A high-pitched but hoarse scream cuts through the night. Again and again it is heard, then is silent. A frightening sound, perhaps of a person being attacked …. But no, it is a vixen, a female red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Why is she screaming? Is she in pain? Not exactly — she is informing dog-foxes in the area that she is ready to mate and where they can find her.
But this is December and, according to Internet site after site dealing with foxes in Britain and in Ireland, she is at least a month early1. Perhaps she is a rare exception, this vixen in the Drumcondra area but it seems to me more likely that the sites have it wrong: either urban foxes breed earlier or the breeding pattern of foxes is changing. Actually, a combination of both is likely.
A vixen breeding in January would give birth to her cubs just over 50 days later, when in rural areas the earth is warming up in the Spring and when lambs are born, hares are boxing, eggs are being laid, greens are growing and being eaten by rabbits – in other words, food is becoming available for the vixen. Obviously vixens breeding in February or March will have yet more food available in April or May but may also find greater competition, in food and for a mate.
Say this rural vixen conceived on 1st January, then she would give birth on or around 22nd February. She will need feeding just before that and probably up to24th March, a task falling to the dog fox and to unmated young females who may be part of the community. The cubs need the warmth of the mother’s body for up to three weeks after birth and she cannot leave the den. One month after giving birth the mother vixen may go hunting while the “aunts” look after the cubs, who are now venturing out of the den or “earth” (but staying very close to it).
The food brought to the young is carried inside the hunters’ bellies and regurgitated for the young to consume along with their mother’s milk which they will suckle until six weeks of age. After weaning, the cubs will eat solid food but cannot yet hunt for it themselves until perhaps mid-late Summer and, if males, will leave to establish their own territories in the Autumn.2Males become sexually mature at one year of age.
A vixen breeding in December in an Irish rural area might have difficulty receiving enough sustenance in January or even early February, especially in decades past when winters were usually harder. However, with changing seasonal weather patterns tending to warmer winters – and in urban areas where a lot of food tends to be available for scavenging all year round – these problems are substantially reduced and so breeding in December should present little difficulties. So the thinking goes among the vixens in Drumcondra, anyway and, I suspect, in many other Irish and British urban areas.
The male or ‘dog’ fox can be heard sometimes too in a staccato bark, normally three (but occasionally four) rapid barks: bak, bak, bak!
THE URBAN FOX
The urban fox is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland3, as far as we know, although in Bristol, for example, they have been recorded since the 1930s. Up to fairly recently, a number of experts maintained that the fox populations of city and countryside had little contact with one another. But in January 2014 “it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s Winterwatch, had travelled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting, due to suspected water damage.”4
and the Country Foxes
Decades before I heard of this I often fancifully imagined a conversation between a fox, now settled in the “big city”, and his country relations when he returned on a visit. After the initial customary welcoming, sniffing, licking etc are over, the conversation might go like this:
“So, Darkie, tell us, what is life like in the big city?”
“Ah, it was scary at first, with cars and buses and lorries going all day. You wouldn’t believe the noise.”
(Sympathetic whine from the audience).
“But I’m used to it now, Redthree, I have to say. And the food! You could not imagine!”
“Good, is it?”
“Lovely, Whitepatch, absolutely delicious.”
(Sounds of salivating all around).
“Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, potatoes, bread, rice, vegetables, fruit – just left out there to be eaten!”
“Ah, you’re havin’ us on, Darkie. We might be “Culchies” but we’re not stupid! You expect us to believe the humans feed you like they do their dogs, do you?”
“No, of course not, Greymuzzle. Well, actually a few do leave out food on purpose for us but no, this is mostly food that humans are throwing away. We find it in plastic bags and metal containers.”
“They throw away food?”
“They do and huge amounts of it too. Then big lorries come and take away what we have not eaten ourselves.”
“Where do they take it?”
“I am not sure. I’ve never troubled to find out because, to be honest, I have all the food I need nearby.”
(Silence while country foxes imagine a huge mountain of food somewhere).
“Er …. Darkie, so you never hunt now?”
“Oh, yes, some – the city rats and mice eat the discarded food too and they grow plump and big. Yes, I catch and eat them too.”
“Well now, what about all the humans?”
“What about them, Lighteyes? They don’t bother us.”
“Don’t the humans have guns in the city?”
“Some of them do, Lighteyes. But they don’t shoot foxes with them.”
“Really? What do they shoot with their guns then?”
“Other humans, Lighteyes, just other humans.”
(Noises of amazement and disbelief)
THE INNER CITY FOX
The Internet sites all agree that foxes are more likely in suburbia than in the inner city but I think they ignore some important features of the inner city which foxes can frequent in relative safety and around which they are likely to find sufficient food: railroad lines and their banks, canal and river banks, parks, allotments, cemeteries and derelict sites. One can’t get much closer to Dublin’s inner city than Parnell Square, yet I have seen foxes in a laneway off there and also squeezing through the railings to enter the Garden of Remembrance. They have been photographed near the Irish Parliament, the Dáil (though some people might say that’s less surprising with the number of scavengers nearby :–). I’d be surprised if they are not to be found along the banks of the Dodder, the Liffey, the Tolka and both canals, also along the railway lines and in Glasnevin and other cemeteries.
