‘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 #16   Eamon de Valera escaped execution in 1916 because he was an American citizen?

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Given that one of the highest ranking survivors of the 1916 Rising went on to dominate Irish politics for almost three decades, surely one of the great imponderables of Irish history must be, ‘What if Patrick Pearse had been granted his wish, and he alone was executed after the surrender of the Volunteers?’ How would the avowed Marxist, James  Connolly have fared in the Ireland of the 1920s, assuming he recovered from his wounds? What roles would Sean MacDermott and Thomas Clarke have played in the Anglo-Irish war? We would certainly have got some excellent poetry from Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh.

But only one of the pivotal military leaders managed to survive, Eamon de Valera, and if his subsequent political career is anything to go by, the 1920s and 30s would have been even more interesting with the input of other surviving signatories.

So much for ‘What if?’ you might say, and you’d probably be right. Except that there is a huge counterfactual element—as historians put it—to de Valera’s own narrative. As in, ‘what if’ he hadn’t been born in New York and the British military authorities were reluctant to execute him for fear of antagonising the US administration.

So, let’s clear up a few things about de Valera and his involvement in 1916. First, there’s the assumption that he was the highest ranking survivor. He wasn’t. He was actually outranked by an extraordinary 20-year-old Volunteer named Seán McLaughlin who was promoted to commandant-general around the time of the evacuation of the GPO.

Dev was in command of the Third Battalion of the Volunteers based in Boland’s Mills. A small unit, formally under his command, was responsible for causing the most serious damage to the British Army during the rebellion, when they inflicted over two hundred casualties, mainly on the Sherwood Foresters, at Mount Street Bridge. De Valera, however, played no active part in that famous engagement.

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After the surrender, De Valera and his unit were taken to the RDS where they were held prisoner. This was probably a crucial element in his survival. Had he, like most of the other leaders of the Rising, been brought to Richmond Barracks and quickly court-martialled, history could have been very different. But, he was not a signatory to the Proclamation and was only belatedly court-martialled, so he had to wait his turn to be executed or to have his death sentence commuted by the military governor, General Sir John Maxwell.

The first dozen firing squad victims fell quickly, within four days of each other. Then there was a pause, during which a hugely adverse reaction set in, not just in Dublin but in London. With the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on his way to Dublin—with the clear intention of ending the executions—the priority for the military authorities was to dispose of the final two signatories of the Proclamation, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly before a wavering Asquith could step in and save them.

A Dublin barrister, William Wylie, who had been involved on the legal side in the Courts-Martial, was actually approached by General Maxwell and asked about de Valera. Maxwell wanted to know was he someone who might give trouble in the future. Wylie, by now thoroughly disillusioned with the entire process, might well have saved de Valera’s life when he responded in the negative. Had he not done so there might well have been a third victim of the firing squad on 12 May 1916. De Valera, of course, went on to prove Wylie spectacularly wrong. He managed to cause the British authorities quite a bit of bother, right up to and beyond, the Economic War of the 1930s, and the fateful decision to establish Ireland’s neutrality during World War Two.

So, de Valera’s survival was more to do with timing than with his American citizenship. If the British had been worried about that sort of thing they would not have executed Thomas Clarke either. He had become an American citizen in 1883.

Did de Valera escape execution in 1916 because he was born in New York? No, he didn’t. That’s fake history.

Fake Histories #15   12.4.2019 The Icelandic Eyjafjallakökull eruption of 2010 was the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history?

 

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Who can forget that week in April 2010 when a mountain in Iceland closed the airspace of 20 countries and left millions of travellers stranded.

Eyjafjallakökull   [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] hereinafter referred to, for obvious reasons, as the Icelandic volcano, or Eye-ah for short, blew its top and spewed tonnes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The jet stream obligingly moved location until it was directly over the mountain so that the powerful volcano could just mainline straight into the planetary wind system of the northern hemisphere. The jet stream at the time also happened to be pointing in just the right direction for maximum havoc. It might have been facing north-west, towards Greenland? But no, it was contentedly pointing south-east, straight for mainland Europe. Nothing without feathers could fly for a week.

