My father sang from morning to night, when not absorbed in finding the right combination for a five horse accumulator….opera, light opera, folk song, dubious ditties from the music halls and the army , songs of liberation, songs of despair…
Thanks to him I am probably the only person – apart from Mark Mills in Mayenne – to know the words and music to ‘The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom’.
I grew up with his voice – a light tenor which did not quail at producing the Song of the Hebrew Slaves, nor Stenka Razin – though his lyrics were not those of the Red Army Choir.
To this day I cannot find a reproduction of the tune to which he sang ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’…nor can I reproduce it, having the voice of a honking seal…but his voice remains alive in my memory.
Why has this come back to me now?
Because with the limitations imposed by Leo’s state of health our world has closed down somewhat….no longer possible to get up one day and decide to take the bus to Nicaragua the next to look for vanished towns and petroglyphs….no more impulses to take a ‘plane and explore the old silver towns of Mexico….
We have become static…but only physically. Thanks to those who fed our minds when we were young we have plenty of material upon which to ruminate while sitting on the balcony looking out over the valley.
My father gave me music and an insatiable love of history, where picking up one thread will lead you to a whole stretch of fabric to explore.
I can still hear him declaiming Thomas Davis’ poem ‘Fontenoy’…
‘On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!
‘Revenge, remember Limerick! dash down the Sacsanach!’
Not great poetry, as he would have been the first to admit, but what threads to follow!
Fontenoy was a battle in the War of the Austrian Succession, fought in 1745 near the town of Tournai in Belgium…then known as the Austrian Netherlands.
The French forces were led by Marshal Saxe, one of the many illegitimate sons of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who had taken service with the French…..you could have many an hour of exploration just following the thread of foreigners who became distinguished in foreign service…
Here are two….or perhaps three….
Rejected by Louis XIV he took service with Austria and in company with Marlborough his armies knocked the French for six in the War of the Spanish Succession. Threads from Eugene lead back to the court of Louis XIV and the case of the the poisons which blew the French court apart with rumours of murder and black masses performed upon the body of Mme. de Montespan, the current mistress of the king. Other threads lead forward to the wars against the Ottoman Empire and the tangled history of its oppression in the Balkans which gives rise even now to the qualms of states which have historically been in the front line against the Ottomans when faced with a massive influx of mainly Muslim immigrants.
Forced to flee Scotland by the failure of the Jacobite rebellion he took service in Russia and was part of the conspiracy which put Catherine the Great on the throne but as the eye of that lascivious monarch turned on him thought it advisable to take service under Frederick the Great of Prussia whose attentions were reserved for his guards. An intriguing story from his time in the Russian service finds him meeting another exile in foreign service…the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire.
"These two personages met and carried on
their negotiations by means of interpreters.
“When all was concluded they rose to separate, but just before leaving,the grand vizier suddenly went to Marischal Keith and, taking him cordially by the hand, declared in the broadest Scotch (sic) dialect that it made him unco happy to meet a countryman in his exalted station.
“As might be expected, Keith stared with astonishment, and was eager for an explanation of the mystery.
” Dinna be surprised, the grand vizier exclaimed, Im o the same
country wi yoursell, mon! I mind weel seein you and your brother, when
boys, passin by to the school at Kirkcaldy; my father, sir, was bellman o Kirkcaldy.
The Scots…they get everywhere…
But who fought at Fontenoy?
The English and the Dutch on one side, the French on the other, but with the French were the Irish Brigade, successors to The Wild Geese,
Wave upon wave of Irishmen left their native land after the failure of rebellions against England…in the sixteenth century it was the Flight of the Earls where the men went mostly into the Spanish service…in the seventeenth the Wild Geese, the Jacobite army under Patrick Sarsfield who were forced to leave under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick following their defeat by William of Orange’s forces – , the King Billy of the Troubles in Ireland – and entered the service of France.
On Fontenoy all was lost for the French…the English were advancing solidly despite the hail of fire….when at last the Irish Brigade were thrown in, advancing with the bayonet to the cry of
‘Cuimhnigidh ar Liumneac! Remember Limerick!
They turned the day. The English, who had been steady under terrible losses and who were in sight of victory, had had enough…they did not break and run, but they retreated, leaving Marshal Saxe the victor of Fontenoy…and the French masters of the campaign in the cockpit of Europe.
Not least because the British were called home to deal with the ’45…Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invasion of England…..
And what do these threads have in common?
People displaced from their homes by war and politics, doing what they can to keep body and soul together.
And in today’s world, from Syrian refugees to African child soldiers, we don’t seem to have learned very much.
We two might be obliged to be stay at homes these days, but the threads of history can still allow us to travel in time and give us a context to today’s world and its problems.
All while drinking tea – or something stronger – on the balcony.