Ireland’s Wars: The Moyry Pass

While Hugh Roe O’Donnell was dealing with seaborne invasions and rebellious cousins, Hugh O’Neill had problems of his own to sort out.

O’Neill remained, as far as Elizabeth I and her administration in Dublin were concerned, the biggest problem and the biggest target of the rebel confederation and Lord Mountjoy was directed to go after him as much as possible. But Mountjoy was, unfortunately for the Irish, no fool. He could see the problems of terrain, of land, of forces all too clearly. The English had suffered two significant defeats – at Clontibret and the Yellow Ford – while attempting to attack Tyrone directly, and there was a reason for that.

Mountjoy preferred to play it patiently and advance slowly, making gains and consolidating them, putting the squeeze on. His big move in that regard would come later, but by the middle of 1600 he had already done much. The rebellion in Munster was all but over,  Tyrconnell had been invaded, the O’Donnell’s had been divided. But still, there was Hugh O’Neill.

Mountjoy had launched a small skirmishing operation in the late Spring in order to aid the landings in Tyrconnell, temporarily drawing off the forces of Hugh O’Neill without risking a major engagement. He continued a policy of establishing small forts all around the borders of Ulster in order to improve his position, places that would provide supplies and refuge to campaigning armies as well as “presence” for the English administration in terms of governance and tax collecting. The naval elements under his control also began to strangle rebel trade and shipping, and a concerted effort to devalue rebel coinage and disrupt commerce in rebel-held areas were underway. He engaged in a destructive midlands campaign in modern-day Offaly where Owen O’More, one of O’Neill’s most important lieutenants left, was killed, breaking the back of what was left of the Leinster rebellion. Active resistance was minimal. But Mountjoy held off on anything more substantial for a time. The bigger move came in September.

O’Neill had been quiet for most of the year, dealing with setbacks in Munster and at home. But that was not to say he was entirely dormant. He busied himself fortifying the entrances to his Tyrone heartland, and was continuing his correspondence with the royal court in Spain, making a case for foreign intervention in Ireland. While the situation was now turning against the rebels, his pleas were gaining more and more of a receptive audience and some aid had already been sent. Just what O’Neill was promising in return for a more substantial showing of support – in the form of a military expedition– is up for debate.

Mountjoy may not have been aware of the extent of correspondence between Tyrone and Spain, but it didn’t really change anything. The council in Dublin and the Queen in London were eager for him to bring O’Neill to heel. In September, under the direction of Elizabeth and perhaps feeling that he was obligated to be more aggressive, he gathered his forces and headed north. Such direct action was not what Mountjoy would have really wanted to do, but he did not want to follow Essex’ path and disobey the Queen.

I have mentioned in a past article, but it bears repeating for the following: there were very few ways that a large army could effectively attack Ulster in this time period. The land had few roads, and was covered in forests, bogs and mountains, impassable for any force of notable size. Ulster had only a few ways that were truly passable for an army, such as by Sligo to the west, or up the Blackwater river. One of the others, that the English had attempted before, was the Moyry Pass through the Mourne Mountains, located in modern day County Down, not too far from the border with Louth.

Mountjoy’s coming campaign aimed to head through this pass, but his goal was not primarily to engage O’Neill, though he must have expected this. The real aim of this expedition was to re-garrison and fortify the town of Armagh, which had been given up after the disaster of the Yellow Ford in 1598. Gaining military control over Armagh once more would continue to increase the pressure on Tyrone and would be a more forward launching point for any future offensive. The most northerly area suitable for such a purpose was Dundalk at that point, which was where Mountjoy marched from in mid-September. As stated, Mountjoy had patience, and was playing the long-game.

Hugh O’Neill had been preparing for an assault, probably thinking there would be a substantial one ever since the landings in Tyrconnell. His lack of support for the effort to repulse those invaders may be explained by his expectation of having to fight in the south-east of Ulster. The war was coming to both of the major rebel players, at the same time. O’Neill prepared, hoping to continue his streak of fighting on ground of his choosing which he had reconnoitred accordingly. Three lines of trenches had been dug through the pass, further defended by earthworks, stoneworks and other barricades, with the heights on either side also given attention in that regard.

Fully aware that any English offensive would have to come through this spot, O’Neill was leaving nothing to chance. While he could not have left the position fully garrisoned at all times, Mountjoy could make no secret of any move by his army, and by the time the Pale troops reached the entrance of the pass, four days after leaving Dundalk, the army of Tyrone was there to meet them. Both sides would probably have been fairly even in terms of numbers, the usual mix of infantry, musketeers, cavalry and artillery. Neither side would have had more than 5’000 men to put forward.

The weather was not good that autumn, and this, among other reasons, may have been why Mountjoy showed himself unwilling to just assault the defences like Conyers Clifford had done at the Curlew Pass the previous year. His army set up camp just to the south and a stand-off ensued, broken only on the 25th when a brief sortie by the English was made to probe the Irish fortifications. This sortie was made by Thomas Williams, who happened to be the officer who had commanded the Blackwater fort during the Yellow Ford debacle, when his efforts to intervene had been checked by a Tyrone rearguard. His reconnaissance, done in the advantage of a foggy day, cost the English around 40 casualties.

No more attacks were made for nearly a week, as much to do with the weather as well as any fears of the defences that Williams had taken a close look at. The conditions became increasingly rainy, and this reduced any muskets or artillery to the status of dead weight in combat. The two armies continued to just stare back at the other. Such a state of affairs could not last. Neither side had the ability to keep an army in the field for so long without any gain, and ceaseless rain turned camps into a mire where desertion and disease ran rampant. O’Neill was certainly not going to leave his defences though, and Mountjoy’s aim was on the other side of the pass.

On October 2nd, with the weather breaking, Mountjoy finally made his move, sending four regiments worth of soldiers forward into the pass. The fighting was tough and lasted most of the day, with different units switching to the forefront for every line of defence breached. The Irish fought limited engagements behind the first two lines, with the English securing both. It was not until a try was made on the third line that full enfilade fire erupted on the English from the heights of the pass, O’Neill having kept most of his force in reserve, content to lure the English in and then hit them when they were in the most perilous position.

English declarations of their loss are quite low given the situation, but even allowing for some addition, the numbers could not have been that high. The counter-attack from the Irish was sudden and vicious, with the English forced into a retreat that left a good deal of equipment behind, but the result is not noted by any source as the equal of earlier setbacks. After three hours of fighting in the last part of the defences, the English retreated out of the pass.

It was another Irish victory, but Mountjoy did not slink away. Three days later he attempted something a bit more artful, sending a cavalry unit up the middle of the pass while two infantry units attempted to hit the Irish on the flanks by scaling the western height. This attack went nowhere, neither part of the English plan coming to any noteworthy success. It was a risky move, very difficult to co-ordinate in that kind of terrain and O’Neill easily dealt with both parts of the attack, neither of which could have succeeded without the success of the other. The English again recorded their losses as rather light, no more than 250 casualties.

The stand-off resumed, but now Mountjoy had seemingly had enough. A few days later, the English packed up and headed back to Dundalk, leaving the Irish in their defences. It looked like another O’Neill success, badly wanted given the failures earlier in the year. While it had not been the slaughterhouse of previous battles, Mountjoy had been frustrated in his aims.

What happened next is not well recorded (in fact, many Irish sources barely record this fight at all), but within a few days of Mountjoy’s retreat, the Moyry Pass was undefended. O’Neill and the vast majority of his forces had gone home, leaving the road to Ulster yawning open, with O’Neill himself situated at a base on Lough Lurgan far to the north. Mountjoy had only just gotten back to Dundalk, on the 14th of October, when he received this news. He probably was suspicious not believing in his luck.

What happened? Maybe O’Neill misjudged the situation, and assumed Mountjoy would now return to the Pale for the winter. Maybe he was worried that another far-reaching flank attack, through Newry, could catch him unawares. Maybe he was simply running short on food and supplies, and couldn’t keep his army going. Or maybe his troops could not be kept together, wanting to head back to their lands after being in place for several weeks with just one major engagement. Or maybe it was all of these things.

Whatever it was, Mountjoy gleefully accepted the gift that had fallen into his hands, occupying the Pass on the 17th of October. It is likely that a token force had been left behind to garrison the area but this would have been brushed aside. After destroying the Irish defences there he moved on to Carrickban, not far from the town of Newry, before beginning a march in the direction of Armagh.

He got as far as Mountnorris, around halfway between Newry and Armagh. By that time O’Neill had found out about what was happening and was scrambling to enact another defence, worried that he had left his entire country undefended. Mountjoy decided not to chance his arm, unwilling to face into an unexpected battle and risk another defeat like the others who had come before him. Armagh remained out of England’s reach for now, though Mountjoy did raise up an earthwork fort in Mountnorris which he kept garrisoned with 400 men, as a threat to the Tyrone position behind the Moyry Pass.

After that, the rest of the Pale army headed back to Newry, and from there to Dundalk. They took a more circular route though, through the settlement at Carlingford on the Cooley Peninsula. It was going through a pass here, the Fathom, that another clash with O’Neill apparently occurred, with some small loss on the English side, but Hugh was not able to stop their passage back to the Pale. Why Mountjoy took this route is not recorded in any detail, though maybe he was just trying to avoid an encounter with O’Neill and his suddenly reassembled army, and wanted to avoid the Moyry Pass again if he could help it. It was now November, and just as was the case in Tyrconnell, campaigning season had come to an end, with none of the chief rebel confederation happy with the state of affairs.

The Battle of the Moyry Pass is a rather bizarre episode in the history of the Nine Years War. Mountjoy did not have sufficient force or tactical options to take the pass and had seemed to blunder in even attempting it. O’Neill then abandoned this strong position that his men and fought and killed for, allowing the English to pass through the mountains unhindered. Then Mountjoy failed to complete his original objective anyway, and faced another threat on the way home. Neither side is able to cover themselves in much glory, with mistakes and bad decisions being committed by both Mountjoy and Hugh O’Neill, though I would argue that O’Neill’s faults were worse. Mountjoy may not have made it as far as Armagh, but he did penetrate into Tyrone territory, was able to build another fort there, all while O’Neill was elsewhere. Mountjoy now had an advantage in any future offensive he cared to make, and that would not be long in the coming.

So, the stage was set heading into the New Year. Hugh Roe O’Donnell faced down his own family and English invaders. Hugh O’Neill considered how best to respond to growing English presence in or close to his own land. Mountjoy made ready his more devastating moves. The Spanish readied their own response. 1601 would be a momentous year for all parties.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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World Cup 2018: Rankings (4-1)

The tournament is done and dusted, and we have our final four. You can see my other rankings at these links – #32-17, 16-9, 8-5.

4. England (+22)

Well, this was an improvement, huh? Even early on in the first game it was clear the kind of young, quick attacking team that England were, though the physical game Tunisia played almost cost them two points. Panama were put to the sword in clinical fashion, before the second string tamely lost out to their Belgian counterparts. Kane, Lingard, Trippier, Maguire, they were all showing what they were capable of, in attack and in set-pieces.

But job done, and the easier side of the draw beckoned. England should have put a very indisciplined Columbia away far earlier than they did, dominating most of the game before letting slip an equaliser. Arguably lucky to make it through extra time, the banishing of the shoot-out hoodoo was a very important moment for Southgate’s side.

A very pedestrian challenge awaited in the quarter-finals, where a one-dimensional Swedish side were dispatched without too much fuss. England’s strength at set-pieces was obvious, and even if a brief Swedish resurgence in the last half-hour showed some flaws in the system, England had gotten further than they had in 28 years.

Croatia proved too hard a nut to crack. Perhaps they exerted themselves too much in the first half, perhaps Croatian resolve and midfield dominance simply told over the course of 120 minutes. Either way, once Croatia had equalised, England seemed adrift, with Kane ineffective and the defence looking porous. A bare exertion in the 3rd Place Play-Off followed. England over-achieved at this World Cup, and should be proud of an exceptional effort, but they should also be wary of overhype and an inability to recognise flaws.

3. Belgium (+5)

You would presume Belgium will have more chances at glory, but perhaps none better at the biggest stage than here. The First Round was completed in ruthless fashion, with convincing wins over Panama, Tunisia and then a lackadaisical England, as the attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bryne and Hazard showed why they are so potent, while a wealth of solid midfield and defensive players held the line behind.

A serious scare in the Last 16 woke Belgium up, when the Japanese first frustrated that attack, and then pulled a couple of shocks at the other end. The introduction of Fellaini was crucial to a stirring comeback, when Belgium announced themselves as one of the tournaments best sides, capable of over-turning a two-goal deficit in 20 or so minutes.

Brazil could well have been a mini-final, and Belgium excelled, hitting the Brazilians on the break to vicious effect, and containing Neymar and company’s efforts at the other end. Things did fall apart in the last half-hour, and on another day Belgium may well have let it slip. But they didn’t, and that was a testament to Martinez’ risky, but effective, tactics.

Belgium came-up short in the semis, stifled by the so-called “anti-football” of France, that was essentially just a conservative defence-packing master-class, where the French withstood what they could and waited for their chance from a counter or a set-piece. Lukaku’s increasingly poor performances as the tournament went on, combined with De Bryne’s lack of delivery, meant that there was no way back once France scored, not even with Hazard in the form he was in. Victory in the 3rd Place Play-Off was a simple affair. It was a strong tournament for the Belgians, but they need to work on their longevity in such circumstances. 2020 may be the last great chance of this group of players.

2. Croatia (+17)

A summer to remember for a side that has consistently threatened to become one of the worlds very best and has now achieved this after 20 years of under-achievement. It was obvious in the group stage how capable Croatia were, in a straightforward dismantling of Nigeria, in a stunning destruction of Argentina and in another straightforward win over Iceland. Modric was pulling the strings, Perisic was threatening, Mandzukic was dominating the penalty area.

Denmark proved, perhaps, a harder test than expected in the Second Round, thanks largely to Schmeichel’s heroics, but Croatia got through it, again largely thanks to Modric’s dominance of midfield, even with his penalty miss. This was the start of Croatia’s fitness levels proving the difference, and they would need every bit of that trait as the tournament continued.

The hosts weren’t really up to Croatia’s level, as could be seen when Croatian dominated large spells of possession in the Quarter-Finals, coming from behind and looking well-placed to win the game in extra time. Russia’s comeback necessitated another shoot-out, but the end result was not unjust.

England awaited. Going behind early was a terrible blow, and Croatia were lucky to reach half-time just one goal down. But their fitness, mentality and sheer refusal to bow down lead to an excellent equaliser, a leading goal and a dominance of the game thereafter.

