Which secures the Viking claim to have got there first, until such time as some enterprising Irish archaeologist discovers the site of St. Brendan’s first American monastery and consigns Leif Erikson to the dustbin of history. Should that come about the Irish government should immediately petition the United Nations for the USA to be renamed, West Kerry.

But did Columbus get to America first, with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in 1492? Not by half a millennium, that’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #26  American Independence was declared on the Fourth of July?

 

 

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Next Thursday Americans the world over, but mostly in America itself, will mark their national day with all the fuss and razamatazz that they normally reserve for the celebration of Ireland’s national day. Americans are, justifiably, commemorating the day on which they, as a nation, declared their independence in 1776. The celebrations are entirely justified. Every nation should honour its Founding Fathers.

But why, one wonders, did the future US President, John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail, on 3 July 1776 predict that, ‘from now on the 2 July 1776 … will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival …’? Was he looking at a 1775 calendar or something? And why did the Pennsylvania Evening Post write on the night of 2 July 1776 that ‘This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies free and independent states’. Because we all know that the Declaration of American Independence was signed on 4 July 1776.

Except that it wasn’t, and we’re all wrong!

What actually happened on 4 July that year was that the document which approved the declaration made two days previously was adopted by the Continental Congress. So, basically, the press release has, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, taken precedence over the actual declaration.

So we should really be singing …

 

‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

Yankee Doodle do or die

A real live nephew of Uncle Sam

Born on the second of July’

 

Which doesn’t really scan all that well and probably would have had the composer, George M. Cohan, tearing his hair out trying to write a marching song with an irregular rhythm. Ironically Cohan, whose birth took place on the 3 July 1878, always believed he’d missed being born on Independence Day by a mere twenty-four hours. He did, but he was actually a day late!

The first real Independence day celebration, by the way, took place in Philadelphia … on 8 July. The soldiers of George Washington’s army had a party of their own when they got the good news, on … 9 July. News finally reached London on 30 August. But they didn’t party very much. Funny that.

And that’s not all the myth-making that surrounds American Independence Day. Take the magnificent John Trumbull painting that hangs in the Rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. It is thought by most to depict the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the American founding fathers. But it is actually the presentation of the draft Declaration to the Continental Congress. To further complicate matters this took place on 28 June. Forty-two of the fifty-six men who signed the document are included. Trumbull doesn’t even leave out fourteen of the signatories because they weren’t present on 28 June, but because he didn’t know what they looked like!

Among those depicted are Thomas Jefferson,  John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson and Adams later wrote about formally signing the document on 4 July, with Jefferson even recalling vividly the flies circling over his head as he appended his signature.

Except that he didn’t, at least not on 4 July, or even on 28 June. What was presented on the latter date, by the five-man drafting committee, was not a clean copy, so no one signed it. On 2 August a corrected copy was made available and that was when most of the

signatures were added.

Furthermore, the famous Philadelphia Liberty Bell never rang out from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House to mark the occasion, or indeed any of the many occasions which make up the convoluted appearance of the independence declaration. That was a story invented for children in the middle of the nineteenth century, in a book with the apt title Legends of America.

Is that enough already? Or do you want more? If you do then how about the fact that the name Liberty Bell has nothing whatever to do with American Independence or liberation from colonial rule. It was so-named in the early 19thcentury by anti-slavery abolitionists in Pennsylvania.

So, in answer to the question, was American independence declared on 4 July 1776, no it wasn’t, that happened two days earlier. It’s fake history.

 

 

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Fake Histories #25   Did Oxford, Bacon or Shakespeare write the works of Shakespeare?

 

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It’s Midsummer’s night tonight, the longest night of the year, so more daylight than usual for champions of Edward de Vere, 17thEarl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, 1stViscount St. Alban, to browbeat you into finally accepting that William Shakespeare did not, in fact, write A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or Hamlet, or the Scottish Play, or King Lear… the list goes on.

Apparently it is just not credible that someone who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, preceded by attendance at a public school—which, as we know, is the English name for what is really a private school—could possibly have written the enduring works ascribed to the humble, unknowable Bard of Stratford upon Avon. Therefore, so the theory goes, all the sonnets, and the plays performed at the Globe Theatre must have been written by a toff with a title.

When you get fed up with the Kennedy assassination, the faked moon landings, or the US government’s 9/11 conspiracy, you should give this one a try.

Shakespeare deniers, or skeptics, have included Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and the actors Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi.  There are organisations out there which cater to the doubters, like the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition—which, who knows, may end up running candidates for the European Parliament. There are also dozens of websites where you can be burned at the stake for Shakespearean heresy. These include DoubtAboutWill.org, where you can even sign a petition, the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare.

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Edward de Vere – Earl of Oxford

Like many of these arcane topics the level of abuse being hurled between the competing parties approaches a 7.5 on the Richter scale. As always, levels of academic vituperation are at their highest when there is absolutely nothing at stake. While most scientists agree on a vital issue like climate change, they will tear out someone’s liver and eat it in front of their children when it comes to a topic like the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. To the engaged the world is divided into Stratfordians (who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works), Oxfordians, who champion de Vere, Baconians and Marlovians – we’ll come back to them later.

The entire Shakes-sphere seems to have begun midway through the 19thcentury with a man called Schmucker—yes, as in the superlative of ‘schmuck’—who got fed up with people denying the existence of Christ, and in a satiric thrust decided to call the authorship of Shakespeare’s work into question. He intended it as a joke. He’s probably the last person to have approached the subject with any trace of a sense of humour.

Take the case for Francis Bacon, which was initially made by someone called … Delia Bacon. Well, she would wouldn’t she? Actually, they weren’t related. Bacon is an über toff in that he was a philosopher, a viscount, and served as English Lord Chancellor, so, far better qualified to be a famous playwright than a working-class lad from Stratford about whom no one knows very much, except that he might have been a decent writer.

Delia Bacon was described recently by a Stratfordian on the doubtaboutwill.org website as having ‘come to believe she was the Holy Ghost and died in a lunatic asylum’. Nice!

The candidacy of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was first advanced in the 1920s by a man named J.T.Looney. I’ll pause there for a second or two in order to allow that one to sink in. Freud is also a supporter of de Vere’s cause but I absolutely refuse to sink to the level of the normal Stratfordian-Oxfordian debate by pointing out that Freud would have had a natural affiliation to someone called Looney. Incidentally, although JT’s name is spelled L-O-O-N-E-Y, he pronounced it ‘Loney’. Once again, it must be said, well he would, wouldn’t he?

Then there’s the cabal that believes the plays were written by Christopher Marlowe, author of Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta. Marlowe was a contemporary of … I’m even scared to mention his name now. He died in a barroom brawl in 1593. Now if you’re good on dates you’ll spot the major flaw in the Marlovian theory, as in the fact that Shakespeare’s plays continued to appear until 1614. No problem to the Marlovians! Marlowe, they theorise, had fallen foul of the authorities and found it necessary to fake his own death.

So, did the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe, or a costermonger named Kevin, write the plays and sonnets ascribed to one William Shakespeare, well, you might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment, because some of the more enthusiastic controversialists might find out where I live. You decide whether or not it’s fake history.

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Francis Bacon

 

 

 

 

Fake Histories #24   Did Charles Lindbergh​ or Alcock and Brown make the first transatlantic flight?

 

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In these days of instant and starry celebrity being conferred for the ability to eat grubs in a jungle while on national television, it is almost impossible to grasp just how famous was Charles Lindbergh. One minute he was a glorified postman, flying planes for the US Post Office, then he was more famous than Calvin Coolidge. And if you’ve never heard of Calvin Coolidge, well that’s my point. Coolidge was United States President when Lindbergh did something extraordinary, on 21 May 1927. He flew in a single seat, single engine plane named Spirit of St. Louis, from Long Island in New York to Le Bourget Airport in Paris. He flew for almost thirty-six hours, often through ice and fog, and won the $25,000 Orteig prize. He was greeted by a huge crowd when he landed in Paris and fêted as a hero.

Five years later, of course, he was at the centre of an appalling tragedy when his twenty-month-old son, also named Charles,  was kidnapped and murdered. Later he achieved further unwanted notoriety as an opponent of US involvement in World War Two, although in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour he joined the US Air Force and flew combat missions in the Pacific.

However, contrary to received wisdom Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. He was beaten to that honour by eight years.

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Which brings us to a flight that started in Newfoundland, a century ago today, and ended in a Galway bog. That was the flight of the two British pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, in a modified WW1 Vickers Vimy bomber. Their object was to fly from the landmass of North America (Newfoundland qualified) to the European landmass (Ireland qualified) in less than seventy-two hours, in order to win the Daily Mail prize. In 1913 the London newspaper had offered £10,000 to the first pilots to make this landmark flight successfully. Alcock and Brown ticked all the boxes. So they got there well before the Spirit of St. Louis.

Lindbergh captured the popular imagination, however, in a fashion that Alcock and Brown never quite managed. It didn’t help that John Alcock was killed in a plane crash within six months of his spectacular joint achievement. Neither did it help that, unlike Lindbergh—who was greeted on landing in Paris by more than 100,000 people—one of the few people around to welcome Alcock and Brown was the intrepid Tom Kenny, then a reporter and scion of the famous Galway bookshop-owning family. While Alcock and Brown would, doubtless, have been happy to meet him he was no substitute for a hundred thousand hero-worshipping Parisians.

So, were Alcock and Brown the first transatlantic aviators? As a matter of fact they weren’t. They were merely the first to fly across the Atlantic non-stop, in the same plane, in less than three days.

