I was at the launch of Bill Rolston’s “Drawing Support 4 – Murals and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland” (Beyond the Pale, ISBN 978-1-900960-31-1), his fourth book of Norn Iron muriels (murals to you) at No Alibis in Belfast recently. It’s a treasure trove as usual of iconography, politics, and culture, however you define the last, as well as the changes happening – or not – in the North. Robert Ballagh spoke eloquently at the launch, welcoming the demilitarisation of murals, and told the story of judging a mural competition during the first West Belfast Festival in 1988. During the tour of the murals, Gerry Adams commented to two muralists (male Muriels?) that the fact the two IRA men with AK-47s were portrayed in balaclavas rather than having their faces shown might be taking away from their humanity. The two artists explained that they couldn’t paint faces........
Watching Norn Iron
How can you analyse a whole society, admittedly a small one like Norn Iron with 1.8 million people? How can you make sense of the conflicting eddies of human behaviour and social, economic and political fact? Well, you can do it by producing something like the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report [mentioned in the news section of the last issue], the second one of which has been written by Paul Nolan and backed by the Rowntree Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and Community Relations Council; - click on ‘Peace Monitoring Report’.
I must say I was expecting a slim volume this year but it weighs in at 186 pages of A4, just a few pages less than last year. Because it is in itself a compilation of facts and statistics it is impossible to summarise adequately but I will attempt to give a bit of its flavour, and it does have ten key points in four pages (starting on page 5). Norn Iron in a nutshell. Overall the key indicators it looks at are the sense of security, equality, political progress and cohesion and sharing. (page 10) One initial point is that a decrease in residential segregation and increase in shared space is good news.
Tony McCusker in his Foreword refers to the year being a game of two halves; steady and peaceful progress in the main for most of 2012 and then, wham, bang, the flags protests started. But as this was the start of December you could say it was not a game of two halves but a game and then ‘extra time’. The report looks at the dilemmas faced by, and the approach of, the PSNI to flags protests (pages 71 and 160). Overall crime is at its lowest since comparable records began in 1989/90 and sectarian crime is less than 1% of the total. (page 5)
The nature of Northern Ireland has changed; 48% may be Protestant but only 40% describe themselves as British; Catholics are 45% of the total population but only 25% describe themselves as Irish, while 21% describe themselves as Northern Irish, and foreign nationals make up 11% of the population. (page 6) The report is also correct to say, page 7, that “The fragility of the peace process has increased because of the continuing absence of a policy on division” – whether this last factor will change substantially remains to be seen.
It has some detailed analysis of the economy and the low wage, low productivity nature of it, and disparity with public sector pay rates – I think its analysis saying there are two labour markets is probably more correct than saying higher public sector pay prevents private sector development. Meanwhile it points out, page 27, that the fiscal deficit per head in Norn Iron is a whopping £5,850 a year – Norn Iron costs the UK more than the London Olympics in 2012! (page 29). So the North is top for the percentage of income from benefits, and has the lowest earnings per head. It repeats analysis that it may be 2025 before the level of employment reaches the level in 2008 before the recession.
It has detailed analysis of paramilitarism, page 56, and mentions the boost loyalist paramilitarism got from inclusion in the unionist ‘family’ following the flags protests. However the Catholic community remains more deprived than the Protestant one. In terms of life expectancy, class is a major factor with a male in Whiterock, West Belfast, likely to live 12 years less than a male in Wallace Park, Lisburn. (page 94). Ironically, both suicide and happiness levels in general are higher than for the UK as a whole. It points to the gender improvement in the workforce being stopped by the recession and the low level of female political representation (page 139). It details the poor achievements of the NI Assembly in putting through legislation.
It is difficult to make such a compilation humorous but there is a lovely piece of dry humour (page 169) in talking about the political parties and one ‘side’ choosing a common candidate succeeds in galvanising the other side to come out and vote: “Politics in Northern Ireland conforms to Newton’s third law of motion – that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
It is very hard to find any errors in a publication as well prepared and presented as this though one mistake is referring to St Patrick’s ‘Cathedral’ in Belfast’s Donegall Street (p.82-3) and elsewhere, on the same page (page 169) to it as both ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Church’ (it is the latter).
I suppose one thing the report doesn’t really do is list a gauge of people’s views of violence in general. Is violence fine in Iraq and Afghanistan but not acceptable in Norn Iron? I suppose I worry about two things regarding the peace process:
a) While there is little risk of a return to the level of violence of 1969-94/98, have lessons simply been learnt about ‘that’ conflict or about conflict in general? That is, will the lessons transfer to conflicts in the future, a generation or two down the line? As is clear, Norn Iron as shown in the NI Peace Monitoring Report is certainly going in the right direction, but will it go far enough, fast enough, to violence-proof society for the future?
The b) is about the transferability of the learning from the conflict in Northern Ireland to situations elsewhere. Have people learnt that negotiation is the way in Northern Ireland but still think violence is the way in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Korea etc? Are people able to transfer that learning or do they keep it apart from their approach to elsewhere? The British government – Blair, Cameron et al – certainly seem to do so, and a very good (bad) job of doing so. So violence becomes unacceptable in Northern Ireland but acceptable elsewhere. To date assessing these factors is outside what has been studied.
In this Colm I examine things so you don’t have to [You mean you look at things the rest of us would never dream worth exploring? – Ed]. You may have heard from me before that at a European peace conference many moons ago I brought a Saw Doctors album to play at the social evening for a lively bit of craic and for dancing. I subsequently heard back from someone who wasn’t there that a conference participant, from a neighbouring European island, reported that someone had played ‘raunchy’ music at the conference. Now ‘raunchy’ I would define as overly sexualised. I quickly realised that the person responsible for the ‘raunchy’ music was – me. That’s right, me, conveyor of ‘raunchy’ music. The Saw Doctors’ “I useta lover’ was what did the trick.
Because I’m a fan [Does that mean you go around in circles very fast creating a draught? – Ed] of the said Saw Doctors I thought it would be interesting to analyse the content of their songs, not just for the raunch level but for the level of coverage of everything – unemployment, country town life, you name it. So, instead of analysing all their oeuvre, I decided to go for the compilation album “To win just once – The best of the Saw Doctors” (2009). So here goes.
Let’s start with the raunch then. Yes, the Saw Doctors do deal with sexual relationships but many of their songs have a tongue in cheek quality and ‘I useta lover’ surely fits into that category. It’s dealing humorously with feelings bordering on obsession (“Though the thoughts and dreams I had of her / Would take six months in confession”) and illustrates the speedy transfer of feelings to a new woman of desire in an ironic way: “I useta lover / A long, long time ago / See I met this young one Thursday night.....” (“a long, long time ago” is actually only a few days). It ends on a sad note – “I have fallen for another / She can make her own way home”. Most of their other songs dealing with relationships are deeper; “About you now” is a song of regret, having done something that damaged the relationship and ended it but knowing “how I feel about you now”; it’s one of the few songs they sing not written by themselves, and “Exhilarating sadness” asks that quandary question of lovers, “Why do I always want you?”.
“She loves me, she loves me not” is like that old pastime of taking the petals off a flower to see the answer to that question. “Red Cortina” is about first love, and written quite tenderly; “World of good” is about wishing a former partner all the very best. There are references in other songs to sexual relationships, e.g. ‘Clare Island’, but it comes across written more in the context of a song about place and taking time out – a place to “wave all our cares goodbye”. “A small bit of love makes it all worthwhile” is about love in general, not just sexual love.
One of the greatest of the Saw Doctors songs, in this version a live recording where the audience gustily sing “N17, stone walls and the grass is green”, is “N17”. This is a song about place, emigration, moving on, loss, and what has been lost “if I come home again”. It may apply in this context to the road south from the square at Tuam but its content easily applies to all the “N17’s” elsewhere, at home or abroad; “When we turned left at Clare Galway / I could feel the lump in my throat”. A powerful song of place, belonging, and longing.
Another very simple but enchanting song about place in this compilation album is “Stars over Cloughanover”. Despite the simplicity of the rhyme (‘over’ and Cloughan’over’), it is a wonderful and gentle song of being rooted in a particular location, in this case a rural location – “I will be part of you”. ‘Clare Island’ is less gentle but also affecting. ‘The Green and Red of Mayo’ is another powerful song of place. ‘Last summer in New York’ is not as deep but has its moments. “Same oul’ town” is a cleverly written love song about place – presumably Tuam – written in grumbling tones, giving out, but clearly illustrating underneath a deep affection and attachment, giving out about somewhere that, deep down, is well loved. It also has a bit of questioning; “You’d also wonder / As the years go by / Why ever bother going to mass / Was it the fear of God / Or to find a wife / Or just find shades in the afterlife”.
“Joyce Country Céilí Band” is a lively song commemorating the place called the past, harkening back to the showband and céilí band eras and genres (I suppose a bit of conflation going on here). Again, there is a fair bit of tongue in cheek but it still manages to indicate that a previous generation might, just about, have managed to enjoy themselves. It does for that era what the “N17” does for a geographical place. There are great touches on even a lighter but atmospheric song such as “Hay Wrap” (‘Bale ‘em’) when it segues into “The West’s Awake”.
But the Saw Doctors are also about standing up for the underdog, “To win just once” and “Sing a powerful song” are about standing up against the odds and perseverance. They are also about the courage to continue when things aren’t going well, including through unemployment or misfortune, and “Same oul’ town” has elements of this too.
My conclusions? The Saw Doctors sing about many different aspects of life, and they do it in their own accents which is a big plus. They have a great energy level. The fans of any band form a community but the Saw Doctors also sing explicitly about different aspects of community and belonging and that is powerful. Yes, there is a raunch quotient but small and they are more likely to be singing about deeper aspects of relationships but that too is only part of their output. To hold them up on being raunchy is only justified if you also accuse them of being obsessed with rural life, unemployment and emigration. End of fan-fare.
Seeking an oracle at Delphi (the Co Mayo one)
If you have never done Afri’s Famine Walk between Louisburgh and Delphi in Co Mayo, I would recommend it for a number of reasons though you’ll have to wait around another year (it usually takes place in May). It connects past (the Great Famine and its aftermath), present, and future (world food supply, GM crops, control of food etc). It’s for a good cause – Afri is perhaps the foremost peace and justice group in the Republic, and although they ask a minimum of only €20 for participation, some get many sponsors. And it takes place in beautiful and wild countryside.
The event it commemorates is a real life famine walk in March 1849 when the starving of Louisburgh and area walked 11 miles to Delphi Lodge, past Doolough, in miserable winter weather and difficult terrain to try to get certified as paupers so they could receive help. On arrival they were refused. So they walked the 11 miles back and numbers perished on the way; the names of half a dozen are known but local folklore recounts the death of many more. This year walkers carried the names of those who are known to have died in 1849 along with the names of people who perished of hunger in Kenya quite recently.
Afri’s work on the Great Famine of 1846 has always been to link the cause of famine here with the cause of famine elsewhere. Just as food was exported from Ireland during the Great Famine, there is plenty of food in the world today, often in the countries affected by famine, if it is distributed fairly. The big questions include control of the food supply, and injustice against peasant farmers. These questions are going to become more urgent as climate change affects the poor adversely, and drought and rising sea levels make things impossible for many.
This year there was an added dimension to the whole event because for the very first time the walkers were welcomed and brought in to Delphi Lodge. 164 years after the starving were turned away, a couple of hundred very wet but reasonably well equipped people were welcomed in. Michael Wade, manager of Delphi Lodge today, welcomed people and acknowledged the role of that place in the events of 1849; the occasion was marked by the planting of an Irish oak and some blight-resistant potatoes.
You might wonder what is the significance of doing something like this 164 years after the event. That is a good question but, while it cannot right a wrong it does acknowledge that a wrong took place. The extent to which the people of today can apologise for the doings of their ancestors or predecessors is a good question, and it can be a meaningless formula. Nothing can change the past. We can however change the future, and learn from the past, and it is in this regard that acknowledgement of what happened can be important. In this case it is only the place, Delphi Lodge, which links those currently working there with those who made decisions more than a century and a half ago. The events of that night in March 1849 remain a grave and violent injustice, nothing can deny that. But the fact that those associated today with the place where they happened have taken the trouble to acknowledge and regret the role that place played in the tragedy also has some significance, and may have laid a few ghosts to rest.
Afri is at http://www.afri.ie and a film clip on this year’s walk can be seen on Youtube They have a new edition out of Sean Steele’s “Report on Famine Graveyards” around Ireland which may be of interest regarding your locality: “They All Had Names: A Survey of Tithe na mBocht and Famine Graveyards in Ireland” which is priced at €10 (plus postage).
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).