According to one Internet site5, the urban fox population in Dublin may be growing too big for its own health, as the ready availability of food allows unhealthy individuals to exist, diseased and covered in mange infestation (mites that denude patches of fur). I would need to explore this argument before I could accept it.
I am familiar with the overpopulation argument in the case of grazing animals or rodents, where too many individuals consume the available resources and the whole population suffers – a fate usually occurring when natural predators are not present to thin out the weaker individuals and thereby unconsciously preserve the general population in a healthier state.
But how would this work with regard to Dublin foxes? It seems unlikely that the food available is being reduced yet and if and when it is, one presumes healthier foxes will outcompete their sicker species members. Also, sick and undernourished foxes are less likely to come into oestrous and should they do so and conceive, to be able to raise their young. It seems to me most likely that what is occurring is that foxes that would normally have been winnowed out in the struggle of survival are now able to sustain themselves, which might be distressing to see but which will not necessarily have any effect on the healthy population.6 And will healthy individuals necessarily succumb to mange infection from infested individuals? And if they do now, might they not in time learn to chase infected individuals away?
Theories of overpopulation and scare stories about foxes attacking babies, cats and so on seem prompted by the intention to cull foxes, as Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, proposed. Johnson seems unwilling to learn from history, as “there was a large and expensive effort to reduce the number of urban foxes across the UK in the 1970s, but the population subsequently bounced right back.”7The average litter now may be four cubs but vixens have been known to bear up to a dozen and with a low population-to-high-food-sources ratio, are likely to bear a greater number of cubs. And a recent National Health Service survey in the UK indicated that nearly 60% of all stings and bites admitted to emergency rooms were inflicted by dogs8but anyone suggesting a cull of urban dogs would probably find a gathering bearing pitchforks and burning torches outside their home.
There have been claims that foxes kill and eat lambs, cats, other domestic pets and poultry. Most experts have concluded that if indeed a fox killed a lamb, such incidents are very rare. A ewe is capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal not much larger than a cat. However, foxes have been found to eat the afterbirths of lambs and would of course eat a stillborn lamb or one that died soon after birth, after which its mother would leave and the opportunist would move in; such incidents may have convinced some people in rural areas that the fox was the cause of the lamb’s death.
The Foxwatch study program in Bristol city filmed a number of confrontations between urban foxes and cats and found that in all cases, it was the fox that backed down. This makes sense, for a predator does not usually take on another predator of similar size except in defence of its young, its own life or, at times, its kill.
Yes of course foxes will kill poultry if they can get at them and are often accused in such situations of going on a killing spree. Foxes do kill and gather more food than they need at times and, like many other animals, hide it for recovery later, marking the spot with their scent. But when a fox breaks into a poultry pen and kills its inhabitants, it usually has to leave with what it can carry and will not be permitted to return for the rest. The answer for humans is to build secure pens into which to bring the poultry at night – and that applies also to rabbits kept as pets or for the table, etc. — or keep a dog outside, unleashed.
Scare stories and unscientific suggestions to one side, wild animal populations living alongside humans frequently do need management. All species of bats are protected in Ireland and Britain and should you find them in your attic you are not permitted to remove them but must instead notify the appropriate authorities. Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.
Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall9, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s.According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². 10 Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.
Given statistics of that sort, and information that the average litter is of four cubs, one may wonder why most urban dwellers see them but rarely and also why urban foxes are not a massively growing population. There are a number of controlling influences, ranging from the need to establish territory and fight to hold it, which may cost in injuries or even death, to deaths by traffic, the most common cause of fox death according to Internet sites (although how often do we see a dead fox on the road?). A common non-captive life-span of from two to four years and a fertility “window” of only three days for a vixen would be population-controlling factors and yet the allegedly stable population is puzzling, to me at least.
The rural fox tends to inhabit, widening when necessary, burrows already excavated by rabbits and badgers. In urban areas, the fox may have to excavate its own – under buildings and sheds and into railroad banks, for example – but will also use and expand other holes and gaps.
Many urban human dwellers, probably most, never see urban foxes, although they are becoming increasingly visible. They are active mostly at dusk and shortly before dawn and are mostly likely to be seen by people who rise very early for work, or who work at night or who are returning from late night socialising on foot, by bicycle or on foot.
In the Lewisham area of South-East London where I lived for some decades, I regularly saw them on the roads while cycling home from a late music session or a friend’s house. Lewisham would be considered midway between being city and suburban in nature and contained parks, cemeteries, allotments, streams or rivers and railway lines, houses with gardens but also high-rise blocks of local authority housing and very busy roads. I once passed about three yards near to an adult fox on the housing estate I lived on for awhile between Grove Park and Eltham (also in SE London). On my allotment in Catford, if I worked until dusk (which I did often enough when I managed to find the time), they would come out and play and dig for food less than ten yards away from me. And I frequently found trainers (running shoes) and balls they had taken from outside local houses and gardens, discarded on my allotment.
A number of theories have been forwarded for the penetration of urban areas by the fox, including the shameful wiping out of rabbit populations by state-inflicted plagues of myxomatosis but the real reasons are probably the same as those of the pigeon, rat and mouse – availability of food and home provided by humans and the adaptability of the species themselves.
THE MOST WIDESPREAD CARNIVORE ON EARTH
Indeed, the red fox has proved an adaptable animal – much like ourselves. She is an omnivore, as are we and can take her prey from animals as large as a goose to those as small as beetles or earthworms, also frequently eating wild fruit, especially in the Autumn. Studies in the former Soviet Union found that up to 300 animal and a few dozen plant species were known to be consumed by her11. Mice and rats are frequently on her menu and her ancestors are thought to have developed as specialist rodent hunters in Eurasia five million years ago but her kind is now the most widespread carnivore on Earth, with 46 recognised subspecies.
The fox has binocular vision which is particularly effective at night, excellent hearing over distance, including the ability to detect the squeaking of mice at about 100 metres (330 ft) and capable of locating sounds to within one degree at 700–3,000 Hz, though less accurately at higher frequencies12, compensated for by an ability to hear at very low frequencies, including a rustle in grass or leaves and the burrowing of rodents underground. It has evolved many tactics for hunting, including tracking, ambush, stalking, leaping, pouncing and digging.
The fox can also run at a speed of 42 km/ hour, climb some trees, leap high and swim well. Considering the latter, its absence from many islands near to mainlands may come as a surprise but I think that is easy to explain through eradication by human agency.
The red fox is to be found everywhere in Europe (where she is thought to have reached 400,000 years ago) and in North America, Canada, China, Japan and Indochina. Sadly, in the mid-19th Century her species was introduced to Australia by European settlers (at first for sport and later perhaps to control the rabbit, also introduced there by Europeans), where a population of 7.2 million red foxes now is wreaking damage among rarer indigenous wildlife and is considered responsible for the extinction of a number of species. It is classified as the most harmful invasive species in Australia and eradication and population control measures are adopted against it there, as are also against feral domestic cats and dogs, also imported by Europeans.
The dingo is regarded as a controlling agent on red fox population growth in Australia though not totally effective due to the fox’s habit of burrowing; this is interesting for a number of reasons: firstly, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is itself a wild dog most likely imported from Asia by Aborigine settlers somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 years ago and secondly, the red fox in Ireland and Britain does not tend to excavate its own burrows but rather to enlarge existing ones and then generally only for mating and rearing cubs. The Red Foxiscurrently absent from Iceland, Greenland, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.
The fox has been hunted by humans primarily for its fur, especially in winter when it is thicker and from foxes in the far north its silkiness is considered very valuable.
Reynard (one of the names traditionally given to the fox) has also been hunted for sport, usually by the aristocracy or country gentry, on horseback with hounds, an activity which gave rise to one of Oscar Wilde’s many memorable phrases: “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Of course, it was not only the English who did this but also the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (from which Wilde’s father himself came) and the upwardly-climbing Irish who aped them, ag sodar i ndiaidh na nuaisle.13There have been numerous attempts to get fox-hunting banned and direct action such as protests and sabotage of hunts but it is still legal in Ireland and in Britain, though substantially reduced from a century ago.
Gamekeepers have also hunted the foxin order to keep it from killing ground-nesting birds such as wild pheasants, grouse and partridge, so that the landowner and his friends could shoot these birds down later14. Finally, the farmer has taken his toll, sending specially-bred dogs such as cairn terriers down earths to kill a hiding fox and in particular the cubs. The farmer wishes to protect his poultry but avoid the cost of building secure pens and so hunts foxes down; he could let his dogs roam his poultry area which would keep foxes away but dogs do often go chasing sheep too, which will also represent a loss to the farmer, either because the sheep are his or because his neighbours will claim compensation from him.
AN MAIDRÍN RUA and tradition
In Ireland, the fox was known as Sionnach, Madagh Rua (“red dog”) or Maidrín Rua (“little red dog”) and has given its name to a number of places, eg Cnoc an tSionnaigh (Fox Hill, Co. Mayo; another as a street name in Co. Laois); Oileán an tSionnaigh (Fox Island, Co. Galway); Carraig an tSionnaigh (Foxrock, Co. Dublin); possibly Léim an Mhadaigh, (Limavady, Co. Derry) and Lag an Mhadaigh (Legamaddy, Co. Down); possibly Ráth Sionnaigh (Rashenny, Co. Donegal), etc.15
Fox is also a family name and the Irish language version of it is Mac an tSionnaigh (literally “Fox’s son”). The Maidrín Rua or Sionnach features in a number of songs in Irish and in English and here is one from the Irish language tradition of song but in a non-traditional choral arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bJyqbPxTwU.
Widely represented in folklore from China to Ireland, the fox is also mentioned in the Old Testament Bible and in Greek stories such as the fables of Aesop as well as among the Indigenous people of the Northern Americas. He is never stupid but his intelligence or cunning is also often portrayed as devious, tricky and even malicious. On the other hand, let us not forget that the anti-feudal Mexican hero created by USA writer Johnston McCulley(February 2, 1883 – November 23, 1958), who fights for the downtrodden and indigenous people and mocks the Mexican aristocracy and large landowners, always escaping them, used the nom-de-guerre of “El Zorro”, the fox.