Transatlantic flight became a possibility, theoretically at least, well before the Wright brothers took off in their heavier than air machine in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Pioneers like the French Montgolfier brothers in the late eighteenth century had ushered in the era of the hot air balloon. In 1859 a man with the rather unfortunate name of John Wise built a balloon which he tempted fate by calling Atlantic. His attempt to use the jet stream to help him on his way from the USA to Europe lasted barely a day. He crash landed near Henderson, New York. It took a little while to get balloon technology just right and enable one to make the trip. Actually, it was quite a bit more that ‘a little while’. The first successful transatlantic journey by hot air balloon didn’t finally happen until 1978. So much for hot air.

The problem with the first actual flight across the Atlantic is that it lacks any of the romantic narrative of Lindbergh, Alcock or Brown, and took more than half as long as your average ocean liner. It was a Curtiss NC-4 that took off from the US mainland on 8 May 1919,  stopped off in Newfoundland, then flew to the Azores, on to Portugal, before finally making it to the UK. Six stops and twenty-three days! It was also aided in its navigation by a small flotilla of ships, to make sure it didn’t end up in the Falklands. The Daily Mail’s money was safe, by almost three weeks!

However, eminently forgettable as that plodding journey was, it means if anyone tells you that Charles Lindbergh, John Alcock or Arthur Whitten Brown were the first airborne transatlantic pioneers, it’s fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #23   Did a neutral Irish weather station make a huge contribution to the success of D-Day?

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Yesterday was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, when thousands of American soldiers in search of continental Europe, led by Matt Damon,  came ashore at Curracloe Beach in Co. Wexford by mistake. While they were, technically, in Europe, they were nowhere near their intended target, the coast of Normandy and there were no Germans around.

Or something like that anyway!

Actually, it was the diamond anniversary of D-Day, or Operation Overlord, the long-awaited Allied invasion of Europe when more than 150,000 American and British troops came ashore at five Normandy beaches. Which makes it sound a bit like a day trip across the English channel. Ten thousand Allied casualties attest otherwise.

The entire operation was planned and executed by a group of Bigots. This is not to suggest that the spiritual ancestors of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Marine Le Pen dreamed up the Normandy invasion. Back in 1944 military and intelligence personnel who had the requisite security clearance for Operation Overlord were on what was called a BIGOT list and were thus known as ‘bigots’. The name would certainly have put off any German spies, who might even have had legitimate hopes of recruiting someone they heard being so described.

The origin of the phrase is far too complicated and shrouded in mystery to deal with here. Suffice it to say that it is the words ‘To Gib’ reversed, the ‘Gib’ in question being Gibraltar. Happy now? No, I didn’t think so.

Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day +1, by which time the five beachheads had been established and thousands of British and American troops were coming ashore. It could have been otherwise. The harrowing opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan depicts the amphibious landing at the beach code-named Omaha. Determined German defence meant that Omaha Beach accounted for around half of the Allied casualties.

But is it the case that things could have been very different were it not for a humble Irish weather station in Co. Mayo. The Bigots could plan all they liked, they could train, they could prepare, they could cover as many contingencies as possible, but the one element over which they had no control was the weather. Conditions in May 1944 had been excellent but then turned nasty. 5 June had been the intended date for the invasion but adverse weather conditions resulted in a twenty-four-hour postponement. The skies the following day didn’t look much better and a further deferral would not just have been for twenty-four hours but closer to two weeks. The phase of the moon, and the prevailing tides needed to be right as well.

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And that was when a humble Irish lighthouse keeper named Ted Sweeney did his bit to change world history. Although Ireland was neutral it still supplied vital weather reports to the UK. The lighthouse on Blacksod Bay, manned by Sweeney, had a bird’s eye view of conditions on the Irish west coast. Sweeney’s report, of diving barometric readings and a force six wind on 3 June, had been instrumental in the postponement of the invasion.  Twice that day Ted’s daughter Maureen, who worked in the local post office, took calls from London from a woman with a cut-glass English accent. She wanted to talk to Ted Sweeney. Twice she asked him to confirm the readings he had made. Probably getting a little impatient second time around, he duly did as he was asked. He had no idea that he was hitting the pause button on the invasion of Europe

But at noon the following day, 4 June Ted Sweeney, filed the report that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been waiting for. The heavy rain of the previous day had passed, cloud cover was at 900ft, and visibility was clear. This brief respite from stormy conditions would reach the English channel in time to allow Operation Overlord to proceed.

All of which was just as well. Because the weather in July was just as bad. Were it not for Ted Sweeney we might well be commemorating D-Day in August.

Although Ireland was a neutral country some Irishmen did play a role in Operation Overlord. The Royal Ulster Rifles, which included many volunteer soldiers from the Irish Free State, had two battalions involved in D-Day. But it may well have been non-combatant Ted Sweeney who played the crucial Irish role.

So, in answer to the question, did a neutral Irish weather station make a huge contribution to the success of D-Day seventy-five years ago this week? Yes, it did, it’s NOT fake history.

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