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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
I watched the BBC Northern Ireland film ‘Lost Lives’ in mid-February www.lostlivesthefilm.com on television – it had a limited cinema release late last year. It was an hour and a half based on the book of the same name which is the definitive account of the people whose lives were lost as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The book is out of print and expensive to buy second hand. A librarian has indicated to me that it has been one of their most stolen books in the library service in the North so that is certainly an indication of popularity. The level of detail is amazing.
A film of an hour or two could not hope to cover more than a small fraction of the tragedies involved. Its method of skipping from one story and time to another was to show the wind turning the pages of the book, or sometimes fast glimpses of images of incidents and deaths which were not covered in the film. This worked well. What I didn’t think worked was showing an image of the book floating on or above water, making it look like it was some holy and mystical tome, which I thought was really inappropriate. The book was the result of hard work and dedication on the part of the authors, the most well known of whom were perhaps David McKittrick and Brian Feeney, the others being David McVea, Chris Thornton and Seamus Kelters. The film, launched late in 2019, is directed by Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt.
Talking about images, the film was visually poetic with images of stags, mists, wild seas, trees, sunshine, animals and animal eyes, clouds, waterfalls, decrepit buildings and old machinery, scrapyards and so on. Did this work, along with a vibrant musical score, as a counterpoint to the voiceover and images of atrocities and the aftermath of atrocities being shown? Generally yes. Without this it might have looked rather prosaic. Narration is by well known actors. Possibly more confusing was the intercutting of modern images of Belfast today; to those who know Belfast well today it should be decipherable but possibly not to others.
The film ran chronologically and covered all manner of deaths by all manner of people; security forces, republicans, loyalists including paramilitaries who inadvertently killed themselves, e.g. when a bomb they were handling blew up. Appropriately, it covered a couple of people who killed themselves because of the Troubles, one a young woman whose love of her life had been killed less than a month previously, another a man who could not live with himself for something he had done years before (and for which he had done time in prison). It included coverage of the deaths of children and infants; two who died in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974, perpetrated by the UVF (with British assistance which was not addressed in the film) remained unidentified for a couple of days because their parents had also been killed.
It was searing to watch. Grief manifested itself in different ways but it was always there, sometimes unbearably so. Early in the Troubles, a family lost two sons who had headed out one evening together and whose bodies were found outside Belfast, shot. They were young Protestant men who could have been killed by Catholics because they were Protestant, or killed by Protestants because they were going out with Catholic women. An image that will stay with me is their father, walking at the back of the two parallel hearses carrying the bodies of his dead sons; he had a hand placed on the roof of each hearse, an image of love, connection and irreparable loss. It makes me well up to think of it. Their mother had laid her head on each of the coffins before they were taken from home by the two hearses.
One of the most poignant quotes from the Troubles is featured, from the father of James Kennedy, aged 15, who was killed in the bookies’ massacre on the Ormeau Road in 1992. His mother died a couple of years later, aged just 50, her husband saying it was because of a broken heart; she had only been out of the house half a dozen times after her son’s death. He stated “The bullets that killed James didn’t just travel in distance, they travelled in time. Some of those bullets never stop travelling.”
This is why ‘dealing with the past’ is not just necessary but essential. And that requires a variety of things to happen.
Northern Ireland still bears the scars of the tragedy that took place, and we are not out of the woods. And Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” was just a very small war by conventional standards. Think of Syria and you can multiply the death rate and horror literally thousands of times. To me it all shows the futility and counterproductive nature of violence; destroying something to ‘win’ or ‘save’ it. Think of all the heartache, pain, suffering, angst, and resultant hatreds and intransigences in Northern Ireland as a result of the Troubles; it is hard to do. Try to scale that up to somewhere like Syria and it becomes virtually impossible to comprehend, beyond the possibilities of the human mind.
You should be able to find the “Lost Lives” film on the BBC online. For those who cannot get ‘Lost Lives’, the book, or would prefer something a bit shorter, Malcolm Sutton’s listing of those killed in the Troubles (to 2001) is online on the CAIN website at cain.ulster.ac.uk/sutton
The film ends with the birth of a grandchild of a Troubles victim....and a long, long list of the names of 3,700 people who were killed.
