Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

by Jack Weatherford

The Mongol Invasion was a mere apostrophe of history during my schooling and I dimly recall mention of a particularly savage slew of terrifying tribesmen from the esoteric east who touched a handful of easternmost European cities over a relatively short period before disappearing back into the vague lands that spawned them. Jack Weatherford’s book was recently recommended to me and immediately dispelled that notion. It exposed the panic propagated throughout Europe by ignorant, superstitious and hysterical Kings or (drama-) Queens.

Weatherford is an American anthropologist and ethnographer who got side-tracked into a fascination with Mongol affairs while on a research expedition studying the role of tribal people in the development of trade along the Silk Road between China and Europe. He diverted his attention to compiling a history of a Mongol boy named Temujin, born in 1162, who grew to annex the diverse central Asian tribes into one Mongol nation.  As Genghis Khan, Temujin went on to conquer the land from China to Hungary via the Middle East and Russia. As Weatherford points out, this is a greater land mass than any other conqueror in history – including Alexander the Great. Continue reading

The Aran Islands

THE ARAN ISLANDS

That Celts arrived in Ireland via the Caucasus should come as no surprise to those familiar with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ which shares elements with the story of the two figures from Celtic mythology, lovers Aonghas and Caer. There is an ancient fortress bearing Aonghas’ name on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. The location on the receding continental shelf of Europe identifies both the little archipelago’s geographical position, and its extreme isolation.

The dominant feature is not only the grey/white stones, but their layout. They weave a flywire grid of low walls enclosing the tiniest green plots that could never be called paddocks. In a remarkable achievement, the Islanders broke and cleared the stone. To dispose of the shrapnel, they created walls with it, forming the boundary of the cleared patch of dirt. This backbreaking, courageous labour is staggering at first sight. Continue reading

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

dostoyevsky-brothers-karamazov-bookcover

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Finishing the last page of Dostoyevsky’s last book can be regarded as a personal milestone. You are entitled to congratulate yourself for having had the courage to tackle it in the first place (no such kudos for finishing though – that’s a given). In attempting to write a review however, the milestone becomes a millstone. Many have shared their opinions before you – Kafka liked it and Hemingway did not; atheists and Popes have applauded it antithetically; historians and ethicists have polarised and galvanised opinions while many persons of universally accepted wisdom have referred to it has the greatest book ever written.

Descriptions of the story abound so I will not retell it – it is merely the pinhead on which Dostoyevsky’s angels dance. The plot is only the portent of the themes and these are exposed by the players. To convey what he seeks to deliver, Dostoyevsky uses his exceptional gift for characterisation to portray the contradictions of the human condition. Continue reading

The Square

Belfast-City-Hall

You turned the corner into Donegall Square – trust the Brits to add the redundant letter at the end of an Irish placename; yet another separatist sore thumb dismissive of the border county of Donegal that birthed the O’Donnell line of High Kings right back to times in the mist.  Across the park the Belfast City Hall hit you with a pain in the eyeball. A monolith to monolithism that some would tell you had been constructed as a declaration of whose prick was biggest. It looked more like a folly that the Shah would have built for himself in the desert with his oilwells. It was an offence in scale with the city’s poverty when it was erected barely a hundred years ago when the builder and Messrs. Harland, Wolf and their ilk hired only workers who prayed at the right church. Continue reading

Blight

He surveyed his domain from the hillock behind his family’s one-room, thatched cottage. The landlord’s domain to be precise, but for the four generations preceding this year of Our Lord, 1845, his forefathers had paid the rent that made it theirs to call home. All three acres and only half of it rock and stone.

He pulled his knit cap down to shelter his immaturely balding pate against the mountain wind and focused his steady grey eyes on the troop of Redcoats on the shore road far below. He released his breath when he realised they would not bother the family today.

He set off to the potato patch, his smock flapping noisily in the wind, his legs kept dry from the mist by coarse leggings. His bare feet found purchase on clod and stone with a dexterity that told of familiarity with the exercise. He moved neither quickly nor slowly, just with the efficiency required by the task in relation to the sinking sun. Continue reading