They had been preparing for this for some time. The infants were selected, received special care and food and were raised carefully in the Palace chambers inside the Citadel. They were now adolescents, maturing sexually. As the time approached for their great expedition, the tunnels leading to the departure terminal were widened and cleared of all obstructions. Experts tested the weather conditions daily and, when the majority of these were in agreement, the Queen gave the order to launch.
The adolescents took off then, a great host of them, amidst great excitement. Their pheromones, male and female, filled the air around them and those who could, which was most of them, quickly found a partner and coupled. It was a maiden flight from which the adolescent females would land no longer maidens.
Those who would land, that is. For suddenly the air was filled with giant flying monsters with huge eyes and giant whirring wings. Much more accustomed to flight, these monsters flew among them, gobbling them up. Some even held rows of their hapless victims in their huge beaks as they flew off to feed them to their young. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little flyers perished in minutes.
Those who managed to land safely and didn’t end up drowning in a lake or a river, or snapped by denizens of the deep who sprang up at them as they passed overhead, or caught in sticky webs, or who were not stamped carelessly to death by huge walking giants or flattened by roaring, stinking monsters, still had to contend with smaller predators on the ground. The casualty rate was huge but some made it alive – some always did.
The males who made it down to ground safely would all die within a couple of days. Their wings were only intended for their nuptial flight; on the ground, they were nothing more than a nuisance, impeding their progress over and underground.
The females, sexually sated and no longer interested, had left their male partners behind. They bit off their own wings, ate them and, quickly finding some reasonably soft ground, began to dig. Each one dug down as though her life depended on it, which of course it did; and not only her own life – each one was pregnant. Then she blocked the entrance to her tunnel, went back down it, excavated a chamber and began to lay eggs. It was completely dark down there but she had been reared in darkness – she had one day of daylight only, the day she flew.
The young grubs who hatched were all females. She supplied them with some sparse nutrition from herself and cared for them as they grew, shed skin, grew … until they spun a cocoon from which they emerged as very small worker ants. They were infertile workers and tended to their large mother, their Queen; even when they were fully-grown she was still one-and-a-half times their size, although about half the size she had been when she left her old nest. Her most recent meal had been her own wings the day she had flown and mated. If she got past this crucial stage, she would recover her size and weight and lay more and more eggs.
The workers soon went up the tunnel, unblocked it and spilled out into daylight for the first time in their lives, beginning to forage for food. They found small seeds and, if they were lucky, sweet material such as soft-skinned ripe or rotting fruit. They soon had their surroundings covered with their hive-scent, carried by each and every worker. Sometimes they found insects they could kill but these had to be very small indeed – these workers had been fed on insufficient nutrition and were, compared to the majority of their kind, puny. If they found a food-source worth another visit, they left a specially-scented trail on their way back to their home, to guide theirs sisters back to the prize later. A rich source of food typically would show two streams of traffic between their nest and the food – one empty–jawed heading for the food and the other, with pieces in their jaws, heading away from it and towards the nest. The food gathered by the workers fed them and their Queen, while she continued laying eggs. As time went by, more and more workers were born, who would care for the hundreds of eggs their matriarch laid and raise more and more workers. Extensive tunnel networks were dug.
At some point the workers found aphids and began harvesting their sugary secretions; tending them on the stems of the plants the aphids infested and carrying them down to their citadel but bringing them back up later. The workers would fight to protect the aphids from those who preyed on their ‘herds’.
Successive generations of ant workers grew bigger, until they reached the optimum size of five milimetres (still four millimetres short of the Queen in her prime). A well-established citadel could in time house as many as 40,000 individuals (although between four and seven thousand would be more common) – they, and previous generations, all daughters of the same mother and the product of one mating only. Their Queen, barring unusual disasters, might live to 15 years of age.
Once the citadel is built, it is vulnerable in the ordinary course of things only to parasites, flood, fire and severe surface disturbance. In Ireland, without bears, wild boar and largely without foraging pigs, severe surface disturbance is unlikely away from human construction or ploughing and digging. Fire might not reach underground but the heat generated or the lack of oxygen might kill anyway; flood, of course, would be the biggest threat. If a citadel should be uncovered or invaded by flood waters, some workers will rush to deal with the problem while others rush to save the young, trying to carry eggs, pupae or cocoons away in their jaws to a safe place. Some others will rush to do whatever they can for their Queen. A black ant defends itself by running away if possible and if not, by biting. But intruders to the citadel are swarmed by biting ants. However most human skin is impervious to the bite and this species does not sting.
