St. Patrick and the Many Monuments of the Hill of Tara

Copyright Doran Cellarius Fotografie

Copyright Doran Cellarius Fotografie

The past building over the past.  it is a theme that runs through many of the photos we post here on Monumental Photography and on our sister blog, Lost Places.  There are few places in the world where the past had usurped and blended with the past like it has in Ireland.  This week, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we see the old Catholic saint himself.  This is not just any St. Patrick, though, this is the St. Patrick statue on the Hill of Tara.  This impressive photo was taken by Doran Cellarius, who says it was the shamrock in St. Patrick’s hand that drew his attention to the statue.

St. Patrick was born in Britain while it was still under the control of the Roman Empire, sometime around the second half of the 5th Century.  At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates, who took him off to Ireland and held him prisoner for six years.  Patrick worked as a shepherd in Ireland, where he became a devout Christian.  Patrick heard a voice one day telling him that a ship was ready to carry him home.  Patrick ran away from his captors and found passage back to Britain.  The ship landed in Britain, where the crew walked for 28 days in the wilderness and nearly starved before finding a herd of wild boar to eat.  Patrick returned to his family, but eventually felt compelled to spread Christianity throughout Ireland.  One of the ways he discussed the trinity, legend has it, was through the three cloves of the shamrock.  St. Patrick’s first spiritual mission, according to legend, was the Hill of Tara.

The Hill of Tara had a symbolic history long before St. Patrick.  The 646-foot hill was the seat of kings in prehistoric Ireland.  The coronation stone, called The Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny, was located on the hill.  The hill was the seat for 142 kings, who held lavish inaugural feasts on the hill.  Ancient Irish mythology holds that the hill was the dwelling of the gods and the portal to a world of eternal life and joy.

Archaeological evidence suggests the importance of the hill.  An Iron Age site called Ráith na Ríogh or the Fort of Kings sits at the top of the hill, enclosed by an internal ditch and external bank.  In the middle of two enclosed earthworks inside sits the Stone of Destiny, or what is believed to be the Stone of Destiny.  According to legend, the stone would scream once the would-be king completed a series of challenges.  The hill houses other archaeological sites with names like the Rath of the Synods, the Mound of Hostages, and the Sloping Trenches.

St. Patrick’s church is on the eastern side of the hilltop.  The modern church was built in 1822, but a Christian church on the hill dates to the 1190’s.  St. Patrick chose the hill specifically because of it’s symbolic and spiritual significance.   One sacred place–multiple meanings.  Somehow through the years, it becomes an excuse for college kids to drink too much.  History winds in ways none of us can ever foresee.

Bare-Knuckle Boxer John L. Sullivan Returns in Bloody Glory

Strong Boy The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero By Christopher Klein Biography, 353 pages, Lyons Press.

Strong Boy
The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero
By Christopher Klein
Biography, 353 pages, Lyons Press.

Libraries are filled with books chronicling the lives of powerful people writ large. Biographies are continuously churned out on the lives of the titans of history. What is less common—and far more interesting—are biographies of famous people whose lives get buried among the history books. These histories provide fresh canvases for the historian and the biographer, canvases without the brush strokes of each generation painting over the one before it. One such canvas is the life of 19th Century boxer John L. Sullivan, a man who rarely felt the canvass of the boxing ring during his 13-year career.

Boston-based writer Christopher Klein offers a blow-by-blow, quite literally, account of Sullivan, who reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1888 to 1892. Sullivan’s life is replete with the trappings of a great American success story. The son of Irish immigrants, Sullivan grew up in Boston’s South End neighborhood. It was there that he developed a reputation as a tough fighter with a powerful hook. This reputation eventually sent him into the clandestine world of bare-knuckle boxing.

Klein’s book goes beyond merely a retelling of one man’s life as a prizefighter. In many ways, Sullivan’s is the conduit through which Klein tells a story of America in the late 19th Century. It is a world that is both starkly strange and oddly familiar to the 21st Century reader.

It is no secret that the sporting life of modern America is part public relations fairy tale and part calculating business venture. In the era of the bare-knuckle fighters, those elements mixed together more blatantly than they do today. It is these glimpses into the sporting life of America where the book shines. Prize-fighting was not quite legal in the 1880’s and 90’s, and matches were often staged in out-of-the-way locales frequented by gamblers, pickpockets, and other assorted criminals. A thoroughly-researched work, Klein recreates the scenes of Sullivan’s major battles with gritty realism.

We see a tug loaded with the 23-year-old Sullivan and 400 fight fans skimming over the Hudson River, trying to stay one step of police in a gilded-age Manhattan of gaslights, Victorians, and a not-yet-completed Statue of Liberty. As Sullivan’s career unfolds, we are taken along for the ride across the landscape of the fledgling democracy. Hired decoy carriages speed down Vine Street, the main thoroughfare of Cincinnati, pursued by policemen intent on stopping a Christmas Eve fight. Later that night, we are there as Sullivan defeats his opponent in an abandoned tavern while the barrel-organ strains of a sideshow in the distance. We see an aging, paunchy Sullivan battle to a 75-round victory in the sweltering August sun of Mississippi as locals dip tin pails full of warm water to the crowd. We sees sparring exhibitions that crisscross the country, stopping in Idaho mining camps, gin-fueled barrooms, wealthy athletic clubs, and everywhere in between. These scenes offer an off-the-beaten path view of the Victorians in a way that both debunks and reaffirms the common perceptions of the era. Much like 21st Century America, Gilded Age Americans were equal parts sanctimonious and base inn their pursuits. Their sports, too, were more like ours than we may want to admit. Boxing promoters and managers of the time courted audiences with gentlemanly codes of conducted while doing everything in their power to give their audiences the blood and circus they craved.

Sullivan stands astride two unique eras in American boxing history. He was the last of the bare-knuckle boxing champions and he fought the first championship bout with gloves under Marquess of Queensbury Rules. Among the innovations of Queensbury Rules were the three-minute round, the ten count, and the prohibition of wrestling an opponent in the ring.

John L. Sullivan was an early advocate for gloved bouts. Sullivan, it seems, was many things: an alcoholic, a bully, and an adulterer. One thing he was not, however, was underhanded. He fought clean and fair—a reputation which made him an American folk hero and had millions of fans wanting to “shake the hand that shook the hand of Sullivan,” to quote a famous phrase from the day. It is Sullivan’s life as an American sports hero that is most prescriptive to modern readers. He was the prototypical American superstar athlete. Sullivan was by some accounts the first sportsman to earn $1 million in his lifetime. He came of age when new technology was making the world a much smaller place—namely, the railroad, the telegraph, and the mass newspaper media. Fans could follow Sullivan’s career with unprecedented immediacy. The daily newspapers wanted more than just fight results, however, they wanted to know the man. Sullivan’s private life proved fertile ground for the nascent news media. Sullivan was a notorious hotheaded drinker who was quick to come to blows with those who crossed him inside or outside of the ring. He was also a generous spender where friends and family were concerned, blowing through much of his money showing other people a good time. After his wife Annie left him, Sullivan cavorted with a string of mistresses, leaving the confused press wondering which “Mrs. Sullivan” was which.

Klein deftly brings these biographical and historic strains together against the backdrop of an American blood sport. Equal part sports, economic, folk and popular history, the book’s well-researched and well-crafted narrative should appeal to scholars and historians interested in any of those aspects of the late 19th Century. The book is also a Boston sports fans dream: a seldom told story of Beantown sporting prowess. Klein’s fondness for the city is present throughout, which is fitting: Sullivan was not just “Strong Boy,” he was “The Boston Strong Boy.” In telling the story of his beloved city’s beloved hero, Klein gives us an account of 19th Century America, not from the pristine halls of power, but from the blood-soaked fringes of society. He tells of a man whose story resonated with masses of frustrated immigrants whose descendants, some of them at least, would become those great figures in history books—the kinds of history books that don’t tell the stories of bare-knuckle fighting in smoke-filled taverns late into the night. Fortunately for us, this book does just that.

Peace and Tranquility Among Men Mural in the Zone of Alienation, Ukraine

Copyright Mike Foo

Copyright Mike Foo

The political picture in the Ukraine seems to get more muddled by the day.  At Lost Places, we know that the past is always around us in one form or another.  Our landscape, both real and imagined, is the result of what went before.  This week, as we hope for a peaceful solution to events in the Ukraine, we take a look at this stunning photograph by Mike Foo, whose work can be found at www.flickr.com/photos/mfoo/

This photograph comes from a series Mike shot while exploring the Zone of Alienation in the Ukraine.  That may sound like something from a science fiction movie, but it is unfortunately a very real place.  The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation is a 1,000-square mile zone established by the Soviet Union shortly after the April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  The disaster was caused by an unexpected power surge at the plant, culminating in a series of steam explosions.  Fires from the explosions sent radioactive fallout into the air, which spread over a wide region.

