Archive for the History Category

On the Repeal of Section 28..

Posted in History, LGBT, Politics with tags , , , on November 18, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded today is the 18th anniversary of the Repeal in England & Wales (on 18th November 2003) of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which contained the following:

I remember very well the numerous demonstrations and other protests I went on as part of the campaign against the clause that became Section 28 way back in 1988. Indeed, these were the first large political demonstrations in which I ever took part. But that repugnant and obviously discriminatory piece of legislation passed into law anyway. Students and younger colleagues  probably don’t have any idea how much pain and anger the introduction of this piece of legislation caused at the time, but at least it also had the effect of galvanising  many groups and individuals into action. The fightback eventually succeeded; Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England & Wales in 2003.

I know the 33 years that have elapsed since the introduction of Section 28  is a long time, but it’s still amazing to me that attitudes have changed so much that now we have same-sex marriage. I would never have predicted that if someone had asked me thirty years ago!

I think there’s an important lesson in the story of Section 28, which is that rights won can easily be lost again. There are plenty of people who would not hesitate to bring back similar laws if they thought they could get away with them.  They are trying to do so now with a sustained assault on the rights of transgender people. That’s why it is important for LGBTQ+ people not only to stand up for their rights, but to campaign for a more open, inclusive and discrimination-free environment for everyone, everywhere, including in the workplace. That’s one of the reasons why today’s LGBTQ+ STEM Day is so important.

Unsolved, by John McCrae

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , on November 11, 2021 by telescoper

The poet John McCrae served with distinction in the Canadian Field Artillery during the First World War, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He died in 1918, of pneumonia, shortly before the end of the conflict.
McCrae is best known for writing the poem In Flanders Fields, the imagery of which led to the adoption of the poppy as the emblem of Remembrance Day (11th November i.e. today). He wrote many other interesting poems, however, so I thought I’d share one here to celebrate his life.

Amid my books I lived the hurrying years,
Disdaining kinship with my fellow man;
Alike to me were human smiles and tears,
I cared not whither Earth’s great life-stream ran,
Till as I knelt before my mouldered shrine,
God made me look into a woman’s eyes;
And I, who thought all earthly wisdom mine,
Knew in a moment that the eternal skies
Were measured but in inches, to the quest
That lay before me in that mystic gaze.
“Surely I have been errant; it is best
That I should tread, with men their human ways.”
God took the teacher, ere the task was learned,
And to my lonely books again I turned.

by John McCrae (1872-1918)


The Irish Svarabhakti

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , on October 21, 2021 by telescoper

One of the things I’ve picked up about Hiberno-English pronunciation is that Irish people tend to pronounce the English word “film” as something like “fillum”. I always thought this was just a sort of mannerism, but it turns out to be quite a bit more interesting than that.

The general term for the addition of an extra sound to the pronunciation of a word is epenthesis and it is a fairly common feature of many languages. The extra sound can be added at the beginning, at the end or in the middle. The latter case is specifically called anaptyxis or sometimes svarabhakti, which is a Sanskrit word specifically for the insertion of a vowel after the letter l or r before another consonant.

In most cases these extra vowel sounds are inserted to aid pronunciation, If you think about it the mouth and tongue have to do something quite complicated to get from l to m and a nice easy “uh” sound makes the transition simpler.

The Celtic group of languages was the first wave of Indo-European languages, to sweep across Europe. I blogged about this here. It seems the idiosyncratic pronunciation of “film” as “fillum” (which, I’m told, is also in widespread use in India) is a relic of the Irish language’s distant origins in Sanskrit, having no doubt crossed into Hiberno-English at a time when Irish was more widely spoken than it is now.

Another topical example is the name Colm (as in Colm Tóibín), which is pronounced “Collum” (or, depending on dialect, something more like “Cullum”).

Anaptyxis isn’t restricted to Irish, of course. There are examples in English. Who could forget the form favoured by football supporters? Engerland! Engerland! Engerland! (I don’t remember the rest of the lyrics to that song…)

A Return of the Three-day Week in Britain?