One day, perhaps three years from the Queen’s maiden flight, she will decide it is time to send her own children into the wider world. She will lay eggs and have these emerging grubs fed special food, which will produce males for the first time in her citadel, as well as other fertile females besides herself. Then, one day in July or in August, she will send them out too, to start new colonies.
Lasius niger, the Black or Garden Ant, is the most common of the 21 species of ant in Ireland. It is the most common also across Europe and a sub-species, L. neoniger, is known in the USA where however, it is not one of the most numerous ant species. Lasius niger is a very active, hardy and adaptable species, living mostly outdoors under rocks and but rarely inside houses (although it may well enter houses repeatedly if it learns of food within, especially sweet food). In cities, its nests are to be found in parks and gardens but also under street paving stones, the workers emerging to forage from tunnels leading to the joints between the stone. When those joints are surrounded by thin lines or small heaps of bright sand in summer, one knows that the workers are clearing the tunnels for the adolescents’ flights. Another indication is an unusual amount of
seemingly erratic ant activity around a nest, though one would need to be aware of what normal activity looked like, for comparison. The ants may delay, awaiting what they judge to be optimum conditions but someday soon, mid to late afternoon, they will take to the air, to fly, to mate, to die or to live, to start a new population.
I no longer watch television at home. It was not a case of rejecting that form of mass media, as some assume, but the result of a tiresome tussle with the huge US-based UPC monopoly, out of which, not surprisingly, I came off worst – they control the aerial in my block of flats and I am not permitted to put up my own dish to receive through a competitor.
Anyway, I used to darn socks sometimes while watching TV, especially during advertisements. Radio would have been ideal but I have long ago lost the habit of listening to that medium. When I lost my struggle with UPC, I stopped watching TV; I could have watched it on my laptop but I find it unsatisfying to watch on a small screen. And when I stopped watching TV, I also ceased darning. The pile of socks with holes in them grew, to be mended “some day”, until eventually I had to buy new ones.
I am aware that for many in our society here today, darning would be considered a quaint or even archaic activity, associated with oil lamps and making your own butter, perhaps. Or cooking on a range and the absence of indoor plumbing. For others, darning might signify poverty or meaness. To me, it is about using and reusing what can be used, and about mending what can reasonably be mended to use again. Clothes, like all other items we use, are produced by human labour and it seems wrong to me to waste that labour unnecessarily – a kind of negation of the labour in the first place and, following that, a negation of the activity that might follow when the workers have produced enough of the items.
Of course, in our time and in this place, it is likely that the socks that I buy have been made in some sweat-shop in a more undeveloped country where, if they think about it at all, the sweated workers hope that we’ll go throwing away our socks as soon as the first hole appears, or even sooner if possible, so that they can continue to sweat producing replacements and being paid their meagre wages in order to pay for food, shelter and medicines. So that they can continue sweating and raise their children who, in turn, will become sweated wage slaves producing articles of clothing, undercutting the wages of those who might produce the same articles here, but who rightfully demand more humane working conditions, annual holidays, health insurance and the level of wages necessary to maintain an average standard of living. My darning my socks does not help, even in the tiniest way, the workers in those foreign sweated shops, nor the unemployed clothing workers in the country in which I live.
So why do it? I am not well-off by standards in this country but any amount I save by darning will make little difference. True, I was raised in a different time and I have imbibed some of the culture of that time (and also rejected much of it). But it is neither meaness, habit nor a perception of helping workers that causes me to think I should darn my socks, but a respect for labour. I am aware that practically all items we use were created by labour. I am aware that the power to create that material wealth has been, for centuries, appropriated by a parasitic class that many call capitalists. Before them, that labour power was expropriated by the feudal lords and their monarchs and before them, by the huge slave empires of Rome and Greece and of others outside Europe.
I aspire to a society where that labour power will no longer be expropriated and where the workers shall decide how that power is to be used, for the benefit of all. “The labourer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7, King James Bible) but s/he is worthy of much more than that — s/he is worthy to control all of her/his labour power and of the distribution of the wealth it produces. And so labour must be valued – not just some day in the future, I believe, but now. The new society takes form within the old, although it must destroy the old from which it was born and will, for a time also, carry some of the taints of the old. But it begins now, in the present – in my case, with me.
