FREE CARPETS AND PERFUME!

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

The carpet is a lush deep kind of green – not too deep a green though. We didn’t order it but I’m not complaining – I like it. Much better than that yellow one we had for a while a few months back.

 

Next to it is another kind of carpet – very different. The same green background but covered in big blobs of yellow, brown, orange and mixtures of all three. Even some reds. The blobs are large and small, some shaped like the spades suit in a deck of cards, others like a cat’s iris, some with many points, like a star … Didn’t order that carpet either but I like it too. It might not sound that great but you’d have to see it.

There was the wallpaper too, great stretches already unrolled, ready to look at. A blue-white background with puffs of white and, in the foreground, thin black shapes, some of them decorated with those blobs of colours, like those on that carpet. Great contrast with the thin black shapes.

The carpets and wallpaper were just delivered – no order was placed by phone or email. And no request for payment by cash or credit card. Not even an invoice. Totally free! Hard to believe, I know.

Then there was the perfume. No, not in bottles, in the air. I swear! (Yes, I know that rhymes but I didn’t plan it). It was heady but not in the way that rose is, or honeysuckle, or privet flower. Those aromas make you kind of want to sit down and drowse …. or even lie down and go to sleep. Then you remember the story of the artist who died inhaling in his sleep the aroma of flowers he had in a vase to paint – and you don’t linger too long. Did that really happen? Not sure – best not take the chance. Didn’t take a chance on the dandelion flowers when you were a kid either. Waking up in a wet bed is not a pleasant experience at any age but definitely gets worse, even if rarer, as one grows older.

Glade part-sunlit, Botanic Gardens November 2018
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

No, this perfume does not make you want to sit or lie down; it makes you want to jump, run (or at least stride purposefully). It is invigorating. That too was delivered free.

All of this – well, most of it – was donated by the trees. Not the green, surely? Not directly, no … but indirectly, yes. The grass grows in the earth which is fed by dead leaves and other material, broken down by insects and fungi and especially recycled through the digestive tracts of worms. May those gardeners who poison worms on their lawns be forever damned!

Autumn leaves on green grass, Botanic Gardens November 2018
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Before Ireland was denuded of her mixed forests, what a site she must have been!

All this visual, olfactory and mood-enhancing stuff was delivered free to us but there is, you are right to suspect it, a hidden cost. The weather is getting colder and sitting nearly naked on a beach is definitely out, to say nothing of plunging into the freezing water (well, with some lunatic exceptions). Outdoor cafe-sitting is becoming more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There are days coming when lots of good arguments (convincing at the time anyway) will be found against getting up to go about once’s business.

Trees on banks of Tolka River, Botanic Gardens November 2018
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

But then there will be glittering jeweled grass, constellation of stars in the pavement, artwork fronds on glass, white star patterns in things floating from the sky, white blankets over everything or at least over the hilltops in the distance, the special joy of a hot soup, a warm fire and blankets (if you have them) ….

And not to long away, sprouting buds pushing through bark and soil, misty green branches, a different perfume, quickening the blood in a different way.

End.

Advertisements

TRY ANYTHING

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

I’ll try anything once – she said.

I looked at her. Would you? I thought. Would you really?

Image sourced: Internet

 

And then my mind took off. Not perhaps where she had meant it to go.

Would I try anything, even just once?

Jump out of an airplane hundreds of metres above ground, even with a thrice-safety-checked parachute? No. Not even with TWO parachutes. Not unless the plane was on fire or going to crash – in which case, in a civil aircraft, there wouldn’t be any parachutes anyway.

Jump of a bridge on bungee cords? No. Not even off a high diving board! Yes, I know the water’s soft, serious bodily damage, even much pain extremely unlikely. But no.

Climb big windy, icy mountains? No. Scale cliffs? No.

OK, you’re seeing a connection with height here, right? But it doesn’t end there.

Go deep-sea diving? No. Not after that time on my third ever dive, when – despite a half-hour of air showing on my gauge, I suddenly ran out of it. Luckily I was not far down. Even getting me to dive at that shallow depth again would take some doing.

What else? OK, go against someone who is holding a knife? No. Yes, once in a drinker’s hostel I did take a knife off a guy but he wasn’t brandishing it at me. It certainly was not recommended procedure.

Demonstrate unarmed against soldiers who have proven, like the Israeli Occupation Force, that they don’t mind, even like shooting unarmed protesters? No. Almost certainly. But if I were a Palestinian, being ground down daily? Maybe, just maybe.

Be a cop? No. Be a cop’s tout? No. Take a job evicting people from their homes? Definitely not. Turn off water or electricity on families? No. Repossess cars? Only if I could choose according to circumstances, so that’s a No too.

Rob banks? Probably not. Yes, I know they’re robbing us – it has nothing to do with principle. In that career you end up having to use guns and then people tend to get shot. And they are hardly ever the bank-owners.

Be a surgeon? A bit late for that but probably no too.

Even in sexual categories, where perhaps (I could be flattering myself) I was intended to go …. No, in that tin of Quality Street sexual flavours, in the jar of Liquorice Allsorts, though there’s a lot to like, there are some things I wouldn’t try.

Looking at her, I wondered whether she really would ….

I wondered whether I’d been quiet too long. I’d probably missed my chance to suggest something.

End.

SINGING SONG CENTRAL

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

          The text on my mobile gave me a little jolt. Treating a gentle query from a friend as a summons, I headed off to the Song Central session in Chaplin’s bar, just across from the Pearse Street Garda station (outside which on some on some occasions I’ve protested until they released some person or persons they had arrested on a demonstration on which I have been – and on one memorable occasion, even on a walking history tour I was conducting as part of an anti-G8 Dublin program).

 

So, get ready, jump on the bike — it’ll be maybe a quarter of an hour? Intention to stay in for the night blown away, I head for the shower and shave, then reheat and consume most of the Dublin coddle.

Wheeling the bike out into the hall, I hear a squelching kind of sound. Oh no! But yes – flat tire (and of course, the rear one, with the gears on the wheel)! Fair enough, it’s bus or walk.
So where’s the snow from this “Code Orange” weather warning? And how could you trust anything from the colour orange anyway? Walking across from Liberty Hall to Butt Bridge, I do actually see some snow, slabs of it apparently having fallen off the roof of a car from some snowy region out of town. Young people pounce on it delightedly and, normally, I’d be in there myself, snowball fighting given half a chance. But the session ….

It’s a long time since I’ve attended the monthly Song Central, as I was reminded by people I had not seen in quite a while. This session was started by Alan Stout around seven years ago, in a kind of split from the Bray monthly session a number of years ago (but a friendly split and the Bray parent is still going strong). As in the Bray session, you may play an instrument but only as accompaniment to a song. And it’s still popular – sometimes it’s a job to get a seat.

It’s a kind of Republic of Song with a wide allegiance: religious-type Christmas songs partnered Christmas social comment in which Jesus is a revolutionary; comic songs balance the serious, Irish trad and folk meet pop and Blues, new and self-composed songs intersperse those made familiar by well-known singers and bands. Most singing is unaccompanied and in English but a couple were sung i nGaeilge.

Remembering Christmas I abandoned my plan to sing The Glencoe Massacre (“Cruel is the snow that blows round Glencoe” — a nod to the much-heralded no-show snow) and opted instead for Arthur McBride, which is actually set in Christmas Day. Later I sang They’re Stealing Our Water, which I had debuted in that session maybe two years earlier and for which one of the participants had given me a better line than I had originally composed. The song goes to the air of The Sea Around Us by Dominic Behan and the chorus is the same, except for the last lines:
“But we’ve still got our Gombeens and a bank guarantee
and they’re trying to steal our own water!”

It’s always a risk to slip a different line into a well-known chorus because the crowd are likely to sing the one they know and not the one you’ve composed. Which did happen a bit but eventually they got it.

I heard some really good singing and some fair singing, as well as a couple of songs I’d not heard before. The session was due to finish earlier than usual in consideration of adverse weather warning (those Orangeys again!) but there were still some people there as I left. It is always a joy to attend so why don’t I do it more often? The answer is that I don’t know but in a month’s time, although I don’t plan to, it may be that once again I will give it a miss.

So on my way to the bus stop of course I pass Bowes’ pub in Fleet Street (Sráid na Toinne!) and I drop in there for a half or a pint and to listen to some trad from the Sunday night session. But what’s this? No musicians! Apparently they play 7-10pm now (but later on bank holidays) and are off playing for some more hours of the night at “the Apollo Sessions”, the barman tells me. But where would that be? Hardly in Apollo House, no longer occupied to highlight homelessness and guarded by a security firm.

Elucidation unforthcoming, it’s onward to the bus stop in Westmoreland Street where I am fortunate to get a bus almost straight away. On the top deck, a chat in Castillian (Spanish) with a Filipino woman, her Spanish partner and a lively and chatty child. And so, home … to reheat and finish the remains of that coddle.

End.

 

BLADDER BLATHER

Diarmuid Breatnach

M: I’m awake. Unhh … what woke me? Unhhh …. too early.

Bladder: I don’t know but I need to go.

M: You’re not desperate. I want to go back to sleep.

B: No ….

M: If I get up now to let you out in the toilet, I’ll be too awake to go back to sleep.

B: …………………….

M: I’m not listening. What?

B: Nothing. I think I need to go.

M: You don’t, not yet. Just relax and I’m off to sleep. In a couple of hours I have to get up.

B: mrmrmrmrmrmrmrmrmrmrm

M: What?

B: Nothing.

M: You’re muttering.

B: I’m not muttering.

M: You are. I heard you.

B: I’m just talking to myself.

M: Talking to yourself at very low volume.

B: Yes.

M: In other words, muttering.

B: I think I need to go.

M: You don’t. You’ve got plenty of stretch left in you.

B: Why don’t you just bring me there, I’ll release and you can go back to bed.

M: Because the act of getting up, switching on the light, walking into a colder atmosphere, urinating ….

B: Releasing me.

M: What?

B: Releasing me. Instead of “urinating”

M: Are you serious?

B: It doesn’t hurt to be polite.

M: You’re really trying to wind me up, aren’t you? But it’s not going to work. Let me go back to sleep.

B: M? M?

M: What?

B: Just bring me there and you can go straight back to sleep. Not one more murmur from me, honest.

M: No ….

B: But I need to go ….

M: Oh for fuck’s sake. OK, I’m getting up! There’s the toilet now. Go on. You’ve destroyed my sleep. I hope you’re satisfied!

B: Ahhhhhhhh!

M: Happy now?

B: No, not really, just ……

M: What?

B: Relieved.

THE SPECTRE OF THE BROWNIE

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

                  We knew about gays but we didn’t call them that. That was in our primary school days. Our mammies or das or others had warned us boys about them. We were never to accept sweets from strangers. They were men, older, probably shabby, hanging around in public toilets (when we had public toilets in streets). They would try to see your mickey, try to touch it (they were only interested in boys, which went to show how totally deviant they were).  They’d give you sweets or even money.  Just for that?  It was enough!  We thought no further but when we had to use those public urinals, kept as far away as we could from any men (a habit we continued into adulthood) and tried to cover our mickies with our hands and sometimes got some of the urine on them as a result.

Old-style urinal formerly on Ormonde Quay, Dublin, photographed in 1969. One of the types of places where the “Brownies” supposedly lurked.
(Image source: Internet)

Locked underground toilet in Kevin Street, Dublin, one of many such now all closed or demolished.
(Image source: Aoife Barry, the Journal)

We didn’t call them “gays” then but there were other names in our vernacular dictionaries: brownies, dirty men, homos ….. They were always predators and always male. Girls didn’t have to worry, apparently – those dirty men would not be tempted at all. It was the normal men girls had to worry about.

Was there such a thing as female homos? But if they wanted to play with your mickies that would be normal wouldn’t it? And nice even if sinful. Ah, chance would be a fine thing! But girls or women doing it with one another? How? And sure, what for?

Did we know any homos? Well, we were kind of getting to hear about poor Oscar Wilde. He would have been our fifth national Nobel prizewinner for literature and the fourth from our capital city. If not for …. well …. Poor man, he was misguided. And duped. But a lovely writer.

Oscar Wilde quotations, part of his monument in Merrion Square, Dublin. (Image source: D.Breatnach)

Head sculpture of a youthful Alexander the Great, from the Hellenistic period. (Image source: Internet)

Our elders, well a great many of them, knew that many famous men had been homosexual – but they didn’t tell us. We knew quite a bit about the military exploits of Alexander, the Macedonian but nobody told us he was homosexual. If we’d known, we’d have asked ourselves whether he went to conquer the world in order to hang around public toilets in foreign lands, waiting to touch boy’s mickies. William of Orange was a homo too but then we had enough reason to hate him already. Wait – William …. Willy …. willies ….. nah, coincidence!

There was another William they might have known about, King William Rufus (1087 – 1110), son of William the Conqueror, openly homosexual. And probably assassinated by order of his brother, King Henry II, not for being gay but to get the kingdom. Well, what would you expect of the English! OK, Norman-English. Whatever.

Mícheál Mac Liamóir as Iago in Orson Well’s production of Shakespeare’s “Othello”. (Image source: Internet)

They surely knew, educated adults and anyone around the theatre, that Mícheál Mac Liamóir was “a practicing homosexual”. An Englishman who became Irish, including a fluent speaker and writer in the Irish language, he lived with his lover Hilton Edwards in Harcourt Terrace. Edwards was another Englishman converted to Ireland. But sure they were English, so our elders only sniffed and turned a blind eye, grateful for the culture of the Abbey and Gate theatres, the formation of An Taidhbhearc and fame on English language stage and screen.

We knew Roger Casement could not be homosexual (even though he was a Protestant) because he was an Irish patriot. The English would do anything to tarnish his reputation and they had forged “the black diaries” to say disgusting things about him1, before they hanged him, not for homosexuality but for “treason” to the Crown. That’s the English Crown, of course. The one on top of the Arms of the Union, with the Lion and the Unicorn below, and below them the shield bearing the Thistle of Scotland, the Rose of England and the Harp of Ireland. You can see the design on the front page of the London Times, or on the roofs of the Bank of Ireland and Customs House buildings in Dublin.

Roger Casement, projected by British espionage service as a homosexual in order to undermine the campaign for clemency on charge of treason.
(Image sourced: Internet)

But did we know any homosexuals personally? Perhaps some did. There was a lad at school who liked to knit and listen to opera and whose manner was quite feminine. Probably he was/ is, we thought years later but at the time he was just a boy who was like a girl. There was another one, son of a famous actor, a bit of a bully with a gang around him. He turned out to be gay but I at least never suspected.  Then there was a certain barber who seemed quite effeminate but would do his best to cut your hair to any fashionable style which you required.

As we came into our teens, our vision broadened a little and we came upon more sinister knowledge. There were now rumours of homosexual Christian Brothers and priests. Seeing as these two groups, along with the Jesuits, directly controlled most of secondary education in the Irish state, nearly all of us Catholics were going to pass into their hands at some point. Hopefully their educational hands only. They didn’t have to hang around public toilets. They’d have us for six or seven hours a day, five days a week. Not to speak of the residential schools (too many people didn’t).

We knew in general and we knew of specific instances, by rumour or by experience. We resolved not to be victims ourselves and the strong succeeded. The weak? Well ….. Sauve qu’il peut, as they say (or I think they do) in France.

And we didn’t talk of it to our elders. Why? Well ….. hard to say. Would they have believed us? Did we have proof? Would it only have showed how dirty our minds were?

In my teens, a youth selling newspapers in Dún Laoghaire told me of a brawny sailor who one evening wanted to entice him into an alley away from company in order “not to embarrass the girls”. So, homosexuality was not confined to the creepy men hanging around toilets, or to the effeminate and arty, or to the clergy and Catholic brotherhoods. Burly sailors? Dear God!

And now a disturbing but exciting knowledge also came to us. We learned that there were indeed homosexual women – they were called ‘Lesbians’. And almost unbelievably, if you managed to get hold of a copy of the Kinsey Reports (or reviews of them), lesbianism appeared to be even more common than male homosexuality! Disturbing in a number of ways …. women preferring to have sex with women than with men? For some of us, it was difficult enough already to get physically intimate with a girl without some of them preferring other women! Then, a second thought, disturbing in a different way: imagine seeing them together … doing it! Double female nakedness!

As we grew older, we came to know gay men personally. Of course we did. Some of us, the better ones, acknowledged them our equals, did not avoid the subject nor deny them our company. Some of us, while accepting their company, avoided any mention of their preferences; we treated them as heterosexuals, knowing they were not. And some of us avoided them or worse, inflicted violence on them. We found out that some indeed did hang out around toilets but not to feel the mickies of little boys but to make assignations with adult males. Where else could they meet? It was illegal and religiously prohibited too.

Then came gay liberation agitation in the 1970s. Decriminalisation in 1993. And finally, equal rights to wed in 2015. Incredibly almost, that same Ireland of our childhood voted by majority in every county but one in the Irish State of the Twenty-Six Counties, that gays should have the right to marry people of their own gender.  In May 2015, Ireland became the first state to legalise on a national level same-sex marriage by popular vote.  The New York Times hailed the victory as putting Ireland at “the vanguard of social change”.

A badge in the Irish language calling for a vote in favour of the right to same-sex marriage in the Irish state referendum of 2015.
(Image source: D.Breatnach)

We have come a long way, in that respect at least.  But oh, the victims of intolerance strewn along each side of the route of our progress!

Generations in Ireland will grow now, hopefully, without the spectre of the Brownie.

End

Footnotes:

Roger Casement (1864-1916) was an Irish patriot and Protestant, also a poet and an enthusiast for Irish culture. In 1916, in preparation for the Easter Rising in Ireland, he came in a German submarine to assist in the unloading of German armament, including 20,000 rifles. The German boat, disguised as a Norwegian, was discovered and its captain scuttled it outside of Cork. The IRA Volunteers who went to meet the boat and Casement at its rearranged landing place, of which they had just learned, drowned as their car went off the road into the sea.

Casement was apprehended after landing. He was tried for treason in wartime and a substantial campaign arose to save his life. He had earned fame and a knighthood (CMG) a decade earlier through exposing ill-treatment of indigenous people in the African Congo under Belgian Royal control and in Putamayo in Perú by rubber-exploitation commercial interests.

Extracts from the “Black Diaries” were circulated by the British espionage service to undermine popular support for clemency for Casement. Those Diaries (as opposed to his other diaries of his travels abroad)gave details of his  allegedly sexual interludes with men abroad and the extracts circulated substantially undermined the campaign for clemency. Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on 3rd August 1916, the last of the 1916 executions, the only one not by firing squad or to take place in Ireland.

The authenticity of the “Black Diaries” continues to be the subject of controversy. Although Wikipedia notes that a handwriting expert concluded by comparison with his other diaries that the entries were genuinely Casement’s, he is the only handwriting expert to have been permitted to examine the original, nor have samples been subjected to modern forensic testing. And the British espionage service did have a reputation for forging documents.

TALKS AND VISIT to the SOUTHERN BASQUE COUNTRY in OCTOBER 2017

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

This Autumn I made myself available to give talks in the southern Basque Country (i.e. in the Spanish state) on the situation of Irish political prisoners and a series was arranged for mid-October for nearly two weeks.

As well as having private conversations, I gave a total of five public talks to audiences ranging in size from ten to over forty. The composition of the audiences varied from youths to older middle-aged; in some places the latter predominated and in some, the former.

All the meetings I spoke at were arranged by an organisation called Amnistia Ta Askatasuna which calls for total amnesty for Basque political prisoners. This was also a demand of the whole movement and of the leadership of the Abertzale Left until fairly recently and the Gestoras pro-Amnistia organisation had been created under the Abertzale Left umbrella but then banned by the Spanish State. But the Abertzale Left’s leadership have now dropped this demand from public discourse, saying the conditions are not ripe for it and concentrating instead on the end of the dispersal. (More about this and the Basque prisoner situation later).

DB 3 Talks Poster Oct2017

Poster on a wall advertising three talks in the southern Basque Country before the remaining two were confirmed. October 2017. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

I had not intended to confine my talks to those organised by ATA but it was they who organised the talks on dates that were offered, with the exception of one from an independent source that unfortunately clashed with one I had already accepted elsewhere.

Amnistia Posters what wall

ATA posters share with other advertising on a wall in the southern Basque Country, October 2017 (Photo: D.Breatnach)

THE TALKS

The types of venues for the talks were community cultural centres (two), occupied buildings (two) and one local (a space for which the users’ association paid rent and used for their activities). Geographically, the talks were held in Gernika and two in Bilbao (Bizkaia province), Etxarri (Nafarroa) and Ibarra (Guipuzkoa province). There were none in Alava province (although earlier this year I gave interviews to Hala Bedi pirate radio there, in Gastheiz/ Vitoria). On this occasion also I gave a video interview to a rapper who also makes videos for Hala Bedi, though he is located in Bizkaia.

From conversations and discussion it became clear that all the older people in the audiences were veterans of the Basque struggle over decades and a number were ex-prisoners. Some had relatives in jail. The youths had come to political activity or thinking in recent years.

DB Charla Ibarra 24 Oct2017

Talk in cultural centre in Ibarra, Guipuzkoa, southern Basque Country, October 2017. (Photo: ATA)

For the content of the talks I briefly reviewed the more distant history of political prisoners in Ireland, moving on then to the Good Friday Agreement and the release of

Torn poster DB talk Ibarra 24 Oct2017.

Torn poster advertising the talk in Ibarra, Guipuzkoa province, southern Basque Country, October 2017. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

most Irish Republican prisoners in the Six Counties under its terms. The re-arrest and jailing without charge of a number of these ex-prisoners was part of the talk, in which the specific examples given were of Marian Price, Martin Corey and Tony Taylor. I also dealt with the procedure of arrest on ridiculous charges and refusal of bail, or granting it under undemocratic and restrictive conditions, for which I used Stephen Murney as an example.  These were all members of different organisations or none.  Conviction on charges which the evidence does not support is also a category I mentioned, giving the Craigavon Two as an example there. Arrest on possession of arms charges is also a feature on both sides of the Border.

With regard to the 26 Counties, i.e the Irish state, I discussed the Special Court, Membership-of-an-illegal-organisation charges and charges of obtaining arms or having assisted terrorism. I mentioned the planned second Special Court in particular in the context of the State’s failure to convict most of the Jobstown protesters on charges that included “false imprisonment” (i.e kidnapping).

While noting that splits had occurred before in the Republican movement – the Provisionals themselves having emerged from such a split in 1970 – I noted that since the GFA, splits had multiplied and listed a number of the resulting organisations, including those that had existed already at that time.

Listing the number of Irish political prisoners (at the latest count then 79) and reminding the audience that the Irish had extended solidarity to Basque political prisoners, I asked the Basques for solidarity towards our political prisoners too. And I did so not only as a moral issue of internationalist solidarity but also in recognition that internationalist solidarity is one of the first casualties (i.e aspects to drop or weaken) by those who are seeking to surrender the struggle or even to become collaborators.

Talk in cultural centre in Etxarri, Nafarroa province, southern Basque Country, October 2017.
(Photo: ATA)

QUESTIONS

I timed the talks to give sufficient space for – and encouraged — questions and comments, even critical ones.

It was interesting that the same questions tended to come up again and again:

  • Did the different Republican organisations cooperate with one another inside and outside the jails?

  • What were the conditions in the prisons like for the prisoners?

  • How are political prisoners in ill-health being treated?

  • Is there a dispersal issue with regard to political prisoners?

  • Did the population support the prisoners?

  • What were the conditions for their release under the Good Friday Agreement?

  • Did INLA prisoners sign the GFA release agreement?

  • Are there armed actions continuing in Ireland?

  • Are the youth involved in solidarity actions and campaigns?

  • What was the attitude of Sinn Féin towards the political prisoners?

  • Are prisoners “on the run” still in danger of arrest and imprisonment?

In one meeting, one of the smaller audiences and containing only youth, I was asked about the role of women in the national liberation struggle in Ireland today.

Talk in the occupied former Astra factory building, Gernika, Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country, October 2017.
(Photo: ATA)

Some of the questions asked reflect the situation of the Basque political prisoners and also of the censored and inaccurate information about Ireland that reaches them, including through the Abertzale Left‘s (the “official” umbrella organisation) daily newspaper, GARA. At a number of times in the past spokespersons of the Abertzale Left’s organisations had claimed that there were no longer Irish political prisoners, a claim repeated in GARA. More recently, the tendency is to ignore their existence or to represent them as very few, without a program other than return to armed struggle and without a support base (i.e Sinn Féin’s line).

The new direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership, which included a “permanent truce” and disarmament of their armed organisation ETA (formally declared in January 2011) was said at the time to have been agreed by the Basque political prisoners in their organisation EPPK. There have been persistent claims by friends and relatives of some prisoners and by some prisoners released in the last couple of years that they had not even been consulted.

