Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


Robert Ballagh's 'The Thirtieth of January' and Bloody Sunday, 1972
Monday, 24 January 2022 11:02

Robert Ballagh's 'The Thirtieth of January' and Bloody Sunday, 1972

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell gives the background to Robert Ballagh's new painting, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday

When Robert Ballagh, the outstanding contemporary Irish painter, found a growing need to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he felt more and more drawn to paintings that had impacted on him in the past. The most compelling one in relation to the Derry massacre was Goya’s The Third of May (below), a painting depicting the execution of Spanish people on Spanish soil by the invading French army.  


Ballagh’s painting is entitled The Thirtieth of January. The parallels in the situation are clear: On Bloody Sunday, Irish people were executed on Irish soil, by British soldiers.

Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972

Bloody Sunday was a turning point in the North of Ireland conflict. It broke the civil rights movement, which in the late 1960s had highlighted internationally the sectarian, repressive Unionist regime by peaceful demonstrations, demanding equal rights for Catholics. 

On 13 August 1969, the British Labour government had brought British troops onto the streets, initially to stop sectarian gangs, but then, aided and abetted by the police, attacking nationalist communities in Nazi-like pogroms.

In June 1970 the Tories came to power with Edward Heath as Prime Minister, and the British state took on a menacing role.  The Tories (the Conservative and Unionist Party) were allies of the N. I. Unionist Party, that had controlled the sectarian state since its establishment in 1921. This led to a surge in repression of the Catholic community, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.

During the introduction of internment, the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (1Para) shot dead ten residents, including a mother and a priest, in the Ballymurphy Massacre. A plan drawn up in London by the highest government circles was aimed at crushing resistance through acts of “collective punishment” of the Catholic community in the North of Ireland. 

A civil rights demonstration was called for in Derry on 30th January 1972, which demanded an end to internment. The agreement between the chief constable in Derry and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights organisation (NICRA) had been that the peaceful march would stay within a Catholic area. The IRA had also made clear there would be no armed presence on the day.

Increasingly, the British Tories and their Unionist allies had been incensed by the existence of “Free Derry”, a Catholic residential area of the city that had become a no-go area for the British security forces since the pogroms of August 1969. It was here the civil rights demonstration was set to take place. It was later claimed that an attack on such a demonstration was expected to lead to a direct confrontation between the shock troops of 1Para and the IRA, and result in “Free Derry” being subjugated. If this plan failed to materialise then the demonstrators, who were deemed by the British high command to be part of the enemy, could be taught a lesson. And so the massacre in Derry was planned by Heath and high-ranking military. A 16-soldier-strong company of  1Para was responsible for all the shootings on the day. It included the same soldiers who had been blooded and commended for the Ballymurphy Massacre. 

A number of  inquiries into Bloody Sunday followed, none of which led to  a conviction of those responsible. Although the evidence against the military was overwhelming, only one paratrooper, “Soldier F” was initially charged 49 years later with murder of two of the fourteen dead on Bloody Sunday, and then the charges were dropped. The same “Soldier F” had received a commendation for his role in the Ballymurphy massacre. Currently the British government is pushing through an amnesty for all those guilty of murder in the North of Ireland in an attempt to stop once and for all the possible prosecution of their military and associated killer squads.

This inability of the British judiciary to deliver justice in such blatant cases has acted as a weeping wound in Ireland. Several of Ireland’s best artists have taken a stand in their work, including Thomas Kinsella, Brian Friel, and Robert Ballagh.

The title of Robert Ballagh’s painting, The Thirtieth of January, makes in itself clear the connection to Goya’s The Third of May. But of course the visual language is compelling. While in Goya’s picture, the outline of Madrid sets the location of the executions in 1808, in Ballagh’s it is the Derry skyline, its walls, St Columb’s cathedral, the Presbyterian church and indeed with Walker’s Monument still in place, which was blown up in 1973. Where there is a hillside behind the Spanish victims on the left of Goya’s picture, in Ballagh’s painting the eye moves upwards from the Bogside to working-class terraces.

In both paintings the focus is on the victims, the people against whom and on whose territory the atrocity is being committed. They are the figures whose faces we see – the soldiers are faceless. While Goya chooses the moment of execution of the central rebel (others already lie dead beside him), Ballagh depicts a scene directly after the shooting has started. He shows us two victims, one dying, the other dead. Looking at the picture, we are faced with a group of distressed people running towards us, a press image that went around the world. Father Daly is holding up a white bloodstained handkerchief, trying to shield this group carrying the first victim of the massacre, the mortally wounded Jackie Duddy, out of range.

These people are clearly recognisable. They also hold white bloody handkerchiefs, underlining a peaceful protest crushed in blood. In Goya’s painting, too, a monk is by the side of the rebel, offering support, along with others. In addition to this, another priest, Father Hugh Mullan, had been shot dead in the Ballymurphy Massacre. So there are many layers of associations in this figure.

Centred in the foreground is another victim, covered in a white bloodstained cloth, echoing the handkerchiefs. The stark white, associated with peace, innocence and martyrdom, reminds viewers of the brilliant white shirt of the man about to be executed in Goya’s painting. He is flanked on the right by a group of faceless soldiers, their weapons by the hip indicating indiscriminate shooting without aim. Another solder on the left in a kneeling position closer to the body suggests “Soldier F” who knelt to shoot dead Barney McGuigan, as he waved a white handkerchief high above his head, trying to go to the aid of the dying Patrick Doherty. “Soldier F” was responsible for a number of the cold-blooded killings, and the sole soldier to be accused of murder, only to be cleared later.

Ballagh makes clear that the marchers were unarmed. We see two placards on the ground reading “Civil Rights Now” and “End Internment”. A Civil Rights banner occupies the upper centre of the picture, like a title.

The painting not only references Goya, but also Picasso’s Guernica, itself a picture about foreign invaders murdering a native population and inspired by Goya. Like Picasso, Ballagh decided on a monochrome painting. The covered dead man’s hand in the centre foreground still holds the broken end of the “End Internment” placard in his right hand, in much the same way as the slain man in Picasso’s painting grasps the broken sword. The left hand also echoes Picasso’s in its reach towards the left corner of the painting, as well as in its gesture. Picasso and Ballagh’s black-and-white execution evokes newspaper images; in Ballagh’s case most of the press photographs and footage from the event were in black and white. The only colour are the blood red splashes on white. The smoke behind the silhouetted demonstrators in the background suggests the use of tear gas seen in so many photographs of police attacks on demonstrators.

In the left corner, under the foot of the kneeling soldier, we see a sheet of paper with the Royal Coat of Arms and writing on it. They are the words of Major General Robert Ford. The title is the massacre’s military code name, Operation Forecast, and is dated January 30, 1972. The text reads:

I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders amongst the Derry Young Hooligans.

Ballagh leaves no doubt but that the killings were ordered at the highest level. In this respect, too, the painting goes further than any Inquiry has ever done. Michael Jackson, a senior officer in command, was later promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the British Land Forces.

Art history and political history are connected. Art doesn’t exist outside of time, and there is a tradition in art that does not shrink away from a commitment to justice, to taking sides. Neither does this diminish the artist – think of Mikis Theodorakis and Pablo Neruda, and of course Goya, all of whom have produced work that has echoed through time. Goya’s painting inspired Picasso’s 1937 Guernica and the 1951 Massacre in Korea; it has also been an enduring influence on Robert Ballagh’s work.


Goya 5

The power of this work, through Ballagh’s interpretation, was picked up by a community art group in Derry who recently asked his permission to reproduce his The Third of May on a wall in Glenfada Park, one of the murder sites on Bloody Sunday. They did this because they could see the direct connection between the terror and the anger of their own experience and that depicted in The Third of May. In both pictures, the viewer is a direct witness to the events and, standing alongside the artist in the midst of this slaughter, feels involved.

Beside it, up until recently, the group had displayed their copy of Picasso’s Guernica. When artists take the side of the people against oppression, they resonate and are understood worldwide because the condition of the victims of wars for profit, power, and control is global. Bloody Sunday is a part of the world history of colonialism, occupation and people’s resistance, and Robert Ballagh’s painting expresses this insight, demonstrating the necessity of art.

Robert Ballagh's speech at the unveiling of the artwork

Well, it's a long, long time since I was standing here, inside the Guildhall. Believe it or not, in the early 1960s I was in a showband and we used to play at dancers here in the Guildhall. Can I say, it's great to be back! To my mind the 13th of August, 1969 is a truly significant date in recent Irish history.

Let me explain. On that date sectarian gangs, aided and abetted by the police, made violent incursions into nationalist communities, burning houses and driving people from their homes. The response was immediate; widespread rioting broke out and the British government took the precarious decision to deploy troops onto the streets of the north. At  the time the British home secretary James Callaghan ruefully observed: "It was easy to send them in but it will be much more difficult to get them out!”

On the other hand the Irish government was  caught completely unawares; successive governments having ignored the north for decades. Initially the Dublin government set up field hospitals and a few refugee camps to help those fleeing the conflict. A relief fund was established to alleviate the distress and a covert plan was agreed to import arms to be made available to northern nationalists in the event of a repeat of the sectarian attacks of the 13th august.

When the plan was rumbled, leading members of the government (including the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch) denied all knowledge and scapegoated Ministers C.J. Haughey and Neil Blaney who were summarily dismissed from their posts. Two arms trials followed which resulted in all defendants being found not guilty. The official reaction in the south to the unfolding violence in the north left many nationalists feeling that, in the future, they would be on their own.

In the visual arts response to the violence was triggered by a surprising intervention by the artist Michael Farrell. In 1969 the most important annual display of contemporary painting, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, was due to open in Cork and then travel to Belfast. At the opening in Cork, on receiving his prize for the best painting in the exhibition, Michael declared that he was giving his prize money to the northern refugee fund and that he was withdrawing his picture from the exhibition in Belfast. Obviously Michael’s pronouncement provoked serious reflection by the rest of the artists in the exhibition. I was one of those artists and had been awarded second prize for a painting entitled ‘Marchers’. It was from a series inspired by the civil rights marches in America and the civil rights campaign in the north. 

Eventually 10 artists including myself decided to follow Michael’s example and withdraw from the exhibition in Belfast. Some time later Michael informed me that he was planning to stage an exhibition of the withdrawn works in Dublin and that he had secured a venue in Kildare St., opposite Leinster House that was the HQ for an organisation called the Citizens Committee. I later learned that it received funding and support from the government's northern relief fund. 

I agreed to help hang the exhibition but when I arrived at 43 Kildare Street I discovered that there was a scarcity of equipment. Someone suggested that I try the basement. Unfortunately there were no tools there only several large wooden crates. This discovery instantly provoked a panic attack because, at the time, the air was thick with rumours of guns being smuggled north. Subsequently I learnt that the crates contained not guns but radio equipment which eventually helped set up Radio Free Belfast and Radio Free Derry.