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Among those inconvenienced was actor and comedian John Cleese who forked out around €4000 for one of the longest taxi rides in history. When his flight from Norway was cancelled he got a cab driver to take him from Oslo to Brussels, passing through six countries en route. Thus Cleese proved himself just as capable of doing a silly drive as a silly walk. Then there was the international rugby match between Switzerland and Lithuania that had to be cancelled as well. Which was quite astonishing really as, prior to that, nobody even knew that Switzerland and Lithuania had the vaguest notion what the game of rugby was about.

The crisis came to an end, in part at least, when a thoroughly fed up Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways and a former Aer Lingus pilot, decided the authorities were being over-zealous in grounding flights, so he went up in a BA 747 which flew into the remnants of the cloud to prove that it could be done without causing death and destruction. In doing so Walsh went some way towards atoning for the debacle of the opening Heathrow’s Terminal Five two years earlier.

But was that mid-Atlantic volcanic event the most disruptive in modern history? If you were one of the 20 million air passengers whose flights were dumped you would be tempted to think so. But spare a thought for the victims of the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815. The Icelandic volcano with the uncomfortably long name killed no one, although it ruined lots of sun holidays and business trips. The Tambora event directly killed 10,000 and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands more all across the planet.

Tambora was a volcanic mountain on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia. It had been dormant for several centuries before it erupted in April 1815, with such force that the noise could be heard on Sumatra, more than 2000 kilometres away. The explosion was four times the magnitude of the famous Krakatoa eruption seven decades later. The ash that was hurled into the atmosphere was carried across the entire globe and the strange yellow skies of the summer of 1815 were recorded in England by the great British landscape artist J.M.W.Turner.

But it didn’t stop there. With the particles of ash remaining in the atmosphere, summer of the following year simply never materialised. In the northern hemisphere, average temperatures fell by half a degree Celsius. 1816 became the infamous ‘Year Without a Summer’. Snow fell in June, frost was reported in August. In Hungary brown snow fell, in Italy it was red. Europe was especially badly afflicted as it was attempting to recover from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Almost 100,000 are believed to have died as an indirect result of the consequential disruption of crops. Many of those were in Ireland, where the plummeting summer temperatures resulted in one of the many famines of the 19thcentury as the wheat, oats and potato harvests all failed.

So cold was the weather in the summer of 1816 that a small group of English travellers in Switzerland spent most of their walking holiday indoors. They devised a method of staving off boredom by writing ghost stories. One of the tourists was a certain Mary Shelley. Her story went on to achieve some notoriety as Frankenstein.

So, was the eruption of Eyjafjallakökull [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history? Not by a lava flow. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #14 –  The song ‘Dixie’ originated in the American South?​   

 

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I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten

Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland

In Dixieland where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’

Look away, look away, Look away, Dixieland

Thus begins a song that was premiered this week in 1859, two years before the vicious conflict that made it famous. Dixie, a sentimental ballad about the joys of life below the Mason-Dixon line, resonated with southerners then and still does today. Which makes it doubly ironic—given its often dubious modern association with white supremacists—that is was written not only by a northern supporter of Abraham Lincoln, but an Irish-American at that, and one who worked for a music hall act led by two Irish brothers.

Dixie could hardly be less ‘southern’ than if it had been born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother. It emerged from the American tradition of the ‘blackface’ minstrel. These were white performers, who like the thoroughly modern Ali G, liked to pretend they were black. Among their number was an Irish-American singer/performer from Ohio named Daniel Decatur Emmett. He was a member of a troupe of music hall singers led by a pair of New York Irish brothers named O’Neill. The song quickly became a rousing closer for their touring show. It became a popular favourite all over the USA. A presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, used it at his rallies to get the crowds going. By the time Dan Emmet died more than thirty people were claiming they had written the song.