A number of people to whom I spoke claimed that the prisoners’ collective no longer really exists, with prisoners left to act individually; some others said this was true to an extent but not completely. Certainly one feels a general air of disillusionment and uncertainty – and also of anger. And it is true that a small number of prisoners have formally denounced the leadership and left the collective.

Grafitti in Ondarroa, Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

From figures collected in 2003, up to 30,000 Basque activists out of a total population of less than three million) had been arrested, 8,170 were accused of being members of ETA and roughly half of those convicted and imprisoned. The prisoners’ relatives and friends’ organisation Etxerat (also under the Abertzale Left’s umbrella) in its July-September report of this year (2017) recognises 315 Basque political prisoners, of which 310 are dispersed through 61 prisons, with only two in 2 prisons in the Basque Country.

In 39 prisons in the Spanish state, 239 Basque political prisoners are being kept and 68 in twenty prisons of the French state. There are 212 (68.85%) Basque political prisoners in prisons at distances of between 600 and 1,100 km of the Basque Country; from a distance of 400 to 590 km from their country there are 67 (21.75 %) and between 100 and 390 km of home another 29 (9.40 %).

The strain on relatives and friends is considerable, road accidents are frequent on their journeys to visit prisoners and a number have been killed.

Twenty-one prisoners (21) are diagnosed as being seriously or terminally ill and according to the states’ own penal codes should have been released on parole to home or hospital but instead of reducing the number of sick prisoners the total is climbing (almost doubled in recent years).  I accompanied ATA comrades to the port town of Ondarroa to participate in a demonstration organised by a broad platform calling for the release of terminally-ill Basque political prisoner Ibon Iparragirre.

Section of rally after demonstration in Ondarroa, Bizkaia, in solidarity with local seriously-ill prisoner Ibon Iparragirre, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Stage of the rally after demonstration in Ondarroa, Bizkaia, in solidarity with local seriously-ill prisoner Ibon Iparragirre, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Spanish state has rejected all the “peace process” (sic) overtures of the Abertzale Left leadership and says that ETA should just disappear and prisoners wishing to be pardoned and released must repent their previous actions, apologise to their “victims” and give information on their previous activities and comrades. It also says that all still at liberty and wanted for past illegal activities will continue to be pursued.

COMMENTS AND CONTRIBUTIONS

These too tended to be of a kind to come up again and again throughout the tour:

  • The situation in Ireland with regard to the liberation movement and prisoners is like that in the Basque Country or that which the latter will face as time goes on

  • The prisoners’ cause is being deserted by the Abertzale Left leadership

  • Their media and leadership had lied to the movement about the situation in Ireland

  • The leadership is only interested in penetrating the institutions and is neglecting the politics of the street

  • Otaegi and Adams are alike and McGuinness was a traitor when he asked people to inform on paramilitaries

The Abertzale Left did not of course comment on the talks – why would they? However, in Ibarra, I saw posters for the meeting torn down in areas where other political ones remained and according to my hosts, this was the work of the “oficialistas(i.e followers of the leadership’s line) in the town. It was notable too that with a few exceptions, a number of people within the Abertzale Left but whom I know to be very critical of the change of direction, did not attend the talks held in their areas. Since some had previously attended a meeting at which I spoke a year ago and engaged in discussion critical of the Abertzale leadership, I took it that these either disapproved of the ATA organisers or did not wish, for whatever reason, to be seen attending a meeting held by the organisation.

At all the talks I was received with friendliness and courtesy and after some I had a meal in company in a txoko (Basque building — or part of one — owned or rented by a gastronomic association) or the home of my hosts for the evening. Although I invited criticisms with genuine interest in hearing them, none were voiced publicly, whether of the content of my talk or of the Irish people generally — although there were some questions as to why the people “in the south” had not supported more widely the “struggle in the north”. I explained that what they call “the north” is one-fifth or the country and also divided in its population; in addition the Republican movement had left the social and economic concerns of the people in the other four-fifths largely unaddressed and in fact had opposed some social reforms in earlier times. People in the 26 Counties had given a lot of support but without mobilising them on their own concerns and specific conditions this was likely to be a minority activity and to decline over time.

CATALUNYA: SOUTHERN BASQUE ATTITUDE TO THE STRUGGLE THERE

Inevitably, the struggle in Catalunya came into the discourse at some point – after all, I had arrived in Euskal Herria just under two weeks after the Referendum.

The Catalan national flags, the esteladas (both versions) were in evidence across the Basque Country as were some solidarity banners and posters. The two solidarity demonstrations I witnessed (and in which I participated but for a while – each having been called for the same evening as my talk locally) in Nafarroa and in Bizkaia appeared to have been called by the “official” movement and were fairly small and quiet. The largest, of over fifty people, did not even have a flag, placard or banner, which was puzzling.

Large image on the wall of the youth local in Errekalde, Bilbao, where they hosted one of the talks, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

It was reported to me that some time back, the Abertzale Left had been close to the militant CUP (Catalan left-wing and independist popular movement) but now were moving closer to the Eskerra Republicana, often perceived as being less militant and closer to the Catalan bourgeoisie. Among the critics of the Abertzale Left leadership and others there seemed to be a doubt that the Catalan leadership was serious; however, both the “officials” and the “dissidents” had sent people to help the Catalans in their referendum.

