Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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


Dramatising Revolution: Review of a trilogy of Sean O'Casey's plays
Saturday, 16 September 2023 14:46

Dramatising Revolution: Review of a trilogy of Sean O'Casey's plays

Published in Theatre

Seán O’Casey – the first proletarian dramatist writing in English – made his theme  the struggle for the emancipation of the Irish people, and by extension of all working people. In Ireland, O’Casey is (unfairly) best known for his first three plays, examining the Irish working class at key moments of Irish history. The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) is set during the War of Independence, Juno and the Paycock (1924) at the time of the Civil War, and The Plough and the Stars (1926) takes place in the months leading up to and during the Easter Rising.

To coincide with Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries, Galway’s acclaimed Druid Theatre company is staging these O’Casey plays this summer and autumn in Ireland and the US. The plays are being performed both individually and in an unusual single day theatre marathon.

When determining in which order to perform the plays in the Trilogy performances, Garry Hynes, artistic director, decided to show them in historical chronology, not in the order of writing. While the reasoning is understandable, the disadvantage is that the audience do not see the marked development of O’Casey’s thinking and artistic skill. A further, significant, drawback is starting off the day with the play that caused the greatest political outcry by the revolutionaries involved in the 1916 Rising, and still outrages people today who support the vision of the Easter Proclamation. This overshadows the reception of the other two plays.


Sophie Lenglinger as Nora, with Liam Heslin as Jack, in The Plough and the Stars. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

The Proclamations’s historic declaration of an independent democratic Republic receives a passing, dismissive mention by the ineffectual socialist in the play, the Young Covey. Otherwise, the cast is made up of Dublin tenement dwellers of various levels of insight and involvement in the events gripping Dublin. Those on the fringe of the revolutionary movement, it is suggested, are unprincipled with only their personal promotion and glory in mind. This is untrue to history and justifiably caused much uproar and serious criticism of O’Casey at the time.

The playwright’s political standpoint which informs the play stems from his disagreement with Connolly, specifically his strategy of a broad anti-imperialist alliance. While Connolly’s analysis was that national and social liberation were the condition of one another, O’Casey differed, seeing only one part, not the whole. 

As a result, the dramatist in all three plays presents us with an isolated, leaderless working class that was unable to rise to the challenge of the times. We meet working-class Dubliners living in tenements, in the most deprived of circumstances. Their class consciousness is not highly developed. The absence of leadership, organization and an embracing working-class philosophy is evident as they reach various levels of understanding, but little will to act against their dire circumstances. While in each of the plays, upheavals outside the slums impact on their lives, the movement at the heart of the struggles outside seems to have little connection with them and their needs and acts independently of them.


Caitríona Ennis as Minnie Powell, Marty Rea As Donal Davoren, and Rory Nolan as Seumas Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh.

In Shadow, the real gunman passes through this community unrecognized and indirectly causes the death of Minnie Powell. In Paycock, this movement claims the lives of two young men, one of whom had already withdrawn. In Plough, the movement is portrayed as a disembodied voice calling for blood sacrifice. No truly positive representatives of this movement appear on stage. While Jack Clitheroe (Plough) is a member of the Citizen Army, he is not depicted as a person who will move the class forward. One of the most class-conscious characters in the trilogy, Fluther Good, is not a member of the organized movement and represents a pragmatic and grounded perspective. While he supports the nationalist movement, he is critical of the leaders and of what O’Casey sees as the romanticized ideals of the Rebellion.

The slum dwellers are presented as people who thrive on illusions and myths about the heroic past. We find this in Minnie Powell (Shadow), or Boyle (Paycock) or those wishing to escape the greater world around them, such as Nora Clitheroe (Plough). On the other hand, it is among this very community that all the ingredients necessary for a conscious working class movement are found: despite their weaknesses, they are resourceful, creative and realist, such as Shields and Davoren (Shadow), Juno (Paycock) and Fluther Good (Plough), people who under the right circumstances could combine all that is necessary, appreciate the needs of the people and act in their interests.

Indeed, at the end of Paycock, Juno leaves together with Mary, to start a new life. So despite these illusions and weaknesses, the proletarian O’Casey presents the Irish working class as ultimately able to revolutionize reality. Any production of the trilogy must accentuate this potential. While Druid’s production allows the audience to see such potential in the characters in Shadow and Paycock, this is not the case in Plough, which fails to show the tragedy inherent in the play, linked to this unrecognized and unrealized potential, and all but reduces the tragedy to comedy, even at times farce. The notable exception here is Sophie Lenglinger’s portrayal of Nora Clitheroe. The farcical is particularly evident in the representation of Fluther Good (Aaron Monaghan), who in the Druid production is cast as a buffoon.


Hilda Fay as Juno Boyle and Zara Devlin as Mary Boyle in Juno and the Paycock. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

O’Casey sheds light on the lives of ordinary people during this revolutionary period in Irish history. He invites a critical examination of the impact of deprivation and ignorance on a revolutionary situation. The characters and their vivid, creative and powerful language express their potential for creating a better world for the working people. In their dramatic skill, they set the stage for O’Casey’s future work, which brilliantly critiques the Irish Free State and has the emancipation of the working class at its core, beginning with his superb anti-war play The Silver Tassie (1927).

Staging the tragedies today allows audiences to familiarize themselves with O’Casey’s views of this revolutionary epoch, and appreciate the dramatic and literary qualities of his work. Druid’s decision to depart from an all-white cast (Gabriel Adewusi and Sophie Lenglinger) helps to emphasize that issues of social inequality, political disillusionment, and the struggle for social justice continue to resonate with audiences worldwide.

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett
Monday, 14 August 2023 12:53

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett

Published in Fiction

The Dublin lockout of 1913 was one of the greatest industrial disputes in Irish history. The conflict between some 20,000 workers and 300 employers lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914. Its core demand was the right to organise.

Dublin’s tenements were among the most squalid in Europe. People lived crammed together, infant mortality was enormous, tuberculosis was rampant. Unskilled workers competed daily for poorly paid jobs and were at the mercy of employers.

James Larkin, Liverpool dockworker, was sent to Belfast in 1907 as a trade unionist with the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), where he organised a dock and transport workers’ strike. Considered militant and controversial by the union leadership, Larkin was transferred to Dublin, where he set about organising the unskilled labourers. This led to his suspension from the British NUDL in 1908, who feared an all-out industrial dispute with the powerful Dublin employers.

Larkin left the NUDL and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), which for the first time represented the unskilled as well as skilled workforce. Employers who suspected their workers of wanting to organise could blacklist them, thereby destroying any chance of future employment. The ITGWU spread to other cities in Ireland with growing success in industrial action, and between 1911 and 1913 its membership increased to 10,000.

Alongside Larkin, the Marxist James Connolly was instrumental in the rise of an organised labour movement in Ireland, focusing his attention also on socialist liberation from the British colonial yoke. In 1896, Connolly founded the Marxist-oriented Irish Socialist Republican Party and Ireland’s first regular socialist newspaper, The Workers Republic. In 1911, Connolly became organiser of the ITGWU in Belfast, and in 1912 he co-founded the Irish Labour Party with Larkin.

When the mass lockout in Dublin threatened, Larkin sent for Connolly, who was in Belfast at the time, to help him organise large meetings of the ITGWU. When the lockout began, Connolly led the dispute along with Larkin. As well as writing articles about the lockout for various workers’ newspapers, he addressed mass gatherings in Dublin. After both were arrested following one such event, Connolly was released following his hunger strike, and later led the strike during Larkin’s three week imprisonment. He also organised the support campaign for the Dublin workers in Britain.

Among their opponents was William Martin Murphy, big businessman and most prominent representative of the Irish bourgeoisie, who declared: “Either Larkin rules Dublin or we do”. Murphy understood the threat posed by the new trade unionism developed by Larkin and Connolly and did everything in his power to end their influence.

In August 1913, Murphy sacked hundreds of workers he suspected of ITGWU membership and gave the workers an ultimatum between union membership and their jobs. Members of 37 unions refused to sign the document. And so began the lockout in Dublin. All efforts by British unions to negotiate a settlement were sabotaged by the employers. A police raid on 31 August 1913 left two dead and hundreds injured. It was largely at Connolly’s instigation that the Irish Citizen Army was formed to protect the striking workers and continued to play an important role in 1916.

Connolly and Larkin appealed unsuccessfully in England for solidarity strikes by the British working class, as the only way to bring about a victory for the Irish workers. Without this support from the British workers, Dublin had to admit defeat after five months of heroic struggle. Most of the workers, many on the verge of starvation, returned to their jobs and pledged not to join the ITGWU. Larkin left for the US in 1914 and Connolly was executed in 1916 as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Many workers who were irrevocably blacklisted joined the British Army and became cannon fodder in the First World War.

The years from 1907 to 1914 are the subject of James Plunkett's book Strumpet City. The novel traces the life of the working class in Dublin at that time, and brings this historical moment vividly and impressively to life.

Strumpet City

Set in the period before Irish independence, the collective hero of the novel is the Irish working class as it enters a new phase of its class struggle. The bourgeoisie at that time was also directly dependent on Britain, before the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Both the bourgeoisie and the clergy, who are represented in a variety of characters, take different positions on this independence, although this was in their interest.

William Martin Murphy “owner of Independent Newspapers, a large drapery business and a hotel, controlling director of the Dublin Tramway Company and several other large-scale ventures, had refused a knighthood at the opening of the exhibition.” Regardless, they broadly agree that they are in a class struggle against the workers and are themselves profiting from their misery.

Following the outcome of the War of Independence, this class, now in power, would confront the working class in a civil war. When it came to defeating the working class, the national question was of secondary importance to the bourgeoisie.

One important representative of the bourgeoisie in this novel is Mr Bradshaw, who owns some of the tenements and treats tenants and employees mercilessly. The police and the clergy support him in this.

Although there are some elements within the bourgeoisie who understand the absolute misery of the working class, they do not openly side with the workers, or question property relations. These characters include, above all, alongside the Protestant company director Yearling, Mrs. Bradshaw, who, plagued by a guilty conscience, is unable to stand up to her husband. Her compassion for the poor is very limited. The clergy hand out alms, unless the poor are in revolt:

“The children are hungry,’ Yearling said.

‘They are hungry because they are on strike,’ Bradshaw insisted.

‘The children are not on strike,’ Yearling challenged.

‘Their fathers are,’ Bradshaw said.

Yearling in turn looked enquiringly at Father O’Connor.

‘What has religion to say to that?’ he asked. He was smiling and conversational in manner, but his eyes were cold. Father O’Connor became uncomfortable.

‘We must all have compassion for those who are hungry,’ he said at last, ‘but this is not by any means a simple matter. It is the duty of the parents to feed their children. If through misfortune they are unable to do so, then it is our obligation in charity to help them. But in the present instance their hunger is not due to misfortune. It is the result of a deliberate decision not to work. If we help them we are doing at least two things that are unjust; we are encouraging them to defy their employers and we are prolonging a most distressing situation.

Yearling and the Reverend Giffley, can only endure the conflict between their compassion for the workers’ misery and their social position through excessive alcohol consumption.

On the side of the working class are Bob and Mary Fitzpatrick, Bernard Mulhall, the Hennessys, the Farrells, and Rashers Tierney, who vividly and authentically embody a comprehensive panorama of different stages of consciousness, ages and circumstances. During the months of lockout, a new class solidarity develops among them. Their determined resistance against the employers brings them unimaginable destitution.

In the novel, the history and aftermath of the events are presented from the point of view of representatives of these different social classes. Although no individual ‘heroes’ dominate, the characters are treated in a differentiated and sensitive manner. Each individual character reveals their class affiliation in their individual circumstances and viewpoints. The majority of workers arrive at a class standpoint through the strike. Pat Bannister expresses a broader socialist point of view. James Connolly, however, is mentioned only once in the whole novel, in passing by Bannister:

‘The expropriators are to be expropriated. Did you ever listen to that Connolly chap?’