The Billy King Guide to Irish Folk Songs
I sometimes worry that there is not enough about culture represented in these pages so this piece is partly to try to correct that omission.
Irish folk and traditional music and song is justifiably lauded at home and abroad, for many different reasons, including fantastic melodies and considerable inventiveness, virtuosity and vigour in content and style. However it has come to my attention that some people are wholly or partly unaware of the way in which a wide range of issues of concern are sensitively handled in the repertoire of Irish song and ballad.
I have therefore taken it upon myself to provide a short guide, albeit an incomplete one, just covering some well known songs and a few lesser known ones. To be politically ecumenical I have included a couple of songs from the Orange/loyalist tradition (taking ‘Irish’ = island of Ireland) though I have been careful in my general selection to try to avoid offence.
As some of the themes are, ahem, forthright, I would advise readers of a sensitive disposition to look away now.
- The Wild Rover: A drinking song which tells of a feckless Irish seafarer who gets caught in a vicious circle of working at sea to earn money and then coming home and spending all that money on alcohol. Naturally this leads to a fractious relationship with his exasperated parents. It is difficult to see how the protagonist will escape this vicious circle and not end up an alcoholic wreck relatively early in life, or come to grief at sea. A footnote is that this was originally an anti-drinking song (cf Lankum’s version).
- The Black Velvet Band: A misogynist account of how a Belfast apprentice in days of yore is betrayed by his girlfriend who is a thief; he ends up behind bars because of her actions. It fetishises or reifies the woman concerned as a ‘black velvet band’ in relation to how her hair is tied up; she remains nameless.
- Whiskey in the Jar: Another misogynist account, this time by a violent thief and would be murderer in the southern part of the country who thinks he is a great guy. He is betrayed by his lover and ends up in prison. Nevertheless he foolishly still longs for her. Incredibly this is usually interpreted as a joyful or upbeat song.
- The Ould Triangle: A Dublin criminal in Mountjoy Gaol escapes from reality by daydreaming of being with the women in the female prison nearby.
- Fairytale of New York: A modern song detailing a foul-mouthed exchange between a couple in New York, at least one of whom is Irish and has previously been arrested for drunkenness. He is also a gambler and has, against all expectations, struck lucky on a bet. It includes the use of a term of homophobic abuse.
- The Aughalee Heroes: Orangemen march about their locality, partly, and avowedly, aiming to intimidate those not of their persuasion, while telling themselves how great and brave they are. They then get dead drunk.
- The Sash: The original lyrics to this archetypal Orange song opposed sectarian prejudice (cf Tommy Sands) whereas the usual version of this song can be seen to encourage it. ‘The Sash’ is anachronistic and historically inaccurate in seeming to imply it was worn at particular battles (unless it is referring to the places where battles took place) while the Orange Order was founded just over a hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne which it celebrates; this copperfastened the existing system of severe religious discrimination in Ireland. And it isn’t even a sash, it’s a collarette, “the collarette my father wore”, since it is worn around the neck and down the chest, not down the side. I am deliberately not including in this selection a loyalist song which advises how the supreme leader of the Catholic Church should be treated.
- Báidín Fheilimí: A “children’s song” unsuitable for children. If the little boat in question broke up on Tory Island, as stated in the song, were there other people on board apart from Feilimí, and did he and others drown? All pretty grim and disastrous anyway and, as stated, unsuitable for young children.
- Mo Ghile Mear – On the surface a love song (based on an 18h century poem) which is a disguised ode of support for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart Pretender to the English throne in the mid 18th century (and not the current septuagenarian Prince of Wales). It is a piece of heroic praise for a definite loser, and don’t we love a loser, but whether a Jacobite victory would have solved Ireland’s problems is extremely unlikely, so it is all rather misplaced and useless affection.
- Lanigan’s Ball: A penniless and spendthrift boozer named Lanigan, who is from Athy, wastes his money on a big, upmarket dance when he comes into some property on the death of his father. However it might be more aptly named “Lanigan’s Brawl” since it is a celebration and recounting of an orgy of inter-personal violence in a social setting, the dance ending in fighting and general melee, and the waste of six months in Dublin “learning to dance for Lanigan’s Ball”. And, by the way, who is Julia?
