Where the wandering water gushes

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Knocknarea, Strandhill, Co. Sligo  http://gostrandhill.com/local-information/ photo Irish Aer Corps

The morning frost heralded the low January Sun to bathe its light on the neat patchwork of fields around Coolera, County Sligo. As we climbed the ancient hill of Knocknarea, Yeats words came floating over the shrill air;

“The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,

And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say”[i]

(W.B Yeats ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’)

It must be ten years or more since I last climbed this beautiful summit – its distinctive outline bookends the southern end of Sligo Bay with the majestic Ben Bulben to the north. The pathway has been well maintained and access is comfortable even for those of us with moderate fitness.

A few steep rocky climbs near the top are the only challenging obstacles that lie before the famous Neolithic Cairn that crowns the summit finally comes into view. The Cairn is the reputed burial place of the legendary Queen Maedbh of Connaught. Indeed the landscape stretched out below is abundant in ancient portal tombs and passage graves, making this area as important to archaeology as the better known Bru na Boinne on the east coast[ii].

 

One cannot help but feel that you are literally tracing the footsteps of our ancestors as you approach the top. The views when you get there are spectacular. The infinite expanse of the Atlantic stretches out below, becalmed today, as it laps up gently against the shore at Strandhill. Across the entrance to Sligo Bay lies Rosses Point with its famous strand, beyond that Lisadell House, home of Countess Markievicz, and Drumcliffe graveyard where Yeats now lies in eternal peace, casting a cold eye on us all. In the distance can be seen the hills of Donegal and the mighty cliffs of Sliabh League.

 

 

Inland is the aforementioned Ben Bulben, majestically carved by glacier, wind and rain into its unique undulating face.  It was in the heather atop this iconic Mountain where the mythical Diarmuid and Grainne found themsleves confronted by a wild boar. As the young warrior shielded his lover (the most beautiful woman in Ireland) he fought off the boar and after a ferocious struggle killed it with his sword. Sadly the story did not have a happy ending. The brave Diarmuid in saving his lover was alas fatally gored by the Boar and died soon after in Grainne’s arms. In the further distance lie the Dartry Hills and the peaceful glens and mountains of North Leitrim, a hill walker’s paradise.

Later we drive along the northern shore of Lough Gill and view the Lake Isle of Innisfree where Yeats intended to arise and go to:-

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee loud glade. 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings. 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

(W.B Yeats ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’)

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Parkes Castle

We are now into  County Leitrim and our first stop is at Parkes Castle which although closed for the winter is still a worthwhile stop. The building is not really a Castle as such but a 17th Century Manor House built by the Planter Robert Parke. Its main purpose was  defensive as Parke had recently acquired lands confiscated from the local Gaelic Chieftains, the O’Rourke’s, traditional rulers of the Kingdom of Breifne.

A few miles on further along this picturesque lake side road lies the neat village of Dromahaire. The town sits on the banks of the River Bonet and was the seat of the O’Rourke’s and the Franciscan Abbey at Creevlea. We drive north towards Manorhamilton before turning left on the N16 and into the valley of Glencar. A few miles on we turn off and drive down to the lake of the same name and visit Glencar Waterfall. The Discover Ireland website states “while not the highest waterfall in the area, Glencar Waterfall is generally considered the most romantic and impressive”. The enchanting waters cascading into the leafy glen also inspired the National Poet:-

img_9926“Where the wandering water gushes

From the hills above Glencar,

In pools among the rushes

That scarce could bathe a star,

We seek for slumbering trout

And whispering in their ears

Give them unquiet dreams;

Leaning softly out

From ferns that drop their tears

Over the young streams.”