So the other day, although I still have undamaged pairs, I began to darn old pairs of socks. It was surprisingly restful. But after darning a pair, I fretted at the time spent on this, time spent away from other work, piling up. I darned one of another pair and put its companion and darning away materials away. I will return to darning socks, a few at a time, on other days. Or, at least, I hope to.
The auditorium in Trinity College on Friday 20th June was nearly empty at the advertised starting time for the lecture on “The Legacy of Power, Conflict and Resistance”. The start was delayed and more people came in but, by the time the speaker and the theme was introduced, the hall was still not full. That was surprising, because the speaker was Bernadette Mc Alliskey (nee Devlin), who had been at 18 years of age one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties (“Northern Ireland”), at 21 years of age elected MP for Mid-Ulster in 1969 and still, 45 years later, holding the record for the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament.
The same year as her election, Bernadette went to the USA to gather support for the Civil Rights movement in a trip being used by others, rumouredly, to gather funds for arms. She shocked the conservative part of Irish USA, Ancient Order of Hibernians and Democratic Party political allies, by some of her statements and actions regarding blacks and chicanos and in visiting a Black Panthers project. Bernadette returned home to serve a short prison sentence after conviction for “incitement to riot” arising from her role in the defence of Derry against police (RUC and B-Specials) and Loyalist attack.
In 1972, during her five-year tenure as a Member of Parliament, enraged by his comments about the murder a few days previously of 13 unarmed protesters (a 14th died later of his wounds) by the Parachute Regiment in Derry, she stormed up to the then British Home Secretary and, in front of a full House of Commons, slapped him in the face. Bernadette had been there in Derry that terrible day – she was to have addressed the anti-internment march upon which the Paras opened fire.
The Tyrone woman was also a founder-member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1974, which she left after failing to bring the armed organisation, the Irish National Liberation Army, under party control. She continued to be a Left-Republican political activist, in particular campaigning against the treatment of Republicans on arrest and subsequently as prisoners in jail, in the H-Blocks Campaign. She learned to speak Irish. In January 1981, she and her husband Michael McAlliskey were the victims of an assassination attempt by a squad of the “Ulster Freedom Fighters” (a cover name for the Ulster Defence Association, which was not banned until 1992). They both survived, though Bernadette had been shot seven times.
In 1996, while four months pregnant, Bernadette’s daughter was arrested on a German extradition warrant, charging her with being part of a Provisional IRA mortar attack on a British Army base in Osnabruck, Germany. Although taken to England, where a judge agreed to her extradition to Germany, a long and vigorous campaign fought by Roisín’s mother and her supporters eventually defeated the extradition and Roisín gave birth to a healthy daughter.
In 1998 and for some years after, Bernadette was an outspoken critic of Sinn Féin and of their direction in the “Peace Process”, which she saw as the party coming to accept British colonialism and Irish capitalism. In 2003 she was banned by the USA and deported, widely interpreted as being due to her speaking against the Good Friday Agreement, but continued her campaigning. However in 2007, another extradition warrant was issued for her daughter Roisín on the same charges as before and the young woman became emotionally ill. The whole trauma was seen by many as a warning to Bernadette to cease criticising the “new dispensation” and subsequently she was seen to fade from the ranks of public critics of the GFA, Sinn Féin and of the treatment of Republican prisoners.
Bernadette remained active through working with migrants in a not-for-profit organisation in Dungannon. In recent years she has returned, on occasion, to the issues upon which she was so outspoken previously, for example standing surety for Marian Price’s bail to attend her sister Dolores’ funeral and speaking at the ceremony herself. Bernadette also spoke at the Bloody Sunday Commemoration/ March for Justice in January this year in Derry.
With a c.v. of that sort, one would reasonably expect a packed auditorium.
Bernadette has walked the walk and thought the thought too but she can also talk the talk. With one A4 sheet in front of her, she spoke for over an hour, hardly ever glancing at her notes. Her talk was as part of Trinity College’s MPhil Alumni Conference on ‘Power, Conflict, Resistance’ organised by the Department of Sociology for its Mphil course in “Race, Ethnicity and Conflict”.