After the Spanish police violence on October 1st there was a feeling that the Catalans were enduring what the Basques had endured for decades so why the great shock now? When two leaders of the Catalan movement were arrested and jailed without bail and called “political prisoners”, of course the Basques pointed to their own hundreds of political prisoners (and also to two Catalans who were ETA prisoners). The failure to declare a Republic on the promised day seemed to bear out those with a more cynical view but actions since then and the application of the repressive Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution are bound to raise feelings of respect and solidarity across the Basque national liberation movement, whether “official” or “dissident”.

IN CONCLUSION

It is clear that there is interest in the Irish situation and of that of the prisoners in at least some sections of the broad Basque national liberation movement. It is also clear that there is a substantial discomfort with the direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership since 2011 (and for some since even earlier). Frustration is also evident as is a great concern for the political prisoners and a worry that they are being left without leadership, to come to their own arrangements with the Spanish state or to endure many more years in jail or die there (as Kepa De Hoyo did in August and as Ibon Iparragirre faces now).

This level of concern, disquiet and even distrust is not currently reflected in great numbers attending pickets or demonstrations organised by ATA, as numbers attending the talks showed in some areas but as the talks also showed, there is a network of support for ATA across the southern Basque Country. It was clear that a greater lead-up would have resulted in talks being hosted in further areas, including the province of Alava which was not included on this occasion. The general composition of the movement represented by ATA is healthy in its spread across generations, comprised of veterans (including ex-prisoners) and youth new to the struggle.

The pedestrian bridge at Ondarroa, scene of one of the “human walls” organised some years ago by Basque youth in resistance to the arrests of activists. Supporters placed the activist whom police were seeking in the middle and then packed the bridge with supporters, causing the police hours of work to carry out the arrest. I was told that the official leadership had ordered the cessation of these events. October 2017. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

From a personal point of view it was an interesting if somewhat hectic and stressful period but also one that increased my understanding of the reality.

From a political perspective I hope it helped build some links for solidarity between the struggles in each of the two nations and an awareness that pacification processes are not an alternative but only another face of repression. For the struggles in which so many have sacrificed so much to succeed, we need to raise our awareness of these processes. In these processes political prisoners, often seen by their populations as heroes and people to be cherished, are used by the repressive power as hostages and often too as bargaining counters, the temptation always there for some of those in struggle to use them in kind.

FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS!

LINKS:

Amnistia FB page (Euskera and Castillian (Spanish)): https://www.facebook.com/amnistiataaskatasuna/

Amnistia Blogsite (Euskera and Castillian): http://www.etxerat.eus/index.php/eu/

Etxerat Website (Euskera, Castillian and French): http://www.etxerat.eus/index.php/eu/

From Axpe de Busturia train station, Bizkaia, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Morning view of misty mountains from a host’s house in Etxarri, Nafarroa province, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Bermeo Harbour and some Town

Bermeo Harbour and some of the town from heights above, October 2017. Near the big building at 9 o’clock on the photo was the location of a Franco prison for Resistance women — I was told that Basque nuns locally brought food to the jail for them every day. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Part of the Bay of Bizkaia (Biscay), October 2017, from the site of a Basque Gudari artillery battery during the Anti-Fascist War.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

DRUMMING UP THE PAST

Diarmuid Breatnach

I got a phone call today – my drum has been found.  I was astonished.

Three or four years ago, my drum went into hiding. No, I don’t mean “I went into hiding in my drum” – I’m not talking Cockney rhyming slang or Romany. I mean a real drum, a music-rhythm drum. It’s a dholak — looks like a smallish bongo in shape but both ends are played and it is South Asian in origin. It was bought for me many years ago from a London charity shop.

Why did my dholak go into hiding? I am not sure. Drums are sensitive; sensitive to vibrations. Yes of course, they are about vibration, that’s how they are made to produce sound. But more than that – they also pick up vibration. The skin or membrane, stretched tight, can pick up vibrations of machines, wind or even speech, which resonate inside the hollow instrument. Perhaps I was giving off bad vibrations. Or more likely not supplying enough vibrations at all.

Dholak

A dholak, very similar to mine. (Photo source: Internet)

It is true that I had stopped playing her and taking her to music session. I knew I wasn’t a great player but I thought I was OK – most of the time. Percussion gave me something to do at a session, to be part of it when I wasn’t singing. Then something happened that shattered the veneer of confidence. And there was a session I used to go to where I played it but I stopped going there; I can’t even remember why now.

The percussion illness began years ago in London. It was an infection that spread from my tapping feet to my tapping fingers and to rapping on wooden tables; there were nights I got carried away and came home with sore and skinned knuckles.

The infection spread and I took to playing the violin cases of tolerant musicians at London sessions. Or occasionally an accordion case. And then the dholak arrived. I played her indoors for months before I dared bring her to a session.