(W.B Yeats ‘The Stolen Child’)

The Waterfall is easily accessed from the lakeside car park along a well maintained pathway. Also at the entrance is a charming little coffee shop called “The Teashed”. The staff were very friendly and welcoming and as coffee shops go the food here was excellent and not too pricey.  The fare consists  of freshly baked scones and bread, various sweet goodies, a wide choice of freshly made sandwiches, wraps, paninis, salads and hearty homemade soup. There are lots of local crafts on sale. The site has a playground – useful to rid the young ones of any pent up cabin fever. This is also the perfect spot for weary limbs to recover from hiking in the hills above. The outside tables would be a lovely place to sit out in the warmer months. [iii]

 

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“The Teashed”            photo www.ldco.ie

All along the lake are many places where one could have a nice picnic. We caught a lovely sunset on the lake as the weak winter sun surrendered itself for another day. We began our journey home with just a further quick pit-stop for ice cream for the younger travellers, notwithstanding it was now below freezing outside! Later on, safely home, unshod, night fallen and the fire taken hold we continued to relish in the glow of a day well spent, dipping into the ancient and majestic landscape of Sligo and North Leitrim. We have many similar day trips planned. You can check out what’s on offer in Leitrim at http://leitrimtourism.com/ and in neighbouring Sligo at http://www.sligotourism.ie/ . Go and find your “bee loud glade”, its out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.

img_9929

Sunset at Glencar Lake, Co. Leitrim

[i] https://allpoetry.com/The-Wanderings-Of-Oisin:-Book-I

[ii] http://www.worldheritageireland.ie/bru-na-boinne/

[iii] http://www.discoverireland.ie/Activities-Adventure/glencar-teashed/95624

Aleppo- a broken city preserved in memory

AleppoMy memories of Aleppo are beginning to fade. It is now eleven years since I was there. I have kept many notes of my travels but somehow those on Aleppo are either lost or perhaps they never existed. It is almost irrelevant now as the city I saw no longer exists save for in old photographs and the fading memories of its former residents scattered across the world. Every time I see an image of this once magnificent City’s crumbling Dresdenesque cityscape I weep. I can remember enjoying Syria; savouring the warmth and hospitality of its people, its magnificent historical sites, its layers upon layers of history from Greeks to Crusaders, Assyrians to the Mamluks. Who could not swoon at the impressive ruins of Palmyra, the awe inspiring Krak-des-Chevaliers, the Orontes Valley or wandering around Bar Touma Neighbourhood in Damascus (birthplace of half a dozen Popes). I cannot forget the hum of Homs, the noisy water wheels (or Noria) of Hama, and the majestic Ummayad Mosque. The Souks of Damascus and Aleppo were places of wonder for me, the trade carried on in their arched cubicles seemed to provide a snapshot of an ancient and unbroken tradition. Throughout all this I can also remember being aware of the regime and it’s all seeing eyes and ears but otherwise (bar this obvious erosion of what we in the West call civil liberties) I remember a place that was hustle,  bustle and full of life.

After I made it to the cradle of the North I came to the realisation that if Damascus was where Mandarins reigned then Aleppo was where the merchant was king. The first place I stayed in Aleppo was in an area called Al-Jdeida which I soon found out was a neighbourhood dominated by various groups of Christians. I hadn’t planned to stay  here  but an Australian couple I had met had chosen a hotel there and I just followed their recommendation. There was a Mosque up the street but there were also at least four or five churches within a stones throw, all were very charming with opulent, beguiling interiors. I visited churches belonging to the Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, the Maronites and Armenians. Aleppo is home to a large Armenian population many of whom fled the massacre of 1915 and found sanctuary in Aleppo. I also met some Chaldeans who had fled Iraq a few years earlier. At night time the area came alive as people came out to eat in its smart restaurants. The area was atmospheric and aromatic in equal measure. Walking along the high walls of the narrow side streets you couldn’t but admire the ornate Alleppin doorways. If lucky you might catch a glimpse through an open doorway of a beautiful ottoman courtyard, the centrepiece of an old merchant residence. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to explore one of these fabulous residences and perhaps now I never will.

After a few days in Aleppo I moved about half a mile away from Jdeida to a busier and less glamorous part of the New City. I took a room at a small Hotel just off Yarmouk Street. It was a grimy street where almost every second vendor sold car- tyres and fixed punctures or fixed exhausts. The room was upstairs just off a common area where the friendly owner tried to make up for shortcomings in décor and hygiene with a large smile. It was a winning strategy. No problem was too big for Samir as I later found out.

