Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Great Fire of London

At one o’clock in the morning, Sunday, September 2, 1666, a disastrous event began and didn’t end until Wednesday, September 5th. It is known as The Great Fire of London and would change the city forever.

The fire began at Thomas Farynor’s (baker to King Charles II) bakeshop on Pudding Lane. Thomas and his family were woken by a servant and escaped, however one of their maids didn’t fare so well, perishing in the blaze.

It didn’t take long before the fire rapidly spread. The city of London at the time was made up mostly of wood and pitch buildings which are very flammable. When you mix pitch and dry wood, and burn it, you make charcoal. Pitch is still used today to make torches…

The streets were narrow and rutted, and the buildings piled one on top of another. It was a medieval city that had just continued to grow without any thought for planning or overcrowding. A lot of the buildings had jetties. This means they start out small but with each floor got bigger and bigger, the top floor well surpassing the first. Not unlike the shape of an ice cream cone, or upside down pyramid.

The fire leapt from house to yard catching hay, feed, and anything else in its path on fire. Soon it reached London Bridge and consumed half of it before coming to a halt at the gap where a fire 33 years prior had occurred.

Widespread panic began when the fire reached the Roman Walls encasing the city. Prior to that, people didn’t feel the need to escape, just went from safe house to safe house. Now it was apparent that they weren’t safe. Thousands flocked to the gates, pushing and shoving each other to get out of the city.

The fire destroyed the entire city within the Roman Walls, but did not reach the aristocratic domains in Westminster or the residence of Charles II, Whitehall Palace.

Fire brigades worked tirelessly to put out the fires, but little can be done with buckets of water when a raging inferno is consuming everything in its path with assistance from blustery winds. They did have “fire trucks” but some of them didn’t have wheels—only sleds—and some were stuck in the gridlock of panic-stricken people. Others that reached the fire, had no where to get water from. One to the biggest helps in past fires, the people had discovered were to create breaks, for example demolishing a house or building to deprive the fire of fuel to keep moving. This was suggested to stop the fire, and had it been done earlier the damage would not have been so severe, but at the time, the Lord Mayer of London, Bludworth was hesitant to place the order. Seeing as how nothing was being done, Charles II ordered the demolitions, but it was too late, the fire too big a monster to squelch.

When the Trained Bands of London destroyed the buildings with gunpowder explosions, they didn’t have enough time to clear the rubble away before the fire was on them, and thus the fire raged on, perhaps even worse than before with the added supply of gunpowder.

For another three days the fire raged, until coming to a stop at Temple Church. But the winds picked up again urging it forward toward Westminster. The Duke of York, ordered the Paper House demolished as a break, and lucky he did so, because the fire died there.

Some say the fire could have been avoided had the Lord Mayer ordered the demolitions earlier, other witnesses say that when the fire started at the bakery, no one was even trying to put it out, people were just running for their lives or gathering their things, or even looting…

The fire destroyed around 13,500 houses, 89 churches, 52 Guild Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Bridewell Palace, city prisons, General Letter Office, and three of the Western city gates. It is estimated in about $1 billion in damage in today’s monetary standards.

Surprisingly only about 8-16 lives were lost. And in fact there was some good to come out of it, despite the fact it ruined 85% of the city, bankrupt and displaced thousands, and that was that it killed off thousands of rats that carried the plague virus which had been surreptitiously killing people for years.

Another good thing to come out of, the king commissioned the city to be rebuilt, this time with wider streets and brick buildings. By 1671, the majority of buildings were complete, and in 1675 the king commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as a monument, which still stands today in the place where Mr. Farynor’s bakery used to stand, a street now called Monument Street.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why do Americans vote on Tuesday?

Every four years we vote on a Tuesday in November. My question earlier today was do you know why?

Here's the answer:

Way back in colonial times, by November the harvest was usually over. So the people went to church on Sunday, took Monday to travel to the polls and voted on Tuesday, returning home on Wednesday. Just goes to show how much we still follow traditions of our forefathers.

Hope you all voted today! As Americans and citizens of a nation ruled by democracy, you can make a difference!

Cheers!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Celtic Lore: The Voyage of St. Brendan

History tells us that Columbus discovered America...despite the fact that Native Americans already lived here... and despite the fact that another man had already been here from Ireland. His treacherous journey from the Emerald Isle to the Americas, or as he phrased it the Isle of the Blessed, is known as, the Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator.

St. Brendan was born around 484, near the port of Tralee, in Country Kerry. He was a holy man, a monk, and an abbot. He developed several monasteries in Ireland and attracted many disciples. The most famous of his monasteries was Clonfert, in County Galway, built in 560 which lasted until sometime in the 16th century. That's almost a thousand years! St. Brendan's Cathedral which was built in the 11th century still resides in Clonfert, and is renowned for its large Romanesque doorway. In Annaghdown, (Co. Galway), he also built a convent, which his sister Brig presided as abbess.


There are many landmarks in Ireland named after St. Brendan, including Brandon Mountain located in the Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry. He built a small monastic cell at the bottom of the ridge. It is believed he climbed this steep hill and had a vision of the Americas before he set sail. Although, he didn't know it was the Americas. He thought it was Tir na nOg, or the Land of Eternal Youth, the Garden of Eden.

On the north side of Brandon Mountain lies the small village of Brandon and beyond that Brandon Bay. I have been to Brandon and climbed Brandon Mountain. My maiden name is actually Brandon, and my family came from Brandon to the U.S. in 1898. It is a beautiful little town, and the mountain really is a hill. I have a picture of myself standing atop the ridge and Brandon Bay in the background. I got to see the ancient beehive shaped remains of his chapel. Sheep roam the 3200 foot high summit. If you ever get a chance to visit Ireland, it is a must see.

St. Brendan loved to travel and was known for voyaging to Scotland, where he met St. Columba if Hynba Island. He travelled to Brittany with Welsh monk, St. Malo, and reportedly stayed at the Welsh monastery Llancarfan, built by St. Cadoc. But his biggest voyage of all, the one called The Voyage of Saint Brendan, was his journey to America. It was an epic journey. Some say he took sixty monks, others say fourteen plus 3 non-believers. They built boats called curraghs, that were made from a wooden frame, and leather made from dried ox hides. In 1970, Tim Severin replicated the journey, and proved that it was possible. (I put the book by Tim Severin about his journey on the book list on the right.)

It took Saint Brendan 7 years to complete his journey in which it is believed he traveled to Iceland, Greenland, and the Americas. The tale describes Saint Brendan as meeting St. Patrick. He lands on an island fo Easter celebration, which turns out to be a sea monster. It was the making of such stories as The Odyssey and Pinnochio. St. Brendan and his group explored the Land of Promise bringing fruits and precious stones with them upon their return.


There are some who believe Columbus used the manuscripts journeling Saint Brendan's voyage to navigate his way to the Americas. Speculation also states thatVikings began serious raids on Ireland by the end of the eighth century. Is it possible the Norsemen learned about the lands from the Irish travellers?


Saint Brendan is now known as the Patron Saint of sailors and travellers. Saint Brendan died in 578, at Annaghdown in Ireland. He is buried at Clonfert Cathedral. His Feast Day is May 16th, the day of his death.

So what do you think? Did St. Brendan travel to the Americas before Columbus?