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Shandon House, Scotland (circa present)

Shandon House, Scotland (circa present)

Here is one of the most beautiful Gothic houses I could find on the internet: Shandon House, a 19th century Scottish revival manor/castle overlooking Gare Loch in Scotland.  The house was built in 1849 on 31 acres of beautiful Scottish hills.  It was owned by various grandees (shipping magnates, tobacco merchants, and such), before becoming a boys’ school, but the school then closed in the mid-eighties.

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The region where Shandon House is located is dominated by Faslane Naval Base, one of the three ports of the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom (and arguably the most important).  So Shandon House was purchased by the Ministry of Defense…but since the Ministry of Defense has no actual use for dark fairy tale castles, the house has been derelict for over a decade, and may now be beyond repair.  As far as I can tell, the MOD is incapable of finding buyers and hopes to knock the house down (although its designation as a historical landmark makes such an outcome somewhat unlikely).

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It is a shame the house is decaying away, since this is truly an elegant and imposing structure.  On the other hand, who would actually live here other than evil sorcerers, mad scientists, Dalmatian coat enthusiasts, and other suchlike Disney villain folk?

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The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head).  Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

It has been a while since I wrote a post concerning mascots.  That’s because…well, frankly there is something a bit grotesque and disorienting about the entire topic.  The bilious cartoony figures speak of the snake oil which lubricates our consumer culture.  And most of the characters are teetering right at the edge of nineteenth-century jingoism and ethnic stereotypes.  If Aunt Jemima, Chief Wahoo, Uncle Ben, the Gordon Fisherman, and Ole’ Miss don’t make you a bit anxious, then they aren’t doing their jobs.

All of which is why this subject is entirely perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day!  This holiday has long since dismissed any semblance of reasoned discourse. The downtown of every major city in the United States fills up before noon with intoxicated teens garbed crown-to-toe in Kelly green and red-faced, red-haired firemen wielding bagpipes!    So bring on the leprechaun mascots.

Traditionally leprechauns were members of the aes sídhe, supernatural beings who dwell in a mythical land beyond human kin. This unseen realm may be across the western sea, or in an invisible world parallel to ours, or in an underground kingdom accessible only through the pre-Christian burial mounds and barrows lying throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the ancient places of Western Europe.  The aes sídhe tended to be impossible beautiful and strange in such a way that they could only be apprehended by dying people, insane people, or William Butler Yeats.  Leprechauns were the money-grubbing cobblers and grabby tricksters among the lofty fairy folk.  The first mention of leprechauns is found in a medieval epic: the hero recovers consciousness from a dreadful wound only to discover that he is being dragged into the sea by leprechauns.  Yeats writes of the leprechaun “Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own.” In folklore Leprechauns originally wore red coats.

In America today all of this has been somewhat bowdlerized: leprechauns are small bellicose Irishman garbed completely in green. They ride on rainbows, possess pots of gold, and never quite grant wishes.  Anyone who says otherwise is liable to get punched in the mouth by an electrician from Jersey City.

Lucky the leprechaun, the spokesbeing for Lucky Charms cereal since 1964,  is probably the most famous of these contemporary leprechauns.  His ancient bog sorcery has been condensed into the trademark phrase “magically delicious” and six talisman-like marshmallow shapes calculated to best please the discerning six-year old palate.

Sports teams also like leprechauns.  The most famous sports-leprechauns are the pugnacious fighting Irish leprechaun of Notre Dame and the slippery dandy leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.

However an alarming range of other leprechaun mascots exist.  They have different waistcoats from various historical eras, sundry prankish expressions, and wear a rainbow of different greens but they are all instantly recognizable.

I don’t know…I was going to be more cynical, but just look at them up there, drinking and hoarding and dancing away.  There is something appealing about the wee folk.  Shameless stereotype or not, t’is all in good fun.  There’s a bit of a March hare in all of, longing to run wild after the long winter.  If our culture chooses to exemplify this spring atavism through images of a little irrepressible green man, then so be it.  Sláinte, dear readers! Have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day, a merry March, and a glorious spring.

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