The opening of the exhibition was performed by Paddy Devlin who later went on to become one of the founders of the SDLP.

Michael asked me to design an exhibition poster featuring one of his paintings. Soon afterwards, however, I found myself faced with an awkward dilemma. I was invited to take part in an exhibition organised by the Arts Councils of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland and since the last venue for the exhibition was Belfast I had to decide whether I should continue my boycott or perhaps try to make some relevant imagery. I opted for the latter. That was the easy part – the difficult part was what to do. I resorted to art history and scrutinised those artists who had responded to similar circumstances in their own time.

The first picture that stood out by a mile was The Third of May by Francisco Goya. In this painting Goya depicts an actual event in Madrid when occupying French soldiers executed Spanish patriots. Since I was acutely aware that I couldn't possibly improve on Goya’s masterpiece I decided to refrain from interfering with his superb composition and instead to simply paint it in a contemporary style which would hopefully bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

I did the same with Rape of the Sabine Women by Jacques Louis David which was his response to the internecine violence which occurred in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Eugene Delacroix also addressed the phenomenon and that was the French Revolution with his painting Liberty Leading the People.

I have to say I was disappointed by most reviews of my work in the exhibition as it toured Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin. Most critics dismissed my efforts as a hollow mockery of great art and certainly none we are prepared to acknowledge my desire to link art to the unfolding conflict in the north.

When the exhibition arrived in Belfast I hoped that, at last, someone might recognise the political content of the work. In those days the Arts Council of Northern Ireland had a gallery on Bedford Street in Belfast with the equivalent of a shop window. The exhibition officer Brian Ferran decided to hang Liberty Leading the People in the window. After the exhibition closed I called Brian to ask if there had been any public reaction. He told me that they received just one complaint. It was from a DUP counsellor. He was unhappy with the naked breasts on display. I have to admit that I was frustrated by the failure of many people to take on board what I was trying to say. So, some time later, I decided to paint a picture that would make my intention clear. I called it My Studio, 1969.

The year 1971 saw the introduction of internment without trial by the Stormont government. This proved to be a disastrous intervention as its implementation was largely one-sided and consequently lead to widespread civil unrest with demonstrations, rallies and protest marches.

One such march was organised for the 30th of January, 1972 in Derry. The decision by the British authorities to deploy the parachute regiment on the day, proved calamitous. As we know, 13 innocent civilians were shot dead. When news of the mass murder spread I recall the mood of the people becoming convulsed with rage at what had happened.

When a march to the British Embassy in Dublin was announced, my wife Betty, together with our daughter Rachel, who was only three at the time, and myself decided to make common cause with the protesters. I clearly remember the anger of the crowd as it moved through the city. Anything that could be identified as English was not safe. I remember hearing the shattering of plate glass windows as we passed the offices of British Airways at the bottom of Grafton Street. When the march reached Merrion Square it joined a large crowd that had already assembled in front of the embassy. It seemed to me that the mood of the crowd had shifted from anger to a hunger for vengeance. Initially stones and other objects began to fly in the direction of the embassy; next it was glass bottles but before long these had morphed into petrol bombs. At that stage I suggested to my wife that we quit the scene, since being responsible for a three-year-old in a possible riot situation was not ideal. Later we learned that we had missed the final conflagration but also, thankfully the violent chaos of a police baton charge that left many wounded in its wake.

Later that year the IECA took place in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin and several artists exhibited work that was provoked by Bloody Sunday. In it I chalk marked on the gallery floor the outlines of 13 bodies and then poured blood which I had obtained from a friend who worked in the Dublin abattoir over each victim. Later, as part of the same exhibition the artist and writer Brian O'Doherty, who was based in New York, staged a performance where he changed his name, as an artist, to Patrick Ireland in protest over the events of Bloody Sunday.

After the whitewash by Lord Widgery the poet Thomas Kinsella composed a truly powerful poem Butchers Dozen and Brian Friel responded to Bloody Sunday with his play Freedom of the City, which was set in the Guildhall. 

Not long ago some young people from the Pilots Row Community Centre approached me to request permission to create a mural based on my painting The 3rd of May after Goya to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Naturally I told them to go ahead.

Finally, on completion, when they asked me to unveil the mural in Glenfada Park I did so on a cold wet January afternoon. I was unaware at the time that this experience had planted a small seed in my subconscious which only germinated as the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday approached. As I began to feel a compulsion to create a new picture the approach of the young people from Pilots Row determined my response.

Once again Goya's example became crucial. In his painting the central cluster of victims demands your full attention; consequently I decided to replace them with the iconic image of Father Edward Daly with those carrying the body of Jackie Duddy.

The soldiers in Goya’s firing squad are French soldiers on Spanish soil shooting Spanish people whereas, in my picture, the soldiers are obviously British soldiers on Irish soil shooting Irish people.

Another artist who influenced my approach is Picasso. His painting Guernica, created in response to the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of the same name, has always fascinated me and it was the monochrome nature of his composition that I adopted for my picture, except that I allowed myself one extra colour – red, to represent the blood spilled on Bloody Sunday.

In order to remind people that the march on the 30th of January was an anti-internment march I decided to include a broken placard inscribed ‘end internment’.

In my painting I wanted to point out that even though the Saville Inquiry accepted that all of the victims were unarmed and above suspicion so far no one has been proven guilty of any crime. Hence the inclusion of the statement by Major General Robert Ford.

A long time ago I received an invitation to speak at a rally in Guildhall Square after the Bloody Sunday 21st anniversary march. At the time I was both humbled and terrified as I had rarely spoken in public before. Consequently I took the invitation seriously and invested considerable effort in preparing what to say. On the day, a cold rainy one, I managed to get through the speech and, as a result, was relatively pleased with myself. That night I stayed with a local family and, the following morning, as I tucked into an Ulster fry, we were joined by two young family members. One asked, “What did you think of yesterday?” The other replied, “Brilliant, except for that fellow from Dublin – he just went on and on!”

So bearing in mind that particular admonition I will tax your  patience no further. Thanks!


Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen
Monday, 24 January 2022 10:24

Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell reviews The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the most strikingly modern. When one considers what Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, written between 1600 and 1606, have in common as an overarching theme, it is this: they all centre on the crucial conflict of early capitalism between the Renaissance humanist ideal on the one hand and the power-hungry, utterly destructive Machiavellian potential on the other. It is Shakespeare’s genius to have seen and understood this conflicting nature of early capitalism and to have put it on stage.

In the first three of these great tragedies, these two forces are pitched against each other in opposing major characters: Hamlet and Horatio vs.  Claudius, Othello and Desdemona vs. Iago, Cordelia and Edgar vs. Goneril, Regan and Edmund. The tragedy lies in the destruction or near destruction of the humanist character/s at the hands of the Machiavellian one/s. This is Shakespeare’s amazingly perceptive warning. His historical optimism is expressed in the concomitant destruction, against many odds, of the Machiavellian demon.

The milk of human kindness

Macbeth is different. The struggle between the potential for good or evil, for the humanist ideal or the Machiavellian drive for power at all costs, takes place within one character: Macbeth, doubled by Lady Macbeth. Four hundred years later, it seems like our present day Machiavellians do not struggle with a humanist conscience.

Macbeth’s humanist potential that struggles with his Machiavellian ambition, is “the milk of human kindness”, as Lady Macbeth describes his ‘weakness’ in the first half of the play. He understands that he is the destroyer of sleep and that he cannot wash the blood of murder from his hands. Although Lady Macbeth herself does not kill anybody, she urges Macbeth to do so, does her utmost to persuade him to murder ruthlessly. If he wants to be a “real man” and pursue power at all costs, he needs to walk over dead bodies.

The roles are reversed and the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth struggles with her conscience, her awareness of inhuman wrong-doing, in the second half of the play, which ultimately leads to her losing her mind and destroying herself. She cannot live with the idea of having blood on her hands. Interestingly, she knows she too has blood on her hands even as aider and abettor. Macbeth also realises how his ruthlessness, his tyranny, has brought about his own destruction as a human being and life has lost all meaning for him when he says

That which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

Any production of Macbeth must be considered in this light. How well does it get across this central point? Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” does the text considerable justice. It may not be an easy introduction for audiences unfamiliar with the tragedy, but for those who are, it is a visually striking monochrome theatrical production, hinting at earlier screen versions like Orson Welles’, but also Trevor Nunn's pared-back staging with Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth.

Stefan Dechant’s production design is remarkable. The viewer gets the impression of a stage, with a magnificent use of space, making especial use of height over depth, in a great many Escher-like staircases, and other structures. The stark ‘set’ consists predominantly of the high walls of Macbeth and Macduff’s castles, occasionally a stage-set outdoor scene. Plentiful fog adds to a sense of German expressionist cinema. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography does it justice. The acting for the most part is very good, always focusing on Shakespeare’s text. Frances McDormand excels as Lady Macbeth.

Directors make choices when they work on a text, cutting and selecting which scenes to include and which to omit. And so in this 105 minute long version of Macbeth, too, Coen’s reading of the tragedy determines which parts are emphasised. His understanding of Macbeth as a ruthless Machiavellian dominates the presentation of the character from too early on, and Macbeth’s struggle with his “human kindness” is not etched clearly enough. As in Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film, Coen shows the scene where Macbeth kills Duncan, a scene Shakespeare leaves out for a reason. Lady Macbeth’s development in the second half is much better, but would be more meaningful if the audience were shown that she now is echoing her husband’s earlier understanding of his gruesome deeds.

The working people see and tell the truth

Another shortcoming is that the Porter scene is not properly understood. As is the case all too frequently, Shakespeare’s comic scenes are simply presented as slapstick, failing to grasp the social criticism contained in them. (Another example of this is the Gravedigger scene in Hamlet.) In these scenes, it is the working people who are the only ones to see and tell the truth. It is typical for Shakespeare that these plebians, at other times the jester or clown, or ‘mad’ characters, expresses a truth that cannot be voiced by a member of the upper class. These truths are frequently disguised as comedy. And so it is the Porter who, immediately after Macbeth has killed Duncan, accurately describes himself as the “porter of hell gate”. He goes on to say who might be knocking on hell’s gate. This includes a man of the law, who “could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”. Instead, Coen reduces this man to a shallow, comic figure who makes obscene jokes. This is a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, the witches are very well done. It becomes clear in this production that the witches could easily simply be part of Macbeth’s hallucinations. Apart from Macbeth, only Banquo ‘sees’ the witches, but suggests that they may have taken too much of the “insane root” before battle.

It was Shakespeare’s genius to have grasped the essence of his time and to have produced four tragedies that profoundly expressed his fears about the capacity for inhumanity inherent in those times, which are the early years of our own time. If the Machiavellian characters in their deceitfulness, refined manners and appearances, clever talk, etc., seem to us more modern, then this surely underlines Shakespeare’s insight. This is the deadly potential that capitalism has had from its inception. Its Machiavellian nature has come to be completely dominant to the point that humanist alternatives are deemed utopian, their proponents ridiculed.

Instead, we are told over and over that greed, the rampage for power and destruction is ‘human nature’ – an outright ahistorical assumption. Shakespeare knew otherwise and showed history to be a process in which change is possible and desirable in the interest of the common good, for the beauty of the world. Machiavellianism is the driving force behind resource wars, wars for domination in resource rich, cheap labour and poverty-stricken parts of the world, the force that will ultimately destroy the environment for profit. We know this force, we can easily recognise it. If we had to invent a character that represents this, it would be Macbeth.

Jenny Farrell is the author of Fear Not Shakespeare's Tragedies, Nuascéalta, 2016, ISBN-13: ‎978-1536953619

The Magician, by Colm Tóibín
Monday, 24 January 2022 10:08

The Magician, by Colm Tóibín

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Colm Tóibín's latest novel

There are many books, including biographies, of Thomas Mann as well as about other members of the Mann family. There are far fewer novels about this writer. Now Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has presented us with just this. His novel about the magician, as Mann was known in his family circle, centres on the man, his times, writer, husband, father, brother, and yes, on the hidden fantasies of Thomas Mann.

Tóibín’s book is as substantial as a Mann novel, however, it is easier to read. The author takes his time, exploring in many scenes Mann’s family background, his childhood, his marriage to Katia von Pringsheim, his first great success with Buddenbrooks, the family saga based on his own family.

Tóibín creates the world of Mann very well and does justice to his times. He does nothing to excuse Mann’s inability to see WWI for what it was, and happily writes of brother Heinrich respectfully. Heinrich Mann, Thomas’s elder and very left-wing brother, becomes an interesting character in his own right in the novel, a recognised moral authority. While “Heinrich’s article began by insisting that there was no such thing as victory in a war. There were only casualties, only the dead and injured”, Thomas got comfort from being part of a movement that included workers as much as businessmen, and people from all parts of Germany.”

In Munich, during the days following WWI, while Germany lived through its ultimately failed revolution of 1918/ 1919, Heinrich was part of the movement, supported and led by socialist and communist writers such as Kurt Eisner, Ernst Toller, and Erich Mühsam, which resulted in the establishment of the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic. Tóibín devotes time to those days of unrest and shows the anti-revolutionary, bourgeois Thomas Mann family’s attitudes during this time.

The establishment of the Munich Soviet Republic had been preceded by the abdication of the Bavarian King and the setting up of the Bavarian free State. This free State was headed as prime minister by the writer Kurt Eisner, who was assassinated after 100 days in office. Heinrich Mann I gave the oration at the memorial ceremony a few weeks after this murder: “It took Thomas a while to accept that there was a new and functioning government in Munich and that it consisted of poets and dreamers and friends of Heinrich’s. He was comforted by the news that no equivalent revolts had happened successfully in other German cities.”

Thomás is told by an emissary of this government: “You were on the list of those to be detained,” he said. “I was in the room when that list was read out. And two of the leaders insisted that your name be removed. One was Erich Mühsam and the other was Ernst Toller. Toller spoke eloquently about your virtues.”

Mühsam and Toller are given considerable importance in Tóibín’s book, especially the horrendous fate of Mühsam, who was viciously tortured and killed in a concentration camp. Thomas Mann is appealed to for his intervention in trying to save Mühsam.

“There is a reason I wanted to see you alone,” Toller said.

He was even more nervous than before. Thomas wondered if he was going to ask for a large amount of money.

“Erich Mühsam is being held by the Nazis. They arrested him after the Reichstag fire. I know he has been tortured. (….) As he sat alone in his study, it struck him that he could stir up interest in Mühsam’s case in the wider world, maybe even in America, but this might make things worse for him.”

During Mann’s exile in the US, he is entreated time and again to try and help save German writers fleeing Nazism. He also comes under pressure from Heinrich and his children Klaus and Erika to take a clear stand against Nazi Germany and to urge the US to join the war. All three are very active in the antifascist struggle.

The question of citizenship understandably dominates the family after leaving Germany. Erika takes fate into her own hands and enters a marriage of convenience with W.H. Auden. She had previously been married to the later Nazi star actor Gustaf Gründgens between 1926 and 1929. And so, Auden and Isherwood meet the Mann family in Princeton. Tóibín seems dismissive of both English writers and also of Virginia Woolf. With regard to Auden, biographers have noted how grateful the Mann family was to him and it would appear that Tóibín may be taking poetic licence. It is also inconsistent with historical fact to suggest that Virginia Woolf was aloof from the British antifascist movement. She supported the Spanish republic during the civil war and was also supportive of the campaign to award the incarcerated Carl von Ossietzky the Nobel Peace Prize.

True to historical fact on the other hand is Tóibín’s description of the FBI watching and questioning the Mann family: “Erika returned, there was a letter waiting for her from the FBI, which wished to interview her, wanting to know the names of anyone in America who had been involved in the anti-fascist movement in Germany before 1933.”

When they visited Thomas, they “made clear then that they were here to find out about Bertolt Brecht and his associates and Thomas realized that he would be in a difficult position no matter what he said. Brecht had certainly been hard to avoid in the circle of German exiles on the west coast, but his contempt for Thomas and his work was also widely known. Although his visitors promised complete confidentiality, he suspected that news of this encounter would leak out. He thought of contacting Brecht before the end of the day to let him know that this meeting had occurred”.

Brecht and Mann had little to do with one another, and consequently, Brecht does not appear in person in this novel.

U.S. secret services continue to follow Mann and intervene when he visits Germany after the war: “My mission,” Bird said, “is simple. I represent the U.S. government and I am here to tell you that we do not wish you to travel to the Eastern Zone. (…) “We don’t want you to go,” Bird continued. “If you do go, you will find America a cold place on your return.”

Mann defies this threat and goes to Weimar. This spells the end of his acceptance in the U.S:

“When Thomas was named as a Communist by a hotel in Beverly Hills that did not want to host an event at which he might speak, he could not blame Heinrich or Klaus for tarnishing his reputation as an imperturbable man of reason. Nor could he blame Brecht, who was living in East Berlin.”

He and Katia move to Switzerland, where they lived until their respective deaths, never returning to Germany to live.  

In search of the Marxist novel
Saturday, 15 January 2022 19:23

In search of the Marxist novel

Published in Fiction

30-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney has been in the headlines following her refusal to grant the translation rights of her new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) to the Israeli Modan publishing house. Seventy prominent writers backed her decision in a statement in November. 

In May, Rooney had been among over 1,600 artists who condemned Israel’s “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” in a ‘Letter Against Apartheid’. Israeli apartheid, they said, is “perpetuated by international complicity; it is our collective responsibility to repair this harm.” The signatories to the new statement reaffirmed their support for the Palestinian people, saying:

Like her, we will continue to respond to the Palestinian call for effective solidarity, just as millions supported the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. We will continue to support the nonviolent Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

The authors include Irish Kevin Barry, Ronan Bennett, Seán Hewitt, and Rita Ann Higgins from Ireland; Rachel Kushner, Eileen Myles and Eliot Weinburger from the US; Monica Ali, Caryl Churchill, China Miéville and Kamila Shamsie from the UK.

Two bookstore chains with a presence in both Israel and in the occupied territories responded to Rooney’s decision by removing her novels from their stock. So who is Sally Rooney and what are her books about?

Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar in the West of Ireland and describes herself as a Marxist. Her mother ran a cultural centre and her father worked for Telecom until it was privatised. Rooney studied English at Trinity College. In an interview Rooney said: “I don’t know what it means to write a Marxist novel. I don’t know and I would love to know. It is the analytical structure that helps me make sense of the world around me.”

Alienated relationships prevail

Her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), focuses on two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who, having met at school, are now studying in Dublin and also performing artists. The novel is primarily about sexual relationships among young people, about the question of true love and genuine friendship in an environment where none of this seems to be possible. Most unusually for a contemporary novel, both protagonists see themselves as politically left-wing, even communist:

Bobbi and my mother got along famously. Bobbi studied History and Politics, subjects my mother considered serious. Real subjects, she would say, with an eyebrow lifted at me. My mother was a kind of social democrat, and at this time I believe Bobbi identified herself as a communitarian anarchist. When my mother visited Dublin, they took mutual enjoyment in having minor arguments about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes Bobbi would turn to me and say: Frances, you’re a communist, back me up.

Bobbi is the most obviously interested of the two in social and international issues, she likes to sing anti-war songs, is well-informed and ready to discuss Syria, Algeria, Palestine. Frances, the narrator, comes from a single-parent working-class household. She is the only character in the novel’s plot who is not wealthy, the only one who has no money. While she is very aware of this, money is not something her friends think about.

Despite recurring references to left-wing views, however, they do not directly inform the novel’s plot, which revolves mainly around sexual relationships. But in a way, this is the crux of the matter. What we encounter in this first novel will characterise the next two: there is a lack of love in most relationships. The young people at the centre of the plot are unable to say that they love each other, find it hard to acknowledge a partner as a ‘girlfriend’/ ‘boyfriend’; there is a lack of genuine commitment. Unconditional love seems impossible. Alienated relationships prevail. Many of the young people are very lonely, have no real self-esteem, are damaged in their humanity. No help is given to them.

In Rooney’s second novel, Normal People (2018), the focus is again on young people, their relationships in their final year at school and follows the two main characters, Marianne and Connell to Trinity College Dublin, which the author knows from her own experience. Again, one of the two is a working-class child with a single mother, the other comes from a dysfunctional wealthy family. In both novels, the working-class child’s mother is the one older character that readers get to know a little better, although drawing people over thirty is not Rooney’s forte.

As in Conversations with Friends, the central theme is sexual relationships and how people treat one another. The plot is a little more complex, goes a little deeper than in the first novel. Once more, it is striking how left-wing the main characters think – and that they stand by their convictions, never deviating from them. That they recommend reading the Communist Manifesto seems perfectly normal. Connell’s mother is also left-wing.

Culture as class performance

Class distinctions are even more clearly highlighted in Normal People, and it’s emphasised that Trinity continues to be the elite university of the bourgeoisie. The larger social themes of class struggle and political protest are echoed by the conflictual relationships between the characters, and sometimes explicitly linked, as when the two main characters actually take part in a protest demonstration:

They went to a protest against the war in Gaza the other week with Connell and Niall. There were thousands of people there, carrying signs and megaphones and banners.

Rooney is also keen to highlight the class nature of the culture industry. Connell goes to a literature reading at the university:

It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.

This quest for alternatives to the capitalist culture industry takes up even more space in Rooney’s latest novel, named after a Schiller poem Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). Questions of interest to the author are discussed primarily in an email correspondence running through the book between Alice, the young, successful author, and her friend Eileen. The discussion covers a whole spectrum of political and philosophical-historical issues from a left-wing perspective. On the contemporary novel, Alice writes:

The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful.