There is a sexual connection too in the representation for the fox: for example in English a “foxy lady” is one with a high level of sexual attraction and in Castillian (Spanish) a “zorra” (vixen) isa pejorative term for a woman trading in sexual favours or “of low morals”16. Have we come around in a circle to where we began, to the vixen’s scream? I think so, but loaded now with a patriarchal outlook. Men can openly want and enjoy sex, of course, that is natural – but a woman? Surely not … or, if she does, she must be bad!
6Other feature which makes this claim suspect are a number of scare items in the article: a) the sensationalist reference to the alleged danger to a baby from a fox in a bedroom and a link to the article reporting this event. Such an event, supposing it occurred, must be on a level of likelihood way below the danger to babies from, for example, pet cats and dogs. Also b) the reference to the danger of contracting roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can cause toxocariasis in children, while not however mentioning how low that risk is and that infection for children is most likely to be encountered from dogs and cats.
9Dave Wall B.A. is a postgraduate researcher in zoology at UCD. He has studied otters, marine mammals and Alpine badgers as well as studying Dublin’s urban foxes for the past few years. He is a Director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
13“Trotting after the nobles”, a derogatory phrase in Irish.
14Gamekeepers in Ireland and Britain also shot, poisoned or trapped badgers, otters, pine martens, stoats, escaped mink, eagles, hawks, buzzards, crows and magpies and often hung their carcasses in near their lodges to display their diligence in their tasks
De réir ráiteas a d’eisigh craobh BÁC den dream Misneach inné (15/12/2016) d’éirigh go maith le hagóid Misneach ar son Cearta Teanga lasmuigh de Theach Laighean. Bhailigh daoine i rith am lóin chun seasamh i gcoinne cur i gcéill na hairí Humphreys agus Kyne. Bhí neart tacaíochta don agóid ó dhaoine a d’imigh thar bráid, cuid mhaith acu a d’iarr leithscéil nach raibh mórán Gaeilge acu féin agus cúpla daoine ó thíortha i gcéin ina measc.
D’ardaigh urlabhraí Misneach, Kerron Ó Luain, ceist an buiséad a pléadh i measc an chomhchoiste inniu:
‘Gheall Sean Kyne go dtabharfaí 1,000,000 euro breise don Ghaeilge ar Adhmhaidin ar RnaG níos luaithe. Is ardú 1% atá i gceist le sin. Ach, is méid suarach é 1% nuair a smaoinítear go gearradh 75% de bhuiséad Údarás na Gaeltachta agus 35% ó bhuiséad Foras na Gaeilge ó 2008.
D’fhógair an tAire McHugh i rith 2015 go mbeadh 1,000,000 euro breise do bhuiséad caipitil na Gaeilge chomh maith. Tá sé soiléir gur cleas atá sna fógraí seo. Gearrtar na deicheannaí de mhilliún ó bhuiséad ach, ar an láimh eile, fógraítear “airgead breise” de mhéid an-bheag amhail is gur dul chun cinn é. Is cleas é leis an bpobal Gaeilge a cheannach agus faraor tá an cuma ar an scéal go n-oibríonn an chleasaíocht seo.’
Chríochnaigh Ó Luain:
‘Arís tá Misneach ag glaoch ar na ceanneagraíochtaí Gaeilge gníomhú agus Lá Mór eile a eagrú. Tá sé feicthe ón ngluaiseacht a d’fhás i gcoinne príobháidiú a dhéanamh ar ár n-uisce, gurb é an t-aon chineáil cumhacht a dtugann na polaiteoirí aird ar bith air ná cumhacht na sluaite amuigh ar na sráideannaí.
Má leantar ar aghaidh mar atá agus an pobal Gaeilge ina dtost caithfear milliúin euro chugainn anseo is ansiúd i mbealach soiniciúil ach ní dhéanfar aon dul chun cinn i ndáiríre. Agus gan ach 10 mbliain fágthaí ag an nGaeilge mar theanga pobal laethúil sa Ghaeltacht tá gníomh raidiciúil de dhíth láithreach.’
According to a statement of the Dublin branch of the Misneach organisation yesterday (15/12/2106), a successful demonstration for Language Rights was held outside Leinster House. People gathered during lunchtime to highlight the hypocrisy of the government ministers charged with overseeing the language, Heather Humphreys and Sean Kyne. There was plenty of support from passers-by, including people who apologised for their own lack of Irish and a few people from abroad.
Spokesperson for Misneach, Kerron Ó Luain, alluded to the budget being discussed by the committee today:
‘Sean Kyne apparently promised an additional million euro for the Irish language on RnaG’s Adhmhaidin programme this morning. That amounts to a 1% rise. Realistically, 1% is a pitiful amount when it is considered that 75% has been cut from the budget of Údarás na Gaeltachta agus 35% from that of Foras na Gaeilge since 2008.
Then Minister for the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh, made a similar announcement in 2015 when he said that one million additional euros would go to the capital budget for the Irish language. It is patently obvious to all that this is a cynical ploy. Tens of millions are cut from the budget only for grand announcements of “additional funding” of pitiful amounts to be made afterwards as if this were progress. It is a ploy being adopted to buy off the Irish language community, and unfortunately it appears to be working.’
Ó Luain finished:
‘Misneach is once more calling on the chief Irish language organisations to mobilise towards another Lá Mór. It is evident from the movement which opposed the privatisation of our water that the only type of power politicians pay any heed to is the power of the people marching on the streets.
If the situation persists and the Irish language community remains silent, and accepting of token gestures of one million euro here and there, then no real progress will be made. With only 10 years left for Irish as a living community language in the Gaeltacht now is the time for radical action.’
A generation is passing. Actually they have been passing for some time, the generation of the fighting years of the late 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and even the 1990s.
They campaigned variously for social housing; civil rights north and south; for human rights; against Church domination; against Unionist sectarianism; for free access to contraception; for right to divorce; for an end to censorship; for national self-determination; for Gaeltacht civil rights; for Irish language rights and Irish on TV; in support of political prisoners; the rights of women; for Irish Traveller rights; protection of heritage and environment; solidarity with many struggles around the world, including Cuba, Vietnam, Rhodesia, South Africa, Chile, the Black Panthers; against drug dealers; for freedom to choose lifestyle; decriminalisation of gay and lesbian life; for community projects in deprived areas including youthwork and, let’s not forget, organised, fought in and supported strikes.
That generation fought many battles, some of which they won and some which built bases for later battles and their story is told only in bits and pieces here and there. They organised, marched, sat in, occupied, wrote, made placards, painted slogans, put up posters and some fired guns; they were watched, raided, beaten, fined, jailed, calumnied, sacked, expelled, kept unemployed, derided from pulpit, press and judge’s bench, some were shot, and not just they but their families made to suffer too.
I am not referring to people of any specific age but of all those who were any age from young to old and active during those years. The causes of death have been many, from simple old age and life lived out to the death penalty.
But the death penalty was not in force in Ireland in the 1960s, you may think? Actually it was, it wasn’t abolished until 1990 in this state. But you’d be kind of correct as in practice no formal execution has been carried out by this state since 1954.
So, then what am I talking about? Maybe referring to the ‘United Kingdom’, since six counties of Ireland are included in that state? Yes, and no. The death sentence still exists in the UK only for “Arson in Her Majesty’s shipyards” but it was abolished in Britain for the crime of murder in 1965 and, in fact, no-one had been formally executed there from the year before. If the judicial death penalty had still been in force, the people in charge of that state might’ve been been spared the embarrassment of seeing nearly a score of Irish people they had wrongly convicted in 1974 walk free decades later as judges eventually had to find them ‘Not Guilty’.
A bit late for Giuseppe Conlon, against whom there had not even been a shred of doubtful evidence, but never mind. But had they all died in prison or been executed, people might not have worked so hard to see their convictions in court overturned – people among whom Joe Kelly, who died this week and who was cremated on Saturday, stands tall.
But the death penalty was not removed from the judges’ arsenal in that bastion of reaction, Six Counties state, until 1973, when the 30 Years’ War had entered its early years (somebody from the British state clearly had to sit down with the Unionist bigots and explain, although of course they sympathised with their loyal brethren, how bad it would be for Britain and the Queen if they started sentencing and executing IRA and INLA fighters).
There are more ways to skin a cat …. yes, and to kill too. The orange and SAS and MRF death squads killed more against whom there was not even a court conviction. And some of the Republicans killed one another too. And twelve died on hunger strike, one each in 1974 and in ’76 and ten in 1981. Actually, considering the brutality of force-feeding, it’s surprising there weren’t more deaths – Marian and Dolours Price were force-fed 167 times over 203 days in 1973 and it was the publicity around their case and the deaths of Gaughan and Stagg that ended the practice of force-feeding, ensuring that the Hunger Strikers of 1980 and ’81 at least did not have to endure that experience.
But there are more ways to kill …. Many of that generation of fighters died from ‘natural’ causes but died early – cancers, heart attacks, liver damage, despair ….. ah, yes, that brings to mind suicide, of which some also died. But despair also can drive you to drink, even more easily if it has been part of your experience of socialising and alcohol is one of the top killers in the world. And some died of drugs …. or drugs and alcohol …. or infections from unsafe drug injection …. But most who died early did so in summary from the wear and tear of struggle, of prison, of separation, of relationship breakdowns, of betrayal, despair.
Not all died, even those who are not among the fighters today. Some walked away from the struggle and though I can’t imagine being in their shoes, I do not begrudge them. So long as they didn’t betray any on their way out or make a living out of spitting on their former comrades and causes afterwards. But some, a very few, did exactly that and you can read what they have to say quite often in their articles or hear them quoted in the newspapers or on TV or radio.
Some found other ways to betray and did it in secret, feeding information to their handlers and some even diverting attention from themselves by accusing others, some innocent and some of a lesser grade of betrayal than that of the accusers. We know of some of them but may never learn about them all.
A few have survived and are still around, fighting the struggle, whether in organisations or as independents. Joe Kelly was one in both categories, in a sense. I knew him but did not know him well and met him only in the last decade, after I had returned from decades living and working in London. I am given to understand that he had passed through a number of political organisations, including Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. A strange CV, one might think, for a radical left-wing social and political activist. The last political group with which I had associated Joe was People Before Profit, on a local level, around Phibsboro. Joe invited me to attend a quiz they were running and I did so mainly to return a favour – he had attended, to contribute to the singing at my invitation, an evening of the Clé Club where I had been “Fear a’Tí” for that night. I was amazed to win a Blackberry at the quiz (sorry, Joe, I still haven’t gotten around to learning and using it!). Last I heard, he wasn’t with the PBP.
Somebody told me years back that he had been a central organiser of a solidarity event in Dublin for the Birmingham Six in which lights had been floated down the Liffey. Of course I was impressed – on a political/ human rights level but also for the poetic vision involved. I have found little about that event since and Joe, who I found a modest man, didn’t give me much in response to my pressing. A couple of searches on the Internet yielded me only a passing reference to the River Parade, of 1990, a year before the Birmingham Six were finally cleared in court and released. Likely I have not been asking the right people or looking in the right corners.
I met Joe by arrangement for a coffee a couple of times, while I tried to get him into something I was doing and he tried to get me into something he was working at – neither of us succeeding in our efforts to recruit the other. Since Joe was working for awhile in the community sector I also approached him to explore possibilities for me when, despite a long track record in the fields of working in homeless shelters and addiction as well as other community activism I was out of work, but he wasn’t able to help me.
And of course I bumped into him on demonstrations, as in those in solidarity with Palestine or against the Water Tax or against the Lisbon Treaty. For awhile we were active together in the Dublin branch of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee and I believe he left like me after witnessing some nasty in-fighting years ago, though we both often turned up to protest pickets and demonstrations and public meetings called by the organisation. We would also meet at events in solidarity with the Cuban people.
I heard him described at his funeral service, by someone who should know, as a Republican. Certainly Joe was very proud of his father and uncle who had both fought in the 1916 Rising, the first in the GPO and the second in Bolands’ Mill and proudly displayed his father’s medal at a public event in the Teachers’ Club in Dublin.
However, he was among the number that I invited but failed to get to events over the last decade to highlight the plight of Irish Republicans being hounded by the State and imprisoned without trial. That did puzzle me, for I knew Joe to have a track record of fighting for human rights. And this was shown not only in his campaigning for the Birmingham Six.
Joe fought for the rights of divorce and choice of abortion, as well for the right to freedom from partner abuse, in particular through the movement for women’s refuges, what many people still refer to as “battered wives hostels”. He was active in the campaign for the right to gay marriage, so amazingly successful in Ireland. And Joe was also active in campaigns against racism towards migrants.
“Conas atú tú?” or “Dia dhuit”, Joe would invariably greet me whenever we met. I would not call him exactly fluent but he could understand and speak Irish. I suppose I assumed he had some affection for the language and was also paying me, a known native speaker, the courtesy of addressing me in Irish and speaking awhile in the language. At his funeral service, I learned it went further than that. I heard his grandchildren say that he frequently spoke to them in Irish and when they did not understand him, would translate what the words meant. Some people in the audience chuckled to hear this. I felt sad and somewhat angry too, that a question so important to our cultural identity, an aspect so threatened today, should be treated so apparently lightly by some and that the only words to be spoken at his funeral service in Irish were those in the final sentence spoken by his brother, Jim, in his eulogy: “Slán leat, Joe”. In the booklet produced for the occasion and freely available at Club na Múinteoirí, there was however one dedication in Irish (and I have since learned that one of the speeches at the Teacher’s Club was in Irish) and I note that both grandchildren who spoke bear Irish-language names.
Paying respects and memorial service
On Saturday, laid out in the lovely Room 2 in the Teacher’s Club (sin Club na Múinteoirí, Joe) in Dublin’s Parnell Square, a venue often used for social, cultural and political events, in a closed wicker basket coffin, Joe received his visitors. And they were MANY. Feminists, Palestine solidarity activists, Cuba solidarity activists, community activists, independent political activists and a sprinkling of activists in various parties all attended and many contributed their memories or words dedicated to him while he was laid out there. (I took many photos here and some at Mount Jerome but somehow seem to have lost them all).
Attending first another funeral (of another singer) that morning in Howth, then travelling into Dublin to take part in the Moore Street Awareness weekly table, I had to miss some of that. I spelled a comrade while he attended to pay his respects, then attended later while he took over back at the table.
Room No. 2 was still packed but so was the whole bar lounge area. I had missed all the eulogies and reminiscences and even singing – “The Foggy Dew” I was told. Had anyone sung “The Parting Glass”, I asked. No, apparently not. So then to ask his sister if it would be alright to do it, then the MC, his long-time collaborator, comrade and friend, Brendan Young. It would be welcome, I was told. And Fergus Russell (also his second funeral that day) and I did three verses together, using a mic so it might carry through to the lounge and, though we took turns at fluffing a line, not too badly. It is a great song for such occasions and each verse was particularly appropriate to Joe.1
A little later, the Internationale was sung by all (copies of the words of a verse and the chorus distributed beforehand), the wicker coffin (I must have one of those when my time comes!) was lifted on to shoulders by family and friends and brought through the respectful lines while Joe’s daughter sang The Night They Brought Old Dixie Down.2
Then the hearse came out and led the cortege to Mount Jerome cemetery. I didn’t know the protocol regarding cycling in a funeral cortege but followed anyway, managing to get temporarily lost on the way and arriving just as the hearse arrived at the cemetery. Again, the chapel was packed.