I spent the days just wandering the streets of Aleppo’s old and new city. Once when I got lost I just hailed a taxi driver and found I had only strayed five minutes drive from the Hotel. The Citadel dominates the old city as do the various minarets of the mosques. Yet there are so many church steeples that you realise that Aleppo was a collage of creeds. At night the noise of the traffic was incessant as were the car fumes. Eating out was relatively cheap and I grew to love the mezzes, shwarma, tahini, tabbouleh and eventually the thick coffee laced with cardamom.

I also remember the cinemas near the iconic Baron Hotel with the hand painted advertisements of the latest Bollywood fare. I hadn’t known that the Hindi movies were such a hit with the Aleppo menfolk. 

On the night of the 25th May, 2005 I headed back to the Hotel. Earlier in the day I had asked Samir to make sure I could watch the match on Telly. I am a Liverpool FC Supporter all my life and it was over twenty years since they were champions of Europe. I was tired and slept for an hour and when I got up it was close to match time. I had originally planned to make it to Istanbul for the final )ticket or no ticket) but I had spent a month making my way from Cairo through the Sinai and up through Jordan and by the time I got to Damascus I knew the Champions League Final was not to be.

That evening Samir was not in the reception area but a young man was in his stead sitting behind the desk. I asked him if I could watch the football, he nodded and turned on the telly. He switched the various knobs and I guessed he was looking for the right channel. A few minutes passed but still all that was on the telly was snow. The young man was now getting agitated. I asked was there another telly but he shook his head. He telephoned Samir and they talked in that Arabic way that sounds like they are having a serious disagreement. Within minutes Samir was back in the hotel and he began trying to get the TV tuned into a channel. He managed to get some channel but it was an old black and white film not the scenes from the Ataturk Stadium I was hoping for. Samir sensed my anxiety; it was just 15 minutes to kick-off. I asked if there was somewhere nearby where I could watch the game, my question went unanswered.

Eventually Samir just said “Come, this way” and he left by the stairs. I followed him and moments later we were driving headlong and crazy through the busy Aleppin streets in a battered Mercedes to some destination unknown. It looked like Samir was intent on driving me all the way to Istanbul. Soon we pulled up outside a nondescript three storey apartment building, what direction or where we were I didn’t know, the maze of streets and alleys we had just been through were completely dis-orientating. Up the stairs we went and into a room furnished with ornate carpets, soft cushions and sofas. On a table at the far end of the room was a small table and atop it sat an old Grundig Television .

Samir turned on the telly and navigated rapidly through the channels, alas still there was no football. He started tuning the set and eventually the screen lit up with the familiar red shirts of Liverpool. I hadn’t noticed that a number of men had come into the room by then. One was missing a hand and I just presumed he had lost it whilst fighting Jihad. It seemed entirely plausible; I suppose now all these years later I am inclined to think it may have been something more mundane like an industrial accident. My joy at finally getting to see the game was short-lived, already Liverpool were a goal down. It would get worse, by halftime they were losing 3-0. I was dejected and disconsolate.

Samir sensed this and said ‘Have faith my friend, in challah’. I put on a rueful smile; it would be extremely rude to this sociable man to ask to go back to my lodgings. I didn’t want to witness my team annihilated on this big stage but then a tray of warm sugary tea came out and I had to endure the well intentioned hospitality. More men had come in to the room as the first half went on and everyone was chain-smoking a toxic brand of cigarettes. There were at least twelve of us present for the start of the second half. None of the men could speak English but if I made eye contact they gave me a sympathetic nod and cupped their hands in a gesture of hope and solidarity. Samir was a source of endless optimism, ‘There is time, God willing’. I had long given up hope of any comeback. How wrong I was! In just six glorious minutes Liverpool had levelled the game through Smicer, Gerrard and Alonso. But Liverpool having drawn level seemed reluctant to go and try and win the game. Milan came back into it and the finale was simply a dual between goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek and the entire Milan team. They did not score though and Liverpool beat them on penalties, a famous night, a glorious night, more sweet tea, more cigarettes passed around and we twelve men in Aleppo all celebrated as much as if we were from the banks  of the Mersey.

