Who is Edward Colston and what does he have in common with John Mitchel?



When someone is ripped down from a pedestal they have occupied for 125 years and dumped in the murky waters of the port that contributed to their fortune, it does make you curious?

So who was Edward Colston (1636-1720) the man who was consigned to the vasty deep over the weekend by a group of his sternest critics? 

To put it mildly, he was well connected. He made his fortune with a company headed up by the brother of King Charles II who would, himself, go on to become the much unloved King James II. But not for long (the King bit, that is—the lack of love was more permanent). James was better known among his regularly disappointed Irish supporters as ‘Séamus an chaca’ (translated: ‘Jimmy the shit – or more accurately ‘Seámus who shits himself’). However, just to demonstrate that ‘business is business’ and outweighed any putative political loyalties, Colston sold his shares in the company to Séamus’s usurper, William of Orange, better known to his enthusiastic latter-day Irish supporters as King Billy. 

The company in question was the cuddly RAC – not to be confused with the Royal Automobile Club. ‘RAC’ stood for Royal African Company, and for the practice of abducting men, women and children from Africa, transporting them to North America, and selling on the ones who survived the journey. (Let’s not characterise it as ‘those fortunate enough to survive the journey’ in this instance). The Royal African Company was in the same fine old English tradition as that much-beloved corporate entity the East India Company, fondly remembered in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as a ruthless and covetous mob of professional plunderers and murderers. Interestingly the word ‘loot’, also in the news last week, is derived from Hindi. It was used by those who spoke the language to describe the experience of being governed by the East India company, and was brought from the ‘sub-continent’ to England along with all the gold, silver, jewels and spices that underwrote so many aristocratic fortunes across the Irish Sea (and quite a few in our own sainted land as well).   

The RAC guarded its ‘property’ jealously, so much so that it took to branding that property prior to its luxury cruise across the Atlantic. This exercise in copyrighting did not involve merely painting a ‘swoosh’ on the bottom right hand corner of a torso. Instead a red hot branding iron was used on the skin of these newly acquired items of property. Even though Mr. Colston obviously can’t swim, when you discover how he accrued his fortune it seems a shame that the protesters contrived to dump his statue somewhere from which it can potentially be recovered and restored to its original pedestal. 

After selling out to King Billy, Edward Colston took some time out to smell the roses – hopefully the fragrance was sufficient to mask the stench of burning flesh. He also began a glorious exercise in whitewashing by changing the wording on his business cards from ‘slave trader’ to ‘do-gooder’. Colston endowed everything in sight, becoming an early eighteenth century equivalent of arch-capitalist Andrew Carnegie, who forced libraries on towns and cities whether they wanted them or not. No school or hospital in his native Bristol was safe from Colston’s generosity, as long as it was named after him. 

One other thing – the statue now the source of some very interesting selfies, mostly by people whom Colston would have been happy to enslave, was (the base still is) located on ‘Colston Avenue’. The Bristol city fathers and mothers might want to think about changing the name. Maybe take a leaf from the book of the Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, who, last week, renamed a street near the Trumpist White House as ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’. Not sure what you do with Colston Hall, Colston Tower or Colston Street though.  

However, if we in Ireland applaud the actions of the Bristol anti-Colstonites, do we need to be consistent? What about the most prominent journalistic apologist for the Confederacy during the US Civil War, our very own John Mitchel—firmly ensconced in the Deep South after his Young Ireland escapades, his transportation to Australia, and his daring escape. Mitchel, subject of much hagiographical coverage—some of it auto-hagiographical—once claimed that the Irish peasantry were worse off than black slaves in the southern states. While mid-19th century Irish tenant farmers, cottiers and farm labourers were hardly comfortable (a million of them died of starvation and disease between 1845-50 and another million were forced to emigrate) at least their landlords couldn’t whip them and sell their children down the river. Despite his steadfast defence of the institution of slavery—which helped earn him a sojourn in a post-war Union jail (he opted not to describe the experience in Jail Journal II) there’s a fine statue of Mitchel in his native Newry in County Down. 

Lest I be accused of an exercise in ‘backwards history’ and it be suggested that Mitchel was merely expressing commonly held beliefs amongst the Irish of his generation, one of the many men with whom he fell out, Daniel O’Connell, steadfastly refused to even visit the USA while the practice of slavery continued, and was revered by American abolitionists (men like Frederick Douglass) for the stance he took on the issue. 

Granted John Mitchel does not occupy a position of prominence on the Newry skyline for his advocacy of slavery—it was Jail Journal, his polemical The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) and his many services to Irish nationalism that earned him a shot at the pedestal. But then that didn’t save Colston, who wasn’t exactly beautifying the city of Bristol because of his service to the slave trade. 

I’m not advocating that the statue of John Mitchel be torn down and tossed in the Clanrye River. But we’re good at health warnings in Ireland, so maybe one or two of Mitchel’s less salubrious quotes might be added to a blue plaque to be placed prominently nearby – statements like … ‘We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful correction.’ Or this … ‘[I am] proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade in Negroes.’

Getting back to Colston though, it has to be said it’s appropriate for someone who made a lot of money from transporting human beings against their will in seagoing (but not necessarily seaworthy) vessels that he should himself have recently been reburied at sea. 

How did they set about kidding Mr. Hitler? (D-Day, 6 June 1944)

The actual invasion plan – as opposed to the total bullshit being fed to Germany

The ‘D’ in D-Day might just as well have stood for ‘deception’. 

Quicksilver, Fortitude, Bodyguard, Cockade, Garbo, Mutt and Jeff – what could such a motley jumble of words have to do with the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944?   Well they all fed, in one form or another, into operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, and Operation Neptune, the naval phase of the D-day invasion which established crucial beachheads in mainland Europe through which France, Belgium and the Netherlands were liberated and, ultimately,  the surrender of Germany was brought about. 

During the darkest days of World War Two Winston Churchill made one of his many gnomic and quotable statements. He said, ‘in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’ (An axiom he had certainly cherished when he was Secretary of State for War during the Irish War of Independence). It was such a good line that they called an entire operation after it. ‘Bodyguard’ became the codename for the dark arts employed to make sure that the Nazis were as unprepared as possible for the Allied invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944. Because of the military build-up on the English south coast they knew it was coming. But they were duped into expecting the hammer blow to fall near the major French port of Calais .  

To help pull an entire wardrobe over the eyes of the Nazis, Operation Fortitude: South (through a wholly owned subsidiary called Operation Quicksilver) created an entirely fake US army group, complete with inflatable or cardboard tanks constructed by movie set-builders, to impress German reconnaissance flights. This was the gloriously fictional 1st US Army Group (FUSAG), thinly staffed with actual human beings and supposedly under the command of George Patton, a controversial and ambitious US General who, the Germans would have assumed to have been in charge of something. The Germans had a lot of time for Patton, which, given his own latent fascist tendencies is hardly surprising. Patton went along with the plot enthusiastically. He allowed himself to be photographed visiting dozens of spurious military sites populated by tanks that wouldn’t even hold water. 

British soldiers with superhuman strength or a cardboard tank?

Th 1st US Army Group probably even had the inevitable supply of tights and chocolate to be given out to susceptible English ladies easily impressed by tans and perfect teeth.  Fake wedding notices certainly did appear regularly in English newspapers announcing that yet another randy GI had plucked a flower of British womanhood and intended to take her away from Old Blighty when Hitler had been put in his place. The fictional Army Group even had its own insignia. For example, the phony 135th Airborne Division had a highly decorative and menacing shoulder patch depicting a large ugly spider about to pounce on something unsuspecting – a bit of a metaphor for the entire invasion plan. Sham shoulder patches were diligently flashed with impunity around centres of population near Dover by the few actual employees of FUSAG where it was suspected that the Germans might have had a few observant agents who would take note and alert Adolf. 

Just in case the German agents were playing tennis or just not very vigilant, a wounded German tank officer was conveniently released for treatment back home in Germany. This was in the days before the NHS. He was told he was being escorted through Kent and, en route, was allowed by his careless jailers to make careful note of the massive troop build-up in that part of southern England. ‘Oh look Hans, there’s an entire tank brigade out your starboard window. And what about that infantry division doing manoeuvres on that ridge up there?’ Even a dummkopf would have concluded that this force was soon be coming ashore at Calais a few miles across the English channel. (This was also in the days before the Channel Tunnel). In point of fact the ailing Panzerman was being transported through Hampshire and this was the army that was about to be aimed at the five Normandy beaches codenamed Juno, Gold, Sword, Omaha and Utah in a belated response to William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. But his debriefing must have been interesting, and the useless intelligence he produced must have really excited his interrogators. 

