How the Irish built Britain

McAlpine’s Men: Irish Stories from the Sites (2010) edited by Ultan Cowley

Rating: ★★★★★

Britain owes a debt to the Irish navvy, the migrant labourer willing to do the back-breaking shovel work others baulked at. By the 1970’s there were over 200,000 of them. Nobody has done more to document their cause than the author Ultan Cowley, who wrote the definitive book on the subject called The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy (2001). The book stripped away decades of ignorance about the Irish navvy. It also forms a fitting memorial to a race of men whose contribution to British society, especially during the post-war construction boom years, has for too long been undervalued.

The term ‘navvy’ originated with the building of the 18th century canals, the ‘inland navigation system’ in Britain. The diggers became known as ‘navigators’ or ‘navvies’. The pioneering construction methods of these canal builders were then adapted by the railway engineers and the excavators who, working on this new transport system, kept the name ‘navvies’.

Post-world war two, the new generation of Irish immigrants who worked on the construction of the motorways, hydro-electric schemes and other massive civil engineering works were given the same name. In this way, the word navvy became synonymous with Irish migrant labourers, the ‘heavy diggers’ who came to dominate the ground-works aspect of construction in Britain..

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Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Rating: ★★★★★

Lord of the Flies (1954), a hugely successful modern classic, provokes critical acclaim and acrimony simultaneously. The story is widely known, it has occupied a place in English Literature syllabuses since the 1960’s that is likely to continue. In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels written between 1923 to 2005. A superficially simple narrative that is easy to pick up is an obvious advantage, but in common with many of the classics, old and new, has layers of complexity.

A group of British public schoolboys are the survivors of an air-crash on an archetypical Pacific island paradise. There they confront the task of organizing survival and rescue. At first, they set up the systems basic to civilization, defined leadership, assigned roles, laws, food supply, shelter and waste disposal.

The original semblance of order imposed by the populist Ralph quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys turn idle, their society disintegrating under the pressures of aggression, fear and irrationality. At one point, Jack summons all of the hunters to hunt down a wild pig, including the boys who were supposed to be maintaining the fire. A ship approaches, but passes by because the signal fire has gone out. Although the hunting of the pig turns out to be the hunters’ first successful hunt, Ralph is infuriated that they have missed a potential rescue. Many of the boys begin to believe that the island is inhabited by a monster, referred to as “the beast”..

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Theories of Fairy Tales

During the past century at least, folklorists have taken a serious look at fairy tales. The familiar tales from our childhood  are not as simple or as childlike as we might think.  It has been argued that the original context of traditional folk and fairy tales involved little or no differentiation between adults and children, and that these tales served predominantly to instruct and entertain adults. How significant was the role played by these tales in shaping social norms, values, aesthetic tastes and aspirations? Is there a difference between myth, fairy tale, and legend?

Folklorists have abandoned the search for origins, but there is still an effort to construct a “scene of origin”, a primal scene of narration, to explain how fairy tales came into being. It is usually pictured as peasants sitting around the fireside telling tales while they are repairing tools, patching clothes or spinning yarn.  Many of today’s fairy tales can be, and have been extensively re-worked. They are stories about the quest for power, wealth, and romance, often moralistic in tone, but the characters are mostly opportunistic, they respond to circumstances as they happen, as children themselves often do..

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The Marked Year 1914

The 5th Lancers Re-enter Mons, November 1918 by Richard Caton Woodville (1856-1927).











The four years between 1914 and 1918 were, as Graham Wallas observed, “four years of the most intense and heroic effort the human race has ever made” (Human Nature in Politics – Third Edition , 1921). When that effort was spent, illusions and enthusiasms possible up to 1914 turned to massive disillusionment, an image not unlike the luxurious, class-conscious RMS Titanic, which sank just two years before. The only gain, if any, for humanity was a painful reminder of its own limitations.

“The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours, in wiping out so many lives which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between two epochs.”   ( The Guns of August)

“The nineteenth century, the great age of European civilisation, was an edifice of grandeur and passion, of riches and beauty, but with dark cellars below. Its inhabitants lived, as compared to a later time, with more self-reliance, more confidence, more hope, more careless ease, but also hypocrisy, injustice and false sentiment” ( Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914)..

Looking back on that world, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian poet, dedicated his work “With emotion, to the man I used to be”. Ninety-six years later, it is increasingly difficult to remember the pre-1914 world that used to be. Here is a reminder… Continue reading The Marked Year 1914

The Basque Shepherd and Psalm 23

This article is a much loved classic published by Reader’s Digest and related to the 23rd Psalm. It was written by James K. Wallace. If you love Psalm 23, you are sure to find this article informative and uplifting. Enjoy!

