9 September 2011
In Ireland, there was a man, who spent aye his time in the public houses slurping from the bottom of a tankard, named Seamus O’Monaghan. And though Auld Seamus, as he was known (or Old Shame-Us, as some wags referred to him, with a gimlet eye and a curse for his old bones) ne’er stirred himself to set his idle hands to any honest work, still his cup ne’er went dry for long. Auld Seamus, you see, was the finest talker in a country famed for drunkards and poets. Famed to us, at the least: I know not how Ireland has fared over the years. I will ask Brother Bob on the morrow.
Aye, Auld Seamus, he could talk. He would spin a tale that would have left Shakespeare gaping in wonder, or Amergin mac Eccit himself a-dandling on his harp strings, empty of poetry. Auld Seamus could paint a scene with words that would have you not only seeing every leaf and every blade of grass, but smelling it, too. He could make his voice as high as a maiden’s or as gruff as the Devil himself, and his face and his hands would follow the same road, his eyelids fluttering and lips pursing delicately as his maiden hands sought demurely to hide his face – despite the snowy stubble across that chin, mind – or his brow lowering, his wide mouth curled into a sneer and a leer, both at once, his every feature turned infernal. Auld Seamus knew every tale, from books or from villages across the land, and he’d tell any that was asked for, so long as it was asked for with a full mug of ale. And Auld Seamus never went thirsty.
In between tales, while other men would argue over the weather or women or warfare, Auld Seamus would weigh in with his views, of the which he ever had a plenitude, suited for any topic and any occasion; and though his words in conversation never earned him any ale (for every man has an opinion, and no one’s are of value close to my own, in my eyes), those opinions would oft bring the conversation to a close – thus drawing the house down into a lull, which would never last more than a few heartbeats before someone would call out “Give us a tale, then, Seamus!” And he would place his hands on either side of his empty tankard and wait. Aye, there was no dust on Auld Seamus, for all his white hair.
And how would Auld Seamus scuttle a topic? Why, by proffering opinions so absurd, so fantastical – and yet so seemingly logical – that no man could possibly refute them. For the wise would know the argument to be too mad to merit rebuttal, and the fools (of which there are always a majority) would either believe Auld Seamus’s words as he spake them, or be so enchanted by them that they would profess belief merely to amuse themselves in repeating and chuckling over what Auld Seamus had said. Such as the one about rain being the soul’s tears, that was a favored speech, I recall. Some men were arguing over the rain, which was surprisingly sparse that year, and whether or not it would return to its usual pattern in time to increase the crops, or if they would stay dry and thin. Auld Seamus, he broke in with this: “O’ course there has been na’ rain: the English hath gone home, have they na’?” Well, naturally the crowd needed to hear how these two statements related, one to the other, so Auld Seamus explained: it was misery that made rain fall. The more people there were suffering, the more tears, not true? Of course all agreed, in terms of sheer volume of salt water. Ah! And where the men have hearts of lions, and the women, as well, and they turn hard as stones and shed not the tears brought by their suffering, where then, Auld Seamus asked, do those unshed tears go? Why, they travel up into the sky, like mist rising in the morning, and when enough such tears gather in the clouds, they fall as rain. That is why fair Ireland, ever beset by foes and ravaged by feud and turmoil – and where, Auld Seamus said, the people are wise enough to know their misery, and hath long memories for past sufferings, too – Ireland is nigh flooded with precipitation, and Scotland, the same; England, of course, suffers less, and France less still; the Holy Land, where our Lord and Savior walked, will ever be a place of joyful hearts, made so by the memory of the Christ, regardless of what strife may tear at the land; thus it will remain a desert of smiling faces. And, he finished, since the English are now leaving Ireland (’twas when Charles II returned to his throne, after the happy death of Devil Cromwell), the Irish are not suffering sufficiently to bring the rain to our crops.
Aye – it works, does it not? Wherever the people are in the main more blissful and content, the skies are, in the main, more clear. Rain is soul’s tears. Auld Seamus said so.
Here is another of Auld Seamus’s finest oratorical meanderings: Ireland, though plagued by marauders and savage Englishmen, was nevertheless – free. Or at least more free than the homeland of those same Englishmen. “For Ireland hath na’ king, is’t not so?”
“Aye,” the befuddled listeners would answer. “For we are conquered by the damned English, who rule us.”
“Aye, and precisely where my aim lieth, lads!” crowed Auld Seamus. “For a king – a good king, a wise king, just and manly – maketh men loyal. Loyal men follow the laws set down, like stones in a wall, by that just, wise king. That’s what taketh off a man’s freedom: his own choice to loyally follow the laws of his righteous lord.
“But when ’tis a foreign conqueror behind the laws, or an evil king – a man like Devil Cromwell, aye, struth – then no one feeleth the sting o’ conscience when the law be broken nor bent. Then the only matter is, can ye avoid bein’ caught? And any Irishman wi’ a brain in his head and two eyes to see, and two feet to run, will ne’er be caught by those English clods. That’s why we are free!”
And then the men pause, and ponder; then shrug and say, “That’s Auld Seamus!” Then all share a laugh and a round of full mugs. But not a one argues against Auld Seamus’s words. How can you?
Damn me but I miss the old gaffer. Him and all the rest.
It seems to me that if Auld Seamus could have set sail from Ireland (on a ship filled with casks of ale, of course) and settled his own land, where the only history is what Auld Seamus tells them, and the only philosophy what he offers them over a full mug, that land would be America. For surely, this place is madder than any land that has ever reverberated to the tread of man. This day, what I have seen, and what I have heard said, with all sincerity, by Brother Bob, has shown this to be true, and put me in mind of Auld Seamus that was. So now, like then, I will shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s America.” Then call for an ale. There is nothing else that I can do in the face of such lunacy as that of these free men.
We rose early and walked on, after an easy meal of bread and crisp bacon. The woods did not last more than half a mile – surely why Lynch had no luck in hunting – and then opened up to a view of wonder, and horror, both. We looked down from that hill and saw – city. Nothing else but city, from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could leap: buildings and streets and beast-wagons, followed by more buildings and more streets and more wagons. And then still more.
Brother Bob stood with a smile on his face (As, it seems, he does at most every moment, regardless of circumstance – a fine jolly man, he is.) and said, “Isn’t that amazing? That right there, gentlemen, is Washington, D.C. The capitol city of this magnificent country.” (Brother Bob cleared up my confusion regarding the name, which I had believed to be partly French: the city is called the District of Columbia, and given the initials to differentiate it from another place named Washington. I asked him from whence this term originated, but he knew not.)
We made appropriate noises of awe and amaze, and then began the trek down into that labyrinth of humanity and all their works. And who did we find, once we plunged past the outskirts, behind the veil of buildings? Any man who has been to Dublin, or London, Paris, Lisbon, or Rome, anyone who has walked from without to within one of the world’s great cities knows the answer: we found poverty, misery, corruption, degradation, and suffering. We found humanity, in all the tattered glory that is a city of men.
It was perhaps less apparent to our eyes, I and my two fellow ancients, than it would have been to a native of this land; we did not recognize houses and edifices that are shoddy, shabby, small and lowly – to us they are all incredible giants, filled with sparkling glass and the eldritch light made in glass balls they call electricity. But we knew beggars when we saw them, and good folk wasted by poverty and hunger, and young men turned to surly, hard-hearted toughs – turned by anger that has no target, no release, and no respite. Aye, we knew these people well: they are our people. They are we.
