21 July 2017

Brief History is now on Amazon. Let your joy be unrestrained.

I have finally published the first part, dealing with the years from 1828 to the death and funeral of Bishop Michael Power.  The e-book has been online for a few days, but the paperback version is having issues- it keeps reverting to draft rather than publishing, and I can find no reason as to why. I was waiting for both to be ready before announcing, however, I don't know how long this issue will persist, or if it even can be fixed.

I gave up waiting to hear back from the cardinal.  He told me I do not need permission from the ordinary to publish.  A kind word would have been nice, but, on the other hand, I did take issue with some of the conclusions reached by someone who turned out to be the quasi official historian of the diocese, and I also reject the conclusion reached by a documentary about the famine released ten years ago that the archdiocese (and the same historian) were consulted in and had a part in making.  Oops.  Or, more likely, he is simply too busy.

So, at any rate, in time for the 175th anniversary of the archdiocese comes my take on the rascals, ambitious ladder climbers, ordinary folk, not ordinary folk, a candidate for sainthood and international humanitarian catastrophe that helped shape the early years of the archdiocese of Toronto.  It is an entertaining, informative, but above all brief history of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Here's the link: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0741QPLB2


The paperback version is now online.  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1521892024

20 July 2017

From our travels

We were in downtown Charlottetown a week or so back when we were on vacation. The city seems to have some random costumed historical actors walking around the building where the first talks of Confederation occurred. I asked them what year they were from They replied: "The year of our Lord 1860, sir. What year are you from?" The man in the group then began tor grumble about the rumours of talks between the colonies to join up with the wretched united province of Canada and how the Canadians planned to bankrupt the island and kill all its men. The ladies cheered him on with a "Spoken like a true Islander!" We parted with a hearty harrumph.

I was unsatisfied with my part in the conversation. I was rather flatfooted by the unexpected encounter, and, as usual, I didn't think of a good retort until it was too late. If they want to do history, after all, then let's do history. I wish I had thought to say this, low and soft, in my finest Irish accent:

You want to know what year I'm from, do you, boy? I'm from many years, but the only one you need concern yourself with is Anno Domini 1847. That was the year my fine landlord in his fine clothes and tophat much like yours came and took every scrap of food I had grown on my farm, and left me with nothing but an acre of rotten potatoes. That was the year my youngest starved because there was nothing to eat. It was that year that landlord took the farm that had been in my family as long as anyone can count. That was the year we were put on a ship and sent out here, and while we were at sea my wife and another child turned black and died from the typhus and were thrown overboard like so much rubbish, without so much as a benedicitee. That was the year I stepped off that damned coffin boat and was greeted with jeers and signs saying 'No Irish Allowed' and 'no papists or dogs'. You an Orangeman? Don't answer. I can hear it in your voice, see it in your face and your fine, fine clothes, from your shiny buckled shoes to that hat that's as black as your soul. You want to know what's more, Orangeman? I was there when your carts crashed our St Patrick's parade, and when it was all over Paddy O'Connell lay dead in the street like a damned dog. I was there when the police men in their nice, neat uniforms with their polished buttons and their shiny badges swore on your bible that they didn't remember a thing, even though they were all standing right there when it happened. Orangemen, all of them, straight through and through. Well, let me tell you something, Orangeboy. You got a bit of luck that I met you here with these women. But we'll meet another day, when there aren't any women to protect you,  you with some of your friends, me with some of mine, and on that day I will be paid for my farm, my children, my wife, and my friend- like for like, and blood for blood. Now you get going, before I forget that there are ladies present and take a down payment on what is owed me. Good day, ladies.

10 July 2017

LOL indeed.

Last week we were in a small town for Canada Day. They had a parade down main street complete with various organizations from the town. There were the Freemasons, and the Kinsmen and Kinettes. Then along came the Loyal Orange Lodge (Acronym LOL. Seriously.) They didn't throw rotten fruit or rubbish at me, but there was a time when they would have. There was also a time when they would have, on account of my faith and race, denied me gainful employment, tried to take away my right to vote, rioted against my very existence, used my name a s a curse, and occasionally killed me or people like me. But they have moved beyond all that now. They're a kinder, gentler, orange lodge now. They band together for brotherhood and to support charities and do good deeds. They are no longer the absolutely hateful racists and supremacists they once were. And good for them.

But at the same time, I also thought of what it would be like for a black man a hundred years now watching parade wherein there might be a group of a kinder gentler KKK. The guys in sheets had a horrible past, to be sure, but they had moved beyond that and were now doing simple, unobjectionable things. Should he be alright with that? Would 'well sure, they used to be utterly despicable, but they're better now' cut it?