Posted in Covid-19, History, Politics with tags , , on September 25, 2021 by telescoper

Back in 2014, on the 40th anniversary of the start of the Three-Day Week in Britain, I wrote this:

I wonder how many of you are old enough to remember the “Three Day Week”? I am. In fact I remember sitting my 11+ examination right in the middle of the period (from January to March 1974) in which electricity supplies across the UK were restricted to three days per week. Although it meant reading books by candlelight, it wasn’t as bad as it may sound to younger readers because we didn’t have that many electrical gadgets in those days and at least our house was heated by coal, not electricity. I dread to think what would happen nowadays if we should experience  problems with fuel supplied similar to those caused by the Oil Crisis of 1974. But such an event is not altogether impossible…

In the Dark, 4th January 2014

Not impossible at all given recent news. It seems even the Daily Torygraph agrees. Moreover, a senior Conservative politician has described such talk as “alarmist and misguided“, which convinces me that it is indeed likely to happen. My social media feeds are filled with pictures of queues of cars caused by people panic-buying petrol. Makes a change from toilet roll I suppose…

There is a concern here in the civilized world that problems with supply chains caused by Brexit may impact Ireland. Though there is no sign of this yet, it is of course possible, but only if people here continue to disrespect UK sovereignty by insisting on buying British products. The message must get through that the UK simply does not want the trade surplus it has enjoyed with Ireland for many years so it would be impolite to let it persist. Fortunately the shops are now displaying a much wider range of European products so this should not be a problem. I find it easy to manage using predominantly local Irish suppliers, apart from wine and some speciality products which are mainly imported from EU countries.

P.S. There’s an article in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle about the original Three-Day Week, which brought back a lot of memories. I remember the newspapers had lists of which areas would lose electricity at what time : candles and paraffin lamps suddenly became fashionable; and of course we had quite a few days off school!

R.I.P. Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper
Clive Sinclair, with the Sinclair C5

I heard last night of the death at the age of 81 of (Sir) Clive Sinclair. The news brought back a flood of memories.

I am of a generation that began secondary school (a grammar school in my case) before pocket calculators were generally available, so my first two years of secondary mathematics education including learning how to logarithms for multiplying and dividing numbers. After that, from the third year onwards, slide rules were in use but by the time I got I got into the 3rd form these had been phased out and replaced with electronic calculators. The first commercially available such device was produced by Sinclair. I didn’t like the Sinclair calculator, however, which had a reputation for unreliability so my first simple calculator was a Casio machine which, if I recall correctly was also cheaper. Later on when I wanted a more advanced calculator I went for the wonderful Hewlett Packard HP32E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation.

I got interested in computing at school too. The machines we had available were Commodore PET machines running BASIC. The first computer I ever had at home was the very simple Acorn System 1 which had just 1K of RAM, a hexadecimal keypad and LED display and was programmed in 6502 Assembly language. Curiously, although I have great difficulty remembering my own phone number, I can still remember quite a lot of the hexadecimal opcodes in the 6502 instruction set!

The Acorn System 1 went into production in 1979 but just a year later Sinclair introduced the ZX80. Although very limited by today’s standards, it was really much more advanced than the machine I had. It did, however, have a reputation for unreliability and it was actually quite difficult to get hold of one due to supply issues. A friend at school bought one, but it seemed to me flimsy and awkward to use, so I never bought one. Nor did I buy the successor the ZX81.

Because I had experience using machines based on the 6502 processor I thought I would buy a BBC micro when they came out as I used to enjoy bypassing the BASIC interpreter on the Commodore PET and running my own machine code. In 1982, however, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum. This again was very limited by today’s standards but was a significant improvement on its predecessors, so I bought one. I took it with me to Cambridge when I began as a student there in 1982.

I remember also buying various peripherals for it, including a dreadful printer that required rolls of special paper.

