Tales Around The Fireside

We lived in West Belfast.

My father worked in the Grosvenor Road area. One day he brought me into a street called Burnaby Street near Distillery Football Club. And he told me that he used to live there.

Back in 1921, it was evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics and my father (quoting his mother) said that there was sectarian rioting and a Protestant woman had shouted out that there would be no Catholics left in the street that night. And sure enough the Catholics were expelled for fear of their lives.

My father was a babe in arms at the time. My Uncle Jackie would have been about 11 years old. There may have been a boy “Wee Bobby” in between or as he died as a child, he was more likely already dead. My granny was already pregnant and Auntie Sheila was born in a room above a pub at Peters Hill in 1922…a gun battle was happening outside.

Shortly afterwards they moved to a house in the Broadway-Beechmount area of the Falls Road. Trauma over? Not quite …my Uncle Jackie would witness a totally innocent man, the caretaker of the Presbyterian Church at Broadway, shot dead by the IRA in a blatantly sectarian reprisal. Uncle Jackie never forgot it. And around the same time, a truck load of B Specials cruised the area, indiscriminately shooting into side-streets and Uncle Jackie pushed my father behind the wall opposite their home. Neither Uncle Jackie nor my father ever forgot it.

So the trauma was over …my grandparents lived in that house until their deaths almost forty years later (1959 and 1961) and my Auntie Sheila lived there until she left in 1983.

So the trauma was often recalled on Sunday night visits when the subject would come up. It was of course the early 1960s and this was the stuff of History…some forty years previously.

My mother…who came from Counnty Armagh was always frightened. I even recall two of our elderly neighbours telling similar stories… how as schoolgirls they carried guns and bullets “for the boys”. Scary enough for a 10 year old boy like myself to be simultaneously scared to death and relieved that this was 1962 or whatever and nothing like this could ever happen again.

Trauma over? No….ten years later and I cant get home from work because there is rioting near my own house. And I only make it as far as that same house in Broadway-Beechmount…now only Auntie Sheila and Uncle Charlie (her husband) live there…and I sleep on the couch.

Next morning, I am leaving for work and the British Paratrooper manhandles me across the street to a space between the Butchers Shop and the wall where Uncle Jackie shoved my father fifty years before…and they laugh at my Auntie Sheila tearfully berating them …”Dont touch that child ….I have every hair on his head counted”.

GOD love her. They are all dead. My parents. My Grandparents. Uncle Jackie and Auntie Mary. Auntie Sheila and Uncle Charlie.

Fireside Tales from forty years previously. And I have more Fireside Tales to tell my sons and grandchildren. So has Mrs Fitzjames Horse.

And now I am blogging about it.

I wont kid myself…it is NEVER over. NEVER.

By the way, Broadway Presbyterian Church closed in the 1980s and is now ….An Cultúrlann…the Irish Language Centre.

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Pre-Conflict, Conflict and Post-Conflict

As I have said before, there are only three stages to the Irish (now Northern) “Problem”. There is Pre-Conflict, Conflict and Post Conflict. In terms of a “Problem”….Ireland has always been “A Problem” for England and England has always been “THE Problem” for Ireland.

Really we were all born into this…we are all born into some part of the Arc of Irish History. Thus a child born in 1952 (not exactly a year I choose at random) is born into the Post-Conflict stage and will spend his childhood happily before the great watershed year of 1969.

A child born in 1962 is born into a Post-Conflict stage but will spend his/her childhood in a Pre-Conflict stage and spend decades living in Conflict.

A child born in 1972 will be born into the worst years and spend the best part of twenty years living with no memory of “peace” and little expectation of it. But a child born in 1982 will be born into bad years but grow up knowing that the worst was over. The child born in 1992 will be born as History is moving from Conflict to Post-Conflict and grow up in a Post-Conflict world.

But I choose 2002 …not entirely at random…because my first grandchild is born into Post-Conflict and and the Troubles are seeming of little relevance. I wont see most of his life…what phase he and his own family will live thru as adults.

