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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Legacy of the Battle of Bannockburn

     "Scots Wha Hae wi' Wallace Bled" is one of the most famous Scottish patriotic anthems, written by Robert Burns while galloping through a fierce thunderstorm. It refers to the famous Battle of Bannockburn of 1314 in which the forces of Robert the Bruce decisively routed the army of Edward II, and thus preserved Scottish independence from England. Indeed, unlike the Jacobite Rebellions, this can be described Anglo-Scottish War with a fair amount of accuracy in the context of warfare in the British Isles. I emphasize “fair amount”, because much of the fighting in the 14th century actually had more to do with king than country, the war mainly involved nobles of Norman ancestry, the borderlands were shifting place, and national identity had yet to be established in a verifiable way.

    But despite these facts, the courage and dedication of those who fought for Scottish independence in the 14th century did prevent the Scottish people, peasants and nobles alike, from being reduced to a subjugated people under the thumb of the English kings. Furthermore, the conflict established the seeds of national identity that would later blossom into full-fledged nationhood. “The People of the Lion” was what the soldiers of Robert de Bruce called themselves, for lack of better description of their new-found cause in the defense of their home and liberty from foreign oppression. Thanks to them, Scotland was never taken by storm. In fact, it was never “taken” at all.

    The Scottish people today have every right in the world to be proud of these glittering moments in their history, culminating the signing of the Arbroath Declaration asserting their self-determination and inspiring the basis for similar founding documents, including the American Declaration of Independence. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and a false sense of nationalism and historical revision has attempted to rehash The Scottish Wars of Independence and apply them to the present political sphere. This is not only unfair to the public, but it also makes those advocating the position, whether they be high-profile politicians or anonymous online trolls, look rather absurd.

    The history behind the mythology is that in 1707 the countries of England and Scotland were brought together through mutual consent and formed into the Kingdom of Great Britain out of mutual interest. While bribery was certainly a factor during the delegation and protests rampant in the aftermath of the decision, the belief that “a parcel of rogues” were the only movers in the deal is inaccurate. There were mixed emotions throughout Scotland and England about the merging, but many felt confident that political haggling could finally hammered out a decent solution to the relation problems that had plagued the two island nations for centuries. And it fact, it did.

    In spite of complaints about additional taxes, the Scots did exceptionally well under the Union, coming into prominent positions in the government, military, business, etc. Many of them became quite wealthy in the process, and became financial pillars of the growing British Empire. Of course there was always spits and spats between the Scots and the English - just read some of the stuff from Samuel Johnson and James Boswell! But in the end, they learned quite well how to function together, and took on a common identity: that of being British.

    Their unity saved their island from invasion during the Napoleonic wars and again during the Second World War, and it also rescued much of the civilized world from monstrous tyrants. Furthermore, in spite of the initial push to dissolve traditional identities of Englishness and Scottishness and the introduction of the terms "North British" and "South British", neither the Scots nor English were willing to abandon their distinctness in the least, making sure that unification would never take precedence over uniqueness.

    It seems as if the beginning of the distaste for the British identity among Scots began when the Empire began to crumble. Traditional patriotism became hopelessly associated with the worst kind of pompous nationalism, and many Scots decided to back-track rather than face up to their own mistakes and move on. They shifted the blame and painted themselves as part of a conquered race under the heels of British Imperialism. It served them to use “English” and “British” synonymously and to connect the dots between the Saxon Sea Wolves, Norman Feudal Lords, and modern British officials they found hard to stomach. They insisted on being purely Scots, untarnished by the British identity. They advocated the return of a Scottish Parliament through devolution, which they achieved. And now, they want complete independence from the UK.  

    Whether or not they achieve their goal of fracturing a perfectly sound political union (an event which they hope will coincide with 700th anniversary of The Battle of Bannockburn in 2014), there will always be an aspect of the Scottish people that is also British. It is cultural reality that cannot be snuffed out, and trying to pull up roots so deeply entrenched through crafty political maneuvering will inevitably cause more damage than the modern nationalists are bargaining for. If they truly wish to be at peace with the world and with themselves, both Scots and English must accept the blame for bad actions and credit for the good actions of their past, as well as embracing their own complex national heritage and working to improve it as opposed to destroying it.  As much as freedom fighting, dual identity is part of their lot.

Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has often led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victory.

Now's the day and now's the hour,
See the front of battle glower,
See approach proud Edward's power,
Chains and slavery.