A few days later I shared a taxi from the Karnak Bus Station to Gaziantep in Turkey. As I crossed the border I promised myself I would visit this fascinating country soon again. Nobody knows when this war in Syria will end or what the final casualty count will be. What will be left when the guns do fall silent? Who is to know what will be rebuilt and what will be lost forever? Memory will preserve some of it but it is hard to share memories and we cannot live someone else’s life or experiences. Robert Fisk visited Aleppo in the summer of 2016 and recorded the complete and utter destruction of the city. Even he who had witnessed the demolition of Beirut in the Lebanese Civil war was shocked by what he saw. Despite all this Fisk still concluded that this ancient City will arise again from the rubble and ash, for as broken as Aleppo may currently be, the current butchers are not in the same league as the city’s worst ever marauder, a man by the name of Genghis Khan. All that is left is hope and as Samir, the man who kept my flagging hopes alive on that pleasant May evening in 2005 said; ‘You see my friend you must have faith’.

Swanning around Swanwick

 I have just been to my first writer’s week – well not quite – I had work commitments and so couldn’t make the first few days. I did still manage to squeeze in a hectic few days of classes, courses, conversations and coffee with people of a similar bent to myself.

I attended Swanwick Writers Week, one of the longest established writer retreats in the UK. Swanwick has been on the go for over sixty years and like many things British it has developed its own little customs and idiosyncrasies. As a first time attendee I wore a white badge. Everybody is extremely nice to white badgers and go out of their way to make you feel welcome and a part of the institution. I was lucky and had a friend who was able to brief me and do some introductions. It certainly broke the ice and quelled any nerves. Swanwick is also notorious for serial attenders; some people have attended for over fifty years.  Don’t fret it’s not in the ‘Hotel California’ mould where you can check-in but cannot leave, Swanwick is simply a nice space with an infectious vibe. One attendee told me that Swanwick was ‘my annual holiday and treat to myself’.

Back to the customs of which there are many; in the dining hall the main course is brought to the long tables in large serving dishes. The person sitting at the outside of the table serves the others. The ‘Page to Stage’ is good fun and involves people coming together and creating a performance piece from scratch. The results are mixed but the endeavour is genuine. During the week between courses the ‘Page to Stagers’ can be seen anxiously rehearsing in the hallways and bar area. Did I mention the ‘Bar’? Yes there is a full licensed Bar and I confess to spending quite a bit of time there, all in the name of networking of course. The Fancy Dress is on Monday night, there is always a Quiz (an institution in itself and cut above your average local pub variety – personally speaking), the Dregs party is on Thursday night and allows one to shed any leftover alcohol so the car doesn’t reek of clanging bottles and booze on the way home. The whole event is run by a hardworking and dedicated Committee on a voluntary basis. There are speakers every night whom I understand receive some expenses but almost everything else is voluntary and free.

There is undoubtedly some fantastic talent amongst the attendees at Swanwick. The atmosphere is creative and vibrant, friendly and collegiate. Swanwickers come from all different facets and genres of writing, fiction, non-fiction, poets, children’s authors, storytellers, screenwriters, short film makers. From Memoirs to Crime novelists, Urban poets to Gothic Film aficionados I met a lot of very interesting people here. There were people whose ambition was to have a few stories printed by ‘Woman’s Weekly’ to aspiring first novelists and despite varying aspirations everyone mixed easily. It was as if all egos were left at the gatehouse at the entrance to Swanwick. It’s not all idyllic, there is a compliment of poseurs, but they only add to tapestry and make the genuine souls shine brighter.

Many published authors spoke of Swanwick as been an annual marker for them, a place where they recharge the batteries and keep going until the next Swanwick. It reminded me of the Celtic festival of ‘Lunasa’ which is also associated with the month of August. Of course the Gaelic word for August is also Lunasa (a derivative of Luna) and this might explain the large number of lunatics in Swanwick.