Brother Bob did not show poorly, as we made our way down streets filled with the idle, the inebriated, the insane, and the indigent; I have seen many an American turn away and ignore his fellow – a habit I saw as well in the English these people so resemble. But Brother Bob behaved more like an Irishman among his brothers: he met their gaze, whether the eyes behind were mad or sad or forlorn, and nodded and smiled and murmured greetings and well wishes, raising his hand to the men and giving a slight bow of respect to the ladies he passed: whether granny or child or painted harlot, he spurned none. My shipmates and I exchanged a glance and a smile; we might be in the wrong place (For ye must pity the poor and destitute, but among ’em, remember to watch thy purse) and the wrong time, but we were with the right man.
After a time – a longish time, and a good distance: four or five miles, methinks, though these buildings so close and so looming-tall do make it hard to judge distance over land – we passed out of the outer city and into the inner city, the home of the prosperous and the noble. A spring came into Brother Bob’s step again, and he began to point out sights for our amazement and edification. He asked if we had ever seen the White House, and when we confirmed our innocence of such, he clapped his hands with glee and turned us down a street crying, “This way!” and setting off with vigor.
Indeed, we were amazed again. This White House was a palace beyond any we had ever seen – perhaps rivaling St. Peter’s in Rome, or that place Louis of France was rumored to be building, in Versailles, if I remember aright, though I have never seen either, to compare. ‘Tis a mighty colonnaded manor, as white as new-fallen snow, seen at a fair distance across perfectly kept grounds behind a tall black iron fence with guards posted at the entry gate, kept busy by swarms of courtiers and audience-seekers, as any palace must be.
I inquired of Brother Bob the name of the sovereign who ruled there – curious I was, whether these once-English colonies were now under a Tudor, or a Stuart, or perhaps a Bourbon. But he scoffed at this. “We don’t have kings here! This is a free country!”
I set my gaze on that White House, this lavish prodigy built for one man’s vanity and comfort, and I scoffed in return. “I have seen palaces ere this, my brother – and that is a palace. With palaces come kings.” He shook his head, saying I did not understand, and I let it pass.
He led us to more magnificence then – more great buildings, all of them pure white and colonnaded (clearly meant to flatter the king by imitating the style of his palace), which he called the Capitol, and the Supreme Court, and other such; this Capitol, quoth Bob, housed what he called the Senate – as in Rome of old – and a House that he compared to Parliament, a term that we three ancient Irishmen, who had lived through the rule of Devil Cromwell and his Parliamentarians, started at and exchanged glances over. Perhaps it is true that they have no kings here, I thought and whispered to my compatriots: if their Parliament has beheaded them as Cromwell did to Charles of England. Then Brother Bob showed us the monuments – built in one of the loveliest places I have seen, in this land or any other, in a park with a pool of water that reflected the clear blue sky above, and pavilions, graceful and clean, all about.
There were monuments to the glorious dead, fallen in battle – one, Bob said, for an unknown soldier, which befuddled me: why would you cast shame on the dead, being forgotten, or on yourselves for forgetting him? Another, where Brother Bob took some time to visit and say prayers, was a vast wall of black stone, with thousands of names carved into it – the names of all the men torn from this world by fire and by sword in that war. I must say, ’twas a magnificent tribute, a fine way to honor lost heroes. ‘Twas most affecting to us all. Especially when we realized the sheer extent of it, and the number of the fallen – a terrible weight of names, in truth, and of lives lost.
Then Brother Bob showed us the memorials for past kings. And these showed once more that my surmise regarding the White House was correct – a point I made to Brother Bob. This Lincoln, this Jefferson, and most particularly this Washington for whom the city is named – who raised himself a pagan obelisk taller than any spire I have ever seen, taller by far than the great cathedrals of Europe, as if this man would set his glory above that of God himself – clearly, these men, though they wore no crowns, were kings of old.
“You don’t understand,” said Brother Bob. “This is a free country. It’s a democracy. We choose our leaders.”
“Aye, so did the Romans,” I rejoined. “‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.’ Is that it? You have chosen to set these men so far above you that they ‘bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves.’ Aye? ‘I know he would not be a wolf but that he sees the Romans are but sheep.’ Be that your meaning?”