Wha would be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha so base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha for Scotland's king and law
Freedom's sword would strongly draw?
Freemen stand, and freemen fall,
Let him follow me!

By oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins
Yet they shall be free.

Lay the proud usurpers low,
Tyrants fall in every foe,
Liberty's in every blow,
Let us do or dee!

The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314

Friday, January 27, 2012

Battling Dragons: The Mythology of British Demographics

    The red dragon and the white dragon of Arthurian legend have long been as an allegory for the Celtic vs. Saxon conflict. According to mythology, Merlin had a vision of a white dragon that attacked a red dragon and for a time seemed to prevail over it. But eventually the red dragon threw off the white one and triumphed in the fight. For some modern nationalists, this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled by freeing of the "Celtic Nations" from "Saxon Bondage," are put more plainly, the independence of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland from "England." In truth, they mean the UK, but they seem confident that they can hoodwink people into believing that is a mere technicality. On the contrary, there is definitely a need for specification when trying to get a handle on the complex demographics and political state of the British Isles.

    To begin with, many Nationalists advocates tend to depict the English people as a purely Saxon off-shoot, in comparison with the other residents of the British Isles who are represented as being purely Celtic origin. They also impress upon the popular imagination the image of the Celts as perpetual innocent victims, who fought only to protect their own land rather than to conquer more. The Saxons, on the other hand, are painted as inherent "baddies" with a land-lust that was and always will be unusually insatiable. Oddly enough, there tends to be a blind-spot concerning how the Celts came to live in the British Isles in the first place.

    Previous to the arrival of the Celtic peoples, Britain and Ireland were inhabited by various migrant tribes of Neolithic farmers, some of whom are credited with building the ancient stone structures that dot the landscape. The ruins of these wonders (the most impressive of which is Stonehenge) stand to this day as lasting testimonies to the tribesmen’s surprising ingenuity and skill. As highlighted in the song “Newgrange”, the memory of these people lives on even though we know next to nothing about them and “forgotten is the race that no one knows.” Since their culture was unrecorded by the pen, we can only archeology and imagination to fill in some of the spaces which have been left blank in written historical annals.

    When the Celts began their odyssey from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and finally settled in the British Isles, we can only assume they encountered the previous inhabitants. Archeology has not turned up any signs of large-scale fighting between them, but then neither has it uncovered any evidence supporting massive conflict when the Saxons first encountered the Celts. It must be assumed in both cases that the two groups had small-scale skirmishes in different areas before eventually mingling and learning to live alongside one another. Eventually, the culture of the invaders became dominant as more and more of them settled in the British Isles.

    Not only does this indicate that the Celts were just as capable of conquering/subsuming as the Germanic tribes, but it also goes to show that from the very beginning the Celts had "mixed blood" from intermarrying with the Neolithic tribes, just as the Saxons would later mix blood with the Celts, making both of them far from pure bred. Even in the lands where the Saxons were held for longer periods and a predominately Celtic identity was retained, cultural mixing took place in due course. After the Germanic tribes came the Scandinavian Vikings who raided, pillaged, and yes, settled in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, bequeathing to these lands much of their musical and literary culture, along with the famous red hair that has often been identified as a "Celtic" trait.

    After the Viking attacks came the Norman Conquest, which resulted in the subjugation of the predominately Saxon English and established a ruling class in all four countries of the British Isles, “Celtic” or otherwise. The result was that much of the subsequent fighting there can be summed up as Norman feudal wars. For example, both Edward II of England and Robert the Bruce of Scotland who faced each other at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 were of Norman ancestry, not Saxon or Celtic. So the colorful analogy of the red dragon and the white dragon is something of a false front, used to project a divisive and simplified view of history. But the simple truth is that pure ancestry is not a thing to be grasped at, especially if you're British.

The Battle of the Red Dragon and the White Dragon

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Body without a Heart: Ignorance of the British Identity

    The subject of British identity tends to come up quite often in my conversations with various friends and acquaintances. There are those in this country who seem to indulge in an emotional euphoria with regards to the possibility of Scotland breaking away from "England" or "The British Empire", as they often put it. The monarchy tends to be viewed in a decidedly skeptical, sarcastic light, and the traditions that have been the continual flow of British cultural life are shrugged off as "quaint" or even stupid.  In Britain itself, the Christian identity and moral principles that have served as the bulwark of the nation for thousands of years have virtually been abandoned. There is a haunting sense that the United Kingdom, as a country and as a culture, is being dismissed as something obsolete, a body that has no heart, an oppressive empire that has collapsed, and a land that is faithless, hopeless, and loveless. It hurts me deeply to watch it happening from afar.