In the final Croatia again showed how they could dominate possession for long spells, how they could come back from a goal down, how they could challenge at the top table. But it wasn’t enough. Yes, there was officiating errors for one goal, yes on another occasion that penalty might not have been awarded. But Croatia found themselves exposed past the hour mark, and couldn’t keep up, even with Lloris’ howler. Still, an excellent effort from one of the smallest countries in the tournament, one that marks Croatia national ethos on sport one that should be copied by every other country.

1. France (+6)

The long hard road back to international relevance after 2010 led to a final two years ago, and some regrets that France needed to make good. They showed an uncanny ability to improve in every game, starting in the group stage, when they were fortunate to get past Australia, took care of Peru in clinical fashion and then happily ground out a boring draw with Denmark to top the table.

Argentina provided a hell of a battle in the next round, a scoring free-for-all, though save for the nine minutes when they were behind, you always fancied France to win it. They did so, largely thanks to the attacking skill of Mpabbe, and the fragility of the opposition.

The Last Eight match against Uruguay was another display in competent domination, as France took their chances when they came, and stopped an otherwise flat Uruguayan outfit that were seriously lacking in attack. Despite the lack of flair, it was obvious that France were a more complete package than they had been two years previously. Strong at the back and dangerous up-front, with a strong midfield engine in the middle.

Belgium were similarly dealt with in the semi-final, with their attacking trio largely neutered and France happy to wait for the counter-attacks and the set-pieces at the other end. France’s solidity in all areas of the pitch was obvious throughout, and when they needed something special, they had the start players to provide it.

In the final France at times showed they were pliant, struggling with set-pieces, and allowing Croatia to dictate the temp of the game for large stretches. But, thanks to some officiating luck in part, they got the chances they needed, and that crucial few minutes around the hour mark showed a team full of attacking potential. Lloris made the last twenty minutes more interesting than they had to be, but France were good enough to see the game out. A second star for Les Bleus, worthy winners.

My final predictions stand at 40/64, or 62.5%, with is 12.5 higher than 2014! Hurrah.

A very enjoyable tournament for the most part, especially after a tentative and uninspiring first round of fixtures. The knock-outs were tonnes of fun, UEFA teams excelled, I think VAR has silenced some doubters and it was a tournament with plenty of stories, teams playing above their level and some really tense enthralling matches. Modric was my player of the tournament, with Hazard a close second.

Considering the strength of the European sides, I’m looking forward even more to UEFA 2020 now. I’m sure Spain and Germany will be improved, the Dutch and the Italians should be back, England will be looking to make good on this squad, Russia have improved, Belgium and Croatia will still be teams full of threat and the French will be looking to emulate that 98-00 side. Perhaps the Irish might be there too.

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The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: Not At Home

“Not At Home” is an odd chapter in many ways. It’s partially another transition chapter, and when viewed in line with what comes after, it’s natural to think that its placement is a little strange. After all, “Inside Information” ended with a serious bang, as Smaug sent part of the mountain tumbling and then wheeled off to attack Lake-town. But then, rather than follow the dragon and his terrible vengeance, Tolkien opts to keep the focus on the company, now trapped inside the Lonely Mountain. He originally wrote the events the other way around, then switched them. The right choice? It certainly eschews what you would expect, and perhaps the events of “Not At Home” could have been combined with the first section of “”The Gathering Of The Clouds”.

The company, with the way out now blocked and the way down a bit too scary to contemplate, is left lying hopelessly at the start of Thror and Thrain’s escape tunnel, a miserable moment that calls to mind the suffocating blackness of Mirkwood with the sense of despair it invokes: “They could not count the passing of time; and they scarcely dared to move, for the whisper of their voices echoed and rustled in the tunnel…At last after days and days of waiting, as it seemed, when they were becoming choked and dazed for want of air, they could bear it no longer.” It will later be revealed that they have stayed prone in this spot for around two days, which seems extreme, considering they never tried the door once in that time, or thought about heading downwards. Tolkien’s emphasis is on how it’s hard to keep track of time in such a situation.

The dwarves are pitched into apathetic, almost suicidal tendencies when the door appears unmovable: “We are trapped!” they groaned. “This is the end. We shall die here.” This begs once again the continuing question of just what it was that the company at large was expecting, going up against a large fire-breathing dragon. Going to confront Smaug is treated like an impossible task, but this is the quest to kill the dragon and free Erebor, isn’t it?

Bilbo shows more of his leadership qualities in the face of this maudlin display, deciding to take an optimistic tone in the face of adversity:

Come, come!” he said. “While there’s life there’s hope!” as my father used to say…I am going down the tunnel once again. I have been that way twice, when I knew there was a dragon at the other end, so I will risk a third visit when I am no longer sure. Anyway the only way out is down. And I think time you had better all come with me.”

It’s good stuff. It’s commanding, grabbing a hold of the company’s apathy and dismissing it. It’s understanding of how the dwarves are feeling without being patronising. And it’s practical, with the only way out to march down the tunnel, dragon or no. The company can’t be sure that Smaug is even there, and what do they have to lose? The dwarves respond to Bilbo’s pragmatism, and are soon marching in step behind him.

The moment allows for some light comedy, welcome in the darkness of what surrounds it, as the dwarves fail to quite grasp that Bilbo wants them to go quietly and make “a deal of puffing and huffing“, that so distracts the hobbit that he fails to realise he has come to the end of the tunnel, and tumbles forward into the hall.

This really should be a moment of dread, since we can have no real idea of where Smaug is, but Tolkien makes it clear that he isn’t around without saying so bluntly, by playing with the amount of light in the room. You’ll remember, in “Inside Information”, Bilbo’s initial approach to the great hall was marked by “a red light steadily getting redder and redder.” But here, of course, there is no light, not from the red-glow of Smaug or from “a spark of dragon-fire“, only “a pale white-glint” in the distance. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume the dragon isn’t home, the only sign of his presence being a lingering “wormstench“. After a comical interlude where Bile squeaks a challenge to the dragon (“Give me a light, and then eat me if you can catch me!“) it becomes apparent that Smaug isn’t here. But if Smaug isn’t here, and he set off to attack Lake-town “days upon days” ago, then where is he?

Very telling is the reaction of the dwarves to all of this, even the more capable Thorin, sitting huddled at the end of the tunnel when Bilbo falls, and only reluctantly giving in to his calls for light, before patronisingly waving away Bilbo’s suggestion that they all light up torches and follow him: “As Thorin carefully explained, Mr. Baggins was still officially their expert burglar and investigator. If he liked to risk a light, that was his affair. They would wait in the tunnel for his report.” They’re terrified and still look nowhere near a troupe of would-be dragon-slayers. Instead, Thorin decides that little Bilbo will now operate as a scouting party of one.

But such cowardice is going to be punished, in narrative terms, and Thorin will regret not following Bilbo into the piles of treasure. Because its Bilbo who finds the Arkenstone in this moment, a jewel that Tolkien takes great care in describing:

…there could not be two such gems, even in so marvellous a hoard, even in all the world. Ever as he climbed, the same white gleam had shone before him and drawn his feet towards. Slowly it grew to a little globe of pallid light. Now as came near, it was tinged with a flickering sparkle of many colours at the surface, reflected and splintered from the wavering light of his torch. At last he looked down upon it and he caught his breath. The great jewel shone before his feet of its own inner light, and yet, cut and fashioned by the dwarves, who had dug it from the heart of the mountain long ago, it took all light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow.”

I mentioned in the last chapter the rather unfounded idea that the Arkenstone is a Silmaril, and while that theory makes little sense, there is a certain commonality in description, as Tolkien writes in “Of The Silmarils And The Unrest Of The Noldor” :

Like the crystal of diamonds it appeared, and yet was more strong than adamant…Therefore even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before.”

In both cases, these are no ordinary things, but objects of power, to entrance, to ignite greed and to ignite bloodshed. And they have a certain wary sentience of their own, like the Ring, evidenced by the way it seems to shine just for Bilbo here, and not for Thorin who, letting the hobbit blunder into possible danger, does not get the opportunity to claim it for himself.

Bilbo is the worthier, or at least so he thinks. He is led “towards it…drawn by its enchantment” much like the influence the Ring will later be shown to have, and once he takes it, he’s quick to come up with excuses for his actions: “They did say I could pick and choose my own share; and I think I would choose this, if they took all the rest!” Whatever about the excuse, Bilbo essentially steals this thing, and that is troubling enough, not at all in line with the person we have come to know and yet, not really surprising given the enormity of what he has discovered and the other-worldly powers it has.

While Bilbo had been previously able to shake off the “gold-sickness” and influence of Smaug, this might well be a sign of it returning, and in his more honest thoughts, Bilbo has premonitions of disaster for what has just occurred: “All the same he had an uncomfortable feeling that the picking and choosing had not really been meant to include this marvellous gem, and that trouble would yet come of it.” He’s quite right, and this is the instigating event for one of the key conflicts of the books third act. The power of the treasure is made clear in “Not At Home” repeatedly, with words like “enchantment” and bewitchment” used at times.

Bilbo is accosted by some bats – probably the only other living thing in Erebor currently – and loses his light, prompting the dwarves to finally find their courage, just as Bilbo loses his. This still comes off as a case of too little, too late, and there’s something rather eye-raising about Balin’s statement of “I am quite willing to go“. Is he just trying to cover-up for the mass cowardice of the dwarven company a few moments before, or is Thorin deciding things for the group, in conflict with some of their individual feelings?

In exchange for risking their lives, the company finally get their hands on the very object of their quest, and the effect is a mixture of joy and a certain negativity, as elaborated by the narrator. In the previous chapter he very notably commented on the nature of dwarven courage, loyalty and value, implying that the race are calculating and cold to a certain degree, but here their love of gold is outlined as a flood of emotion, and as a warning to Bilbo, who may not like the  reaction should he reveal the Arkenstone (perhaps also a narrative excuse for his actions), as a dwarf, even a “respectable” one, who sees it can grow “suddenly bold, and he may become fierce“.

The company rejoice in the very touch of the treasure “caressing and fingering” the horde as if the objects are more than just mined minerals, but a very statement of their character, one part of a whole that is now reunited. The greed of the dwarves comes out in the almost pathetic sight of them stuffing their pockets with whatever they can carry, like real burglars, while the rest literally slips through their fingers, a potent metaphor, perhaps, for the nature of the dwarven relationship with their wealth. These do not look like dragon-slayers and liberators of a homeland, they look like desperate looters with “old cloaks…and tattered hoods“.

The exception is Thorin, who stands aside from the rest, focused only on one thing, “but he spoke of it yet to no one“, concealing his thoughts and maybe a little bit of encroaching madness. What he would do if he found out about Bilbo’s concealment is a worrying though for a new reader, as Tolkien has laid the groundwork for an explosive reaction.

Having indulged their lust for gold, the dwarves eventually get round to more practical matters, taking the available armour and weapons: “Royal indeed did Thorin look, clad in a coat of gold-plated rings, with a silver-hafted axe in a belt crusted with scarlet stones.” I’m sure it’s quite a sight, but one might wonder at the usefulness of such things, considering how soft a metal gold actually is. This also calls to mind, again, the under preparedness of the company, who have gone through most of their adventure without being properly armed for it.

Another important object of the continuity is introduced next, the mithril coat “wrought for some young elf-prince long ago“, now perfect for Bilbo. This “silver-steel” does not get the expansive description it will get in later works, on both its usefulness and rarity, but it is another important character moment for Bilbo, now clad in martial gear, very unlike the person that he used to be. Case in point, Bilbo imagines how strange he looks, but still has a burst of arrogant pride: “How they would laugh on the Hill at home! Still I wish there was a looking-glass handy!

Bilbo keeps his wits long enough to note that they really shouldn’t stick around, not with a live dragon liable to turn up at any moment. He does so with a wistful memory of the Beorn’s halls and the food they got there, a reminder that the company does not have infinite supplies. Moreover, the central problem of their position remains: “We are armed, but what good has any armour ever been before against Smaug the Dreadful?

Thankfully, Thorin now has the opportunity to resume his role as leader, and to showcase his own importance: “Let us go! I will guide you. Not in a thousand years should I forget the ways of this palace.” It’s a reminder of Thorin’s very direct connection to Erebor, a place that he is the rightful King of, a status that will soon provoke conflict and discord with many people.

For now though, Thorin is the King of nothing, with Erebor still an occupied land, burnt and ruined. Tolkien takes the time to give the remains of the Lonely Mountain’s interior a grim description:

…all the old adornments were long mouldered or destroyed, and though all was befouled and blasted with the comings and goings of the monster…they met no sign of any living thing, only furtive shadows that fled from the approach of their torches…Before them light came dimly through great doors, that hung twisted on their hinges and half burnt…Tables were rotting there; chairs and benches were lying there overturned, charred and decaying. Skulls and bones were upon the floor among flagons and bowls and broken drinking-horns and dust.”

Much like Moria in The Lord Of The Rings, Erebor is a place of death and destruction, destroyed by evil forces, with only the ghastly remnants of life to give any indication of what once was there. That both places are abodes of the dwarves speaks to Tolkien’s mindset for this race, perpetually doomed to create wonders and then lose them, victims of their own largess and greed.

Thorin leads them true, through the winding stairs and vast halls of Thror, to the real doorstep, the main gate, a mixture of dwarven rock and natures waters: “Out of a dark opening in a wall of rock there issued a boiling water, and it flowed swirling in a narrow channel, carved and made straight and deep by the cunning of ancient hands.” The company come to their deliverance from the choking darkness, but in what may be seen as another bit of foreshadowing, getting what they wanted isn’t what they expected:

…I never expected to be so pleased to see the sun again, and to feel the wind on my face. But, ow! this wind is cold!” 

It was. A bitter easterly breeze blew with a threat of oncoming winter. It swirled over and round the arms of the Mountain into the valley, and sighed among the rocks. After their long time in the stewing depths of the dragon-haunted caverns, they shivered in the sun.”

The moment is one for a not-so-subtle discussion on who can be considered the true master of Erebor, and on sudden dwarven optimism clashing with hobbit realism:

But I don’t feel that Smaug’s front doorstep is the safest place for a meal. Do let’s go somewhere where we can sit quiet for a bit!… I wonder how many breakfasts, and other meals, we have missed inside that nasty clockless, timeless hole?…

“Come, come!” said Thorin laughing — his spirits had begun to rise again, and he rattled the precious stones in his pockets. “Don’t call my palace a nasty hole! You wait till it has been cleaned and redecorated!” 

“That won’t be till Smaug’s dead,” said Bilbo glumly.”

This all calls back to the chapter title itself. Who is “Not At Home” here? The plundering dragon resting on top of a stolen horde of treasure? Or the dwarves stealing into a subterranean labyrinth that they haven’t occupied in over a century? Or is it both? Or is it Bilbo, trapped to a certain extent as an outsider among gold-hungry dwarves?

The company march for shelter in a nearby (relatively speaking) guard post, allowing the author to chance for some light humour on the nature of the dwarves’ provisions, made up entirely of the suitably named “cram”. It’s a perfect food for the dwarves, in its drabness and simplicity: “If you want to know what cram is, I can only say that I don’t know the recipe; but it is biscuitish, keeps good indefinitely, is supposed to be sustaining, and is certainly not entertaining, being in fact very uninteresting except as a chewing exercise.” It’s a contrast to Elvish lembas, that Gimli son of Gloin will compare to cram in The Fellowship Of The Ring.

Reaching the guardroom allows for another maudlin recitation of what has been, as Balin, another Erebor survivor, posits that more alert guards might have made the difference on the day Smaug attacked. Without perhaps realising what he is saying, he offers another criticism of the accumulation of dwarven wealth: “But there seemed small need for watching in the days of our prosperity…

The company’s conversation comes back to one thing consistently: “where was Smaug?” As confirmed by the narrator, it’s been two days since he departed, and there is no indication of where he is or what has happened to him. A new reader might well surmise that something has befallen the dragon, but he could just as easily still be around, up on the mountain “perched there like a bird on a steeple“.

The final moment of this chapter is dedicated to a curious, and very unnerving, natural phenomenon:

They looked West and there was nothing, and East there was nothing, and in the South there was no sign of the dragon, but there was a gathering of very many birds. At that they gazed and wondered…

We don’t know why or what kind, but a gathering of birds seems portentous. The mind naturally springs to carrion-fowl flying to a sight of death, or a “murder” of crows. There is also the ancient Roman practice of Augury to consider, that is seeking to know the future or will of the Gods from the movement of birds or other animals. This is especially notable as augury often depended on the exact location where birds gathered, which would make Tolkien’s note of birds to the south important. The combination of influences would indicate a momentous event of some description in that direction. What is to the south, is Lake-town.

“Not At Home” is short, and not an immaterial exercise by any means. In terms of establishing further the importance of the Arkenstone, and the nature of dwarven desire for gold in practical terms, it does some important work, especially for Thorin. Bilbo’s takes some more important steps as a leader and as a serious instigator of the remaining plot. And it is also important that we get our glimpse inside the Lonely Mountain proper and show what it is compared to what it once was. But Tolkien does sometimes have an issue with what constitutes a chapter, and “Not At Home” could very well have been combined with some of the later chapters, even if that removed that lingering sense of tension from the absence of Smaug.

The Hobbit is light on action, with our only real sequence of such being the spider fight in “Flies And Spiders“. That’s about to change big-time, with the next chapter being Tolkien at his action-packed best, in another of the books iconic moments.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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World Cup 2018: Final Predictions

Final rankings will come after the 3rd/4th Place Play-Off and the Final, but for the moment, just quick predictions after I was one for two on the semis (38/62 or 61%).

It’s the game no-one wants to play, but 3rd place isn’t an unworthy goal, at least not in my eyes. Belgium let themselves down against France, and England did the same against Croatia, both sides struggling to exert any authority on their games in the second half, and both fluffing their lines upfront when it mattered. You would imagine it will be the B teams played here, and I would expect a repeat of the group game in such circumstances. Prediction: Belgium.

On the final, France have impressed with solid defensive football and some rapid movement up-front when the need was required. Mbappe and Pogba are in good firm, making up for some lacklustre showings from Greizmann and Giroud. Lloris is reliable in goal, and France have shown they can shut teams down effectively. Croatia have ground out results in three consecutive 120 minute games, a bit away from their dominant group performance, but the likes of Vida, Modric and Mandzukic have been outstanding, with Modric likely to be named player of the tournament. They have a very important persistence and excellent fitness levels. It’s hard to call, but I feel that French obstinance and structure will trump Croatia’s usual midfield domination, and lead to their second triumph. Prediction: France.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Lough Foyle Landings

Lord Mountjoy was not a man to sit back.

The collapse of the rebellion in Munster and the securing of the Pale’s borders in Leinster were a good start to his time in Ireland, but he wanted to get more done, and in a hurry. Even while he was reforming the way the English military in Ireland worked – shaking up officer selection, establishing a dedicated training system, setting up hospitals, creating new supply depots, improving fortifications, focusing on infantry mobility and cracking down on desertion and other negative behaviour from serving soldiers, he was thinking on the bigger picture. The rebel strongholds of Tyrconnell and Tyrone remained largely untouched by the fighting and Hugh Roe O’Donnell continued to have almost free reign across the Shannon. If Mountjoy was going to bring the rebellion to heel, both those things needed to change.

While not enjoying the same military largess as Essex had, Mountjoy had enough men at his disposal, and was prepared for a frontal assault on Tyrone, even if that meant another march through the same dangerous territory that had seen the disaster of the Yellow Ford and Clontibret in previous years. But before he contemplated that, he went back over plans that had been previously mooted. It was the council in the Pale in 1599 that had encouraged the now-disgraced Essex to use what naval elements he had at his disposal to land an expeditionary force to the north of Ireland, in order to open up a new front and hit O’Donnell and O’Neill where they lived. The basics of the ides actually pre-dated this, to the very beginnings of the war. It was always a risky venture, as any naval landing is, due to the vulnerability of an isolated force operating in enemy territory, but for many there was no other way to radically swing the strategic situation in the favour of the English.

In April of 1600, with the permission and encouragement of Elizabeth, a fleet of ships arrived in Dublin to take part in this long-delayed endeavour. Such an outfitting is an example of English commitment to the war, despite the gigantic toll it had taken in lives and in money. The hope must surely have been that a combined attack from the sea to the north and from land to the south could prove to be a knock-out blow for the rebellion, squeezing the rebel heartlands from two points. It was a wise strategy, as the fabric of the Irish confederation of rebels was overly-dependent on both O’Neill and, to a slightly lesser extent, O’Donnell, for its cohesion. In Mountjoy’s words, a landing on the north coast would be an “iron hook” in O’Neill’s nose.

Mountjoy certainly didn’t skimp on numbers. At least 4’000 infantry and 600 cavalry, maybe more, were packed into the boats, some of them taken from the garrison of Carrickfergus, which was a stopping point on the way. The Irish had no real ability to challenge English dominance of the waves, another point in the plans favour, so little could have been done to stop the expedition on the sea even if the rebels had known about it.

The subsequent landings, occurring on the 14th May 1600, seem to have caught both O’Donnell and O’Neill somewhat by surprise, though O’Neill had been wary of just such a venture for a few years now. The fleet landed on the south side of Lough Foyle, on the modern day border of Donegal and Derry, and was able to disembark its troops without any harassment. In fact, it would be quite a while before any confrontation was made. The soldiers of Tyrone were busy further south preparing for what was seen as an inevitable attack from Mountjoy, while the O’Donnell armies in the field were situated near Sligo and the rest of Connacht. Mountjoy had mustered a force and made a feint manoeuvre towards the Blackwater area in order to draw Hugh O’Neill away from his northern coastline, a ruse that succeeded admirably.