The life of a writer is not an easy one. There are harsh commercial realities. In the UK it is estimated that the top 10% of writers take 50% of the cream. It’s a Winner takes all game.  Sometimes the cream rises to the top but often it doesn’t. There is a bit of luck involved and commercial realities. You might be a beautiful writer but if people don’t want to buy your work then you are a commercial failure, no ifs buts or maybe’s. There are many people attending for many years who have not enjoyed success. At the end of the day success as measured by others is number of units sold but if one truly loves to write then success is continuing to write even though you suffer the slings and arrows of rejection. Most writers earn less than the minimum wage. In this regard I was glad to see some courses focussed around getting published and increasing the percentages. There was no course on how to make your own luck though which is more the pity. And that is Swanwick a little cocooned oasis of writers in the heart of Derbyshire. I’m hooked and can’t wait to go again (this time with the yellow badge). Guess what? There is only three hundred and fifty eight days to the next Swanwick.

Leitrim’s Lake monster – The legendary Dobhar Chu

Dobhar-ChuI was recently reading up on ancient tales on Irish Lake monsters and came across this interesting piece on the death of a woman in 1722 in Glenade Lake. Apparently the woman who was named Grace or Grainne, and married to a Turlough McLoghlin, was washing clothes in the lake when she was attacked by the Dobhar-Chu.

This is an extract from Dave Walsh’s piece on his site Blather.net

“Dobhar-chú (a.k.a. the Water Hound or Master Otter), and in particular, allegations concerning the demise of a Co. Leitrim woman in 1722, supposedly mauled by such a beast. Sligo fortean Joe Harte managed to track down her grave, in Glenade, on the north side of Ben Bulben mountain, and this writer managed to get hold of a copy of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 78, (1948), where was found, on pages 127-129, The Dobhar-chú Tombstones of Glenade, Co. Leitrim by Patrick Tohall. Later on, last September — as mentioned in an earlier Blather Joe and I visited the grave”.

The piece goes on to say –

“Our Leitrim lady, however, seems to have had a less fortunate fate. On her headstone is a raised illustration of what appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a stylised otter impaled by spear, held in a disembodied hand. The deceased name appears to have been Grace, but her surname is indecipherable – possibly McGlone. Tohall, who had 50 years less weathering to deal with, found that:

‘Line by Line the text reads: –(1) (Illegible), (2) ??ODY OF (3) GRACE CON (4) N?Y WIFE (5) TO TER MAC (6) LOGHLIN WHO (7) DYD 7BER (8) THE 24TH (9) ANN DMI (10) MDCCXXII. Points of note are: (a) The woman is still spoken of as “Grainne ” (not “Grace”) around her home; (b) The name “Ter” is obviously a contraction for “Terence”, the modern baptismal name adopted to supplant the traditional “Toirdhealbhach.” Only recently has the spoken language surrendered to the change, as down to our own time those who signed “Terence” were called “T’ruá­lach” in this locality. I have heard it so pronounced, exactly as John O’Donovan did here about 1835, when he wrote the names as “T’raolach”;(c) Adherence to contemporary classical forms: the contraction “7ber,” for September and the use of the “Possessive Dative” case; (d) the Gaelic custom of a married woman keeping her maiden name — incongruous in the English text.’

According to Tohall, there are two different main versions of on the death of a women washing clothes in Glenade Lake. A second tombstone at the south end of the lake was also connected to the tale, but has since vanished. The two accounts seem to have defaulted to the remaining stone, with ‘strong, local tradition’ preferring to connect the more interesting of the two versions.

‘A woman named Grainne, wife of a man of the McLoghlins, who lived with her husband in the townland of Creevelea at the north-west corner of Glenade Lake, took some clothes down to the lakeshore to wash them. As she did not return her husband went to look for her and found her bloody body by the lakeside with the Dobhar-chú asleep on her breast.