    Since a very young age, I have been drawn to the heritage of UK through its stories and songs, its struggles against tyrants and internal fractions, its Christian, and especially Catholic, heroes and heroines. All of these things continue to influence me in my daily life, and a certain part of me, I feel, will always be connected to that land I have yet to see. The idea of it self-destructing and self-dissecting sickens me. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland are distinct and yet one, forged into a common identity for a common purpose. They each hold representation in the UK Parliament according to their respective populations, share a head-of-state, and have helped establish a proud military tradition which continues to this day.  Through the years, English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish men have died fighting side by side, often in order to defend their liberties against tyrants such as Napoleon and Hitler. They built a country, and yes, an empire which cast its influence over the world, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse.

    A sense of unhealthy nationalism, a haughty pride of race, reared its ugly head during the Imperial project. Many Britons began to feel they were superior to the rest of humanity merely because they lived on an island that came to possess vast expanses of territory. They could be cruel to those they conquered, and snobbish to those who they dealt with. The situation needed to be amended, and indeed it was hammered down through the cost of war and pressure from abroad. The Empire was transformed into The Commonwealth comprised of sovereign nations. Today, some of these countries – such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Jamaica – continue to have particularly close ties with the mother country and share a head of state as Commonwealth Realms.

    But the pendulum kept swinging. Economic and social trouble, along with an aura of post-imperial limbo, caused a lack of identity to creep into the British psyche. Sooner than later, the Union Flag came under fire. Some considered it to be a symbol of the jingoistic imperialism or Northern Irish terrorism or a by-gone era that had no place in modern society that was plagued with the questions: "Who are we?" "What are we?" "What do we believe?" "Where are we going?" But for many throughout the world, the unique pattern combining the Crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick continues to be seen as a symbol of freedom, unity, the rule of law, and Christianity. No one, no much how much they cry and complain, can take the worth of the British national flag away from them. Nevertheless, the defeatists spread their pessimistic attitude far and fast like the plague. They came to the conclusion that the British identity was not worth reforming or preserving, and then drew an overriding patriotism from their locality.

    The Scots became "more Scottish than British" and the Welsh became "more Welsh than British," while the Northern Irish continued to be tormented by extremist movements within Unionism and Republicanism alike. All three nations liked to think of themselves as being in an exclusive club called "The Celtic Nations." Never mind the fact that their populations, like that of England, were made up of a mix of ethnic group, including the Danes and the Normans. Identity had to be established, and if they couldn't rely of the British one any longer, they would have stake their claim with a wandering tribe of head-hunters that would go on to inspire a generation of folk musicians to express their connection to the "secret people" by adopting prehistoric hairstyles and writing protest songs for the purported good of an overpopulated and polluted planet. The real shame is that these same conscientious objectors to humanity unavoidably contributed to both blights to the echo system by their very presence in that sphere.

Last Surviving Union Jack from the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wings as Drifted Snow: Christmas Morning Choir

     As a final chapter of my Yuletide saga I was invited to play my penny whistle for the introduction before mass at the Annunciation Catholic Church, along with Pat the choir director on keyboard, his sister Lynn on auto-harp, and her husband Henry on violin and mandolin. All three of them are professional musicians, and I was honored to be the lone amateur invited into the fold. Interestingly, Henry is of Russian-Jewish stock, but he one of the founding members of a Celtic band named after Inishowen in the Republic of Ireland, the old stomping ground of his wife’s ancestors. He has an effervescent personality and a snappy sense of humor, so it was fun to jest back and forth with him as we scrambled for sheet music and adjusted mics before mass.

