Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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


Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown
Saturday, 19 February 2022 11:11

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell pays tribute to Tomás Mac Síomóin and reviews From One Bright Island Flown - Irish Rebels, Exiles,and Martyrs in Latin America, Nuascéalta, 2022

Tomás Mac Síomóin has died on the eve of his 84th birthday. He was a significant Irish language writer, poet, publisher, scientist, and Marxist. A former editor of the Irish language and weekly newspaper Anois and later for the monthly magazine Comhar, he published four collections of poetry before embarking on prose fiction writing. His sardonic Cín Lae Seangáin [An Ant's Diary] (2005), won first prize in the 2005 Oireachtas short story competition.

Mac Síomóin was one of the finest Irish language novel writers of the late 20th/early 21st century. His novel An Tionscadal won the highest award for an Irish language piece of literature in 2007. In an effort to bring to the non-Irish speaking public the work of the outstanding poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, Mac Síomóin along with Douglas Sealy translated his work into English, published as Selected poems/Tacar dánta (1984). We have presented his work before in Culture Matters.

Among his outstanding achievements are the republication for the first time since their original edition outside Ireland and subsequent banning in Ireland of three of Liam O’Flaherty’s five novels placed on the index. Apart from this, Tomás Mac Síomóin wrote two studies on the cultural conquest of Ireland by Britain and more recently Anglo-American cultural domination, following in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, applying and developing their thinking in the Irish context.

Mac Síomóin wrote tirelessly, exposing neoliberal society and its profoundly inhuman nature in both fact anf fiction, often in a very satiricalway. His internationalism found expression, among other things, in his indefatigable translation work into and out of Irish, English, Catalan, Spanish. Among his outstanding translations into Irish are Juan Rulfo's classic Pedro Páramo and the selected poems of Marxist priest Ernesto Cardenal. He also translated The Communist Manifesto into Irish.

Being ostracised in Ireland for his outspoken anti-establishment views, Mac Síomóin made Spain his home in 1998. There follows a review of his last book, From One Bright Island Flown, published only last month.

Tomas 2

The defeat of the Gaelic Irish, supported by Spanish forces, at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, was the final blow in the English conquest of Ireland and  a watershed in Irish history. Following this, a great number of the aristocratic and military leaders of Gaelic Ireland fled the country as the only alternative to submitting to criminalisation by the coloniser. This brought with it the rapid decline of the Gaelic society and culture, eventually leading to the near destruction of the Irish language.

The majority of those who emigrated went to Catholic countries, above all France and Spain, although they also went to other European countries such as Austro-Hungary to serve in their armies and become military and administrative advisors. The great Lament (keen) for Art O’Leary/ Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire tells of the return of one such officer to Ireland, defying the British authorities and paying the ultimate price. 

Tomás Mac Síomóin, who was one of the foremost Irish language writers and activists, has now published a book on the “Wild Geese”, as these emigrants are known. However, this is a book with a particular focus on the men who went, via France and Spain, to Latin America and became Latino heroes in their own right.

Typically, they initially went to Spain to study, work or join distinct military units in the Spanish army,  commanded by their own officers. Some travelled on to Spanish colonial countries in South America, in roles such as administrators, business people, military men. Frequently, the men integrated, and settled in their new homelands, indeed becoming involved in the fight for independence in these countries. A number became so famous, that their names known to this day. These are the stories Tomás Mac Síomóin tells, in by what he describes as 'an incomplete compendium'. Nevertheless, it is an encouragement to future researchers to look further into the lives of those in the Irish-Latin American hall of fame.

Mac Síomóin introduces the reader to six of these colourful lives.

Liam Lamport was born in Wexford in 1615, later became Guillén Lampart in Mexico, and wound up intriguingly as the inspiration behind Zorro, the fox. He is the only non-Mexican represented in statue at Mexico City’s Ángel de la Independencia.

Alejandro O’Reilly, too, has left a mark in present day Latin America – a street in Havana, Cuba, is named after him. Born in Moylough, County Galway, in 1722, his family fled the notorious Penal Laws and took him to Spain as a child. A military man, he was sent to Cuba by the Spanish crown in 1763, and from there continued his service to the Spanish monarch in Puerto Rico and Louisiana and back to Cuba and then Spain. Many other Irishmen are memorialised alongside him in this chapter.

Camila O’Gorman, on the other hand, was born in Argentina and suffered the same Catholic prejudice against women and those who opposed Catholic values, as so many women have done in Ireland. Aged twenty and eight months pregnant by her lover, Father Uladislao Gutiérrez, she was hounded and betrayed, and suffered the death penalty for living outside the iron rule.

The next chapter explores the story of a group hero (as did some of the early ones), the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Their deeds for Mexican independence are commemorated on a plaque at the San Jacinto Plaza in the district of San ÁngelMexico City: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St. Patrick’s Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives to the Mexican cause in the United States’ unjust invasion of 1847”.

The chapter on Eduardo Bulfin acquaints the reader with the background to the largest Irish migrant population outside the English-speaking world in Argentina, which of course includes the family that brought forth Che Guevara. In this chapter, however, Mac Síomóin focuses on a family that returned to Ireland only to take part in the Easter Rising. Both children of the family were actively involved in the Irish struggle for freedom. Eduardo, a Republican activist and Catalina, secretary to the Irish revolutionary, Austin Stack. 

This small collection of outstanding Irish people with a Latin American connection concludes with the story of Rodolfo Walsh, another Argentine-Irishman, who saved the Cuban revolution. Rudolfo was a founder of Prensa Latina in Havana. He famously cracked the secret code which revealed the CIA’s intentions leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Consequently, Fidel Castro was able to defeat this assault on Cuban sovereignty.

Mac Síomóin points out that the book opens a window on a fascinating connection between Ireland and Latin America. Many more stories await their telling. Among them Daniel Florence O’Leary, aide-de-camp and chronicler of Simón Bolívar, the father of the Argentine navy, William Browne, and Bernardo O’Higgins, Liberator of Chile. Ireland’s loss of her Wild Geese was the Hispanic world’s gain.

Karen Dietrich’s beautiful illustrations complete the book’s purpose to reimagine the lives of those who took their sense of rebellion to the new continent.

The book is available here.

Class-based barriers to cultural production
Sunday, 13 February 2022 09:51

Class-based barriers to cultural production

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell's presentation to the recent conference in Dublin on working-class writing

In an unprecedented venture, Culture Matters published a trilogy of anthologies of contemporary Irish working people’s writings between 2019 and 2021: The Children of the Nation (Farrell, 2019), a collection of poetry, From the Plough to the Stars (Farrell, 2020), a volume of prose writing, both fiction and memoir, and Land of the Ever Young (Farrell, 2021), a fully illustrated book of writing for children. These anthologies were the first of their kind in Ireland, gathering in a grassroots, democratic way the writings of working people.

The editor in chief of the socialist online publication Culture Matters, Mike Quille, suggested this project. The website focuses in particular on promoting the voices of working people, who represent the second culture: not the mainstream affirmation of the ruling class, but the distinct voice of the disadvantaged who make up such a large proportion of the population.

In addition to living and working in Ireland, Mike Quille was aware of my background: I was born and educated in one of the socialist countries, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. This background meant that I was particularly conscious of the importance of working-class culture and its absolute validity in the cultural discourse, the importance of its development, and as a subject of academic research. In addition, I grew up in a household with a heightened awareness of the significance of working-class cultural expression. My father Jack Mitchell devoted his entire academic career researching Irish and Scottish working-class literature, and as a singer he took a great interest in folksong and political song. A family friend was Mary Ashraf, one of the outstanding scholars of working-class writing.


The GDR, like the other socialist countries, defined itself as a working-class state, one where the working-class had taken power, where this state distributed the wealth produced back into the living standards of the working people. This included aside low rent, free health care, education, very inexpensive basic foodstuffs and public transport, work place season tickets to theatres and concerts, in addition to state subsidized access to all fields of sports and culture.

In order to ensure working-class input into the arts, most workplaces had, among other things, creative writing circles, free of charge. They were usually tutored by established writers. From these workshops arose a number of successful authors. In addition, professional writers were encouraged to spend time in production, familiarising themselves with working-class people and life, to be able to write more authentically about this, set stories and novels in the factory sphere. Authors were financially supported by the state, which meant they could write fulltime - irrespective of other income.

The working class under socialism and under capitalism

In the socialist countries, there was no unemployment, and all people entering the workforce were trained in their jobs. Qualified workers in factories did not earn less than professionals. There was little difference in incomes, and living standards were similar across the population. Everybody received a comfortable living wage and through this and the many state subsidies, participated in the national wealth they produced. There was ‘positive discrimination’ favouring working-class children’s access to university and thereby giving the professions a sound awareness of working-class life. Working-class studies at universities was a very regular field of research in the socialist countries.  It is important to note, when defining the working class, that it is only under capitalism that the working class generally experience poverty and generally poor education.

Marx defined the working class under capitalism as those who own nothing but their labour force, which they sell to employers:

the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (Marx & Engels, 1848)

In return, the working class participate only marginally in the wealth they create. This is why in a capitalist society, the working class are generally poor. And of course it also includes the unemployed, and people who also receive very little for the work they do – some self-employed, small farmers, people on short or zero contracts: teachers, nurses and others in formerly well-paid jobs, and all people who are excluded from the possibility of earning a living wage. So in fact, the working class is increasing in size.

The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population. (Marx & Engels, 1848)

Lack of money brings with it reduced educational opportunities and access to participation in cultural life and so on. In capitalist society, the working class includes all strata of population who are experiencing precarious work and living conditions – these groups are a reserve army of workers who serve to keep down wages.

Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle. (Marx, 1867)

To return to contemporary Ireland, while all kinds of financial obstacles are put in place to exclude the working class from education, it does not mean that a university graduate is automatically precluded from identifying as working class. In addition, very many academics and graduates find themselves on short contracts, low hours, or indeed unemployed – in other words, they are largely excluded from the wealth of society. They too are experiencing the condition of the working class under capitalism.

While in capitalist society, being working class is most often associated with poverty and lack of education, not all working-class people are poor. Thanks to trade unions, there are companies that pay the average industrial wage and their workers receive a living share of the wealth they produce.

Representation of the working class in culture

If the cultural mainstream is an expression of the ruling ideas in a society, and therefore the ideas of the ruling class (Marx, 1845, publ. 1932), then the powers that control publishing and the media are not exempt from this. The control exercised by this class over cultural institutions is examined for example in the book Culture is Bad for You (O’Brien, Taylor  & Brook, 2020).

When working-class writers depict the realities of their lives, they are quite often silenced by these mainstream cultural powers. I experienced this when trying to promote the three anthologies mentioned at the start. Two literary festivals, Cúirt in Galway, and the Dublin Book festival, refused to include readings from the anthologies. Cúirt did not answer, despite repeated emails, and the Dublin Book festival, after months of very intermittent communication, finally wrote to say they didn’t have the space.

An example of a prize-winning working-class writer who has been a firm part of the anthologies and who has experienced such class prejudice, is Alan O’Brien. He submitted his radio play Snow Falls and So Do We (O’Brien, 2016) to RTE, based on the true event of Rachel Peavoy, who froze to death in a Ballymun flat in January 2010. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE about the broadcast of 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 the main character, 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.

This reflects a generalized denial, ignorance and rejection of the cultural expression of working-class experiences, values and culture across most areas of cultural production. Publishing is not exempt – its readership, critics, and reviewers and especially its workforce are biased towards middle-class experiences and lives. Not only are working-class people excluded financially from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also often actively 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.

Unlike the establishment, the Irish trade union movement has fully and most generously supported this project. Individual unions and trades councils supported the three publications financially, and three Irish trade unionist wrote the forewords. In two instances they were the Presidents of the ICTU, Brian Campfield and Gerry Murphy, the third foreword was written by Andy Snoddy who works for the international trade union movement.

Finding working-class writers was a challenge. Galway working-class poet Rita Ann Higgins was very helpful in identifying potential contributors and their networks. Furthermore, the call for submissions went out to many writers’ networks. Salmon Publishing was also most supportive.

Until recently, I taught modern Irish literature at GMIT and have, over the years, observed the difference between the effect highly wrought poetry by representatives of the literary canon have had on students as opposed to the poetry that calls a spade a spade – literally. The students respond far more enthusiastically if they think a poem has something to do with their lives. That the students found their own experiences reflected in these works was nothing short of a revelation to them. This is not to put either side down, devalue the texts of our Nobel Prize for Literature winners etc, nor is it to say that the writings of the working people are somehow simplistic. Yet, the latter find a more direct line, shall we say, to the people about whose life experience they are writing.

These anthologies are different to collections of political writing. All writing is written from a particular point of view, the author’s point of view. This can either consolidate or undermine the mainstream culture. The point of view in these anthologies of working people’s writing, is that things are not as they should be. Things as they are, are not in the best interest of the working population. Important themes are homelessness in all its forms, including emigration, the abandonment of women in the mother and baby homes, poverty, but also about fightback, internationalism and solidarity.

There are very many more themes of course, but all of them reflect what if feels like to be disadvantaged, a victim in a society that punishes the poor and rewards the rich. By writing about his experience, the authors are creating political writing with a small P. And of course, the fact that this trilogy of working people’s writing exists, that they give expression to the voice of a class, is a political statement.

Many contributors only took up writing because they felt no one like them was in the books they read. To make this common ground clear to the readers, every contributor was asked to supply a short biography outlining their connection with the working people. Many readers have commented very favourably on the inclusion of these biographies. It is a break with convention, where authors are asked to list their publications, prizes and successes, which can sometimes falsely alienate readers who wish to find themselves in a book, their biographies, their stories, their life experience.

Another important consideration was the inclusion of Irish language writing. Far too often, an artificial divide is put up between Irish and English – most commonly published in separate books, which obscures what authors have in common. We need to see the writings in both languages put side by side and highlighted for their common concerns. Ireland has a significant tradition in working-class writing in Irish. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, or the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Liam O’Flaherty, or Máirtín Ó Direáin, to name but a few.

It is imperative to incorporate this substantial body of writers in any research of working-class writing in Ireland.

Moreover, these anthologies needed to represent the whole island of Ireland. There are a significant number of contributors from the North of Ireland and here from both communities. The fact that there are contributors from both parts of Ireland also highlights common ground between the people living in the North and those living in the Republic. Working people’s lives are not so different.

All three anthologies have about an even number of female and male contributors.

Finally, I would like to mention the other anthology published in 2021 of working-class writing, The 32 (McVeigh, 2021). The collection is mainly memoir, or faction, and therefore an important companion volume to the Culture Matters anthologies, which are largely fictional writing, inspired by working-class experience. A new page has been turned for Irish working-class writing.

Let me conclude with the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht:

A worker reads and asks questions

 Who built seven-gated Thebes?
In the books you'll find the names of kings.
Was it the kings that lugged those hunks of rock?
And what of Babylon, so often demolished?
Who rebuilt it time and again? In which
Of golden Lima's houses lived its builders?On the day the Chinese Wall was finished where
Did the masons go in the evening? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who raised them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium of the songs
Palaces only, for its inhabitants? Even in fabulous Atlantis,
The very night the sea swallowed it,
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
All alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Didn't he have so much as a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet
Sank. Did no others shed tears?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year War.
Who else?

A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the bill?
So many accounts.
So many questions.

To find answers to these questions, we need working-class art.

 From Plough to Star cover   children of the nation resized  9781912710430 resized

Georg Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet
Saturday, 12 February 2022 16:54

Georg Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet

Published in Poetry

Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet, the son of Rhineland parents, was born in Detmold, where his father was church superintendent. In 1843, when I was in Manchester, Weerth came to Bradford as an agent for his German firm, and we spent many a pleasant Sunday together. In 1845, when Marx and I lived in Brussels, Weerth took over the continental agency for his firm and arranged things so that he, too, could make Brussels his headquarters. After the revolution of March 1848, we all met up in Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Weerth took on the feuilleton, and I don’t think any other paper ever had one as hard-hitting and funny.” – Engels in 1883, on his friend Georg Weerth.

In 1836 Weerth began a commercial apprenticeship and little later, he became acquainted with the industry and commerce of the Rhineland and its captains in his uncle’s company in Bonn. The very next year he went to work as a correspondent for a worsted and wool company in the industrial city of Bradford and made the acquaintance of Engels. Through this friendship and his own observation, Weerth got to know the English capitalist system, which was more advanced than German capitalism, as well as the class struggles of the organised proletariat.

With Engels, who was then working on The Condition of the Working Class in England, Weerth saw the poverty and hardship of the workers in the textile factories and identified with the class-conscious proletarians. Through Engels, Weerth became acquainted with the ideas of early socialism and leaders of the English labour movement, as well as Marx in 1845; he made contact with the revolutionary wing of the Chartist movement. All this profoundly politicised Weerth: not only was it necessary to understand the misery of the working class as the flip side of enormous technical progress, but also that this class was destined to overthrow capitalism. That same year, he moved to Brussels and worked here with Marx and Engels on the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung. In 1847 he became a member of the League of Communists.

As early as 1845, Weerth’s short story “The Flower Festival of the English Workers” does not depict worn-out industrial workers, but confident proletarians. For the first time in German literature, a new image of humanity emerges directly from the experience of the fighting proletariat: workers as class-conscious, fighting people with a developed aesthetic sense. The story ends:

But in the inn “Zur alten Hammelsschulter” (The Old Mutton Shoulder) they opened the windows, for the night was too delicious. The stars twinkled so cheerfully, as if they were rejoicing over the poor small people down there on earth, over the workers in Yorkshire who, despite all the tyranny celebrate such splendid poetic festivals.

 Yes, poetic festivals! For a flower festival of English workers (...) is of all the greater importance because it has sprung from the people without any outside cause. This is proof that workers, in addition to their political development, have preserved in their hearts a treasure of warm love for nature, a love which is the source of all poetry and which will one day enable them to propel a fresh literature, a new, mighty art into the world.

With historical-materialist understanding, Weerth figuratively captures the inherent power of the proletariat as an industrial, militant, as well as an aesthetic capacity, a power of the future.

Weerth’s songs and poems are among the best poetry of the Vormärz, the pre-revolutionary period in the German arts. Engels again:

Where Weerth was master, where he surpassed Heine (because he was healthier and more genuine) and where he is second only to Goethe in German, is in his expression of natural, robust sensuousness and physical lust.

In his poem “Industry” Weerth articulates the dual character of capitalist industry. On the one hand:

She sits upon the darkest throne,
And flogs to untold servitude,
Calamity’s cruel stamp she bears,
The poor she drives to temple cold!

At the same time, it is she who produces the weapons for liberation:

And they who forged the sword and chains,
Will use the sword to smash the chains!

Liberated, industry takes on a new character, and she herself appears as the precondition of her own liberation:

Transformed, the goddess dark appears –
Happy, and glad are all who’re near!
From labour’s anguish long unseen,
She rid the rock and made us free!

Ultimately, this struggle for liberation is the prerequisite for a free society in which freedom achieves the unleashed sensuousness of humanity:

And nature with enthralling kiss
Lures the living to greater bliss!

Like “The Flower Festival of the English Workers”, Werth’s poetry goes beyond the depiction of misery, showing the class-conscious working class, its humanity and strength. His poem “They sat on the benches” is about the reaction of English workers to the Silesian weavers’ uprising:

They sat along the benches,
They sat around their board,
The beer was poured in plenty
They drank with pleasure deep.
They knew no heavy sorrow,
They knew no ache nor woe
They knew not past nor future,
They only lived this day.

They sat below the alder -
Great was summer’s frill.
Wild and angry lads
From York and Lancashire
Their song was rough and throaty,
They sat until late night
They listened to the tale
“Of Silesian weavers fight.”
And when they knew it all, -
They almost were in tears.
The sturdy lads lept up
And urgent was their sense.
They clenched their fists in anger,
Their hats waved stormily;
Meadows and woods resounded:
“Good Luck, Silesia!”