Returning to the house for his dagger he stole silently on the Dobhar-chú and drove the knife into its breast. Before it died, however, it whistled to call its fellow; and the old people of the place, who knew the ways of the animals, warned McLoghlin to fly for his life. He took to horse, another mounted man accompanying him. The second Dobhar-chú came swimming from the lake and pursued the pair. Realising that they could not shake it off they stopped near some old walls and drew their horses across a door ope. The Dobhar-chú rushed under the horses’ legs to attack the men, but as it emerged from beneath them one of the men stabbed and killed it.’

The second version describes the killing by a Dobhar-chú of another woman engaged in washing newly-woven cloth in Glenade lake when she was attacked. The boundary of the townland of Srath-cloichrán (Sracleighreen) and Gob-an-ghé (Gubinea) is the alleged location of this bloodshed (I emphasise the word ‘boundary’, as it denotes a place of liminal status — akin to the traditional importance of such places as crossroads). Yet another variant tells how the avenger Dobhar-chú had a single horn in the centre of its forehead, which it gored the horses with.

Tohall sees the Congbháil monument as being ‘the only tangible evidence’ for the idea of the ‘King Dobhar-chú,’ or Killer-Dobharcá.

‘Lexicographers of both districts record two meanings for Dobhar-chú (derived fromDobhar, water, and chú, hound): (a) the common otter (Lutra Lutra ) a term now superseded by Mada-uisge in Northern Ireland and Scotland; (b) ‘a mythical animal like an otter’ (Dineen). In Co. Leitrim the latter tradition survives strongly: ‘a kind of witch that ruled all the other water-animals’ (Patrick Travers, Derrinvoney); or used jocularly to a boy along Lough Allen,”Hurry back from your errand before dark, or mind would the Dobhar-choin of Glenade come out of the water and grab you.” The best summary of the idea is set out in the records of the Coimisiun le Báaloideas by Seán ó h-Eochaidh, of Teidhlinn, Co. Donegal, in a phrase which he heard in the Gaeltacht: ‘the Dobharchú is the seventh cub of the common otter’ (mada-uisge): the Dobhar-chú was thus a super otter.’

It seems to this writer that the identification of the Dobharchú with the fairly shy otter (which can be found at lengths of over 5’6″ (1.67m) including the tail) seems to be by default — no other known Irish water creature comes as close to a rational zoological explanation. Is the Dobhar-chú some hungry lake serpent manifestation which grows legs occasionally when it feels like eating? It’s a matter that Blather is having grave difficulty providing hypothetical explanations for.

Dave (daev) Walsh

21st August 1998”

Check out blather.net where Dave Walsh describes hiomself as chief bottle washer and “Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and “known troublemaker” Dave Walsh is the founder of Blather.net, described both as “possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River”, and “the nicest website circulating in Ireland”. Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.”

Don’t let the fear of the Dobhar Chu stop you from visiting one of Ireland’s little gems, the beautiful Glenade Lake hidden in the North Leitrim Glens.

Glenade_Lough_-_County_Leitrim-2_Small

photo credit Eireial Creations

 

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

 

 I visited the Chinese Cemetery in Noyelles Sur Mer a few weeks ago. I really came across the place by accident. I had just visited the scene of the Battle of Crecy (1346) where King Edward III’s English army annihilated the French force under King Philip VI. I was returning to our lodging in St. Valery Sure-Mer when I saw a sign for the ‘Cimetière Chinois’. Even with my limited French I knew that this must be a war cemetery but presumed it was a cemetery for French Colonials from Indochina. Curiosity got the better of me and so I took a turn off in Noyelles. I soon found the cemetery down a quiet back lane surrounded by wheat fields. We were the only ones visiting. The first thing you notice is the beautiful Chinese archway which guards the entrance. The cemetery like all war cemeteries in France is well-kept, neat and tidy. The information plaque advises that there are 849 graves here and that they all belong to members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Most of the deaths seemed to have occurred in 1918 and 1919 and the majority of these after the Armistice. I immediately wondered had most succumbed to the Flu Epidemic or some other calamity.? Only some of the graves have the names of the deceased. Most just have numbers. Also each grave stone contains an epitaph and after some observation I worked out that there were only four options, “Faithful unto death (至死忠誠)”, “A good reputation endures forever (流芳百世)”, “A noble duty bravely done (勇往直前)” and “Though dead he still liveth (雖死猶生)”. The remains also seem to have been buried two per grave.

