Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

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Inside Georgian Dublin


Over the past few months I have been somewhat of an English language teaching journeyman. I have navigated my way up and down much trodden streets of old in search of language schools of varying acronymic titles. Often starting with an I or and E, and somewhere else having an E or an I inside them, their meaning is often wrapped within some other flurry of adjectives represented by consonants. But despite this conundrum what I’ve enjoyed most of all is that many of the schools are housed in old Georgian houses.

Georgian Dublin represents a golden age for the city in terms of development. More so that any other period in Dublin’s history, the Georgian period has single handedly defined much of the modern shape, character, and charm of the inner city. This period stretched from the early 18th to the early 19th century, and the prosperity witnessed by the city at the time had a lot to do with the sitting of the Irish Houses of Parliament at College Green (now the Bank of Ireland), whose parliamentarians needed townhouses. The attention of the rest of the wealthy Irish was not lost and it become the norm to own a red-bricked terraced house, hundreds of which are still standing in Dublin today. Today post cards of Georgian Dublin doors and houses can be found around town. Equally, buildings like the Four Courts, Customs House, and the Bank of Ireland are some of the most monumental.

Powerscourt House, South William Street.

These red-bricked houses were designed within the constraints of a public body set up to ensure that the city was redeveloped to a habitable standard. Much of the city was still medieval in shape, and vast tracts of farmland and marsh still lay within walking distance of the pillars of power. The Wide Streets Commission when established saw about ensuring uniformity, order, and perhaps most significantly, fire precautions.

Unfortunately, during the 19th century many of these houses were converted into tenements to house Dublin’s poor, and with this so many fell into disrepair and eventually ruin. Even in areas as picturesque and typically Georgian such as St Stephen’s green, we are only left with remnants of great houses. The story is more stark on once fashionable Gardiner Street and Dominick Street on the north side of the city where some of the poorest slums where to be located. Many houses were torn down, and many now hold offices, flats, or are empty. Now they are tall and hovering over the footpaths, so far removed from the original uses.

Fitzwilliam Street Upper

All is not lost however. These buildings are finding new uses as office space, and several are used as English language schools. For whatever reasons, perhaps their size or number of rooms, but I suppose what is also important is that they are all in city centre locations. There might be other factors at play but I don’t really think that is of any significance, what matters here is that I actually finally got to walk into some of these buildings and have a look around.

I recall first finding out about this part of Dublin while I was doing my Leaving Certificate back in 2000. I studied art, which meant I had to do history of art. There was a particular part of the course which discussed the Georgian period of Dublin. I don’t remember if we had a choice on particular aspects of Irish art, but I do know that I took an instant liking to it. Maybe because it was something that we could see any time we went into town, and it had so much history too, not only in its construction but also in its faded glory and the destitute state it had come to exist in.

I’ve always been interested in these aspects of history. It could be part of my more crude nature, or perhaps some kind of romantic notion which sees the character only in that which has experienced more than others. I’ve always found old photographs interesting, but mostly I prefer photographs or images which show us how far we have come along from when the photograph was taken.

It was probably this interest in seeing how things have and do exist now that drew me towards these buildings so much more than I felt others were being drawn. I couldn’t help walking around the streets which chop through Baggot Street, up towards Herbert Road and around Fitzwilliam Square and Pembroke Street. I have driven up and down here countless times but I had never really earned the chance to simply explore.

Baggot Street

Fitzwilliam Square

I took particular pleasure when given the chance to explore around Parnell Square and Dominick Street. I had thought that all of Dominick Street’s Georgian houses had been demolished and replaced by flats, which themselves were later demolished, the scrub remaining being left for some other fate.

This particular area is where Dublin’s oldest Georgian houses sit. The top of Dominick Street has some fine examples, one of which I will talk about more shortly. But just across the street is a short street which runs up to the King’s Inns. This is Henrietta Street. When I visited, the street was quiet with the morning and damp with the condensation of the night’s clouds. The houses were bold and broad. Some had been restored to offices, but others looked they had been boarded up for a long time. They were scarred with the ignominy of rejection, but they stood with a little bit of humble pride showing that despite many years of neglect they still owned their place in Dublin’s history.

Henrietta Street, all in faded grace, removed from all its glory.

Henrietta Street; so many stories from only one doorway.

Inside many of these buildings all over Dublin is a secret treat, their interiors. The ceilings are high, like really high. The walls are thick, so thick I don’t think you needed to insulate them, and the steps and floors all creak with age. I could be wrong in saying that I would be surprised if many still had the same floors from when they were first built. Indeed, many buildings still maintain the artistic features of their original design.

In some respects there is not much to see in these big houses. The walls as I said are tall, and the floors a bit creaky and old. Because they’re old buildings it is hard to have light fittings and plugs and stuff to make them more modern. Adding to this is that in each ceiling you can’t really drill a hole into the beautifully crafted stucco work which is typical of every house. Of yeah, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I?

At the centre of each room where perhaps a candle chandelier would have hung the most beautiful stucco work is the norm in many of these houses. Even in smaller, clearly less influential homes, having a elaborate floral motif emanating from the ceiling was common practice. Often there are fantastic animal or floral patterns addornig other parts of the ceiling, but the main focus is at the very centre. The level of detail and size depends on the owners wealth, and I suppose also on the owners taste.