The English were under an experienced commander in Henry Docwra, a man who had spent many years fighting in both Ireland and the Low Countries. He had been a close compatriot of Essex, serving as one of his chief advisers during Essex’s time in Ireland, but had avoided the same disgrace that Essex had suffered, with Docwra based largely in Wicklow in that period. Mountjoy was in need of capable officers, whatever their past friendships, and so Docwra was entrusted with this vital expedition.

His force set to creating a defensive posture immediately. Three separate forts were made, one on the Tyrone side, and two on the other. The most important was at Culmore, Tyrconnell, not far from the initial landings, but others were set up at the sites of old castles and at what was, at this point in history, the small urban settlement of Derry, soon to be significantly enlarged at Docwra’s direction (earning him the disputed title of “founder of Derry”). The English dug trenches, assembled earth walls, constructed ramparts and took whatever material was at hand to improve them, including the remains of several old churches.

Docwra garrisoned all three of the forts under his command with substantial numbers of troops, ready to try and hold them all. The English mentality was pre-dominantly defensive, as these fortifications were expected to hold out far from friendly territory for a long time, a distraction for the rebels that they could not ignore. In terms of offensive movement, this English force limited itself to the immediate area around their forts, unwilling to travel out any further and risk being surrounded and cut off.

The landing and the forts were, much like the Blackwater fortress earlier in the war, something that the rebel confederation had to do something about, and it was Tyrconnell who answered the call. Hugh Roe, once he heard about the English landing and fortifications, immediately gathered what force he could and headed north. English plans to build more forts were cancelled upon his approach, although they comforted themselves with the arrival of several bands of native Irish who joined their cause, perhaps seeing which way the tide was turning.

When O’Donnell got there, he found the English armies behind their walls and trenches, unwilling to come out and give him a battle. After a limited and unsuccessful assault on the walls at Culmore, a siege began. The Irish were, after the experience at the Blackwater perhaps, not enthusiastic for assaulting English defences, and it seemed clear after a few days that the English were similarly apathetic about leaving them. The Tyrconnell chief decided to leave it to hunger and disease. This was what the English had expected, and they had supplies to last for a time.

This stand-off was to the immense boredom and frustration of O’Donnell, who was unused to such static warfare. He was a raider and a cavalry fighter, and was ill at ease waiting out the enemy. As a result, he soon decided to leave the siege in the hands of a cousin (and brother-in-law), while he returned to the forms of fighting that he preferred. This kinsman was Niall Garbh O’Donnell, and along with enough men to maintain the siege, he was left to continue on as best he could.

Hugh Roe travelled south, gathered the greater part of those loyal to him, and embarked on yet another monster raid and plundering of Connacht and Thomond. By all accounts, he did so almost without any opposition, taking what he wanted, when he wanted. Thomond and its people were no cravens, but it may simply have been better to absorb these assaults rather than risk serious loss with defeat in battle. Hugh Roe spent several weeks at this, before riding back to the siege works to inspect what was going on. At this time, in one of the only bits of active warfare for the area, he led a cavalry ambush on a group of English soldiers grazing their horses. One of this group was Henry Docwra himself, who was badly wounded by an O’Donnell family member who may actually have been Hugh Roe’s son (also Hugh). Docwra survived, but lost many horses on this raid, and the hard-pressed English rarely ventured from their forts afterward.

Again, O’Donnell quickly grew restless with siegework and after only a few weeks was off on another great raid in October, along the same path as the one before. Hugh O’Neill had achieved some partial success to the south-east (more next week), so he may have felt that such a move was covered. He was badly mistaken, as events were suddenly about to go beyond his control.

While they maintained a passive state in immediate tactical terms, the English were not satisfied to just wait and hope that they would be relieved or that the Tyrconnell forces would give up. Sickness was a problem, supplies were already starting to dwindle and it did not seem like an allied force would be breaking through to them for a while. To that end, Docwra began communicating with Niall Garbh, looking to change his allegiance. It was a tried and true tactic in Ireland, manipulating enemy families to turn on each other, and one that Docwra was well-versed in.

We’ll probably never know just what was promised to Niall, whether it was position, money or both. We know that Niall had been a rival of Hugh Roe’s when it came to the Tyrconnell chieftainship, and was unhappy with the loss of some his lands in the nearby area. Whatever it was, the temptation proved too much and Niall – along with his brothers, a substantial number of powerful O’Donnell family members – changed sides and ended the siege of the Lough Foyle forts. He allowed supplies to be let through to the English and was soon marching in step with them. The first target was the O’Donnell town of Lifford, just to the south of Lough Foyle, which had once been a fairly substantial fortress of Tyrconnell, under Niall Garbh. Originally designed to act as a bulwark against attacks from Tyrone, Lifford was by now a substandard defensive point.  The meagre garrison there was quickly brushed aside by the thousands of Anglo-Irish troops that arrived and soon the English were once again building improved fortifications.

When the news reached the southwards facing Hugh Roe, he was apparently stunned. While the English could have been contained as they had been, bottled up in their forts, the defection of Niall could not. Here was a man, with troops at his call and allies in the English, who could prove a threat to Hugh Roe’s position as chief of Tyrconnell. The young commander could not allow that to stand. With the forces he had been expecting to lead on another easy plundering trip through Connacht and maybe to Thomond, he turned back north and made a beeline for Lifford.

So fast was Hugh Roe’s movement that he failed to keep his army in a coherent shape, and arrived with only a small vanguard at Lifford well before the bulk of his infantry. In this he was extremely frustrated, as his normal army would have been more than a match for the English numerically, but was unavailable when he needed it. He could see the trenches and the earthworks the English were creating, and feared another stalemate. An aborted face-off did take place, with some minor skirmishing between both sides. There was cause for regret here on either side. The English, with a bit more aggression, may actually have had a chance to take Hugh Roe if they had pressed the encounter, but feared an ambush by the incoming reinforcements and withdrew without much combat. O’Donnell reputation may also have played a part. Hugh Roe lamented the lateness of his army, which could well have crushed the English if their timing had been better.

By the time Hugh Roe’s army had assembled fully outside Lifford, the defences had been improved and the Anglo-Irish were embedded behind them, impossible to root out and defeat without significant loss. Hugh Roe did what he could in the circumstances, sending out spies, moving his siege lines as close as he could in order to protect nearby farms, guarding all roads and paths zealously, but it could not be denied that he had been placed in an awkward position. Only once, late in October, did fighting come to pass, as an English sortie did some damage to O’Donnell’s lines, with forces under Niall being responsible for the death of Hugh Roe’s brother, Manus. Tyrconnell could at least be happy with its infantry, which withstood an English cavalry charge and then forced the same horses into a headlong retreat.

After a month of this siege, the weather began to deteriorate. Facing a harsh winter, Hugh Roe had no choice but to uproot his army and move them to a more liveable spot west of Lifford, where they could make their own fortifications to see out the chilly months. As such the siege was largely broken, and the Anglo-Irish had survived.

The episode was Hugh Roe’s first big setback of the war, and while it was not entirely of his own making, he bears much of the fault. At several points over those months he displayed poor judgement and a lack of patience. He could not bring himself to remain stationary when first laying siege to the Lough Foyle forts, preferring to leave that operation in the hands of a rival than handle it himself. Twice he went off on predatory excursions far to the south when parts of his own home territory was under occupation. When he received the news of his cousin’s betrayal, he was unable to check his own mad dash to Lifford, or to keep his army in a coherent shape. Such recklessness would well have cost him his freedom, or even his life, if the opposition had just shown a bit more initiative. Still, the never-ending string of Tyrconnell victories, that had seen the end of many high ranking English officials already, was over.