I decided to do a bit more research and discovered that the men came mostly from Shandong Province.  They were recruited and processed by both the French and English through the Treaty ports Tianjin and Weihaiwei. They were poor and from the countryside. The wages offered were very high by Chinese standards but low by European rates (about 1/3 of a French privates salary). The selection process weeded out those with disease and so only the strongest labourers were selected. The journey was arduous, almost three months by ship until they docked at Marseilles. When a German U-boat sank a ship drowning 540 Chinese labourers the route was changed. Now the labourers crossed the Pacific, were shipped in cattle trucks across Canada and then sailed the Atlantic. It must have been a terrifying experience for what were simple, rural peasants with little knowledge of the wider world.

In France they worked 10 hours a day and 7 days a week for 20 yuan. They worked building trenches, repairing railways, unloading and transporting supplies to the troops. The strange food caused many to suffer stomach problems. Camp conditions were hard and work conditions uncomfortable. When the war was over the men were not repatriated immediately but were used in mine clearance and recovering bodies from the battlefields. This was dangerous and foul work. It is estimated that up to 10,000 died during the War from shelling, landmines, poor treatment, cholera or the worldwide flu epidemic. It was estimated that at the end of the war over 300,000 workers from the Colonies, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans were working throughout France and the Middle East by 1918. After the war, the British government sent a War Medal to every member of the Chinese Labour Corps. The medal was exactly like the British War Medal that had issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not silver, a fact that illustrates the lesser value placed on these men upon whose backs and hands the war was won.

 ‘By the terms of this contract…I, the undersigned coolie recruited by the Weihaiwei Labour Bureau, declare myself to be a willing labourer’

 

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

This is not your fatherland, where they make you toil, 

Digging trenches for the damned, pulling bodies from the soil.

This is not your motherland, where you clear mines all day, 

Did they tell you about the shells, the fever and decay.

You left your family in Shandong, you were shipped across the sea

Loaded on a cattle truck, and then dumped in Picardy.

Why did you join this fight Sheng? What brought you to this place?

What is the cause you died for? Was it two yuan per day?

Now you lie in Noyelles –sur- Mer, amongst the fields of wheat, 

‘Faithful unto death’, it says, not the fate you’d planned to meet.

A medal then was cast, to remember this campaign,

They said it didn’t matter, the colour of your skin, 

So your noble sacrifice was honoured,

your number was engraved, 

But theirs was cast in silver

and yours in simple bronze.

 Chinese Labour Corps Cemetery

Noyelles-sur-Mer, 2016

 

 

Meet me by the Caribou

Caribou-au-Memorial-de-Beaumont-Hamel-de-Jacky-Salomon-Rivery

I’ll meet you by the Moose he said,

It’s a Caribou, I thought

As his friends walked on ahead

to survey the pot-holed earth

 

They fell in piles just over there,

past that small, neat track

Close by the shattered tree

In their brave reckless attack

 

Now ‘No mans land’ is a gentle green

where the New Foundlanders all fell

Dying for a far off King

Pulverised by savage shell.

 

In a half-hour hell it was over

A generation lost

From  an Island far away, and

where still they count the cost

 

They met up by the Caribou

looked again across the field,

They cursed the tragedy of man,

When his pride it cannot yield.

Beaumont-Hamel, 2016

Beaumont Hamel

The Leaning Virgin of Picardy

Picardy

The drive from Amiens north along the D929 is a pleasant one. Picardy is still predominantly rural with two thirds of the population living in what are described as rural areas or small communes. 

