Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Process of Change Must Continue: Voting for Bobby Sands

 The Process of Change Must Continue.

The recent loyalist sponsored violence and the provocative and inflammatory language of unionist political leaders has led to speculation about what the violence is really all about? I’m not alone in believing that it is in part an electoral strategy to maximise the unionist vote behind the DUP in advance of next year’s Assembly election. But it is also a reaction to the general direction and trajectory of politics, being shaped by the process of change including the potential of constitutional change in the relatively near future. It’s about intimidating nationalists and republicans and pushing back against the growing demand for the Irish government to begin planning for the unity referendum that is part of the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit too and the Irish Protocol with its border in the Irish Sea has played its part. It’s all of these things and more.

But at its core it is part and parcel of the traditional unionist response to anything perceived as threatening its dominance. Unionists look around them and see their electoral majority in the Assembly and at Westminster gone. They see political and demographic changes taking place that spell an end to the long held belief that the Northern state will have a unionist majority in perpetuity. Unionists have also been deserted and back-stabbed again by a Westminster government that negotiated the very Protocol the DUP now denounce. This recent period has also been marked by significant strategic mistakes by the DUP leadership in particular and Unionists leaders generally. They gave us Brexit and all that has come with it. People aren’t stupid. They know this.

So the winds of change are blowing up a gale around unionism and they don’t like it. The DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson called for "guerrilla warfare" stating that the Protocol has to be destroyed. At the weekend it was reported that the UVF – one of the paramilitary groups the DUP recently met - ordered three families it believed to be Catholic out of a housing estate in Carrickfergus.

The decision by loyalists to shift the riots from areas like Newtownabbey to the Lanark Way interface last week was calculated. The social media messages urging loyalists to meet at various interface areas to “march on west Belfast” was not coincidental – it too was deliberate - it was planned. The intent was and is to foment sectarian conflict. Let me also state at this point that the PSNI should not be using plastic bullets, water cannon or dogs.

The reality is that in the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved both Unionist parties – the UUP and DUP – have worked within the institutions to frustrate and delay the introduction of many of the equality, justice and legacy changes promised by the GFA and subsequent agreements.

More than any other factor it is this fear of change that is driving the current unionist agenda. Change can be difficult. It can be challenging. This is part of the human condition.  But there can be no backtracking on the changes that have occurred and will continue to take place in the time ahead. Democratic change must be defended. Constitutional change arrived at peacefully and democratically must be respected.

The rights of every citizen to equality, to respect and to parity of esteem must be accepted by all.

One thing is certain. Whatever the outcome of the debate on the constitutional future of the North the economic and societal changes that we have witnessed in the last two decades will continue. The best way to manage change is to manage it! My appeal to unionists is to join with us in managing that change in the interests of all knowing that it will be the people who decide the future.

 

Voting for Bobby Sands

As many readers will know this year marks 40 years since the 1981 hunger strike. It was a traumatic, difficult and yet historic year which undoubtedly shaped future politics on this island in ways none of us could have foreseen at the time.

Last Friday, 9 April was the day Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat and became the MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. The by-election had been called following the death of Frank Maguire, the independent nationalist MP who had successfully won the seat in the 1979 general election. On that occasion Maguire had seen off the challenge of the SDLPs Austin Currie whose intervention had split the nationalist vote.

Following Frank Maguire’s death there commenced a serious discussion about the possibility of the National Smash H-Block/Armagh campaign running a prisoner candidate. Bernadette McAliskey said she was prepared to stand and Frank Maguire’s brother Noel was put forward as a candidate. However, when the decision was taken to stand Bobby Sands as a prisoner candidate, Bernadette and Noel withdrew. The SDLPs Austin Curry wanted to stand but he couldn’t get his act together before nominations closed.

Having secured Bobby’s nomination the task then was to fight the election and win it. The reality was that Sinn Féin activists had no idea of how to run an election campaign. The last time Sinn Fein candidates had stood in elections was in 1964 and on that occasion we were a banned party. So, we had to learn fast or face humiliation. In this we were also helped by a Kerry republican, well known in sporting circles, Joe Keohane. Owen Carron from Fermanagh was Bobby’s election agent. Many others like Bernadette, local nationalists with electoral experience and supporters of the prisoners from the South played key roles.

Hundreds of activists mobilised across the North to join in the work of postering and handing out leaflets and canvassing on the doorsteps. We opened two offices: one in Enniskillen and the other in Dungannon. They never closed during those long election days. We galvanised people in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and they responded with great commitment. I was rarely at home during that time, spending almost the entire campaign in the constituency. I met scores of great people and, in the midst of all the activity I enjoyed the wonderful beauty of those two counties.

Among those who came to help us where activists who had been working away for years in the background making sure that the electoral register was up to date. Their experience was invaluable. We learned about presiding officers, personation officers, how to campaign. It was exhilarating.

Most of us had no experience of after mass meetings. We would arrive outside a chapel and when mass was over and folks were coming out we would talk to them about the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison and the conditions the political prisoners had been forced to endure for five years. Most would listen attentively and then applaud.

I stayed overnight in Enniskillen on the eve of the poll, then crossed the border to Clones the next day to report to Ruairí Ó Bradaigh, the President of Sinn Féin who was barred from entering the North. I was convinced we were going to win and I told him that. As I drove away afterwards to meet with Colette, I heard the news on the car radio: Bobby Sands had won the election. I was ecstatic. I thumped the car wheel and shouted with exuberance to the cattle and sheep in the fields adjacent to the country road I was travelling on.

In Belfast the news brought thousands out onto the streets in a spontaneous demonstration of solidarity with the hunger strikers. In the H Blocks and Armagh and other prisons the POWs were ecstatic.

Bobby Sands topped the poll with 30,492 votes. The British government and opposition, followed enthusiastically by the media, had constantly maintained that republicans – and especially the hunger strikers – represented nobody and enjoyed no support; that republicans were criminal ‘godfathers’ operating by intimidation; that they were isolated fanatics. Now that lie had been exposed. The British propaganda campaign had been refuted and the election victory resounded internationally.

Bobby’s success raised the hope that the British government would move to end the hunger strike by reforming the prison regime. I did not share that hope. In my view Thatcher and her government were convinced that the prisoners could be broken and through them the struggle for freedom. They were not for changing policy.

For our part Republicans had been challenged for years to submit ourselves to the ballot box, and now we had done so, demonstrating massive popular support in the election. Yet the British government, as we had feared from the outset, showed no willingness to make concessions in respect of the prison protest. Margaret Thatcher maintained her inflexible approach and, despite all the earnest assurances of their envoys, the Dublin government did nothing to shift her from it.

The Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election was one of those rare moments when, as Seamus Heaney once put it, ‘hope and history rhyme.’ Bobby Sands had a bigger mandate than Margaret Thatcher. The success of that campaign led to the decision to stand prisoner candidates in the Southern general election a few months later. Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew where elected as TDs and others, like Joe McDonnell and Mairead Farrell performed very well. Owen Carron was elected MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone after Bobby’s death.

These elections opened up the debate around electoral intervention that was already going on within Sinn Féin and ushered in a new political strategy and all that has flowed from it.

All a consequence of the courage of the Blanket men and Armagh women.

 

 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Bin the Orange Card: Inclusion and Reconciliation in the new Ireland

Bin the Orange Card

In recent months unionist politicians and parties have been increasingly turning to the age-old tactic of talking up the potential for conflict and the alleged threat posed by the legitimate aspirations of nationalists and republicans, as a way of preventing democratic and constitutional change. For nationalists and republicans the playing of the Orange Card is older than the northern state. It has its roots in the Home Rule battles of the late 19th century and the machinations of people like arch Tory Randolph Churchill and the unionist business and landed class, to defeat the Gladstone government’s efforts to pass a series of Home Rule Bills for Ireland.

It was used again in the years leading to the partition of Ireland and the creation of this dysfunctional, deeply corrupt and sectarian northern state. It was consistently used in the 1960s to stymie the desperately needed democratic reforms identified by the civil rights movement. It was used to justify the use of sectarian violence by loyalist mobs and the RUC and B Specials, against Catholic areas in 1969.

During the more recent decades of conflict time and time again we witnessed the leadership of political unionism whip up unionist anger and fear against any proposal that was deemed to threaten their political hegemony. This was the Orange state and in it unionists had the right to walk where they chose to walk; pass what discriminatory laws they wanted without any concern for their neighbours; and use whatever means necessary, up to and including state violence and collusion with death squads, to impose their will. For political unionism it was and still is a zero sum game in which they must reject any change, however democratic, because they believe change threatens their dominance, their culture, their Britishness.

Change can be difficult. It can be challenging. This is part of the human condition.  But no one is seeking to erode the sense of Britishness held by anyone in the North.  We leave that to British governments who constantly stab unionists in the back when English national interests are at risk. Nor is anyone threatening their sense of culture. Nor are republicans and nationalists looking to “put the boot on the other foot” by treating the unionist or PUL community in the same way that we were. That’s the road to ongoing conflict. What we do believe absolutely, and without apology, it that the rights of every citizen to equality, to respect and to parity of esteem must be accepted by all. The Good Friday Agreement, which a clear majority in the North and an overwhelming majority on this island, voted for in May 1998 upholds the right of citizens to identify as Irish or British or none. And it also asserts that the right of those who identify as British will be protected and defended in the event of constitutional change.

Unionist leaders  claim that they are democrats. Well, the Good Friday Agreement and the constitutional and political changes it contains were democratically endorsed in a referendum. Brexit was democratically rejected by the people of the North in a referendum. The debate on the unity referendum provided for by the GFA is open to all.

So, my appeal to unionist leaders is to engage. 

Engage in the democratic process – open a meaningful dialogue with the rest of us. Together we have the wit and the intelligence to reach a new accommodation on the island of Ireland. With a little generosity and openness of spirit we can create a better future from the past we have all known. 


Inclusion and Reconciliation in the new Ireland

Sixty one years ago this month South African police acting for the apartheid regime shot and killed 69 demonstrators and wounded almost 200 more as they protested against the Pass Laws which were part of the racist apartheid system. The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, like Bloody Sunday in Derry just 12 years later, reverberated around the world. It drew huge international criticism of the apartheid South African government, including by the UN Security Council. The British government abstained in the vote.

In 1979 the United Nations General Assembly agreed that a week-long series of activities would be held annually in solidarity with people struggling against racism and racist discrimination. The 21 March – the date of the Sharpeville Massacre – was set as its starting point.

This year the theme of the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ was ‘Youth standing up against Racism’. The aim of the campaign is to “foster a global culture of tolerance, equality and anti-discrimination and calls on each and every one of us to stand up against racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes.”

Despite these efforts racism, intolerance and misogyny are still very much part of societies around the world. The Black Lives Matters campaign has been very successful in drawing attention to it, especially in recent years. So too has the Me Too Movement which has put a focus on violence and discrimination against women. The recent cartoon in the Sunday Independent which depicted Úachtaran Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald as a witch is just one deplorable example of misogyny as well as of the anti-Sinn Fein agenda of many in the southern media establishment.

Hate crime, intolerance of and discrimination against citizens take many forms. Violence against people because of their race or colour, their sexual orientation or gender, their nationality or religion or their disability is wrong. All of us have a responsibility to make a stand against such injustice and intolerance whatever form it takes.

Irish republicans believe that society must reflect and include the entirety of its people, not some of them. People have rights and entitlements. Their human dignity must be acknowledged and upheld. Inclusivity is vital. Equality is vital.

The colonisation and partition of Ireland and the periods of intense conflict which resulted from it created significant divisions within Irish society. These remain unresolved. Foremost among these is the right of the people of the island of Ireland to self-government and to have maximum control of that government.

A second crucial challenge is posed by political and religious sectarianism. As the debate increases around Irish Unity so too must the debate on building an inclusive and reconciled society evolve and grow. Reconciliation and healing must be at the heart of the transition to Irish unity. But they cannot be a precondition to achieving it.

As part of our desire for a greater understanding of the issues involved and of the measures needed to confront sectarianism and hate Sinn Féin this month commenced an internal dialogue on inclusion and reconciliation. Declan Kearney and others in our leadership are holding online conversations in the coming weeks with activists across the island to examine what practical steps are required to tackle sectarianism and provide for a reconciliation strategy. Among the contentious issues that will be discussed will be the role of commemorations, the legacy of the past, as well as examining the function of political institutions, political leadership and policy and community and civic society.

So, as the discussion on a unity referendum and a united Ireland increases. As new ideas and proposals emerge with increasing momentum around the shape and form of that new Ireland we need the most informed debate possible. Everything should be on the table for discussion. That’s the way forward.

Bronntanais Mala Na Casca

The recent United Ireland Easter Egg - an Bronntanais Mala Na Casca -  was a great success. The problem was there were not enough of them. We knew that from the start. But I made a mistake of saying they were available only in Belfast. That angered some of our non Belfast Easter egg lovers. I should not have mentioned Belfast and said limited availability instead.

Fact is we did distribute to other places.  From Dublin, all of the Six counties except Fermanagh as well as Leinster, Dublin, South East Ulster and Louth. So, well done me and RG.

Now this was always going to be a tester and a teaser for next Easter. On the basis of the current and ongoing interest it is a success. Getting a United Ireland Easter Egg is like the search for All Ireland tickets in the past. 

Le cuidiú De next year we will do a big United Ireland Easter Egg extravaganza. And intensify our Uniting Ireland activism in the meantime. Have a good Easter. Wear a lily. Honour our Patriot Dead. 

 

PostScript.


In my recent Saint Patrick’s Day musings I reminisced about my Uncle Paddy and his books of Joyce’s place names. Luke Callinan from the West, contacted me with the very welcome news of a link to electronic versions of these wonderful tomes.

Their proper name is The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, published in 1910. The author is Patrick Weston Joyce. 

They are in the University of Toronto collection.

And the digitizing sponsor is MSN. The link is: https://archive.org/details/originhistoryofi01joycuoft/page/n3/mode/2up.

If you have a grá for the names of our townlands and other places then you will find Mr Joyce’s research very interesting. Go raibh maith agat Luke.

 

 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Micheál Martin has it badly wrong on Irish Unity: and Cats

 Micheál Martin has it badly wrong on Irish Unity

For almost a quarter of a century I used to spend my St. Patrick’s Day in the United States talking to Irish America and political leaders in Washington. It’s important to understand that the St. Patrick’s celebrations in the USA usually last a week – not a day. Consequently I could be in New York to take part in the celebratory St. Patrick’s Day breakfast with hundreds of others before heading off to Philadelphia, followed by a couple of days of meetings in DC. I have some very fond memories of meeting Irish Americans at these events where they joyfully celebrated their Irishness through music and dance, poetry and craic.

On one memorable occasion we arrived in Syracuse in upper New York State for a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the midst of a blizzard. We were not dressed for a blizzard. I walked shaking with the cold beside Pat Aherne the Grand Marshall who was thoroughly enjoying himself. He was wearing a top hat as he waved enthusiastically to all the heavily muffled spectators. John’s repost to the fact that you could barely see twenty yards down the road was; “We parade in March because we are hardy. Anybody can walk in July.”

Mise agus Pat Ahern

Richard and I only survived thanks to the generosity of DeDe Walsh, the wife of the then Congressional representative for the district Jim Walsh, who graciously lent us some coats and gloves. Rita O’Hare delighted in telling us off for ignoring her warning that it was going to be a cold walk in the snow. She still delights in telling that story.

While no one was able to travel to the USA this St. Patrick’s Day because of the pandemic restrictions it was still nonetheless a good couple of weeks for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, the demand for the referendum on unity and for the campaign for a United Ireland. Friends of Sinn Féin successfully fund-raised the money to pay for major adverts in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Irish American papers. Under the banner headline: ‘A United Ireland: Let the People have their say’, the message was clear.

“The Good Friday Agreement has changed Ireland for the better. Challenges remain but twenty-three years on Ireland continues to seek the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Unionist  electoral majority in the North is gone. Their rights, and the rights of all, are guaranteed in a United Ireland. It will be a welcoming home for all...

It is now time to have an inclusive, informed and respectful discussion. We appeal to the Irish Government to promote and plan for Unity. As Americans, we call upon our government and public representatives to urge the British Government to set the date for the Unity Referendum.”

The initiative was supported by the Ancient Order of Hibernians; the Brehon Law Society; Friends of Sinn Fein, USA; Irish American Unity Conference; James Connolly Irish American Labor Coalition; Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians.

A few days later a cross party group of Senators introduced a resolution in the Senate reaffirming bipartisan support for the Good Friday Agreement and for the Protocol. U.S. Senator Bob Menendez Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was joined by Senator Susan Collins and 13 other colleagues. They said: “This bipartisan resolution signals our support for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as subsequent agreements including the Stormont House Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Subsequently Úachtaran Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald and Joint First Minister Michelle O’Neill briefed the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus on Capitol Hill.  And later still Michelle joined with DUP leader and Joint First Minister Arlene Foster in a conference call with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Once again the US administration made clear its support for the Good Friday Agreement. However, more telling was the administration’s public backing for the Irish Protocol. Normally US administrations play with an even handed diplomatic bat when talking to parties in the North but in this instance it came out against the DUP demand for the protocol to be scrapped.

One DUP response to all of this was given by Sammy Wilson who last October in the midst of the Presidential election tweeted: “Joe Biden is a parrot for Irish Nationalism and their falsehoods re the Belfast Agreement. I would far rather have an American eagle in President Trump than a nationalist parrot in the White House.”  Having failed to achieve that goal Wilson plumbed new depths in a recent interview with Russia Today (RT) where he referred to President Biden as “the bigoted ignoramus who has now taken over in the White House.”

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin in response to the Irish American ads again rejected any possibility of planning for the unity referendum or even planning for a united Ireland. Instead Martin stuck to the line that now is not the time to talk about unity. He told an audience in Washington: “I think it is divisive and puts people back into the trenches too early.” His strategy – if it can be called that – is to put reconciliation and a unionist majority in favour of unity as preconditions to any discussion or planning on unity. This is a clear breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which requires a simple majority in favour of unity. It is undemocratic and would hand to unionism a veto over future constitutional change. Martin’s stance fundamentally subverts a key component of the Good Friday Agreement.

Micheál Martin’s approach - which I suspect has more to do with his electoral fears about the growth of Sinn Féin in the South – is also unpopular within his own party. In an unusual move Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan addressed Cambridge University on Tuesday. O’Callaghan made a number of proposals aimed at reunifying Ireland. These include the Dáil or Seanad sitting in Belfast and unionist parties given positions as of right in a future all-Ireland Cabinet.

Whatever the merit of these suggestions they have now become part of the necessary debate that is urgently needed. However hard Micheál Martin pushes back against the public clamour for a public debate on a united Ireland the issue is not going away. Has he the political sense to set aside his antipathy for Sinn Féin and do the right thing? Now that he has gone international with his negativity I suspect not but I live in hope.

 

Twinkle

CATS.

Im a doggie man. Ever since two of my uncles went to Canada aeons ago and I inherited Darkie, my first madadh, dogs have been a constant in my life. In fact it is possible to measure your life journey by the dogs who have befriended you along the way.Cats? I know lots of cat lovers. Some were converted to cats as a consequence of their amourous relationships.  The catscame with the partner. So needsmust. Men who woudnt look sideways at a feline quickly embraced them as well as their female mistresses. I mean the cats mistress of course. .

Im not allowed a cat. When Colette wasyoung someone threw a cat at her and it landed on her face. She has had an aversion to our feline friends ever since. Hardly the cats fault.  Her umbrage should be agin cat throwers not the unfortunate cat.  But sometimes logic doesnt get a look in. Not that I am very anxious to get a cat. Im currently trying to prepare the ground for a wee terrier. Thats a challenge given that we have two dogs already.

I love dogs. I have a slightly different relationship with cats. I respect cats. They are independent, haughty, sometimes arrogant.  They could live without us humans. Some behave like aristocrats. No part of the house is out of bounds to them. One of my pals regularly turns up covered in cat hairs. He seems oblivious to them. Sometimes I have an urge to comb him.

A neighbour of ours the late Frances Forte used to feed all the cats in the street. Frances was an amazing old lady. She supplied me regularly with pasta when it was less popular than it now is. That and stories of how her family came to Belfast from Italy to be part of the Forte’s ice cream family business away back in the 1920s. They were chased out off York Street by a unionist gunman. Cats used to lounge about Frances’ front garden at meal times.

Then some feral fellows joined themThey were like bad boys.Corner boys. Sprawled out on her window sills. Sullen and slightly menacing. Kittens followed. Eventually Frances’ cat community got out of hand. The appropriate agencies had to intervene to deperse them.

There were feral cats in Long Kesh. They used to hoke in the bins. Maybe they are still there. Like wee ghosts haunting the place. The odd time a few were persuaded to accept titbits from cat loving or mice and rathating political prisoners who looked to the cats for rodent control.  That was in the Cages. I think of them when I see a cat slinking along the yardwall in ambush mode for the wee birds feeding at the birdtable. A bell around the cats neck would even things up. Make it a fair dig.

So why do I tell you all  this? Its on account of Twinkle. Twinkle is Sorcha’s cat. Sorcha is Sara and Flairs daughter. Twinkle went missing on March 9.  I know this because of the poster which was distributeda round this neighbourhood. It said Lost Cat. Twinkle. A grey and white tabby. A photo of Twinkle was included along with a request to check gardens, sheds and hedges.

So thats what I did. I looked everywhere for Twinkle. I remember when I was Sorcha’s age my dog of that time, Rory, Darkie’s sucessor, went missing. I searched all over the Murph for him for days and cried myself to sleep every night for months. So I know how Sorcha must have felt about Twinkle. Rory nevercame  back. Thankfully Twinkle did. We got the good news a few days after she went absent without leave. I wonder what adventures she had? But all is well that ends well.  I suppose this is a shaggy dog kind of story.About a cat. With a happy ending. Well done Twinkle. And well done Sorcha.

Here is a poem written by Sorcha’s mummy Sara aboutTwinkle.

Saol an Pangur Bháin 

After Seamus Heaney 

Pangur Fecking Bán had it easy, 

living his life in a monastery. 

Child-playing around some mouse’s den, 

the diligent monk, hunting with pen. 

The master was poised, the cat was curled, 

both inoculated from this world. 

Not demanding much from each other, 

they worked well without care or bother. 

Pangur has been praised in four-line rhyme, 

and interpreted many’s the time, 

his name bestowed on countless white cats 

and I can’t help but wonder - for what? 

Our cat Twinkle’s living through a plague! 

She’s the real hero, fearless and brave. 

Still ventures out in the darkest night,

 no way did Pangur get it this tight. 

 

 

Monday, March 22, 2021

6000 days - the story of Jaz McCann and the H Blocks: Lá Féile Padráig Faoi Mhaise Daoibhse: agus Seachtain na Gaeilge

 6000 DAYS.

Jaz McCann writes very well. The reader is quickly drawn into his world. From the opening sentences of his Prologue Jaz paints the sights and sounds, the emotions, shocks, excitement, sadness, smells and the savage brutality and amazing horrors of his 6000 Days of incarceration, mostly in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. He also makes us witness to the incredible courage, vision, commitment, solidarity, idealism, generosity, quirkiness, anger, native contrariness, humour, comradeship and stubbornness of the political prisoners.

6000 Days is an important and significant contribution to the history of the Irish penal experience, in line with Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa’s classic Prison Life or Irish Rebels in English Prisons and other historical penal narratives. I have long had a view that we republicans need to write our own histories. Others should do likewise. Including from a Unionist or even in this case a Prison Officer’s point of view. By setting all these narratives together the weave of our collective history – as lived in cities or rural Ireland by women, workers, the poor, by combatants, victims and in this case by our political prisoners becomes a shared history.

Embracing this and learning of the experience of others may not remove our disagreements with them but it will help us to understand and hopefully learn to live with a greater tolerance for difference and maybe an appreciation of how much we have in common. Pat Magee, another former republican combatant, has bravely tackled some of this in his memoir Where Grieving Begins.

But this important factor aside there is still in its own right, an onus on us to tell our own story. Otherwise some will try to write it for us. Jaz McCann has taken up this challenge. In his understated but graphically honest way he has shared his story with us. We should be grateful to him. I defy anyone who portrayed the Blanketmen or the Armagh Women as criminals to read it without being moved by what happened in the H blocks of Long Kesh in the five years leading to the summer of 1981 and the second hungerstrike.

The past of course is never passed. Yes it is gone. But it endures into the present. Until we agree our future it will always be difficult to agree about our past. It is contested because the future is contested.  This is the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Hungerstrikes. Those of us who supported the prisoners, in this case the Armagh Women and the Blanket Men, have our view about what happened at that time and why. Jaz McCann has provided everyone with a highly personal account of what that meant to him and what was done to him and what he did during his seventeen years in prison including five years on the blanket protest. No words of mine can convey the awfulness of life on the blanket. I considered reproducing extracts of Jaz’s words to give a sense of this to you but that may spoil the book or parts of it. To do it justice you have to read 6000 Days. I appeal to anyone remotely interested in this period, whatever your opinion to invest in a copy. And to read it.

Finally, as someone who was close to the hunger strikers and who remains in awe of them I have always been conscious of the fact that ten men died. Every one of them, including Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan who died on hungerstrikes in England, and their families deserve the admiration and respect of everyone who admires courage. Bobby Sands was the leader in every conceivable way and the first to die. For that reason sometimes Bobby may appear to overshadow the others, particularly in the media or the popular mind. Bobby certainly wouldn’t want that. He was first among equals. So I was very moved at how Jaz lovingly describes his relationship with Joe McDonnell who died after 61 days on the stailc. I am sure other prisoners could write in the same way of the other lads who died. And those who survived. It is only right that every hungerstriker and his family are remembered as Jaz remembers Joe and his clann. Go raibh maith agat Jaz. Your stories of him made me cry.

How lucky are we who knew Bobby and Joe, Francie and Martin, Tom and Patsy, Mickey and Kevin, Raymond and Kieran. They were our golden generation of leaders and fighters, poets and patriots. Ordinary but extraordinary human beings. Jaz’s book and the tales he tells reminds me of a line from a Brian Moore song. ‘When all is said and done.

You know freedom is won by those Croppies who would not lie down. By Croppies who would not lie down’.

Thank you Jaz. Thanks also to the McCann family. Especially your parents and Marian.  

The first print run of 6000 Days has already sold out and a second print run will be ready in two to three weeks. It will be available from An Fhuiseog/The Lark which can be contacted on their Facebook page.

 

Lá Féile Padráig Faoi Mhaise Daoibhse.

I like Saint Patricks Day. I always like to raise a glass on this special day to all the Paddies and Patricia’s, the Pádraic’s and Pádráigín’s in my life. Chief among these is my older brother Paddy and our Uncle Paddy.

Uncle Paddy died on Saint Patricks Day in 1984. He had called to see me in The Royal Hospital where I was recovering from gunshot wounds. He left me a few pounds and went off with his shamrock proudly displayed on his lapel only to be back a few hours later in the Emergency Dept, injured after a fall.

Uncle Paddy was a great man. When my brother Paddy was shot and seriously injured by the British Army during the attack on Joe McDonnell’s funeral our Uncle Paddy lay down on his own in front of a British Army vehicle in Saint Agnes Drive to block its passage.

So as usual this Saint Patrick’s Day I will raise a wee glass in his honour and memory.  I am sure my brother Paddy will do likewise even though Covid restrictions prevent us doing it together.  But this too shall pass. So to absent friends and the Irish everywhere; Lá Féile Pádraig Faoi Mhaise Daoibhse. Sláinte. Anios ar theacht an tSamraidh.

 

Seachtain na Gaeilge

Seachtain na Gaeilge is the biggest celebration of Irish language and culture in the world. It is a non-profit organization that was set up by Conradh na Gaeilge with the aim of promoting the use of the Irish language in Ireland and overseas. The festival used to run for one week but became so popular it had to be extended and now runs annually from 1 March to 17 March – St. Patrick’s Day. In 2020 there were over 30,000 events held in Ireland and across the world with an estimated three quarters of a million people participating.

Seachtain na Gaeilge normally embraces language, music, dance and sport, and increasingly events on social media. However, this year the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic has meant that Seachtain na Gaeilge has had to think outside the box and come up with imaginative ways in which to promote the Irish language and culture primarily online.

Local Councils have played an important role this year. For example, Newry and Mourne Council hosted a series of ten short videos on its YouTube channel highlighting some of the musicians and storytellers who live in their area. These included Niall Comer, Gráinne Holland, and Piaras Ó Lorcáin. Events also included an ‘Accelerated Reading Project’ involving Irish medium primary schools in the Council area. Pupils were given a selection of Irish language books and asked to complete interactive exercises.

Writers too have brought a focus to the language. In the context of Seachtain na Gaeilge John Daly in an enjoyable and informative piece he wrote for the Independent - ‘Pondering our poetic place names’ - reflected on the “dismal effect” of the Anglicisation of our local place names and its impact on a “debutant postman” trying to deliver mail in Kerry. “Imagine” he said, “the mental dexterity required for correct mail delivery on the byways and boreens of Tooreennahone, Tooreennascarty, Tooreennasliggaun and Tooreennastooka”

Daly gave some examples of this dismal effect. The ancient name for Ballysodare is Beal Easa Dara – the Mouth of the Waterfall of the Oak Grove. Or Donnybrook which was previously Domhnach Broc – the Church of the Badgers. His personal favourite address is Muckanaghederdauhaulia in the Connemara Gaeltacht. In the Irish its Muiceanach idir dhá sháile – ‘a piggery between two expanses of briny water.’

This blog is very enthusiastic about the language. I enjoy being able to speak Irish and to read it and have even written some modest poems in Irish. I am not as fluent as I would like. Like every language or sport or skill the key to mastering it is perseverance - sticking at it. And using it. I use Irish on every occasion I can. And as those I rely on to keep me right with my pronunciation and understanding keep telling me, it can be difficult. But the hard work is worth it when it all comes right.

In recent years the North has seen a renaissance in the use of the Irish language. This is evident in the growth in Irish medium education. According to the Dept of Education there are 29 Irish-medium schools and a further 10 Irish-medium units attached to English-medium host schools. Of the 29 schools, 28 are primary and one is post primary, Coláiste Feirste. Of the 10 Irish-medium units attached to English-medium host schools, 7 are primary and 3 are post-primary. In addition to these, Gaelscoil na Daróige in Derry City is an independent school teaching through the medium of Irish.

All of this points up the need for Acht na Gaeilge in the North. The provisions for this were part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement reached last year. If equality and a shared society is to become real there must be progress on the legislation required for the protection for the Irish language. The First Minister has clearly committed to bring forward the ‘package of identity and cultural pieces agreed as part of the New Decade New Approach Agreement by the end of this mandate’.

Notwithstanding  the challenges presented by the Covid pandemic and the outworkings of Brexit there needs to be progress on this before the current mandate for the Assembly ends in a year’s  time. Over to you Arlene. Na h’abair é. Dean é. Don’t talk about. Do it.

 

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