    Lynn is a Third Order Franciscan and used to be a novice at EWTN. However, she decided that her true vocation lay elsewhere than the convent, so she left before she made her final vows and went on to embrace martial life. Nevertheless, she showed me true Sisterly charity before and during the performance, and the feathery sensation of being hugged by her in her fur-trimmed Christmas coat has left me with a fond holiday memory. Her brother Pat is my surrogate godfather who my family met while recording a series of religious music CDs at his studio. He sold that business a year ago, but our friendship with him continues as strong as ever. In fact just a few days ago, we met a local restaurant called Parrot's Pizza for a little post-Christmas celebration involving, among other things, bacon n’ cheese and M&M pizza……

    Getting back to the choir loft, we merry three played "Hark the Herald," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", and "Joy to the World" as opening numbers. Other than several finger-fumbles resulting in shrill notes on my part (oh, well!), I believe the whistling worked out quite nicely in conjunction with the other instruments. The sound had a very nice folksy flare to it and made me think about traditional European Christmas celebrations in which family and friends gather to worship the Christ Child with timeless songs. So many old friends from Christian history also came to mind, like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, and I took pleasure in the thought that they might be listening, somewhere, to us playing their hymns so many years after their deaths. I also could not help but recall scenes from The Adventures of Long John Silver series as I listened to Christmas melodies that rang with the jolly spirit of “The Cask and Anchor” during the season of Yuletide revelry.

    To finish up our serenade, I sang the lead and Lynn sang the harmony on "Gabriel's Message," a haunting Basque carol telling the story of the Annunciation and conveying the sense of astonishment and intensity that the Virgin Mary surely must have felt when she was visited by the angel with “his wings like drifted snow/his eyes of flame”. Then I sang two rousing verses of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman" in time with a fiddle tune that flowed like a reel, and eased out with a solemn rendition of "What Child is This?" backed up by harmonies from Pat. I wonder if King Henry VIII realized that his rather racy lovers’ ballad, “Greensleeves”, would one day be put to such a superior use. Though that happy accident is no thanks to him, I will gladly give him a nod for giving us the tune seems waft along the elegant corridors of Tudor England to the present.

    After the three of us finished our intro music (which lasted for about an hour before mass), we settled back into the pews in the loft and tried hard to focus our minds on the Liturgy of the Word. But I must admit it was rather hard to concentrate on the priest’s homily. The church building, which had been built by German immigrants in the 19th century, was so beautifully decked out in festive greenery and glittering ribbons that I felt absorbed by it. I gazed up at the ceiling beams and read the words of the Angelus prayer painted across them: “Behold the Handmaid of the Lord/Be It Done unto Me in Accordance with Thy Word.” What a priceless gift Our Lady gave us by her fiat, her blessed “yes” to the will of God! She gave your Son flesh and blood, the same flesh and blood we received in the choir loft that Christmas day, and the same flesh and blood that was laid in a manger in the bleak midwinter so long ago. 

The Annunciation Catholic Church

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Visions of Beauty and Grace

     A nut fudge sundae at our local Dairy Queen was the perfect way in which to celebrate our Christmas concert success. I wound up enjoying the ice cream treat seated next to Catherine, Mary Caroline, and Madeleine, three little girls in our musical family group, who excitedly told we about their favorite Veggie Tale episodes as a snow storm whipped up outside. It was really quite delightful to relish in the warm and cozy Christmas-i-ness of the event.
    The next day was December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is the day when Catholics celebrate their belief that Mary, the Mother of God, was conceived free from Original Sin through a special grace bestowed on her from God. Since this is a Holy Day of Obligation, I attended mass with my parents at the Immaculate Conception Chapel at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, MD. The chapel was spacious and beautifully decorated, making me feel as if I had stepped inside of an old European church. The ushers, altar servers, and choir members were all seminarians from the Mount, and their beautiful Latin chants seemed to ascend to heaven in unison with swirling incense at the altar.
    My parents and I were unexpectedly asked by a young usher if we would like to carry up the gifts (bread and wine) for the priest to consecrate. We responded in the positive, and reverently set about our task. It felt like a special blessing from Our Lady allowing us to participate in this memorial of the sacrifice of her Son. What more generous mother could anyone have than Mary, "full of grace", who bore Christ Jesus and lent him fleshly substance? She stands before the throne of God always, serving as the most perfect bridge between the humanity and the divinity. She is only a creature, and yet her humility and obedience to the will of God won her the crown of the Queen Mother of Heaven and Earth and assured that all generations will call her blessed.