However, a crucial element in the campaign of deception surrounding D-day was not inspired set-dressing and Patton photo-ops, it was good old-fashioned espionage and the classic ‘Double Cross’. The truth was that most of the German spies in England in the early years of the war had long since been rounded up and turned against their masters, acting as double agents. One of these was codenamed Garbo. He was a Spanish citizen, recruited by the Germans, who had offered his services to the British and who created a network of almost thirty entirely fictional ‘agents’ that he claimed were supplying him with vital information, such as the third secret of Fatima and the assurance that the square on the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a triangle. Garbo’s false information was designed, as was most of the other intelligence stardust, to convince the Axis powers that the American, British and Canadian invasion was going to come via the Pas-de-Calais, and probably around Christmas 1950.

Just in case Hitler was dubious about the attack being aimed at such an obvious target as the French port closest to England, Operation Fortitude: North was dreamed up to convince him that the attack might even be coming through Norway.  Another fictional force was created for this little confidence trick. This one was the British Fourth Army, headquartered in Edinburgh Castle, staffed by the wiliest of ‘wallahs’ and with the invasion plans secreted about their sporrans. The assistance of Mutt and Jeff was useful too – not the cartoon characters but two more exceptionally dodgy secret agents with infra dig codenames who were supplying bogus intelligence to their gullible German masters. 

To help authenticate Mutt and Jeff’s fictions about this belated British response to the medieval incursions of the Vikings, there was a lot of easily interceptible junk radio traffic about winter holidays and kayaking in fjords. Well, actually it was about things like inquiring as to the best bindings for cross country skis and what kind of oil was required in sub-zero temperatures. These, apparently were the norm in pre-climate-change Norwegian high summer. Maybe the Germans should have copped onto that one!  Anyway, it was all enough to ensure that Germany left 13 divisions—more than 100,000 men—twiddling thumbs in Trondheim, far away from any possibility of reinforcing the troops defending Normandy. The thirteenth of those divisions was only despatched by Hitler to defend Mr. Quisling and his fellow Nazi puppets towards the end of May 1944, a couple of weeks before the balloon went up hundreds of kilometres away. None of them, however, was of much use to Mr.Quisling who was terminated with extreme prejudice by a firing squad of unimpressed fellow Norwegians in October 1945.  

Alan Turing – mathematical genius and Bletchley Park codebreaker

The celebrated codebreakers at Bletchley Park also played their part in this massive deception. They appear to have been able to decipher encoded German messages hours before they were even despatched. This was thanks to their friend Enigma and their employee, the mathematical genius Alan Turing, later rewarded for his war service by being hounded into suicide because of his homosexuality. Thanks to Enigma, Turing and many other boffins Bletchley was able to tell the Allied generals that the Germans had been royally conned and confidently expected the Allied invasion to take the shortest route across the channel rather than risking extra hours on the open sea by moving on Normandy. 

You may be shocked to learn that all the British officers who were privy to the invasion plans were ‘bigotted’. This did not, however, mean that they necessarily harboured white  supremacist attitudes—though some of the more imperialistic among them probably did—it was simply a way of referring to those who were ‘in the know’ about the master plan. There are disputes about what the word ‘bigot’ stood for. In the 1990s Lord Killanin, a senior British Army staff officer in 1944, told me that it was an inversion of the words ‘To Gib’, short for ‘To Gibraltar’. This was a phrase that pre-dated Operation Overlord and was stamped on the travelling orders of military planners bound for the disputed Rock attached to neutral Spain who were planning the invasion of North Africa in 1942. It might also be an acronym of ‘British Invasion of German Occupied Territory’. Take your pick. 

It was, however, common parlance in 1944. Killanin told me he would often begin conversations with other military personnel with the words, ‘Are you bigotted?’ If they looked offended, he would turn the conversation to the weather or horse racing. If they indicated that they knew exactly what he was talking about—presumably by touching their right nostril while extending their left hand in a chopping motion and tugging the crease of their trousers—he could relax in the knowledge that they were au fait with the details of the forthcoming invasion of Europe and he wasn’t going to concede a global conflict to Germany on penalties.  He also pointed out in that interview, that armed with an intimate knowledge of the entire battle plan he made a number of return trips to Ireland where he might easily have been kidnapped by German agents and have blown the whole plan!  