The fields are large and expansive, creating beautiful horizons. The various pastel colours of cereal crops such as barley, rye, wheat are interspersed with the deep verdant hues of peas and sugar beet. The blood red of the iconic poppy can be seen along the roadsides and throughout the crop fields . Near the farmhouses you will see occasional apple orchards and plots of rhubarb and potatoes. This is also an area where you are as likely to be served a beer, a glass of cidre or apple brandy as a Pinot Noir. The landscape is also populated by small stands of forests with beautiful mature Oak. The mind can be forgiven for being confused by the sensual images laid before it; it knows that not far away over that horizon, stretched out across a thirty mile belt of this pristine countryside lies the scene of one of the Worlds greatest human abattoirs. The Somme, are there any words which more encapsulate the horror, folly and devastation of War? The Somme, are there any two words which even a century later can conjure up images of slaughter and futility, heroism and sacrifice? 

The early months of the start of the Great War 1914-18 contained a phase known as ‘The Race for the Sea’. The title is a misnomer. Neither the German Army nor the Allies were actually racing for the Sea. They were simply trying to outflank each other through the Picardy countryside and consequently instead of moving forward the front kept moving west to north-west in a serious of bloody encounters. Eventually the Generals found that there was simply no more ground to outflank the enemy.  The armies had run out of land, the front line had reached the North Sea. It became apparent that a decisive victory would not be forthcoming in the short term and so the German High Command settled on Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of exhaustion). The rest as they say is history and a miserable, grotesque one at that, yet it is this history that has me flying up the D929 savouring the vistas of Picardie. 

As I drive across the rolling plain I soon catch sight of the golden top of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières. This signals my approach to the quiet town of Albert, located in the heart of the Ancre valley and about halfway between Amiens and Bapaume. As one gets closer you realise that the golden top of the Basilica is actually a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. It is known simply as The Golden Virgin. The original gilded statue so impressed the Pope of the time that he reputedly referred to the Basilica as the Lourdes of the North. It is here where the French and Britush line held and halted the German advance in November, 1914. Albert suffered terribly from the ensuing bombardment and from its proximity to the front line for the next four years. Early in 1915 the golden statue was hit by a German shell. It wasn’t a direct hit and the statue remained defiantly in place, albeit in a very lopsided position.

Albert church

The shelling wasn’t entirely malicious by the German gunners. The tower would have provided an excellent observation point for French Artillery spotters. As the tedium of trench warfare developed the sight of the Virgin Mary hanging on to the top of the tower assumed mythical status. Both sets of troops saw the horizontal leaning shape as an omen for the outcome of the war. It was generally accepted by them that the survival of the Statue was no fluke, but proof of a divine intervention in their bloody proceedings. The Allies for some reason seemed to think that whoever finally knocked down the statue would lose the war. Some thought that when it eventually fell it would signal the end of the war. The British soldiers called the statue simply ‘the leaning virgin’ but the Australians who began arriving in the build-up for the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916 called it ‘Fanny Durack’. Miss Sarah Durack was a famous Olympic swimming Champion and world record holder. The Ozzies thought the statue looked like her preparing to dive into a swimming pool. The Duracks incidentally originated in Scarriff, Co. Clare and left for Australia shortly after the Famine.

Leaning virgin of Albert

The statue was by now a familiar sight to thousands of soldiers who passed through Albert on the way to the front. Many of them would not see the leaning it on the return journey, for tens of thousands there would be no return journey from the Somme battlefields and they lie unidentified in mass graves or beneath the chalky soils where they fell in the ground up mud and were consumed by the Earth. Throughout all that turbulent summer of 1916 the Virgin,  now well below the horizontal, still held resolutely on to her child despite the madness all around her.

In the Spring Offensive of 1918 the Germans re-took Albert. The new line of fire of the British Artillery included the ruined but still standing basilica steeple. The resulting British shelling finally brought down the Leaning Virgin of Albert in April. The final demise of the statue did not have an immediate effect on the outcome of the war as predicted but hostilities did end by the end of the year.

The Basilica and its Tower have been fully restored to their former glory. Much of the town’s commerce is now based on Great War Tourism. The gilded statue of the Virgin holding her infant son mirrors how Albert holds on to its war legacy. In the summer you are likely to meet English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. The restored Virgin mother and son once again dominates the skyline of the town and the Ancre valley. If only the millions of lives destroyed nearby could have been rebuilt so successfully.

Albert virgin