Category Archives: Billy King

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Billy King 291

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

The truth about The Twelfth

If you have ever attended Twelfth of July parades in Norn Iron you will know what a great occasion it is for those involved. The sun doesn’t always shine but it often does (for weather it certainly beats St Patrick’s Day in March…) and there is a combination of solemnity and carnival atmosphere. Old friends greet each other. Families come together. At a large parade (in normal, non-Covid years) like the one in Belfast, people coming as spectacle-watchers stake out their place beforehand. Children play around. Young men get to strut their stuff and show off to their friends, male and female. Old men ditto. Young people, friends of band members, walk along to accompany their band friends, laden with bags of beverages. A good time is had by all – and more than a few sore heads that day (after the Eleventh night) or afterwards, and perhaps sore feet.

And this of course comes after the Eleventh night itself when the competition to have the biggest, best bonfire – built by young males – is as hot as the resultant blaze. Who doesn’t love a good bonfire? And these aren’t just any bonfires, they are Protestant/Loyalist Northern Ireland bonfires, some so ginormous they risk setting alight to anything in the nearby vicinity (in one area in 2021 a fire station is at risk!!!!). The bonfire is a great spectacle, lit as dark is approaching, and pallets burning like the blazes and lighting the way to the stars.

Orangefest’ has been the rebranding of the whole Twelfth of July package. But there are a number of problems. The sides in 1690 may have been multinational, but in celebrating the victory of King William, King Billy supported by the Pope, is is actually celebrating the victory in battle of one side in Northern Ireland (Protestants and unionists) over ‘the other’ (Catholic and nationalist). That is why it resonates today. That is not just a historical event from some hundreds of years ago but an event ‘now’. It is a celebration of ‘my’ victory over ‘you’, and your debasement.

There is no possible way that the celebration of this event can be made neutral in the Northern Ireland context. The Orange mythology may be that King Billy’s victory established ‘civil and religious liberty’ for all but that is a complete lie. Yes, if James had won the boot would have been on the other foot and it would have been Protestants discriminated against, possibly even worse than Catholics continued to be discriminated against, but that is not what happened. And at the time it wasn’t even civil and religious liberty for all Protestants – but Catholics were treated much more severely than Protestant dissenters.

And from a nonviolent perspective the militarism on display in Twelfth parades is both unfortunate and, if you permit yourself to look at it critically, a bit both blood curdling and oppressive. Military uniforms, military formations, celebrations of past wars and battles, marching music. Is this what Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist culture is all about? It looks a bit to me like inculcation of the cult of militarism and military sacrifice, preparing people to be the cannon fodder of the 21st century or, in the era of military drones, survivors when others are killed. Parades also mark territory; where we go is ‘ours’ (even when an area is very mixed); this is about dominance, not sharing. That is before we even get into the conservative ‘Orange card’ nature of Orangeism.

Then there is the whole issue of flegs and emblems, a year round issue but particularly one in the summer, associated with the Twelfth. One person’s display of identity and allegiance is frequently another person’s intimidation. Marking territory in a divided society is naturally divisive. And remembrance of people killed and murdered is frequently done in a way which is also divisive, by all sides. The report on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT), a long time in the making has been with Stormont for a year and will not see the light of day until the NI Executive has dealt with it, and when that will be is uncertain. But the matter should be expedited and the report published as soon as possible after the Marching Season (Norn Iron’s fifth season, as in the words of Colum Sands’ song on the topic).

There is much that can be celebrated about Britishness and British culture or cultures. Many British social and political movements have been in the vanguard of progressive thought and change. There is also a huge amount of British culture – music, drama, other arts – which can be celebrated. The best of ‘British values’ are second to none. And none, or extremely little, of this would be divisive if celebrated. You have to recognise the Twelfth as a major cultural and political phenomenon but unfortunately the Twelfth of July is stuck in a divisive time warp. Of course many Prods want nothing to do with it but the attempt to rebrand the Twelfth and make it more inclusive is on a hiding to nothing. The basis of the Twelfth is division and ‘victory over’ others. There is no way this can become inclusive. (full stop)

There are of course many other aspects of the situation which I am not going into here. The feeling of having their backs to the wall is a real issue for many Protestants in the North; this feeds into their sense of betrayal and danger – and with a British prime minister like Boris Johnson continually lying to them it is a sense which is readily reinforced. The DUP miscalculating their strategy so badly has added to the angst. And old habits and beliefs die hard. Prejudice and intolerance are not the preserve of some Northern Protestants, that goes with the territory being divided, but there are particular manifestations of it on different sides (including middle class liberal prejudice, I would add)..

The Twelfth of July is a great spectacle. Unfortunately it is a divisive and exclusionary spectacle and if it represents ‘Protestant and unionist’ culture – one argument used for it – that also does not instil either admiration or respect beyond the fact that a lot of people have expended a lot of effort, time and money in it, colourful and quaint as it may be. And in a way, you cannot not be impressed in some form, it is bound to make an impression on you, whatever that is. It speaks to the converted. It says something entirely different to the unconverted who look beyond the spectacle to the meaning behind it.

The colourful nature of grey

There is probably no greater insult than to call something, or someone, ‘old and grey’. The expression ‘a grey day’ summons up images of the worst of Irish weather, at any time of year, when dampness and cloudiness congeal into a feeling that everything is dull and lifeless. Grey may be a favoured decorative colour for walls and tiles at the moment but planners often permit grey superstructures on buildings which were ugly even before this superstructure was placed there, a sort of ghostly and unwelcome presence on top.

But, I am here to defend grey. Without grey days, would you enjoy sunshine so much? [Eh, yes, probably – Ed]

On a foggy or misty day in the countryside you can peer into the distance and imagine Tír na nÓg is just there, only slightly beyond reach, and let your imagination take over. Reality is no longer visible so you can rearrange everything to your satisfaction.

Looking at distant mountain ranges on a grey day you can savour the variety of greys, whether ‘fifty shades of grey’ or more.

And, particularly in a summer misty twilight, at dawn or evening dusk, there can be a period which is neither ‘light’ nor ‘dark’, neither day nor night, it is, in a sense, another realm entirely. This is not necessarily a scary twilight but certainly a mysterious one, again one where you can unleash your imagination.

The anatomy of grey, grey’s anatomy, can be a fascinating pursuit. In an Irish summer you may have plenty of opportunity to do so……. In summary though, you might conclude that that an overall assessment of the colour grey is……well, a bit grey……

Courgettes

Probably nothing gives me so much pleasure in the garden as the first courgettes coming on stream in early summer. Planting at the right time in the right sized pots, planting out at the right time in composted soil, protecting from the wind (and any possible frost) and slugs and snails when small, and removing the cloche covering at the right time, all play a role in getting the courgettes to produce. By a mixture of good luck and good management I got it just right this year and was rewarded with the first courgettes a week before the end of June.

Over the summer we will certainly have a go at a large number of courgette recipes. And if one or two grow too large to use as courgettes, well, they can grow on as marrows, to marrow is another day, and after decorating the kitchen for a time they will serve as a reminder of summer in the autumn or winter until eventually they succumb to being served in a stew or casserole. Courgettes are not of course the veg with the most distinguished taste but they are pleasant and versatile.