The Allies almost blew it without his assistance during Operation Tiger in April 1944. This was a full scale rehearsal for the invasion. It took place on Slapton Sands in Devon. This exercise turned into a full scale FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition). It began with communications problems that led to a number of friendly fire deaths. That cock-up, however, paled into insignificance with what was to follow. Allied landing craft and associated vessels were spotted by half a dozen German submarines which proceeded to  wreaked havoc with their torpedoes and caused the deaths of almost 750 US soldiers. The whole debacle was hushed up for years. 

But, even more consequential in the longer term than the unnecessary deaths of the American marines, was the realisation that a number of British officers with ‘bigot’ documents had also gone missing in the English channel after their boat was torpedoed. A desperate search was organised to recover their bodies before the Germans did. Fortunately all were pulled from the water in time. Though whether the Germans would have trusted any random British military fatality floating in the sea is debatable. Whether they knew it or not they had been badly stung in like manner by Operation Mincemeat, a British undercover action in 1943.

To divert attention from the impending Allied invasion of Sicily that year the body of a deceased civilian was appropriated by agents of British intelligence. The corpse was given the identity card of the fictional Major William Martin as well as a variety of other personal items. These included a photograph of his fictitious girlfriend Pam! The body was then dumped in the sea off the Spanish coast equipped with false top secret documents indicating that the anticipated Allied invasion in the Mediterranean would come through the Balkans. Simultaneous attacks on Greece and Sicily were mere diversions – which in the case of Greece was true. The British hoped that when the body was recovered by neutral Spain the regime of Generalissimo Franco,  would happily share this intelligence with their Fascist brothers and sisters in Germany. General Franco’s secret police duly obliged. The documents were returned to the British consulate in Madrid but only after they had been opened and studied. On 14 May 1943 a German communication was decrypted by Bletchley Park. This made it clear the Germans had bought the ruse. German troops were diverted to Greece and the Balkans while the Allies marched into Sicily (with the generous assistance of the local Mafia – that bit is also true!). The whole episode was captured (and heavily fictionalised) in a 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. The lead in the film was not taken by the famous British/Hollywood actor Leslie Howard who, by coincidence, had been shot down and killed in the Bay of Biscay at around the same time as Major Martin was supposed to have died in the same stretch of water!

In the weeks prior to the Normandy invasion there was one unexpected intelligence ‘snafu’—that’s a military acronym standing for ‘Status Nominal – All Fouled Up’ or, if you prefer a little bit of the vernacular and a healthy dose of cynicism, ‘Situation Normal: All Fucked Up’. This was when military planners began to notice some of their key D-day code words appearing in the Daily Telegraph crossword. It all started quite casually when, in February 1944 the word ‘Juno’ appeared as a solution to one of the puzzles. Noithing to see here, really. A month later, however, ‘Gold’ turned up, and then ‘Sword’. Given the number of words that appear in a week of crosswords it could all just have been an amazing coincidence. Then, on 2 May another significant clue appeared in that day’s edition. Seventeen across read, ‘One of the US’. The solution, which showed up the following day, was ‘Utah’. On 22 May three down was, ‘Red Indian on the Missouri’. The answer to that little poser was ‘Omaha’.

Now the spooks were getting very worried. Five days later there was an apparently innocuous reference to ‘Big wig’ in eleven across. The solution to that one was ‘Overlord’. You can probably see where this is going. On 1 June, four days before the original scheduled D-day, the solution to fifteen down, ‘Brittania and he hold to the same thing’ was ‘Neptune’. It was only then that MI5 decided it was time to have a quiet chat with the crossword setter, one Leonard Sydney Dawe, a local school headmaster.  The following day’s Telegraph was pulled from circulation, and so was Mr. Dawe. The latter was released after the invasion, having experienced the sort of interrogation normally reserved for German agents. He later recorded that he feared he was going to be shot.

