FH#61 Didn’t Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year?



First off let me offer my most profound condolences to any ‘leaplings’ amongst you. To qualify you will have been born on 29th February. Many happy returns tomorrow and do enjoy your birthday party because your next one won’t be happening until 2024. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if you only aged one year in every four as well, but, of course, it doesn’t work like that does it? Does it?

Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb it doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days. It takes an additional six hours or so. As a consequence, with the creation of the Julian calendar in Rome, during the reign of Julius Caesar, an extra day was added at the end of February to keep everything in line. As the shortest month it needed all the help it could get. Later Caesar was stabbed to death in retaliation by a gang of ‘leaplings’  who bitterly resented the absence of birthday cards for three years out of every four. Maybe! No one actually checked their birth certs but it’s odds on they were all born on 29 February and had a grudge against Old Julie.

The problem, however, with the Julian calendar, is that there was a sting in the tail. Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb and doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days and six hours. It take a few seconds less than that. So, you lose about three days every four hundred years. This meant that, by the 16th century Caesar’s calendar was starting to get out of whack with the seasons. For example, the Spring Equinox, which should have been on 23 March, actually fell on the 11th March. That was when Pope Gregory took a hand, tossed out the Julian calendar and replaced it with his own, which accounted for the precise amount of time to takes the earth to revolve around the sun. To cater for those vital few rogue seconds, certain years, which were actually divisible by four, were to be designated as non-leap years. They had to be divisible by four hundred as well. So the first year that would have had a leap day in February, but didn’t, was 1700. The next one will be 2100. So, if you are born tomorrow, and live to be eighty-four, you won’t  have a birthday for the last seven years of your life. Bummer!

By the way, does anyone have any idea what the other three years in the cycle are called? Full marks if you said ‘common’ years.

Among those unfortunate enough to be born on 29 February are the actors Joss Ackland and Denis Farina – in the case of Richard Ramirez, born in El Paso, Texas on 29 February 1960 it’s the rest of humanity that was visited by misfortune. He went on to become the serial killer known as the Night Stalker who terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s and murdered more than a dozen people. Born on the same day four years earlier was one of the most notorious female serial killers in legal history, Aileen Wournos. Is there something we need to know?

The good news for Spain, however, is that their current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, won’t be distracted by having to throw elaborate annual birthday parties because he too is a leapling.

By the way, when it comes to the tradition that a woman can propose marriage to a man on a leap day—as if they aren’t allowed to do so on any of the other 1460 days in the cycle—there’s a sting in the tail. Apparently if the man refuses the proposal he must give the woman a sum of money, or buy her a dress. That is, let’s face it, something you could turn to your advantage tomorrow. Assuming you’re a woman and there’s a man of your acquaintance who really doesn’t like you. Just be careful. Men can be very fickle. He might say ‘yes’.

So, as to the starter question, did Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year? … decidedly not. If Pope Gregory hadn’t intervened and chopped out a few of them we’d soon be having Christmas in November.



FH#59  St. Valentine was beaten to death with clubs?



Cue the mushy music, break out the chocolates, take a wee moment to smell that garland of  roses, and count those cards again, because, if you didn’t know that it’s St. Valentine’s day you’re either out of luck, or an incurable grouch.

We’ll get to the sad fate of the man after whom the day is named, a little later.

One thing you can say about St. Valentine—purveyor of love and affection, hero to cardmakers, choclatiers, intimate restaurants, the Post Office, and maternity hospitals around the middle of November—is that the various Churches in which he is revered, work the man very hard indeed. The afterlife doesn’t necessarily mean a restful retirement for holy men. Valentine is not just the patron saint of lovers you see. He doesn’t get any downtime after mid-February. In addition to his patronage of love, amour, amore, liebe, STDs and lovebites, he is also the patron saint of beekeepers. He is charged with their protection and with the sweetness of honey. Not only that but he is patron saint AGAINST epilepsy, fainting and the bubonic plague. He’s been doing quite well on the latter in recent years.

The man himself was a Christian martyr who met a sad and violent end around the year 270 AD in Rome, where his skull is still exhibited to this day. But, fear not, apparently a small vessel containing some of his blood—which has survived remarkably well after one thousand seven hundred and fifty odd years—is on display in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street in Dublin. Hopefully it’s the blood of the correct Valentine, because apparently there are around a dozen saints and martyrs of that name who feature in regional Christian church lists. The most recent one was canonised in 1988. There is even a Pope Valentine, but he only lasted in office for forty days, in 827, so, wisely perhaps, no pontiff has assumed the name since the ninth century.

Is it significant, one wonders,  that, apparently, there are no churches dedicated to St. Valentine in buttoned-down England, while there are dozens in his name in amorous Italy? Which brings to mind the title of that long-running 1970s farce No Sex Please We’re British. It ran in the West End for sixteen years. One of the Italian churches named after him was situated in the 1960 Rome Olympic village, though, by all accounts, the presence of St. Valentine is not essential for lustful carry-on in Olympic villages.

