Sapphic Symbology

Katherine_Harris_Bradley_&_Edith_Emma_Cooper_(2)

Michael Field

I started off this morning searching for the poet who celebrates a birthday today.  Allen Ginsberg was my pick last year, but I noticed that he shares his birthday with the now discredited Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Bradley was accused by her children of enabling child abuse by her husband Walter H. Breen.

Marion Zimmer Bradley did have a reputation as a womens’ rights campaigner and her one poetic work is “Maenads”.  So I followed the thread of the wild virgin followers of Dionysus as symbols of feminism or lesbianism.  Clad in fox fur, leaping through the mountains, intoxicated by wine, by life, by divine ecstasy, worthy symbols of feminine power absent the domination of men.

Ursula Le Guin also wrote a poem about Maenads and you will find it in a posting for her birthday on this blog.

Suffragettes were described in popular press as “Mad Maenads”.  The suffragette movement was very instrumental in the alignment of feminism with vegetarianism and indeed it was the suffragettes who identified the hunger strike as a key weapon against the forces of societal oppression.  The lesson was not lost on the Fenian movement and Sinn Féin adopted it in the struggle for Irish Independence.  Gandhi also borrowed the weapon for his armory of non-violent protest.

But I was more interested in following the thread that leads to Michael Field.  An unlikely lesbian you might think of a male author.  Not so.  Micheal Field is in fact the pen name of the scandalous incestuous lesbian couple:   Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece Edith Emma Cooper.  In the poem below the prevalence of fox fur is no accident.

To my knowledge Marion Zimmer Bradley has no relation with Katherine Harris Bradley.

Second Thoughts ; by Michael Field

I thought of leaving her for a day
in town, it was such an iron winter
at Durdans, the garden frosty clay,
the woods as dry as any splinter,
the sky congested. I would break
from the deep, lethargic, country air
to the shining lamps, to the clash of the play,
and to-morrow, wake
beside her, a thousand things to say.
I planned-Oh more-I had almost started;
I lifted her face in my hands to kiss,
a face in a border of fox’s fur,
for the bitter black wind had stricken her,
and she wore it – her soft hair straying out
where it buttoned against the gray, leather snout:
In an instant we should have parted;
but at sight of the delicate world within
that fox-fur collar, from brow to chin,
at sight of those wonderful eyes from the mine,
coal pupils, an iris of glittering spa,
And the wild, ironic, defiant shine
as of a creature behind a bar
one has captured, and, when three lives are past,
may hope to reach the heart of at last
all that, and the love at her lips, combined
to show me what folly it were to miss
a face with such thousand things to say,
and beside these, such thousand more to spare,
for the shining lamps, for the clash of the play-
oh madness; not for a single day
could I leave her! I stayed behind.

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Work of a lifetime

Martin-mcguinness.jpg

Born in 1950 in Derry, Northern Ireland,  Martin McGuinness grew up in the worst era for Catholics in Northern Ireland.  They were discriminated against so badly in Protestant Northern Ireland that they emulated Black Americans such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in setting up non-violent civil rights protests against the regime.

Through the 1960’s just as in America, the ruling class escalated the use of violence to break the protests.  McGuinness joined the IRA and was, at only 21 years of age, the second in command of the Derry Provisional IRA when British Paratroopers murdered 14 civil rights protesters in Bloody Sunday.

He was imprisoned, treated as a terrorist by a British Regime under Maggie Thatcher.  A British Government that seemed hell bent on destroying the nationalist cause by violence, intolerance and general all round hatefulness.

Elected to Stormont in 1982 in the wake of the hunger strikes and the death of Bobby Sands he, like all Sinn Féin, did not take his seat.

McGuinness went on to become the chief negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement and he took personal responsibility for disarming the IRA.

On this day, his birthday, in 1998 the people of Northern Ireland voted on the Agreement in a referendum.  75% of the people of Northern Ireland voted for peace.

Think about that.  25% of the Northern Irish wanted to continue the violence, the death and destruction.  Who are these people?

McGuinness was cast by his enemies as a villain and a terrorist.  But this is a man who worked tirelessly for peace all his life.  A short life in the end.  He passed away last year aged only 66.

Martin lived to see his life’s work come to fruition.  Northern Ireland is not a finished object and there is a long road to go to reconciliation.  That 25% of nay sayers is still up there looking to bring the whole thing crashing down about our ears.  Don’t let them.

 

The thing about martyrs

Kevin_Barry

Kevin Barry in his Belvedere Rugby Shirt

Born today in 1902 Kevin Barry was the most perfect of martyrs.  A smart lad, educated by the Jesuits in Belvedere College Dublin.  He played on a championship winning junior rugby cup winning team and also represented the school on the senior cup team.

He went on to study medicine in University College Dublin.  Aged only 18 he was involved in a shootout with British Soldiers and was the only member of his squad caught.  He refused to give up his comrades under torture.  He was tried, found guilty and hanged by the British like a common criminal.

For Sinn Féin (the IRA) the events could not have been orchestrated more favourably.  The British immediately found themselves on the losing side in a world-wide PR campaign.  In Ireland tempers were already high.  The hanging of Barry occurred in the same week when Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died on hunger strike.

The British had plenty of ammunition to fight a counter PR campaign but they failed miserably.  For instance the soldiers attacked by Barry’s squad were about the same age as Barry himself.  Barry was armed with dum-dum bullets, banned by Geneva convention.

Described as a “sensitive poet-intellectual” MacSwiney was presented to the world as a pacifist playwright intellectual forced by the brutal British to take up arms in defence of his rights.  Killed by a callous and cold-hearted monarchy.  Barry was presented as little more than a child, a young gentleman of great potential, beaten, tortured and hanged by violent beasts.  Who could not shed a tear?

Money flowed in from abroad for the cause.  The IRA guerilla campaign went into all out war and within a year the British Government found their position in Ireland untenable.  They went to the negotiating table.

The thing about martyrs is never to create them.  The British were slow to learn this lesson.  The execution of the 1916 leaders should have opened their eyes to the power of martyrs.  But the British were still creating martyrs in 1981 when 10 Provisional IRA prisoners died on hunger strike in the Maze prison in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher.  The leader of that strike, Bobby Sands, was elected to the Westminster parliament while on hunger strike.  The British Government suffered a dreadful loss of face and had to pass legislation to prevent nomination of prisoners for election to prevent a repeat incident.

The hunger strike is a very ancient tradition in Ireland and goes all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and Celtic Hospitality laws.  It was compulsory for a host to feed a guest under his roof.  As a protest against injustice a subject might starve himself outside the hall of his lord.  Such an action usually led to resolution of a dispute because the lord could not bear the shame of a man starving himself on his doorstep.

The IRA began active use of the hunger strike in May 1917 to protest their status as political rather than criminal prisoners.  Under international pressure the hunger strikers were released.  Thomas Ashe was subsequently re-arrested and went back on hunger strike in Sept 1917.  The British Government initially ordered the forced feeding of fasting prisoners.  When Ashe choked to death during force feeding in 1917 his funeral became a major IRA recruitment drive.  The hunger strike as a modern weapon of non-violent resistance was born.

The world paid due attention and in India Mohandas Gandhi saw its potential.  As a form of non-violent protest it complied with the philosophy of satyagraha.  In 1929 Jatin Das died after 63 days on hunger strike.  On the same strike Bhagat Singh set a hunger strike record of 116 days and ended the strike when demanded concessions were granted.

Prison authorities have become more scientific about the force feeding of hunger striking prisoners.  As a result of direct stomach feeding via a Ryles tube Irom Sharmila was able to remain healthy despite 16 years refusal to ingest either food or water through her mouth.

One final thing about martyrs, they need to be special.  A good martyr every ten years or so serves as a beacon of defiance, bravery, resistance to oppression.  It serves as a rallying cry, a call to recruitment , an incentive for contributions to the cause.  In the middle east today Islamic groups create a handful of martyrs every month.  Too many martyrs for any individual martyr to stand out from the crowd.  Martyrdom is no longer special, it just become the norm and eventually it becomes meaningless.  A pointless death.  A waste of life.

 

Kevin Barry: Anonymous

In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty
But a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high

Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The names of his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
“Turn informer or we’ll kill you”
Kevin Barry answered, “no”

Calmly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free

Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But can’t keep their spirit down
Lads like Barry are no cowards
From the foe they will not fly
Lads like Barry will free Ireland
For her cause they’ll live and die

Timing

On Dec 9th in 1973 the Sunningdale agreement was signed, setting up a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland.  It was followed by a unionist backlash, a general strike and a breakdown in public order.  The agreement did not survive for six months.

As a result of the collapse of Sunningdale Northern Ireland, and the Mainland UK, were to suffer 25 years of tit for tat violence and terrorism.

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed, introducing a power sharing administration.  It was nicknamed “Sunningdale for slow learners”.

There is a lesson here for policy makers who are attempting to resolve conflicts between polarised interests.  Before any peaceable agreement can be implemented it must be sold effectively to both sides.  In particular it must be sold to the hard line extremists.

Moderate interests are always focused on the solution.  Hard line extremists focus on their positions, rights, entitlements, traditions.  They worry about symbols such as marches, flags, badges and language.  When finding a solution that includes the hard liners the devil is in the detail.

For any solution to work requires the hard liners to engage in the the process to find the solution.  If they are excluded from the process they will simply undermine any solution that emerges.

In many situations the Hard Line interests are operating outside of the sphere of legality.  They are often labelled as criminals and are wanted by the police for terrorist activity.  Any negotiation process must begin by recognizing the right of these people to be present at the negotiation table.  This in itself is often anathema to other interests.

Building agreement is a delicate choreography of acceptance, inclusion and negotiation.

 

 

Parents:  by Paul Durcan

A child’s face is a drowned face:

Her parents stare down at her asleep

Estranged from her by a sea:

She is under the sea

And they are above the sea:

If she looked up she would see them

As if locked out of their own home.

Their mouths open.

Their foreheads furrowed –

Pursed-up orifices of fearful fish –

Their big ears are fins behind the glass

And in her sleep she is calling out to them

Father, Father

Mother, Mother

But they cannot hear her:

She is inside the sea

And they are outside the sea,

Throughout the night, stranded, they stare

At the drowned, drowned face of their child.

Winning the war on terror

Improvised British Armoured Car

Improvised British Armoured Car

You cannot win a “war on terror” by military action.  Anyone who believes otherwise should look a the modern history of Ireland.

The Irish people wanted independence from Great Britain.  They moved between violent and political approaches over time.  Ultimately the Irish developed the dual strategy now nicknamed “the bullet and the ballot box”.  the British Empire was at the peak of its powers in the early 20th Century.  Ireland is not a large nation like India.  Ireland is not a powerful nation like the USA.  Ireland is not located far away from the centre of British power, like New Zealand.  Ireland is a small, weak country sitting right in Britains armpit.

Despite holding all the cards the British could not hold Ireland.  They could win every battle but never win the “war”.  The Irish learned that it was foolish to engage in fair fights against the British, so we fought dirty, the guerilla.

The IRA in the 1920’s made it impossible for the British to administer Ireland.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland moved from a guerilla war to a terrorist war.  They fought it on British soil.  It was even dirtier than the guerilla war of the 1920’s. The British evenually learned that they could not win this war.  Every victory they scored against the terrorists was a recruitment drive for the IRA.

The British learned at last that the way to end a war on terror was to build peace.  Engender understanding and respect for your foe, listen to their grievances, right the wrongs and work together to build a better society.

So I was simply astounded yesterday listening to David Cameron crowing like a cock in parliament over the murder of “Jihadi John”.  Simply calling the man by this jingoistic nickname is an indication that the British Government have forgotten all the hard won lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process.

This morning as David Cameron surveys the wreckage of Paris I wonder how bullish he feels about “taking out” Jihadi John?  The important thing here is to take a deep breath and review the situation.

The “war on terror” is going to kill British and French people, and perhaps also Americans and Russians.  You don’t fight a war in Syria.  You care for the Syrian people.  You give them peace and prosperity.  You defend them from violence.  You stop selling them guns and start buying their melons.  You stabilise their economy and give the Syrian people what they want, a safe and comfortable home.  That’s how you defeat terrorism.

Soloheadbeg

Danbreen

Soloheadbeg is a small rural townland that lies between Limerick Junction Railway Station and Dundrum village in South Tipperary. On this day in 1919 it was the scene of an ambush.

Local constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell were the armed escort for a horse drawn cart containing a load of gelignite from Tipperary Military Barracks for blasting at Soloheadbeg Quarry.

A group of masked men of the IRA’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade, including Dan Breen, Sean Hogan, Seamus Robinson and Sean Treacy, sprang the ambush. The constables raised their rifles and were killed by the IRA men who took the rifles, ammunition and the load of gelignite.

The following day Martial Law was imposed and the British Government offered a reward of £1,000.  Wanted posters for Dan Breen were posted outside every police barracks in the country.

So began the Irish War of Independence.

The song below is evocative of the era.  It describes the plight of one of the IRA men who would not accept the Free State solution and chose to fight the Irish Civil War.  It is very popular with the Tipperary Hurlers, and my son learned to sing it in school in 5th class (age 11).

The Galtee Mountain Boy: by Patsy O’Halloran

I joined the flying column in nineteen and sixteen
In Cork with Seán Moylan, Tipperary with Dan Breen
I’m arrested by Free Staters and sentenced for to die
Farewell to Tipperary, said the Galtee Mountain Boy

We went across the valleys and over the hilltops green
Where we met with Dinny Lacey, Seán Hogan and Dan Breen
Seán Moylan and his gallant men, they kept the flag flyin’ high
Farewell to Tipperary, said the Galtee Mountain Boy

We trekked the Wicklow Mountains, we were rebels on the run
Though hunted night and morning, we were outlaws but free men
We roamed the Dublin Mountains when the sun was shining high
Farewell to Tipperary, said the Galtee Mountain Boy

Oh I’ll bid farewell to old Clonmel, I never more will see
And to the Galtee Mountains that oftimes sheltered me
The men who fought for their liberty — who died without a sigh
May their cause be ne’er forgotten said the Galtee Mountain Boy

Mindless racism

In the current emotional climate following the assassinations of French journalists in Charlie Hebdo it is worth pausing to examine the immediate response.  There is a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment washing over Europe and it is a good idea to separate the wheat from the chaff.  If nation states respond by targeting Muslim populations it would not be the first time in history that we aimed a sledgehammer at the wrong walnut.

Step back to the mid 14th century, when the black death was scourging Europe.  Christians noticed that the Jewish population had a lower infection rate and a higher survival rate.  Back in those days there was no appreciation of the importance of hygiene and quarantine amongst the Christians.  The fact that Jews lived apart in Ghettos and that they practiced better hygiene was lost on a population in panic.  Someone decided that it was a Jewish conspiracy and they were poisoning the wells.  On Jan 9th 2015 we can remember the Basel massacre, when the city fathers shackled 600 innocents in a barn and set it alight.  To add insult to injury any surviving children were forcibly converted to Christianity.  Basel was only one of many such massacres, which happened from Barcelona to Brussels.

In more recent times we Irish well remember what it was like to be an Irish person living in Britain in the 1970’s.  On the one hand you were bound to be a terrorist, a member of the IRA and a supporter of bank robberies, murders and bombings.  On the other hand you were an ignoramus from a sub-human culture who could not aspire to the intellectual heights attainable by solid English stock.  No wonder so many Irish people hid in plain sight by adopting English accents and avoiding “Irishness”.

Spare a thought for all the hard working, decent, innocent Muslims in Europe who are now looking over their backs in fear because yet another lunatic Islamist cell has done something atrocious. Just as the Provisional IRA never represented me or my interests, the Islamic State does not represent these people.

Decisions made in times of fear and panic can seem logical at the time, but in retrospect they frequently turn out to be really bad actions.  Spare a thought for the 600 Jews who died in Basel on this day in 1349 simply because they survived the Black Death.  Spare a thought for innocent Muslims, who are the greatest victims of Islamist terrorists.  Instead of discussing reactionary policy we should be discussing the roots of the problem and the potential for long term sustainable solutions.