It took forty years for the truth to emerge when one of Dawe’s former pupils, one Ronald French, went public. His narrative was a curious one. Dawe, it transpired, relied on his students to help him compile the crossword. He would set them the task of arranging words on a grid and he would then come up with puzzles to which the words were the solution. According to French he, and many of the other boys under the tutelage of Dawe were regularly exposed to the supposedly top secret D-day codewords because they, or their parents, hung around with indiscreet American and Canadian military types in a south coast military base. These garrulous North Americans used the codewords openly in their daily conversations, but, one hopes, without revealing their origin. It was French who had innocently inserted the codewords and had been upbraided by Dawe for so doing after the schoolmaster was released by the MI5 hounds. Subsequently, Dawe, after examining one of French’s notebooks and seeing the words that had clearly been causing his interrogators so much angst had burned the offending object and had sworn his student to secrecy on the nearest bible. Dawe himself was interviewed by the BBC in 1958 where he spoke about his interrogation but not about the bizarre genesis of the tell-tale clues in his crosswords. He might not have wanted his employers to know that he was using child labour in their compilation. 

One of the most entertaining ruses employed by the Allies was to use a Monty tribute act in order to convince the Germans that nothing was about to happen. An Australian actor named Clifton James, who bore a striking resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery and who was trained to suppress his Antipodean tones and mimic Monty’s distinctively plummy Anglo-Irish accent, was sent on a jolly to Algiers (headquarters of ‘mon General’ Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces) on 26 May. His instructions were to hit the town and make sure he was seen by some of the underemployed German spies tripping over each other in that North African sanctuary. They were meant to conclude that if Monty was back in North Africa on an El Alamein nostalgia tour there was no chance of a European invasion kicking off in his absence.     

Arguably, however, much of the deception effort, at least its visual element, was, as we would say in Irish, ‘obair in aisce’ i.e. rather a waste of time. By the first half of 1944 it wasn’t as if the Germans had the capacity to organise regular overflights of the British mainland. So, making cardboard tanks and balsa wood aircraft for their delectation was probably of limited value, though it certainly gave a lot of creative and extremely devious spooks something to do while they waited for the ‘big show’. The Germans were also being bombarded with a hell of a lot of  spurious intelligence information and sham radio traffic, some of which they probably were not even intercepting and more of which they did not have the time or the opportunity to decipher. So, much of what passed for creative intelligence was little more than white noise which made a lot of people feel they were doing their bit, and rather ingeniously, for the war effort.  

Whether it was all a tad over the top or not is debatable, but it was certainly effective. The Germans took what they were being fed seriously enough to believe that the allied force on the south coast, apparently aimed at Normandy, was the decoy not the real McCoy. This allowed the 150,000 troops landed on the five Normandy beaches to experience relatively modest casualties – except at Omaha where the American 1st Infantry Division, and other units, took a mauling. 

With hundreds of thousands of Allied troops coming ashore in Normandy you might think the gig would be up as far as sustained deception was concerned. Not so. Eisenhower wanted to convince the Germans that the attack on Normandy was only a piece of elaborate misdirection, like one of those ‘razzle dazzle’ plays in American football where the quarterback eats the ball and runs all the way into the endzone for a touchdown. Even with Allied troops inching closer to Paris Agent Garbo was still feeding garbage to the Germans. He pointed out that Patton was still at home washing his hair in the south of England, so this could hardly be the real thing. No, the genuine article would shortly be dropped on Calais so please don’t move too many German troops 250 kilometres to the south to meet a counterfeit threat from Dad’s Army and ENSA. 

So impressed was Hitler with Garbo and his intelligence network that he waited for weeks before giving up on Calais and sending troops from there to meet the real threat. Garbo was so highly regarded by the Axis powers that he was actually awarded an iron cross in absentia by Germany before the end of the war. 

A Normandy beach in the years prior to social distancing

The Allies also had their own agents beavering away in occupied France. According to the late Keith Jeffrey, in his magisterial history of MI6, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) helped devise something called the ‘Sussex scheme’ in late 1943, in collaboration with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA, under the command of Irish-American General William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan—and the French Bureau Central de Renseignments et d’Action (BCRA)—antecedent of the SDECE. The ‘Sussex Plan’ involved parachuting two-person teams of French-born agents into northern France. By the time of D-day fifteen teams had been infiltrated and managed to provide useful intelligence on German troop movements. Some consideration was also given to a co-ordinated assassination campaign aimed at German senior officers, administrative officials, and Vichy collaborators. This was abandoned, however, because the risk of overwhelming retaliation against civilian populations was deemed disproportionate to the benefits that would accrue from killing a few generals and bureaucrats. One senior spook (William Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Sub Committee) dropped the idea with considerable reluctance, noting that he disliked the scheme ‘not out of squeamishness, as there are several people in this world whom I could kill with my own hands with a feeling of pleasure and without that action in any way spoiling my appetite.’[1]  So say all of us and more power to your hyphen! If only you’d been a Black and Tan Ireland might still be British—perish the thought.  

So, although the arrival of 5000 ships, 1200 aircraft and more than 150,000 troops off five Normandy beaches on the morning of the 6 June 1944 is clearly the antithesis of ‘deception’ large dollops of that commodity went into the planning and the execution of the plan that advanced the Allies from ‘the end of the beginning’ to the ‘beginning of the end’. 

[1] Keith Jeffrey, MI6: the History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949, (London, 2010), 539.

FH #74 A photograph of Edmund Hillary on top of the world was the first proof of the conquest of Everest in 1953?

Tenzing Norgay on Everest summit, 29 May 1953

As terse and dull despatches go, this one ticked both boxes with a big fat black marker. “Snow conditions bad. Advance base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All well!” Except that it was not nearly as boring as it sounds. It was sent by a young London Times journalist named James Morris, from Nepal sixty-seven years ago today, and was an agreed code. What it told his editor back in London was that the Everest expedition had been successful and had managed to put two men, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay, on top of the world. The news was released to coincide with the coronation of Princess Elizabeth as Queen of England on 2 June. I wonder whatever became of her.

            You might think that the mountain itself would be called after someone really important. It is, after all, the tallest thing on the planet. And you could argue that that was indeed the case, if you’re someone who sees the Surveyor General of India from 1830-1843 as a headline making celebrity. The local Tibetan and Nepalese names for the world’s highest peak, Chomulungma (Goddess Mother of the World) and Sagarmatha (Goddess of the Sky) are, lets face it, far more evocative and onomatopoeiac than Everest. In fact the Englishman after whom the mountain was named (by one of his awestruck surveyor successors), didn’t even pronounce it as Ev-er-est. He called himself George EEV-rest. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to catch on at this stage.  

            To return to the Hunt expedition, or to give it its proper name, the British Mount Everest Expedition, it would have been led by the experienced Himalayan climber, Eric Shipton, had he not expressed an aversion to large scale expeditions and an element of competition which he deemed abhorrent to a true mountaineer. The fact that a team of French and Swiss climbers were scheduled  to make their own attempts over the succeeding two years, and that the Brits wouldn’t get another go until 1956, meant that the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society opted instead for the organisational and military skills of Hunt, himself an accomplished climber, over the more genteel leadership qualities of Shipton. 

            Things didn’t get off to a great start when Tenzing Norgay was the only one of twenty Sherpa guides to be accommodated in the British consulate in Kathmandu before the journey to Everest began. The other nineteen Sherpas lined up in protest outside the consulate and made their feelings known by urinating on the walls of British sovereign territory. They don’t call it being pissed off for nothing. 

            History could also have been quite different if things had gone just a little better for two other climbers, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans on 26 May 1953. They were the first to make it to the south summit at 8750 metres but had to abandon their effort to reach the roof of the world itself, a frustrating one hundred vertical metres from the top, driven back by oxygen problems and sheer exhaustion. 

Hillary and Tenzing

            Three days later Hillary and Tenzing went all the way and, as the New Zealander put it elegantly and memorably to fellow climber George Lowe, ‘Well George, we knocked the bastard off.’ For years afterwards there was speculation as to which of the two men actually set foot on the summit first. As archetypal team players, both were reluctant to get involved in such pointless speculation before eventually acknowledging, for what it was worth, that Hillary was first to the summit a few seconds before Tenzing. 

            Incidentally, James Morris, the embedded Times reporter, who broke the story by sending a runner with the coded message to the village of Namche Bazar, changed his name in the 1970s. And that’s not all he changed. He became Jan Morris after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Today, as one of the most celebrated travel writers in the world,  Jan Morris lives in north Wales and is still writing in her nineties. 