And although political views occupy an increasingly large space in the novels, they still stand apart from the action, which again revolves around sexual relationships and friendships, around young people, some of whom hate themselves, and who are somehow damaged.

While the endings of the first two novels give only vague hope, this third one offers an alternative. It speaks for Rooney’s growing skill that this alternative is woven into the action of the novel and arises organically from it. This way out of alienation comes as at a certain cost for the woman concerned, who will now put motherhood first. However, it is unlikely that Rooney means this in absolute terms; it is what happens to this character and is not generalised as an exclusive alternative. One need only to look at this character’s partner to understand this.

Marxist readers will also be interested in Rooney’s underlying interest in religion for solace. She has stated:

How do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer (…) it doesn’t always help to read Karl Marx.

It is curious that the artist Rooney sees no role for art as a solace for the psyche, the thought at the heart of Keats’s To Psyche. Rooney’s position may well spring from her dim view of the arts under capitalism.

All art is political. Sometimes, it is the politics of turning a blind eye, or opening casements on faery lands forlorn, as Keats put it. Rooney does not write escapist literature, but a kind that confronts alienation. Her novels depict alienated relationships, alongside explicit political statements by her characters – who would no doubt stand with Rooney in her solidarity with the Palestinians. She understands that literature written from a Marxist perspective needs to go deeper than having characters make progressive political statements. Its political meanings must also be skilfully expressed in the plots and the actions of her characters, as in novels like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Rooney’s novels have struck a chord with many people worldwide because her readers recognise their own sense of isolation. It is likely that Rooney will increasingly forge her characters’ views with what they do in her novels, and the alternatives they explore.

Thomas Kinsella, 4 May 1928 – 22 December 2021
Wednesday, 22 December 2021 22:20

Thomas Kinsella, 4 May 1928 – 22 December 2021

Published in Poetry

Thomas Kinsella has died, aged 93. He must be counted among the great Irish poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. He was very involved in uncovering the power of Irish language verse, translating into English the epic The Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), and the verse collection 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed. But what puts Kinsella in a league of his own, is his poem A Butcher's Dozen written in response to the slaughter of 13 civil rights marchers in Derry on what became known as Bloody Sunday, on 30 January 1972, 50 years ago next month.

In honour of Thomas Kinsella, below we republish the article from 2019 about this poem.

Jenny Farrell protests the decision only to charge one paratrooper, and introduces extracts from Thomas Kinsella's poem, A Butcher's Dozen


Shock and disbelief is the reaction of most people in Ireland to the decision of the N. Ireland Prosecution Service (NIPP) only to charge one British paratrooper, “Soldier F” in connection with the murder of 14 innocent civil rights marchers on Derry’s “Bloody Sunday”, 30th January 1972. 

This morning relatives and friends of the Bloody Sunday victims had marched to Derry’s Guildhall in anticipation of the NIPP’s announcement.

The NIPP’s decision reflects the arrogant stance of the British establishment to these crimes committed in Ireland. Indeed, it echoes the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley’s statement last week that all killings by the British army and police during the Troubles were “not crimes”.

Her statement and today’s legal decision only to prosecute one soldier stand in direct contradiction to the findings of the Saville Inquiry and to the apology made by former British PM David Cameron in parliament, stating that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. 

Lord Saville’s public inquiry into Bloody Sunday ran for over 10 years.  Lord Saville found those killed and injured were innocent, and that the killings were unjustified and those killed posed no threat. It overturned the first, discredited report into the killings, by Lord Widgery, in 1972, which said British soldiers were fired on first and some of those killed had been armed.

Its report, in June 2010, identified 22 former British soldiers who could be charged with murder, attempted murder, causing grievous bodily injury with intent, or perjury. It has now taken almost 9 years for the NIPP to whittle that number down to one anonymous scapegoat, “Soldier F”. Saville linked him to the killing of 4 people on Bloody Sunday. According to the brother of victim Michael Kelly, what stood out about the evidence “Soldier F” gave to the Inquiry “he showed absolutely no remorse for what he did”.

Today, one of the solicitors for the Bloody Sunday families praised their tenacious 47-year campaign for justice that had resulted in the historic public inquiry and the prospect of actual prosecutions.

Alas, their campaign for justice is not yet over. The families will study this decision very carefully and look for legal possibilities to challenge today's decision before the High Court. They will seek to have the number of soldiers prosecuted increased as well as ensure the accused are named rather than they remain anonymous, as was the case at the Saville Inquiry. 

“Bloody Sunday” was a watershed in the North of Ireland conflict. It was to result in the decline of the powerful civil rights movement and the rise of the Provisional IRA. The peaceful demonstrations demanding equal rights for Catholics in the late 1960s exposed internationally the sectarian, repressive and gerrymandered regime operating in Britain’s backyard, “Northern Ireland”. 

In August 1969, the British Labour government brought British troops onto the streets to stop the pogroms against the Catholic community by the armed, sectarian pro-British N. Ireland police force, the RUC.

The British Labour government disarmed the RUC and began to introduce democratic reforms. However, in June 1970 the role of the British state changed, when Edward Heath was elected Prime Minister. The Tories – or to give thei official title the “Conservative and Unionist Party” – were in power, and they sympathised with their fraternal party in the North of Ireland, the Unionist Party, that had controlled the sectarian state for almost 50 years.

Repression of the Catholic community rather than democratic reforms became the order of the day, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.

The demonstration in Derry on 30th January 1972 had been aimed against internment. The killings on “Bloody Sunday” were seen as a deliberate act by the British Tories and their Unionist allies to force the unmanageable peaceful protests for civil rights off the streets. Both at home and abroad it was more acceptable to fight “terrorism” than to deal with peaceful demonstrators demanding their civil rights. Besides, in N. Ireland the British army could perfect its anti-insurgency techniques.

So, while only one of the soldiers who fired the shots is to be prosecuted, the politicians, civil servants and army officers who pulled the strings are not. Of late, particular attention has been drawn to retired General Sir Mike Jackson. He was second-in-command of the army in Derry on Bloody Sunday.  During his evidence at the Saville Inquiry he suffered from severe memory loss.

This contrasts with his disputed account of another mass killing in Northern Ireland months before Bloody Sunday. In August 1971 during internment the Parachute Regiment shot dead 11 innocent people, including a mother and a priest, in what is now known as the “Ballymurphy Massacre”. Jackson was press officer for the Parachute Regiment, stationed in Belfast, and he briefed the media that those killed in the shootings were Republican gunmen. This view was contradicted on Monday last at the on-going inquest into the “Ballymurphy Massacre”, when the then commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment, Gen Sir Geoffrey Howlett, 89, admitted that of those killed “most if not all were not IRA”.

Jackson’s role in Northern Ireland did not hamper his career, which saw him involved in the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. On 1st February 2003 he became chief of staff of the British Army, a month before the illegal invasion of Iraq – another war where those who pulled the strings go completely unpunished.   

Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s poem A Butcher’s Dozen was written in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, following the Widgery report which whitewashed the atrocities, and published on 26 April 1972.

Kinsella later said:

The Widgery report was a great insult. [My] response was instant; the poem itself was written and issued in seven days. … I debated with myself at the time whether to keep it anonymous, but that would have been wrong. Commitment is important when faced with wickedness and injustice. … The poem was some at some personal cost, however. There was a considerable loss of readership – a permanent chill in the atmosphere from readers of my work, and from friends. I received a letter from one friend who simply put an end to our friendship. They signed off, “No British person would behave in such a way.” This continued even after total vindication [in] the Saville report; and the apology [from prime minister David Cameron] in the British parliament. I stand over my decision to write [it].”

The poem opens in tone and rhythm reminiscent of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819:

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys - over all
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
"Once there lived a hooligan.
A pig came up, and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones,
Who lost his life for throwing stones."

It continues, commenting on British justice:

"The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where's the law that can't be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We'd be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
- All that's left; it's turning sour.

As various ghosts of the dead speak, one refers to the witches’ broth in Macbeth – only this pot is worse!

A joking spectre followed him:
"Take a bunch of stunted shoots,
A tangle of transplanted roots,
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests,
Some dried colonial interests,
A hard unnatural union grown
In a bed of blood and bone,
Tongue of serpent, gut of hog
Spiced with spleen of underdog.
Stir in, with oaths of loyalty,
Sectarian supremacy,
And heat, to make a proper botch,
In a bouillon of bitter Scotch.
Last, the choice ingredient: you.
Now, to crown your Irish stew,
Boil it over, make a mess.
A most imperial success!"

Kinsella’s concluding lines will stand for the way many in Ireland feel today:

I stood like a ghost. My fingers strayed
Along the fatal barricade.
The gentle rainfall drifting down
Over Colmcille's town
Could not refresh, only distil
In silent grief from hill to hill.

For the full text, please click here.

The Nobel prize for Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Thursday, 09 December 2021 16:42

The Nobel prize for Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah

Published in Fiction

On 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, Abdulrazak Gurnah will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of black Africa.

Wole Soyinka was the first black African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Other Nobel Prize winners from the African continent are Nagib Mahfuz (Egypt), Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee (both South Africa). The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, and who is considered one of the fathers of modern African literature, never received the prize.

In all likelihood, neither will the Marxist Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been strongly favoured in recent years. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie and Nuruddin Farah from Somalia are repeatedly mentioned as other African authors worthy of the prize. But no black African author has been considered for the Swedish Academy’s award since Soyinka – until this year, when Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah was unexpectedly declared the Nobel Laureate for Literature.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Born in 1948, Gurnah’s youth was marked by the last years of British colonial rule and the troubled early years of independence. Much social tension on the small island in the Indian Ocean off the Tanzanian coast sprang from the conflict between the Arab and African populations. The British, who maintained good relations with the Sultans of the Persian Gulf, and fearing rebellion in Africa, launched Zanzibar’s independence in 1963, at the same time affirming Arab rule.

An eyewitness at the time, the legendary Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński wrote in The Shadow of the Sun:

Abeid Karume was the leader of Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party. Although this party, representing the island’s black African population, won a majority in the last elections, the government was formed by an Arab minority party supported by London—the Zanzibar Nationalist Party. The Africans, outraged by this fact, organized a revolt and abolished Arab rule. That is what had just transpired two days ago.

 Three hours after Prince Philip, in the name of Queen Elizabeth, transfers Zanzibar into Arab hands, Field Marshal John Okello makes his move, and in the course of a single night seizes power on Zanzibar.

This led to persecution and massacres of the Arab and Indian populations, and many fled. Gurnah and his brother, of Arab descent on their father’s side, also emigrated to England to study in late 1967. Gurnah only returned to Zanzibar on a visit in 1984.

Gurnah’s memory of this period is largely painful. But in some of his works, especially in By the Sea (2001), he addresses the solidarity of the GDR with Zanzibar, which was important for both countries, especially in the 1960s. Zanzibar was the first non-socialist country to recognise the GDR diplomatically and to defy the Hallstein Doctrine, West Germany’s claim to sole diplomatic representation. After the unification of Zanzibar with Tanganyika to form Tanzania, President Nyerere also insisted on maintaining recognition of the GDR and entertained diplomatic relations with both German states, despite the Hallstein Doctrine. In addition to projects such as a housing construction programme, many young Zanzibaris went to the GDR for training courses and studies.

Zanzibar appears as a setting in most of Gurnah’s novels, usually dealing with the fortunes of individuals and families in the turmoil of the times. Migration and being caught in between cultures are important themes in Gurnah’s work, for which he was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize: "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

By the Sea

 In this novel Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old Zanzibari refugee and former businessman, seeks asylum in England following 11 years of imprisonment on Zanzibar. Here he meets his compatriot Latif Mahmud, whose shared past consists in two evictions linked to Omar’s business dealings with the Persian trader Hussein, who exploited and defrauded all parties involved. This conflict is embedded in the history of Zanzibar. It begins in the last years of British colonial power and ends with Omar’s departure. Brought together by fate, both men now try to remember the exact course of events and the circumstances surrounding this period of their lives. These memories form the core of the novel.

Right at the start, Omar reflects on the colonial history of East Africa:

Then the Portuguese, rounding the continent, burst so unexpect­edly and so disastrously from that unknown and impenetrable sea, and put paid to medieval geography with their sea-borne cannons. They wreaked their religion-crazed havoc on islands, harbours and cities, exulting over their cruelty to the inhabitants they plundered. Then the Omanis came to remove them and take charge in the name of the true God, and brought with them Indian money, with the British close behind, and close behind them the Germans and the French and whoever else had the wherewithal.

The action here, as in other novels by Gurnah, is set in the petty bourgeoisie and middle class – the class of often impoverished shopkeepers, small businessmen, mostly of Arab, Indian or mixed descent, not the dispossessed African population of labourers and fishermen.

The school-educated Omar says of the British colonial masters:

In their books I read unflattering accounts of my history, and because they were unflattering, they seemed truer than the stories we told ourselves. I read about the diseases that tormen­ted us, about the future that lay before us, about the world we lived in and our place in it. It was as if they had remade us, and in ways that we no longer had any recourse but to accept, so complete and well-fitting was the story they told about us.

Mahmud, a generation younger, goes to study abroad in East Germany in the 1960s, shortly after gaining independence, through his mother’s connections with a minister. Here, Gurnah paints a picture from the perspective of the young African who does not find paradise. Even before starting his studies in dentistry, he is persuaded by friends to defect, which takes him to England. The author based his picture of Mahmud on reports from school friends. It is important, however, that the GDR’s aid projects for Zanzibar occupy such considerable space in this novel.

Abdul G by the sea

Omar also reflects critically on the role of the USA after the end of colonial rule:

Then the President became disenchanted with the Americans. Partly this was because of the swelling chorus of discontent with the United States across Africa at the time. They had shown their hand too openly in the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo – boastful CIA officers could not resist making unattri­butable claims. They were murdering black Americans at home, when they only wanted the vote and equal rights as citizens, aspirations familiar to all of us at the time, aspirations which chimed with our discontent over arrogant oppression of non­-European people all over the world.

History overtakes Gurnah’s characters and makes them its pawns; the author remains committed to individual fates. From his perspective, he rejects simplistic notions of liberation, migration, Muslims and East Africa, and so By the Sea is more concerned with the complicated relationship between the two narrators than with Omar’s precariousness as an asylum seeker. Although the frame story is about Omar’s situation as an asylum seeker in England, most of the text follows the two men’s conflicting narratives of their lives in Zanzibar and their eventual negotiation of a new acquaintance based on their shared history.


This novel, published in 2005, also examines the history of Tanganyika through the lens of a petty bourgeois Indian-African family. The story spans almost 90 years, from 1899 to about 1984, beginning with the fateful rescue of a Mzungu – a European – whose love affair with Rahena, sister of his rescuer, continued for years, and its aftermath through the generations. The deserters from societal rules become tragic figures.

The story is set first in the colonial era, later in the early 1960s, the years around independence and afterwards. Rashid, who emigrated from Zanzibar to study in England and narrates some of the novel, shares aspects of his biography with Gurnah: he too studies English, obtains a doctorate, gets a lectureship, marries in England. He only returns to Zanzibar for a visit in the mid-1980s, when his parents have already died. Until then, his family advises against visiting because of expected reprisals. Gurnah paints a bleak, desolate picture through the accounts of Amin’s brother:

We are all becoming increasingly addicted to the mosque. The government delivers its socialist lies and we all rush for the mosques. The days are getting darker in every way. Food is becoming more scarce. There are power cuts and water shortages. So it’s inevitable that mosques will get fuller and prayers last longer. I find an unexpected pleasure in this communion.

Still revered today across Africa for his socialist Ujamaa policies in the post-colonial early years, Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, is also portrayed less than sympathetically:

Poor minister, they captured him and humiliated him as they did all the other ministers. They’re all in jail on the mainland now, guests of President Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, who glows with pleasure at what has befallen us.

Gurnah and Ngugi's views on colonialism

Gurnah’s perspective differs from that of Ngugi, whose view of colonialism is more uncompromising, who writes about resistance, and who also comments scathingly about Africa’s neo-colonial present. While Gurnah is strongly indebted to English literature, and to the tales of 1001 Nights, Ngugi has consciously and pioneeringly discarded the language of the colonists and writes only in Gikuyu. His novel Matigari, published in 1987, rapidly entered popular culture, to the dismay of the authorities. When the then President Daniel Arap Moi heard that a certain Matigari was abroad in Kenya, asking difficult questions, he ordered his immediate arrest. All copies of the book distributed in Kenya were confiscated and destroyed.

Gurnah’s character Rashid reflects on the writer Sundeep as he remembers former fellow students:

 Sundeep … has become a writer of some fame. He spent a year living in Malawi and wrote … an irreverent comedy about post-imperial absurdities … President Banda did not like it and had the sale of the book banned in Malawi. Sundeep was well out of harm’s way by then, and having his book banned by a President-for-Life who was just reaching the peak of his authoritarian career did not do his reputation any harm. … I’ve read most of his books but I no longer look forward to them. I think that despite their zest and fluency, they have grown increasingly certain of their judgements, and to be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry.

 This portrait contains certain similarities to Ngugi, which are supported by Gurnah’s views on him in academic publications.


This ironically titled novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. The action takes place between 1900 and 1914 in colonial East Africa:

 Everywhere they went now they found the Europeans had got there before them, and had installed soldiers and officials … The traders spoke of the Europeans with amazement, awed by their ferocity and ruthlessness. They take the best land without paying a bead, force the people to work for them by one trick or another.… Taxes for this, taxes for that, otherwise prison for the offender, or the lash, or even hanging.

The plot centres on Yusuf, who is sold into bondage at the age of 12 by his father, who runs a hotel for a certain Aziz and cannot repay a debt. The boy works for Aziz without pay and never goes to school. He is not the only child who comes to Aziz in this way. Khalil is a few years older and becomes his best friend and advisor. Yusuf thus comes from the impoverished petty bourgeoisie but slips into servitude through bondage. Nevertheless, he is under Aziz’s protection. Despite the relationship of dependence, there is a certain sense of security.

Abdul G book paradise

Over the years, Aziz takes Yusuf with him on his trading caravans, and so Yusuf gets to know an Africa marked by tribal wars, superstition and disease. Germans are also heard of again and again, slowly spreading. Years later, Yusuf learns that his parents are dead. Like Khalil, he does not know how to free himself financially from Aziz. With Aziz, a life as a trader awaits him. So, at the end of the novel, he runs after a German Schutztruppe of African askaris to join them. He does this despite just witnessing their willingness to use violence against their own people. Although various gardens of paradise appear in the text, there is none for Yusuf or Khalil. Other characters are also excluded from this possibility.

After Lives

Published in 2020, this novel picks up historically where Paradise left off. Now, however, the German colonialists and their Schutztruppen move to the centre of the action. A lot of German and references to German culture and colonial history appear. Gurnah clearly enjoys languages and integrates mainly Swahili but also Arabic into all his texts.

Abdul After Lives

Once again, interest in the fate of the characters is central, through which Gurnah creates an empathy for these people who are guilty of crimes against their own people. He shows what draws them to the Schutztruppen, how they are treated as sub-humans and how they still act against their own interests. The focus is on their human motivations, their pride, not their misdeeds. They learn German; Hamza, a main character, learns it particularly well. But he is badly injured by an officer in a rage and eventually deserts.

Another character, Ilyas, ends up in Germany through the turmoil of the First World War, stays, and another stroke of fate awaits him there. The lives of these characters, why they join the Schutztruppen, what else life has in store for them – everything makes up a whole in which, characteristically for Gurnah, there are no heroes, only people who somehow survive.

Although the time span of this novel includes the years of the Maji-Maji rebellion, this is only mentioned in passing. The 2-year rebellion was brutally crushed. The Germans also used famine as a weapon, wantonly destroying the crops of suspected Maji-Maji supporters. The Maji-Maji rebellion in Tanganyika was the most significant African resistance against German colonial rule.

The jury members of the Swedish Academy, who are not above bourgeois prejudices, would do well not to wait another 35 years before picking another book from Africa.

Provenance, by Kate Thompson: fighting inequality and injustice to Aboriginal peoples
Monday, 15 November 2021 09:42

Provenance, by Kate Thompson: fighting inequality and injustice to Aboriginal peoples

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Provenance, by Kate Thompson

As Elliot Fielding struggles in an Australian hospital to piece together his fragmented memory following serious head injury, the reader embarks with him on the road to make sense of his life before. The narrative delves into the realities of Aboriginal life, through the fictional Warlpiri community in the central Australian Tanami desert, and indigenous art.

Elliot, through whose lens this world unfolds, is an English doctor, come to work in the remote community, inspired by a previous visit to the red sands of the desert. With little knowledge of this society, he takes up a post in a medical centre for Aboriginal people, and complications unfold the more involved he becomes in the lives of his patients.

The Western reader expects to encounter alcoholism, mental illness and other manifestations of indigenous cultures being robbed of their land, culture, and livelihood by colonial ‘civilisation’. Kate Thompson, however, focuses primarily on Aboriginal art as the language of the native Australians. It is apparent from this fascinating novel that she has personal knowledge of her subject.

Sensitive to the realities of the indigenous people, the author never wholly departs from the Western outsider point of view of Elliot, never attempts to speak as an Aboriginal. Choosing a character who slowly learns something of the native Australians’ lives, and later their art, allows her to express a growing understanding of their culture. And over time, his patients learn to trust Elliot, as a Westerner, while never admitting him fully into their lives.

‘I thought you didn’t mind people seeing your culture. I thought you liked sharing it with the whitefellas.’ ‘Some parts we don’t mind,’ Doris said. ‘But that little dance we do for people, over there in the town sometimes, special times, that one not our culture, not proper one, Same with those paintings. They are just one little bit, one story. That’s like you read one page out of the Bible and think that is your whole law.’

Elliot’s central assignment in the novel is to sell some paintings by an elderly artist, Doris Banks, who asks him for a Toyota in return. In this request, the clash between capitalist and pre-capitalist society is highlighted; money in native Australian communities is something shared across the community, and cars are also common property. The Toyota is needed to manage distances: ‘We don’t need much. (…) Little bit of fence around the back and that side. Make it safe, for women dancing, you know? And one Toyota.’.

The art market for Aboriginal paintings is shown to be diverse, ranging from centres that facilitate artists, to ‘carpetbaggers’ who go into the desert to acquire artwork directly at a fraction of the price they then sell them for. And while Doris Banks’ request that Elliot sells her paintings for her feels natural to her, this is totally unacceptable to the white art dealers.

The continuing exploitation of the indigenous artists is an important theme in the novel, reflected in its title Provenance “what makes the same painting worth three figures in your bit of plastic pipe, and five figures in someone else’s bit of plastic pipe.” Provenance, the record of ownership, also refers to something’s origin, a close semantic connection with indigene. The fact that these art dealers supply the provenance, reinforces the theme of resistance in the novel to the notion, that “white people were the ones who knew what was best for Aboriginal people.”

Thompson does not idealise the realities of Aboriginal society. This is no pastoral, the native Australians we encounter are not ‘noble savages’. More clearly, we are shown Western incomprehension of worlds beyond their immediate experience. Having travelled into the desert with the native Australians under the guidance of Luke on a visit to a significant site to fulfil obligations, Elliot exclaims, “What were you thinking of, bringing us out here into the middle of nowhere?” Luke gives him the answer he deserves “this place is not nowhere to me.” and Eliot understands in one of his many dreams “that old tree is deeper than it is high and that its roots stretch far down into a time that is governed by a set of elementals he will never comprehend.”

How much of the language of the landscape, its beauty, and native culture is expressed in indigenous painting, is a growing realisation for Elliot and the reader.

 Kate Thompson is an award-winning writer. The daughter of the social historians and peace activists Dorothy and E. P. Thompson, her books always display an awareness of social injustice and the manipulations of the powerful. This novel and her other books also reveal and side with people’s resistance against inequality.

A voice for the voiceless: In memory of Máire Mhac an tSaoi
Monday, 01 November 2021 09:16

A voice for the voiceless: In memory of Máire Mhac an tSaoi

Published in Poetry

One of Ireland’s foremost Irish language poets and scholars, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, died aged 99, on 16 October. Her fellow poet Louis de Paor said of her work that it reflected “the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible”.

Born in Dublin on 4 April 1922, her Belfast-born father Seán McEntee had fought in the GPO in 1916 and was elected for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election. Her mother, Margaret Browne, also active in the republican movement, acted as a courier during the Rising. Recalling “a really big row” at home in 1937 over the new Constitution “because of the article stating that women should not be compelled by financial necessity to work outside the home”, Mhac an tSaoi gives some idea of where her emancipatory aspirations for the women of Ireland were born: “My mother, who had carried the finances of the family all the way since 1922, while my father earned hardly anything, was furious. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to him.”

From a privileged background, she embarked on a formidable academic career. Because of Irish legislation banning married women from the public service, which only changed in 1973, Mhac an tSaoi had to resign from the diplomatic corps in 1962 to marry Conor Cruise O’Brien, a relationship that affected her political views. However, she opposed the Vietnam war and resigned from Aosdána, the Irish association of artists, when Francis Stuart was nominated to be a 'Saoi', the highest artistic honour in Ireland, because of his perceived Nazi sympathies. In the early 1970s, she also helped in the campaign against closing down a national school in Dún Chaoin, in the heart of Irish-speaking Kerry by bringing out an LP of her poems, “Ómós do Scoil Dhún Chaoin” (Homage to the School in Dunquin).

Mhac an tSaoi engaged deeply with the Irish language, stating it was “the prime catalyst in the creation of a truly European culture” and thereby vital to Ireland. She began writing in Irish. The theme of female sexuality featured prominently in Mhac an tSaoi’s first poetry collection, Margadh na Saoire (“The Hiring-Fair”, 1956), especially in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin  (“Mary Hogan’s Quatrains”). Mhac an tSaoi herself compared the sequence to an Irish language version of Yeats’s Crazy Jane. Writing in Irish helped evade the Censorship of Publications Act, which may well have stopped this volume from appearing had it been written in English.

To get some idea of Mhac an tSaoi’s writing, I will look at a short poem from this early collection, “Margaret in the hairdresser’s” (“Máiréad sa tsiopa cóirithe gruaige”). This is a translation into English of the Irish original.

Five years old! My amber flower!
It was foolish of me to fix your hair
So lightly you stepped to the hairdresser
To be soaped and scissored, pinned and dried
With such good grace, willing and obliging
As a lamb to its raddle for shearing and marking
Until you landed on earth like Shirley Temple,
Though not so pale, a charming girl,
Before the mirror revealed the new you... and then
Oh such lamentation may I never hear again!
With your head in my lap you wept your fill -
I won't pretend I don't know what horrified you
Love, marriage, the monthly blood, all
Staring back, childbearing, the common lot.
Bless your little head and your crowning glory
As you bawl your eyes out at your mother’s waist
With hatred for the female and no escape from it!
My soul’s treasure, if only I could help you I would.

 The title suggests an ordinary, everyday event. The opening exclamation “Five years old!” drives home a young age, a child leaving early childhood and entering primary school age. The world is getting bigger, there is still great closeness between mother and child: “My amber flower!” In the next line, the mother already blames herself for not preparing her daughter for this step outside the home, feels she has over-protected her, that Mairéad is unprepared for what awaits her. Mairéad is unsuspecting and expects only good from the world, “So lightly you stepped to the hairdresser”.

The verbs in the very next line, “soaped and scissored, pinned and dried” suggest an assault, cutting and pinching, emphasised by the hissing sibilance, a caesura and then another attack in the punch-like sounding verbs that follow. This attack is endured with “such good grace, willing and obliging– a line that offers brief hope that all might be well. Then Mhac an tSaoi turns the emotions around again dramatically, as she compares the child’s innocence to “a lamb to its raddle for shearing and marking”. Here we get a first sense of sexualisation in a very rural image: raddle is a coloured pigment used to mark sheep for various reasons, including to mark the backs of ewes a ram mates. These are the thoughts that go through the mother’s head before the girl sees herself in the mirror.

Mairéad’s mother realises the transformation, that puts her child into a league with Hollywood's child film star from 1934 to 1938, Shirley Temple, dating the experience related in the poem to the late thirties or forties. Again, there is a struggle between attraction and repulsion, as the mother on the one hand sees how her daughter is transformed modelled on the fashionable child beauty of the day, at the same time realising how this appearance sexualises her.

However, when the girl sees herself in the mirror, some possibly unformed realisation hits her, and her reaction is unequivocal: “such lamentation may I never hear again!” She understands at some level that an irreversible transformation has taken place that allows for no return to innocence. She seeks comfort in her mother’s lap – at the same time a very young child’s need for a mother’s protection, as well as a symbolic desire to return to the womb.

The mother/speaker intuits the reason for her daughter’s shock at what she sees as she looks at her ‘new self’ in the mirror: “Love, marriage, the monthly blood, all/ Staring back, childbearing, the common lot.” She empathises completely with her child. Once more, the girl’s small stature is emphasised, “at your mother’s waist”. Her mother is more resigned to what seems like her daughter’s inevitable future lot, tries to comfort her and refers to the ‘beautifying’ hairstyle. The speaker understands her daughter’s “hatred for the female” – meaning the female lot – and the realisation that there is “no escape from it!

The poem ends with the speaker’s deep regret at her powerlessness to truly protect her daughter against the condition of women in Ireland at that time: “My soul’s treasure, if only I could help you I would.” 

It wasn’t until 1979 that some form of contraceptive became available in Ireland, with some further easing in 1985. But it was only in 2018 that Ireland decided overwhelmingly by referendum to finally end the constitutional ban on abortion, which had led to the Magdalen Laundries, the unhappiness, distress and the deaths of untold numbers of women. As trailblazer for female poets in 20th century Ireland, Máire Mhac an tSaoi recoded this experience in her poetry, and helped pave the way for others.

Brendan Kennelly
Wednesday, 20 October 2021 09:00

Brendan Kennelly

Published in Poetry

The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly died on 17 October, aged eighty-five. At an event for his eightieth birthday, Kennelly had said, he wanted to be remembered by his poems. His poem “Oliver to his Brother” is one that stays with me.

The name Oliver still suggests Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, so deep are the scars left in the national consciousness by Cromwell’s holocaust in Ireland: massacres of thousands of soldiers and civilians by the New Model Army at both Drogheda and Wexford in 1649, the execution of large numbers of Catholic clergy, the transportation of thousands of women and children to Barbados, to work on sugar plantations.

So, poem’s title, “Oliver to his Brother”, is loaded. In addition, the title announces that the poem’s speaker is Cromwell himself, and to expect a private address.

Loving brother, I am glad to hear of your welfare
And that our children have so much leisure
They can travel far to eat cherries.
This is most excusable in my daughter
Who loves this fruit and whom I bless.
Tell her I expect she writes often to me
And that she be kept in some exercise.
Cherries and exercise go well together.
I have delivered my son up to you.
I hope you counsel him; he will need it;
I choose to believe he believes what you say.
I send my affection to all your family.
Let sons and Daughters be serious; the age requires it.
I have things to do, all in my own way.
For example, I take not kindly to rebels.

The text is a letter. Its first word, ‘Loving’, is deeply ironic. The irony continues in ‘glad’ and ‘your welfare’. The second line reveals that this letter is a response to one telling him of his children, at least two of whom seem to be living with their uncle. It is also suggested that they enjoy freedom: ‘cherries’ evoke summertime, also ‘travel far’ suggests the outdoors and independence. This clashes implicitly with the harsh discipline of an army in the context of the military man Cromwell.

The first sentence, spanning three lines, ends in ‘cherries’. The reference to cherries introduces smell, taste and colour – sensations that have been absent so far, and immediately intensify the sensual appeal of the image and make it more memorable. Until this word, the poem has been reflective, cerebral, with slight hints at outdoor pleasure.

A loving father, Cromwell finds such delight ‘excusable’ in his daughter – implying he is less happy about his son enjoying the innocent pleasures of life. He adds, referring to his daughter, ‘whom I bless’, requests and looks forward to correspondence from her. He is concerned for her wellbeing and suggests to his brother that he ought keep an eye on the child exercising: ‘Cherries and exercise go well together’.

