I was very disappointed to miss the launch of Féile an Phobail’s thirtieth birthday celebrations last week. I had to travel to the USA for the funeral of Bill Flynn, who died on June 2nd and separately the funeral of Benny and Bonnie Krupinski who their grandson William Maerov and pilot Jon Dollard were killed in a plane crash on the same day.
Bill was 91 and was, along with Niall O’Dowd, Bruce Morrison and Chuck Feeney, one of the influential Irish American leaders who helped create the conditions for the IRA cessation in 1994. He was a good and treasured friend whose insights into the actions and decisions of others I greatly valued.
I have also known Benny and Bonnie for many years now. They were long-time supporters of Sinn Féin and of the Irish peace process and were very proud of their Irish roots. Benny and Bonnie regularly attended Friends of Sinn Féin fundraisers and were a lovely couple. Rita O’Hare, Joseph and Maria Smith and I attended the funerals representing Sinn Féin and FoSF.
By all accounts the birthday celebration for Féile in St. Mary’s College was an excellent event – inclusive, uplifting, optimistic, and with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in attendance as the main speaker, along with Sinn Féin’s Leas Uachtarán Michelle O’Neill. The Taoiseach also met the new Mayor of Belfast Councillor Deirdre Hargey.
There were some who tried to introduce a nasty tone into the celebration. Sadly, even after 25 years of an internationally respected and successful peace process, and with all of the positive progress that has taken place in that time, there are still those who prefer negativity over positivity. They failed 30 years ago when the Féile was first launched. They failed again last week.
As we celebrate 30 years of Féile we should not forget what it was like in west Belfast in 1988. It was a very different place. Thankfully a huge proportion of our citizens, especially our young people, have no experience or memory of those times. West Belfast then was a community under military rule. The British state was at war with the nationalist people of the north. British soldiers constantly patrolled our streets, stopped citizens, and raided homes. Hundreds were imprisoned, many of them the victim of a corrupt legal and judicial process. There were British military forts and spy posts everywhere constantly monitoring the movement of people, recording, gathering data on everyone.
Under the Thatcher government shoot-to-kill was widely used and collusion between British state agencies and unionist paramilitary groups was systemic. Local community organisations were denied funding under strict rules of political vetting. And several months after the first Féile censorship laws introduced by Thatcher’s government meant that the views of most of the people in our community were ignored. Our representatives were gagged.
The IRA was at war too. Constantly challenging the British military occupation. Using the long established strategies and tactics of guerrilla warfare and applying new ones for the unique circumstances in the north. The killings in Gibraltar in March that year of three young west Belfast citizens, Volunteers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann; the subsequent attack on their funeral in Milltown Cemetery, where Caoimhin Mac Bradaigh, Thomas Mc Erlean and John Murray were shot dead; along with the deaths of IRA Volunteer Kevin McCracken, and two British soldiers, Derek Wood and David Howes, saw an intensification of the political establishment’s contemptible attacks on the west Belfast community. West Belfast was a “terrorist community” to some and for others like Seamus Mallon, the Deputy leader of the SDLP, the people of West Belfast ‘have turned into savages’. Others also died in those two weeks of March 1988; Charles McGrillen, Kevin Mulligan, and Gillian Johnston.
The events of March 1988 were the tipping point for many of us living and working in west Belfast. The deliberate effort to criminalise an entire community required a new and unique response. The people of west Belfast were and are good, decent people – no better than any other but certainly no worse. West Belfast was also a vibrant, energetic, courageous community. We needed some way to give expression to all of this and Féile an Phobail was our answer. Our alternative.
It became a platform for singers and writers and dramatists, and poets, and musicians and everyone who had a story to tell or a song to be song. It was and is a creative experience with a unique vision which seeks to bring people together in a positive space and to bring joy to their lives. Over the years almost every shade of political opinion on these islands has taken part in the Féile, and been welcomed by those they meet, including senior figures in the DUP like Arlene Foster.
Féile is very mindful of the differences within our wider society and has never shirked its responsibility to provide an opportunity for everyone, nationalist, republican, unionist, loyalist, or none of the above, to express their opinions. Having suffered censorship Féile abhors censorship. Having endured years of disrespect and discrimination it represents a community that offers only inclusivity and respect, reconciliation and equality. It threatens no one.
It is for all these reasons very popular. And each year the programme of events keeps getting better and better. And this year will be no different. Between August 2 and August 12 Féile an Phobail will present a wide range of events from music and comedy, to West Belfast Talks Back, to walking tours, and theatre, discussions on local, national and international issues. There are lots of wonderful events taking place, including a talk on Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave from America who came to Ireland in the 1840s to tell of his experience. A film on the suffragette movement will be screened in An Cultúrlann MacAdam Ó Fiaich on August 7, the annual Plastic Bullet vigil will take place on August 8. Olly Murs will play the Féile on August 11. And on Monday August 6th Jude Collins and I will spend an hour talking about my experience of writing and those who have influenced my work.
And there is much more – a lot more. So, if you haven’t got a programme – get it quickly. Here’s to an amazing ten days of Féile craic. Lá breithe shona daoibhse.