Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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


The revolutionary realism of Caravaggio
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 10:10

The revolutionary realism of Caravaggio

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell discusses the work of Caravaggio, who revolutionised European art. Image above: Judith Beheading Holofernes

Born 450 years ago, on 29 September 1571, Caravaggio lived and worked in Rome. 

The development of the new middle class of traders, merchants, artisans – the bourgeoisie – brought with it the dawn of the modern capitalist, era. The artistic expression of this new era of middle-class confidence, was the Renaissance. The Reformation, which began in Germany in 1517,  was its religious expression. This new class needed to legitimise its claim to political power at all levels. Protestantism replaced the strongly hierarchical older, feudal Church with one that did away with the middle-men structures. This reflected the new thinking that challenged the established political hierarchy, and aspired, theoretically at least, to political power for all.

The Reformation had forced Catholicism to retreat in many parts of Europe. However, outside of Britain, no successful bourgeois revolution consolidated the growing economic power of the middle class that would have eliminated feudalism. Instead, feudal absolutism emerged. The nobility remained the ruling class, although increasingly capitalist forms began to shape economic life.

The Counter-Reformation and the Baroque

The Counter-Reformation refers to the mainly political and military actions of Catholicism between 1555 and 1648, aiming to reverse the conditions created by the Reformation in central Europe. Its leading force were the Jesuits. The Counter-Reformation led to the resurgence of Catholicism, to significant shifts in political power in Europe and to the reclamation of Austria, Bohemia and Poland for Catholicism. The Counter-Reformation and the Baroque went hand in hand. If the Renaissance had been a violent time, the Counter-Reformation was even more so.

The arts reflected the character of this age, and the purpose of the Baroque was to glorify the power and external splendour of the absolute state. The ruling class deluded itself into a fullness of power that it had long since ceased to possess. With this came an unprecedented class differentiation in art. In addition to the ruling culture of the nobility, bourgeois-democratic and upper middle class forms of culture evolved. While the interests of the upper middle class associated with the nobility are reflected in the Baroque, democratic tendencies were expressed in realist works of art.


In St. Nicolas Church, Prague, statues of clergy stabbing rebellious peasants


In 1591, a young painter from northern Italy came to Rome. His name was Michelangelo Merisi, who took the name Caravaggio after his birthplace. He revolutionised art in Europe. Caravaggio’s sense of reality, his this-worldly sensuality, re-established and further developed the realism of the early Renaissance.


Sick Bacchus (1593), an early self-portrait of Caravaggio, then aged 22, already confidently departs from convention:

It is a disconcerting picture. Bacchus, pagan god of revelry, intoxication, and sexual promiscuity, is depicted as a victim – he looks weary, even exploited. The vine leaves and grapes, promising intoxication and gratification, are offered as though to a customer. The white himation resembles a sheet. The smile seems fake, and there is a suggestion of an unhappy male sex worker.


Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1593–1594)

Painted around the same time, Boy Bitten by a Lizard depicts another ordinary person, without signs of rank or status, reacting to a sudden shock. Again, there is a hint of a sexually exploited young male, in a state of partial undress and with a rose behind his ear. While the rose indicates romantic love, jasmine, also included, was a traditional symbol of desire. While the youth reaches for cherries, he is bitten by a lizard (real lizards don’t have teeth). Both pictures should be interpreted in the context of Caravaggio’s target audience – the Roman clergy.

The Genre Picture

Caravaggio was one of the first to develop genre painting, showing the lives of ordinary people. Two early examples of this are The Gypsy Fortune-Teller (1594), and The Cardsharps (1594). They focus on the lower social orders, which became an important model for him and heightened the realism of all his work.

Both pictures were startlingly original in late 16th century Europe, foregrounding on canvas the class that had never been considered a worthy aesthetic subject – tricksters.


In The Gypsy Fortune-Teller the young woman is seen removing the naïve nobleman’s ring as he gazes into her eyes. Already, Caravaggio’s insistence on realism in both subject matter and depiction is clear: the young woman has quite dirty fingernails! Such attention to realist detail shocked his audience.


The Cardsharps also laughs at how a young gentleman is tricked. The opulently dressed young gentleman has come to the notice of card tricksters in a gambling den. Their yellow-and-black costumes hint at wasps closing in on him. The backgammon board at the edge of the table suggests he has already lost money to them. The narrative of the picture implies that the gentleman has been successfully persuaded to try and regain his losses. Yet it is hopeless. The viewer sees more that he does: spare cards behind the back of his opponent, with an accomplice signalling in code how to ensure a winning hand. Once again, there is little doubt as to who is streetwise, and who is the fool.


Another famous example of Caravaggio’s realism, of his bond with the ordinary people, is Judith Beheading Holofernes. In his depiction of Judith, Caravaggio used Fillide Melandroni, a well-known courtesan, as a model. She was instantly recognisable to the people of Rome.

Religiously motivated killing takes centre stage in this painting. Renaissance artists had focused on the beauty of the human form and nature, not so much on human suffering. During the Counter-Reformation, torment and violence had a considerable impact on art, as they had in everyday life. Caravaggio painted the moment when Holofernes is beheaded, his head only half-severed from his body. His eyes are opened wide with horror, his mouth is screaming. Severed heads nailed to the Ponte S. Angelo over the Tiber were a common sight in Rome.

Judith is painted in the best clothes of a woman of the people. Caravaggio also departs from biblical tradition in showing the maid alongside her mistress. This is an intensely realistic representation of a working woman. He painted directly from life, showing the wrinkles on the face and working hands of this woman. In fact, she is shown to hold up her apron in readiness to receive and dispose of the head. Caravaggio’s contemporaries deemed such portrayal “too natural”. The maid really stands out in the picture contrasting strongly with the more idealised beauty of Judith, and even of Holofernes. She is chosen and painted as a third focal point, not to be missed.

For the first time in this painting, Caravaggio uses the light/dark contrast (chiaroscuro) that was to become characteristic of his work: figures, accentuated by artificial light, standing out against a dark background. In this technique, Caravaggio prefigures Rembrandt.


St. Matthew and the Angel, Caravaggio’s 1602 painting, is a picture that famously exists in two versions. In this first painting, Saint Matthew sits on a scissors chair, dressed in short workman’s clothes, leaving his arms and legs bare. His legs are crossed and his left foot almost breaks through the painting, at the point, where a priest would hold up the host at Mass. To make matters worse, Matthew is flat footed, with dirt under his toenails. He seems to have difficulty writing, his hands unused to holding the quill, as he peers on to the pages – even his writing appears too big. The angel helps him write the Gospel.

The viewer looks on the scene from above. It seems that Caravaggio gave Matthew the likeness of Socrates, often depicted as a humble man, who said that the only true wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing. The clergy rejected Caravaggio’s interpretation of the saint as an illiterate peasant, and objected to the intimate relationship between the apostle and the angel holding his hand. He had to paint a second picture.


Caravaggio’s second painting is less realistic. Matthew is no longer wearing working clothes. Instead, he is biblically dressed and towers above the viewer. The angel hovers over him, there is no physical contact, and Matthew writes by himself.

Picture10 resized 

Caravaggio refused, wherever possible, to bow to Counter-Reformation diktat. Many of his works were rejected because of his intense realism and his depiction of ordinary, working people in his paintings. He used real-life models for his religious figures, famously Roman prostitutes as models for his Madonnas. One of the well-known courtesans, Anna Bianchini, drowned, possibly murdered, in the Tiber in 1604. Caravaggio had been commissioned to paint Death of the Virgin and, according to legend, he used Anna’s bloated body as the model for the dead Mary.

The painting caused an outcry, because the identity of Mary was so clear. Her bare feet, her red dress, and the realism of death, all make for an unholy appearance, unfit for a devotional picture of the mother of Christ. An early biographer suggests that Caravaggio painted the murderer into the picture: the dark, bearded young man, looking away from the scene.

The lives of ordinary people

Caravaggio’s sense of realism stood in the way of painting idealised forms. Even in his religious paintings, he used real-life models from among ordinary people. These were the people that mattered, that life was all about, as far as Caravaggio was concerned.

Caravaggio worked mainly for Roman clergy and so most of his works have religious themes: yet they are profoundly humanist. This painter rejected the highly ornamental, empty and often triumphalist Baroque manner. He painted everyday reality, the ordinary people he encountered on the streets of Rome, including the most deprived – beggars, prostitutes, criminals. Even his religious paintings are linked to the violence and deprivation Caravaggio saw all around him. He was unwilling to look the other way.

When Caravaggio killed a man in a quarrel on 28 May 1606, he was forced to flee Rome, and spent the rest of his life on the run, spending time in Naples, Malta, Messina, and Palermo. He died in exile in 1610, aged only 38, and was buried in an unmarked grave, leaving behind masterpieces that have influenced European art from the 17th century onwards.

The barriers to working-class writers: Review of The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices
Saturday, 11 September 2021 08:40

The barriers to working-class writers: Review of The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices

Published in Life Writing

Jenny Farrell reviews The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh 

Working-class writing is coming to the fore in Ireland. “The 32” follows the publications of two anthologies of working people’s writing, “The Children of the Nation” and “From the Plough to the Stars” (Culture Matters, 2019, 2020).

All three anthologies stand out in the literary landscape for being just that: anthologies. Much as the publications of individual working-class writers must be admired for breaking through the class barriers in the publishing industry, these anthologies together give a strong sense of the voice of a class speaking; the strength that arises from standing together, a fact to which The Irish Times and the Independent, in their reviews, are oblivious.

One of the statements this book makes, and some of its contributors attempt to answer, is how to define the working class. The texts printed within its covers agree on some of the basic aspects: above all, it means to be poor. It certainly means to be scorned by those who represent the establishment and dominate education, culture, politics, the media. They reinforce their preconceived, ill-informed notions of the working class by all means at their disposal. Erin Lindsay observes: “Whether it’s in film, music, or conversations overheard on the street, the idea of being working-class is contorted and presented back to us without our presence in its creation.” This motivates taking charge of one’s own narrative, a theme that recurs throughout the collection.

This is an issue of key relevance to publications such as The 32 and the Culture Matters anthologies. These anthologies undertake the epic task of removing class barriers and creating a more democratic and grassroots publishing culture, indeed focusing on the class that is generally excluded.

Censorship by RTE

By way of example, Alan O’Brien, working-class writer and contributor to the  Culture Matters anthologies, submitted his radio play “Snow Falls and So Do We” to RTE, based on the true event of a woman dying of hypothermia in a Ballymun flat. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE when they were to broadcast his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as "miniature hero", actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.

This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish Constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly,  they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social depravation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.

So, not only are working-class people excluded from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also prevented by the media – including the publishing industry –  from expressing artistically their experience of the world. By recognising this class barrier and attempting to tackle it, these anthologies of working-class writing are blazing a new trail. However, unless other cultural workers, institutions, trade unions and universities acknowledge this deficit with a view to redressing it, they will remain a drop in the ocean.

Kevin Barry writing in “The Gaatch” points to where establishment prejudice invariably leads:

On Thursday mornings I attended the sittings of Limerick District Court. I did the courts for a couple of years, and I can’t remember ever hearing a working-class defendant’s word taken over the word of a guard. You could predict with high accuracy the forthcoming judgements from the look of the defendant taking to the witness stand. If he or she had a working-class kind of gaatch to them – as we’d say in Limerick, meaning that they carried themselves in a certain way, dressed in a certain way, spoke in a certain way – they would very likely be found guilty. 

Being presumed guilty because of belonging to the dispossessed, is reiterated in Rosaleen McDonagh’s experience as one of the Travelling community:

Five o’ clock in the morning the sound of police sirens. Bursting into the caravan, looking for stolen goods, tax and insurance, drugs, firearms. They pull my brothers and my father out of bed. Trousers and boots, no shirt. Made to stand in the middle of the site alongside thirty or forty other men and boys of various ages. … Nothing was found; all tax and insurance related to our vehicles were in date.

And so, the importance of speech, dress, address, and school, appear time and again in these texts. The greatest part of these are memoirs, or ‘faction’. Poverty looms large, and a sense of deliberate exclusion from mainstream lifestyle pervades. Class barriers are seen and cited all the way, and education is viewed as a way out. Many of the authors describe the difficulty of pursuing a writing career. 

Therefore, it is unsurprising that an overall impression forms that in order to live a better life, you need to get out of the working-class trap. The disadvantages seem to outweigh any positives. And yet, Erin Lindsay states in complete contradiction to the received mainstream view:

Growing up, my house was full of conversations and debates about history, philosophy, politics, life, ethics, love – they taught me everything I know.

And Dermot Bolger says – with Gorky – that working life is a university:

It was a last valuable lesson I learned in the only university I ever attended before commencing my journey as a writer.

Class consciousness, pride and solidarity

Working-class writing is as old as the working class itself, arising with the Industrial Revolution, landless peasants before that, much of this in the oral tradition. Within class society, the working class is to a large extent indeed cheated out of fair pay, cheated out of education and opportunities. The introduction to “From the Plough to the Stars” presents a Marxist definition: 

Our understanding of ‘working class’ are those people who sell their labour power and share only marginally in the fruits of their labour. They create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. This includes the urban and rural proletariat, small farmers as a peripheral group, as well as the rising number of people in precarious employment, the homeless and the unemployed.

In some of the texts in “The 32”, you find a sense of solidarity and pride in class, the sense that surely poverty and lack of education is not the ultimate and eternal definition of working class – that there is a potential that will allow this class to challenge the society that keeps it on the poverty line. This strength, this process of liberation, is a hallmark of Maxim Gorky’s working-class writing. It envisages a society where there is little difference in income and living standard between the skilled industrial workers, farmers and professionals. In this (socialist) society being working-class does not spell poverty, poor education and neglect by society. It is entirely possible to be a working-class intellectual, and it was in the USSR and other socialist countries that working-class history and art first became the subject of academic research. It is thus ignorant and damaging to be told that having achieved a university education, or working in the arts, means one is no longer working-class.

The texts in this book focus on the here and now in Ireland, the lived experience of the authors, ranging from the 1950s through to 2020. Paul McVeigh, has achieved a good balance of contributions from the Republic of Ireland as well as the North. Here, the sectarian prejudice against the Catholic population adds significantly to social inequality, as several contributors attest. And when we refer to bigotry and discrimination it is to welcomed that a member of the travelling community, Rosaleen McDonagh, as well as a representative of the queer community, Marc Gregg, are given the opportunity to add their voices.

Regrettably, no Irish language texts are included. This would have paid necessary tribute to the long tradition of working-class writing as Gaeilge in Ireland. The exclusion of this tradition by the publishing industry is shameful and needs to be challenged by those who have taken up the pen to put an end to social injustice. This can only be achieved by the whole of the working class standing together.

Along with “The Children of the Nation” and “From the Plough to the Stars”, “The 32” presents a differentiated image of what it means to be working-class in Ireland today. These three anthologies will be followed by a fourth publication, “Land of the Ever Young”, a beautifully illustrated book of working people’s writing for children, in November of this year.

From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 17:55

From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left

Published in Life Writing

Jenny Farrell reviews Mick O’Reilly's From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2019)

At the end of From Lucifer to Lazarus, Mick O’Reilly raises a question many working-class authors ask themselves when writing about their lives: “whether it is worthwhile telling the story of my life and not the story of the thousands of other people I worked with and fought employers for over the years. I am sure many of them have a similar story to mine, but workers like us rarely go to print – our stories are usually told by others.”

Douglas Stuart, Scottish working-class winner of the 2020 Man Booker prize, puts it similarly: 

I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.

Although both authors differ in many respects, they put their finger on something that is very relevant. Mick O’Reilly, born in the Liberties in 1946 and reared in Ballyfermot, communist and trade union leader, writes about his experiences as a highly class-conscious person in the Irish trade union struggle. Douglas Stuart on the other hand was born into the Glasgow working class thirty years later, in 1976. Stuart’s book describes growing up in 1980s Glasgow, a city devastated by Thatcherite deindustrialisation. It is a book about his childhood. Communism and trade unionism do not feature in it. And yet the same question, a similar realisation, is common to both books. 

Mick O’Reilly’s autobiographical book is a fascinating read for anybody interested in Irish left-wing trade unionism. It is a toolbox for trade unionists, a history book, a political declaration of a worldview by one who dedicated his life to the furtherment of the working-class cause, the liberation of humankind. 

The author describes growing up in Dublin, not finishing primary school, and first experiences on the shop floor. He takes the reader on a journey through time, as the young O’Reilly becomes involved with the trade union movement and how he progresses to becoming a trade unionist, indeed a trade union leader over time. It is fascinating the impact the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising had on the young O’Reilly, on a short holiday from England, in shaping his Irish identity and motivating his return to Dublin and precarious employment. A number of other factors contributed, among them a 1966 performance of Seán O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars” in Birmingham, which sealed O’Reilly’s decision: “This isn’t where I belong. If I’m going to make a contribution to this Marxist movement, I’d better do it in my own home place.” After that, his biography is firmly tied to Ireland, in the Republic, as well as the six counties, its political and labour movement. 

Factory life in Ireland and Britain was O’Reilly’s university in politics and trade union struggle, kicking off properly with his job in car assembly plants, the training ground for the future trade union leader in the early 1970s. It was here that he joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders. He joined the Communist Party in 1967 and became very active in the Dublin housing action committee. He was centrally involved in setting up he Connolly Youth Movement, took part in the campaigns against the EEC, and negotiated protection for car workers. He writes about fighting for pay rises, supporting victimised colleagues, as well as taking political strike action in response to Bloody Sunday. 

O’Reilly speaks openly about the difficulties within the labour movement, the many conflicts and struggles. A major event in his life was his sacking and reinstatement as officer of the ATGWU, now UNITE. O’Reilly had been appointed to the post of regional secretary in Ireland. He was the first official from the Republic. And this happened against the wishes of Bill Morris (now Lord Morris) and Margaret Prosser (now Baroness). Their opposition constituted gross interference in the Irish region, which had been largely independent of the British section of the union. However, as O’Reilly remarks, “I ran the union from a rank-and-file perspective,” and that was clearly unacceptable.

This was not the only serious disappointment. The betrayal of the working class by a treacherous trade union leadership, resulting in the anti-worker legislation of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, is also an important topic in the book.

He writes about various greater and lesser role models along the way, and his life-long involvement with the communist movement. This is the kind of historical insight one will find hard to discover in history bookthat are written by historians who lack a working-class understanding. As O’Reilly states when he described what eventually encouraged him to write the book:

I was interested in trying to capture people’s memories and the collective consciousness of the time because when I read what was going on in the media and listened to reports on the radio and online, I was, and still am, convinced that it’s the Irish middle class, talking to the Irish middle class about the Irish middle class. I rarely hear working-class voices and the stories of their lives, which are largely ignored.

Working-class lives, be it as factual account, or as faction, need to be published and read. These are the stories that matter, and that give working-class readers a sense of belonging.

The daily resistance of rising: Bernie Crawford's Living Water
Tuesday, 24 August 2021 10:03

The daily resistance of rising: Bernie Crawford's Living Water

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell reviews Bernie Crawford's new collection, Living Water, Chaffinch Press 2021.

Bernie Crawford’s debut collection is a profound pleasure to read. It is informed and heightened by a life that has been lived very consciously and focused, choosing what matters.

The poet was a teacher of mathematics and biology in Ireland and Lesotho. She worked in Zambia and Tanzania on the Irish Bilateral Aid programme, returned with two daughters, adopted in Zambia, and with horizons that extend far beyond Western First World complacence and myopia.

Unsurprisingly, the years in Africa and the love for her children feature a great deal. Some of the poems are intensely personal, in a way that makes them universal to parental love, including poems giving insight into the experience of being an adoptive mother.

Other poems about Africa reveal an understanding of a common humanity, rarely seen in European writing. For example “My Earthenware Pots from Lesotho”:

here in my kitchen I listen again to your stories.
The women showed me how to sit a clay pot in a tray of water
and make a safe for my butter, milk and cheese.

And I remember how they soothed you
with aloes soaked in water
after you were sun-dried under a blazing sky,
wood-fired in an open kiln.

And I remember how in summer my mother
replaced the fire in the kitchen hearth
with a clay pot bursting with lilac blossom.

This poem is also about how knowledge and memory reside in hands, as well as in hearts and minds. This is an experience which is shared across the world.

The poet’s profound humanity and understanding of the suffering of many is highlighted in several poems, for example one about “a young Bedouin girl” in the title poem “Living Water”, who is prevented access to live-giving water, as “Soldiers stand beside two army jeeps/ and shout out in a tongue she doesn’t know”. Another example is “The Storyteller of El Far’a Camp, West Bank” whose story is shaped by:

the curved well of olive oil
Anointing the bowl of hummus

The bulldozers who come at night
And uproot him from his dreams

The lost homes in Jaffa and Haifa

The daily resistance of rising
And cooking, eating and praying

Planting tomatoes with the hope
He can harvest the future

The author’s deep humanity, which allows her to identify with the oppressed and poor, extends to the victims of First World inhumanity to the same extent. The name and needless death of Savita Halapanavar is deeply engrained in the psyche of the Irish as a particularly shameful symbol of the failure of Irish society to facilitate abortion at the calculated cost of a woman’s life (“A Catholic Country”).

Crawford writes this homage in the style of William Carlos Williams. It is one of several poems in this collection that show her connection with other poets and artists. Tributes to Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney, both of whom she greatly admires, are among them.
Responding to a different art form, a sculpture of a grieving mother with her dead son, at the Berlin Memorial to the victims of war (“Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà at the New Guardhouse, Berlin”):

A mother clasps the carcass of the son
Her arms, splayed legs, her whole body
clutches him

as if to suck him back inside,
undo his birth,
dis conceive him

The poet’s training and scientific observation of nature emerges in a number of poems. Her writing about daffodils (“Not a Metaphor”) is a far cry from Wordsworth’s:

I want to see each daffodil
as daffodil,
know the hollow snap of stem,
the tang of scent,
the sticky alkaloid oozing from the base
of long, tapering leaves,
the downward curve of stamens,
the placement of carpel

And how the dry papery membrane,
enclosing the bud,
splits along a rib
to allow the flower

This awareness of the natural world includes knowledge of its fragility, the decline of the bee population in Ireland liked to the Famine (“The Flight of the Bees”):

We watch them vanish
over the brow of the Earth, a dark buzzing cloud.
Afternoons no longer swollen by bees.

The choir of the famished sing in lamentation,
an orchestra moves down the famine road,
as if some strings are bowing out.

It is clear from the poems that Bernie Crawford has lived life to the full, and readers benefit enormously from this experience. It runs deep, it is all-encompassing, compassionate, angry, loving. We hear reflective tones that reach beyond the age of thirty – an older voice which is perhaps not heard often enough in contemporary mainstream poetry.

The poet writes about this with humour and acceptance, with an understanding that while older people might be observed by the young as possibly past it, they themselves live with a heightened awareness of the pleasures of life and the need to seize the day. In “Optimism in the Local Pharmacy”, we meet a woman, “her head of flaming silver, her lived-in face” whose energy and enthusiasm has an uplifting effect on waiting customers, as she vocally consults the young assistant about buying condoms:

she cut a swathe through
the internal dialogue at the pharmacy that morning,
showed us how to glide on ice sheets, warm snow,

deep dive with penguins,
befriend our smoking volcanoes.

In “Panic Buy in the Simon Shop” the need to seize the day, even at times of pandemic lockdown, is also central as the speaker sees a pair of exquisite shoes, likened to “scarlet tanagers” that exhilarate her:

A social-distanced head-scarfed woman
fitting on winter coats, smiles:
‘Buy them, wear them,
Even if you’re home alone,
In isolation.’

Walk tall, be daring, carpe diem, are the messages in these poems. And of course, there is thinking about death:

Buoyant, you push back the clouds
and blaze the sky with your sinking sun.

Even in a poem about the presence of death and its part in life there is a conviction that there is much beauty in life that we need to own. Bernie Crawford’s poetry heightens this awareness of, in Keats’s words, “A thing of beauty” that ties us to life.

Living Water is published by Chaffinch Press, 2021.

Shuggie Bain and working-class writing
Tuesday, 24 August 2021 09:44

Shuggie Bain and working-class writing

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell review Douglas Stuart's new novel

Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Booker prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, set in his home town of Glasgow in the 1980s. Like many working-class writers, Stuart found himself doubting the value of his story:

I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working-class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.

The bulk of the novel relates the experience of growing up at a time when Thatcherite policies devastated Scotland’s industries, with a stark rise in unemployment. The once thriving Scottish steel, car, shipbuilding, mining and engineering industries were destroyed, along with the communities that worked in them.

‘No. No more school. We need the money.’ ‘Aye. The state of the day’s world ye’ll be supporting any man ye do get.’ The women all had men at home. Men rotting into the settee for want of decent work.

Few women work either. They buy items they cannot afford from the Freemans catalogue and find themselves ever deeper in debt, with large families and the:

…..last holiday most of them had seen was a stay on the Stobhill maternity ward.

Nan applied the pressure like she had a thousand times and went about collecting money from all the women and marking it in their books. It would be an eternity to pay off a pair of children’s school trousers or a set of bathroom towels. Five pounds a month would take years to pay off when the interest was added on top. It felt like they were renting their lives. The catalogue opened to a new page, and the women started fighting over who wanted what.

The novel portrays this working-class experience through the eyes of Shuggie, growing up with an alcoholic mother, Agnes.

The reader is introduced to the working-class circle around Agnes. Her father had been a labourer:

These were hands that had loaded grain trucks for twenty years, hands that had laid pungent tarmacadam, hands that had killed Italians in North Africa. He was one of the few who returned – there were many sons from Glasgow, from Inverness and Edinburgh, who had sacrificed and would never be coming home.

Despite their common lot, the working people are shown to be divided along denominational lines – Catholic and Protestant, with the same prejudices as across the Irish Sea. Agnes’ first husband and father of her older children was a Catholic working man, whom she leaves for the sexier Eugene Bain, a Protestant hackney driver and father of Shuggie. This second husband moves the family out of his in-laws’ council flat and into an equally deprived mining community, before abandoning them. Part of the reason for this is Agnes’ drinking.

The reader gets the close-up view through young Shuggie’s eyes of his mother’s complete unravelling and the suffering it brings to her children. His older siblings initially help protect their mother but ultimately realise that they cannot save her. Her condition thwarts her children’s potential through Shuggie’s schooling and Leek’s artistic talent.

Despite an interlude of hope with the help of the AA, a job, and her children at school and happy, this does not last. Alcoholism and its effect on people and communities is explored in detail from the perspective of a loving and protective child, who observes all the secrecies, shame and suicidal self-hate that it brings. Agnes is not alone – either with this ravaging illness, nor in terms of support offered to her by people close to her. The addiction, it seems, is endemic in this community and an expression of its own destruction.

Douglas Stuart knows intimately what he writes about. His mother struggled with alcoholism and died when the author was sixteen. And while what we read is fiction, it is deeply informed by Stuart’s own childhood. He comes from “a long and proud tradition of slaters and joiners and tradespeople.” He takes pride in his class and says that despite an absence of books in his childhood and youth, “it didn’t make us any less caring, any less empathetic.” Stuart writes this into the book. There is a very strong sense of solidarity and community. By writing this story, he shows that this community is an important subject of literature and art.

James Kelman

In its 52-year history, Stuart is the second Scottish writer to be awarded the prize. The only other Scot to win it, James Kelman, also a working-class writer, programmatically writes in the idiom of his people. The novel that controversially won him the Booker Prize, was “How Late it Was, How Late”. This is a stream-of-consciousness narration of an unemployed alcoholic Glaswegian, in and out of jail, battered and blinded, disregarded by society, and yet somehow a resilient survivor.

For Stuart, Kelman’s Booker win was seminal. It showed him that the Glasgow vernacular had a rightful place in literature, that literature was not the preserve of the middle and upper classes, but must be owned by the working class as one way of telling its story. He says:

It changed everything in literature for me. Not only was it about working-class people, it was written in a broad Scots dialect. That’s how people around me talked, but you rarely see that in literature, rarely see it celebrated. It was an affirming moment for me.

While neither Kelman’s nor Stuart’s novels indicate characters and ways of combatting the outrageous economic and cultural deprivation of the Scottish working class, they nevertheless describe this class with insight and regard, indeed love, as a class that is entitled to their equal share in the nation’s wealth.

Shuggie Bain is published by Grove Press, New York, 2020

Walter Scott and the historical novel
Monday, 26 July 2021 12:45

Walter Scott and the historical novel

Published in Fiction

On his 250th anniversary, Jenny Farrell writes about Walter Scott and his historical novels, uncovering themes of class conflict, ethnic and nationalist struggles, and how the personal experiences of his characters link with broader historical upheavals

History is vanishing from school curricula, and historical awareness is being deliberately erased. Novels in historical setting portray characters as unhistorical, no different to 21st century people, transporting a sense that people never develop, that society cannot and will not change. Such misrepresentation of the historical process fuels the sense that the world cannot be understood and any effort to change it for the better of humankind is ultimately futile. The history of literature shows that another kind of historical novel is possible, one that shows history as upheaval and people themselves as historical.

Walter Scott and the Historical Novel

 Walter Scott was admired by his contemporaries Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac, and celebrated by Lukács as the founder of the historical novel. He was born in Edinburgh 250 years ago on 15 August 1771. Born into the upper middle class, his family preserved a sense of tradition from one of the great Scottish clans, including folk heritage. Like Robert Burns, Scott grew up with the songs and legends of Scotland. He collected them and reflected them in his own work. This cultural awareness was accompanied by a deep sense of national identity.

Scott read European literature of popular, patriotic spirit fluently and was familiar with the English realistic novel. He studied Scottish law and took a lively interest in the historical relations between Scotland and England. In 1797 he married Charlotte Carpenter of French royalist stock. Scott was a landowner and staunch Tory – yet his work goes beyond this.

Scott’s interest in Scottish border ballads led to his collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03), in which he endeavoured to restore orally corrupted versions to their original wording. This publication made Scott known to a wide audience. His epic poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), was followed by further lyrical romances. During these years Scott led a very active literary and social life. At the same time, he was deputy sheriff of Selkirkshire from 1799 and clerk of the court in Edinburgh from 1806, as well as part-owner of a printing press and later publishing house, which he saved from bankruptcy. Personal financial crises increasingly impacted on the course of his career and his writing became determined by the need to pay off debts. His estate in Abbotsford, furnished with many antiquarian objects, also consumed vast sums.

In 1813 Scott rediscovered the unfinished manuscript of a novel he had begun in 1805, which he rapidly finished in the early summer of 1814. This novel Waverley, about the Jacobite uprising of 1745, was enthusiastically received. Like all of Scott’s novels written before 1827, Waverley was published anonymously.

A born storyteller and master of dialogue in both Scots dialect and aristocratic etiquette, he was able to portray sensitively the whole range of Scottish society, from beggars and farm labourers to the bourgeoisie, the professions and the landowning aristocracy. Scott’s sensitivity to ordinary people was a new orientation. He convincingly portrayed outlandish highlanders as well as the political and religious conflicts that shook Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Scott’s masterpieces include Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and his most popular novel, Ivanhoe (1819).

Unfortunately, the haste with which he wrote his later books affected Scott’s health, as well as his writing. In 1827 his authorship of the Waverley novels became known. In 1831 his health deteriorated badly and he died on 21 September 1832.

Scott’s Times

Scott lived and wrote in an era of enormous upheaval – revolutions in France and North America, uprisings in Haiti and Ireland, the Napoleonic wars, the expansion of the British Empire and its domination of the seas, the slave trade, the uprooting of large sections of Britain’s peasantry through enclosure for the purpose of sheep farming, increasing capitalist “rationalisation” of the countryside, and large-scale highland clearances and evictions.


The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution consolidated the power of the bourgeoisie and the first political organisations of the working class emerged. Such density of dramatic events suddenly made the course of history, the progression from one society to another, directly tangible. History unfolded before everyone’s eyes and, it seemed, could be influenced. This is the shifting ground on which Scott’s historical novels are set.

In addition, literary production in Scotland and Ireland flourished. Here, on the colonial edges, questions of history and cultural identity, colonialism and anti-colonialism sharply crystallised. This begins in Ireland with Swift and his magnificent writings against British colonial power from the perspective of the Irish people as early as the 1720s. In Scott’s time, the Irish people speak in their idiom in Maria Edgeworth’s novels.

While England in the 18th century is preparing for the Industrial Revolution, politically it is already a post-revolutionary country, following the bourgeois English Revolution in the 1640s.

The emergence of the historical novel

As Georg Lukács argues convincingly in The Historical Novel, this genre emerges with Scott at this time. There had been novels with historical themes in the 17th and 18th centuries, but their characters and plots were taken from the time of the authors, who did not yet grasp their own epoch as historical. Scott’s novels introduce a new sense of history to the English realist novel tradition.

While Scott neither creates psychologically profound individuals nor reaches the level of the emerging bourgeois novel, he vividly embodies for the first time historical-social types. His main characters’ conflicts give artistic expression to social crises. The task of the protagonists is to find neutral ground on which the opponents can coexist. The main characters are usually tied to both camps. Pointing out a middle path is typical of Scott’s novels, and this is how his political conservatism is expressed.

For Scott, outstanding historical figures are representatives of a movement that encompasses large sections of the people. This passionate character unites various sides of this movement and embodies the aspirations of the people. Through Scott’s plot, readers understand how the crisis arose, how the division of the nation came about. It is against this background that the historical hero appears. The broad panorama of social struggles illuminates, as Lukács writes, how a particular time produces an heroic person, whose task it becomes to solve historically specific problems. These leaders, directly linked to the people, often overshadow the main characters. Historical authenticity is achieved through condensed dramatic events and the collision of opposites.

By interweaving personal fates of people with historical upheavals, Scott’s narrative is never abstract. Ruptures run between generations, between friends and affect them deeply in their personal lives. Scott’s great strength lies in the credible narration of human relationships in the context of their historical age.

Class struggles in feudal times – Ivanhoe

With Ivanhoe, Scott reaches far back into history. The novel is set around 1194, when the Norman Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, returns to England from his various adventures in the Crusades and from prisons in Austria and Germany. The Anglo-Saxon Ivanhoe, loyal knight in Richard’s army, also appears in England in disguise.

The central historical conflict of the novel is between the Anglo-Saxons of England and the Norman conquerors. The people are largely Anglo-Saxon, the feudal upper class are Norman. Parts of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, deprived of political and material power, still retain some aristocratic privileges and form the ideological and political centre of Anglo-Saxon national resistance to the Normans. Yet Scott shows how parts of the Anglo-Saxon nobility sink into apathy, while others await the opportunity to reach a compromise with the more moderate sections of the Norman nobility, which Richard the Lionheart represents.


When Ivanhoe, the title character and also a supporter of this compromise, disappears from the novel’s plot for some time and is overshadowed by secondary characters, this formal structure illuminates the historical-political reference to an absent compromise. The characters who overshadow Ivanhoe include his father, the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Cedric, unflinchingly insisting on anti-Norman positions, who even disinherits Ivanhoe because of his allegiance to Richard’s army, as well as his serfs, Gurth and Wamba.

Above all, however, this includes the leader of the armed resistance against Norman rule, the legendary Robin Hood. The true heroism with which the historical antagonisms are contested comes, with few exceptions, from “below”.

The folk figures are depicted with great vitality and nuance, while the antagonists tend to be stereotypes with little development. But neither does Ivanhoe change. Isaac the Jew is also stereotyped, although the same cannot be said of his daughter Rebecca, who captures the reader’s heart. Letters to Scott complained that Ivanhoe does not marry Rebecca at the end, but the comparatively pale Anglo-Saxon Rowenta. The author rejected such an ending as historically indefensible.

Scott proves himself here once again to be a defender of the middle road. The future belongs to Ivanhoe, knight in the service of the moderate Norman Richard the Lionheart and son of the anti-Norman Anglo-Saxon Cedric. His marriage to Rowenta points to this middle ground.

Scott, in depicting historical conflict in the lives of the people, shows the energies ignited in the people by such crises. Consciously or unconsciously, as Georg Lukács notes, the experience of the French Revolution is in the background.

The defeat of clan-based society – Rob Roy

Published in 1817, this novel is, along with Ivanhoe, among Scott’s most famous. Written in 1816, practically 100 years after the events it describes – the first Jacobite uprising of 1715 – the aim of the Jacobite uprisings was to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty and Scottish independence. At the same time, Scott sketches the Gaelic-speaking Highland Scots as still living in clans, especially in the character of Rob Roy MacGregor. In this character, Scott creates a genuine folk hero with a passionate humanity that lends heroic traits to this clan society. Rob Roy is nevertheless an individualised character, initially in disguise, a constant presence and also a benchmark of heroism in this novel. Not only is he a centre of passion in the novel, his language is deeply poetic. In this way the reader experiences the failure of the rising and the defeat of clan society as a tragic event.

rob roy

Typically for Scott, Rob Roy is not the novel’s main character. That is the narrator Frank Osbaldistone, son of a London merchant who refuses to join his father’s successful business and is sent to live with his uncle in Northumberland, on the border with Scotland. Instead of him, cousin Rashleigh enters the business. When the latter steals money and disappears with it to Scotland, Frank follows him and so meets MacGregor.

This English narrator takes the neutral place, the common ground – Osbaldistone’s family lives on the Scottish border. At the end of the plot he marries his Catholic cousin, Diana Vernon, who is closely associated with the Jacobins, thereby achieving the union between Presbyterians and Catholics envisaged by Scott. Vernon is a confident woman as is the indomitable Helen MacGregor. Both are highly intelligent people who are in complete command of their scenes.

It is also important that Scott writes his extensive dialogue scenes in Scots dialect. This establishes a bond between characters and Scottish readers. Before him Robert Burns had also written in the vernacular. To this day, this dialect establishes identification with ordinary Scots, as underlined by the two Scottish Man Booker prize winners (James Kelman and Douglas Stuart). Scott even ventures into Gaelic, translating these short expressions for the reader. Scott’s numerous annotations are culturally and historically enlightening.

Class and ethnic conflict – The Heart of Midlothian

The novel following Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, is set over 20 years later, in 1736/37. Midlothian is an historic county with Edinburgh as its capital; the Heart of Midlothian, however, is its prison. The novel opens with the Porteous riots. Porteous, Captain of the City Watch ordered his men to bloodily suppress a riot during a public execution in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh in April 1736. He was lynched by the angry crowd for killing innocent civilians.

As Arnold Kettle has noted, Scott unfolds a large social spectrum here, ranging from the urban underworld to the Queen. At the centre is Jeanie Deans, from a rural, puritan background who speaks in Lowland Scots. This young peasant woman is perhaps Scott’s greatest female character. Her unmarried sister Effie is accused of infanticide. Merely keeping a pregnancy secret was punishable by death under Scottish law at the time. Forced to conceal the birth to protect her father, Effie insists that she has not harmed the new-born.  Despite great empathy for her sister’s fate, Jeanie’s puritan conscience forbids her to commit perjury that could save her sister. This is simply historically true and not modernised. Effie is sentenced to death and the penniless Jeanie sets off for London to seek a pardon from the Queen.

the heart of midlothian 12

The trial is the central event, revealing clashing values and worlds, the conflict between David Dean’s old rural world and the world of the modern money centred city. Jeanie’s struggle to save her sister reveals her deep humanity and courage. It shows that in crisis situations a heroism can burst forth in ordinary people that is not visible in everyday life and of which people themselves are often not even aware. She proves what strength and heroism there is in the people when the situation calls for it, as it happens time and again in history. Scott brings history to life with such a portrayal of human resilience in a specific historical situation.

Scott’s hallmark is depicting personal experience as part of history. Readers encounter an outraged people in the Porteous Riots. Scott conveys the genuine conflict between the people and the guards, as well as the bitter hostility of the Scots towards the English state. The events clearly involve more than seduction and rescue.

The second half of the novel is less successful, as Scott depicts the world not from the peasants’ point of view, but from that of the romanticised landowner, precluding realism. Parallel to the central conflict between city and country runs that between Scotland and England. Scott’s Edinburgh is not a random setting, but a Scottish city in a concrete historical situation.

Scott’s characters are never outside their time. He reflects the complex relationship between personal and social forces in a person’s life. With his portrayal of historically specific circumstances and the vitality of his ordinary people, Scott prepares the ground for Dickens. Dickens, who came from the impoverished petty bourgeoisie, would a little later make the ordinary people of London the heroes and heroines of his novels.

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020
Friday, 09 July 2021 08:55

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews a new book on the fight to write by women writers in Ireland

And perhaps, before literature dies, there will come a day when no one notices an author’s gender or race but says only ‘I have just read an astonishing, unforgettable book by a fantastic human writer.’ I plan to live to see this.

So writes Mary Dorcey in the newly published Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne ed., Arlen House 2021). Does her statement contradict the book’s purpose? I think not. Rather, it reaches into a time beyond the experiences described here, into a future when such full equality of gender, race and class is achieved that they no longer spell marginalisation and exclusion from the cultural mainstream.

The twenty-one poets, fiction writers, playwrights in this book tell how they became the writers they are. They come from the whole island of Ireland, they author in both Irish and English, and they were born into a range of social backgrounds.

Most of the women were born in the 1950s and benefited from the abolition of secondary school fees. This dilution of class educational privilege was significant. The writers grew up in a society that oppressed women on many levels, intersecting with class background, resulting in a far-reaching and profound lack of self-belief.

“Nothing in my childhood suggested I might become a writer… I expected that one day I would grow up and become a shop assistant or hairdresser” writes Celia de Fréine. Educators ignored women writers, and society banned books by any progressive author, female or male.

The writers collected here describe their personal trajectories to becoming the authors they are today, how they learnt about women writers in the past and how they each individually broke into the world of literature, despite continuing societal prejudice. Catherine Dunne relates a 2015 experience where “novelist Catherine Nichols, disappointed at the silence from agents that greeted her latest manuscript, decided to send it out under a (male) pseudonym.” She received a very different response – similar to the experience of the Bröntes, over 150 years ago.  

This book is important. It sheds light on the history of Irish women writers, and the personal stories related in the book represent a much greater circle. It also highlights areas of continuing failures by the cultural establishment towards them. And it celebrates people like Jessie Lendennie and Eavan Boland who played a crucial role in encouraging women to take on the fight and write. It will be a long road before we reach the classless society anticipated by Mary Dorcey. Books like this are steps along the way.

The book will be launched online on July 15th at 7pm, see here.

Friday, 18 June 2021 10:11


Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Unlike a pentagon, an apeirogon has an infinite number of sides, or aspects. The title of Colum McCann’s 2020 novel gives the reader an indication of the innumerable facets that form this novel. And yet at its core is the single, undisputed fact that the state of Israel is guilty of sustained human rights abuses, against the people of Palestine.

McCann tells the true story of Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, and their daughters: Abir Aramin killed by a rubber bullet in 2007, aged 10 and Smadar Elhanan killed by suicide bombers in 1997, aged 13. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan met through the organization Combatants for Peace, who state:

Our ultimate goal is to end the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders; two states living side by side in peace and cooperation or any other just solution agreed upon in negotiations.

The novel’s structure is unusual, in some ways resembling the workings of a restless mind. It seems to ‘jump’ from one thought to the next, the new idea prompted by an aspect of the previous one. Some of these ‘tangents’ can be tenuous and fleeting, others form key aspects of the complex woven fabric that is this novel.

This narrative style allows McCann to create a network of connections that spans the globe in terms of places and also in history. Everything is somehow connected. Human rights abuses form a pattern which include the Middle East. Rubber bullets were first used by the British in Northern Ireland, killing children there. And the use of deadly explosives is explored in many contexts, including the U.S.’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The mind, when it has to take in an enormity, cannot constantly dwell on it. In order to take in a tragedy, the mind keeps returning to the fact, with breaks, circling it, slowly grasping it over an expanse of time. In the same way, the narrative never loses sight of the killings of Abir Aramin and Smadar Elhanan. Each time we return to them, new aspects are added, their stories and those of their families etched more and more clearly.

The novel is structured like the Arabian Nights, counting 500 sections ascending in order and 500 descending – with a section entitled 1001 in the middle. A great number of these fragmented sections are devoted to migratory birds, which seem to form part of the web that holds the global and yet local story together.

The personal is set in a larger political context. Neither strand of the novel loses sight of the other. To give a small example, McCann turns to his homeland Ireland, and to the conflicted north of the island in particular, to draw parallels. Here, the descendants of the Elizabethan settlers, the unionists, fly Israeli flags, while the community that might be forgiven to feel occupied by a colonizer, identifies with the Palestinians:

In the 1980s the greatest sale of Israeli flags — outside of Israel itself — was in Northern Ireland, where the Loyalists flew them in defiance of Irish Republicans who had adopted the Palestinian flag: whole housing estates shrouded in either blue and white, or black, red, white and green.

McCann has been accused of mystifying “the colonisation of Palestine as a ‘complicated conflict’ between two equal sides”. However, McCann never appeases the Israeli state, indeed one might easily suggest the opposite. Here is an example:

Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician whose job it was to produce lithium-6 in the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for divulging details of Israel’s weapons program. Vanunu smuggled a 35mm camera into Machon 2 and took fifty-nine photographs despite signing a secrecy agreement years earlier. He divulged the details first to a church group in Australia where he fled. Later, in London, where he went to publish the information, he was seduced in a honey-trap operation by a Mossad agent. He met the female agent again in Rome where he was overpowered, drugged, kidnapped, bound to a stretcher, driven by motorboat out to a spy ship, bundled into a cabin. He was interrogated by Mossad agents, whisked back to Israel to a secret prison run by the Shin Bet. Nearly twelve of his years in prison were spent in solitary confinement.


Cheryl Hanin Bentov—the honeypot who lured Vanunu to his capture—became a real estate agent in Alaqua, Florida, specializing in gated communities and waterfront properties.

Whose side the U.S. State is on in the Middle East conflict is apparent in several episodes, for example when Bassam Aramin insists on an inquiry into the death of his daughter (having had to pay for an autopsy himself) and the judge, who defied all efforts to prevent this, travels to the site of the attack and finds:

The court is of the opinion. We have come to the decision. We have weighed the varied testimonies. Abir Aramin was a resident of the Jerusalem municipality. We have decided. The responsibility of the State of Israel. It has been determined.

While There had been no criminal charges, no official admission of guilt”, it is nevertheless considered a “landmark” judgement.

Following this:

Several newspaper articles were published in Israel and the United States deploring the judge’s decision in the aftermath of the Aramin case. No civil proceedings should ever be allowed in such a military situation, they said. The criminal courts had already indicated that there was a lack of sufficient evidence. Why should the State have to shoulder the burden? It had been pointed out in court that it was possible that the child had been hit by a rock thrown by rioters and, even if she had been struck by a stray rubber bullet, an unlikely scenario, the Commander had testified that they were under relentless attack. The legal decision could, in the future, endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers forced to make crucial split-second decisions in the interests of security. If made to hesitate, they could endanger not only themselves but their fellow soldiers and indeed citizens. Furthermore, and most alarming, Bassam Aramin was a convicted terrorist. He had spent seven years in prison for a series of hand grenade attacks. He belonged to the Fatah faction, which he continued to support. One million shekels would, no doubt, go a long way towards another terrorist venture and who could know what he was planning now

And when Bassam Aramin visits US Senator John Kerry in his office, there is a recognition that…..

The American rifle. The American jeep. The American training. The American tear gas. The American dollar

…is central to Israeli state violence.

McCann does not paint a black-and-white picture. The parents of Smadar Elhanan do not side with their state. Her father, Rami, has developed this position over time, while her mother Nurit, openly supports Palestinians and frequently receives abuse and death threats.

Abir Aramin’s father, Bassam, was incarcerated aged 17 for seven years, for throwing stones. He comes from a tradition of struggle against the occupation. McCann never leaves any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. Near the end, McCann returns to his title-giving word once more:

From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.

McCann takes risks. One of these is selling the movie rights to Steven Spielberg, who has famously stated:

from my earliest youth, I have been an ardent defender of Israel [...] And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world. [...] If it became necessary, I would be prepared to die for the USA and for Israel.

One wonders how many sides will be left of McCann’s Apeirogon – five, or six? In the context of the recent escalation of violence  in the Middle East and Ireland’s condemnation of Israel’s de-facto annexation policy, Apeirogon by Colum McCann is worth reading more than ever.

Albrecht Dürer – Champion of the Peasants
Saturday, 15 May 2021 13:23

Albrecht Dürer – Champion of the Peasants

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell writes about Albrecht Dürer, who made art in supported of the democratic movements of his time

Albrecht Dürer was born 550 years ago, on 21 May 1471, during the Renaissance, a time of upheaval that rang in the early modern age. With improved production methods, industry and trade grew rapidly, bringing with it more money and the strengthening of a new middle class. Modern science developed, age-old truths were called into doubt, and working people began to challenge their appointed places in the social, political and religious hierarchies. It was a time, among other things, when many peasants protested, arose and demanded to be treated as equals.

The Reformation in Germany was an expression of these social changes in the early 16th century. The rising bourgeoisie in the countries north of the Alps, especially Germany, felt the need to break with the papacy. The opposition forces did not yet possess the economic and political power that would have enabled them to subjugate the papacy to their own interests, as in Italy. The Reformation movement began with Wyclif in England, continued with Hus in Bohemia and culminated in Germany. Popular social opposition became part of it. Social forces in religious guise fought the Hussite wars in Bohemia.

In Germany, a differentiation within the forces that had initiated the Reformation soon became apparent. When the upper middle-class patricians realised that the Reformation meant a complete break from Rome, and that there were elements within this movement that aspired beyond bourgeois class society, they returned to the bosom of the papacy.

As Engels describes in “The Peasant War in Germany”, Luther became afraid when he realised the socially explosive effect his challenge to Rome’s hierarchy had on the peasants, who understood this to legitimise aspirations to change their own lot. So his theological reforms did not question class divisions.

Thomas Müntzer became the leader of the popular opposition. He led the Peasant War, which challenged the old social order, while Luther along with the bourgeoisie turned against the revolutionary peasants, preventing the unification of all oppositional forces, thereby setting back major social change by centuries. The peasants and their urban plebeian allies were defeated and Müntzer was imprisoned and beheaded.

The influence of the working classes on German art of the Reformation period is frequently underestimated. It survives in numerous pamphlet woodcuts from the early 16th century, but above all in many prints by Dürer and his circle. Dürer's influence can be seen in the work of Grünewald, Riemenschneider, Jörg Ratgeb and many other artists, and infuses German art of the Reformation period with a haunting popular appeal.

Albrecht Dürer’s genius so dominated the art of the early bourgeois revolution in Germany that it has been called the Dürer epoch. He was born in Nuremberg as the son of a goldsmith, studied for three years in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, spent four journeyman years in Basel, Strasbourg and other places, and finally settled in Nuremberg. Twice he crossed the Alps to Italy, first in 1495, the second time in 1505/06, each time spending an extended period in Venice. A third journey took him to see the Netherlands in 1520/21, where he made many important acquaintances.


This remarkable portrait, created during the journey to the Netherlands, is based on an actual encounter and not Dürer's imagination. The drawing shows the artist's great interest in people who came to Europe because of growing international trade, which of course included the slave trade. The woman depicted here is Catherine, a 20-year-old servant of the Portuguese commercial agent João Brandão, who administered the Portuguese spice monopoly in Antwerp. Dürer was his guest when he travelled to Antwerp in 1521. It is likely that Brandão acquired this African woman through his trade connections. Her name suggests that she had converted to Christianity.

Dürer's obvious interest here is in the individual person. His deep humanism infuses her portrait with the same dignity he affords the peasants he depicts. Dürer was the first German artist to capture the peasants’ self-confidence that had been stirring since the late 15th century. He was the first to portray peasants as aesthetic subjects. Through Dürer, depictions of peasants appear in the revolutionary pamphlets of the time.


This wonderful copper engraving shows three armed peasants in serious conversation. They are clearly intelligent and dignified people. One of these rebellious peasants carries a rapier, another has a knife in his pocket and spurs on his shoes. The third figure reaches into his waistcoat, from which he might produce a leaflet.

Dürer also set an example during the Peasant War. When Luther turned against the peasants and became the princes’ vassal, Dürer took a stand against him. Luther advised that the princes slaughter the rebellious peasants. Dürer, on the other hand, professed his support for the rebellious peasant army with his Peasants’ Monument.

In 1525, in the third book of his “Unterweisung der Messung” (Instruction in Measurement), as a model for the proportioning of a monument, he included a woodcut that championed the cause of the peasants.


The column shows livestock, household and agricultural equipment from a peasant holding, now the booty of the conquerors. Instead of the victorious conqueror crowning the pillar, there is a peasant, pierced by a sword. We see him in the posture of Christ at rest, the slain peasant as the true follower of Christ. The Peasant War was just over, and siding with the revolutionary peasants was far from safe.

Many artists suffered persecution. Matthias Grünewald took part in seditious acts, had to flee from Aschaffenburg to Frankfurt, and died as a persecuted person in Halle. Jörg Ratgeb’s main work, the Herrenberg Altar painted in 1518/19, is inspired by a passionate and rebellious spirit. In it, he portrays the representatives of the church as fat, arrogant executioners. Ratgeb joined the peasants and became a military advisor. Following the defeat of the peasant army, he was publicly quartered in the marketplace of Pforzheim in 1526.

Tilman Riemenschneider was a leading sculptor of the late Gothic period. In 1525 he was 60 years old, a respected citizen of Würzburg and a member of the council, and was arrested, expelled from the council, and tortured. He ceased all artistic activity after this. In the last years of his life, Dürer turned away from art to more scientific preoccupations and died at the age of 57 on 6 April 1528. He remained close to the common people in his thoughts and actions. He sided with the democratic movement and fought for it with the weapons of his art.

The greatest artists of that time in Germany stood with the people.

In future we will turn the guns on you
Monday, 10 May 2021 14:55

In future we will turn the guns on you

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

As we mark the 150th anniversary of the French proletariat’s heroic first bid to set up La Commune in Paris, let us examine Brecht’s interpretation of this great event in his play “The Days of the Commune”.

The Commune broke out spontaneously on 18 March 1871. War with Germany, hardship, unemployment and anger against the upper classes, among other things, drove the population of Paris to revolution and placed power in the hands of the working class, and the petty bourgeoisie which had joined it.

However, only the French proletariat stood by their government; deserted by their allies, the Commune was doomed. The French bourgeoisie came together in a coalition supported by Bismarck. On 21 May the army stormed Paris and killed thousands. By 28 May 1871, the army had defeated the Commune.

In 1948/49 Brecht adapted a play, “The Defeat”, dealing with the same subject and authored by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg on his return from the Spanish Civil War. The political situation having significantly changed after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Brecht wanted to focus on the lessons from the defeat of the Paris Commune.

Brecht tells the story of the community around the seamstress Madame Cabet, who becomes involved in the revolution simply to survive. The people within the commune briefly experience a new form of social existence. The plot reveals both achievements and mistakes of the revolution. The people around Madame Cabet perish with the Commune. The new way of life is destroyed by the bourgeoisie’s use of merciless terror, which the Commune hesitated to use against its enemy.

Brecht’s play opens with the situation before the rising, on 22 January 1871. Bricklayer “Papa”, watchmaker Coco and the seminarian Francois realise that the bourgeoisie are profiting from rising prices, while the National Guardsmen are dying defending Paris from the Prussians. The social conflict requiring the proletariat to take over the state becomes obvious.

The plot shows the steps the Communards take to begin a new life. A cannon acquired from army stocks to defend the working-class districts becomes a symbol of the armed working class. Madame Cabet in Rue Pigalle takes charge of it. The community guard it against attempts to remove it from them.

After the election of the Commune, “Papa” and others are persuaded the people have triumphed. At its first meeting, the Commune proclaims the principles of its future work: replacing the standing army with the armed people, the separation of church from State, no night work in bakeries, all factories, which had been abandoned by their owners, to be handed over to workers, the salaries of civil servants not to exceed the average working wage. But the Commune lacks the resolution to march on Versailles or to occupy the Bank of France, the symbolic strongholds of power and capital. They do not fully understand the necessity of doing so. And so Versailles unleashes a civil war on the communards. In Rue Pigalle, the neighbourhood builds a barricade to defend their lives and the Commune.

Scenes involving the community of Rue Pigalle are at the heart of the plot. They show the old order replaced with new human relationships, yet stressing: “Never expect more of the Commune than you expect of yourselves.” Work and enjoyment are no longer divorced. The people as legislators see themselves as both working and enjoying life; they have adopted a new attitude to life – Bread and Roses too.

The communards, who have known nothing but violence and exploitation, wish for peace. They spare their enemy, because the new era seems incompatible with terror. Yet history necessitates unequivocal assumption of political power under penalty of defeat. The communards are faced with this contradiction, and Brecht shows how they grapple with it and how they are destroyed.

This play could hardly be more topical now than it was when the socialist world was forming in the aftermath of the second world war. It was immensely significant in 1970 Tanzania, where my father Jack Mitchell studied and performed the drama with his students, less than ten years after independence. And today, we witness the full and frequently military attack of the military industrial complex on the peaceful working people of the world. As Brecht said: “The womb is fertile yet from which that crept.”

Resolution of the Communards

Realising that the roar of cannon
Are the only words that speak to you
We must prove to you that we have learned our lesson
In future we will turn the guns on you. 

Excerpts are taken from the translation of Clive Barker and Arno Reinfrank “The Days of the Commune”, Methuen, London, 1978.

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