Monday, 30 December 2013

George III

King George 111 (1738-1817), John Brooke. Granada Publishing , Ltd, St. Albans. 1972. pp 644

This review was written October 28th 2003.

I had borrowed King George 111 from my son David’s library. Including the index and references, it ran to 640 pages and was heavy going at the start but proved later to be both entertaining and very educational. It was an important addition to my knowledge of England’s history. The author was obviously strongly prejudiced in favour of the King and he disabused the popular opinion that he was mad during his reign. He did have a few serious illnesses during the later days of his reign but he was clearly an admirable person during his many normal years and greatly revered by his subjects.

About ten years ago it was stated in the British Medical Journal that the King’s illness was caused by a metabolic disease called porphyria. This explanation of the King’s two serious bouts of illness raised much interest among historians and doctors but the diagnosis was firmly denied by Dr. Geoffrey Dean, the head of the Medico-Social Health Board in Ireland who had a world reputation on the subject of porphyria. Dean was born in England, emigrated and succeeded as neurologist and research worker in South Africa where he published a book, among other original works, on porphyria. Because of his research reputation he was appointed to the head of the Irish organisation at its inception in the 1970s.

The King’s illnesses were associated with some severe mental changes which might well be described in these early days as a form of madness but the treatment he received from his doctors was appalling and his management by them and other advisors was, to my mind, a major cause of his two prolonged illnesses. There was absolutely no rationale at the basis of his treatment and there was much harm in prolonging and aggravating his symptoms by medical intervention. Constant bleeding, cupping with hot instruments and restraining him in a straight jacket for long periods were only some of his sufferings at the hands of his physiciansToo often his response and reaction to physical confinement and grossly irrational treatment was interpreted as part of his madnessHis too numerous doctors were totally ignorant of the nature of his illness and were clearly responsible for prolonging his confinement and isolating him from his wife for long periods of time and from his family, friends and Court and political colleagues. We were to wait more than another one hundred and fifty years before the concept of evidence-based medicine was established and applied to medical practice.

George III
 was the grandson of George II. He succeeded his grandfather in 1760 when he was 22 years of age. He had a long reign of 57 years. (Elizabeth II is now in the 57th year of her reign.) George I, the monarch of the German State of Hanover had become King of Great Britain and Ireland after the departure of William III of the Bottle of the Boyne fame. He was chosen for want of a better choice after William retired and more senior members of his Hanoverian family were rejected because they were CatholicsThe Georges continued to remain heads of the small North German State. The first George rarely visited London and had little interest in the British nor had they in him. However, George III had little interest in Hanover and his connection with the small and unimportant North German State. He never visited Hanover during his long life in England.

He reigned during the American civil war, the ‘French Revolution and the Dublin Parliament and its abolition in 1801 after the 1798 Rebellion. It was an important time in the history of Britain and was to see many changes in the political, social and commercial lives of the people. There is no evidence that George paid a visit to Ireland and, with those of his subjects who gave a thought to Ireland, he was distinctly opposed to anform of independent spirit among the Irish and probably too to its Protestant Parliament.

Destruction of Statue of George 111 in New York, 1776
He was to the very last opposed to American independence and maintained a consistent policy of army intervention in resisting American patriots. He was certainly opposed to the more liberal views of Edmund Burke and some of his Whig colleagues who supported the Irish Parliament, despite the exclusion of Catholic and  non-Anglican  members and the restrictions of Catholics in many aspects of Irish life. Edmund Burke was also a good deal more realistic in thinking that such a remote and rapidly expanding and influential community as the Americans was unlikely to retain the influence of Westminster in its affairs.

The book is worth reading for its historical and educations value. It provides good insights into the political and parliamentary system which prevailed in Britain and which emphasises the long and progressive tradition of parliament and the British people in tandem with the continued existence of royalty. It was a reminder that democracy can exist in cohesion with a monarch and certainly establishes the British claim to be the birthplace of the democratic system combining a people’s electoral influence with a monarchy with a still influential role but deprived of any significant political power.

This book has added to my knowledge and interest of British history and is a reminder that, despite the political division between Ireland and Britain in more recent times, we shall always remain in close contact with our neighbouring island in terms of social, culturaltraditional and language terms and to the mutual advantage of both. One must wonder whether 1916 and the rhetoric of the Republic, and the ensuing Civil War, was a better prospect than Griffith’s dual monarchy with Ireland in charge of its own affairs but as part of a federation with England, Scotland and Wales and linked solely by the Crown but sharing the many attributes which were and still are common to the four countries. As an offspring of one who was active in 1916 and who remained an important influence during the revolutionary period afterwards, I believe we would have reached an early settlement based on our increasing aspirations aimed at self-rule after the Great War without the intervention of the few who precipitated the 1916 rebellion and the subsequent futility and tragedy of the Civil War and the deepening of the division between South and North.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Anglo Irish Tradition

The Anglo-Irish Tradition by J.C.Beckett. Faber & Faber, London 1976. pp 158.

This review was written on January 19th 2005.

This book was recommended and lent to me by Frank Barrett. It is well written with good insights into the role of the Anglo-Irish and their origin as far back as the twelfth century. The Anglo-Irish were at their most powerful and most influential from the time of the Restoration towards the end of the seventeenth century until the Union in 1801. They were politically powerful with their own parliament during the eighteenth century but their political influence began to wane after the Union because of the transfer of the sphere of influence to Westminster and the gradual franchising of the Catholics leading up to and after Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The subsequent land acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were to lead to their ultimate loss of political, social and economic influence. By the end of the nineteenth century 80% of the MPs attending Westminster were Catholics.

