Today my painting brings me on a journey from the North Atlantic Coast of Ireland to the Tropical Coast of Sierra Leone - with a somewhat haunting connection to Eastern Europe.
The first time when I met people from Sierra Leone, I was living in The Gambia, in the 1990s. Wonderful, friendly people of course. At that time, many people from Sierra Leone had been displaced throughout West Africa, as a result of the civil war. The tiny shop (bitico) behind my house was owned by Mr Ousman Chan. A young, intelligent, well educated man who spoke excellent English, which was uncommon in a rural town. His shop was a hatch in a mud wall of a tiny hut, and he sold chewing-gum and cigarettes and some plain biscuits. He occasionally sourced eggs and even tinned mackerel which ended up in my bread rolls. Ousman was there because war was in his homeland, - Sierra Leone.
One day, in the Gambian Capital of Banjul, I saw a young, tall man striding confidently down the street. His skin was a bit lighter than most and he seemed taller than the average Gambian youth. He walked with his head held high, athletic and with attitude, like a basketball star. But as he came closer I noticed something unusual. And then I realised that he had no arms. Both ended abruptly just below his shoulders. I had read about the horrors of the violence in Sierra Leone, and how cutting the arms of ‘enemy’ youths with machetes was a common occurrence. I often remember this young man, not for his disability, but for his confidence. I wonder how he coped with life and did his mind stay strong?
I arrived in Freetown in Easter week, 2019. I had worked there several years earlier and as I had previously lived in West Africa for 2 years the culture always felt familiar and welcome. The sounds, the music, the food, the people.
Due to my spinal problems I always had to keep my back and neck perfectly straight while traveling, even throughout a 20 hour journey, - South Bohemia to Prague to Brussels to Freetown. A couple of hours before landing at Freetown's remarkable airport (its on a distant island), a deep pain connected my spine to the centre of my skull and I closed my eyes and meditated, breathing deeply, until we landed. This was not unusual for me. But what was unusual, was that over the following two weeks, I suffered from some sort of brain fog, some cogitative decline, which I had never experienced before and which, I continue to struggle with now.
I mention all of this, because that assignment, was three and a half years ago, and it is the last time that I have been able to travel for work. These blogs are, after all, about my art and about my memories. I will move on from my own health now but you will see that a 'pain in the neck' is not entirely unrelated to the following discussion.
On route I met a colleague who would work with me. He was a younger consultant from Romania, with expertise in urban waste management. During the visit his partner joined him and it was such a pleasure having their company. They were the sort of people who you can work with, and then find it relaxing to have dinner with them, and together you would enjoy going to the beach to get away from the office and to continue the varied conversations, - travel, waste disposal, food, sewerage, nature, latrines, sport, disease, comedy, ... you know, the usual type of conversation.
With some people work can be a pleasure and, generally for me, work overseas never actually felt like work.
My painting shows an evening scene at Lumley Beach near Freetown. It is an idyllic scene, - peaceful, calm, unpolluted. Young men are hauling in their catch for the day, which they will bring to the restaurants and shops and markets. A young girl walks home along the beach, hoping to sell some of her fresh fruit.
The scene is realistic, it really is that beautiful. But turn around and a congested city is bellowing out plastics and fumes. However, the city is dwarfed by the landscape. A great backdrop of hills, - The Sierra Leone.
How the country got its name is disputed. It was likely from one of two early 15th century Portuguese explorers. One, it is claimed, heard lions in the mountains, and the other, it is reported, believed that the hills when viewed from the sea, looked like crouching lions. The people from Freetown in their Creole language often refer to the country as 'Salone'.
On this evening I visited with my new friends. All week we had been walking through the waste piles of the city and this visit was, quite literally, a much needed breath of fresh air.
My friends are from Cluj in Romania. An historical city in a beautiful landscape among the Carpathian Mountains. It is regarded as the capital of the historical province of Transylvania.
Earlier this year I had an exhibition in Czech showing my art with a focus on the links between Ireland and Southern Czechia. It was titled 'From Hibernia to Bohemia', linking my own background, with the movement of prehistoric Celtic people, and also the journeys of missionaries from Ireland into Central Europe.
But this blog adds another wonderful place name, Transylvania. Magnificent. Evocative of legends, - like Camelot or Timbuctoo or Sangria-la. More at place in fiction than in fact.
Of course being Irish, I had to point out to my new colleague, the similarity of my friend to the legends of vampires. He was, after all, from Transylvania, so it had to be done. This is an Irish thing. If we enjoy your company we reward you with constant abuse – you’re welcome!
Of course the Legendary Dracula got a mention, and even The Count on Sesame Street kept the score as we watched Chelsea beating Liverpool while mosquitoes feasted on our blood, or did I dream that? One goal, two goals, ha,ha,ha,..!
I am only going to continue the discussion of Dracula in this blog because of a remarkable connection between Transylvania, and my home town of Sligo in Ireland and, all is connected to Sierra Leone.
I mentioned before that my mind wanders as I paint. I have a thought, that leads me to another, and I end up thinking of something, not knowing how I got there. I have noticed that my father is similar. When we are together we both end up on a subject and then together we both try, often in vain, to recall what the hell we were originally talking about. It is a family gift!
But when I keep notes to write these essays, I see how every thought is, in fact, related. I find that somewhat reassuring, I guess.
WATER and SANITATION
On this work assignment we were looking at the issue of solid waste. 10 years earlier when I had first visited Sierra Leone, I had been visiting urban slums and rural water projects. One Sunday, when the office was closed, I hiked into the hills to see the main water reservoir.
Water engineers, like me, who try to connect populations to a reliable supply of clean drinking water, just love to see mountain lakes above large populations. Gravity is the favoured power source where electricity and pumps cannot be relied upon. And a generous rain season ensures that the reservoir is routinely recharged as the water is piped through the city.
In reality vast networks of old pipes, - iron, steel, lead, copper, PVC, rubber etc cover the city. Many are leaking and people break into them to add new connections. Planning laws, congestion, flooded drainage canals, unsurfaced roads, not to mention constant challenges with governance and politics makes this a very familiar challenge. But clean water is not just important, it is vital. And over the centuries we have all faced these challenges, in each of our towns and cities, and in every country in the world.
As I hiked up the hills to the reservoir, I talked with a professor from Loughborough University in England. I had studied there. I recall talking about an excellent book which I had recently read called ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson. It told the remarkable story of Cholera in 19th century London, and how Doctor John Snow deduced, through mapping the houses of the victims in one badly affected part of the city, how they were being exposed to the disease.
I wrote in my previous blog about how genius applies to those who refuse to assume that current theories are correct, and who are prepared to think for themselves. This is an excellent example.
Above is a representation of the map as was drawn by Dr Snow. It shows an area of North London. The blue circles indicate communal water pumps. The red squares indicate houses with cholera deaths. By walking the streets, and going from house to house and interviewing the families, Dr Snow recorded the precise location and numbers of cholera victims. By studying the results he could look for patterns that might suggest the source. At the time Cholera was not believed to be a water borne disease, although Dr Snow had his doubts. People suspected bad air to be the cause, and it was common to keep windows closed and to use incense or herbs to keep the disease at bay. But the Pump in Broad Street was, to his eyes, suspicious. So, like any good scientist he explored the anomalies. Why did houses near other pumps have victims, and why did some households near the Broad Street pump have none? And time and again his interviews with residents supported his theory.
For example, households nearer to other pumps had used the Broad Street pump as they passed by it while going to work, or home from the school. And houses near the Broad Street pump, which had avoided the disease, had collected water from a different source due to taste preference, or had water from a distant source delivered by a vendor. His evidence grew stronger with each discussion.
Dr Snow deduced that the pump had to be the source and cholera must have been ingested through drinking contaminated water. It was later discovered that an old cloth, which had been used as an infants nappy, had been disposed down a cess pit which percolated into the pump surroundings.
This discovery changed the world. London and other great cities invested vast sums in constructing sanitation systems and safe water supplies. In 1859 London started to construct an enormous sanitation network. Brooklyn and Chicago started around the same time. In 1863 Hamburg followed. In 1865 Paris did the same.
In addition to this achievement, John Snow also greatly advanced the science of anaesthetics. Born in 1813 ,on the 15th of March, I am proud to share my birthday with him.
In 1818, Charlotte Thornley was, like me, born in Sligo town. It is believed that she lived in Old Market Street which, in those days, was a row of small stone cottages with thatched roofs.
In her time Cholera ravaged Europe. In the year 1832, my hometown of Sligo held the distinction of having the highest per capita rate of Cholera in the entire British Isles. More than half of the towns residents died over a two year period. 1,500 people died in two months alone. Charlotte recorded the devastation with stories of piles of bodies in mass graves and reports of bodies still moving as they were being buried. She referred to them as - 'the undead'.
Charlotte and her husband moved to Dublin. In the year 1847 she gave birth to a son. At that time the city was swelling with pitiful victims of the potato famine (1845-1850).
[Between 1832 and 1850 the greatest waves of cholera and typhoid, which hit US and Canadian cities, came from Irish immigrants escaping disease and famine at home].
In 1897, Charlotte's son published a book which was initially titled ‘The Undead’. Just before publication he changed the title to 'Dracula'. Charlotte had married Abraham Stoker and their son was the writer Bram Stoker.
The book was greatly influenced by the memories of his mothers experience of Cholera in Sligo. His book captured the minds of its readers for two centuries, and Dracula has been reported to be the most frequently reproduced fictional character of all time (other reports suggest Sherlock Holmes).
Charlotte died in 1901, on the 15th of March, the date of my birth.
Charlotte wrote how the burial of victims were performed within hours of death in mass graves for fear of the spread of the disease. Indeed many people were reported to have been buried before they had died. 'Early in the epidemic, one victim awoke while the undertaker was trying to fit him into the coffin. A man pulled his wife’s body from a mass grave for a proper burial, only to discover she was still alive.'
So why did Bram Stoker locate his novel in Eastern Europe? It has been suggested that Stoker wanted to connect his audience in England with a mysterious visitor from overseas. Cholera had long been associated, correctly in this case, with arriving into port towns by ship. We understand today that it is arriving in the stomachs and the excrement of ill sailors and passengers. Stoker initially chose the Austrian Alpine region of Styria for the stories setting, but he later read about Vlad the Impaler and he liked the name Dracula. He made many pages of notes from books on East European history and legends, and he seems to have selected names and places and details and combined them to inspire a work of fiction. So ancient legends about vampires were set in a land called Transylvania and an evil Count was created. 'Dracula' was chosen simply because the name evoked the devil. Drak means dragon. Vlad the Impaler was, in those days, a Prince of Wallachia, not Transylvania, but this is irrelevant, Bram was writing fiction not history. Stoker, believed that the word Transylvania just sounded better. I agree.
Would his novel have captured the imagination, of an English speaking readership, quite so well, if Count Dracula from Transylvania had been replaced by Baron Mount Temple of Classiebawn Castle? I doubt it.
I hope to visit Cluj some day. My friend assures me that it is a beautiful friendly land of meadows and forests and sunshine – and I am sure he is correct. But as the sun sets I might just reach into my pocket to check for my cross and my necklace of garlic cloves! Childhood fears are difficult to eliminate completely.
In the 18th century there were periods in Eastern Europe where populations were indeed panicked about strange rumours relating to the rising of the un-dead. Opening graves and driving stakes through the heart of corpses, was actually a thing in these times. So much so, that the Holy Roman Empress, Maria Theresa, had to send her physician from Vienna to investigate. Later she passed laws preventing the opening of graves and interfering with corpses.
Cholera still remains a serious problem in the developing world. In Freetown there have been outbreaks in 1970, 1994-95, and, as recently as 2012, almost 400 people died from Cholera in the city. But if we did not understand how it is transmitted the numbers would have been in the tens of thousands.
Thanks to people like John Snow, we now know what cholera is, - a living bacteria, which survives in water and in the gut. By simply identifying the source, providing an alternative supply, informing on treating, or boiling water and ensuring that waste is isolated and hands are washed, - fatalities during an outbreak can be reduced to dozens rather than thousands.
[It is a cruel irony that the victims actually die from dehydration. I notice that the advice of the time was to limit the intake of liquid. But these days if I was caring for people with cholera in a remote area, where the only source of water is infected and cannot be treated, I would be advised to keep giving them the contaminated water until clean water and care can be provided. It is the lack of water that kills!]
In 2014 and 2015 Ebola landed in Freetown. Like Covid, it is believed to have originated with groups of people who were in contact with bats.
Some rural communities still hunt and eat these mammals. And yes, the connection between bats and the legends of medieval Europe brings us, once again, back to Stoker's book.
Of all disasters and tragedies which I encounter, war is by far the most sickening. It is the most unnecessary. Propagated by the egos of a few. Dracula is not Irish or Romanian. He represents evil everywhere.
Today as I type, to the East of Slovakia and to the North of Romania, Putin fires missiles into Ukraine, trying to control the people through fear. How familiar.
Abraham Lincoln once said "I would rather be a little nobody, than an evil somebody!" - wise words. Lincoln always seemed to be concerned with power and the temptations of power and he worried about the abuse of power in the hands of unstable minds.
I remember reading an article in The Irish Times where a columnist, Kevin Myers, discussed the savagery that was particular, in his opinion, to the African people. I thought this so ignorant and so wrong. We have seen terrible cruelty in Ireland, we have seen it flourish in Europe in two world wars in the last century, and we see it in East Ukraine today. People are mostly kind but I think that our greatest weakness is our tendency to allow the most flawed among us to rule. Lincoln understood this.
Abraham Lincoln supported the freedom of slaves and their repatriation as free citizens to lands in Africa. This, it has been argued, made him both an advocate for freedom as well as a white nationalist. There was a time when the idea of sending 'African/Black' people to Africa was seen as an improvement on slavery. I guess the concept of equal rights was believed to be unobtainable and any improvement was a step forward. Lasting change seems to occur gradually and making anywhere 'great again' seems, to me, to imply a step backwards.
From 1787 to 1792, black slaves from Nova Scotia and London were shipped to Sierra Leone. in 1792 Freetown was established. Later Maroons from Jamaica landed and, as the British navy intercepted slave ships, they also deposited their human 'cargo' at Freetown to settle and Christianise the continent. In the 19th century, Liberia, became the land where the US chose to 'relocate' its black population.
On April 11, 1865 Lincoln gave a speech advocating for voting rights for black people. John Wilkes Booth, who was in attendance and who strongly supported slavery, then made his plan to assassinate the President. Three days later he shot Lincoln through the back of his neck. Lincoln went into a coma and died the next day.
Edward Paul Doherty was an American Civil War officer who formed and led the detachment of soldiers that captured and killed John Wilkes Booth, in a Virginia barn on April 26, 1865. Booth was also shot in the back of the neck, and suffered a slow death.
Doherty was born to Sligo parents in 1838. They lived in Castle Street, literally down the road from Charlotte Thornley Stoker. Like Charlotte, they possibly left Sligo around the same time, to escape the plague.
I thought I had finished weaving these threads and then today I read about a bronze bust of Lincoln, which is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, which I have to mention due to a remarkable connection. It was made from a life cast by the Chicago sculptor Douglas Volk in 1860. As I understand the story, this is the only cast that was made from life of Lincoln, and this is one of the very few bronze sets (heads and hands) ever made from the mould.
'In 1886 Volk’s son sold the casts of Lincoln’s face and hands to a group that proposed having the sculptor Augustus
Saint-Gaudens make a limited set of replicas. In 1888 the 33 supporters of this project presented Volk’s personal copies of the life mask and hands, along with bronze replicas produced by Saint-Gaudens, to the U.S. government for preservation. The donation was made on the condition that “the original plaster casts should never be tampered with.” Any future casts could only be made from the bronze replicas. '
The Bronze replica which ended up as a treasured museum piece has the name of the man who originally ordered it, clearly cast into the back. It was Bram Stoker.
Oscar Wilde always has something to say on every subject and there is a particular reason why I will allow him to help me to finish this essay. He wrote, ‘we are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell’.
And just to complete the circles, Wild was born in 1854 in Dublin. His mother associated with Charlotte Thornley Stoker and the young Bram and Oscar knew each other as children and throughout their lives. Bram Stoker married Florence Balcombe who had been the girlfriend of Oscar Wilde.
It is not always advisable to dwell on past or present atrocities, but it is important not to close our eyes to reality. When working in testing environments, I often found my quiet place where my mind could relax, - and when my mind was at peace, I could think more clearly.
To the North, crowded slums, to the East congested traffic, to the South the bustling markets and to the West - soft sand, men hauling in the nets, the sun bouncing of the surf, a little girl serenely admiring the scene - 'we are each our own angel and we make this world our heaven!'
This painting is now making its way to the heart of Transylvania. Someday I hope to be able to visit and experience the wonderful landscape and the friendship of the people.
Thank you for reading!