Musicians’ eyes widened when they saw me bring out a drum more than two feet high from a sports bag. They were apprehensive, for sure. Musicians playing Irish music (not all of them are Irish) have learned – or been taught – to be wary of percussionists. Percussion usually descends on an Irish session in the shape of a bodhrán (from the Irish, literally “a deafener”) and though the instrument can be played very well and sensitively, too often it is not. When played badly it is out of time with the music or a monotonous boom-boom-boom trying to kill the music … and nearly always too loudly.

There is a joke about the banjo which can be even more easily applied to the bodhrán: “You can tell from a fair distance when a man with banjo is approaching – but there is f.a. you can do about it.”

Even the bodhrán has a dubious history in traditional Irish music and it was really a classically-trained Irish musician, the great Seán Ó Riada, who gained the instrument popularity by working it into his suites — his compositions and arrangements. Norman observers in the 12th Century, describing Irish music, mentioned only a kind of drum, some kind of whistle (flute) and the harp (of which there were two, the small and the large). Not even the uileann pipes were mentioned! Over the years, the wooden whistle came in or was developed domestically (replaced for a while by the metal one, mass-produced in Manchester!), also the concert flute from Europe, the violin from Austria-Hungary perhaps, the accordion from Germany and Italy, the banjo from African slaves and their descendants in the USA, the mandolin from Italy, the bouzouki introduced from Greece in the 1960s, the guitar originally from Iberia but probably through English and US folk music, also in the 1960s.

The uileann pipes, despite the Norman observers, have been around for a while too but difficult to say when exactly it came in, some sources say not till the 1700s – certainly later than the marching war pipe depicted in Elizabethan-period drawings and woodcuts.

St Michans Irish Music Instruments carving

Instruments in Irish traditional music — a panel carving in St. Michan’s Church, Dublin. (Photo source: Internet)

In Irish music, it is normally the guitarist who plays rhythm and many musicians think that with a guitarist, you don’t need a percussionist. If indeed you ever do – Séamus Ennis, once asked what was the best way to play the bodhrán, famously (or infamously) replied: “With a penknife”.

Whatever else could be said about my playing of the dholak, good or bad, at least I never played it too loudly.

Traditional Irish music sessions in London, at least in those years, tended to be more tolerant and inclusive than I experienced in Ireland on visits home or since. So they let me get on with it and we got on ok – me, the dholak and the musicians. And the ‘audience’ seemed ok with us all too.

When I came home to Dublin, to work and to live, after decades in London, she came with me. There was a session in Rathmines I attended regularly and I took the drum there, played it some to accompany the trad music instruments and sang a few songs. At that particular session one heard a variety of types of song and could sometimes see dancing: set-dancing, freestyle sean-nós and there was an elderly couple who did what I took to be a schottische. There was a bodhrán player or two there most times and when they were, I mostly laid off the dholak until they took a break, went to the toilet or out for a smoke.

Usually, the session would start around 9.30pm and go on till 1.00am or even later. Many a time on my way home from that session, a song or a tune would be running through my head, non-stop. Sometimes I even composed a tune, or thought I did — but had forgotten it by next day.

Walking the 4.5 km.s after a session to catch the night bus from D’Olier Street (and a half-hour wait if I missed one) grew tiresome, which might have been the reason I stopped going. Maybe my bike wasn’t working at that time. The truth is, I don’t know why but I did stop going. There was a Sunday session I was going to for a while but I dropped out of that too, for other reasons. The result was that I stopped playing the dholak, even at home.

Maybe she missed the tapping of my fingers on her skin. Perhaps she missed the vibrations of Irish traditional music. And grew to resent the silence. Maybe she planned to leave me.

If so, the occasion came when a large group of Basque musicians were visiting Dublin and I had organised a musical pub-crawl for them (kantu-poteo), as well as a concert for them to perform. I brought the dholak in case there should be an informal session at the end of the evening but there wasn’t and, in amongst all the leave-taking and so on, I forgot about her.

A few days later I looked for the dholak at home and realised I must have left it behind. To the management of the hall I went rushing — but it could not be found. So, someone had stolen her. Or she had gone off with someone she thought would appreciate her more than I had.

I was upset – of course I was – but there was nothing to be done about it. Of course, if I ever should see someone with her, while on my travels ….!

The years went by and I reconciled myself to my loss. I had already mostly stopped going to traditional sessions and was concentrating on singing. For a while I was singing at a different gathering as often as twice a week. Then that too tailed off. Some sessions were a distance away around Dublin bay and finished after public transport did. One was on a Sunday and I was often tired. But the truth is, although I always enjoyed a singing session, I was losing some of the drive, the urge that had me attending regularly.

And then, this morning, from the manager of the hall where I had lost the dholak about four years ago, I got a phone call. She had been found!

Overjoyed as I am, I can’t help wondering what it means, that she turns up now. Of course, it could mean nothing. Just a lucky happenstance that it turned up, was found among stuff stored away, probably by someone searching for something else or having a clear-out.

The cops and private detectives with starring roles in the novels I sometimes read don’t believe in coincidence and happenstance. Much as I hate to take part of my world view from cops, nor do I.

It means something. But what?

end

Information on Irish musical instruments:

https://www.musicalpubcrawl.com/instruments/