TWO DEATHS, FOUR FUNERALS AND THREE BURIALS

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan was killed in Parkhurst Jail on the Isle of Wight this month in 1974. He was killed on the 3rd June that year by force-feeding while on hunger strike. An honour guard of Provisional IRA had presided over his body’s removal by ferry to the mainland and from there to London, where the first of his three funeral processions was to take place.

Volunteer Michael Gaughan, the image most often associated with him.
(Photo source: Internet)

Also on hunger-strike with Gaughan although in different jails in Britain were other Provisional IRA prisoners: Gerry Kelly, Paul Holmes, Hugh Feeney and fellow Mayoman Frank Stagg. They were acting in support of the struggle of Volunteers Dolours and Marion Price1 to obtain political status and to be transferred to a jail in Ireland. The prisoners’ demands were as follows:

  • The right to political status
  • The right to wear their own clothes
  • A guarantee that they would not be returned to solitary confinement
  • The right to educational facilities and not engage in penal labour
  • The setting of a reasonable date for a transfer to an Irish prison2

At the time I was a young and fairly inexperienced activist supporting an English-based Marxist-Leninist group.3

 

LONDON

Vol. Gaughan’s funeral procession in Kilburn, London.
(Photo source: Internet)

On the 7th a funeral procession was being organised by Provisional Sinn Féın in an area of strong Irish diaspora settlement in North-West London. I took a bus from my South-East London home by a part of the canal near Peckham (now filled in) to the Elephant & Castle and changed on to the London Underground metro system to travel to Kilburn, from where I walked up to the Cricklewood area. There in the forecourt of the Crown pub was where I had been told the funeral procession would gather and where I would also meet my comrades of the organisation.

After a little, preparations were being made for departure. A priest was to lead the procession, which I strongly disliked but obviously had no say in the arrangements. A lone piper would follow, a traditional feature of mourning where Irish resistance is involved. The coffin would be carried for a period on the shoulders of volunteers, before being transferred to the hearse and a senior comrade of my organisation approached me.

Another view of the funeral procession of Vol. Gaughan through Kilburn, London.
(Photo source: Internet)

Some representatives of British Left organisations are going to carry the coffin,” he said. “We’ve been asked if we’d like to take part. What do you think?”

He was asking me, I presumed, because I was the only Irish supporter of the organisation present, although it had an excellent record of supporting Irish resistance and prisoners and several of its comrades had gone to jail as a result.

He seemed not keen on the idea and I got the impression that he felt as I did that it was tokenism, distasteful posturing by the British Left. Tariq Ali (now a journalist but then a member of the now-defunct Trotskyist organisation in Britain, the International Marxist Group) was one of those hefting the coffin. I agreed with my comrade and said we should not (a decision I now regret) and so we didn’t. No organisation on the British Left at that time, in terms of commitment and actions in proportion to its size, deserved the honour more than our organisation.

From the forecourt of the Crown a long parade escorted Gaughan’s coffin from Cricklewood in West London along the main road to the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Quex Road church in Kilburn. It was a very Irish area then with nearly every pub being of mainly Irish clientele and it contained a dance hall where Irish bands played. Every shop and pub along the way was closed for the funeral and crowds lined the route. The atmosphere was very solemn with the laments being played by the piper very audible.

 

DUBLIN

Michael Gaughan’s funeral procession approaching O’Connell Bridge, Dublin city centre.
(Photo source: Internet)

Another view of the Michael Gaughan funeral, Dublin

On the 8th of June 1974, the body of IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan arrived in Dublin, where it was met by mourners and an IRA guard of honour. The body was brought to the Adam and Eve’s Franciscan church on Merchant’s Quay, where thousands filed past as it lay in state (no doubt under the watchful eyes of the Garda Special Branch).

Vol Gaughan lying in state with IRA honour guard in Dublin.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

MAYO

On the following day, the 9th of June 1974, Michael Gaughan’s funeral took place in Ballina, County Mayo. The funeral mass was held at St. Muiredach’s Cathedral, Ballina, procession then to Leigue Cemetery, Ballina. He was given a full republican burial and laid to rest in the Republican plot (where Frank Stagg, also killed by force-feeding, would join him after being reburied in November 1976 – see further below). Vol. Gaughan’s coffin was draped in the same Tricolour that had been used for Terence McSwiney’s funeral 54 years earlier (the same flag would later be used in the funeral of James McDade, IRA member killed in a premature explosion in Coventry). Gaughan’s funeral was attended by over 50,000 people, larger than the funeral of former Irish president Éamon de Valera.

 

FRANK STAGG

Frank Stagg, the image most frequently used.
(Image source: Internet)

It was no doubt to avoid scenes such as this that the Irish state took certain steps when two years later, on 12th February 1976, a comrade of Gaughan’s, Vol. Frank Stagg, also from Mayo, was also killed in Wakefield Prison, Yorkshire, by force-feeding while on hunger-strike. Although much of this this took place during the IRA truce of 1975-January 1976, the British authorities refused to grant any of the demands. The Wikipedia entry says that “Stagg died on 12 February 1976 after 62 days on hunger strike” which, though not untrue is a lie by omission.4

The repatriation of the body of Frank Stagg at Shannon Airport from Wakefield Prison in Britain where he died on hunger strike on 12 February 1976.

The Irish Government had the flight carrying his coffin diverted from Dublin where a large crowd awaited it, to Shannon airport.

On arrival at Shannon, the Gardaí snatched the coffin and drove it straight to Ballina, Mayo under armed guard, to a cemetery near Stagg’s family home, where it was placed in a prepared grave into which wet concrete was then poured, six feet deep, instead of soil. And the site remained under guard until the concrete had set and for some time after.

Sean, one of Frank Stagg’s brothers, being assaulted at Shannon Airport by Gardai (Photo source: Internet)

Although those proceedings would have been in complete opposition to the wishes of the deceased, the State had obtained agreement for them from Frank Stagg’s widow and one of his brothers, the Labour Party’s Emmet Stagg. It was opposed by another two of Frank Stagg’s brothers and of course by the dead Volunteer’s comrades.

The first burial of Vol. Frank Stagg, managed by the State, contrary to his wishes of the deceased. One of his brothers, Emmet, who colluded in that operation, is on the back left, lowering the coffin. (Photo source: Internet)

In November of that year, a number of those comrades dug down near the grave, tunneled under the concrete, removed the coffin and re-interred it in the Republican plot, near to Michael Gaughan’s grave, where it rests today.

A simple but plaintive song about Michael Gaughan survives in not uncommon use: Take Me Home to Mayo. There are a number of versions on Youtube; this one contains relevant images and film footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14-kuxsHjPg

National Graves Association memorial in the Republican Plot, Leigue cemetery, Ballina, to which the names of Vol.s Stagg and Gaughan were added. The NGA is a nationwide non-State-funded organisation caring for the graves and erecting memorials to Ireland’s patriot dead. (Photo source: Internet)

 

end

FOOTNOTES

1Although Gerry Kelly is a current Sinn Féin MLA, both the Price Sisters denounced the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin; Marian was effectively interned for a period because of her politics and has not been active politically due to ill-health since her release in May 2013.  On January 23rd of that year she was escorted from jail to attend the funeral of her sister, Dolours.  Of the surviving hunger strikers of 1975-’76, Paul Holmes was the only other one to attend that funeral.

2The British promised to concede the demands after Gaughan’s death – they had already conceded them to Loyalist prisoners – but reneged on the promise. The Price Sisters did eventually win repatriation to jail in the Six Counties, Ireland. The struggle on the issue of repatriation, which the British authorities conceded to British prisoners in Irish jails but not generally in reverse, carried on for many years. It is UN and generally human rights policy that prisoners should serve their sentences in jails close to their family networks.

3I had previously been an unaffiliated Anarchist activist, then came to support the English Communist Movement (M-L), which later became the Communist Party of England (M-L), which I left some years later. It has since gone through a number of bigger changes and evolved into the current Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (M-L), a much-changed organisation from the days referred to in this article.

4This is an important omission because the death of Vol. Stagg at the State’s hands after Gaughan’s brought about a change in policy of the British Medical Association, which afterwards recommended to its members that people in sound state of mind embarking on a hunger strike should not be forcibly fed even if they were heading for death. In consequence, the British State no longer has a policy of force-feeding prisoners on hunger-strike, since such would have to be supervised by medical personnel.

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SONS OF MOLLY MAGUIRES PLAYS IN DUBLIN

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

The play about the Irish miners in Pennsylvania and their exploitation and the secret society they formed to resist, written by US-Irishman John Kearns and directed by Dara Carolan, received its Irish premiere tonight/ last night (Wednesday) in Liberty Hall.

Wonderful banner honouring the Molly Maguires, designed by Jer O’Leary, pictured on Liberty Hall Theatre staircase.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

In the Pennsylvania coalmines of the 1870s, Irish miners resisted their exploitation as workers and the racism they experienced as Irish Catholics to form a trade union. But when their efforts seem to avail them little, drawing on their Irish experience of peasant resistance societies fighting landlords and their agents, some went on to form a secret society: the Sons of Molly Maguire, also known as the “Mollies”.