(The most requested reprint on the 40th anniversary of the Reader’s Digest in Canada. Condensed from “The National Wool Grower” by James K. Wallace, Dec.1949)

Old Ferando D’Alphonso is a Basque shepherd employed by one of the big Nevada sheep ranches. He is rated as one of the best sheep rangers in the state, and he should be; for he is descended from at least 20 generations of Iberian shepherds. But D’Alfonso is more than a shepherd; he is a patriarch of his guild, the traditions and secrets of which have been handed down from generation to generation. Despite a 30-year absence from his homeland he is still full of the legends, the mysteries, the religious fervour of his native hills. I sat with him one night under the clear,starry skies, his sheep bedded down beside a pool of sparkling water. As we were preparing to curl up in our blankets, he began to quote the                     23rd Psalm.

There, in the desert, I learned the shepherd’s literal interpretation of this beautiful poem. “David and his ancestors”, said D’Alphonso, “knew sheep and their ways, and David has translated a sheep’s musing into simple words. The daily repetition of this Psalm fills the shepherd with reverence for his calling…

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Shetland to Rosyth in 31 hours

Anyone with connections with Shetland, Orkney or the North-east of Scotland will be interested in this news story:


Aberdeen 08/11/10

A ferry stranded off the north east coast of Scotland, the Hjaltland, coping with “atrocious” high seas, has docked in Fife after more than a day (actually 31 hours) at sea. Strong winds left 87 people stranded on the NorthLink passenger ferry. The vessel was supposed to dock in Aberdeen at 0700 GMT on Monday 08/11/10, after travelling overnight from Shetland. It finally arrived in Rosyth at about 0115 GMT on Tuesday (18 hours late) after a decision to take the ferry 100 miles south (Source: BBC news 09/11/10).

Recent storms are a reminder of how Scotland’s northern waters can be amongst the most treacherous in the world. Makes the achievements of the Vikings even more remarkable. They probably spent the winters indoors though! Don’t let the winter weather put you off a visit. Here are a couple of stock photographs from for those who have never sailed out of Stromness (Orkney). Try and go there one day!

The Used Book Trade

Having bought and sold books on a casual basis for a couple of decades or so, I thought I would deviate from my usual subjects to give my personal insights into the business, what constitutes ‘success’ and where the future may lead.

The reality is, used book selling is not what it was. I suppose the current economic climate has a part to play, but across the country, the small, independent specialist bookshops are disappearing in like fashion to the corner-shops’ demise under the competition of the supermarkets. My first conclusion is ‘use them or lose them’. The other factor must be the number of charity shops with a couple of shelves crammed with a mixed range of books, and for one, now opening used bookshops of their own.

In itself, this is no bad thing, at least they represent a source of books. However, they naturally expect donations of books, as opposed to the independent book sellers who were usually pleased enough to give a few pounds for what you brought in. Far more importantly though, was the knowledge they had of the business. Many shops I have traded with in the past were happy to track down a book for you. This brings us to the brave new era of the Internet, and especially Now of course, anyone can quickly locate a copy of a book, even ones that in the past would have taken a lot of time and effort to track down. Accepting the advantages this has brought in sourcing, purchasing, and selling books, it is appropriate here to mention a few disadvantages.

These may not be the observations of everyone in the book business, but it seems to me that Internet selling has created a broader base of what is available, but in so doing, has driven down the price percentage available to the seller, taking into account postage fees, and site selling fees. It is pretty obvious that on Amazon as an example, it is simply not worth competing against the rest on what may once have been viewed as ‘bread and butter’ products. Some of the fun has gone too, twenty years ago, I used to travel once or twice a year between Wales and Scotland. I used to buy Scottish books in Wales and sell in Scotland, and vice versa. There’s just no point anymore..

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Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths

`When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, “Ours”

Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths: A Critical Inquiry

Starting with the knee-jerk reaction of evolutionists to the decision of the Kansas State Board of Education to relax opposition to alternatives to evolution being discussed in schools, Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths (2002), is a unique, revelatory critique of much that is wrong with science today. Vine Deloria Jr. quotes from an impressive range of scientists, philosophers and other writers, with familiarity and an ability to summarize their arguments simply and concisely, often exposing the flimsy logic employed by respected authorities.. Continue reading Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths