Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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The Mischievous Marquis of Sligo, "Emancipator of Jamaica"

This column appeared in The Dubliner in December 2001.

Jesse James was a Kerryman. So was Lord Kitchener. The first guy to work out why the sky is blue grew up in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow. And I am destined to be a horrendous historical bore, I know. My children will grow up on back seats telling me to shut up and concentrate on the driving. It's a professional hazard. I'm historically minded. A scientist lives in a world of periodic elements and algebra. A dairy farmer enjoys squeezing cow tits. A photographer divides us into thirds and frames us with his pupils. Everyone has a slant. Mine's historical.

I take refuge in the past. I find it a comfortable zone because it's already happened. It can't be changed. It simply is. Only these days we've managed to harness the past and convert it into showbiz. And I'm delighted. It means historical bores like me stand a chance of making some cash. Swashbuckling epics might be mischievously inaccurate but they do at least make history considerably more interesting. History needs to be coloured in. It's dramatis personae benefit enormously from periodic revamps. They blossom when resurrected with all their endearing flaws and psychotic traits digitally enhanced for the all important bums on seats at a cinema near you. And so what if Mel's voluptuous Princess of Wales was only 2 years old when William Wallace got drawn and quartered. Never let the truth spoil a good story.

The Hollywood quills are presently scratching the final scenes for an eagerly-awaited biopic based on the life and times of Granuaile, the sexually rampant Pirate Queen of Connaught who raised a defiant finger at Queen Elizabeth's England. It will be intriguing to see how they depict 16th century Mayo. Is it just 21st century Mayo, sans bungalow? At any rate, if it's a success, I'm minded to write a sequel based on her direct descendant, a righteous rogue named Peter Brown, aka 2nd Marquis of Sligo, aka the Emancipator of Jamaica.

The tale will begin in the spring of 1798 when his father's home - Westport House - is taken over by General Humbert and his blue uniformed French officers shortly after they land at Killala Bay. The French have arrived to help the United Irishmen in their national uprising against the British Redcoats. There will be much talk of the common rights of man. Ten-year-old Peter watches with growing fascination as the French-backed rebels make their way to inglorious defeat at Ballinamuck.

He will then go to school in Harrow and befriend a bisexual nutter called Lord Byron and a dubious goody goody called Robert Peel. After school, he turns to gambling with a passion. Shortly after his father's death, the 21 year old surprises the racing world when his Arabian steed, Waxy, thunders home to win the 1809 Epsom Derby. Three years later, he wins 1000 guineas in a bet when he gallops his coach from London to Holyhead in an incredible 35 hours.

In the spring of 1812, the dashing Lord Sligo goes to visit Lord Byron in Ancient Greece, takes a powerful hit on an opium bong and accidentally stumbles upon the Temple of Atreus in Mycaene. (If local lore is to be believed, here lies the Tomb of Agamemnon, King of the Greeks in Homer's Iliad, murdered by his long-suffering wife while sharing a bubble bath with his mistress). Sligo looks left, glances right and concludes that the splendid Ionic columns guarding the temple's entrance would look absolutely swell upon his stately pile back in Westport.

The Napoleonic Wars are in full swing. There are plenty of ships about. Sligo duly bribes a British man o' war to cart the classical relics across the smoky seas to the wilds of Connaught. But somehow he's rumbled. Busted. Arrested. Charged. Sentenced. A five grand fine for "enticing British Seamen to desert". And four months in Newgate Gaol for good measure. It's horrible in there. On the day of his release, Lord Sligo's widowed mother marries the Judge who sent him down.

Fast-forward to 1834 and the ex-con and all round pipe smoker is despatched to the colony of Jamaica as its brand new Governor. His old school adversary Bobby Peel is now Prime Minister. Slavery has just been abolished throughout the British Empire. Sligo's task is to see that the plantation bosses of Jamaica behave accordingly. He's well placed for this. He knows the island well. His family own a couple of coffee plantations there. And he loves reggae. But his policy to liberate the slaves goes down like a lead coconut with his fellow plantocracy. They feel that paying black people to work is a disgrace to common intelligence. Nonetheless, the Mayo man presses on with his reform programme and by the time he leaves the island 2 years later the Jamaican people are hailing him as the "Emancipator of Slavery".

All that is true. But I know. The tale will need some fine-tuning before it gets anywhere near the silver screen. A luscious psychedelic orgy upon Agamemnon's tomb, perhaps? And a couple of battle scenes. Essential. Blood is a wonderful colour for epics. I'll have to make Sligo himself seem like a man far ahead of his time. I'll have him being arrogant as they come until he goes to prison and then I'll shit upon him for 20 minutes straight. He'll emerge humble but true, proud and defiant. He will make love to a beautiful voodoo rasta lassie who will then be blunderbussed to death while innocently plucking violets from a forest floor. (Sligo will later discover her death was ordered by Sir Robert Peel). He will take the Jamaican cause to his bosom. He will make their freedom his goal. He will speak with power and passion of the common rights of man. He will raise his fists in the air and shout of liberty and an end to tyranny. He will be "The Emancipator". And I will have cracked the great chasm between rural-minded historical bore and highly paid cigarillo-chomping screenwriter. Hurrah!

As regards the opening statement 'Jesse James was an Irishman', please have recourse to counter-argument under my page on Billy the Kid - January 2nd 2008.

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