The ZX Spectrum was a great success but soon other companies took over the market. It seemed to be in Sinclair’s character to invent things and then lose interest and he subsequently switched his attention to other inventions, many of which flopped, such as the ridiculously impractical Sinclair C5 which launched in 1985 and sank shortly afterwards. He never seemed to let such failures bother him too much, though, which is to his credit, and he didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about them either. Here he is on Clive Anderson Talks Back:

Despite his failures it seems very clear to me that Clive Sinclair was a pioneer in the technological revolution who played a major role in shaping the digital landscape in which we find ourselves today, forty years after the first home computers. My washing machine has much more CPU power than any of the 1980s home computers, but you have to start somewhere.

Rest in Peace, Clive Sinclair (1940-2021).

Attica Blues

Posted in History, Jazz, Music with tags , , on September 9, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded just now that today marks the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, the bloodiest prison riot in American history which began on 9th September 1971 as a protest against poor living conditions in the Attica “correctional facility” in New York state. Four days of violence ensued that ended in the deaths of 32 inmates and 11 prison officers, along with scores of wounded.

That episode inspired a brilliant album by Archie Shepp, which I have on LP (above), which is dedicated to George Jackson, a leading member of the Black Panthers who was shot dead while attempting to escape from San Quentin prison in California in August 1971, an event which contributed to the tensions in Attica prison that led to the riot a few weeks later.

Musically, the album is a fusion of soul, funk and avant-garde Jazz, the arrangements incorporating strings and vocals alongside the jazz soloists. The sound is absolutely redolent of the early 70s. Here’s the title track, Attica Blues:

The Irish Population

Posted in Art, History, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on August 31, 2021 by telescoper

Not long ago I did a post about a documentary series called The Hunger which was broadcast on RTÉ just before Christmas. It was, of course, about the Great Irish Famine, which led to the death of one million (mainly poor) Irish people and the emigration of over two million in the subsequent years. It was a shattering episode that altered Ireland for ever. I remarked at the time that “the population of this island still hasn’t recovered to pre-Famine levels”.

Well today saw the announcement of a significant milestone in the trajectory of Ireland’s population. According to the Central Statistics Office, in April 2021 the population of the Republic of Ireland exceeded 5 Million for the first time since 1851. To be precise Ireland’s population was estimated to be 5.01 million in April 2021, which is the first time the population has risen above five million since the 1851 census, when the comparable population was 5.11 million. By “comparable” I mean the population of the 26 Counties that now constitute the Republic of Ireland.

The total population on the island of Ireland in 1851 was 6.6 million. Including the population of Northern Ireland brings the current population on the island of Ireland to about 6.9 million. The population of Ireland (ie the whole island) in 1841 was over eight million.

The following (rather old) graphic shows that catastrophic drop that was an immediate consequence of the Great Hunger but also the long period of decline caused by emigration and poor public health leading to low levels of fertility. The population did not begin to grow significantly until the 1970s.

Although the population is still nowhere near the level it reached in 1841, Ireland is in the grip of a housing shortage that the present Government seems reluctant to do anything about, not surprisingly when you realize that the present Government represents the property-owning classes in whose interests it is to keep housing scarce and rents correspondingly high. Ireland’s housing crisis is not an accident, it’s a matter of policy. Irish landlords oppressing the poorer classes and exploiting them for monetary gain. Some things haven’t changed…

It fascinates me that, with political will, human societies have made enormous changes – including financial interventions, inventing new vaccines and delivering mass vaccination programmes – to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty and homelessness do not require new inventions – we already know very well how to build houses – only the political will is needed, and that’s just not there.

The Old Man of Killeaney

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 28, 2021 by telescoper

I stumbled across this remarkable little clip completely by accident and thought I would share it here. It is part of an interview, broadcast in 1965, with a retired farmer by the name of Michael Fitzpatrick who was 107 when the interview was recorded. Mr Fitzpatrick was born in County Clare but moved to Killeaney, a townland just a couple of miles north of Maynooth, in 1940.

He would have been in his eighties in 1940 and moved as a result of a Land Commission scheme. I guess he moved with his family who would have run the farm and looked after him in his retirement.