‘Who’s he?’

‘Come to think of it,’ Pat said, ‘I haven’t seen him around this past couple of years. He wanted votes for women. That’s something should interest you.’

‘What would I do with a vote?’ Lily asked.

‘Vote for the socialists. I’m a radical socialist. I believe we should hold everything in common, even our women.'

It is even suggested here, incorrectly, that Connolly was not in Ireland at the time of the lockout (“not seen in the last two years”). His Marxism is also reduced to the rather stereotypical notion that “we should hold everything in common, even our women”.

The lumpenproletariat includes Rashers Tierney, street musician and beggar, who occasionally finds work as an unskilled labourer. The Hennessys represent those who, concerned for their children, cannot withstand the pressure. But the majority of the the dispossessed demonstrate a humanity and solidarity diametrically opposed to the values of the bourgeoisie.

When the ITGWU accepts the offer of solidarity from English workers to send Dublin children to England for the duration of the strike, the conflict in the clergy between Giffley and O'Connor comes to a head. O'Connor wants to stop this action at all costs, while Giffley sides with the workers’ families, understanding fully the relief this would bring. In 1913, this very plan was indeed prevented by the Catholic Church on the pretext that Catholic children in Britain would be exposed to Protestant or atheist influences.

Plunkett creates crowd scenes in which readers experience the mood among the Dublin workers. An example of this is the scene in which the workers, led by Larkin, shut down Dublin Port in protest against the more than 160 strikebreakers brought in by a steamer from Liverpool:

A rowing boat was moving downriver, manned by four oarsmen. Standing in the centre and waving to the men on shore was Larkin. The boat drew level with the police cordon, passed it and went on towards the unloading docks. A detachment of police left the main body and moved down the quayside, keeping pace with it.


But Larkin’s intention came suddenly to Fitz. He gripped Mulhall’s arm tightly and shouted:

‘He won’t land. He’ll speak to them from the boat.’

A hush fell on the crowd and they heard, after what seemed an age, the distant but still recognisable tones. What he was saying was lost, but the effect soon became clear. The nearest crane arm completed its semicircle and remained still. So did the next. Then, at intervals that grew shorter as the word spread from gang to gang, crane after crane became immobilised. They watched in silence as the paralysis spread. Yard by yard and ship by ship, the port was closing down. The cordon of police opened to form a narrow laneway, and through this the first contingent of striking dockers filed to join “the demonstrators. Their arrival started a movement in the crowd which spread through it rapidly.


The cheering had grown wilder and the movement, reaching the rear, stopped for a moment and then began to surge forward. The front lines moved nearer to the police, hesitated, then surged forward once again. The police, deciding the moment of initiative, drew their batons and charged.

Here, the Dublin proletariat is depicted at a crucial moment, where their leader Larkin emerges. The power of the class is beautifully captured in the image of the stationary cranes and the boat bringing Larkin. Plunkett shows the masses in a moment of strength and confidence. This awareness and determination, despite all the setbacks, despite hunger and hardship, permeates the whole novel.

Readers get to know the Fitzpatrick family best of all. Bob was promoted to foreman through the influence of Mrs Bradschaw at his workplace. Yet, like Mary, he remains unwavering in his solidarity with the strikers. He says to Mary:

“You’ve never asked why I wouldn’t leave the union,’ he said.

She surprised him by saying: ‘It’s because of Bernard Mulhall. I didn’t have to ask.’

Her voice was gentle and sympathetic and he knew she was thinking not of the accident only but of what the Mulhalls were left to face.

‘Mulhall was a tower of strength,’ he said.

He would never betray Mulhall’s trust. But it was not altogether that. There were Pat and Joe and the men who worked with them. There were Farrell and the dockers and thousands of others throughout the city, some long resigned to perpetual squalor as to the Will of God, others rebelling with recurring desperation whenever there was a leader to lead them. Never before had they stood so solidly together. He said to Mary:

‘The men in the despatch department of the Tram Company were dismissed simply for belonging to Larkin’s union. There was no other reason. The tram men had to support them. Then this form was issued to everyone all over the city. The rest of us had to take our stand with the tram men.’

‘I thought you wouldn’t be asked to sign it?’ she said.

“I wasn’t,’ he admitted, ‘but I couldn’t stay in when the others were locked out. I couldn’t do that.’

‘I know you couldn’t,’ she said.

Because Plunkett is unequivocally on the side of the working class in this novel, it is surprising that the conscious trade unionists at the centre of the plot have no connection with the Marxist Connolly, his political as well as his trade union work. Connolly is almost entirely left out. And although Larkin and some of the working-class characters are clearly socialists, there is also no mention of the Irish Socialist Republican Party founded by Connolly. The focus is on unionised struggle without a theory that encompasses and goes beyond it. The only mention of Connolly by Pat Bannister betrays a passing acquaintance.

In this way, the novel obscures the fact that there were also political struggles for national independence and socialist liberation going on at that time. Thus, apart from the old housekeeper Miss Gilchrist, there are no other nationalist voices among the workers. Plunkett’s workers show no obvious interest in national self-determination. And so the lockout appears to be purely a trade union struggle at the expense of its role in the development of Irish revolutionary consciousness.

Also, while the founding of the Irish Citizen Army is mentioned, its further development and important role in the Easter Rising that followed only three years later is unclear. For Connolly and his comrades, however, it was plain that there could be no social liberation without national liberation and no national liberation without social liberation:

The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil.

Nevertheless, the book bears eloquent and inspiring witness to the strength of the Irish proletariat in one of their first great class struggles. It reveals to readers a class consciousness that still had to prove itself in the political liberation struggles that were then imminent, in the Easter Rising, in the War of Independence as well as in the Civil War, and which is still crucial today. Even in the present day, many Irish people, especially workers and trade unionists, count Strumpet City among the most important and best books in Irish literature.

To conclude, I’d like to present a poem by Francis Devine, taken from the anthology The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, Culture Matters, 2021.

The Steamship Hare

For Pádraig Yeates

by Francis Devine

Since first light
we were there,
cramped close against the Manchester
Shed at the South Wall,
a clawing dampness
enveloping the quays,
all eyes sifting the fog,
watching the bar for the first
sign of a heralded deliverance.

The cold slow bore –
worms in a stair skirting –
mother's thin shawleen
insufficient to lag the bones,
the fevered excitement of daybreak
waning, belief in Jim
challenged by rumour, begrudgery
and the citing of false gods.

Then at a quarter to one,
a Port & Docks Board man
high on a steam shovel, glass to eye,
spotted the streaming bunting,
the flutter of the National Transport
Workers' Federation flag,
the steamship Hare butting
into Liffey mouth, entering history,
bearing Larkin deep
inside our souls.

There was no disorder
but disciplined attendance,
a silent respect for Brothers
Seddon and Gosling –
important, bowler-hatted Englishmen
from the Trades Union Congress -
a patient vigil rewarded
by ticketed parcels containing
ten pounds of potatoes
and a further ten pounds of bread,
butter, sugar and tea, jam and fish –
all in boxes and bags with the letters
‘CWS’ printed boldly on the side.
Our mother shared out our ration
with other unfortunates in the building,
something that seemed
unquestionably natural.
There were biscuits for the childer
which we sat on a plate
and would not eat
lest we had nothing
left to admire.

Jim had delivered us from hunger,
now we had to press forward to seize
the Promised Land,
knowing that our army
could henceforth march
on heart and belly.
A half century on,
I saw an old, wizeny man
stood outside the GPO on May Day
with the other dribble-drabble few,
cheering Paddy Donegan and Seán Dunne,
a gold, Shilling
Co-operative Society medal
swinging on his grease-shine lapel.
When he told me he got this
for crewing the Hare,
I instantly saw his image
in those digital photographs
thousands unconsciously took
on that dank, drear day
in September Nineteen and Thirteen
as evidence that Hope
did once actually walk
amongst us.

The strength, courage and creativity of women: the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi
Sunday, 18 June 2023 08:45

The strength, courage and creativity of women: the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell writes about Artemisia Gentileschi (8 July 1593-1656)

One of the great weaknesses of bourgeois establishment art analysis is that the artist and their work are usually seen in isolation, like an accident that occurred for no apparent reason. As though Shakespeare or Beethoven could have created the same works in the third century BCE, for example. An understanding that a particular artist lived in a specific time in history, that needed just this voice, is absent in most cases. Such lack of historical understanding suggests that people live outside history, that they were always the same, and robs art of its revolutionary potential as well as its power to help us understand history as change.

It is for this reason that in presenting the outstanding 17th century realist artist Artemisia Gentileschi on her 430th birthday, it is useful to provide some background to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque period.

The bourgeoisie and religious emancipation

The emergence of the bourgeoisie between the 13th and 16th centuries from traders, merchants, and artisans, marked the beginning of the modern, capitalist era, starting in Italy. This new social class, seeking political power to underpin and expand its growing economic might, found expression in the Renaissance, which showcased its confidence and philosophic, artistic as well as scientific achievements.

With the advances in science and navigation, sails were set, new countries and continents discovered, their people colonised and enslaved. Gripped by a fever for gold and silver, and finding highly profitable luxury items such as tea, sugar, cocoa and tobacco, indigenous resources and populations were exploited and markets expanded. All these stolen goods helped create the wealth of the European bourgeoisie.

The rising bourgeoisie’s need to legitimise their political aspirations at all levels was reflected in the attack on the supremely hierarchical feudal Church, and its replacement with a more egalitarian Protestant structure that aimed to eliminate intermediaries. This new ideology aspired, in theory, to political power for all.

The Reformation, originating in Germany in 1517, represented religious emancipation from strict feudal hierarchies. The German peasantry took the Reformation to its ultimate secular conclusion and bravely undertook the great peasant war that Engels termed an early attempt at bourgeois revolution, ultimately defeated by the aristocracy in liaison with the Church and the emerging new monied class. The Diggers inherited this legacy when the time came for their participation in the English Revolution. 

The Reformation weakened Catholicism across Europe. With the exception of Britain, there were no successful bourgeois revolutions that abolished feudalism and consolidated the growing economic influence of the middle class at that time. Instead, feudal absolutism emerged, with the nobility retaining their position as the ruling class, albeit with increasing capitalist influences shaping the economy.

During the period from 1555 to 1648, the Counter-Reformation took place, characterised by Catholicism’s political and military actions to thwart the effects of the Reformation not only in central Europe. The Counter-Reformation resulted in the resurgence of Catholicism, significant shifts in political power in Europe, and the restoration of Austria, Bohemia, and Poland to Catholicism. Catholic powers such as Spain and Portugal played a dominant role in establishing colonies in the Americas, imposing Catholicism on the indigenous populations. The Jesuits played a prominent role in this movement. If the Renaissance was a turbulent time, the Counter-Reformation was even more tempestuous.

Visual art and social class

In Europe, the Baroque style of art developed in tandem with the Counter-Reformation. The arts of the Baroque era reflected the spirit of this period, aiming to glorify the absolute power and outward splendour of the ruling class. The elite deluded themselves into believing they possessed total power, although this had diminished. However, this era also witnessed an unprecedented differentiation of art across social classes: alongside the cultural expressions of the nobility, bourgeois-democratic and upper middle class art forms emerged.

Among the most famous patrons of the arts at the time were the Spanish Borgias of aristocratic stock and the Italian Medici whose wealth came from banking originally and who later merged with the aristocracy. The Baroque style represented the interests of the upper middle class aligned with the nobility, while realist artworks reflected democratic tendencies. Caravaggio was a giant among these and had a great influence not only on Italian art, but soon on art across Europe. To follow the Caravaggesque, realist style was deemed subversive and touched the nerve of the time.

