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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
Welcome again, it is certainly not spring yet and winter has some bite in it yet, but I always feel I can see a stretch in the evenings from the end of January. The milder rain of an Irish summer is on its way.
It was tragic to have the death of Dolores O’Riordan recently. Her lyrics in a song like Zombie (about the violence in Norn Iron) are simple, effective and affecting, but when combined with the soaring vocals of Dolores O’Riordan herself was – is - truly amazing. Her music lives on and will be around for a long time.
A quick h(y)m(n) of praise to England
My male line ancestors probably came from England in the 16th century, well before the Plantation of Ulster. I read news in at least one English newspaper, and watch a certain amount of English television programmes. Given that I wouldn’t notice if the entire sporting calendar of the universe fell off the edge, I do not follow English soccer, though many in Ireland – and around the world - do. And living in Northern Ireland which is governed by England (insofar as it is governed at all!) what happens in England is of considerable concern to me. Its population is also much more numerous, nearly ten times the size of Ireland (though it was only double that of Ireland at the start of the Great Hunger in 1846).
You will maybe notice I have used the term ‘England’ here rather than ‘Britain’ because there is a particular crisis of identity in England (different to Scotland, which is different to Wales, and certainly different to Northern Ireland). England is by far the largest ‘country’ in the UK and the one which, by its endeavours, military and otherwise, established what became the United Kingdom. While I recognise that much of the ‘best of the world’ (democracy and government, life, people, soccer.....) feelings from English people are typical of anywhere, any country, I recognise there are many good things which can be celebrated.
There are many ‘Englands’. These include the Englands of Shakespeare (good old Shaky), the Beatles and Bowie, countless comedians, very palatable locally brewed bitter (beer or ale), a strong history of community, trade union and socialist action, pleasant countryside, historic buildings and cities, many ethnic minorities and cultures, and a determined and independent spirit. The BBC is better than most broadcasters but still takes a frequently chauvinist view (at the time of the 2012 Olympics in London you would be forgiven for thinking the rest of the world had disappeared). As I’m not a royalist I don’t go for the English monarch and family but if you wanted hereditary pomp and ceremony, well, you’re got it there.
The epithet ‘Mother of Parliaments’ for Westminster is a peculiar one, It seems to refer to the countries and parliaments of the Empire, in which case it is singularly inappropriate in that the Empire was about English control and not democracy. Exporting a parliamentary model while having actively impoverished countries and divided people to control them doesn’t sound very motherly to me – India was a rich country when England took control, a very poor one when England left. While democracy in England has numerous drawbacks, not least its antiquated and inadequate electoral system, there is nevertheless a lively English democratic debate on some issues, and a long radical tradition from Levellers through Chartists to the formation of the Welfare State after – and despite or because of - the devastation of the Second World War after which care for everyone became mainstream (but more recently curtailed).
I have lived and worked, briefly, in a couple of locations in England and enjoyed and learnt in both. English people are generally decent, well intentioned and with a good sense of fair play. I wouldn’t want to live outside of Ireland because of my identification with this island but, if I did have to live elsewhere, well, England would be a fair enough place to go.
I do worry about them however. If Brexit was a goer because England wanted to forge a new, egalitarian future free from the neoliberal fetters of the EU, ‘taking back control’ for people and cooperative living, and a rejection of the development of EU militarism, well, I would be rooting for them and maybe even with those in Ireland who would like to join them. But to primarily reject neoliberal cooperation internationally for a nationalist myth and a conservative ideology of ‘taking back control’ – which is just being subject to a slightly different control – well, that’s not my idea of fun or politics.
I hope the new direction goes well for them, and from an Irish point of view people in Ireland do too, but I think there will be at least some tears. And as most of those who voted for Brexit are middle aged or older then what will be the sense of things in a few decades time when they are dead and gone? Brexit isn’t even a quarter decided yet and maybe it will never be a settled question for decades to come. David Cameron’s idea that he could decide and get rid of the dispute in the Tory party over Europe with a once off yes/no referendum has to have been one of the greatest simplicities ever.
Undoubtedly England will survive, certainly poorer, hopefully wiser. If out of the Brexit debacle there is the realisation that it is no longer the head of an empire but rather a large-ish European country with a good amount going for it, not least a varied and creative people, which can celebrate what it does have and can look to an inclusive future rather than yearning for a mythical past, well, that will be progress. But, by St George, it looks like it will all ‘dragon’.
Great locally-organised event at the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle (Co Down), on 24th January (2018), the anniversary of the founding of the Congo Reform Association in 1904 by Roger Casement and ED Morel, an Anglo-French Quaker. Obviously Casement is known for other things in Ireland but his wider significance is in the field of human rights, in relation to both the Belgian Congo and Peru, and in the development of human rights concepts. Both Angus Mitchell and Aidan McQuade spoke about Casement, the latter looking at his legacy and human rights, especially concerning slavery, today. Whatever you think of his role in supporting republican armed struggle (pro or anti) later on in Ireland I don’t think that should deflect from his international humanitarian/human rights role.
There are event photos at and around https://www.flickr.com on the INNATE photo site. With a Casement Summer School previously in Dun Laoghaire, and another event on his human rights legacy in Belfast last August https://www.flickr.com/ the case is certainly being made for Casement.
Also remembered at the Slieve Donard event were Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, with their granddaughter Micheline Sheehy Skeffington speaking about their legacy for her, and a drama presentation. Both Francis and Hanna were streets ahead of their time in many ways and Francis is, I would argue, the most important Irish pacifist/peace activist of the 20th century. An INNATE poster celebrates both him and his advocacy of nonviolent struggle.