Beckett emphasises throughout the book that the Protestant minority, although it had held full power in Ireland subject to the Crown, always felt threatened and vulnerable because of the great majority of Catholics in the country. This may be so and their vulnerability increased during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but this does not take from the fact that even as late as the first half of the twentieth century the protestant minority held a disproportionate amount of power and influence in the commercial, industrial and professional life of the country. It was only by the mid-century or later that the Protestants were no longer the privileged 10% of the population in terms of wealth and influence although they had lost their political influence entirely at the time of the Treaty with Great Britain.

By the middle or end of the nineteenth century the Protestants, at least those in the South and in the West, no longer had political power nor had they any influence in the advance of nationalism. In the three southern and western. provinces it was the reform of the municipal corporations in 1840 which broke the protestant monopoly of power in the cities and boroughs, and which added to the effects of the Reform Act of 1832. Dealing with the landlords in the nineteenth century, Beckett comes out in their defence, calling in question the various allegations which have long been regarded as self-evident truths. He does not think rents were excessive; many landlords were in serious financial situations (almost certainly true); that evictions for non-payment of rent were rare and that most of the landlords’ problems were created by poor management by themselves and their agents, and of course their  frequent absences in London. He compares the Irish situation with that of tenants in England and Scotland and does not think the Irish tenants were very much worse off.

Beckett also thinks that much of the violence against the landlords was traditional and was inherent among the Irish tenantry since the eighteenth century; that it was partly based on a long folk memory. It is clear that the famine brought a new degree of bitterness between tenant and landlord. The landlord shared the blame with the government in Westminster for the disaster. The widespread disorders following the famine were fomented by the circumstances at the time, by the tradition of violence in rural Ireland and by the many secret societies which were the basis of many local conflicts. The tenants were also partly goaded by the home rule politicians who tended to magnify their grievances and who linked land tenure problems with that of Home Rule. To the Catholic majority, according to Beckett, the landlords were both a relic and symbol of conquest, confiscation and tyranny.

In discussing the violence which existed in rural Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he thought this tradition partly accounted for our civil war in 1922 and the subsequent destruction by the IRA of the many monuments erected during the British times. This destructiveness even affected our legislators when they moved Queen Victoria form her plinth outside Leinster House and allowed her to be transported to Australia. (As an aside, I had refused to present the Leo Whelan picture of the General Headquarters Staff to Charlie Haughey when he was Taoiseach in the early 1990s because he wished to hang it in the Royal Hospital as part of MMI. I suggested to him that the Royal Hospital should be retained as a museum and a lasting memorial to the British times in Ireland. The history of the Hospital and its many artefacts and reminders of the British times made it eminently suitable for such a purpose. It would have been a popular museum for visitors and for the Irish people, particularly if the large statue of Queen Victoria were to grace the quadrangle of the Hospital and if the wonderful chapel were retained in its old state and with its ancient furnishings.)

The British Government by the nineteenth century came to regard the landlords as the principal barriers to a solution of the Irish question. He makes the important point that, largely because of the influence of O’Connell, it was the alliance between the Church and the Catholic population which laid down the lines which nationalism was to advance in Ireland. There is the important mention of Thomas Davis and his advocacy of a united nationalist movement which would be independent of religion. Davis strongly supported the establishment of the three Queen’s Colleges in the mid-nineteenth century but the idea of a university where Catholic and Protestant students could come together, free from denominational tension, was anathema to the Catholic Hierarchy. Our breed of Catholicism in Ireland has much to condemn it for the political disasters which marred the subsequent one hundred years in the country. Davis’s ideals suffered, not only because of the intervention of the Roman Catholic bishops, but also because of the fears and insecurity of the Protestant minority. Davis is remembered mainly, not for what he achieved, but for what he advocated, that is, a truly non-sectarian Irish nationalism transcending religion, class and ancestry.

Beckett refers to the major role the Anglo-Irish played in the eighteenth and particularly in the nineteenth century in stimulating an interest in archaeology, antiquities and literature. This was an area which was free from the divisiveness of religion and politics, but the author does make the point that these protestant interests lead ultimately to the new spirit of a Gaelic Ireland, entirely separate from English culture, an Ireland with a rich folklore and mythology which was unique among Western European lands. It was seen as a golden age, a consciousness of which lead to a more extreme and more divisive nationalism. Thus the Anglo-Irish unwittingly contributed to their own downfall. The expanding ideal of a Gaelic Ireland was to breathe an attitude of even racial exclusion.

A further reverse for the Anglo-Irish during the nineteenth century was the disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1869, followed by the confiscation of almost all the Church’s property.

Beckett appeared to me to be entirely objective about the role of the Anglo-Irish in the earlier part of  the book but as we arrive towards the end of the nineteenth century he shows a definite sympathy for them and a bias  which corresponds to their loss of power and privilege. He states that the Home Rule movement had some initial support from the  Anglo-Irish but this soon developed into bitter opposition because the Home Rule movement had accepted all the views of the Catholic bishops in relation to education and social legislation. He writes about the denominational policies required by the Church, meaning of course the Catholic Church.

In Beckett’s long discussion about the attitude of the Anglo-Irish to the gradual empowerment of the Catholics, it is extraordinary how much the Protestants feared the consequences of such a political change. Was it that they expected the Catholics to treat them with the same contempt as they had treated the Catholics in the past and were they likely to exclude the Protestants from all political influence? There is no doubt that the Anglo-Irish were justified in believing that they were going to lose their privileges and their financial dominance but they could hardly believe that the Catholics would treat them as badly as they had treated the Catholics in the past.