They suffered unsafe conditions (one fall in a mine with only one exit trapped and killed 110 miners), high prices in the company store and felt they were being cheated even on the agreed wages. Eventually miners began to carry out retribution on informers and on mine-owners’ agents and their property. It seems the “Mollies” used the Ancient Order of Hibernians as a cover but that may also have been political and racial propaganda against them.

The mine-owners engaged the Pinkerton Detective Agency who inserted one of their agents, a Catholic Ulsterman called McPartland, among the miners and he gave information on the men leading to their arrest and then gave evidence against them in court.

As the Irish Echo review in the US stated: The play employs an “… effective blending of pageant, mime, kitchen sink realism, and even flights of poetry”. It also has some moments of high drama. An interesting feature from a US playwright is the use of appropriate Irish language phrases at times, reminding us that an Ghaeilge would have been the mother language of many of those migrant Irish while nearly all would have had at least a nodding acquaintance with it.

Photo said to be of hanging of one of the Molly Maguires (Photo source: Internet)

One phrase used a number of times was “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang” of which I had no previous recollection. Looking it up, I noted a number of meanings, of which the prevalent was along the lines of the equivalent in English of No one knows where the shoe pinches, but he who wears it.” But a deeper examination which I found on another site (see link) gives a darker interpretation, which seems more in line with the play: “It is about more than a misunderstanding by the corpulent of the cadaverous. One variant is, “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang, nuair a bhíonn a bholg féin teann.” This literally means, the well-fed one does not understand the slender one, when his stomach is usually taut. In other words, the well-fed do not understand hunger.

Another variant is, “Ní mhothaíonn an sách an seang.” The verb ‘mothaigh’ can be translated as either ‘feel’ or ‘hear.’ Use either English transitive verb and it suggests that the satiated simply do not care about the starved.

There is certainly a wealth of meaning to be found in many of the pithy phrases in the Irish language.

Molly Maguire Executions marker. Schuylkill County Prison (Photo source: internet)

Twenty “Mollies” were hanged (including at least some innocent men) between 1877 and 1879 and this is sometimes said to be the largest known mass hanging of any specific group in the USA – it was not. Nor was the hanging of ten “Mollies” on the 21st June 1877 the largest hanging of one group in one day. The dubious honour for most men hanged of any group and on one day goes to the 38 Dakota Native Indians who were hanged on December 26, 1862. However, the Dakota were hanged by the US military and the “Mollies” were tried in civil courts, so the Mollies can claim the most judicially executed in the USA of one group as well as on one day.

The play employs an “… effective blending of pageant, mime, kitchen sink realism, and even flights of poetry” (the Irish Echo review in the US) and has some moments of high drama. It also employs appropriate Irish language phrases, reminding us that an Ghaeilge would have been the mother tongue of many of those migrant Irish while others would have had a nodding acquaintance with it.

One phrase used a number of times was “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang” of which I had no previous recollection. Looking it up, I noted a number of meanings, of which the prevalent was along the lines of the equivalent in English of No one knows where the shoe pinches, but he who wears it.” But a deeper examination which I found on another site (see link) gives a darker interpretation, which seems more in line with the play: “It is about more than a misunderstanding by the corpulent of the cadaverous. One variant is, “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang, nuair a bhíonn a bholg féin teann.” This literally means, the well-fed one does not understand the slender one, when his stomach is usually taut. In other words, the well-fed do not understand hunger.

Another variant is, “Ní mhothaíonn an sách an seang.” The verb ‘mothaigh’ can be translated as either ‘feel’ or ‘hear.’ Use either English transitive verb and it suggests that the satiated simply do not care about the starved.There is certainly a wealth of meaning to be found summed up in pithy phrases in the Irish language.

Hanging place perhaps in Mauch Chunk jail, Pennsylvania, USA.
(Photo source: Internet)

Its showing in Liberty Hall was its first on an Irish stage for John Kearns play “Sons of Molly Maguire” but it has previously been performed at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York. John Kearns is the Treasurer and Salon Producer for Irish American Writers and Artists. He is the author of the short-story collection, Dreams and Dull Realities and the novel, The World, along with plays including “In the Wilderness”and “In a Bucket of Blood”.

The play received an enthusiastic reception from the audience. Raging you missed it? Don’t worry – you can still catch it tomorrow/ today, that is Thursday 11th May as part of Mayfest at the Liberty Hall Theatre.

 

End.

 

LINKS:

http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/the-us-executed-20-molly-maguires-in-biggest-federal-executions-ever

http://www.daltai.com/proverbs/personal-qualities-types-of-people/ni-thuigeann-an-sach-an-seang/

 

 

 

AN EASTER STORY

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

There are many different kinds of Easter stories – religious ones, or about Easter parades and processions, ones about family reunions, Easter egg hunts, even holidays …. this isn’t one of those.

The man, let’s call him Jeremiah or Jerry for short, stood outside the pub on a Sunday afternoon and struggled to quell the apprehension threatening to flood his mind and body. It had to be done. He turned to his companion, who seemed to view everything through laughing eyes and was no different now. Brian had three teenage kids with him, two of his own and a friend of one of them. Hardly ideal, but Brian had turned up with them a little while ago and there was no-one to leave them with. Well, they’d be all right – Jerry would be the target and, after him, Brian. They wouldn’t touch the kids.

Best give me the bag, Brian,” he said and, receiving it, checked inside. The stuff was there. Of course. Jerry folded the bag and stuck it under his jumper, under his coat.

He was focused on the tasks ahead but the trail that led them here had started days earlier. And, in some ways, years before that.

He squared his shoulders, turned and entered the pub. Brian and the kids followed.

**** **** ****

He had been at work on Friday afternoon when the call came from the Manager of the Irish Community Centre. Of course, he asked the staff to put it through to his office.

Do you know your event is in the newspapers?”

Something in the Manager’s voice alerts him that he is not being congratulated on the publicity.

The Easter Rising commemoration?”

Yes. It’s in the Evening Standard.”

Well, that answered the second question he had in mind.

No, I didn’t know. What are they saying?”

He knows what the British media are like and he’s got a sinking feeling.

It transpires that an Irish Republican organisation had put the event on their website, which had been noted by an Englishman who lost his son in the Omagh bombing of 1998. There are many questions to be answered about that bombing, both within the Republican and the State side, but for many years, not unnaturally, the father had been focused on the Republican group allegedly connected to the Real IRA, who had placed the bomb. In addition to his son, the bomb had killed 28 other people, the second-highest death toll for any day during the war in Ireland, the highest being the Dublin-Monaghan bombing of 1974, with a toll of 34. Jerry was aware that the 1974 bombings did not attract anything like the same media attention and understood the reason – they had been carried out by Loyalists under British Intelligence Service direction.

But what had all this to do with the Irish in Britain Representation Group in South London, and their Easter Rising Commemoration? Or with the Irish Community Centre? Well, the grieving father had noted the posting by the Irish organisation, noted the venue and rang, demanding that the event be cancelled.

I told him the commemoration is an annual event organised by an Irish community organisation and that there’s never been any trouble at it. I told him it has nothing to do with that Republican organisation …. it doesn’t, does it?”

No, it’s just us, the local Irish in Britain Representation Group branch. But surely any organisation is entitled to advertise the event?”

Jerry is noting doubt in the Centre Manager’s voice responding to him. He is on the receiving end of huge pressure, working in his office, alone.

He wanted me to cancel the booking and I said I couldn’t do that.”

The grieving father had got on to the local authority, who replied that the event was the business of the Irish Centre. The father then contacted the media, who rang the local authority again and this time, instead of sticking to their original line and weathering what would be a short-lived storm, and without phoning the Centre Manger, their spokesperson condemned the event and stated they would be asking hard questions of the Centre, which they part-funded.

Jerry reads all this again when he slips out to get a newspaper. He feels for the beleaguered Centre Manager but can do nothing. It’s too late to contact the newspapers because the story is published. The event is to be held that evening. It has been advertised in the local area and in the Irish Post, the main newspaper at the time for the Irish diaspora in Britain. And in any case, one cannot – should not – give in to intimidation, coercion. The community had mostly caved under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 and had not really rallied again until the Hunger Strikes of 1981. The event must go on.

Jerry heads home, thinking about additional security needed on the door for the event, composing replies to the local authority, a letter in the newspaper ….

The IBRG Ard-Choiste, its governing body, had withdrawn its support of the Time To Go coalition in Britain some years earlier because of undemocratic maneuvering by some left Labour politicians, along with the sidelining of specific Irish community concerns. They had not been alone: Stop the Strip Searches Campaign and the Troops Out Movement had pulled out also, leaving the tiny Labour Committee on Ireland, the Socialist Workers Party and Communist Party of Great Britain to be supported by only the Wolfe Tone Association (SF support group in London) and the Connolly Association (linked to the CPGB) among the Irish campaigners .

Later, in 1998, the IBRG had been divided on the Good Friday Agreement. It was not the issue of continuing or ceasing the armed actions of the IRA that had been the source of the division, rather the acceptance of colonial rule, albeit claimed to be for tactical reasons only. A majority within the IBRG came out against the Agreement and that was in accordance with Jerry’s position too.

Although he supports none of the Republican groups opposing Sinn Féin, he has heard whispers in the Irish community at various times associating him with this or that group. This might well be feeding doubts in the Centre Manager’s mind.

Jerry is in a more difficult position than might seem. He is not only Secretary of the local IBRG branch that has organised the event and is affiliated to the Community Centre, but also the Chairperson of the Irish Centre’s Management Committee itself. The Management Committee is the Centre Manager’s employer and has a duty of care to him. And after nearly a decade of campaigning for the provision of the Centre and the meagre funding it receives, no-one on the Committee would want to antagonise the local authority.

But it was the IBRG branch itself and in particular the Irish Pensioners’ Association which was then a part of it, which had won the provision for the community in the end. And Jerry had been part of the campaign, elected as Chairperson of the Steering Group in the years while renovations of the building and available funding were discussed, elected Chairperson for the first six months after the Centre opened and at the Annual General Meeting for every year afterwards. In fact, recently Jerry had been trying unsuccessfully to step down, to ease a replacement into his position.

On the train from London Bridge on the last leg of his journey home, Jerry reflects ruefully that this controversy might cause his stepping down, which was hardly the way he had anticipated his leaving. No stepping back slowly, supporting someone new in position and easing himself out. No – thrown out instead! That would of course imply he had done something wrong, which he hadn’t and that the IBRG had been wrong to commemorate the Rising, which they hadn’t either. Ironically, if moves were made now to replace him, he’d have to fight them.

**** **** ****

Before he arrives at the Irish Community Centre, Jerry looks carefully around the mostly residential street. Nothing seems threatening but can one be sure? He is carrying the IBRG’s branch’s banner, wrapped up in black bin liners, which makes him a visible target if someone’s searching. On the other hand, one of the poles of the banner is loose within the bundle, in case of need ….

He drops the Centre’s keys in his nervousness and enters, disabling the alarm and turning quickly to retrieve the keys and lock the door. Then, into the hall, to begin arranging some of the material ….

He is anxious for some of the IBRG members to arrive but jumps when the doorbell rings. Checking through the fish-eye spyhole, he is surprised to see one of the Irish Pensioners, who lives locally.

Opening the door and ushering her in, he locks the door behind her, saying apologetically “There’s only myself here so far.”

Are others coming?” she asks – she has read the newspaper and unerringly touches Jerry’s main fear at the moment.

I’m sure they are, Ellie. What are you doing here so early?’

I thought you might need some help.”

Jerry is touched straight through to his heart but has to refuse. He can’t have her here if there’s an attack with no-one else but himself to defend her.

Oh no, Ellie that’s very kind of you. But I kind of know what I have to do and explaining it to others will just take longer and make me flustered. You know how it is. Thanks a lot. Besides the others will be here soon. Come back when we’re open …..” he trails off guiltilly.

Still, she goes and he heaves a sigh of relief, at the same time feeling shame.

But there’s work to be done.

A scattering of volunteers arrives over the next half hour. The reception table is set up in the lobby, to sell tickets and distribute leaflets. Hidden behind, are the lengths of wood in case of attack by one of the British fascist groups. Up goes the green-white-&-orange bunting, portraits of the executed 1916 leaders, enlarged copies of the 1916 Proclamation. At the back of the stage, facing the hall, the large artwork Jerry made a few years ago of green, white and orange flames bursting from the date 1916. And the IBRG branch banner.

The stage is ready for the band, a group called The Mc ____ Brothers, who play Irish ballads, including Republican material. Water jug and glasses for the speakers. Tables and chairs rearranged on the hall floor (the part-time Caretaker had laid them out but Jerry always prefers a more “club” arrangement, of smaller tables spaced apart surrounded by some chairs).

By the time the opening hour arrives, Jerry is sweating but it is the sweat of work, not of fear or apprehension. The hall looks good. People are starting to arrive. Maybe he can relax now. Maybe. Brian is on the door with others close by.

The event is a bring-your-own-alcohol one and Jerry and others in the lobby spend some time directing people to the nearest off-licence, so that people are coming in, going out, coming in, sitting in the hall …. Jerry is scanning their faces, looking for possible sources of trouble.

An hour later and the band has not arrived. Pol phones them but gets no reply. Phones their manager but no reply either. Another hour later, the reality dawns on the organisers. The band will not be coming. They have seen the newspaper and decided to look after their safety. But they haven’t even bothered to tell them.

The organisers confer, after which Jerry mounts the stage, calls for attention and begins to speak.

A Chairde Gael agus a chairde ó thíortha eile, go raibh míle maith agaibh for coming here tonight to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising with us. This is a hugely important event in Irish history and indeed in the history of the world and the local branch of the IBRG has been not just commemorating but publicly celebrating this historic event every year for some time now.

But we are very sorry to say that we have some bad news for you now. Some of you will know that very recently pressure was put on us to cancel this event but that we refused to do so. Pressure was put on the Irish Centre to cancel the event which they also and rightly refused to do.

That the British media would attack us is no surprise, they have been doing that for years. But that the local authority’s spokesperson should bow down to them and, without consulting with us, imply that we are doing something wrong here, that the Centre should not have taken our booking, is something else.

And worst of all, that an Irish band, which makes a living playing Irish ballads, should allow themselves to be scared off and not even have the decency to ring us – well, I don’t really have the words to tell you what I think about that.

So, a chairde, we offer you your money back and no questions and our sincere apologies. However, those of you who wish to remain are welcome to do so and we’ll make our own entertainment with a few songs …. we have a guitar player here …. another man plays a whistle …. But please, you are entitled to your money back and those who wish to please go to the table in the lobby now.”

As though he had been primed to do so (but Jerry knew he had not), a middle-aged Irishman at a table nearer the stage jumps up and shouts: “NO! We will not ask for our money back! We’re not going to be chased out by no British newspapers!”

A round of applause from the audience and a few cheers greet his outburst. And just like that, the evening is saved.

The guitarist plays some numbers and sings. Jerry gives an abbreviated oration and sings a few ballads. The whistle player plays some tunes. People sing along to songs. They drink, chat and buy raffle tickets. One of the raffle prizes is auctioned by the winner, a local publican Jerry had been surprised to see in the audience. The money goes into the takings. At the end of the evening, as they finally cajole the last of the audience out of the Centre (still with a wary eye on the street) and finish cleaning and tidying up, they count the takings. Financially, it has been their most successful evening ever, especially since they didn’t have to pay a band.

But the band ….. their action and lack of notification have left a sour taste in the mouths of the organisers. And during the evening, they learned that the Mc___ Brothers are booked to play at an Irish pub, on Sunday afternoon, just two days away. And only a five minutes’ drive from the Irish Centre.

**** **** ****

A council of war decides that the bar will be visited, Jerry will mount the stage (“you’re our best speaker”) and present the band with white feathers, symbolising cowardice. Some can’t be there. One or two think it will be dangerous. Brian, Pol and Jerry think it’s a good plan — so then they just need some white feathers. How hard can that be?

Visits to duck pond parks yield none. The quaysides along the Thames show no seagull feathers. Brian drives to the coast and walks some beaches – and finds a couple of wispy ones. In desperation on Sunday morning, they burst open a pillow and drag out a handful of feathers. They are small, not at all like the large ones they had envisaged presenting to the band but they are white and they are feathers. Into the plastic bag they go and then Brian is driving Jerry and the kids to the pub. Brian has remarkable personal resources and has been through some very serious situations so this might be small potatoes to him …. but Jerry’s guts are churning.

Some faces in the pub turn to look at them as they enter. Jerry has been here before only once but a number of the clientele are known to him from other pubs and events. And he is probably known to more of them, as Chairperson of the Irish Centre. A few catch his eye and he nods at them, keeping his face impassive.

Do they know that the band playing here let down the audience two days ago? Of course they do …. or at least many would. This is the Irish community in SE London. Besides, the Manager of this bar, Kate, until recently worked for the publican who auctioned the raffle prize at the event on Friday night. Are they wondering what Jerry intends to do?

The band, which Brian has taken to calling the “McChicken Brothers”, is already playing on stage. Jerry had meant to get here before they got on but the feather search had been a delay. To get in front of them now might be resented by the audience and anyway, the band’s control of the microphones could drown out what needs to be said. Jerry goes to the bar, orders pints for himself and Brian and soft drinks for the kids, stitches a smile on his face and chats to Brian. And they wait.

Eventually the band takes a break and Jerry waits tensely for the indication that they are returning for the second half of their gig. When he sees them coming he nods to Brian, whose job is to fend off anyone attacking him before he has finished.

Just as the band reach the low stage but have yet to mount it, Jerry jumps up on it and begins to speak in a loud voice.

Ladies and gentlemen, your attention for a moment please!” EVERYBODY turns to look.

These musicians here were booked to play at an Easter Rising commemoration at the Irish Community Centre on Friday. They didn’t turn up. They left the audience (ok, bump up the figures a little!, he thinks) — 200 people – and the organisers stranded. And they didn’t even have the decency to tell us they weren’t coming. They ran scared, my friends, from lies in the British press.”

Jerry has the plastic bag in his hand and now dips into it, withdrawing a handfull of fluffy little white feathers.

Shame on you!” he says, facing the band members. “And this is what we think of you!”

So saying, he tries to throw the bunch of feathers at them but they erupt in a cloud between them, some clinging to Jerry’s hands. No matter, it is done. He steps off the stage and heads for the door, hoping to make it before anyone tries to stop him, before Brian has to get into physical stuff.

Surprisingly, someone shouted “Hear, hear!” and there had been a scattered round of applause.

Outside, they head for Brian’s car. A man comes running out and Brian steps forward to confront him, Jerry getting ready too, the kids behind him. Kate, the Manager, comes running out too and grabs the man. She says some things to him and he goes back in reluctantly, Jerry thinking the man doesn’t know how lucky he is that he didn’t tangle with Brian. Then Kate comes up to Jerry, shaking with anger, her face white.

You had NO right, NO right to do that in my pub!” she says.

We couldn’t let them get away with that, Kate,” Jerry replies.

Anywhere else. Not in my pub,” she says again.

The adrenaline is now seeping away and Jerry knows that his leg will start to shake soon. He feels a little sorry for Kate but needs to get away.

Sorry, Kate, that’s where they were,” Jerry replies and turns to go.

Don’t ever come in my pub again,” she calls out at his back.

**** **** ****

Many things were probably said in the local Irish community about the IBRG branch before and after that incident but probably that action contributed to an estimation that whatever you might think of them, they stood up for themselves and didn’t back down. That and their annual Children’s Irish Hallowe’en Party, their weekly Children’s Irish Art and History Group, their participation in the South London St. Patrick’s Day Parade and their occasional dramatic productions earned the small group a kind of respect in the local Irish community, a community often quite conservative in social outlook, often insular, often riven by jealousies and back-biting.

One night two weeks after the 1916 commemoration, there was a crude arson attempt on the Centre – a bottle with accelerant leaned against the front door and set alight. It burned a hole in the door and set off the fire alarms. Jerry, as a keyholder, got a call to attend from Ellie. The police were already there and Jerry dealt with them politely. Any enemies? they asked. Jerry wondered whether he should give them a list.

My guess is some British far-right group”, he replied, very glad that back in the Steering Group days, he had insisted on all the windows being covered with wire mesh panels, thinking of possible rock or even petrol bomb attack.

The police suggested they look through a list of recent attendance at the Centre. Jerry politely refused. Security provisions were made at the Centre.  Nothing came of whatever investigations the police carried out and Jerry was not surprised.

Media attention went away and the local authority didn’t take the matter further. Jerry wrote a letter to the Irish Post, denouncing the pressure applied against the IBRG and the Irish Centre and which might even have encouraged the arson attack. He did so under an assumed name because, as Chairperson, he wished not to implicate the Centre in his denunciation of the craven action of the local authority spokesperson. The beleaguered Centre Manager did not see it that way, assuming that Jerry was trying to have his say while avoiding responsibility.

When, a number of years later, in a heavy round of cuts in expenditure, the Centre’s main funding, the Manager’s and caretakers’ salaries were targeted in the local authority’s budget, Jerry led the Management Committee in a campaign of resistance. They picketed Council meetings and drew up lists of elected Councillors to lobby. Irish musicians and children in Irish dancing school costumes were brought to perform in front of the Council offices, leading to photographs in the local press. The Pensioners’ Association, amicably separated some years earlier from the IBRG branch, played a prominent part once more. Some local English people came forward to support the Centre’s case. Jerry prepared a submission for the IBRG branch and spoke to it at a Council meeting. Eventually, their meagre funding, the removal of which would have meant the closing of the Centre except for sporadic events, was saved.

Jerry didn’t go back to that bar where he had confronted the “McChicken Brothers” for about a year after that incident. When he did, he wondered whether he’d be served. He was — but it was another two years before Kate spoke to him again.

End.

MOORE STREET AND 1916 RISING — OF GREAT INTERNATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE

Diarmuid Breatnach

(This is another part of my personal submission to the Minister of Heritage’s Consultative Group on Moore Street. Some others may be found on https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/the-1916-history-of-moore-street/https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/the-moore-street-market-a-possible-future/https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/personal-recommendations-for-the-moore-street-quarter/ and https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/moore-street-mus…tourists-account/.

I have tackled the particular subject of the International Importance of the 1916 Rising and therefore of the Moore St. Quarter on a number of occasions elsewhere and at some greater length on Rebel Breeze here https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/01/20/the-moore-street-terrace-a-world-heritage-site/ )

The 1916 Rising, to which Moore Street is so closely linked, represented some very important events for the people of the world and it impacted on people in all populated continents of the globe.

FOR DEMOCRACY, EQUALITY

The 1916 Proclamation, printed in Liberty Hall and signed in No.21 Henry Street, just around the corner from Moore Street, is a document not only of clear patriotic and anti-colonial expression but also a democratic and inclusive one. At a time when hardly a state anywhere in the world permitted women to vote in elections, the document specifically addressed “Irishmen and Irish women”. It also clearly expressed the wish of the insurgents to overcome the religious sectarianism which had played such an important part in securing continued colonial rule: “ … religious and civil liberty … oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.” 

Site of signing of 1916 Proclamation, 21 Henry St, almost opposite end of Moore Street.  At the time the business premises and cafe of Jennie Wyse Power of Cumann na mBan was there (plaque erected in 1919 by the 1916-1921 Club). 

The Rising had expressed the gender equality intentions of the insurgents in more than the words of its address: women fought in the Rising and, in two garrison areas, commanded for awhile. The British colonial authorities recognised the role of some of those women by sentencing one to death, albeit a sentence later commuted, and keeping a number of them in prison even after many men had been released.

Headline of 1916 Proclamation and specific mention address to Irish women (sourced oh Internet)

FOR GENDER EQUALITY

Irish women organised for and acted in the Rising in two separate organisations: Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army.

The women founded as an auxiliary force to the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, later to assert considerable organisational independence, wore their own uniforms and had their own female officers. Women had participated in many insurrections and resistance movements across the world but no insurrectionary force in history ever before had such a consciously women-organised force.

The women in the Irish Citizen Army had formally equal status with men and a number carried arms in the Rising and fired them at the enemy. Men acted on orders from women officers in at least two garrison areas and, in medical matters, also in at least a third.

Such a situation was of great significance in the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality, not only in Ireland but in the world.

FOR WORKERS AND SOCIALISM

Captain White & Irish Citizen Army on parade on their grounds at Croydon House, Fairview, N. Dublin City. (Sourced on Internet)

The Irish Citizen Army was founded in 1913 as a workers’ defence force by trade unionists and socialists and later as a workers’ army and, despite its strongly anti-colonial stance, until the 1916 Rising, maintained a strict separation from the nationalist republican organisations of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan. As detailed earlier, it formally recognised women within the organisation as of equal status with men.

Workers’ organisations had existed before, including armed ones but nowhere had such an armed organisation existed outside of armed conflict for so long (1913-1916), led by socialists and with equal status for men and women. In the history of socialist organisation and particularly of a revolutionary and insurgent kind, this was a development of enormous importance.

AGAINST WAR

The 1916 Rising took place in the middle of the first of two huge international conflicts that were later called World Wars. WW1 was a struggle for markets, resources and strategic positions and bases between a number of states ruled by capitalists and those states recruited heavily from among the nations they had colonised; in Britain’s case, that included Ireland.

To many nationalist Republicans, the War represented an opportunity, expressed in the maxim that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. But to many socialists around the world, the War represented a disastrous pitting of the working people under one Power against the working people of another, as well as an excuse for the suppression of demands to fulfill the needs of their workers while the capitalists gathered huge profits. James Connolly was one of those socialists.

“WE SERVE NEITHER KING NOR KAISER banner on Liberty Hall (prior wartime repressive legislation), HQ of the IT&GWU, the WUI and of the ICA. (Sourced on Internet)

Connolly, Edinburgh-born Irish revolutionary socialist, formerly Acting General Secretary of the Irish Transport & General Worker’s Union, had joined the International Workers of the Word, the hugely influential in the USA syndicalist organisation. As well as being an energetic organiser, Connolly was a historian and revolutionary theoretician. Connolly took to heart the resolution formally adopted by representatives of the vast majority of European socialists to oppose war and, should it come, to turn it into class war against their rulers. In the event, Connolly was one of the few European socialist leaders to live up to that resolution: as Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army, GPO Garrison commander in a rising against Ireland’s British colonial masters, James Connolly was also striking a blow against imperial and colonial war.

That aspect of the Rising, of being consciously or unconsciously against War, predated the February Russian Revolution of 1917, also in part an anti-war uprising, by ten months. And of course, predated the October Socialist Revolution in Russia by seventeen months and the nearest uprising geographically to Ireland, also in part an anti-war one, the German socialist uprising in November 1918, by two-and-a-half years. For all these reasons, the 1916 Rising, the Headquarters of which were in the GPO and later removed to Moore Street, was and remains of enormous significance in the world-wide history of people’s movements against war.

AGAINST COLONIALISM IN THE WORLD

The 1916 Rising reverberated around the world. It took place in what had a century earlier been widely regarded as the second city of the British Empire and, when it erupted, did so against the largest empire, in terms of directly-controlled areas and population numbers ruled, that the world has ever known. How can such an event be of other than huge interest, not only to other peoples under British colonial rule but also to those under the colonial rule of France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Russia and the United States? How could it not have been of considerable interest to socialist revolutionaries everywhere?

Lenin speaking in Red Square in October 1918. He was among Russian revolutionaries who commented on the 1916 Rising. (Sourced on Internet)

Map of world empires, colonies and territories in 1914 (Sourced on Internet)

 

Socialists around the world discussed the Rising, at first often criticising it, while Lenin, of huge importance in the socialist movement at that time and some others commented favourably upon it. Consequently, the Rising and the War of Independence was to play an important part in the development of a revolutionary theory around the world that advocated the linking of the struggles of worker, peasant and small farmer, of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism with struggle for a socialist republic.

August 4, 1916: From left: Irish American labor leaders Timothy Healy, William B. Fitzgerald, William D. Mahon, Hugh Frayne (general organizer in New York for the American Federation of Labor), and Louis Fridiger. Fitzgerald, Mahon, and Fridiger represented the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America. (Source http://irishamerica.com/2016/02/hand-in-hand-for-freedom-u-s-labor-and-irish-rebels/

The Rising was a topic of great discussion in the United States and in Australia, and in the USA of financial and other support, as is well known. Connolly had been active there and had published his songbook in New York in 1910; Larkin was actually there in 1916. For a number of reasons, including the sentencing to death of Eamon Bulfin for his role in the GPO and in Moore Street, a sentence later commuted and Bulfin deported to Buenos Aires, the Rising was discussed in Argentina and in other Latin American countries (where, at that time, the British were the main imperialist power).

Eamon Bulfin, born in Argentina and exiled there after 1916, his photo in Australian paper the Southern Cross that year. (Sourced on Internet)

Members of 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers including the leader of the 1920 mutiny in the Punjab, James Daly. (Sourced on Internet)

It was certainly discussed in the huge country of India (which at that time included what is now the states of Pakistan and Bangladesh), whose revolutionary nationalists had contact with Fenian revolutionaries from decades earlier. The Connaught Ranger mutiny in the British Army was a direct result of the Rising and the War of Independence and, before the mutiny was crushed, the soldiers and oppressed Indians had begun to make movement towards reciprocal solidarity. And we know, from history and the writings of Indian nationalists and socialists, that the Rising and the War of Independence which organically followed the Rising influenced the struggles against colonialism and imperialism in India right up to the Second World War. We are also aware of correspondence between the Nehru and Ghandi families and the McSwineys.

A young Ho Chi Minh (not his name then) at Marseilles conference in 1919
(Sourced on Internet)

We know also that the War of Independence influenced African uprisings and Ho Chi Minh, later leader of successful wars against Japanese invasion and French colonialism. In South Africa, the Rising must have been a subject of discussion too, at least among the whites. John McBride, sentenced to death ostensibly for his role in Rising was probably in reality being shot for having organised and led an Irish Brigade to fight the British in the Second Boer War, which had ended but fourteen years earlier.

In Britain itself, the Rising influenced the huge Irish diaspora in England, Scotland and Wales and a significant proportion of the insurgent forces in Dublin had actually come from there. The Rising and especially the War of Independence caused a crises of a kind in British socialist thinking, threatening an irrevocable rupture between revolutionary socialists and even sections of radical social democrats on the one hand and pro-imperial social democracy on the other.

This is not the place to discuss this further but that situation, allied to anti-colonial struggles around the world, huge dissatisfaction and mutinies in the British armed forces and a growing strike movement in Britain, provided great opportunities for an Irish revolutionary movement to influence the history of the world in a direction other than that which it has taken.

For all the reasons outlined above, the Moore Street quarter should be of recognised World Heritage Status.

UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE AND OTHER CONSERVATION STATUS

The Irish State ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1991, which qualifies Ireland to apply for that status for the Moore Street quarter. Up to US$1 million is available from the World Heritage fund for the saving and development of a World Heritage site and funds are also available for urgent works to save it. World Heritage status attracts considerable tourist interest and substantial revenue is of course also available to the State and businesses surrounding the area from such tourist interest.

Currently Ireland has only two sites which have been accorded full World Heritage status (one of archaelogical and the other or natural, mainly geological, importance). However, another seven sites are under “Tentative” categorisation since 2010 and Dublin City is one of those. The Moore Street battleground could be afforded that full World Heritage status in its own right, which I believe its history deserves but it can also be used to strengthen the case for full such status for Dublin City.

The ten grounds on which UNESCO currently relies in order to examine the “the unique importance” of a site is admittedly rather restricted in the category of historical importance, particularly in the development of social movements. However, even under the existing list, I would submit that the Moore Street battleground meets four of the criteria: 2, 4, 6 and 8. The USA has the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall building as World Heritage sites.

Registering under EU programs may also be possible, in particular Horizon 2020.

THE GREAT HUNGER – WAS IT GENOCIDE?

Diarmuid Breatnach

That was the subject of a debate between historians Tim Pat Coogan and Liam Kennedy on Wednesday 20th, organised by the 1916 Societies’ San Heuston branch and held in Club na Múinteoirí, Parnell Square, Dublin.

Coogan has a long track record as a journalist and historian of a nationalist/ Republican perspective: for nearly two decades Editor of the now-defunct nationalist daily Irish Press, broadcaster and author of many works including The IRA, Ireland Since the Rising and biographies of Michael Collins and Éamonn De Valera. Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of Economic and Social History at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of a number of articles and of books, most of the latter collaborations, including (with L.A. Clarkson et al), Mapping the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999). His most recent, on his own, is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015).

"Irish Famine Memorial/ Leacht Cuimneacháin na nGael" in Philadelphia. USA (Photo from Internet)

“Irish Famine Memorial/ Leacht Cuimneacháin na nGael” in Philadelphia. USA
(Photo from Internet)

Given that the Great Hunger or Famine is a subject on which historians tend to take oppositional sides and with at least one prominent historian on the panel, I would have expected a very large turnout. Therefore when I arrived and looked at the seats in the large hall of Club na Múinteoirí, I was surprised to see that although there was a respectable number in attendance, some of the seats laid out were unoccupied.

I had got the start time wrong (yes, even though I had shared the poster for the event on my Facebook page!) and so missed some of Tim Pat Coogan’s presentation (but a friend told me Coogan had mistaken the subject and began to talk about the 1916 Rising until he came back on track). When I entered, Coogan was dealing with the Great Hunger’s death toll and referring to the “accelerated deaths” method of calculating population loss that took into account further likely births had early deaths of potential parents not occurred. By that method, Coogan estimated the deaths at two million, not counting those who died on the “coffin ships” or after arrival at their destination.

Tim Pat Coogan (Photo from Internet)

Tim Pat Coogan
(Photo from Internet)

Coogan said that New York State included study of the Great Hunger under “Holocaust Studies” which he thought entirely appropriate and concluded by stating that the Great Hunger was indeed genocide.

Liam Kennedy

Liam Kennedy

Liam Kennedy then took the floor and began with a personal anecdote of the unveiling of a stained glass window in Belfast, dedicated to the Famine, at which he had been invited to speak some years ago. It was a somewhat rambling story through which his audience sat quietly, awaiting his arrival at the question up for debate.

During his anecdote, Kennedy related that he had, in the course of his speech, referred to punishment shootings and exiling” (instructions to leave the country) carried out by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, which had angered in particular his Republican audience, including Gerry Adams (which he described but did not name). So of course, in retelling, he was once again referring to it – in a debate about whether the Great Hunger was genocide or not. Kennedy related this in the alleged context of showing that the Hunger is a controversial subject – of course it is, so it hardly needs any other controversial subjects dragged into the discussion.

Kennedy went on to allude to “amnesia” around the subject of the Great Hunger, which he compared to a similar “amnesia” which he believed attached to the issue of the thousands of Irishmen who had “fought for the Empire (or he may have said “England”, or “the UK”) and for Ireland during WWI.” Yes, it seem to me that he was engaging in a certain amount of coat-trailing in front of his audience which, given the Dublin location and the 1916 Societies host, he must have assumed to have many Republicans in its midst.

