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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Fake Histories #9 – 1 March 2019 The flag of St. David of Wales is green and white with a red dragon?

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Happy St. David’s day, or as the Welsh might put it themselves, dydd gwyl Dewi hapus [deedth goo-eel …] It’s a day when thousands of small Welsh girls are asking their mothers, ‘Do I really have to wear this funny hat?’ and ‘Why can’t I just be cool, like Cerys Matthews?’

Today is the day that Welsh people celebrate the birth of their native saint, just as we Irish will celebrate our own St. Patrick in a couple of weeks. Except, of course, that St. Patrick was probably also a Welshman, kidnapped by marauding Irish gangsters in the early fifth century. Happily, the generous Welsh are content to let us pretend he was Irish and don’t seem overly concerned that he exiled the snakes here while leaving them to their own devices in Wales. If he had that Harry Potter-like power he could at least have banished them across Offa’s dyke to England.

The reason the Welsh are so laid back about St.Patrick is that they have St. David, who died on 1 March 589, hence the feast day. St. David’s day is, of course, indelibly associated with the daffodil. However, given the pace of climate change and the growth of daffodils in December, the Welsh now have the option of moving his feast day to the 1 January and sharing Hogmanay with the Scots.

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St.David, or Dewi in Welsh,  established up to twelve monasteries across Wales in the sixth century and was canonised in 1120 at a time when the Welsh were trying to resist the incursions of the Normans. Half a century later they had given up the ghost on that one and it was the Irish who were trying to beat back the forces of the Norman/Welsh adventurer, Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke. Call it sweet revenge for kidnapping St.Patrick.

Welsh people like to celebrate St. David’s Day by eating traditional food, dressing up in national costume (which includes those distinctive hats I was talking about) and beating England in the Six Nations championship. Of course, they are not unique in that respect. Everyone likes beating England in the Six Nations. But no one sings quite like the Welsh as they do so. Even St. David himself, who has, after all, been dead for one and a half millennia, sits up and takes notice when a Welsh rugby crowd launches into the stirring and haunting Hen Wlad Fy Nadau [Hane wlad vee nadhai] or Land of My Fathers which somehow always manages to eclipse God Save the Queen even at Twickenham.

The English haven’t always enjoyed Welsh celebrations of St. David’s Day. Back in the days of the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys he recorded how Welsh celebrations in London would give rise to caustic English reactions, which often led to the lynching—thankfully in effigy only—of life-sized Welsh characters. A century later the English also liked to bake cute little gingerbread confectionery figures of a Welshman sitting astride a goat. These became known as ‘taffies’, which is why today Welsh people appreciate being called ‘Taffy’ by an Englishman about as much as an Irish person just longs to be called ‘Paddy’.

One thing the Welsh have so far not managed to achieve is to turn St. David’s Day into a national holiday, even though, in 2000, the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously for this to happen. Apparently Tony Blair wasn’t keen on the idea, obviously, it was insufficiently Third Way-ish, and couldn’t be farmed out to the private sector.

Now when it comes to the Welsh flag there is an assumption that the distinctive banner of a red dragon on a green and white background, is the symbol of St. David himself. But that flag has nothing whatever to do with the Welsh national saint and doesn’t include any of his iconographies. He has that in common with his fellow countryman Patrick, whose traditional colour is St. Patrick’s blue, which doesn’t feature in the Irish flag. St. David’s symbol is a dramatic golden cross on a black background. The Welsh flag is actually, and ironically, the emblem of a line of British kings and queens, albeit one that originated in Wales, the Tudors. In  1485 one of the members of that house, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, under the banner of the red dragon, and became Henry VII of England and Wales.

In much the same way as the Irish green, white and gold tricolour superseded the more traditional golden harp on a green background, the Tudor flag became the acknowledged emblem of Wales ahead of St. David’s golden cross on a black background.

So, is the rampant red dragon the flag of the patron saint of Wales? I’m afraid not. That’s fake history.

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FAKE HISTORIES#8 – 22.2.19 The Oscar statuette has a commercial value of only $1?

 

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Next Monday night in Los Angeles the filmmaking community will gather for its annual orgy of mutual backslapping and backstabbing, known as the Academy Awards. The orchestra will drown out speeches that stray beyond forty-five seconds in length. The TV audience will get bored and go to bed half-way through. And there will be tears, boy will there be tears! Some of them will be shed onstage as Oscars are accepted with becoming humility or unseemly gloating. Others will be blinked back by the four rejected candidates in the major categories.

But it’s probably fair to say, given the sums of money lavished on Hollywood stars, that there probably won’t be too many of the successful nominees looking at their statuettes and thinking, ‘I wonder how much I can get for this on eBay?’. That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences long ago devised a mechanism to ensure that every second pawn shop in downtown LA wasn’t selling Academy Award statuettes hocked by winners in the ‘best supporting’ categories, who then succumbed to the infamous Oscar Curse, and couldn’t get any more work. It may well be because of their ‘buy back’ policy that a persistent myth has arisen. This suggests that the statuette itself is worth only $1!

Should you find yourself in need of a bit of spare cash, or maybe the golden statuette clashes with your new curtains, you can’t just sell it on the open market. For all Oscars won after 1950 you first have to offer the statuette back to the Academy for a single dollar. It serves to discourage a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. So, in that sense at least certain statuettes could be said to be only worth one dollar.

But the cut-off date of 1950 means that there actually is a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. In 1999 the late Michael Jackson paid more than one and a half million dollars for the Gone With the Wind Best Picture Oscar from 1939. Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress statuette from the same film fetched half a million dollars.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the intrinsic value of the post-1950 statuettes in terms of raw materials and labour. They weigh around four kilos each, are 24 carat gold-plated, over copper and nickel silver, and are reckoned to cost around $400 each to produce. They are just over 34 cms tall and their official name is the Academy Award of Merit.

Another contributory factor to the myth that they are only worth a dollar might have come from the World War 2 period. From 1942 to 1945 they had other uses for metal in the USA, so the Oscar statuettes were made from gold-painted plaster. After the war recipients of Academy Awards during those three years were invited to redeem their plaster saints for the real thing. One winner was particularly grateful for that indulgence. The Irish character actor, Barry Fitzgerald won the 1944 Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of a grumpy Irish priest in the Bing Crosby vehicle, Going My Way. Fitzgerald, like the star of the film, was a keen golf fan and managed to shatter his ersatz Oscar taking an indoor practice swing.

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The Academy always has a few spare statuettes handy on the night of the awards ceremony, just in case of a tie. It has happened on a number of occasions over the years that two candidates have received exactly the same number of votes. In fact, in times gone by, if there was only a single vote between the top two nominees, the generous academy would deem the result a tie and give each of them an Oscar.

As to the name ‘Oscar’ itself – in keeping with the prevailing mythology, it does actually appear to have come from the Academy’s librarian Margaret Herrick, who said, when she first saw the statuette, designed by Dubliner Cedric Gibbons, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’. So at least that famous story is not a myth. The Academy itself gave up the ghost and started officially calling the statuette after Uncle Oscar in 1939.

But, is the Oscar statuette only worth a dollar? No, it isn’t. That’s fake history.

 

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Cedric Gibbons with Oscar