As it was, the gambit had been a success, though Mountjoy had helped in a large way (to be covered in the next entry). An English position had been created, stabilised, defended and then enlarged in enemy lands. Native allies had been commandeered. One of the main rebel leaders was stuck fighting members of his own clan. More and more, the English were beginning to look at the situation in Ulster with optimism.

O’Donnell at least had good news before the end of the year, with the arrival of two Spanish ships at Killybegs which carried with them money, military supplies and words of encouragement from Philip III of Spain. The booty was split evenly between Tyrconnell and Tyrone, but it was the likelihood of more martial support from Philip that probably sustained Hugh Roe through his uncomfortable winter lodgings. In the new year, when the weather improved, he still had a traitorous family member to deal with.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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World Cup 2018: Rankings (8-5) And Semi-Final Predictions

From eight to four. With the Quarter-Finals wrapped up, here’s my rankings of #8-5, ranked by losing margin in the last game, then continuing criteria if required, with ranking relative to 2014 included also.

8. Sweden (Beaten 2-0, +2 GD) (NA)

This was more than Sweden could reasonably have hoped for, even if the end of the campaign was a disappointment. A routine, if somewhat boring, victory over Korea got them going, and then they were within a few seconds of taking at least a point from Germany. The loss must have stung, but the strength of Sweden in organised defence was obvious, and their best display of the tournament followed in a dominant victory over Mexico, that got them both progression and an unexpected first place.

The Swiss were a tough test, with both teams being quite similar in their emphasis on reactive defensive football, and with similar deficiencies going forward. In a tight game, it was perhaps fitting that it was decided by a deflected shot, with Sweden good enough to survive a late Swiss rally.

But the weaknesses – namely that lack of forward impetus – were exposed by England, in a game where Sweden failed to gain any initiative until they were already two goals down. With the defence failing to guard against English set-pieces and the forward line unable to beat Pickford, that was all she wrote. Sweden were one-dimensional, but effective to the quarter-final stage which, for a team playing their first post-Zlatan tournament, is a good return.

7. Uruguay (Beaten 2-0, +4 GD) (-8)

If this is the last ride of the latest generation, and a primer for the next, Uruguay can’t be too unhappy. They took a long time to get going properly, with mostly toothless displays against both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, games played in third gear and decided by one goal, before the hosts were dispensed with in clinical fashion. Despite some lacklustre football, it was jo done as far as the group stage was concerned.

Portugal and Ronaldo awaited in the next round, and Uruguay first proper test, which they passed thanks to the goal-scoring acumen of Cavani, and the oppositions over-reliance on their star-man. While we cannot be too critical of Uruguay’s part of the affair, it is accurate to say that Portugal lack of exceptional players in other parts of the field was exploitable.

Whatever Uruguay quality, they proved unable to really challenge France, especially with Cavani off the field. Suarez was anonymous in the quarter-final, and France took their opportunity when it came. Combined with a goalie howler, and Uruguay bid for a third triumph was over. This is probably Cavani and Suarez’ last ride, and the younger players will have to step up next time.

6. Brazil (Beaten 2-1) (-2)

While this is technically a drop from four years ago, it’s fair to say that its an improvement in performance terms. Some cracks were evident in the first two matches, as Brazil lost a lead and two points to the Swiss and then needed a late, late show to put away Costa Rica. But they showed what they were really capable off in an excellent last game effort against the Serbs, with the forward line of Neymar, Coutinho and Firminho all excelling.

The Mexican opposition in the Second Round were undoubtedly inferior, surrendering the majority of possession and banking on a counter-attack that never got going, while the Brazilians were patient in their build-up play and took their opportunities when they came. Neymar’s antics grated, but it couldn’t be doubted that Brazil appeared a more capable side to the won that rode their luck in 2014.

Until the Quarter-Finals that is. Again, Brazil got most of the possession, but this time the opposition defence held a lot firmer, and on the other end of the pitch Belgium’s counter-attacks were devastating when they came off. A late rally offered hope, but Brazil didn’t have the composure to get the equaliser, while Neymar reached new lows with his simulation. Brazil have gotten better, and given four more years this side may well challenge properly, but the ghosts of 2014 have not been exercised just yet.

5. Russia (Beaten in a Shoot-Out) (+19)

An excellent run from the hosts. The preparation and the squad quality seemed to portend disaster, but then they showed what they were made of, in a ruthless dismissal of the Saudi’s and in an expectedly competent performance against the Egyptians, before their level became more readily apparent in the final group game loss to Uruguay.

The vast majority thought that Russia had reached the end of the line when they came up against Spain, but they not only rallied after conceding, they then shut out one of the best attacks in the tournament for over an hour. The shoot-out victory was not unjust, and it was a very significant moment for Russian football.

The bravado, inability to lay-down, and sheer grit were replicated against Croatia, perhaps to even more of an extent, with the Russians having the wherewithal to bounce back from an extra-time concession. Croatia were the better team, but to take two of the best sides in the world to back-to-back shoot-outs was seriously impressive. Going out as they did must be tough to take, but this was an exceptional showing from a side so little was expected of.

Prediction wise, it’s a clean sweep, four for four, increasing my overall to 37/60, or 62%.

So, onto the semis then.

Both France and Belgium have had similar runs to the final four, slowing out of the gate in the group stages, then picking things up bit by bit, before similarly impressive performances in the Quarter-Finals. Both are replete with attacking talent, both want to make the most of respective golden generations. I’ll be optimistic and predict a glorious goal-fest, one for ages, or maybe it will be a nervy conservative slog to a shoot-out. Either way, I think Belgium’s attacking trio will have a very slight edge. Prediction: Belgium

It’s dreamland for both teams, but perhaps mostly for England, now properly dreaming of an another World Cup triumph. They have the attackers, they have an excellent set-piece record and, most importantly, they have a sense of belief England have lacked for a while. Croatia have struggled in the knock-outs, and will surely be feeling some fatigue, but they do still have Modric, and they are looking at a moment of destiny too, emulating the ’98 side, and hoping to go one step further. But I think England will have the legs when the Croats don’t. Prediction: England

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Review: Psychokinesis, Mute, Survivors Guide To Prison

Psychokinesis

Trailer

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Great power, etc

Deadbeat dad Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) finds himself back in his daughters (Shim Eun-kyung) life following the death of his ex-wife. She’s facing an all-or-nothing battle with a corporate giant trying to buy out her neighbourhood for re-development: luckily for her, her father has unexpectedly just gained superpowers.

Psychokinesis, a Korean film from director Yeon Sang-ho, aims to offer a more grounded spin on the traditional superhero tale, putting the powers into the hands of a middle-aged malcontent whose biggest thrill in life is stealing instant coffee packets from his employer (a serious sin in Korean society, apparently). And, despite a host of strange narrative decisions and a sense that it is never sure how high it wants to aim, it does kind of work, at least in part.

Maybe it’s the sheer novelty of seeing superpowers in the hands of someone like Seok-heon (he gains them after drinking water from a fountain recently hit by a meteorite), maybe it’s the relationship with his daughter that he desperately wants to fix, or maybe it’s the barmy-ness of the actual plot, as Seok-heon takes on a corporate giant and its many hired goons with his increasingly unlikely telekinetic powers. Or maybe it’s because the thing is acted quite well, especially by old-hand Ryu and the younger Shim.

