An Irishman's Diary

Wed, Jul 4, 2012, 01:00

THE BATTLE of Waterloo was, among many other things, a conflict between beer and wine drinkers. Or as one French historian put it, poetically summing up the events of June 18th, 1815: “The red fury of wine repeatedly washed in vain against the immovable wall of the sons of beer.”

Even as a metaphor, that may be over-simplifying it a bit. In fact, the immovable wall of the Duke of Wellington’s forces was in fairly imminent danger of moving before the late arrival into the field of Gen Blücher’s Prussian cavalry. Only then was it last orders for Napoleon.

Besides, Blücher was himself a testament to the glories of viticulture.

Two days earlier, at Ligny, the veteran general had been trampled in battle and then stuck under his own dead horse for several hours. It needed liberal application of brandy, externally and internally, before he could recover from his wounds.

Still, the Waterloo beer-wine analogy stands up at least as well as he did, eventually. And I was reminded of it a sunny evening last month while passing the Wellington monument in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

As it often seems to on summer nights, the obelisk had become a shrine – a giant totem poll, anyway – for the local sons of beer. They stood or sat around it drinking cans of Bavaria or bottles of cheap Polish lager.

Departing drinkers left their empties as a tribute. And one of two made more intimate offerings at the top of the steps, treating the base of the monument as a urinal.

The people who erected it would have been appalled, no doubt. But they should have known better. The monument doesn’t have any on-the-spot minders, after all. And that’s partly because, beyond glorifying the duke’s memory, it also doesn’t have a function. It’s just there.

Had it been a French construction, they would have put a cafe in it somewhere. There would certainly be a viewing platform, so that the obelisk could pay for its upkeep, including the salary of at least one man in a kepi whose duties would include asking beer drinkers not to pee on it.

The Germans knew better, too. In Hanover recently, on the way back from Euro 2012, I was surprised to see that that city also has a large, phallic memorial to the 1815 battle, albeit with several key differences. It’s called the Waterloo monument rather than the Wellington; it’s a column, not an obelisk; and it’s somewhat smaller than the thing in Dublin.

But sure enough, it does have an internal stairway and a viewing platform (admission to which is free). And perhaps wisely, Hanover being a beer-drinking town, the structure also has a small fence around it: deterring those men who – in a back-handed compliment to column’s military significance – would use it to mark territory on the way home from the pub.

I SHOULDN’T HAVEbeen surprised that Hanover has a Waterloo monument, because the Hanoverians had close links with England in the early 19th century, even sharing a monarch with Britain and Ireland until 1837. Furthermore, they were deeply involved in the campaign against Napoleon, as people in Offaly may know.

The Battle of Tullamore was not an official engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. In fact the title is doubly ironic, since (a) the opposing parties were supposed to be on the same side and (b), had they not been so well armed, their battle would have been a mere brawl.

But it so happened that in 1808, a battalion of the King’s German Legion – Hanoverian expatriates in the British army – was stationed in Tullamore. Where one evening in July, it was joined by a brigade of local militia, formerly headquartered in Birr, but now in the process being broken up and dispersed to such far-flung parts of the empire as Sligo and Monaghan.

At around 7pm, on a bridge in the town, there was an incident in which one of the Germans was knocked down by a militia man and thrashed with a switch. The victim’s colleagues intervened, the assailant’s colleagues likewise, and soon the skirmish became a large-scale conflict (at least by Tullamore standards), involving bayonets, musket shot, and any other weapons available.

Half an hour later, when peace was restored, at least two men lay dead or fatally wounded, and upwards of 30 others injured.

Two subsequent inquiries blamed a pair of Irish officers for most of the trouble, while failing to explain what exactly caused the animosity.

Among the suggested motives was resentment over the break-up of the militia, revenge for some previous incident, and – perhaps the most plausible – tensions relating to the Johann-come-lately Germans’ success with local women.

I suspect beer-drinking was a factor too, but that may be because of recent over-exposure to the phenomenon. Certainly, as late as last week, it was still very popular among the Irish, English, and – ultimately – German legions returning defeated from the Polish campaign. A campaign in which, overall, the sons of beer were well and truly trounced by the wine-drinking countries, which have now claimed four European championships in a row.

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