More so…my most recent grandchild…born in 2012. She is without doubt born into Pre-Conflict. Thats how it is. Make no mistake, there is a date out there as relevant in Irish History as 1798, 1916 and ….1969.

And to be 17 years old and have no real resiliance to the daily trauma of Conflict. Because its a simple fact that everyone born and brought up in 1952….in Falls Road, Ardoyne, Short Strand, Shankill Road , the Village, Sandy Row, Tigers Bay, the Markets…is as crazy as I am.

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Robert Ballagh…Question & Answer Session

Tying up some loose ends here. Almost a month since I attended the lecture on “1916 Centenary” given by artist Robert Ballagh at An Féile. I blogged about the lecture and intended to blog about the subsequent Question and Answer session.

To recap, Robert is a dedicated republican who opposes the Irish Governments lukewarm approach to the legacy of 1916, burying it in a Decade of Centenaries. He ridiculed British involvement in the commemoration and suggested…accurately in my view …that if you dont celebrate the Easter Rising as special, then you end up celebrating nothing at all.

Essentially his idea is that the Citizens of Ireland claim 24th April 2016 as a proper, unashamed Republican Day. He ridiculed the central role that the Queen of England might play.

As always, the audience at an event at An Féile is almost as interesting as the “platform”. Bill Rollston from University of Ulster was in the “chair”. He has written extensively about Belfast’s political street murals. Some people think this is a great academic enterprise. Some people think its all a load of bollox.

Danny Devenney was in the audience. The legendary “Danny D” paints political murals around West Belfast. Last year he painted the risible “Gerry Adams…Visionary….Statesman etc” mural when the Great Leader was held in custody for four days (it has since been removed as it made Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin an involuntary laughing stock). A lot of people think Belfast’s political murals are important artwork. A lot of people think its all a load of bollox.

Gerry Adams (the Visionary, the Statesman and the Etcetera) was there, sitting at the door babysitting a quiet three year old child. He is also a Grandfather.

Some Sinn Féin intellectuals like the artsy Máirtin Ó Muilleoir MLA (South Belfast) and Jim Gibney, the Irish News columnist.

And there was a lot of “hard nuts” …Sinn Féin fringe people from West Belfast. And there was the strange hybrid of Sinn Féin member…”hard nuts” posing as intellectuals to impress Gerry, Máirtín and Jim.

Eamonn Mallie, a real journalist was there. As anyone who reads his Blog will know, Eamonn writes on Art as much as he writes on Politics.

And….I was there. And I was thinking how much I wished some of my American friends had been with me. It was all an audi-visual aid to Sinn Féin dominance of West Belfast.

In other words…a typical Féile audience.

I was suffering from a severe bronchial problem. And although I asked the first question, I lost my voice but was just about understood. I asked Robert if he had any idea how An Post (the Irish Post Office) will commemorate Easter Rising thru postage stamps. It might sound like a nerdy question …and it is! …but postage stamps not only say something about a historical event, they also say something about the time that an event is commemorated.

The Easter Rising has been commemorated in 1941, 1966, 1991 and 2006 and on each occasion, it said as much about evolving “official” Irish attitudes as the Rising itself. Robert Ballagh was as much in the dark as I am….although suspicions that I had already articulated elsewhere were partly confirmed by another member of the audience.

The suspicion is that as well as recognising the 1916 Patriots, there will be recognition of both “women” and “civilians” and maybe even the Dublin police officers who were killed by the “rebels”.

Certainly An Post has a reputation for issuing stamps featuring women, partly to redress the balance that women were airbrushed outof Irish History but there is also a whiff of (the right kind of) political correctness.

Certainly I anticipated that Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell who was a heroine in the General Post Office and was a heroine after the Surrender will feature on a stamp next year. Countess Markievicz has already featured but that is no bar to featuring again. Maybe Grace Gifford, widow of Joseph Plunkett.

And I have long believed that the suffering of civilians will be acknowledged…either in respect of the North King Street massacre by British troops or the murder (again by the British) of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, the pacifist.

Dublin Police? Now that might be controversial but it would be an acceptable (maybe) form of reconciliation while recognising that the appearance of (directly) British forces and their so called sacrifice would be a step too far. To be honest, I think that the audience member who brought this up is probably right.

There was of course a lot of questions or more properly some of the “hard nuts” talking about next year.

Jim Gibney spoke….a long statement, seemingly the object to put a Sinn Féin centre stage and put a spin on what Robert Ballagh had been saying. At the end of the long party-line delivery , in which Gibney referenced the need for “reconciliation” and referencing Orangeman Rev Meryn Gibson’s appearance at An Féile with Residents spokesman (sic) Spike Murray and noting “ex prisoner” (ie UVF man) Plum Smith at An Féile.

At the end of this meandering spoofery, Robert Ballagh simply asked Gibney….”and what is your question?”

At the end of it all, I got a few words with Robert Ballagh. He kindly autographed some First Day Covers he had designed. I mentioned I was a member of SDLP. This remark was overheard by a local “hard nut” who said “Are you a Stoop?”. I think I put him in his place by saying I dont indulge in “Stoop” and “Shinner” insults.

That shut the fecker up. Hard nut? ….my arse!

So what did we learn?

Well the Irish Government commemoration of 1916 will be influenced by the event itself and the history that has come after….essentially in the six years after the (deeply unpopular) Rising pushed forward an emotional response to British over-reaction and brought about the first Dáil which retrospectively endorsed Pearse, Connolly and the rest. But post-Treaty a counter-revolution set in which re-alligned Irish politics around (eventually) Fianna Fáil  who were more pro-Republican than (eventually) Fine Gael, a coalition of softer Republicans and west-Briton unionists. Arguably, years of Partition, European membership, the Good Friday Agreement consolidated the Counter-Revolution. Its all about the totality of relationships between Ireland and Britain as Charles Haughey of Fianna Fáil put it years ago.

Notwithstanding the result of any Irish General Election ahead of 24th April 2016, the official plans are Fine Gael-inspired.

Fine Gael inspired plans dilutes the message of Easter 1916. And Robert Ballagh and others are obviously right to arrange alternative commemorations that better reflect the republican values than under-pin the Irish Nation…an Irish Nation of which I am a citizen. Robert Ballagh would be the first to recognise that “republicans” are in all Parties in the Republic of Ireland and in at least two in the North of Ireland.

To emphasise Robert Ballagh sees no connexion between Easter Rising and outreaching to northern unionists and the British.

Yet curiously the Sinn Féin philosophers and “hard nuts” see it differently. At no point during the lecture or Q & A session did anyone mention SDLP. Sinn Féin dont really acknowledge that it is possible SDLP members can be Republican. The northern commemorations will have Sinn Féins fingerprints all over ….rather like the official Dublin ceremonies will have Fine Gael fingerprints.

For Fine Gael….it is about the Easter Rising…and outreaching to the British.

For Sinn Féin (and dont forget an Assembly Election weeks after Easter 2016 )….it is about Easter  1916 and their old mates Rev Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order and Plum Smith, formerly of the UVF.

For me…..well I dont really see this as the Centenary of the Easter Rising. It is more like the 50th Anniversary of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising.

In 1966, I was 13 going on 14. Next year, I will be 63 going on 64.

What has changed? A lot. But one thing that I dont think has changed is a familiar Irish pattern….Pre-Conflict….Conflict….Post-Conflict….Pre-Conflict….Conflict….and so on.

So really I just have this feeling of deja vu….I have this feeling of deja vu…I have this feeling of deja vu.

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SDLP Are Right About Me

A couple of months ago I applied (again!) for a job with SDLP. A couple of days ago, I got the same old “thanks but no thanks” letter. Youd think I would have caught on by now.

The SDLP are of course right. This is increasingly clear to me. I think my health would not be an issue. But to be frank, I think that my age would have been a problem. I may no longer have the…energy or optimism. For the record, I have not been short-listed because I did not demonstrate that I met the criteria.

Actually I dont agree with the SDLP assessment but its academic. No hard feelings. My loss is the gain of one or two bright young things.

Yet, I find it a pity that the SDLP never found a role for me…especially a lucrative role for me. A role that would have boosted my bank balance as well as justifying getting a History/Politics degree at the grand old age of 57….or one that justified promoting a (quirky, independent…and credible) SDLP line on Slugger O’Toole and here on the “Czar of Russia”.

In terms of balance, I can claim that I have done more for SDLP than SDLP ever did for me. I owe “nobody nuthin'” (sic).

Its the lot of a Prophet…even a Cassandra …to be under-estimated by people “in his own country”. It has always been a peculiarity of this Blog that it is well-read in United States and really thats the only place where I feel this Blog has had any impact. The highlight remains my visit to USA and lectures at Texas State University in 2013. Yet oddly SDLP never had me on any platform.

I am not really as bitter about it all as this sounds. Any role in SDLP is at least three years too late. Not only do I admire the Party for its altruism…it aspires to represent the interests of the most vulnerable, rather than the self-interest of its members. I am really too old and tired.

Nor do I contribute to the notion that SDLP is in terminal decline…a managed terminal decline…the Fealty Doctrine. It certainly needs to be more bold…and that is not easy in a Party that is competing for “republican, nationalist” votes with Sinn Féin on one side and for ” letsgetalongerist” votes with Alliance on the other. Not to mention increasing threat of the People Before Profit and Green Party (and the Greens have a nasty streak) and new potentially divisive issues…Womens Rights. It seems that a lot of Politics now is “generational.”

Anyway…the bottom line is that SDLP are right about me.

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Politics Is About Optimism

First of all, my health is a lot better. The worst aspect of getting old is not major health issues…heart, kidney, diabetes etc. Thank GOD, I have no underlying issue. The worst aspect of getting old is that the recovery period from an ordinary bout of flu is much longer and more frustrating.

There is actually a strange transition period in the stages of life. I used to think I was “getting older” and of I joked about being old, friends would rush to assure me “not at all …youre not old”. Now I dont even say that because by any standards, I am 63 and old.

I might worry about my knees…arthritic due to too many marathons (two!!!!) and half marathons (four) and 10k fun runs (far too many). But I dont worry about my mental health….guess what….if you open the dishwasher and put a pint a milk in it and think “Im going mad”….its entirely normal. If on the other hand you have put dirty dishes in the fridge and only know about because your children tell you….then thats a bad sign.

So I feel mostly ok. Except for the irritating fact that nothing is as good as it used to be. Music. TV. Football. Movies. And going to Dublin yesterday and not realising that my bank card expired on 31st August and I had to go to a bank to be told that yes I might be able to withdraw €40 but it as “at the discretion of the cashier”….so being at the mercy of a cashier ….a 14 year old girl I think…is one of those senior moments that really pisses me off.

Increasingly the Future does not seem to appeal. The Music, the TV, Football and the Movies will be even worse and hard to believe that the young people of Dublin…no longer Irish in any traditional sense …want the same kinda future…Irish Unity…that I do. I am a stranger in Ireland. Damn I am a stranger in Belfast. Damn it all, I am a stranger on the Falls Road.

And its the same with Politics. I am a stranger with these issues. In fairness to myself, I coped with the great non-issue of Equal Marriage. The World did not End. In fairness to most others of my generation, we are not actually bothered. Nor should we be. I enjoy seeing “Rights” extended. But increasingly my generation will have trouble with some issues coming down the line…Reproduction Rights, Migration, The Environment, Re-Unification.

Politics is not just about the ebb and flow of ideas at Election time. There is something more fundamental….historic….going on.

Politics is about Optimism. A desire to make the world a better place. Certainly thats true MY kinda Politics. But hard to see any kinda Optimism in the Fux News mentality of Donald Trump or Syrian refugees with babies chanting “Freedom!!!” in the Square outside the main train station in Budapest. Is that the level to which Europe…with those grotesque plans of expansion…has sunk.

Hubris as the Greeks say. Schadenfreude as the Germans say. Karma as everyone says.

I dont have the optimism to even try and make things better.

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Sick Note

Apologies for not Blogging recently. It has been a horrible six weeks or so. My health has not been good. And finding the time and more importantly, energy, has been very difficult.

I dont know how much of my future I can realistically invest in “Keeping An Eye on the Czar Of Russia” but just for the record, this Blog celebrated its fourth anniversary earlier this month. I am proud of that.

In terms of the number of people who have actually visited this Blog, a major milestone looms. Indeed, I would easily have passed it, if I had been blogging during August. So I dont really want to hang up my keyboard, until that milestone is passed.

Just as important…there are some loose ends to be tied up. There is a couple of blogs that I have in draft form…Robert Ballagh (Question and Answer Session) and Mairia Cahill at An Féile. And there is the ongoing crisis over the Stormont Assembly. I would have liked to have blogged about it as it unfolded. Now when I eventually get round to blogging about it, there will be an element of hindsight which I dont like. Blogging is at its best as a story unfolds not when it is all over.

Anyway, hopefully…I will be doing it sooner rather than later.

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Robert Ballagh….1916 Centenary Commemorations.

image image

An Féile Lecture. Robert Ballagh, artist, stamp designer, bass guitarist and committed Republican discusses how we should remember 1916 Easter Rising.

As you all probably know there is an Orange parade held in County Donegal on the Saturday before the Twelfth (of July) each year. Robert Ballagh began his talk by referencing the Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Lodge (Mr Henning) and his speech to Orangemen this year.
Henning told his Brethren that he saw no problem with Republicans commemorating the Easter Rising next year.
This was interpreted as a “positive” gesture by unionists but Robert Ballagh saw it as patronising. Republicans do notneed the permission of unionists to commemorate the seminal event in Irish National History.
The views of “Official Ireland” on next years commemoration are views that Robert finds more “worrisome”.
“Ireland Inspires” the video used to outline the context of the “official” commemorations…and first shown at uthe General Post Office in November 2014 was a debacle. In the very place, where The Republic was proclaimed…there was no reference to the seven men who signed the Proclamation (and later executed for it) but the Queen of England, Ian Paisley, Bono, Bob Geldof and Brian O’Driscoll (the rugby legend) all appeared.

Referencing, the old rebel ballad, “Who Dares to Speak of ’98” (ie the 1798 Rebellion), Robert Ballagh asked pointedly “Who Dares to Speak of 1916”. The Irish people are being asked to be “mature” and realise that our history is “shared”. It has even been suggested that a new wall is built in Glasnevin Cemetry should name all the dead from 1916…including British soldiers.
Robert noted that the fourteen patriots who were executed by firing squads ffrom the Sherwood Foresters. It was a “reward” …as this regiment was the British regiment which had suffered most casualties.
To recognise the Sherwood Foresters with a plaque near Mount Street in Dublin where they were in a gun battle witha smaller Rebel force…was akin to unveiling a plaque to the German Luftwaffe in London.
Self-confident nations would not even consider it.
“Official” Ireland is burying the singular event of the Easter Rising in a welter of other anniversaries concocted as a decade of centenaries.
In rushing to commemorate everything, we commemorate nothing special.

The Men and Women of 1916 wer not merely rebels, they were visionaries. Noting that the old lie that the Daily Telegraph had reported that O’Donovan Rossa had made a deathbed confession, repenting his Republican past and urging Irishmen to fight the Germans were the real enemies of “civilisation”, Robert Ballagh called for Honesty about the Rising.
I wonder did he know that Beechmount Sinn Féin think Rossa was executed.
There will be alternative commemorations to Official Ireland.k
Uu,ypty p

nces Black, Sinead O’Connor and Damien Dempsey and Adrian Dunbar, the actor.
The title deeds of the Republic of Ireland belong to the citizens of Ireland. We must work to reclaim it from politicians and bankers.

Question and Answer Session. I will blog about this later.

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