In this vivid account, Weerth depicts confident proletarians enjoying the day sensuously, yet with an internationalist grasp of their common cause with the Silesian weavers. Both poems are written from the perspective of the struggling proletariat, conscious of their power and eventual victory; and the poems reinforce this class consciousness. (Note: The abpve poems are translated by myself).

Humorous Sketches from Contemporary Commercial Life

In 1846/47 Weerth embarked on a novel project – a contemporary account of German society. Based on three family histories and from the perspective of the workers’ movement, he planned to depict the advance of capitalism and the development of the working class into the antagonist of the bourgeoisie. Ultimately, Weerth did not succeed in this epic venture of artistically realising his Marxist insights.

However, one character in the novel, that of Mr Preiss (Price/ Prussian), survives in “Humorous Sketches from Contemporary Commercial Life”, Weerth’s most mature prose work. Preiss knows only one motto: to make money. Here all humanity ceases. His encounter with the March Revolution in Germany turns Preiss into a comic figure. He dreads the revolution, which threatens his commercial concerns. He adapts to the changing fortunes of the times, always in the interest of his financial interests, and ultimately reckons with a ministerial post. The sketch ends:

Upon the completely unfounded rumour that Mr Preiss was to become prime minister, raw proletarians threw in his windows that very evening.

Once again Werth conveys an historically optimistic perspective of the resistance of the proletariat, of the destruction of capitalist society. The revolution is not over yet. The ridicule of Preiss lampoons the moral weakness of rulers; by laughing at them, one is a little closer to one’s own liberation.

The Feature pages (feuilleton) of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung

In February 1848, Weerth went to Cologne and worked for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was edited by Marx. The feuilleton genre, growing increasingly popular in Germany at this time, became a tool for Weerth in the political struggle.

Weerth’s most famous contribution is “Life and Deeds of the Famous Knight Schnapphahnski”, published between August 1848 and January 1849, the first German serialised feuilleton novel. The political satire targets the Prussian squirearchy, the Junkers, and their counter-revolutionary machinations. Its model is Prince Lichnowski, whom Heine had already satirised in Atta Troll as Schnapphahnski. In 1848, Lichnowski represented the deeply reactionary interests of the Prussian Junkers as a member of the Frankfurt Assembly.

Engels comments:

The collected Schnapphahnski feuilletons were published in book form by Hoffmann and Campe in 1849, and they are still very amusing today. However, on September 18, 1848 Schnapphahnski-Lichnowski rode out with the Prussian General von Auerswald (also a member of the assembly) to spy on peasant detachments on their way to join the fighters on the Frankfurt barricades. Both he and Auerswald were, deservedly, put to death by the peasants as spies, and so the German Imperial Administration charged Weerth with libelling the dead Lichnowski. Weerth, who had left for England long ago, was sentenced to three months imprisonment, long after reaction had put an end to the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. He later actually served those three months, because his business required him to visit Germany from time to time.

After a brief interruption due to the libel proceedings against the paper, new episodes appeared from December 1848 onwards, stating that Schnapphahnski did not refer to a particular nobleman, but to Prussian Junkerism in general.

The Schnapphahnski  novel ends:

Yes, the great Cologne cathedral farce was over, in which all the high lords, with the most beautiful phrases in their mouths but resentment in their hearts, devised, amid the cheers of the foolish people, all the fine plans which were soon to bear such excellent fruit in the summary executions of Vienna, in the octroying of the Prussian and Austrian constitutions and in the ridicule of the Frankfurt Assembly.

 Yes, this feast of the most disgusting coquetry with the stupid sovereign Michel was over, and we would perhaps still be laughing about it if the bullet-torn corpses of the proletarians of Paris, Vienna and Berlin did not grin at us through the shimmering heap of these “people-friendly” princes, of these fine servants and of these duped representatives of the people, of Vienna and Berlin, if through this tangle of the most hypocritical assurances, the most shameless lies, the dying sighs of the trampled Poles, the cry for help of the tortured Hungarians and the cry for revenge of devastated Lombardy did not ring out to us, if the bloody head of a Robert Blum did not roll at our feet – but enough! the humour has dried up; the book is over.

This feuilleton novel continues the tradition of political literary journalism of Börne and Heine, which reaches its most significant highpoint with Weerth. Weerth marks the transition to socialist literature in Germany.

After the counter-revolution, Weerth resigned and began to work in commerce again. Engels comments:

In 1850/51, in the interest of another Bradford company, he travelled to Spain, then to the West Indies and across almost all of South America. After a brief visit to Europe, he returned to his beloved West Indies.

Weerth continued to correspond with Marx and Engels, but died of yellow fever in Havana 30 July 1856, aged only 34.

Engels once more:

In this he differed from most poets in that he was completely indifferent to his poems once written down. If he had sent a copy of it to Marx or me, he left the verses lying around and it was often difficult to get them printed anywhere. Only during the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” this was different. The following extract from a letter from Weerth to Marx, Hamburg, 28 April 1851, explains why:

“I have written all sorts of things lately, but have not finished anything, for I see no purpose, no aim at all in writing. When you write something about national economics, it makes sense. But me? To make poor jokes, bad jokes, in order to draw a stupid smile from the patriotic grimaces - truly, I can’t think of anything more pathetic! My literary activity perished most decisively along with the ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’. (...)

We never compromised ourselves. That is the main thing! Since Frederick the Great, no one has treated the German people so en canaille as the 'Neue Rheinische Zeitung'.

 I don’t want to claim this as my achievement; but I was a part of it ...”

Tuesday, 01 February 2022 17:58


Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell celebrates Joyce‘s Ulysses, on the centenary of its publication

On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, Sylvia Beach in Paris published his now most famous work, Ulysses, written in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, 1914-1921. That was on 2 February 1922. It had appeared in excerpts in the US magazine The Little Review between 1918 and 1920, but deemed obscene, it was banned in the English speaking world. The modernist novel immortalises in its nearly one thousand pages a single day in Joyce’s home town of Dublin – 16 June 1904, the day he met Nora Barnacle, then a chambermaid from Galway, working in Dublin. Bloomsday, named after the main hero Leopold Bloom, has been celebrated in Dublin and the world over ever since Ulysses was published.

Joyce was born in 1882, the eldest of ten children, into a lower middle-class family in Dublin, which rapidly became impoverished due to his alcoholic and financially inept father. A turbulent youth was followed by language studies and first literary attempts, as well as efforts to gain a foothold in Paris. After the death of his mother in 1903, the family fell apart and Joyce persuaded Nora to leave Ireland with him just a few months after they met.

Following their own odyssey, Joyce found employment teaching English mainly to naval officers in Pola, an Austro-Hungarian naval base, now Croatia. He gave up this post soon afterwards in favour of employment at the Berlitz language school in Trieste, in 1905. From Trieste (then in Austro-Hungary), where he was considered an enemy alien, he moved to Zurich as a British citizen in 1915. In 1920, the family moved to Paris, where they lived until 1940. After the invasion by the Wehrmacht, the Joyce family hoped to return to Zurich, but this was only possible in December 1940 after months of great effort. Joyce died just weeks later, on 11 January 1941.

At its most succinct, Ulysses is about how three characters, the advertising seller Leopold Bloom, the teacher Stephen Dedalus and the singer Molly Bloom, spend the day. Stephen Dedalus teaches in the morning and gets paid for it; in the afternoon he attends a discussion at the National Library; in the evening he gets drunk and goes to a brothel. Leopold Bloom prepares breakfast for his wife, goes to a funeral, worries about selling an advertisement, wanders around town and also ends up in a brothel. At night, Stephen and Leopold go to Bloom’s house together and have a drink. Then Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to bed. Molly, who had received her lover during the day, lies in bed thinking.

Joyce’s acquaintance with the Odyssey came via English translations based on the Latin version (Ulysses), hence this title. A thorough knowledge of Homer’s text is unnecessary to understand Joyce’s book. He alludes to the Homeric epic in the light of an archetype, a symbolic expression of human experience, and uses the contrast between an heroic past and an unheroic present ironically. The setting is dilapidated Dublin, Ulysses is not a king but an advertisement seller for a newspaper, and he returns home not to a loyal queen but to a woman he knows has cheated on him that day. Bloom is no Greek hero. He passively accepts Molly’s/Penelope’s infidelity. This puts both past and present into perspective. In addition to the Ulysses epic, other myths are invoked, that of the Wandering Jew (Bloom is a Hungarian Jew), the Eternal Feminine (Bloom is a man with many feminine qualities), as well as Jesus’s love of humanity (Joyce himself was an atheist).

Joyce’s image of Dublin paints a society in hopeless decay, exploited and ruined by the Catholic Church and the British Empire. There is a lack not only of heroism, but of productive work in general – there is hardly a worker in the book. Despite its setting in the colonial backyard of Britain, however, Joyce, writing in the years of WW1, creates the peaceful life 10 years before the outbreak of that war, in which three characters of the petty bourgeoisie simply go about their day. The plot remains rooted in the doings of the (partially impoverished) petty bourgeoisie.

One of the novel’s leitmotifs is Stephen’s refusal to pray at his mother’s deathbed, and it is related to his rejection of “The imperial British state (…) and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” He rejects both England and colonial Ireland. Casualties of the Boer War are seen in the streets, as is the representative of the English Crown, Viceroy Dudley.

Taking Chapter 10 as an illustration, the opening and closing scenes – with Father Conmee and the Viceroy – not only add to the richness of the Dublin scene, but also have symbolic significance: they represent the Church and the State, both of which Stephen refuses to obey. The chapter provides a cross-section of Dublin life between 3 and 4 pm.

Most of the episodes concern minor characters who appear in other episodes in the book. Father Conmee notices Mrs McGuiness’s stately smile, who has in her pawnshop a large part of the Dedalus household; Dilly Dedalus meets her brother at a bookstall; a one-legged sailor is blessed by Father Conmee and receives money from a corpulent lady in the street as well as from Molly Bloom, who tosses a penny out of the window as she prepares for her lover Blazes Boylan’s visit. In the final section, the Viceroy makes his only appearance.

Random, unnamed characters such as the men carrying sandwich-boards appear throughout the book. There are references to the past and the future – the flushed young man Father Conmee sees emerging from a gap in the hedge with his girl will reappear as the medical student Vincent in the hospital scene; Stephen notices a “sailorman, rustbearded” who will resurface late at night in the cabman’s shelter.

Seemingly unrelated phrases link this episode to others, at once evoking and reminding us that characters continue to exist in the background, even if they are not present at that moment. Thus, in the middle of Mulligan and Haines chatting over a snack and tea, there is a sentence about the one-legged sailor and the words “England expects...” There is more here than a mere reminder of the seemingly unrelated existence of the sailor hobbling down Nelson Street. It also points to the Viceroy. Thus, on the surface, a feeling of crowded Dublin life emerges in this chapter, and at the same time a sense that a reality exists independently of individual consciousness.

Joyce’s style is at pains to recreate the thought processes of the characters. Here Bloom leaves his house in the morning:

On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her. She turned over sleepily that time. He pulled the halldoor to after him very quietly, more, till the footleaf dropped gently over the threshold, a limp lid. Looked shut. All right till I come back anyhow.

There is an unusual multi-layered interweaving of first and third person narration, although the famous Molly soliloquy in the last chapter is different. By dispensing with punctuation altogether, Joyce attempts to reproduce an actual stream of consciousness. The thoughts are now no longer interrupted by a third person narrator, but move into each other. The long soliloquy ends:

O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around Him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

As well as ironizing the epic, the novel also contains humour, such as Bloom’s thoughts at the funeral:

Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps.

Anyone planning to tackle this work, which is, after all, Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite book, should read uninhibitedly and simply skip the passages that seem difficult on first reading.

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!


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.

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