Battle of Fontenoy, 11th of May, 1745 Horace Vernet 1789 –1863, Château de Versailles.
I hated my childrens’ birthday parties. One was expected to perform. We went through all the fashionable rituals. We had magicians, trips to fun factories, MacDonald’s and spooky themed parties for the child whose birthday coincided with Halloween. We had pass-the-parcel and blindman’s buff. Hours were spent filling the wretched party bags. Guests were often demanding. ‘I’m not allowed fizzy drinks’ announced one. Another informed us in advance that she never ate anything but oven chips so we had to plan accordingly. By the time the army of Sarahs and Amys had left I was a basket case. The most dreaded bit was the collection by the ‘mums’. Getting them to leave could be a lengthy process. Some ‘mums’ engaged in protracted negotiations to persuade the offspring to accompany them home. ‘Are you ready to come Emma?’ On one occasion a girl gripped the doorhandle with such tenacity she had to be prised free. My mother who was present on one of these occasions was aghast at the laissez-faire parenting of suburbia. We all relaxed when these parties ended. We had reciprocated for invitations received and acquitted ourselves well.
Childrens’ parties were not always thus. My father (b.1899) claimed he did not know when his birthday was. Such things did not exist in his childhood. My birthday parties were casual affairs. The cousins and assorted village kids turned up. We played in the hayshed while we waited for the the jelly to set and the icing to harden. My mother, a last-minute person, always cut it fine. Our play was not boisterous. We were careful not to make a mess. Our workman Jerry made it known that he wanted ‘no village rabble’ tossing his hay. He had been known to chase children out the gate with a pitchfork.
It was the kids rather than the parents who provided the entertainment. Marcella and Jim would give a marvellous rendering of The Black Hills of Dakota, a song which can still bring a tear to my eye. Mary and Teresa, whose mother had been in Cumann na mBan, specialised in rebel songs. They were meticulous about starting Boolavogue or Kevin Barry on the right note and were known to make three false starts before taking off at which point we would all join in. Often the singing took place while we sat by ourselves in the hayshed. On one occasion a boy apologised that he had no song but he did have a recitation. He recited Thomas Davis’ Fontenoy from beginning to end while we all listened attentively and applauded his efforts. Those present were aged between about nine and thirteen. I still marvel at the memory.
This week’s paper tells me I share a birthdate with Rick Parfitt, guitarist and singer with Status Quo. Never heard of him until this minute. Status Quo has no meaning for me other than as a name lovingly inscribed on the schoolbags and copybooks of pupils of the 70s. Today Rick and I are sixty-four. I’ve googled him. Seemingly he has led a more colourful life than I have. Happy birthday Rick.
In remembrance of a time less egocentric though more nationalistic here is Fontenoy by Thomas Davis (1814-1845).
Thrice, at the huts of Fontenoy, the English column failed,
And thrice the lines of St. Antoine the Dutch in vain assailed;
For town and slope were filled with foot and flanking battery,
And well they swept the English ranks and Dutch auxiliary.
As vainly, through De Barri’s Wood the British soldiers burst,
The French artillery drove them back, diminished and dispersed.
The ruthless Duke of Cumberland beheld with anxious eye,
And ordered up his last reserve, his latest chance to try.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, how fast his generals ride!
And mustering come his chosen troops, like clouds at eventide.
Six thousand English veterans in stately column tread;
Their cannon blaze in front and flank; Lord Hay is at their head;
Steady they step adown the slope—steady they climb the hill,
Steady they load—steady they fire, moving right onward still.
Betwixt the wood and Fontenoy, as through a furnace blast,
Through rampart, trench, and palisade, and bullets showering fast;
And on the open plain above they rose and kept their course,
With ready fire and grim resolve, that mocked at hostile force.
Past Fontenoy, past Fontenoy, while thinner grow their ranks—
They break as broke the Zuyder Zee through Holland’s ocean banks.
More idly than the summer flies, French tirailleurs rush round;
As stubble to the lava tide, French squadrons strew the ground;
Bombshell and grape, and round shot tore, still on they marched and fired—
Fast from each volley grenadier and voltigeur retired.
‘Push on my household cavalry!’ King Louis madly cried.
To death they rush, but rude their shock—not unavenged they died.
On through the camp the column trod—King Louis turns his rein:
‘Not yet, my liege,’ Saxe interposed, ‘the Irish troops remain;’
And Fontenoy, famed Fontenoy, had been a Waterloo,
Were not these exiles ready then, fresh, vehement, and true.
“Lord Clare”, he says, “you have your wish; there are your Saxon foes”.
The Marshal almost smiles to see, so furiously he goes!
How fierce the smile these exiles wear, who’re wont to look so gay;
The treasured wrongs of fifty years are in their hearts to-day.
The treaty broken ere the ink wherewith ’twas writ could dry,
Their plundered homes, their ruined shrines, their women’s parting cry,
Their priesthood hunted down like wolves, their country overthrown!
Each looks as if revenge for all were staked on him alone.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, nor ever yet elsewhere,
Pushed on to fight a nobler band than those proud exiles were.
O’Brien’s voice is hoarse with joy, as halting he commands,
‘Fix bay’nets—charge!’—Like mountain storm rush on these fiery bands!
Thin is the English column now, and faint their volleys grow,
Yet must’ring all the strength they have, they made a gallant show.
They dress their ranks upon the hill to face that battle wind!
Their bayonets the breakers’ foam; like rocks the men behind!
One volley crashes from their line, when through the surging smoke,
With empty guns clutched in their hands, the headlong Irish broke,
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!
‘Revenge! remember Limerick! dash down the Sassenagh!
Like lions leaping at a fold when mad with hunger’s pang,
Right up against the English line the Irish exiles sprang.
Bright was their steel, ’tis bloody now, their guns are filled with gore;
Through shattered ranks, and severed piles, and trampled flags they tore;
The English strove with desperate strength, paused, rallied, staggered, fled—
The green hillside is matted close with dying and with dead.
Across the plain and far away passed on that hideous wrack,
While cavalier and fantassin dash in upon their track.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, like eagles in the sun,
With bloody plumes the Irish stand—the field is fought and won!