“A Deed of Dering-Do”

July 10, 2010

Although I am no longer very young – or perhaps because of this – I am greatly drawn to vintage books for children and young adults. The stories told and the values they embody are often vastly different from those we encounter today. The world of these books is a world where Westerners struggle in love, war, work, and school without the burden of guilt based on race, sex, and the like. One common theme is personal courage and the triumph of brave individuals over adversity.

One such book, A Book of Brave Deeds (Chicago : Auxiliary Educational League, 1947), collects famous stories of heroism, mainly in times of war, for the benefit of its readers. Here, I encountered a story I’d never heard before: Sergeant Custume’s heroic sacrifice defending the Irish town of Athlone from English and Dutch forces during the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-1691). The war was fought between the supporters of Protestant William III (William of Orange) and those of the Catholic James II, over who would be King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. James had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by William, who ruled jointly with James’s daughter Mary.

At the peak of James’s efforts to recover the crown, Irish and French forces (James was supported by Louis XIV) controlled most of the major towns in Ireland outside of the province of Ulster. James affirmed the independence of an Irish Parliament and promised to restore lands to the Catholic Gentry which had been confiscated in the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland. Williamite forces, including English, German, Dutch, Danish, and French troops, gained significant ground with their victory in the Battle of the Boyne (June 1690), but failed to dislodge the French and Irish from Limerick.

William entrusted the Dutch general Godert de Ginkell with the taking of the strategically important town of Athlone on the River Shannon. The bloody siege of Athlone was the occasion of the “brave deed” here related. The east part of the city had already been taken by Ginkell, but the Irish occupying the west part – across the river – bunkered down. Ginkell proceeded to reduce the Irish section of the city to rubble with his guns, but was prevented from entering it by a break in the bridge. To solve this problem, the “wily” general made use of a wheeled drawbridge designed by a German engineer (!) and was able to outmaneuver Irish opposition to set it in place. Athlone was doomed. At this moment the hero appears:

A sergeant in Maxwell’s dragoons, Custume by name, grasped the situation at a glance, and cried aloud, as he stepped out from the huddled ranks of his comrades, in words that Irish history will never cease to preserve —

“Are there ten men here, who will die with me for Ireland?”

Not a second’s pause now—there were not ten, but hundreds upon hundreds; and from amongst the strongest and most active of them the devoted sergeant picked out the number he had stated. All of them were in the full armour of their corps-back-piece and front-piece of wrought steel, thigh pieces that stood out over the knee as well, and great jackboots of horsehide, stout enough to ward off most bullets, and to resist any sabre-slash the arm of man could deliver.

“Fling aside your swords, men; ’tis axes we want!” was the sergeant’s next order.

Immediately he was obeyed, for there were plenty of tools all around, and then, with the simple words, “Follow me, boys – for Ireland!” Custume ran up to the inside of the Irish breastwork, climbed over it with the agility of a cat, and landed on the opposite side face to face with the English, was closely followed by his sacrificial ten, and forthwith all set to work to hew away the gallery, to wrench up and fling into the river the planks just laid down, to destroy the dire machine designed to destroy themselves, their comrades, and their cause!

The eleven are mowed down by artillery, but not before doing considerable damage to the gallery, and they are followed by another nine who manage to destroy it, sending an “exultant scream of triumph” up from the Irish soldiers. Of these, only two are able to return to their side alive. The story does not end in victory, for Athlone was eventually captured “chiefly owing to the absurd conflicts between [French general] Saint Ruth and the Irish commanding officers,” but the English “never made the slightest impression by way of the bridge which the twenty Irish Heroes died in defending.”

The story perhaps does not need any particular comment; but why do we not tell our boys stories like this anymore? The broad reason is the proliferation of a kind of pacifism within our culture: celebration of battle and of the sacrifice of one’s life for one’s country is supposed to be what got us into the carnage of the First World War and beyond. While there may be some truth to this, I am more impressed by the fact that these stories celebrate courage regardless of the affiliation of the courageous person. Thus the English have long admired their enemy Joan of Arc, for instance. Americans once were capable of admiring the bravery of American Indians without regretting that the Indians were ultimately defeated.