Bernadette McAlliskey began her talk with the theme of fear of conflict, developing the thesis that this fear is inculcated in us from childhood, as conflict arises out of challenging power and hierarchy. She traced this further back to religious indoctrination where dogma is to be accepted without question and finds its reflection in all aspects of life but particularly in the political.
Talking about Tom Paine, who expounded the theory that human beings, each independently, are responsible for themselves, she stated that this is fundamental to citizenship. Some aspects of this self-responsibility are delegated to institutions when we live in large groups but any decisions made for us without our consent are “an usurpation”. Tom Paine was an English Republican, author of, among other works Common Sense (1776) and The Rights of Man (1791). He had to flee England because of disseminating his ideas, which were considered revolutionary in his time.
Much of Bernadette’s talk was given over to this theme, to the lack of consideration of women even by such as Tom Paine, and also to the racism spread by colonialism, which the Christian hierarchies condoned and even encouraged.
When she finished to sustained applause and took questions, there were two from people identifying themselves as Travellers, another from a person from an NGO working with migrants, another regarding anti-Irish racism in English colonial ideology and the continuing power of the Catholic Church in the education system.
One question seemed to throw her and she admitted that she found it difficult to answer. Ronit Lentin, Jewish author, political sociologist and critic of Israeli Zionism asked Bernadette was it not true that racism in the Six Counties came mostly from within Loyalism, allied to anti-Catholic sectarianism. Bernadette struggled in replying, at one point denying it and pointing to anti-Traveller discrimination in the ‘nationalist’ areas but following this up by observing that Travellers would only camp in or near ‘nationalist areas’ (presumably because the hostility in a ‘unionist area’ would be worse).
Bernadette then went on to recall the recent anti-Muslim remarks made by a prominent Belfast evangelist preacher, James McConnell, and how the First Minister of Stormont, Peter Robinson, had defended the evangelist’s right to free speech. Asked for his own opinion of Muslims, the First Minister had replied that he also distrusted them “if they are fully devoted to Sharia law” but would trust them to go to the shop for his groceries and to bring him back the correct change. All the examples Bernadette drew on, apart from the generalised one about Travellers in ‘nationalist’ areas, were in fact from the Unionist sector.
The final question was from an SWP activist who pointed out that the State does not admit to its institutional racism and often takes no action on racist attacks or denies that the motive for the attack was racism. The activist asked Bernadette how she thought racism can be dealt with in this context. She replied that the legal structures are there and should be used and persisted with.
It seemed a strange response from one who would have described herself in the past as a revolutionary. Earlier in her talk she herself had quoted the black Caribbean lesbian, Audre Lorde, who said that the instruments of the State could not be used to dismantle it (actually I.V. Lenin had made the same point in The State and Revolution in 1917, nor was he the first to do so). A revolutionary’s answer to that question would presumably have been that while the structures should be used in order to expose them that ultimately the capitalist State’s power is the enemy of unity among the people; disunity rather than unity among the people is in the interest of the system. Mobilisation of the people against racism and directing them towards the source of their ills, the capitalist system, and building solidarity in action, is the only realistic way forward. Perhaps Bernadette felt constrained by the academic environment in which she was speaking but that is not the answer she gave.
Interesting retrospective piece on McAlliskey’s visit to the USA in 1969: http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/fidel-castro-in-a-miniskirt-bernadette-devlins-first-us-tour/
Interview with McAlliskey at a Scottish conference on radical independence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4LdcnxMb9Q
The inhabitants of this land have fought invaders for at least a thousand years, some successfully and some less so. Many of the invaders were assimilated. Throughout this time, other invaders have quietly entered and spread throughout the land, mostly without encountering any organised opposition.
Last month and perhaps occasionally since, your nose might have picked up a scent drifting towards you, particularly as evening drew near but also at other times. The aroma I speak of is one of those scents that is difficult to describe and that actually seems to change from time to time and also according to whether one is right beside it or farther away. Sometimes it seems musky and very pleasant while at other times is not so welcome.
The scent may have been from the blossoms of the Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerus), a dense thicket-forming shrub that grows to small tree size with a strong thick trunk covered in a smooth dark grey bark. It is neither a cherry variant nor a laurel (or bay), which its leaves supposedly resemble, these being thick and dark green but poisonous (containing cyanide). The blossoms, white flowers clustered on upright spikes, produce blackish fruit in the Autumn about the size of cherries which are also poisonous to humans. Originally from South-West Asia, it was introduced into Irish gardens as a shrub or hedge plant (uses to which it is still put) but it has “escaped” and established itself in the wild.
