Billy King: Rites Again, 319

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Hello again – I am a simple soul, believing in long-term simple solutions. What if, instead of providing food aid to Gaza now to perhaps keep starving and desperate people alive, countries such as the USA (especially) and Britain had not supplied Israel with arms or the money to buy arms so that it would not now be totally destroying Gaza, and might have negotiated a reasonable deal with Palestine? The US has given Israel $220 billion in military aid over the years. Maybe if the USA had chosen a different path then Palestine would be properly established as a state and self sufficient, and Israel and Palestine be at peace today. Just thinking.

Protecting the innocent in war

Great to see a project, covered in the news section of this issue, taking the 697 CE Law of the Innocents, associated with Adomnán, abbot of Iona, into the 21st century. The original is very much of its time and the new one will be too, including an emphasis on protecting the earth. Those familiar with INNATE’s quiz on nonviolence in Irish history will be familiar with the bones of the story (see “Nonviolence: The Irish Experience! Quiz” at ) Adomnán was travelling with his mother, Ronnat, when they stumbled across the bloody and terrible aftermath of a battle – you can imagine the scene, dead and mutilated bodies and people in agony. Anyway, Ronnat made Adomnán promise he would do something about this kind of thing if he ever could, and so he tried later when he was in a position to act, when abbot of Iona.

What is interesting too is that there were lots of attempts, in different world cultures in antiquity, to put limits on the violence and destruction inflicted by war. Of course there can be arguments about the inherent violence or nonviolence of the human being. Some people, once humanity got into arms races, sought to benefit themselves though violence – often under the guise of bring civilisation and modernity. But some others, without necessarily having the resources of the rich and powerful, have sought to restrict warfare and build peace.

Talking about the innocent can be powerful because we have a tendency to think in terms of the innocent and the guilty. But it isn’t always helpful and in Northern Ireland the term ‘innocent victims of violence’ was often used as a way of targetting other people dragged into the conflict by the circumstances of the time (I am not implying that they made the right choice) and contrasting people not involved in the conflict in any way. And ordinary soldiers, while they can commit atrocities and be brutal in warfare, are usually also victims of war through PTSD, injuries or death. Think of those fighting on either side of the Russia-Ukraine war; presumably 99% of them would rather be home and out of harm’s way. While many soldiers may have entered that occupation because it seemed to offer personal opportunities (in the case of Russia possibly a way out of a long prison sentence), many have been cajoled or conscripted, and none deserve to be mutilated or die in battle.

Sometimes even generals can be a restraining force because some of them know the personal cost of war. So we should not scapegoat soldiers. What we as nonviolent activists need to do, however, is both rejecting the whole panoply of war, in all its aspects, while showing the effectiveness of nonviolence – and that means building a movement and alliances which can take on the powerholders and warmongers to remove the reasons and basis for war and violence. And building on what has been done in the past, such as by Adomnán in 697 CE, can be an important part of establishing the cultural/political support required.

Oh, and you do know, or if you don’t you ought to (important historical fact? – Ed) that Adomnán in his life of Colmcille/Columba (like ‘his’ Derry he has a stroke name!) was the first person to write about the Loch Ness monster. How deep is that? [Up to 230 metres – Ed]

Rhubarb, rhubarb

I’m not sure how, in European English, ‘rhubarb’ came to mean nonsense or drivel, as in saying “rhubarb, rhubarb”. The online suggestion is it has a theatrical origin (actors saying ‘rhubarb’ continuously when expected to make indistinct word sounds) but the theatre could have taken it from somewhere else. Rhubarb the plant is of course a vegetable used as a fruit when lots of sugar is added so although we grow it in our garden we don’t use it much since a spoonful of sugar helps the dentist go down on dental caries (it is also high in oxalic acid later in the summer). However I did want to tell you the story of the organic gardener, not me, and the story may be apocryphal, who was asked what they put on their rhubarb. They answered that it was manure or compost. “That’s interesting”, said their questioner, “I use custard”…….. Rhubarb, rhubarb! [That story doesn’t, to alter the words of Ian Paisley Jnr, cut the custard – Ed].

We need to talk about Kevin

No, I am not referring to Lionel (she) Shriver’s well written but grim novel with the fictional, eponymous Kevin (use of the word ‘eponymous’ always allows me to feel intellectual). [That will be the day – Ed] What I am referring to is Kevin McAleer, the Northern comedian introduced to a new and wider audience in his role as Uncle Colm in Derry Girls (and if you don’t know that role which took a toll on Liam Neeson’s PSNI officer, look it up). Anyway, Kevin McAleer has been doing a farewell tour, “One for the road”, though of course the hope might be for successive farewell tours and not a cul de sac.

It is a difficult act, deadpan humour. I certainly find it extremely hard to keep a straight face when telling an amusing story or engaged in a humorous escapade of some sort, particularly when others are laughing. McAleer has it down to a fine art, the faux naif guy telling some incredibly ridiculous story with a manner that can 99.9% convince you he really is a straightforward amadán or eejit. Stories that he told included the one about being in a hotel where he thought various strange things were happening – then when going to the fancy hotel restaurant he was asked at the entrance if he had a reservation, and he said he had several. And someone who could get a good laugh out of a riff on the difference between internment and the internet, and that they weren’t the same thing at all, has to be a bit of a genius.

I was pleased to see a bit of recycling going on with his (ancient) story about being a contemplative young man in the Co Tyrone countryside in The Troubles…. The version he told in this tour was of being a young man in the Norn Iron countryside at nighttime, gazing at the stars and wondering about the meaning of the universe. Then along came a British army patrol; he was thrilled when they asked him “Who are you?” and “Where are you going?” because these were exactly the deep philosophical questions he was dealing with. More soldiers joined the conversation and they invited him to go with them. He was reluctant and they practically had to drag him away. They stayed up talking that night, the next night and the night after that. “They practically had me tortured” he concluded.

There is of course a serious side to comedy, satire and so on (touched on by the story immediately above) which we in political and social change movements don’t take seriously enough. It is however true that humour can be a little bit dangerous since knowing when to use what can be a delicate balancing act (yes, I have got it wrong often enough…). But it can also be incredibly effective not only in drawing attention to an issue but in making an strong political point – or even in lightening the mood in a meeting which is dragging on or risking being boring.

Majken Sørensen’s book “Humorous political stunts – nonviolent public challenges to power” (Irene Publishing) looks at humour in relation to nonviolence (and activists’ imagination and creativity). What goes on in the war and arms industries is absurd. The refusal, particularly among rich countries, to adequately deal with global heating is absurd. The current Irish government’s protestations of commitment to neutrality internationally are absurd. There are still many absurd elements to the nature of sectarian divisions in the North. All of these things are ripe for humorous ridicule. Make no funny bones about it, humour can be important so let’s get serious about it. Doing illegal, nonviolent actions can be a necessary part of being a peace and political activist, but so can more zany legal (or borderline illegal) manifestations and acting the maggot. [There are no flies on you – Ed]

Snails and horses

I am a glutton for useless trivia particularly where it is relevant to wider concerns. Take the fact that one of the British Army’s Household Cavalry horses injured in a riderless four horse stampede through the streets of London in late April had the name Quaker. Were they going about trying to be gratuitously insensitive to Quakers who are generally pacifist? Speaking as someone who had a great-great-great-grandmother [looks like she was pretty great – Ed] who was a Quaker I am, of course, an expert on such matters [! – Ed] [I was being facetious – Billy] [I would say not for the first time, I think for you ‘face time’ is short for ‘facetious time’ – Ed]. Or they were probably just insensitive full stop. Or maybe it was because that horse was keen on oats (because of the ‘Quaker’ Oats brand) but it is still oatrocious.

Mind you religion can be, and usually is, in cahoots with the the military big time; you just have to look at the British Army 1970s chapel at the west side of St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast which has a massive Celtic cross on the outside, which to me is cultural appropriation (a British establishment institution purloining a venerable Irish religious symbol) as well as hideously inappropriate for any Christian building and inimical for anything to do with the founder of said religion.

And then there are the snails holding up developments at the Doonald’s Doonbeg golf course. Clare County Council has requested more information on how proposed developments at the site will affect the protected Vertigo Angustior (tiny) snail. Good to see that development does not trump nature in this case – and what have snails ever done to undermine democracy? Anyway, the development there hasn’t been all plain snailing. You could say it is going as a snail’s pace. However you might also conclude that the owner of said golf course, while never one to retreat into his shell, leaves trail that could be described as slimy anywhere he goes, even if there are issues about the provision of employment locally. My final point on this is that if accommodation pods were developed there at Doonbeg perhaps they could be called gastropods.

There’s gold in them there hills

Yes, there is. Gold in the Sperrins. But should it be mined by Dalradian? Gold has value mainly because it is considered valuable. It is a vanity metal. In the modern era it is basically not needed for promoting the wellbeing of people/humanity. It is a kind of currency that we can do without.

In the case of Dalradian, because of local opposition they introduced the narrative that they would not be using cyanide in extracting the gold locally. But my understanding is that they will simply use cyanide elsewhere – overseas, so it is just exporting the problem to some other place and community which may be much less able to ensure safety and accountability. And it is pathetic to allow mining on this basis, inflicting a terrible problem on people elsewhere.

The public enquiry on Dalradian’s mining will be in the autumn and is expected to run for a month or two and the North’s Department for Infrastructure will then receive a recommendation. As usual ‘the company’ promises lots of jobs – usually a lot more than materialise – during a twenty year existence. Local opposition focuses on slag heaps and pollution of air and water, as well as all the increased lorry traffic and general environmental issues including possible effects on farming and the possibilities for developing tourism. Save Our Sperrins group and others have been beavering away on the issue for years, see e.g. and and you can also do a word search.

The language is not quite what I would use but the Saw Doctors put it pithily in talking about the possibility of gold mining in Co Mayo near Croagh Patrick:

Do they think our greatest asset

Can be mined, dug up and sold?”

But to put my ore in I have come up with a few slogans. Spare the Sperrins! Gold diggers out! All that’s gold does not glitter! Our goal is no gold mining! A pox on toxic gold mining! Dalradian gulders about gold! Green meaning not mining! Head for the hills to head off gold mining! Dalradian mining would be all downhill! It’s ‘our’ countryside resource not ‘mine’! Gold mining makes you gilty! Insert your slogan here……

Well, that’s me for now. Summer is (meant to be) coming in which means in our neck of the woods that the rain is getting warmer, if April is usually the driest month in Ireland I hope the rain then is not a portent for the rest of the year. See you soon, Billy.