Next, his thoughts turn to his son, also in his brother’s care. For him, Cromwell asks for a more serious upbringing: his brother should council him, ‘he will need it’. A much more serious life is expected for his son. Cromwell as a leader in the English revolution, a signatory to Charles’ I arrest and subsequent beheading, in the first bourgeois revolution in history, expects his son to be prepared to enter a life of politics and militarism. Kennelly then reinforces the irony in the line sending ‘affection’ to brother’s family, highlighting the sense of  Cromwell the family man.

This is followed by a transitional line ‘Let sons and Daughters be serious; the age requires it.’ And now the age comes more clearly into focus. It is a brutal age, showing at this early stage of capitalist history, now that the bourgeoisie has seized power, it will exercise great force to supress any challenge to its power. Be this in Britain or in Ireland.  

This thought links the poem’s first half with its latter half: ‘I have things to do, all in my own way’. And then Cromwell, who was a supreme rebel in English history (decapitating king and establishing a parliamentary republic) states: ‘I take not kindly to rebels.’

Cromwell continues the English tradition of colonialism – does not bring to Ireland the emancipation of England, and is responsible for genocide.

This ominous, threatening statement comes at line 14 of 28, in the exact middle of the poem.

Now the attention turns away from the family to ‘I’, Oliver Cromwell, military man. As the poem’s speaker, Cromwell relates an actual historical event in which he was instrumentally involved:

Today, in Burford Churchyard, Cornet Thompson
Was led to the place of execution.
He asked for prayers, got them, died well.
After him, a Corporal, brought to the same place
Set his back against the wall and died.
A third choose to look death in the face,
Stood straight, showed no fear, chilled into his pride.

Today’ dates and places the letter: The Banbury mutiny was a mutiny in England by soldiers in the New Model Army. The mutineers sympathised with the radical Levellers and early communist Diggers in England, who wanted an equal society for all and set up communes. This execution demonstrated that Cromwell suppressed aspirations to take further the ideas of the revolution, apply them to all. The three leaders shot were Cornet James Thompson (commanding Captain William Thompson’s brother), Corporal Perkins and John Church on 17 May 1649. This destroyed the Levellers’ power base in the New Model Army. Cromwell reports coldly how they died. This is before Cromwell goes to Ireland in August.

Men die their different ways
And girls eat cherries
In the Christblessed fields of England.
Some weep. Some have cause. Let weep who will.
Whole floods of brine are at their beck and call.
I have work to do in Ireland.

Men die’, and ‘girls eat cherries’ brings the reader back for a moment to the poem’s opening lines. Cherries now are brought into clear association with blood – cherries are blood-red. Cherry eating is no longer as innocent as it seemed in the beginning. The cherries placed at the start prove to hint at an underlying blood trail.

As a Puritan, Cromwell saw things in religious terms and justifies his actions accordingly: ‘Christblessed fields of England’. Yet, he shows no compassion: ‘Some weep. Some have cause. Let weep who will.’ The weeping drenches the next two lines, by its repetition and the alliteration with ‘will’,  the EEEE sound echoes the weeping. The three short sentences in one line enact strictest control, but also hint at short breath and sobbing. This contrasts with the free flow of the next line, where floods of tears are suggested in the salty ‘brine’, reinforced at sound level with the alliteration ‘beck’. Cromwell’s cynicism is implied in ‘Let weep who will’ and his comment about the weeping having tears “at their beck and call”.

The final line announces Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland. It comes as a profound shock to the reader. We know him now. We know what will happen. This is has only been a prelude of what he will do in Ireland.

With this poem Brendan Kennelly creates a powerful image of Cromwell. Its relevance for today lies in the stark reminder of early capitalist suppression of aspirations for emancipation, with murder and genocide. Cromwell’s methods continue to this day.

The power of Kennelly’s verse makes the poem very memorable. At his 80th birthday event Kennelly also said he hoped that his poems would be read out aloud. “Oliver to his Brother” would be most suitable.

Liam O’Flaherty and the Irish Free State
Wednesday, 20 October 2021 08:35

Liam O’Flaherty and the Irish Free State

Published in Fiction

As Ireland observes the centenary of its incomplete independence – the setting up of the ‘Free State’ with dominion status and the partition of the country – care must be taken not to distort history. One of the authors who lived through the years of upheaval and the years of the Free State, Liam O’Flaherty, wrote about those times honestly and unflinchingly.

Liam O’Flaherty is one of the foremost Irish fiction writers of the 20th century. Like none other, he commented on the times as they were unfolding in his novels written in the 1920s and early 30s. He achieved his international breakthrough with the novel The Informer in 1925 – a novel set during the War of Independence.

In addition, O’Flaherty’s interest in Irish history resulted in the first Irish anti-war novel, Return of the Brute, a Civil War novel, The Martyr, as well Famine (1937), Ireland’s first serious artistic grappling with this Irish holocaust.

O’Flaherty was born in 1896 on the largest of the Irish speaking Aran Islands, Inis Mór, and he left the island for secondary education aged only 12 in 1908.

During WW1, in 1916, O’Flaherty joined the British Army. Back in Ireland, the Easter Rising took place in late April 1916. The Rising was defeated and its leaders were executed. In the Easter Proclamation, the leaders had set out important aspirations for an independent Ireland:

  • the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland
  • the Irish Republic to be a sovereign independent state
  • religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens

Awareness of these demands help to understand O’Flaherty’s supreme disappointment with the state that evolved after 1922.

Class-based divisions in the struggle for liberation

British atrocities after the 1916 Rising fuelled the War of Independence, which took place from 1919 to 1921. In May 1921, Ireland was partitioned by the British Government, which set up Northern Ireland. A ceasefire and talks between the British and the leaders of the Irish rebellion resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, ending direct British rule in 26 of the 32 counties. A year later, the Irish Free State was established, which was not a republic, but a Dominion of Britain. This Treaty, was the cause of the Civil War between the forces of the pro-Treaty provisional government – later  the Free State government – and the anti-Treaty volunteer army (IRA), which had its own executive. 

This class-based division of a united front for liberation into the monied forces with the Catholic Church behind them on the one hand, and on the other hand the dispossessed who aspire to a new society, became very evident during the Civil War and the subsequent Free State government. Its post-Civil War reality is apparent in O’Flaherty’s book The House of Gold.

Two parties that still figure largely in Irish politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, emerged from Sinn Féin, the national liberation movement, after the Civil War. The pro-Treaty party Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, aligned itself with big business, and then with the European fascists. It was supported by the Catholic hierarchy. Fianna Fáil, the anti-Treaty party, had its base among the working class and small farmers. However, the difference between these two Civil War enemies has dwindled to practically nothing today, and they have governed Ireland on separate occasions in similar ways for the past 100 years.

O’Flaherty’s experience of WWI left him strongly anti-war and a committed socialist. He travelled widely after the war, but returned to Ireland in late 1921, and became a founder member of the first Communist Party of Ireland in November 1921. On 18 January 1922, two days after the establishment of the Irish Free State, O’Flaherty, as Chairperson of the Council of the Unemployed and other unemployed Dublin workers, occupied the Rotunda concert hall for four days, flying a red flag. The Civil War began in May 1922 and O’Flaherty joined the Anti-Treaty Republican side. After their defeat, he fled to London in July 1922.

There he began writing. He became a close friend of the German socialist, Carl Lahr and his wife Esther Archer, who managed the Progressive Bookshop. The left-wing circle around this bookshop became O’Flaherty’s political home. In London, he encountered first-hand the Expressionist movement, and almost all of Liam O’Flaherty’s 1920s novels are expressionist in character.

We return to the Civil War and its aftermath for a moment, as this is significant for understanding O’Flaherty’s work in the 1920s, all of which comments on the new Free State.

Liam Mellows, imprisoned and executed by the Pro-Treaty forces during the Civil War, notes in a prison letter on 25 August 1922:

In our efforts now to win back public support to the Republic we are forced to recognise whether we like it or not – that the commercial interest, so-called, money and the gombeen men are on the side of the Treaty, because that Treaty means Imperialism and England. We are back to Tone – (…) - relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic.

The forces that seized power in the new Irish state confirmed this to the letter. Their betrayal of the ideals of 1916, the betrayal of the ideals of the War of Independence, becomes a paramount theme in Liam O’Flaherty’s 1920s novels. The aspirations of the Easter Proclamation were sacrificed to money and power. The right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens – all were abolished in one fell swoop.

How religious and literary culture conforms to ruling-class hegemony

The Catholic Church, a central institution in Irish religious culture, actively supported this betrayal and soon the Free State became a Catholic State for a Catholic people. All aspects of society in the Irish Free State were controlled by the Catholic Church. This included the notorious Church-run ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ for unmarried mothers, where children given away by the nuns for adoption, and there was an unspeakably high mortality rate for children. Recently the remains of 796 babies and young children were discovered in the sewage system of just one of these institutions, in Tuam, Co. Galway.

In 1929, the Censorship of Publications Board, a central institution in Irish literary culture, was established to prohibit any publications they found to be obscene. This made it illegal to buy, sell or distribute any such censored publications in Ireland. The first book banned by this Board was The House of Gold, O’Flaherty’s Galway novel that took to task the men who seized power in the Irish Free State following independence. Four more works by O’Flaherty were banned. The index of censored works consisted of hundreds of books by Irish and international writers.

These are the two overarching themes Liam O’Flaherty takes on in his novels and some short stories: the betrayal by the Irish bourgeoisie of the ideals of Independence, and the crippling of Irish people by the Catholic Church.

Two examples of Liam O’Flaherty’s work to illustrate this undertaking, the 1929 novel The House of Gold, and his 1925 short story “The Outcast”.

The House of Gold

This novel is set in the fictional town of Barra, easily recognised as Galway, the city closest to O’Flaherty’s homestead on the Aran islands.

The novel’s significance lies in the way it exemplifies and typifies for Ireland, and by extension for other post-colonial countries, how the newly empowered, corrupt native bourgeoisie has replaced the British ruling class, headed by the power-hungry Ramon Mor Costello and his clerical allies. 

Ramon Mor is a Cumann na nGaedheal politician, who extracts his wealth from a largely rural proletariat and deprives the town of Barra and its environs of its wealth and hopes for the future. He is what in Hiberno-English is known as a gombeen man. The word comes from the Irish word “gaimbín”, meaning exorbitant financial interest, a term that became notorious for those shopkeepers and merchants who exploited the starving during the Famine by selling food and goods at high prices and charging enormous interest rates.

The House of Gold is O’Flaherty’s only novel in which a gombeen man figures in a leading role. Although this character was inspired by a particular Galway businessman, O’Flaherty states unambiguously in the novel: “in every little town in Ireland you will find a man like Ramon Mor”.