- Seven Drunken Nights: A metaphorical but still graphic account about an alcoholic man whose wife is having an affair under his nose (perhaps unsurprisingly given his habitual drunkenness) and who half realises something is going on but is too drunk to do anything about it. Usually reduced to five drunken nights to avoid offence.
- Kelly the Boy from Killane – A lively and seemingly joyful militarist song which in tone seems to be out of step with its celebration of actual events in the 1798 rebellion, which was woefully defeated in the ongoing military struggle and a person, John Kelly, who was injured and subsequently executed, decapitated and his body ill-treated by the victors.
- The Mountains of Mourne: A pleasant but dim and easily led amadán, from Co Down in the shadow of the Mournes, is duped into working for nothing when he travels to London, and never realises he was tricked. Does this story fit into the ‘stage Irish’ image?
- Going up to Monto: A multifaceted celebration of Dublin’s former red light area, its prostitution and illicit drinking. It includes an account of an invitation, in Irish, to the then reigning and elderly British monarch (when Ireland as a whole was in the UK) to kiss the arse of a local Dublin dignitary.
- Danny Boy: A maudlin lament on the departure of a lover and the expectation by the singer of their own death (the song doesn’t say why), coupled with a fanciful and nonsensical expectation of being more comfortable in their grave when their lover returns. Beyond weird. And no one knows why or what ‘the pipes are calling’. It is actually a relatively modern song written just before the First World War by an Englishman which Ireland has adopted as its own but is well known internationally and has been performed by many world figures. The melody used, the Derry Air (which is a lot cleaner than it used to be) is much older however, and that is of Irish origin.
- Molly Malone: A Dublin fish seller dies and her ghost is meant to still haunt the same locations where she sold her wares. However perhaps ‘the presence’ was just the lingering smell of rotten fish. Molly Malone has since been reinvented as ‘the tart with the cart’ though there is no evidence she actually existed. [You have totally shocked me with that last revelation – Ed]
- I’ll tell me Ma: A disjointed song in that we aren’t told whether the juvenile ‘I’ of the song (“I’ll tell me Ma…..”) is also the ‘She’ of the song (“She is the belle of Belfast City...”) but presumably not - a contrast may be intended between the two girls but not adequately enunciated. The ‘I’ of the song suffers from gender-based bullying or violence with her hair being pulled and personal items taken from her or stolen. However one mitigating factor is that at least she tells her mother who may be able to help, although then again the girl could be further targeted as a snitch.
- The Spanish Lady: A young man in late 18th century Dublin becomes instantly and neurotically obsessed with a woman from abroad whom he sees washing her feet at night time; he looks at her in a very voyeuristic way. His obsession is despite having no interaction with her beyond a) a look from her which he described “as hot as the fire of amber coals” and which was most likely to have been her thinking “Why the hell are you looking at me like that?” and b) “When she saw me then she fled me” - which makes her lack of interest in him/fear/loathing crystal clear. He remains totally obsessed with her even in old age. If he found out where she was he would almost certainly have become her stalker, such was the totally unreasonable fixation with this ‘Spanish lady’ to whom he had never actually spoken. She was definitely very wise to try to avoid him completely, and lucky to have been able to do so.
I will conclude this piece by saying I hope you are now better informed about how Irish songs and ballads deal sensitively with many different issues of concern. Truly this is a wonderful repertoire of life stories told in a mature way which can hold its head high on the world stage and justify Irish culture being considered incomparable and on the highest cultural level. We are blessed (take this with either a religious or secular meaning as you wish) to live in a country which can deal with such lofty themes and express such sensitivities in such a sophisticated way. So, if you want some high culture I can advise you that most of these songs can be easily found online.
[Is nothing sacred? - Ed]
A confusing ‘nation once again’?
There were two surveys of opinion in relation to a united Ireland came out during the month with rather different results. Caveat emptor. Some of the results were almost diametrically opposite. A Liverpool University/Economic and Social Research Council/Social Market Research survey showed 52% in Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK and only 29% for a United Ireland; on the other hand a survey by The Detail/Lucid Talk showed 46.8% to stay in the UK and 45.4% to have a united Ireland – very close. [We have been poll-axed – Ed] Both surveys showed a considerable majority in the Republic for a united Ireland.