1 July 2017

Day of Nation and Memory

I greet my beloved countrymen on this day of nation and memory. A day of nation, because it is the one hundred and forty ninth anniversary since Confederation, and anniversary formerly known as Dominion Day. A day off memory because it is the hundred and first anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

At the time of Confederation, only four provinces elected to enter into the new Dominion- Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted to stay out. Prince Edward Island joined the confederation a few years later, and was later joined by BC, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Newfoundland, the last to join, only joined the Dominion in 1949 after a hotly contested plebiscite won by the narrowest of margins for the Dominion side. There are those in Newfoundland who believe the plebiscite was rigged by the British government who wished to shed themselves of a poor colony.

For Newfoundlanders, July First holds a double meaning. It is Canada Day, but the day holds another meaning to which they are dedicated- memory. It is the memory for which the provincial university- memorial university- is named and dedicated: to perpetuate the memory of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment and the events of July First, 1916 at Beaumnont Hamel, in the opening hours of the Somme offensive.

The Battle of the Somme has its roots in 1916's other and greater bloodbath, Verdun. The French were sustaining huge losses at Verdun, to the south of the British sector of the Western Front. The French appealed to General Haig, the British commander, to launch an offensive in his sector in an attempt to draw German units out of Verdun and to relieve the pressure on the French.
By this time, the war had reached a stalemate. Each side had adopted defensive trenches as a way to fortify their position, and no advance was made on either side. The trenches were a complicated affair. Each side laid out series of parallel trenches to create a defense in depth. Running perpendicular to the front line, second line and third line trenches were another series of trenches allowing movement back and forth between the trench lines, called communication trenches. The ground between the trenches was often covered in barbed wire, as was the area in front of the front lines. It was a formidable defense.

The battle plan, such as it was, called for the largest bombardment yet to destroy the German lines- trenches, barbed wire and all- at which point the British forces would push through unopposed and continue straight on to Germany. The British quickly amassed the shells necessary for the bombardment, and began the shelling on June 24, 1916. The attack was originally scheduled for June 29, but inclement weather caused the attack to be postponed. The delay also allowed an additional two days to the bombardment. So confident were the British of the utter destruction of the Germans that the units of the first wave of the attack were told they could walk upright and erect to the German lines. The trenches, the barbed wire, the Germans themselves would long since have been destroyed. The British generals even ordered the men to sew metal reflective plates onto their backs that would flash in the sunlight as they moved, so the generals could better observe their advance from aerial reconnaissance photographs they would peruse from their safe positions far in the rear.
In the meantime, the Germans stayed in their bunkers. The Somme region was known for having a bedrock of chalk, which could be easily excavated and provided excellent protection from shelling. The Germans dug their bunkers deeper and moved in more troops, as the French had desired. Far from obliteration, the only result of the bombardment was to warn the Germans of an impending attack, and allowed them time to reinforce their line. It did not destroy the trenches. It did not clear the barbed wire. The German position was stronger after the bombardment than before.
On the morning of July 1st at about 7:30 the guns fell silent, whistles were blown, and the British climbed from the trenches and began their advance. The Germans could not believe their eyes- thousands upon thousands of British troops advancing in parade ground marching formation, many of them lead by bagpipers. Their shock did not last long. They reached for their rifles and machine guns, sent signals to their own batteries, and opened fire.

It was a massacre. For almost the entire length of the Somme sector, the first wave was wiped out. The second wave was ordered over the top and met the same fate. Communication was a shambles. The only reports that reached the British Command came from the few units who had succeeded in their attack. Thinking the attack was successful, the third wave was ordered to prepare to go over the top.

The Newfoundland Regiment was at a place called Beaumont Hamel when orders came through at 8:45 am. The command had confused flares sent up by the Germans to their gunners to be flares from British troops calling for reinforcements, and believed the first and second waves had been at least partially successful. They issued the orders for the third wave go prepare to go over the top. The 1st Newfoundland and 1st Essex were to move forward and occupy the enemy's first line of trenches. At the time they were about two hundred metres back from their own front line, out of sight of the enemy. The Newfoundlanders tried to move to the forward trench, but the communication trenches were clogged with wounded and under shell fire. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Hadow, decided to move immediately to attack positions by ordering his men out of the trenches and to march on the open ground above the trenches to the front lines. Meanwhile, the first Essex decided to try and move through their communication trenches, and as a result were not in a position to launch an attack until 10:30. At 9:15 The Newfoundland men, about 780 of them, rose from their trenches. Colonel Hadow gestured with his stick the in the direction of the Germans, and gave the order. With that, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment began to move in rehearsed formations through their own front lines to the jump off point.