He talks about the infamous Bodyke Evictions, which took place in the late 1880s, and which he witnessed personally. It’s amazing to imagine what those old eyes had seen in his lifetime, not only the cruelty and brutality of the system of land ownership in Ireland through the latter half of the 19th Century, the War of Independence and the Civil War of the 1920s, but also the dramatic changes in farming he mentions. Michael Fitzpatrick passed away a couple of years after this interview, at the age of 109.

I posted this in the local history Facebook page for Maynooth and it seems there are people who remember Michael Fitzpatrick and that his grandson, also named Michael, passed away recently after a long life of his own.

On Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Education, History, Maynooth on August 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s the first of August which means it is the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh (which, in modern Irish, is Lúnasa). This coincides with the English Lammas Day one of many Christian festivals which have pagan origins. Traditionally 1st August marks the start of the harvest season and is celebrated accordingly, with rites involving the first fruit and bread baked from flour obtained from the first corn.

Tomorrow being the first Monday in August it is a Bank Holiday in Ireland called Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland, which is a far better place for it in my opinion.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. I find it intriguing that the academic year for universities here in Ireland is largely defined by the above dates dates.

The first semester of the academic year 2021/22 starts on September 20th 2021 (the Autumnal Equinox is on September 22nd) and finishes on 17th December (the Winter Solstice is on December 21st ).  Halloween (31st October) is actually a Sunday this year so the related bank holiday is on Monday 25th October; half term (study week) always includes the Halloween Bank Holiday. The term is pushed forward a bit because it finishes on a Friday and it would not be acceptable to end it on Christmas Eve!

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts 31st January 2022. Half-term is then from 14th to 18th March (the Vernal Equinox; is on March 20th) and teaching ends on May 6th.  More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Another tradition seems to be that examinations come straight after bank holidays, both in May and August. The repeat examination period begins on August 4th this year. You can interpret that in two ways: one is that students have a guaranteed day off to do revision; the other is that the bank holidays in May and August are ruined by the need to prepare for exams…

A Medicine for the Pestilence

Posted in History with tags , , , , on July 30, 2021 by telescoper

I came across the above 14th century remedy for the Black Death here.

For those of you not familiar with the names, rue is a fairly common wild plant/shrub that you can grow easily in a domestic garden. I have some in mine, actually (along with columbine). It’s a hardy perennial that can be cultivated from seed. Its flowers are quite attractive but has a weird lemony smell that cats in particular dislike and which also seems to serve as an insect repellent. The leaves have a very bitter taste and also, in the summer months, secrete an oil which can make your skin blister; what they do to your insides if you eat them is anyone’s guess. Rue has been used as traditional medicine since ancient times, presumably partly because it tastes so bad. If you eat lot of it you’ll probably regret it!

Tansy is another fairly common herbaceous plant that is thought to have medicinal use. I have tasted it actually although it’s not often used in cooking nowadays. It’s quite sweet with a bite, rather like peppermint, and was traditionally used in cakes, biscuits and puddings. Interestingly, like rue, tansy serves to deter bugs and insects; wreaths were until recently put in coffins with the deceased to delay corruption. This is not one for the garden, though, as it is very invasive.

I am not sure of the medicinal use of marigolds – another common wild flower – although they are edible and can be used to make food colouring additives and garnishes. Like tansy and rue, marigolds are yellow (or orange) in colour.

It’s also interesting to see the instruction to blow out the contents of an egg. I remember doing this as a kid, so as to paint the shell at Easter. You make a small hole at either end, insert a toothpick and waggle it around to break up the yolk, then take the toothpick out and use a straw to blow out the contents. It takes a while to start moving, but eventually the contents emerge, starting with the white.

I think the recipe involves discarding the contents and grinding the shell to a powder rather than the other way around. The text is ambiguous.

Anyway, the recipe looks more like an emetic than a remedy. My first thought was if you make a sick person drink that mixture for three evenings and three mornings they’d probably prefer to be dead! I’d rather leave all the leaves and other stuff out and just have the strong ale..