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Many years later Emmet ruefully observed that ‘If I had known to what use they were going to put my song I’ll be damned if I had written it’. ‘They’ were the soldiers of the Confederacy. In the case of the song Dixie it would appear that origins were of no consequence, context was paramount, and melody conquered all. Of course, context is relative. If taken literally, the song is a nostalgic celebration of southern culture. Except that it was intended by Emmet as a satirical take on slavery. The song is sung in the voice of a freedman who misses the plantation on which he was enslaved. Southerners didn’t get the joke. Or maybe they did, and the joke was on Dan Emmet.

Despite the subversive connotations, after it was quickly conscripted as an anthem of the Confederacy, Lincoln never quite lost his love for the song – it was just so damn catchy. He ordered it to be played when he was informed that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox. Or maybe that was just his way of rubbing Southern noses in their defeat. The speech he made at the time was typical of his wry sense of humour.

I thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard …  our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I       presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it

Which the band duly did. Certainly, Lincoln’s troops had no great affection or reverence for the piece. Union troops sang the song frequently, but with amended lyrics. These went …

Away down South in the land of traitors,
Rattlesnakes and alligators
Right away, come away, right away, come away.
Where cotton’s king and men are chattels

Union boys will win the battles,
Right away, come away, right away, come away

Emmet died in 1904. His gravestone bears the legend ‘his song Dixieland inspired the courage and devotion of the southern people and now thrills the hearts of a reunited nation.’ Which today comes across as someone optimistically ‘whistling Dixie’.

So, was that great anthem of the Confederacy written in the Old South? No, it wasn’t, it was written by a Yankee Irish-American. That’s fake history.

 

Fake Histories #13 – 29.3.2019   The last major Brexit took place because Henry VIII rejected a corrupt, anti-Christian Roman Catholic Church?

 

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HENRY VIII

A cheery welcome to 29 March 2019 – a date long embroidered on the pillows and silk handkerchiefs of Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnston.

I’m sure we’re all pleased things have worked out so well for them.

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BORIS I

Cheeringly there is a precedent for the chaos of Brexit – back in a time when a Catholic, like Mr Rees Mogg, might well have found himself tied to a stake and burned alive. I refer to the sixteenth century and the reign of that most portly of Tudor monarchs, King Henry VIII.

Now Henry, whatever his other failings, undoubtedly had a great affection for the institution of marriage. Connubiality would have been his middle name except that it was too long to fit on the royal seal. Generally, however, the notion of connubiality revolves around a strong affiliation to the same wife. Harry, however,  seemed to just like marrying.  Maybe he had a weakness for wedding ceremonies or, more likely, he wanted a son and heir and had limited patience with any of his queens who failed to provide same. Either way, he married six times.

There was a mythology in ‘ye olde Englande’ that Henry parted ways with the European Union of its day—the Holy Roman Empire—and the Pope himself, because of his disgust with the abuses and corruption that plagued the Roman Catholic Church and had been highlighted by Martin Luther. These included the sale of indulgences to facilitate entry into heaven for those who could afford them, and a clergy many of whom thought of priestly celibacy as a quaint optional extra.

While the Roman Catholic Church in general, and the Papacy in particular, was desperately in need of reform in the sixteenth century, that was not quite the reason Henry VIII split from Rome, dissolved the monasteries, and established the Church of England. He did it for those most elemental reasons of all, sex and money. Far from having an issue with the Church of Rome his 1521 work Defence of the Seven Sacraments was an anti-Lutheran polemic that supported the supremacy of the Pope and earned him the official title Defender of the Faith. The British monarchy still likes to rub the Vatican’s nose in that one, by keeping it on their coins.

But this was one of those moments where the club chairman makes a staunch case for the team manager and fires him three weeks later. When the Pope of the day, Clement VII, said ‘no, grazie’ to Henry’s request for a divorce from his first wife Catherine, so that he could marry the lovely Anne Boleyn (whom he later beheaded) Henry severed the Roman connection. Clement could consider himself lucky that the severing did not involve his cranium. Henry then declared himself head of the Church of England, with benefits. He set about realising the value of dozens of Catholic monasteries by asset stripping the lot and putting the proceeds into his Post Office savings account. Previously much of the surplus funds from the monasteries had been channelled towards Brussels … sorry, I meant Rome.

Had he split from the Vatican on the basis of a principled campaign against the venality of the 16thcentury church you might expect that he would shelter and support the English followers of Martin Luther. But Protestant reformers suffered just as much under Henry after the so-called ‘English reformation’ as did supporters of Pope Clement (perhaps let’s not call them Clementines).

So, did Henry VIII bring about a principled and morally sound separation from Rome in the 1530s because of rampant sleaze in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church? Sadly not. He took back control, but his motives were rather less exalted. To suggest otherwise is fake history.

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Fake Histories #12 – 22.3.2019   Did the UK imposed a border on the island of Ireland in the 1920s, after the creation of the Irish Free State?

 

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There has been a lot of talk about borders in Ireland lately. Hard, soft, invisible, frictionless, technological, in fact, the only kind of North-South border no one seems to discuss is herbaceous. This is probably because, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest herbaceous border in the world is just over 200 metres in length. So, although a herbaceous border between North and South would be very attractive and eye-catching it might not stretch all the way from the east coast up to Lough Foyle.

There is a preconception in what is now the Republic of Ireland that it was partition, brought about by the creation of a Dublin and Belfast Parliament in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, that caused the creation of the border. In fact, it wasn’t. It was us. Or at least our grandfathers, back in 1923. I use the term grandfathers advisedly because in 1923 our grandmothers didn’t so much as get a look in. Maybe if they had there wouldn’t have been a border.

It happened thus. After Stormont was established, the parallel 26 county state which had also been created by the UK government, stubbornly refused to come into existence and indulged itself in the minor matter of a three-year war of independence, followed by a civil war. When the latter ended many down south suddenly had the time and the inclination to turn their attention northwards again, towards the ‘separated brethren’ or the ‘fourth green field’.

The Free State government, now led by W.T.Cosgrave after the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, had a few small problems. First off, it was stony broke. In 1923 it was heading towards a soaring budget deficit of … £4m. Yes, I know, isn’t that so sweet?

Secondly, in order to defeat the anti-Treaty Republican forces, the Free State had acquired a standing army of 55,000 men. Even though the Civil War was almost over they expected to get paid and they were none too keen on the prospect of being demobilised just yet because there were no alternative jobs for them to go to. Someone in Cosgrave’s government got the bright idea for an inspired ‘twofer’. Since the end of the Anglo-Irish war the Free State government had been sharing in the various customs and excise revenues being diligently collected by His Majesty’s Government (said Majesty at the time being a ‘him’ – King George V). What about, MacIavelli suggested, if we impose our own tariffs on goods coming from Northern Ireland, build border posts to enforce the new duties, and avoid a military coup by sending a third of the members of our grumpy army to man those posts?

This same bright spark also suggested that the resulting stress on the economy of Northern Ireland would probably bring down the Stormont government and end partition, so we wouldn’t even have to wait for the report of the Boundary Commission which would bring it tumbling down anyway! Voila! Job done! So, where’s my Christmas bonus?

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And that’s what they did. They declared all but seventeen of the five million major and minor roads crisscrossing the border counties, to be ‘unapproved’. They stuck customs posts on the rest and began to supplement the income of the Irish Free State by levying duties on goods incoming. Shock, horror – this even included a tariff on rosary beads. That was when the Law of Unintended Consequences inevitably popped up from its hiding place and started making mischief.

To give just one example. Suddenly the Great Northern Railway became a sort of scaled-down Orient express. It traversed no less than seventeen international boundaries. Or at least it crossed the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland seventeen times.

And guess what, there were political consequences as well. Sir James Craig, the Northern Prime Minister, couldn’t believe his luck. The Free Staters had just copper-fastened partition. Voila! Job done!

So how did it all work out—other than for the membership of the Loyal Order of Smugglers who were even more pleased than Sir James? Not that well actually.  Declaring hundreds of cross border roads to be ‘unapproved’ was rather like Moses ordering the parting of the Red Sea, except that Moses was a lot more successful. Most border county residents were perfectly happy to weather the ‘disapproval’ of the Free State and come and go as they pleased, on any road they pleased. This, however, did not please Free State customs officers. They spoiled the party by closing many of the roads. That’s when you started to hear the word ‘hinterland’ coming into play. As in ‘we’ve been completely cut off from our hinterland’.

To make matters worse the new customs regime began, well obviously, on 1 April.

So, did the UK government erect customs posts along the Irish border and establish a network of ‘unapproved’ roads? No, they didn’t. We did. That’s fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #11  15 March –  St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland?

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Two days from now we will all quietly celebrate the life and work of a self-sacrificing Christian man who brought comfort and the word of God to thousands of Irish people one and a half millennia ago.

Like hell we will.

Instead, we will eat, drink, parade, turn the Chicago River green, get thousands of normally staid tourists blind drunk before selling them their family tree, and stand four rows back with small children on our shoulders trying to catch a glimpse of a parade. Welcome to St. Patrick’s Festival time. Like a modern Irish wedding what used to take a day now takes three times as long, as we remember the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.

Or did he?

We don’t know a lot about him, other than his autobiographical Confessions. We think he might have come from Wales but we’re not really sure. He could have come from another part of Roman Britain, or even from continental Europe. At least we can be pretty sure he didn’t come from anywhere west of us, despite the enthusiasm with which New York celebrates his feast day.

St. Patrick is supposed to have arrived in Ireland in 432. While he may well have converted a number of prominent and humble Irish folks to Christianity he was not working on a greenfield site. There was already in existence, for example, the Catholic diocese of Ossory, whose first bishop, St. Ciaran, died thirty years before Patrick even got here.

In fact not only was Patrick sent to minister to Irish Christians who had already been converted—as opposed to converting an entirely pagan Ireland— but he didn’t even get here first. It appears that at least a year before Patrick arrived he was preceded by a missionary bishop named Palladius, sent in 431 as, according to a contemporary document, the ‘first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ’. That’s the Irish believing in Christ, not the bishop – there would not have been much point in sending him had he been a pagan or an atheist. Palladius was despatched to Scotland and Ireland by Pope Celestine the First. Back in the Fifth Century Popes obviously did not necessarily have to have bloke’s names.

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It appears that Palladius may well have done most of his work in Leinster and Munster, while Patrick thrived in Ulster and Connacht. The potential confusion led at least one scholar, T.F.O’Rahilly, to propose the ‘Two Patricks’ theory – suggesting that somehow the work of Palladius had been conflated with that of Patrick and there were, technically, two Patricks, not one.  Back in the day if you wanted to get a history degree you had to learn it off by heart.

The very name ‘Patrick’ adds weight to this theory. It’s common in Ireland now but the original version would have been the Latin ‘Patricius’. Back in the fifth century, the word Patricius denoted someone of aristocratic birth, or a ‘patrician’. It was actually used as a prefix, a title or an honorific. Today the equivalent would be ‘Lord’ Snooty or ‘Sir’ Political Contribution. So is it conceivable that our patron saint’s name wasn’t Patrick at all, but merely the posh preliminary for his actual name?

Just in case you’re wondering, neither Patrick had anything to do with banishing the snakes from Ireland. That’s because there never were any snakes in Ireland, at least not since the last Ice Age, and back then there would have been no one around to do a serpent census. The Irish have never shared this island with reptiles, other than a drunken conga line in Coppers on New Year’s Eve. So, St. Patrick’s supposed feat would be like banishing penguins from the snowy wastes … of northern Canada.