Among these followers was Artemesia’s father Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), a highly regarded painter in his own right. He was acquainted with significant intellectual figures and scientists of his time, a time when scientific and artistic spheres were not mutually exclusive. He moved in circles which founded the Accademia den Lincei (founded 1603) with Galileo at its centre. This must be seen in the context of an ongoing witch-hunt against scientist such as Giordano Bruno, whose ideas contradicted the prevailing religious doctrines of the Catholic Church. These included Bruno’s understanding that the Earth orbited the sun, an observation shared by Galileo.

The Roman Inquisition found Bruno guilty of heresy, emphasizing its determination to suppress dissenting ideas and enforce its authority. Bruno refused to recant his beliefs and was burnt alive at the stake. The execution of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition in 1600 intensified the climate of caution and fear among scholars and scientists and had a significant impact on Galileo.

Despite this, Galileo continued his scientific observations and research, and developed his own evidence in support of the heliocentric model. He published his findings in 1610, challenging the prevailing geocentric model supported by the Catholic Church. In 1616, he was summoned by the Inquisition and ordered not to teach or defend heliocentrism. The publication of Galileo’s most famous work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” in 1632, presenting his arguments for heliocentrism, led to Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633. Found guilty of heresy, he was forced to recant his views and sentenced to house arrest until his death in 1642.

In art, the towering figure of Caravaggio had blazed the trail of realism. He painted from live models even for religious and history themed works, challenging authority on every level. His realism, transporting a scientific and democratic element into the art of the time, greatly influenced Gentileschi and other painters. As one of the proponents of the Caravaggesque style, Orazio was sought after in Genoa, Paris, and eventually London. Genoa (a republic since 1528) attracted many artists; it was a leading European banking and commercial centre.

Orazio left for Paris to work for Marie de’ Medici and his Caravaggesque realism was sought after by painters there. Two years later, he moved to London probably due to the marriage of Marie de’ Medici’s daughter to Charles I. During his twelve years in London (1626-39) in the wider circle of Charles I’s court, Orazio lost this realism and his paintings began to suit ideals of courtly beauty. His figures now had porcelain skins, wore rich draperies, and lacked psychological depth.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Of Orazio’s four children, the eldest was his only daughter, Artemisia (8 July 1593-1653). Their mother Prudenzia died in childbirth when Artemisia was twelve. Orazio trained all four children in his workshop, but Artemisia was the one about whom he wrote, she had “in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer; indeed she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained.”

Aged seventeen, Artemisia was raped by Tassi, a painter colleague of her father’s. At the trial, instigated by her father, some months later, Artemisia (a painter!) was tortured by means of a sibille (torture instrument made of metal and rope, that tightened round the base of her fingers) in order to establish whether she was telling the truth. The records of this trial document her experience in her own words. At that time, Artemisia ascertained that she could not write and barely read. Her experience is reflected in her work in many ways – in her strong and realistic female characters and the specifically feminine viewpoint that she brings to familiar topics on her canvases. And of course, she also knew the female nude anatomy better than her male colleagues. Artemisia too stood firmly in the realistic tradition of Caravaggio.

Immediately after the trial, Artemisia was married to the brother of the man who had provided legal aid to her father during the trial, and moved from Rome to Florence. Here, Artemisia spent eight years. She learned to read and write, and she was friendly with Galileo. She also became the first woman member of the official art establishment, the Accademia del Disegno. However, Florence was not open to Caravaggesque realism. Artemisia returned to Rome for six years, before moving on from there to Venice (1627) for at least two years and finally, following another sojourn in Rome, settling in Naples (1630), the second largest metropolis in Europe at the time.

Artemesia’s first masterpiece was Susanna and the Elders (1610, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany), was painted in Rome when she was only seventeen, and which preceded her rape.

AG Susanna and the Elders 1610 Artemisia Gentileschi

The story of Susanna, from the Book of Daniel, tells the story of the young wife Susanna in Babylon. While bathing in her garden, two prominent elders of the community secretly watched Susanna and conspired to blackmail her, threatening to accuse her of adultery unless she yielded to them. When Susanna refused, they claimed to have witnessed Susanna committing adultery, swearing this under oath. However, Daniel, known for his wisdom, exposed their conflicting testimonies. The people turned against the elders, who were then sentenced to death by stoning.

Artemisia’s Susanna and the Elders is a powerful, dramatic depiction of the biblical story. The painting presents the viewer with a close-up composition, focusing on the figure of Susanna. She is seated on a stone bench, vulnerable, all but nude. Her whiteness, her innocence, is emphasised and contrasts sharply with the fully clothed, leering men, who have crept up behind her. Susanna’s upper body is twisted away from them in shock, her fearful face turned as far away from them as possible. Her distress is accentuated by the desperate yearning of her hands to push the men away, as their hands perilously encroach upon her.

While Susanna is alone, the men form a treacherous unit, one man’s arm around the other, whispering, the second man holding his index finger vertically to his lips to seal the pact of silence. Artemisia uses chiaroscuro to deepen the dramatic effect of her narrative. Natural light shines on Susanna’s torso and the sheet, which are the men’s central interest. This colouring, along with the massive weight pushing down from the sinister predators, intensifies the emotional atmosphere and highlights Susanna’s isolation and vulnerability.

Another popular Biblical subject Artemisia turned to was that of Judith slaying Holofernes, a theme also tackled by Caravaggio and Orazio, two painters in Artemisia’s immediate circle. 

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The story of Judith slaying Holofernes is found in the Book of Judith and is set during the siege of Bethulia by the Assyrians, under the command of the general Holofernes. The wise widow Judith devises a plan to save her city. Dressed in her finest garments and accompanied by her maid, she goes to the camp of Holofernes under a false guise. Holofernes invites her to a banquet in his tent. When Holofernes becomes drunk and falls into a deep sleep, Judith decapitates Holofernes with his own sword. Judith and her maid flee from the camp, taking the severed head of Holofernes with them. When they return to Bethulia, the inhabitants are filled with renewed hope. The Assyrians retreat, and the Israelites are delivered from their enemies.

Artemisia painted Judith and her maidservant several time in her career, twice Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612/13 and ca. 1620, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Itlay). We will look at the second painting here, painted in Florence, as it has gained in realism compared to the first. However, the basic composition remains the same. While Caravaggio in his painting of the scene had already brought the maid into the room with Judith and made her complicit in the beheading (in the Bible, she waits outside the bedroom), Artemisia assigns both women an active role: the maid holds down the powerful man while Judith performs the actual killing. Both women are needed to accomplish this, one cannot do without the other.

Unlike Caravaggio’s depiction of a very elderly maid observing the action, Artemisia presents a young woman, whose full bodily weight and strength is required to pin down Holofernes. Again, compared to Caravaggio, Judith herself is also a more convincing executor, an incredible force emanates from her. The power, energy and sheer strength of these two women in action is almost peerless in the history of art. They have come to do a job, we witness them doing it, at the height of the action. Their fully extended arms push down on the general with great force.

Compared even to her own earlier painting of the same scene, Artemisia’s detail has become more realistic. True to the Bible, Judith is dressed in her finest clothes (she needed to impress Holofernes), down to the bracelet, which according so some experts depicts Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and chastity. A close look at the bracelet reveals a figure dressed in a hunting costume, with a bow and quiver of arrows.

The women are splattered with blood (a realism absent in Caravaggio’s interpretation and Artemisia’s first version of the scene), Holofernes’ blood spurts from his neck onto the bed and the women. Their faces capture the intensity of the moment. The composition, with the sword at its centre, creates a sense of immediacy and emphasizes Judith’s determination. The figures are dramatically illuminated, heightening the tension and drama of the scene and deepening its emotional impact.

The final picture I would like to look at is Artemisia’s self-portrait as The Allegory of Painting (La Pittura, 1638-1639, Royal Collection, England), painted in London while she stayed with her father for a few years, when she was in her mid-forties.

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The Allegory of Painting was a common subject particularly in Renaissance and Baroque art, with Painting personified as a woman. In her depiction, Artemisia follows the description by her contemporary Cesare Ripa in his book on art iconography. However, unlike her male colleagues, she could depict herself as the Allegory. And so this picture The Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) is both allegory and self-portrait. Unusually for a self-portrait, this artist does not look at the viewer. She is completely focused on her creative activity.

The artist is also shown from a most unusual perspective – one that required two angled mirrors to allow observation of this posture. The painter is positioned to the side of the canvas, with a diagonal running top left to bottom right of the picture along her painting right arm and her chest. This off-centred positioning creates a singularly dynamic and unconventional composition. The sleeve on the right arm is rolled up, she is wearing a brown apron over her dress – she is working. In her right hand she holds the brush that is about to touch the canvas.

Over a decade before, on New Year’s Eve of 1625, the French artist Pierre Dumonstier had drawn The Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush (British Museum, London, England) in Rome. It is interesting to compare them.

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In her left hand, the artist subject holds the rectangular palette, resting on a simple support. In keeping with the intense concentration on her work, the painting is bare of any detail. Artemisia is both the subject and the object of the picture. In so deliberately sparse a picture, every little detail counts. Here, gravity causes a pendant to hang away from the angled body, thereby attracting attention. The pendant represents a mask, as required in Ripa’s description of the Allegory. It signifies that what we are shown in art is only the image of something, not the actual thing. We see the image of Artemisia, not Artemisia. Rene Magritte in 1964 would say about his picture of an apple: This is Not an Apple. Ripa had stipulated in his description that it should read on the mask: “imitation”. Artemisia sees no need to say this; she believes in the viewers’ intelligence to work this one out for themselves.

The entire focus is on the person of Artemisia. In the background there is a vertical line, separating two brown tones. The lighter shade probably signifies the grounding of the canvas before the imminent application of other paints by the artist. As we witness the artist touching the canvas, we behold the moment of creation. Both canvas and wall are bare, suggesting that the painting is not finished, but in the process of creation. This is the allegory of painting at work. It is an amazing work of art.

As one of the great disciples of Caravaggio, although well-known, Artemisia received no public commissions while resident in Rome, Florence or Venice, as her realism must have been seen in conflict the Baroque ideals. Naples was more open to it, and it was here that she spent the last twenty years of her life and died, possibly during the plague of 1656. All but forgotten for centuries, her realist art was rediscovered and celebrated in the twentieth century.

As one of the great disciples of Caravaggio, although well-known, Artemisia received no public commissions while resident in Rome, Florence or Venice, as her realism was seen to conflict with Baroque ideals. Naples was more open to it, and it was here that she spent the last twenty years of her life and died, possibly during the plague of 1656. All but forgotten for centuries, her realist art was rediscovered and celebrated in the twentieth century. She transports the women of her time into ours like no other artist, and her convincing depiction of their strength, courage and creativity in the early days of the capitalist era, confirms her viewers' conviction that change can be wrought. 

Love, mutual trust and solidarity: Chingiz Aitmatov, the Kyrgyzstan national writer
Sunday, 28 May 2023 09:24

Love, mutual trust and solidarity: Chingiz Aitmatov, the Kyrgyzstan national writer

Published in Fiction

One of the lasting effects of the continuing cultural Cold War against all socialist thought and culture is the West’s denial of the art of socialist countries. This affects all genres in all the socialist countries. The work of these artists is rarely easily available to the general public, and it’s sidelined in university courses, dismissed highhandedly as “Soviet Era” and therefore by definition deplorable.

This article is about the amazing Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, who died fifteen years ago, on 10 June 2008. Aitmatov was very well-known throughout the socialist world and was the principal reason for my recent visit to his homeland, Kyrgyzstan. The Lonely Planet guidebook I had brought with me unsurprisingly made no mention of the country’s national writer.

Over eighty per cent of Aitmatov’s Central Asian homeland lies in the high Tian Shan mountains (Chinese for “Celestial Mountains.”). Kyrgystan’s landscape consists for the most part of mountain steppes, valleys at an altitude of 1500 to 2000 metres, populated into the 20th century by mountain nomads with an extraordinarily vital oral tradition. Until the establishment of Soviet power, the language had no alphabet and illiteracy prevailed. Consequently, the oral tradition epics of this people survived into recent times and remain significant for the historical consciousness of the nation. The written language was only introduced in the early 1920s, a few short years before Chingiz Aitmatov’s birth. The first great flowering of Kyrgyz literature began with this author. His work made his homeland, its people and its nature known and loved far beyond its borders.