Eventually he got the job for which he had been invited and began, helpfully, by quoting part of a definition of “Genocide”. I cannot recall which authority he quoted but a search reveals many definitions, most of which entail intent. One of the most recent authorities is Article 6 of the Rome Statute which provides that “ “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group …” and goes on to describe a number of means of carrying that out.

It was clear that Kennedy was going to rely on denying the intention to cause, rather than to deny the effect of the catastrophe; this was entirely as I expected and it is the stock approach of genocide deniers and colonial apologists (not always the same thing). But in reality he had little to say on this subject, other than to point at the “laissez-faire” nature of the UK Government’s economic policy at the time and the weakness of the Whig party in power, managing a minority government. To be fair, it is extremely difficult to prove lack of intent but all the same I would have expected something better.

In its absence, Liam Kennedy went on to talk about culpability, which is not the same thing – one might be to blame for something which one didn’t, however, intend. And Kennedy spread the net of blame pretty wide, throwing it not only over the British Government but on the Irish middle class (could have done more), the Catholic and Protestant Churches (opposition to emigration and continued church-building), the Irish landlords (absentee or callous), the Young Irelanders (had no solutions), O’Connell’s 40 MPs at Westminster (didn’t raise much trouble at Westminster, although they were supporting the minority government).

Kennedy didn’t stint however on the severity of the Great Hunger nor on its huge impact on Ireland and on its diaspora. On that he said he agreed with Coogan, although his estimate of deaths was closer to 1.5 than two million. Any disaster in which one in seven died was an extremely severe one — it was the worst disaster in Irish history and one of the worst internationally, Kennedy stated. And it was most severe on the poor – and here Kennedy quoted a sentence of Karl Marx – and proportionally struck hardest at the Irish-speaking areas.

THE DEBATE OPENED TO THE FLOOR

When Kennedy finished, the Chairperson Kevin Keane summed up the main points elaborated by each speaker and the meetings was thrown open to questions and contributions from the floor. I wanted to get my comment in early, as I was scheduled to sing as soon as the questions and answers were over; since for a moment no-one stirred, my hand was the first up. Handed the roving microphone, I thanked both speakers and remarked that the question of intentionality did not relate only to the Government of the time but also to the ruling class of the time – the British capitalist class. An analysis of their opinions as expressed in correspondence and in their media of the time, for example editorials in the London Times, has indeed revealed the intention to get rid of the Irish cottier class and, to a degree, the Irish landlord class too. They wanted most Irish agricultural land turned to grazing and deliberately used the opportunity to do so.

Other contributors talked about food leaving Ireland while people starved, the low numbers of Irish permitted to vote; another countered the criticism of the Young Irelanders by pointing to the Rising they attempted in 18481. Yet another contributor pointed to comparisons with famine in other areas due to the potato blight such as the Highlands of Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands – but did not express an opinion from those studies on the question being debated here. One contributor amusingly took Kennedy to task on standard academic grounds relating to questions on examination papers: “Read the question carefully, prepare your answers, ensure they are relevant …”

RESPONSES OF THE SPEAKERS

Returning to both speakers for the final responses, Kennedy admitted that the Government had wanted to get rid of the Irish cottier class but not by famine and disease. The “coffin ships” were only relevant to one year of the Great Hunger, he maintained and also that the Irish had, according to statistics, survived the journey in better health than for example the Germans, who had a much higher mortality rate during the journey and on arrival. On hearing that, I wondered whether he was taking into account the giant graveyard of Grosse Isle on the St. Lawrence, where “5,424 persons who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.”2

Grosse Isle Memorial bilingual notice, Quebec (Photo from Internet)

Grosse Isle Memorial bilingual notice, Quebec — 5,424 Irish people got no further than this spot, where they died and were buried, in 1847

 

The island mass graveyard of Grosse Isle, Quebec, from a distance (Photo from Internet)

The island mass graveyard of Grosse Isle, Quebec, from a distance
(Photo from Internet)

Kennedy returned again to the question of the “laissez-faire” economic doctrine and maintained that the rulers of the UK at that time were convinced that government interference in economics was not only undesirable but would make things ultimately worse. He also stated that we should not judge the people of then by the knowledge and beliefs of today – another argument often put forward by bourgeois historians (and to which I was going to reply in a very short poem I had written on the subject).

Tim Pat Coogan had the final say in the debate and wandered somewhat while however displaying the breadth of his learning. With regard to the Catholic Church he related that the Papacy in Rome had dictated to the Irish Church that they should continue building churches during the Great Hunger and he went on to criticise Rome in terms that might come as a surprise to those familiar with Irish nationalists/ Republicans of Coogan’s generation. He accused the Papacy, through a certain Cardinal, of instructing the Bishops in the Church to cover up cases of abuse, by the Cardinal’s admonition that the Bishops were to act as fathers to the priests and not as policemen.3 Coogan also defended O’Connell who was already sick then, dying in 1847, and the Irish MPs, having to go to Westminster, where they were in a small minority, to put their case and to where letters from Ireland could take a week to arrive.

Returning to the subject under discussion, Coogan made the trenchant point that the Government runs the country and ultimately responsibility lies with it; if it does not, then there is in fact no responsibility for anything, he implied. It was a good point with regard to culpability and he went on to deal with intentionality. He drew attention to a London gentlemen’s club whose members were influential in forming Government economic opinion, and a discussion reported among two members that one million deaths would be required to bring Ireland to a healthy economic state while the other disagreed, saying that two million would be required. “The potato blight gave them the opportunity and they took it”, said Coogan. “It was genocide.”

IN CONCLUSION

Poster for the event (image from 1916 Societies)

Poster for the event
(image from 1916 Societies)

Some points which did not get a response in my opinion were the issues of “bad Irish landlords” and “chaotic land tenancy” and perhaps the others “to blame” apart, of course, from the British ruling class and their Government. Briefly, who was to blame for the absentee landlord situation in Ireland? Who stole the land for them and then protected them and their agents with soldiers and police? Who bought out the Irish Parliament in 1800, giving the political class even less reason to hang around in Ireland? This was the result of invasion, colonisation, planting, repression and bribery – the principal culprit all along was English colonialism.

Yes the peasantry (and landless tenantry’s) situation was chaotic and yes they depended too much on the potato crop. Whose fault was that? Who organised the land in that way (and refused security of tenancy, penalised tenants for improvements by raising the rents, etc)? Who stifled profitable Irish industry if it competed with English and taxed Irish production for the English Crown? Again, British colonialism.  Could the country’s economics have been differently organised, to support that population (and even larger) in reasonable comfort?  Of course it could — but at that point in history, it would have needed an independent national capitalist class to organise it, something Ireland did not have (and has not had since that section of it she had in 1798 was beaten by Crown forces).

In the last analysis, it does not matter how badly one group or another behaved during the failure of the potato crop – the British Government was the principal body with the power to act to avert catastrophe and the real power behind them, the British ruling class, were the ones with the interest in doing nothing to avert the disaster.

Finally, a thought worth considering: would the British ruling class have tolerated a disaster on this scale in Britain? Laissez-faire economics or not, I am pretty sure they would not.

The 1916 Societies and in particular their Sean Heuston branch have been putting on talks and debates on important Irish historical questions for some time, some of which I have been fortunate to attend. The Great Hunger debate was worth having and the contenders were well known with a track record in historical studies and public fame – the debate promised to be interesting. Despite this however, I found the event overall somewhat flat. Kennedy’s presentation manner was hesitant in speech and devoid of liveliness; Coogan wandered off the core subject too often. One cannot blame the 1916 Societies for that, however.

HISTORY AND “SKIBBEREEN”

I was called up to the stage to sing my song which had been announced earlier; by now there were about half the audience remaining. I explained that the song I was going to sing was called “Skibbereen”, published in Boston in 1880, not far from the time of the Great Hunger, and attributed to Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibereen. The song is in the form of a dialogue between a migrant father and his son but I sing it as though his dialogue is with his daughter. I also intended to omit a verse, one which has the man’s wife dying in shock during the eviction – I felt that women were much stronger than that.

“That’s revisionist!” interjected Tim Pat Coogan.
“That’s right,” I replied, “but progressive revisionism.”

It’s revisionist!” Coogan said again.

I felt like reminding him that I had not heckled him during his public speaking. Instead I said

All history is revisionist. The issue is what kind of revisionism.
“No it’s not – not good history!” Coogan replied.

Reading the short poem "History" (Tim Pat Coogan in background) (photo Denis Finegan)

Reading the short poem “History” (Tim Pat Coogan in background)
(photo Denis Finegan)

I turned from him and read a short poem.

ALL our history is important,

not just 1916,


teaching us what we are


and what we have been.


How we came to reach the now;


of those who fought

or those who bowed,


                                                                                  through bloody pages,

                                                                                 down through the ages;


                                                                                  it relives the struggle to be free


                                                                                 and whispers soft what we might yet be.