One more thing. The seventeenth of March is not his birthday either! Not that we would have a hope in hell of being able to work that one out. Saint’s feast days are assigned to mark the day they commence the noble art of pushing up daisies. It’s actually his death day.

So, did our beloved patron saint, whom we will over-celebrate in two days time, bring Christianity to Ireland. I’m afraid not. It was already here. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #10 – The Spanish flu of 1918-19 is so-called because it originated in Spain?

 

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To put it in perspective. Anything up to ten times the numbers who died in World War 1 would succumb to influenza in 1918 and 1919. More people died of flu in one year than had been killed by the infamous Black Death from 1347 – 1351. And it was a highly democratic, equal opportunities, virus. It did not just plague the very old and the very young. The death rate among 15-34-year-olds worldwide, during the fleeting visit of the H1N1 virus, was ten times the normal rate. Spanish flu couldn’t be faulted for originality either – it was entirely new. Its very novelty meant that no one had time to build up immunity.

While the arrival of the armistice on 11 November 1918 was a welcome reprieve for millions of soldiers who didn’t have to risk life and limb any more, it may have had the opposite effect on the civilian population. The very celebrations that marked Armistice Day all across Europe offered a rare and wonderful opportunity for the bug to increase and multiply among the cheering crowds. Then the return from the front a century ago of millions of demobbed soldiers brought on another wave of the disease.

Average life expectancy in the USA suddenly plummeted by twelve years – more US WW1 soldiers died of influenza than died in battle. This was despite the efforts of their commander, General Pershing, to inflict as many casualties as possible on his own troops and probably kill his way to the Presidency.  There were no anti-flu vaccines back in those days. The first such vaccine wasn’t marketed until the 1940s, just in time for the sequel to the Great War – the Even Greater War of 1939-45

Aggravating the problem was the fact that the world was yet to breed or design medical practitioners who were completely immune to the diseases they were called upon to treat. The flu bug delighted in infecting doctors and nurses just as much as it did soldiers and dockers

A childish rhyme emerged from the pandemic – children would merrily skip to the words …

 

I had a little bird

Its name was Enza

I opened the window

And in-flu-enza

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The first recorded case of Spanish flu occurred this week just over a century ago. Obviously, with a name like Spanish flu it was first documented in Madrid, or maybe Malaga, or perhaps even Barcelona–with the authorities resolutely refusing to call it Catalan flu. Actually, it was none of the above. The first case of Spanish flu was noted in Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s not Kansas in Andalucia, that’s the Kansas that Dorothy so badly wanted to get back to in The Wizard of Oz,  the one in the United States of America. So why, you might well wonder, did the Kansan doctors decide to designate this particular strain of influenza as ‘Spanish’? Was the first patient of Hispanic origin? Did the medical staff share the apparent aversion of the 45thPresident of the United States for ‘bad hombres’ who spoke the dominant language of Central and South America? Again, the answer is ‘none of the above’. They didn’t actually call it Spanish flu at all. In the beginning, nobody did.

That designation is a function of the war that was being fought over much of western Europe at the time. The military authorities in both sets of trenches—not that the actual authorities themselves spent much time in the line of fire—kept a tight rein on information coming from the front. It was distributed with all the largesse and generosity of a White House press conference today, insofar as such things still exist. Not telling the truth was deemed good for morale. This meant no one had a clue that thousands of troops, packed into trenches and susceptible to every cough and splutter, were dying of the disease.

Spain, however, was sensibly neutral and unlimited information was coming out of the Iberian peninsula. Spanish newspapers were even allowed to report the grave illness from the disease of their own King, Alfonso XIII.  This gave the impression that influenza had originated amongst the unfortunate Spaniards and, like some dedicated anti-Hispanic virus, was killing them alone. As the medical staff in Fort Riley, Kansas and thousands of other military and civilian hospitals worldwide could attest, such was not the case.

So, was the virulent Spanish flu, first detected this week in 1918, so-called because it originated in Spain? Not a bit of it. That’s fake history.

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