The story of Sergeant Custume is taken from Stephen J. Mac Kenna’s Brave Men in Action: Some Thrilling Stories of the British Flag (Sampson Low: London, 1878), and can be found in part on Google Books. The author explains his purpose as follows:

In the mass of Military and Naval history which we have as a nation by this time accumulated, individual efforts, in contra-distinction to the greater operations of Armies and Fleets, are apt to become forgotten – we lose sight of the Soldier or Sailor in the vast labours of the Commander-in-Chief or the Admiral.

“Brave Men In Action” is intended to make the Person more prominent than the Force, and therefore in most of the articles Incidents are brought boldly into the foreground of the picture, while the Action is only outlined so far as is needful to the proper comprehension of the selected deed of daring.

Some stories of this sort are true and others mainly fiction, but they show a true side of man, one upon which civilization depends. I think we need to go back to teaching our children, and ourselves, the “proper comprehension” of brave deeds.


Independence Day – Celebrated Underground

July 4, 2010

Independence Day in the United States is a time for reflecting on, and celebrating, the Founding of our country. The problem with that these days is that our nation, as she shows herself to the world today, has little connection or affinity with the time or spirit of that founding. This is as true of our publicly-expressed ideals as it is in our demographic makeup. I have no disagreement with Rick Darby on his feeling that, in terms of our public life, we have little to celebrate today.

I recently read a biography of James Madison that was written at around the turn of the (last) century. It was inspiring and valuable, because I was able to feel a connection to another one of the great men who founded the United States of America. Yet I was not sure how to draw upon Madison to speak to us in our present crisis of mass immigration and untrammeled liberalism. Even in 1900, a biographer of Madison saw his value in terms of his liberal values: opposing slavery, supporting freedom of religion, and arguing for a strong, centralized federal government. Yet while I affirm such Madisonian views as positive elements of our national character, they are not going to be of help in resisting current trends such as race replacement and the growth of Islam. Some might say they are part of the problem, though I do not go that far.

Today, July 4 is an occasion for platitudes about the United States as embodying some ideal of universal freedom and tolerance – the liberal view of who we are. The non-liberal elements of our identity – that we are an English-speaking, European people of Christian heritage – are seen as inessential, or even as impediments to the true meaning and value of our nationhood.

So, what do we reactionaries, traditionalists, and nationalists celebrate today? At the very least, that we have an identity and an Independence Day that belongs to us, even if its true meaning is lost to the majority of people today.

I must apologize for invoking ’70s and ’80s British music in a blog about American heritage these days, but it’s part of my frame of reference and sometimes of some use to me. There was a song by a group called The Jam called “Going Underground” that once meant a lot to me. In high school and college, I liked the idea of being involved in “alternative” or “underground” culture, which at the time I understood to be something vaguely libertarian or left-wing. The truth, though, was that the appeal of the “alternative” musical groups came from their sound and sense of fashion and intelligent lyrics, and not inherently from their liberal or left-wing politics. The Jam song went like this:

What you see is what you get
You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust…

And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society’s got –
I’m going underground
Well the brass bands play and feet start to pound
Going underground
Well let the boys all sing and the boys all shout for tomorrow

(P.S. I decided to remove the video upon re-watching it. The imagery on the video doesn’t belong on today’s post, although it’s mild enough for that period of music.)

Nowadays, I realize that to really be “underground” is not to be liberal, but to be traditionalist or conservative. This is the position that really challenges the ruling order, and that really takes courage and non-conformity to hold. When we traditionalists celebrate the Founding of our nation (whichever one we may belong to), we have to do it, to some extent, “underground,” outside of the parades, fireworks, and sports events that mark Independence Day in the United States.

And, one thing we assuredly can celebrate is that sympathy for a traditionalist position, and resistance to the current order, is growing, even if we are hard-pressed to find positive manifestations of this. But remember, it’s still early!

So as not to leave out a traditional American element on this day, I refer the reader to the poem “The Swamp Fox,” written by a very politically incorrect Southern writer, William Gilmore Simms, about Francis Marion, who doggedly opposed the British in their occupation of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War:

“We follow where the Swamp Fox guides,
We leave the swamp and cypress tree,
Our spurs are in our coursers’ sides,
And ready for the strife are we—
The Tory camp is now in sight,
And there he cowers within his den—
He hears our shouts, he dreads the fight,
He fears, and flies from Marion’s men.”

Best wishes on this Independence Day. May it be a time of public celebration and private inspiration to all my readers.