The power plant was in the Polesia region of the Ukraine, an area of woodland and marshes that was a staging ground for partisan resistance against the Nazi Army.  Some 120,000 people lived in the area prior to the disaster.  Most of the population was centered in the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat.  This week’s photo was taken in a school in Pripyat last October.  Like all buildings in the region, the school is abandoned, leaving behind a glimpse into the area as it was in 1986.  The region is officially abandoned, but urban explorers, game poachers, metal scavengers, and tourists can still be found roaming the countryside.  Tourism has become more common to the area since the area was featured in two video games: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, both released in 2007.

The design on the wall in the foreground of the photo is a Soviet era mural, according to Foo, denoting “peace and tranquility among men.”  Good advice from the Ukraine of the past.  Let us hope our leaders take it under advisement in the Ukraine of the future.

Happy Birthday Lawrence Welk: Here’s His Statue Near Escondido, California

Our never-ending quest to bring you the strangest statuary, the most monumental monuments, and the most enticing effigies brings us to Interstate 15 outside of Escondido, California.  This week we celebrate the birthday of Lawrence Welk, who was born March 11, 1903.  This statue stands outside the Lawrence Welk Museum.  Younger readers may not recognize the name, but for earlier generations of Americans, the name spawns a visceral reaction.  Welk was an accordionist, bandleader, and host of The Lawrence Welk Show, which ran from 1951-82.

The format of Welk’s show was the same virtually every week.  The show opened with Welk’s theme “Bubbles in the Wine” playing amid faux champagne bubbles floating through the ballroom.  Welk would then introduce the night’s theme in a heavy German accent.  The show consisted of several songs from the band and a number of skits as well.  The show featured a variety of musical numbers from the big band era through the 60’s and 70’s, but is most associated with songs from the big band era of the 1940’s.

Welk was a shrewd businessman and knew what sold to mainstream American television audiences of the 1960’s and 70’s.  His performers, which he dubbed his “musical family,” were held to an unofficial set of moral standards.  Alice Lon was famously fired for crossing her legs on a desk in 1959.  By and large, Welk gave America what it wanted, though.  Letters from fans often dictated what performers were featured and what performers saw their solo opportunities diminish.

After his death in 1992, his music earned a reputation as unequivocally un-hip.  While it is true that Welk’s “champagne music” style ostracized many contemporary jazz artists, as was the case when famed clarinetist Pete Fountain quit the band in the 1960’s.  This all-or-nothing view of Welk, however, does a disservice to a band leader whose band stayed relevant for over 30 years.  The Lawrence Welk Show launched the careers of several country acts of the 60’s and 70’s and was the first variety show to regularly feature an African-American when he hired dancer Arthur Duncan in 1964.

Welk’s band continues to perform in Branson, Missouri and the show continues to air in reruns on PBS stations throughout the United States, ensuring that, whichever way the musical wind blows, the bubbles will keep on popping.

Cold War Nike Missile Silo Near Los Angeles

Copyright Sobaire Schroat

Copyright Sobaire Schroat

Brinksmanship.  It is a word whose origins may seem obscure to the generation born after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  It is a word of the Cold War, the global struggle for supremacy between the opposing ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union.  The term “brinksmanship” was coined by former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.  It refers to the act of pushing one’s military to the brink of war to force an opposing nation to meet your demands.  Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, seems to be taking a page from the U.S. Cold War playbook and engaging in some brinksmanship of his own as the Russian military inches closer to intervention in the Ukraine.

This week on Lost Places we have a relic from the era of brinksmanship in the form of LA-88, a former U.S. Army Nike missile base in the hills of Chatsworth, California, near Los Angeles.  During the Cold War, Project Nike developed the first U.S. anti-aircraft missile system, the Nike Ajax in 1953.  These were followed by the Nike Hercules in 1958, and the Nike Zeus in 1962, which could intercept Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

This particular site is currently used for Los Angeles Police Department Bomb Squad and SWAT team training.  Photographer Sobaire Schroat ran afoul of the LAPD when he visited the site and found the entrance to the site open.  Schroat spent an hour underground photographing the site, but met with a surprise when he climbed back up.

“About fifteen seconds after I resurfaced, an LAPD helicopter rose up out of nowhere.” Schroat writes.  “You are on federal private property, leave the premises immediately.  This was being repeated over a speaker from the helicopter.  I left quickly, being escorted by the LAPD helicopter the whole way.  I was worried that they were waiting for me at the bottom of the trail where I had parked my car.”

Fortunately for Schroat, they were not.  Fortunately for us, he took this eerie glimpse into an era fraught with military standoffs between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  For a glimpse into Schroat’s run-in with the LAPD, check out this video of the incident at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kml3wn9q9ZI