The problem with Valentine and all the saccharine of the day associated with his name, is that he was a Christian martyr. There is no getting away from the fact, as you sip your first prosecco of the night and dive into the Quality Street, that poor Valentine, to whom you owe tonight’s date with your outrageously handsome or beautiful escort, came to a very bad end indeed.

As regards the poor man’s demise, there is some clubbing involved, but not of the type that you might hope to be indulging in later tonight if that romantic dinner goes well. As with most of the early saints and martyrs, the precise details of his passing are disputed. But the consensus seems to be that he fell foul of the Roman Emperor Claudius, not the I Claudius of the Robert Graves books, who was a good egg, but Claudius the Second, who was more of a hard-boiled type. Valentine, or Valentinus to give him his Roman name, was accused of marrying Christian couples, hence his designation as patron saint of lovers. But Claudius the Second was a tad unsentimental about Christian nuptials. In fact he didn’t approve of Christians of any stripe. Aiding and abetting Christianity was a capital offence in third century Rome.

Claudius ordered that Valentine should be beaten to death with clubs—not the sort of end that we would associate with such a mushily romantic figure. The good news is that the beating failed to kill him. The bad news is that he was then beheaded, which did. Spare a thought for his dreadful end as the maitre d’ escorts you to your table tonight. Actually … maybe save your reflections until tomorrow. Contemplating beatings and beheadings as you order the starter might spoil your appetite, or ruin that all-important frisson as you gaze rapturously into the eyes of your dinner date.

But as to the ultimate fate of St. Valentine, patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, was he beaten to death with clubs? No, he was decapitated, so that’s fake history. Do enjoy your evening.


FH #58  Did the first lynching take place in Galway in 1493?



As Galway has been Ireland’s Capital of Culture for decades it’s only fitting that it becomes Europe’s official capital of Culture for 2020 this week. One wonders though if the year-long celebration will encompass the enduring myth (or even history) of a former mayor of the city James Lynch Fitzstephen, who, according to local legend, in 1493, invoking his magisterial powers, condemned his own son to death for the murder of a Spanish visitor who was a rival for the affections of a local woman. Legend has it that when no one could be found to execute his son Fitzstephen performed the sorry task himself by hanging the young lad from a window in Market Street.

It may be history, it may simply be legend but one thing is certain, it has given rise to an enduring parallel mythology that credits James Lynch Fitzstephen with inadvertently originating the term ‘lynching’, as in an extra-judicial hanging. The Fitzstephen story doesn’t even have to be true for the alleged incident to have become the basis of the coinage of that ugliest of words. Neither does it really matter that the execution of the young Fitzstephen was not an illegal act—he had actually been condemned to death— nor that, logically, if the word followed the deed we should be talking about the unfortunate victims of ‘Fitzstephening’ rather than ‘lynching’.

However, we need to visit the more natural habitat of this barbaric practice, the American South, to establish whether a late fifteenth century Mayor of Galway’s name has been gruesomely immortalised or not.

The word itself may well have had a relatively benign genesis. American sources claim that it comes, not from fifteenth century Galway, but from the American revolution of the late eighteenth century. It appears that a Virginia Quaker named Charles Lynch took it upon himself during the US War of Independence, to incarcerate loyalist supporters of British rule without the proper authority. When the British abandoned their unruly colony, Lynch sought retrospective legal jurisdiction just in case he was sued by any of his former prisoners. The resulting legislation became known as ‘Lynch’s Law’, which morphed into ‘Lynch Law’ and gradually began to mean the assumption of extra-judicial authority.

It became a verb in the aftermath of the American Civil War as white southerners fought to reassert some of their authority over millions of freed slaves who now, perish the thought, even had the right to vote.

One of the great heroes of nineteenth century American journalism, Ida B. Wells, born into slavery herself in 1862, just before emancipation, became editor of a newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. That same year a friend of hers, who had set up a business competing with white-owned concerns in Memphis, Tennessee was lynched by a white mob. That set Ida Wells on the journey for which she is most celebrated, documenting the incidences and the rationale behind the evil practice of lynching in the post-Civil War South

She exposed the lie that most black men were lynched for sexual assaults on white women – instead she found that most black men were targeted for challenging southern white supremacy in the economic or political field. Lynching, far from being a response to inter-racial rape, was a form of social control. The worst example of the practice was the so-called Great Hanging of Gainesville, Texas in October 1862 where forty-one black men were hanged by a white mob. Ida Wells published her findings in Southern Horror: Lynch Law in all its Phases in 1892. In the book she was unequivocal in her advocacy of self-defensive measures

‘A Winchester rifle,’ she wrote, ‘should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. ‘

After the book appeared the offices of her newspaper were torched and she was forced to flee to New York which hadn’t lynched too many African-Americans since the 1863 Draft Riots.

In 1915 the epic silent movie, Birth of a Nation, highlighted the gruesome practice, except that the director, D.W. Griffith, seemed to think it was a good idea.  Between 1880 and 1951 independent research has recorded almost five thousand lynchings in the USA. Most took place in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana and around 70% of the victims were African-American men and women.

So, when it comes to the dispute over where the word lynching comes from, fifteenth century Galway, or revolutionary America … does it really matter?