‘You Can’t Eat a Flag’ – What John Hume did before Politics

John Hume’s earliest political memory was going to an election meeting with his father Sam in Derry. He became swept up amid the waving Irish tricolours and stirring speeches of an Ireland free from British rule, of partition ended and striking a blow for freedom just as World War Two ended. His father gently put his hand on John’s shoulder, ‘Son, don’t get involved in that stuff. Because you can’t eat a flag.’

Sam Hume, Johns father, was born in Derry in 1890; 18 years after Germany was created and 11 years before the Edwardian era began.

He was born into poverty and had to grow up fast. He moved to Glasgow at the age of 12 to live with his sister and work in shipyards. On the outbreak of World War One he joined the Royal Irish Rifles and saw action in the trenches. Thereafter he served in the Irish Free State Army then during World War Two worked for the British Ministry of Food.

From September 1945 he never worked again. So he spent his time helping local illiterate people write letters to employers or fill out forms from the family kitchen. Young John heard these stories of poverty, housing, employment and credit. You can imagine what ideas the teenage John was formulating about what role he could play in society with options that his father did not have.

John was born in 1937. A court appearance in 1949 paints a picture of the young man. He was arrested for playing ‘headies’ on the street then charged for playing football. He defended himself in court and his premise was that he was technically playing headies, not football, so shouldn’t be charged. He was fined two shillings but praised by the judge.

John went to Maynooth, a seminary college in the just north of Dublin where he studied History and French. The thesis of his MA was, rather unsurprisingly, on the socioeconomic development of Derry. Thereafter he returned to his secondary school St Columb’s College to teach.

Yet throughout this stage of his life he had his fingers in different pies. He certainly gives the impression of a gifted man with an inability to swim with the tide.

After seeing salmon from the river Foyle being exported to be smoked in England, he started his own rival business. He stepped away from this when he was elected to Northern Ireland’s parliament in 1969.

Yet perhaps his greatest legacy, before entering the treacherous world of politics, was the creation of Ireland’s first credit union in 1960. He had identified a pattern whereby the Catholics in Derry were caught in a miserable financial cycle – too poor to buy a home but without a house to use as collateral to secure a bank loan to help them on their way. The economist David McWilliams argues here that a lack of access to credit was just as detrimental for Northern Irish Catholics as gerrymandering and housing discrimination. With a total of £8 and 10 shillings the credit union, essentially a working class community bank, was created. It inspired others around the island, and John even went to the protestant heartland of east Belfast to pitch the idea there too.

Interestingly the Undertones drummer Billy Doherty purchased his drum kit from Hume’s credit union. Ergo; no John Hume, no Teenage Kicks!

As the decade progressed, protest movements around the world developed. It was only a matter of time before the blatantly sectarian government of Northern Ireland were under pressure.

Catholics in Northern Ireland were second class citizens. The state had been created as a clumsy compromise after the Irish War of Independence. Irish nationalists wanted a United Ireland. The protestant Unionists wanted Ulster. So the 26 counties with a catholic majority formed the Irish Free State and the 6 counties with a protestant majority formed Northern Ireland. Both states put their religion to the forefront.

Yet in Northern Ireland the state mechanisms were used to deny Catholics opportunities through gerrymandering (Derry, for example, was a majority catholic city, yet had a balance of 8 catholic councillors versus 12 protestant ones), education, housing and a culture of paranoia. By the late 1960s a growing Catholic middle class with third level education began a civil rights protest movement among the lines of those in America. And like in America the police reacted brutally. March after march and protest after protest were attacked. Unsurprisingly, Hume was involved in this broad church and so organised documentaries showing the brutality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

As civil unrest in Northern Ireland seemed probable, so did a career in politics for John Hume. On 5th October 1968 both became inevitable. In Derry the police were filmed attacking a crowd with batons and water cannons. Westminster ignored the crisis and Stormont acted too late. The Troubles had begun. This is not the article to cover this dark period of history. But just as John Hume was present at the beginning, he was present at the end as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

Recommended reading:





‘John Hume’ by Paul Routledge (1998)

Recommended listening:


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‘Kick From the Penalty Mark’ – The Invention of the Penalty

Willie McCrum

Outrageous. Offensive. Outlandish.