Or maybe it’s because, like the best superhero movies, it’s using the extraordinary to express sentiment about something basic, in this case how the perceptions of fathers change over time, from thinking them superheroes to thinking them beneath your attention, and back again. Or, to put it another way, what would a loser trying to get back into his daughter’s good graces do with superpowers? The interaction between father and daughter gives Psychokinesis a nice emotional core away from all the silliness and prevents you from dismissing it as another low-budget distraction.

On a slightly larger level, the film attempts some social commentary, as the basis for the narrative comes from a real-life incident of locals being killed by police in the middle of a forced eviction. This class-warfare angle explodes in the films topsy-turvy third act with an unexpectedly visceral clash between bent cops and mostly defenceless protesters. Seok-heon’s involvement in this comes off as a strange escapist thing, and it’s probably the only part of the film that doesn’t sit too well, an ill-placed diatribe that is just a bit too serious.

The special effects are hit and miss – earlier sequences involving a mass brawl between goons and protesters are better than later, sketchier, attempts to render more advanced superpowers into being – and the film is shot competently enough, without any real sense of flair or imagination. But that doesn’t bother me too much: coming out at the same time as the superhero behemoth that was Infinity WarPsychokinesis is a decent example of how the genre can be subverted to produce something unique on a much smaller scale. Korean cinema isn’t looking too shabby. Recommended.

Mute

Trailer

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This is a very realistic occupation for an Amish man.

A throat injury suffered as a child leaves Amish bartender Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) unable to speak, but he still manages to make a life for himself in Berlin of the not-too-distant future. A relationship with the enigmatic Naadirah (Seyneb Salah) gives him a new perspective, and when she goes missing, Leo delves into a seedy underworld he barely understands in an effort to find her. At the same time, AWOL Army medic Bill (Paul Rudd) attempts to dodge police, while engaging in his own criminal activities

When Duncan Jones brought out Moon in 2009, I wouldn’t have been alone in considering him likely to become one of the new great sci-fi directors. But since then he’s only managed to come out with two films: the passable Source Code, and the franchise-bait drek that was Warcraft. Coming next was this, apparently Jones’ big passion project, in development for years. And that really tells, in the most negative way possible.

Mute is a film where the director/writer has clearly gotten a bit too “in” to his creation. It’s over-produced and over-wrought, which is all the more surprising considering how derivative it is of other things, most notably Blade Runner, M*A*S*H and Minority Report, films Mute is aping every other frame and every other line of dialogue. Jones establishes an interesting enough universe, but the choice of main characters – Skarsgard’s mute Amish bartender, and Paul Rudd’s slightly off-kilter mob surgeon – are so weird and bizarre that it’s hard to get too invested in Mute.

It’s too long (126 excruciating minutes) and too disjointed, jumping between the central narrative, flashbacks and its two “protagonists” in a manner that rapidly goes from eclectic to uncomfortable. Leo’s investigation and Bill’s warped “good dad” shtick wear on you so fast as you go from scene to scene without a clear idea of where things are going and what all of this mess is supposed to symbolise. It’s just too random, like Jones can’t decide which of his visionary sequences to keep in and which to cut out, and in the end just decides to lump them all-in, whether its Bill’s numerous baffling asides with his paedophile buddy (Justin Theroux) or Dominic Monaghan’s…prostitute? It was a bit hard to tell honestly. Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie by the way (the film is partly dedicated to him) and this is real Ziggy Stardust stuff.

Skarsgard should be better as Leo, but is ultimately sort of ham-strung by the lack of dialogue, unable to get across what he needs to get across with just facial expression and movement, perhaps a failure of directing as much as it is acting. His character is too odd to grab a hold of, being an apparently dedicated Amish guy who lives in a metropolis, works as a bartender and has a girlfriend who is, um, non-traditional shall we say. It’s messy. On the other side, Rudd looks completely at sea here, with a character who varies between extremes so regularly it’s hard to make any kind of connection with him, and who turns out to be an antagonist, sort of? Maybe?. I suppose he’s supposed to be sinister, but then why get Hollywood nice guy Paul Rudd to play him? It’s even messier.

I mean, its shot well, but you would expect that of Jones. Neo-Berlin and its underworld looks great, even if it is just a HD version of Los Angeles of the future. In a society out of control with surveillance and corporate stamping, delivery drones buzz around while billboards exhort locals to turn in US soldiers gone AWOL. But you can have all the interesting universe building and cinematography you want, it’s just an art gallery without a coherent narrative and good principals.

It’s a strange, almost pompous, and thoroughly ill-made production, that bodes unkindly for Jones’ future career. More and more, it feels like he caught fire for one brief cinematic moment, and has been treading water since. Mute is the moment when he slipped under the surface. I hope he comes up for air next time. Not recommended.

Survivors Guide To Prison

Trailer

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Broken system.

Neary one in a hundred Americans are incarcerated in one form or another. The prison system they are a part of is rife with problems, ranging from over-crowding to ethically iffy for-profit systems. Documentarian Matthew Cooke, with the help of some of those who have been imprisoned unjustly, outlines how to avoid prison, how to survive if you wind up there, and how to get out.

This was just a random selection on Netflix one uneventful Saturday afternoon, and I would be lying if I said that Danny Trejo’s giant head on the thumbnail wasn’t part of the reason I gave it a look. But I’m glad I did because, while preachy to the extent of risking a label of liberal screeching, Survivors Guide To Prison is an illuminating and interesting combination of exploratory, investigative and recordation documentary.

It’s a fast-paced experience, where it seems the director struggled to cram in every talking head, every talking point and every judgmental analysis of what would appear, from even a cursory examination, to be an utterly broken penal system. That kind of frantic editing, where real-life experiences mesh not so easily with the titular guide, does drag the film down a peg or too, but it’s impossible not to be carried away with Cooke’s central thesis, even if he could do with taking a few deep breaths. Perhaps he wants this to be the cinematic equivalent to a rapid fire arrest, interrogation, sentencing and imprisonment, with the harsh lighting, grainy visuals and rapid cutting.

To wit: American’s are more likely than any other democratic citizen to be imprisoned, especially minorities; the judicial system is weighted against you the moment you are arrested, to the extent that it is frequently preferable to plead guilty to a crime you did not commit to save yourself a lengthy wait in jail for a trial that may not go in your favour; prison itself is a maelstrom of human rights violations, sexual violence and recidivism, frequently run on a for-profit basis; the whole point of the exercise is flawed, as the concept of prison as punishment clearly isn’t working. Oh, and, as the film makes clear, there are more innocent people in prison than you might think.

Cooke lays it out simply enough, using real-life testimony and the occasional input of legal advice to give you an idea of what to do if accosted by a police officer, if arrested, if going to trial, if going to prison. The somewhat garish nature of his own contribution, a floating head over-exposed on a black background, did strike me as a bit odd, but he is certainly persuasive. The likes of Trejo, Ice T, Busta Rhymes and an unseen Susan Sarandon as an unseen narrator, are along to make up the numbers.

In the end, Cooke makes it clear that anyone can get sucked into a system, where mistakes by police are actively covered up and the state would rather you just take your punishment, just or unjust, especially if you can’t afford sufficient legal representation. Beyond that, you’re just surviving. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Next Entertainment World, Netflix and Gravitas Ventures).

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