The Cherry Laurel has become very successful and a resultant problem for bio-diversity in Ireland. A quick perusal of the on-line references do not reveal the reason for its success; it tends to be grouped alongside another invasive species, the Rhododendron, which deposits a chemical in the ground surrounding it, thereby preventing other plant species competing with it for light, moisture and nutrients. Like the Cherry Laurel, the Rhododendron is a plant species invasive to Ireland. Of course, since Ireland was almost entirely covered in ice 20,000 years ago, nearly all of the plant life now naturalised on our island had to have been invasive species originally — including trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, ferns …
Invasive species are not always harmful to the existing balance (or to humans) but clearly they have to have some means of competing with the existing flora (plant life) or they would have been unable to establish themselves. They may have better protection against herbivorous animals (undoubtedly the Cherry Laurel has at least that), or against insect or snail attack, or even against fungi (such as the ‘blight’ that attacked the potato a number of times in Ireland in the 1840s). Or they may be able to occupy a niche not well exploited so far, as one of the Buddleja species has done (literally, one might say), growing out of thin gaps in stone or brick walls or on waste ground, its racemes of mauve or purple flowers attracting butterflies and other insects for pollination and later scattering its seeds on the wind.
The Luftwaffe helped the spread of the plant in Britain; so common did this shrub become on waste ground after the Second World War that it earned the popular name of « Bombsite Plant ». The species in question is Buddleja Davidii and according to The Online Atlas of British and Irish Flora, it was introduced into cultivation in the 1890s, quickly becoming very popular in gardens. By 1922 it was known to be naturalised in the wild in Merioneth and in Middlesex by 1927; it is shown as locally well established in S. England in the 1962 Atlas and “In recent decades it has spread rapidly throughout lowland Britain and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.” It is certainly ubiquitous in Dublin city and surrounds.
Buddleja (pronounced “budd-lee-ah) has about 100 species native to all continents except Europe and Australasia but a number of species and cross-breds are cultivated in European gardens, including the escapologist davidii. Although nearly all are shrubs growing to at most 5m (16ft) tall, a few species qualify as trees, the largest reaching 30m (98ft). There are both evergreen and deciduous species, not that unusual among trees and shrubs, as appropriate in tropical and temperate regions respectively. Some of the South American species have evolved long red flowers to attract hummingbirds, rather than insects, as exclusive pollinators.
In Ireland, far from hummingbirds, davidii’s racemes of tiny purple or mauve flowers are a welcome sight as they flower in July, less so as the flowers, having done their work, die and turn brown (though repeated dead-heading can extend flowering until September). The flowers are scented but less so than those of the similar but not closely-related Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) which, incidentally, is an aggressive coloniser in parts of Southern Europe and of the USA. The roots of davidii will do some damage to house walls and chimney stacks if allowed to become established, when pulling them out becomes impossible and the stump would need treating with an appropriate chemical. Checked early, it is easily controllable.
Another successful wall climber in Ireland is the Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), sometimes known as Jupiter’s Beard. Despite its common name, the flowers are often pink or even white and at times clumps of two or even all three colours may be seen growing alongside one another. This one likes the tops of walls rather than the sides and grows well on dry or stony soil too.
Its seeds are wind-driven too and from anecdotal evidence, it made particular use of the railway cuttings and lines to distribute itself throughout Ireland.
Despite its name, it is not closely related to the true Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and no medicinal properties have been discovered in Centranthus. The leaves and the root may be eaten but there seems to be no great lobby recommending it as food. Its scent is rather rank to the human nose.
Originally from S.W. Europe and the Mediterranean region, the plant was grown in Britain as early as 1597, according to Online Atlas of British & Irish Flora. Like some cases in human history, when the newcomers were first invited and then became invaders, Red Valerian was first imported to be grown in gardens. By 1763 it was recorded in the wild in Cambridgeshire. Now it is to be found all over Ireland and is generally welcomed. Like some of the invading Vikings, Normans and English, Red Valerian and Buddleja have become part of the Ireland we know today and there seems no need to organise a resistance to them; the Cherry Laurel and the Rhododendron, despite the scent of one and the colour of the other, are a different case altogether.
Some on-line sources: