Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Gruesome Secret of Our Ash Tree

Our European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)        © 2016    by Victor Sullivan.

A fine old tree stands proudly at the east end of our garden, just as it did when my wife and I bought the derelict property in 1970. The large, overgrown plot with its mature Sycamores, Elms and Laurels, had been neglected for decades and it was some months before we cleared an access path and finally touched the massive trunk of our Ash tree. Its present girth is 3.35 Metres. (11 feet). 

We had been advised that this particular tree was the subject of a Preservation Order, a matter of little interest to us at the time, as we had no intention of felling it for firewood. We set about repairing the house that had been built around 1904 and in the course of our repairs we discovered that a small section, we called it the scullery, had once been part of an earlier structure on the same site. From old maps in Cork City Library we learned that our acquisition had replaced a row of three cottages, constructed for Prison Warders employed at the nearby, disused and derelict prison, Cork City Gaol.

During summer, the view of the old prison from my bedroom window is obscured by our Ash tree's dense foliage but in winter, through its bleak, barren, lower branches, the gloomy main gate-house of Cork City Gaol is clearly visible. The gate-house was designed to be, not only the main entrance to the prison, it was also an execution facility that incorporated a cell for the condemned, with twin beds, one above the other. It also had a tiny chapel where the wretched condemned prisoner could receive the Last Rites of the Church. The spot immediately in front of the main door is the precise location where numerous public executions took place between 1827 and 1865. 

Such public events were a popular source of free entertainment and attracted large crowds of enthusiastic onlookers. Some mothers are said to have brought their children to witness the formalities and thus be memorably warned that a similar fate could await them if they were disobedient or misbehaved. Placing bets on how many kicks the victim might achieve before expiring was another common practice at these well-attended events. 

The date and time of each execution was advertised and it was wise to arrive early in order to be assured of a good position for a clear view of the Hangman's performance. Not everyone wished to be 'up too close' to the Hangman, some preferring a more distant over-view of all the onlookers and the focus of their attention in front of the prison's main door.

One execution enthusiast was a very small man of considerable athletic dexterity and a grim determination to see everything. Doney loved executions and he boasted that he had never missed one. His limited height meant that he could only see the details of the Hangman's skill from the front row of the dense crowd but  that was uncomfortably too close to the Gallows, the Rope and the Condemned. If Doney moved further back among the gaping crowd he would have seen only the backs of the people directly in front of him.  

To solve the problem, Doney claimed personal viewing rights on what he considered to be the best position for execution observations, high in the branches of his Ash tree, which, in those days, was the only tree growing in the immediate area. It stood a comfortable eighty yards to the south-west of the Gallows. Doney climbed higher and higher until he reached the topmost branches of his Ash tree, while less agile followers struggled to secure a position on the lower branches.  As some very ancient wounds on the trunk of the tree suggest, far too many people climbed onto the lower branches, snapping them off, hence the tell-tale scars on the now aged trunk.

It is said that 'All good things must come to an end,' and so it was with the public Executions. The 'Respectable Residents' who lived near the Prison raised an objection to the City Authorities, complaining, not about the executions in public, but about the low class of people such spectacles attracted into the area. Their complaint was eventually taken seriously and, in 1865, the last public execution took place outside the main door of the Cork City Gaol. Thereafter, executions were carried out inside the high walls of the prison, hidden from public view, the 'Respectable Residents' who lived nearby were no longer bothered by unsavory crowds of gapers and Doney never again had reason to climb into his observation perch that still grows magnificently at the end of our garden.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Film Review

by Cecily Lynch  © 2015

During the Cork Film Festival I saw a documentary on the journey of African refugee people from their native pastoral lands to the big cities of Europe.
The film’s opening sequences were almost biblical. There was a long shot of hundreds of men women and children crossing a scorching desert on foot. Then there were night scenes of ravaged looking boats being loaded with silent and downcast people.  More and more humanity was crammed into these flimsy crafts. Children wailed as the first waves ploughed into the boats.  The adults were silent and petrified.  The engines broke and they were at the mercy of the rough seas.  The boats lurched crazily from side to side, spilled the elderly and weak into the black darkness.  Their cries for help could be heard above the crashing of the waves.   The survivors moaned in the darkness.
Towards dawn an Irish rescue ship approached. Screams for help arose.  The people were hysterical with fear.  The naval officers imposed a strict discipline.  Women and children sick and covered with vomit were winched first up the side of the rescue ship.  The rescuers wore anti infection clothing and mouth masks.  The stench from the battered boats was appalling.
As the rescue ships approached the harbours of the Italian and Turkish cities, volunteers and Red Cross aides stood with rows of police, in long helpless rows as screams of terrible grief and loss arose from the decks of the rescue ships.  As they disembarked, the refugees were contorted with grief for the loved ones who had been swept overboard.  Their cries of desperation were heart shattering.  The cries rose up to the skies in wild screaming of utter pain.  The dashed their heads against the harbour walls, they rolled on the ground, the pounded their heads, they threw their arms up.  The police shifted uneasily and the soldiers looked away, at the sight of such human grief and suffering.
There is no doubt that the visual impact of cinema is extraordinarily moving and sometimes unbearable. 

The Feis

by Cecily Lynch  © 2016

The Feis is a peculiarly Irish institution.  (It is pronounced 'Fesh').  The Eistedfod in Wales bears the closest relation to it.  However, the Irish Feis extends to six or eight weeks and is based on competitions in various art forms: singing, reciting and the playing of instruments.  Over the six weeks of the Feis, twelve thousand performers strut their stuff on the stage; the majority are under 18 years. 
It had been almost 60 years since I had been in the Feis.  As a skinny and shy teenager I had performed in a verse-speaking group.  We had, unfortunately, come last in that competition.  I had resented this humiliation and had vowed never to set foot in the Feis again.
Now hoary and grey, scarred by the many battles of life, poisoned by bitterness and grief, I pulled back the entrance curtain. The theatre was half-full.  Children ran around.  Grandmothers abounded. Teenagers were decked out in outlandish garments.  Parents hovered anxiously. No, nothing had changed in the intervening years
Competition 38 was announced.  A stream of children mounted the small stage, stiff with nervousness and stage fright.  They assembled into formation.  I waited, remembering my own nervousness all those years ago.  The teacher rapped the desk. And suddenly the hall was filled with angel voices, rivalling the seraphim and cherubim rising, rising, swelling, rolling, like a sweet spring tide.  It was, in one word, glorious.  I was rapt, entranced.  Stream after stream of children mounted and performed their piece.  Boy sopranos. Sang like violins. Little girls in frilly dresses lisped the harmonies in the seriousness of childhood concentration.  More and more young children ascended the steps, their treble voices mounting to the heavens.  More and more streamed up to the stage, their clear voices rising like birdsong.
And there I was, the cynic, who had come to mock, to laugh, to be sarcastic about the doting parents, the fawning grandparents, there I was smiling in delighted joy, elated, transfixed, and transported by the intent gravity of the children, as they sang their hearts out in the untroubled land that is childhood.