Mar. 17, 2005


by John Hewitt

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Poem: "Ireland" by John Hewitt, from Collected Poems. © The Blackstaff Press. Reprinted with permission.


We Irish pride ourselves as patriots
and tell the beadroll of the valiant ones
since Clontarf's sunset saw the Norsemen broken... Aye, and before that too we had our heroes:
but they were mighty fighters and victorious.
The later men got nothing save defeat,
hard transatlantic sidewalks or the scaffold...

We Irish, vainer than tense Lucifer,
are yet content with half-a-dozen turf,
and cry our adoration for a bog,
rejoicing in the rain that never ceases,
and happy to stride over the sterile acres,
or stony hills that scarcely feed a sheep.
But we are fools, I say, are ignorant fools
to waste the spirit's warmth in this cold air,
to spend our wit and love and poetry
on half-a-dozen peat and a black bog.

We are not native here or anywhere.
We were the keltic wave that broke over Europe,
and ran up this bleak beach among these stones:
but when the tide ebbed, were left stranded here
in crevices, and ledge-protected pools
that have grown saltier with the drying up
of the great common flow that kept us sweet
with fresh cold draughts from deep down in the ocean.

So we are bitter, and are dying out
in terrible harshness in this lonely place,
and what we think is love for usual rock,
or old affection for our customary ledge,
is but forgotten longing for the sea
that cries far out and calls us to partake
in his great tidal movements round the earth.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1776 that British forces evacuated Boston during the Revolutionary War. The defeat ended the eight-year British occupation of the city, and it was during those eight years that events such as the Boston Massacre occurred.

George Washington ordered the fortification of the city and the harbor on March 4th, and American General John Thomas had secretly led about 800 soldiers and 1,200 workers to Dorchester Heights, just south of the city. Most of the artillery used to surround Boston had been captured by Henry Knox at Fort Ticonderoga in New York during that winter. Knox used his men, their horses, and oxen to drag over 120,000 pounds of artillery through ice and snow for 300 miles back to Boston for the fortification.

British General Sir William Howe had planned to use British ships already in Boston Harbor to defeat the growing Patriot defense, but a storm hit and that gave the Patriots all the time they needed to complete their preparations. General Howe considered his options, and when he was told he was completely surrounded, he gave up Boston without a fight. 11,000 British troops and more than 1,000 remaining British loyalists boarded ships, and later they left Boston, retreating to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It was on this day in 1901 that Vincent Van Gogh's paintings were shown at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. The exhibit made Van Gogh's work famous. Van Gogh committed suicide 11 years earlier, never knowing how influential his paintings would become.

The painter Maurice de Vlaminck saw the exhibit, and it influenced his own painting so much that he said Van Gogh was more important to him than his own father. Van Gogh said, "One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way."

It was on this day in 1910 that the Camp Fire Girls organization was formed, founded by Dr. Luther Gulick and his wife, Charlotte. It was the first organization for girls in the United States open to members of all religions.

It was on this day in 1941 that the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington D.C. The museum was dedicated in a ceremony given by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 8,822 guests were there. Andrew W. Mellon donated the funds for the construction of the museum's main building, and he also gave his own entire art collection, which included 369 paintings by European artists such as Botticelli, Corot, Perugino, Raphael, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Dyck, and many, many others. In the collection there were also 175 American portraits and about 25 statues. The gift had an estimated value of around $65 million.

Andrew Mellon had been working towards the creation of the Gallery for several years prior to the opening, getting President Hoover to set aside the land years before construction began. Mellon chose the architect, John Russell Pope, and he supervised the construction himself. The original structure is now called the West Building.

Pope was also the designer of the Jefferson Memorial, and he modeled both structures after the Pantheon in Rome. That's why the National Gallery has a massive dome and a huge columned portico. The whole Gallery spans four city blocks. Some of the most famous paintings that it houses today are Ginevra de'Benci (1474) by Leonardo da Vinci, Daniel in the Lion's Den (1613) by Peter Paul Rubens and Salvador Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955).

Although Mellon created the museum, he didn't want it named after him. He worried it might limit future contributions of art and money to the gallery. In his speech at the opening ceremony, President Roosevelt said, "It is with a very real sense of satisfaction that I accept for the people of the United States, and on their behalf, this National Gallery and the collections it contains. The giver of this building has matched the richness of its gift with the modesty of his spirit, stipulating that the Gallery should be known not by his name, but by the Nation's [...] not a memorial to themselves, but a monument to the art that they love and the country to which they belong." Because it's a national building, entrance to the gallery is free.

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