The pretentious playboy son of a Presbyterian merchant. An amateur actor. An upstart. A failed goalkeeper.

An idea which undermined football and the values of Victorian society.

An idea which punished the team for the error of an individual.

An idea dismissed as, “The Irishman’s motion.”

It was called the ‘Kick From the Penalty Mark’.

Willie McCrum had invented the penalty.


The rules prior to his idea were that an indirect free kick inside the box would be given for any foul play. This meant that one could not shoot directly but had to pass first. So naturally the opposing defenders would charge towards the free kick taker and block any shot. It wasn’t a particularly fair system – where was the deterrent for a defender committing a foul? McCrum had a front seat to it all – he was the Milford FC goalkeeper in the first year of the Irish Championship in 1890. That’s not to say he was particularly effective in his role – he wasn’t. Unfortunately Willie conceded 62 goals in 10 games and saw his beloved club sit rock bottom of the league by the end of the season.

McCrum hung up his gloves and committed himself to reforming the game, to righting a wrong. His radical idea was that a penalty kick could be given for tripping, holding or a handball within a twelve yard line stretching across the pitch. The subsequent penalty kick could then be taken at any point along this line. It was directly in between the 6 and 18 yard lines. The goalkeeper could stand up to 6 yards from the goal line.

McCrum took the idea to the Irish FA Secretary named Jack Reid. He had been a forward for Cliftonville in Belfast and was capped six times by Ireland. Reid then took the idea to the International Board (A precursor of FIFA) but was met with scorn. The idea was dismissed as ‘The Irishman’s motion’ or ‘The Irishman’s notion’ depending on who you read. Given McCrum’s propensity for amateur dramatics and reputation as a gambler (He once squandered the modern day equivalent of £6 million on a trip to Monte Carlo) was easy fodder to his critics. His proposal added a level of theatre and drama that Victorian football men did not care for.

Yet within the year FA Cup action compelled the law makers to change their minds. In the 90th minute of an FA Cup quarter final a defender did the unthinkable. He deliberately handled the ball to stop a clear goal. Think Luis Suarez for Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup. The subsequent indirect free kick was easily blocked by the goalkeeper and outrage ensued. Four months later the ‘Kick from the Penalty Mark’ was introduced.

The majority of fans simply could not accept that a footballer would deliberately act in an ungentlemanly manner. The principle than the collective should be punished for the mistake of an individual did not cut the mustard. Corinthians (The English team whom their considerably more successful Brazilian counterparts are named after) would never take a penalty. They also would remove one of their players if an opponent was injured or sent off. And it was only in their 41st year that they took part in a competition which was not for charity.

As for the penalty shoot out? It was either created:

  • In 1962 in a Spanish Cup final between Real Zaragoza and Barcelona
  • By a retired German referee named Karl Wald in 1970
  • For the Israeli FA Cup in 1965


You will have to read ‘Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick’ by Ben Lyttleton for a deeper study.

You can visit the home of Willie McCrum in Milford House, Armagh and discover the fascinating history of his family.


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Why is Gibraltar British?