Born in 1928 in the village of Sheker in Kyrgyzstan, Chingiz Aitmatov came into contact with the nomads of his homeland at an early age through his grandmother and so became acquainted with their myths and legends. In 1935, the family moved to Moscow, where his father was one of the first Kyrgyz communists to study as a party functionary at the CPSU’s social science cadre university, the Institute of Red Professors. Chingiz thus grew up bilingual. Both parents awakened in him an interest in and enjoyment of Russian and Kyrgyz literature and art. However, in 1937, his father became a victim of Stalin’s terror. He was arrested, executed by a firing squad in 1938 along with 137 other Kyrgyz intellectuals and buried in a mass grave in Chong-Tash village, 25 kilometres south of the capital Bishkek. Aitmatov, who named this graveyard Ata Beyit (Grave of Our Fathers), chose to be buried in this same location.

Following her husband’s arrest, Chingiz’s mother, a Tatar, returned with the children to their native village, where despite being the family of an alleged “traitor”, she was supported by the village community. After the war began, young Chingiz was given a position in the district administration in 1942 and, like other young people, had to leave school at the age of fourteen. He went back to school after the war, studied at the veterinary college and began to write. His veterinary training was followed by five years of study at the agricultural college and work as an animal breeder.

In 1956, he went to the Maxim Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow and attended a two-year course for young authors. His first stories appeared and in 1958 he wrote his world-famous novella Jamila for his graduation submission. Many more stories and novellas followed, written both in Kyrgyz and Russian.

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Kyrgyz epics and legends repeatedly play a major role in his work. In 1980, Aitmatov’s great novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years was published. Due to its at times controversial subject-matter and also the inclusion of tragic elements, Aitmatov’s work often came under criticism. However, his outstanding literary achievement was also honoured with several high awards.

Aside from writing fiction, Aitmatov was actively involved in politics and worked as editor-in-chief of the newspaper Literaturnaja Kirgizija (Literary Kyrgyzstan) and for Pravda as correspondent for Kazakhstan and Central Asia. At the end of 1989, he became one of Gorbachev’s advisors, in 1990 the USSR’s ambassador to Luxembourg and from 1995 the Kyrgyz Republic’s ambassador to the European Union. Further stories were published, as well as his memoirs “Childhood in Kyrgyzstan”, in 1998. In his last novel, When Mountains Fall (2006, not translated into English), Aitmatov again combines an old Kyrgyz legend with the reality of the post-socialist 21st century.

When Aitmatov was awarded the Aleksandr Men Prize in 1998, he declared:

Humanity has no more comprehensive and no more complicated task than that of bringing forth a culture of love for peace as a contrast to the cult of violence and war. There is no area of human existence - from politics to ethics, from primary school to high science, from art to religion - where the human spirit is not confronted with the universal idea of the renunciation of violence.

Chingiz Aitmatov died in Nuremberg on 10 June 2008 at the age of 79.

The solidarity of ordinary people

Aitmatov’s novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is set in the Kazakh steppe at an inhospitable eight dwelling railway junction not far from the Cosmodrome. The junction’s name, Boranly-Burannyi (snowstorm), refers to the rough life and weather that the small village community face, and confront together. However remote, it is spared neither national nor international upheavals. The inhabitants come to this wasteland for different reasons, and not everyone is cut out for the hardships of life there. The death of one of the two people who have spent their adult lives here, Kazangap, prompts his closest friend, Burannyi Yedigei (Snowstorm Yedigei), to honour ancient tradition and bury him in the ancestral graveyard. To do so, he saddles and decorates his legendary camel and sets off with Kazangap’s closest relatives and the digger Belarus.

The novel describes Yedigei’s memories and experiences on his way to the cemetery. It is the day that transcends Kazangap's life and reflects on the times. Thinking as a specifically human ability is reflected upon at all plot levels: “Yes, the Sarozek [the steppe] was vast, but the living thoughts of a person could contain even this.”

Aitmatov condenses the action by linking two storylines – one set in the immediate present as well as one set in the early 1950s – with various references to the life stories of the novel’s main characters. To this are added Kazakh myths as well as a USSR-US space cooperation programme that has a utopian dimension, but also takes place in the present of the novel. A fabric emerges in which the past and the future intertwine, in which the best and the most horrendous things that human beings are capable of emerges, as well as the possibility of intergalactic cooperation with a civilisation that is more advanced and peaceful than Earth’s inhabitants.

The theme of peaceful community, human strength and the solidarity of ordinary people runs through all plot levels, as does the potential to destroy other humans. The legends are about power and abuse of power, violence and resistance. The legend of the Mankurt is centred on the erasure of memory and the subduing of those who survive cruel torture. But it is also about a mother’s fight for her son. Parallels are drawn with Stalinism, which is depicted here in the fate of the family of Abutalip and Zaripa Kuttybayev, and in which Aitmatov undoubtedly creates a monument to his own father.

Nevertheless, manifestations of goodness are also found again and again. Aitmatov’s positive characters are characterised above all by their love for other people, for children, for animals and for nature. Violations of this elementary love are, as it were, offences against humanity. At the same time and closely connected to this is their sense of responsibility for the important work that defines their lives. People of different origins and fates have ended up at this remote railway junction in the middle of the steppe, people for whom work and life here offered a new beginning despite all the hardships. Here, they harness all their strength to ensure that the trains can travel from West to East and back. They celebrate the New Year together in this scene:

Yedigei honestly believed that he was surrounded by inseparably close friends. Why should he have believed otherwise?

For a moment, in the middle of a song, he felt he had to close his eyes. He saw in his minds eye the vast, snow-covered Sarozek and the people in his house, all come together like one family. But most of all he was glad for Abutalip and Zaripa. (...) Zaripa sang and played on the mandolin, quickly taking up the tunes of the songs, one after the other. Her voice was ringing and pure. Abutalip led with a deep-chested, muffled, drawn out voice. They sang together with spirit, especially the Tartar songs. These they sang in the almak-calmak style, one singer answering the other. As they sang, the other people joined in. They had already sung many old and new songs (...) Sitting opposite Zaripa and Abutalip, Yedigei looked at them the whole time and was moved. They would always have been like this, were it not for that bitter fate which gave them no peace of mind.

And further blows of fate await them, which Aitmatov deepens by weaving in three legends, each with special relevance to the main characters: the power of love and its tragic failure. This failure is repeatedly rooted in the power of inhuman opponents, the absence of solidarity and weakness of fellow human beings. Therein lies the tragedy.

The space travellers represent the two great powers, here cooperating in a unique joint project to explore a newly discovered planet with inestimable mineral deposits for the purpose of energy production. With the great self-sacrifice of Aitmatov’s heroes, they try to persuade their governments to be open to the new civilisation:

At present they still have several million years yet to live on their parent planet, and we found it remarkable that they have already been thinking about a time so far ahead in the future and are filled with the same fire and energy about it as if the problem affected the present generation. Surely the thought has arisen in many minds, ‘Will the grass not grow when we are gone?’ (...) But the remarkable thing is that they do not know of states as such; they know nothing of weapons; they do not even know what war is. We do not know; perhaps in the distant past they had wars and separate states and money and all the social factors of a similar character; but at the present time they have no conception of such institutions of force as the state and such forms of struggle as war. If we have to explain the fact of our continuous wars on earth, will it not seem inconceivable to them? Will it not also seem a barbaric way of solving problems?

Their life is organized on quite a different basis, not completely comprehensible to us, and quite unachieved by us in our stereotyped earth-bound way of thinking.They have achieved a level of collective planetary consciousness that categorically excludes war as a means of struggle, and in all probability theirs is the most advanced form of civilization among rational beings in the universe.

Understanding our common humanity

The perversion of mutual support and the dissolution of social cohesion in the interest of money thematically determine Aitmatov’s last novel When Mountains Fall. Cash nexus now rules where trust, mutual respect and help used to be. The snow leopard, a protected species, a symbol of the high mountain regions of Central Asia and revered there since time immemorial, is sacrificed to Mammon, even if this means the destruction of the region’s soul in the immediate future. The old values of a symbiosis between humankind and nature are sacrificed.

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Some previous collective farmers are now calculating businessmen, a former gifted soprano has become a pop star, the erstwhile veterinary surgeon has switched to dog breeding, exporting the wolf dogs that are in demand in Europe, mainly to Germany. The majority of the population is struggling to survive: a past teacher is now a horse herder, a librarian is a flying trader, the protagonist, the journalist Arsen, is self-employed and is threatened right at the beginning of the novel. Driven into a corner and, unlike the leopard, informed about a society now hostile to him, he seeks revenge. But when he is actually able to take revenge, his humanity wins out, even if it costs him his life.

Once again, Aitmatov interweaves an old legend – that of the Eternal Bride – with contemporary events. On the significance of this myth, Aitmatov said the following in an interview about his novel:

This is a great, tragic material. The forces of evil have destroyed the great love that was between two young people. Shortly before the wedding, guileful villagers kidnapped the bride to thwart their happiness. They told the groom that the girl had run away with a rival. In despair, he disappeared into the mountains. Afterwards, the people realised their mistake and regretted it. Too late. The fact that this myth is still alive today, that our people still believe that the Eternal Bride wanders around looking for her groom, that people light fires for her on certain nights, even prepare horses for her, shows how great this remorse and grief are.

In this novel, too, three plot levels are linked. Alongside the present-day level of human experience at a turning point in time, there is secondly the myth, and thirdly, the author writes from the perspective of the snow leopard itself. All three levels enrich each other. As Aitmatov frequently does in his writing, he describes this animal species sensitively and from its own point of view.

Aitmatov’s view of humanity is marked by tragic features. Nevertheless, it is not dystopian. With his work, he sharpens readers’ awareness of the strengths of humanity: love, mutual trust and solidarity. And he describes how these are mercilessly destroyed by inhuman enemies. By putting us in the shoes of the ordinary people of Central Asia, we understand even more deeply our common humanity, which we must defend and protect in common cause. It will not be easy.

Horror beneath the surface: a warning for our time
Monday, 01 May 2023 13:21

Horror beneath the surface: a warning for our time

Published in Visual Arts

How can memorials powerfully remind us of past horrors? How can they keep the atrocities of the past alive and relevant? Micha Ullmann's Berlin memorial (above, by day) fulfils those requirements. It commemorates the fascist blaze, when ninety years ago, on 10 May 1933, 20,000 works by a great number of German and international authors were devoured by the flames before an ecstatic crowd.

Ullmann's memorial is located on Berlin's Bebelplatz – underneath it, to be precise. It is not visible from the street by day –- but at night, an eternal light illuminates it (below, by night). The memorial is a seven-square-metre space, a good five metres high, plastered white, with empty white wooden shelves lining its sides. They could accommodate 20,000 books. Ullmann demonstrates loss – loss of knowledge, experience, art, pleasure. The emptiness reflects a cultural void.


The space can be viewed through a square pane, set into the paving of the square. During the day, the sun, clouds and people are all reflected in the pane and it takes a certain effort and concentration to perceive the empty shelves through it. This is part of the artistic concept. To approach history, to fully grasp it, takes effort. The pane becomes an intersection of the present and the past – the Now is reflected in this glass plate, which at the same time becomes a transparent grave slab, allowing access to the past. The viewer almost feels dizzy/faint, as the window appears fragile – could one fall into the past here?

Insight and resistance

This interface between history and the present also represents an interplay between the private sphere of a library and the public sphere of Berlin's historic centre, between inside and outside, between reality and the imagined, evoked by the memorial. Along with a grave, the empty library also evokes a protected space. Apart from the obvious loss, the imagination refills the shelves with the burnt books and keeps them in a safe place, like a bunker, in the exact place where the inconceivable happened. The eternal light functions both as the eternal light of remembrance and as a source of energy, where shock can turn into insight and resistance.

Micha Ullmann's family fled from Dorndorf in Thuringia to Palestine in 1933, where he was born in Tel Aviv in 1939. His basic idea for the Berlin memorial is grounded in a symbolism that is a leitmotif in the artist’s work. Another memorial based on the excavation of a pit is his first important work "Messer/Metzer" from 1972. Together with young Palestinians and Israelis, Ullmann symbolically exchanged soil between the Arab village of Messer and the Jewish kibbutz of Metzer, neighbouring villages whose names both mean the same thing in Arabic and Hebrew: Border. In both locations, pits of the same size were dug and filled with the soil of the other village. Here, too, there was hardly anything visible on the surface. Here, too, the viewers are challenged to to approach, see and understand what is being presented and referenced.

The Berlin memorial emphases the beginnings of fascism. The torching of books heralded the unimaginable. Very close to the memorial is a plaque, also set on the square’s plaster stones, with Heine’s prophetic words from his tragedy “Almansor”: “This was a prelude only, where you burn books, you will, in the end, burn people. (Heinrich Heine 1820)”.

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It should not be forgotten that it was the so-called intelligentsia that carried out the book burning – students and their professors, also librarians and the book trade. This act of book burning contributed significantly to preparing the intellectual ground for fascism. How quickly supposedly cultured and educated people lose their facade and reveal their true stripes! This phenomenon is very evident again today. The fascist concept of Gleichschaltung (enforced conformity) may well be underway, where thinking independent of the establishment is suppressed and made punishable by law.

As fascism grew, almost all German writers left their home country – a step not taken lightly by those whose art lies in their native language. Very few authors stayed. The vast majority continued writing in exile, and German literature during the Nazi regime is a literature of exile.

Erich Kästner was one of the few who remained in Germany, and Hans Fallada was another. Kästner was also the only author who witnessed his own books burning in Berlin, including his novel Fabian (1931, The Story of a Moralist, in English translation). Kästner's Fabian is not actively involved in the political struggle. Written before the Nazis seized power, the novel is set during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Although Fabian distances himself from the rising German fascists and sees himself as a friend of the communists, he counts on “decency” prevailing.

In his 1950 preface to a new edition of the novel, Kästner described his aim as pointing to the abyss towards which Germany was moving. The novel criticises above all the passivity of those who recognise the dangerous deterioration in society but do nothing about it. This theme is of the greatest relevance today.

Katja Oskamp
Thursday, 13 April 2023 10:03

Katja Oskamp: Marzahn Mon Amour

Published in Fiction

The shortlist for the annual International Dublin Literary Award for 2023 was published in late March. Among the six books on the list is a book by the East German writer Katja Oskamp, Marzahn, Mon Amour. The title stands out for East Berliners in particular, who immediately recognise Marzahn as the GDR’s once most ambitious and largest social housing programme, providing homes for over 270, 000 people.

The Dublin award is an unusually democratic, grassroots prize, as nominations for it are submitted by over 400 public libraries in 177 countries. A worldwide, changing panel of judges draws up a shortlist and selects the winning novel from this. Libraries anywhere can apply to take part in the nominations.

Participating libraries come from around the world, including Africa and Asia. They submit their nominations, based on their readers’ reception of books, to Dublin City Public Libraries. The award is designated for a book either written in English, or one that has been translated into English. In the latter case, one quarter of the 100,000 EUR prize money goes to the translator, the remaining 75, 000 to the author.

Valuing the ordinary, everyday lives and work of ordinary people

Marzahn, Mon Amour was nominated by Stadtbüchereien Düsseldorf, Germany. It is the kind of book that surprisingly made it past the establishment publishers who generally discourage voices from ordinary people about ordinary lives, and especially if they write about not so cool places. In addition, Oskamp’s book is about ordinary East Berliners, most of them pensioners, most of them ageing women. In all these respects, Oskamp’s book had the cards stacked against it. And yet, not only was it published, and nominated for the Dublin Literary Award by a West German library, it incredibly made it on to the shortlist.

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The book is firmly rooted in a GDR literary tradition – that of truly valuing the ordinary, everyday lives of people, inseparably linked to the world of work. Perhaps the most famous example in GDR literature is Maxi Wander’s Guten Morgen du Schöne (1977, Good Morning, Beautiful). It presents interviews with nineteen women aged between sixteen and ninety-two, talking about their lives. A similarly themed book of interviews with men by Christine Müller, nner-Protokolle (1985), was later followed by Christa Wolf’s diary-style publication Ein Tag im Jahr (2003, One Day a Year), where she records her own reflections on the same date every year, 27 September, 1960-2000.

The same interest in the everyday lives of ordinary people is reflected in the documentary by GDR filmmakers Winfried and Barbara Junge, whose epic series Die Kinder von Golzow (The Children of Golzow) began in 1961 and continued until 2007. It follows the lives of eighteen people born between 1953 and 1955. This grassroots emphasis was directly linked to the GDR’s state cultural policy of making the arts directly relevant to the vast majority of the working population, and to encourage them to participate in the arts.

The preservation of memory, as a fightback to the complete rewriting of history that took place after the annexation of the GDR by West Germany, became more important than ever. In contrast to some novels that bowed to the diktat of this New Order post 1990, the documentary style recording of ordinary people’s ordinary lives that has claimed its own space. A splendid example of this is Katrin Rohnstock’s interview-based book Mein letzter Arbeitstag: Abgewickelt nach 89/90. Ostdeutsche Lebensläufe (2014, My last day at work: wound up after 89/90. East German life stories).

Community, culture and work in the GDR

This book presents the memories of GDR working people and their lives. A younger generation is currently scrutinising the actual life experience in the GDR, into which they were born, where childhood memories dominate, but they are old enough to rely on the truth of their memories and at the same time to reflect on post-unification life. Among these authors are Andreas Ulrich, author of Die Kinder von der Fischerinsel (2021, The Kids from the Fischerinsel) and Grit Lemke Kinder von Hoy (2021, Kids of Hoy) are firmly grounded in this tradition. Lemke’s book captures beautifully the atmosphere of growing up in the new town of Hoyerswerda, built to house the workers in the lignite industry. It expresses their sense of community and deep understanding of culture and follows these young people’s lives as they free-fall into the New Germany.

Katja Oskamp’s novel Marzahn, mon Amour opens with the author reflecting on her own story:

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming.  You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.

I was forty-four years old when I reached the middle of the big lake. My life had grown stale: my offspring had flown the nest, my other half was ill and my writing, which had kept me busy until then, was more than a little iffy. I was carrying something bitter within me, completing the invisibility that befalls women over forty. I didn’t want to be seen, but nor did I want to see. I’d had it with people, the looks on their faces and their well-meant advice. I sank to the bottom.

This is a book about ageing, among other things, the search to give meaning to life at its every stage, and some new beginnings. Aged forty-four, the author-narrator retrains as a chiropodist. She finds a job in a friend’s salon in Marzahn. This book is about her customers and her colleagues. Due to the area’s demographics, and the chiropodist service, most (but not all) of her customers are elderly. Work is an important theme in the book, not only the narrator’s own working life, but also the past jobs of her clients:

I look after the feet of some former bricklayers, butchers, and nurses. There’s also a woman who worked in electronics, one who bred cattle and another who was a petrol pump attendant.

And so the reader encounters these people and their stories. Oskamp also tells of her non-hierarchical relationships at work, both with her colleague and the salon owner, and their day out together. The salon owner too shared the naive expectation of an East German that her earlier hard work in a supermarket chain would be valued:

When, haggard from work and two slipped discs later, Tiffy handed in her notice and asked for compensation, her naive request was turned down with derision. Maybe her conviction that life is a losing game stems from that time. (…) Tiffy’s new, even mightier, enemy is the tax office, demanding extortionate amounts every quarter. She hangs in there, grits her teeth and lives so frugally that it pains Flocke and me sometimes.

To some these stories may not seem very spectacular, others will recognise in them the reflection of the minutiae of everyday existence, including tragedy, the stuff of life. This becomes all the more authentic as she relates some conversations in the Berlin dialect. The use of the Berlin dialect is in itself a hallmark of East Berlin, where it is still more widespread and used more generally across different social strata. East Germans frequently observe that it is frowned upon to speak the way the ordinary people speak, the higher up the social ladder one ascends in the New Germany. And yet many persist – a small gesture of protest.

Oskamp writes with understanding and compassion, preserving and enacting the sense of solidarity and community that was a feature of GDR society. The characters in the book all support each other through life and through the difficulties of growing older and old. Their recognition of commonality supersedes any sense of superiority of status or money. Partly memoir and partly collective history, each person’s story, beginning with their feet, is individual and related with respect, frequently communicating the client’s sense of humour. Taken as a whole, the individual portraits depict a community of equals. Herein lies a specifically East German collective memory.

So perhaps it should not be so surprising at all that a German public library, catering as such libraries frequently do, for the not so well-to-do readers, has chosen Marzahn Mon Amour as their nomination for the International Dublin Literary Award. The prize for this, or one of the other five books on the shortlist, will be announced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Caroline Conroy, on Thursday 25th May, as part of the city’s International Literature Festival.

Note: the book has won the Dublin Literary Award, see here.

Wax statue of Sean O'Casey, Dublin Wax Museum Plus
Saturday, 01 April 2023 10:43

Sean O’Casey: The Shadow of a Gunman

Published in Theatre

Sean O’Casey’s play The Shadow of a Gunman premiered 100 years ago, on April 12, 1923, at Dublin’s national Irish theatre, the Abbey Theatre. The theatre, which grew out of the Irish Renaissance movement for the renewal of Irish literature in 1904, encouraged new Irish writers and provided a platform for the exploration of progressive ideas on stage. The Shadow of a Gunman is the first of O’Casey’s three Dublin plays, which examine the maturity and fortunes of the people at three important moments in Irish history – the Easter Rising (1916), the War of Independence (1918-21), and the Civil War (1922-23) – all of which O’Casey experienced.

O’Casey did not turn to playwriting until he was nearly 40 years old, around 1920. Prior to that, he had participated in national and class struggles for two decades as a champion of Irish-language culture, a militant trade unionist, and a socialist activist. Then, from the early twenties until his death in 1964, he devoted himself to writing drama.

He was the first English-speaking playwright of proletarian origin to enter the stage of the world theatre. His plays are about the struggle for the emancipation of the Irish people, and thus implicitly of all working people, from poverty, ignorance and exploitation, for the creation of a new, humane society.

Born in Dublin in 1880, O’Casey came under the influence of Jim Larkin, the legendary trade unionist, and with James Connolly, the driving force in this class struggle, even before the great lockout of 1913. From then on, O’Casey’s maturation as a class-conscious socialist and communist internationalist can be traced. At the same time, he remained true to the best traditions of Irish republican nationalism.

In the years leading up to the 1916 Rising, disagreements arose between O’Casey and Connolly, who had taken over leadership of the left wing of the movement from Larkin, over Connolly’s effort to ally militant workers with the patriotic bourgeois nationalists who had been their class enemies in the 1913 struggle. For this reason, O’Casey did not take part in the Easter Rising and no longer found a place in that organised movement. Increasingly, he became a commentator on contemporary developments from a revolutionary-proletarian perspective, while continuing to earn his living as a worker and educated himself as an autodidact.

Between 1920 and 1922, he decided to turn to drama as a way for revolutionary action. At this point he saw his growing fears for the fate of the Irish Revolution tragically confirmed. Ireland had been one of the storm centres of the revolution in the decade from 1911 to 1921. But that revolution was betrayed and the people defeated for the time being. The situation needed to be analysed.

1913 was the decisive experience in which the Irish workers became conscious of themselves as a class, something O’Casey had understood. But by 1922, the Irish bourgeoisie had betrayed the people and, along with the British government, established the Irish Free State – a fatal development that led to a tragic and bloody civil war.

In his Dublin plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Peacock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), O’Casey sets out to show the Irish working class with all its weaknesses, illusions, and self-deceptions what he believed had contributed to this defeat. It is a critique set against the backdrop of the victorious Russian Revolution, which also allows him to create a tension between the actual and the possible. There emerges a deep conviction of the people’s ability to revolutionise reality.

The Shadow of a Gunman

The play is set in the midst of the War of Independence, in May 1920, in Seumas Shields’ room in a Dublin tenement. Thirty-year-old Donal Davoren, writer of romantic verse, shares a room in this Dublin slum with Seumas, a 35-year-old pedlar and onetime patriot who has now retreated into religion, superstition and bed. The slum dwellers are convinced Davoren is an armed IRA man on the run and assure him of their support. Flattered, he does not contradict them, especially when the ardent young patriot Minnie Powell falls in love with him.

The slum dwellers further include Mr. Grigson, an alcoholic loyalist (to England) who is adored by his wife Mrs. Grigson; Mrs. Henderson, admirer of the small clerk Mr. Gallogher and his imagined literary skills; and, in addition to Minnie Powell, Tommy Owens, who repeatedly declares he is willing to die for Ireland. They all crave some glamour from the supposed gunman Davoren.

A friend of Seumas, Maguire, arrives and leaves a bag apparently containing pedlar’s goods. When news arrives that Maguire has been killed in a robbery, it becomes clear that he was a genuine IRA gunman. British troops storm the tenement. Seumas and Davoren discover to their horror that the bag contains bombs. The men are now desperate to get rid of the bag, and Minnie bravely hides it in her room without the men stopping her. The soldiers terrorise the tenants and discover the bombs. Minnie is arrested and accidentally shot when the IRA ambushes the British while they are taking Minnie away. The women, especially Mrs. Henderson, stand up to the invaders while the men grovel before them. After the disaster, Davoren mocks his own and Seumas’s spinelessness. Seumas insisted that the ominous tapping he had heard on the wall previously was an ill omen.

O’Casey portrays life in the Dublin slums as characterised by poverty and lack of prospects, war, terror, and violent death. Their inhabitants do not seem to offer much resistance. The actual freedom fighter Maguire passes unrecognised through their midst, touching them only briefly, in contrast to the mechanisms of oppression that are massively present, especially the British army.

O’Casey, in contrast to the romantic image of a united, heroic people, draws disunity, escapism, disillusionment on the one hand, and illusions on the other, lack of leadership, and the inability to realistically confront one’s own situation. How is this expressed artistically?

One scene at the beginning of the play involves a written complaint by Mr. Gallogher to the IRA about some neighbours, people of his own class, in which he asks that the IRA intervene against them with force. Mr. Gallogher’s rebellion takes the form of an awkwardly worded letter in which he cannot even clearly articulate his request. Nevertheless, he earns the admiration of other neighbours. This fascination with the supposed power of the word, of form, of ritual, of hocus-pocus, is reinforced by a lack of real education and religion. Minnie also believes in the power of the word, that her love for Davoren is magically secured by typing both their names together on a piece of paper. The patriotic songs that echo throughout the play and substitute for action also fall into this category.

But the characters in this play resist realistic engagement with the reality of their situation in other ways, too. For example, Mrs. Grigson submits to the biblical dogma, “The woman shall be subject to her husband”, even though Mr. Grigson spends a lot of time at the pub and she perceives him more realistically in his absence.

Minnie Powell also defies her own common sense: she falls in love with the romantic myth of the freedom fighter and his devoted lover, who is willing to sacrifice her life for him – an image she has absorbed from an early age in songs and stories. She, too, does not realise that Maguire is the real gunman. She herself creates the shadow of a gunman that destroys her: her heroism becomes an empty heroism, as she too becomes the shadow of a heroine. Minnie’s subservience to Davoren finds its parallel in Mrs. Grigson. Courage and devotion, which ought to serve people in their liberation, here turn into the opposite and contribute to their destruction.

O’Casey creates multiple parallels in this play, which on the one hand serve to generalise the action, but also contribute to a comic-grotesque aspect to the tragedy. This helps create a distance from the action and the characters, which allows the audience to see more clearly what the playwright is saying, ultimately helping them in confronting these weaknesses.

The belief in the power of the word, of the sign, is put to the test in the second act and proves useless. Neither the holy statues and images in Seumas’ room nor their ‘loyalist’ counterparts protect the tenants from the arbitrariness of the British soldiers, who throw the Bible on the floor and force Grigson to pray and sing for their amusement – now the Word is controlled by the enemy. Even Davoren’s name on Minnie’s chest does not protect her from the fatal bullet.

Donal Davoren and Seumas Shields are people of intellectual and cultural ambition and insight who could be leaders in the eyes of the community from which they came – they share certain qualities with the people. Seumas Shields was once an active and cultured, well-read patriot who “taught Irish six nights a week.” He asks Davoren to clarify a question about Orpheus, but the latter does not know the answer. He also knows Shakespeare and is capable of deep insight:

Davoren: I remember the time when you yourself believed in nothing but the gun.

Seumas: Ay, when there wasn’t a gun in the country; Ive a different opinion now when theres nothinbut guns in the country. . . . Anyou daren't open your mouth, for Kathleen ni Houlihan is very different now to the woman who used to play the harp an' sing 'Weep on, weep on, your hour is past, for shes a ragindivil now, an' if you only look crooked at her youre sure o fa punch in theye. But this is the way I look at it- I look at it this way: You're not goin' -you're not goin' to beat the British Empire- the British Empire, by shootinan occasional Tommy at the corner of an occasional street. Besides, when the Tommies have the wind up- when the Tommies have the wind up they let bang at everything they see- they dont give a Gods curse who they plug.

Its the civilians that suffer; when theres an ambush they dont know where to run. Shot in the back to save the British Empire, an' shot in the breast to save the soul of Ireland. Im a Nationalist meself, right enough- a Nationalist right enough, but all the same - I'm a Nationalist right enough; I believe in the freedom of Ireland, anthat England has no right to be here, but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowinabout* dyinfor the people, when it's the people that are dyinfor the gunmen! With all due respect to the gunmen, I dont want them to die for me.

Yet there is a contradiction between insight and action. Seumas’ insights degenerate into unproductive rituals that replace action. Seumas has withdrawn from life and responsibility, he has no real loyalties or relationships with others. His education has dwindled to pedantic knowledge.

Religion is no help either – British soldiers mock him and his holy statues. He also fails to recognise Maguire’s true character, although there are signs of his membership in the IRA – Seumas can no longer match form with content. Had he recognised Maguire as a gunman, Minnie’s death might have been avoided. Seumas, too, is a shadow of what he might have been.

The national liberation movement fails to reach the broad masses of the people: Maguire moves through them fleetingly and unrecognised. The separation of the liberation movement from the mass of the people, its tendency to put all its faith into the ritual of the gun, is evident in Seumas’s statement about the all-powerful gun:

I wish to God it was all over. The country is gone mad. Instead of counting their beads now they’re countin’ bullets; their Hail Marys and Paternosters are burstin’ bombs- burstin’ bombs, an’ the rattle of machine-guns; petrol is their holy water; their Mass is a burnin’ buildin’; their De Profundis is ‘The Soldiers' Song’, an' their creed is, I believe in the gun almighty, maker of heaven an’ earth- an’ it’s all for ‘the glory o' God an’ the honour o’ Ireland’.

Davoren initially appears as the antithesis of his roommate – an aspiring poet, free of religion and superstition. And yet there are parallels. For example, both are capable of important insights, and both flee from the consequence – action consistent with those insights. Davoren recognises Mini’s willingness to act. Unlike the others, he is able to see beyond the surface. He has the will and the ability to free others from their ignorance.

But Davoren does not live up to his responsibility. He flees from life and never leaves his room, even when Minnie is arrested. He uses the poetry of the revolutionary Shelley mainly to take refuge in self-pity. Shelley was a highly political poet, but Davoren, wanting to emulate him, says, “I know nothing about the Republic; I have no connection with the politics of the day, and I don’t want to have any connection.”

The traditional rebel songs offer no poetic response to the exigencies of the times, and he dismisses all attempts to grapple with Ireland through poetry: “Oh, we’ve had enough of poems, Minnie, about ’98, and of Ireland, too.” He fails to see a heritage with which he could connect. (In fact, several of the leaders of the 1916 uprising were poets.) And he takes refuge in art for art’s sake, in the ivory tower idea: “Damn the people! They live in the abyss, the poet lives on the mountain-top”.

But Davoren will not help the people to escape from this abyss. Instead of arriving at realism, he too develops a deadly fascination with ‘form’, a confusion of shadow and substance. And although he is more linguistically aware, his poems are as conventional in their phrasing as Gallogher’s letter, “Or when sweet Summer’s ardent arms outspread,/ Entwined with flowers,/ Enfold us, like two lovers newly wed, …” What is true of the pedlar is also true of the poet. What is true of the Catholic republican is also true of the Protestant loyalist.

When Davoren shows off to Minnie about his supposed battles, he is as self-important and self-absorbed as Grigson or Tommy, though he is more aware of the danger of this illusion – hence, his responsibility for the tragedy is all the greater. Davoren realises this to some degree when Minnie is killed: “It’s terrible to think that little Minnie is dead, but it’s still more terrible to think that Davoren and Shields are alive!”

Maguire, however, is not an alternative either. He makes only a fleeting appearance and leaves the impression of thoughtlessness and irresponsibility more than anything else. He is as responsible for Minnie’s death as Davoren is. The threatening shadow of the real and the fake gunman lies over the whole scene. It confirms Seumas’ assertion that the gunmen do not die for the people, but the other way around. Minnie is shot not by the British but by the ‘real’ gunmen.

The tragedy is not that potential leaders are ahead of the times, but that the people have no leaders who are in tune with the people and the times. Their best leaders were executed in 1916. There is no sign that the masses can produce adequate leaders in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, all the human qualities necessary for liberation are there and embodied in the people, in their contradictions, even if they manifest themselves at the moment only as potential.

These include the qualities of women, their lack of self-absorption, their capacity for loyalty, responsibility and self-sacrifice, their courage, their undamaged interest in poetry. Minnie is the most concentrated expression of this, but it is not about women versus men. Important qualities are common to both genders. A spontaneous solidarity, for example, prevents all the slum dwellers from betraying Davoren. Minnie and Maguire sacrifice their lives for something beyond themselves that they believe will bring liberation. Davoren learns painfully from his experiences, even reaching a certain self-knowledge. And potential is perhaps also to be found in the play’s language, with its irrepressible power and inventiveness.

In his creation of contradictory, realistic characters, O’Casey creates a growing awareness of a possible alternative inherent in things as they are. He exposes productive potential and makes clear that destinies could be steered in a different, better direction. This is best expressed in Davoren, of whom the audience is not sure which way he will go, until the very end.

'Siblings': the search for a new humanity through socialism in the GDR
Friday, 24 February 2023 19:56

'Siblings': the search for a new humanity through socialism in the GDR

Published in Fiction

“Siblings” by German Democratic Republic writer Brigitte Reiman has just been published in English translation by Penguin, in its series of classic international literature. It comes sixty years after the original German novella appeared. Why is a text like this of interest to the modern Western reading public? Its primary interest lies in the fact that here we have an authentic female voice communicating to us from the early 1960s about what it felt like to live in the German Democratic Republic just before the border between the two German states, the Berlin Wall, was finally sealed in 1961. What kind of society and what kind of people were developing in the twelve years since the foundation of the two German states in in 1949?

