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Billy King

Number 254: November 2017

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

INNATE is shortly going to be getting to grips with the responses to the questionnaire which was sent out, to try to grasp what is important to people about INNATE's work – though it's not too late to fill it in if you haven't. But I wanted to quote from it one of the nicest compliments I have had for a long time. Someone said they read this column (and yes, I do have more than one reader) for "a laugh and a sigh". Aaaahhhhh [Was that a sigh? Was that the sigh? – Ed].

Lissadell
I hadn't been to Lissadell House in Sligo before this autumn, the home of the Gore-Booths (including Constance who became Markievicz) which was celebrated by WB Yeats, about which more shortly. The place changed hands in 2003 and there has been an unfortunate dispute over public access and rights of way – I am with the council who unfortunately were defeated legally on the issue, though the owning family are doing their best to develop the place, when we were there a gardener informed us they had just planted a tonne of daffodil bulbs.

Landlordism came into focus as the guide to the house informed us that the few bad landlords got all the publicity at the time of the Famine and indicated that Irish landlords were generally good. We were informed that the Gore-Booths actually mortgaged their property in order to help people locally, and presumably this also enabled them to stay in the manner to which they were accustomed, but it does look like they were among the rank of good landlords (a caveat follows).

However I was intrigued and more than a little doubtful by this suggestion of Irish landlords being generally 'good' so I consulted a historian friend who said the picture was very complex and it was difficult to generalise, and advised consulting the Cork University Press Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (2012). I may not get to do that in the immediate future but I suspect many landlords 'in residence' were moved by the plight of their tenants, whether they did anything about it or not, while absentee landlords did not face pitiless sights outside their doors and just wanted their income stream to keep coming in. And if a landlord decided to clear or consolidate the land by assisting his tenants to emigrate, was that a 'good thing'? Was emigration forced or voluntary? It looks like the Gore-Booths were involved in the practice of assisted emigration on part of their properties before the Great Famine.

However the general picture of landlordism at the time seems a complex pattern and mixture of good, bad, and middling and in some areas where a 'good' landlord took action, others of the class may have been inspired to do likewise. But then you have the instance of the Poor Law Guardians, of the landlord class, at Delphi in Co Mayo refusing starving people any support in 1849 (this is the focal point of the Afri Famine Walk each year) when they were obviously at death's door.

Talking of poverty in this context brings me back to WB Yeats' poem about Lissadell, "In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz" (1933), there is a copy outside the house unveiled by Britain's Prince Charles when he was paying homage to his uncle (Lord Mountbatten) a few years ago where he had been killed at Mullaghmore. It is actually quite a good and intriguing poem [You're a literary critic now? – Ed] [WBY – Why Be a Yahoo? – Billy] but totally destroyed by his line (well, nearly two lines) about Constance Markievicz: "drags out lonely years / Conspiring among the ignorant." Well, even if you take the term 'ignorant' in a relatively non-derogatory way, and I don't know if you can, that seems to be the arrogance and condescension of WB Yeats at its worst, maybe you can throw in sexism for good measure.
Lissadell House and estate is fascinating, not least for the portraits of several family members and staff done by Casimir Markievicz, Constance's husband, on pillars in one of the downstairs rooms. Whatever they were, the Gore-Booths were not conventionally conventional. The entrance hallway is positively brutalist, the Music Room beside it much more convivial. Unfortunately because of patriarchal laws in light of a complicated ownership situation, the last female members of the Gore-Booth family living in the house had a very impoverished end. The main exhibition space (in outbuildings which includes the cafe) is rather cluttered and takes perseverance to take in and comprehend some of what is presented, but there is plenty of interest there if you are able to take your time. The alpine garden is wonder-ful and well worth a visit and a stop if the weather is fine.
There was also a contrast between Eva Gore-Booth's pacifism and Constance's wholehearted and involved support for the 1916 Rising and the military struggle against Britain. Eva was also the most significant figure in getting the death sentence on Constance reprieved. But Constance did have the largest number of people ever come out on the streets of Dublin for a funeral when she died in 1927; the ordinary people of Dublin marked her courage and her concern for the poor. Eva, living in Britain, was an activist for women's suffrage as well as on wider labour and poverty issues, a poet, and, it would seem, an incipient lesbian activist; she died in 1926. Constance had generally ignored her daughter Maeve (1901-1962) who was brought up by her grandmother, she would have been in her mid-twenties when her mother died.

Several biographies of Constance came out in 2016, one a reissue, and one covering Constance and Eva in 1916-17, some of which were reviewed in the Irish Times on 12th November 2016. Last year may have been the centenary of 1916 but it shows plenty of interest about in the family still.