Inside a house on Fitzwilliam Street Upper

Inside a house on Fitzwilliam Street Upper

While I was mesmerised by actually being inside just a few fairly standard Georgian houses, I was lucky to have to teach in an overflow classroom for a week in one of Georgian Dublin’s most prized possessions. These overflow classrooms are often temporary solutions to busy periods. This particular acronymic school based on Dominick Street was in need of some room, and the Youth Work Ireland building nearby was in the position to offer space.

I had little idea of what to expect as I stepped in, but I instantly recognised the work on the walls from my Leaving Cert history of art classes. The owner of this house originally was a man named Robert West, and he was known as one of the foremost stuccodores in Dublin at the time. This particular interior is so elaborate that it is near impossible to describe with enough words, and I for one can merely leave some photographs of the beautiful walls and ceilings.

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Lower

In time I hope that I can again visit some of these properties, although not as a journeyman, more as an enthusiast for the magnificent tribute left to a time when Dublin was finally becoming a city of Europe, one with its own shape and its own character. I think Georgian Dublin is something which many of us take for granted, although it is not so serious that we do take it seriously, but we should offer it the respect it deserves. I think that Dublin will grow always around these magnificent monuments, but at the same time I hope that they do not allow for a stagnation of the progress which they themselves were the product of some two hundred years before.

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Do you have a particular building or era from historical Dublin which you like or have an interest in?

Should we seek to restore all these buildings to their original state, or should we allow progress to change these for the better?

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I took all these photos with my camera phone (HTC One M8 if you’re asking). For some reason I never had the sense to bring my Nikon in with me.

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The Robert West house is 20 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin 1. You can read a little more about the building and its history and the restoration project which was carried out on it here.

If you are interested in Georgian Dublin take a look at the Irish Georgian Society’s website.

Here is a detailed post on the history of Lower Dominick Street in Dublin.

About K-Pop in Europe (an interpretation)


As it may not be common knowledge yet, I was teaching Italian secondary school students in Ireland for a month for pocket money while spending the summer here with Herself and +1. It has been fun.

Of course I explained to them that I did not actually live in Ireland, and that I was a resident of Korea (no not North, South). This got a reaction sometimes, and other times it didn’t. The students I was teaching were nice, with a decent standard of English, but I was lucky to have the higher levels, as there were other teachers who were considerably less fortunate. But anyway.

With one class the students were mostly around 17, they liked music, boys/girls, fashion, and having a good time, like most people their age. They were, for want of a better word, normal. At the end of an early class, some students came to me and asked me if I listened to K-Pop (note: they didn’t ask if I knew it), but they gave me an appropriately skeptical look as they asked me. In their defence I think they were looking for a way to start a conversation.

Well, anyway, it turns out they were familiar with all the hit makers, and they were particularly fond of Shinee (or however the fuck you spell it). I wretched, naturally. “No, you don’t like it?” they asked. I shook my head with pursed lips and explained about the noise pollution and saturation in Korea. They looked like they understood.

“Well”, said one, “I like it. It’s fun. I mean I don’t love it. It’s fun. It’s something to listen to. But, like my favourite band is Muse, so… “. I think she was hoping I wouldn’t judge her too harshly. And we left it at that.

I suppose because I am not left with K-Pop burnt ears that I can approach this subject with a mature outlook. What I got from this exchange was that, yeah we know it’s poppy manufactured crap but it’s got a certain amount of quirkiness to it that makes it different from the usual manufactured pop crap. Which I can recognise from a musical perspective.

What’s also emerged from this thought process was that, you know the way you see those programmes in Korea showing millions and millions of European kids going to a K-Pop showcase in Paris or wherever, the reason why people are excited is because they’re at a concert and concerts are exciting, and people will say anything when a camera is put in their face when they’re excited.

Anyway, maybe I’ll look a little more favourably on the K-Pop in Europe thing as something musically different, and that’s why people listen to it, for a change, and because it’s fun. Which I suppose it is when you aren’t subjected to listening to it all the fucking time.

From this lesson maybe I’ll try to be less of a cynic. Actually that won’t happen. Maybe I’ll be more mature in my cynicism. Perhaps.

Trying to look back at the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina


Twenty years ago this week the war in Yugoslavia began its most horrific stage, the destruction, slaughter, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia Herzegovina. Can you remember where you were at this time in 1992? I was still in primary school. Many of the students I teach now in the university where I work were no more than a year or two old. Irish people were more concerned that they wouldn’t be getting Yugoslavia’s berth in the European Championships, than the fact that the country they would hopefully replace was about to experience the worst atrocities in Europe since the Nazis.

Wars seem to define decades more than anything. Sure a politician may have a lot to do with particular wars, such as George Bush in Iraq, but wars often do not stop with the transition of power. If you look down through the twentieth century, we see war after war, conflict after conflict, and if there’s very little conflict then there’s probably outright conquest. Stretching through the decades, wars and conflict have featured throughout and they define our decades with chapters in history books, each one an individual mark on our conscience for every time we forget and fail to learn from the mistakes society has made over and over again.

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The World Famous (but all too infrequent) If I Had A Minute To Spare Global Caption Competition of Death and Love


Yes, it has been a while, but fortunately you may all rest easy, the World Famous If I Had A Minute To Spare  Global Caption Competition of Death and Love has returned, this time with a cherry on top. They cherry, you ask, is an  extra caption to be competitive about.

They’re at it again, those pesky Europeans, kissing in public. Benneton’s add compaign almost coming through here with a picture of Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel about to make their better halves a little upset.

So, if you could, a caption please:

 

As always, the winner of the competition will get a free subscription to If I Had A Minute To Spare and a pat on the back from me.

May the best caption win!!!