                                                                                 (Diarmuid Breatnach, January 2016)

DB Singing Skibereen

Singing “Skibbereen”. In the background, L-R: Liam Kennedy, Kevin Keane and Tim Pat Coogan. (photo Denis Finegan)

I then sang Skibbereen.

As I leaned over to hand back the microphone after finishing the song, Coogan told me his mother had loved that song. I took this as a peace overture and smiled, murmuring something about it being a good song to love. But no, I was mistaken: “And she liked that verse”, he added.

“Well, that was her opinion,” I replied, “and this is mine,” and left the stage.

Liam Kennedy was much more polite. Up in the bar, in passing, he thanked me for the song and added that he had heard the slogan “Revenge for Skibbereen” (also an alternate title for the song) alright but never the song. I expressed amazement at this, since the song is well known and even more so among people of his generation. Kennedy was born “in rural Tipperary” and, I believe, raised there too.  There must have been many a kitchen and pub where that song was sung in Tipperary, surely?

End.

1In a longer debate, I could have pointed out that James Connolly himself had criticised the Young Irelanders’ response the the Hunger but that his solution would not have pleased Kennedy either – Connolly wrote that the Young Irelanders should have led the people in breaking open the granaries, feeding the starving and preventing food from leaving the country.

2http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/grosse-ile-canadas-island-famine-memorial/
3Actually, a highly secret instruction, including requirement of vows of secrecy and threats of excommunication for whistle-blowers, had been circulated by the Papacy to bishops around the world as far back 1962 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/aug/17/religion.childprotection

REMEMBER

Famine emigrants monument on the north quays of the river Liffey, Dublin, with superimposed image of African woman and children. Image from Memet Uludag on Facebook.

The Great Hunger (1845-1849) emigrants’ monument on the north quays of the river Liffey, Dublin, with superimposed image of African woman and children (image from Memet Uludag on Facebook).

Diarmuid Breatnach
Remember? Remember when we were migrants?
Remember when we fled murder and rapine
and many another terrible scene
When death and torture were at hand
and we sought succour in other lands?
Remember?
Remember when our little nation
was devastated by starvation.
disease and desolation,
our hope in emigration ….
Remember?
Remember when we died by
mountain, valley and sea
and we braved
the rolling waves
to go where we might be free?
Remember, oh do you remember?
Escape, the vote,
in leaky boats
in anything to float,
fear in throat,
today they launch
for our shores.
Remember? We must remember!
end

IRISH HISTORY … AND HERDS OF ELEPHANTS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Politics is about the present and the future, obviously … but it is also about the past.

Different political interests interpret and/or represent the past in different ways, emphasising or understating different events or aspects or even ignoring or suppressing them entirely. There is choice exercised in whom (and even what particular pronouncement) to quote and upon what other material to rely. And by “political interests” I mean not only groups, formal (such as political parties) or informal, but also individuals. Each individual is political in some way, having opinions about some aspects of questions that are political or at least partly-political. For example, one often hears individuals say today that they have no interest in politics, yet express strong opinions of one kind or another about the right to gay and lesbian marriage, the influence of the Catholic Church, and how the country is being run by Governments

So when an individual writes a history book, there are going to be political interpretations, although not all writers admit to their political position, their prejudices or leanings, in advance or even in the course of their writing. One historian who does so is Padraig Yeates, author of a number of historical books: Lockout Dublin 1913 (a work unlikely to be ever equalled on the subject of the title), A City In Wartime — 1914-1919, A City in Turmoil 1919-1921and his latest, A City in Civil War – Dublin 1921-’24. The latter was launched on Tuesday of this week, 12th May and therefore much too early for people for who did not receive an earlier copy to review it. So it is not on the book that I am commenting here but rather on the speeches during the launch, which were laden with overtly political references to the past and to the present. If a review is what you wanted, this would be an appropriate moment to stop reading and exit – and no hard feelings.

The launch had originally been intended to take place at the new address at 17 D’Olier Street, D2, of Books Upstairs. However the interest indicated in attending was so great that Padraig Yeates, realising that the venue was going to be too small, went searching for a larger one. Having regard to how short a time he then had to find one and with his SIPTU connections, Liberty Hall would have been an obvious choice. Whether he had earlier been asked to speak at the launch I do not know but, having approached Jack O’Connor personally to obtain the use of Liberty Hall, in the latter’s role of President of SIPTU, the owners of that much-underused theatre building, it was inevitable too that O’Connor would be asked to speak and act as the MC for the event.

O’Connor’s introduction was perhaps of medium length as these things go. He talked about the author’s work in trade unions, as a journalist and as an author of books about history. O’Connor’s speech however contained much political comment. Speaking of the period of the Civil War (1919-1923), he said it had “formed what we have become as a people”. That is a statement which is of dubious accuracy or, at very least, is open to a number of conflicting interpretations. The Civil War, in which the colonialism-compromising Irish capitalist class defeated the anti-colonial elements of the nationalist or republican movement, formed what the State has become – not the people. The distinction between State and People is an essential one in our history and no less so in Ireland today.

Talking about the State that had been created in 1921 (and not mentioning once the creation of the other statelet, the Six Counties) and referring to the fact that alone among European nations, our population had not risen during most of the 20th Century and remained lower than it had been up to nearly the mid-Nineteenth, a state of affairs due to constant emigration, O’Connor laid the blame on the 26-County State and in passing, on the capitalist class which it served. He was undoubtedly correct in blaming the State for its failure to create an economic and social environment which would stop or slow down the rate of emigration – but he did not explain why it was in the interests of the capitalists ruling the state to do so. Nor did he refer to the cause of the original drastic reduction in Ireland’s population and the start of a tradition of emigration – the Great Hunger 1845-’49.

The Great Hunger memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay. The Great Hunger and its immediate aftermath initiated mass Irish emigration.

The Great Hunger memorial on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. The Great Hunger and its immediate aftermath initiated mass Irish emigration.

Even allowing for the fact that O’Connor wished to focus on the responsibility of the 26-County State, the Great Hunger was surely worthy of some mention in the context of Irish population decline.  Just a little eastward along the docks from Liberty Hall is the memorial to that start of mass Irish emigration. It was the colonial oppression of the Irish people which had created the conditions in which the organism Phytophthora infestans could create such devastation, such that in much less than a decade, Ireland lost between 20% and 25% of its population, due to death by starvation and attendant disease and due also to emigration (not forgetting that many people emigrating died prematurely too, on the journey, upon reaching their destination and subsequently). Phytophthora devastated potato crops in the USA in 1843 and spread throughout Europe thereafter, without however causing such a human disaster as it did in Ireland. In Mitchell’s famous words: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” And that is what makes that period of population decline uncomfortable for some historical commentators.

Indeed, O’Connor did not mention British colonialism once, nor Partition, nor imperialism. And nor did either of the other two speakers, nor the author. I remarked on this to an Irish Republican present, to which he responded with a rhetorical question: “Did you expect them to?” Well, yes, perhaps naively, I did. While not expecting an Irish Republican analysis from Padraig Yeates and perhaps not either from anyone he would consider appropriate to speak at the launch of one of his books, dammit, we are talking about history. The presence of Norman/English/British Colonialism for 800 years prior to the creation of the Irish Free State, and its influence on that state’s creation and on subsequent events in Ireland, is worthy of at least a mention in launching a book about the Civil War. Not to mention its continuing occupation of one-fifth of the nation’s territory.

Colonialism and Imperialism and, in particular, the Irish experience of the British variant, were not so much ‘the elephant in the room at the launch as a veritable herd of pachyderms. They overshadowed us at the launch and crowded around us, we could hear them breathing and smell their urine and excreta – but no-one mentioned them. The date of the launch was the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly 99 years ago, a man whom the Labour Party claims as its founder (correctly historically, if not politically), a former General Secretary of the ITGWU, forerunner of SIPTU and the HQ building of which, Liberty Hall, was a forerunner too of the very building in which the launch was taking place. His name and the anniversary was referred to once, though not by O’Connor, without a mention of Sean Mac Diarmada, executed in the same place on the same day. And most significantly of all, no mention of who had Connolly shot and under which authority.

That circumspection, that avoidance, meant that a leader of Dublin capitalists, William Martin Murphy, could not be mentioned with regard to Connolly’s death either i.e. his post-Rising editorial in the Irish Independent calling for the execution of the insurgents’ leaders. But of course he did get a mention, or at least the class alliance he led in 1913 did, in a bid to smash the ITGWU, then under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly. This struggle, according to O’Connor and, it must be said also to Padraig Yeates, was the real defining struggle of the early years of the 20th Century, not the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence nor yet the Irish Civil War. It was in 1913 that “the wrong side won”.

One-eyed as that historical vision must be, we have to question whether it is even partially correct. The Lockout was a great defeat for the ITGWU and for the leading elements in the Irish workers’ movement. But the Lockout did not break the trade union and, in fact, it later began to grow in membership and in branches. Other trade unions also survived and some expanded. So in what manner was 1913 decisive in ensuring that “the wrong side won” in later years? The Irish trade union movement was still able to organise a general strike against conscription in April 1918 and the class to organise a wave of occupations of workplaces in April 1919. 