Love conquers all
Valentine’s Day is coming up. Who St Valentine was, or how many St Valentines there were, or exactly why ‘he’ became the patron saint of lovers, is extremely vague, and the love interest may have been an invention in the so-called middle ages. However the best story or most interesting legend I have come across is that he secretly married couples in 3rd century Rome so the male partner would not have to go off to war – if so, and that worked, it was a pretty clever tactic and he deserves a day named after him, and even if not true it’s still a good story.
Does love conquer all? Well, what do you mean by love? The English language is notoriously imprecise in using the term ‘love’. Do we mean erotic love, family love, liking, or sympathy/empathy? In Greek these are generally covered respectively by eros, storge, philia and agape (the meaning of these can vary in particular contexts). In relation to St Valentine’s Day the context is erotic or sexual love or attraction, though even to qualify ‘love’ with the term ‘erotic’ in English is to give the term a charge which it does not necessarily deserve in relation to St Valentine’s Day where we could be talking about a mild attraction or flirtation rather than an overwhelming desire.
However to mark the occasion I am going to take a very quick musical love tour across a few barricades in Ireland, specifically Norn Iron – if music be the food of love, play on words. One of my favourite punk songs is Stiff Little Fingers’ Barbed Wire Love from their 1979 Troubles-inspired album ‘Inflammable Material’ (though the lyrics alone don’t altogether do it justice);
“I met you in No Man's Land
Across the wire we were holding hands
Hearts a-bubble in the rubble
It was love at bomb site
All you give me is barbed wire love
All caught up in barbed wire love
Tangled up in barbed wire love
Throw my leg over barbed wire love
Barbed wire love snags my jeans
Barbed wire love...”
And not to forget the line “You set my arm alight”! However I wonder should I mention the line “And the device in your pants was out of sight”.......
To take a rather different genre, Tommy Sands’ “The Mixed Marriage”, a k a “We’ll get married then”, is a rather different take on a relationship across the Norn Iron divide, stipulating “We’ll get married then” when various improbable events happen – one or two of which have in fact happened such as “Articles 2 and 3 [of the Irish Constitution] must go” (as these were there when the song was written). Others are rather more improbable such as “When Santa Claus shaves off his whiskers”, however there are what I consider brilliant lines in:
“When a Prod becomes the Pope of Rome
We’ll get married then
When a Catholic sits on an English throne
We’ll get married then
When Ian Paisley drinks a whiskey
With young Bernadette McAliskey........”
However compromise is in sight:
“Aren’t we getting slightly technical
Couldn’t we be a bit more practical
If I thought you really liked me
We’ll get married then....”
‘The Mixed Marriage’ is on Tommy Sands’ album ‘To Shorten the Winter’ and, I am pretty sure, on a couple of earlier ones. When I hear it I find it difficult to get out of my mind the image of Ian Paisley drinking a whiskey with Bernadette McAliskey....
Another more recent Tommy Sands song is “Silent no longer” (on his album ‘Arising from the Troubles’) - “When the boys of Ballymurphy met the girls of Ballybeen” (being respectively a Catholic area in west Belfast and a Protestant area in east Belfast/Dundonald);
“I’ll be silent no longer, I’ll be heard, I’ll be seen
Since the boys of Ballymurphy met the girls of Ballybeen
I’ll be silent no longer .......
Peeping through the window as the minibus slowed down
Strange girls and boys from the other end of town
Thinking of the question but the answer said it all
How are you doing... I’m not too bad at all
You’ll never get me dancing with a weapon in your hand
Charm me with a reason and I’ll dance to beat the band
I’ll show to you a step or two you never seen before
Gently move together and discover what’s in store........”
And the conclusion “There’s a new generation, a new kind of dream”. That there is, but precisely how many are dreaming it, or putting it into practice, remains to be seen, well, let’s hope there are many.
I wanted to end this brief selection with some of the lyrics from “Broadway Girl” by LAD (motto ‘Parody of Esteem”, you can search for their other offerings, either on Facebook ‘LADBelfast’ or another song ‘Arlene’ – a parody of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ - on You Tube). ‘Broadway Girl’ is a take off on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’ – and in my opinion a significant improvement on the original. You can see it at https://www.youtube.com
Broadway is a street leading to the Falls Road from the roundabout on Westlink/the M1 end.....actually there is a Protestant part of Broadway the city side of the Westlink, but that is not what is being talked about here;
“She played tin whistle
In an IRA band
But she fell in love
With an Orangeman...
I met her in Castle Street
By the Hercules Bar
She stole a feg from me
And shouted ‘Tiocfaidh ar Lá’......”
And after more adventures, including in Carrickfergus with this guy from Rathcoole (Protestant North Belfast),
“I walked her home
And she showed me about
Saw the Balls on the Falls
And where her da shot a tout
I swear I’d love to put you
In a song about
Me and my Broadway Girl
But we’d get burnt out”.
Love may not conquer all but it can overcome a lot. Here’s to all lovers everywhere, and especially to those who are crossing whatever divide or problems (geographical, racial, sectarian, class, gender, family objections or other) they happen to face, and I can speak with experience, as someone who did cross a divide or two, that you can survive and let your love grow.
On that hopefully upbeat note suitable for Valentine’s Day, I’ll end and wish you well, and see you again soon, Billy.
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).