At first they were protected by a small rise that lay in the middle of the British trenches, but before long they crested the top of the little hill and were completely silhouetted against the morning sky. By then, they were the only thing moving on the battlefield. Every German gun in the sector turned towards them and opened fire.

Men began to fall. Men from tight knit communities, men who had served together, knew each other as friends and as brothers fell to the ground. Those who remained continued on. As one witness later said, they moved forward "with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard". More men fell. They continued their advance. They had not yet cleared their own front lines.
They marched on because they believed. They believed in courage and honour. They believed in truth and justice, they believed in their cause. Those who had been educated had learned the words "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori"- "it is sweet and just to die for one's country" These words had meaning, such meaning that men were prepared to die for these words, and also for an empire that would shake off their beloved homeland the first chance it got. They were men of a generation that proved beyond all others that they believed. And because of days like this, because of four years of days like this, they were the last generation that could believe so honestly, so naively, so blindly, and so totally.

Deeper into the storm they marched. By the time they had cleared their own barbed wire and crossed into No Man's Land they had suffered perhaps 30 per cent casualties. With every step they drew closer to the German guns. The fire became more accurate, more concentrated, more deadly. They stepped over the dead and wounded from the earlier attacks, swelled the number of dead and wounded with their own, and pressed on. There was no cover. There was no retreat. There was no escape.

Perhaps forty or fifty men made it to the German trenches. They fought bravely, aided by a few of the survivors of the earlier attacks, but the end was never in doubt. Their fate had been sealed the moment they first rose from their trenches. It was over by 9:40.
For the wounded in the field the nightmare continued. As a final, terrible joke the wounded found thy could not move at all. The metal plates sewn onto their backs so the Generals could observe their movements also betrayed their movements to the German snipers. They had to lie still on the field, and hope they survived until nightfall. In the Northern Hemisphere, July First is one of the longest days of the year.

The 1st Essex attack was cancelled, but due to the communications chaos of that day, the order never reached them. They went over the top at 10:30, and suffered 280 casualties before the attack was called back.

July First remains the greatest one day disaster in the history of the British Army. Up and down the Somme front the casualties totalled 57,470, of which 19, 240 were fatal. For the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, 780 went over the top on July First. The next day, 68 answered roll call. The Regiment suffered the second highest rate of casualties of all the units that went over the top that day. Ultimately, tragically, the day was merely a prelude to slaughter. Before the Battle of the Somme was finally ended by Autumn rains it would claim over a million casualties. Of all the horrific battles of the First World War, it was second only to Verdun for blood.

News of the disaster soon winged its across the Atlantic to the Island home of the men in the form of telegrams telling their families and friends of their death. To an Island of small tightly knit communities, everyone was touched in some way by that day. The British tried to put a good face on the disaster by invoking the words that once meant something in ways that ring hollow today. The Divisional commander paid a grim tribute to the men: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." Later the reconstituted unit received the unique honour of adding the word "Royal" to its name, so they were now the "Royal Newfoundland Regiment". More men signed up, followed their people back across the ocean to the desperation of No Man's Land. The war would continue for another two years.
After the war Beaumont Hamel was ceded to the Newfoundland Government. The ground of the attack was preserved as much as possible as it was during the war. The government placed a statue of a caribou, the regimental symbol, standing over the British trenches, forever facing the German foe. The ground has been cared for, as a reminder of that desperate morning 100 years ago. Near the entrance to the park an epitaph is inscribed in Bronze. It reads:

And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and right willingly for you and me.

24 June 2017

Feast of Saint John the Baptist

Today is, in the Roman Calendar, the Feast of John The Baptist. It is an important day to Catholics particularly those in Quebec, but it is also an important day for music lovers everywhere. It is about as close as possible to the anniversary of The Day Everything Changed in Music. How so? you may well ask. Well, gather around, The story goes a little like this:

About a thousand years ago the Church was facing a crisis. This is of course nothing new: the Church is always facing some sort of crisis. This one had to do with music.