            But as to that photo of Edmund Hillary on the summit? I’m afraid it doesn’t exist. Hillary took a photo of Tenzing, and a number of other shots, but declined to have his own photograph taken when Tenzing offered. One wonders if there were moments between 29 May 1953 and the end of his life in January 2008, when he regretted that he hadn’t taken the ultimate selfie.  

FH #73 The women on the ‘contraceptive train’ returned from Belfast with birth control pills that were seized by customs officers?

We don’t normally pay too much attention to forty-ninth anniversaries, but let’s make an exception for the heroes aboard the so-called ‘Contraceptive Train’. For the uninitiated, that’s not some obscure Victorian method of avoiding conception involving prayer and a steam engine. 

            It’s a real live event that took place on 22 May 1971 when a group of determined women foregathered at Connolly Station in Dublin, took the train to Belfast and went shopping. Once again, for the uninitiated, they weren’t in pursuit of bargains in stores whose names have long since passed on to that great Bankruptcy Court in the sky, they were shopping for contraceptives. Because, awful to relate, those latex products which are now openly displayed on pharmacy shelves and can be purchased in vending machines as if they were bubble gum—though please learn to tell the two apart—were once illegal in the Republic of Ireland. That’s ‘illegal’ as in ‘verboten’, as in ‘we’re going to hang you out to dry if we catch you with one’, as in‘ latex should only be employed in the rubber gloves Mum uses for washing up’. They had been illegal since the passage of the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act, a piece of progressive legislation passed to protect innocent women from the wiles of male lotharios who might seek to persuade them to engage in sexual congress in which the objective was male gratification, rather than childbirth. The most vulnerable women, were, of course, those who were married to said Lotharios, and were thus exposed to the dire prospect of not having at least a dozen children. 

            In the absence of the Devil’s rubbers those who wished to avoid conception could always resort to abstinence, or the top of a Guinness bottle. 

            The women, forty seven in all, were mostly members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. They were preparing to defy convention, the law, and their Mammies by bringing back an array of contraceptive devices from the holiday home of Satan himself, Belfast.  To a 1960s feminist being on the contraceptive train was like being in the GPO in 1916 was to a Republican, or being at the first U2 gig in the Dandelion market is to a slacker. The idea was to purchase a plethora of prophylactics, present them to customs officials on their return to Dublin, and wait to be hauled before the beak.     

            The problem was that buying certain products turned out to be more difficult than they imagined. Condoms were readily available, as was contraceptive jelly, but the Golden Ticket was the acquisition of the infamous ‘pill’. Coming back from Belfast without the ‘pill’ would be like returning from Paris without one of those cheap metal facsimilies of the Eiffel Tower. 

            When one of the leading Irish feminists of her generation – and every generation since – Nell McCafferty, walked up to the counter of a chemist shop in Belfast and asked for the pill she was, in turn, politely requested to produce her prescription. As she had led a sheltered life since moving south she didn’t have one. Now what? There were probably a few medical practitioners among the travelling party but they weren’t carrying their prescription pads. Then someone had the bright idea of buying aspirin over the counter and removing the packaging. Would anyone in the Republic be able to tell the difference anyway? So, that was the fiendish contraceptive they presented at the barrier (no pun intended) at Connolly station. 

            So, the customs men might have thought they were confiscating ‘the dreaded pill’ but it was something far less morally repugnant. While the women on the contraceptive train intended to cause the Irish authorities a headache, they were also decent enough to provide a ready remedy.

            When they returned to Dublin their purchases were flaunted openly. I mean, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? Some of the women went so far as to risk arrest by blowing up condoms and trailing them in their wake.  However, it is just possible they were returning to family homes where they had children who liked to play with balloons.    

            Progressives cheered on while the offending women waltzed past customs officers too embarrassed to arrest them. Conservatives tut tutted and wondered what the world was coming to. 

            But what the customs officers succeeded in confiscating was not packets of cycle regulators but something far more Anidin.   

Covid Blues – Ken Browne

To celebrate the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, of Lockdown this is an instrumental piece by the Kells-based artist and musician Ken Browne to which I’ve added some of the many memes that have managed to find their way onto my phone since lockdown began.

Ken is as talented an artist as he is a guitarist – check out his website http://www.kenbrowneart.com. He is accompanied on bass by his nine year old daughter Maja.

My own particular talent is dragging images and videos to iMovie.

Et voila – Covid Blues.

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