The action of the novel takes place over the course of 24 hours. It follows a number of main characters: Ramon Mor Costello, his unhappy, beautiful wife Nora, her lover Francis O’Neill, who shares some features with Liam O’Flaherty, the town’s doctor Jim Fitzgerald, as well as quite a number of people associated with them, including the police. The action begins at midnight with a rendezvous between Francis O’Neill and Nora. What arises in the plot is Nora’s probable rape by a priest, her attempts to break free of Ramon and his family, Ramon’s business dealings, a public meeting, a robbery, and two, if not three, deaths.

This sounds like a thriller; yet the novel, in its 21 chapters, focuses less on the background action, than on individuals, their motivations, their relationship with Ramon Mor. The various encounters take place in a number of locations – Ramon’s house, his office, outdoors on the hillside, at the fish market, in the church, the doctor’s house, the pub and at a public meeting in the town’s main square. The scenes, depicting people of all social strata, are filled with talk and energy, they are individualised, visual, and dramatic.

The social panorama of the town unfolds, as all are shown each in their dependence on the tyrant Ramon Mor. This dependency causes distress and indeed something close to madness in some of the characters, for example Father Considine. Other characters suffer due to their weakness, their inability to stand up to Ramon Mor. These include the doctor, Ramon’s sister, Fr. Considine, and Nora herself.

Rather than follow a strictly chronological, linear, traditional plot curve, the events take a back seat to the relationships that are revealed in the novel. It is noticeable that here, as in other O’Flaherty novels, there are no heroes, no characters the reader is invited to identify with. Instead, in Brechtian style, readers are kept at an emotional distance, which encourages them to view the scenes with a detachment that allows for critical thought and reflection. The reader sees the characters and their relationships for what they are, undeterred by emotional identification. O’Flaherty proves himself here, as in other novels written in the 1920s, to be part of the European modernist avant garde, and must be classified along with Brecht and other left-wing modern writers of this time.

The essential truth about the Irish Free State after independence was, as Liam O’Flaherty saw it, that the new, Irish bourgeoisie has simply stepped into the shoes of the English and Anglo-Irish landlords. They have literally moved into their big houses and continue to exploit the working population in the same way as before. As the character Francis O’Neill says:

That house you are living in now once belonged to Sir Michael de Burgo. He was the landowner around here. …. He was a tyrant and an enemy of the people. … but he was seven times better than the man that’s there now, because, after all, it was not his own class or his own flesh he was eating, same as Ramon Mor is doing. … in the last rising of the people, I and the like of me put the finishing touches to the landlord class, fighting with the whole country against us, while Ramon Mor lay low, waiting to see how the cat would jump, by God, at the same time, making money out of our blood by selling rations to the soldiers we were fighting. And when it was all over and we won, it was he stole into that empty house and grabbed the land we fought for.

Ramon Mor Costello, along with many of the characters around him, are damaged by the times of their own making, deprived of their humanity in diverse ways, out of touch with themselves and their own people. O’Flaherty shows that independence has not brought about a freer society. Yes, Ramon Mor has money and power in the new state, but even his wealth is shabby and rundown. His political power serves only to increase his power over his people, to make them miserable. Their lives are no different to before, very little has changed or improved.

In addition to this, readers see the influence of the Catholic Church, which is never far away from Ramon Mor. The doctor comments,

The Church is more sacred than the law, and the citizen has very few rights where the clergy are concerned.

Many of the impoverished ordinary folk, the people living in the mountains, emigrate. They are Francis O’Neill’s people. He encounters them on their way into town. Among them is a big man who understands:

Who’d stay on these rocks but a lunatic, working for Ramon Mor Costello? (...) sure there’s nowhere else for them to go but to America. Aren’t they flying every day, as if there were a plague in the country? Soon there’ll be nobody left. And that miser down there, that grabber Ramon Mor is the cause of it. He has ruined the country. My curse on him.

The villagers see small boats from the Aran islands approaching Galway Bay harbour. These are Ramon Mor’s people. And we have another encounter, this time between Ramon and his own villagers. A parallel character to the big man in the previous scene, is Tommy Derrane:

a well-known fellow in the district, because of his strange conversation and his demented wit. He was terrifying in appearance because of his wild, restless eyes, his pale face, his sudden grin, his hunched shoulders, his bobbing chin and the twitching of his limbs. He was dressed in island costume. He was tall, large-boned, lean, terribly vital, a typical islander.

Derrane says:

God listens to the prayers of the rich. All the power of the world is in service to the rich man.

 The rich man turns everything into gold, for he is wise and he has no pity for the hunger of an empty stomach. He has no conscience. He doesn’t see the misery of the poor, for he has a magic veil over his eyes. He is deaf and blind like God, who made Hell as well as Heaven.

It is the ordinary working people who see through Ramon Mor completely, understand his nature and know they can neither trust him, nor expect to be treated any better than they were under de Burgo. Derrane and the big man in the earlier scene represent the potential of the people to see through Ramon. Both have energy and insight, and are unafraid, yet isolated. Both are seen as outsiders and the majority of the people around them are subservient to Ramon.

There seems little comparable insight in the town’s population. The town is destitute, semi-derelict, the inhabitants overcome with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. There is no sense of the kind of energy and anger we see in the individuals from the rural outposts. The middle-class characters in the novel are ineffectual, often too afraid of Ramon and his power to act decisively. This fear impacts on a latent resentment that fails to spark into rebellion.

At a public meeting, we come across the proposals for change and reactions of different people of the middle class – the solicitor, the doctor, the proprietor of the Railway Hotel, Finnigan, the businessman Fogarty. Solicitor Mr Fitzpatrick addresses the meeting. He says that the people of Barra “must root out the cancer that is eating into the heart of their social life.” While Fitzpatrick has insight, the reader has no indication that this will go anywhere.

Bob Finnerty, the labour union organiser, speaks against him and says “It’s not people like you who are going to free the people from oppression. It’s up to the working class...”

While all this is going on, the doctor arrives at the conclusion that he was “really equipped for leading an analytical life, for accepting reality and for influencing his fellow-creatures towards the pursuit of beauty by moving inwards on his own soul”. Little hope for real change comes from any of these people. The police too, it is suggested, are in the hand of Ramon Mor.

Too great is the combined power of Church and State. When the doctor suggests setting up a library, the townsfolk comment:

How are ye going to have a library, when Fr. Considine’d come and burn the books? Not that I want a library. That man Ramon Mor has this town sucked dry. Along with taking the people’s money, he has taken their hearts as well.

The hearts that struggled for independence have been taken away by this unholy alliance. And because there is no visible change to colonial times, the people give up hope. The ideals of 1916, the ideals of 1921 have been sold out. Instead, the Free State has become a neo-colonial backwater ruled by the gombeen, and created a system where even access to literature and thought is censored.

In this way we find in The House of Gold a complex social panorama of Irish society in the early years of Irish Free State with many echoes that ring true to the present day. To quote from Tomás Mac Síomón’s perceptive introduction to his republication of The House of Gold 80 years after its first and only publication:

This re-issue of The House of Gold by Nuascéalta, the first since 1929, should find particular resonance in a contemporary Ireland where the threatening figure of the local gombeen merchant has been replaced by that of the Troika. An anxious, submissive and debt-ridden citizenry, unjustly beholden to foreign bond-holders, now takes the place of the debt-ridden citizens of 1920’s Barra, cowering under the baleful glare of Ramon Mor Costello.

Since such contagion has now infected the entire world of contemporary capitalism, the basic theme of this extraordinary novel is truly universal. If only for its masterly depiction of the vicissitudes of a population deprived of real power, alternative leaders and a sense of direction, Liam Ó Flaherty’s The House of Gold deserves an honoured place in the world canon of socially committed literature.

It is typical of O’Flaherty novels of his time that there is no hero, no one person who truly grasps the situation and attempts to change it. The central character is a villain. All other important characters belong to the middle class and are weak, highly improbable leaders. These must be sought among the people – Francis O’Neill’s own people, whom he meets coming from the mountains and Tommy Derrane from Aran who directly challenges Ramon Mor. However, they are very marginal indeed. The majority of the people we encounter appear traumatised by the loss of the ideals for a society that would treat “all the children of the nation equally”, as the Easter Proclamation had determined. Demonstrating the absence of a united force capable of bringing about change shows the realism of O’Flaherty’s work. A sense of stagnation prevails.

The Outcast

O’Flaherty’s short story “The Outcast”, published February 1925, is a text in which the world of a well-fed and well-rested priest, attended by an intimidated housekeeper, clashes with the reality of a young girl who has recently given birth and who appeals to him for help. His response is true to the time and reflects a power and inhumanity on the part of the Church, and the political establishment that facilitated it, which continued for a very long time.

The young girl says,:

I have no place to go to. No shelter for me child. They’re afraid to take me in in the village for fear ye might ... Oh! Father, I don’t mind about mesel’, but me child.

She states here quite clearly that no one in the village will dare oppose the iron grip and diktat of the Church. It is left to this young girl to go to the priest and appeal for humanity. But of course, she is too isolated and weak on her own, and so she is insulted and sent away. Not only does O’Flaherty highlight the Church’s power and control, he also underlines the deep-seated clerical prejudice against and hatred of women. Indeed, in this short text, the housekeeper covertly tries to hand the distressed girl something in an act of solidarity, an attempt to help:

The housekeeper opened the hall door. She was thrusting something into the girl’s hand, but the girl did not see her.

I mentioned the Church-run homes earlier, where unmarried mothers and their children were kept in gulag-like conditions, the children frequently not surviving. Any birth control was banned until 1979, with further easing on the sale of contraceptives in 1985. However, abortion was completely illegal and impossible to obtain in Ireland until very recently, when the law was changed by referendum in 2018. This means that for almost 100 years, women who did not wish to or could not go ahead with a pregnancy, had to travel abroad to terminate it. Many, many women died as a result, as even in the event of fatal foetal abnormality, or indeed life-threatening conditions of the mother, no abortions were performed. As we speak, there are still people who picket abortion clinics in Ireland to harass the women who have the need to avail of this service. And the present Irish government continues to permit this form of intimidation.

O’Flaherty’s writing in Irish

O’Flaherty was a native speaker of Irish and a gifted storyteller. He wrote poetry and short stories in Irish as well as his play Dorchadas. Dorchadas is possibly the only expressionist play ever written in Irish. O’Flaherty tells of the fate of an amazing project in a 1927 letter to the Irish Statesman:

I wrote a few short stories for the Gaelic League organ. They printed them … I consulted Pádraic Ó Conaire and we decided that drama was the best means of starting a new literature in Irish … the two of us went to Dublin …[and] put our scheme before them [the Gaeltacht Commission] for a travelling theatre and so on. I guaranteed to write ten plays. They thought we were mad and, indeed, took very little interest in us. In fact, I could see by their looks and their conversation that they considered us immoral persons.

And so, what might have been a truly vibrant project to move literature in Irish into the 20th century, and even embrace modernist writing, was extinguished by the Free State. Reverberations of its actions and inaction are felt to this day. O’Flaherty recorded the minutiae of these inglorious years like no other Irish writer.

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