Beckett finishes his sixth chapter with a more than gloomy note that the Anglo-Irish minority in the South of Ireland was deserted by both Britain and Ireland, and was treated with such little respect at the time of the Treaty. He quotes Garibaldi who said ‘They have made me a stranger in the land of my birth’. If the Anglo-Irish lost out as badly as they thought and as he suggests, it was as much their own fault as that of the Treaty plenipotentiaries and the Free State government.  The Treaty plenipotentiaries took every measure to ensure the protection of the protestant minority in their agreement, including having their own state supported denominational schools. And De Valera consulted with representatives of the Protestant community before the plenipotentiaries left for London. To my knowledge no political or fiscal action was ever taken by subsequent Irish governments to reduce their privileges or affect their dominance of the commercial and professional world. In fact, Cosgrave appointed a disproportionate number of Protestants to the Senate when it was elected in 1923, some of whom gave loyal and valuable service to the country although they had no executive function.

The Protestants were eventually disadvantaged by their own failure to take part in the day-to-day political activities of the new state, their isolation in their own schools and their close association with secondary schools in England. Their slow acceptance of a free Irish state, added to their educational isolation, must partly account for the halving of the minority population over the last eighty years. Things might have been different if in the early days they had looked to Ireland for their future, not to the island across the water.

Yeats, speaking a few years after the setting up of the Irish Free State, protested that Protestants were just as Irish as Roman Catholics. According to Beckett, Yeats called on the Protestants to assert themselves in the life of the country. He said ‘Ireland is not more theirs than ours. We must glory in our difference, be proud of it as they are of theirs’. But sadly, with few exceptions, they did not respond to Yeats’s plea. Of course, the minority must have felt oppressed by the increasing influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the social life of Ireland and on the Free State Cabinet. They rightly must have resented the Hierarchy’s intervention on the issues of mixed marriages, divorce and non-denominational education. Their alienation must have been aggravated by the Irish language policies of successive governments and by the Civil War and its tragic consequences.

Coming to the end of the book, his complaint about the fate of the Anglo-Irish in the new Irish Free State becomes more strident. Written in 1976, he attributes the decline in the Protestant numbers to their powerless state because of the policies of the Irish government. This view is hardly tenable in view of the fact they were allowed to retain all their possessions and wealth. They were free to take part in both local and national politics. However, with few exceptions, they could be seen to have deserted the corridors of political power and in the early years certainly they continued to look to England as their natural background and the English as part of their heritage. The last paragraph of the epilogue is about as patronising as one would expect from such a proud and arrogant minority.

Friday, 13 December 2013

brain / noun 1. an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity.

A Portrait of the Brain by Adam Zeman. Yale University Press. pp 246.

This review was written on July 1st 2011

This book was borrowed from the RDS. There are ten chapters and an epilogue, and a useful glossary of 180 words which gives easy access to their meaning, most of which I could not define or even recall.  

Most chapters were introduced with a case-history encountered by the author during his practice as a neurologist. It is clear that a huge amount of knowledge of the physiology, anatomy and cellular function of the brain has accumulated in recent times and this knowledge has accelerated with the development of the various investigative techniques which are now available to us. The author is successful in conveying what is a difficult subject to his readers but the many concepts and unfamiliar words which are presented to the reader, even with my training as a doctor, would make it necessary to read the book again, and perhaps again, to understand some of the concepts and complexities which are described by the author. Words which are familiar but not clearly understood even to the trained physician include nucleic acid, organelles, mitochondria, eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, messenger DNA, chromatin, prions, ribosomes, Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, and many more. I guess that a   classical scholar might be more familiar with their meaning than the average physician!

Some of the case histories are of rare syndromes which might have puzzled the most experienced neurologists but the study of these, thanks to modern investigative techniques and the clinical insights of the trained neuroligist, has helped to unravel the function of the brain to an extraordinary degree. These case histories are the basis of fascinating neurological detective stories. It is clear that the author has the knowledge, insights, classical learning and erudition to understand and convey the intricacies of a very complex subject and that his writing should be essential reading for to-day’s well trained physician, whatever his speciality.  

Chapter 10 is interesting and challenging as it enters the domain on the relationship between the science of the brain and matters of the soul, consciousness and beliefs, some of which have religious overtones. This element of knowledge includes our thoughts, emotions, personalities and behaviour. The author raises the question whether we can ever establish the scientific or physical basis of consciousness and our emotions. Based on our extending insights into the scientific basis of the brain’s function, it would seem to me that there must be a physical basis to our emotions and consciousness. Chapter 10 provides a challenging view of the author’s on this intriguing subject.

In writing this short review I am conscious of the necessity of reading the book again if I am to achieve a better understanding of its contents. I am reluctant to do so as I have so many other books on my desk to review. If I were still in practice and not approaching my 90th year, I would add the book to my library.  This short review does little justice to the importance of the book and to the intriguing case histories which provide the basis for the latter-day neurologists’ insights into the working of the most complex organ known to Man, the brain.

I am left with the thought that some day homo sapiens will have achieved a computer so advanced that it will provide all the functions of the human brain and, perhaps with progress in microscience, an organ only microscopic in size. There is no reason to believe that the progress of scientific knowledge is likely to slow or stop except through the intervention of a final human holocaust. Reproducing the human brain will give rise to the most bizarre social and political circumstances for mankind, circumstances which are beyond the imagination of the current organ, remarkable and all as it is.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Dreyfus affair

Twice Condemned – Irish views of the Dreyfus affair. Richard Barrett. Original Writing 2011. pp 104.

This review was written on July 1st 2011.

Alfred Dreyfus, a member of a wealthy Jewish family in France, was a captain in the French artillery. He was accused of spying for the Germans and condemned as a traitor and to life imprisonment in French Guinea in 1894. Almost certainly the evidence against him was far from convincing and the charges against him were vigorously denied by him. However, his fate was to become a matter of French and world importance after Emil Zola’s "explosive" accusation in early 1898 of military corruption and the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of Dreyfus. Zola’s intervention was to lead him into trouble with the French authorities but it led to a second enquiry into the charge of spying. This second enquiry still confirmed his guilt by a thin majority of 3 to 2  but his sentence was reduced on the grounds of "extenuating circumstances". He was pardoned in 1899, five years after his arrest, but was not officially exonerated by the French government until 1906 after another seven years.