For the first millennium of the Church's history composers had been creating music to go with every part of the Mass, along with the divine office, and general hymns of praise, and so on. The total of music was immense, and every last bit of it was in danger of being lost forever because no one could write it down. As St Isadore of Seville put it: "Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down." Early attempts at write music at that time consisted of arrow-like markings over the words, indicating if the pitch went up or down, and sometimes elaborate squiggles. However, such markings were mnemonic devices, aimed at helping someone who already knew the piece remember how it went. It would not have been possible for someone who had never before heard the song to pick up a piece so marked and sing it from the page.

Enter the hero of our story, Benedictine monk Guido of Arezzo. Our hero was in charge of teaching music to the young monks in his monastery. While teaching them our hymn for Vespers on the Feast of St. John Baptist, he noticed that each line began on a successive ascending note:

Ut queant laxis
re-sonare fibris:
mi-ra gestorum
fa-muli tuorum:
sol-ve polluti
la-bii reatus:
Sancte Ioannes

If you take the first syllables on which those ascending notes appeared you have Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si.  If you were to change the "ut" to "do" (pronounced as in "a deer"- a female deer) and "si" to "ti" (as in the drink, goes well with jam and bread, so I'm told, I don't like jam) you have something familiar to us all. What Guido had done was give the notes names, and names can be written down. The issue was how.

Eventually the solution he arrived at was to draw four lines over the words, and mark one line either as "ut" or as "fa" and indicate the notes with square dots placed on the line or space over the word, thus indicating that word's pitch. And thus the first modern music notation was born.

He also created a method of teaching singers still used today, wherein singers are trained to sing the intervals by having the singers sing the notes out of order, rather like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, where she teaches them, as Guido did, first the names of the notes, and them how to move between them "so, do, la, fa, mi, re, do- when you know the notes to sing." And his students could now sing most anything.

The immediate reaction to Guido's brilliant and workable solution was the reward so often given to those who find think outside of the box and find elegant solutions to complicated problems: He was fired. His bishop was upset that Guido turned novices into professional singers, instead of professional pray-ers. But another bishop of a nearby diocese was quite happy to have professional singers, and brought Guido to his place, where he encouraged Guido to write a book on his method. That book, the Micrologus, came to the attention of the pope, who summoned Guido to Rome to explain and demonstrate his new method. Guido did as told, and the pope, after seeing the method demonstrated, almost immediately ordered all monasteries to adopt Guido's methods and set down their music. And thus the crisis was ended.

But Guido's invention stretched far beyond the preservation of Chant. All the music that exists in the West today, whether Polyphony, or Baroque, or Classical, Romantic, Jazz and so on, exists because it could be written down by one writer, and handed over to musicians who could then faithfully reproduce what they saw on the page, even though they had never heard the piece before. And for that, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a simple Benedictine monk, who was simply trying to teach his novices to sing

16 June 2017

Any input would be greatly appreciated.

This is for those two or three of you who have read the Brief History. 

I am in the process of setting up the first part- dealing with arrival of Father William O'Grady in Toronto in time for the 1837 rebellions, to the arrival of Bishop Michael Power, to the arrival of the Famine Irish and the death of +Power in 1847- for self publication. Part of what I have to do is come up with a blurb for the back cover of the book. Here's where you come in.

I am drawing an absolute blank on this one.  My description of the book (Entitled: A Brief History of the Archdiocese of Toronto Part One: 1827-1847) currently runs thusly:  "It's a book.  About the Archdiocese of Toronto.  Between the years 1827 and 1847."

I think I need something better than that.



13 June 2017

On adapting other nations' educational policies into our system

I've had several notes in my feed lately about education in other countries. This country does this, that country does that, and they are all doing very well, and the implication seems to be that we should do this one thing or that one thing or perhaps both things, and then everything would be hunky dory.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with that: First, many of the things showing up in my feed are mutually exclusive. Second, these things are completely removed from their context. Education exists as a whole in itself and also as a part of and an expression of the society and culture that created it. What works to educate the children of one culture may not work to educate the children of another. Our schools are messed up to a large degree because we are messed up. To go back to something I have pointed out repeatedly as an example: I would love to bring back shop class and home economics, both of which have mostly disappeared from our schools. But our schools will not bring them back as long as we live in a culture where parents react to their children getting burnt or cut because they broke the safety rules by calling up their lawyer and trying to sue the school into oblivion. Shorter school days and no homework like in Finland is difficult if not impossible in a culture where both parents work and daycare is expensive. And as long as we're on the subject, parents treating schools as daycare further hamstrings our educational system.

Personally, I think what hamstrings the system most of all is the fact that it is a system in the first place, but that's something for another time