The Cold War had begun even before the defeat of fascism in Germany in 1945. It had escalated to such an extent that the Western allies introduced a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, in the Western zones in 1948, establishing an exclusive economic area, followed in consequence by the establishment of the West German state (The Federal Republic of Germany) in May 1949. A few months later, in October 1949, the Soviet authorities had no choice but to follow suit, with the founding of the East German state, the German Democratic Republic. Soviet plans right up to 1952 to form a united demilitarised Germany in central Europe as a neutral buffer between the Cold War powers (four Stalin Notes) were rejected by the West and such a stabilising solution became improbable.

From 1949 to 1961, hopes to reunite Germany remained in the East. The GDR national anthem illustrates this, as it contained the lines “Deutschland, einig Vaterland” (Germany, our united Fatherland). The West German anthem continued to be that used under the Nazis, “Deutschland über alles in der Welt”, Germany above all in the World, the anthem which continues in use today.

However, as the Cold War accelerated, the Marshall Plan boosted the West German economy, while East Germany alone paid reparations to the USSR. A devastating brain drain took place and the sabotage of East German production sites, with tens of thousands of people working in the West while shopping and living in the subsidised East. Military espionage contributed to making the open border increasingly unsustainable. This led to the gradual closing of the inner-German border to stem the defection of the GDR-trained workforce. For a few short years, people could leave illegally via West Berlin – until 13 August 1961, when all borders were sealed and any transit of German nationals between the two German states was stopped.

Famous Western Cold War espionage novels are set at this time. Western history books spin their own version of events as historical fact. Other than speaking to witnesses, the art of an epoch can give a sense of what it felt like to be alive at a particular time. “Siblings” does this for the fifties and early sixties in the GDR.

The author of this novella is Brigitte Reimann, a well-known writer in the GDR, who died of cancer at the young age of 41 in 1973. Born in 1933, she knew the times she wrote about intimately. “Siblings” had been preceded by other texts, which had alerted the GDR reading public to her – “Frau am Pranger” (1956, Woman in the Pillory) and “Das Geständnis” (1960, The Confession). These trace recent German history from the Nazi dictatorship; the full acceptance of the guilt of the past; and finally, members of an East German family deciding in which of the two German states they would live (1963, “Siblings”).

In each one of these novellas, a young woman needs to make hard decisions. All of them are working women, protagonists that became Reimann’s signal subject. The theme appears again in “Ankunft im Alltag” (1961, Arrival in Everyday Normality) and finally in her unfinished novel Franziska Linkerhand (1974, which became known to English-speaking film buffs through the subtitled GDR drama based on the book, “Our Short Life”, 1981). An entire GDR literary movement was named after “Ankunft im Alltag”, the arrival of society and its people in a new normality, the building of socialism and the world of work.

In 1959 a significant cultural political conference took place in Bitterfeld. The ruling party’s (SED) recent congress had directed that the working class should be enabled to conquer the heights of art, that any divisions between social strata be overcome, and there be no gulf between art and life. Based on this, an event organised by the Writers’ Union in the petrochemical plant of Bitterfeld had determined the policy that GDR artists should spend time in production, run creative workshops in factories for aspiring working-class writers, from which some well-known authors later emanated.

Also, the artists themselves were encouraged to write about the lives of ordinary working-class people. Brigitte Reimann wholeheartedly supported this movement. She set her texts in working people’s contexts and also ran a writers’ workshop in a lignite plant in Hoyerswerder. Incidentally, the GDR had very few natural resources and large-scale lignite production often involved the removal of village communities from the lignite areas, creating a serious social problem that was not Reimann’s theme, but which continues to this day across Germany.

Aspects of Reimann’s own biography are frequently reflected in her work. In “Siblings”, Elisabeth is a painter who is deeply involved with life in a lignite plant, as are other characters around her. The novella revolves around this industrial core; it is what forges the lives of the characters. There, she runs a workshop for worker painters, some of whom show real talent. And it is in this setting that a variety of conflicts arise.

In addition and importantly, Reimann’s favourite brother Lutz defected with his wife and child to the West in 1960. She notes in her diary: “Lutz went to the West with Gretchen and Krümel (he is now – perhaps only two or three kilometres away and yet unreachable – in the refugee camp at Marienfelde). For the first time I have a painful sense – not simply a rational one – of the tragedy of our two Germanies. Torn families, opposition of brother and sister – what a literary subject! Why is nobody taking this up, why is no-one writing a definitive book?” And so Reimann herself writes “Siblings”.

Christa Wolf, Reimann’s contemporary, addressed the same subject of a young working woman having to decide between her fulfilling working life in the GDR or following her lover to the West, in her novella “Der geteilte Himmel” (1963, first translation into English by Joan Becker [1965] as “Divided Heaven”, and more recently by Luise von Flotow [2013] as “They Divided the Sky”, and film based on it was released in 1964, available with English subtitles).

Both novellas evoke a sense of the complexities of social reality in the early sixties in the GDR, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected. The authors write in very different voices, both identify with the GDR as do their protagonists, and both continued to grapple with life in the GDR in their work to follow. Reimann in particular made the world of work the core sphere of her texts, into which her characters and their conflicts are fully integrated. The most famous of these is arguably Franziska Linkerhand, where Reimann explores the difficulties presented by unimaginative bureaucrats to the young architect who strives to create homely accommodation and towns where people will live happily and in cultural fulfilment. Much later this same theme appears in Peter Kahane’s film “The Architects” (1990), which was the last film to be made in the GDR.

Epic stories arising from women at work, their growing social equality stemming from economic independence and early, far-reaching pro-women legislation, including abortion rights, became a hallmark of GDR literature and give a more profound insight into what this society had to offer than any Western commentary will ever do. This is not to say that GDR art was uncritical of society – indeed, frequently, this was the sphere where the most open criticism was voiced, and therefore the arts became critically important for GDR citizens.

“Siblings” too contains criticism of party apparatchiks with tunnel vision. However, the family which loses one son to the West, and almost another one, has a father who confronts his sons with the money their education cost society and what their defection means financially to the state. Daughter Elisabeth fully identifies with the aspirations of the socialist state and fights for her rights and her dignity within this new society, when the situation arises. Reimann draws rounded, authentic characters who give complex expression to a spectrum of at times conflicting and contradictory political views both in the workplace and in the family. A sense of recent history is added through flashbacks to characters’ pasts.

The novella is of interest to the modern reader for a variety of reasons. For one, its sense of a dramatic change in the times, experienced again in 1989/90, captures some of the current political mood, where we are forced to face realities in a new way, to take a stand and act.

Secondly, this novella, like most of GDR literature expresses women’s confidence in their social equality to an extent that is unparalleled in Western literature and society at that time. Closely linked to this is Reimann’s search for and tracing of a new humanity emerging with the development of socialism. She asks in her work, and attempts to answer, how people change when living in a society that puts their interests before profits. She examines the extent to which they identify with this state. She looks at how this affects their daily lives, their relationships with one another. And in the case of Reimann’s characters, there is the added consideration of how they overcome the conditioning of the Nazi past. Central to Reimann’s attempts to imaginatively address these questions is the role work plays in the development of a new type of person. Readers are not presented with a uniformly grey image of the socialist German state; there is colour, initiative and energy.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant, is the parallel to the situation in so many countries today, that suffer a brain and skills drain of young people trained by them to the wealthier countries who pay nothing for fully qualified workers. This is true not only within the EU, but worldwide.

Reimann does not shut her eyes to the difficulties posed by bureaucrats, nor does she paint a black-and-white picture. But on the whole she is hopeful that socialism has a future in Germany. GDR literature and art has been widely suppressed as part of the blanket re-writing of its history by the West. Nothing of the country’s culture in the broadest sense – as minutely reflected in its arts – was deemed tolerable, and needed to be all but eliminated. Even today, there are few who defy this imposition and turn to GDR art to remember what had once been possible in Germany.


Brendan Behan: playwright, poet, novelist, socialist and republican
Monday, 06 February 2023 10:03

Brendan Behan: playwright, poet, novelist, socialist and republican

Published in Theatre

On the 100th anniversary of Behan's birth in 1923, Jenny Farrell celebrates his life and work. Photo above by William Murphy

Brendan Behan was arguably one of the last writers to emerge from the of the Irish literary revival movement. This originated in the 1880s within the Protestant Ascendency class, led by Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory, and J.M. Synge. It then spread out into the Irish working class through such literary giants as Sean O’Casey, Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Liam O’Flaherty. A great many writers in both English and Irish became part of it, and it is linked to the growth of Irish nationalism in the 19th century, which developed into the socialism of James Connolly.

Behan was born after the foundation of the Irish Free State, on 9 February 1923, into a self-educated, working-class family of house painters. The Irish Civil War was raging and Behan’s people sided with the Republicans. They were deeply imbued with culture and the arts, and Behan was plunged into this literary tradition. One of Behan’s uncles, his mother’s brother Peadar Kearney, wrote “A soldiers song” in 1910, which was fast adopted by the liberation movement and which in 1926 became the national anthem of Ireland. This shows not only the powerful political grounding Behan and his brothers received but also how they grew up in the popular ballad tradition. In Borstal Boy, he recalls his father’s songs and that he…

…….was a great fiddler and so was my uncle, my mothers brother, who had a fiddle presented to him by the prisoners in Ballykinlar Internment Camp for writing the National Anthem. My mother was a good singer, and my stepbrothers aunts were pianists, and great nights we had in their big house on the North Circular Road.

Another uncle, P.J. Bourke was involved in the Irish theatre movement. The Behan family exemplifies just how interwoven the national liberation movement was with the literary revival. Like the majority of his generation before free secondary education came into force, Behan left national school aged thirteen and he became apprenticed to a house painter, his father’s and grandfather’s trade.

A significant factor in Behan’s life was his close friendship with his cousin Cathal Goulding, who was the same age and who shared in much the same biography – house painter, Fianna, IRA, and prison.

A Catholic and a communist

Behan’s father Stephen had fought in the Irish War of Independence and passed on his love for literature and reading to his children. His mother Kathleen (a member of Cumann na mBan) was equally well read and cultured, with a great store of songs, and remained politically active all her life.

She had two sons by her first marriage (her husband Jack Furlong died of the influenza epidemic in 1918) and then four more and a daughter with Stephen. They stayed in contact with Granny Furlong who easily blended her Catholic beliefs with her communist sympathies, and Behan engaged with Marxist thinking from an early age, as did his brothers Dominic and Brian. His mother and brother Dominic were enrolled as members of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1956. Although never a Party member himself, Behan claimed to be both a Catholic and a communist, jokingly observing: “Im a communist by day and a Catholic as soon as it gets dark!”

The Catholic church, however, did not accept him happily, as they found it less palatable to find common ground between communism and religion. In one of Behan’s famous anecdotes, he relates being beaten by a Christian Brother as a schoolboy, when he replied “yes” to the question: “Can Ireland become a communist country?” This resulted his letter to the editor of the left-wing Irish Democrat newspaper in November 1937, where the fourteen-year-old Behan relates the incident.

Behan joined the Republican youth movement, Na Fianna Éireann, in 1932. He took an active interest in writing, which soon became an integral part of his political struggle. He started to contribute to the youth organisation’s journal ‘Fianna’ from the age of twelve. Aged sixteen, he joined the IRA in 1939, like so many in his family before him. Here, Behan advanced to messenger for the Chief-of-Staff, Sean Russell.

A significant left grouping existed in the IRA, reflecting the inherent connection between the fight for national liberation and the working-class struggle. When the IRA decided to launch a military campaign in Britain, in 1939, Behan became part of this. The IRA’s objective was to attack military and strategic targets, later expanding to civilian ones. Those who became involved, like Behan, acted in the conviction that they were Irish patriots fighting against British imperialism in Ireland.

We get a good idea of this from Behan’s autobiographical novel Borstal Boy, in which he describes how he travelled to Liverpool in late 1939 carrying explosives, and his subsequent capture.  He was treated violently in Liverpool jail, and British prosecutors tried to convince him to testify against the IRA. He refused, and was sentenced, due to his youth, to three years in a Borstal. When he returned to Ireland in 1941, he was classified as a communist suspect.

In 1942, Behan was arrested and put on trial for conspiracy to murder two Garda detectives, an attempted assassination which the IRA had planned to coincide with a Wolfe Tone commemoration ceremony. Behan was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for his role, served first in Mountjoy Gaol, Arbour Hill, and then in the Curragh Camp, where other IRA men were also in captivity.  These experiences are recorded in his memoir Confessions of an Irish Rebel.

Behan was released in 1945, under a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees. In 1947 he participated in an attempt to aid the escape of prisoners in the North of England, was captured, and imprisoned for another three months. Following his return to Ireland, he worked as a housepainter for some time, before taking up writing for a living.

The living language of the dispossessed

While in captivity in Irish prisons, Behan began to study Irish, a pursuit he kept up also after his release, in the Gaeltacht areas of Kerry and Galway in the late 1940s. He had a musical ear and the determination to master the language. He did so with great success, becoming so fluent that he wrote poetry in Irish as well as his play, An Giall (The Hostage), which he went on to translate into English.

His passion for the language is reflected in the fact that he spent a great deal of time on the Great Blasket Island (An Bhlascaod Mhór) off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry. Here, until their evacuation from the island in 1953, native speakers were steeped in the wealth of Irish poetry and song. Behan took to this like a natural cultural habitat and his best poetry is in Irish. One example is Jackeen ag caoineadh na mBlascaod (‘A Jackeen Keens for the Blasket Island).

In his Irish language writing Behan targets the conservatism of the middle-class bureaucrats in constraining the living language of the dispossessed of the Gaeltacht areas by assuming an artificial ‘superiority’. Other Irish Language writers such as his contemporary Máirtín Ó Cadhain, or later Tomás Mac Síomóin, also highlight this administrative stranglehold on the language. While Behan did not articulate this in as many words, he expresses in his writing a vision of an Irish language revival that was opposite to the hijacking of the language by middle-class officialdom. A part of this struggle to repossess the language was the movement to take the Irish cultural festival, Oireachtas na Gaeilge, out of Dublin and to hold it instead in the living Irish-speaking areas of the Gaeltachtaí. Although the establishment of the first Irish language pirate radio station was to come later, Behan was very much part of this movement.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Behan also spent time in Paris, he took up writing full-time. His 1954 breakthrough play, The Quare Fellow, is set in Mountjoy Gaol. The play’s title hero never appears – his death sentence for fratricide is to be executed the next day, and there are certain echoes of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. The condemned man’s plight is shown from a variety of perspectives – those of the prisoners digging the grave, as well as that of prison warders. The cast also includes a gay man, at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Like The Hostage later, The Quare Fellow comments on the gulf between the existing Irish Republic and the aspirations the Republicans had fought for. What emerges here and in The Hostage is a society where the flag has changed colour but the same kind of people remain in charge.

The Quare Fellow was written in two nights, for a memorial concert for Barnes and McCormack on 23 February 1947. These two IRA men had also been part of the 1939 campaign; they had been arrested and subsequently sentenced to death. The effect of these men’s execution on Behan when he was in prison in Liverpool is memorably described in Borstal Boy. Behan knew they were innocent and that those responsible for the bombing were back in Ireland. What first emerges in Borstal Boy is Behan’s characteristic integration of dark comedy and songs with the action.

Behan’s friendship with Cathal Goulding continued throughout this time, and always had a political dimension to it. By the mid-1950s, it had become clear that the campaign simply to remove the inner-Irish border was not succeeding. Between then and the early sixties, Goulding, who was a leading activist and member of the IRA leadership in the 1950s, and chief of staff throughout the 1960s, had re-thought the political assessment and policy. He saw that unification of the country was only one objective, but there was another developing dimension to Irish independence – dealing with the different neocolonial occupiers coming into the South of Ireland.

The concept of an Irish Republic needed to be newly defined in terms of the people who live in it. Foreign investment was entering the country and emigration was phenomenally high. Thomas Whitaker, Head of Irelands Department of Finance (1956 to1969), later Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland (1969 to 1976), abandoned any concept of independence by inviting foreign direct investment. This ultimately led to Ireland joining the EEC. So, discussions were taking place within the Republican movement regarding the kind of republic they envisaged for Ireland - one that would benefit the people, where common interests would take precedence over individual interests. Behan’s work shows that he fully agreed with this concept of an Irish republic.

Borstal Boy fictionalises Behan's time spent in prisons. The book opens with his arrest and soon moves on to Hollesley Bay Borstal, a reformatory for juveniles, a progressive, open institution in rural Suffolk. Behan describes the countryside and agricultural work, in addition to some sensitive portrayals of prisoners and warders. Charlie, a Royal Navy sailor and petty Cockney thief becomes a close friend. An Irish warder on the other hand is quite hostile towards him. And a Catholic priest encourages Protestant warders to beat up Behan, betraying his alliance with the enemy against the inmates.

Through this plot but also, interestingly through his language, Behan shows how much common ground exists between Catholic-Irish and Protestant-English workers, making extensive use of numerous dialects of English as spoken by the British working classes in different regions. In addition, he uses song and poetry, but also references the Irish language. The book, published in 1958 it describes Behan's distancing from violence, while remaining a principled Irish patriot.

Sympathy with those who suffer

Behan’s famous play The Hostage is set in a shabby Dublin tenement, which has become a refuge for sailors, whores, hustlers and all kinds of obscure characters and is a bizarre reflection of Irish society in 1960. Pat, a veteran of the Irish liberation struggle, has lost not only a leg but also all his illusions. He is resigned and passes the day unsuccessfully trying to avoid any political involvement. An IRA officer brings Leslie Williams into his house, a kidnapped young English conscript who is held hostage for an 18-year-old IRA prisoner sentenced to death in Belfast. As in Borstal Boy, the audience is shown a likeable working-class English soldier, who gets shot accidentally in senseless crossfire, underlining Behan’s non-sectarian attitude to working-class English people. His overriding sympathy lies with the people who suffer, never with the beneficiaries of history, and he always examines closely the political purpose of actions in this light.

Apart from identifying as a republican, Behan also saw himself all his life as a socialist, as his writing makes clear. His relationship with the Communist Party was a friendly one. For example, he painted the Party premises free of charge, and in 1954 Behan signed the nomination papers of Michael ORiordan, a Spanish Civil War veteran and founding member of the Irish Communist Party, who stood in the General Election that year. Clerics around Ireland denounced the candidate and threatened anyone who voted for ORiordan with committing a mortal sin. With his inimitable humour, Behan cheered up ORiordan when he received just short of 300 votes, saying: well done on the 295 mortal sinners!”

Above all, Behan’s goal was a united Irish Republic, which would serve the interests of the many, not the few. This opinion of course did nothing for his popularity with the Irish literary and political establishment.

When Behan had become an internationally famous author by the early 1960s, he spent much time in the USA. Here, he met with Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Jackie Gleason, Norman Mailer, Harpo Marx, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and others. However, his fame exacerbated his alcoholism, and this, along with diabetes and jaundice, impacted disastrously on his health. He died on the 20th March 1964, aged 41.

As Brendan Behan is very famous for his sharp wit, let us close with one of his succinct observations: "It's easy to spot the terrorist. He's the one with the small bomb".

The Banshees of Inisherin
Sunday, 15 January 2023 17:26

The Banshees of Inisherin

Published in Films

International film awards are by no means a good film guide, and this applies as much to The Banshees of Inisherin as to other films.

The story is set in 1923 on an offshore island in the West of Ireland – it was filmed in fact on Achill island and Inis Mór (Inishmore), the largest of the three Aran islands in Galway Bay. Non-Irish speaking readers should know that “Inisherin” (Inis Éireann) means the island Ireland. This setting during the Irish Civil War is made clear early on – throughout the film occasional bombs go off on the mainland, and the local policeman is chuffed to have been asked to participate in some executions – he knows not for which side, nor does he care. In fact, no one on the island seems to be in the slightest bit interested in the war. Amazingly, it is not a topic of conversation, nobody is touched by it, no-one is involved, and there are no discussions about the Treaty terms, which had such a momentous impact on post-Independence Irish history. And all this on Island Ireland, or Inisherin.

One can only wonder why? Did Martin McDonagh not wish to offend any side? Might any partisanship have affected awards and gross profits? Might the film even have caused controversy in Ireland itself? We will never know, because it manages to steer clear of causing any possible offence by reflecting actual sensibilities during this time. Anybody who wishes to know what these sensibilities were needs to read Liam O’Flaherty, not watch Martin McDonagh. Liam O’Flaherty, native of Inis Mór, not only wrote about the Civil War on the mainland ( in The Sniper and The Martyr) but also refers to the way it affected people on the Aran islands in terms of their class position. And O’Flaherty took part in the Civil War himself, on the Republican side. Ironically, the cottage in which Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his sister Siobhán (the absence of Ó and Ní in their surname would trouble an Irish speaker), is set in Gort na gCapall, O’Flaherty’s home place.

But McDonagh clearly does not wish to go there. His reluctance to engage with this very obvious  Irish issue is reflected, too, in the musical score. McDonagh’s instructions to Carter Burwell for the score was not to use Irish music, as McDonagh “hated that ‘diddle-de-dee’ music”. So instead, bewilderingly and jarringly out of place, the atmosphere is underscored musically by a mixture of Brahms’ Lieder, a Bulgarian piece at the start of the film, and Indonesian gamelan music. As Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), one of the two main characters, is a fiddler, and this is central to the plot, there is also some Irish music. This features as part of the story – not the musical score which supports the atmosphere and emotional reinforcement of the film.

Apparently, the thinking was that these musical pieces from around the world and different cultures would increase the appeal to an international audience. The opposite is in fact the case. The more specific a story is, the greater its universal appeal. A story that tries to please everybody, simply rings hollow, and although Brahms’ Lieder are hauntingly beautiful, they don’t fit the atmosphere on Inisherin. An a capella sean nós (Irish old style) solo voice would simply have been more fitting. In addition and in parallel to this there is the unhappy absence of any kind of Irish language speech, song, signage indeed anything in the native language. Again, this is profoundly out of joint with the time, and the place, shown on screen.

What is the film about? It’s about a falling out between two island men – due to one of them panicking about ageing and therefore ostracising the other. The older man has decided overnight he wants to immortalise something of himself in Irish traditional music. In order for this proposition to work, McDonagh makes the younger man out to be somewhat infantile. Burwell sees him as a Disney character (!) and gives him a matching musical theme. Doherty is simply suddenly bored with Pádraic Súilleabháin. (Is there any significance in the fact that the ‘simpleton’ has an Irish name, while Doherty uses the English spelling?)

Even Pádraic’s sister Siobhán Súilleabháin - the strongest character outside of the two protagonists - finds island life tedious. Few people in the film do any actual work. The height of it is walking some cattle down the Bohereen or caressing the pet donkey or dog. There is no field work or other rural labour to be seen. People just somehow get along without it, like going to the pub in the middle of the day, and yet they have the money to do so and clearly have enough to eat, dress and furnish their houses.

O’Flaherty’s short stories about island life, in contrast, are defined by people working. He does this easily and naturally, as he grew up among this community – which McDonagh did not. Where ‘despair’ appears as a theme in O’Flaherty, as it does in the expressionist novel The Black Soul, or his play Darkness, this is rooted in recent events, namely in the experience of World War One, another recent event with which the islanders on McDonagh’s island have no connection.

And so the film ends up feeding the usual stereotypes about Ireland. This ignorance of people’s daily working lives affects the film badly and is the reason why McDonagh can suggest that their lives (not to mention their music) is dull.

Set at a momentous time in Irish history the film could have had a great deal to say to people in similar situations then and now. McDonagh instead chooses to ignore this history, and people’s working lives. Instead, possibly for box office returns, the film feeds modern sensibilities about ageing – and does not even do this credibly.

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