The ceremony was non-religious and officiated by Therese Caherty, ex-partner and friend. In turn Therese herself, his brother, his bereaved current partner, relatives and his comrade and friend Brendan Young all gave their moving eulogies and often funny anecdotes. Brendan emphasised that for Joe, the process of the conduct of a struggle was as important as the end to be reached, which I knew to be true from our time together in the Dublin IPSC and I’d be in agreement with Joe on that.
There were, despite the many I did see during those events, some faces I did not see in the congregation or at the Club na Múinteoirí before the service or later, when many returned to the Club to free sandwiches and soup laid on by the management there. It was their loss.
I never saw him dance but am told he loved it and taught his grandchildren not only to sing but to dance too. I did know he’d learned to tango. He’s left this dance floor now and gone on to another and whatever “one steps and two steps and the divil knows what new steps”3 they are dancing there, I’m sure Joe is learning them and probably teaching a few of his own.
Slán leat, Joe – árdaigh iad!
1 “Of all the money that e’er I had, I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done, alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit to memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all
“If I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town, that sorely has my heart beguiled
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips I own, she has my heart enthralled
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all
“Of all the comrades that e’er I’ve had, they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had,
they would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call good night and joy be with you all”
2 This song of nostalgia for the American Confederacy has a haunting melody but its ideology is often ignored by those who sing it.
A convoy of cars set off from the Six Counties to Dublin on Saturday morning, arriving in Dublin that afternoon to join in a short march through the city centre, to highlight the ongoing internment of Irish Republican activists. The event was organised by two organisations independent of political parties or organisations: Duleek Independent Republicans and Anti-Internment Group of Ireland.
The convoy set out on Saturday morning at 11am am from Newry and passed in turn through the towns of Dundalk, Drogheda, Julianstown and Whitehall to conclude at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin city centre. Unusually for such events, the convoy received no harassment in the Six Counties from the RUC/ PSNI – that work was left to their counterparts in the Twenty-Six Counties.
Supporters of the Dublin march began to gather at the Garden of Rembrance around 1.15pm and from then on every arrival was stopped by Irish Special Branch asking them their names and addresses. Some refused to give them.
The political police also asked for the driving licences of three of the convoy cars that arrived at the Garden of Rembrance (others had parked elsewhere in the city).
All of this harassment was exceeding the legal powers of the Gardaí and some of those they targeted told them so and refused to cooperate with them.
The march set off from its mustering point and proceeded down Dublin’s main street, O’Connell Street, passed by the Larkin Monument and the location of Bloody Sunday 1913, on to pass the O’Connell Monument (which still bears bullet holes from the 1916 Rising and possibly from the Civil War also) and across O’Connell Bridge.
Then D’Olier Street going south, turning right at the wall of Trinity College then right again at the Bank of Ireland building (until 1800 the Irish Parliament, from which Catholics and Presbyterians were barred).
The march turned right again into Westmoreland Street and headed back across the bridge to the GPO, along the same route as so many British artillery shells and rifle and machine gun bullets had poured one hundred years ago.
The march attracted considerable attention from people along its short route with many audible exclamations about internment still being in existence in Ireland.
SPEAKERS AT THE GPO
At the GPO building (the Headquarters of the Rising in 1916) the marchers gathered around to hear speakers. Diarmuid Breatnach from the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland greeted the marchers and other listeners briefly in Irish and then went on in English to note that internment without trial, which people believed had ended decades ago, continues still being used against Republican activists.
Breatnach recalled that one Republican had been sent to jail without trial for four years in the Six Counties. Another Republican activist had spent two years in jail on remand only to have the case against him collapse and he had been set free – however, having spent two years in jail already. Breatnach then introduced Cait Trainor, an Independent Republican.
Speaking in a strong carrying voice, Trainor pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement had not brought an end to political prisoners in Ireland and that among the crowd there that day there were “family members of Irish political prisoners and indeed some who have been prisoners themselves in the not-so-distant past.”
Trainor pointed out that different forms of internment have emerged over the years, including internment by remand, where activists are held in jail for long periods of time before coming to trial or sometimes the charges are dropped before they even get a chance to have their say in court but “in the meantime the person could have done the equivalent of a five-year sentence”. Moving on to another type of internment, that reserved for prisoners released “under licence”, Trainor mentioned that for example Martin Corey, Marion Price and currently Tony Taylor do not get to trial nor to see the reason they are being put in prison, it being a secret which will only be heard in a court hearing also held in secret.
“Every man was a right to know his accuser and to know at least what he is accused of,” Trainor pointed out.
Speaking to those who believe that there are no political prisoners in Ireland, Trainor asked how they explain “the scores of men currently in Roe House and Maghaberry Gaol”? Trainor stated that “while there has been British occupation of Ireland there has always been resistance to it, that did not end with the Good Friday Agreement.”
“The Freestate Government is no better,” stated Trainor and referred to the case of Dónal Ó Coisdealbha remanded in custody since May 2015 and convicted, not on anything he has done but on what he has said in conversation. To that has been added “the usual trumped-up charge of membership of an illegal organisation” and the state broadcaster RTÉ added the fabrication that he was in court on explosives charges.