Gibraltar has always been important. It guards the entrance to and exit from the Mediterranean. It welcomes guests or blocks invaders to Europe. It is inhospitable and bleak yet provides a comfort to those under it’s shadow. Today it is speaks English but yesterday Greek, Latin and Spanish. It has an Arabic name (The Rock of Tariq) and was an Islamic stronghold for seven centuries. It has been a British one for three. How this came to be, as with so many issues in history, involves a man who couldn’t have children.
In 1700 Hapsburg Spain was in the twilight of it’s life. The family who provided Henry VIII with his first wife and who launched the armadas of the Elizabethan age was departing the world stage. Charles II was ill, old and childless. Yet the family possessions were mouth watering – Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Cuba, Milan, California, Panama and the bulk of South America. Not to forget the jewel in the crown – Asiento – the monopoly to trade African slaves across the Atlantic.
As Charles was about to breathe his last breath, the powers of Europe held theirs. The interested parties were France and Austria. Ultimately any decision in the will would lead to war. And looking on with more than a passing interest were the naval rivals of the British and Dutch. Whoever controlled the New World Spanish possessions was a threat to the growing reach of their international commerce. And an Austrian was much preferable to a French man. When the Spanish cardinal informed all of the death of Charles, he passed news that Philippe of Anjou, the grandson of the French king, would get it all.
The War of the Spanish Succession had begun. The French with some of Spain fought against the rest of Spain, Austria, Netherlands, England and Scotland. (Half way through the war, England and Scotland united to form Britain.) This could be seen as the first world war as it was fought in the Caribbean, America and across Europe. By 1713 peace talks were under way and the side of the British had won.
Philippe of Anjou was permitted to rule Spain and their American possessions while the Spanish Netherlands, Italy and the Mediterranean islands passed into Austrian hands. This suited the merchants of London and Amsterdam as Austria was neither a naval power nor commercial rival.
Britain and the Netherlands had been fierce rivals until 1700 but the outcome of this latest war finally swung the relationship into Britain’s favour. The creation of the Bank of England, the National Debt and the exacting practice of the Treasury enabled Britain to maintain enormous trade while financing European wars from the safety of an island.
In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht Britain received Gibraltar alongside North American land and strategic stations. But most significantly Britain gained the treasured right of Asiento upon which her wealth would be built. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool, funded by the city of London, would amass a terrible wealth as millions of people were captured and sold in the much feared triangular trade. The markets for the mills and urbanisation of the industrial revolution were built on Asiento and world history lurched towards our modern age.
Oh, and Gibraltar became British.

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TK Whitaker: Ireland’s Unrevolutionary Revolutionary

TK Whitaker at the Dublin stock exchange in 1965

Revolutionaries do not tend to succeed in government do they? Can you think of any? Their skill set lends itself to leading the masses against something or giving orders for obedient soldiers to follow. Or as orators they give sparkling speeches as visionaries yet seem to know not how to deliver on them. By the 1950s Ireland had all the hallmarks of a state being led by aging revolutionaries. It was largely governed by men whose political capital lay in their past as young patriots of the Easter Rising or War of Independence. It was in a word: stagnant.
Even given the post-war injection of £150,000,000 in grants and loans the economy was showing little signs of life. By 1956 most observers agreed that the policy of nationalist economics which involved protected industries and isolation from Britain was broken. In the decade from 1950 almost half a million voted with their feet and left the country. The population was now almost a quarter of what it was on the eve of the famine.
Change was needed and change was delivered through the appointment of Thomas Kenneth (TK) Whitaker as Secretary to the Department of Finance in 1956. Though he initiated revolutionary changes, he was anything but a revolutionary. A cautious civil servant, he was educated by the Christian Brothers in County Down before studying at London University. At the age of 40 he was experienced enough to steady the ship but young enough to steer it in the right direction.
His main aim to was to provide productive and self-sustaining employment to combat the ills of emigration, unemployment and empty state coffers. His landmark document Economic Development in 1958 opened Irish doors to business and welcomed the World Bank who visited within months. Foreign investment quickly followed, attracted by the offers of subsidies and tax holidays. The state then followed a policy of increasing support of already successful agricultural sectors and strategic support for farmers. Membership to the European Economic Community (EEC) was submitted in 1961 and by 1965 the Anglo-Irish free trade area was created.

Time magazine cover showing Irish economic strength with Taoiseach Sean Lemass

Yet a culture cannot change overnight and if the reaction of the media and unions represented the people, then all was not well. Foreign business were described as, ‘alien institutions squeezing the lifeblood out of our shopkeepers who financed Sinn Fein ands other republican movements.’ You can’t please all of the people all of the time…
But it was plain to see that the Irish economy was transformed. During the 1960s the population grew by 100,000 (The first growth seen since 1844!) and the economy was proudly showing the fastest growth in western Europe. Business management and marketing companies were thriving while two thirds of exports went outside of the UK market. Investment in education led to participation rates in Irish secondary schools outperforming Britain. This outward looking attitude was also shown through Irish soldiers serving in their first UN mission in 1961 and a booming transatlantic tourist trade.
Not for the first time however economic warning signs were ignored and in 1973 the ill-prepared economy plunged into a dark recession. Coupled this with the conservative clutch of the Catholic church and it is clear that while progress was made, progression was not even close.
Yet the impact of TK Whitaker on not only the Irish economy from the late 1950 to the early 1970s but on the Irish nation is clear. His strategic and objective thinking also had a clear impact on those who would nurture the Celtic Tiger towards the end of the century.
Indeed in a 2001 poll he leapfrogged Collins, de Valera, Griffiths and a score of other patriots to win the award of Irishman of the Century. 

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Jackass: America’s First Populist President

Days before running for President, Andrew Jackson declared, ‘I am not fit to be president.’

Despite being both rich and powerful Andrew Jackson declared, ‘The rich and powerful often bend government to their own selfish purposes.’

And when asked if he had any regrets from his presidency, Andrew Jackson replied, ‘That I didn’t hang John Calhoun.’ John Calhoun was his Vice President.

He rallied against the corruption of professional politicians, his opponents did not take him seriously and his blunt manner of speaking won him many dedicated followers. Thomas Jefferson labelled him as unfit for office with little respect for the law and a dangerous man. Yet ‘Old Hickory’ has been labelled as the Peoples’ President with an overall positive two terms in office.

The first president born outside of Massachusetts or Virginia, he grew up in poverty and was orphaned at the age of 14. He became a lawyer on the frontier, a circuit judge on the Tennessee superior court then a landowner of a large plantation which eventually had 150 slaves. Business and legal interests aside, he gained his fame in an admirable military career fighting against the British. He led 5,000 soldiers to victory in America’s first independent victory over a European power at the Battle of New Orleans. It was here that he gained his nickname as his troops said that he was as tough as old hickory wood.

The military nickname was used throughout his presidency to gain support

Now a household name in the young republic he ran for the presidency in 1824 and although he won the popular vote, his race was ultimately a failure. Spurred on by this for his next campaign, he whipped up passionate support against the corruption of Washington, the corruption of banks and the corruption of career politicians. Laughing off his challenge, his opponents branded him ‘Jackass’. This only fed into his populist campaign. He adopted the ‘Jackass’ slur to his campaign and his electoral image became a donkey which the Democratic Party uses to this day. He won the election in a landslide.

‘Jackass’ was used in both positive and negative portrayals of Jackson during his two terms in office

Once in office he abolished the Electoral College as he believed that since the President and Vice President were elected to government then they should wield the power of government. As a result he became the first president to use his veto as a matter of policy instead of sparingly as others tended to do. Additionally he purged cabinet offices and government departments to fight corruption then appointed supporters of his whom he felt he could trust. He then even went as far as abolishing the national bank as he believed that it furthered the interests of the wealthy. Yet throughout his time in office his opponents continually labelled him as the man who simply gave the appearance of representing the common man to further his own gains.

Yet given his swashbuckling swagger into Washington and his crusades against ‘professional’ politicians, his presidency had several successes. He held the union together when South Carolina attempted to leave (Granted, he did threaten them with an invasion from 50,000 soldiers after which his Vice President resigned), he cleared the vast national debt, he created the Democratic Party, spread politics to the common man through electoral reform, opened up free trade to British Caribbean colonies and was successful in reducing corruption in the federal government.

However a dark shadow still looms over his presidency given his policy towards Native Americans. Although he believed in small government, the exception was his relocation policy. 45,000 Native Americans were given the choice of adopting a white lifestyle or being forced to move west. While negotiations were on-going, the majority were forcibly removed with 7,000 dying along the way in what became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. Some may state that we cannot place 21st century values on a frontier man, yet at the time there was considerable outcry in America and beyond at this inhumane policy.

Andrew Jackson is seen as an influential president today given his firm preservation of the union, his fight to keep power out of the hands of the wealthy and for being the first president to frequently use his executive powers. Yet not without clear controversy, not least because in his younger days he murdered a man for passing comment on his wife.

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Miracle On Ice

Miracle on Ice, February 22, 1980, Lake Placid, NY.

‘Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds.

Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game.

Do you believe in miracles?!? YES!!!’


Lauded by Sports Illustrated as the Top Sporting Moment of the 20th Century’ the Miracle on Ice is the stuff of all-American legend. In the Winter Olympics of 1980 the Soviet Union were defeated by America, but this wasn’t your regular superpower clash. Littered with global legends, the Russians had lost one of their previous 29 games, had scored three for each goal conceded and had thrashed an NHL All-Star team 6-0 the previous year. Facing them was a team of amateur college players hastily thrown together five months before with an average age of 21.

Even with the David vs Goliath face off, the Cold War added an extra dimension to the clash. Two months before on Christmas Day 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This shattered a fragile peace as an aggressive Russia swept dangerously close to the oil wells of the Middle East. As President Carter scrambled a western response, former actor and political nobody Ronald Reagan plotted his route to the White House on the back of aggressive pro-American rhetoric. But I digress.

American media predicted that ‘unless the ice melts’ the Soviet Union would claim the gold medal. But as match day beckoned the young Americans worked on stamina to boost the physical nature of their game while the Russians studied plays in their hotel. The intimate crowd of 8,500 belted out ‘God Bless America’ as the teams skated out for the match to begin.

The Russians swept into the lead and peppered the American goal with shots from all over the rink. They added another before one was pulled back. The Russian goaltender Tretiak was not only the Red Army shot stopper but was in the Soviet League All Star team from 1971 to 1984. But this was not his day. Seconds before the first period buzzer, he fluffed the puck and the Americans flucked a fortuitous equaliser. He was controversially pulled from the game but his replacement did not fare much better.

Entering the third and final period the Russians led 3 goals to 2. Gifted a power play, the athletic Americans notched two quick goals. Ten minutes remained. The Russians panicked. They shot wildly, hoping for a break that was destined not to come. As the clock ticked down the commentator Al Michaels delivered his famous lines and America were victorious.

Seen as the greatest upset in American sport the ‘miracle on ice’ cast the team into folklore. Never again would the world witness such a sporting shock. Never again would such odds be overcome. Never again would victory be snatched from the jaws of defeat in such enigmatic fashion. Well not until 2016…

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Students Vs Residents, Town vs Gown – The Battle of 1355


The noise is the worst part. Doesn’t matter which side you are on. As a normal person who only wants to live in peace you hear the repetitive beat of loud music then the herds of loud groups announcing their return from revelry for all of the once-asleep residents to hear. As a student who is only having fun you hear the dreaded knock on the door followed by the rehearsed lecture about work the next morning and peace. You may even receive a call from the landlord with threats of eviction you know to be hot air. Each side wants revenge, but how? As with most questions, the answer can be found in the past. Join me in 1355 Oxford for the ultimate Town versus Gown showdown.

Two students, Roger and Walter, were raising a glass to St Scholastica on 10th February in the Swindlestock tavern. They were enjoying wine imported from the English territory of Bordeaux, but it was not to their liking. They informed the barkeep of their distaste towards his ‘indifferent wine’. He became indignant so firstly they threw their drinks in his face then threw themselves out the door.

Each side sensed a skirmish and summoned for support. The residents rang the church bell of St Martins and the students rang their equivalent on campus. Reinforcements flooded in and battle commenced. With the country immersed in the One Hundred Years War (Which lasted 116 years) weapons and military training were commonplace. This added to the ferociousness of the clashes across the town. After three days of hostilities, 63 students and 30 townsfolk lay dead with scores more horrifically injured. During the fracas the mayor had rode nine miles to Woodstock, where Edward III was in residence, to request support but to no avail.

When the dust had settled the monarch sided firmly with the students. He ruled that each year on the anniversary of the event (Rather appropriately on St Scholastica’s Day) the town was to pay 5 shillings and three pence to the university. This equated to one penny for each student killed. On this day they also had to attend mass and swear an oath to permanently recognise the primacy of the university. And to ensure that this would never happen again, the university was given the powers to regulate the quality of wine in the town.

Let this be a warning to any publican who has the audacity to serve anything less than the finest alcoholic beverages to the scholars of twenty sixteen.

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The Potato


We all love a good ‘What If’ in history don’t we? Is it true that a British sniper let Corporal Hitler off the hook during World War One? Didn’t Europe almost fall to Islam in the eighth century? Was Kyoto saved from nuclear annihilation because Henry Stimson went on his honeymoon there? Well here is another one for you. It is admittedly not pretty but certainly more tasty. What if the potato never made it to Europe? Other than menus being slightly less diverse, bloated cities would have been unsustainable and famine would have been a regular occurrence, with one notable exception of course.

Just as the Andes are the backbone of South America, so the potato was the backbone of the Incan civilisation. When encountered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s they noted how large yields of this misshapen tuber could be grown almost anywhere and were eaten by almost anyone. They sensed an opportunity and grandly unveiled the vegetable to a rather underwhelmed audience at the Spanish court.

Although any sailor who ate them did not contract scurvy and any farmer who grew them did not go hungry, old methods die hard and few people took to them for centuries. The upper class palate did not welcome this development so they were passed down through the middle classes to the peasantry who saw no benefit other than to grow them to feed their animals. So other than for sailors, for decades they served mainly as cattle feed across Europe. The great Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment noted them as “tasteless and starchy… reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.” A two star review at best.

But as the European population grew so did the threat of famine. Enlightened rulers realised that in the potato lay the key to a healthy population, but more importantly to a cheap surplus to be used in times of want. After all, revolutions rarely occur on full stomachs. So the potato was publicised to the peasantry as a solution to their woes. But still they remained suspicious. This tuber was ignored by dogs and wasn’t even mentioned in the bible! It was time for some clever French marketing.

A French chemist named Parmentier had survived on potatoes alone when captured during the Seven Years War and tirelessly stated that no longer would people riot over bread if they simply ate potatoes. He came up with the ingenious idea of planting 40 acres of the crop outside Paris. Nothing new here. However he ordered that they be placed under a 24 hour armed guard. Suddenly the locals were interested. What valuable commodity could be guarded so heavily? It was a resounding success. The guards ‘accidentally’ allowed several thieves to pinch potatoes for personal use. Word spread of the culinary ugly duckling throughout Europe.

The bulbous tuber soon supported the rural and urban peasantry alike. Europe’s population soared as the black hole of industrial cities sucked in workers in their thousands. They were now feasting on the plant which yielded more food than wheat ever could. From soups sipped on the streets of Paris to fish and chips sold in the heaving courts of London, the potato conquered all. As populations continued to grow, so too did their reliance on this one crop.

This was the sad case in Poland, Ukraine and Ireland whose farmers eagerly forgot other crops and packed their fields with potatoes. With no central planning this reliance on one crop was a disaster waiting to happen. Ireland was the unfortunate victim and her population is yet to recover.

When the blight arrived from North America it swept and plundered the bloated farms within days. Healthy crops became putrid black slime overnight. The sceptre of famine hung over Irish heads and with a British overlord committed to a free market economy, little was done. One million died and one million fled as the staple food struggled to recover from the merciless attack.

But recover it did and became a regular tenant to farms around the world, largely thanks to war. As vast armies trekked the globe in the twentieth century, farmers from Romania to Rwanda planted potatoes. Why? Because they bloom underground and remain hidden to the passer-by who would otherwise help himself to a nutritious smash and grab meal. As war ended the crop remained and today is the second largest food crop behind only rice. Russia with it’s huge tracts of not-so-fertile land is the largest producer and America with it’s not-so-small portion sizes is the largest consumer.

So the potato finally conquered the world. But what if it didn’t? What if it died out with the Incan civilisation? What if it never made it across the Atlantic? Well Keith Lemon would be down at least one show-stopping punchline…

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The Framing of Guy Fawkes

It all seems a little too perfect doesn’t it? Just at the moment that a conspiring catholic is lighting a match to destroy the Houses of Parliament, a guard walks in. The same guard who missed 36 barrels of gunpowder being loaded by catholics into a rented cellar? The same guard who had the bright idea of conducting the unprecedented search of basements at midnight? It was almost as if this was a set up but by whom and why?

There is no doubt that Guy Fawkes was intent on destroying protestant England. He had fought in the Spanish military for twelve years against the protestant Dutch. He personally petitioned King Philip III for support in igniting a catholic rebellion at home.

The leader of the infamous Gunpowder Plot Robert Catesby approached Fawkes in 1603. The 13 conspirators required a man with a professional knowledge of explosives who could add military precision to the operation. They need not have looked further.

But let’s not look at the much heralded events in isolation. The year was 1605. ‘Good Queen Bess’ had died four years previously and her cousin James came to the throne. He had previously been James VI of Scotland. His claim to the English monarchy was that his grandmother was the sister of Henry VII (Elizabeth’s grandfather) who married the king of Scotland in 1503. An issue of concern was that his mother was Mary Queen of Scots. Remember her? A devout Catholic and centre of many foiled plots, her execution order was signed by Elizabeth.

Fine. So what was the problem? The upper echelons of James’ government were unsure of his supposed hard-line approach towards catholics. For upper echelons, read Robert Cecil his Chief Minister and SpyMaster. Although James had ordered all priests to leave the country immediately, concerns still lingered. Cecil knew that it would take a lot more than a few cursory meetings to convince the king for a change in policy. James was a paranoid man who embraced flamboyance and theatrics. After all he was the man who paid Shakespeare to write Macbeth as Stuart propaganda warning people about what happened to those who rebelled against the true king. Remember how even nature reacted to Macbeth usurping the throne? No? Do you remember what happened to the climate of Pride Rock when Scar took over? There you go. It was bad.

So Cecil knew that to win over James a fantastic and elaborate plot was needed. He got to work. This would be his best yet – indeed he had framed many a man in the final years of the Tudor dynasty but he was saving the best until last.

A cellar was rented underneath parliament. Conveniently right beneath the seat of King James. It was available for lease. 36 large barrels of gunpowder, over which the government had a strict monopoly, became available and easily transported through the city by cart. Bringing it by the river ran the risk of it becoming wet and useless. It was sneaked into the most guarded building in the country. During a time of intense paranoia.

On 3rd November, two days before parliament was to open, Lord Monteagle received a mysterious letter. The messenger insisted upon reading it aloud to him. It warned that he should not attend parliament because his life was in danger. He swiftly brought it to Cecil the next day. That evening the basement cellar which Fawkes was in was raided.

Immediately after this, two leading co-conspirators who were expecting Fawkes were executed in their Midlands hideout by a soldier who received a very generous pension. Another was ‘poisoned’ in the Tower after his swift arrest, seemingly before he could talk. Was a paper trail back to Cecil being quickly stamped upon?

Fawkes was tortured for two days (How do we know? Search for a picture of his confession signature compared with his regular one) and ceremoniously dragged to Tower Hill for his long and ‘drawn out’ execution. The play did not last as long as planned as he quickly jumped off the gallows, snapping his neck and not giving the crowd the pleasure of witnessing his organs being sliced out of his torso as he looked on.

Mission accomplished. Unsettled by the threat of his dramatic death, James adopted a more punitive approach against catholics. He then decreed that on each 5th November bonfires were to be lit annually across the country to celebrate the Gunpowder Plot being stopped. Initially effigies of the pope were burned but during the nineteenth century this was switched to Fawkes instead.

So is this conspiracy true? Possibly. But possibly not. All of this could have been achieved without a clandestine puppet master pulling the strings. But we all like a good story don’t we?

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The Salem Witch Trials

Thirteen year old Martha Goodwin was possessed by the devil. She purred like a cat, barked like a dog and neighbours spotted her flying like a goose twenty feet high. At the very mention of chores or religious reading she stormed into a whirling rage. Whistling during prayer and laughing at the sick, her antics were beginning to affect other girls. She was under the spell of a witch and must be struck down. She was hung in Boston during the November of 1688. And that was that. It seemed like they had stopped the devil. Until two girls in Salem began acting strangely four winters later…

The New England colony was a dangerous place. A tiny settlement perched on the very edge of a continent they knew little about, it’s people were God fearing and paranoid. Neither English yet neither American, they faced the constant danger of famine, plague, attacks by the Indians or attacks by the French. Their founding fathers had fled the England of James I determined to create a ‘city on a hill’ for children of the reformation forced to flee persecution at home. Within two years of their arrival they all but destroyed the Pequot tribe in a brief conflict, selling the survivors into Caribbean slavery. Four decades later in the 1670s one in ten colonial men died during King Philip’s War – another massacre of their heathen neighbours. Around the time of the Goodwin family’s tribulations the people of Salem rebelled against their royal governor amid the backdrop of war against the French. During the harsh winter of 1691 it seemed like God had forgotten them. What had gone wrong? And who was to blame?