Lissadell is well worth a visit if you are Sligo direction at all though you'll have to wait until after the winter to do so (the opening season looks like early March to mid-October). On our visit to Sligo we combined Lissadell with a visit to Carrowmore megalithic tomb site, amazing, plus a walk up Knocknarea to see if Queen Maeve was at court, but, alas, she was still sleeping. We did pass some sheep on the way but no cattle or indeed brown bulls, that would have been cool(eeeeeeee!).

Hollywood and sex abuse
The emergence of sex abuse scandals in Ireland involving priests destroying the lives of children seems a long time ago. It was mainly the 1990s and early 'noughties when we learnt what had been going on. The issue also appeared in diverse places like the USA and Australia but elsewhere too. Then we had the emergence of the abuse by Jimmy Savile (which came out in 2012 after his death the previous year) and other media personalities in Britain – it is estimated three quarters of Savile's victims were under 18 years of age. Now we have the atrocious stories emerging about abuse by Harvey Weinstein and others powerful figures and stars in the film industry in Hollywood and elsewhere; some victims in this instance would have been legally children, others adults, in all cases reprehensible. It is difficult to express in words the violence done to the victims.

What do these all have in common? Yes, it is that old word, patriarchy. Power corrupts, but male power in the form of patriarchy, male control untempered by female involvement, is very dangerous. Despite very different circumstances pertaining to the sexual abuse – rural and urban Ireland is not the supposedly glitzy world of Hollywood and red carpets – abuse happened because of unquestioned male power. Some people, primarily men, dispute the concept or existence of 'patriarchy' in today's world. I think the recent revelations from Hollywood proves otherwise, though patriarchy should not be understood solely, or even predominantly, as relating to sex and sexual abuse – it is a much more pervasive force than that.

Bordering on the ridiculous
There is an old cartoon by Rowel Friers, Norn Iron's most prominent cartoonist of the second half of the twentieth century (he died in 1998), with two decorators, one of whom has had a tin of paint dumped on him, and he says "All I said is I think it would be better without the border...."! Now the border in Ireland isn't going to disappear today or tomorrow but there was an interesting piece in Slugger O'Toole on current 'border statistics' in terms of opinion in the North.

There's probably nothing very surprising in this, but it does put down some markers. Liverpool University's Institute of Irish Studies (IIS) found that "56% of northern voters in 2015 favoured remaining in the UK and 34.6% wanted a united Ireland... It found that 30.7% of SDLP voters wanted to remain in the UK compared with 9.3% of Sinn Fein supporters, but 27.7% of Catholic non-voters also wanted to stay in the UK." People who don't usually vote – more likely to come out on something like an in-out referendum on UK membership versus Irish unification – support UK membership to a higher extent than usual voters. So there is very little chance of a unification vote in the near future.

The SoS (Secretary of State for Norn Iron, not Save our Souls though that might be appropriate too) is obliged to call a referendum if it is thought the result could be in favour of the unification of the island. Obviously there would be no point in him doing so currently. But in any case we need a more sophisticated process and mechanism to bring people together and make decisions on such matters. This may become more urgent as the Catholic percentage of the population grows in the North and if the UK economy goes down the tubes with Brexit. But in Kevin McAleer's words about the border, "It's the best border in the world – it unites the whole country..."

Anything you can do, ICAN do better
Great to see someone who deserves it getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Given the stupid brinkmanship between D Trump in the USA and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, perhaps even the Nobel peace prize committee were brought to their senses to give it to someone who has done something on the issue, but the fact of their work to get this year's UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons should be the primary reason. The International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons www.icanw.org is indeed a worthy winner.

I dealt previously with Fredrik Heffermehl's book "The Nobel Peace Prize – What Nobel Really wanted" in NN 206 which shows just how off course many of the Nobel awards have been. It is basically meant to go to whoever in the previous year has done most to prevent war and build peace – I quote the more specific details in this other piece.

Now mention is made of even South Korea and Japan thinking of trying to get nuclear weapons. And we learn that "The Trump administration is working on a nuclear weapons policy that is intended to mark a decisive end to the era of post-cold war disarmament, by bolstering the US arsenal and loosening the conditions under which it would be used." Vice-President Mike Pence opined ""History attests the surest path to peace is through American strength. There's no greater element of American strength, there's no greater force for peace in the world than the United States nuclear arsenal." (Guardian, 29th October 2017) I'm not sure where Pence learnt his history but 'history' attests no such thing and this looks like the path to reckless instability and a new nuclear arms race. How many times overkill do they need? How many billions do they need to wipe from the face of the earth? Maybe it's their plan to covertly combat global warming by introducing a nuclear winter instead.

ICAN and its allies and its partners have a lot of work to do. But the moral weight of this year's UN treaty can hopefully be brought to bear on those who think the world is safer with such truly terrible weapons of mass destruction.
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Well, that's me again. The nights and the year are drawing in but Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin (there is no hearth/home like your own hearth/home) and I hope it's calm and peaceful, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

Copyright INNATE 2017