I’m not a psephologist or data analyst so it is difficult to entangle the different results (even if I had that background I think it might still be difficult). However I surmise one difference may be that the Liverpool survey was asking how people would vote ‘tomorrow’ - and people who might favour a united Ireland in the near to medium term were reluctant to support what might seem an immediate united Ireland (and they would be quite right in my opinion because such an unplanned event would be chaotic and probably violent). But the results of some other surveys have been close to the Liverpool ones.
There is one real diametrical opposite in the two surveys regarding people who vote outside the unionist and nationalist boxes – Alliance supporters and other ‘neutrals’ (with very big inverted commas!). The Liverpool survey showed 73% of ‘others’ (proclaiming themselves neither nationalist nor unionist) would vote for the North continuing in the UK and just 30% of Alliance supporters would back a united Ireland. The Detail/LucidTalk survey on the other hand showed 47% of Alliance voters would go for a united Ireland, 22% for continued UK membership, and 31% don’t know. How you can explain these very different results I simply don’t know. As Paul Nolan points out in relation to The Detail results www.thedetail.tv that is some change since prominent Alliance figure Anna Lo proclaimed herself in favour of a united Ireland in 2014 – causing apoplexy at the time. If the new political breakdown in the North is 40/40/20 (the 20% being the ‘neutrals’), Paul Nolan is exactly right to suggest it is they who will swing the decision.
Of course Brexit has happened in the mean time and that has caused a major shift. While orientations to that in general vary significantly on a unionist/nationalist axis, The Detail survey showed 68.7% of people in the North were dissatisfied with the actual Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
One humorous comment by Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool in the Belfast Telegraph coverage concerned the unlikelihood of a Secretary of State calling a border poll (and it is their decision, by the Good Friday Agreement). He said “Given a Northern Ireland Secretary has an average shelf-life of 21 months – less if they do a good job – that is no surprise.” His remark about a ‘good job’ referred to Julian Smith, removed by Boris Johnson for his own political reasons (and to the possible detriment of affairs in Northern Ireland) not long after the return of government at Stormont.
It is certainly unwise to read too much into any individual opinion poll results though a sequence of them will certainly indicate which way the wind is blowing, and even the Liverpool survey showed a 2% increase in support for a united Ireland since 2017. And things which swing one way (who would have foreseen Brexit ten years ago?) can swing another. However I strongly support a sensible exploration of what a united Ireland might entail, particularly in relation to rights and economics; what rights would be copperfastened, how would the North be supported economically and what are the prospects for economic growth (I hasten to add, ‘of a sustainable kind’) in the North with unification?
To explore these things is definitely not to say everyone or anyone should uncritically put their money on a united Ireland horse. We know what Northern Ireland in the UK has meant in the past. Interestingly, we don’t actually know what it may mean in the future, and the British government’s lies (sic) and obfuscations on the effects of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement makes things more complicated – and its lies are also an indication of how very little the people of Northern Ireland matter to the current British prime minister (or indeed, how little previous legally binding agreements matter). This picture will become clearer within a year or two.
However we have very little idea of what a united Ireland could be or should be, even if nothing is agreed until everything is agreed; this may include considerable changes in the current 26 counties. People need to know how a united Ireland might shape up so that they can make decisions based on sensible analysis rather than simple emotional tribalism; we have more than enough of the latter and we need a lot more of the former.
Well, that’s me for another month, I’m looking forward to a real hint of spring though March can be cold enough -March 1937, I remember it well (!), was completely frozen. Mind you, if the Gulf Stream gives up or changes course drastically with global heating, Ireland could be subjected to much more severe winters and no better summers. Always look on the bright side of life.
It has been a mild winter. In the damp cold of an Irish winter it may not feel ‘warm’, but we in our neck of the woods – and despite a recent cold spell [The witch or warlock must have had cold toes – Ed] we have had very little below freezing weather; a number of our annual flowers that succumb to mush when the temperature gets down to -2° or -3° are still alive and upright, including some nasturtiums. Anyway, see you soon, whatever the weather, and hopefully whatever the coronavirus outbreak may bring, 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).