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The Punk Bit …

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SLF NYC

I was a Stiff Little Fingers fan [c. 1980]

The truth is my punk records were stolen many years ago and it was a blow. What that says about my state of mind or the state of my life back then – this was in the early half of the eighties – is another question but it’s true that I took the loss badly. It was not that I was an obsessive collector of punk and New Wave records, but I had a decent collection, tempered by yearly visits to Portobello Road market in London.

I was lucky to have an uncle who lived in Paddington and he attended the market religiously on Friday and Saturday morning every week. My brothers and I often went to stay with him in the summer months during the seventies and through that I got to know the ins and outs of Portobello market in west London: where the ‘tourist’ end was and where the locals went. Under the Westway flyover, there were often plenty of punks and lots of punk records, new and second-hand, to be had; I spent a good deal of time there sifting through the records stalls. Further down the market , in the direction of Notting Hill, there was Rough Trade of course – another Mecca for anyone interested in punk back then.

45s

Thankfully my collection of 45s survived the theft.

Douglas Street

Being broken into is an unpleasant experience. I was living on my own in a fairly decrepit flat on Douglas Street when it happened – working my way through my Masters when the theft took place. Some money was  taken and a few other bit and pieces but the record collection’s disappearance was the big loss. I can’t remember for sure now but I think the thief was caught – he attempted to cash a cheque from a campaign cheque book I was holding; I tended to volunteer then for jobs like ‘treasurer’ or ‘secretary’ – and after being told to return to the bank with ID if he wanted to cash said cheque, he did and was duly arrested. He never revealed where my prized collection was however and, as I recall, the garda detective involved was not that interested either.

I spent awhile haphazardly combing through various second-hand record stores in Cork hoping to spot one of my treasures, hoping indeed to see any part of my collection again but I never did; the records were gone and I suppose were soon dispersed in every direction.  That, in a sense, was the end of the story.

Charity Shop

IMG_0510 (2)

Castle Street, Cork

Years later and at a very different stage in my life, my record collection came back into my mind. By then I had two children and they were attending The Cork School Project (Educate Together) located on Grattan Street in Cork. I often dropped them to school and collected them later to bring them home again. This involved walking through town and one shop of particular interest that we often passed was on Castle Street (pictured) off North Main Street. A charity shop along the street was well known for making an art form of its interesting window displays.

This was the noughties and records and LPs were not yet back in fashion as they are now. There were boxes of vinyl lying on sale at giveaway prices in the shop and I often checked them, somewhat absent-mindedly, but with an eye for any of the gems that I had lost all those years ago. I wondered about the idea of finding my collection again and what that would feel like after all this time. It would be strange and odd too, right? Now what if I found the entire collection still intact, what would that mean?  It never happened but I did have an idea for how a story – probably set in Cork – could begin.  All this time later it is how To Keep A Bird Singing begins.

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The Road To Letterfract

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CNPLast year I gave a reading at Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway as a guest of Over The Edge. I read Capricorn, a short story I wrote about an elderly Irish exile, Hallisey, who has chosen to live in a remote area of the Pilbara in north-west Australia. An unexpected phone call reminds Hallisey of what happened to him as a child at St. Patrick’s Industrial School (Greenmount) in Cork. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Hallisey has lived in silence and alone with what he suffered at the school for all these years. Now, finally, provoked by the phone call, it appears that he may tell someone about what happened to him; understanding at last why it is essential to talk about what happened long ago.

I knew about Letterfract’s reputation. In part because I was in Galway and in part because I had been writing about the legacy of the industrial schools for a number of years, I felt I should take the opportunity to go there and see what now remains of the infamous institution. The school itself closed in 1974 and I wondered what, if anything, existed now that bore witness to what had happened there. I had heard that the original school building  still existed and I wanted to see that. But what else was there?

STARK

Letterfract - Then and Now(1)It takes about an hour and a half to get to Letterfract from Galway. The trip through Connemara National Park is a highlight. On the day I made the journey, it was cold and overcast. The national park is bleakly beautiful. It was said about Letterfract Industrial School that it was crueller than the norm due to its remote location on the edge of Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard. Even today it still feels like the journey across county Galway to Letterfract is a journey into isolation.

Except that today Letterfract is anything but isolated. It is a busy, tourist-centred locality, a gateway to a multitude of adventure based activities involving  the national park and the nearby coastline. Signposts direct the visitor to pub food, accommodation and to this company and that one offering different tourist experiences. Letterfract has had a modern make-over and in some ways epitomises the reinvention of Ireland’s western coastline. Here, in a place still wracked by emigration, a small community has clung on to assert a new way of using and making a living from the location’s natural beauty and amenities. On the day I visited, although at the end of the tourist season, there was a steady stream of people and activity around the shops and pubs. In the summer period I figured Letterfract got quite busy.

I understood that former industrial school was near the centre of Letterfact so I was surprised when I couldn’t find it. I realised that I had made a very basic error : the old industrial school building was there, dominating one quadrant of the main crossroads that is the centre of Letterfract. My mistake was that I was looking for a building fitted out in monochrome. Now, brightly repainted in red and yellow, the main building looked nothing like its former incarnation. In fact the building complex is now part of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.  A public park and picnic area in the foreground, screened by trees further helped to offset the domineering image that the industrial school once wore as a badge of pride. In the end, still unsure that I was in the correct location, I accepted that I was indeed looking at the former institution by virtue of the building’s position relative to Diamond Hill. Many of the iconic photographs of Letterfract Industrial School (see below) were taken with the austere peak in the background. Today that same vista is easily observed.

UPTON, ARTANE, BESSBOROUGH, TUAM …

It was a disconcerting sight – a place of abuse and a place where cruel punishment was meted out. Despite the passage of time, despite the make-over, it was hard for me not to think about what happened there. I was bothered too by the precise change of use: the former penal institution was now a part of a place for advanced learning. That seemed to me to be a travesty. The Letterfract building – because of what it was – has so much to tell us about ourselves. But that it seems is not of interest to some. I walked over to the main building. Close to where the old entrance was once located there is a plaque under the window with a poem on it: Show Day by Mary O’Malley. The poem, one of a series in the Letterfract Poetry Trail is a moving elegy to location and emigration. It can be listened to here.

Is there anything more, I wondered. There must be. I walked around. Students came and went. A group of young backpackers were picnicking on the grass despite the cold conditions. I wondered what they knew about this place. A casual visitor would not learn anything by walking around. There is nothing to warn anyone about what happened here; on the contrary in fact. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that an effort has been made to obliterate the past but there is doubt that someone is intent on not drawing any attention to what this place once stood for either. I was reminded of a visit I made to St Patrick’s Industrial School at Upton outside Cork a  number of years ago – as part of research I was doing for my novel To Keep A Bird Singing. That complex is now a functioning day care centre in the Bandon area of Cork. I was told when I went there that it was not possible to walk around the main building for ‘health and safety’ reasons. St Patrick’s is another site of abuse where care has been taken to obscure the past.

God Was Living Close By But ...There had to be more. Letterfract’s Catholic Church is on an elevation at the rear of the main building complex. A path leads to steps and then to another short path: I arrived at the front of the church. It is literally a stone’s throw away, underscoring for me the role that the Catholic Church played in the regime of abuse at Letterfract: the church was the overseer to the crimes that happened there, but it also very much a witness too.

GOD COULDN’T HEAR ANYTHING … AGAIN

It is not my intention here to trawl through Letterfract’s litany of crimes. One example will suffice to give the reader an idea of what the place was like. Taken from the Child Abuse Commission’s report published in 2009 it concerns a Brother Vernay who in 1940 made a complaint to the regional body overseeing the Christian Brothers regarding serious mis-doings at the institution. By passing his own boss at Letterfrack, Vernay outlined the case of a number of boys who were regularly being punished in public at the school by a few the Brothers. The method of punishment was the problem: the Brother were using horsewhips on the young boys. Yes, that’s correct, horsewhips. Pointing out that (even then in 1940) the ‘instruments used and the punishments inflicted are obsolete even in criminal establishments’, Brother Vernay went on the draw attention to the fact that knowledge of the severe punishments being meted out at the school had permeated to the community living around the industrial school. In his letter to the regional head of the Brothers, he noted that ‘people were talking’ and that this was causing disquiet both inside and outside the industrial school. Worried by the damage to the Order’s reputation, Vernay asked for an intervention. This happened and it appears that Vernay’s complaints were upheld. However little it seems was ever done to any of the assailants or to the superior at Letterfract who it seems ‘wasn’t even reprimanded.’ The Commission also found out that no apology or recompense was made to the victims. That was the sort of place that Letterfract was. Children beaten in public using horsewhips. Just one example. The entire chapter on Letterfract in the 2009 report (The Ryan Report) makes for grim reading, I tell you.

Behind the church there is narrow lane. It is a part of one of the recommended walks in the area. A backpackers hostel is close by. A little further on, on the opposite side of the road, there is a sign on a pillar: Letterfract Industrial School Graveyard.  I walked up to the cemetery. At the entrance there are two more poems from the Letterfract Poetry Trail. By Paula Meehan, these are The Boy From The Gloucester Diamond  and The Cardboard Suitcases and they can be  heard here.

DIED AT A YOUNG AGE

The grave yard is relatively small and compact and is surrounded by tall trees; it is quiet and sheltered. Inside there is a careful arrangement of small headstones in two main plots. Walter Footer died as a young boy. Edward McDermot died aged 8. William Fagen died aged 13. John Kelly died aged 15 … Died Died Diedand so on they go. I figure that there are a lot more buried here than there are names for. The cemetery is really a mass grave and this is underlined by the headstone pictured on the right. At one end, a plinth supporting a cross is draped with a tattered and bleached Irish Tricolour. Fitting. There is also a small memorial to the Letterfract boys erected by Connemara National Park.

I sat down. There was no one else there when I visited. Certainly this was a place to meditate on the wrongdoings that took place at the industrial school. What were these boys’ stories I wondered. How did they come to be sent to Letterfact and how did they die? The graveyards is a peaceful place. Thought has gone into it and it is well maintained. I felt that here at least what happened in the past is both respected and understood. It is good to see that.

LONG REPRESSED, RENDERED INVISIBLE

In a number of location in Ireland right now, a battle is being fought by activists to simply have just this – a proper cemetery such as that that exists at Letterfract. PillarIn Tuam (Galway) and in Cork at the Good Shepard Convent (Sunday’s Well) and at the Bessborough Mother and Baby (Blackrock) efforts are underway to identify the full extent of a series of mass graves that are probably located in those places. The situation at Tuam is particularly heart-wrenching. A large number of babies and children’s bodies were dumped in mass grave at the Tuam site without any care to record who they were or to mark their places of burial in any way. These ‘unwanted’ (by Catholic Ireland’s mores) were unceremoniously dumped. The Irish government has been embarrassed into looking into the matter in more detail but it is now claiming that a full and exhaustive excavation of the site would actually cost too much.  In the two Cork locations, there is also resistance to efforts to identify and mark who is actually buried at those sites. The Catholic orders and institutions are refusing to make records fully available. Even more telling in the two Cork cases, the property and buildings involved are either in the process of or have actually been sold to private developers who wish to turn these former sites of institutional abuse into apartment complexes. For many it is a race against time to extract the information and prove that these sites must by properly excavated and respected. At least at Letterfract, this small precious cemetery has been salvaged from the steamroller of progress and the process of ‘active forgetting’ at least partially stalled.

HeroesBut are cemeteries enough? At Letterfract? At Tuam or in Cork? Most definitely not. Cemeteries are needed. Each individual buried in each of these places is also entitled to a proper headstone as a minimum. None of this should be in any dispute – even though it is. But we need a lot more too. We need a museum and a permanent exhibition space which will the tell the story of the industrial schools, the Magdalene Launderies and the Mother and Baby homes.

Such a facility would and could perform a number of functions. Firstly, it would act as repository for all the records related to these institutions of abuse – a place were all the information (print, audio and photographic) can be safely stored and made available for future generations so that they too can learn and understand what happened. Such a place could also facilitate scholarship into what took place and help with explaining how such abuse practices could have taken place. There are still so many aspects to the entire edifice of institutional abuse that we do not fully understand. We need to know a lot more about the perpetrators for example. Who were they, why did the behave as they did, why have they been protected as they have? Thirdly such a facility, if properly structured, could act as a place where we as a society might be able to look at what happened, attempt to understand what happened, and learn more about the legacy of widespread institutional abuse.

Pillar2As I see it there is a conscious effort (by the Catholic Church) and an unconscious effort (by the state) to facilitate us forgetting what happened. The idea is to render almost invisible what happened at these industrial schools, Laundries and Mother and Baby homes. In part the point is to salvage the reputation of the Catholic Church but these efforts are also a societal aversion to acknowledging who we are and what the price was for becoming the Ireland that we are today. Many of us have been raised to be good at looking the other way. Here now, around this matter of institutional abuse, our acquired talents have taken on a societal dimension: turning away from facing up to the truth and the reality of what was done by us and in our name. We have the left the victims to scramble after small crumbs of justice.

We are talking about a shameful period in our history and we need to face up to it. At Letterfract, we can see today what the preferred solution looks like: the past is not hidden away anymore but it is certainly kept at a distance from the public’s eye. It is no longer feasible to say the past didn’t happen – the victims after all have refused to go quietly and won’t be silenced – but Irish society is still happy and comfortable with leaving things largely unseen. At Letterfact you have to search for the past and this is at one of the most infamous of all the abuse institutions in our country.

So if we are to be honest about all of this we need the following:

  • Firstly, full publicly-funded excavations of all the burial sites. Every effort to be made to identify all the those buried in all mass graves. Where there is suspicion about the causes of death, criminal investigations to follow.
  • Secondly, a commitment to the creation of a publicly funded facility to highlight and explain what happened. This facility – a museum – should be located at one of the former institutional sites of abuse. A site should be identified as soon as possible for this facility.
  • Thirdly, we must oppose the sale of any of these former sites of abuse by the religious orders to private developers until full disclosure and recompense is made to all the victims.

More Information

Press Release: “Rebellious Worms Aim To Reclaim The Old Head of Kinsale”

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A colourful new children’s book, entitled The Worms That Saved The World, is set to focus renewed attention on the controversy surrounding the Old Head of Kinsale in Co Cork. Written by Kevin Doyle and beautifully illustrated by artist, Spark Deeley, The Worms That Saved The World will be launched at Cork’s City Hall on May 5th by writer and dramatist Conal Creedon.

Access to the scenic Old Head of Kinsale – a landmark site on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – has been restricted since 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Old Head Golf Links who had applied for exclusive rights to control who could walk on the headland. In The Worms That Saved The World a group of earthworms living on an imaginary headland begin to suffer when a golf course takes up residence around their home. The worms attempt to tell the new owners about their concerns but they are dismissed. In response they organise and join with the other birds and animals on the headland. Eventually they reclaim the headland for everyone.

“The book was inspired by the Free The Old Head campaign,’ said Kevin Doyle, ‘but it is about a lot more than just that. It is also about the environment and the need to stand up for your rights while celebrating community and solidarity in our lives. It’s a feel-good book that kids and parents together can enjoy and learn from.”

He continued,

‘The illustrations are works of art in their own right. Children will love these rebellious worms. Let’s face it, earthworms get a lot of bad press but these worms have something to tell us about the need to share the planet and respect the environment.”

The illustrations in the book have already garnered praise.

“There are thirty-five original illustrations,” said Spark Deeley. “First, I sketched the images onto watercolour paper. The drawings were then inked in using a fine liner drawing pen. Finally, I coloured the drawings by hand using watercolour paint. The larger images took between 4 – 5 days each from start to finish.”

Spark Deeley and Kevin Doyle (2)She added, “The expressions on the faces of the worms change throughout the book. Their faces convey the emotions that they experience as the story unfolds. We see concern, confusion, surprise, fear, outrage, concentration, questioning, determination, compassion and pure joy. That is what this story is all about.”

The Worms That Saved The World is published by Chispa Publishing, Cork and will retail at €10. Copies can be ordered online via Facebook or Twitter. The book will be available in Cork at Vibes and Scribes (Lavitt’s Quay) and Liam Ruiséal (Oliver Plunkett Street).

Further Information:

Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley

For background history about the Old Head dispute see Free Old Head of Kinsale – A Brief History (includes more links.)

For more about the storybook and its development see About “The Worms That Saved The World”

 

Review: Mentioning The War by Kevin Higgins

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higginsKevin Higgins is a poet from Galway and a long-standing contributor to the independent left publication Red Banner Magazine. A former member of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), he has played no small part in making the world of writing a more accessible and pleasant place to be in this country – not least for those …

This review first published November 2012 in The Irish Anarchist Review 6 (Ireland).  Full version here and also on Kevin Doyle Blog here

Book details: Mentioning the War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011  by Kevin Higgins
(ISBN: 978-1-908836-12-0)  Published by Salmon Poetry (April, 2012).

Cover Artwork: © Lisavan | Dreamstime.com

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 31, 2016 at 1:44 pm

The FBI’s Long Arm…

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Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC)

The FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC)

According to legend the FBI always gets its man – leaving sexism aside for the moment.   Whether true or not, a recent case undoubtedly highlighted the extremely long reach of the US’s famous law enforcement agency.  The case involved Anis Abid Sardar, an Iraqi national, who was working in London as a taxi driver.  Last month Sardar was convicted of killing a US soldier in Iraq in 2007 and for this heinous crime he has been sentenced to serve a minimum of 38 years in prison – in the UK.

It seems that Anis Sardar became involved in the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and took up making improvised explosive devices or IEDs.  One of the bombs that he made exploded under a troop carrier west of Bagdad in 2007 killing “34-year-old Sergeant First Class Randy Johnson, of 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment” . Some months after the attack Sardar was fingerprinted as he entered the UK having travelled via Syria.  Seven long years passed and then he came into the sights of the FBI.  The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Centre (TEDAC) identified his fingerprints on a number of devices that were similar to those that killed Randy Johnson.  They issued a warrant for Sardar’s arrest and just last month he was convicted in what Sue Hemming of the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service described as a “landmark prosecution”.

Now you might ask what is TEDAC?  Well that’s part of what’s interesting .  The FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Centre is located at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico in Virginia.  In the FBI’s own words it is the “US Government’s single repository for IEDs that have been collected or are of interest to the United States government.”  To put it another way ‘it’s the bomb library of America.’

The FBI are extremely proud of TEDAC.  It comprises a huge warehouse to where are repatriated the remnants of any device used against US agencies or its armed forces.  Right now there are thousands of boxes in the warehouse awaiting examination (see above).  When a device explodes anywhere and the target is US troops, the fragments from the entire conflagration are gathered up, logged and transported all the way back to said TEDAC facility in the USA.  Just imagine the logistics involved here for one moment.  The gathering of everything from a bomb blast must take place; the attention to detail must be paramount; everything is then packed up and posted in over to Virginia.

Amazing right.  Take a look at the photo above of the warehouse and those racks of crates and you get some indication of the huge effort that is taking place.  Every single one of those crates is a crime waiting to be solved.  This is cutting edge detective work alongside a cutting edge commitment to justice too.  Am I not right?

Eventually these bits of metal are examined and checked, and sometimes, as with the case of Sardar a prosecution results.  The FBI notes that ‘Since its creation in 2003, TEDAC has examined more than 100,000 IEDs from around the world and currently receives submissions at the rate of 800 per month. Two million items have been processed for latent prints—half of them this year alone.’  An FBI spokesperson added, ‘We have a lot of experience identifying IED components and blast damage.  As a result we have identified over 1,000 individuals with potential ties to terrorism.’

So there you are.  Shit hot, right?  TEDAC and everything associated with it is a commitment to justice that is second to none, right ?Except… Wait a minutes… What about…?

A killer droneThe question is HOW do you square up this dedicated pursuit by the FBI of men like Sardar with its polar opposite: the mounting tally of deaths associated with the US’s drone bombing campaign?

Before I set down another letter on WordPress, let me hasten to point out here that I’m not intending FOR ONE MOMENT to get into the matter of whether or not the US is entitlement to wander about the globe killing what it terms ‘legitmate’ targets at will.  That is not for now.  Afterall, a lowly writer such as I, who am I to question the right of the United States to execute at will those it deems to be its enemies?

Instead I will confine myself here to what are termed collateral deaths associated with this drone campaign?  In a recent interview regarding the Naming The Dead project, Jack Serle of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism  said, ‘We don’t have an absolute figure on how many people have been killed, but our best estimate is about 2,318. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we’ll be able to name every single one of them, partly because a lot of people have died anonymously.”  To date in fact NTD have managed to name just over 700 individuals.

Site of a suspected U.S. drone strike on an Islamic seminary in Hangu district, bordering North Waziristan, November 21, 2013.

For me it beggars belief that in t his day and age this sort of murderous activity can go on with no one or no organisation able to stop it, but there you are it does.  The point however is that with regard to the US’s drone bombing campaign, significant numbers of civilians are being killed each week.  This is simply a war crime, but one that is happening week in and week out now.  The drone bombing campaign contravenes all the usual standards of conduct in war – where reasonable effort must be made to avoid the targeting of civilians.  And in almost all the cases I know of there isn’t even a war on in the first place.  The US is targeting  and killing at will in areas of the world where it sees fit.  Which puts TEDAC and the FBI’s investigative prowess into a somewhat different light, no?

The Naming The Dead project got underway due to the fact that in many of the cases where drone bombings have been conducted, the extent of the destruction and the arbitrariness of the attacks is such that no one knows often how many or who has died.  It is not unusual on any day to have on the newswires a brief report that a drone bomb attack has taken place.  In such reports the general number of casualties is reported on.  The names of the victims are rarely given… and the world moves on.  [Rest assured that no stellar effort by FBI or anyone else for that matter is going to take place in regard to these murderous attacks; in fact the victims’ families will be doing well if they manage to recover the remains of their loved ones.]

As I composed this post, I noted that the following report appeared on the wires.  It is entitled, Fresh US drone strikes have claimed the lives of at least 14 people in the troubled eastern part of Afghanistan.   To summarize the information in this report.  There were six casualties on Friday when a group of people were targeted by a US Drone flying over eastern Paktia Province.  ‘Witnesses and local resident say the victims were civilians, but Afghan officials insist that they were all Taliban militants.’  Furthermore, it is noted that later on that same Friday, ‘eight people were killed in another US drone strike in the eastern Nangarhar Province.’ The following is also noted: ‘The US has stepped up its drone campaign across Afghanistan in recent weeks.’  And the following was also noted:

  • June 5th at least 15 civilians lost their lives in a US drone strike in Alishir district of Khost province near the border with Pakistan. Local residents said the victims were attending the funeral of a local tribesman.
  • On June 4th Separate drone attacks across Nangarhar had claimed at least 17 lives the day before.

If you wish to know more about the extent and nature of the US’s drone war, the following pdf is worth examining.

So there you have it.  One the one hand people are beavering away in TEDAC day in and day out, scouring fragments of metal, powering up scanning electron microscopes, piecing together tiny fragments of prints – generally DOING THEIR DAMNEDEST to find those criminals out there in the world.  While on the other hand, under the same grand canopy that is US Justice and Law Enforcement, people are being blown to smithereens at will, with such gay abandon that in many cases it isn’t even known who is being killed or who they even are.

I guess you’ll drawn your own conclusions from all of this but I know one thing for sure, the days of having one law for one set of people in the world and another for another set, is long over with.

 

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Targetting the Rescuers

Written by Kevin Doyle

June 20, 2015 at 12:58 pm

The Hand of God – A Short Story (Video reading)

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The most popular [theory] I recall was from a quiet boy whose name I now forget.  He advanced the idea that Brother Bannister enjoyed hitting us.  When this boy first stated his view, it was followed, it should be said, by a deathly silence.  Then everyone laughed.

Background: This story arose from a chance meeting with an old school friend in Cork.  Inevitably we talked about that time and this led onto a conversation about one Christian Brother who had a particularly violent temper; a lot of them had just ordinary tempers.  Later on however it struck me how this Brother had lived on in our minds for the wrong reasons.

This got me to wondering about what we must have thought at the time – when we were boys.  You try to rationalise everything as a child even things that make no sense.  But what did we make of this Brother’s violent ways and how did it match with the idea of God that was being preached to us?

Maybe the story is a metaphor for the violence of religion.  God is far from loving in this story; in fact the main theory put forward by the boys suggests that God is willfully assisting in the reign of terror.

The sadism of the Brother is another feature of the story.  The boys of course do not understand what sadism is but they are beginning to see that in this Brother’s case, he is enjoying his violence and power.

What remained then with the boys afterwards and how did it affect  them in their lives – if it even did?

 

Review of “Mentioning The War: Essays … ” by Kevin Higgins

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Mentioning The War: Essays and Reviews (1999-2011) by Kevin Higgins. (published by Salmon Poetry).

[This review first published in the Irish Anarchist Review No. 6 (Oct 2012).]

­­­Kevin Higgins is a poet from Galway and a long-standing contributor to the independent left publication Red Banner Magazine.  A former member of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), he has played no small part in making the world of writing a more accessible and pleasant place to be in this country – not least for those who don’t normally find themselves welcome in the hallowed, middle class halls of Literativille.   His approach is no accident.  Higgins knows that good writing can be found anywhere and is not the preserve of the privileged or the best educated.  But importantly too in terms of writing (and poetry in particular) he is committed to high standards.  ‘Political poetry’ with little poetry in it, and as well as doggerel in general are two of his bêtes noires.

His poetry should be treasured on the left (but it isn’t of course) in particular because we have so few poets who cherish the streets we wander along.   Dave Lordan or Diarmuid O Dalaigh in Cork might appear to fit that role too, but their concerns in the main are with the world outside the left.  Higgins in contrast often looks in at where we are and there is much that is valuable and sobering in what he sees.

His poetry I recommend highly but his essays, collected here by Salmon Poetry, are much more of a mixed bag.  One problem to be pointed out at the outset is that a fair number of his reviews (mostly attributed to The Galway Advertiser) are simply too short to be of much value.  I am all for brevity but with many of these, interesting points are raised only to be left hanging in their entirety at conclusion of said review.  A case in point being that of Lorna Siggins’ Once Upon A Time In The West which is strangely equivocal.  As I said, it would be interesting to know more about Kevin Higgins thinks about the significant yet tragically defeated protest centred on the Corrib gas fields.

When Kevin does have space to elaborate, he is invariably interesting and informative.  He is good at explaining and is always interesting and clear when writing about literature and poetry.  This is a real asset and rarer than you might imagine.  Not surprisingly his way with words is one of his strongest suits.  Generally he is even handed (see his review of Michael D’s last collection of poems) but he can be ruthless too as with his hilarious review of Ruairí Quinn’s Straight Left – A Journey Into Politics.  Such an opus was bound to provoke Kevin Higgin’s ire and it sure does.   Among many fitting observations about the Labour Party’s ultimate clown is the comment that Quinn “as a writer is dull beyond belief”.

Since this collection has been review elsewhere by general left commentators I will focus for the remainder on what anarchists and libertarian socialists might find interesting.  On the positive side Kevin is one of the few socialists who is prepared to face up to the authoritarianism (some call it the Leninist or Stalinist mindset) that is, even now, a significant feature of the serious left, both here and abroad.  This is a big plus for me.  The disaster that befell us all when the idea of socialism became inextricably linked to censorship, the Gulags, show trials, self-criticism sessions and so on and so forth (stand up Lenin, Trotsky and the others), is too easily glossed over by many within the marxist left.  Some don’t see the huge problem even now or imagine it to be some past aberration or some plot by the CIA to denigrate our ultimate goal.  Not Kevin Higgins, I feel.  He knows, as many of us do to our cost (I came across it myself only recently in the Anti-Household Tax Campaign) that the toxic world of authoritarian left politics is still very real and debilitating.

One the negative side, Kevin is just a bit too prone to lampooning the left, in contexts that are often not clear.  Some of this, I am guessing, is scar tissue from his Militant Tendency days, but often the swipes are too easy and undiscerning.  They are to be found here and there in this collection but an example is his observation about a speaker at a left meeting who was ‘earnest but dead-in-the-mouth’.   Of course this could well be true (and who hasn’t been at such meetings?) but the problem is that there’s loads of mundanity in trying to organise even the smallest of protests.  Our resources are almost pitiful when compared against those ranged against us, and I just wonder, in places, where the empathy is for the countless individuals who have been the foot-soldiers of important (and un-newsworthy) protests – against deportations, against the household tax, for choice around pregnancy termination?

Anarchists will find much of interest in this collection but there will be dissatisfaction too.  Like many from within the Marxist tradition, Kevin Higgins shows much insight into the problems of the authoritarian left.  But more searching scrutiny is not developed here.

Written by Kevin Doyle

November 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm

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