Emile Zola's challenge.
Barrett’s short book covers more than the Irish views of the Dreyfus affair. He included the attitudes of the media in Britain, Ireland, the United States and the Commonwealth countries not to mention a few others. The British view of the affair was devastatingly critical of the French and of the increasing anti-Jewish attitude of the many French and particularly of the Roman Catholic Church authorities in that country. The British view was closely mirrored by Protestants and the Protestant media in Ireland and in other countries abroad. The Catholic authorities were defensive of the French decision on Dreyfus and they were motivated to some extent by the then prevailing anti-Jewish attitudes of some of their adherents. The Catholic attitudes in Ireland were mixed in their opinions and were undoubtedly influenced by their nationalistic aspirations and the anti-British attitudes which were widely prevalent in Ireland at the turn of the century.

Alfred Drefus
Apart from the genuine criticism of the justification of the arrest and imprisonment of Dreyfus, it is clear that media opinion in other countries, including particularly Britain and Ireland, were based on nationalist prejudices, general attitudes to France and its politics, anti-Semitism and the religious persuasion of the writers. As Barrett says "In England, the reaction ---- had always been more anti-French than pro-Dreyfus" and "in nationalist Ireland, the reaction had always been more anti-British than anti-Dreyfus". And the prevailing anti-Jewish prejudices in France must have contributed much of the genuine differences among the French themselves.

A view of Devil's Island where Dreyfus was held.
To me the whole affair was a telling example of the fundamental differences which govern public opinion at an international level and which are inspired to such an extent by local social, religious and political circumstances and prejudices.

After he was pardoned, Dreyfus rejoined the French army, fought in the Great War and died in 1935.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Not a review but a few useful words.

My Challenge to Ageing,  Edition 3. Risteárd Mulcahy. Kindle, 2013. Price E7.9

My publication on Kindle deals with the normal changes which we can anticipate as we retire and face later years. My purpose was to report the physical, mental, psychological and social changes which have occurred to me during these last 25 years after my retirement, added to my earlier experience as a physician dealing with older patients. We should learn to adapt to the normal changes of ageing if we wish to lead a normal life and remain an active member of society as well as sharing the same confidence and contentment of our earlier years. We need to recognise these changes to avoid unnecessary medical intervention. There is clear evidence that nowadays there has been overmedicalisation of the elderly through the unnecessary use of drugs and medical interventions. The current age of retirement at 65 years is no longer relevant as older people take an increasingly active role in modern society

The purpose of this review is not to provide details of my publication in Kindle but to look at all the factors in our lives which contribute to longevity and to eliminate the decrepitude which is too often a feature in older persons. My review can best be described as a challenge to longevity and how most people can usefully and happily reach optimum longevity and avoid decrepitude and dependency before they pass to their reward

Life expectation at birth in Ireland in males and females was approximately the same at about 50 years at the end of the 19th century. Early in the 20th century life expectation began to increase gradually and without interruption. By 1945 the life expectancy had reached 60 in males and 61 in females.  This improvement during the first 45 years of the 20th century could be attributed to a big fall in infant mortality and to the successful control of most of the epidemic diseases in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1945 to the last census in 2006, there has been a continued and uninterrupted increase in life expectation among both sexes with males reaching 76.8%.years and females 81/6 years.

The small disparity between male and female life expectation in the mid 1930s continued up to 1950 when the disparity began to increase. By the census of 1980 this disparity had increased from about one to 5.7 years. My colleagues and I in our paper published by the American Journal of Public Health in 1970 studied the smoking habits and mortality data in 15 different countries and we were able to conclude that this disparity could be largely if not entirely attributed to cigarette smoking.

The cigarette habit had increased dramatically after the last Great War, thanks to the influence of the Americans and British who were generous in supplying cigarettes to the troops. Subsequently this led to widespread advertising by the industry.  Smoking was largely confined to men and we predicted that the disparity would eventually fall to a more equal level when the cigarette smoking habit was substantially reduced or terminated. This fall is now evident from the 2006 census where the disparity is now reduced to 4.8 years. This trend will continue and may be reduced to one year or less as smoking is on the wane among middle and older people who are so vulnerable to inhaled tobacco.

Nevertheless, despite a male predominance of smoking there was still a slow increase in life expectation from 1950 to 2006 among men of 12.3 years and 14.5 years in women. The rise in life expectation continued up to the 2006 figures of 76.8 years in men and 81.6 in women. These figures will almost certainly have advanced further at the time of the 2010 census, results of which we are awaiting shortly. When the final results of the 2010 census are reported we anticipate that the sexes will have increased by at least another year in women and perhaps more in men so that the disparity between the two sexes will have narrowed further.

In an attempt to understand the continued improvement in life expectation, which is evident both in Ireland and the UK during the last 50 or more years, it seems worth listing the lifestyle and environmental factors which may account for the continued upward survival trend and which hopefully might contribute  to a reduction in decrepitude among our older citizens. Infant mortality continues to be an important factor, having fallen from 78 per thousand after the war to a remarkable figure of 3 in 2009 and 4 in 2010 in Ireland. The figure of 3 was the lowest ever recorded in these islands. Other epidemic diseases such as polio and deaths from pneumonia contributed, and advances in medical science must receive some credit.

The following list includes the factors which are likely to contribute further to improvement in life expectation. For the sake of discussion I am using  the age of 95 as  the optimum age of humans, that is when 50% of the population will have died from ‘’natural’’ causes, whatever the mode of death is recorded on the death certificate. Such a survival rate is clearly unlikely to be reached, at least in the current world we are living in but clearly there is further room for a further increase in life expectation, both in the first and the third world.