    After receiving Holy Communion and the final blessing from the priest, I rushed to the back of the church and signed the book of prayer intentions, marking down everyone I could think of for whom I usually, friends, pen-pals, CAF members, librarians...? And then I lectured myself for forgetting those who slipped my mind! Oh, well. It’s the thought that matters, really, so a little prayer goes a long way on the road to being all-encompassing.
    Three days after this blessed occasion, I had the less than awe-inspiring experience of coming down with a miserable cold, accompanied by all the colorful trappings: an acutely painful sore throat, nausea, stomach cramps, head congestion, a runny nose......yuck! Fortunately, I had two things to console me: one was a book from the library entitled Isaac Watts Remembered by David Fountain, and the other was a Loreena McKennitt CD called "The Book of Secrets".

    The book dealt with the life and times of the English Non-Conformist preacher and poet, Isaac Watts, otherwise known as "The Bard of Southampton". He composed such famous hymns and carols as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," "Shepherds, Rejoice", and "Joy to the World." In the course of reading his biography, I learned that he lived a life filled with intermittent persecution, lost love, and ill health. Nevertheless, he still managed to maintain a certain presence of mind based on his conviction that God would see him through any and all difficulties.

    The CD by Loreena McKennitt included a haunting recording that paired Alfred Noyes's famous poem, "The Highwayman", with music by Loreena. A friend of mine told me I would find it riveting, and indeed I did! The combination of the vividly tragic romantic ghost story set in 18th century England, the ethereal vocals of L.M., and her admirably well-suited tune was sheer magic. I did some research on Alfred Noyes and discovered that he was another English convert to Catholicism. (I say “another” because I tend to run into them a lot!)

    I find it interesting how many great artistic minds who find themselves attracted to the mysterious gray areas of life are often drawn to high church practices. Alfred Noyes, Sir Walter Scott, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many other famous literary figures all embraced either High Anglicanism or Catholicism before their deaths. Of course, some of them tended to be quite "anti-Papist" in their early writings, but as time marched on, they came to the conclusion that the richness of high church  practices were not in opposition to the purity of Christian life. Rather, they gave it dimension, wholeness, and beauty that appealed to the God-given senses of man.

The Immaculate Conception Chapel

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

     One of my New Year's Resolutions for 2012 is to jump-start this little blog and put up a new post at least once a week. I hope you will find it enjoyable and (at least occasionally!) a source of inspiration. First off, I might as well chronicle my 2011 Christmas experiences.

    I performed at a local nursing home with my singing group under the stalwart leadership of Madame Maureen, in spite of some internal tension that threatened to cause division earlier in the year. Thankfully, good will towards men (and women) prevailed, and we came together in joyful song to celebrate the Christ Child's birth. I was scheduled to sing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", so I wore an old-fashioned dress that I found in a thrift store and a marvelous Cavalier hat that I picked up from an antique shop. The result was that I looked just the way I hoped I would, rather like something out of 17th century England!

    I read on computer that "God Rest Ye Merry" may have originated as far back as the 16th century and used to be sung by the town watchmen to the gentlemen of the town in hopes of making some extra money over the holiday season. There is something so earthy and yet profound about the old London carol that it has endured in the popular imagination and outshined some other, perhaps more eloquent, pieces. In the end, is not pure simplicity always superior to artful showiness?

    One comical interlude in the nursing home concert occurred when I sang "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" accompanied by Tim on violin and Maureen on piano. Tim and I had scurried into the hallway before the show to go over our parts, and we both were under the assumption that our directress wanted us to do only one verse. However, when we performed the piece on stage, Maureen didn't stop her piano playing at the end of verse one, but started going right into verse two! I gave Tim a puzzled look which he returned, and then instinctively started belting out: "Christ by highest Heav'n adored...." The poor lad was pretty lost, but he did a great job jumping back into action in mid-verse. I may have been singing a bit too loudly as a result of the confusion, but I think the blend of piano and violin probably covered me. Besides, most of the elderly residents probably have aural impairments anyway!

    Poor Charles Wesley was probably wagging his finger at us from the grave as he performed. He had favored using the tune of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" to accompany his poem, "Hark! How All the Welkin Rings” (later changed to the more familiar title, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”), and no doubt would have found the present punchy melody appalling. But Felix Mendelssohn and the public at large had other ideas! So maybe our punchy performance style was just in keeping with the rollicking history of the poem and tune!

    I thank the good Lord for allowing me to share my talents of song with others and for letting me have the chance to spend time with the people who I care about. That is the real magic of Christmas, infused with keen sense of hope, and illuminated with the spirit of comfort and joy. Wassail to the blogosphere!

Olde English Christmas Wassailers