I’m not going to give you any full courgette recipes here but favourites include a courgette bake with two layers of sauteed courgette with another layer of tomato and onion in between, with breadcrumbs on top, and grated courgettes in savoury gram flower pancakes with rosemary (courgettes can go in cake too to make it moist). Sauted courgette as a plain veg of course appears frequently. They can also be parboiled and used in salads And in warm weather they produce at a very rapid rate which means there are ones to give away, and that is always good too.

Midsummer

When is midsummer? The so-called ‘longest day’, ‘day’ in this phase being ‘day’ as in ‘daylight’ as opposed to ‘night’? In which case it is now downhill all the way… Or somewhere in July and August based on a period of warmer weather? To be pedantic, in places with daylight saving, where the clock goes forward an hour in spring and back an hour coming into winter, the longest ‘day’, with 25 hours, is the day the clock changes in autumn.

Of course meteorological and common understandings do not naturally agree. Folk traditions are another thing again; St Brigid’s Day on 1st February may traditionally mark the start of spring in Ireland but it’s usually very much winter. And the four seasons in a day nature of Irish weather does not make for easy delineations of seasons. Climate change/heating also muddies the waters (figuratively and literally with more flooding).

We are now past ‘the longest day’ on 21st/22nd June and the cycle inexorably continues. The rain is warmer in an Irish summer and it all helps the garden or window box to grow, though it has been quite dry recently.

I wish you a summery summer and not a summary one, and I hope you get a good break from routine to relax. See you in September,

– Billy

Billy King, NN 290

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Those Quakers

The review in the last issue on Quaker international conciliation got me thinking of a relatable story (I’ll relate it to you and you can then see if you relate to it). It’s not about conciliation, I’m not sure what you’d call it, possibly direct action peacemaking. Veteran English Quaker activist Will Warren https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/12087132733/in/photolist-S1Cce9-z6Xhhv-z4DBQs-jq6Hse came to live and work for peace in Derry in the early years of the recent Troubles. The story was about that he could stop a riot by walking right into the middle of it, perhaps nobody wanting to harm this venerable Quaker. However the late great English peace activist Howard Clark told the story of visiting Will in Derry when he, Will, decided to do just that, walk into a riot, accompanied by Howard. Howard said it made absolutely no difference to the riot and he was never as scared in his life……you might say he was positively quaking…..in this case there was a Will but no way.

Past peace activism

Isn’t that an amazing entry in the INNATE Flickr/photo site of the 1839 anti-recruiting leaflet? https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/51178285766/in/dateposted/ If there is one thing we learn about the past, surely it is that people were just like us even if their circumstances were very different. It is difficult to imagine yourself into 1839 Dublin and the context in which this was produced [But there go, or went, the Quakers again – Ed] and arguing from a pragmatic basis against joining the military was, is, probably quite effective.

The cat-’o-nine-tails may not exist for soldiers any more but I have personally witnessed offending squaddies being exhaustion-punished – not pleasant. And “orders is orders” is not a good place to be either, nor being moved about the place on someone else’s whim. That is altogether aside from the jobs soldiers are tasked to do. I do think the peace movement could do more on the anti-recruitment front.

Not pootering about

Clearly new DUP leader Edwin Poots doesn’t believe in footering or even pootering about the place. He had his campaign for the leadership ready to go and launched within a day of Arlene Foster announcing she was hanging up her First Minister boots. And all in the year when he had already had a cancer operation. Clearly he wasn’t born yesterday even if he does believe the earth is only a few thousand years old.

Poots’ ‘young earth’ creationist views have received a lot of comment. Me, I am with the Dalai Lama when he said in relation to his Buddhist beliefs that if science proved Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism would have to change. I take that instruction in relation to my own religious/philosophical/political beliefs. But looking at it ‘from outside’, how is Poots’ creationist views any different to, say, someone who believes in horoscopes (horrorscopes?) – and there are plenty of them – and that planets and stars directly influence our lives aside from being part of the fabric of the cosmos we inhabit?

Anyway, we will see how pragmatic Edwin Poots is in his new role soon enough, his problem is not in expressing opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol but in finding an alternative that everyone is willing to go with.. Unless of course Britain gives the EU an even more Frost-y reception and unilaterally dumps more of it – and you wouldn’t put that past them. Personally I reckon if Britain showed the maximum cooperation they might get the same back again so that much of the red tape could disappear. But the EU needs to pull out the stops too if they don’t want to be back at Ground Zero of no agreement. But you have to laugh at Lord Frost criticising the EU for disturbing the Good Friday Agreement when it was Brexit that first did just that, at least putting a rocket under the general status quo, and a hard Brexit leading to hard questions and hard resolutions

But a final word on Poots. ‘Blessed are those who expect little for they shall not be disappointed’ might be an appropriate saying. But sometimes the ‘strong’, seemingly intransigent leader (think Poots’ predecessor and party founder Ian Paisley) can take people places that someone without that reputation couldn’t. But that is the exception, unfortunately, and Ian Paisley only changed over to the bright side in the twilight of his career.. A Belfast Telegraph poll showed most DUP voters would have preferred Jeffrey Donaldson, and with the DUP on 16% and the Sinners on 25%, plus ructions in the party, there is a mighty big hill to climb before the Assembly election next year for the DUP to retain the position of First Minister through being the largest party. And we thus might have to see what existential angst a Sinn Féin First Minister in the North would inflict on loyalists. And in the, perhaps unlikely but not impossible, scenario of Alliance coming second in the polls (not designated as unionist or nationalist under the GFA assembly arrangements) what does that do to democracy if then the third largest party actually take the spoils of Deputy First Minister?

A united Ireland – in NATO?

There are a thousand and one questions to be answered about the future of this island irrespective of whether the border stays (and where would we be without it – as Kevin McAleer has put it, it’s the best border in the world, it unites the whole country…). If Northern Ireland remains part of the UK but ‘unionists’ of a traditional sort are no longer in a majority, what does that mean? For politics in the North, for North-South cooperation, for unionist self-esteem and self perceptions? Or indeed for ‘nationalists’ who don’t actually vote for a united Ireland? There are lots of intriguing questions, aside altogether from current Brexit and NI Protocol issues

However I am not sure how many who are not staunch and conservative unionists would agree with the News Letter’s opinion of 4/5/21 that “Far from being a failure on its centenary, Northern Ireland has been a resounding success” – which it was, ahem, somewhat short in detailing; the best it could do is “Support for things such as our magnificent sporting teams — notably the Northern Ireland Women’s team recently — and our ambassadors and achievers and business leaders and famous faces will not go away. Nor for the towns and countryside and the local spirit that make the place — which is why growing numbers of people identify as Northern Irish.” The last point is certainly true though, and if justice and equality became the hallmarks of Norn Iron then a united Ireland could be a hard sell

And what are the people of the Republic willing to forgo to bring about a united Ireland? Are they willing to bear higher taxes to support the North in the style to which it has been accustomed? A relatively recent poll raised questions about that issue. And how do you compare standards of living and wellbeing given different welfare and healthcare systems? Though in the longevity stakes it looks like those south-and-west of the border are doing relatively well compared to those north-and-east of it. “Irish reunification would cause a financial shock in the Republic, requiring either a major hike in taxes or a significant reduction in public spending, according to Trinity College Dublin economist John FitzGerald” said The Irish Times on 4/5/21 – though others have dissected current subsidies to the North and not come to as stark a conclusion.

A free at point of delivery healthcare system is still almost a complete chimera in the Republic while in the North the NHS remains extremely popular despite all the cuts and queues associated with it. On many levels of welfare the Republic has for some time overtaken the UK system but supporting another couple of million in the North raises all those questions of affordability and sustainability. Like I say, there are a thousand and one questions and very few answers or potential answers as yet.

However a letter in The Irish Times raised another issue which is at the back of some of our minds [I don’t know what is at the back of your mind but I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near it…..Ed] On 7/5/21 they published a letter from a retired colonel (presumably in the Irish army)- asking would people in the North be prepared “to leave the security and protection afforded by Nato membership, to join up with an underfunded, militarily neutral Ireland? Conversely, would the people in the South join Nato as the price for a united Ireland?” Leaving aside the distinctly biassed language the questions are phrased in, these are good questions.

But let’s rephrase the questions with a peace orientation. Are people prepared to sell out and join the US and European military empire? Are they prepared to leave the security and protection of being a neutral country to join a rich-world war and war-making machine which wastes huge resources in the process, could drag Ireland into wars it wants nothing to do with, and when there are all sorts of pressing needs to be met? And are people in the North that paranoid that they insist on the whole island of Ireland being in such a military machine? The answer, my friends, is blowing in your hands. [Is this an oblique reference to Dob Bylan and his 80th ‘bidet’? – Ed] [Well guessed – “how many times must the cannonballs fly / before they’re forever banned”, “and how many deaths will it take till he knows / That too many people have died?”]

Well, June is upon us but certainly it has not been anything like summer until very recently. April was dry, May wet, and neither warm like last year. But whatever about the weather I hope the political temperature doesn’t shoot up too much in the North over the July-ing Season. However I hope you are able to get out and about into the countryside or parkside when you can – the effervescent green in the foliage of May or June, with the sun shining on it and through it, makes you very glad to be alive. We have been monitoring nesting swans along the Belfast-Lisburn Lagan canal to see the emergent cygnet-ture tunes, and you can’t beat the emergence of new life for a sense of joie de vivre. Or indeed the vibrant blue flash of a kingfisher. See you soon, Billy.

Billy King, NN 289

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Hello there, good to see you visiting this part of the world’s ‘social’ media, although you can also get antisocial media. In relation to another current phenomenon, the Zoom call, I previously advised anyone worn out by Zoom calls to join a specialist group – meeting on Zoom of course. More recently I advised a colleague complaining about said calls to get fit for them by doing Zoom-ba. [I wasn’t going to say you couldn’t make it up but clearly you just did – Ed]

Well, spring is springing by, I am always sad when the last of the daffodils/narcissi disappear from flowering (there can be ten days or more difference between us Nordies and where our haughty culture is at and those further south in the Free State – we will never forsake the freezing wasteland of Norn Iron for the land of milk and honey in an Irish Republic). Obviously snowdrops and crocuses are earlier but daffodils/narcissi are around for a while and their departure announce that the first call of spring is gone….

Mind you we do have honesty growing (and as I have told you before, honesty is the best policy) and that provides an explosion of mauve and white, I have both colours, when the daffodils have just been dead-headed.- they are great because they seem to come from nowhere to dominate the show for another little while. And April was a very dry month, if cool often enough, and lived up to being on average the driest month of the year in Ireland.

Press on

I have written before about how everyone is artistic – although some don’t realise it [and your name doesn’t have to be Art]. There are many, many ways that you can express your artistry about the home. One of the art forms that I use is making cards and pictures with pressed flowers. That’s deadly boring say some – Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly actress Grace Kelly) was into making dried/pressed flower pictures and I vaguely remember reading someone’s review of an exhibition she had and it indicated it was boring boring boring, the most deadly boring thing in the world.

It can be if you let it – though what I see of Princess Grace’s pressed flower pictures online are very competent pieces of art, and the review above probably said more about the reviewer than the reviewee. But if anyone uses what they have in small and innovative ways then it can be both beautiful and meaningful. Mainly I make pressed flower cards and a homemade card can be really appreciated. You can slip a pressed flower in with a note to someone. You can do ‘vases’ of flowers on card. You can do something really simple or something quite intricate. It is also a very inexpensive art form and it does not require ‘high art’ skills.

For pressing and drying flowers you can buy a flower press which has wingnuts to screw the whole thing down. I use what is not available any more but you could still search one out – a big old phone directory but any book with fairly absorbent (not glossy) paper will do (put more books on top to weight it down). You will have to experiment with what flowers and leaves you have access to that will ‘work’ in being pressed and dried. Gorse/furze/whins/aiteann has lovely yellow flowers – but when pressed they dry grey and horrible, for a negative example. Smaller flowers can work better than bigger but while you would not try to dry a whole tulip you can easily dry a tulip petal by itself. You will learn as you go along.

How long you need to leave leaves and flowers being pressed will vary – autumn leaves I might ‘leaf’ until the spring because there aren’t so many flowers to pick in the winter (though wilting Christmas cacti flowers can do well), others maybe for a couple of months. Many wild flowers and leaves will press. When they are dry I put them together in a folder on different loose A4 sheets of paper so I can easily look through.

You can buy ready-sized cards, if doing cards, in paper and art shops or, obviously, online, or you can cut your own. An A4 sheet of paper or card cut into two at the vertical half way will fold to make an A6 size card which is usually about right; a small paper guillotine is handy for getting edges straight and fast for cutting. One of the more successful pictures I have done is arranging pressed golden ferns which have not yet uncoiled onto ink marbled paper.

For sticking pressed flowers down I use PVA glue but you can experiment. Unless you are using something very strong like a muscular leaf you would not be able to use ‘hard’ glue sticks because the glue may rip the flower apart. I place the pressed flower onto kitchen roll, upside down to the way I want it to go, and then use a very small paintbrush to coat it lightly with glue. When stuck onto your card you can then use more, clean, kitchen roll to mop up any extraneous glue. I usually place something flat and relatively heavy onto a finished piece just for a minute or two to make sure everything is adhered – but don’t leave it on too long or the glue can stick to your object and pull your creation apart when you lift it.

I could go on and on with more info but that is enough. Even if you don’t get to making pictures or arrangements of dried flowers, and you are ‘pressed’ for time, you can make a pretty and evocative souvenir of somewhere just by slipping a flower into an absorbent book and leaving it, maybe with other books on top to weight it down.

May a thousand flowers bloom in your creations.

Using nuclear missiles to counter cyber attacks

No one is born with weird and violent ideas but some people adopt them readily because of how they see the world.. Take the UK government’s recent ‘defence’ review. This judged that Trident nuclear missiles could be used against cyber attacks. Yes, yes, we know cyber attacks can be extremely serious and could close down all sorts of systems necessary for society and its health and service sectors to operate. But nuking a country because some autocrat/plutocrat/dictator in power decided to launch a cyber attack on another country is, shall we say, a tad too revengeful for our liking. It is also completely stupid for so many reasons; killing innocent civilians, engendering revenge, lowering the threshold for nuclear war, being disproportionate….the list goes on. Nuclear weapons are also illegal in international law and those perpetrating such an act could be found guilty of crimes against humanity. And depending on what country was involved, or who its friends are, it is totally MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

The phrase about sledgehammers and nuts comes to mind but taking a sledgehammer to a nut would be extremely logical and moderate compared to this.

But that is what is coming from our nearest neighbours. See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/16/defence-review-uk-could-use-trident-to-counter-cyber-attack

Don’t forget your shovel

Staying with the same offshore European island, Britain, this piece is about Irish workers there and partly the Irish navvy who built the motorways and before that many of the railways and probably even some of the canals. And of course Irish nurses were a backbone of the British health system. The best known modern song about the Irish navvy is “Don’t forget your shovel” – “if you want to go to work”, which was Christy Moore’s first real hit (you can easily find it on YouTube). The song was originally written by Christie Hennessy though the other Christy adapted it a bit and certainly made it his own. It reflected a time when Irish migrants were pulling themselves up by their own working bootstraps.

Times have certainly changed in a couple of generations. The rightly much disparaged recent report on racism and racial disadvantage in Britain, by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (disparaged because it looks like it set out to give the answer the Tory government wanted), revealed that three ethnic groups earned more than the white British; Chinese migrants earned 23% more, Indians 15% more….and white Irish earned a whopping 41% more than white British. Of course there are exceptions to every rule (Irish Travellers being one) but the Irish there are now an ethnic elite as much as an ethnic minority. So “Don’t forget your shovelful of money if you want to go to work….”

Polls apart

Plenty regarding Norn Iron for you to get yer teeth into in recent opinion polls, one commissioned by the BBC, another by Queen’s University, and a third in the Belfast Telegraph. You can look up the main results (links below), I am just going to comment on a couple of features here. Norn Ironers are often accused of having heads in the sand but on some things sense shone through: in the BBC/Spotlight poll, 76% of those interviewed in the North agreed that violence could return. 55% of people in the North thought it would still be in the UK in 10 years time but 59% expected it to be linked with the Republic within 25 years. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow but in terms of looking at the current situation and extrapolating from current trends, that is probably a fairly good assessment, it is probably as good an assessment as you could get.

Interestingly, 45% in the BBC poll thought NI’s centenary should not be celebrated with only 40% saying it should – though how people interpret ‘celebration’ is open to interpretation (more were in favour of a neutral marking of the centenary). I am not going to go into the prospects for a united Ireland here except to say it’s all to play for, whatever your political views on the North, and all figures have to be treated with caution. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-56777985 https://www.qub.ac.uk/News/Allnews/featured-research/OpinionPanelpollunderlinesconcernsofimpactofNorthernIrelandProtocol.html and https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/the-centenary/centenary-poll-44-in-northern-ireland-want-referendum-but-would-not-accept-higher-taxes-to-fund-reunification-40375678.html

Nothing barren at the Burren

Great – and beautiful – couple of programme on RTE recently on the Burren in Co Clare (“The Burren: Heart of Stone”, you may find it on the RTE player). The first programme took us through the seasons, and the counterintuitive grazing pattern which sustains the wonderful plants growing in the cracks in the limestone paving; the cattle are taken up to the high ground in the winter where eating the grass allows other plants, such as gentians and orchids, to flourish and flower in the summer. This pattern of grazing – moving to higher ground in winter – is a pattern contrary to almost anywhere else. The Burren is really and truly unique.

The second programme looked at human interaction with the Burren. It is, as you may know, a human-created landscape insofar as the denuding of the rock was occasioned by human activity. Fascinatingly, the first hunter-gatherers in Ireland after the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, were dark skinned, blue eyed people; when farmers came about 6,000 years ago there was some inter-breeding but there is no trace of these hunter-gatherers in our DNA today, the programme informed us.

There was some astounding new information, to me anyhow, about the last Ice Age though; the fact that this information didn’t feature in what I saw of media coverage of the programmes I presume was to do with its interpretive nature. An expert on bones (Dr Ruth Carden of UCD) stated that there was evidence of human presence 18,000 – 33,000 years ago through butchery cuts on animals bones (reindeer) which indicated they had been cut by humans. Other animals around at that time would have included hares, red fox, wolves, brown bears, woolly mammoths, giant deer and reindeer. The end of the ice age and the shifting of glaciers profoundly affected the landscape, searing away evidence of any humans, yet here was someone showing a clear argument for human presence, from animal bones preserved in Burren caves, way way back into the Ice Age. Pretty amazing. It really was Hibernia (the land of winter, and perpetual winter) then but humans were there. Respect – and perspective.- not to mention wonder.

So we ourselves really are Johnny/Jeanie-come-latelys. All those mythical tales of different groups of people coming to this land, the Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Danann, and so on may actually reflect a certain reality about successive wanderers and settlers on this westernmost tip of Europe, as we fall into the Atlantic. And we were a part of mainland Europe before the ‘bridge’ to Britain disappeared (rather earlier than the Britain-to-now-mainland-Europe link was washed away) [So you’re not talking about Brexit here then?! – Ed]– which explains why Britain has rather more native mammals than Ireland since they had more time to migrate from the ‘mainland’.

Well, that’s my tour around for now, or should I say my shoverful. This year you may or may not get the vacation you want but I certainly hope you get the vaccination you want. See you soon, Billy.

Billy King, NN 288

BILLY KING: RITES AGAIN

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts [and the worst puns in town – Ed]

Well hello again, and welcome to you, April is usually the driest month in Ireland so it is (I hope this year too) a great time to be out and about. And if you are out and about, literally or metaphorically, I do hope you understand that the shortest distance between two points is the way that you want to go – and not a straight line, unless of course you decide that a straight line is the way you want to go. Going in a straight line, on anything, can be tedious; going in the way you want to go can be effortless and joyful. May a thousand crooked lines blossom.

Once upon a time

Once upon a time there was a country, part of an island, that was divided. And in the smaller part of that country there was further division between people. They could not agree and they could not agree to disagree, so they often killed each other, or forced people to flee from their homes, or did other horrible things to each other. Even when the killing stopped there was still pain and disagreement, and the people suffered because no way forward could be agreed on many things which needed agreement to proceed. The people In Control, at the top, added to the problems and indeed some had been involved in the fighting and killing.

When the killing had stopped inside this place, weapons of war were still made, and some of the people In Control gave more money to build new and more efficient weapons of war so other people could be killed elsewhere in the world, and so those In Control could go to war when they wanted. They called this peace. It was not peace. It was a shocking insult to anyone who respects peace and what has to be done for peace. It was really war. But, as we all know, war is peace, and money and jobs, no matter how terrible their product, are all that matters. This is what is positive in life. We should roll over and accept it.

Weapons of mass distraction

Things have certainly changed massively in a few decades in how news and views are disseminated. Social media means you can get news ‘out there’ even when the established ‘mass’ media ignore you – though the concomitant danger is when people only pay attention to the social media they agree with and ignore everything else. In this latter situation we arrive, as in the USA, at people in the same place living in parallel universes. [Sure Norn Iron has had parallel galaxies for hundreds of years – Ed]

However my comments on social media are a preface to asking some questions about the mass media in relation to a couple of recent peace actions in Belfast. The mass media still have inordinate influence. Both actions, deliberately (because of Covid), were small actions by a few people. The first took place at PSNI headquarters in Belfast on 22nd January 2021 when the TPNW/Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons kicked in to international law; see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/50862311953/in/dateposted/ The second was St Patrick protesting about military drone production at Spirit AeroSystems on 17th March 2021 (as mentioned in a news items in this issue); see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/51046065166/in/dateposted/

Press releases went out to ‘all’ the media, including broadcast. Five photographers turned up at the nuclear disarmament event. News items subsequently appeared in “The Irish News” and the “Andersonstown News”; this seemed to fit the Norn Iron stereotype of criticism of the British state only appearing in CNR/Catholic, Nationalist, Republican outlets but you would think that an issue of such political import as the UK acting illegally in international law (and totally ignoring said law) would be newsworthy for ‘everyone’ irrespective of national allegiance [What would make you think that? – Ed]. Obviously there was a good bit of theatricality in both, as in street theatre, particularly in the event with St Patrick – though St Patrick did issue a statement partly based or modelled on his ‘Confession’.

In the case of St Patrick making an appearance to drive out military drones and missiles, two photographers appeared (it was St Patrick’s Day) but we are not aware of any mass media coverage. The lack of coverage of the latter is particularly interesting as a) With Covid there were no other St Patricks about, b) Ditto Covid, the only ‘St Patrick’s Day issue’ in Norn Iron really around was whether there would be wild Covid-regulation-ignoring parties and rioting in the student Holyland(s) area of Belfast, c) Given the transferred imagery of St Patrick driving out drones rather than snakes, it did seem visually interesting. (and both events got a fair bit of social media attention, the first one ‘going almost viral’ in a couple of countries far from here).

So why did the mass media not bite? Was it they considered that a) Neither issue was of any importance or interest to readers/viewers/listeners and/or it just slipped through the net (which is the same thing), b) It was only a few peaceniks doing their thing harmlessly and they could be ignored – there was no drama and no violence involved, or c) In relation to Spirit AeroSystems (and Thales missile production which was also mentioned) there were jobs involved (550 at Thales) and ‘East Belfast’ jobs at that so that could not be questioned or raised as an issue, or d) Some unknown reason(s) understood only by the media workers concerned.

Answers on a postcard please, or an e-mail will do (seriously, comments to innate@ntlworld.com if you feel like speculating). If I was choosing, my money would be on the jobs but I be wary of conspiracy theories – though, as they say, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.

Near death can make you value life for everyone

Near death experiences can make you value life – not just your own life but others as well. There is a brief reference to this in an article looking at one man’s attempts to grapple with the phenomenon of near death experiences: Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson said that after their experience ““They see a purpose in life they didn’t see before. I don’t know of anything else that powerful.” When the writer of the article, Alex Moshakis, asked for an example, Greyson said “ “I’ve spoken to people who were policemen,” he says, “or career military officers, who couldn’t go back to their jobs, couldn’t stand the idea of violence.” I ask why. He says, “The idea of hurting someone becomes abhorrent to them.” He shrugs. “They end up going into helping professions. They become teachers, or healthcare workers, or social workers.” “

Very interesting. Near death experiences can of course be explained in a number of different ways, and the release of endorphins as we go on the voyage and passage to death may explain a lot and I am not going to get into possible spiritual ramifications of it all in this space. And I’m afraid it is highly unlikely I will be able to comment to you when I eventually get there. However, if the near death experience gets at the core of our being in some way, stripping away all the other layers of socialisation and environment, Greyson’s description actually puts nonviolence at the centre of our existence. In other words, nonviolence is deeply, deeply innate in us. And that is also pretty good when you are involved with an organisation named INNATE. See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/07/the-space-between-life-and-death

The current Norn Iron situation in one sentence

A friend in another country, extremely well up on conflict, international affairs and nonviolence, asked me for my take on the current situation in Northern Ireland. I wrote over a page and a half or so in response. After he had come back again, saying he was always amazed at the complexity of conflicts, I wrote back with my partial summary of a summary, referring to Brexit: “Most Prods/unionists backed/bet on the wrong horse and are now complaining about the result – but they don’t deserve to lose their shirts”.

So there you have it. I hope you understand that this is not a nuanced (!) summary but a serious light-hearted attempt to put the current situation in Northern Ireland into a metaphorical one-sentence nutshell.

Spell chuck

The perils of the spell check going unchecked is something I detailed quite some time ago when I mentioned how, in an official Catholic Church press release, the now retired archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (a lovely man incidentally, may he have a long and happy working retirement) became Dairymaid Martin and bishop Colm O’Reilly became Calm O’Reilly. It got a bit more unintentionally derogatory and political recently when my spell check questioned ‘Irishness’ and gave the following alternatives for it; bearishness, whorishness and feverishness. ‘Britishness’ brought up no question and no alternatives offered whatsoever, and ‘Frenchness’ gave just ‘Frenchless’ and ‘Frenchisms’. Yes, I know we live on a small island but that spiel cheek could do batter.

Cy-CLING etiquette

The legal requirement to have a bell on your bicycle presumably dates back to the era before motor traffic was as dense as it is today. These days, in busy traffic, a bicycle bell is about as much use as an umbrella in a strong storm. Unless you are going to, as the British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell did years ago, instal a transatlantic yacht fog horn on your bike, you couldn’t make a sound impression on someone enveloped in what amounts to a big and insulated tin box (be that car or lorry). Maybe there is a gap in the commercial market to be filled here.

But in the era of lockdown and cycling along greenways and through parks, what about bells this weather? What bellwether indication could be given? Well, in such situations a bell is a necessary piece of equipment ar an rothar; for safety’s sake you may need to quickly advise a pedestrian or cyclist that you are behind them.

But is it considerate or inconsiderate to do this routinely where the passing space is limited? Because there is as yet no established common practice, different pedestrians, or indeed cyclists, may take it differently; some will appreciate the warning that there is something coming up and past them, while others may feel, “there go those arrogant cyclists again, ringing their bells as if they own the place”. You can startle people by ringing the bell and you can startle people by not ringing it.

A judgement is necessary and it is difficult to get it right all the time. If I ring a bell and someone then moves over, or, if it is a dog owner and they make an effort to control their dog, I will certainly bid them a greeting and thank you – they deserve it, and it also indicates that the bell ringing was not a hostile act but a friendly notice or warning.

Perhaps as cycling continues to grow in popularity, the ringing of a bike bell will become, as maybe it once was, a routine act of giving notice of your presence. However I have written before about practising considerate cycling which means making allowances for sudden movements by pedestrians, or others, and taking care not to frighten anyone, as much as possible. And ringing a bicycle bell still doesn’t give you ‘right of way’, care is still needed, and some pedestrians may be deaf or with earphones installed (not always a wise move, if you are going to use headphones out and about I suggest you make it singular – one ear in and one ear out, for safety’s sake) and not hear even the loudest and most persistent bell.

But, if you haven’t had your bike out over the winter then it’s time to give it a check and have it back on the road. You don’t need to give us a bell when you do.

Showering the frog

Showering the frog’ sounds like it might be a euphemism for some aspect of personal care and cleanliness, but recently I did, deliberately, shower ‘our’ frog. When I say ‘our’ frog, I am not claiming proprietary rights, it is a frog which happens to be resident in our suburban garden and it is very much its own being. And I was mentioning it rather recently [You must have a frog stuck in your throat, it was only last issue – Ed], I am not sure it is the only frog around as I saw a smaller, juvenile, one last autumn.

Anyway, I was working away on the back of our house, repairing a concrete plinth or trim which exists at the bottom of the brick wall of the house, going down to the ground. At one point where there is a vent to provide underfloor ventilation there was a part of this which was ‘boast’, loose, so I had to take the whole vent off. As I did so there was a small flurry of building dust and dirt, some of it extending over the thick clump of montbretia beside it (Montbretia – the late summer, orange flowering plant which has indigenised itself in Ireland’s ditches). Then I noticed something very dusty and dirty, around 10 cm long, moving. It took a few seconds to realise it was ‘our’ frog which presumably had been in the montbretia. Worried that it might attempt to jump into the hole where the vent had been and be stuck in there, I replaced the vent as best I could.

