Happy St Patrick’s Day!

One of my minor scholarly ambitions is one day to write a short history of big-haired lady Classicists, from the seventeenth century onwards. But one of the reasons that this may be a more challenging exercise that it sounds is that it is sometimes hard to tell whether lady Classicists have big hair or not, given their fondness for being painted wearing large military helmets in the style of the Roman goddess Minerva.

I mentioned this to someone in Celtic Studies the other day, and she observed that lady Celticists in centuries gone by also liked to pose for portraits in flowing Celtic costumes. So there may be a significant comparative dimension to make the project a bit more complicated and interesting than I’d initially anticipated.

But I was interested in the remark about lady Celticists for another reason, which is that I’m a first cousin, six times removed, of Charlotte Brooke–not the international fetish model, but the distinguished eighteenth-century lady Celticist. And so the question immediately poses itself: did she have big hair?

Well, it seems that it’s quite a tricky question. I can’t find any images of her in any of the places you might expect to find one–in the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery, on her Wikipedia page, in the ODNB, or in the front matter of reprints of her major work. And I’m told that although there was a likeness made of her in the eighteenth century, no-one seems to know what happened to it, whether it survived–or, crucially, whether it recorded a lady Celticist with big hair or not. So the mystery persists.

Anyway: all that is really just a long and frivolous introduction to say that while I was scratching around looking for Charlotte Brooke-related material on the web–and finding along the way that she has her own roundabout in Co. Longford!–I learned that there’s a gorgeous new-ish edition of her major work, Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789), edited by Lesa Ni Mhunghaile, and a copy arrived in the post the other day. And it’s very good indeed: really well done, and I’m going to learn a lot from it.

Danes apologise to Irish for Viking raids!

Over here

… Years ago a man who worked for the council sweeping the streets where I grew up used to wear a large Viking helmet (with horns, yes, yes, I know). Somebody wrote to the local newspaper to say that it might frighten elderly residents, whereupon somebody else replied to say that they’d really have to be very old if they had childhood memories of being scared by Vikings.

UPDATE [5pm]: Or not, as the case may be (and as Dan spotted in the comments).

St Patrick

It’s half-time during France vs Scotland in Paris, and there’s a distinct possibility that Ireland will end the day Six Nations Champions, if Scotland can hold on, and that the Irish cricketers may beat Pakistan in the World Cup: Pakistan are 73-6 off 22.3 overs. My goodness.

I’m trying not to get excited by the World Cup, because one-day cricket is a silly game (unless it’s 20-20 cricket, which pushes silliness to the limit, and becomes sensible, again, or something), but there’s been a satisfying amount of drama for a competition that’s still only a few days old.

UPDATE [5.15pm]: Bugger. Still, Pakistan are 112 for 8 (34.2 overs).

UPDATE [7.20pm]: Still, I always like it when Wales beats England.

Gerald of Wales on the Beaver

There’s quite a bit more interest in beavers among the readers of the Virtual Stoa than I think I had anticipated. So, to attempt to sate your demand for round-the-clock beaver-blogging, here’s chapter 19 of Gerald of Wales’s 12th century classic, The History and Topography of Ireland (which featured in the Virtual Stoa eighteen months ago). Don’t be misled, by the way, by his remark about how “Ireland has badgers but not beavers” into wondering why the beaver features in a book about Ireland. It’s not that kind of book. It’s not the bit about the testicles, that I clearly misremembered in comments below. Perhaps that’s Pliny, or some Roman writer.

The beaver and its nature

Beavers use a similar contrivance of nature [to that of badgers, discussed earlier – Ed.]. When they are building their homes in the rivers, they use slaves of their own kind as carts, and so by this wonderful means of transport pull and drag lengths of wood from the forests to the waters. In both kinds of animal (badger and beaver) the slaves are distinguished by a certain inferiority of shape and a worn bare patch upon their backs.

Ireland has badgers but not beavers. In Wales beavers are to be found only in the Teifi river near Cardigan. They are, in the same way, scarce in Scotland.

One should remark that beavers have wide tails, spread out like the palm of the human hand, and not long. They use them as oars in swimming. And while the whole of the rest of their body is very furry, they are entirely free from fur on this part, and are quire bare and slippery like a seal. Consequently in Germany and the northern regions, where beavers are plentiful, great and holy men eat the tails of beavers during fasting times – as being fish, since, as they say, they partake of the nature of fish both in taste and colour.

But about these and their nature, how and with what skill they build their settlements in the middle of rivers, and how, when pressed by an enemy, by the loss of a part they save the whole – a contrivance most commendable in an animal – will be more fully explained when we come to deal with the geography and description of Wales and Scotland, and the origin and nature of the people of each. We shall find another opportunity of doing this, and to another purpose, with God’s help and if life be spared…

[Gerald of Wales snippet from the Penguin ed., translated by John O’Meara, pp.48-9.]


Can linguistic pedants support peace in Ireland?

There was a split infinitive in the Good Friday Agreement (“… the right to freely choose one’s place of residence…”), and there are three more in today’s historic IRA statement (“… to verifiably put… to fully engage… to fully comply…”)

But as an Irish friend pointed out to me back in 1998, we should applaud all concerned for trying to boldly go where no peace process has gone before…


I’m concerned that all four verses are about to disappear from the internetweb. So here they are again. Sing along please, drink in hand. Double points to anyone who knows the verses in Irish.

Why spend your leisure bereft of pleasure,
Amassing treasure, why scrape and save?
Why look so canny at every penny?
You’ll take no money within the grave.
Landlords and gentry with all their plenty
Must still go empty where’er they’re bound.
So to my thinking, we’d best be drinking,
Our glasses clinking in round on round.

King Solomon’s glory, so famed in story,
Was far outshone by the lily’s guise.
But hard winds harden both field and garden;
Pleading for pardon, the lily dies.
Life’s but a bauble of toil and trouble,
The feathered arrow, once shot ne’er found.
So lads and lasses, because time passes,
Come fill your glasses for another round.

The huxter greedy he blinds the needy
Their straits unheeding, shouts, “money down!”
His special vice is his fancy prices,
For a florin’s value he’ll charge a crown.
With hump for trammel, the Scripture’s camel
Missed the needle’s eye and so came to ground.
Why pine for riches while still you’ve stitches
To hold your britches up — another round!

The schooner trading ‘tween Spain and Aden
Returns well laden with oil and corn.
And from Gibraltar her course she’ll alter
And steer for Malta and the Golden Horn.
With easy motion they sail life’s ocean
With ne’er a notion they’ll run aground.
It’s nought but miming, so ends my rhyming
And still we’ve time in for another round!