The cautionary tale of Martha Goodwin had gripped the colony. Books were penned and sermons spoken – witchcraft was never far away. 25 men had already been hung for it in the short history of New England. It was in this backdrop that the well-read and devious daughter and niece of Reverend Parris began showing the symptoms of witchcraft in the town of Salem. They complained of being pricked by pins and threw books around the room. When an audience appeared their symptoms got worse! Word got around and within the week three more Salem girls were showing their symptoms.

At the beginning of February a physician confirmed the worst – the girls were bewitched. The devil was in Salem, but who had summoned him and what did he want? In a matter of days the girls named names. Sarah Good the homeless beggar, Sarah Osborne the seldom churchgoer who married a wealthy man and Tituba the heathen Caribbean slave of the Parris girls had been fortune telling, dancing in the woods and even having sexual flings with demons. The accusations were supported by complaints from three respected male villagers. By March all three women were locked up in prison.

Four more names were named before Easter. One of these was Martha Corey, a respected townswoman who publicly questioned the validity of testimonies from teenage girls. She was definitely a witch. The interrogations were in full swing. The four year old daughter of Sarah Good unwittingly sentenced her mother when questioned by the deposition of witch hunters. The cold winter had turned to a hot summer. Accusations and arrests came thick and fast. Neighbours, friends, rivals and relations all named one another.

72 year old widow Ann Foster succumbed during her interrogation. The devil had indeed appeared to her in the form of an exotic bird alongside none other than her tempestuous neighbour Martha at his side. She and her daughter were arrested. The hunt was at fever pitch – you were with Salem or against it.

The first death was Sarah Osborne in her prison cell. On 2nd June a special court was created to sentence the witches who had overrun the town. Bridget Bishop was the first to be sent to the gallows. The main line of questioning at her trial was about her immoral lifestyle as symbolised by her black coat. It had been cut or torn in two ways, but why? Simple answer: she was witch.

The court were advised not to rely on evidence which came from dreams or visions but this was too little too late. Five days later and five more were hung. John Proctor, made famous by another victim of another witch hunt, Arthur Miller in The Crucible, issued a plea for his case (And that of his wife, son and daughter) to be heard outside of Salem where he could have a fair trial. He was found guilty. Why ask for a change of venue if you were innocent?

During the August 19th execution of George Burroughs, question marks were raised when he recited the Lord’s Prayer in the shadow of his noose. After all it was common knowledge that witches were unable to recite this prayer. This air of doubt was settled when the accusers confirmed that the devil recited it to him. Two days later the elderly Giles Corey was pressed to death with heavy stones because he refused to plea either guilty or not guilty. In all, twenty people were formally executed not to mention those who died in their lonely prison cells.

As the hot summer cooled, so did the mass hysteria of accusations and capital punishment. Temporary reprieves were given to Mary Bradury (77) and Abigail Faulkner (pregnant) so that they could consider their confessions. Nonetheless the death rattle lingered on. More trials were held in January and three were pronounced guilty but the governor decided to release them. Well, they had to pay their jail fees first and as a result one died in her cell.

One year on and Salem was beginning to contemplate their actions. Had the devil really cast a spell of witchcraft upon the town? Had this mass hysteria really started when two teenage girls mimicked the behaviour of a ‘witch’ they had read about? Interestingly one of the main accusers at the age of 25 publically apologised. She had not acted out of malice and wished no harm upon her neighbours; but the devil HAD told her to denounce innocent people.

So what caused the Salem Witch Trials? Scientific evidence has pointed to a rare fungus in grain which can induce visions and fits in those who ingest it. But perhaps the causes lie in the devious minds of bored young women whose accusations were merrily believed by a community riddled with fear, self doubt and anxiety. But what then of Martha Goodwin? Well maybe she was a witch…

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