True, the Irish working class had lost one of its foremost theoreticians and propagandists by then, in the person of James Connolly. And who was it who had him shot? Not Murphy (though he’d have had no hesitation in doing so) nor the rest of the Irish capitalist class. In fact, worried about the longer-term outcome, the political representatives of the Irish nationalist capitalist class for so long, the Irish Parliamentary Party, right at the outset and throughout, desperately called for the executions to halt. General Maxwell, with the support of British Prime Minister Asquith, ordered and confirmed the executions of Connolly and Mallin of the Irish Citizen Army and British Army personnel pulled the triggers; in essence it was British colonialism that executed them, along with the other fourteen.

For the leaders of the Labour Party and of some of the trade unions, and for some authors, Padraig Yeates among them, the participation of Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising was an aberration. For these social democrats, the struggle should have been against the Irish capitalist class only (and preferably by an unarmed working class). It is an inconvenient fact that Ireland was under colonial occupation of a state that had strangled much of the nation’s economic potential (and therefore of the growth of the working class) in support of the interests of the British capitalist class. It is an inconvenient fact that the Irish capitalist class had been divided into Unionist and Nationalist sections, the former being descendants of planter landowners and entrepreneurs whose interests were completely bound up in Union with Britain. It is an inconvenient fact that the British and the Unionists had suppressed the last truly independent expression of the Irish bourgeoisie, the United Irishmen and, in order to do so effectively, had created and enhanced sectarian divisions among the urban and rural working and middle classes. It is also an inconvenient fact that the British cultivated a client “nationalist” capitalist class in Ireland and that the police and military forces used to back up Murphy’s coalition in 1913 were under British colonial control.

To my mind, a good comprehensive analysis of the decline in prominence of the Irish working class on the political stage from its high point in early 1913 and even in 1916, has yet to be written. One can see a number of factors that must have played a part and the killing of Connolly was one. But something else happened between 1913 and 1916 which had a negative impact on the working class, not just in Ireland but throughout the World. In July 1914, WW1 started and in rising against British colonialism in Ireland, Connolly also intended to strike a blow against this slaughter. As the Lockout struggle drew to its close at the end of 1913 and early 1914, many union members had been replaced in their jobs and many would find it hard to regain employment, due to their support for the workers and their resistance to the campaign to break the ITGWU. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many joined the British Army or went to work in war industries in Britain. Although the Irish capitalist class supported the British in that War (up to most of 1917 at any rate) it was imperialism which had begun the war and British Imperialism which recruited Irish workers into its armed forces and industries.

Reaching back in history but to different parts of Europe, Padraig Yeates, in his short and often amusing launch speech, cracked that “for years many people thought Karl Kautsky’s first name was ‘Renegade’ ” — a reference to the title of one of Lenin’s pamphlets: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Yeates apparently admires Kautsky and quoted him on Ireland. But Kautsky advocated no uprisings against imperialism or colonialism in the belief that “super-imperialism” (also called “Hyper Imperialism”) would regulate itself peacefully, letting socialists get on with the task of evolving socialism. Two World Wars since then and current developments have negated Kautsky’s theory but more to the point, to advocate his theory as a guiding principle at the time he did was a major ideological threat to proletarian revolution and to the evolving anti-colonial struggles of the world and therefore he was a renegade to any variant of genuine socialism and socialist struggle.

This is relevant in analysing the position of the trade union leaders and the Irish Labour Party today. They are social democrats and their central thesis is that it is possible to reform capitalism, by pressure on and by involvement in the State. They deny what Lenin and others across the revolutionary socialist spectrum declare, that the state serves the ruling class and cannot be coopted or taken over but for socialism to succeed, must be overthrown.

It is the social-democratic analysis that underpinned decades of the trade union leaders’ social partnership with the employers and the State, decades that left them totally unprepared, even if they had been willing, to declare even one day’s general strike against the successive attacks on their members, the rest of the Irish working class and indeed the lower middle class too since 2011. Indeed Padraig Yeates, speaking at a discussion on trade unions at the Anarchist Bookfair a year or two ago, conceded that social partnership had “gone too far”. Can Jack or any other collaborationist trade union leader blame that on the transitory defeat of the 1913 Lockout? They may try to but it is clear to most people that the blame does not lie there.

Two other speakers addressed the audience at the launch, Katherine O’Donnell and Caitriona Crowe. Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland and, among other responsibilities, is Manager of the Irish Census Online Project, an Editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vice-President of the Irish Labour History Society. She is also Chairperson of the SAOL Project, a rehabilitation initiative for women with addiction problems, based in the North Inner City. It was her, I think, who made the only mention of “Blueshirts” and her also that mentioned the anniversary of James Connolly. Although her speech was overlong in my opinion for a book launch in which she had already been preceded by two longish speeches, strangely I can remember very little of what she had to say.

Katherine O’Donnell’s contribution however made a considerable impression upon me. She declared herself early in the speech to be lesbian and a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights and is Director of the Women’s Studies Centre at the School of Social Justice at UCD. O’Donnell began by praising Padraig Yeates’ work, of which she declared herself “a fan”. In a speech which at times had me (and sometimes others too) laughing out loud, she discussed the contrast in the fields of historical representation between some historians and those who construct historical stories through the use of imagination as well as data; she denounced the social conservatism of the state, including the parameters of the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, the legal status of marriage in general and the climate of fear of prosecution engendered by the shameful capitulation of RTE to the Iona Institute on the accusation of “homophobia” (she did not mention them specifically but everyone knew to what she was referring).

After the launch speeches -- (L-R) Padraig Yeates, Katherine O'Donnell, Caitriona Crowe.

After the launch speeches — (L-R) Padraig Yeates, Katherine O’Donnell, Caitriona Crowe.

Jack O’Connor, between speeches, made a reference to a giant banner hanging off Liberty Hall which had the word “NO” displayed prominently, saying that they had received congratulatory calls from people who thought it was against same-sex marriage. The banner was however against privatisation of bus services. The current banner on Liberty Hall says “YES” to the proposal in the forthcoming referendum and he said that now busmen were calling them up complaining …. to laughter, O’Connor commented that “it’s hard to the right thing, sometimes”. Presumably what he meant was that it is hard to know what the right thing to do is, or perhaps to please everybody. 

It is indeed hard to please everybody but I’d have to say that it is not hard to know that the purpose of and ‘the right thing to do’ for a trade union, is to fight effectively and with commitment for its members and for the working class in general. And that is precisely the responsibility which has been abrogated by Jack

In the background to this photograph of a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in 2002 is Liberty Hall, draped in a hug "Vote Labour" banner. SIPTU has maintained that position through a number of coalition governments in which Labour has participated and that have attacked the living standards and rights of workers.

In the background to this photograph of a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in 2002 is Liberty Hall, draped in a hug “Vote Labour” banner. SIPTU has maintained that position through a number of coalition governments in which Labour has participated and that have attacked the living standards and rights of workers.

O’Connor personally, along with other leaders of most of the trade unions, including the biggest ones for many years, SIPTU and IMPACT. And also by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That is why Jack O’Connor gets booed now if he ever dares stand on a public platform related to trade union struggle, a treatment received also by David Beggs before he retired from the Presidency of ICTU.

Back in 2011, another giant banner hung from Liberty Hall – that time it urged us to VOTE LABOUR, as did leaders of other trade unions. Stretching magnanimity, we might give the trade union leaders the benefit of the doubt and say they had forgotten that the Labour Party had only ever been in Government in coalition, most often with the right-wing Blueshirt Fine Gael party and that its most recent spell sharing power had given us one of the most repressive governments in the history of the State. Let us imagine for a moment that these social-democratic union leaders had forgotten all that. But, after February 2011, as Labour and Fine Gael went into coalition and both reneged on their election promises, as the Coalition government began to attack the working class and the lower middle class, what is their excuse then? When did they denounce the Labour Party to their members, publicly disaffiliating from the party? No, never, and the fact that those disgusting connections continue was underlined by the presence at the book launch of a Labour Party junior Government Minister and the late arrival of none other than Joan Burton, Minister for Social Constriction …. er, sorry, Protection.

Plaques in Glasnevin's Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923. Their police and military killed about another 150 without judicial procedure.

Plaques in Glasnevin’s Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923. Their police and military killed about another 150 without judicial procedure.

Considering that the book being launched was about the Civil War, it is really extraordinary that no speaker mentioned the repression by the Free State during and after that war. I am certain that Padraig Yeates has not glossed over that, he is much too honest and too good a historian to do so. But that only one speaker at the launch (Catriona Crowe) should mention the sinister Oriel House and none the at least 25 murders its occupants organised, nor the 125 other murders by Irish Free State soldiers and police, nor the 81 state executions between November 1922 and January 1923, sets one wondering at just how much self-hypnosis sections of our political and academic classes are capable.

Elephants, elephants everywhere

but not one can be seen!

End.