He shook his head. “No! We cast votes, and select our leaders of our own free will. They only rule by the consent of the governed, by the will of the people, and according to the laws of the country.”
I frowned at him. “So then the people – those people, living in squalor and deprivation out there, miles of misery surrounding this opulence, this splendid vainglory – they choose this? They cast a vote for men who live thus, and who allow them to continue to live like that – and each within a stone’s throw of the other?” I laughed. “No, my friend, it is but a child’s story, meant to placate.” (It was here, indeed, that I thought of Auld Seamus.) “There is no freedom here. This is despotism, whatever they may tell you to the contrary.”
We stood beneath the prodigious Washington Monument, and Brother Bob – somewhat exercised now, and spluttering – pointed up at it and said, “No. They wanted to make him a king, wanted him to lead for the rest of his life. He refused. He gave up his power after only eight years. And every president” (This is the term they apply to themselves, these American kings, and most clever are they to refer to their rule as “presiding,” rather than ruling. Somewhat like Julius Caesar choosing the title of dictator – speaker, commander – rather than Imperator or Rex. And just as truthful as Caesar, methinks.) “– every president since then – well, almost every one – has stuck to that. Now it’s in the laws: no one can be in charge for more than eight years, and that’s only if they win two national elections.”
“Eight years?” quoth I. “Caesar himself ruled for less. As did Caligula. And Bloody Mary. Devil Cromwell himself held sway for not more than twice that span. Surely a tyrant may cause untold harm in eight years. I fail to see how that makes you free.”
“Because the President doesn’t have absolute power!”
“This President of yours: does he demand show of obeisance? Does he walk into a room with a fanfare, and must others stand, or bow?”
“Well, yes, but –”
“Does he have a personal guard, loyal to the death, who will kill any who threaten him?”
“The Secret Service, yes, but –”
“Does he take all of the laurels for good fortune unto himself, and push all blame onto his subordinates and rivals?”
“Okay, yes, but still –”
“Then he’s a king.”
“But we elect them,” Brother Bob said. “We have free choice!”
“Can ye choose to elect none of them, to rule yourselves?” He shook his head. “Well then,” I went on, “can any man become king? Any man may choose any name to cast a vote for?”
“Well, no,” he said, hedging and retreating, as he must. “There are two major parties, and we pick from those.”
I had to laugh. “Aye – like the War of the Roses, is’t not? This House or that House, White or Red, and not a hair’s difference between the two. All of them leave your people in poverty. All of them put good men in gaol. All of them send young men to die in wars, fought for the ruler’s glory and at his command.
“No, my friend. Take it from me: I know what it is to be ruled by a tyrant who uses noble and lofty speech to describe the ravaging of a land and her people. This is a kingdom, under the feet of despots, whether they be one single man or one of a faction. You are not free.”
Brother Bob had naught to say. So, pitying him – for it is most painful when the scales fall from one’s eyes (if indeed they did fall – Auld Seamus never surrendered his opinions, even if someone did argue, as happened once or twice) – we set out on our northward journey once more, and left politics behind. Within a mile, Brother Bob had cast off his melancholy and was back to his cheerful self. He took us then to a house of comfort, where the poor were given food and shelter; he spoke with the proprietor, a kind soul by the name of Beatrice Everstone, and then proposed to we three that we should spend the remainder of that day there, offering what assistance we could in exchange for a meal and a bed for the night.
Such generous terms were well to our liking, and we swiftly agreed. We were able to offer ourselves as carpenters, making various repairs, as well as maidservants and serving wenches, cleaning the sprawling hall and doling out victuals to the paupers. MacManus and I even kept the peace, stepping into an argument that was fast turning to fisticuffs, but for our timely intervention and stern correction.
The labor made the simple fare delicious, and the beds into sumptuous bowers. I put a hand on Brother Bob’s shoulder as we readied ourselves for sleep, smiled and said, “Here is where men are free. Tyrants hold no sway in generous hearts.” He smiled and nodded in return.
And so, after keeping this log, to bed.