We already have much information about lifestyle and behavioural factors from medical and epidemiological research to allow us to point the way to greater health and longevity and to reducing decrepitude and dependency. As well as the hard research evidence, my opinions are based on my reading, my experience as a physician and a medical epidemiologist, and perhaps a little on common sense.

A further reduction in cigarette smoking or the elimination of the habit would certainly add a few more years to our lives and would leave little or no disparity in the life expectation of men and women. With the recent major reduction of cigarette smoking there is already a marked reduction in heart disease and sudden death, and I expect that lung cancer deaths are or will be in rapid decline.

In countries such as Ireland and the UK changes in eating habits and the nature of the food we eat during the past half century must have been responsible for our improved life expectation. The salt content of commercial food is greatly reduced and has been largely replaced by other less harmful preservatives. In the UK and Ireland there has also been a marked reduction in the use of table salt. Salt is a well recognised cause of stomach cancer and probably other forms of cancer, and is related to high blood pressure.  From being the commonest form of cancer and the most fatal in 1945 when I first qualified as a doctor, this form of cancer has become quite rare thanks to salt reduction and medical intervention in the treatment of stomach ulcers. 

In Ireland too there has been a distinct change to more European types of food with a wider variety choice and more popular use of vegetables and fruit and with less emphasis on domestic meat and other sources of high saturated fat foods. It is well established that vegetarians live longer than meat eaters. Epidemiological studies in Japan and elsewhere confirm that nearly all fish are healthy.  Meat derived from foul and wild birds and animals are less rich in saturated fat. 

It is not possible to measure the exact effect of dietary change on health and longevity but I have little doubt that it is a major factor in the continued improvement in life expectancy during the last 60 years. As regards the efficacy of vitamin supplements and other trace elements, I would suspect that they benefit their commercial  producers more than their customers.

It is well established that the educated enjoy more years than
the uneducated. In one British study third level educated people
gain three extra years over first level. This does not
surprise me. This finding must be based on multiple causes such
as better nutrition, more aerobic exercise, less smoking and
alcohol abuse, and possibly better medical care, although I might
have some doubts about this last factor.

Like education, advances in medicine and changes in medical practice may contribute to a longer life but this is particularly so in the increasing ability to prolong life in the elderly, even at the expense of creating or adding to decrepitude and dependency. The orthopaedic surgeons and eye specialists have contributed, among others, to reducing decrepitude at least if not longevity. The wealthier appear to have better medical care but they are also prone to being exposed to unnecessary medical attention as part of the expensive and widely advertised check-ups by private hospitals and clinics. In an ideal world I believe doctors should treat sick people and government and educators should be responsible for health promotion and prevention, the logical approach to good health in the population.

Another area which can add to years, quality of life and good health is regular aerobic exercise. What is clear from a number of studies worldwide is that regular walking at an optimum rate consistent with comfort for as little as six miles a week provides benefit in slowing ageing, in enhancing mood, in reducing depression and  in improving wellbeing. The more strenuous forms of exercise, such as running, climbing, cycling and aerobic sport are to be recommended too at appropriate ages but walking is sufficient, Your mantra should be Keep Your Legs Strong. Even those of us who have been sedentary up to retirement or later can benefit by adopting an exercise programme of walking and thus enhancing our physical and psychological wellbeing.

The word hygiene is defined in my Random House dictionary as ‘’the science that deals with the preservation of health’’. (Hygeia was the daughter of Asclepius, the goddess of health in Greek mythology)  It is clear that hygiene is related to human longevity. Under this heading I include care of our bodies, our teeth, skin, hair and our physical functions and appearance. And I extend the meaning of the word the avoidance of accidents, a constructive and optimistic outlook, moderation and a rational approach to life and to our relationship with others.

Our greatest challenge is decrepitude among the aged and its prevention. This can only be achieved if we are aerobically active, if we keep our legs strong. Decrepitude and dependency were appropriately described by Ivan Illich as living death. You are likely to avoid a long period of decrepitude and dependency in your last years if you keep aerobically and mentally active.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Charles 1

King Charles 1 by Pauline Gregg. Phoenix Press, London, 1998 (1981). pp X11 + 496. Illustrated.

This review was written on July 25th 2004

I borrowed this rather intimidating volume from the Pembroke Library. I started reading it at the end of March and I finished the book on 13 April. The book is well written and my preliminary notes were started when I was at page 104.

I knew little of the history of England during the sixteenth and seventieth centuries apart from some popular impressions of the earlier period from Henry V111 to Elizabeth 1. Charles was the second son of James V1 of Scotland who succeeded Elizabeth after her death as James 1 of England. Immediately after his elevation, he went to live in London and paid little attention to Scotland (and less to Ireland) during the rest of his life. James had married Anne, the daughter of the King of Denmark, and had three children by her, Henry, Charles and Elizabeth. Henry as he grew to manhood was greatly admired and loved for his talents and for his many personal attributes. He would clearly have made an excellent successor of James 1 if he had not died from scarlet fever at the age of 18, to the great distress of his family, the Court and the people of England. It is likely that, if he had survived to become King, much of the troubles which were to afflict the United Kingdom during the early seventieth century would have been avoided.

James 1
James 1 was a remarkable man, intellectual, artistic, sentimental and obsessed by the concept of the Right of Kings. He has always been the subject of a bad press to my mind. History has been unkind to him, probably because of his perceived tolerance of Catholics, and the pejorative repetition of his role in intervening in such areas as the smoking of tobacco and his disregard for parliament. It is hard not to recall his description as the wisest fool in Christendom.

Shall smokers name in centuries to come King James the wisest fool in Christendom? Or doth he seek with seer’s divining eyes a Siren Nicotina seeking tears, a usurer who charges men in years? (anon).

He was in fact a very tolerant person who at all times wished to encourage amity between Protestant England and the Catholic monarchies in Europe. He was equally tolerant of the remaining Catholic aristocracy at home and had many Catholic friends and advisors.

His anxiety to have his surviving son Charles marry the Infanta of Spain led to the rather ludicrous, unheralded and abortive visit by Charles and his intimate companion, Buckingham, both in disguise, to Madrid seeking marriage with the Infanta. She largely snubbed Charles and the whole episode turned out to be a disaster. The escapade was not approved by James and this humiliating episode eventually led Charles, after he had succeeded his father, to supporting the anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish Parliament to declare war on Spain. The quarrel with Spain was related to the fact that James's daughter, Elizabeth, had married Frederick of the Palatinate but Frederick was ousted by the Catholics in his own country with the support of Spain and Austria. Frederick’s restoration was to remain an obsession with both James and later Charles but, despite a persistent diplomacy and the provision of an army on their part to support Frederick, he was never to return to his modest fiefdom. He was exiled with his wife and family to the Netherlands, and after his early death his wife and family came to live and to extend further the burgeoning and extravagant Court of Charles.

In 1635 James died at the age of 57, as usual in those times in suspicious circumstances.  Suspicion of poisoning was rife and his close friend, Buckingham, was suspected of conniving in his death. Buckingham was a close confidante of both James and Charles, and was recognised as the power behind the thrones until his assassination. He was suspected of having connections with the Catholics, so that his death was greeted with satisfaction by most of the English population. In general, James 1 emerges as a tolerant person, an earthy character with good common sense and a homely touch, and not as the intolerant, irascible and unstable monarch which has been the historical stereotype

Charles 1
Charles replaced him at a difficult time for England, bad weather, recurring epidemics of plague and smallpox, and the country in debt (thanks largely to James’s extravagance and his European policies). He was hampered by a poor army and a poorly equipped fleet. Soon Charles became disastrously involved in foreign policy, particularly with his failed marriage to the Infanta of Spain and his subsequent marriage to Henrietta, the daughter of Louis X111. His marriage to a Catholic Queen, with her large coterie of Catholic staff and hangers-on, created inevitable difficulties with the largely Protestant English people and with parliament. It also irritated the French Court because of his perceived failure to honour his commitment at the time of the marriage arrangements to allow freedom of practice of Catholicism in the United Kingdom. His tolerance of Catholics was seriously embarrassed by a Protestant parliament and a largely Protestant people.   

Charles became involved in a number of disastrous political and military escapades in Europe, including naval attacks on Spain and France, all of which ended in humiliation of the British Crown and the people of England. Like his father, he believed in the supreme power of the King, and this was manifested by his complete control of central administration and the ministry, and his contempt of parliament which he rarely convened and then only when he was in dire need of money. He rarely called Parliament and failed to do so for one period as long as ten years.

Charles 1 - three different views by Van Dyck
Because of the enormous debts he accumulated through his ill-judged European policies, his generous gifts and his extravagant Court, he was forced to call Parliament for financial reasons. Since the time of Elizabeth, power and central administration was entirely in the hands of the monarch and there was little evidence of local or regional administration which were largely in the hands of Justices of the Peace who were appointed by the King. By recalling Parliament, he was to run into trouble because he had already alienated the aristocracy, the landed gentry and an increasingly influential business community through his autocratic behaviour, his taxation policies, his apparent toleration of Catholics and his wife’s Catholicism. Parliament had certain powers under the constitution to prevent the monarch from collecting taxes and he only called Parliament when he needed money. His request for special taxes was refused and, having been convened by Charles, Parliament took the opportunity to bring charges of treason against some of the King’s closest advisors and confidantes which marked the beginning of the rift between the King and the people, and which eventually lead to the effective transfer of much political power from the King to Parliament.

Despite Charles’s chronic financial problems, he, like his father, continued to collect valuable pictures from Italy and Holland, and other important items of jewellery and artefacts. The Caravaggio’s, Titians, Rubens and the works of all the great Italian, Spanish and Dutch painters which adorn the homes and palaces of Royalty in the United Kingdom are largely the result of James and Charles intense interest in the arts and their extravagant tastes. Van Dyck and Rubens were only two of many artists who visited London at Charles’s bequest during his reign.

17th century Puritan theologians
During Charles’s reign the puritans became increasingly intolerant, not only of Catholics but of the Anglican Church of which Charles was the head. Charles’s own tolerance was shared by many of his subjects but the puritans believed that the Anglicans were tainted by many of the customs and liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and it was about this time that the English developed their extraordinary antagonism to the Pope. The Puritans were supported by the Scots who were strongly committed to their Presbyterian Church, who were antagonistic to the bishops and who greatly resented Charles’s imposition of Anglican influence on the Scottish Parliament during his one visit to that province. Charles’s contact with Catholics, his rather extravagant, outgoing and gregarious Court, his corrupt and inefficient government, his wife’s Catholicism, and his close contact with the ambassadors from Catholic Europe were reasons to raise the hostility of the Puritans. The Puritans were further fortified by Charles’s action in creating a number of martyrs who opposed him in public and they were supported financially and morally by the many low church emigrants who were in the New World where they were becoming more prosperous and more  independent than their brethren at home. It was stated that Charles hit the rich more than the poor and that he had sympathy for the underdog, a further reason to antagonise the powerful and the privileged.