I know frog’s skin can be sensitive and I thought anyway it might not take to a covering of building dust. So I ran off to get the watering can and it was still there when I returned half a minute later: I gave the frog a shower to clean off the dirt. Maybe it felt better for the shower, I don’t know, but it soon hopped into the nearby sage bush and I didn’t attempt to follow it after that – I still had a wall and vent to repair.

However I can now add ‘showering a frog’ to my list of life experiences. It beats washing your hare any day, and more appropriate.

Well, here we are in April and hoping for to an easing in Covid controls when and as that proves possible – and brighter days, literally and metaphorically. It will be holidaying ‘at home’ again this year but there is still plenty to choose from, and remember Ireland has an interior as well as lots of coastal places worth exploring. Not that we should not celebrate our coastline, and this is a small enough island that you can combine coast and inland activities if you want. Everyone has their favourite spot or spots, and even somewhere like Dingle and Kerry, following the departure of a certain dolphin to the Great Seabed or Beyond, still has lots of non-Fungieable assets. [It’s Easter time and I am getting hot and cross about your puns – Ed]

Wherever you go, when you can go, just take care – of yourself and others. Until I see you again, Billy.

Billy King, NN 287

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Hello again. This is where we came in, this month a year ago, with lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions. I hope the year has not been too disastrous for you and that you have been able to take the good (such as less or no time commuting, and more positive time with family if you live with them, and more time with nature) with the bad. It has been a strange old year. One great boost in the early part of last year was the excellent weather – and April is usually the driest month in Ireland – so I hope the weather pattern will be repeated this year so we can really shake off those winter coronavirus blues. Though ‘a summer’ would be great too.

Still, there’s a grand stretch in the evenings – sez he as he raises his arms and pushes them outwards after tea-time….

No frog in my throat….

…but one in the garden, I have met them/him/her a couple of times recently, more visible at this time of year before foliage grows. I saw a young frog in the garden last autumn so I don’t know if we have two. We have a slightly bigger than average suburban garden which has a 2.75m wall around it and the only way in or out is through a garden door – or over the wall. I did wonder if native Irish frogs can climb as foliage from what had been wilderness the other side of one part of our back garden would have touched foliage in our garden – but the advice I received (from Ethna Viney no less) was that it would have come through the door.

A frog is certainly a gardener’s friend. The part of the garden when ‘our’ frog tends to be is much less problematic in terms of slugs and snails than elsewhere (though they may also eat worms which is not so positive for the soil). With a garden grown on organic lines, and a little bit of montbretia wilderness that I leave as 365-day cover, I hope it’s an agreeable environment. We first realised we had a frog a decade ago when I opened the back door to bring in the small compost bin we keep in the kitchen, it was draining after being washed, and in hopped a frog……that visitor was a bit of a surprise.

Frogs don’t actually need water except for breeding, as frogspawn and tadpoles need it, and where they get that around here I don’t know (maybe there are garden ponds I don’t know about). But it feels a privilege to play host to this particular variety of wildlife, and have our garden as a ‘croak park’ (we are an attentive audience when we see our friend). If the lifespan of the frog we have in this part of the world is 5 – 10 years it is just possible that my friend I saw recently is the same one that hopped through the door a decade ago.

Finishing with a joke, well, it’s actually a cartoon: A frog and a snail are comparing notes, the two of them having received the same invitation. One says to the other “This invitation that we both received to dinner at the French embassy does seem a bit suspicious….”

Michael D on imperialism

President Michael D Higgins was going well on his bikeldey (a reference to the Saw Doctors song about him….) and set a cat among a number of pigeons when he wrote about ethical remembering in Ireland concerning centenaries – and (British) imperialism. I have recently penned (keyboarded?) thoughts on colonialism so I will pick this up here as well.

Michael D is totally correct in sayingA feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together.” He goes on that “It is vital to understand the nature of the British imperialist mindset of that time if we are to understand the history of coexisting support for, active resistance to, and, for most, a resigned acceptance of British rule in Ireland. “ He states “In my work on commemoration, memory, forgetting and forgiving I have sought to establish a discourse characterised by what the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney calls “a hospitality of narratives”, acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist. The acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.”

However the bit that might have rubbed up some of our neighbours the most came in “while it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/11/empire-ireland-century-partition-present-britain-history

Commentator Owen Polley responded in “The Daily Telegraph” in a piece entitled “The Irish president has a cheek lecturing Britons about history”. See https://headtopics.com/uk/the-irish-president-has-a-cheek-lecturing-britons-about-history-18662371 He accused Irish nationalists of being as guilty as the British, if not more so, in rewriting history. Of course there are some Irish nationalists who have done just that, and continue to do so. But Polley does not acknowledge the significant process which has been taking place in Ireland – in the North as well as the Republic – to examine history in ‘the decade of centenaries’, warts and all.

He is simply wrong in stating “The stories that the Republic tells itself about its formation have barely changed in 100 years and they are challenged rarely by its historians and columnists.” In saying this he either hasn’t been paying attention and/or hasn’t done his homework, and that statement by him is shockingly ignorant of what has been happening; if he had said it in 1966 it would be fair enough but not today. Though mentioning ‘warts and all’ reminds me of the old cartoon with a stern male school teacher, with cane, reading from the ‘New Balanced History of Ireland’; “And Cromwell, quite reasonably, told the Irish to go to hell or to Connacht….”

Certainly there are more voices in Britain criticising and analysing the great British empire than there were. But surveys have shown most people – and someone like Tony Blair has been of a like mind – indicate strongly that on balance the British empire was A Good Thing. Attention to this area arising from the Black Lives Matter movement has been because of popular feeling. The government and establishment in Britain have been trying to crack down on such ‘subversive’ (my adjective) activities as the National Trust examining links to slavery, e.g. through pressure on museums and other bodies to toe the line – and implicitly funding has been threatened for those who don’t. In relation to this area, the British government has a policy of ‘retain and explain’; this looks to me like it may well be a euphemism for a policy of euphemism about the past.

In the same piece Owen Polley states “In fact, Ireland was not a colony when partition took place. It had been part of the UK for over 100 years and was represented by 103 MPs in the House of Commons.” To label Ireland, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in relation to the ‘Ireland’ bit in any sense a ‘democracy’ under the Act of Union is flying in the face of reality. Ireland was not dealt with in any way equally or according to the wishes of its inhabitants (my piece in the last issue on how Ireland was treated in the 1846 Famine period is illustrative of this). And the only way in which this ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ was created in the first place was through massive bribery and corruption by the British government of Britain’s elite in Ireland in getting the Irish Parliament to vote itself out of existence. A massive sum of money was spent in bribes as well as the bestowal of various titles (I believe I have an ancestor, the brother of a member of Parliament, who was a beneficiary).

To imply this was ‘democracy’ – or in any way in accord with Irish people’s wishes, even at the time – is outrageous. And the Irish Parliament, while composed of a Protestant elite, was still gathering a bit of steam and self confidence in the late 18th century; a separate kingdom to Britain, it was still subordinate to that island. So the ‘United Kingdom’ of the 19th century as it related to Ireland was camouflaged colonialism because the island of Britain had all the power and superior numbers and the system was designed in the first place to subjugate Ireland after the 1798 Rising.

Yes, Ireland still has a long way to go in coming to terms with its history. However I would argue that Britain and those identifying as British have a longer path to tread. But let’s move.

Hats off to the people of Myanmar

The people of Myanmar have been through a huge amount. They face an enormous struggle against the might and entrenched power of the army. The situation is more blatant now but as some commentators have said regarding the military, “they never went away you know” in terms of the extremely military-friendly (biased) constitution. They have been taking a page out of D Trump’s notebook in alleging fraud at the last election, with absolutely no evidence, and this provided a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, lost massive international goodwill through their whitewashing of the brutally violent treatment, and genocide or ‘exocide’ by the army, of the Rohingya people. Suu Kyi has suffered much but both she and the NLD have also been accused of an imperious attitude to others; Suu Kyi is now detained again and subject to ridiculous trumped up charges.

There is no way the people deserve military rule which means there is little or no possibility of advancing human rights, freedom and democracy. A promise by the military of a general election in a year is a meaningless promise and it is probable that the army would only contemplate another election when they have rigged it sufficiently for their preferred candidates to win. What is the point for them staging a coup to allow the same – democratic – results a year later?

Apart from expressing solidarity with the people of Myanmar and asking for the maximum non-violent pressure (not entailing substantial harm for ordinary people) by governments and international business interests involved, I wanted to focus for a minute on the nonviolent actions taken to demand the restoration of democracy (such as it was). Whether these protests can be sustained remains to be seen but hopefully what public demonstrations remain possible, ‘disguised disobedience’ and international pressure can have sufficient effect over time for the generals to realise they are meant to be an ‘army’ and not a ‘government’, and a violent and repressive one at that.

One successful open tactic recently has been cars ‘breaking down’ and blocking roads. Hackers disrupted military and military government propaganda. A widespread campaign of non-cooperation with the new regime, and strikes – even some in departments controlled by the military – has been in place. There have been many more imaginative tactics to express dissent from the coup. However the military is getting more and more violent, and shooting to kill. It is amazing that any body, military or not, should be so isolated from the reality of people’s wishes that it sees a coup, and the force it must have known it would have to use to try to stay in power, as an answer to anything.

In terms of previous resistance to military rule, Francis Wade has said “Activists stacked political pamphlets on the roofs of stationary buses and watched them blow through streets and into people’s hands as the drivers took off. Underground journalists smuggled footage out of the country, sometimes travelling by foot across the border with Thailand to hand videotapes to waiting colleagues, or otherwise uploading footage to the internet via a router in a waiting car outside their home. Exiled female activists, acquainted with the generals’ superstitious fear that their power would be sapped if they came into contact with women’s underwear, posted pants and bras to Myanmar embassies. Farmers continued to till land confiscated by the military. Political prisoners discreetly held seminars in their cells. Teachers in ethnic minority regions refused to comply with orders to instruct only in the majority tongue. These acts all signalled that the opposition, even during the darkest days, still had life.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/11/generals-myanmar-seizure-power-military

Of course various countries and international bodies are implicated in the current situation. They may have suspended training for Myanmar police because of the coup, but the EU Mypol training scheme worked with the police – though they said only on ‘defensive’ policing. Crowd control techniques for military-controlled police? Sounds like a helping hand for all eventualities. The world needs to get its finger out to support the people of Myanmar.

That’s me for now. We are officially in spring. The daffodils are flowering, and, to use flowery language, I hope we are able to flower too, despite everything that Covid continues to throw at us. See you soon, Billy.

Billy King, NN 286

BILLY KING: RITES AGAIN

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts

Well, here I am again as 2021 wends its way and unfortunately to begin with it has been something of a replay of 2020, at least so far as Covid and the effects of it have gone. But spring is around the corner – however while I may identify as culturally Irish, I certainly don’t go with ‘spring’ beginning on St Brigid’s Day on 1st February….it is still f-f-freezing (well, the damp cold anyway if not below 0°) at this time. Nevertheless, time to check the seed packets and think about the garden, if you have one, or the window boxes and tubs or even the house plants.

Framing ‘the Famine’

It is a long time since I studied ‘the Famine’ of 1846 in history lessons, however it is something that I would have an interest in and so felt fairly ‘well up’ on. Perhaps not so, as the RTE couple of programmes (“The Hunger: the Story of the Irish Famine”, marking the 175th anniversary – available on the RTE Player) in late 2020 revealed in terms of what I learnt from them. Of course, as Afri, Sinead O’Connor, and Christy Moore have told us in different ways, and many others besides, “there was no famine”; there was food other than potatoes but the starving peasantry either had to sell it or had no money to buy it.

Christy Moore’s piece, “On a single day” (lyrics by Peadar Ó Riada, available on Afri’s CD “The Doolough Famine Walk – Music from a dark lake”), detailing the amount of food exported from Cork harbour ‘on a single day’ in 1847 is a tragic masterpiece, and each recitation of an item of food a shocking blow in the gut to the starving. The Irish language term, An Gorta Mór, (‘The Great Hunger’) is a much more accurate term for this period.

One of the comparisons which the programmes made was with how countries in mainland Europe dealt with the risk of starvation there, since the blight was present in those countries too. While the European mainland peasantry may have been less dependent on the potato, exports of food were stopped by the likes of France and Belgium, and free food given out as necessary. It was pointed out that part of such relative generosity (I say relative meaning relative to Britain’s record) was because of a fear of rebellion but it would not appear solely because of that. A million people died in Ireland; a tenth of that in mainland Europe in total.

Robert Peel’s Tory government of 1845 was portrayed as dealing fairly effectively to support people in Ireland following the partial potato failure of that year. But the Russell Whig government from 1846, with the infamous Trevelyan on board at the Treasury, intervened too little too late and ended schemes far too early; the government stopped public intervention measures in the summer of 1847, declaring the famine to be over, when the peasantry had exhausted all their resources – it was indeed ‘black ‘47’. People had nowhere to turn, and workhouses could not cope. The RTE programmes defined ‘the famine ‘ as lasting 7 years; the terrible Louisburgh-Doolough-Louisburgh famine walk, commemorated by Afri annually, took place in the spring of 1849.

The programmes also mentioned that the British government spent £8 million on famine relief in Ireland, much of it in loans to be repaid. In comparison £20 million was spent to reimburse British slave-owners during abolition in 1833, and £69 million on the Crimean War of 1854-6. In the same period as ‘the Famine’ in Ireland the government spent £14 million on ‘security’ – the army and police in Ireland – the best part of double the expenditure on ‘famine relief’, and the number of soldiers stationed in Ireland doubled. In fact the people of Ireland were generally too shell-shocked and impoverished or emaciated to rebel.

Britain brought about the ‘Act of Union’ of 1801 between Britain and Ireland through bribery and corruption. The idea was that Ireland would become an integral part of the United Kingdom. But what is very obvious from these two programmes and looking at how Ireland was treated at this time, particularly by the Russell government, is that it was still considered a colony and an inferior place occupied by very inferior people. The ‘Union’ was a sham. The treatment Britain meted out to Ireland, and the lack of action, would not have been tolerated had it been happening in England. But as we have explored here before, the colonial mentality is one which can be acquired, in a different way, by the colonised as well as the colonisers.