Referring to special legislation in the 26 Counties by which the word of a Garda Superintendent is sufficient to secure a conviction on a charge of membership of an illegal organisation, Trainor highlighted the cases of five men from Sligo and three from Dublin so charged and reminded her listeners that these Gardaí are part of a force “rotten with corruption as Garda whistle-blowers will attest to.”
Trainor pointed out that December is traditionally prisoners’-focus month for Republicans and called for unity around the issue of prisoners, stating that in the future it will be only through the ridding Ireland of British occupation that there will be no political prisoners.
After the applause had died down, Breatnach referred to the special powers of the Offences Against the State Act in the Irish state and reminded listeners that a few days previously had been the day on which in 1972, British agents had exploded two bombs in Dublin City Centre in order to help the state push through the amendment to that legislation. Two years later they had exploded another two bombs in Dublin and one in Monaghan, killing more people in one day than any other explosion during the conflict. Yet little is said about those explosions, because they were not caused by Republicans.
Breatnach referred also to another point made by Trainor, saying that the Irish state is also becoming increasingly repressive and using its courts against people resisting the water tax and evictions. But those victims of the State appear not to see themselves as sharing the fate of Irish Republicans. “If we do not stand together we will fall,” said Breatnach, “but if we unite against repression we can defeat it.” In that context Breatnach regretted that “Irish socialists are not yet marching with us against internment.”
Breatnach then introduced Dave Hopkins, of the Irish Republican Socialist Party.
Hopkins addressed some of the points that had earlier been made by Cait Trainor and stated that “even being in the company of a known dissenting voice could be deemed reason enough to charge a person with ‘membership’ now in this failed statelet.”
Turning to the Six Counties, Hopkins attacked the “stop and search tactics” being used by the PSNI (“the unreformed RUC”) to harass activists.
As Trainor had earlier, Hopkins also referred to the wrongful conviction of John Paul Wooton and Brendan McConville (the Craigavon Two) and to previous cases of wrongful conviction such as the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four and pointed out that it had taken decades for these to clear their names.
Hopkins went on to discuss further repressive legislation which will “ensure further abuses of power and lead to more and more people becoming victims of injustice.” Hopkins referred to the “Investigatory Powers Act 2016” introduced by the Westminster Government which gives intelligence agencies …. the powers to track, monitor and use in evidence web browsing and internet use against all kinds of individuals.”
“What London does, Dublin will surely follow,” said Hopkins.
Following the applause at the end of Hopkins’ speech, Breatnach thanked both speakers on behalf of the Anti-Internment Group of Ireland and Duleek Independent Republicans, also pointing out that both organisations are independent of any political party or organisation, thanked all who had come to support the event, also the speakers and wished them all a “Slán abhaile.”
The festivities were being held in a small country town, probably in a hotel hired for the event – I’m not sure. I don’t even know what they were celebrating – their GAA team’s win? But that would be weird too, because I knew they weren’t from this town or county – I could tell that from the indulgent smiles of the locals passing in the street. Yes, at one point some of the gathering were in the street – I can’t remember why.
I was peripheral to the gathering – maybe a relative by marriage, someone’s partner (though I don’t remember being with anyone) or perhaps a visitor. But I was tolerepted – that’s more than tolerated but not the same as fully accepted. When the gathering turned to calling for singers and songs and I was prevailed upon to sing (which to be honest, didn’t take much prevailing), I could almost read the thought in the air afterwards: “That Jackeen can sing, all right.” And I was asked to sing again, which of course I did — maybe more than once.
I am pretty sure I wasn’t with anyone and I remember focusing at some point on a dark-haired woman whose eyes might’ve been blue, anywhere between thirty and fifty years of age, depending on genes and life-style and health but more likely the lower age of the range – and it definitely wasn’t makeup, of which she was wearing little.
We kind of clicked and were getting on well – she seemed intelligent and there was something definitely sexy about her but understated, like a strong current running underground. We became an item for a short while, obvious to people there but I don’t remember any intimate details – only a definite intimacy.
Then the scene somehow shifted and she got excited about the offer of a part in some production in the big city. I was glad for her, although it meant I was going to see less of her.
When I saw her next, it was in the big city, she and her male counterpart were still wearing the eye-masks and head-pieces from their performances, although in a public place, which was a little weird. They were laughing a lot … she was buzzing – they both were – and turned towards one another, me little more than an observer, though sitting at the same table.
For the next scene we were back at the gathering, which seemed to have moved on but little, and some of the women were tearing into her, verbally but at one point also physically; I’m not sure what about but part of it could have been about how she had treated me. I remember she got some clothes torn off her and marched past me (I had just arrived in the hotel lobby — or was it a big mansion now? — and caught the end of the altercation) ….. Yes, marched past me, tears taking a line of mascara down her face, wearing some kind of pink leotard with strips of outer clothing hanging off her …. Some of the women were jeering: “Look at her go, the great actress!”
Minutes later she stomped back past me again, her eyes flaring, head up and jaw jutting forward, heading back towards the women. “I’ll show them! I’ll show them!”
I watched her stomp past in that ridiculous pink leotard and fluttering strips of clothing and – you know what? Despite everything – I was mentally cheering her.