Charles 1 (blue sash) during the civil war.
Yet, taking all in all, taxes in the United Kingdom were less than they were in other European countries. He devoted much of his time to attending to government matters and was closely aware of the activities of his ministers. Charles had many faults but he was sensitive, tolerant and not vindictive. However, as the conflict with parliament developed over the late 1630s and early 1640s, he became more rather than less belligerent towards his opponents and he made the first move to organise an army to fight a hostile parliament. The author goes into some detail of the civil war which ensued, a war which would not have taken place if Charles had shown some judgement in arriving at a settlement with willing opponents in parliament who were willing to compromise. The war dragged on for a few depressing and formless years but it was clear that the King, isolated as he was from his court and his centre of power in London, and unwilling as he was to compromise, was unlikely to win against better organised and more committed opponents. His ultimate execution by beheading became inevitable as the prospects of compromise faded with his defeat by the forces of parliament and their Scottish allies. The situation was worsened by the rebellion which took place in Ireland at the time and which was to lead to Cromwell’s subsequent savage subjection of the Irish and of the plantation of a large part of the country. The decision to execute the King required courage and strong resolution, and might have been avoided if Charles had offered to abdicate and to accept his son as king, and if he had agreed to the settlement demanded by parliament on behalf of the people.

Despite the Irish view of Cromwell’s savage treatment of our antecedents, he emerges as a reasonable representative of the parliamentary party with a strong urge to compromise with the King on constitutional matters. Unfortunately, by this time the King was obdurate in refusing any compromise.  One can understand how the British had a more tolerant attitude to Cromwell than had the Irish. He does not emerge with the same reputation for draconian repression among the English as he does among the Irish.

Charles 1 execution.
Cromwell’s vision of revolution was undermined when he supported the privileged following the King’s execution rather than establishing the freedom and welfare of the ordinary people. It was probable that the civil war and the immediate administration following the execution of the King led eventually to Whig supremacy and the increasing political influence of the landed gentry.

Charles could hardly have averted the Civil War because of the faults in his character and temperament which made negotiations with him difficult. His death and the subsequent period before the Restoration in 1660 left the landed gentry and the wealthy independent of monarchy. They remained the main source of influence in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Eventually, with the Restoration, the Church of England was established. Dissent was tolerated but simply excluded from the corridors of influence and power.

This biography made a valuable addition to my reading. It describes that seminal moment in British history when power passed from the monarchy to Parliament. However, membership of parliament was confined to the rich and the aristocratic, substituting one tyranny for another. They were to continue their dominion of privilege, graft and corruption for the next two centuries and they, with the support of a corrupt monarchy, became the subject of Tom Paine’s strictures at the end of the eighteenth century when he published his attack on the British monarchy and government in his classic The Rights of Man. (See the review re Paine)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


Judging Dev by Diarmaid Ferriter. Royal Irish Academy, 2007. pp 396. Photos, letters.

This review was written on December 25th 2007 

Judging Dev was sponsored by the RIA in order to bring the documents which they have on Dev to the notice of the public. Ferriter was commissioned to write the text. It is divided into three sections - text, photos and facsimile copies of letters written by or received by Dev. The text is divided into 16 short chapters and is limited to about 150 pages. Apparently Ferriter was not expected to write a comprehensive account of Dev but more a commentary on the documents appertaining to him in various archives, especially those in the RIA and UCD. It is a personal as well as a public account of his life rather than a detailed and factual account of his career (I counted 84 photos of Dev in all.). Ferriter deals mostly with Dev’s time in government from 1932. It does not deal in any comprehensive way with some of Dev’s earlier and important moments in history, such as the Treaty settlement, his record before and during the civil war, and such aspects of his later career as the setting up of the Fianna Fail Party and the Irish Press.

This is not a structured biography in the ordinary sense. It is short and by no means comprehensive, and is rather a personal and interpretive account of the man. . The views and identities of Dev’s critics are frequently mentioned, which tend to evoke a response from the author couched in favour of his subject. It may be perceived as a riposte to the drubbing Dev received from Coogan in his controversial De Valera – Long Fellow, Long Shadow.

I do not think Ferriter’s text adds significantly to our revolutionary history. The main emphasis is on his leadership of the country from 1932, his later settlement with the British, and his international recognition while presiding at the League of Nations.   He emerges as a successful politician with a mystique acquired through his aloofness. We are reminded of the exceptional loyalty he evoked, of his diplomacy, his capacity to impress his British political colleagues once he was himself in the driving seat, and his consistent policies in relation to neutrality. His most enduring achievement was the formulation and successful acceptance of the 1937 Constitution and his ability at the time to resist excessive interference from the Church and other vested interests, including the vehement protests of some prominent feminists.

Ferriter tends to be less critical of Dev’s ‘comely girls’ conservatism than other commentators. Indeed he may be right in the sense that it is difficult for us to-day in this materialistic and secular country to have an insight into the culture of fifty years and more ago. Ferriter underlines Dev’s great interest in mathematics, scientific research and the Irish language among other academic subjects. Undoubtedly, he did contribute to developments in these and other areas, although hardly in restoring the language.  He believes that Dev and his various administrations were successful out of the ordinary in many other areas of progress but this is surely questionable when we remember the chronic emigration, and when we concede the  progress made by other European countries at the same time, and who had suffered the ravages of war for  more than five years.  

Like all other colleagues and administrations during the 80 odd years of the state, he made little progress in restoring Irish as a popular first language. His approach to the language was reminiscent of the lip service paid to the subject by nearly all Irish politicians as well as a largely indifferent and cynical public.  Dev’s view was that the language revival was more important in terms of national well-being than the reunification of the country, a view which might be questioned by many.

Perhaps his greatest failure was his negative approach to the North of Ireland, the persistence of partition and his antagonising of the Northern Unionists. His outspoken almost obsessional approach lacked any sense of realism in terms of understanding the passion which lay behind the Unionists commitment to Britain and the Commonwealth. After he was defeated in the 1948 election, Dev set out on his world tour to seek international support for his anti-partition policies and, not unexpectedly, met with a largely indifferent audience. This international publicity only further alienated our northern brethren (and his successor, Jack Costello, joined vociferously in the same Anti-Partition Campaign and went further by leaving the commonwealth against the policies of his own party.)  It was to take Lemass, by his historic approach to O’Neill,  to break the senseless policy of his predecessors.

Twenty thousand copies of the book will be distributed to our secondary schools by the Department of Education. It is about time that our young people were informed about our more recent Irish history. However, Judging Dev is not a likely publication to give a balanced and unbiased account of our contentious history during the 20th century. It is an interpretive account of a single, albeit very important, figure but it will not fulfil the purpose of conveying the true picture of our times and can only stir the dying embers of the civil war. Its release to our schools is a misjudgement by our educational authorities and it is hard to believe that this unprecedented step was taken without a political motive. It is vital that our civil servants are not suspect on an issue of this sensitivity. Why not a concise and inclusive history of Ireland by a professional historian such as Ferriter for our secondary school pupils?

The future of our more recent history will be fought out on the battlefield of revisionism, with Collins and de Valera as the main contestants, and the contest will continue as long as both subjects prove to be of commercial value to publishers, historians, and the media.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Ultimate Fitness – The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health.

By Gina Kolata. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2003. pp 299.

This review was written on July 4th 2007

Ms. Kolata is a reporter with the New York Times and deals generally with medical matters. She is herself a physical fitness guru and is committed with her husband to the most strenuous exercise in the form of weight lifting, cycling, a highly strenuous form of fixed cycling in the gym called Spinning, and to running. She is obviously familiar with the American fitness world and particularly with the history and politics of weight lifting and the more strenuous form of cycling. Her own fitness career is concerned most with muscle building and the physical, mental and psychological effects of extreme physical exercise. 

There is much of interest in the book about the whole fitness and body culture of the United States. This short review deals mainly with three aspects of her message – the body cult related to extreme exercise, the huge fitness industry which is generated by commercial considerations rather than scientific based evidence and the huge commercial industry inviting Americans to join a bewildering variety of fitness gyms and various bizarre fitness programmes, to encourage a bewildering variety of diets, and to take a wide variety of vitamins, drugs, chemical supplements and skin applications.  What valid research exists in the field of exercise ‘gets lost amidst marketing claims and exaggerations and the sale of dubious programs and nostrums’.

Apart from her own devotion to muscle building and the satisfaction she derives from extreme exercise, her writing is reasonably balanced and sensible. She is certainly ready to acknowledge that much of the philosophy driving the fitness cult not only ignores the importance of the scientific method of evidence but is at times contemptuous of conventional research based on proper trials and observational studies. 

Kolata puts forward many reasons why people take exercise or wish to adopt an exercise programme. They include health, longevity, pleasure, strength training, improved appearance, weight control, social cohesion, treatment of depression and other mood problems. She accepts that training through such aerobic exercises as walking, jogging, running and cycling does contribute to better health but she is justified in being cautious about accepting the widely held view that such aerobic exercise increases longevity. Many confounding factors which are common to the exercise-motivated person, and particularly in those who adhere to long-term training, make it difficult to define the specific effect of exercise on longevity.  Aerobically active people are less likely to smoke and to drink heavily; they tend to eat sensibly with an eye on fat and salt, and have a preference for vegetables and fruit. I have little doubt that those following a sensible aerobic exercise live longer, and enjoy a shorter period of disability and decrepitude before death, than the sedentary but there are certainly other confounding factors which add to longevity as well as aerobic exercise. I doubt whether weight lifting and other strenuous isometric exercises aimed at muscle mass and strength confer the same benefits. Certainly there is little valid research evidence to suggest that being more heavily muscled will prolong our lives. 

There are strong physiological reasons to accept the value of aerobic exercise as a factor in ensuring health and longevity. It has been shown through basic cellular research that exercise reduces the instability of the lining of blood vessels, a condition which makes people more liable to clots and to heart attack and stroke. There is also indisputable evidence that exercise reduces blood pressure and has a beneficial effect on the blood cholesterol profile with an increase in the protective high-density cholesterol and a possible reduction in the harmful low-density cholesterol. It is likely that these benefits can be achieved by a moderate exercise programme and there is little reason to believe that greater benefit can be achieved by more severe aerobic exercise and certainly not by muscle building, weight lifting or the extreme form of static cycling or Spinning practised by the author. In justice to the author, she makes no such claim. Rather, she expresses concern about the humbug, unjustified claims, fabrications and greed of the so-called health industry which exists in the United States and which is sadly, like many aspects of American culture, spreading world-wide.

A substantial part of this book is an account of the author’s involvement in very strenuous weightlifting and her devotion to Spinning. Spinning involves prolonged and at times maximum exercise on a static bike, an ergometer, which has been specially designed for this purpose. She and other adherents indulge in periods of some hours in the practice, always in groups in specially designed gyms and with music. The degree of exercise which they indulge seems so great that it is difficult to think it can be achieved by any human being, however intense the training. The sessions require heavy and repeated fluid replacement, heavy sweating and moments of extreme fatigue. Sessions may last some hours and a marathon session is described as lasting twelve hours. All this apparently leads to a high, a state of mental exhilaration which leads to this unlikely, almost bizarre, addiction.  

There is much about the body and muscle building benefits of weight lifting and about the author’s long attachment to this form of isometric exercise. She describes the history of weightlifting in some detail with its long tradition of recourse to anabolic drugs. The sport has its seamier side in terms of crime and corruption, and is now on a decline worldwide because of its association with drugs and crime. It is hard to believe that the human frame, including the female frame, can lift the weights which have been reported in recent years, almost certainly as a result of resorting to muscle building drugs. 

Gina Kolata running a marathon
This book gives an honest account of the evolution of the popular and commercialised exercise health industry in the United States. It is also a very frank and personal account by the author of her devotion to strenuous exercise and of its importance to her in her daily life.  It is a striking account of human greed, of human frailty and credulity, of changing social and behavioural fashions. Most of all, the author reminds us  of the huge part leisure exercise can play in our physical wellbeing, in our attitudes and moods, our spirituality and in coping with boredom and other stresses of life.