Scary stories

It was a long, long time ago, so long ago that it feels like aeons, another existence. It was relatively early on in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, an unnamed year in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland. Like many such towns it was – and is – a very divided place, you could feel and often see the division. I have told the story before of going up the main street at this time to buy a pair of trainers; the shop assistant, seeing me in shorts and t-shirt, asked if I was on holiday. No, I said, I’m working on a playscheme. She asked me where. When I said the name of the Catholic estate concerned I was then told, by someone ostensibly there to sell me a pair of shoes, that “You are working in the wrong end of town.” This was said dead seriously, no hint of irony or divilment. I didn’t buy my trainers.

I was there for 6 weeks on a summer playscheme in a working class estate which was Catholic and known as a Provo stronghold; however, as with all such cases, if you dug deeper there were all sorts of political and apolitical views present, and it is a lazy stereotype to simply put one label on it and the multiplicity of people living there.

One woman I met there had comforted a dying British soldier as he lay on the ground, shot as he patrolled by on a walkway at the back of her house; her courage and action in doing so would indicate that she would not have supported the shooting which killed the victim.

I will share three stories here from this time, all different, and the last one light or slight and perhaps hopeful. The playscheme had half a dozen workers, mainly students like myself and they included several from England. To produce newssheets or slips advertising events which we were organising, we used a duplicator. For those sufficiently young not to know what a duplicator was, it was a stencil and ink printing machine; you ‘cut’ the stencil using a typewriter without a ribbon, put the stencil on the inked drum, and ran the paper through. The ink came through the cut part and created your printing. It was efficient enough, and cheap, but not too cheerful. They were the photocopiers of their day.

We used a duplicator located in the house of the local Provo chief, though it was Mrs Provo Chief there when we would have gone to duplicate. One day I went with another volunteer. When we were finished we were told that they were moving the duplicator into hiding as they were expecting a British Army raid and the duplicator would have been taken (and not given back). A petition had been organised against internment and some squaddies (British soldiers of ‘private’ rank) had signed so they were expecting a kind of retaliation. I can still remember almost exactly the words I said, and being more local I spoke rather than the English volunteer; “Presuming that we can’t use it where it is going, do you know of another duplicator around that we could use?”. There was nothing obvious and we said our thanks and left.

It then came back to us through someone involved in community work locally, and a friend of the playscheme, that we had said to Mrs Provo Chief that we weren’t happy with the decision to deny us use of the duplicator, and could we speak to Mr Provo Chief’s superior….. To this day I still don’t know how this interpretation could have arisen from what I said, but somehow it had. The person informing us managed to pour some calming oil on troubled waters, and we did find another duplicator to use. In such a situation and time the Provos also acted as sexual morality police; a warning came, via the same route, for a male volunteer not to get too close to a local married woman.

The second story I will tell of this time is genuinely scary in a ‘things go bump in the night’ way. Us volunteers on the playscheme were accommodated in local people’s houses on the estate, sometimes at considerable squashed discomfort for the family concerned. For some of the time I stayed, along with another volunteer, in the house of a local woman; we will call her Annie Phelan (not her real name). Tragically Annie was killed a couple of years later by her sister’s boyfriend, killing her and seriously injuring her sister; this was not a sectarian killing.

Anyway, Annie told us about her brother, John Phelan (also not his real name). John had bought a speed boat to use on a local body of water a couple of years previously and, tragically, had been drowned. The boat was found straight away but it was a couple of days before John’s body was recovered. One of the people who went searching for John’s body was a Protestant friend of his who was a policeman, in the RUC; there is a tragic and political-sectarian twist to this story as this policeman was subsequently killed, in an IRA action, by a former classmate of John’s.

But on to the denouement of the story. When this policeman was still alive he was in the old police barracks in the town. I don’t know how it happened, whether there was a reason to open an old police record tome, but anyhow he was reading a particular page and saw a bone-chilling fact. His friend John Phelan had been drowned at a particular named location on the body of water referred to, on a particular day, month and year; exactly 100 years previously, to the day, another John Phelan had been drowned at the same spot on the same body of water.

It may have been a weird coincidence but if my name was ‘John Phelan’ I wouldn’t be going out on the water there, or elsewhere, anywhere near the centenary of this drowning and the bicentenary of the other.

The final story is lighter and more hopeful. A small camping trip took place as part of the playscheme to an attractive forest park. As with many such events, our biggest problem was getting the teenagers, and in a few cases just-preteenagers, to settle at night time. When asked to go and gather wood for a campfire we had not thought to say, “Only gather dead, lying wood”, which we had wrongly assumed those gathering would have known. Someone axed down a small sapling in a prominent position quite close to a park ranger’s house, a useless action anyway because green wood burns appallingly badly; I applied some mud to the stump to make it look like the sapling had been gone some time or was never there……

But what I discovered, delightfully and accidentally, while on this trip was that two of the campers were Prods; a young lad had invited two of his friends from outside the estate. Natural mixing between people at a time like that was a pleasant picture of what could be in Norn Iron, and a symbol of a more hopeful future. You would have to take hope from such a small, and in other contexts insignificant, event; a bit of more conventional ‘normality’ in a situation which was anything but that.

Atheist Catholics and Protestants

Ian Paisley MP (the namesake son of the Rev) got in trouble recently for referring to “the Catholic IRA”. And so he should. The Catholic church was a vehement critic of republican violence throughout the Troubles and while individual ‘Catholics’ might have been involved, the Catholic church was considered a safe pair of hands, relatively speaking, by the British government, e.g. for funding to local areas (Perhaps I should point out that I am not advocating approval by the British government as some kid of positive test but to show they were not seen by them as supporting violence in any way). And many Catholics were involved in myriad ways in dealing with, and trying to overcome, violence.

It did seem a sectarian point Ian Paisley was making. Using this descriptive term in any way was a somewhat bigoted statement (although he later said he made ‘no association’ between the Roman Catholic Church and the IRA). But the problem is also that the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ mean a whole variety of different things in Norn Iron. You can be a ‘cultural Catholic’ or ‘cultural Protestant’ and also an atheist. The acronyms ‘PUL’ and ‘CNR’ (‘Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist’ and ‘Catholic, Nationalist, Republican’) are an approximation of cultural and political identity for which religious background is a badge. Without considerable nuancing, the language used is not up to the task of being fair and accurate.

Ian Paisley was certainly not trying to be nuanced in his statement. However in saying what he did about the ‘Catholic IRA’ maybe Ian Paisley was simply on the PUL. And maybe his mind wasn’t on the job and he was thinking of holidays abroad…..undeclared freebies he has received in the past include one from a government that discriminates against Christians in general, something which is more than a bit odd considering where he is coming from. He doth Protest-ant too much.

Before I go, I will just say I have to admire Alexei Navalny’s courage. I don’t know much about the guy, and he is far from being a progressive or radical on many issues (e.g. it would seem he is still a Russian nationalist of a sort), but his anti-corruption work has been impressive. To come home to his own country, Russia, and face years of imprisonment by the regime which almost killed him by poisoning some months before, well that requires single-minded courage.

And I will end with sharing a great little online video. ICAN, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons https://www.icanw.org/ is the international body that successfully coordinated the campaign to have nuclear weapons banned. Well, in celebration Scottish activist Penny Stone put together a can-can video, see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyXrBYJuP1s&feature=youtu.be It is wonderfully silly though with a sensible refrain to keep dancing the can-can until the British government signs up…….

Well, that is me again. Stay warm, stay safe, and see you again soon, as ever, Billy.